Western Short Story
Dutch Plebis yanked back on the reins of the westbound Fremont-Jehrico Stagecoach. “Whoa, horse,” he yelled. “Whoa, horse.” After a bit of tussling the six-horse team came to a stop almost at the foot of a drop in the road. ‘”D’ju see what I saw, Kirby?”
“I ain’t seen nothin’ yet, Dutch, what ain’t supposed to be where it is. You funnin’ me on somethin’?” Kirby, on his first ever stagecoach ride as shotgun, looked all around and saw nothing so different on the road that it would make Dutch Plebis stop the coach.
Plebis stood on top of the coach and took another look. Way out on the grass he saw the woman fall down. “You stay here, Kirby, and keep good rein on ‘em. I’ll be right back and I ain’t about to walk to Fremont. There’s a woman out there on the grass. No horse. No cover. No company. I’m goin’ out there and get her. Pray she ain’t dead. I ain’t got time to bury her.”
As he climbed down from the rig, aware his passengers had heard him, he said, “You sure that shovel’s up there, Kirby?”
“Put it there myself, Dutch.” He watched Plebis walk off into the grass.
For the last few feet approaching the woman, Plebis began to say what prayer he knew for the weak and the helpless and the near dead. She looked near dead, pale as linen on the line, dress ripped, the small hands bloody and leaving stains on her dress. The dress had changed to yellow and red, a lot of red.
He touched her throat and found a pulse. “Well, lady, I don’t know what got at cha, but I gotta pick you up and tote you back to the wagon. Pardon these old hands intrudin’ on you, ma’am, but I gotta hurry at this.”
He picked up the unconscious woman and carried her back to the stagecoach, ordered one man topside and put the woman in his place. He turned to one of the two women passengers and said, “Do what you can for her ‘til we get to Fremont. She’s near dead, I think.”
The ride into Fremont was an easy run, without any disturbances bothering Plebis except the condition of the woman … and the cause of it.
He unloaded her at Doc Potter’s place next door to the barber shop, telling the doctor just the way he had found her. “She fell down just as I was lookin’ at her, Doc. Fell like she had died right in front of me. But I caught her pulse and brung her in instead of buryin’ her. I don’t even know her name. I’ll be back later. I got me a day off comin’.”
Plebis returned to the doctor’s office a few hours later, his throat wet, the dust gone after a bath in the back of the barbershop. “I feel like a new man, Doc, and I hope the lady does too. How she doin’?”
“Well, Dutch, I’m glad you brought her in when you did. At least we got some more water into her. Near dry as a bone, she was. The ladies on the coach did okay, not giving her too much. I had to hold her back from gulping. Other than that, and getting scared to death by some thugs who jumped her family’s wagon, whose situation we don’t know yet, she’ll be okay. Said she jumped into the bushes ‘cause she was on a private matter and heard lots of noise, shouting and stuff, but only one shot. Poor girl doesn’t know what happened to her folks.”
“Who is she, Doc? You get a name?”
“Yes. She says her name is Millie Ford and she was coming to Fremont and they were going to buy the Drummond place, the Box B spread. Him and a few of his boys and the sheriff are out there now taking a look around. I haven’t heard anything yet. ”
The news, when it did come, was not good for Millie Ford. Her folks and her kid brother dead, one shot and two knifed. Millie Ford was sitting up when Plebis walked in to say hello.
“I’m deep sorry, Ma’am, about your family.”
Millie Ford said, “You’re the man who found me and brought me in, aren’t you. The doctor told me. I guess I’m the saddest girl in the world right now. I don’t know what I’m going to do. They say my father’s money, what he was going to buy the ranch with, is gone. It was under the wagon, hid away. I had some bad feelings about this right from the beginning. But Ma said it was the best thing Pa could do to get him going again.”
She looked around again, and then down at her dress. “Oh, my, what’ll I ever do now?” She started crying again.
Plebis put an arm around her and said, “Well, Ma’am, you can stay at my place until you figure out what you’re gonna do. Don’t let them talk you into working bar at the Black Horse Saloon, and they will try for a new face. Them at the saloon do it every time some lonesome gal comes through here. Most of them stay right where they put them. You don’t want any of that, Ma’am.”
“The doctor told me you thought I was dead.”
“I sure did, Ma’am. You collapsed out there like you was shot. We’d hadda bury you. Couldn’t leave you out there. No Ma’am. Not out there, even if I was late gettin’ in by a whole lot.”
