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Western Short Story
Aces and Jacks
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Jack Kirkness broke out of the Westfork Jail when he was 22 years old, jailed for a crime he did not commit, in a town he had never been in before. Sheriff Jake Slater, of questionable character, in a sudden move, had slammed him on the head in the saloon and announced to all present, “This is the same fellow I saw last month who killed Theron Francgon right in his own corral and got away from me before I could catch him. Now I caught up to him. We’re gonna have a hangin’ here, gents, soon as the judge comes back from Trailhead where he’s sure to get hung the killer he’s tryin’ up there.”

Kirkness, after his escape, headed back home to Tailgate, Texas to see his pals, knowing they’d all be back in Westfork before it was all done with.

He and his best pals, three towheads, were born in the same week within a mile of each other. The three of them, Jack Knowles, Jack Kendrick and Jack Kirkness, grew up in the same patch, played the same games, rode the same ponies on the swap, and ended up sweet on the same girl on more than one occasion, the way life pops over the daily horizon.

But they were different in some respects, aces at a choosing of their own.

Knowles was expert in and about horses from his first mount. Kendrick had a bit of the showman, actor, and circus man in him as he dallied on the art of the rope, becoming deft in its uses and manipulations. Alas for Kirkness, the gun came easiest and best to him, the swing of it to his aiming, the light touch of it in his hand, the deadliness it could affect when he squeezed the trigger with such intent.

Knowles and Kendrick, of course, the way time and the country was developing, moving on, often depended on Kirkness’s abilities with weapons from their early days.

The way each one of them said, “Jack,” the tone set as if his last name was also appended, was perfectly understood by one of the other two to know he alone was being addressed … or called upon for help. That last part happened many times in their growing years, before the horse was an escape, the rope was a joy, for the gun prowess came first because of it nature and its need in the early west, wild and wooly as it was in the heart of Texas.

At some point in adolescence, the trio was discussed several times by the only two educated men in Tailgate, the lone doctor and the lone lawyer. It was the doctor who said, “Those boys come promised with handsome looks, good height, broad shoulders, social and physical skills, and respect for those ahead of them who have cut a swath across Texas, as seen to by their parents and asked of them.”

The lawyer simply said, “Salud,” for they were having their lunchtime drink in Tailgate’s lone saloon.

And each one of the young trio improved his own specialty, constantly sharing it with each other.

An early incident is indicative of such an occasion: The three, at 13, were on a ride in the local foothills that swung away from the river and moved toward the mountains. Jack Kendrick saw a boulder sitting atop a mess of rocks, and from his saddle swung his lariat in a swirling arc to snag onto the boulder … “Just for the hell of it,” he’d say later. For some reason his horse shied and Kendrick yanked at the rope. The boulder, at the yank, did not come his way but rolled off the other side and dragged at him still clutching the rope. He did not want to lose the rope and dismounted to retrieve it, when the boulder suddenly gathered momentum on the other side and yanked him with it, dragging him across a hole that he fell into.

Kendrick’s scream brought Knowles to the site directly, who looked down into the hole and saw a bloody Kendrick frozen against the side of the hole with half a dozen rattlesnakes on the floor of the hole. Knowles didn’t know what to do, but his cry for “Jack” brought Kirkness from way out on the grass to the edge of the hole into which he stared, made up his mind on the needed actions, and

said to Kendrick, “Whatever you do, Jackie, don’t move and don’t scream again. Stay flat against that wall and don’t jump when you hear any noise. Make sure of that. You have to.”

The Colt at his hip came up fast and he killed 5 of the 6 snakes with 5 shots and the 6th snake slipped away and was lost from sight. Knowles leaped for the rope on his horse and threw it down to Kendrick and the other two pals hauled him out of the hole, full of thanks and full of a giddy sensation even as the blood ran down his face from the head cut he had suffered in the fall.

An hour later the incident had receded into the past and only came up years later when they began spinning boyhood tales in the local saloon having a beer. Such an occasion brought up a few other “rescues” by one of the others, mainly by the particular specialty that drove them.

