Western Short Story
His new black suit was as shiny as his hearse back under the cover of the barn he had rented, but Alibert Pumphrey was on a strange errand as he entered the jail the morning of his arrival in town. The mayor had set up this visit with a young convicted murderer who was slated to be hanged at high noon the next day. The first thing that had touched Pumphrey, the new undertaker in town, was the scheduled time of the hanging. Noon was a cruel time to begin with, dragging half a day along with all the baggage the fairly new town of West Sentry might muster. It would be most tolerable, he thought, to hang a criminal at dawn. The schedule gave him a chance to talk to the prospective customer, his first one in a new location.
“I’ll go in the cell with him, sheriff,” he said. “I’ve been there before in my serving capacity.”
When he had entered the jail cell, he saw the face of the young man, as distraught as any he had ever seen. “Despite what my suit says to you, son, I am not the hangman. I am, though, the undertaker who will take care of necessities, but I always make sure that new customers have an idea of what I am about. I try, at my best, to prepare people for meeting their maker. It is my role in life.”
“My maker,” said William Soffett, perhaps a shade over twenty-one years old, “knows damned well that I didn’t kill the Chandlers. They were special to me. It’s like I told everybody, including the judge and the jury, that I was just going back to town by way of their property when I heard the gunshot. I heard some yelling right off the bat and scooted out of there. Before I knew it there was an army of them around me. Like the whole bunk house had turned loose in one mighty hurry.”
He was a tolerably good looking young man with light blond hair who had not yet begun to shave in earnest. When he stood beside the bunk bed, he was about 5’ 10” and wiry as a new colt. In a blue shirt and black pants he was quite presentable.
Inwardly, some reaction warmed Pumphrey, made him curious to life’s uneven distribution of fate. “This was near midnight?” he said.
“Yes, sir. Almost on the button. I saw a light in their back window as I crossed the land higher up and thought I’d see if there was any socializing going on. They’ve invited me in before. They were special people. No way in hell I’d hurt them. I think someone has set me up to take the blame on this. You think about what I told you and it will sound real strange, but I can’t prove a thing.”
Pumphrey nodded, saw something in Soffett’s face that disturbed him deeply; there was real pain there, not for himself facing the hangman in a matter of hours, but for friends killed in their own bed. And his mind was alert to a couple of other facts. “I understand you’re talking about ranch hands, after a hard day’s work, being ready to ride so quick.”
“Not only that, but I don’t think they had time to get their horses and then saddle them up. They were on me in no time, the whole bunch of them.”
“You think all those horses, at midnight, were already saddled and ready for riding?”
“That’s a fact, mister. But the foreman said they were ready for Chandler to send them out on a special trip, though it wasn’t said in court and I couldn’t get a word in about it with the judge. He damned near shut me down without so much as a sorry.” He looked Pumphrey square in the eye and said, “And Chandler ain’t here to say otherwise.”
“What’s the foreman’s name?”
“You like him?”
“How about before?”
“Chandler told me the man’s eyes roamed too much, but that’s no sin. The lady was pretty and caught a lot of eyes, but she was kind and polite and a real lady all the same. Chandler knew all that.”
“He close to anybody in town or on the ranch, this Dixon?”
“One pal never leaves his side. Name’s Emmet Dahlgren, and him I don’t like. Not from the first minute I put eyes on him. He’s the kind of guy makes your skin crawl all over itself. It’s easy to say he does not touch you with comfort.”
Pumphrey knew the feeling. He had it a day earlier at the railroad station, meeting the mayor of Sentry West, and he made his points very clear at introduction.
“Boot Hill or Fort Sill, it makes no difference to me,” said Alibert Pumphrey, undertaker, and owner of the fancy black hearse he had carted west.
“Boot Hill, in particular, has called me, no matter where it’s located. Everybody gets ready for his maker one way or the other.”
He had said that right up front to the mayor; no sense letting anybody do guesswork on him, or make bad decisions based on not knowing how he stood on the matter of death. “I prefer that each person makes atonement for his life, but if not, it’s up to me to at least make him presentable to meet the boss upstairs. That’s why I hauled my best carriage out here from St. Louis. There is a whole passel of men out here who need to put their best step forward at the end of their journey.”
On a section of a flat car, its wheels tied down with heavy rope for the moment as two men worked to free the knots, the hearse was a black brightness at the railroad station in the town of Sentry West, itself showing off its own newness.
The mayor had greeted Pumphrey when he arrived in town, the train whistle announcing the arrival in the bright morning sunlight. “Glad you made it in good fettle, Mr. Pumphrey. You look like the long trip treated you in a fair fashion.”
Pumphrey could choke on political flattery. He knew exactly what the mayor was looking at; his clothes were in disarray, he’d lost his hat and best coat, he needed a shave and a haircut, and a bath for sure. “We weathered a hold-up, a bridge set on fire, a second hold-up, being conscripted by the army to carry some prisoners, some loose women shaking up the train crew from the outset, like they had taken up lodging, and some of the food we had to eat turned bad in the train.” He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Other than that, things were fine. Glad we weathered that last hurdle.”
“Which hurdle was that, Mr. Pumphrey?” The mayor had a half smile on his face.
“I wish I could say it was the ladies, but it wasn’t. It was the bad food that I ate. Knocked me about like a tumble weed. But that’s all in the past. I’m here for business and my business is preparing the just dead or the going to be just dead to meet their maker. I heard word back down the line you’ll have a hanging tomorrow at noon. Want me to take care of that sinner? It’s all part of my work. It’s one of the reasons I brought my black carriage with me.”
