Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
He was born as Earl Edward Knight, which became in his social boyhood, Earl E. that changed in a heartbeat to Early Knight. Occasionally, in his Lothario adolescent years, he was also called Range Rider.
Some names, we’ll see, stick with a person.
But he never became a Knight in Golden Armor, eventually landing in Yuma Territorial Prison, the hell hole of the west, as a convicted murderer of a stagecoach driver named Ed Norman. His only visitor in five years at Yuma was his older brother, Lester Attenborough Knight, infamous in his own time as Late Knight. The two carried their genes to the last T.
During the older brother’s last visit the pair concocted a scheme to get Early Knight free of Yuma and back on a mount. The visit was concluded in less than an hour, including all the pertinent details.
The sheriffs of La Paz, Ehrenberg and Plomosa, in 1882, were perplexed by the murders of three decent men: a store owner who was a family man, a banker, also a family man, and a town official, the head of the town council in Plomosa, a family man as well.
In each case, the men were kidnapped, wounded, left to die but their straits were made known to the local sheriff by a youth in each occasion. The boys had been informed of a “dead man lying out there by the river” … or such place. None of the boys could remember with certainty any identity of their informant, stating they were too excited. Bloody compresses were discovered in the vicinity of each death, as if the wounds had been tended to in some manner.
The fourth death came up differently, and with its demanding and expected result.
Late Knight had come into Ringwall Falls in the early evening, dust covering his clothes, his hat beat by the weather until its brim had curled partly over on itself on his right side and the left side of it hung limper than a dead August prairie flower. His horse was lead to the Ringwall livery, care seen to, the cost of a week’s stay handed over, before he marched off to a rooming place the livery attendant vouched for, Grandma Hetty’s Place on the edge of town.
At the saloon where he soon landed every night of the following week until he left town. He called himself “Doug Fawcett,” just off a long trail ride to see some of the west before he’d look for a place to settle down.
To the bartender the first night, he said, “Aloysius, I’ve been looking for that place for so many months my spirits as well as my hopes get crushed just thinking about all the places I been to. They pile up on me, I swear, like a flood rush in a canyon after a dry spell. Worst feeling I can imagine. About as bad as losing my horse.”
“Hey, Doug, this ain’t a bad place. I wandered in here almost 10 years ago. It suits me perfect.”
“Being behind a bar 7 nights a week?”
“Hell, I know I ain’t particular.” Aloysius Flynn said. “I don’t need much and that much I get here. Ought to look the place over.” Flynn told a few other customers, the same evening, about the new gent in town, Doug Fawcett. “Seems like a lonely guy. Likeable but lonely.” The word moved around the saloon and Ringwall Falls about the stranger’s search.
It was on the second night that Late Knight (“Doug Fawcett”) found his quarry: 40 year old Arthur Quimby, ranch owner, family man, who had a spread a few miles out of town along the river road. Quimby made it to town a few hours every night, generally at the saloon before he headed home. He’d have three whiskeys, gab with friends, head back to the ranch as night became heavy.
On the way back to his spread one dark evening, on the river road, Quimby was shot and wounded by a hidden assailant and began to bleed as he lay on the ground.
The unknown bushwhacker approached him and said, “I’m sorry to see you bleeding, Quimby, and I’ll stop the bleeding as long as I can until someone passes by, and then you’ll tell that someone just exactly what I’m going to tell you or I’ll kill your whole family. Do you understand me?” The smell of a hot pistol jammed up his nose as he inhaled, and felt the metal touch his lips.
The bushwhacker’s voice to Quimby was hard as cured bone, and deep as sin.
Quimby said, “All of them?” pain carrying in his voice.
“Every damned one of them,” came the hot promise, with the gun crudely again stuck right at Quimby’s mouth. “Just like this.” The gun wiggled in place.
“Alright, I’ll do it,” Quimby said, the warmth of slow-running blood on his skin, sinking into his shirt. A sharp pain began to move down one leg and he didn’t know which leg carried the new sensation.
