Western Short Story
The gallows was a simple affair, little more than a triangular pine frame with a cross-piece nailed between two legs and a two-by- four brace at an angle from there to the ground. It looked like an artist’s easel, with the exception that it was twelve feet high at the tallest point. A rough wooden ladder leaned unevenly against it, and Sheriff Frank Hanson stood on the next to last rung tying a noose to the cross-piece.
Through the hemp loop Frank could see a bristling mound of tumbleweeds caught up on the blacksmith’s pole corral down the street. The view didn’t excite him and he bent back to his work. The handle of a hammer stuck out of his trouser pocket and a half- ounce of ten-penny nails were in his hand, impeding his tying. He called down to a watching cowhand.
“How’s that look, Stilts? Think it’ll hold?”
The cowhand inspected the contraption with a skeptical eye. His nickname was Stilts; he’d had it burned into the back of his belt in Mexico once on a dare.
“Looks a tad flimsy,” he said finally. “If he’s got any heft to him that thing’s liable to fall apart before he’s choked.” He spat a smidgen of tobacco grease to one side and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Of course, the fall might kill him, Frank, but I doubt it. You ain’t got her up high enough.”
“Well, it’s all we’ve got. I never had to hang a man before.”
“You want to do it right,” Stilts said. “No use to hang a man and him wind up with a sprained ankle instead. Make this town look foolish.”
“I guess if it breaks we could string him up from the hotel balcony,” Frank said. The thought sat uneasily, but the hotel was the only two-story structure in the entire town. All the other buildings were low mud adobe or canvas affairs, and mostly sloped to one side anyway. A man would likely slip off and break a bone trying to climb around on the roof of one of them with a hammer and a rope.
There wasn’t anywhere else in town to tie a hang-noose on that he could think of. Nor outside of town, either. There wasn’t a tree taller than a leggy bush within twenty miles, and besides, his jurisdiction ended where the desert started. It didn’t leave him a lot to work with. He sighed, and scratched absently at his thigh with the fistful of nails.
“I don’t think you can hang a man twice anyhow,” Stilts said, “no matter what he done. If all you do is bust his ankles, well sir, that’s all you get to do.” He folded his hands around the hitch rail and leaned forward to spit again.
Frank added a final square knot to the grapefruit-sized clump he’d already tied and climbed heavily down the ladder. Sweat stained his faded cotton shirt and it clung like fur to his narrow back. Once safely on the ground he craned his neck to observe his handiwork. He cocked his head to one side and sucked thoughtfully on his teeth.
It looked to him like the noose dangled just a hair off-center. It didn’t matter one whit to him, but he was worried about what Caroline would say. She was a picky woman, and she’d likely complain. She might even make him rebuild the whole damn thing.
The hanging was her idea to begin with, and she’d been tight-assed particular about every detail of the proceedings so far. She even talked Bill Sutt into giving up the lumber for the gallows, which was no small feat considering Bill had planned for months to build himself a wine rack out of it. No matter that there wasn’t a bottle of wine to be found within four hundred miles of town; Bill wanted him a rack. He’d seen a picture of one in a catalog and it stuck in his mind like a sliver.
“It look crooked to you, Stilts?” Frank asked. He lifted the ladder and awkwardly nudged the noose with it to see if he could adjust it any. “The noose, I mean.”
Stilts snaked out of the shade of the boardwalk and tipped his head back for a better look. It was rare that anyone asked for his opinion, and he intended on doing a rock solid job of giving it.
The noose looked dandy to him, but he wondered if he shouldn’t say it was off kilter just a mite. If Frank became satisfied with the gallows he’d up and leave back to his office or the saloon, and there was nobody else around to talk to. Siesta time was siesta time. Hell, if he’d had someplace cool to go to sleep in he’d have by God done it. Stilts squinted one eye half closed beneath the wide brim of his hat and held up a thumb for good measure. He decided to compromise; it was his nature.
“Tad over to the left, Frank, and I expect you’ve got her plumb.”
Frank wielded the ladder with both ropy arms and poked again at the knot. It didn’t slide any that he could see. He felt the exasperations coming on, and considered stepping over to the saloon for a cool beer instead. That would beat working like a dog in the hot sun. He hoisted the ladder once again and gave the knot a good lick from the side. It moved a fraction of an inch to the left, and an errant nail fell from the crosspiece onto his boot and scratched it.
