Western Short Story
Hector Thibodeau lazed, half asleep, in his bed while his wife, Sarah, worked steadily at the stove. It was a crisp morning in late October and the smell of fresh biscuits drifted to the Marshal’s nose. He opened his eyes while still enjoying the warmth beneath the wool blankets. As he stared at the ceiling of his cabin, he noticed something. “Ah hell,” he muttered. He rolled out from under the covers and sat on the edge of the bed. “Sarah, someone’s coming to the door.”
Just as Sarah turned to look at Heck through the doorway of the bedroom, there was a light knocking at the door. She frowned. “How did you do that?”
“Haven’t you heard? I’m part Indian.”
“That’s not very funny,” she said in mock disgust. “Actually, I am all Indian and you are all trouble.”
“Just go to the door, woman, and let Moon in.”
“How do you know..., Oh never mind.” Sarah went to open the door as Heck pulled his pants on over his drawers. “Good morning, Officer Moon. Hector is in the bedroom. Would you like to have some breakfast?”
Billy Moon was a short and stocky Choctaw of about thirty with weathered cheeks, a broad flat nose, and a quiet easy way about him. He took off his broad, flat, felt hat and hung it on a peg by the door. “Good morning, Sarah. I’d be grateful for some breakfast if you think you have enough.” His dark hair was pulled back over his ears and tied with a brightly colored bandanna. Pinned on his black wool coat was a round brass badge stamped “Lighthouse Police.”
Heck stepped from the bedroom now fully dressed in a gray herringbone vest and tall black boots. “Sarah, he knows you always have enough. Why else would he show up at breakfast time?” Heck smiled and winked at the Choctaw policeman. The friendly trio sat down to their meal and shared the local gossip or talked about the weather -- anything but marshaling. Thibodeau always made it a rule never to talk about work at the dinner table.
The air was still brisk as Heck finished tacking up Banjo in the full light of the sunrise. “Moon?” Sarah looked him earnestly in the eye. “You keep my man save; you hear.”
“That’s never easy, but I’ll do my best.”
Sarah turned to her husband and took the lapels of his coat in her hands. “You be careful.”
“I always am.” Heck smiled.
“And don’t take any chances.”
“I hardly ever do.”
“You come back soon.”
“Yes ma’am.” He kissed her gentle. “I’ll see you in a few days, woman. You take care.”
As the two lawmen mounted and rode slowly away, Sarah pulled the blanket more tightly around her shoulders, then went back in the cabin.
“Alright Moon. Why am I riding with you on this dang chilly morning?”
“Sorry about that. Do you know an old geezer named Harvey Wells?”
“Crazy Harvey? That man’s a bag of bobcats and a mean one. What’s he done this time?”
“Robbed the federal paymaster on his way to Fort Towson.”
“Who was it?”
“Old Jim Wentworth.”
“Damn,” Heck cursed at the ground.
“So, you see, it isn’t just Lighthorse business. I got a telegraph last night saying they thought Harvey was headed toward the Seven Devils.”
“Well, then we’ve got some riding to do. Let’s get going Banjo,” Thibodeau gave his black bay a kick and the two lawmen galloped up the trail.
By nightfall, the pair had reached the village of Antler. They picked a quiet campsite away from the lights of the village and near a bend of the Kiamichi River. They quickly tacked down their weary mounts. Though both men had spoken back and forth through the many hours on the trail, now they were silent as they pulled their grain bags from their saddles. While the horses munched away, the two men pulled out brushes and hoof picks to groom their tired cayuses. Soon, Moon’s horse, Ghost, had had his fill of grain. The Choctaw walked his dapple gray down to the stream. In short order, Thibodeau did the same with Banjo. As the horses stood cooling their hooves in the water, Moon spoke up.
“We pushed these poor boys pretty hard today.”
“If we push them hard again tomorrow, we should be able to reach the foot of the mountains by nightfall,” said Heck with confidence. “They’re tough old boys. They can take it.”
There was no further conversation. The camp was laid out. The horses tied in the trees. And the evening meal and coffee were cooked over a small campfire. Later the two men laid on the bank of the stream, their heads propped up against their saddles. The night was clear and bright with a hint of frost in its breath. The men were in their coats and wrapped in blankets, staring up though the tree branches at the tiny fires that lit the deepening sky.
“No moon tonight.”
“Nope,” said Hector. “Nothing but starlight.”
There was a long pause. “Heck? Do you ever think much about what we do?”
“You mean being peace officers? Enforcing the law?” The waters mumbled a lazy monotone as the shadows deepened.
“I mean getting paid to kill men. Ah…you know what I mean.”