It was at 15 that each one of the Jacks fell in love, or so they thought, with Elsie Whitmore, daughter of the town barber, a lovely redhead with daring blue eyes and many freckles, who had a fiery temper, firm stance on social etiquette and other thoughts common to girls her age, especially town girls who had a steady vision of the women who worked in the saloon or at the hotel. She wanted no part of such a role for woman and often proclaimed that she would prevent as much of it as she could in her life.

“Ain’t she something, that Elsie girl,” Kendrick was apt to say anyplace and anytime as if such statements were a sign of possession that Else Whitmore was his girl. The other Jacks understood what he meant and took their own turns at jabbing audible pokes at him, and held out, for about a year, their own feelings on the affair. Knowles and Kirkness were also enamored of the barber’s daughter and all three would crowd around Elsie at barn dances and other local festivities.

When Elsie did not come home one night, having left a friend’s house just after dark, her father woke the Tailgate sheriff and a search was started.

Jacks Kendrick heard about Elsie about midnight from ranch hands returning from town and alerted his two pals with a secret signal they’d used since early boyhood. They saw the scurrying about going on around town.

Knowles said to his pals, “Let’s go see Brenda Grace. She was supposed to be the last one who talked to Elsie when she headed home.”

The others agreed and they went to Brenda Grace’s house at one end of town. Brenda was pretty level-headed and respected their line of questioning, which came at her like shots from an automatic rifle, and tried to give a short and honest answer to each question:

“What did she say when she left?”

“Goodnight, Brenda. See you tomorrow.”

“Did she say what way she was going home?”

“Just the regular way, past the hotel and the livery and the barber shop and Cody Williams’s widow’s house.”

“Was she going to see anybody else on the way?”

“No, I really don’t think so.” The tone of the answer did not sit well with Kirkness. It made him uneasy.

He said, “Does she have a secret boyfriend we don’t know about?”

“I don’t think that’s any of your business,” to which Kirkness said, “That means yes to us, so don’t be stupid about it, Brenda, even if it hurts our feelings, but there’s something here that’s more important and you better spill the beans right now before all hell breaks loose.”

“She’ll kill me if I tell.”

“Well, how would you feel if someone’s kidnapped her and kills her while you keep a silly secret?”

“She likes the new deputy, Josh Randolph, but it’s just a crush a lot of girl’s have on him. He’s just so good looking. That’s all it is,” to which Knowles said, “Do you think she went by the sheriff’s office on the way home? That’s in the other direction from her home.”

“She didn’t start that way. I watched her as she was about near the hotel. She crossed over from there. That’s the last I saw of her.”

“That’s where we’ll start,” Kirkness said. At that, Kendrick had his eyes closed and was nodding his head.

Kirkness said, “You thinking of something, Jack?”

“Yep,” he said. “There are three places open on that side of the street until about 9 o’clock. Let’s shake ‘em out and ask them if they saw Elsie or anything funny.”

The storekeeper said he waved at Elsie as she passed outside his window the night before. “She waved back at me and kept walking. She was past the window in seconds.” He shook his head, saying he had no more information and hoped he had offered something useful.

Harriet the dressmaker said Elsie had tapped at her window when she walked past her store window just as darkness set in the night before. “I knew she was heading home from Brenda’s. She visits there a lot.”

Three doors past Harriet’s place, Korby Belfast said he’d been sitting in the entrance to the livery and Elsie had surely not walked past him. ”That girl says hello to all the folks she knows all the time. And she didn’t go past here last night.”

“Did you have any customers last night? Knowles said. “About that time, just when it was getting dark?”

“The only one came in to get his horse was that new hand at the Smithers’ place. The one they call Fast-Eddy, rides an appaloosa big as a house. Looks like they threw cans of paint at him. Had a shoe that got fixed at the blacksmith who brought him here to hold him for Fast-Eddy who come for him and left.”

“That’s all there is to it, Mr. Belfast? “

“Well, he took a loaner too, come to think of it. A quiet mare I loan out lots of time. Ain’t too spirited, if you ask me.”

“Was he headed back to the ranch, back to Smithers’ Three Star spread?”