Plebis, with some advice from Doc Potter about caring for Millie Ford, took her to his small cabin at the edge of town, where the road comes in from Jehrico and elsewhere down the line. It was very modest, a man’s place from the first look, but Millie Ford said, “I will do what I can while I’m here, Dutch. I can cook and sew and tend garden. I can ride a horse and shoot a gun and throw a rope. I’ve done it since I was a kid. My father was waiting for my brother to grow up and do it for him, but he had to teach me in the meantime.”
Plebis said, “That sure pleases an old bachelor, Ma’am. You got the run of the place. I’ll make sure I don’t get in your way, but I ain’t here much. I’ll sleep in the shack out back.”
“No way,” Millie said. “I’m not a blushing girl, Dutch. You make your bed and I’ll make mine. I’m not kicking you out of your house. But there’s one thing I wish you’d do for me. Go out there and look around the place where my folks were killed and robbed. I think you have some good sense about you. See what you can find. I am very suspicious about the whole thing.”
“I’ll do that, Millie. Tell me where the money was hid. I’ll start from there.”
Plebis went to see the sheriff. “You find anythin’ out there, Sheriff?”
“Not a thing, Dutch. Me and Drummond’s boy went clean all over everything, and saw nothing that we could latch onto, about who might have done it. We got the folks buried without the girl seeing them. The shot one, the father, was quick and clean, thank goodness, but the mother and the boy were knifed awful bad. I’m glad she never saw them.”
“Well, I’m goin’ out there to take a look. Girl asked me to.”
“Good hunting, Dutch, but not much left. The wagon’s pretty old and broken up. Might just rot out there if someone takes the wheels off’n it.”
Plebis found Kirby in the Black Horse Saloon and said, “Let’s take a ride, Kirby. We got some checkin’ to do for Millie.”
“Sure, Dutch. She doin’ okay?”
“For now, yes.”
At the site they found that scavengers had taken much of the Ford’s property. Even the canvas was taken off the wagon, one wheel was gone and an old stump was holding the wagon level.
Kirby said, “They don’t waste much time, do they, Dutch?”
“They don’t got much to start with and I figure they don’t have much more now, those scavengers, like the buzzards they are. The ones who took the money, they got somethin’ now, that’s who. Let’s look around.”
From Millie’s description, Plebis looked under the wagon. He called to Kirby, “Take a look at this, Kirby.”
He pointed to the underside of the wagon. “Millie said her father hid the money on top of one of these boards and banged it back in place. One of these six boards. What do you see?”
“Well,” Kirby said, “I see only one board broke where it was pulled down. It’s like the third one from the front.”
“The only one?” Plebis said.
“Yuh, the only one.”
“What’s that tell you, Kirby?”
“Tells me plain out they wasn’t goin’ to waste any time on them other boards.”
“Meanin’ they knew where the money was even before they got here.”
“Who knew they were comin’?” Plebis had lowered his eyes and was looking right into Kirby’s eyes.
“Far as I know, just Drummond and his folk, less’n he told some others. I never heard anything’”
“Let’s go sit with the sheriff and think this out for keeps,” Plebis said, climbing back into his saddle, looking once more at the scene, certainly glad that Millie Ford did not have a chance to see any of it, the shock of robbery and shooting and noise making her wander, get lost, get found.
Plebis was going to tell the sheriff everything he’d come across, including his suspicions, but changed his mind at the last minute. “Tell me what you folks did out there at the site of the killin’, Sheriff.”
“We looked over things pretty close.”
“Look under the wagon?” Plebis said.
“Not me. Drummond looked it over and said he saw nothing out of the ordinary under there. You see anything that bothered you, Dutch.”
Plebis told him the conversation he and Kirby had, every detail of it.
“Makes Drummond look pretty bad, but we have to have more than that. He could have been plain lazy under the wagon, or did not see what difference a broken board would make. “I’d be kind of dumb about it myself.”
Plebis thought a while and said, “Let me take a poke at this, Sheriff. I got this information to you, but I’d like to do some more. That girl Millie is plain busted up about it. She don’t say much, but she wears it all over herself. She’s a fine girl and I’d do everythin’ I can for her, includin’ at the saloon on Saturday night when Drummond comes into town.”
“You got it, Dutch, so ride with it. Don’t seem like enough to do anything with it, but it’s worth a try.”
Saturday evening, dusk settled in, his chores around the house done, Plebis rounded the corner and heard, then saw, the commotion in front of the saloon.
Kirby was sitting on his butt in the dusty road, and a bunch of Drummond’s cow hands on the saloon walk laughing at him.