Stilts made a circle between his thumb and forefinger and looked at the noose through it with his squinted eye. “That’s got her, Frank,” he said. “Hold her right there.”
Frank dropped the ladder to the ground beneath the gallows and sighed again. “Hell,” he said, ”I reckon it’ll do to die on.”
There was an argument in progress at the bar when Frank walked into the saloon. Tiny Roarke, the bartender, was trying to get a nickel to stay stuck to the bottom of a beer glass with his spit, and the nickel wouldn’t. Juan Santiago had bet him a dollar he couldn’t do it, which was high stakes for Juan. He wouldn’t normally bet more than two bits even on a sure thing, let alone a bar trick, but he was feeling lucky.
Tiny was worked up about the situation because he was sure he’d seen the same trick done once in Abilene. It didn’t appear complicated, but here the nickel kept on dropping onto the bar top with a clatter. Each time it did Tiny squeezed his teeth shut on a wedge of dirty towel until his cheeks cracked, hoping to manufacture some improved spit. He wasn’t about to give up; Tiny was stubborn to a fault.
“Howdy, Tiny. Juan.” Frank nodded to them both and took his usual spot at the end of the bar, where he could see out the window to the street. He hitched his pants up and eased his holster where it chafed his hip. His gun was an old fashioned Dragoon Colt and it weighed nearly eight pounds.
“My spit ain’t working right,” Tiny informed him. “Not enough stick to it.”
“How so?” Frank said. He didn’t really want to know. He wanted things back to normal, and the gallows loomed large in his mind.
Tiny didn’t answer; he had a mouthful of damp towel in a pit-bull grip and was concentrating hard. His beefy face looked like a slice of watermelon.
Juan poured himself another slug of mescal and tossed it back. He was delighted to have stumped Tiny on the bet, and he figured to get drunk on the dollar. He stood on tiptoes and leaned over the bar to watch as the nickel fell once again. This time it spun on edge for a second like a lazy top before rattling flat side down.
“I’ll bet you a quarter you can’t do that again,” Juan said. He was reckless with the liquor. He wished there was a cockfight to go to; he might win twenty dollars at a cockfight, he guessed, lucky as he was feeling.
“Do what?” Tiny released the towel and eyed him with mistrust.
“Make it spin like that,” Juan said. He pulled a pickled egg out of the jarful on the bar and swallowed it. “I bet you can’t do it again.”
“I’m not trying to make it spin, Juan.” Tiny rolled his blue eyes to the heavens with Irish theatrics. “I’m trying to get it to stick to the bottom of this glass.” He released a small blob of spit from pursed lips and wet the tails side of the nickel.
“You can’t do that either,” Juan said, smug. “You owe me a dollar.” He ran a crooked finger through his mouth and felt for debris.
“I didn’t say I could do it every time, now did I? Just you hold your horses and watch this.” Tiny pressed the nickel to the glass with a horny thumb, and released it. This time, though, he didn’t turn the glass back right side up. He held it upside down with the Indian head laying there face up in a puddle of froth.
“There, I done it,” Tiny announced.
“That’s not it. You have to turn it upside down,” Juan said.
“It isn’t stuck there, you’re holding it up. That’s cheating,” Juan protested.
“What do you say, Frank,” Tiny called down the bar. “Is this nickel stuck to this glass or not?”
Frank pulled his mind back into gear with an effort and looked at the two men. For a minute there he’d been drifting nicely, and all thoughts of the impending hanging had feathered away into nothing. He focused on the upside down glass that Tiny held triumphantly toward him. “I’d say it’s a draw, Tiny,” he said finally. “Pull me a beer, would you?”
Juan stomped indignantly across the plank floor and banged through the batwing doors, letting in a small dust devil that had been meandering aimlessly down the street. A stack of old newspapers got caught up in the wind and flew around the saloon like kites.
Tiny leaned his elbows on the bar and regarded Frank with interest.
Frank knew what was coming, but he wished it wasn’t. Tiny was single-minded; he’d never let up if he had a question he wanted answered.
“What’s his name?” Tiny asked.
“Who?” Frank feigned ignorance and took a swallow of beer.
“The feller you’re gonna hang tomorrow. What’s his name?”
