Western Short Story
Shaking his head, confounded, disbelieving what he was seeing, Sheriff Wade Gordon stood over the dead man, his face beaten and torn as if some beast of malevolent proportions had committed the murder.
Turning to his young deputy, Clay Simmons, a still-green youngster wearing a bright badge, highly impressionable, but a good man with a gun and on a horse, the sheriff said, “This ain’t a bit natural, Clay, what I’m looking at. It sure ain’t natural.”
“I never seen a man who died like this, Sheriff. Looks like he was clubbed to death. Had holy hell beat out of him. Ain’t much left of his nose, both ears ripped like rags, and I don’t know where his teeth have gone, at least most of them. I don’t see a one of them on the ground.”
“There are a few other things you ain’t picked up yet, Clay. You got to take in everything you see. I don’t care if it looks like nothing, if it’s something, remember it.” He laid a look on his deputy as if he was saying, “Make darn sure you understand everything I say to you. Some day you’ll get to carry the load.”
“I just don’t know what you’re getting at, Sheriff. He’s dead. He got the hell beat out of him. Must have had a helluva fight with someone way out here from town. He ain’t going to tell us anything, nothing more than having his horse sit over there off the trail like there was nothing wrong to begin with.”
Gordon stood back from the body on the ground, which was a regular cowpoke they could not identify as yet because his face was beaten so viciously the job would be difficult for the dead man’s best friend, or even his brother.
“Remember what I’m saying, Clay. This poor cowpoke was not in a fight on the ground. He was knocked right out of his saddle, like a board hit him in the face at high gallop or he run into a low tree limb on the dead run. Wham! Down and out and dead, maybe even before he hit the ground. His clothes can tell you that, like he just came from town, had a bath at Maizie’s place, got his clothes washed or changed, whatever, and headed back to whatever ranch he worked on or some trail drive now heading home.”
“Okay, Sheriff, I guess I saw none of that. I got a lot of learning to get done yet.”
“Let’s get him into Henry Seaver’s in town, get him ready for burial after we see if someone can tell us who he is, if he got some bad enemy hanging on him for a long time. I don’t think this is any accident.”
“Like someone was waiting out here on the road for him?”
“Something like that, Clay. Maybe exactly like that.”
In the junction town of Barnstead, in the shadows of the Rockies near sundown, it did not take long to find the identity of the dead man on display at the coffin maker’s place, under a sign rigged by Seaver at the direction of the sheriff; “Tell us who this man is. We don’t know him. He was murdered. Sheriff Gordon.”
Curiosity, of course, makes the rounds in a hurry in most all towns on the trail. Barnstead was no different than the others, with the word running from saloon to livery to general store to hotel lobby to the restaurants on a couple of sites. It was not a hushed reverence, but morbid curiosity at first. “Someone’s dead at Seaver’s place. Nobody yet knows who he is.”
It was just before dark when a cowpoke came to the sheriff’s office. “That dead fella over at Seaver’s place is Lucas Bench, Sheriff. I rode twice or three times with him. Once at the Lazy R and then for Mangan’s last drive all the way up the trail to Catlo. I swear to God it’s him. And he’s got the same bent little finger Lucas got as a kid, from what he said one night at a campfire. It’s twisted right at the big joint. He got it in a jackknife fight. I haven’t seen him in a few months.”
Three days later, the town generally quiet as summer crawled into fall, slow motions coming on the earth, another body was found on the road from Brimler. The body had the same type of menacing injuries, and the cause of death was also apparent, a face beaten beyond recognition. It took nearly a week to find out the dead man’s identity, a deputy from up in the northern part of the territory, a lawman who had never been this far south in any of his duties.
The deputy’s identity was confirmed by telegraph, from a description of the man’s scars, because all personal identification had been removed from his body, but a sum of money, currency and coin, was still in his pockets, about $20. That would be enough to carry him for a week in town, with a bath and shave, food and drink, and a roof over his head. The purpose of his trip was not disclosed in the telegraph, except that “he was on business of this office.”
Sheriff Gordon, approached by the mayor and bank owner, Burt Ringwald, about the two dead men, told the mayor that he was working on the cases. “Doing my best, Mayor. Not much to go on. Looks like he was in a fight out there on the trail and got knocked pretty silly. Maybe clubbed by a board or a log or some other contraption I ain’t thought of yet.” The sheriff did not let on about any of his temporary conclusions he had shared with his deputy. Those points, he argued, he’d keep to his office, meaning him and his deputy.
Ringwald was a different kind of a dude as far as some people were concerned, stand-offish at times, too much of a braggart at other times, and a man who fiddled too much on some matters around town. What he did was run a pretty solid bank for a few years. The bank came first, the town second, if things were looked at with a measuring eye.
“This kind of activity has got to stop, Sheriff.” The mayor’s voice rang out in front of a lot of townsfolk. “I want you to make sure you do all in your power to find the reasons behind these murders. I’ll try to get the council to let you appoint another deputy if you need one, maybe two or three of them.”