“I guess he was. Headed out that way through the north trail. Easiest way to get there.”

The jacks had started out on the north trail and were heading toward the Three Star Spread, a new moon calling attention over the mountain range, and many stars at their night work. It was Kendrick who halted his mount, and said, “Listen and smell the air.”

He turned his horse around and went back only a few feet, to where he saw the distant glow well off the trail and in among scraggy rocks of a landslide from the far past.

The three sat their mounts listening, smelling, and seeing the now-and-then flicker of flames from a fire.

“I smell the smoke now, Knowles said. It sure smells like it comes from up in there, in those rocks down in the half canyon where Jud Igoe got hurt that time.”

Kirkness said, “We have to check this out, and quietly. Don’t make any noise. Maybe Elsie’s in there and in trouble.

With their horses tied off away from the trail, they proceeded toward the flickering flames until they got close enough to hear a deep voice say, “Don’t bother none tryin’ to scream with half your pretty shirt in your mouth. Nobody’ll hear you out here. I saw you flirtin’ with the deputy. Others must have saw it too. Now you can pay for flirtin’ an’ I figure he gets blamed for it if anythin’ happens or goes wrong.”

The pals heard a canteen on a rattle on a rock and the voice said, “I’m gettin’ warmed up for a good night, girl. Just be comfortable and wait on me.” The rattle came again, and moments later, again.

The young men crawled agonizingly closer to the pair at the fire, when they heard the heavy male voice say, “You really like that pretty kid deputy, don’tcha? Let’s get them boots off’n yore feet now, sister. Don’t want you kickin’ me none.”

The gruff-voiced man had his hand on one of Elsie’s heel and did not see the wide-eyed look come across Elsie’s face, but he did hear the click of Kirkness’s Colt directly behind one ear, then heard Kirkness say, “One more move or one more word to Elsie and your three times dead in a hurry. Even before he could make the silly move to draw his gun, a rope sliced through the air and embraced him with a harsh grasp that took him off his feet and sat him directly in the fire.

On fire, disarmed, one voice said, “That ain’t the worse coming your way, mister, and some of the worst is coming with you walking back to town with no boots on. Get ‘em off!”

Kendrick untied Elsie Whitmore and pulled the piece of shirt from her mouth. She hugged him and began to cry.

Knowles said, “Why don’t you shoot him where it’s going to hurt him most, Jack?”

“Naw,” Kirkness responded, “the boys at Plummerville Jail will sure take care of that when the word on him gets there.”

The infatuation with Elsie Whitmore also receded into the past as fast as the rattlesnake killing had.

** They went their ways for a while and when Kirkness came back into after his escape from jail, there was sumptuous joy and celebrating.

But that was short-lived, for soon there came the wanted poster on Jack Kirkness, “Wanted for the murder of Theron Francgon in Westfork, Texas on July 28, 1876 and witnessed by Sheriff Jake Slater of Westfork.”

Of course the Tailgate Sheriff, Carl Putnam, walked up the street and put his hand on Kirkness’s shoulder as he stood at the saloon bar. “Jack,” he said, “I got a wanted poster on you from Westfork and have to take you in.” He showed the poster to Jack and his friends.

Kirkness, after studying it for a few minutes, turned to Knowles and said, “Jack, can you dispute this poster on any point?”

Nodding his head, poring over the poster, Knowles said, with a laugh, “It sure in Hell looks like you, Jack, but I know about 100 people who’ll say it’s all a trumped-up charge because that’s the day you won the turkey shoot-out at Willow Springs and half of Tailgate was down there to see the whole show.”

Then, tossing off the last of his beer, Kirkness said, “Are you going to come along with us to Westfork, Sheriff, ‘cause we got some honest-to-goodness squaring away to do up there?”

“I sure am, Jack. Slater’s got a poor reputation for a lawman and I want in on this. And there’s nobody else I’d rather go with than you boys.” There was an almost unconscious slap at his holster.

A day later the man in the wanted poster headed back to Westfork, with his two bosom buddies and a sheriff foresworn to uphold the law. Unseen by them, a fourth rider slipped in behind them when they were a few miles outside of Tailgate and stayed behind them, out of sight the whole way.

