Western Short Story
“Just take his boots,” said the outlaw chief from his mount. They were the first words he said as he looked down at poor dead Jed Hawkins, a G-Bar 2 ranch hand, shot where he sat on the ground because he mouthed off at the chief outlaw, Skid Garner, still proudly mounted on his stallion with no care for the dead. The mounted man had a serious face cut by a good number of encounter remains; scars, creases, a serious redness that ran down his neckline into his shirt, making him far more fearful than uncomfortable, a stick-out in any gathering, mounted or not.
Those few words of his were clarified by his contemptuous comments and more questions, “He don’t even have a gun. What kind of cowboy was he? Probably one of the church-mouse poor if you ask me. What the hell kind of a cowboy was he supposed to be?” His laughter ran off down the valley, no tethered horse in sight, no remuda, no cattle, and no campfire anywhere near.
Skid Garner had no idea this was the second time that Jed Hawkins had been robbed in a dozen hours, his horse and his gun taken earlier by two ratty-looking men who got the drop on him and stole what they could. In the interim, he wrote a note, tucked the single tear-out page into one of his boots and buried his little day book and the pencil under a rock, a sure feeling that this was to be his bad day, or worse, because everybody has one once in a while. Of course, this feeling already had a good start with him, as duly noted.
All his riding pals knew he wrote little sketchy pieces in a daily routine of speaking his mind, capturing his thoughts, keeping track of all his days. He was sure all his hidden and stolen property would be found: the day book and the pencil, his horse and his gun, when his pals came looking for him and saw none of it near him.
It was fact to him: they’d not stop looking until all possessions were recovered: they were like that, all the hands from the G-Bar 2 spread in Oklahoma where he had worked for close to 10 years.
A few hours later, Garner and his gang of six were down range a dozen miles from the body of Jed Hawkins when one of them, with Hawkins’ boots across his saddle, found the note inside one boot as he fiddled with the boot positions across his saddle.
“Hey, Skid, that guy you shot back there left a note in one of his boots.” He had pulled his horse to a stop when that announcement was made, showing the small scrap of paper in the air like it was an extra prize of loot.
The finding did not disturb the leader in the least, who tried his hand again at comical evasion with a quick question: “Did he write it before or after I shot him, Lupo?”
The laughter from the crew was near hilarious, and was fully expected by Skid Garner, leader of such men who responded as usual. “What’s it say, this note in a boot writ by a cowboy without a horse or a gun?” It was the usual kind of put-down from Garner.
“You know I can’t read, Skid,” said Lupo. “I’ll give it to Hank who’s better at it.” Not a word more did he add, the response from the boss man what he fully expected, say something, get bitten back; it was always the way things went with Garner.
He handed the note to another rider, young, sour-looking, with a permanent scowl on his face, who also halted his horse in place, and read the note aloud, pausing only in a few spots, his voice as sour as his looks but heard by every member of the gang; “If this note is found by anybody but myself, it means I have been twice robbed on my worst day. But it also means that I am bringing down on you who did this all the Hell you can imagine from my riding pards who will tear down walls and turn canyons inside-out to get those who harmed me. We are a close lot of men, by every measure and every man, and I summon them down on you with a vengeance only the Good Lord can allow. One of them is my brother and another one is my cousin. I call down on you, from sunset to sunset, the Devils in Black Hoods and long legs. From this moment forward the Devil in men will come after you with the grace of the Good Lord and my best wishes for their luck. Beware is all I can say to you. If I am harmed any more, hapless and lonely here in my deep despair, your Devil is coming, your Devil is due. My grandad made sure I read the Good Book from front to back after I lost my parents, and I know the lessons learned. Harken to those in Black Hoods and long legs! They will come upon you in the night, the dark spirits with their Black Hoods and long legs each and every night from this day forward, mark well these words of mine!” Signed, Jed Hawkins, G-Bar 2 ranch hand.”
The silence among the dreaded band, from the top dog to the least of them, was suddenly total, a unified understanding that they had been cursed because of the needless death to a man of the books so strange to all of them, including Skid Garner who also had never read a note in his life, never mind one whole book.
“Ah, it’s just a chunk of hogwash if you was to ask me,” Garner had spurted in immediate reaction. “I suppose it’s meant to get under my skin and make me feared of what I can’t see even if they are wearing the Black Hoods of the night atop their long black legs like they’re spiders or something like that on the loose.” The shrug was part of his reply, the standard his crew expected from him in all cases and considerations, no matter the consequences around them.
