Western Short Story
Dust and Shadows 
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

In his office at the end of the street in the little town of Clagman, Arizona, Sheriff Will Dennehy felt caught up in two mysteries. They pounded at him in separate ways, weighing in differently but at a similar level of intensity. Some quick summoning told him he was in love with Molly Breda without having even kissed the girl, not once, not even after dancing two nights with her at MacCaffery’s barn. And she was dearly kissable. “To be with you at the morning light,” kept repeating itself in his head, in his ears, atop his heart. Oh, how he kept wanted ever to be with her at morning light.

And the other impact, just as heavy, just as sure, with a sense of muscle behind it, said danger was headed his way, a bundle of it.

Will Dennehy’s bones felt the odd extremes. He’d always entertained the belief that he had a special eye for temper and personality changes, how a characteristic might alter a body. A bad guy might turn good, and a good guy might swing all the way over to the other side of the law, given a reason or a need. Dennehy felt such measurements had to be kept under surveillance.

In the heat of the evening, the town of Clagman teetered on another edge. An extreme situation was pulling anxiety and dread heavily to one side; Bearclog Harris, released from Yuma Territorial Prison only days earlier, was on his way home. Home, for the record, was also Clagman, a little town on the railroad that used to run all the way out to Flagstaff. But now the railroad was long gone, the tracks messed up with growths of all sorts, and its two bridges over small streams in bad shape … one burned down in a mysterious fire and the other almost gone entirely to pot because of subsequent neglect. The town, as it existed, most likely would go that way too. When a railroad shut down or was by-passed, or when a river dried up or was diverted, a town could go the same route.

When a town owned a character like Bearclog Harris, even in absentia, pains galore came with the connection.

During the 7 years he was in jail, the people of Clagman hoped that Bearclog Harris would soon be long gone too; nothing could have been more judicious than him dying in prison under any circumstance.

That hope faded away with the news of his release.

Harris, in his time, had made threats galore against person and property, both in private, as in a sworn and whispered promise of revenge, much as a fearful aside in somebody’s ear, or publicly, such as a full-sided oral attack on a person in the saloon or the general store or right on the open boardwalk out front of the store where people gathered to gab amicably without the touch of drink.

A few members of one family remembered how Harris had accosted their youngest boy, 11 years old at the time, and whispered in his ear, “One of these days, sooner or later, I’m comin’ right into your house out there and do my way with everybody in their beds. You wait and see, boy. You wait and see. Your momma, your sisters, you, even your daddy who’ll never get out of bed he’ll be so scared of me. You’ll see, boy. You’ll see.”

Harris’s appearance made it more of the devil’s hand than folks wanted to admit. His brow was a wide and significant distortion to his features, the way it twisted over one eye as if pain lived there permanently. People, and especially youngsters, had a dread fear arise immediately when looking at him. And when that horrible face looked back at someone, with that one eye distorted in its gleam and menace, he was a frightening as any creature. To add to the powerful fright, when Harris wore an apparently self-designed Stetson that he had shaped to fit his gruesome figure, it could take the spirits out of an ordinary man.

A lot of similar threats were remembered this day as the town sat in the misery of the August evening. There was a smell to the heat; almost an overpowering taste left in people’s throats, which dampened activities. Few echoes rolled out of the two saloons, normally as boisterous s setting at any time of any evening. Too, the freight station was still shuttered down since the last wagon of the day had departed, and the livery was as silent as sagebrush caught on a cactus, as the town slowed down its breathing; no trail drive ending here this day, no influx of dry-throats tending their mounts first and then themselves.

Tales of the younger life of Harris carried small conversations as usual when his name came up. The tales were filled with a wild madness. Harris’s envy of those with more in hand had brought him against the law, and the town as a whole, for too many years. In the end, when he shot an old man standing to protect his little home, it was tended to quickly and he ended up in Yuma Territorial Prison.

Now Dennehy, on this day, between thoughts of Molly Breda loose on him like prairie flowers in leaping rushes, studied his office layout and furnishings, bringing up related incidents for each piece, reflecting on each one even if momentarily. The wall of poster drawings, pictures, descriptions, he knew without concentration; each man, and one woman, studied at one time or another, were now carried in his mind to the nth detail. He knew some of them so well that they took on the status of neighbors, though he’d never seen some of them.

Dennehy’s bones felt the odd extremes … Molly Breda and Bearclog Harris. He’d always entertained the belief that he had a special eye for temper and personality changes, how a single impacted characteristic might alter a body. On the other hand, some of these poster boys, as he called them, would never change. Harris, for one, he was sure would never change. He tried to remind himself to keep that point in mind.

In the midst of his split concentration, of Molly and “those” others, his deputy entered the office, carrying his usual huge smile and a new poster to add to the wall. Ben Hedlin, big as a bull, fanned the poster in the air, the image moving on the page, a subtle sneer appearing in the movement.

