Western Short Story
Barn Raising at Escondido
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The ridge pole of Luke Faremont’s new barn sat across a pile of lumber also destined for the roof as the sawing and the knocking home of dowels and pegs continued, men proficient at old-time work being pursued. They had gathered for a cause. Off to the side, in another section of the yard behind the ranch house, the remains of Faremont’s old barn, a week earlier ablaze in the night, were plainly visible … piles of half-burnt lumber and beams set aside for possible salvage, mounds of ashes sometimes disturbed by air movement, actions of men . There was grunting and groaning and good-natured reaction to what made a man tick in communal efforts. Twelve of Faremont’s good friends, including the sheriff of Escondido, were ready to set the ridge pole across the skeleton of the new barn, sitting half done in the dusk of a late summer evening. With two days of heavy and constant work, they had assembled most of the pieces of the basic structure, Faremont nodding and smiling at each small success, when the yell came from high on the ridge standing at the back end of the Box-8 Ranch.

Stopping work, all of the men looked upwards, some of them thinking the cry was a salute from Stirrup Mount, a “good day” of sorts from on high. A few of them thought it was a cry for help. The latter interpreters knew they were right a few moments later when the sound of a single shot echoed down at them, from somewhere near the cry.

Sheriff Bill Tate, 9 years on the job, and damned good at it, ran for his horse. He pointed at two men, who, as if ordered up as deputies, followed him and mounted quickly. They were on a dead run across the grass in a matter of minutes, heading for the trail up Stirrup Mount, a Rockies’ foothill in Nevada.

After a swift climb up the slow grade, they heard grizzly old Hank Townsend yelling from the back end of a cave he had retreated to. “Come near again, I’ll blow yore head off’n its peg. Divine aim comes to my shootin’ ever’ time.”

Tate knew the voice instantly, and yelled out, “Ease off, Hank. It’s Bill Tate here with Lumbo and Yarden. We heard yelling and a gunshot. C’mon out and tell us what’s going’ on up here. You okay?”

Townsend gave his story to the sheriff, who brought it back to Faremont. “Someone’s been up there for at least a few days, Luke, watching us work on the barn,” the sheriff said. “I saw remains of his fire and other signs. Old Hank came by from his trapping and surprised him, and then Hank ducked into a cave after the critter shot at him.”

He tried to put it all together for Faremont. “Take it from me, Luke, someone’s interested in you, or your ranch, or the barn, or whatever, and interested enough to take a shot at Hank doing his traps when he caught him watching us.”

“Who’d be interested in a barn?” Faremont said, shaking his head, finding no ready answer to the question. Back over his shoulder he looked, at the pile of ashes and salvage, and made a face, which put a knock on the unknown.

The sheriff said to himself, “It’s more than the barn, but I can’t tell him that. Ought to, but can’t.” Of all the people he knew, Faremont would lose it all first and ask all his questions after the fact … whatever that turned out to be.

“I don’t think it’s the barn,” Tate said. “I think it’s the ranch and something it sits on or is near. It’s not water, we know. It’s not your herd, driven and sold. It’s not grass, but it has to be something in the ground or something coming we ain’t seen yet. There’s no railroad coming here, so it’s got to be in the ground.”

He had, apparently, closed down the arguments to Faremont to a single supposition. Not yet said was anything about other matters that he’d already mulled over: Faremont’s wife, daughter and son, each one vital, presentable, active in Escondido, and therefore vulnerable. He kept them in his mind, wondering all the while about connections around them, thinking about their activities, and keeping all to himself on those accounts.

Quickly, he refreshed his mind about them and their doings in Escondido. Faremont’s wife Marley had helped a few of “Sissy Carter’s girls” get out of their near imprisonment at the hotel. The Faremont daughter, Cara, 18, the fairest local of all, had dated three of the eligible young men in the surrounding area, each of them admittedly in love with her. Young Luke Faremont, 14, half worker, half young man near grown, had a few scrapes with others his age, some of the arguments about his sister, some about his mother’s work and her insistence that women have their own say in their lives, and their own choices without being imprisoned by poverty or a cruel keeper of the keys.

