Western Short Story
As he swung off a steep mountain trail, Charlie Long, one-time sheriff of Caswell, a fair-to-middling-sized town in Montana, he saw the stagecoach headed for his old home town where some folks asked him to leave because of the town-wide talk about his hanging around the widow Walkins instead of doing his job at sheriffing, which normally he was good at, perhaps at one time called the best sheriff Caswell ever had.
But women had the say in Caswell, old farmer’s wives, old women off land-long wagon hauls from Boston, New York, and other eastern cities, all of them looking for new lives, and as apparent, new voices in the land.
And Diane Walkins was the two-year widow of Charlie’s deputy and dearest friend, Gus Walkins, killed by a back-stabbing sniper from a hidden spot at a long distance, meaning a good shot with a rifle killing a lawman unaware of the dangers lurking for lawmen of any rank or reputation, like a slow-moving battle of opponents. Gus’s replacement was Mike Coogan, once of Tipperary in the old country, long years behind him, but now the new sheriff of Caswell, and accepted any and all advice from Charlie Long.
Charlie had looked for weeks around Maximillian’s Retreat, for a clue in the thereabouts land high or low, in caves, behind rocks where the shooter could have hidden, for hours or days, for his target, once a tin star catching sun or moonlight on his chest; target meat for a butcher of men of the law,
Little of those details came free from secrecy, from darkness, from sources of cowards’ stand-ins. But he kept his eyes wide open, his head swinging back and fro, ordinary details loose as a goose in flight, a Tom Turkey at strut in a side yard, but little of news to a sheriff at his labors, the land bent on keeping its mouth shut, its shoulders hunched, its secrets all-the-way Devil-deep.
But the son of a rancher, a wanderer on his own at 13 years of age, Billy Bucksby, was heard to say in town, “I saw a man, a rough-looking man, big as a moose and carrying a rifle like it was a straw, squirreling himself away under a big rock on Maximillian’s Retreat just the other day.” Maximillian, for your information, was the emperor of Mexico as a result of the war with French and British powers, and had some favor in Texas where his name was carried and ascribed to local sites in his honor, one the mountain of rocks near Caswell.
This roughly hewn hill of rocks and cliffs was noted for its difficult trail to follow, especially on horseback, which some locals dubbed as suicidal or damned near impossible to pass over, even on a second attempt, for which there were no survivors thereabouts to validate. All of this testimony enough to prove that point; a tough turn in any trail can lose a man who has little magic at his service.
When asked by Charlie Long if he could remember any more details about the big man, saying, “A monster I’ll admit right here up front for you, Billy, who doesn’t or hasn’t let himself seen by anybody besides you. That makes you special.” He was touching the boy’s inner reaches.
Billy thought a while and exclaimed, “He doesn’t wear boots! He wears moccasins, big, floppy moccasins, like they got wings, like he could fly if I wasn’t looking at him the way I was, like he was afraid to let me know who or what he was. Which sure was scary.” The boy shivered again at the thought of the big man.
Charlie thanked Billy, patted him on the back, and told his father, “Keep that son of yours off Maximillian’s Retreat, on my orders, for his own good, and for yours if anything happens to him.” His voice had got the better of him, harsh as a rough log employed in an even setting, like in a saloon with special construction.
But we all know, kids are kids, fearless when there’s no secret, touchy when there is.
Charlie had spent two full days, with binoculars and telescope, studying the mountain, never seeing a movement, like a shadow in a slow crawl, or a quick stand-up presentation before it slammed back into secrecy. It was tiring work, even for a man without a tin star on his chest anymore.
He was talking to Mike Coogan in Mike’s office in Caswell, when Billy Bucksby walked in and Charlie told the boy what he and Sheriff Mike Coogan had been talking about, pleased that the adventurous youngster had kept up his interest in the situation, and listening to each word said.
At one point, Charlie saw Billy’s face light up, but held off asking a related question; if the boy had something to say, to ad to the situation, let him do it on his own. He had that much respect for the youngster.
Finally, his patience wearing thin on him, anxious to add an idea to the whole pot, blurted out, “Why don’t you do it at night too, Charlie? He might even light up a cigarette or a cigar for a spell outside his living place, and let you know right where he lives on the mountain!”
The boy’s outburst strike Charlie like a bolt from out the heavens themselves, and right on the money; a most revealing idea, a swell idea coming from a kid really putting his mind to work on a Caswell problem, a problem bugging his favorite ex-sheriff.
Charlie and Coogan both nearly fell off their chairs at the boy’s lucid exclamation, his deep and serious thought, his perseverance on Caswell’s biggest problem, and his own part in the matter since the very beginning.
“My gosh, Billy,” Charlie and Mike Coogan almost said together, “that’s a great idea. Never once thought about that. Maybe a cigar at night, if he likes a deep draw during the night, will mark his place right there on the top of the mountain, give him away to the whole world.”
Billy beamed and countered with, “Can I go with you, Charlie, if my father says it’s okay with him?”
Charlie too beamed. He said, “He sure will, Billy, because I’ll hound him forever if he doesn’t.”
So, it was that 13-year old Billy Bucksby, most adventurous in his own right, went night-hunting with a former sheriff and his replacement on Maximillian’s Retreat, one dangerous mountain near Caswell, Montana.
Few people in Caswell that evening saw the small group of three riders leave town and head toward Maximillian’s Retreat, a mere hour’s trip outside town, the sky somewhat overcast, few stars peaking down from the sky, shadows beginning to merge with one another, not even a dog’s bark announcing their departure.
The three seekers set up their search parameters, each taking roughly a third, of the mountain for their own area of search. Clouds passed overhead hiding a host of stars, silence filling the night, each of the group seeking a giveaway point of the sniper, each hoping he was a cigar smoker, needing a bigger light than a skimpy, dinky cigarette.
Charlie whispered to Billy, “If you get tired, Billy, it’s okay if you close your eyes for a small while. I’ll cover for you.”
He was pleased s punch to hear Billy say, “I wouldn’t miss this for all the tea in China, which I heard someone say once.” He was peppy and alert, and went back into a sudden silence and attention demand, “him and two lawmen on the search.
After an hour of near-absolute silence, the horses well-tethered in place and fed, Billy let out a slight gasp, rapped Charlie on the back, and pointed to the flare of a match most likely, in his section of Maximillian’s Retreat.
Each of the marked the place with their rifle sights, saw a second flare of a match light, as if the first one hadn’t succeeded, and fired away with their rifles.
Maximillian’s Retreat came alive with ricochets, chips of rock leaping as if lit up, the single light being flipped into the deep night, and silence ensuing after the short barrage.
There was no return fire. No response of any kind.
Billy Bucksby was sound asleep long before dawn came popping over the top of Maximillian’s Retreat.