“Luther Cronyn was definitely identified as the shooter at the Selden Bank robbery a month ago.” He pinned the accurate likeness of Cronyn onto the wall of posters; the sneer was still evident. “He hasn’t changed much since he was a kid. ‘Member what he was like when he lost anything?”

“Yeh,” Dennehy said, “I figure he’s probably one of those that’ll never change no matter what happens to him.”

Hedlin, looking straight at Dennehy, said, “You studying something special, Will? You got that old look on your face. It’s probably Bearclog, isn’t it?” His smile was as wide as ever, an infectious smile and it made Dennehy remember that his deputy had never showed an ounce of fear in any situation. He trusted him to the brink and then some.

The deputy continued his contribution to the tone of the day. “I think he’s on the mind of everybody in town since he got released, like maybe he got them branded in his own way. How do you think he’ll handle all those threats he made, what he might do about them, especially those he swore out loud right in the middle of the trial? I was a pup of sorts then, but I still remember how the shivers came down on some folks that he called out by their Christian names. Hell, man, he actually pointed right at some of them folks. Winked at one man, old man Cutworth, like death was just around the corner for him, like a coyote standing in the road ahead of him and looking on his next meal. Man could have had a heart attack right there in the courtroom.”

Dennehy let some of that information slide past him, hitting instead on characteristics of Harris, bringing up all the pieces in one parcel. “Well, for one thing, we figure he operates a lot from out of sight, like he hides in the shadows and lies in dust, anything to keep out of sight. That’s his way. Never straight at you like an arrow right off the bow, except for the big-mouth stuff. All that extra crap is part of his game, that’s show stuff. When something really goes down, he’s always out of sight. Nothing but a sneak,”

“Yeh, behind a rock or a barn or a clutch of trees so he can draw a bead on some poor slob don’t know he’s caught up in a gun sight.”

His stance changed, his voice too. The great smile spread further. “Aha,” he broke out with, “wouldn’t you just love to catch him in the act, drawing a bead on someone from, like you say, the shadows, from the ash piles of the dead? Wouldn’t that beat all hell out of a sad bad miserable day and make it damned special!’ Throwing his head back, he roared out something unintelligible but so knowing in its delivery. Laughter, with its heavy possibilities, filled the room with gaiety, changed the tone in the air.

Dennehy beamed, a new level of a smile on his face, new measurements obviously making way. “Ben,” he said, a new look fully on his face, “you might have just put the tail right smack on the donkey. Let’s talk about this. Let’s have a beer over at the saloon, in a quiet corner and talk about this. I got some things on my mind, like you noticed.

In the heat of the afternoon, the pair of lawmen walked into The Saddle Club and sat at a table in the far corner. The few patrons let them sit by themselves for more than an hour as they talked and talked, most of it directed by Dennehy. Now and again it made Hedlin laugh that loud, crazy, bellowing laugh of his that seemed to alter the whole tone of the room. Even the barkeep managed a rare smile as he heard Hedlin cut loose a few times.

Finally, a serious mood descending upon the pair, Hedlin stood and said to Dennehy, “You feel pretty sure about this, Will?”

“It’s the way he’ll do things, Ben. I’m sure as shooting about it. I’ve been over it a hundred times. If he’s not in the dark, in the shadows, with his eyes on a target, he’ll use some ruse or maneuver, or he’ll use someone else. He’ll lure someone or force someone to do his bidding. That’s his mark, sure as a branding iron dropped it right on his forehead.

Looking around the room, seeing the few eyes on them, Dennehy said, “Ben, do it just like I said if he tries it his way. Get some good men, have them ready. Talk to me when it happens and we’ll kick one of our plans right into quick action.” He paused, let the weight of the day, the time and the possibility, sit down all around them. “It’ll be his call, Ben. Then we’ll do our part.” He clapped him on the broad back.

The sound echoed in the room.

When Dennehy stepped outside the first one he saw was Molly Breda standing across the road. She was talking to an older woman, Alice Dunlop, and four hands worked in the air.

The panic hit him in the throat, as if his breath balled up in him and refused to come out. And danger crept on him too as his fingers and hands felt weak. If he was ever in a gunfight like this, he’d be long dead. The effect she had on him was amazing. If she was in his arms he’d crush her to him, hold her for hours. He swore he could smell her hair that swept across his nose when they danced.

The Dunlop woman noticed him and said something to Molly, who spun around and waved at Dennehy, a smile on her face as broad as Ben Hedlin’s smile. The sheriff felt the glow rise up in him when he waved back and Molly started towards him.

He hurried to her side.

“Evening, Molly, you’re looking extra fine near the end of the day,” He thought of how she might have looked at the start of the day, in the morning light. The blush started on his face and he hoped she would not notice. “And good evening to you, Mrs. Dunlop.”

