Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Dead Man Talking is the next in the Circle S Ranch series. It follows up on "The Gate".
Western Short Story
“Hello the house! Hello the house!” The horse moved around nervously in the early morning darkness illuminated only by a half moon. The man shouted again, “Hello the house!” The sound of a furiously barking dog came from within the darkened ranch house then stopped. Finally, lanterns flickered to life.
The front door swung slowly open with no one silhouetted against the light from within. Out of the corner of his eye, the rider detected movement at the side of the ranch house. A figure stepped cautiously forward, holding a double-barreled shotgun catching rays of moonlight. The man knew exactly where it was pointed.
“Mister Standish . . . it’s Harmon . . . err . . . Deputy Wagoner!”
The door opened fully as Winston Standish moved outside. He knew Bean Childress had his flank, and he had hushed Thunder, his blue lacey.
“Mighty early for a visit, Deputy. What’s going on?”
“Sheriff Hewitt sent me. Told me to get here as fast as I could and bring you to town.”
Bean moved into the light beside Standish in his boots and long johns, but very much in charge of the shotgun.
“There was a shootout at the saloon. Two dead and one who the doc says won’t last ‘till sunup. He’s gut shot and talking all crazy like and . . . well . . . the sheriff wants you to hear what he’s babbling about.”
“What is he babbling about?” Standish stood his ground frowning.
“Your wife, Mr. Standish. Your wife.”
~ ~ ~
The two men pushed their horses as fast as they could along the wagon road to town lit only by dim moonlight. They reached the edge of town as the moon set in the west. Over the eastern horizon, a faint blush hinted of the approaching day. Quickly throwing reins around one of the hitching rails out front, Standish burst through the front door of the saloon. The place was awash with the light from a dozen or more lanterns. The saloon was a mess. Two bodies had been dragged to the side of the doorway. Tables were shoved together to accommodate a man who was covered in blood, as were Doc Guthrie and Sheriff Rance Hewitt, who was acting as the doctor’s assistant.
“Good, ‘bout time you got here,” the sheriff said.
“Second that,” the doctor affirmed. “This hombre won’t last but a few more minutes. Think a bullet grazed a kidney and he’s bleeding out all over the place.” The doctor’s hand made a sweeping arc around the room.
Standish noted the dark color of the blood. He had seen it many a time in battle when a man was gut shot. “Deputy Wagoner told me he was going on about my wife,” he said with a questioning look, seeing that the man was quiet and near death’s door.
The doctor took a piece of cloth and doused it with a pungent liquid from a brown bottle, quickly replacing the bottle’s cork. He passed it under the man’s nose, waited a few seconds, then slapped the man hard, left cheek then the right. The man’s eyes blinked open as his head lolled around.
“Ask him!” the doctor shouted at Standish. “Loud and don’t hold anything back. You’ll be lucky if he makes it ten more minutes. He’s on a fast track to Hell.”
“Anna . . . Anna Standish. What did you do to her?”
The man worked at focusing on Standish, pink drool seeping from the side of his mouth. “Warn’t me I just held her. Never wanted a woman that way. But them three done her . . . he said they’d make Win Standish pay. The little girl wouldn’t stop screaming, so he just shot her. I never wanted that neither.” He started to close his eyes when the doctor suddenly slapped him again.
Standish grabbed the man’s bloody shirt front and started shaking him. “He. . .who is he, damn you?”
The man hissed the answer as his eyes rolled back. “Riggs,” he gargled it out, “It war Eli Riggs.”
Winston Standish suddenly pushed the man back down onto the table and stepped back like he’d been shot. Sheriff Hewitt moved to the rancher and grabbed his arm. “What is it, Win? Are you okay? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
The doctor watched Standish intently, ignoring the man on the table who abruptly made a loud gargling sound as blood ran out of his mouth and sightless eyes pointed to the ceiling. The sheriff and doctor herded Standish to a table in the back as Deputy Wagoner rounded up some men to move bodies. Through the open door, sunlight washed down the main street in front of the Sunset Saloon, heralding the start of a new day.