“Oh, don’t bother with that one, Mr. Pumphrey. He’ll get to Boot Hill quicker than he ever dreamed.”
“You going to throw the man into a pine box and throw him in the ground, just like that?” He snapped his fingers loudly and crisply. “What if you were treated that way, how would you like it? I will say right here at the outset that I come here to prepare the dead to meet their maker. If you do not want me to carry out my mission, tell me right now and I will get out of town and go to where the maker is important.”
“Oh, no, my dear sir, I did not want it to come out that way. This killer is a particularly bad one. Shot a man and his wife in their own bed, with a shot gun, and then let them bleed to death, wrapped in each other’s arms. You think a man like that deserves better than what’s planned for him?”
“Any witnesses? Anybody see it happen? Who said it was him?”
“The dead man’s foreman said he saw the killer riding off, just after midnight, too late for them to have law abiding guests, and just after hearing the gun shot.”
“You believe the foreman, I guess, from what has happened? What did the convicted man have to say?”
“Plain said he didn’t do it. Heard the shot and just got out of there fast. He’d been out past them, seeing others who have moved on since then. Nobody knows who they are, or where they are. Even he said he had just bumped into them at a camp fire out on the range. Overnight squatters probably. That’s a real loser for an alibi.”
“Anybody track them?”
“What for? He was seen riding off just after the gunshot. That’s enough for me.”
“Maybe he saw who did it.”
“He hasn’t said so yet.”
“I’d love to talk to him before the event. Can you make that happen for me?”
“I must say, Mr. Pumphrey, you sound more like a Pinkerton man than an undertaker.”
“It’s just like I said, Mayor, my job is to make any man presentable to his maker, and that’s not me measuring the cut of his shirt but the tempo of his mind before he needs my services. If a man has to have a gentle shove in that direction, I’d make the introductions myself.”
“You present a pretty strong argument for an undertaker. I’ll take you down to see him myself. Don’t make any promises though. He’s been found guilty by his peers.”
“How strong are the ties the foreman has in the town? What’s his name again?”
“Brev Dixon, and he’s well-liked. Goes on every posse. Works hard. Spends a few hearty hours at the saloon on a Saturday night. Hits the church every Sunday morning. Never bellyaches about anything this side of breakfast.”
“He have any special girlfriends?”
“None I know of, but the ladies are always present at the Wagon Wheel Saloon or upstairs.”
“So, for all kinds of reasoning, he’s telling the truth? To me that sounds like frosting on the cake, but it sure could hide a lot.”
“You alluding to something here, sir? He’s a trusted man in the town. He’s worked for them for over a year now, a loyal hand.”
“You hear what Soffett said about being practically chased out of there, at midnight, the horses all ready and saddled up they come up on him so fast. That’s a stretchy point with me. Did you understand about the whole crew being ready to go on a job for Chandler, at midnight? Doesn’t that screw your head on a funny twirl, trying to make sense out of that?”
“Chandler can’t explain his reasons for that now. Too bad for the boy. Generally he was a nice kid. I guess something just sprung loose on him.”
“We have a few hours before the event. Is the sheriff a straight shooter? A reasonable man?”
“He might step up to a crooked line but won’t go over the line. And you can trust him. You have something on your mind?”
Jackson Tremblay, the sheriff, and Alibert Pumphrey, the new undertaker, managed to get Emmett Dahlgren, Brev Dixon’s close pard, alone. They directed him to the livery and told him someone knew what really happened when the murders took place and his part in them was going to be brought up in a new trial for Soffett.
Pumphrey said to him, “We heard about the phony job that all the ranch hands were supposed go on that night. We even knew who made it up, and you, sir, are going to be the fall guy. We’ll let Dixon know what’s going on. He’ll take care of things.”
“He’ll kill me if he thinks I spilled the beans on him. That’s one man can be mean as a cornered peccary.”
“We’ll take care of Dixon, let him do it up for himself. You stay here with the deputy, else he’ll be on you if he finds out where you are.”
In the saloon, Dixon asked aloud if anybody had seen Emmet Dahlgren. “Gent doesn’t wander off the trail too far.”
One of the locals said, “I saw him with the sheriff down past the bank. They were pretty cozy like they were going to rob the place, like they had all kinds of secrets. That new undertaker come into town was with them. Him and the sheriff were like bees around the honey with Emmett. Looked like they were going off to the jail.”
Alibert Pumphrey, in his best black suit, walked into the saloon that minute, looking as if he had found rich ore and had already spent a good deal of it. He motioned to the barkeep and said, “Set up drinks for everybody. I’m celebrating losing my first customer, that Soffett boy. Looks like there’s going to be a new trial. Sheriff has gotten hold of some new information that throws a whole new light on the Chandler thing. He found an old wanted poster on Emmett Dahlgren and managed to squeeze him enough so he promised to tell what really happened at the Chandler’s. He’s calling the judge back from Tascosa. Be back in a day or two. They have Dahlgren down at the jail sitting in that corner cell ready to sing all the lullabies he knows.”
At midnight, when Brev Dixon fired two rounds down onto a supposed sleeping form on the cell bunk, the sheriff and the undertaker were at the back window of the general store, within a dozen feet of the shooter.
William Soffett got his guilty verdict changed. Emmett Dahlgren was escorted to the edge of town, given one round for his revolver and a canteen of water and told never to come back. Brev Dixon was sentenced to hang. He told Alibert Pumphrey he’d rather go to Boot Hill alone than have Pumphrey handle any of the details.
Pumphrey told him he had no chance of avoiding a proper transport to Boot Hill, “in my new carriage with my best wishes for meeting your new boss.”