“You keep shootin’ off your mouth, buster, and you’ll get more than this. Don’t try to rope us in on some damned killin’.” The raised his hands and ushered the gang back into the saloon. Plebis knew him as Mike Jordan, Drummond’s foreman.
Plebis was disturbed two ways. “What happened, Kirby? You shoot your mouth off about what we found? Did you? Answer me.”
“Honest, Dutch, I just told the Drummond foreman they missed what we found at the site of the killin’s.”
“D’ju tell ‘em what it was?”
“Course not. I wouldn’t do that, Dutch. Drummond don’t need no break from me.”
“Let’s go back in and see what’s cookin’ with ‘em. Drummond there yet?” Plebis looked along the hitch rail at the row of horses tied off as if he was looking for Drummond’s mount.
“Not yet, Dutch, but some of his boys said he’s comin’. Always comes on Saturday night like he runs the show for the evenin’.”
Jordan, Drummond’s top hand, looked up from his place at the bar and said, “Hey, Dutchie boy, I see you found your shotgun on his butt out front, deserved it, comin’ in here and tellin’ us we was part of them murders. We’ll throw him out again if he says anymore.”
Plebis faced right up to him. “What do you do if the sheriff comes in here and locks up your boss, and maybe some of you, for killin’ them folks? How’s that sit with you, Mike?
“You want to get thrown out, too, Dutchie? I can arrange that easy.” Jordan moved menacingly away from the bar, giving himself room for an expected confrontation with Plebis.
The stage driver had another set to his mind. “Hey, there, Mike. I guess you’ll do it your way. That’s if you want to be part of the gang that goes to the penitentiary and sits there until the sun don’t shine no more? You really willin’ to do that? Stick up for someone who knifed a woman and a kid of 12? A decent woman and her 12 year-older? That goes for your whole crowd. Take a good last look at some of them if that’s the way you want it.”
He pointed around the room, “Them’s a lot of Box-B boys and if they want what’s comin’ with murderin’ a woman and her kid, let ‘em tell you they’re stayin’ in place with you. Put your chops onto that, Mike.”
Jordan shrank a little from that threatening picture as he perceived a decided change in some of the Box- B cow hands. The change was instantly obvious, the popular thrust of camaraderie and one-for-all and all-for-one mode of operation suddenly rent by division, by indecision. He spun on his heels and said, “What’re you goin’ to do? You got proof of all this?”
Plebis was quick with him, seeing the changes coming on the whole crew. “You willin’ to find out the truth?”
Jordan’s face said he was thinking over all the implications and all the possibilities. “I ain’t gonna hide anythin’ from the law. Do what you gotta do.” The threat of a penitentiary stay had set solidly on his face.
The mood in the Black Horse Saloon had made a wide swing from the Drummond influence. Plebis saw it immediately, knowing what influence Drummond had put upon the town from the beginning. He could see it in the room; the banker, in a far corner with a couple of cronies, was a Drummond pal, and the owner of the general store had Drummond as his best customer. Even the bartender was an old Drummond cow hand who couldn’t hack the drive anymore and was put behind the bar at Drummond’s request.
He knew he’d have a tough sell once things got going, but he found hard pictures in his mind of a horrible crime. Then he saw an image of Millie Ford, out on the grass, looking as if she was dead, the blood spread on her dress.
It steeled him with resolve.
As Drummond walked into the saloon an hour later, the place went silent. A shade under six feet, he cast a healthy shadow, with wide shoulders, hefty biceps in a loose gray shirt, and a vigilance caught up in his eyes. He looked around the saloon and saw his whole crew. His smile initially said a secure sense was working in him.
Plebis was reading signs.
“Hey, Mike,” Drummond said to his foreman, “you ready for a good night on the town. Tell the boys to belly-up ‘cause I’m buying all of them some drinks.” He threw some greenbacks down on the counter. The bartender scooped up the bills, put them in the cash draw, and poured a healthy first round for the boys of the Box-B. A few of them drank their beer quickly, as if a second round would follow in a hurry.
Plebis saw a few of them quite hesitant at drinking, looking at their glasses, possibly measuring connections, penalties, guilt of some sort.
But when Drummond put his arm across the shoulders of Jordan, he felt the signs of indifference, and then stiffened himself as he saw Dutch Plebis approaching him. Drummond’s face reflected his sudden awareness of things being out of kilter.
Plebis was direct in his speech. “Drummond, I heard you and your boys here were part of the gang that checked out the Ford killin’ site, where the father was shot and the mother and a 12-year old son were knifed like a wild and ornery butcher went to work on them.”
