Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
Available Now Site-wide ad space Top right corner, replacing the ad to the right. $25 per month. Click HERE to find out more.
Western Short Story
It was 1854, seven years before the Civil War officially began, the Kansas-Nebraska act had been signed. This act repealed the Missouri compromise and reopened the issue of extending slavery further north allowing the Kansas and Missouri territories to decide the matter for themselves.
The volatile issue of slavery between abolitionists and pro slavery factions continued to grow and would soon reach the boiling point. 1854 marked the beginning of the Kansas/Missouri Border War.
In 1860 Kansas officially abolished slavery and in January1861 Kansas became the 34th state. By April of that same year the Civil War began.
Many consider the Kansas/Missouri border war a precursor to the Civil War.
The Kansas town of Wesley was small compared to some but it wasn’t without its own set of problems. Yes, it certainly had its share. The whole country seemed to be at odds with the issue of slavery. Lines were being drawn and people were taking sides. Small skirmishes were being fought along the Kansas/Missouri border.
On a more local level, Sheriff Pat Hascal had his hands full trying to keep the peace between the two factions. It only added to the burden of Wesley being a railhead town. Cattle by the thousands made their way here each year and along with the cattle came the cowpunchers, and they almost always brought trouble.
It was early one morning and Sheriff Hascal was making his customary rounds. He stepped into the dimly lit Buckaroo saloon. A quick scan of the room showed the early morning usual's. Pete the Bartender, the town's two drunks and one stranger which Sheriff Hascal assumed was a gambler.
The gamblers came and went. Drifters mostly. They showed up when the cattle came to town. At present there was only one. He was an older gentleman with slightly graying hair, maybe in his late thirties. He sat with his back to the wall and close to the door as most of them did. His well-worn hat and dirty clothes led the sheriff to believe he either wasn't very good at his craft or it was part of his bluff.
As he brushed on past the stranger he noticed he wasn’t wearing a gun.
Probably had to sell it to support his habit, he thought; as he made his way up to the bar. Hascal didn't give him a second thought. He didn’t look to be much of a danger to anyone but himself.
The bartender stood in his customary spot behind the bar shining up the glasses and wiping the ever present dust off the bottles of whiskey on the back wall. He was a portly man with a balding head and an overgrown mustache badly in need of a trim.
“Good morning sheriff. What brings you into my fine establishment at this hour of the day?”
“Good morning Pete,” stated the sheriff as he casually leaned up against the bar. “I’m just making my rounds while I wait for the morning stage to come in.”
“Oh, I see,” replied Pete as he leaned over the bar toward the sheriff. “And why might that be?”
The sheriff removed his hat and held it close to the side of his face as if to hide what he was about to say from the bar's patrons. “I ain’t at liberty to say,” he jokingly whispered.
That set Pete off and got his curiosity up. “That ain’t right sheriff. You're waiting for the stage in my saloon but you won’t tell me why. Well it shouldn’t be too hard to figure since only two things come in on the morning stage, that being passengers and packages. My guess is…”
The sheriff cut him off. “Like I said, I ain’t at liberty to say, and you ain’t at liberty to guess. Why don’t you go back to dusting off those bottles of so called ‘whiskey’ that nobody in their right mind would want even if you gave it away?" He ended the sentence with a smile and a wink.
One of the drunks at the bar spoke up. “I’d take some.”
“I rest my case,” stated the sheriff as he turned and headed for the door.
He was about to step outside when the gambler spoke up. “I couldn’t help but overhear what you were saying to the bartender sheriff. My money is on a package.”
The sheriff pulled up short. “I don’t recall inviting you in on that conversation and what goes for the bartender goes double for you. What’s your name stranger?”
The gambler replied with a well rehearsed line. “The name is Douglas, Douglas Wiley the Third. Poker and games of chance are my specialty.”
“Well listen up Mr. Douglas Wiley the Third. Pete here runs a straight up place and I make darn sure of it. If there’s any funny business with those ‘games of chance’ of yours, chances are You’ll either be dead or we’ll be heatin’ up the tar.”
Pete quickly spoke up from behind the bar. “It’s been a while since I’ve tarred and feathered someone. I'd be looking forward to that.”