Soon, down the road from town, came the clop of hoof beats, and Late Knight (Doug Fawcett) yelled with forced desperation, “Help, over here, on the grass.”
A cowpoke galloped over, dismounted, lit a match, and said, “Geez, it’s my boss. You okay, Mr. Quimby?”
“No, Pete, but I have to tell you this gent ran off a gent trying to rob me or kill me. A gent in a black hat and black shirt and riding a pinto. You have to go to town and get the doc for me and the sheriff, but if I don’t make it, I have to tell you something: Some years ago I killed a fella and an innocent man, Earl Knight, got convicted and is serving time in Yuma for killing Ed Norman, a stagecoach driver for Liberty Land Coaches.” He breathed a great sigh of relief and added, “You got all that, Pete? I had to get it off my chest. You do understand, don’t you, Pete, all of it?”
“I got you, boss, and I’m on my way.”
The hoof beats of his mount faded in the night. As they did, Late Knight loosened the pressure on Quimby’s wound, watched him die, and was again re-applying futile pressure when the doctor and the sheriff and a deputy came on the scene with Pete the ranch hand leading the way.
The futile pressure was still being applied when the doctor said, “Let up, son. He’s gone.”
The ranch hand Pete told his story again, as he did in town on his arrival and on the way back with the doctor and the sheriff, Archie Walton. Generally Walton was a fast mover with his gun and a slow and deliberate thinker when it came to crime and criminals on the loose. Once a man was convicted and incarcerated, he would no longer find room in Walton’s thinking.
The sheriff said, “You fire at the bushwhacker, son?” He put his hand out for the pistol on his belt.
Two rounds had been fired, as the cylinder showed, and the sheriff smelled the pistol. “Think you hit him?”
“It didn’t look like it, but it was dark as hell and he probably didn’t see me in the first place, ‘cause he lit right out of here. I was down the road a short way.”
“Which way were you coming, son, from where?”
“Back to town, to my room at Grandma Hetty’s Place. I was going to Plomosa, like I had decided earlier, but I guess I had too much to drink and decided I’d better go back.” His head shook in self-shame.
The sheriff promised himself he’d talk to the bartender on his own and nodded his understanding at the explanation. The doctor added, “Nice try to save Mr. Quimby, son, but I guess it was too much to overcome. You gave it a good try. My congratulations.”
He extended his hand and the pair shook hands vigorously, as the stars continued to pass overhead in their slow and orderly march, and silence swept its deadly stillness across the prairie, making its way over distant, forbidden and forlorn miles to Yuma prison, to the cell of Early Knight feeling he was born just to wait for certain things to come to him in his life.
In order that night the following events took place: Sheriff Walton and Pete the ranch hand rode right to the Quimby ranch to tell the family the bad news and make arrangements to move the body; Late Night (Doug Fawcett) went right to the saloon and got notoriously drunk as he told the bartender the whole story, asking him, “Do you know if any stranger in black hat and black shirt riding a pinto showed up here tonight?”; and the sheriff, on his return to town, sent off several telegraph messages, one addressed to the territorial judge and one to the warden at Yuma Territorial Prison. Other messages went to the sheriffs in Plomosa, La Paz and Ehrenberg advising them of the death of Arthur Quimby and the circumstances of his death.
Many folks in Ringwall Falls liked Archie Walton for his thoroughness in most matters, his laid back personality which, appearing soft, was hard to penetrate by fakes or butt kissers. Few of those folks knew he had one passion learned from his mother ... he loved to read. He’d read any printed matter that came into his hands. The drawers of his desk were crowded with such a collection … and that included a bundle of letters written to him over the years; he’d saved every one of them, some a dozen years old, and on slow and quiet evenings he’d read the whole pile of letters again, first to last received.
One of the letters was from Arthur Quimby, written some years earlier. He promised himself he’d read that letter again with special interest.
One of the responses to his telegraph messages was from the Yuma warden who said, “Knight’s only visitor in five years is his brother who was here four months ago, February 3. Knight’s crime was particularly brutal and unnecessary. He has not been a quiet prisoner for the most part and will be here until absolute proof via the court system says otherwise, deathbed confession or not.”
