Western Short Story
Cougar Coxley on the Loose
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

He was lean and mean and knew his way around just about anything in his path, as he’d been many places before and saw most of them from all sides. Now, morning having mellowed night, cutting away corners, shadows, hideouts, he came anew at the foot of the Mountain of the Great Spirit, Montana’s final call for a spiritual breath for a night-tired rider on the hunt.

Greg Spires, loose, killer of women of any age, any age, was out in front of him, someplace locked against chase, like a new cave, a newly dug hole, a desperate ruse to lose a chaser back down the trail, distance no matter any longer, for he had the scent locked in his mind, in each breath. Or he could be hiding in wide open space, a ranch of the valley owned by an honest man caught in the tracks of death, murder, kidnaping (with a 10-year old girl just been declared the newest pawn in the fame.

Coxley couldn’t count how many men of posters he had chased, followed, unearthed, found, locked in chains, hurried back to each hanging, left early on the successive search on the roster. In some deep denizen, some had loosened their tongues to say, as if Cougar’s got wind of you, “Turn around and offer a gun-death right now rather than a hanging later on. It’s neater, cleaner, a helluva lot quicker. Pick the little town you like for the occasion, a dusty street, no kids hanging around having school in session, women still at morning work and well out of the way. All that could be arranged or accepted as real on the chosen day, the month, the time of year, no holidays in the mixture, peace in place across the wide plains.

It would pay a man in the long run, and if he was good at hiding and running, it would be a long run; Death said so, having unsaid messages being heard in the back of the head, shaking up from the saddle, as if the horse knew more than he rider did. Some men on the run said their horses knew more than they did themselves, the trails telling more tales than men could recount, all those trails worn down by horses before men made the walk down aways to visit a friend, an old rider, an old man once of the bushes and hideouts and come to his resting place, almost like settling all accounts with the lot of the world, the lot of the opening West all the way to the Pacific Ocean, hardly ever seen by any of the regular road runners, gunners, shooters of each watch.

Now, on one of the regular ranches, suddenly under gun, lock and key, it was evident that Spires and his crowd had taken over one of the ranches. There were at least 10 ranches served by the little town of Spider’s End that serviced all those ranches for food supplies, guns and ammo, odd parts needed from elsewhere, the post office, the telegrapher at the railroad station, one visit a week by a Great Pacific RR train.

Coxley rode into Spider’s End as he had done before, going right to the sheriff’s office to determine if anything new had turned up, any word received from other peace officers about mad Greg Spires,

Sheriff Marty Hennessy said, “Not a word, like the shop is closed. All seems hunky dory. No new faces in town, not a one that I’ve seen at the saloon, the general store, or elsewhere. If Spires is hidden around here, nobody’s showing it. Quiet as mice in the belfry. Of course, some of the local hands have slowed down their town visits with all this talk about Spires filling the air, making terror crawl around on its dozen feet, shaking big men down to little men in some cases.

Coxley admitted his last piece of news. “But we have a new cause here this time. Spires grabbed the daughter of Mac Fendler, a 9-year-old named Amy Sue, button-cute. I’ve seen her picture. Melt a man’s heart, anything happen to that girl. I don’t care how many cows get stolen or money gets stole, but I want to get that little girl away from Spires. Chances are damned good he’d end up doing something rotten to her.

He added to the sheriff, “We have to watch anybody different coming into town, question every one of them, or even jittering hands of regulars, more jittery than usual, maybe scared to death any giveaway causes harm to the girl.”

He sat back in a chair in the sheriff’s office, his mind as if it wandered around in his head with a hundred clues on the loose and not a rope on one of them. His mind circled the town a dozen times before he thought of the telegrapher at the railroad station. He had to talk to that man on the sly, ask him about recent traffic in the system.

The telegrapher, Duke Streck, was not surprised to see Coxley enter his small office, for he often had such visitors of the law,

“Any new excitement on your end of things, Duke? New or different couriers from the ranches? Nothing out of the way?”

“Naw, Sheriff. Same old crowd, same go-betweens I’ve seen for years. No one new.” Duke seemed pleased that he had passed some kind of test. Then he added a new wrinkle to his usual news. “The BarlBar, gets a lot more than the others but Donnie Sanders picks it up like regular, though he’s more mum than usual, like he lost his only girlfriend or his best horse on a bet, Lousy card player. Won’t ever win at the game, and I’m willin’ to bet on that, not even bein’ a bettin’ man.”

Coxley walked out of the telegrapher’s office fit as the proverbial fiddle, almost singing a song to himself, his mind cooking up the good flavors.

He marshalled up his forces, and told them, “We’re going on a strike-out mission. We’re’ going to lock down Spires’ gang, but first we got to shake loose that little girl he snapped up and holding for ransom of sort. We got to be real careful until after we get her loose, Then I don’t give a damned how much wrack and ruin you rain on them.”

He called forth one of his men. “I’m picking you for this, Fudge, the old man of the bunch. Mister Cool himself. Check the place out. See where she is. Nab her on the property and take her under cover inside some building, barn or whatever, until after the shooting’s done. Keep her safe. No hero stuff. Just under good safe cover until we blow the top off the place.

Fudge waited, all in black, watched, saw what he needed to see, slipped in behind a guard, immobilized him, tied him tight as a knot, bound his mouth, tossed him into a dark corner inside a cover of hay, and took the child under cover with him, safe as a fish off the hook, in a high corner of the barn, a harmless black bundle, with no discernible shape.

Coxley and his crew took care of everything else, with a little joy added as afterthought,