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Western Short Story
Fool's Choice
Darrel Sparkman

Western Short Story

I’ve never been one with a quick repartee, or the talent to trade witticisms that cause a lingering memory. One thing I know. When a beautiful woman comes toward you with a big smile it’s time to circle the wagons and check your ammunition. Double the ammunition if you’ve never seen her before.

She cut a tall figure all decked out in blue gingham dress with a white lace collar and a bonnet to match. Her walk was purposeful and showed no hesitation in heading toward my table. When she took off that bonnet, coal-black hair tumbled out to frame the bluest eyes I’d ever seen. She could have graced the courts of many a king.

Standing in front of my table in Gertie’s Café, she must have thought I was a dunce or addled. There are some women in my past that might join in that assumption, one in particular working in this eatery. I sat there in my homespuns with one of my gallus hanging off my shoulder. My new red shirt made me dressed up in most places I frequent. A flat-crowned hat lay on the table beside me. The hole in the top winked at me. I could romanticize and call it a bullet hole—but the thorns from a hawthorne tree would call me a liar.

The silence stretched out until I regained my senses and leaped to my feet. It was mid-morning and the café was close to empty. A wagon went by outside with a screechy wheel—loud enough I thought of volunteering to grease that axle for them.

“May I sit with you? I hate to eat alone.” Her voice was pure antebellum south which at once endeared her to my heart, but left questions about why she was here.

“Yes, ma’am.” Pap always told me to use that tone around women and I’d never get into trouble. My gut was telling me this was going to be an exception to that rule. I helped her settle in her chair and then motioned for Gertie.

“My name is Isabella O’Reilly. I believe you are Big Cahill?”

Gertie brought a coffee pot and two porcelain cups. She smirked at me, more than likely thinking I’d be afraid to touch the dainty thing and I know she did it on purpose. I had me a tin-cup lifestyle and wasn’t used to such things. Either Isabella had made an impression on her or she was digging her spurs into me. I wasn’t sure which.

Isabella was my enigma. We’d stepped out some. I knew for a fact that under all the plain linen and aprons, and a no-nonsense attitude she fronted with, she was a remarkable woman.

I headed my mind back to the immediate problem. “Ma’am, how do you know my name? Do I know you from somewhere?”

She took a sip of coffee and I noticed her hand shook a little. “You were pointed out to me as being a gunfighter and a man to have on your side in any kind of difficulty. I have need of your talents.”

Well, that took me by surprise. I heard a snort from the kitchen… maybe just a cough. I’d been in a few scrapes since I’d left Arkansas after the late difficulty between the states. But there was nothing that would lead anyone to believe my gun was for hire. About all I do is move cows from one place to another. I get to see a lot of ground and meet folks that way.

On occasion men tried to question ownership and relieve me of that chore. We seem to have more miscreants than honest cowmen in this territory. Most everyone knows I ride for the brand, or whoever hires me to do a job. So far I’ve been successful.

“You must have misunderstood, ma’am. I’m no gunman, nor do I have any desire to become one. Might I ask who told you this?”

“Marshal Denton said you might take on the problem.”

David Denton was the town marshal and I knew him from an occasional meeting when we’d been shotgun guards on a stage line that ran from Fort Smith, Arkansas to Joplin, Missouri. Now he was the marshal of Flats, Kansas and an apparent thorn in my side. I’d have to think of an appropriate payback for this. We weren’t friends, although he seemed to be trying.

“Well, the marshal should take care of the problem himself—whatever the problem is. Doesn’t that sound reasonable?” I knew Denton was a very good man with a gun and not much for giving an even break. He believed his job was to punish evil doers, not get punished. I tended to agree.

The food arrived and while I consider myself a good hand at eating, she went through her steak and eggs so fast she was done before I’d left the chute. I began to wonder when she’d had her last meal. She waited on me in patient repose, using a dainty napkin and sipping her coffee.

“Mister Cahill, from our short conversation you seem to be an educated man. Maybe we can drop all pretense and get down to the problem?”

