Western Short Story
Highway to Heaven in the Foothills
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Steve Bancroft wore his sheriff’s badge, with a deep sense of pride, against his chest, always feeling the weight of its demands working on his mind, body and soul. As a result, he and his horse made a difference in their small Texas world; the hills, and the mountains, farther out, enfolded with a now-and-then serenity, or else a heavy composition of greed, including death by varied causes, varied degrees.

He wanted to believe he could get the area closer to the likes of heaven or a heavenly dream. And be damned the usual struggles to make his area a worthier part of Texas.

Life at hand, he knew, was not a stroll along a softened path; it called for courage at any hour of day or night, and anyplace where man had goods wanted in diverse ways by others. Latest news, notice of the presence of a new local gang, had come with a bang and its singular messages of their cruelty, always leaving a body as a note of their activities, whether that death was committed during the robbery or raid, or well after it was over, the first crime committed, the worst yet to come, as their practice showed.

But committed as a message to all as well as to him, the face of authority.

Bancroft felt the late acts were mostly sent to instill fear in the region’s people. He was correct in that assumption. Parting words from the leader were always, “Los asesinos galvanos estaban aquí,” or “The murderous Galvano cutthroats were here.” The declaration was always loud and clear, and sometimes the translation back to English was added, as if the gang knew nobody at the scene spoke Spanish.

That point was imprinted on Bancroft’s mind; it opened his thinking to a wider degree, his mind always checking the people at each scene of needless death for those who fit his sole conclusión to data: someone in the área was on the inside with the cutthroats, a double-dealer, a sneak thief and murderer of the worst sort.

When the gang struck the little hamlet of Chevron Hill, off itself from cattle runs and drives northward, a garden town of farmers working the land in their own way, Bancroft had himself a clearer view of a possible suspect: he had to be standing right in front of him when he gathered the citizens of Chevron Hill and they stood as a small group right within arm’s reach.

Flashing back in his mind came the horrible deaths of previous attacks, the needless ones used as messages of fright; an old woman slashed with a cutlass-type weapon sharpened to the nth degree, a child handed immediate death the same way, a bone-slicing instrument with power in its one swing unto death. He thought no hanging tree or gallows could be a proper match for the cutlass swinger than to feel his own death via his own instrument rather than a rope suddenly taut on a limb, the goodbyes said too quickly for these crimes; if not too fast, the cutlass would leave an amount of lingering pain for all the atrocities committed.

As was his custom, and one of his particular strengths as a lawman, he discerned the looks of miscreants, criminals, bad asses, from their own secretive actions and visual responses, facial expressions, reactions to certain threats of exposure, which could mean retaliation by neighbors, friends, possibly by close members of his own family, and also could be rolled into one set of eyeballs in front of him almost talking away under pressure, like owning up without really saying so.

In the Chevron Hill gathering, two sets of eyes seemed to speak back to him, and they were the eyes of two brothers, Robert and Richard Shackle, two apparently rugged and raucous individuals bent on their own pleasures at the expense of neighbors. Though the two were farmers, workers of the land, who could and should love the ground they walked on, who worked their hard days to get some payday from Mother Earth, no matter where the payment came from.

Bancroft’s first assessment on the pair of brothers was right on the button, saying one of them was the tip-off and the other one knew it. That could mean an unresolvable conclusion because of unspilt blood that connected the two farmers; brothers be damned.

He’d be back on their backs in short order, even as a rider chased him down and advised him of another attack and another needless death, the slashing of an aged grandfather in front of his whole family.

He had known that grandfather, Burton Wills, for a number of years and had been warmed at several campfires by the old man’s tales of earlier days of sacrifice and salvation by extraordinary means against all kinds of powers spread by greed and theft, and life appeared to make small calls on feelings of remorse or pity.

Bancroft rushed to get the new details, but carried with him the ideas he had formed of the Shackle brothers, earthly giants in their own rights. Even as he rode away to a new scene of death and desecration, of needless murder on a most helpless man, the pair of brothers flittered and filtered through his mind, and it was his hope that such actions on his part would reveal a method to halt the madness.

Knowing he hated his own gunplay, was not nearly expert at its calling, did not have the ability to shoot a twig off a tree limb or bounce a rock from place to place by gunshots, he would kill to protect the innocent, if need be, including his own life for the good of others.

The scene at the Burton Wills ranch, the BWG (Burton Wills’ Grounds) was misery at its peek, the old man tossed onto the fence he had driven in place and hacked twice by the merciless cutlass leaving scattered pieces of the old man hanging by threads of skin on parts of the fence.

A young man stepped forward and said, “Sheriff, I’m one of Burton Wills’s grandsons, Harrison Wills, and Grandpa called me Harry boy. Kinfolk, some of them in shattered feelings, asked me to tell you about all of this.” He spread his arms as wide as he could, as if to include every piece of its grounds and every person connected to the ranch of the old man’s death.

“That’s fine, Harry boy, you tell me in your own way how all this came down on you folks, right from the very start.”

Bancroft saw the tears start to well in the young man’s eyes, so he tapped him on the shoulder ass he alit from the saddle, saying, “Take your time, son. My time is all yours.”

