Western Short Story
Lucifer at the Edge
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Lucifer Cromby, lawman, was on the trail of a man who poisoned a woman’s well, dumped some of the poison in her water trough, gave her a drink of the water, and left the woman dead in the sun, three hoses dead, and six cows who only smelled water at high noon.

The scene to Lucifer, Lou to friends and foes alike, was one of the worst sights he’d ever seen in his 12 years as a marshal at large in Texas,

It sure made him sick to his stomach, in fact, all over himself, as he imagined the dying, and there was only one man who would stoop so low as to kill animals of a spread at such numbers, Greasy Carner himself, the low-downest man ever known.

Somewhere, out in front of him, on the same trail by the markings of a chipped shoe he was following, was his rotten down man of destiny, a rotter from way back, and destined to be hung by the neck until he was permanently dead and a thousand people had passed by in review to salute the death on one wholly ornery man.

“I saw that rotter just a few days ago, Marshal,” said a blacksmith, “headed up towards the Skelly spread and no telling what kind of ravage he laid around up there. Was only two days ago, and I kept my distance, not wanting to mess around with that kind of man. Mad as a fox finding her pups all kilt.”

He’d pointed again up the trail toward two other spreads, the K-Bar=K and the Kid’s Own Ranch, the KOR, some rich uncle left to Willy Tarpin, “A nice enough young guy, but a bit innocent, if you know what I mean when it comes to old death and dying and poison and any of that kind of ornery business done just for the Hell of it and hate for those with more than he had.”

Marshal Lou said, “Is that mark on the front left shoe one that you might have put there, Hank?”

“Sure did, Marshal, knowing you’d be alooking for him one of these days and now, here you are, Johnny on the spot.” His smile was worth a month’s pay, and gave Lou Cromby a real comfortable feeling that’d last more than a day in the saddle.

“Thanks for thinking of me, Hank. Makes my day.” He set off on an even trot, Time on his hands, him on the trail, the trail clearly marked most of the way north, a real honest-to-goodness hanging, well-earned, at the end of this trail, he was sure. He’d do it himself, if he had to, string the rope, loop the neck, slap the horse on its rump with a Giddy-up! Watch Greasy Carner jiggle a short spell, stiffen once or twice, jerk once for last resort, swing easy into death, the unknown destination that queried his own mind with wonder if old friends ever met “out there?” At moments like this, he recalled a couple of old pals, real men of the times, Gary Flynn, another Marshal, and boyhood friend, Billy Lichter, dead from bandits’ erroneous shot, one, single, wild bullet from a poker deal gone sour.

Life sure was unbalanced at times you never expected it to fail, but fall it would, right into your damned lap, every agonizing minute of it, the way memory takes hold when you least expect it, like a wrestler’s hold, a fighter’s last swing, a strike out with two down and the bases loaded. Killer stuff!

Cromby, eyes on the marker, wary of a sniper’s ploy, needing to keep the land, the sudden humps and dips, and rocks Time had rolled away from the bottom edge of the mountain a half mile away and made it this far, in his search for comfort, quick cover, that’d never let hm relax.

The minute flash or reflection of shine of light from higher ground made him swing around in a short circle until it would not show again. Thus, he knew, it was Greasy out there in front of him, waiting for him, but moving around for a best shot. One would have to get it done, he argued with himself because he’d never allow a second chance.

He kept thinking about the woman dead at her well, her animals gone with her, some nutty killer, now known, clapping his hands with joy at the death scene, a gurgle of joy in his throat who’d think about the total death strewn about, enough for a little woman who wouldn’t spare a meal to a hungry man, unless he had given something away about himself in the mere seconds of appearance, like his face must have ben marked with that killer’s look, that look of deadly hunger at any cost, which would make that killer say, “Ma’am, you damned well better relieve me because I ain’t asking any second time.”

Cromby, vigilance directed to all the upper regions, saw the flash or reflection a second and a third time, on the move, looking for the best shot in the back, he agreed with himself.

“Well,” Cromby said, ten years chasing down killers and robbers and rustlers, “I’ll give him one he’ll think he’ll never miss.”

In a gully, out of all level sight, Cromby took off his checkered black and red shirt, thrust into it a quickly-knifed desert bush, puffed it up readily, and sat it on his horse, clipped it in place with a simple knot, strung out his lariat its full length from the bridle, and let the horse be.

He didn’t have long to wait, as the horse felt a little freedom in the line and started to roam around, circling, drifting, feeling the apparent freedom, until he moved from behind one huge boulder.

BANG went the incoming shot, as deadly accurate as Cromby had imagined, one shot, a direct shot, the figure on the horse blown out of the saddle, bush, shirt and all, to fall to the ground, the horse to scamper a dozen feet until the hawser pulled him taut.

But it was enough, and Cromby heard the movement and the slithery sounds of approach as a figure moved through the bulwark of boulders into clear space, where Marshal Lucifer Lou Cromby lined him up along the barrel of his rifle and then knocked his right arm loose of any weapon as he slipped prone on the mountain floor, done in for the time being.

All that was left was a ride back to town. The judge would handle the rest.