That last consideration, to all who knew the workings of the town, simply meant Sissy Carter, owner of the hotel and the Mother Bull Saloon and “all who worked there,” as far as she could take the ownership right. She was, with cute disguise, a bludgeoner in petticoats, a highbinder in a tight corset. Sissy, sorely named as held by many quarters, adamantly and often, said, “I don’t take nothin’ laying down,” which, of course, was not the whole truth to many of the high rollers in Escondido.

Then, there was the apparent cause of the fire that took down the old barn. Faremont thought it must have been a lamp he had forgotten to douse, or someone else might have forgotten, but he wasn’t sure. Nobody else on the ranch owned up to any responsibility for the fire. The cause of it was a mystery in the sheriff’s mind.

But it was a set fire, he was sure, ignition in one person’s hands.

He’d look for the “who and the why: he had the “when and the where.” The “which and the what” bothered him too as he rode back to Escondido, the ridgepole in place, the real carpenters of the group now finishing off the roof.

In town Tate sat with his deputy, Morgan Dupres, at the office, the three cells empty, the last half dozen residents being, in their turns, the two boisterous town drunks. Business, the business of the law, had been slow lately. That left Tate with a “taint of anxiety,” as he might have called it, “knowing a cloud was swirling someplace out and about them and bound to land here right on the main street,” said as the finish of his declaration.

“Why’d you say it like that, Bill?” Dupres said. “That seems like we just sit here and wait for something to happen beside a few drunks thinking they’re gunmen on the loose, ready to right the wrongs of the world. You think bigger things are coming?”

“Why’d you think Faremont’s barn was lit up?”

The deputy, knowing he was being marked as smart or stupid, said, “I think it’s got something to do with his daughter or his wife. Plain as that, and I favor the wife more’n the daughter if you’re looking for reasons to set aside and think on. That Cara’s too damned sweet to be on the wrong side of anything.” He raised his eyes in a sign that he too had high hopes for romance with the girl.

“Don’t think it’s got anything to do with his ranch?”

“C’mon, Bill, everybody in creation knows nothing’s out there but good grass, and there’s good grass all over in good time. What else is new here? You hiding something? ‘T ain’t water. ‘T ain’t grass. ‘T ain’t gold or silver.

Then, drawing together all his spoken possibilities, he added, “‘T ain’t nothing,” as if it was the final word on the discussion.

“You’re right there, Morgan. ‘T ain’t nothing,” the sheriff concluded, in total agreement with his deputy.

It was the next night, in the Mother Bull Saloon, Tate collared one of the bartenders at the end of the bar, first asking about his brother, who was an acquaintance of the sheriff of long-standing, then about business as usual. When the bartender asked Tate how his work was going, Tate went to work on him.

“It’s been real busy, Max, since a couple of days before the fire that gutted Luke Faremont’s barn. We caught up to a fellow that saw someone for near a week, up in the hills who was studying the Faremont place like he’s going to buy it, but awful secretive if you ask me, and real sneaky. This old fellow says he can pick the man out at 100 yards in old daylight.”

“Who’s the sneaky fellow, Bill? He a local guy sneaking around a good neighbor like Faremont? Think it’s about Faremont’s daughter? She’s about the prettiest thing in a hundred miles or more. Boys’re lined up all around just to get to hold her hand for openers.”

“Oh, it’s nothing to do with Cara, that’s for sure. The fellow doesn’t have any connection there. We have other suspicions about him, though.” He let that sink in and added, “Course, we haven’t told him yet, and I can’t tell you, but we got a report from way out of town that gives us a real good idea about everything. We might not even need that if the old fellow comes in and points the gent out, if he’s still around these parts.”

“Well, Bill, you always did have a good nose for things, I got to admit that. Sounds like you’re keeping busy on the matter?”

