Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
My Pa once said to me God rest his poor soul ‘son, there’s only three things you need in this life, food in your belly, water to drink and the love of a good woman. I found my first love in Tilly Redmond.
Tilly or Matilda Redmond was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen since I left home to go find my way in life. I had hoped to discover my fortune first in the gold rivers of California after the rumors of James Marshalls big find at Sutters Mill filtered down to our spread. The Bar T ranch six miles south east of Joseph Oregon where Daddy grazed eight hundred head of Watusi longhorns over three thousand acres of prime Wallowa County green fenced in with miles and miles of devil rope. It was my job to re-ride those horse wires for any signs of Leppy’s from dawn to dusk everyday no matter what the weather, a chore I didn’t relish much so you can understand the reason for me to follow the gold. I loved him dearly and he promised me if things didn’t work out I could always come home and there would be no ill feelings.
So I suppose that’s how I became a forty-niner.
Ma had died the winter of my eighteenth birthday the consumption took her and nearly stole my little sister Gracie in its wake of death. I remember how I laid in bed those nights when it had taken its grip on them, shielding my ears with my pillow to drown out their pitiful crying. I’m not afraid to say I prayed to god to take them both just to end their suffering. I guess he had only room for one that year. Pa was never the same after that, it changed him from a Christian man who never missed a Sunday meeting to a hard drinking son of a bitch more interested in his steers than in his family so that’s why I preferred riding those wires alone instead of crossing irons with a bitter man.
Sandy Truman was my friend and fellow jerker who looked out for weedy long tails and fence breaks. While I rode circle north to south Sandy would cover East to West in a similar fashion and, occasionally we would cross trails. It was through him I learnt of the gold find at Sutter’s Mill. We met up one October evening shortly after I’d made camp on the banks of the Snake River.
There was a thin waning moon hanging low about the South East direction by my estimate and although the light was reedy there was enough for me to see what I was doing. After making a fire ring from some of the river stones I lashed up old Beau my pony and circled a snake rope around my saddle which I’d bolstered beside a willow tree. With my bed roll facing the cool waters and the cloudless sky I figured I could lay and watch for some shooting stars until my eyes got tired.
My coffee pot was just about ready and the three fishing strings I’d laid that same afternoon baited with big old ground worms had produced a bountiful catch for supper. Two decent sized catfish and a moderate Walleye, more than enough for any thankful cowboy in my eyes.
It was while I was guttin them fish I saw Beau get a little restless and I watched his ears jerk back in the direction of the prairie bushes two or three times. I could tell someone was coming from back a ways so real quietly I lifted my rifle from where I propped it against the base of the willow. I may have been riding on my own land but that didn’t mean there weren’t any bushwhackers or saddle tramps ready to do me harm if I wasn’t paying any heed to my own security. Pa had given me the rifle about two summers ago as a birthday gift and apart from shooting a few rabbits or possums out hunting it had never been fired in anger or defense. To be honest I’d never shot anyone-ever, so I was a mite nervous when I cocked its lever before bringing it up to my shoulder. I remembered listening to the stories Pa told me when he was a young man fighting the English before he became a rancher and of men he had to kill during the course of it. ‘If you’re gonna point a gun at a man’ he used to say ‘you better be prepared to use it’ with that in mind I shouted in the direction of the bushes.
‘You better holler up who you are!’ I warned ‘If’n you don’t there wont be no reason for me not to fire, do you hear me!’
For a moment all I could make out was the running waters of the Snake River and a lone wolf crying far off in the distance.
‘Don’t you go putting a hole in me with that big ole firearm of yours Billy Ray Dupree on account of you being nervous of the dark’ a voice finally called out, it was Sandy Truman, I knew because I recognized his Kentucky drawl. ‘I could smell your coffee pot for near on two miles away’ he said smiling coming into the clearing. His teeth looking like piano keys in the moonlight. ‘Put that away afore you shoot your own damn head off’ he ordered me pointing at my rifle, to which I quickly obliged happily, cause I was sure glad to see him.
‘I ain’t seen you ride that appaloosa gray before’ I said. Sandy had always favored the Carolina Tacky for as long as I’d known him. ‘It’s been a year since we spoke last’ Sandy replied climbing down from his saddle. ‘A lot of water has flowed along the Snake since then Billy; My Marsh took a bite from a rattle after stepping on it somewhere near South Bend. When he stumbled awkwardly he threw me off but cracked his fetlock as he fell. Bone was sticking out and blood was everywhere so I had to put a bullet in him. Five years I rode that horse through all weathers and he never put a foot wrong. I bought this one off Charlie Stone at the livery in North Liberty for sixty dollars’
‘He’s a fine looking mount Sandy’ I said running my hand down its crest. ‘But how come you had sixty dollars, that’s near a whole years pay’
‘Won me a few poker hands at the saloon when I was in Liberty, that’s how, it’s when I heard about the gold Billy’
‘Gold? What gold’ I enquired of him before I offered him to stay for supper.
