Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
I stared through the prison bars of the little cell in Parson´s Creek. No-one was on the street. It was hot at noon, and the townsfolk preferred to stay indoors. I was sweating, but at least I was in shade, and that was a lot better than being outside.
"You want something to drink, Gentry?", asked Deputy Roscoe Craig. "I just got a bucket of cold lemon squash. I'll be happy to share it."
Lemon squash! I felt like telling the lawman what he could do with his lemon squash, but I still had four days to serve before they set me free, and right then I'd have spent every last cent I had for a cold beer. But lemon squash?
Perhaps I should have been more cautious when I entered the saloon two days earlier. I had nothing particular planned. I was just relaxing on my way south, having a few drinks and some fun. But I had an argument with the local gunsmith who saw a few things differently to me. And when push came to shove, things got out of hand. There was a fight, and I gave a good account of myself, but I got arrested in the process and sentenced to one week in the Parson's Creek county jail.
"If it's good enough for you, it's good enough for me, I reckon," I replied at last. Although he was pretending to study old warrants, I knew that the deputy was hardly able to read. Though he was not exactly blessed with intelligence, however, he was a good-hearted guy and easy to talk to. I certainly liked him a lot more than I did his boss, Sheriff John Woodman. He'd left Parson´s Creek yesterday and would not return until the day after tomorrow.
Roscoe Craig came nearer and stood before the cell, grinning. "Gentry," he said. "You'd better back up to that far wall, and don't get any ideas about escaping, right?"
"I'm a peace-loving guy, Deputy", I replied, holding my hands shoulder-high. "I've got enough trouble. I don't want any more."
"That´s good to hear," said Craig, handing me the cup through the prison bars. I tasted its contents and found them better than I expected. "You want more?" asked Roscoe, seeing how fast I drained the cup. "There´s enough left for both of us."
Before I could answer, the office door swung open and a loud, nervous voice sang out. "Roscoe Craig! Where are you?" "Back here in the cellblock, "he answered. "Hold on, I´m coming." Before Craig could reach the doorway, the visitor hurried into the cellblock. He was breathing heavily and obviously in a state of some anxiety. His bearded face was a mixture of fear and helplessness. Then Craig ushered the man outside again and closed the door behind him, so I could heard fragments of their conversation.
Five minutes later I heard the office door close, and went to the small window so that I could see the deputy´s visitor leaving in a hurry. The man crossed Main Street and disappeared into a store on the opposite boardwalk. I got the impression that he was expected, because two other fellers followed him inside. "My god!", I heard Craig say to no-one in particular. "Why me? Damn, this is the Sheriff's responsibility, not mine ..."
When he came back into the cellblock, Roscoe looked like a man who with the whole weight of the world on his shoulders. That he'd just received bad news was obvious - and that only made me more curious. "What´s happened, Deputy?", I asked. "You´re looking mighty pale. Bad news?"
"More than that," he replied with a curse. "Sheriff Woodman'd know what to do in a situation like this - but me....?" He stopped, searching for the right words, while a dozen thoughts went through his mind. "Sometimes I wish I'd never taken this job. If worse comes to worse, I´m always right in the middle of it."
"You're not making any sense," I shot back. And Craig realized then that he had to tell me the truth, so that I could understand just what had unsettled him so badly. "It´s all because of Cadburn", he explained. "I just got the news that he'll be here in a couple of days."
"Cadburn?" I repeated. "Never heard of him. But it strikes me that you folks hereabouts aren't exactly looking forward to seeing him."
"We're not," sighed Craig, while sweat shone brightly on his forehead. "Gentry, you don’t understand what Cadburn´s return means to the people in this town." A new thought occurred to him, and he said, "I think it's about time I quit this place and went on a little fishing trip before Cadburn gets here."
"What exactly is the problem?" I asked. "Who is this feller, and why are you so scared of him?"
"We've got good reason, believe me," he replied. "Angus Cadburn's got a score to settle with some of the people in this town. Fifteen years ago, Cadburn and three other men robbed the local bank. They killed an employee, and also Ben Culloch, from the livery stable. Sheriff Woodman formed a posse and went after them, found their tracks and trailed the into the hills about ten miles east of here. There was a gun-battle, and only one of the robbers survived - Cadburn. But because Cadburn hadn't been involved in the killings, he was sentenced to twenty years hard labour."