I’d never been to school. The Cherokee around where I’d lived had better book learning, even if it was forced on them by the Federals. Not that I wasn’t educated. Mama knew most of the big words and taught their use to me. She admonished me to be kind and gentle in all things. She meant well and did her best, but my father knew me better.

I was always big for my age and Pap worked me like a rented mule. Life on a hard-scrabble farm in the Ozark foothills was tedious and filled with mind-numbing work from can see to can’t. But with all that, he always found time to teach me other things. When we went hunting we practiced using any kind of weapon available and doing it with accuracy.

For the rare occasion that we went to town he taught me how to handle myself against bullies that liked to gang up on simple country folk, and in particular if you’re alone. Many of those same people thought they were smarter than others. Being a strapping young man made some folk think I was slow. On occasion, I will admit to talking more than my mind thought was proper. I learned to rein that in.

He always gave the same advice. “Your mama has a heart of gold and a gentle soul. We love her for that. But you must know by now that your acorn didn’t fall under her tree. When someone comes to take what is yours, or do harm to you or family, there’s no amount of talking that’s going to fix it.”

At odds between the advice of my parents, I knew I was going to regret this. “Why don’t you lay it out, Ma’am. We’ll see where it takes us.”

Gertie was hovering and mumbling like she wanted to clean our table and I realized the lunch crowd would be coming in soon. That’s why I liked to eat early. Given a choice I tended to do things alone. Crowds seemed to bother me.

“Let’s take this somewhere more private.” She colored up some at that but nodded her agreement. I clapped my trail-worn hat on my head, and she her bonnet. We walked outside—a tall, beautiful woman and taller trail-weary man.

Across the street the marshal stood giving me a big grin. I sent him a look that made it disappear. Of more concern, were two men leaning against the buggy in front of us. They dressed too well to be simple cowhands and I’d not seen them before. Their polished gun-rigs cost more than I ever owned. I took the thong off my shooter and they saw me do it. Both stood straight with wary looks on their faces.

“Ma’am, is this your buggy?”

She nodded, eyeing the two men in front of us.

I stepped off the walk and tied my horse behind the buggy. I offered my hand to her and she climbed aboard. Turning, I spoke to the two men.

“Boys, you keep staring at us and I’m going to think you want to start something. If that’s the case we should get acquainted. Right now suits me fine.” I didn’t know what her troubles were, but if these two were involved it shouldn’t take much to straighten it out.

Dave came up behind them and when he spoke, they flinched like they’d been doused with cold water. “I got this, Big. Y’all just head on out.”

I gave him a small smile. “Thanks, Marshal. Don’t be thinking we’re even on this.”

He smiled while he relieved the two men of their weapons. “Dunno. You might end up owing me.”

With a light snapping of the reins, we moved on down the street. I knew of a cottonwood grove just outside of town where the shade would offer a cooling breeze on a hot day.

A few minutes later we pulled up next to Cottonwood Creek under the shade of its namesakes. Nothing is more uncomfortable than sitting with a woman you don’t know so I busied myself with helping her down and showing her a place to use as a seat. I figured a lot of couples wore that log smooth over the years. Most likely at night.

It took me a few minutes, but I un-hitched her horse from the buggy and led it and Red down to the water to drink. After they’d finished, I put them where they could munch on some grass. Having stalled enough, I went to sit with her.

She waited with a patient smile, her fingers twisting her bonnet into a shapeless tangle. “Thank you for taking care of my horse. I’m afraid I neglected her. She’s been hitched since yesterday evening and I expect tired of it.”

I looked at her a moment, not believing what I’d heard. A few things started to come together once I got my feeble mind to working. Everything she wore looked new, from her poor wrinkled bonnet down to her shoes. There was a small trunk and a couple of valises in the back of the buggy.

“Where did you sleep last night?”

“Oh, not far from here. I don’t have much money left.” She waved in a vague manner over her shoulder.

