Western Short Story
As he stood outside the doors of the Gray Bull Saloon, Hack Wilson could hear the sheriff, Shrug Sloane, still shooting his mouth off about himself, his duties and accomplishments, his views on the folks of Ten Hills, Oregon, and the lone unsolved crime perpetrated since the badge was pinned on him by his father, the retiring sheriff and mayor of Ten Hills.
“You got to owe it to the old man,” Sloan was saying, “who could have put this badge on anybody, but he put it on me, knowing me and how I’d handle it, how I’d get things done.” Slapping his hands together in the universal reaction to a job done quickly and cleanly, seemed to please the man more than the listeners.
Without looking into the saloon, Hack imagined the sheriff leaning on the bar, a few folks at close attention right near him, practically at his elbow, practically on their knees. It made him mad as hell.
Then he heard a voice from elsewhere in the saloon, say, “What do you say about Toby Gill, Sheriff? That case ain’t never been cleared up, no gunner ever found there, ain’t that right?”
“Oh, hell, man, we been over that a hundred times. Some stranger shot him from long range with a rifle. Must have been an old sniper, as I said more than a few times, and a helluva shot, too, I might add while we’re on the subject.”
Hack had enough and stepped into the room noisier than his normal manner, the questions building up in him with each step as he approached the bar, asking loudly and in a most curious manner, his face all scrunched up with that deep curiosity, “What makes you think he was a super sniper, Sheriff? Can you tell me that?” He pointed his finger around the crowded room as if he was picking out a target.
By that time, Hack was standing directly in front of the sheriff, blocking his view of the crowd, feeling the differences at work in the room behind him, like curiosity and doubt in one wrap were circulating freely, others in the saloon having similar ideas of their own but not yet openly expressed.
Sloane, big enough to fight his own battles one would think, wearing an extra-wide-brimmed Stetson as if it were an umbrella, and as black as his horse was, tethered out front of the saloon, only shrugged as he always did under pressure, when being called into question, reacting the way one does when he doubts his own words in front of an audience, “Well, he got him right in the chest, didn’t he? That’s proof enough for me. You and everybody here have to admit that was a great shot wherever it came from in the darkness out there, like the moon ain’t been around in a week or more.” He pushed his glass toward the barkeep without looking or saying a word, just as though the subject should be closed to business.
Hack stepped front and center and said, “What if he missed his target? What if he hit the wrong man?”
Shrug came back without another thought about the question, without thinking of the other possibility. “Hell, Hack, I was right there. That shot was plumb dead center in his chest.” He tapped more than once a spot on his chest, adding, “Plumb dead center, right here.” His finger continued to tap at the midpoint of his whole being, that point selected meaning sure death.
“What if he was aiming at you, Sheriff? What would you say to that?”
A sudden silence fell on the room, just as if a huge blanket had come down atop every customer in the saloon, shushing them into silence, making room for a ton of plausible explanations, including an unknown shooter out there locked and loaded.
“At me? What the hell for? I don’t break the law. I uphold the law. Who the hell wants to kill me?” It didn’t come out as a question but did come as a negative. He opened his hands and held them out, as though they explained away the stupidity of such a situation existing or even being thought of.
“What’d I do for someone to aim at me? I’m the sheriff. The town needs me.”
The words came hollow. And brought to the room a near-silent echo, a whisper with a question mark that ran around the room in quick acceptance. No town person would object to the Shrug’s sense of importance, which all of them accepted as in-bred in him and coming directly from his father, indeed the early hero of heroes in Ten Hills, a community that many of them agreed was the end of the Oregon Trail, at least for them getting to the Willamette Valley in the midst of the Cascade Range on the eastern flank, Oregon Coast Range on the west and the Calapooya Mountains at the southern end of the valley
He looked at Hack Wilson with a definite sense of disregard, and then showed that feeling to the whole room.
“That’s what I’m asking, Sheriff,” Hack Wilson replied in a sure voice, “What did poor Toby ever do to a single soul in this town?” He spun around and sought out the owner of the general store, and said, “What’d Toby do for you, Slim?”
Slim Geraughty, the owner of the general store, loved an audience and was dressed for the occasion, wearing a new jacket all the way from St. Louis on the most recent stage, proud of his outfit and the chance for full display of it. And with this opportunity, he knew he had a whole room at his attention on either side of the discussion. It was apparent that he was on Hack Wilson’s side of the matter, and all the way on Toby’s account, Toby being his only employee.
“Well, we all know when Toby as a kid fell off that horse at the Means’ place and that leg of his never getting a cent better. It held him down and back until I gave him the job working the store for me while I was away and then by himself when he got the hang of everything, and that right damned quick. He was the best investment I ever made. Kid worked like a dog for me, right from day one, bad leg and all. Never took a day off, was never late, and when I gave him the keys later on, and not much later at that, he made money for me. You all know that. He was service all the way.”
He tipped his cap in solemn reverence for his former employee, and added, “I ain’t got the slightest idea of anybody yet who can take his place. Being boss ain’t easy. You all know that, and having good employees is the best investment of all. Toby was that kind of investment for me. Some of you ranchmen know that as the first call of business, having a good and ready crew.”
