Western Short Story
Chuck Throng couldn’t believe that there had been seven deaths by a back-shooter in less than 10 days, and there appeared no tight connections between any of the dead men beyond ranchers or ranch workers in the Tim’s Hill Territory.
He couldn’t figure out any solid reasons; neither card games, or fights over ladies, or any horse trades gone sour. But someone in the little town of Tim’s Hill was a murderer, and a sneaky, cowardly killer at his approach from behind, and not a single sign left to start a search from. He was befuddled completely, and none of those few men he found little favor in because of their ways, even came into his thinking. One of them showed any of those characteristics. Murder be damned when it came this way, the worst of the lot; two men squaring off, deliberately called out and answered in the dusty main street, was legal as far as he could make it, under the current law, current belief, but not ever from behind; that was gallows work at the end, a sure rope on a sure neck, and not a tear in the lot.
What really set the murders apart were the non-connections between the dead, none of them more than a mere nod at meeting, like strangers anew on each meeting day, into or going out of town, every day having travelers on the long trail from the river ports and the big ranches in the valley.
Chuck’s son, Chuckie Two as he was dubbed from day one, was now 12 years old and given to wandering the local rocks and hills, scouting, seeking things to save like souvenirs, rabbits on the run, an occasional deer or fox, were enough to drag him out every day.
“You keep your eyes open out there, Chuckie,” he said, “for sure. Strange things are happening, as I’ve told you since they started. Not one lead yet has been found, not a single scratch, hole, or footstep. I want to know when and where you go every time out, and that has to be a promise from your end. Got it?”
He tousled his son’s head the same way his father had tousled him, as warm as an expression one could imagine, especially between a man and his growing son. both of them amid some kind of horror from the unseen, and all Tim’s Hill on the table, all the way, like the meal was set.
So, two more mounted men fell dead on the trail, both shot in the back, and no idea as to where the shots had come from; not an inch or a yard as reminder.
And as incident or accident happens to many of us, and to kids for sure from unseen angles, young Chuckie found a hole in a cluster of rocks at the foot of Lady Jane’s Mountain. He had to crawl turtle-like to gain entrance, soon found the expansive inside, like a kid’s dream come to life, a place nobody else knew about. He could have hugged the rugged rock walls as if they were his own, each touch like a touch of the mountain itself, rich with dreams, rich with darkness, rich with mystery because under torch he found proof that someone else had been down there inside the mountain.
And then he stepped on a spent 44-40 shell from a most likely Winchester .38 WCF, a local favorite, and probably in the hands of dozens of the local ranchers.
But he knew he was onto something that would help his father still locked into a quandary about the back-shooter, Chuckie Two knowing he had found the secret of secrets. The lockdown for his father.
He searched the whole cave, every nook and cranny, finding on natural shelves several stocks of ammunition as though there was enough to knock off all of Tim’s Hill sometime in the future. He was lit up with excitement, absorbed every bit of the future as it might develop.
And the he heard the sound of footwear, boots, spurs still intact and in place giving off a rhythm, song-like, melodious, as though the booted man did not know he now shared his cave of caves.
Chuckie Two hid himself in a natural corner. mute, still, breathless, fear crawling up his back until he remembered his father rubbing his head. All of it came home to him and he knew that somehow, he had to tell his father what he had found. He closed his eyes, closed his mouth, almost lost his breath, dared not move, until a body passed within a few feet of him, the smell of the liquor from the man’s breath coming as strong as dung, the cave alive with odd life, slow movements like he was checking for visitors, and finding nothing, as yet.
The unknown stranger, the obvious shooter from nowhere, moved further down the tunneled cave, away from Chuckie, who let slow moments go by before he followed the stranger, the shooter, saw him settle himself in front of a narrow aperture, a narrow slice of light, where his rifle, barrel levelled, was probably pointed at a target.
The rifle echoed the whole length of the cave, Chuckie could feel it rush past him, then die as quickly as the target beyond must have died, unseen, unknown, without apparent reason, another death for Tim’s Hill, another problem for his father.
He let the shooter pass him, smelled the liquor again, the odor of burnt gunpowder, rifle-killing shot in the air, death at the end, a woman without her husband, kids without their father, Tim’s Hill less one more good man.
He had to stop counting because they built up his father’s obligations, duties, body count, him and the shooter at odds. He had to even it up, somehow.
He waited. He held up, keeping himself steady, true, hurting all over with bodily demands, time the back-shooter to leave.
Hours came and went, passing slowly, like a good night’s sleep, a slow dream of pleasure, a gifted surprise from nowhere. He knew had slept standing up, nut did not know how long, and he heard, in the heart of the rocks around him, the sound of hooves in the darkness.
When he handed the fired shells to his father, told him what he had done, where he had been, where he could take him on the morrow, to wait out the killer, the sheriff rubbed his head again, the last word of thanks, father to son.