Western Short Story
When they talk about Billy Gatling they say he came crooked and left crooked, bent over the saddle of a posse pack horse, dead as dead can be. But he was never hung by his neck, and that’s what he swore the day in court when he was condemned to hang; “Ain’t nobody in this room ever going to hang me by the neck.” He said it the way a man would say it knowing he already had a way out of his situation.
Of course, history and fate, like always, constantly join forces when upstarts, criminals, and the condemned move into prominence in a region. The "study of any place” reveals its inhabitants without leaving anybody out of the picture, the good, the bad and the indifferent.
And so it was in this little town.
Camp MacGregor, once an army post in Colorado, became the Town of Camp MacGregor when the army moved out and the people living outside the old camp simply took the sign down from the command headquarters and mounted it on the general store so it read “Camp MacGregor Gen’l Store,” which was all the room they had for the name and still keep it proper and grammatical.
The inhabitants of Camp MacGregor were a mixed lot as much as the entire west was. Here, in Billy Gatling’s hometown, the people were first settlers families, discharged veterans of the army, “turned-out” Indian scouts no longer needed by the army, deserters who had fled both the Blue and the Gray armies in the Great War, miners and mountain men who grew too old to manage and subsist in the hill country, women who were passing through to other places by demand and who slipped into open hiding in the town, entrepreneurs who fell drunk off their drummer’s wagons, freighters who lost their wares and wagons and walked into town to re-settle their intentions, and saddle tramps run out of “other places” who had come to the end of a long trail and saw opportunity to rest their weary bones.
So Billy Gatling and Camp MacGregor merged and were rarely separated in talks of either one, for all their beginnings were as varied as the landscape about them.
Seven men and one woman stood up in court in front of Judge Ezra Cummings and swore they saw Billy Gatling draw down on Everett Sommers, who had no weapon on his person, and shoot him several times. The count of shots heard ranged from two to six, the difference which the judge discounted as being brought back to mind by people stunned by disbelief, which he believed. Sommers was “a rat of the first order,” they all agreed, but “out here in the territory” a man has the right to protect himself and Sommers had none at hand.
“Guilty,” the foreman of the jury said after three minutes of discussion, to which the judge said, “Guilty, Billy, and you’ll hang by your neck for this crime,” to which Billy answered with his sworn oath.
None of them realized that Billy, in one of his rare working efforts had labored for a week on the construction of the jail and sheriff’s office and with foresight and good sense, considering what he had already committed in the nature of crimes, managed to build an escape under the jail, which one day he might have use of. He simply did not drive all the nails in one section the way he had driven under the sheriff’s office. And not enough nails to begin with. As a further assurance of escape, he inserted a piece of treated iron in the lower portion of the wooden floor.
More than once, thereafter, while drinking in the Broken Horse Saloon, he imagined himself locked up in that jail and enjoyed the look that would cross the sheriff’s face on a morning of revelation … the cell empty and Billy Sure-To-Hang long gone out of there.
Billy Gatling, on his way back to the cell after the trial, began to set up his escape. He said to Sheriff Jack Witherspoon on the way back to the jail, “You know, Sheriff, that my gang will be coming to set me free before you know it.”
“What gang is that, Billy?” the sheriff said, never having seen any gang at all that had proclaimed Billy Gatling as a member. “Where are they, Billy, this gang of yours? I’ve never seen them, never once. Not here in town. Not at the trial. Not at the Broken Horse. No place.”
He moved Billy Gatling behind bars and didn’t wait for an answer as he locked the cell door, with his prisoner swinging around and replying, “You better keep your eyes open, Sheriff. They’ll be here before the gallows is built.”
Gatling crawled onto the single bunk, placed his clasped hands behind his head, and added, cranking his voice higher as the sheriff was departing, “You ask some of them fellas at the Broken Horse where my gang is and one a them might tell you, Sheriff. He surely might tell you if you was to give him an extra drink or two.”
Witherspoon turned around and said, “You don’t fool me none with that kind of stuff, Billy, trying to get me to buy a few drinks for your pals. Take it from me, they’ll all forget you as soon as you’re gone. That’s the way it goes out here.” He closed the door on the way out as he said, “I’m just going to check on how the gallows is going. Should be done by late evening.”
In The Broken Horse Saloon that evening, after he had checked on the completion of the gallows, he had an audience of younger men at the bar,
“Can you imagine Billy trying to get me to buy some of you gents, or one tattler in the group, a few extra drinks to tell me where his gang is located.” He laughed loud and long and ordered another drink from the bartender also laughing his way through the conversation.
One of the men at the bar said, “Whose gang, Sheriff? Billy’s gang? He ain’t got no close pal, never mind no gang. But I’ll take one of them drinks and tell you just where his gang is hidden.” He spun about and said to the others, “How’s that sound, boys, the sheriff buyin’ me a drink, or two, to get me to tell where Billy’s gang is hidden, now loadin’ up their rifles, getting’ their horses all set, gettin’ the pack of dynamite they swiped off the minin’ company up in the hills just yesterday or last week when Billy was first put in jail.”
His following laughter set off the entire saloon, all of Camp MacGregor it seemed laughing at Billy Gatling’s last known pronouncement about his not getting hung any time soon by anybody in Camp MacGregor.