“I don’t know his right name,” Frank said. “He won’t tell me.” He looked out the window at the gallows in the street and a heavy dread filled him.
“He’s got to have a name,” Tiny insisted. “You can’t just carve ‘unknown horse-thief’ onto a headstone. It won’t look right.”
Frank looked sadly into his glass. “I don’t guess he’ll care how it looks, not once he’s dead.”
“I guess if he won’t say, he won’t say,” Tiny said, “but it isn’t respectful.” He busied himself with a pyramid of bottles behind the bar, rearranging them to his liking.
“He just says call him Arlo,” Frank said finally.
Tiny studied the sheriff’s lined face. He poured a shot of whisky from his special bottle and placed it on the bar in front of Frank’s beer.
“On the house,” Tiny said.
“Thanks.” Frank sipped the whisky and let its fire slip down his throat. He felt like drinking the whole bottle, but the thought of hanging Arlo while hung over himself was too much to bear. Dammit, he liked Arlo, and he wished the boy had picked another town to steal a horse from.
“He never should have stole Caroline’s mare,” Tiny said, reading Frank’s mind. “There’s a hard woman.”
“It ain’t Caroline’s got to drop the man,” Frank said. “That’s the thing of it.”
“Well, you’re the sheriff.” Tiny polished a glass with his towel. “Somebody’s got to hang him.”
“I’d as soon let him go.”
Tiny cracked his knuckles. “I heard he’s a known man in the Nations, and wanted. Likely why he won’t give up his name.”
“He don’t look wanted to me,” Frank said. “He’s just a kid feeling his oats, climbed onto that bay drunk for hijinks.”
“He’s wanted now,” Tiny said, “for horse theft. That Caroline has her mind set on it.”
Frank’s shoulders slumped and he looked at Tiny with stricken eyes.
“Tiny, I don’t know if I can do it,” he said. “Make him climb up that ladder and then shove him off it. Jesus, that’s hard.”
“Come on now, Frank, you’re up to it. I remember the time you followed that Corbin fellow all the way to Denver.”
“That was different,” Frank said. “Lord knows I was different. Corbin had it coming, and he knew it. I didn’t have to push him off a damn ladder to choke, I just shot him.” He tossed back the last of the whiskey and toyed with the glass. “I can’t sleep, can’t eat, hell, I’m no carpenter. Stilts don’t even think the gallows’ll hold up.”
Tiny removed his apron and slung it over a barrel. “I’m closing up for awhile, Frank. You sit there all you like.” He walked toward the back door and opened it. “Stilts is no authority on hangings,” he said over his shoulder, “I wouldn’t give it a second thought.”
The quiet emptiness of the saloon grated on Frank’s nerves in less than ten minutes, leaving him morose and edgy all at the same time. He felt the silence keenly, like the first real chill of autumn. He poured himself another whiskey and tried to coax his mind into drifting again, but the edginess stayed with him. The glass-eyed stare of a taxidermied elk hanging on the back wall didn’t improve his mood. It kept looking at him without blinking, a faint challenge in its expression.
Frank stood slowly and faced the moth-eaten trophy with his legs spraddled, his right hand curled around the butt of his Colt. He stared into the elk’s cold yellow eyes, and thought about times when he’d been brave.
“Corbin, I’m taking you in, dead or alive,” he said softly. “Your choice. Make your play.” The words echoed hollowly in the room. He said them again, louder this time, putting his guts into them. “Make your play!”
A shaft of sunlight shone through the window and a swirl of dust motes wreathed the elk’s antlers. The animal’s glass eyes bored into Frank’s own, taunting him. Frank flexed his fingers, and crouched slightly, waiting for Corbin to make the first move.
“What in tarnation are you up to?” Caroline Dupree suddenly said from behind him. Her whipsaw voice split the silence like lemon on a blister. She pushed through the batwing doors and stood with her hands on her hips. “Frank Hanson, are you drunk?”
Frank spun around in a crouch with his Colt halfway drawn and cracked his elbow sharply on the bar. Caroline stood silhouetted in the doorway with the afternoon sun behind her, and for a guilty second he considered shooting her. His funny bone came alive with pain and he pressed his elbow into his side. His ears burned red and he imagined them lit up on the sides of his head. He shoved his gun back into its holster, awkwardly hooked his thumbs behind his belt-buckle and pressed his spine against the bar
“Afternoon, Caroline,” he said, “I was just, ah, just doing some thinking.”