"What became of the money?" I asked. Craig shook his head. "No-one ever found out,"he said. "We figure the robbers buried it someplace, but Cadburn never had much to say about that. But now he's coming back to take revenge on all the men who rode with that posse, just like he said he would, when the judge passed sentence." He frowned. "But he's still got five years to serve yet? Why did they release him so early?" He murmured a few hasty words which I didn't quite catch, but it was crystal clear to me now just what Cadburn's return meant to the people here.
Deputy Craig left me alone and went back this office. But he could not concentrate on his work. Ten minutes later he left the office and crossed the street. The saloon was what he needed right now, because lemon squash wasn't strong enough for him any more.
Noises coming from the office outside woke me from my dreamless sleep. When I opened my eyes, I realized that it was nearly sunrise. But Roscoe Craig was already there. "I'm setting you free, Gentry", he said, using the key on the lock. "Go wherever you will. That's what I plan to do. Last night I decided that it´s high time I visited my old mother back at Sweetwater Rim." His face turned angry when I made no move to leave the cell. "Hell, come on", he said, his voice nervous. "You want to stay here? If I was you, I´d leave this country as soon as possible. The air in Parson´s Creek's gonna be full of lead and powder before much longer." He couldn't look me in the eye while he spoke. "Your gun's in the office, and your horse is saddled and waiting for you. That´s it. Sorry, but now I have to go..."
Before I could say anything, he had already turned and left. When I came to pick up my gun I saw Craig take off his tin star and leave it on the sheriff's desk. I was just buckling on my gunbelt when I heard hoof beats moving rapidly down Main Street. It was Roscoe Craig, shaking the town's dust from his heels. The sun drove the night shadows away and started climbing high on the horizon. I had seen a lot of things in my life, while I was passing from one town to another. Some had been good, some had been bad. But it was strange that a deputy should set me free ahead of time.
The situation, however, was clear- Parson´s Creek had no lawman anymore. Not good, when you consider the fact, that Angus Cadburn was on the way. I left the office and hurried to the livery stable, where, as Craig had promised, my horse was ready and waiting for me. The help was a man beyond fifty, thin and with a wrinkled face. He seemed to have woken up just a few moments earlier. At first he looked at me suspiciously, as if he didn't believe I was who I claimed to be.
"Simmer down, mister", I told him. "The deputy decided to set me free, before he ran away. And from what I hear, he had a good reason to quit." I watched how he looked, hearing the news. He was getting frightened. "Your horse is in the left box over there, cowboy. I looked after it, while you was in jail. That makes it two dollars even."
I searched in my shirt for the money. I was lucky that I had some left. The help took the coins fast and showed no more interest in me. I did some quick checking. All I had left now were seven dollars, enough to get me two or three good meals. I don't know why I decided to stay in Parson´s Creek. Maybe it was because of the two strangers who entered Main Street from the south side. The rode to the livery stable and I had seen such men before. Their clothes were worn and ragged, but their guns were clean and polished. They were gunhawks.
The general store on the opposite side of the street was already open for business. A fat man in a white apron came outside and swept the boardwalk while his wife got everything ready for this day´s commerce. Having already planned to buy some bread and canned fruits before I left town, I decided to do my marketing there and then. "Morning", I greeted the store owner. He was so deep in his work that he didn't recognize me at first.
This his curious gaze became as suspicious as the livery man's. "The deputy let me go, before he left the town", I said. He seemed to believe what I said. I entered the store and looked around until I found what I was looking for. "Ma´am, I have only seven dollars left", I told his wife. "What will that buy me?"
"Beans, salt, some ham, biscuits and some cans over there", came the answer. "That´s all." "That´s ok by me. Please have it ready to go in an hour or so." Again I hesitated to leave the town right away. I don't know why. There was just something in my that wouldn't allow it.
At that moment I saw those two gunhawks leaving the livery stable. They were watching the Main Street very carefully. Meanwhile other inhabitants began to show themselves on the street, some of them spotting the strangers immediately. I saw them exchange some angry words as I was leaving the store. I had in mind to visit the saloon one last time and spend the rest of my coins there. After having done this I would leave Parson´s Creek. But everything went wrong...