That’s when Sandy told me how he got talking to a well dressed gentleman who was dealing at his table about James Marshall’s big find at Sutter’s Mill. He said the grandee who stank of cheap whiskey was heading to California after hearing the story of how when Marshall was building a saw mill along the south fork Coloma for the captain he saw flecks of gold just tumbling along over the rocks of the American River. He tried to keep it quiet at first but word got around. Now everyone was heading there and if I’d a mind I could keep him company along his road to riches for that’s where he was beating a trail to before we came across each other.
I was reluctant at first explaining how Pa relied on me to take care of the fences, and how I still felt sorry for him and my little sister since Ma died with him having to run the ranch on his own. When he said I could pan enough gold to come back and buy my own spread I figured Pa wouldn’t argue with that.
‘I’ll need to let him know where I am’ I said to Sandy who nodded in agreement while sucking meat off the bones of the Walleye. ‘ Why don’t we meet up in two days, I could be back at the ranch by tomorrow afternoon, explain to Pa my intentions then stock up on provisions’
Sandy agreed to wait for me at Walnut Creek so we shook on it and then settled in for the night. I tried to sleep and even lay for hours just watching the stars but none came. Sandy needed no coaxing though, I reckoned it must have been the fine supper I provided but I was much too excited about our adventure. As soon as dawn broke I saddled up Beau and bid Sandy a cheerful adios. At two o’clock I was riding through the high pasture one mile south of the Bar T.
Pa was overseeing the breaking of a white mustang in the coral when I rode in along with John Baker his head wrangler. Both men waved at me as I headed for the house, but by the look on Pa’s face I could see he was already wondering why I was there. He knew I wasn’t due home for at least another three weeks so I wasn’t surprised when he and Baker followed me into the house where I found Gracie baking bread at the stove. She had put on a little bit of weight since I’d seen her last and her long cherry blond hair plaited and tied with a red ribbon was a little darker than I remembered. Her face was peppered with flour were she’d used her brow to wipe her hands and her white apron was blemished with stains of strawberries. ‘Oh I do love the smell of fresh bread’ I said. My voice broke her concentration on her kneading; it would seem she never heard me coming in. With her attentiveness now dissolved she let out a scream of delight and ran to me, her embrace was warmly welcomed and returned until Pa asked why I was three weeks early.
‘I’m leaving for California Pa’ I said ‘I met Sandy Truman last night, he’s going with me. There’s gold waiting for those who are willing to look for it he said’
‘A fool’s errand’ Pa scolded, Baker stood in the doorway with his hat in his hand, and the afternoon sun behind him threw a long shadow across the wooden dust covered boards. ‘And you more the fool for believing him’
‘Its true Pa, I heard the rumors about Sutter’s mill long before I got jaw’in with Sandy, he’s waiting for me at Walnut Creek’’
‘Only bad will come of this’ Baker intervened ‘ so take my word as caution, the dregs of America will be planning a similar scheme and you have no years of experience in these matters. You’re just a boy, still wet behind the ears, you could get killed. Tell him Zachariah’
‘Johns right son’ Pa responded ‘every lowlife, card shark and hustler is gonna be there just waiting to kill you for what little money you make panning that’s if you make it across 700 odd miles of Indian country’
Baker walked over to the stove, placed his hat on the table as he passed and began pouring himself a cup of coffee from the pot that was always on. He sipped some which I assume wasn’t to his taste on account of the way he screwed up his face. He was a man I known since I was just a baby, a man I respected just as much as my own Pa. Ever since I was old enough to climb on a horse he’d been there to give me a leg up and as Pa was looking after Ma and Gracie when they were sick he made sure I was ok and the ranch kept on working. I couldn’t put an age on him if asked and I’m sure he couldn’t remember much himself what year he was born but I would guess he was about the same as my Pa the way he talked about fighting the English. His face was line weathered and burned near black from working in the sun. Underneath his Stetson he liked to wear his graying hair long which he kept tied back with a cut of leather. Dressed almost totally in black he wore his Remington on his left, its grip facing out, and he was a towering giant of a man in his boots.
Pa in himself was much more rounded and at least eight inches smaller than Baker, softer in his tone of voice as well, not raspy or course from tobacco like Baker but just as formidable in his demeanor, a trait that stood by him. He was proud to boast a quality desirable to succeed in this unforgiving country although he preferred not to wear a firearm, relying more on his fastidiousness he was as good a shot as any man I seen fire a weapon. Baker took his coffee cup and pulled up a chair beside the table and lit himself a cheroot. A small plume of smoke rose above his head.
‘However’ he said looking at Pa who had paused waiting on my reaction to their rumination on the consequences of my planned folly. ‘I do believe you were Billy’s age when you left home in search of your fortune’
‘He’s right Pa’ I resounded ‘didn’t you always tell me stories as I was growing up about how your Granddaddy and Grandma came down from Canada. He’d staked a claim on this land and soon they began to build the Bar T. By the time you were nineteen you had left to find your own prosperity only returning after the North American conflict you fought in and the death of Grandma to consumption, just like Ma, how’s me going any different’
‘He’s got a point’ Baker said, but Pa just shook his head ‘It ain’t the same, I may have been a young man when I left but I was worldly wise. Your Granddaddy made sure of that’
‘I’ve gotta learn for myself Pa, aint that right Baker?’ I said looking in his direction.