She sniffed. “That’s not what it looked like to me.” Her hair was pulled back in a bun, and she wore a tight gingham dress that showed off the curve of her hips. “I had a look at the gallows,” she said.
Frank’s heart sank. Now what? That noose was as centered as it was going to get.
“It looks fine, just right,” she said. She fastened her eyes on Frank. “You didn’t come by last night. I waited up.”
“I’ve been, well, it’s been a tough few days,” he said. He waved a hand vaguely in the air. “The hanging and all.” He swallowed. “Caroline, I--”
“I think noon would be a good time,” she cut him off, “don’t you? It would give people a chance to ride in and watch. Some folks are coming in already, looks to be a good turnout.”
Frank hadn’t given much thought to the actual spectacle aspect of the thing. A procession of nearby ranchers and their children paraded through his mind, all of them with eager, hungry faces. He shuddered. They’d bring picnics and lemonade, and the kids would watch wide-eyed as their brave sheriff led Arlo up the ladder and shoved him off it to his death.
That did it.
Frank squashed his hat firmly onto his head and stepped past Caroline into the afternoon glare. She followed him, perplexed, the scent of her perfume trailing along like sweet poison. He looked sideways at her and a knot of muscle moved along his jaw.
“Caroline,” he said, “I don’t give a good goddam what time, I purely don’t.” He took the ten-penny nails out of his pocket and threw them into the street. “I quit.”
He turned his back on her and strode down the boardwalk toward the west end of town with his thin shoulders squared, the big Walker Colt banging at his side.
Caroline flushed burgundy and her mouth dropped open. She closed it and it fell open again, she was that taken aback.
“Howdy, Miss Caroline,” Stilts said from a bench in the shade behind her. He admired the way her dress clung to her frame, and hoped to strike up a conversation.
Caroline turned on him like a roadrunner about to peck a snake, but then her expression changed. She leaned forward so he could see the swell of her breasts.
“Stilts,” she said softly, “how good are you at hanging a man?”
Frank walked into his office and threw his Stetson onto the desk with a flourish. To hell with them, he thought. Posters, keys, the jail, the town he’d upheld the law in for fifteen years.... to hell with it all. I’m a free man.
“Hey Arlo,” he yelled, “guess what?”
A muffled, sleepy voice replied, “What?”
“I’m not going to hang you, Arlo, they’ll have to get someone else to do it. I quit.”
“What do you mean, you’re not gonna hang me?” Arlo uncurled himself from his cot and hung onto his cell bars like a long, pale monkey. He was albino, and his pink eyes were close-set on a gaunt, bony face. He was nineteen years old, and so narrow at the hip it was a wonder his pants stayed up. His hair was dead white and shagged over the edge of his frayed collar.
“I’m not going to hang you, simple as that. I quit. I’m not the sheriff anymore. I’m just Frank Hanson, plain citizen.”
Arlo fell back on the cot and stared listlessly at the ceiling. He ran his tongue across his thin lips and wrestled with the news. He’d nearly reconciled himself to his death sentence during the long, slow days of the past week, and now he was confused.
“Who’s gonna do it then?”
“I don’t know, “ Frank said. “Likely they’ll elect somebody, if they can get anyone foolish enough to take the job.”
“Maybe they won’t,” Arlo said, a lurch of hope in his voice. He sat up and looked through the bars. “Maybe they’ll just let me go on.”
“What’s your real name? You can tell it to me now,” Frank said. “Look.” He unpinned his tin badge and tossed it on the desk. His chest felt strangely vulnerable without the tiny weight he’d carried over his heart for fifteen years. He put a thumb inside his shirt and stretched it out to examine the holes where the badge had been.
“What do you want to know for? It don’t make a difference,” Arlo said. “You think they’ll let me go if they don’t elect nobody?”
“I’m curious, is all. I never came this close to hanging someone before, I’d like to fix it in my head with a name to remember.”
Arlo made a tent with his long fingers and looked inside it for a moment. He turned his strange eyes on Frank and said, “If I tell you, you swear not to tell anyone else?”
“Sure, I’ll swear.”