The barkeeper turned pale when he saw me coming. I had the impression that he was not far away from grabbing his rifle under the counter and shooting at me. That´s why I explained hastily that the deputy had let me go, and that I'd be leaving town right after a cold beer. The 'keep put a beer before me and I paid for it. After this he left me alone and watched from the distance while I drank the beer. Mighty good it was, much better than lemon squash, and I was just about to order another one when I heard someone else coming in. As I was the only customer at the time, I was curious to find out who the new arrival was. It was the two gunhawks. They marched directly to the bar. Watching them come, I had a strange, nervous feeling.
"Two beers", demanded the taller one. "Do it quick, man -we've had a long ride, and we're thirsty." The 'keep knew when it was better to be quiet and hurried to fulfil the wishes of his two guests. The smaller companion of the tall guy drank his beer quickly and left the saloon. The other one stayed behind and looked at me.
"Something wrong, mister?", I asked him, because I didn't know what he wanted from me. But the guy only grinned. "Nothing particular", he replied, coming nearer. "I just wondered if you live hereabouts. If not, it'd be better if you left this county as soon as you can. Parson´s Creek doesn't have much to offer a young man like you."
"You don't need to tell me," I returned with a grin. "I'm planning to leave in a while. What about you - staying long?" "Who knows?", he said with a shrug, loud enough for the 'keep to hear it too. "Maybe there'll be some excitement in Parson´s Creek soon. That's what me and my amigo are wanting."
The barkeeper began to tremble, when he heard the man speak. He tried to wash and clean some glasses, but in his thoughts he was elsewhere. The stranger took two coins from his pocket and laid them on the bar. Then he looked at me before facing the barkeeper again. "By the way, Angus Cadburn sends his regards, Spears," he remarked, smiling when he saw shock appear in the other man's fevered eyes. "Yep - Cadburn still knows who you are. Can you believe that, Spears?"
The 'keep wasn't able to speak. He had to take hold on the bar, otherwise he would have lost his balance. The stranger left the saloon, singing an old trail song as he went, but the atmosphere he left behind him was dark and tense."Those are Cadburn´s men", the 'keep whispered anxiously. "My God - and they know that I rode with that posse ....."
Suddenly he took off his apron, cast it aside and grabbed his jacket. "Saloon's closed, I'm afeared," he told me. "You'll have to leave. I got some important chores I need to see to." I finished my beer and left. Spears followed me and closed the door. After leaving the bar, he raced across the street, headed for the bank. the street. A few seconds later he disappeared into the large stone building.
I realised then that I wasn't the only witness to this strange display. A few people on the other side of the street had noticed too - as had the two gunhawks, who were standing there, just watching. I didn't know what had happened to frighten the barkeep so badly, or why he'd needed to visit the bank so hurriedly. But it came to me that, if I stuck around long enough, I might just find out. These two strangers knew it already, I was sure. Because right now they were heading straight for the bank themselves!
"We must do something", said an elderly woman, clearly frightened. "We can't just stand here and watch while Cadburn starts a bloodbath in Parson´s Creek."
"The trouble is, we don't have any law, ever since Roscoe Craig lit out," said another woman. "I can't blame Roscoe for making dust," murmured a tall man. "I'd have likely done the same. After all, it's the sheriff´s job to uphold the law - that´s why we pay him."
"But he's not here now", cussed the elderly woman.
I watched the people leaving the store, hurrying home as fast as they could. I guessed they wouldn't leave their houses again until this business was settled one way or the other. Parson´s Creek was a typical little town. Its people expected the law to do all their dirty work for them. And if the sheriff was away, they reacted like so many headless chickens. I had little sympathy for them, because if I lived here, I would have done whatever I could. But I was a stranger, and this wasn't my problem. I was just a cowboy passing through...
The two gunhawks did not stay long in the bank, maybe five or ten minutes. But I was sure they had a certain plan, though I couldn't understand it at the moment. Anyway -I'd had enough of this town and its people, and now I was ready to leave.
I went back to the store, collected my supplies and then headed over to the livery stable. But just then, I saw dust rising at the far end of town, where Main Street gave way to a muddy dirt road. When the dust cleared a bit, I saw a stagecoach headed for Parson´s Creek. It would be here an in couple of minutes. I had heard that the stagecoach only stopped over twice a week, and this was the only regular connection to the next town. But something seemed different today, and this feeling was confirmed when I saw the two gunhawks watching the approach of the stagecoach with keen interest. It looked to me as if they could hardly wait for it to arrive. And there could only be one answer for their behavior - Angus Cadburn had to be one of the passengers!