He shook his head to show his disgust and added, “Pretty damned gruesome for my taste.” He paused again and Gordon could practically read him as he continued, by saying, “You get yourself and the deputy out there patrolling the road. Like I said, I’ll argue with the council to get you more help if you ask for it. But do something.” He walked off shrugging his shoulders as if he was the most disgusted man in the town.
Ringwald was a tall, well-dressed man on every occasion, as if he would not dare be caught with his guard down, like wearing denim pants or a sweaty shirt or work gloves. Word around the town was that his clothes, every single piece, came special delivery all the way from St. Louis or Chicago or further away, the way rumors get rolling on a gent who generally has things going his way.
The sheriff, like a few other people in Barnstead, had little respect for the mayor because of his real indifference to most matters concerning common townsfolk. Like the time there was a gunfight at a rich rancher’s corral and the mayor tried his best to keep it quiet or treat it as a mere circumstance. The rancher was a big investor in the bank who deserved special attention in all matters, in whatever way the mayor or the bank president could arrange it.
The murdered deputy from up north, “in Barnstead on business,” was finally buried on instructions from his sheriff. “He was a good man. Treat him well and put him in a decent box. I’ll pay. Sent by Term Alexander, Sheriff of Winfield.”
When the third and fourth bodies turned up, one on a section of less-traveled trail, and another on the wide grass east of town, Ringwald came at Sheriff Gordon every chance he could, including railing away at him on the open boardwalk on two consecutive afternoons. The cause of death in each incident was the same as the previous trail murders, a smashing, mashing beating no man deserved.
One of the dead men was identified right away from his odd dress, a drummer about his business; the other remained unknown and might have been a stranger or saddle tramp, or a cowpoke looking for work. He was buried as “Unknown Rider” sketched on his marker. His horse, also found wandering, was given to Henry Seaver in lieu of expenses expended for the pine box and the burial.
Two events came about that Sheriff Gordon had not expected, but the kind of help no man can refuse, though he has no idea of its coming.
The first was the appearance of a saddle bum, but without a saddle, as he proclaimed later on, though he did lug a wrapped contraption on his back in a kind of framework carrier. Small, wiry, looking thinner than he might want to be, dressed as poorly as one can imagine for the times, the young man walked into Gordon’s office one evening, looking confused, hungry, thirsty, a man out on his own, down on his luck.
“Sheriff, I can’t swear by everything I’m gonna tell you, but I believe I saw it happen.” He looked back over his shoulder and pointed that way. “East of town.”
Gordon, searching for facts first in his order of things, said, “What’s your name, son, and where did you come from? How did you get here? Where’s your horse? I don’t see one outside.”
The streak of explanations started. “My name is Bordon Maximus. I started out in Chancellorsville about four years ago and I’ve been moving and stopping and moving since then.”
“What’s that gear you carry on your back?”
The young man said, “That’s my sleeping quarters, Sheriff. It’s a rope hammock of sorts. I usually sleep in it when it’s hung from a tree or from big rocks close enough to do so. I got two iron hooks and extra rope and it does me fine. And I got a hunk of canvas I can hang over me. It’s a lot cheaper than any hotel and as safe as it can be, seeing as I’ve got this far in my travels.”
Gordon got the impression that Maximus would carry on if he was not slowed down.
He pushed a chair at his visitor. “Sit,” he said. “What’d you see out there, son, east of town?”
“Well, Sheriff, I lost my horse a few nights earlier when a mountain lion got him, and had to hide my saddle, and so I was walking. It got near to dusk and I hung my rig in a clump of cottonwoods. I was well off the ground and I figured I was due a good night’s sleep. I could feel it coming on me. Not long after I was up in the air, just about to go off to sleep, when I heard some noise. It was not far from me, and it was a horse. Then I saw a man go behind the trees a ways from me and change his duds. Took them off down to his birthday suit and got some other clothes out of his saddle bags.”
“Is that all?” Gordon said. That ain’t much.”
“Well, I didn’t think it was either, but then he just sat back and stayed still, like he was listening for something. Then I heard it too … hoof beats on the trail, someone coming, not galloping along, but moving steady, sort of. This gent had his hand over his horse’s mouth so he won’t make noise, and waits until a rider passes by on the road. Nothing else is moving out there. The rider goes by, this changed dude starts out to follow the other rider and pulls something from his saddlebag and starts to swing it over his head as he chases the other rider, like he scared the hell out of him. I thought it was a rope, the way he swung it over his head in a loop, and then he got close and just knocked that other rider right out of the saddle with that thing he was aswinging. Then he looked down on him lying out on the ground, looked through his pockets, didn’t take a thing, and just rode off like he had just picked his share of beans or cotton for the day. Just rode off. Just like that.”
He snapped his fingers.
Gordon made notes in a little covered pad he carried in his shirt pocket. Even the deputy had never seen it.
That was the first event.
The second came on the following night.
It was providential at first, then went quickly to good law work.