“Alright, then.” Arlo stood up and put his face up against the cell door. His shiny pink eyes regarded Frank from either side of an iron bar. He motioned him to come closer. Frank moved in not a foot away and cupped a hand behind his ear to listen.
“Burps,” Arlo whispered. “My name is Willy Burps.”
“How in hell do you get Arlo out of that?” Frank said.
“My uncle’s name is Arlo. You know, Arlo Boodles, the bank robber. I like his name better, so I borrowed it.”
Frank felt like he’d had the wind kicked out of him. “You’re Arlo Boodles’ nephew?” he said. “That Arlo Boodles?”
“He know you’re in jail?”
“I expect so.”
Frank sat behind his desk and pawed through the Wanted posters until he found the one he was searching for. He studied the likeness and compared it to Willy’s angular face. The resemblance was slight, but it was there. Something about the lack of lip and the narrow set eyes.
“He’ll be coming then,” Frank said grimly.
“Lord, I hope not,” Willy said. “He finds out I stole a horse he’ll shoot me himself.”
Arlo Boodles rode into town leaving all seven members of a pursuing posse dead in the hills behind him. He thought nothing of it, nothing at all, except he wished he had more bullets. Now he’d have to buy some, and he was stingy with his money.
He was a tall man with sharp movements that suited the rangy gait of the buckskin he rode. His clothes were dusty from weeks of rough travel, and his flat crowned hat shaded a hard, sun-blackened face. His bleak eyes swept the rutted street as he rode, missing nothing. He wore a simple, unadorned gunbelt strapped around his lean waist. A Navy Colt was in the tied-down holster on his right hip. The wooden butt of the gun gleamed with evidence of meticulous care and years of use.
He sat his horse as if tacked to the saddle, and rode slowly down the center of the street. He eyed the makeshift gallows as he rode past, and the harsh lines of his face deepened. He hated a hanging town nearly as much as he hated a horse-thief, and he hated a horse-thief more than anything. Mules, cows and donkeys didn’t count for much, but to Boodles a man’s horse was sacred.
He kneed his gelding toward the livery stable on the north end of town and slipped the rawhide thong from the hammer of his Colt.
The hostler’s name was Joe Feeney, and he was napping in a high-backed chair he’d perched backwards against the open window of his office. He had a face like a turtle, with a beak of a nose and wrinkled skin. His hair was iron gray and cropped close to his head; when he was younger his wife used to enjoy running her hand over the bristles.
Arlo Boodles reined up outside the window and cleared his throat, but Joe dozed on. Napping was a habit Joe cultivated.
“You open for business, mister?” Arlo said.
The chair tilted forward and Joe’s eyes flew open. He took one look at Boodles and wished he hadn’t. A man shouldn’t have to wake up to a face that surly on a hot afternoon, he thought.
“Who in the hell are you?”
“I’m a customer,” Arlo said shortly. “You open for business or not?”
“You oughta know better’n to sneak up on folks in this town,” Joe grumbled. “People been shot for a sight less.” He got to his feet, stretched, and went through an inner door to the barn. “Alright,” he yelled. “Bring ‘im on in.”
The barn door creaked open and Arlo led his horse into the dappled gloom. He unsaddled the buckskin and rubbed him down carefully with a handful of straw. There was no other livestock in sight.
“Appears business is booming,” he said.
“Ain’t no business to speak of,” Joe said.
Arlo slung his saddlebags over a rail and withdrew a Henry rifle from its scabbard on his saddle. “Seems I recall this town used to do a fair bit of trade, with a bank and all.”
“Town used to do alright.” Joe looked him up and down with suspicious eyes. “You one of them?” he asked. “Otherwise you gotta pay in advance.”
“One of who?”
“Here for the hanging, you know what I mean. I seen a half-dozen just like you ride in this week already.” He turned and spat into the dust. “Buzzards. Cain’t wait to see a man swing.”
“Who’s to hang?” Arlo said.
“Feller they call Arlo,” Joe said. “White-haired boy looks like a skinned rabbit. Stole him Caroline Dupree’s bay mare last Friday night.”
“Is that a fact?” Arlo said ominously.
“This meeting’s now in order,” Bill Sutt said. He was a pear shaped man with a small head, wistful eyes, and a thin voice that carried, a habit he’d acquired since his hearing began to fail.