Jason Merkle owned the saloon and was a no nonsense businessman. He was also the bartender. As sheriff in a Kansas cow town, he had lost vision in his right eye while stopping a bank robbery. Forced to consider another line of work, he headed for New Mexico and built the Sunset. He respected hard work and knew all three men at the table. Not having any coffee, he brought a bottle of the good whiskey and three glasses to the table. He figured they all could use a drink and when they looked up, he just nodded and winked.
“Why don’t you get another glass and join us?” Standish asked. He had regained his composure and had a lot of questions. “Hate to have an empty chair.”
Merkle nodded in agreement, returned with an empty glass and took a seat. The bottle was passed around and Standish toasted the doctor for keeping the man alive and Merkle for the whiskey. The bottle passed around again and he started. “You all know my wife Anna and daughter Emma were murdered, and Anna was raped. Emma was almost five. Not a day has gone by since Ted Albers and I found them that I don’t think about them. . . and about finding the men who were responsible. In all that time, there has not been one single bit of information. Until today.”
Sheriff Hewitt spoke up. “Jason, what the hell happened in here last night?”
“There were six of them, came in about dark. The dead gent, two Mexicans, and three others. Everything started out quiet. They were drinking, but not rowdy. Then, the dead one there, never caught his name, started arguing with one of the others about something they had done in the past.
The place was busy and a little after midnight, all hell broke loose. The dead fellow started hollering that he wasn’t goin’ to do it and he shouldn’t have done it in the first place. If they wanted him dead that was one thing, but the woman and girl was wrong.” Jason took a gulp of whiskey and continued. “The one he had been shouting at told him to shut the hell up or else. Dead man shouted or else what? Then the guns came out. He was too slow, and the Mexicans made a bad choice and sided with him. It was over in seconds. The three left standing ran for their horses. Two of them were hit, but not good enough.
A few minutes later the sheriff showed up and sent for Doc Guthrie. The Mexicans were dead, but the one who started shouting was holding on. By the time the doctor shows up, he’s talking crazy about the rancher’s wife and little girl. He was drunk, dying and at that point sobbing about being sorry. We all remembered what happened to your family Mr. Standish, and so the sheriff tells Deputy Wagoner to go get you. And, here we are,” Merkle finished and emptied his glass.
The other men sat in silence, each replaying Merkle’s words in their mind. Doc Guthrie broke the quiet. “Who is Eli Riggs?”
“He’s a coward, deserter, rapist and murderer. And who knows what else!” A deep seated anger was starting to rise in Standish. “They were senseless acts of violence against a woman and child, or so I thought. But now it all makes perfect sense,” he took in the expectant looks of the other three men.
“Eli Riggs served in the 10th Cavalry Regiment with me. We were both lieutenants leading the Buffalo Soldiers. We had been chasing Victorio, the Warm Springs Apache war chief, toward Mexico. Riggs was ordered to lead a patrol to check out springs and watering holes for any sign that the Apache had used them. The Apache found the patrol first and wiped it out, all except for Riggs. He spotted them, figured they were outnumbered, turned tail and ran. Our own Apache scouts showed me and two other soldiers what had happened. The man was always arrogant and resented being put in charge of the black soldiers, but I never figured him for a coward and deserter.
We tracked him all day, then finally found his horse. It had fallen and broken its leg on a rocky hillside. Riggs slashed its throat and took off on foot. Our scouts tracked and found him the next day. He was in poor shape but still defiant. He was escorted to Fort Davis and court martialed. I testified against him, and he was sentenced to death. The Buffalo Soldiers hated him for deserting their comrades. Somehow he escaped. Most thought he had help and disappeared across the Rio Grande into Mexico. He was never captured. I never would’ve connected him with the murder of Anna and Emma,” Standish spoke softly and closed his eyes for a few moments. He opened them and looked around the table. “I’ve been a fool.”
“How could you know?” Sheriff Hewitt asked. “Jason, what did the fellow look like that shot the dead man?”
“He was a big man with blonde hair and a moustache. Kind of reminded me of paintings I’ve seen of George Custer, if that helps,” Merkle responded.
Hewitt looked at Standish, his eyes questioning.