Baker raised an eyebrow in a somewhat pathetic agreement but said nothing, he knew better than to cross Pa, especially in the ways of raising his offspring. I could see he’d struck a chord and sown the seeds of expectation I might just be alright. Finally Pa spoke.
‘I ain’t happy with it but I’m gonna let you go, on one condition’
‘Name it Pa’ I replied
‘You send me a telegram as soon as you arrive at Sutter’s Mill and if I haven’t heard from you in a month I’m coming looking. Is that a deal?’
‘Ok Pa, I promise’ I said and we shook on it.
‘Alright then, get Baker to help you load up on jerky, coffee and corn bread cause it’s a long way from Joseph County to California. Oh, and you’d better take this’
I watched Pa go over to a small timber trail box he kept at the side of the fireplace. He took a key from his pocket and opened its lock. The hinges creaked and the dry wood cracked from being disturbed. It was a chest that always sat there ever since I could remember but never once seen opened. He got down on one knee and lifted out some papers, and what looked like an old piece of rawhide. He placed it on the floor; something was rolled up inside it. ‘I want you to have this’ he said unwrapping whatever was concealed within it delicately. Secreted was the biggest pistol I’d ever seen, he held it up and I stood in awe of its barrel length and the blue gray tint of its metal.
‘This here is a Colt Walker revolver’ he said ‘it belonged to a friend of mine, Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker. He was a Texas Ranger until he was killed two years ago in the Mexican American war, it was his wish I should have it upon his passing now I’m giving it to you, this gun will stop any man with one shot. Take it see how it feels in your hand.
I did, it felt heavy and awkward to hold.
‘I ain’t sure Pa’
‘I’d be happier if you took it with you son’ he said.
I wasn’t big on side arms preferring mostly my rifle but to please him I accepted it and before I left he gave me Samuels holster he’d also kept to carry it in. ‘Remember son if it don’t work out make your way home’ he said as I got up onto the saddle, ready to leave later that day ‘and I’ll be looking out for your telegram ok?’
I wished him well and told him not to worry before riding off towards Walnut Creek heading for the biggest adventure I could never have imagined.
Two days later I rode into town and headed for the Saloon, Sandy liked to play cards so I reckoned it was a good place to start looking for him. There wasn’t much to the place, a few stores, a hotel, blacksmith and a fair size corral attached to the livery stable at the far end. About midway just facing the jail was the saloon, well placed to allow the sheriff to keep an eye on things without leaving the comfort of his rocking chair in which he was now relaxing in. As I tied up Beau he tipped as hat at me when I looked over in his direction and I could almost hear what was running through his head ‘I’m watchin you boy’
I returned the gesture and thought it wise not to draw too much attention to myself so instead of going directly onto the saloon I walked to the mercantile a few yards up. It was cool in the shade, a welcome relief from a long ride and a few ladies passed by in fine looking dresses the kind my Ma would have liked to wear at church if she could have afforded them. One smiled at me while the other older one tugged at her arm for her to pay me no heed, most likely Mother and Daughter I gathered. I watched mesmerized as they sashayed past. It had been a while since I’d seen the beauty of a woman other than my sister, so for my eyes to fall upon a prettiness so delicate made me feel warm inside. It would seem my quest for gold had already started on a favorable footing. Inside the store a large balding man in a white apron was sweating behind the counter, he looked up from whatever he had been writing in a small black ledger and asked how he could help.
‘I ain’t seen you round these parts a’fore’ he said when I asked him for some matches ‘ you rid’in through?’
‘Kinda’ I replied ‘me and my partner are heading to Sutter’s Mill California we heard there was gold to be found there, that is when I find him’
‘what’s he look like?’ the large man asked whose name I was later to find out was Frank Hawthorn a part time mercantile salesman and part time deputy sheriff. ‘Maybe I’ve seen him around town’
‘His name is Sandy Truman, he’s about yea high’ I said indicating with my hand to my shoulder ‘without his black dusty Texas flat, pale shirt and carries a five shot Baby Dragoon on his left hip. Most likely holding a Harpers Mississippi in his right hand and rides an appaloosa gray’
Up until I described the horse and Sandy’s rifle Hawthorn didn’t seem to recognize who I was talking about and I was beginning to think the saloon was still my best option. ‘Oh I seen him’ he said to my surprise pointing to the window behind me ‘he’s over in the jail’
My first thought was Sandy had gotten drunk or got into a fight over some card cheating but Hawthorn stunned me to the spot when I asked what he was arrested for.
‘Murder my friend’ he said blankly ‘he shot and killed Cole Redmond, the sheriff’s brother two nights past. His trial is on Saturday when the circuit judge comes by but if you ask me he’ll be swinging from a rope by sundown that same day.’
‘How can you be sure’ I queried thinking there was no way Sandy would ever kill anyone, it just wasn’t in his nature and there must be a mistake.
‘Sheriff seen him do it himself, the boy was so damn drunk he was shootin off in the saloon only minutes before he came upon him out on the street pointing that Mississippi at Cole who was trying to calm him down. Seems he was cantankerous about being robbed at the card table’
‘He may have put a few rounds in the ceiling in high spirits’ I said ‘but lord knows Sandy ain’t no killer. I would stake my life on it. Who else saw him pull the trigger?’