“Pete’s all for it. I suggest you make it your business to disappoint the man.” And with that, the sheriff headed out the door and walked across the street to the stage stop.
Pete wandered over to the doorway and looked out toward the street. “So Mr. Wiley, do you really think it’s a package?”
The gambler leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the table. “Well, I only just met the man, but you seem to know him quite well. Odds are you would know the answer to that question better than me.”
Pete thought on it for a minute. “The way he was fidgeting in here it’s either a very important package or someone he knows. He does have family back East somewhere. My guess is he’s waiting for a person, and more than that, I think it’s family.”
“Is that so,” mused the gambler. “Perhaps you would be willing to put a little wager on that? Shall we say one dollar?”
Pete turned and headed back to the bar. “Sorry Mr. Wiley, I’m a bartender not a gambler. Now git your feet off my table.”
Sheriff Hascal met up with one of his deputies in front of the stage stop. “What do you know about the gambler over at the Buckaroo? He calls himself ‘Douglas Wiley the Third’.”
The deputy knew some. “He rode into town last night. I had a talk with him down at the livery. He was a little elusive but he seemed harmless enough. Told me he was a professional gambler in town to try his luck with some of the locals on Poker and games of chance. Say’s he’s from Boston and doesn’t plan on staying more than a few days.”
“Well keep an eye on our Mr. Wiley. Make sure he doesn’t get himself shot while he’s here,” ordered the sheriff. “Those ‘games of chance’ sound a might dangerous in a town like this and I'd hate to see someone lose more than their money.”
As they stood talking, the stage came thundering into town. Four horses at a full gallop. They pulled up to the stop in a cloud of dust. Two men met it and immediately began changing the horses. The driver called down to the passengers. “You got fifteen minutes. Those of you going further, do your business and get back on.”
Seven people piled out of the coach and headed into the stop looking for the outhouse and something to wash the dust out of their throats.
Pete and the gambler stuck their heads out the door of the Buckaroo hoping to get a glimpse at just what the sheriff was up to.
A middle-aged man in a tailored suit stepped off the stage. “Are you sheriff Pat Hascal?”
“I am,” replied the sheriff.
The gentleman reached out to shake his hand. My name is Aaron Sanford. It's very good to meet you. I understand you have a question for me?”
In a most serious tone, the sheriff asked Mr. Sanford his question. “How are our brothers holding out?”
And Mr. Sanford gave the answer. “True blue.”
As Pete looked on from across the street he grew slightly disgusted with himself. “I knew it. It was a person. I should have taken that bet.”
“If you recall,” replied the gambler. “You also said you thought it would be a relative. That fact hasn’t been established yet. At any rate, you may not have won that bet. Take another look.”
Mr. Sanford handed the sheriff a small package. “I want to thank you for your patriotism Mr. Hascal. This country could use more good men like you at a time like this. Guard that with your life. There are men all around us who are contrary to our cause. Someone will contact you within the next two days. You are to transfer possession of the package at that time. The code phrase is ‘I reckon I’ll just pick up what belongs to me and be on my way’. You ask ‘How much is yours’? The answer will be ‘All of it’.”
The stage driver yelled out to the passengers. “Lets get going, were burnin’ daylight.”
Everyone loaded up including Aaron Sanford and the stage was on its way leaving the sheriff standing in yet another cloud of dust. Only this time, He was left holding a small package he was to guard with his life.
Pete and the gambler went back into the saloon. “He ended up with a package. You would have lost that bet,” stated the gambler.
“That's why I'm not a gambler. What do you suppose is in the package?” Pete questioned.
Mr. Wiley attempted to put an end to Pete’s curiosity.
“You know Pete, if a man were to divulge his secrets and lay himself out like an open book, his friends would see him for who he really was. The truth of the matter is, there are some who would take advantage of that situation without a second thought.
All men have secrets Pete. It’s a fact of life. And sometimes it’s best not to dig too deeply into another man’s business lest we uncover things about the man that are better left unknown. I for one am not going to pry into the sheriff’s business. I’ll do my prying with the men who sit across from me at the poker table. I’ll read their faces and call their bluffs. That’s how I make my living.”
Pete’s reply was pointed. “Mr. Wiley, you’re proving yourself to be long winded. I just wanted to know what was in the package.”