Molly said, “Will, you say the sweetest things. I thank you for taking the time to do so when there is so much on your mind.” She nodded her head and said, “Alice was just telling me that that brute Bearclog is most likely coming this way if he isn’t here already.”

Another thought and another slice of intuition came upon Dennehy. As Molly’s good nature and warmth built around him, he said, “You’re still alone out there at your father’s house, aren’t you?’

She smiled a knowing smile and said, “You know perfectly well I am, Will, until some things change.”

“Well, I’d like to talk to you and Alice at her house.” He pointed at Alice’s house down the street and the carriage sitting beside the small house. “That’s your carriage sitting there, isn’t it, Molly?

“Oh. Will, you’re so mysterious. You know it’s my carriage. I use it whenever I have packages to carry back home. It’s only a mile down the road, but it’s much easier with the carriage.”

The pair walked with Alice Dunlop down to her house and entered. A half hour later, full darkness now taking over the landscape, Sheriff Dennehy left the house and went to his office where he met with Ben Hedlin and two other men. They talked for an hour and all departed, each one slipping away into the night.

A short while later, Molly Breda’s carriage, loaded with a few packages, headed out of town and turned for home, the whip cracking lightly in the night air, horse hooves sounding out on the roadbed. It was barely 9 o’clock of the still warm evening, no moon in the sky but which did hold a few prominent stars, when her wagon rolled into the barn for the night. The horse was cared for and put in his stall, and the packages gathered up and delivered with a bustle into the house. A door slammed noisily, and a short while later the single light in the house was doused.

All appeared quiet and motionless, the house slowed down for night, silence sitting like an unseen presence.

At the back of the barn a shadow, moving smooth as liquid, slipped into the further darkness extended by a cluster of trees, and then all was silent. No more shadows moved and none were further penetrated. In the dark skies only two major stars were paired on the far horizon, the other stars mustered rather like dim candles. Night and darkness owned all in the folds.

In Clagman, at the sheriff’s office, a man on horseback appeared from an alley down the main road. He yelled for the sheriff. “Sheriff! Sheriff! Come out here. Hurry. Hurry.” His voice seemed agitated.

Dennehy came out of his office and recognized the man. “What is it, Harry? You look scared to death.” He dropped his hand on the neck of Harry Burford’s horse.

Burford exclaimed, “It’s Bearclog, Sheriff., He’s got Molly Breda captured and at gunpoint at her house and he says he’s gonna kill her if you and your deputy don’t bring out the money that was put in the bank today. He knows all about it right down to the dollar, he says.”

The look on Burford’s face was a huge lie that Dennehy saw easily. “”How far have you ridden this horse, Harry? Did you ride it from Molly’s place? Is that where you saw Bearclog, or did you see him someplace else?”

He reached up and patted Burford on the hand. “Don’t worry, Harry, I know you got to tell me what he told you to tell me. You best explain it all to me.”

Harris blurted out, “My wife and daughter are with one of his guys at my place. Looks mean as all hell, and Bearclog told me just what to say.”

Dennehy said, Tell me what you saw, Harry, everything.”

“Bearclog’s got two guys riding with him. And one a them’s at my house now. Bearclog and the other one rode off toward Molly’s place and they got 10 or 11 repeating rifles all loaded up in a buckboard and they’re gonna sit right in that clump of trees when you come out her way and just blow you gents away when you get there with the money.”

“That cluster of trees near the road or the one back of the barn? He say which one?”

“Yeh, Sheriff. The one out front. I heard him say they’s some big boulders in there too. Lots of protection. Can hold off a small army but he don’t really expect no army, just you and the deputy, and with the bag of money. He seems all convinced of that happening.”

“Ben,” the sheriff called out, “you go over to Harry’s and square away that lonesome rider who’s hanging around there causing concern. Don’t scare anybody but that bad dude Bearclog hired to be mean as can be. Just set him straight and clean and in a hurry and get back over here if time allows. I’ll be moving the posse out in half an hour. We got a big surprise coming for Bearclog, even if he’s sitting there with cavalry firepower in his hands.

With Molly Breda still sitting in Mrs. Dunlop’s kitchen. He had accomplished his own errand on the previous night of delivering her carriage back to her barn, and slipping away after darkness, dust and shadows making the best cover. This was just in case the place he had been watched.

So the sheriff had no worries about Molly, safely tucked away, and the big dream sitting plain and still working its passion in the back of his head.

Bearclog and his lone pard, of course, had no chance of survival, even with their cavalry-size firepower in a well-defended place. The surprise, coming up in back of them, brought Bearclog down in the first full fusillade of shots, and the lone survivor of the planned ambush was quick to surrender.

When Dennehy finally told Molly about the plan he had devised, how his mind had worked, and the wholesome place she found in it for herself, she hugged him on the spur of the moment.

He knew it was enough to get him to the next dance.


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