He gestured his disdain with one wide sweep of his hand as if he could brush them away with that one hand. “Hah, what a joke,” he thrust at them. “Think that’s gonna keep me awake tonight or any night out here in these hills we’ve come into, likely as good a hideout as we’ve had in a long while. Hell, we can even have a fire in one of these caves without fearing the law, or anybody spotting us and letting the law know where we are. We know they’ve been looking high and low for us for over a year now and ain’t even smelled us out yet. Just keep following me, boys, and we’ll get our piece of the big pie yet. It’s bound to be in our lap before we even know it. A bank, a stagecoach loaded with gold, a hunk of a dream, and you can bet on it.”
He slapped his hands together as if a dream had been summoned from beyond the hills and the far ranges that showed great prominence for a new hiding place, a layover spot. They could rest there, and hide, as long as they wanted.
That following flicker of their eventual fire light in the night was seen by one of the G-Bar 2 riders posted by the foreman, Chet Collins. “You keep that location to mind, Cal, and take Nick with you. Keep it marked, but don’t go near them. Don’t make any contact. We’ll do that as a full-up and legal posse of our own. Jed left his stuff so only we could find it. Must be some fearful types in them folks we got to tend to before this day is done. Jed has been buried proper but the job ain’t done yet, not by a long shot. We’ll catch up with you in the morning, just leave a clear trail. We’re gonna get some sleep, and you gents can sleep tomorrow as long as you want.”
He swung around and said to the others, “You gents did a great job today. Jed’d be proud of you. His book was pretty cool, telling us part of what happened and we can guess the rest. Getting shot dead like that calls for murder again, I don’t care who knows it. We take care of our own and Jed knew it right to his bones.”
The two lead riders, finding and losing and finding again the flicker of flame on the rocky climb, halted their movements and set up in the night for the night, their horses quiet, no fire, taking turns at sleep, the pursued at rest for the night also, their comeuppance due come a new day.
The corps of the G-Bar 2 riders met up with the two lead men before dawn broke, and Collins, selecting the brawniest of his crew, said, “Big Mike, you get up there behind them any way you can but be especially careful. There’s probably loose rocks up there above that cave they’re in. When any shooting starts, start pushing down any kind of rocks and slabs that will start some kind of commotion or disruption. Lay it on them, as much as you can, and we’ll take care of our end. Josey found their horses and will scatter them if need be. I’m hoping you can make a mighty mess of things for Jed. I damned wish I could be the one to do it.”
The pair shook hands.
With the new sun breaking onto hillsides and into rocky crevices and splattering off the face of the cliff above the cave, Big Mike had positioned several stones and rocks with deliberate care and silence on an edge where he thought they’d do the most damage on a downhill run to the cave and whoever was hiding in it.
He was licking his lips with entertaining visions, when he heard a shout from below him: “Hey, Skid, I saw someone move down there,” and then he fired one round downhill.
All Hell broke loose apparently from all over the mountainside, with the scattered G-Bar 2 crew firing uphill, the Skid Garner gang firing downhill and the entertained Big Mike Murphy slid the first of several rocks, boulders and stones loose on the side of the mountain.
The result, as if he had aimed them for the task, was directly down over the cave mouth, a thunderous rush of loose stones and rocks in an unerring cascade, as if some Devils in Black Hoods and long legs had sent their damnedest of souls for this single mission.
The rumble came, and the torrent and the cataclysmic shifting of moveable terror came roaring down the cliff-face causing screams and wild firing and scrambles to the inside of the cave by men who knew their sole protection was the mountain itself, for there was no other way to go, not yet realizing there was no way out.
Big Mike Murphy himself had to duck away as a smaller part of an avalanche passed down past him in a continuous roar. He hadn’t even fired his pistol at those who had killed his best friend Jed Hawkins, the gentlest of men among men.
When the wild and loose roars stopped, when abrupt gunfire ceased, when the dust settled and final silence, along with realization of all that had happened and would happen, came upon all these characters, the awful sense of silence from both entities came like a whisper against the face of the cliff. That’s when Big Mike Murphy, from the side of the mountain, let out a road of approval and satisfaction shared by the entire G-Bar 2 posse.
When G-Bar 2 foreman Chet Collins, standing in recognition of a duty done, patted Jed Hawkins’ note book in his shirt pocket, he nodded slowly and muttered, “Wait until I show this to the boss. He probably won’t believe it.”