‘s’far as I know Sheriff Redmond was the only one there’ Hawthorn shrugged ‘go talk to him, find out for yourself if you don’t believe me.’
I took my matches, paid Hawthorn and promised him I would do just that as soon as I got myself a drink and had a word with the bartender about the night Sandy was supposed to be shooting the place up. He grunted something I couldn’t make out then went back to writing into his ledger.
When I went outside the Sheriff was still sitting in his rocking chair, still leaning back with his boots on the hand rail that ran along the short wooden walkway. His hat was tipped down over his nose to look like he was taking a siesta in the afternoon sun, but I knew as I walked to the saloon his eyes were watching my every step. To my surprise the young lady I’d seen earlier was coming towards me, she was smiling as we met; only this time she was alone.
It was then I was suddenly aware of my less than fragrant odor, after two or three days in the saddle in the heat of the sun a cowboys attire can get a might rank and I’d missed taking a bath before I left the ranch. ‘Ma’am’ I said tipping my hat, which seemed to amuse her even more. I stepped out onto the street to allow her to pass and when I did I caught a whiff of a sweet perfume most odorous it reminded me of the daisies that grew up in the pasture where Pa had laid Ma to rest. She seemed to slow her pace deliberately as she walked by and she let her eyes linger on mine longer than any woman had ever done before. Her honey blond hair which she had tied back into a pink ribbon swayed in the light breeze and her pure white blouse accentuated her diminutive bosom finishing into the perfect waist of her brown linen skirt. She looked much more mannish than when I’d seen her earlier in her fine dress, but no less beautiful. On one of her arms she carried a small woven basket; its contents covered with a white cloth, in the other a pail of milk.
Mixed with her scented straddle was the familiar odor of newly baked bread, it was coming from the basket she was carrying and it made me more conscious of the hunger pangs I had been avoiding to take care of since I got into town. They brought fervent memories of the aromas I used to wake up to when Ma was still alive. ‘Something sure smells fine’ I heard myself say as she passed.
I never meant to say anything like such knowing my place an all so I was shocked after I’d said it myself and when she turned and stopped I expected a testy response, instead she came back and gazed up into my eyes. I looked into hers and seen ocean blue pools on a beach they were so stunningly blue. ‘Do you mean me or the biscuits’ she finally said after a pause that seemed to last forever. It was in that moment I was lost to her.
She laughed at my ungainliness, ‘cat got your tongue cowboy?’
‘I’m sorry Ma’am’ I said trying to make amends for my forwardness, ‘but I ain’t smelt cooking like that since my Ma died, my sister tries but it just isn’t the same’
I saw the change in her expression go from a smile to a deep frown, it was clear I’d touched her compassion regarding my current situation. ‘Are you hungry cowboy?’ she asked, I said I was but had some provisions left in my saddle bag which I aimed to eat later after I visited the jail to see my friend Sandy. As it turned out that’s exactly the same place where she and the bread and milk were heading but that wasn’t the worst thing I was to find out as we agreed to walk together. So it would seem my angel I’d just fallen head over heels in love with was the daughter of Sheriff, Brent Redmond and before asking my name she told me hers was Matilda or Tilly as she liked to be known.
‘This here is Billy Ray Dupree Pa’ she said when we came up onto the porch, ‘he reckons you have his friend in your Jail’
‘Is that so?’
‘yes sir’ I replied holding out my hand which he ignored before rising from his seat I said ‘ I cant believe Sandy shot anyone’
‘That’s for the Judge to determine Mr. Dupree’ Redmond spat and it was clear by his demeanor he didn’t like me. ‘He’ll be here in two days, you’re welcome to stay if you have a mind to and I’m sure you can find a room at the Saloon, but you be careful you don’t get on my bad side son otherwise your friend is going to have a bunk partner until he swings on Saturday, you understand me?’
‘yes, sir, but isn’t he innocent until proven guilty, ain’t that the law?’ I remonstrated ‘can I see Sandy now?’
‘Oh he’s guilty alright you mark my words boy! Take him inside Tilly’ Redmond said obviously aggravated with my supposed lack of respect ‘five minutes mind, no more ye’ hear’
I watched Tilly roll her eyes at her father’s blunt line of conversation and as if to say he was like an old dog whose bark was worse than its bite, and then she led me in.
The Jail was bigger than I expected for a small town and much larger than it looked from the street. Center was a rectangular desk made of oak with an oil lantern and an array of unsorted wanted posters on it waiting to be put onto the two notice boards that lined the walls to my left and right. In one corner were a hat stand and a glass locked case containing four assorted rifles and shell boxes. Three black iron cells from floor to ceiling took all of the back area behind the desk. Only the middle one was occupied as I could see, and I knew it was Sandy right away cause I recognized his boots laying under one of the cots. In one corner a small black stove was lit and a coffee pot was simmering on its hot plate. I called to Sandy and at first he never stirred only when Redmond, who had followed us in shouted for him to wake up did we get any reaction. I couldn’t take in what happened next. When Sandy turned off the cot to look at us I could see his face was all beaten up, his right eye was black and swollen closed. He had cuts to his cheeks and lips and his hands were bruised and scratched. He looked more like someone who had tried to protect himself other than being the aggressor. Something wasn’t right, I watched Tilly pull away from looking; maybe she knew more than she was saying. I figured this wasn’t the right time or place to ask too many questions.
