Western Short Story
Madame Law
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The body was prone in the middle of the dusty street, a late morning sun beating down on it, flies checking their prospects, and silence reigning over the entire town.

Not a soul in Welby Falls had gone to check on him, their sheriff shot in the back, his rifle on the ground beside him, and Lily Bentwell, newest visitor in town, at the lone second floor front window of the Black Saddle Hotel. She believed she was the only person who had seen the shooter from a window, also on the second floor, but in the undertaker’s place of business, Longchamp’s Last Resort for Redemption and Paradise, which was directly across the street.

The figure of a man, she could see, was still there behind the sheerest drape imaginable. It made her think of the pine box due the sheriff, perhaps the body covered with the same material so sheer that a week in the ground would reduce it to nothing again. She hated pretense and puffery. She hated flimsy. She hated bigotry. She hated backstabbers and bushwhackers and men of unprincipled violence, her father going down at the hands of what she hated most, and her father’s weapons, agents of vengeance after endless practice, coming as notable tools in her hands.

Leaving her father’s town behind, the place where she had grown up, no more ties there for her, she searched for a new location to settle down. Hopefully she’d find a good man, fall in love, get married, have children, and pass once more into the holy earth where her parents, far apart, were spending all their days of eternity … unless there was something beyond.

She was not sure.

Welby Falls had promised a new beginning; gorgeous scenery at the foot of the Rockies, two streams merging nearby, the grass rich, and cattle taking the place of thousands of buffaloes gone into history. It made her think of hunger hitting villages on the Plains, thick steaks on dinner plates east of the big river.

Now Welby Falls might lose its newest visitor … it had lost its newest sheriff, to a bushwhacker, a backstabber, from behind a sheer drapery that promised no hiding. The killer had to be known to someone, she thought.

But not a soul, for nearly a half hour, had walked out to check on the sheriff’s body.

Caught up in one sudden thought, she strode from her room, ran down the stairs with disdain for lobby sitters and a marked determination shaking loose from her every step, yanked open the front door, crossed the boardwalk, stepped into the swirling dust, and walked with high purpose and bravery into the middle of the street.

Lily Bentwell, a beautiful young woman of 24, no hat on her head, her hair like a shining moon on wet coal, clad in the work pants of a cowpoke, knelt over the body of Asa Chabley, once a sheriff like her father. The Sharpe’s rifle, hung by his side like it was supposed to be an extension of his body, looked out of place at the site of his death.

From all corners off the town people watched her. Only the hotel clerk and the owner knew who she was, and the stage driver sitting down at the livery and getting drunk at the end of his long ride. Way back, at the first station on his ride, the farrier exchanged the team of horses and told him about her.

“She’s sumpthin’,” he had said, and told him about her father’s death and how her life had changed.

That life was crowding her as she knelt beside the dead sheriff. A sudden realization crowned her thinking … no matter how fast she could run, no matter where she would go, she’d never get away from the vengeful promise that held her together.

The hotel clerk and the owner looked on; and the stage driver, from the livery, looked up with the sun glaring into his eyes, yet he could see the woman who had been a passenger on his last run of the week.

He saw her reach for the badge on the sheriff’s chest, simply take it off his shirt, pin it on her pale blue blouse, reach for the rifle at the sheriff’s side, stand up and from her hip pour every round in the weapon at the shadow behind the sheer fabric in the window on the second floor of Longchamp’s Last Resort for Redemption and Paradise.

Smoke idled upward from the bore of the rifle as she stood in the middle of Welby Falls, sunlight bouncing off the star on her blouse, fate delivered from her hand

The shots from Lily Bentwell had slammed through the open window. The black-hatted man, broad in the shoulders where two rounds now found resolution, once thick of chest where another round found solitude, had leaned forward to return gunfire at the woman down below. Instead, fatally impacted, he fell halfway through the window, his torso hanging over the windowsill, and his rifle, a killer’s rifle, fell to the boardwalk with a thud solid enough to send a rumbling into the air.

The killer’s death and the action of the woman in the street made the swearing-in ceremony quite anti-climactic. Lily Bentwell had become the new sheriff of Welby Falls without even raising her hand to say “I do.”

She would save those solemn words for a good man.