Western Short Story
Flaws of Character
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The ladies upstairs at the Horse’s Neck Saloon in Burwood, Texas, the whole gang of them, were talking about the new sheriff, Jonathon Jocko Jacobs, only wearing the badge for a few months. Their sum agreement was, “Keep your eyes on this one, as we all agree; it’s a fair warning to one and all, here amongst us and to all those ladies around the territory who heed any warning coming from any level, even from us.” She thumbed her nose at the world in general, and at Burwood in particular.

She received the heavy laughter of the group.

The speaker’s name was Flo Whatever, her real name never fully known to any of them, but she was the obvious chief spokeswoman of the group and had exhibited, from her first days there, a bit of leadership, a bit of stand-up when you talk. She was near six feet of slim beauty, hair as black as a spider’s, the way it fell across her wide shoulders and the way it could dominate a pillow without half trying, which was the name of the game if you worked thusly.

One lady of the group spoke from a corner chair, “What else have you heard, Flo, that we haven’t? He sure gets around, by the fistful and by demand as far as we know. What else?” She leaned forward in her seat as if she were more ears than tongue.

Flo replied, “From my special contacts with the locals, he’s turned his interest to widows, and doesn’t pay much mind to cause or condition of their circumstances. He never worries about the kids around who have also been left by their fathers. Before we know it, those kids’ll be climbing these stairs too.” The look that passed on her face was a comment from her soul, and was read correctly and understood by each one of them.

No accompanying laughter came this time, but came an unspoken aura of understanding, even as they listened for the day’s first creak on the talkative stairs.

At that very moment, unknown as yet to Flo and her crowd, Jocko Jacobs was drawing his horse to a stand-still in front of a drear, down-trodden cabin about three miles outside of Burwood, where he dismounted, waved at the lady of the house, and said, “I’d like to talk to you, Clarice, but you have to send that boy of yours off to fix your fence which I saw was busted on my way in here.”

The boy spoke up quick and clear, and said, “It wasn’t broke this morning ‘cause I checked every bit of it on first rounds, and you’re only trying to get rid of me while you’re spending time with my mother.” He was about 10 or 11 years old and had eyes that seemed older than he was. Jocko tried to remember his father, but the image would not come clear, a mess of hair, a beard as thick as last month’s dirty laundry before it hit the tub and the long rope of the clothes line. In a follow-up image, Jocko saw the boy’s father lying in the dusty road of Burwood, perhaps 6 or 7 months earlier, time enough, he calculated on his ride, for her to get lonesome for a man, “damned lonesome.”

“Clarice,” he said, “You best send that boy off somewhere or you’ll find out what I mean first hands.” There was a fair amount of unfair warning in the tone of his voice, as his head nodded at the supposed elsewhere.

The reins in his hands went tight around the rail in a show of false strength, even as he added, “and be quick about it. I ain’t got all day for a visit.”

Clarice Pownal, widow for 7 months since her Charlie was shot outside the bank in a wild gun spree of robbers making off with bank money, knowing all about the new sheriff’s doings on the job, knew she was in for a rough few hours, and knew she had to direct her son out of the way, had to protect him from this young but ruthless sheriff still feeling his oats..

“Chaz,” she said, “do what I tell you and go spend the day fixing that broken fence and the rest if it.” The tone of her voice did not fall on deaf ears, neither those of her son, nor those of the young, brash sheriff bound to come around sometime for a visit, as she had heard from other women since Charlie’s death.

Her stance, her tone of voice, her mean directive, moved her son away from the house, away from the coming and invasive pain of the sheriff, the badge shining on his chest in a reflective argument about rights and wrongs, about man and woman, about mother and child.

Grumpy. worried, images running rampant in his mind about what the sheriff would do to his mother, Chaz wandered off, not necessarily towards the fence, but slightly toward the barn and the outhouse beside it, as if he had need of it.

With a last loo at the boy heading for the out-house or the barn, sure that the boy was obeying his mother, the plump but sweet lady of the house now in the grasp of one of his hands, clutched her tightly, and said, “ No noise now, Clarice, lest that boy tries to rescue his momma. He’ll be about as tough as his old man was, a piece of old farmer now dead for the prairie dogs at digging. Whatever gets down at them bodies is sure about their business, not leavin’ much after them worth worryin’ about. That’s for damned sure, and we can take care of what’s missing around here in a damned short time.

He directed her towards the lone bed in the room, saying, “Over there and get ready for me, and I ain’t kiddin’ around on this. We know and need what’s comin’ for both of us. I want to get rid of the lonelies for you. That’s all I got to say,” He unstrung his gun belt and placed it beside the bed on a small table, the belt loose, the holsters and weapons on the tabletop like they were ready to be used.

He said no more as Clarice started to remove her sweater, a heavy and worn cardigan wearing more of the hard earth and the hard air of farming and ranching than any of Flo’s crowd in town could imagine on their toughest night’s work. It seemed it should be going into any kind of a disposal barrel rather than directly atop the twin holsters and weapons on the bedside table, in an apparent, unintentional and clumsy move.

He moved closer to Clarice in the bed and saw nothing, not a glimpse, of the new shadow suddenly in the doorway, young Chaz caught up in the sun’s rays, leaning to one side as if to diminish his presence, or better, to hide the Springfield Ought 6 rifle he had snatched from its cradle in the barn, that rifle now bone-steady in the boy’s hands.

But that image did fill the eyes of Clarice as the sheriff saw it, in all its qualities, in those eye, as he swung about to grab one of his pistols, and found it under a pile of old wool made by a dirty old cardigan sweater, now serving a more needed errand in its existence.

It’s for all of us to know that only one shot was fired that day in all of Burwood, but everybody thereabouts heard about it.