‘How’d he get so beat up?’ I said turning to Redmond, who just shrugged his shoulders and began pouring himself a cup of coffee. ‘Resisting arrest’ he sneered, but I knew he was lying. Sandy would have gone quietly with the law even if he thought they were wrong.
‘I’ve got some milk and fresh baked biscuits Mr. Truman’ Tilly interrupted, and I was glad she did, I guessed she sensed I was maybe gonna ask some more awkward questions that Redmond might not like to hear or answer. Quietly I thought the Sheriff enjoyed locking anyone up who didn’t see things his way and that Tilly knew this too, there would be time to talk to her later, that I would make sure of.
Tilly handed Sandy some of the bread and milk through the bars which he greedily ate and drank, Redmond had gone back outside to his rocking chair with his coffee cup to continue his siesta leaving us alone with Sandy. Caution kept me from speaking out loud in case the Sheriff overheard so I whispered to Sandy to tell me what happened the night he was arrested.
‘I played some hands of poker’ he began in a low voice ‘you know how I like the cards Billy; anyway I had a few whiskeys, but I wasn’t drunk I swear. There was a guy sitting at the table, I’d been watching him all evening. I didn’t know it was the Sheriff’s brother Cole Redmond until after he was shot dead’
‘Did you kill him Sandy?’
‘That’s the thing Billy I don’t remember’
‘The guy was dealing off the bottom of the deck, when I said I knew what he was doin, he got real angry then he called me outside. But I ain’t no gunslinger Billy so I was shit scared when he drew his gun on me. He was hollering and shouting. I was telling him to clam down but he told me to move into the alleyway between the saloon and the barber shop. I felt for sure I was a dead man’
‘Did anyone else see you in the alleyway?’
‘Can’t tell, most of the onlookers went back inside the saloon I think’
‘Then what happened?’
‘He grabbed my Mississippi then cracked me with it, look you can see the mark it made’
I watched Sandy turn and show me an inch long cut to his head were the blood had dried.
‘Before I blacked out I saw someone outta the corner of my eye and heard a shot, then I woke up in here. Next thing I know the Sheriff is telling me I killed his brother but I don’t know Billy I swear I can’t remember’ Sandy began to cry ‘ Jesus Lord they’re gonna hang me aren’t they Billy!’
‘You gotta be strong now’ I urged, but even I couldn’t see a way out of this ‘I’ll figure something, where is your gun Sandy?’ I asked him, but I already knew the answer. ‘No idea Billy’
‘Pa usually keeps all evidence in his desk, the locked drawer’ Tilly interrupted; I was surprised when she did. ‘Only he has the key’
‘What are you thinking?’ Tilly said raising her eyebrows.
‘If Cole was holding Sandy’s rifle when he hit him with it and its not here, then who fired the shot Sandy said he heard’
My thoughts drifted to the conversation I’d just had with Hawthorn but my eyes were looking elsewhere, ‘did you fire any rounds off in the Saloon Sandy? Think hard now it’s important’
‘Cross my heart Billy’
‘you need to sit tight for a while okay!’
‘What are you fixing to do Billy?’ Tilly asked.
‘I’m fixing to go see the Doc’ I said.
‘Are you feeling sick?’
‘No Sandy, just curious, now do as I say’
Tilly gave me a half smile then lifted her basket before following me out past Redmond, she stopped briefly to speak to him, I couldn’t hear what, but she hurried after calling for me to slow down.
‘I guess your Pa wants you to keep an eye on me’. I said to Tilly as she caught up ‘he figures me for trouble ain’t that right?’
‘He gets uneasy when strangers come to town is all’ Tilly replied but her excuse didn’t wash with me. Somehow I couldn’t see a man like Brent Redmond being scared of strangers, no something else was making him nervous and I wanted to find out what.
‘Can you take me to the Doc’s Tilly?’
‘Sure but you’re wasting your time’
‘Doc’s outta town until the night before the trial, Todd Bakers wife Molly is having twins. He has a small farm about a days ride from here. Doc left a note in his window; you can read it if you like’
‘No, I believe you’ I said slowing my pace ‘I guess we have to wait’
Tilly looked at me confused ‘wait for what Billy? I don’t understand’
‘I ain’t sure myself’ I confessed ‘but I got a hunch about something that I need sorting’
We began to walk a little easier now that my urgency had been put on hold for a few days, and we got talking about how she and her folks had came to Walnut Creek about eight years ago from Montgomery Tennessee.
