Western Short Story
Texas evening carried grace and expectation as the sun moved on its
last legs; soft shadows fell from all heights as though they were
cotton balls shaped into vague contours, and a hush moved across the
land the way mystery crawls, unknown, unsure of where to put down its
feet, looking for contestants in the arena where life is lived a good
part of the time. In Trinity Cove, Texas, it was The Wild Eye Saloon,
a catch-all for what the west brings to dry throats, hungry cowpokes,
desperate criminals, sneaky card players, and a few ladies lost in
the game of life.
Peter Dempsey owned the saloon, sort of, because it was left to an only child, a daughter, by the most recent owner, Alec Comfort. As it was, Comfort was shot down on the way home the morning after his daughter married Dempsey. Miriam, suddenly fatherless but married, cried throughout the burial on the side of a hill outside Trinity Cove. Dempsey, in what he never expressed before, was now concerned about her stability and spoke openly about his concern. There were listeners all around, part of his method in life … lining up confederates in any order, from any order, and making use of them at an opportune moment, him in command and them all in the ranks.
One of them was not Jenks Cargo, sheriff, who realized he as the badge man was somewhat of a soft spot in the control of the town, though he had one thing in his favor: he was as honest as a wheelbarrow or an ox on the job, taking on every task, but not always equal to the demand it could be said. Dempsey and Miriam Comfort, right from the first sign read by Cargo, did not make a decent match; she needed a good boss-man and a patient man, a man who could help her in life, not hinder her, as her father had done since she was a babe and had become fully dependent on him. Dempsey was not kind enough, patient enough, or in love with Miriam. Cargo knew that from the first time Miriam fluttered her eyes in adoration and question about the handsome Peter Dempsey who she thought sat his horse like King Arthur must have sat a horse, straight up like a sheathed arrow, proud as a mountain in the sun. And then there was the way he tipped his head in announcement of a mystery, like he was about to give away a secret … all in glory and bound for more glory.
Cargo had seen Dempsey level his gaze directly into the eyes of Miriam one day at the general store; he knew she would have swooned if her father had not been beside her, his hand on her elbow, stalwart guardian, too protective and too tense to be alert to her senses. Cargo, in that quick exposure, saw strength and weakness as if they were running mates in a race.
Right at that instance, he could have prayed for the loser.
For Miriam, it was over before it started. Her father, never speaking about the aches that came upon him daily, reading his own physical weaknesses, agreed with haste to Dempsey’s proposal in asking for Miriam’s hand in marriage. When they agreed, Comfort signed over the papers to the saloon and to his spread, giving both properties to his married daughter Miriam, and thus to her husband, Peter Dempsey, strong enough to take care of her. The couple wed in the morning. Comfort celebrated that night, though he complained ever about his ailments, and for all his pain and trouble was shot in the back as he rode home from town early on the next morning. With the night’s celebration, he believed he had taken care of things for his daughter before the secret pains began their final move all the way through his body … but those pains could not beat the bullet that took him off his horse, the morning fully gray, the road dusty, the shortening shadows yet able to hide the bushwhacker still as a snake about to strike.
As sheriff, Cargo was soon on the scene of the man’s death. He found a hole in Comfort’s back on the upper left side, the heart side, his pistol still in its holster, and his horse having run off with no sign of returning. Cargo found no foot tracks, for there were rocky surfaces in too many places, no horse tracks or leavings, and no single empty shell casing anywhere in the area. For a week he went back in widening circles of the site and found nothing.
Yet he had his own slow-growing ideas about the murder, but all of them were guess work on his part, belonging in that gray area of dust, of shadows, of imagination coming off a dry roadbed or down from above where it was stolen from the merest shadow. He did not see Miriam after the wedding, but Dempsey came every day to spend some time in his saloon, taking care of business, assuring the barkeep was handling things for him, staying on the up and up.
There were questions that came to Cargo out of a kind of vagueness, a shadowy world in itself even for the rigorous. He once told a friend it was like analyzing his thoughts in the dimness of his mind, in one of those places it was hard to get to.
But there were existent hard and actual revelations that he could not ignore, not for a plausible second.
