Western Short Story
Downwind of Murder
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

As Shasta Corbin, sheriff of Polatta, rode into the canyon in the heat of the day, he saw a pair of vultures high overhead floating on a thermal, which most likely had risen from the heart of the canyon. With that sight, also came a putrid odor. In one drawn breath he caught the ripe smell of death. It was a stench he’d never get used to, and recognized instantly.

He hoped it wasn’t Coyle Magnan baking away in the stove of the canyon. Hell, it wasn’t murder that Magnan was running from, or stealing someone’s horse, but was accused only of stealing a few hundred dollars from Doc Filmore, a thief in his own right, but the cardsharp had sworn out a warrant on Magnan in public display. “You get him, Sheriff, that’s what you get paid for. I don’t care if it’s horse stealing, rustling, murder or outright theft, it’s the law. He broke the law and you got to enforce the law.”

Of course, it was like Filmore in his usual way, saying it in front a couple of dozen men in the saloon, all of them nodding in agreement, though not many of them really liking the card man. Witnesses meant strength and order to Filmore, like cards in his hand; neat, of one purpose, to be properly handled. Corbin had to hand it to him, the way he handled the group of men, making each one feel as though it was his money that had been stolen.

And, of course, he said to himself again, Filmore got his nickname from the belief that he could doctor a sick hand of cards back to good health with his quick fingers and a degree in swift shuffling of the odds. Corbin could not remember who said that about Doc, but it was one of the town fathers who had probably been caught too often with an ailing hand and a big pot on the table. The faces of the lawyer Juspin and Overby, the owner of the bank, lurked in a narrow part of his mind. There were times he thought the pair of them could be as devious as any common criminal. He quickly admitted it was only a suspicion kicking around in his mind, but he had survived believing in suspicions that came upon him from nowhere in particular, except that he also believed his experiences built upon themselves a kind of caution not to be ignored.

The vultures, meanwhile, continued their graceful but deadly looking maneuver as the sheriff moved deeper into the canyon. There were a few ways of leaving the canyon, in amongst a huge mass of fallen rock walls, but he did not believe he’d have to seek out those escape routes, not with the smell getting stronger and the big birds staying put overhead. With thermals working for them, they’d outlast him in the long run.

He saw the horse first. It was a big gray that had fallen onto a cluster of rocks, dead forever, and the saddle gone. When he checked the animal, the wound was quickly evident; the gray had been shot at close range, part of its head shattered, but no legs showed broken. Sudden hate for any man that shot a horse ran through Corbin as if he had been shot himself. He’d shoot a man for doing that to a healthy and useful horse. We’d still be walking west if it wasn’t for horses, the lot of us, he muttered in quick judgment.

A swirl of dust lifted off the canyon floor, picked up by a breath of air. A bit of debris fluttered in the dusty air, and then Corbin saw a gray Stetson start to roll near a slab of rock, for a bare moment as if on its brim, but it sat down on its crown in a sudden dip. And the stench had gotten viler, heavy with death. He hoped again it was not Magnan smelling up the canyon, dead as his horse. No clear tracks of another horse appeared on the rocky surface. The thought of a bushwhacker came to him, and he dipped in the saddle and looked all around the canyon, watching for any movement, for the sun glinting on a rifle sight, or for a hat barely moving behind a rock. A chill ascended his whole frame, running up the back of his neck. He hoped he had not missed a slight movement, a quick flash of sunny reflection, a bushwhacker in the art of action. A man who’d shoot a horse, like he’d found, would have no hesitation to shoot a sheriff on the move.

“Hellfire,” he said. “Keep low in the saddle.” He ducked, pulling his head down from the firing line. It would be true irony to feel the shot before he died. There came an immediate flash when he equated a bushwhacker with the vultures still soaring overhead, waiting for the moment of truth, the moment of opportunity.

Even as he ducked he saw the body of Magnan, the face a mess, bloody and torn up, feasted on by some carrion eaters. His revolver lay on the ground beside him. He was 40 or so feet from his dead horse, and Corbin tried to picture his ending at the hands of somebody who’d shoot a horse. It didn’t come easy. Nothing like that dastardly act came easy.

Bang! A shot came from nowhere it seemed, a sharp but echoing blast that the canyon made louder, more threatening even in missing him, as the bullet splattered against a rock face directly in front of him.

Corbin leaped from his saddle, whacking his horse on the rump, hoping he’d rush off and not be shot like the other horse. His own big gray, at a gallop, was gone from sight in a matter of a few seconds, behind a rock, onto a hidden curve, the hoof beats echoing off the walls even as the boom of the shot leaped off other surfaces, sharp as blades, then falling away as tough they never had sounded out a threat to life. The shot had corrupted the very air in the canyon, the sound waves bouncing off the high vertical walls like ricochets from a repeating rifle.

His rifle was in one hand as he rolled behind a rock, looking immediately at the higher levels to see if some bushwhacker was about to shoot a fish in a barrel.

Perhaps the vultures would lose their grip on a thermal, he thought, and fall a hundred feet before they’d correct their fall. He looked overhead again for a brief second, and the second shot came, from far off to the left, he figured, from among another cluttered mound of fall-downs, break-offs, debris of a thousand years in the pull of time, and the steep rise of the canyon wall.

In the wall of the canyon he spotted the blackness of a crevice looking like a black stroke of lightning, a jagged, broken darkness running up the wall. There was a heavy sense of darkness, of depression, in one section; that’s what he’d best concentrate on immediately.