Sheriff Gordon, leaning on the rail, in the saloon, having the first of his two or three nightly drinks, saw the stranger enter the saloon. The new man carried himself with a certain air, a certain flair, that Gordon measured on the spot, saw him as a specially qualified man, as a cohort, a man on a mission. He was not a saddle tramp. He was not a cowpoke or drover on the end of a drive. He gave off an aura.
Conscious of something working in himself, Gordon turned to face the stranger, the badge on Gordon’s chest fully exposed.
The stranger, cool, calm, not at all uneasy in a new place among strangers, gave a hardly perceptive nod to Gordon as if he was saluting his badge and the role in life that it represented. With a smooth but unnoticeable move, he changed his direction and came close to Gordon at the bar. Something was palmed in his hand. For a bare second he flashed it alone to Gordon. It was a sheriff’s badge.
Gordon felt good about his own quick judgment.
He said, “Excuse me, Sheriff. Do you know what the ‘term’ cohort means, in the special sense? The real ‘Term.’”
Barnstead Sheriff Wade Gordon knew he had been, on the sly, introduced to Term Alexander, Sheriff of Winfield, working on the death of his deputy, staying out of the public eye as much as possible, an undercover man, if you will, bent on solving the murder of what was obviously a good and loyal deputy.
He felt the kinship and the weight of the task.
In his room at the hotel late in the night, Gordon shared all his thoughts with Sheriff Alexander. He also showed him his little notebook in which he had entered every single thought that came to him about the murders. Bordon Maximus’s recounting of his trail observation also brought a serious display of interest from the northern sheriff.
He went back to Gordon’s notebook, looked off as if an apparition was visiting in the room and demanded attention.
“Who’s showing the most interest in these matters, Wade?”
“I’d have to say the mayor, Burt Ringwald. He’s also the owner and president of the bank. He dogs me a lot, comes down on me in public a number of times. I discount most of it as his political side forcing the issue, but the man bothers me on other points. I just don’t like him, and his all-for-me routine.”
Alexander smiled innocently, nodded some kind of internal acceptance, and said, “Let me tell you something else that I am aware of.” He looked around for a bottle, his mouth open, saying, “I’m bone dry.”
Sheriff Gordon produced a bottle and each man took a jigger of whiskey and set it beside them on a little table.
“I know of a case where some senseless murders, seemingly without connection, not linked at all, were performed in a distant town. The local sheriff was hassled into spending all his energy and that of his deputies, scouring the countryside. They never found anything, but one day, when they were out gallivanting, the bank was robbed, at high noon, at the point of good business. The president of the bank blew out of town and nobody’s seen him since. The bank closed down. It hasn’t re-opened yet. It may not.”
He sipped the jigger of whiskey, set the glass down and said, “I bet you don’t know what the man’s name was, the bank president’s name.”
“Not a clue,” Gordon replied.
The huge grin Alexander offered up was a giveaway. “I believe we have a connection. A link.”
Alexander finished off his jigger of whiskey. “Baron Waldwick,” Alexander said. “Does that make you think of anything?”
“Sure does. Baron Waldwick is not very different from Burt Ringwald, like the two names are really connected, that they are linked, that they carry one identity, but it would be hell to prove.”
“Our two heads are better than his one,” was Alexander’s reply. “All we need to do is plan things right, have some patience, and we’ve got him in the squeeze.”
Gordon said, “How do we start?”
“When he’s busy, we ought to check out the barn at his place.”
“What do we look for?”
“That thing that Maximus said he saw the strange horseman swinging over his head.”
Gordon was still unsure of things. “What is it?”
“Our connection, our link to all the crimes, here and up north,” Alexander replied, “a rugged length of chain.”
Sheriff Gordon vaguely saw the plan developing, but could feel its success. “If we find it, how do we link the link to the crimes?”
Sheriff Alexander, shaking his head slowly, mindful of what he was about to say, said, “I hate to wait for another death, but I get the impression that Ringwald or Waldwick is about ready to make his major play. If there is another murder and he screams to bloody hell about getting out there, I’ll bet that’s when the bank is hit by his gang or his hired guns; when the law is out of town.”
“And we head out, but we only pretend to do so. And I’ll hire you as a deputy. We’ll just go and double- back, catch them in the act. Is that how it should go?” Gordon had a smile on his face.
“Let’s hope it does, Sheriff. I’ve waited for this guy for a long time. I lost a good man because of him.”
Nothing could have made Sheriff Wade Gordon feel any better as he went off to sleep that night.
A few days later, it all fell into play as another badly whipped body was found outside of town, again on the Brimler road.
The mayor screamed his own bloody murder at Sheriff Gordon, right on the main street of the town. The whole town must have heard him.
The law started out of Barnstead in a rush, the sheriff and his two deputies.
The law was on hand when the robbers came out of the bank. And out of town, on the stage that left carrying Mayor and bank president Burt Ringwald in a flight as part of the theft of his own bank, was unknowingly accompanied by two men who had been deputized by Sheriff Gordon, ”just in case,” as he told the mayor.