“You slept in the buggy.”

She shrugged and wouldn’t meet my gaze. It’s a good thing. My expression must have looked like a toad under a boot.

I once heard the story of a mouse caught in a big box. The top was open but he couldn’t get out. A fox comes along and sees the tasty morsel is trapped. Feeling hungry he jumps inside the box to get the mouse, but he’s curious. “How did you get caught in such a big mousetrap?”

The mouse backed through a small hole in the corner, pausing to give him a sad look. “I’m the bait.”

The fox looked up and sure enough, the top closed.

I sighed, for once wishing I was a mouse. “All right, tell me the story.”

“There’s a small ranch a couple of miles from here. Have you heard of the Pendergrass place?”

I had. Eli Pendergrass was a stubborn old man sitting on a gold mine. Not actual gold, but his place sat in a small valley with a dry-weather spring that several cattlemen wanted. Some tried to buy him out, others to shoot him out. None were successful. On the other hand, he’d been missing for over a month and speculation was a favorite pastime in the town.

“Why is the Pendergrass ranch of interest, ma’am?”

“Well, it seems I own it.”

I love a mystery. Gazing into the distance, I tried to calm my nerves.

“It seems my husband and Mister Pendergrass were involved in a game of chance. I don’t remember the name of the establishment, but it was over in Joplin. I didn’t like him going there. It was painted bright red and had bawdy girls hanging out the windows. It seems they couldn’t afford clothes. Mister Pendergrass put up the ranch to cover a bet and lost. My husband John was ecstatic. We’d always wanted a place of our own.”

“When did all this take place?”

“A few weeks ago.” She sighed and I watched a tear course its way down her cheek. “The next night my husband and this Pendergrass were in an altercation. He must have wanted the deed to his ranch back. They shot each other and both died. I’ve been so devastated I couldn’t function until now.”

“That was a tragedy, ma’am. I’m sorry for your loss. Those places are a scourge on polite society. What happened then?”

“My husband had already given me the deed, so after his affairs were settled, I came to take possession of my new home.” She wiped her tears with a lace handkerchief. “Yesterday afternoon, I obtained directions in town and drove out there. Some men were there and threatened to shoot me if I didn’t leave. They were quite rude.”

Her cheeks were dusky as her jaw clenched. For a moment, she didn’t look the lady. “I came back this morning and talked to the marshal. He pointed you out and that’s where we are.”

It was close to noon and hot as I hitched up her horse to the buggy. It didn’t take much more than an hour to get to the Pendergrass ranch. The road was in a valley. As we rode I kept noticing some dust lingering over the rise, just out of sight. Made me curious.

I rode ahead of her into the ranch yard. It was a well set up place, with a framed-wood house and barn. The corrals were made of rough wood but were sturdy. Three horses were tied to the rail in front of the house. No one else was around that I could see.

“You boys come outside where I can see you.”

The three men strolling out were from different ranches. Jim Waller, Shorty Smith, and Ted Samples. I’d worked with all of them at one time or another moving cattle. They were top hands and repped for their bosses. Good men, but they all wanted this place.

“Boys, seems we have a problem. This lady says she is the rightful owner and that Mr. Pendergrass is dead—shot over in Joplin.”

They looked at each other. I couldn’t tell if they knew anything about it. “Now, here’s the thing. I know each of your outfits want this ranch. That’s why you’re all here. Possession won’t prove to be the law in this case. The lady has a deed.”

One of the men spoke up. “This ain’t none of your business, Big.”

I shrugged. “The lady asked me to help.”

Jim Waller started to say something and I held up my hand. “Jim, I’m going to break my old Pap’s rule here. I’m thinking none of us want to drag iron over this, so let’s let the law decide it so everything’s proper.”

The boys grumbled around some, but they knew me. Nobody wanted to bleed that day and besides, there was a woman present. Once bullets start flying there’s no telling where they will go, so I put the final nail in the lid. “The fact that you threatened this young lady has got my dander up, so let’s not push it.”