Cargo heard Dempsey say, several times when the subject of Comfort’s murder came up among the patrons of the saloon, that it happened when he was playing in one big card game that same night. “You gents remember the night Teller Smith filled that inside straight, don’t you? Knocked down that 10 of spades like it was hanging on the vine for him. Miracle of miracles, wouldn’t you say? That was a special night.” He’d slap the table top or one of his pals on the back, putting healthy punctuation in place, words needing help for dim listeners.
It all was memorable, of course, the way it was intended.
“Indeed it was a miracle,” thought Cargo. He’d heard the story too often, as if Dempsey would only tell it when the sheriff was on the premises, the law in the ranks, the law sitting there with a drink in its hands.
Then, late one evening soon thereafter, when most any newlywed husband would have been at home with a new bride, Dempsey was there again when Cargo was sitting in a corner of The Wild Eye Saloon. The attentive sheriff, with soft ears for the spoken word, heard one cowpoke say to another, “Say, Collie, did you see anything the night out there when old man Comfort was shot? That’s the night I saw you coming back from your pal’s place, Upper-hand Edmund's, right? Hell, I was through there after midnight and going back to our place and didn’t even hear a sound but critters in the night, never mind a shot. ‘Member that night, do you, when we passed at the Big Rock turn?”
Collie Gantry, wiry and quick and always wearing both pistols on his belt as if they were bound to fall out of the holsters when he was sitting, shifted uneasily in his seat at a table. His gaze, almost innocently, went towards Dempsey standing at the bar, before he answered the cowpoke.
“Yep, was down to see an old Johnny Reb buddy down at Tall Timber. Made a night of it, we did. Tied up all the loose knots. You know how it is, even if you was Yankee Blue I bet.” He slapped the tabletop, the whole war forgotten and long over with.
The two former soldiers laughed aloud, in a comfort zone, but Cargo knew Collie Gantry was a new hire at the Box M Ranch, hired the day after Dempsey took control.
It set him off and running the very next day… all the way to see his one decent acquaintance at Tall Timber. Greg Longstreet was a Confederate veteran who had a small spread outside of Tall Timber. He was a busy, likeable gent Cargo had met one day when they shared a seat on a Texas-Waco Railroad passenger car. They had spent nearly 6 hours gabbing away about this and that, and even shared a bottle of whiskey to shorten the ride. They had liked each other and were comfortable saying goodbye when the train reached Waco, each ready to go onto the next leg of his journey.
“No,” Longstreet said to Cargo’s question. “There ain’t but a 100 people all around Tall Timber and I know every one of ‘em. I’m the only Confederate veteran in the bunch. I can swear to that. And I have one or two beers every night at Burt’s Place, which ain’t but much more than a table under cover and I never did see the fellow there, the one you're talking about, like a quick loose trigger waiting to get clicked and his guns hanging loose on him like they was going to fall out on the floor.”
He shook his head again, and added, “I’d know a fellow like that soon's he dismounted or stood at the bar. Have a way with ‘em, they do. Seen a few of them around. Betcha have too, like they was always leaving hints around about who they was owned by. He ever lose his guns?”
Sheriff Jenks Cargo, slow, positive in some moves, easy to please in most situations, had come to a piece of reality that he could not and would not ignore. It had come from the hidden place in his mind where the first thought about Dempsey’s part in recent events had made itself known, even in vagueness, shadowy and dusty as it was.
His ride back to Trinity Cove was quick, dry, and full of possible outcomes finding routes in his mind … but only one would feed his anger. It was one thought leaping ahead of all the others cramming his head to fullness.
Soon thereafter, in a constant mode, he kept his eye on Collie Gantry, from up close as well as from a distance, from the bar stool at the far end of the saloon and from the edge of town, along the trail from town to the M Box spread. Not a day went by that he did not station himself, sometimes in shadows, in the dust of the big turn in the road, on the crown of a hill looking down on the old Comfort ranch, the sun tossing his shadow in front of him. As he rode along by his lonesome, the sheriff sang a whole bunch of songs he knew at heart, the way some punchers croon softly to a herd of cattle at night. He sang about cows and horses and Texas cowpokes and Texas girls. He sang songs from the Great War some veterans had taught him and songs he learned from fiddlers passing through Trinity Cove. He had a good tenor voice, often singing in his office when he was alone.
Once, near high noon, Miriam waved to him as he sat his horse on the crown of the hill near the ranch, and went right on about business in her small garden. The sheriff had no place in her mind. Cargo could understand that.