‘Charles Denton my real Pa that is had a notion of setting up a newspaper in town’ she began ‘he had been an editor for the Daily Alabama Journal until it closed down. When we arrived he set up a small printing office just over by the Livery Stables’ she pointed to show me where. ‘His idea was he could make some money from advertising when the ranches were going to hold cattle auctions, market days for produce and such like but at the same time pick up some local news he could write about which was really his passion. Things went ok for a while he was never going to be rich but steady money was coming in, except things went bad when he wrote a piece about Brent Redmond, he wasn’t the Sheriff then, him and his brother Cole were bounty hunters. Although I don’t think Cole had the stomach for it, the killing that is while Brent liked to bring outlaws in dead, shoot first ask questions later so to speak Cole preferred to let them get a fair trial. On one occasion Cole got his way and brought in a murderous Indian by the name of Tinto Longhorn they had tracked for nearly a month. Longhorn was wanted for the brutal killings of homesteaders all across Texas, there was a big bounty on his head. One survivor was the only witness to his last crime, a young boy. Tommy Stead had hidden under his house while Tinto butchered his Ma and Pa he was able to see him through the cracks in the floorboards. A trial was set here in Walnut Creek, Tommy was to give evidence against Longhorn, merely a formality he was always going to swing, but the night before there was a commotion in town; people were screaming and hollering that Longhorn had escaped after killing the sheriff. Not long after shots were heard on the edge of town. Brent had killed Longhorn as he was making his escape on the Sheriff’s stolen horse and he dragged his body back up to the jailhouse by his ankles.
Everyone called him a hero, but Pa being Pa began doing some investigating, like most good paper men he smelt a good story so started asking some questions. Like how did Longhorn get out of the cell that night? The Sheriff had been attacked from behind with a knife which meant the door was already open, how did it get unlocked when the keys were still in the safe and how was Redmond just in the right place at the right time. When Redmond read the first issue he wasn’t happy, even though Pa never said it had anything to do with him he came to the office and began arguing with Pa about his story and how it was making him look bad. Folks heard them going at it and Pa came home and told us about his threats that night at supper. Two days later Pa’s body was found out back of the printing rooms, he’d been shot in the back. They said it was most likely a saddle tramp looking for money, a robbery gone bad, but Pa never kept any cash at the press that same month Brent Redmond was elected Sheriff.’
‘Then how come yo-‘
‘How come I have Redmond as my last name? is that what you’re asking? Well about a year after Pa died Brent came calling on Ma, we were living in a room above the Saloon only by the grace and favor of John Butler who owned the place, still does, he and Pa got friendly when we first came to town and his Christian goodwill gave us solace. Ma did some light chores in return, and I guess she was flattered by Redmond’s attention, within six months they were married and we moved into the house beside the jail. Afterwards Brent insisted on me using his name and expected I should call him Pa, I wasn’t happy but Ma asked me to do what he said. To be honest sometimes he frightens me.’
‘One hell of a story’ I said when she had finished, and by that time we had walked back to where I’d hitched Beau.
‘Are you gonna stay in town?’ Tilly asked stopping.
‘No Ma’am can’t afford the price of a room for three days if I’m being honest, besides my plan was always to head to California once I met up with Sandy, I guess that’s gonna have to wait for awhile’
Tilly drew a little bit closer to me I noticed, so near I could feel her breath on my face and smell her sweet perfume once more. I wanted to tell her there and then how I felt, about how my belly was turning over, how the hairs on my arms were tingling, how my head was spinning with love. My eyes were drawn to her sweet pink lips that glistened in the light of the afternoon sun. For an endless moment we stared into each others eyes, and then slowly I bent down and kissed her.
When we finally broke apart I held her shoulders and looked deep into her eyes, without talking we both knew this was what we wanted but also knew there could be no future in it. Brent Redmond would see to that, and then I thought of my own Pa and how he and Ma took a chance all those years ago. What if this was my only opportunity for love.
‘Come with me Tilly’ I said ‘lets go to California, Sandy says there’s gold enough for everybody what’a ya say?
‘But what about Sandy? and Redmond, he would never allow it’
‘I’ve got two days to figure out who really killed Cole, so I’m gonna need your help Tilly’ I said.
‘Are you willing?’
For an agonizing moment Tilly looked doubtful of my proposals, but then a smile came upon her and she kissed me again.
‘What was that for?’ I asked her stepping back.
She began to laugh, ‘I gotta make sure. Meet me tomorrow at noon near Clover Hill; it’s a small clearing beside the old watermill about four miles south of town, you can’t miss it, and it’s a good spot to set up camp. I’ll try and get some more information from Ma about what happened that night Brent likes to talk when he gets drunk which is most nights, we can speak some more then’
After she left, I went and had that drink I’d promised myself before I knew about Sandy, an hour later I headed outta town. Clover Hill sounded like a good spot to bed down and by the way Tilly had described it. I already knew it would just seem like I was home on the range by Snake River.
By the time I got there the sun was getting low in the sky its mellow light was casting long shadows on the dusty trail. The spot was just as Tilly said an acre of lush green meadow, a flowing river and a few overhanging willow trees. A perfect spot, I decided to just let Beau wander and graze for awhile, I figured he wouldn’t get to eat sweet grass like this again for sometime. After setting my bed roll by one of the willows I threw a few fishing lines in the water, it would either be jerky and cornbread for supper or a nice fat trout. It was neither, by the time it had got dark I was well asleep.
It was an uneasy sleep of troubled dreams and in them I saw the face of my mother, imagined Sandy struggling with Cole and the shadow of the man he had seen that night. Ma was crying, warning me in her own way to go from this place but I told her I could not leave my friend not even if it meant I was in danger. Inside my head a gunshot rang out, Ma screamed and I awoke shivering yet drenched in sweat.
