Western Short Story
We’re all readers in our family and, to boot, all “story tellers,” of one sort or another. That includes liars of the first order, embellishers of the same dim characteristic, false witnesses at the Commonwealth’s highest courts, bologna tossers without a split of bread, fabrication specialists in group therapy and other heady interventions and exercises, fairy tale spinners extraordinary or fabulists per se, and fibbers of the lowest level. But Uncle Amos Bohaddly (none of us believed that was his real name because we’ve never seen it in print or posted anywhere else, or heard it spoken publicly or privately, except by him) takes the cake on all of it every time out, and of course there’s been rounds and rounds of discussion on that point, but never in front of him. And here we were, him about 93 and me about 10 at the time and still with a great memory.
We love to bring Amos to task, of course, at every family gathering, generally in my sister’s huge yard in the north end of town by the reservoir because it has plenty of parking available and we’re all drivers as well as story tellers.
The latest presentation happened on last May Day, a celebration we look forward to every year, and someone only has to say “out west” and Uncle Amos Bohaddly mounts right up as if a horse was tied to a branch of a tree right beside him.
“Time was back in the settling out west by a few members of the family that one incident of note has followed all of us right to this day, and which all of you should take to heart. This is how it was,” he said, “and I present it for your consumption, along with a good swig of what cousin Harold has brought out of the darkness of his cellar.”
“The unwieldy-looking weapon in the boy’s hand, a Smith & Wesson cartridge revolver with a tawny-boned handle worn by usage, did not waver once as it was pointing at the scruffy and mean-looking man probably four times the boy’s age. The boy was 12 years old by a week and the man, whose name was Threader Kirkness, was as close to 50 as he’d ever get – if it was up to the boy, and it sure looked like it was.”
Kirkness, in drover or killer get-up at the time (he often worked as a cowboy and had killed six men in his time) wore a mangy derby hat that matched his ornery face beset with a beard providing in obvious lines a series of scars sitting as if they had been earnestly earned … vile, deep, knife- or dagger-earned, and served to set off his nature, personality and normal looks into the oddest sight. Mean he appeared, and mean he was. But for the moment he showed little of that meanness because he was securely trussed in rope, with that enormous revolver an added hindrance to flight.
In a miniature issue of Kirkness’s outfit, the boy, Arnold “Arnie” Chatterly, wore a decently white Stetson brandishing a narrow black and blue vertical striped band with a deerskin string hanging over his gray shirt and black vest, the vest close on the shirt and the shirt neatly tucked into denim pants deeply worn at knees and the seat, and showed where needle made entry on Sunday rounds of repair – by some keen and gifted hand, his mother most likely and likely an ancestor in some range of the family blood.
They sat against a huge round boulder that lay in a break in a mountainside forest as if the boulder had rolled there millions of years ago at a momentous and grand earthly eruption, and slightly changing forever the color of the earth it rolled over, nowadays showing a pale lime green at the heart of subjected grass, weeds, brush and the wide leaves of cottonwood and poplar trees en route. The local people, down in the town below them called Skeetersville and nearly called Limegreensville by a wag or two, called the boulder Hell’s Ball, with numerous and not so-fetching other nick-name additives. It was often the topic of conversation in the saloon on the usual Saturday evenings, Hell itself at times coming as close as it dared on a few of those Saturday evenings, especially after a good strike was made at one of the nearby mines, for such lucky diggers were bound, by habit and custom, to reward all saloon patrons one full night of free drinking until the posted deposit “done run out,” as a bartender might say at three of the clock on Sunday morning.
One of those evenings was of recent arrival, and was close to playing out its end on this Monday morning after death and murder, after arrest and trial, after conviction and endless taunting from outside the Skeetersville jail, and after a usually peaceful and recovering Sunday … all according to the current law in the town, Sheriff Doug Bradford of the one-time Bradfords of Chicago and trying to be as good as he ever was, and knowing he wasn’t.
It was 6 of the morning hour of this Monday late in August of 1868, the sun on the hills already, the shadows rising upward like ghosts and disappearing the same way, like ripe grass across most of the parallel valleys split by Skeetersville, where the Danish River sometimes ran its way south, but not much after June, the melt having made most of its way to the Snake River itself. Life’s like that, one quick rush, and bang! It’s gone.
The youngster said, “When my Pa hangs this mornin’, somethin’ he’s been deservin’ of for all my years the way he treated my Mom and me, then I’ll kill you for doin’ what you did, kill the man my Pa’s going to hang for.”
“That’s kinda stupid, boy. That’s not the way the law works.”
“I heard the law works in funny ways. I heard the sheriff say it just like that dozens of times. My Pa said it, my Ma said it, Curley at the livery said a hundred times or more when I was workin’ there; ‘The law works in funny ways.’ Yes, sir. Said it he did just like that, the broom sweepin’ the crap and dirt into my shovel as he helped me out on hard days. That’s good old Curley. He oughta be the judge, he knows so much.”