“Did he have a scar on his right cheek like he’d been slashed with a knife?” Standish asked. Merkle nodded the reply. The rancher leaned back a bit. “That would be him.”
“Damn!” Hewitt exclaimed. “How long ago did he escape?”
“Sometime in July or early August, 1880. We were still chasing after Victorio when we got the news. I left the Army in December and drifted around for a while until I found a piece of land that suited me. Met and married Anna in the spring of ’82,” he paused. “Emma would have been going on eight now,” his voice choked. The other three politely ignored the tears on the rancher’s cheek.
Doc Guthrie interceded to try and save the man more pain. “Sheriff, do you or Jason have any idea where this outlaw has been for three years?” Both men shook their heads as the doctor continued, “A lot of the West is settling down. It’s not like it was ten, fifteen years ago with the Lincoln County War going on. Sure, there are still outlaws robbing banks and trains, like the Dalton Gang over Kansas way. But no, I believe civilization is getting a firm toe hold in the West. Even here in the New Mexico Territory.”
“I’ll send messages to other lawmen and make inquiries about Riggs and his bunch. Might reveal some of their habits or associates,” Hewitt offered.
Merkle stepped up next. “Lots of folks passing through these days. We can talk to customers from out of town. Maybe he’s been going by another handle. The dead gent knew him for sure, but that doesn’t mean he was goin’ by the name of Eli Riggs.”
Doc Guthrie interrupted the exchange again and focused square on Standish. “Win, it really doesn’t matter where he’s been or what name he’s using. He knows you’re here and where your ranch is. It’s clear to me he wants revenge and whatever he’s been doing has given him the confidence to bring it back to you. I think the others will agree that you’ll be a target until one of you is in the ground. Might take a spell for him to regroup, but he’ll be back . . . with a vengeance.” No one spoke. They all knew the truth in the doctor’s words.
Winston Standish pushed away from the table and stood. “Got to go, thanks men.”
Jason Merkle stood and quickly moved behind the bar. He reached down and then sat a bottle of the good whiskey on the bar with a somber expression. “For you. Figure you and Bean are goin’ to have a lot to talk about. Just remember, we’re on your side.”
~ ~ ~
A multitude of thoughts tumbled and bounced through his mind on the ride back to the ranch. He had no right to drag Bean into this mess, but he now knew what Bean had meant those many months ago when he described the feeling of always looking over his shoulder. Merkle was right, they had a lot to talk about.
Conversation lasted until the moon was high. The bottle slowly depleted as they talked and strategized. They would re-evaluate their plans in the morning after breakfast and some strong coffee. It was good that they could talk as friends with respect for each other forged from action, not words. The reality was that they still had the ranch, cattle and horses to tend to.
The days passed, then a week and a second went by. A month later, Standish was sitting at the table working on the ranch business accounts. The Circle S was still profitable, and he was pleased about that, considering the up and down cattle markets combined with harsh weather. There were rumors that the railroad would soon be starting a line northward from Texas. If that happened, access to a railroad would surely simplify getting cattle to market and the cost of supplies might go down. It was a Sunday morning, refreshingly cool with a slight overcast. Bean had reluctantly left him alone and rode into town to see his lady friend, Judith van Beek. No doubt they would attend church and then have an afternoon meal with her father.
Standish figured he would saddle up Rusty, the sorrel gelding, later and take a ride up Badger Creek. The shadow of Eli Riggs still loomed large over his waking hours. As he finished adding another column of numbers, Thunder rose up from the floor and started to whine. “What is it?” Normally he was either silent or barked. The dog seemed to know that barking was part of his job for unusual events or the arrival of strangers. He only whined when Bean would return from some task.
The dog just sat, so Standish returned to the numbers. A loud knocking at the door made him jump, hitting his knee on the bottom of the table. “Damn,” he swore, rubbing his knee. Rising, he looked at the dog sitting quietly, slowly wagging its tail. Maybe Bean had turned around and returned to the ranch.