The territorial judge said the matter had to be presented to the court at a time that he’d select. He added, “Trial details will follow soon.”
Early Knight was one defendant the judge remembered with the foulest of tastes and he was loathe to think the man might have an out in the case for which he was quickly convicted. “The man is as vile a human being as ever stepped in the front of my court. He was that way from the minute he stepped into the courtroom, and I personally couldn’t wait to see him incarcerated. We should have hung him, but I knew it was coming from my heart and not my mind. I did not want to be taken in by hate. I had seen enough of it.”
The next day the man known as Doug Fawcett saw the sheriff sitting outside his office and crossed the road from the saloon to speak to him. “Sheriff,” he said as he stepped up on the small sitting porch, “I hope things are moving for that fella in Yuma, the one Quimby spoke about.”
“Yep,” replied Walton, “things are moving on that matter, all the way to Yuma and the territorial court.” He winked and added, “You know how those things move along, I suppose.” He was looking up at Fawcett who had the sun behind him and his shadow fell atop the sheriff who remembered the way a few fast guns used the sun behind them in showdowns.
“Sure do, Sheriff, like a dogie on three legs. Makes you wonder how things gone wrong in the first place keep getting messed up one way or t’other.”
Walton, looking down the lone road in Ringwall Falls, said, “I can’t imagine things moving any faster, except for that fella in Yuma. Think he’s heard from the outside what’s happened back here?”
“Beats me, Sheriff. I hope he doesn’t hang by his thumbs down there waiting to hear. Might be a spell.”
He too looked down the road of Ringwall Falls as he offered a further explanation; “No skin off my saddle blanket how things set for him, so I guess I’ll move along in a day or two. Need some more excitement in my life.” With those words, he walked back to the saloon, the sun reflecting off the shells in the back of his gun belt like a row of golden peas.
The sheriff yelled after him, “Tell Aloysius your first one’s on me.” They nodded at each other.
Perplexing replies came from the sheriffs of La Paz, Plomosa and Ehrenberg and they got more twisted in Sheriff Walton’s mind as he dwelled on them long into the night.
It was early in the following morning when his deputy came on duty and said, “I have a telegraph for you and on my way here I saw that Fawcett fella riding out of town. He told Mitch at the livery he was probably riding on.”
At that very moment the sheriff had been reading the old letter from Art Quimby. He motioned his deputy to sit down.
“Listen to this, Greg, from a letter Art Quimby wrote to me some years ago. He was visiting his parents back down Lubbock way. I knew his dad back in my old days.” He snickered as he obviously remembered some special moment or occasion.
“’Dear Archie,’ he wrote, ‘My Dad says hello and asks if you recall the night that Porterville managed to get itself treed? He says he does but won’t tell Ma or me anything about it. Just keeps chuckling. Anyway I got here Thursday last, June 21, after a good ride. I will stay another week or so and make sure that the new barn gets finished. I’ll be back during the first week of July. Mom says hello and Dad says he has a new string of horses that you two could have ridden forever.
‘Drop in at the house and say hi to the lady in the kitchen.’ Art.’”
Greg Durant was a smart young man, due to be the next sheriff, and he leaped off his chair, his arms waving around with excitement and his face lit up and said, “Is that letter dated, Archie?” He reached out for the letter.
Archie Walton handed him the letter.
The smile crossed Greg Durant’s face as if he had spotted a gold nugget in the dust of Ringwall Falls main road. “June 24, 1877,” came his exultant cry.
Sheriff Archie Walton leaped up also. “Make sure we got two fresh mounts, Greg. We got to run that Fawcett critter down before he gets too far away.”
Late Knight was not incarcerated at Yuma like his brother was. He was hung in Ringwall Falls following an exhaustive trial with testimony of folks from La Paz, Ehrenberg and Plomosa, and the saved letter from Sheriff Walton’s desk.
The warden and the territorial judge, for the first time ever together, paid a surprise visit to Early Knight to tell him of the recent events.