Western Short Story
A quick turn at the rest room, and Chuck Rattan, clerk, heard the stern and gruff voice say, “Hands up and nobody gets hurt.” He froze in the spot, afraid to give himself away, knowing he could do nothing to help the others, but sneak a peek at the speaker who wore a worthless mask worn and torn, and who took it off as he grabbed a bag of money and stepped outside the bank, turned abruptly as someone moved behind the counter and killed the other clerk with one shot.
Darby Hayes, the second clerk, his dearest friend, who had reached for a pistol, went down like a rock and never moved again.
That happened on a Friday. Darby Hayes was buried on Monday, with Chuck getting the day off from the bank president, and the sheriff coming back late on Monday, with his three-man posse after a useless search for the killer, who had disappeared into the mountain stretch, leaving no signs behind him, no horse tracks that were helpful, not a horseshoe-strike on a stone sticking out like a trail marker, elusive as a dark spirit on a dip-and-dodge maneuvering, the vacant resolve in the sheriff’s eyes vivid proof of failure on the posse side of things, almost speaking out about the success of the robber, the killer into the wide-open mountain area, which he termed as ”The .Alley of Death.”
On Tuesday, the banker invited Chuck into his office, the request timorous, hesitant, littered with a sense of disdain all the while. “I want to talk about your part in all of this, Chuck. Was their nothing you could have done to help us out during the robbery? It seems to me you might have yelled out or spoken up, but nothing from you now even in almost five days. Nothing but silence from you. I think you might have done something, should have done something instead of hanging back there out of sight, away from danger. It doesn’t make it look good for you at all, but makes it look useless.” His voice was flavored with an irritable edge to it, and a sure sign of coming retributions concerning his working help, meaning Chuck all the way.
“I got a look at the robber, Boss, when he took off his mask. That helps us in the situation.”
“Not much from where I stand.” The boss was riding in high command at the moment, lording it over his clerk and helper who had offered no help, not a smidgeon of relief in the whole episode.
Chuck could hear a crushing statement coming next from his boss, like “You’re fired” or “Get out of here now, this minute.” So, he finally showed his feelings, standing up abruptly, and shouting out at the boss, “I quit. I’m going after him. I’ll spend my whole life, if I have to, to track him down, see him hung by his neck by the law, or killed at my hand. Darby was the only good friend I ever had.”
“You can’t even shoot, can you?” The manager held back a belt of laughter that Chuck could see was boiling up inside him, like words were useless at such a point.
“Both Darby and I spent some time out on the plains with pistols, learning the ins and outs of hand guns. I’ll be okay.”
He was up and out of the office and the bank in a scattering of minutes, a sense of honor and daring tinging the staid atmosphere of the bank he way an imprint can be felt more than seen, the same manner an odor can be known without the sight of the rotten fruit.
After talking to the sheriff about the posse outing, he saddled his horse and was a bank teller no more. He was a stalker, for eternity, or ever, in his mind.
By dusk he was at the edge of the foothills, staked his horse, and began three hours of scanning the hills and mountains rising at some points straight up as a pole. Just before midnight, on his steady watch of the mountain sweeping back and forth in front of him, much like a blank wall, he suddenly spotted a single piece of light at one edge; perhaps a cigarette or cigar being lit, a small lantern showing someone the way in the utter darkness, or a desperado believing nobody in the whole world around him would notice such a small flame, and Chuck for much of the time hearing again and again Darby saying, “You’re getting pretty damned good with that little weapon, Chuck. I hope the time never comes when you have to use it, though, to save your life or mine would be worth the trick.”
But Darby was wrong on that count, as Chuck gauged exactly where that small speck of light had revealed a human effort at some necessary task right up there in the middle of the night, far away from the real world, and totally out of harm’s way so far up on the mountain’s reaches, with a feeling that nothing could reach him, touch him this high up, as if being out of this world.
And from Chuck’s point of view at those very moments, a time to lay back for some earned sleep, his three-hour night of scanning finally locating some form of life, possibly a desperado’s movement, a sign of life in the darkness.
He rolled over and went into a deep and well-earned sleep, night itself enfolding him. When his horse awakened him in the morning, the sun at a bare creep across the plains, he heard again Darby’s words, as if they’d never let go of him until action was done and gone.
Chuck had pinpointed, with a rough estimate, where the sudden strike of light had been seen, and placed it on a piece of the mountain as broad and as straight up as if it had climbed right up out of Hell itself. It was a sheer part of the cliff, hanging where crooked hideouts often are found by desperate and lucky searches.
He’d have to stake his horse out of eye-search, perhaps in a gulley or a piece of dense tree growth on this lower end of the mountain; keep him out of sight of the killer, if that was him who had struck that minor light in the deepest darkness.
“Damned it, Darby, I sure hope you’re wrong on some of your outlook. Perhaps today you’ll give me a hand of some sort, long reach that it is, of catching the guy who did you in. That’d be as fair as one could get, the way I look at it.”
He drank off the last of his coffee, cleaned his place of activity, prepared for his climb up the face of the mountain, needing daylight, sunshine, the whole way. He felt ready, could see again the mask off the killer’s face, what it might look like at the end of a pointed weapon, capture as sure as spitting.
One thing Chuck believed was that his body had gained some strength, a sense of energy; his legs stronger, his hands, toughened by the search, ready for the tough grasp on mountain clutches, the narrow perches he’d be trusting before he got hi man. That realization sparked his energy all the more with each grasp upon a slight chunk of mountain face.
He was parallel to a piece of rock, it too hanging on a thin edge, when he heard the ting of a morning pan, smelled cooking eggs in the air, the clear odor, strong as it’d always been, the smell of bacon in a fryer.
Chuck believed he was closer to the robber-killer than he had been at the bank for those few moments. He was sure he could drop the unwary killer with one shot, end the whole scenario, but Darby hung in his mind. So, he edged closer, waited his opportunity, leveled his pistol at the killer from his mountain clutch, saying, in a suddenly strong and demanding voice, never before used in the same manner, “Make a move for your gun, mister, and you’re dead where you’ll fall off this cliff and scream all the way down, Or you can chuck your guns over the side, left hand on the pistol on your right side and your right hand then going to the pistol on your left side and flipping them guns into the longest flight ever known. And you, killer of my best friend, are going to ride back to town, and to the bank, trussed up on your horse you got tucked away down below.
The climb down was laborious, frightfully slow, but steady, Chuck’s pistol on the killer all the way down to their horses, the killer mounted and roped atop his saddle like a dummy in a circus show.
All of Elm Hill, Nevada nearly going crazy as riders coming into town screaming at everybody about what was following them into town.
The reception was like a holiday celebration when Chuck, the bank teller, delivered his prisoner to the sheriff and the bank president standing as a duo in front of the sheriff’s office, disbelief on both faces.