“Well that is one way to look at it, but it’s the wrong way.”
“Heck, how many men have you killed?”
“I don’t know. I don’t keep track of something like that.”
“How many?” Moon looked at him with a quiet intensity.
“Thirteen.” Heck was quiet for a moment. “But you have to understand, Billy. I don’t look at it like I killed them. They killed themselves. I gave every one of them a choice. They could’ve come peacefully; they could’ve lived. I give every man I face a chance. Those thirteen… chose death.”
“I’ve killed three since I joined the Lighthorse.” Even in the moonlight, Heck could see Moon grind his teeth, the muscles in his jaw set taut. “Do you ever get used to it?”
“No, and I hope to God I never do. The day taking a life becomes meaningless is the day you become lost. I still see every man’s face. You just have to learn to live with it. And do your job. Doesn’t the great spirit tell you to seek out evil and destroy it? Well that’s what you’re doing, my friend.”
The tension slowly seemed to leave Moon as he reclined and looked back up at the sky. He grasped the small medicine bag that hung around his neck. “Thanks Heck.”
“No problem, brother. Let’s try and get some sleep. We got an early start tomorrow.”
They were up by dawn and quickly back on the trail. They pushed hard again. They ate dried corn cakes in the saddle and sipped at their canteens. They stopped only briefly to water the horses. Both Ghost and Banjo were accustomed to this rigorous life and handled the strain well. By midafternoon they neared the Seven Devils.
As the trail before them began to rise, Heck pulled up Banjo and walked him off the trail behind a large rock. Moon followed him. “What’s the problem, Heck?”
“You see where the trail rises between those two hillsides up ahead?” Moon peeked carefully around the boulder. “Seems like a good place for an ambush.”
“You mean for us to ambush Harvey?”
“Nope. I don’t think so.”
“You got an itch?”
“Fraid so,” said Thibodeau. “Something just doesn’t feel right. I think heading further up the trail would be a mistake.”
Moon peeked around the rock again. “So what we do? It would be a long way around.”
Just then they heard a shot. Both men jumped from their saddles. Heck pulled his Winchester from one side of Banjo and tossed it to Moon. Then he stepped around to the other side of his horse and drew his Sharps rifle. They both peered carefully around the boulder, Heck low on his knee and Moon standing behind him. Up the trail, a rider came storming towards them hell bent for leather. Moon worked the action on the Winchester and took careful aim. “That old fool is trying to get himself killed.”
“Wait,” said Heck.
“He’s getting closer.”
“Just wait. Something doesn’t look right.”
The rider was now halfway to them. “His hands! Look at his hands!” Both of the horsemen’s hands were on the horn of his saddle. “Don’t shoot. That’s not Harvey.” Heck stood up just as the rider reached the boulder. Stepping out on the trail, the marshal grabbed the reins of the horse and turned him sharply away. Just as he did, a shot rang out from back up the hill. Heck quickly pulled the horse and rider off the trail into some tall trees across from Moon.
“A damn decoy,” said Moon.
“That fella Harvey is a pretty smart hombre,” said Heck as he untied the man’s hands from the horn of his saddle. “And just who are you, friend?”
“Name’s Tom Greentree,” said the man as he got off his horse.
“Greentree?” said Moon. “I know this man, Heck. He lives over in Atoka. He’s a good man.”
“Hey Moon,” said Greentree.
“Hey Tom. What happened to you?”
“I was visiting family down in Eagle Town and was making my way home when this crazy old man stopped me on the trail up there. He kept me tied up all day yesterday. Then when he saw you boys riding up, he tied me to my saddle and stuck a thorn in my horse’s rump.” Just then another shot cracked off and the bullet smacked the rock just above Moon’s head. The three men ducked for better cover.
“That old coot is getting on my nerves,” said Heck.
Tom continued, “He knew someone would be coming for him. I guess I was the bait to get you two out where he could plug you. He thought it was damned funny how my horse almost leapt out from under me when he stuck him. He’s probably up there still laughing about it.”
“Where is he, Tom?” asked Moon.
“He’s up at the top of the hill in a bunch of rocks on the left. He’s nested in there tight as a tick with a Sharps rifle.”
Heck thought for a moment or two and he called over to Moon. “Were going to come over there.”
“Are you crazy?” said Moon.
“I’m going to need you to sacrifice your hat,” said Thibodeau.
“But it’s my favorite h…” Heck just glared at his Lighthorse friend. “Oh, all right.” Moon leaned the Winchester up against the boulder then found a long dead branch. He snapped off some side twigs and rested his black hat on the top of the stick. “Ready?”
