Western Short Story
Lane Gabriel sat his horse in the shade of the huge oak and watched the hanged man sway gently back and forth on the rope that had strangled him to death. Cicadas hummed overhead in the tree’s leaves. The horse’s tail swished at buzzing flies. A trickle of water in the nearby creek offered the only contrast to the sounds of summer heat.
The dead man’s hands were bound behind him, his face so swollen with fluid that the features were barely recognizable. It was past noon. The sun burned brutally hot but nothing stank of death. The hanging was recent.
Urging his palomino forward, Lane drew his Bowie knife and stood in his stirrups to cut the corpse down. The body thumped to the ground, kicked up a spurt of dust that drifted away on the breeze. The horse shied but calmed as Lane stroked its mane.
A rustle in the dried grasses along the creek brought Lane’s head around. His hand thrust back the tan duster at his right side and he drew his Colt Peacemaker with one swift and practiced move.
A wheat-haired boy of about eleven stood there. He held a fishing pole in one hand, a rusty tin pail in the other. Then the boy’s gaze dropped to the dead man and he stiffened. His face went ashen and his gaze leaped back to Lane.
“You killed my pa!” he blurted.
--- 2 ---
Another creek, another time. Lane remembered coming out of the woods behind his family’s cabin to find the place torn apart, the house burned, the garden savaged by churning hooves, the mules shotgunned dead. His farmer father had tried to fight, had been horsewhipped halfway to hell before someone planted a crop of bullets in his chest. Lane’s mother was gone. His fourteen-year-old twin sister was gone.
--- 3 ---
Lane stared for a long moment at the boy who’d lost his pa, then holstered his pistol.
“I didn’t kill him,” he said. “I found him. Someone hung him. Have any idea who? Or why?”
The boy seemed to recognize the truth of Lane’s words, but though his mouth worked none of his own words would come. He set his fishing pole and pail down carefully and walked over to stand above his father’s body. His eyes were wide, but dry.
Lane dismounted. He reached a hand toward the lad’s shoulder, then drew it back.
“Where you live, boy? Where’s your ma?”
The boy looked up; he had gray-blue irises a little darker than Lane’s own.
“Ma went to heaven on a fever,” he said.
“How about a neighbor?” Lane asked. “Where’s the closest?”
The boy lifted a skinny arm, pointed north. Then he sat down abruptly next to his father’s body and dropped his chin into his grubby hands.
--- 4 ---
Lane sat at a scarred table in a small sod house some four miles north of the hanging site. He pushed away a plate he’d emptied of beans and cornbread and reached for a cup of black coffee steaming nearby. Across the table from him sat a slat-thin man with dark hair named Frank Wilhelm.
“Boy’s called Jake,” said Wilhelm, seeing that his guest was finished eating. “Jake Frieberg. His pa was Ben. They were around here before the wife and me. Maybe six years.”
It was early evening, growing dark. After burying the father, Lane, with the son in front of him on the saddle, had ridden to this hardscrabble farm where a few chickens clucked and a few hogs rooted. The farmer had invited them in; his wife had dished them food but the boy wouldn’t eat and she finally took him off to a bath and bed somewhere. And still there’d been no tears from the kid.
“Any idea who did the hanging?” Lane asked.
“I reckon Hitch Carter. He’s the sheriff. But John Taylor Bishop would be the reason.”
Lane sipped his coffee. “And Bishop is…?”
“A devil,” a woman’s voice answered.
Lane looked up to see Mrs. Wilhelm coming out of the back room where she’d taken the boy. Nora Wilhelm was blonde and substantial, in her late thirties maybe, a few years older than her husband. She wore a starched, high-collared white blouse and a dark blue skirt that brushed her heels. Schoolmarm clothes, Lane thought. Though as far as he could tell she was a farm wife. No more, no less.
“That doesn’t tell me a whole lot, Mrs. Wilhelm,” Lane said. “Lot of different kind of devils in the world.”
Frank Wilhelm straightened in his chair as Nora came up behind him and placed her hands firmly on his shoulders.
“Mr. Bishop is a devil of the worst kind,” she said. “A man who preys on those weaker than himself.”
Lane took another sip of his coffee, set the cup down slowly. “Ma’am, you’ve just described a substantial portion of the human race. Maybe you could be a bit more specific.”
Nora Wilhelm’s face narrowed. Her lips pursed tight as if she were getting ready to spit a retort. Her husband hastily forestalled any explosion.