But it was not from high above him. So he would have some space to move though he might be pinned down to a low level.

“Draw fire,” he said in self-direction. “Make him give himself away. Make him use his ammo. Get a shot off in return.”

With deliberate ease he pushed a smaller rock off to the side of the boulder he was hiding behind.

There was no answering shot. But there was a voice he did not recognize, as the words came to him: “I’m not a dumb cowboy, Sheriff. I got you where I want you and I have all day and your horse has gone off with your canteen and it’s getting hotter than Hell in here. I have water, and you don't have a drop to suck on.”

Corbin nudged the small rock further, and then tossed another one beyond it.

A shot rang out again, a sharp boom of a shot, and the bullet hit right beside the tossed rock.

“He’s got a good eye,” Corbin mused aloud, “but don’t answer him. Don’t speak. Let him do the talking.” And even as he talked to himself other facets of his own intelligence were at work. “Draw him out. Draw him down. Get him exposed.”

He felt his imagination making headway, demanding to have space. “Tossed stones won’t do it long,” he added. “It’s got to be glitter, shine, reflection. Something different, eye-catching.” The word “glitter” came back again and he leaned back against the protective rock and let loose his imagination. “Don’t use the rifle to do it, because you’ll need that before this day is over.”

Where it came from he had no idea, except that it was some part of him waking up another part, drawing on experience, known circumstances. Down the length of himself he looked and it was his badge that caught his eye. And the connection was immediate, as was the consecration. “I always keep it shined, and polished. I’m damned proud to wear it.”

He’d use the badge other than a symbol of his office, of his trust. “Make a tool of it,” he said, almost aloud.

He’d have to use what was on him, as there was nothing in sight that he could adapt to the idea that suddenly ran clean through him.

With deliberation he removed the badge from his shirt and the belt from his pants after his gun belt was laid aside. The pants belt, when folded upon itself three times, was about a foot long, and almost as stiff as he needed it to be. Tearing his bandana into strips, he tied each strip around the folded belt, slipped the pin of his badge onto the end of the belt and felt the belt remain stiff in his hand.

“Now,” he said, as he looked at the bright sun riding down into the canyon, the heat coming off the face of rocks and walls, and the vultures still glued to their endless arc above the canyon and the remains of the dead man and the dead horse. He held the folded belt in one hand, checked the sun’s rays, saw the slim angle of them, and twisted the belt as a wand and held it beyond the protective rock.

The reflections leaped off the face of the badge in several directions, and an answering shot came from the darkness of the crevice. He reassessed his use of the tool, arranged a few rocks in place at the right end of the rock, stuck the belt into the small pile of rocks so that the badge was fully exposed, and he rolled quickly to the other end where he had placed his rifle.

There were two quick shots from the crevice, the bushwhacker, Corbin assumed, thinking the reflections were coming from his rifle.

With quick and sure aim, the sheriff poured four rounds from his Springfield into the crevice, heard the surprised cry of a wounded man … and ensuing silence.

He waited almost an hour, hearing a few cries at first, and then nothing.

The vultures continued their wait in the hot sky, the sun baked the canyon, and thirst built up in the sheriff. He flashed the badge a half dozen times and saw no reaction. He fired another round into the same fissure, and there was no response.

He realized he could sit all day if he didn’t move, but the thirst would eventually force him to do something he might as well get done as soon as possible. The bushwhacker did have water.

He slipped out from behind the rock, firing three more rounds as he moved.

The echoes died out.

He found the bushwhacker, a complete stranger, at death’s door, a bullet in his chest, lots of blood spilled on his clothing. The man was an older man, rough in the face as he continued to breathe, his lips twisted in desperation.

Corbin gave the man a drink from his canteen and then had some himself. The man came conscious and Corbin said, “Why’d you kill Magnan? Were you hired? Who hired you? What’s your name?”

“I’m dyin’,” the wounded man said. “I’m Johnny Quick from Lima. I got nobody. But don’t let them vultures get me. The Doc hired me. Told me right where Magnan’d be, right here.”

“Why? For a few dollars?”

“No. He got to Doc’s sister, over in Alberville. Messed her up some. Doc was waitin’ for an excuse, I guess. But then he found out Magnan had money in the Polatta Bank, ‘cause Overby the banker told him, and they was goin’ to split it soon as Magnan was dead, but Overby don’t want no part of the killin’ end, just the bankin’ end. Some of the money’s from a bank robbery in Alberville. And Doc’s sister knew Magnan robbed the bank. He even told her, but didn’t know she was Doc’s sister.”

Two burials were on him now, Corbin conceded, and he’d do them as best he could, under rocks, away from the vultures and what carrion eaters were not rock movers. He’d promised Johnny Quick that much, so he’d do the same for Magnan.

Both of them were messy, but done, and in a few hours he found his horse in the shade of an overhang. With water from his hat from Quick’s canteen, his horse was his horse again.

He rode back to Polatta with the news of Magnan and Quick and further duties on his plate as sheriff of the town, featuring Overby the banker and Filmore the card shark.

There’d be a trial. He had one live witness he could lean on; that was Filmore the card man and he’d bring Filmore’s sister into it if necessary. He knew who Overby would have as his defense attorney and wondered what approach the defense would take.

His imagination didn’t reach all the way to what that approach would be. So he let it rest. That imagination had already completed a neat job for him and the badge he wore.