“What the hell does a damned old man sweeper know?”
“Knows you killed Shaun Dempsey. Saw you do it. Saw my Pa wake up in the next stall, wake up from his drunk. He run from the house after he hit my Mom again, wanted to hit me again. I ducked on him. Curley saw you throw the gun right in the stall with my Pa after you shot Dempsey and you plain walked out the back like there was nobody else in the world around you. And the sheriff came and took Pa and the gun back to the jail, and now he’s gonna hang for somethin’ he didn’t do.”
“That ain’t right, kid. That ain’t right.”
“Oh, is that right? Are you goin’ down there and tell the sheriff you did it? He don’t believe a word Curley says. Calls him the town’s worst drunk and we both of us know it’s my Pa they can call that and not poor old Curley who can only sweep anyway and know about horses as much as the livery boss knows only he don’t know it yet.”
“Yeh, sure, I’m that stupid and tell the sheriff I did it.”
“Stupid enough to get shot for it ‘stead of hangin’? Is it because it’s quicker and cleaner and easier when a bullet does it?” He waved the revolver out in front of Kirkness, but not so close that the man could grab the weapon right from his hand.” I heard Curley talk about it too. Talked about honor and takin’ your last breath on earth and under God at the same time. He said it was like double rhythm on his guitar, whatever that is. I can’t even hum.”
A garbled, gargling sound came from his throat as though it was coming from a long way off.
Both of them laughed, the kind of laugh that rests nerves caught on the edge, a nervous laugh, but a funny thing in the air about them being shared.
Arnie laugh when Kirkness released a broad grin on his cut-up face and said, “I really like you, kid. You got spirit and guts and yet a strange way of thinkin’ that kinda sinks into me the more I think about it. Is your Ma a good lookin’ woman, kid? I bet she is ‘cause you’re a handsome little dog yourself. Why’n hell would your Pa beat up on you and her? Beats the hell outta me.”
“My name is Arnie, and she’s a good lookin’ blonde who don’t deserve to be beat up all the time by a drunk. I almost shot him myself, but you come along and Ma won’t hate me when it’s all over and she can find a new Pa for me, which ain’t goin’ to be you, not after they hang my Pa who sure deserves hangin’ and I can stand my Mom cryin’ if it comes to that, but only cryin’ because of that and not ‘cause Pa beat her up again and she knows I seen him do it again, and she just about can’t stand it and hugs me like nobody’s ever been hugged.”
“You’re really gonna do it, Arnie, pull that trigger on me when I can make your Mom the happiest woman in the whole damned territory the way I can treat her, all tender and pretty like she deserves and make her smile when she makes breakfast in the kitchen rememberin’ her whole night all mornin’ long.”
Arnie looked down at Skeetersville where the Monday morning sun was really working to wake up the whole town including the sheriff and the hangman and the judge and each member of the jury (“You 12 men standing at the bar right now are the jury,” the judge had said first thing in the trial) and the small dots of people and horses and wagons moving into town to see the known wife-beater get hung for killing Dempsey who’d be forgotten in ten wags of a cow’s tail because no-accounts didn’t count no matter how you counted upside down or inside out.
He wondered how many of them he knew, who might have visited his mother when she got beat up or hated his father and wanted to see him die and some of his friends who often talked about how good their own folks treated each other. Those were the ones who wished Arnie’s Pa did the same, and maybe some of those curious others among them who came to see a man hang by his neck who they might never have seen or talked to or had a drink with or drove trail with during those few times he did go to work on a horse and was gone for a long while during which his wife, Arnie’s loving mother, smiled like she knew he was never coming back.
Special mornings like that stayed in his mind in big happy chunks he was willing to share with Kirkness if he’d listen. A number of times he’d started out with some reference to happy days or happy mornings when his mother always had a special look on her face like it was also going to be a special day all day long, not just the morning with her and Arnie alone in the house not much bigger than half of a small barn or like a shed in two parts, his and theirs.
“You know, kid,” Kirkness said, “it don’t have to be like this. I could run right over the edge of that cliff back there and you’d have to chase me and we’d both get tumbled to Hell down that other side.
Arnie, smiling, said, “You forgot I got that rope on your ankle and you ain’t runnin’ anywhere.”
Kirkness suddenly stood up and said, “Hey, kid, look down there now. See how big the crowd’s gettin’. Must be gettin’ on to neck-stretchin’ time. Looks like the whole middle of town’s all jammed up like a loadin’ corral at the railhead, all them gawkers gawkin’ and hootin’ it up and the hangman in the saloon the only one allowed a drink before the rope party ‘cause the damned sheriff’s callin’ the shots on celebratin’. I never did like that Cahoon since the first day I saw him and he put two slugs in Gunther Wultzer like he was a plain old rag doll.”