“Bishop’s an Easterner. Made his money there, they say. I don’t know how. Got some idea on becoming a big rancher out here. He showed up about four years ago. Started buying land all around the town of Sparta. Built a big house on a hill there. He’s got some longhorns that he don’t do much more with than look at. Lots of folks think he means to get into politics.”
“Why would he want Ben Frieberg dead?”
“Bishop wants all the farmers dead,” Nora Wilhelm snapped. “Or moved out of this country. He wants to own everything he sees.”
“I know of Hitch Carter,” Lane said. “Crooked and lazy as sheriffs come. But he’d still need some halfway legitimate reason to hang a man.”
Frank Wilhelm shrugged. “I don’t know. There’s wild cattle down along the Brazos River. Bishop’s been claiming they’re his. But I know Frieberg used to kill one once in a while for meat to feed himself and his boy. Maybe that’s it. Frieberg loved his kid; did his best to take good care of him since the mother died. It hasn’t been easy.”
Lane finished his coffee abruptly and stood. He took his hat off a nail by the door. “I thank you for the hospitality,” he said to the Wilhelms. “But I’d best be riding on. I trust you’ll take care of the boy? See he gets to family, or whatever?”
“Of course,” Frank Wilhelm said.
“Aren’t you going to do anything about it?” Nora Wilhelm demanded.
“Nora!” Frank protested, but cowed under the look she flashed him.
Her gaze found Lane again. “Well?” she asked.
“Not sure what you expect me to do, Ma’am. I’m no lawman.”
“I know who and what you are. I’ve seen your picture on that poster. I’ve heard men talk about Lane Gabriel. You’re a gunfighter. Up there with Hickok and Holliday. The farmers around here don’t know how to use guns for more than hunting deer and rabbit. They can’t stand up to Bishop and his men. But you could. For once you could use that gun on the side of right.”
A familiar feeling, almost a comfort, worked through Lane—a cold, black anger. He let it spill into his words: “If you saw that poster then you know I’m a wanted man. An outlaw. What makes you think I give a care about this little piece of Texas and the people who live in it?”
Nora Wilhelm’s glare didn’t soften, though her voice did a touch. “Because I saw how you held that little boy in front of you on your horse.” She turned then and stomped off.
Lane’s coldness punctured. A sudden rage struck through him like the jolt of a bullet. This feeling was hot, unfamiliar. At least since…. He opened his mouth to curse the woman’s retreating back, then fought his lips closed again. He glanced at Frank Wilhelm, whose sun-browned face had paled. It took him a moment to say calmly:
“I appreciate the grub and the hay for my horse.”
“Welcome,” Wilhelm said. Then hastily, “Don’t mind Nora. Sometimes she thinks the world is a lot simpler than it is.”
“I reckon,” Lane agreed, though his mind was turning elsewhere. He nodded his head toward the farmer and stepped out into the night. In a few minutes his palomino was saddled and he rode north on a path that would take him far from the Brazos River and the grave of a hanged man.
His thoughts traveled farther and faster.
--- 5 ---
“Looks like you’ve had it rough, boy,” the man had said when Lane came down to their campfire along the Pennington Trail.
Lane had only nodded at the man and at his wife with the bruise on her cheek, and at the four dark-headed kids who said nothing but watched him with wide eyes. The only worthwhile things he’d carried away from the destruction of his family’s farmhouse had been an old Colt Dragoon and four dollars his father had hidden in a pair of worn leather boots. Most everything else had been taken by the raiders, including the food.
Lane was hungry and the couple fed him a watery soup with half cooked slices of potato in it. They wouldn’t accept money when he showed them the four dollars he had and offered to pay for his meal.
Later, the man passed him the whiskey bottle he was nursing from and Lane took it, though at fourteen he’d never tasted liquor before. He slept deeply that night, without the nightmares that had been troubling him.
When he woke up the family was gone. So were his money and pistol.
--- 6 ---
“Dammit” Lane cursed.
He drew the palomino to a halt and looked back the way he’d come. But instead of the trail over which he’d ridden, his mind fed him images of the dry-eyed son of a murdered father. Lane hadn’t cried either when he’d found his father dead and his mother and sister missing. He hadn’t cried while he dug a hole to bury his pa. His only tears had come days later when someone took the gun and money that were the only vestiges he had left of his family.
Reining around, Lane spurred his horse toward the town of Sparta. And justice.