Drummond, drawing in Plebis’s statement as relief from the sudden apprehension received from Jordan, stepped in gladly. “Well, Dutch, we did what we could. Helped out the sheriff as much as possible. Not much to be seen though. I suspect some madman had been there and done all that. It was a mess, I agree.” He drank off his beer in one gulp.
Plebis saw his hand shake a little as he put the glass on the bar.
Drummond said, “I heard you were on the site a couple of times. Didn’t find much, did you? We didn’t find a thing other than a plain horror.” A bit of ease had settled into his voice. Plebis caught that too.
Plebis said, “I hope you folks that went out there with the sheriff checked everything out.”
“I hope someone checked under the wagon, and the front seat of the wagon.” Plebis felt like he was loading a rifle at the shooting range.
Drummond said, “We saw nothing on the seat of the wagon. Couple of my boys did that. I saw them. And I looked under the wagon myself. Nothing there. Nothing at all.”
The single pearl of sweat rolled on Drummond’s forehead, directly under the brim of his hat, and dripped down one cheek. With the back of his hand, he brushed it off quickly.
“D’ju see a broken board down under there?” Plebis put a dumbfounded look on his face.
“Oh, yeh, but it must have been broken before or during the fight.”
Plebis put another round in the imaginary chamber. “Six cross boards down there and only one broken? That didn’t hit you kinda funny?”
“What’s a single board say about anything? Could have happened a hundred ways.”
“I’ll tell you one way,” Plebis said. “It was the only one broken by the killer ‘cause he knowed there was money hidden there. The money Ford was goin’ to buy your ranch with.”
“How’d anybody know that?” Drummond said, as the second pearl in the guilty chain started to fall in place on his forehead.
“The Ford daughter told me. I found her out there. She’s a witness to everythin’ that happened. And she saw her father hide that money up on top of that board and only the family and a helper knew. That helper told someone who turned out to be a killer and a thief and a dirty rat as bad as one can get in this rotten life.”
“Not much I can do about that. We looked over the scene for any signs and we didn’t find any. Can’t blame us for missing something. We did our best.”
“The “We” approach of Drummond had made a move on his crew. Plebis, still good at reading signs, saw Jordan shrink visibly each time Drummond said “we.”
“Maybe you don’t know that the daughter had a list of the green backs her father hid, a whole list that the banker gave them when Ford cleaned out his savings from the bank, every last dollar.”
Plebis saw two things at the same time. He saw Drummond’s hand make a slight move toward his pocket, and then it stopped, and another pearl, then another, made their way in the chain of beads coming off his forehead.
And behind the bar, he saw the bartender slip his hand into the cash box and take out the last greenbacks put there, those from Drummond spent when he bought the rounds for his crew. The bartender put the bills in his pocket.
At that point, the sheriff walked in and stood in the middle of the saloon, his hand on his pistol. He said, “What’s going on here, boys? We got some kind of stand-off? Fella came out and told me I ought to be in here.”
“It’s like this, Sheriff,” Plebis said, “We know the numbers on the greenbacks that was stolen from Millie’s parents. And someone’s got that money. And Drummond here just bought a round for his crew and paid in greenbacks and that money was put in the cash box. When I told folks here about it, Shortlick there, the bartender who used to work for Drummond, took it out of the cash box and stuck it in his own pocket. You go take a look in his pocket, Sheriff and see if I ain’t tellin’ the truth.”
A number of men made moves in the next second: Shortlick went to get rid of the money; Drummond went for his gun; Mike Jordan, long-time foreman of the Box-B, almost taken in by a crude, maniacal boss and killer, jumped his boss from behind and wrapped his arms around him.”
There was, of course, no known bill numbers, all a ruse put on by Plebis. Someone, he knew, knew the location of the money. Someone who saw the broken board must have broken it to take the money. Drummond had ignored the broken board and had admittedly seen it. All of it pointed back at the owner of the Box-B Ranch who knew how much Ford was going to pay for the ranch. Plebis had played it his own way.
The judge, when Drummond was convicted and hanged for the murders and the robbery, awarded the Box-B Ranch to Millie Ford, with not a single dissent from anybody in the town of Fremont.
Dutch Plebis became her foreman and Kirby was his top hand, after a while.
Mike Jordan and some of the crew left and were never heard from again. A few stayed at the ranch with the new boss, trying to make amends for their ineptness but not their guilt.
Not too much time passed before Dutch Plebis, stagecoach driver, one-time detective and mystery solver, picked up in his arms and carried Millie Ford for the second time, this time over the threshold of the door to their home.