Tilly arrived just as she promised around midday looking even more beautiful than she had done the day before. My whole body ached to kiss her once more as soon as my eyes seen her. She rode into the clearing on a tawny pony with a white crest and slid out of her saddle straight into my arms.
‘I bet you’re hungry’ she said when we had finished kissing ‘I’ve brought bread and cheese, warm beer I’m afraid and some apples, I thought we could have a picnic’
‘Did you talk to your Ma?’ I asked her while she spread a small white linen cloth on the grass beside my saddle overlooking the flowing river. The cool water rippled and glistened in the warm light of the noon sun and dragonflies danced and chased each other. Tilly laid out the food and handed me a jam jar of beer which I drank eagerly, selfishly, and she was right it was warm but still enjoyable.
‘Yes’ she eventually said but dropped her eyes avoiding mine, ‘What is it?’ I asked ‘did she tell you something?’
What she revealed next not only astounded me but sort of made sense in a peculiar way, I listened intently as Tilly exposed a secret; something she suspected was happening but was too afraid to ask about it until now. If my hunch was right and when I would get to talk with the Doc tomorrow there maybe a way to save Sandy from the hangman’s noose.
For the rest of the afternoon we lay and talked, kissed and made plans of what we would do when we got rich from all the gold we would find in the rivers of California. We joked about getting married having lots of children, four boys and four girls and living on a big ranch with lots of horses and steers. She never once said she had told her Ma about leaving with me, and deep down even through the laughter I wasn’t sure she really would.
When the time came for her to leave I made her swear not to say where I was to anyone and it would be better if we didn’t see each other until the morning of the trial. By that time I promised I would know what really happened the night Cole Redmond was murdered, but there was only one thing I needed her to still do.
The following day my conversation with the Doc when he arrived back in town more or less confirmed my suspicions and left him a little more enlightened, he promised he would speak honestly and truthfully at the trial. We shared a drink before I left and as we talked it would seem along with him quite a few others didn’t care for Sheriff Brent Redmond.
I awoke early the next morning, gathered up my tack and rode into town with thoughts of Ma’s warning still fresh in my head from another night of uneasy dreams.
My first stop was to see the Doc who just happened to be standing in as Sandy’s only defense. Taking into consideration there were no attorneys in Walnut Creek, Redmond would be giving the evidence against Sandy to the judge, who had set up court in the Saloon as soon as he had arrived.
The trial was to be at noon.
Most of the town had gathered understandable giving this was the first case of murder in nearly ten years. The last one being the trial and subsequent hanging of Charlie Duke a hard drinking Irish immigrant farmer who had cut the throats of his wife and family after his harvest was lost to pestilence. He was reported as mad after saying in his judgment ‘I would rather kill them myself than let them die of hunger’
When I took my seat Judge Colombia Lancaster who had been appointed by the Governor Lewis Cass and who was renowned for his firm but fair attitude was enjoying a drink at the bar. Rumors were rife of this being his last year as judge and how he wanted to leave with a reputation of making sure murderers met their makers swiftly if found guilty. Not good news for Sandy should I fail.
By my estimation Lancaster was at least six foot five in his boots, a gangly lump of a man who was dressed in a dark blue frock coat and dust covered white vest, brown breeches and a green cravat tied at the neck of his cream linen shirt. The place fell into a hush as he walked over and took his seat and after three loud knocks of his gavel on the table to bring the house to order he instructed one of the deputies to bring in Sandy who looked tired and withdrawn as he slumped down into a chair on a makeshift dock. After clearing his throat and knocking back another two fingers of rye Lancaster stood and began addressing the court room.
‘Gentlemen’ he began ‘and ladies of course, today is a sad day. A young man sits before me accused of murder, but prior to me making my judgment as the law dictates both parties will get the chance to speak, equally the defense and prosecution. I believe the latter is the brother of the deceased Cole Redmond, that being you sir, Sheriff am I correct?’
Brent rose to his feet and removed his hat ‘ you are judge’ he replied.
‘Doctor you speak for the boy?
The Doctor stood and replied that he did and asked for the Sheriff to take the stand first which Lancaster agreed to. ‘Please state your name for the record’
‘Brent Redmond your honor, Sheriff of Walnut Creek’
‘Thank you Sheriff, now in your own words please recount the night your bother was allegedly murdered by this man here.’
Redmond shifted in his seat and looked visibly nervous, fidgeting with his hat ‘I was having my usual evening walk, it was around sunset, maybe eight, or eight thirty’ he began ‘it was then I heard a gunshot coming from the Saloon. By the time I got there Cole and the boy were outside in the alleyway, they were arguing about a hand of cards, the boy was accusing Cole of cheating him by dealing from the bottom. He was pointing his rifle at Cole, he was drunk out of his mind and screaming how he was gonna shoot him if Cole didn’t return his money. I tried to shout at him to put down the rifle but when Cole turned around to look at me the boy shot him in cold blood. I saw it with my own eyes. I rushed at the boy and hit him with the butt of my gun on the head, he went down and then I moved to Cole. He was dead; I placed my coat over the body and then took Sandy to the cells, not long after they took Cole to the Doc’s, he’s been there ever since’
‘Sounds like a pretty open and shut case’ Lancaster said raising his eyebrows when Redmond had finished then looked at the Doc. ‘Any questions?’