The members of the town council turned their heads and the buzz of talk in the saloon died down as Caroline stepped forward. She took a position beside Bill and faced the room. Her face was pale, and two spots of crimson burned high on her cheeks.
“Frank Hanson quit this afternoon,” she said bluntly. “We no longer have a sheriff, and we need to do something about it. That horse-thief is supposed to be hung tomorrow, not to mention it’s Friday night and Lord knows what trouble might pop up.”
A little blizzard of conversation erupted among the crowd, which consisted of regular drinking customers as well as the town council. Tiny Roarke was happy to host the council’s meetings at his saloon, but he wasn’t about to let them cut in on his weekend receipts.
At the bar Donny Cobb nudged Stilts in the ribs and whispered something in his ear. Stilts looked at him inquiringly, and shook his head. Donny leaned closer to tell him again, slightly louder this time. Unfortunately for Donny, the hubbub in the saloon ceased just as he spoke, and his words carried clearly into the silence. “I got something fixing to pop up right now,” is what he said.
Caroline’s face was a study. Her eyes glowed black like twin spring twisters and her skin mottled.
Stilts was plumb embarrassed to be standing next to Donny in the resultant hush; he felt stripped naked by a dozen unfriendly stares. In his nervousness he managed to swallow his plug of tobacco down the wrong pipe, which started him to coughing and wheezing like a bellows. Donny was just tipsy enough to think Stilts’ predicament was hilarious; he slapped him on the back with a wicked cackle and whooped at the ceiling.
Stilts’ eyes watered his long face, and for a moment he felt suspended in time. The entire saloon was watching, but he couldn’t control his windpipe. His Adam’s apple stretched itself feverishly up and down his throat like a lump of gristle, and he thought it might bust out of his neck any second. He finally hawked up the offending wad with an ugly noise and it fell off his lip onto the bar like evidence.
Donny’s face was red with mirth. He prodded Stilts in the side with a stiff forefinger once more and whooped anew, he was that tickled. Nobody that had been around him ever claimed Donny didn’t have a sense of humor when he was drinking.
“Donny Cobb, you shut your mouth!” Tiny said sharply. “This is serious business, you have no call to offend Miss Caroline like that. You apologize right now.”
Stilts removed his hat and bobbed his head in what he thought might be a bow. He looked more like a pigeon eating spilled grain, but he was earnest about it. “Sorry, Miss Caroline,” he said.
“Oh hell,” Donny said, “I guess I’m sorry too.” He slapped a quarter on the bar and left the saloon, but the twinkle in his eyes remained with him.
Caroline composed herself and glanced down at her list, which contained the names of men she considered to be possible replacements for Frank as sheriff. She mentally crossed Donny Cobb’s name off the list, even though he was competent with his gun and didn’t shirk work. He was too pranky a character, she decided, and he lacked a serious demeanor. Besides, after what he’d said the thought of him strutting around town with a badge on irked her. That left only two names to choose from, and one of them was Stilts Mallo.
“It looks like either Stilts,” she said slowly, “or Henry Garvey.”
“Henry Garvey?” Tiny almost hiccupped at the mention of the name, and he looked over at Bill Sutt with frantic eyes.
Bill was equally dazed at the prospect. He plucked nervously at what little hair he had left and made a noise like a stepped-on chicken.
Henry Garvey was a Jack Mormon miner with a hole in the dirt somewhere in the mountains to the north. He rarely came into town, but when he did he caused a commotion. He once walked in out of the desert unannounced dragging a dead cougar by the tail and tried to trade it for a crate of canned peaches. He was a big-boned, rough man who sported a black beard and dressed in the skins of animals he shot himself. The rumor was that Henry hadn’t taken a hot water bath in eleven years, and the few folks that had been indoors with him vouched for it. He was the only man around besides Frank who didn’t owe Caroline any money, though, and that impressed her enough to put him on the list.
“Well, Henry’s a tough man,” Caroline said. “We need a tough man.”
“I believe I’d rather have Stilts,” Bill said, risking Caroline’s wrath. “Stilts has drove cattle all the way to Kansas, and he’s a fair hand with a gun. I’d say he’s as steady as most. Plus he don’t stink near as much.”
“That is true,” Tiny agreed. “Anyhow, Henry’s not likely to accept the nomination, he’d have to spend too much time in town around people. You know how he hates being under a roof.”