But with alert Collie Gantry it was another matter. One evening, Dempsey at the saloon for most of the day, Gantry rode in from the ranch and went to The Wild Eye Saloon, the crowd ready for night's activity, and cornered the owner near the door to his office.
“I gotta talk to you,” Gantry said. “That damned sheriff is drivin’ me loco. Every time I turn around he’s looking at me, like right now, down there at the other end of the bar, like he thinks he’s hid in the shadows there and he ain’t really lookin’ at me but really is. I tell you, he knows somethin’.”
“You damned fool, Collie. He’s a laid-back know-nothing sheriff, but he just about shoved you into a set of worries that ain’t going to end on your part until you do something about it.”
“What are you sayin’ this time, Petey? Are you sayin’ what you said last time and just as plain out-spoken?”
“I told you not to call me Petey. And use your head for a change, Collie. If he’s onto something, then it figures something’s got to be done. Do it like before, the same way, but do it fast. He’s awful patient at things, that man, so no telling when he does what he wants to do.”
He did not look at the sheriff sitting at a table in the deepest corner, but looked down at the floor and said, “Get out of here now and get set up, but go out through my office, through the back door. He’ll think we’re talking business in there. But get away, a lonely place on the road back to the ranch. When I come back out of the office, he’ll know you’re gone.”
Later, when Dempsey came out of his office, Sheriff Jenks Cargo was nowhere to be seen.
Night had fallen as thick as bean soup over the Texas plains, clouds sat on high, the moon not due for a week or so, and Collie Gantry had placed himself behind a trailside tree, not so much to hide in the darkness but for protection in case shots were fired … back at him.
Eventually, from a distance, Gantry heard the tenor voice of the sheriff. He did not clearly understand the words at first, but they became more intelligible as he came closer. He could hear also the soft clop of horse hoofs on the roadbed.
It was the sheriff singing like he always did, this time a song that Gantry had heard before; She’s just a mountain girl ridin’ on the prairie.
He liked the song. The words were clear and distinct, each one of them, and each soft clop of the horse’s hoof beats. No question in Gantry’s mind it was the sheriff out to do what he had been doing for a long while now, keeping an eye on him.
Taking his position behind the tree, his rifle barrel laid across a stumpy limb, he got ready to shoot.
“She’s just a mountain girl ridin’ on the prairie,” slipped through the darkness to him, and he barely saw the figure sitting on the horse as it moved slowly on the road directly toward him. He couldn’t miss from this distance.
The clear words came again, closer, closer, and the hoof beats in a soft unison, a drummer at work.
Gantry fired at the indistinct shape sitting the saddle, the figure tumbled from the saddle, the song stopped, the horse fled down the road.
His nerves pounding in waves through all the parts of his body, Gantry waited, and waited, and night silence resumed. Then a coyote sent off a distant, lonely howl. A night bird, on a high limb much closer to him, gave mood to its surroundings, called for separation, the comforts of darkness. He was captured by the stillness of stars sitting in endless ease in their high trails. His nerves calmed their claims.
And there was no movement on the road. Not a sound from the road. The beat of the fleeing horse had disappeared. Gantry shoved the rifle into the saddle sheath, took a deep breath and walked slowly out to the road with pistol in hand.
He was 10 feet from a figure on the road when he spotted a second figure also on the roadbed and it was fluttering in a weak breeze. He was puzzled. When he stared at the fluttering figure, the other figure fired a shot at him from the roadbed. The shot, from a pistol, caught him in the upper arm, and his own pistol went flying.
Sheriff Jenks Cargo, the laid-back, know-nothing sheriff, now knowing it all, stood up and said, “Collie Gantry, you’re under arrest for murdering Alec Comfort and for attempting to murder the sheriff of Trinity Cove. And you were fooled by a shirt hung up on a saddled frame while I walked alongside my horse singing you a song I don’t think you’re going to forget in any hurry. Nor will Peter Dempsey, once both of you start talking. I knew all the time this night was coming down the trail."
Cargo, with Gantry handcuffed, found his horse down the road, and they walked back into Trinity Cove in morning’s light, most of the shadows still long in stride, and the sheriff thinking he’d best find some reliable fellow in town to look after Miriam Comfort Dempsey, ranch owner, and saloon owner.