‘by all means then please continue’
‘My first question is to the owner of this here saloon John Butler who is standing behind the bar, I only have one, on the night the Sheriff is speaking of John did you see this boy letting of a shot inside your premises?- now answer truthfully mind’
Butler looked nervous and kept shifting his eyes from the Doc to the Judge to Redmond trying to figure out I imagine who to fear the most.
‘I don’t rightly recall’ Butler finally said with a shrug, which didn’t seem to please Lancaster at all.
‘I urge you to think again Sir’ Lancaster spoke with an air of intolerance ‘this is a very serious matter and not to be taken lightly, a young mans life is at stake’
After a brief pause Butler dropped his head and whispered ‘No sir’
‘No sir you can’t remember or no sir he didn’t fire his weapon, which is it?’ Lancaster bellowed at Butler across the room making him physically jump with fright.
Again Butler seemed to hesitate but eventually spoke ‘No sir, he didn’t fire his gun’ he said in a low voice.
‘Then how could you have heard a shot Sheriff?’ The Doc asked turning to him ‘You did say you heard a gunshot didn’t you, the reason you headed to the Saloon after all’
The sheriff gave a nervous cough and shifted in his seat while keeping his eyes on the Judge.
‘I may have been wrong about hearing a shot’ he frowned ‘Maybe it came from the alley, when Cole and the boy were arguing but it don’t matter cos I seen him shoot Cole’
‘You say Sandy was pointing his rifle at Cole when you arrived and just when you shouted to warn them he fired, is that right?’ the Doc asked him.
‘Aint that what I just said’ Redmond snapped ‘what is this, the kid killed him is all it is, he should hang, are you saying you don’t believe me?’
‘What kind of rifle did young Sandy own Sheriff?’
‘Harpers Ferry Mississippi’
‘And where is it now?’
‘Its here as evidence’
‘What type of round does it fire?’
‘What the hell has that got to do with anything?’
‘Just answer the damn question Sheriff’ Lancaster interrupted looking obviously ticked off at the slow pace of the Doc’s questions.
‘It’s a musket ain’t it?’ the Doc said. ‘ and the other gun Sandy had was a Baby Dragoon right?, both of which you took from Mr. Truman when he was unconscious. In fact Cole did strike him as you say because I found blood on the Dragoons grip. My only problem is Sheriff the bullet I took from Cole’s back came from a Derringer double R pistol just like the one you carry in your vest pocket, and a match to the one I took from Tinto Longhorn.’
Redmond said nothing.
‘I put it to you Sherriff you killed your own brother because he was having an affair with your wife’
‘That’s a lie!’ Redmond shouted ‘it was the kid I tell you’
‘Its true Brent’ a voice spoke from behind the crowd. It was Tilly’s Ma, and she began to walk towards Redmond with her hands clasped together noticeably shaking. It was clear she was afraid of him. ‘Cole went to talk with you the afternoon he was killed’ she went on ‘he wanted to make you understand we loved each other and make you realize our marriage was over, it had been for a long time. He said he would do it in the Saloon. I know he did because I asked Sandy had he seen you that afternoon while he was playing cards. Both of you were there drinking he said until you got up and punched him hard in the face. Then you stormed out mad, I guess that was the moment, it was later, maybe an hour or so Sandy and Cole got into a fight that ended up outside’
‘She’s right’ Sandy shouted rising to his feet pointing ‘I remember now, you’re the one I saw in the alleyway standing behind Cole. You shot him in the back, you murderin son of a bitch, and you tried to blame on me’
The saloon went into an uproar when Sandy tried to push past the Doc to get to Redmond, but he was too fast with his derringer which he pulled from his vest. A shot rang out and the bullet tore into Sandy’s shoulder throwing him sideward’s to the ground. Everything from that moment seemed to fall into slow motion; Sandy was rolling on the floor holding his arm, blood was oozing from it onto the sawdust. Tilly’s mother was rushing to help him, it was then I caught sight of Redmond drawing his gun, I saw the hate in his eyes for her as he cocked it. I guess he felt if he was going to hang he might as well kill her too but there was one thing he didn’t reckon on and that was Captain Samuel Walker, a gun gifted to me by my father and one given to him by a Texas Ranger. I don’t remember drawing it; all I can recall is the thunderous sound it made when I shot Sheriff Brent Redmond dead.
The Judge later ruled Sandy should be released and that had I killed Redmond in defense of his wife’s life. After thanking the Doc for all he had done Sandy and I agreed to wait until Cole would be buried. We stayed out at Clover Hill and later that night Tilly came to see us, we talked about how I thought it would be a good idea if she came with us to California, we laughed about how rich we could be, but I knew she couldn’t leave her Ma, not now. Before she left we kissed and she thanked me for what I had done. I clasped her face in my palms and I said ‘I would do anything for the love of Tilly Redmond’
I never came back to Walnut Creek and did Sandy and I find gold in California? Well that’s another story.