“It was quiet like always and then at that far end of the ranch there came the sound of a single shot and lots if us, family and hands, rushed to see what that shot was, and we never saw the gang of horsemen rush in from behind us and trap us all together. They had us under their guns as they stripped the house for what they wanted. We don’t know all what they took. Only Grandpa could be able to do that, but they tossed that poor old man onto his own fence and one of them, a big whiskered gaucho in a black outfit drew this sword-like weapon from a saddle sheath and cut Grandpa in chunks as he hung there on his own fence and yelled out in Spanish, which Grandpa taught me early on, Los asesinos galvanos estaban aquí, or The murderous Galvano cutthroats were here.

“Is that all he said?”

“Not another word, and they were gone as quick as they had come, six of them, all mounted on big steeds, all solid black, horses and men. Come and gone like that,” and he snapped his fingers. “Just like that. Some of us could hardly breathe, it was so fast.”

He snapped his fingers above his head for the third time. It all spoke to Sheriff Bancroft about the precision in their ranks, like it was military in the very beginning and the first time that aspect had hit Bancroft.

He had another clue.

“Did any of the other riders speak, have anything to say in the whole affair?”

“That’s a funny part, Sheriff, and funny that you should ask, because not a word came from any of the others, except always from the leader Not another word was said.” He shook his head the same way Bancroft shook his head, with wonder and deep question. “And they all wore black masks,” added Harry boy.

“Including the leader?”

“Yup, him too, and also in solid black, him and his black horse.” He swung his head in disbelief, and disgust. “It made me wonder, Sheriff, that it looked like one leader heading a gang of men who looked just like him, but not a single one of them spoke, never said a word, like a bunch of dummies.”

Sheriff Steve Bancroft had already been at such thoughts and inevitable conclusions, though difficult to prove at this time.

Later that day, back in his office, Bancroft started to add up all the information he had obtained or had seen for himself. There were the Shackle brothers, black masks, non-speakers, black outfits including black trousers, the sense of military training having been part of their backgrounds, who he knew had been in the military, who wore black pants most of the time, why they wore them all the time (as if for quick response, for all other garb could be in their saddle bags and on their horses for quick reaction to a call or message that another raid, and another murder, was about to occur.

He decided to bring things to a head, and on his terms. Some of it was guess work, some of it wasn’t.

Waiting until nightfall fell onto the town, and onto the rails in front and beside The Last Stirrup Saloon, Bancroft, without any light but the dim window lights of the saloon falling meekly on the hitch rails, began to poke his hand into a dozen known mounts of men who spent much of their time in the saloon and who might disappear for a day or part of a day, so much so because those to-and-fros had at one time or another raised his curiosity. In the semi=darkness, in a mere 30 minutes, he had gathered enough evidence to bring to those involved while they were in the company of many of their friends and acquaintances, right where it would have the most success of any measure. Of that too he was sure: Right makes might was his belief. He’d hold court and fort on that premise, and in a saloon to gain his edge.

H was in the saloon on his second drink, when one of the black horse owners, Jake Lamonz, said, “Hey, Steve, you look like you got something on your mind. Want to share it with us?”

“Hell, Jake, I was talking to Manfred the tailor just today who said his business had jumped up quicker than he ever believed it could happen, and it came all of a sudden with some new customers he’d never served before, making pants and shirts for them. Good business for him. He’s happy as a pig in a poke.”

It was all as though Jake felt the first break in all the times that strange and murderous raids had been accomplished by men unknown to the general populace. It brought his response: That’s good for Manfred. He’s got to make a living. That’s good for the area.”

“Know what he makes, Jake?” said Bancroft.

“What difference does it make what he makes?” with a new edge to his voice.

“I tell you, Jake, that there are three men here wearing the same kind of pants. Let them line up at the bar and all the gents in here can say they are exactly the same kind of pants.”

“What the hell does that prove?” said Jake.

“Are they afraid to stand at the bar and show us?”

“Hell, no! Stand up there at the bar, gents.” He motioned to the three men.

One of them said, “Why the hell should we?”

Jake said the magic words; “Because you work for me, that’s why.”

Obediently the three men in black pants stood at the bar, as if on parade.

Jake laughed aloud and said, “Didn’t I say that this doesn’t mean a damned thing, Sheriff?”

“It sure looks that way, Jake, but I think their gun belts mess up my thinking. If they put their gun belts on the bar, it would clear my mind.”

Even as the trio began to loosen their gun belts, the barkeep caught up with the sheriff’s intentions. His mind clicked into place.

When the gun belts were on the bar behind the three men facing the crowded saloon, the barkeep slipped them out of sight, just as Jake swung around to challenge the sheriff, and saw the sheriff’s pistol aimed directly at his chest.

“Drop your gun belt, Jake, right where you’re standing and I’ll tell you what’s coming down on you and your boys, because I found in the saddle bags on four black horses out front, your horses, the black shirts that Manfred made for these gents and their couple of buddies soon to be in court for the worst of all your crimes, and I’m sure heaven won’t be in the verdict. That’s all I got to say, Jake. I’m going back to my office.”

He waved his hand around the saloon mob and said, when he reached the door, “I don’t know what these other gents have to say about all this, but I’ll be having a coffee.”