I watched as they mounted and I herded the whole bunch back toward town. When I rode up next to Waller I pointed to the dust over our shoulders.

“Jim, do me a favor. There’s someone following us over the hill, yonder. Why don’t you round them up and bring them into town. If you need help, fire a shot and we’ll come running.”

He shook his head and cast me a smirk as he cantered his horse up the hill. I doubted he’d need help.

Our little cavalcade rode up to the marshal’s office. I stepped down off Red as Denton came outside. He looked at us while he adjusted his hat to the afternoon sun.

“I thought you’d take care of this, Big. What’s going on?”

“Let’s get in out of the heat, this may take a bit of talking.”

Once inside, I explained the situation as best I could. “See, Dave. These boys are laying claim to the ranch and she’s got a deed. I thought it best to get the players together and avoid trouble.”

He shook his head. “It’s still a matter of jurisdiction. I don’t have it. You need the county sheriff and we ain’t seen him in months.”

I kept my voice polite. “Would murder be in your area of jurisprudence?”

Both cowmen jumped up with a chorus of we ain’t shot nobody and I let them vent a moment. I was watching the girl and she looked a might confused.

The sheriff was behind his desk, with Isabella sitting in a chair to the side. Everyone was looking at each other like it was a three act play that hadn’t started yet. Before we’d stepped inside, I’d sent a man for Lawyer Reynolds. When he came through the door, I had almost all the actors in place. He raised his eyebrows in question and I shook my head and pointed toward an empty chair. He shrugged and sat.

She couldn’t stand the silence. “Mister Cahill, why all this? What are you doing? This seems to be such a simple matter. The property is mine.”

“Ma’am, you appear to have a deed to a ranch. We’re getting everyone together so your claim is verified and put an end to any potential trouble at the same time.”

She looked a little antsy and jumped when the door opened.

Jim Curry dragged in a dusty man that looked like he’d been drug at the end of a rope. He wore a store-bought suit and had a derby hat clamped on his hat. It had a nice dent in it.

“Did you have to rope him?”

The cowboy shrugged and grinned. “Seemed like the thing to do. He pulled a pistol and then dropped it like a tinhorn. I took offense.”

I watched as Denton stood behind his desk. He seemed more agitated than the situation called for. “Alright, let’s put an end to this. What are you doing, Big?”

“I think there’s a simple solution to all this. The lady has a deed to the Pendergrass place. Her claim is her husband won it in a card game in Joplin about a month ago. Is that right, ma’am?”

She nodded and cut a glance toward the tinhorn. When he looked back I knew they weren’t poker players.

“May I see the deed?”

She dug around in her handbag a moment and handed it to me and I gave it to the lawyer. He looked at it and then stared at me with a smile.

“Old man Pendergrass hasn’t been seen in a month and we’ve all been wondering where he went. We know he managed his place alone and have been worried someone would try to get a quit-claim deed with a bullet.

“I’ve taken some of his cattle to market a few times. I would always have to come and see Lawyer Reynolds for a bill of sale.”

I looked at Isabella. “Mister Pendergrass couldn’t read or write. He’d tell his lawyer what he wanted and then Reynolds would write it up.”

The tinhorn made a bolt for the door but Jim stuck his foot out and tripped him. The derby hat thudded into the door and the man didn’t move.

The lawyer stood and handed me the bill of sale. “I took care of all business for the Pendergrass ranch. This is forged, since someone signed his name. I’ll testify to that.” He pulled the tinhorn away from the door, opened it and left. I could hear him whistling a tune down the walk.

I stuck that paper in my pocket. “Ma’am? Now’s the time. I’d hate to see a beautiful woman hung for murder. But it can happen.”

“I don’t know anything about any forgery. I will confess that’s my used-to-be friend on the floor. He told me there was some contention over ownership of a ranch and it would be easy if a woman took over. No one would doubt a lady.”

