Western Short Story
Butch Charleton, Suspect
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

His elbows hit the bar top as he said, “One slug for each hand, Jake, and keep the jug handy. I just heard the sheriff’s looking for me.”

“Here’s your two and good luck on the other thing,” Jake said as he placed the drinks near at hand. “Why’s Coston looking for you?”

“For killing Luke Manning Saturday last, out on the trail. Found my old sword from the war standing in his chest, not a wiggle left in it.”

“You was here Saturday night, all night nearly, and a bit sour at that, but you were here, and I’ll swear to that, so help me.” He was shaking his head at some thought that had hit him head on; “And that’s the sword made a hero out of you, Butch, long enough for me to remember all these dozens of years, how you come home like there was going to be a parade for you, maybe a couple of them. It’s like it was yesterday. Yes. Sir, I remember them and last Saturday night and you being here. Sheriff or no sheriff, he can’t shake that away from me.”

“He might not, Jake. Might not even ask you. Knowing how tight we’ve been these years.”

Jake replied, “The way I see it, sticking a sword into a man on the ground says that fellow on the ground is already dead and gone elsewhere, the whole route, and a sword sure ain’t necessary for a death like that one.”

Butch added, “Like he knew he was dead and just wanted to leave a phony trace of some other gent doing it, and that meaning me ‘cause it’s my sword.”

“Close enough to the Good Lord to be the truth,” Jake inserted. Still shaking his head in disbelief of what a man might do to another man by saying in one way that a third man was involved. It worked its mysterious way in his mind.

At which point, Sheriff Jupe Coston entered the saloon and yelled out, “What are you two cooking up now? I knew you’d be in here sometime today, Butch. Guaranteed.”

“Just being friends, Sheriff, and talking over the old years all at once, like they never get too far away from you with old friends. Just touching the edge of a memory brings all kinds of stuff back into a conversation. Ain’t you had some of those with your friends?”

“Just a bunch of willy-wash if you ask me, plain willy-wash when there’s more important stuff to get done, like searching for wanted killers and knowing damned right well where they’ll be found, at a saloon with a pal and talking plain old willy-wash.”

He loosened a pair of handcuffs from the back of his belt, jiggled them like he was sending out a signal, which he was, no doubt about that maneuver. It was no more than a jailer’s announcement of joy.
The cell was more home than Butch realized, the air warm but fully tolerable, the cot as comfortable as any bed or campsite bed laid out on the grass or a woodsy location. His initials leaped into his eyes, though he couldn’t remember in which stay they had been drawn onto the wall.

When the lock clicked behind him with its legal sound, he asked the sheriff, “How many times have I been locked in here, Jupe? Seems a dozen times or more, and always you doing the dirty work, every last time, like you were born-fit for the job in the real first go-around.”

“The town fathers pay me when I lock up any trouble maker, keep him off the road, out of the saloon and general store being a plain old nuisance. But I had reason enough because everybody knows your sword, and I can’t walk away from that and somebody will say ‘Ain’t that Butch’s sword sticking there and holding Luke down so he won’t roll away on us?’ Imagine me saying it ain’t your sword or it don’t make no difference, with Butch not being at war anymore. Makes things more real mysterious in the first place, not at war less’n he was really at war with poor old Luke who ain’t his old self anymore or any way you was to look at him now.”

The judge came into town, set up the case against Butch, getting the jury ready, the judge, swearing them in, saying, “It’s a real American hero were going to pass judgment that he did or did not plunge his sword into Luke Manning if he was dead or not. In the first place, it’s really a bit sacrilegious saying Butch did it when nobody saw him do it, and it weren’t murder in the first place as Luke Manning was a long-time dead when he was stuck like a pig with a hero’s sword and the hero wasn’t seen there and has been sworn to have been sitting with his pal at the saloon most all of last Saturday night and no time for him to poke the carcass of a dead man for no apparent reason.”

He took a breath and added, “What we got to find out, id another trial to find out who it was killed Luke Manning in the first place, like I said once for all of you to put on your thinking caps and try to find somebody else did the sword-sticking in the first place, Anybody have any ideas on that?” At which point he pointed at each juror one by one say, “You?” “You?” “You?” until he had run through the whole jury one by one, as they were the cream of the crop of townsfolk, not a crime posted on anyone of them ever and never been inside the jail which some folks thinks brings bad luck to visit a jail just to nose around.”

With the challenge on thinking now in the air, one juror, Kemp Firmack raised his hand and said, “Judge, I think everybody here knows old Luke was having trouble with his wife, and if anyone stuck a sword in Luke Manning, it had to be his wife Matilda who ought to have done it, Luke being dead or not, and most likely already dead and this was like her last word on the matter, the way some women like to get the last word in place, especially if the husband spends more time in the saloon than in his or her kitchen.”

“Well, Kemp, you did a solid job figuring on this account as we know she lives right close to old Butch and has seen a hundred times that same sticking sword stuck overhead on Butch’s deck and hard into the wall so it won’t fall down and end up in the weather and the rust would wreck its favor all the way back to the big battle where Butch was acclaimed for beheading several of the enemy with it, as a hero for us all, at least those of us holding onto the Union’s side of that argument.”

At the same time, it was easy to see the judge was running out of breath easily on many points of argument, but still trying to get to who’s bullet killed Luke Manning in the first place, and why the sword made any appearance at all, but now that was cleared up, making the case against Butch go away practically in seconds, but him still sitting in the chair saved for the accused in every case.

The judge spoke directly to Butch; “Butch, you didn’t stick your sword into Luke Manning, as we believe his wife did it for the last word between husband and wife and the wife won this time. So, as a result, we have found that you’re free of the charge for your jailing with the court’s pardon, and the sheriff’s too, but you got to stay put in that chair for us to continue the mystery that we have convened for, or else we might as get up and walk out right now, less’n someone, like Kemp, has got is own argument about Luke Manning’s death, which is why you’re sitting there, I’m sitting here and the jury is sitting where they expected to be sitting for the better part of this day and no juror has to be missing anything else on his day as I have ordered the saloon closed until this case in solved and murderer condemned for his crime, assuming it was a man who did it.

“In a further notice, I am declaring a recess in this case while the famished jury folk, and myself, get some lunch, which Harry’s Beanery is soon to provide us with, all costs being paid by the Betterment Council of the town, half of which is sitting in the jury right now, and he rest in attendance.

The judge tapped his gavel on the table top at which he sat, and said, “This trial is now on hold for lunch, as I declare.” Bang!

Practically the whole town was here, and practically the whole town was eating at the same time, but no alcohol of any sort was being served, though some folks were nipping at small vials fit for the occasion.

Half the town was at ease, the other half tending to keep them comfortable in the court room, the judge jawing with several old friends in small groups and in semi-private sessions when it seemed advisable on is part; some decorum of law said so much had to be in conformance with legal ethics.

What it finally came down to was Luke Manning was caught stealing George Gregory’s cattle and George Gregory shot him on sight and left him as the final word on rustling on his land, and the judge and the sheriff and the whole law enforcement combine put the case to bed before the sun went down, and all congregated again at the saloon, with something to talk about, including Butch and Jake across the bar.