“Stilts it is, then,” Bill said. “Do we need to vote?” He looked cautiously at Caroline. “All right. Stilts, get on over here, you’ve just been elected sheriff. Raise your right hand. No, the other one...”
Just then the saloon doors opened and Arlo Boodles walked into the room like he owned it, his Henry rifle tucked beneath one arm. He stood for a minute and scanned the faces in the crowd like a hawk hunting rabbits. He slapped dust from his dark clothes with heavy thwacks of his left hand, raising a silver cloud of it, then stepped across the plank floor and took Frank Hanson’s regular spot at the far end of the bar. He propped his rifle against the wall and studied Tiny with cold eyes.
“Who’s the sheriff in this town?” Arlo said.
“Come on,” Frank said, “I’m letting you go.” He unlocked the cell door and pulled it open.
Willy’s eyes were as big as his face. “You are?” he said.
“Yep, you’re out,” Frank said. “I won’t have a horse thief shot by his own uncle in my jail.”
“What should I do?” Willy stood up on his skinny legs and stomped his feet into his boots. “Where’s my hat?”
Frank opened the cabinet by his desk and withdrew a bundle. “Here,” he said, “hat, jacket, gun belt, and the six bits you had when you come in from wherever it was you came from.”
The boy strapped his gun on first, Frank noticed, and put his hat on second.
Willy shrugged into his jacket and turned for the door. “Well, come on,” he said, “let’s get moving.”
“What do you mean, let’s get moving?”
“My uncle hates horse-thieves, but he hates sheriffs more. I expect he’ll shoot you after he shoots me, so I thought we might as well team up and head out.”
“Head out where?”
“Somewheres he ain’t,” Willy said.
Frank stepped into the saloon with Willy in tow, hoping to say a quiet farewell to Tiny. The first thing he saw was Stilts lying on the sawdust covered floor with a bullet through his chest, and the second was Arlo Boodles standing at the end of the bar sliding a smoking gun into his holster.
“Oh Lord,” said Willy, “it’s Uncle Arlo.”
Arlo pinned his nephew with expressionless eyes.
“You steal that horse, boy?” he said.
“He was drunk and borrowed it,” Frank said. He stepped around Stilts’ body and faced Boodles. “He didn’t exactly steal it.”
“And who are you?” Arlo said.
“I’m the one arrested him, but I just let him go.”
“Let him go? You can’t let him go,” Caroline snapped, “he stole my mare.”
“Shut up, Caroline,” Frank said. He looked at Arlo. “Why’d you shoot Stilts?”
“Same reason I’m going to shoot you. I can’t abide a sanctimonious lawman.” He shot a wicked look at his nephew. “Or a horse-thief.”
“He done quit the law, Uncle Arlo,” Willy chipped in.
“Stilts wasn’t a lawman,” Frank said. “He was barely even a cowhand.”
“Makes no difference. These folks elected him, I shot him. Blame them if you’re a mind to.”
Frank looked the gunman in the eye. “I blame you, Boodles, and I charge you with murder. I’m taking you in, dead or alive. Make your play.” Frank’s hand hovered over the butt of his Colt. “Believe me, I’d rather shoot you than hang you,” he said quietly. “Make your play!”
Arlo Boodles went for his gun.
Saturday morning dawned clear and dry, just like every other summer day in that part of the country. Plain citizen Frank Hanson dismantled the gallows with Willy’s help and fashioned two rough crosses out of the lumber. He handed one to Tiny Roarke, who stood watching.
“Tiny, you’re a hand at whittling, make this one for Stilts,” he said. “Carve his name in there deep.” He picked up the other cross and ran his thumb thoughtfully over the wood. “Put my name on this one, amigo, but you plant Boodles beneath it.”
Frank walked to the hitch rail and pointed Willy to Arlo’s buckskin gelding. The white-haired boy climbed into the saddle and waited.
“Come on, Willy Burps, let’s get,” Frank said. He swung aboard a long-legged bay that was hitched outside the general store, and nosed her into the street. “I’ll ride this one.”
“But Frank, that’s---,” Tiny began.
“I know whose horse it is,” Frank said with a grin. “Just tell ‘em Arlo Boodles came to town.”
He let out a whoop Donny Cobb would have been proud of, and galloped hell for leather out of town on Caroline Dupree’s fine bay mare.