Heck nodded as he and Tom both grabbed the horse’s lead. Moon raised the hat up and out from the rock. The distant thwack of a Sharps rifle was followed by Moon’s hat flying in the air. As it did, Heck and Tom pulled Tom’s horse quickly across the trail. No sooner had they reached cover, another shot rang out. “Reloads quick, doesn’t he,” said Heck.
Somewhere up the trail, perched in his nest, Harvey Wells spat and cursed. “Pretty quick there, boys, aren’t ya? Now just stick your head out again and I’ll part your hair for ya.” The old man slipped another cartridge into the barrel and snapped the lever up. “Just what are you three up to now.” The old outlaw peered down the trail with his rifle barrel slid up on a rock in front of him. He waited, his impatience growing. Suddenly someone log-rolled onto the trail at the base of the boulder and fired. The shot smacked the rocks near Harvey. He fired but his shot only kicked up dirt from the trail as the figure had rolled back. At the same time, someone started riding away as fast as he could. By the time Harvey reloaded, all he could see was the dust down the trail. “That’s all right, Mister Greentree. I don’t need you any longer.” Another shot cracked in the air. It made Harvey duck a little. As he did, he saw someone leap across the trail. The old man fired but he couldn’t tell if he hit his mark. “Thibodeau. Goll darn it. That’s gotta be Thibodeau.” Another shot smacked the rocks just to Harvey’s right. The old man shot back at the trees not knowing for sure where his target was. This occasional exchange of gunfire continued for some time. “You’re not going to flush me out that easy, Heck. I got nowhere to be.” Wells cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled down the hill, “Ain’t you tired, Marshal?” There was no response so Wells tried again. “Why don’t you come up here and get me, Thibodeau?”
A faint call came from below. “Why don’t you just give it up, Harvey?” This was followed by another shot from the trees.
Harvey returned the favor, cutting the branch off the face of the pine. The waiting game continued a while longer. Harvey fired another shot. “Did I get ya that time?”
“Not even close, old man.”
Harvey chambered another round. “I keep moving my shot around, I’m going to find you.” He fired. “What you think of that one?” There was no response. “Come on, Thibodeau. I’m talking to you, Thibodeau.” Still nothing. “It’s starting to get late, Thibodeau.” The only sound was a light breeze that was freshening from the Southwest. Then Wells yelled with all his might, “So what are you waiting for, Thibodeau?” The old man heard the click-clack of a lever action behind him.
“He’s been waiting for me,” said Moon with the Winchester leveled at Harvey’s back. “Drop the rifle. Throw up your hands and turn around slowly.” One minute, and then another crawled slowly by as the two men stood like statues amidst the granite stones. “Don’t try it, old man.” Moon thought he heard Harvey chuckle. As he did, the old man began to turn swinging the barrel of his rifle around. As if by instinct, Moon fired; worked the action of his rifle and fired again. Harvey Wells collapsed like a sack of potatoes. Moon stood frozen for a moment; his eyes fixed on the body before him. Then he remembered what Heck had said. The Lighthorse policeman spoke softly to the corpse. “I gave you a choice old man. I gave you a choice.”
Heck Thibodeau crawled out from under the broad pine trunk where he had been lying. Blood stained the lower right leg of his trousers. He stepped into the trail just as Moon reached him. Trailing behind him was Tom Greentree’s horse with Harvey Wells slung over its back. Moon returned Tom’s coat and hat to him. He then handed Harvey’s rifle to Heck. “I gave him a chance, Heck, just like you said. He made his choice.” Heck dropped the lever of Harvey’s Sharps and a spent cartridge hit the ground. “He wasn’t even loaded,” murmured Moon.
“Like you said, he made his choice. Now let’s see about building a travois so Tom can have his horse back. Then we can take Harvey to Fort Smith.
Three days later, on the trail from Fort Smith back to Boggy Depot, Heck and Moon were walking, resting their horses. “Well, at least you got yourself a long gun out of this trip.”
“Heck, do you know you’re still limping?” asked the Choctaw policeman.
“Well, yeah. I got shot in the leg while I was waiting for you to sneak up on old Harvey, remember?”
“I got there as quickly as could,” said Moon resting the sharps rifle on his other arm.
“Like old Doc said, ‘A graze from a 45/70 slug is no small thing.’ I’ve got to be careful with this.”
“Do you think you could not limp when we get home?”
“What are you talking about?”
“I just know there’s going to be hell to pay with Sarah if she finds out I got you shot.”
“That’s all right. I’ll tell her I got myself shot.”
“Thank you, my friend.”
“And I’ll tell her it was your fault I was there.”
“Aiehna yalhki! I’m a dead man.”
“What are friends for, my brother? What are friends for?”