The three Jacks from Tailgate, as was mighty evident, thought their mission was going to be a simple task of righting a wrong, clearing the books for justice and going back home as soon as possible.

But Tailgate Sheriff Carl Putnam, a range officer of the law for a long time, the experience carved into his face, knew it was not going to be simple … not where Jake Slater was involved.

Putnam primed himself for an encounter. He was not sure how that encounter would unfold, but somebody’s life would hang in the balance.

He was dead sure of that.

On arrival in Westfork, the four men tied their mounts at the saloon rail. There was some scurrying at their arrival because several people recognized the wanted man who decorated the poster distributed to most of west Texas.

The four new arrivals were at the bar having a drink when the door swung open and Sheriff Jake Slater entered the room, a gun in his hand, but that hand behind his back. One of the town rag-mouths was with him, and behind the rag-mouth came the man who had followed them all the way from Tailgate. He was hardly noticed by the saloon patrons even though he comfortably carried two guns on his belt.

In quick steps Slater was behind Jack Kirkness and stuck the gun in his back, and yelled at Kirkness, “Don’t you move one inch or yore dead. You got out of my jail once but not again.” He turned to the crowd and made the same declaration he had made before, “This here fellow is the one that shot Theron Francgon right in his own corral and got away from me before I could catch him.”

He jabbed the gun into Kirkness’s back again. “We even got the judge right here and he’s gonna have his trial right now, ain‘t he, Judge? You ain’t got no other trial yore workin’, have you, Judge?”

Tailgate Sheriff Putnam, with a wide grin working his face turned slowly to face Slater, and said, “Well, Jake, I see you’re up to your old tricks again, coming up behind a man with your gun already drawn, accusing people of crimes they didn’t do so you could claim an arrest and or a conviction for your own, or covering up some friend or pard in the business. You don’t do anything with this man you got the drop on from behind, like I saw you do it before. We have proof he wasn’t anywhere near the Francgon place when he was killed by a bushwhacker.”

He turned to Kendrick and Knowles and said, for all to hear including Slater, “These boys were with him the day Francgon was killed and they weren’t anywhere near here. It’s lock-solid proof we got.”

Slater said, “You ain’t got any rights here, Carl. Yore badge don’t mean nothin’ up here, ain’t that right, Judge?”

“Yes, Sheriff Slater,” the judge said, “you have a legal point there alright, and tight as a drum from where I sit.”

“You hear that, folks,” Slater yelled out, and went for his gun … only to see Jack Kirkness whip his gun from his holster as quick as ever seen in that saloon in Westfork.

A gasp went through the crowd.

Slater leaped into the argument again. “See what he did, folks, drawed on a lawman, and the Judge is ready to run the trial to hang a killer regardless of what these liars are comin’ up with.” He turned to the judge sitting in the far corner and suggested the next move. “Why don’t you come down here, Judge, and get a jury so we can hang this killer.”

Kirkness’s gun was still on Slater, the hand steady as a log in place.

The judge rose from his seat and started toward the bar, when a voice from near the saloon door said, “Hold it right there, Judge. There’s going to be a trial, but you‘re not going to be in the big chair. You and Sheriff Slater are going to be on the wrong end this time.”

He stepped forward, into the middle of the saloon.

Almost in unison the judge and Slater said, “Who the Hell are you?”

The rider who had trailed the four men from Tailgate to Westfork, who had received a telegraph message from his old pal, Sheriff Carl Putnam, flipped his vest aside to show a badge, and offered an explanation to one and all: “I’m John Orbison, Federal Marshal and I sure as Hell have jurisdiction in this area and in this case. And a federal judge will be here by morning time and we’ll have a real trial.”

At the bar, the three young life-long pals wanted back to the business of slow, pleasant drinks, when Jake Slater, measuring all the odds, and all the consequences, went for his gun.

He fell dead from three shots, each one could have killed him, and the smoking guns belonged to a Federal marshal, the Sheriff of Tailgate, Texas, and Jack Kirkness, said to be born of the gun.


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