Normally the arrival of the stagecoach is an important event for a little town like Parson´s Creek. Today it was different. Nobody came onto the street or the boardwalks to greet it. The driver braked in front of the Wells Fargo depot and looked around. When the dust cleared, the streets were empty, and he couldn't understand why. I concentrated on the passengers, and didn't have to wait long before the door was opened and a pale-faced man in dark clothes stepped out. He hesitated to cross the street. Instead, he just stayed where he was, just as if he wanted to get his own personal impression of his surroundings.
I saw the two gunhawks, who still looked kind of nervous, though I couldn't understand why. Seconds later, everything became clear. There was a another man up on the saloon´s roof. From there he had a perfect view of Main Street and everything that happened there - including the arrival of the stagecoach. And he had a rifle in his hands.
"Look out!" I cried as loud as I could, before the shootist on the roof could do anything. The gunhawks reacted quickly, spotting the threat and reaching for their pistols. There was a sudden rattle of gunfire just as the killer tried to change his position. Bad luck for him. The bullets hit him hard. The killer could not hold his gun any longer. He cried out in agony, then fell from the roof. He made an ugly sound when he slammed to earth, and didn't move again. I was surprised when I recognized him. It was Spears, the barkeeper!
While the two gunhawks left their position and ran to the mortally wounded rifleman, I heard someone begin to cuss and shout. It came from the direction of the bank. A tall man in a grey suit stood there, a gun in his right hand. "Why did you come back, Cadburn?", he called in a trembling voice. "Go away - you're not wanted in Parson´s Creek!"
"Drop your gun, Mr. Connors!", shouted one of the two gunhawks. "Do it - quick, now!" Cadburn was very quiet, and hadn't moved throughout the recent action. He just behaved as if it wasn´t of any importance to him. "Connors, I told you to throw away your gun", the gunhawk demanded again. Instead, Connors yelled, "Die, you bastard!", and he raised his gun and aimed it at Cadburn.
Before he could shoot, however, one of the gunmen shot Connors in the right arm. The man in the grey suit cried loud and let his gun drop. The gunhawk walked towards Connors. He pointed his gun at the banker and made it clear the if he had
to shoot again, his next bullet would kill. "Mr. Connors, you're under arrest," he said."I am Texas Ranger Hayes, and this is my companion Ranger Schofield. We know exactly what happened fifteen years ago."
The banker turned pale when he heard the ranger´s words. Then he saw the ranger´s badge below Hayes's jacket. It was obvious from his expression that he couldn't believe these two disreputable-looking men were Texas Rangers. After that, his eyes focused on Cadburn, who turned his head. But that was all Cadburn did. Now Connors grew suspicious. He staggered towards Cadburn while blood dripped from the wound in his arm. But he did not care. He cursed when he realized the truth, when he understood the trap which had been laid for him and his companion Spears.
"He´s blind!", he shouted angrily. "Heaven and hell - Cadburn is blind!" That´s when I also saw Cadburn´s eyes, which held no signs of life anymore. Angus Cadburn, the man everybody was so frightened of, was blind and totally helpless. While one of the rangers took out handcuffs and put them on Connors, the second ranger came to me and smiled.
"We owe you something, mister", he said to me. "You saw the man on the roof before he could hit anybody. Without your help, there would have been a lot of trouble. But we had to calculate this risk- otherwise Connors never would have been trapped." The ranger registered my unspoken question and continued. "We were lucky, mister. Cadburn never told the truth in all those years. Maybe he hoped that he would get his share of the money one day. But then there was this accident in prison, and Cadburn lost his sight. All his plans and hopes were completely destroyed. And that´s why he told us the truth, and also some very interesting details about the man in the background. The governor allowed Cadburn to finish his sentence earlier - but only if he agreed to help us. And as you can see, it worked well. The barkeeper owed Connors a lot of money, and Connors forced him to take the backshooter´s job. I'm sorry if I was rough on you this morning when we met for the first time. But that was part of the game."
He grinned and went back to his companion. They brought Connors to the jail, where he would await his trial. But by that time I was long gone and back on the trail down south...