Opening the door, he was shocked to see a large, muscular black man looking at him. Out in the barn yard, an equally large bay saddle mule stood ground-tied. The mule had to be sixteen-and-a-half hands tall. The man could see the look of surprise on the rancher’s face.
“Are you Winston Standish, sir?”
Recovering from the situation Standish replied, “That would be me. How can I help you?” He glanced down at Thunder who had moved next to him and stood, tail wagging.
“That’s surely a nice dog, Mr. Standish.”
“He is, but I don’t know why he didn’t bark his head off when you rode up. I’ve never seen him act like this before.”
“Some folks say I have a way with animals,” he smiled. “Maybe he feels that. My name is Henry Fairchild. My trade now is that of a blacksmith. I was with the 9th Cavalry stationed at Fort Stanton for a time during the Lincoln County War. That was some crazy times. Heard even the Mescalero Apache didn’t feel too safe,” he explained.
Standish held the man’s eyes with his own. “I was with the 10th and rode with Buffalo Soldiers myself. Chased Victorio. Every one of those soldiers I ever met was a good man.”
The big man nodded, then continued, realizing he hadn’t answered the rancher’s question. “I rode into town yesterday. I’m looking to start a blacksmith business. Went into the Sunset Saloon for a drink and to ask some questions. That is one friendly town. A lot of places aren’t very friendly toward us. I was asking the bartender, Mr. Merkle, about business possibilities and he was real encouraging. Then, he starts asking me about where I’ve been and characters I might have met in my travels.”
Standish interrupted. “Pardon my manners, Mr. Fairchild, please come in. Care for a cup of coffee? It’s a couple hours old. And, I go by Win. I don’t care much for the ‘mister’ business,” he said sticking out his hand.
“Henry,” the blacksmith replied grasping the extended hand with a firm shake. Sitting at the table, Standish urged Henry to continue
“I told Mr. Merkle that I had been drifting around looking for a place to start my business, but that wasn’t the only thing I was looking for. I’m hunting the outlaws that killed my brother, Moses. He was a Buffalo Soldier with the 9th too. After he left the Army, he got a job riding shotgun on a West Texas stage line.
The stage was robbed by a gang two years ago. My brother and the driver were wounded but managed to get the stage stopped to protect the passengers. The outlaws took the lockbox and robbed the passengers. The driver said that they were about to leave when their leader picked up the coach gun Moses had dropped on the ground and shot him. Both barrels, point blank. Their boss was laughing as they rode off,” the man sighed as he finished the story. He had greeted Standish with a smile earlier, but now he sat frowning.
“I am truly sorry for your loss, Henry. Sounds like one bad hombre, but why does that bring you out here?”
“Mr. Merkle poured me two fingers of good whiskey, gave me directions and told me I needed to ride out to talk to you right away . . . or at least he did after I described the gang’s boss. Goes by the name of James Tunney. He’s a big man with blonde hair, a moustache, and a scar across his right cheek.”
If Winston Standish was shocked when he opened the door and saw Henry, he was doubly so now. “I, uh, did Jason tell you why you needed to talk to me?”
“Nope. He said you would want to hear what I had told him as soon as possible. He turned the saloon over to another fellow, came around the bar and pumped my hand. Said he had to find the sheriff. So, here I am and that there’s my story,” he said looking into the rancher’s eyes. “I’d like to hear yours.”
The two men talked for well over an hour as Standish related the murders of Anna and Emma to Henry, and explained the recent incident at the Sunset Saloon. He also told him about Bean, their friendship, and his part in the Circle S operation. Since the day was still pleasant, he invited Henry to ride out for a bit and get a lay of the land. Henry readily agreed, and the two men rode up Badger Creek with the blacksmith clearly at ease in the surroundings.
A wind pushed out of the east with mare’s tail clouds hinting at approaching weather as the men rode back into the barn yard. Thunder rushed from the ranch house to greet them. Bean stepped out onto the porch a minute later taking in the newcomer and deciding if he was with Standish, he must be okay.
After introductions, and a light meal, the three talked until after the moon rose. Plans were altered, and a new course of action agreed upon. Unknown to Eli Riggs, or more recently James Tunney, the odds had turned against him. They were an army of three.