Sheriff Hascal walked back to his office and locked the package in his safe. He once again considered what he was doing. This wasn’t the first time but it was becoming more frequent. The border war between Kansas and Missouri was growing. What started as a few small skirmishes were becoming larger and more frequent. There was talk of some Southern states pulling out of the union and Southern rebels were trying hard to convince the state to join them. But Kansas was not ready to take sides. There were many like himself who didn’t believe it was right for a man to own another man even if his skin was a different color. They believed it was not the color of a man’s skin that made him what he was any more than the color of his hair.
The sheriff didn’t know what was in the package he had received. All he knew was that it was important. It had moved through a network of like-minded men who had infiltrated the ranks of the pro slavery rebels. If all went well, it would be in the hands of military planners up North in a few days.
Two days had passed since Sheriff Hascal had securely tucked the package away in his safe.
It was a Saturday night and a large herd of Texas longhorns had come into town that afternoon. The Buckaroo saloon was extremely busy. Sheriff Hascal decided to wander over and check in on his deputies and to make himself seen. As he walked through the door he surveyed the room. The piano player was pounding out a lively little tune and the barmaids were busy serving Pete’s so called “whiskey” to the men playing cards. All five card tables were full and there wasn’t much standing room at the bar.
There was a high stakes poker game going on at the table in the back corner. It looked like it was winding down. Most of the men were tapped out and the last hand was being played. The man with all the money was of all people Douglas Wiley the Third.
I guess I had him pegged wrong, thought the sheriff as he stood by to see how the last hand played out.
It was down to the final two men. A young hot headed cowboy named Branson and Mr. Wiley. Branson pushed in everything he had and called. He laid down his cards. “Full house Aces high,” he bragged as he reached for the pot.
“Not so fast there son,” ordered Mr. Wiley as he laid down his cards to reveal his hand. “I believe four of a kind beats a full house, even with aces high.”
The hot head jumped up from his chair. “You cheated,” he shouted.
He grabbed the edge of the table and dumped the contents on to Mr. Wiley’s lap. Coins and cards went everywhere. He reached for his gun but came up short as the sheriff, who happened to be standing directly behind him grabbed his wrist before he could clear leather. He took his boot to the back of Branson’s knees and as his legs buckled, the sheriff threw him to the floor and drew his own gun. Branson was down on his face before he knew what hit him.
The sheriff had his gun pointed at the back of the man's head. “I think this game is over,” he stated with authority.
Douglas Wiley was on his feet with a derringer pointed directly at Branson as he lay on the floor. He released his grip on the derringer and it disappeared up his sleeve.
He looked down at the sheriff and stated. “I reckon I’ll just pick up what belongs to me and be on my way.”
The sheriff immediately looked up and locked eyes with the gambler. “How much is yours?” He asked.
Wiley responded. “All of it.”
The sheriff removed the gun from Branson’s holster and got him to his feet. As he ushered him toward the door he turned to Mr. Wiley and commented, “I’ll need to see you in my office… to get a statement.”
An hour later Douglas Wiley walked into the sheriff’s office. He closed the door behind him and sat down across from the sheriff who was at his desk. “I believe you have a package for me?”
The sheriff was still surprised that his contact turned out to be Douglas Wiley. “I would never have guessed it to be you. Not in a million years.”
“Isn’t that the idea?” Replied Douglas. “My apologies for taking so long to contact you. I had to be sure it was safe. I’m glad you came into the saloon when you did. I almost folded a winning hand just to keep the game alive.”
Sheriff Hascal opened the safe and handed over the package. “What’s in it?” He asked.
“I don’t rightly know,” admitted Douglas. “All I know is this slavery issue is getting ugly. A lot of good men on both sides of the argument are dying and the sooner it ends, the better. This package is going up North and it must be delivered by the end of the week. I’ll ride out at daybreak. Thank you for your patriotism. I’m sure this won’t be the last package you’ll be receiving.”
Sheriff Pat Hascal stood and shook hands with Douglas Wiley the Third. “It’s been a pleasure Mr. Wiley, a real pleasure.”
Douglas Wiley the Third turned and left the office. Sheriff Pat Hascal wasn’t far behind. He retired the light over his desk and headed back to the Buckaroo. With cowpunchers in town, this was sure to be a long night.