“That’s all I know.” She gave me a look. “I’m just an actress playing a part. He offered to pay a good amount. Seems you weren’t impressed.”

There were too many questions. Most could be answered with that new-fangled telegraph. “Boys, throw that derby hat in the cell and send the tinhorn with it.”

“Ma’am, I think we’re all impressed with your acting skills. I’m thinking there’s a few things that we need to figure out before your final curtain call. Would you consent to staying in town until this is cleared up? I’m afraid we’ll have to keep watch on you, but the boarding house will be more comfortable than the jail.”

She sighed with slumped shoulders, and then nodded. “All right.”

“There’s one other thing.” My gaze settled on the sheriff. “How would a bawdy house tinhorn and his lady know about the Pendergrass spread? Seems you were kinda hoping for a shootout. That would have cleared the decks for a takeover, wouldn’t it?”

Everyone was staring at him as the silence stretched.

He went for his gun, but mine was already in my hand. “I reckon you’ll get to stay in one of your own cells, Dave.”

“How did you know? You’ve got nothing. Anyone could have set this up.” His voice was hoarse. “We’ve been friends.”

I’d try to decipher those disjointed answers later. “I didn’t know… at least until you tried to pull your pistol. And us being friends might be stretching it a little.”

The men disarmed him and marched him back to the other cell. I was running out of accommodations. When they came out, I singled out Jim.

“Jim, if you would, I need you to stay here and keep an eye on the prisoners until I get back.”

“I don’t have any authority to do that.”

I grinned at him. “Sure you do. They’re in there and you’re out here. I’m thinking the lawyer Reynolds is wiring the judge as we speak. He’ll be along in a few days. I’m sure there’s money in the marshal’s budget to pay you and the other boys for their time.” I winked at him. “Besides, it’ll look good on your resume when you apply for the job.”

“The marshal is going to pay me to keep him in jail?”

“The irony does not escape me.”

He succumbed to my logic and sat in the sheriff’s chair. I offered Isabella my arm and escorted her over to the boarding house. I got her a room and had someone bring in her trunk and valises. They’d board her horse and rig. She might be there awhile.

The sad fact was that the judge would never buy any of this. A good lawyer could blow it up. It was all conjecture and happenstance. There was no actual proof of where the deed came from and I doubted any of the parties would start confessing their sins. I’m sure there were plenty to go around.

I still needed to find out about those two men the marshal disarmed this morning. This was a quiet county and needed to stay that way.

As I stepped out on the porch, my body rang the dinner bell. I bellied up to a table at Gertie’s so I’d avoid the supper rush.

She brought me the special of the day and then sat next to me with a cup of coffee. After I filled her in about my day she laughed.

“You put Denton in his own jail? I love that. When are you going to tell folks around here you’re the sheriff of this county?”

I shrugged, cutting my steak with a fork. That’s why I come here. It’s cooked that tender. “No need. There’s no trouble hereabouts, anyway. Hell, all we have are a few ranches and one town. It’s easier to ride around with a few cattle and talk to folks. If I wore my badge they wouldn’t talk near as much.”

“What about the lady you just took upstairs next door?”

I stared out the window, knowing there was more to her question than she wanted to put words to. “That’s no lady and I think she’ll be going away soon. That’s more up to the judge than me… should he happen to show up.”

She was staring hard at me and my neck got hot. I know for a fact she hides a pocket pistol under that apron. It fell out one night about the same time my badge bounced on the floor. I matched her stare and confessed. “I’ve no interest other than that.”

A certain amount of tension seemed to leave her. “What about that ranch? What will happen to it?”

I glanced at her. “Depends. It’ll be up to the lawyers for now. If Pendergrass is dead, there may be family somewhere to take it. I’m not real sure there’s any kind of deed. Most likely it was homesteaded. If not… I might try to buy it. It’s a nice spread.”

Her look was pensive. “I might have some money to invest in something like that.”

My look must have gone back to the stepped-on toad.

She smiled at my confusion. “You’re going to need a cook.”

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