“Gunther was sneakin’ a gun outta his pack and the horse was already dead and he couldn’t move him.”
“That’s a damned story Cahoon made up. Nobody, leastwise me, believes it. Gunther died without boots on his feet.”
“He was gettin’ out of Sociable Mary’s bed’s why.”
“What do you know about Sociable Mary and any of that stuff, kid?”
“Nothin’s much different from the barn. That’s what Ma told me one night and Pa slapped the hell outta both us ‘ccounta that.”
“Shoulda shot him then, Arnie,” Kirkness said, without a single wrinkle on his face, but a puzzled look sat bold on the boy’s face, for it was the first time Kirkness called him by his name, and not “kid’ or “boy.”
And it made him a bit nervous and he squeezed his hand tighter on the revolver and Kirkness saw it and said, “Not now, Arnie. We ain’t to the right time yet. You ain’t seen what you promised already.”
“When did you shoot and kill your first victim?”
Kirkness replied without hesitation, “I didn’t shoot him, I hung him. He was messin’ with my kid sister and I wasn’t gonna stand for any of that.”
“You hung him? How?”
“He was in the barn and I was in the hayloft and I watched him saddle his horse after his messin’ around and I had a noose over a beam and when he mounted up I dropped the loop on him and flung a clutch of burrs at his horse. The horse bolted and he got hung.”
“Your sister see it?”
“Nah, she still thinks it was a stupid accident, but she really didn’t like the guy. Just some girlie explorin’ like they do growin’ up too damned quick. I seen a lot of that.”
Arnie thought a while and said, “I wish I had a sister. I’d have taken care of her just like you did.”
Kirkness leaped right in at that. “We’re a lot alike, Arnie, me and you, protectors, guardians, keepin’ the watch on everybody, not lettin’ the little stuff sneak through. I guess it’s okay if you shoot me when your father gets hung for what I did. Hell, if you was to start shootin’ from way up here, they couldn’t hear you anyway. We’re too dang high up. Couldn’t hear you if you shot one of them cannons we had in the army”
“Why would I start shootin’ before the hangin’s done?
“Why, just to stop them from hangin’ the wrong man. Set things right. Herd justice right along the trail like a herd of cattle.”
Arnie could see and understand what Kirkness was up to, how he tried to change the score before the game was played. “You and me and Pa ain’t the important ones in this; Ma is. She’s gonna be able to smile all her mornin’ from now on and …”
“And just keep on makin’ them fancy breakfasts for you, lightin’ the kitchen up like it was a circus place and you in a best summer outfit ready to wander all around like a good looker, ‘cause you’re a good looker, kid, just like your Ma is, all blonde and dangerous, I bet.”
“You keep talkin’ about her bein’ happy and smiley in the mornin’ all the time and you’ll get what’s comin’ to you quicker than the hangin’ man, who’s probably drunk as Pa all those times he whipped and beat at us.”
“You’re right, Arnie. The good lookin’ woman your mother is didn’t deserve what she got out of this marriage of hers. But she got you and that’ll be enough in the end. I won’t fight it, Arnie, ‘cause you been right all the time and your Pa has been wrong and so was I.”
Kirkness leaped up then and said, “Look down there, Skeetersville’s all pumped up and ready to go. The damned hangman just about rolled out of the saloon and fell down in the street. He’s drunk as hell, he is and he’s the guy gonna kill your father for you and your mother, a drunk. Might as well not even know he’s on the job.” His agitation seemed real to the boy, who looked down into the town and saw the gallows’ new timbers shining almost new-pine yellow in the morning sun of a Monday.
The boy and his captive saw three men walk up the gallows’ steps and the rope come down on the neck of one of them and suddenly Arnie’s father is dead in the air where he swings back and forth and there’s not any breeze, even on the mountain, and no one is moving in the whole town and the silence is almost a live thing of emptiness as a gasp whispers might be and disappears on the edge of the mountain and all Skeetersville looks like a picture on a wall, a painted picture that’ll never move again except when the eyes that set on it move one way or another.
“Well, that’s all done,” Kirkness says with a big smile. “He won’t bother your Ma anymore,” and it sounds like he’s going to add, “except by me when I get back down there ‘cause she’ll need a new man now.”
And Arnie explains as quickly as he can, “It ain’t all done yet,” and he pulls the trigger on the revolver and feels like a sheriff or a deputy, which he might become someday, as he has put Dempsey’s real killer right where he belongs, according to the law of the land even if it’s not lawful.”
And right then and there, like he was handling a class of students in a history museum or a library in any nearby town, Uncle Amos Bohaddly put his hands on his hips and said, ”Anybody here know how that boy Arnie was related to us, or even that man kilt at his hand?”