Hack stepped in then and said, “Are you saying, Slim, that you can find no reason for anybody, stranger or otherwise, who had it in for Toby? That nobody you or I know had anything against Toby except for the high regard we had for him as a simple clerk who did no harm to anybody here or elsewhere where, incidentally, he’s never been. Never stepped out of this town once after he got hurt.” He looked around curiously and said, “Is that about six years now, maybe seven years? I’m not sure.”
A man across the room said, “It’s gotta be eight years, Hack. That happened same day my Dorothy was born, eight years old now.” He wiped his brow as though those eight years had been a small forever, and the gesture was probably understood by half the men there.
Hack had another voice on his side and added, “That’s what I’m saying, Slim, that no shooter out of the dark, no unknown shooter or sniper galore had any intention of killing a plain store clerk from long range with a rifle, whether it was out of hate, or vengeance or a lousy old card game gone haywire long before Toby went lame, and Toby never played cards anyway.”
Slim jumped right back in. “That’s just what I’m saying, Hack. Who the hell would want to kill poor old Toby? There’s not a bit of sense in that.” He looked straight at Shrug Sloane as he made that statement. “He didn’t harm a soul in the whole world, even coming out of that terrible accident that kept him out of the saddle right to his end. Never once climbed up and mounted a horse. How can anybody get along without a horse?”
It was more a statement of fact coming from the storekeeper who didn’t seem to be a storekeeper for long after hiring Toby.
“Meaning,” queried Hack, “that the shooter missed his target and was aiming at the sheriff. You thinking that way, Slim? You thinking maybe some others are thinking the same way?”
“Just like you said in the first place, Hack, before all this palaver started, and maybe the sheriff will look at it that way, make himself think if he remembers anybody who wants him dead for some past deed, wants his job, owes him for something he can’t pay back?”
There were a few yahs and yeahs from the packed saloon, enough to bring a total silence across the room, everybody staring at the sheriff as if waiting to hear an explanation of some sort, an old feud come to light, a slight of character, an old kick in the pants for some stupid reason: everybody could dream up or invent their own cause.
Hack Wilson said, “Shrug, if you come up with something real, well I’ll be the first one to volunteer for a posse or put on a deputy’s badge and swear the oath.”
Murmurs crossed through the room like punctuation on the loose. Then he asked the sheriff, “Can you recall any incidents where folks felt you’d stepped on their toes too hard, going back all the way to when you were a colt? That’s a question you might have to dwell on, Shrug; one you may have to think about for a while. It’s not necessary to come up with an answer now, but I bet you’d feel better if there’s some reason, even if it is perhaps small and insensible, that comes back to you. After all, you owe it to yourself, to all of us, and to Toby for damned sure. If we have a wild-ass killer loose in Ten Hills, we sure ought to dig him out wherever he’s hiding. I bet everybody here agrees to that.”
The hum in the crowd carried a sense of total agreement, numbers of them leaning over to whisper in the ears of others sitting at the same table with them, and one man, at a mid-room table, slammed his fist down on the table top in total agreement with Hack Wilson’s statement.
Somebody else pounded his table top, and another and another, and the room began to shake, and Shrug Sloane sent his mind in a deep search for any piece of memory that would throw some light on the topic. His brow was scrunched, his eyes half closed, his mouth hung open as he bedeviled himself to come up with a solution, an idea, any excuse to get out from under the hammers of Ten Hills drinkers pounding for an answer.
Hack Wilson, studying the sheriff, saw the break coming first, the enlightenment of the sheriff’s eyes saying he had at least found a direction in which to search. And the room, as one, leaned forward, expectant, waiting for words of an old duel, a forgotten use of gunplay, a threat of death long gone down the trail.
The sheriff stood at attention, jut as if he was waiting for words to blossom, to come to him from wherever, and light came into his eyes. “Me and Charlie Peters wanted to take SallyMable to the dance and she suggested we have a horse race and she’d go with the winner.”
To a man they knew Shrug Sloane had won the race, for SallyMable was his wife and had been for a dozen years. “He got angry with me because I said I’d ride my old chestnut and he knew his horse would beat mine, but I showed up for the race with a horse my father picked for me, a Palomino instead if my Roan and he ran like blazes.”
From the audience came a loud voice that said, “Charlie got out of the hoosegow a couple of months ago, I heard. Was in the Mill Creek jail almost two years. I bet he ain’t any different than when he was a kid, a real pain in the butt. I heard a backstabber too. Don’t have to stretch your imagination to see Charlie taking aim at the sheriff and missing and hitting poor Toby right where he stood.”
Hack Wilson stepped to the front of Sheriff Shrug Sloane and raised his hand, saying, “That’s good enough for me to get going on this, Sheriff. Swear me in. Shouldn’t be hard to find Charlie Peters in the valley now. We get a couple of Ka-lapooian trackers and we get him pronto. They can smell him out any place in the valley or the mountains.”
Slim Geraughty, in his finery, stood up at his table, raised his glass, and said, “To Toby Gill. Rest his soul.”