The sun passed on in its continual voyage, evening swept day under its feet, shadows slipped across all of Camp MacGregor, supper hour was forgotten except by an owl as it hooted from a lookout tree behind the livery, looking for its next meal, and Sheriff Witherspoon and a lively group of townsmen set up the history of Billy Gatling, unleashing all the stories carried like baggage until this point, the near hanging of a fellow townsman.
The stories came like a flash fire on the grass.
“You never knew this one, Sheriff, I’ll bet, the time Billy, when he was a kid, asked Jimmy Carson to hold up the turtle he caught down at the river so he could see how big it was, and when Jimmy held it over his head, Billy shot that turtle square in his round back, killing him on the spot and scaring Jimmy so he never come near Billy again. Never knew that, did you, Sheriff? What he was like as a kid, that Billy.”
Witherspoon, shaking his head, said, “Hell, I never heard that one. Why didn’t someone tell me that one? Not that he’d get hung for it, but it’d help build a character case for sure.”
“That one’s nothin’, Sheriff,” added another drinker. “One time, out on a drive with Clete Wellum, one of the few times Billy worked at all, he put a dead mouse right beside the cook’s load of bread on the tailgate of the chow wagon, and nobody’d eat it and the cook never knew and Billy ate the whole damned loaf all hisself. Laughed half the day over that. What he was like.”
“Cook should have known that one. I’d ‘ve snuck a dead snake in Billy’s bedroll for that, believe me. I could answer stuff like that. Working a drive is hard enough without someone playing tricks and no one getting even for it. Wouldn’t let that one go by if I was on that drive. No, sir.”
Another biographical volunteer offered his piece to the discussion. “They say Billy shot that girl you found down by the river. ‘Member that girl with her dress all ripped and her basket of flowers found in the brush like they was tossed there.”
“Who says that?” the sheriff said. “I never heard that side of things. Never once.”
“Oh, you never looked at Billy that way, Sheriff. He was a wild one even as a kid. You know what I heard once, way back when? He shot that colt of Wellum’s out of spite. Just shot him from the edge of the woods out back of the pasture because Wellum let his cows walk on his mother’s garden and didn’t pay her what she lost. So he up and shot that colt Wellum was up all one night waiting for it to come.”
“I never heard that one either,” the sheriff said. “You folks sure kept me in the dark about Billy. Too bad none of this came up before, we might have got in the way of him shooting Everett Sommers. Now his kids’ll never get to know their daddy.”
Sheriff Witherspoon, uncountable times that evening, shook his head in disbelief, as if full truth was never to be known about his prisoner.
The night went on and the stories and tales about the life of Billy Gatling went on, all the supposed dark parts of him getting exposed in one revealing session that matched the night in its darkness, and the projected future of a man to be hung come a daylight soon enough around the corner.
As the stories carried on, drawing more men of the saloon into the midst of the revelations hidden in one man’s life, that man went to work in his jail cell, the deputy in the office playing cards by himself, dozing off now and then, once bringing a cup of coffee to the lone prisoner sitting on his bunk, face in his hands, contemplating, the deputy was sure, the hanging coming too soon for any thinking man.
But, with a moon sleeping behind a mountain and then sleeping behind a few clouds, and silence most beneficent, Gatling’s fingers searched out for the piece of iron he had slipped between the boards where bars met the floor in a heavy beam. He worked silently in his search, sure the piece was in one corner and not the other, and found it, the slight tip of it exposed on his fingertips. Slowly, again as silently as possible, he worked that tip upward in its bind until it was grasped in his closed fingers and worked until it was free.
He did not even utter a sotto voice “Hah,” when he held the long metal piece aloft in the darkness of the cell, in the darkness of the night. There was a simple nod of self-commendation as he heard his own voice say, in the echoing courtroom, “Ain’t nobody in this room ever going to hang me by the neck.”
Soon enough, without any additional words said or heard, Gatling was at the special boards making up part of the jail floor. He worked diligently at nails that had been driven several times into the floor boards and withdrawn each time, assuring the grip of the wood was weak, loose, and easily retrieved again. He stuck each nail in his pants pocket, smothering the sound, keeping them from making noise as he worked. All the specially handled nails came loose in this manner, from the three floor boards so treated, and with one look around the cell, at the darkness it held for some men, the final darkness, he slipped down through the hole in the floor. Into the emptied nail holes on the top side of each board, he rubbed a fingertip’s worth of dirt, filling up the holes. Then he drew the loose boards back into their places.
Under each of the three boards on the bottom sides he placed the retrieved nails through other nails driven into the board and hammered on the bottom into a circular fashion, nails he had bent during the construction.
This act locked the boards back into place and would give him additional time to get further away from the hangman’s noose.
The condemned man stole a horse and saddle from the livery, rode it to a hollow tree in the near foothills, retrieved a “just-in-case” gun and holster and a canteen, and rode away into the deep night, saying, now as loud as he wanted, sometimes near singing it like a refrain from a song, sometimes like an orator at the close of his delivery for all the world to hear, “Ain’t nobody in this room ever going to hang me by the neck.”
In the morning, on his first check of the jail, the deputy still asleep in his own cot, Sheriff Witherspoon also heard Billy Gatling, from the courtroom, and from wherever he was now, saying again and again the same set of words, “Ain’t nobody in this room ever going to hang me by the neck.”
He could not believe what he was hearing.
But he knew Billy Gatling better than he had known him before.