“Yeh, which reminds me I got to go someplace. I’ll see you later, Max, and say hello to your brother whenever you see him. Probably long before I do with all I got to do.”

Tate turned on his heel, headed for the door, and made a subtle signal to Morgan Dupres, his deputy, sitting in the corner at a table with a group of friends, drovers who had shared a few drives with him.

Ten minutes later, after Dupres had studied all actions in the saloon, he and his pals left the saloon. Dupres went straight to the sheriff’s office.

“Right as rain as usual, Bill. Max wasted no time in taking a beer over to one gent at one table and whose name’s Curly Best and minutes later that Best gent walked upstairs and went right to Sissy’s door. He’s still in there as far as I know, but I had to tell you now so we can cover all exits from town.”

“All your boys know who you were looking at? Best?”

“Yup. Each one can swear they’d stand up in court and pick him out.”

“Well, Morgan, you get them spread around town so we can watch him and see where he goes or what he does. Should be an interesting night.”

“You sure about Hank? He say this gent never saw him before he ducked into that cave? He still summering in his old place, outdoors and up high in the hills like the good Lord told him to get ready for the next flood?”

“Hank’s still there, Morgan, like he’s ready to talk to the animals and give them directions, every couple of seconds, every couple of them.”

It was all direct from there, as an hour later, dark as it can be with a pail full of stars flung across the sky, owls romancing each other, a coyote answering another call, that Sissy Carter and Curly Best slipped out the back door of the Mother Bull Saloon, into the back door of the livery and out the same way on a pair of horses. They headed out of town sly as possible, and once at the edge of Escondido they hightailed it across the grass, heading for the foothills.

Old Hank Townsend’s “summery place” sat in the open but well up in the hills. His night fire was slowly dying down but still throwing flames and shadows in and about his place of abode … under the stars and awaiting the call for his next duties. Off to one side his mule was hobbled not far from the fire, his rifle leaned on a log close to hand (“in case the Lord calls otherwise for my help”), and his bed of blanket and headrest showed him bundled in a wooly clump. Less than 200 yards away, on the same flat expanse and beyond a growth of trees, a person could look down on the Faremont ranch from a perch on a flat rock.

Overhead the stars shifted with ease in their night’s journey. Off a distant peak a crescent moon rose like a risen ghost, ready to start its own high-flown trip. A cool night breeze, beginning not out on the wide grass, but in the maze of canyons and shorn faces of rocky mounts dotting the high rise territory, hustled along with a night’s fresh touch. Silence abounded in momentary contrasts with nature at rest, but breathing.

And a sudden and rapid repetition of rifle fire, from the growth of trees, sounding like a Gatling gun, and obviously taking more than one shooter, poured into the clumpy blanket in Hank Townsend’s “summery place.”

For almost five minutes no movement anywhere followed the fusillade of gunfire, except the noisy reactions of Townsend’s mule, and the smell of burnt ammunition shifting onto the slight mountainous breeze that carried it in its backpack.

Like apparitions from a ghostly story, two indistinct figures appeared from the small growth of trees and approached the dying fire and the clumpy form beside it. One figure was a woman and one was a man, and each carried a rifle.

The man prodded the clumpy form several times and said, “He’s done for now, Sissy. He won’t say nothin’ no more to nobody. You can do your business just the way you allus been doin’ it.”

Sissy Carter said, with a giggle in her voice, “I’m real appreciative, Curly, and I’ll pay later on.”

The sound of trigger clicks roared in the silence as a host of sworn deputies rose from the shadows, and the voice of Sheriff Bill Tate, low, a near growl in it, confident as ever, said, “Except for how you two tried to murder Hank Townsend while you thought he slept, but we got him cached in the cave over there. So, both of you are under arrest for attempted murder and what else we can manage to throw in with the mix.”

He slipped his rifle bore against the side of Sissy Carter and added, “And this’ll be the end of The Broken Horse Saloon as it stands right now, Miss Sissy Carter. You can be sure as shooting about that.”