Western Short Story
Matt Nightcloth, Man of the Hills
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

He had come out of eastern Tennessee, by himself, with a trusted horse leading a pack horse, a sharpshooter’s rifle, a long-handled and keen-edged ax and a plan to build a mountain home in the new west. With his family gone in a hurry from a rock-fall, he had set out alone for the new territory, the new start on life.

The cabin rose up, it seemed, in short order, he was so talented, so energetic, and so driven that he did not miss any voices, any conversations, any new acquaintance for two months once he had selected a site. He had chosen a hill in Montana Territory with a view of converging rivers down below and the thrust of a mountain at his back and a whole hill of a forest for cabin logs and next winter’s heat. The sights comforted him between hunting trips and searches for edible growths; he made his way, his way.

And it changed one day with a hailing cry from an arm-waving man on horseback. “Hello up there, Jud Wilkins here, gold hunter who has smelled your coffee all morning, all down that valley behind me. May I join you, friend?”

“Of course, you can. Glad to have company, none been here since I started building my cabin. Your voice has a pleasant ring to it. You from anyways down south?”

“From all of Missouri, I could say,” came the reply. “Been all over it and plumb rode out of it a few years ago and ended up here. Town’s a dozen miles along the river on the right down there. Gordon Hall it’s called. Got a watering hole of the favored kind, supplies needed by folks, a sheriff whose hands are hardly free of his weapons, so much going on.”

“Saying it’s not the kind of place for a visit?”

“Well, from hereabouts you gotta get there sometime. Just be ready is what I’m sayin’.”

“Lighten your load, keep talking, I’m getting a meal ready. You’re welcome but keep on talking like I said. Sounds like Gordon Hall has factions thereabouts. Tell me who’s what and what not. That really poles my interest.” It was a delight to cast his voice to a listener instead of the wind coming uphill from one of the rivers.

Jed Wilkins didn’t think about the question very long before he replied, “Well, from where I sit, one of the bad asses, maybe the worst of all of them, is a dude named Thud Manger, which sure sounds like he’s a bad ass in a good place, if you see the connection.” A laugh accompanied his delivery.

“I see it for sure, right at the tip of your paint brush.” Nightcloth had his own guttural punctuations.

Wilkins, with heavy laughter, said, “Oh, boy, they’re gonna know you hereabouts, I can guarantee.” His laughter ran uphill and downhill, went with the scent of the meat on the spit running across the open fire, drips finding ignition sparks, his eyes announcing acceptance of the scene, a new friend, a coming meal by the fireside.

Then he announced his curiosity; “When you plan goin’ to town, Matt?”

“Why ask when?”

“I sure want to be there when it happens.” His pronouncement was definite.

Each man, enjoying the meal, had separate thoughts of Gordon Hall on their minds.

A week later, Matt Nightcloth rode into Gordon Hall amid the stares of all people on the main road between buildings, him as an oddity on the move, wild hair and heavy beard marking his head, a long rifle in hand and no pistol or pistol belt on his hips, a wide-brimmed hat bouncing on his back and hanging by a string around his neck, his clothes saying aloud he was ready for next winter or had just escaped the last winter, a raw being at its rawest.

He appeared giant-like when he walked through the busiest door in town, to and from The Hall of Hauls, the lone watering spot in Gordon Hall, packed tightly with customers like there was a give-away at hand.

“Hey, what’s this, boys!” exclaimed a voice from the bar, an up-front man, a ‘see-me-first’ kind of gent, rugged looking, two pistols in place, and pointing at the new customer, a mountain-man for sure. “Who’s this come to see us? The lone man off the mountain. He lookin’ in here for a b’ar?”

The b’ar sounded like bar all the way.

The Hall of Hauls roared like a celebration was in place, or the first comic event of the day, coming right from the mouth of Thud Manger, crowd-pleaser extraordinaire.

“No, sir,” replied Matt Nightcloth, “but as soon as I get me a haircut and a scrub-up, I’m going to ask the sheriff to pin a deputy’s badge on me so I can help clean up this town of ours even though I live on the side of a mountain up-river a way that ain’t ever goin’ to be bothered by anybody I know, have seen, been introduced to.” Enough listeners heard the tone of voice, the intent, and understood it clearly.

Thud Manger, stepping forward another step from the bar, said, “Like people say, you and what army with you?”

When he took another step forward the muzzle of Nightcloth’s long gun was tight against Manger’s midsection, with an attached statement: “You have anythin’ else to say? You must be Thud Manger I was warned about, the one who sounds like a broom hittin’ the wall of the barn at clean-up time. Thump! Thump! Thump!”

With that declaration from the stranger in the face of the hard-lined Thud Manger, toughest of all men in Gordan Hall, the entire interior of The Hall of Hauls went silent. A listener could merely hear a few intakes of breath, the dared kind of breaths. Or a few chairs, a very few, being pushed back to allow for personal expansion as some men needed room for coming excitement, sudden moves, or quick escapes of any kind.

Manger’s hand only made a faint start to his pistol handle and the long-rifle muzzle was another inch deeper into his mid-gut.

“I’m going out to take care of personal matters and when I come back I’ll have my second social drink in a month of Saturday nights, as the say back home in Tennessee.

After Nightcloth departed the saloon, Manger said loudly and with force, “Them long-guns is no good in close fighting. They’re just pieces of loud junk with a big noise attached to them. Real men don’t walk about with nothing in a holster. You’ll get to see what I’m talking about when that scary-lookin’ dude comes back for what he’s lookin’ for, a good thrashin’ by a gunman of the old school, a top hand all the way.”

When he quick-drew one of his pistols, faster than many eyes could see, several men, now with room to move, dove under the protection of their tables.

Thud Manger laughed all the way to his next drink, even as some of those quick-escapees found their seats again, settled back, returned to conversations, most all the talk about the new man in their midst, and not the gun-wagger at the bar.

Outside, down the road of Gordan Hall, Matt Nightcloth found the room he was looking for. “Cut off this hair and beard of mine, get me a place to clean-up all the way down to my soul, and find me some other clothes to wear. I’m becoming a new man in new clothes, just what this town needs.”

“What are you up to mister?” asked the lone store attendant. “You the one off the mountain all the folks is talkin’ about? I’ve been dyin’ to hear you talk. Folks say you’re from my part of Tennessee. East or west? What clan?”

His sincerity was full-blown, his interest as plain as the hungry look on his face. “You really contestin’ Thud Manger, the way folks says? “

“I’m a Nightcloth man from east Tennessee. Lost my folks in a rock slide. Made a new home here and going to keep it safe.”

“Oh, my, you sound so good. I knew or heard about Jethro Nightcloth when I was young. There was a man for you. Yes, sir, a real man. I’ll do my damnedest to get you ready for the big mouth and the quick gun. There was a killin’ in the street just last night and everybody including the sheriff knows it was Thud Manger with that quick trigger of his what did the killin’.”

Nobody in all of Gordan Hall, including Jeff Wilkins, knew who Gordan Hall’s newest stranger was not a stranger, even when he walked into the saloon with his long-gun and stood directly in front of the sheriff resting at a table, and said, “Sheriff, I want to be a deputy of yours. Swear me in, pin a badge of me and tell me go get last night’s killer.”

It was done in a few minutes, the sheriff sitting down, the hard years running off his face like a hidden change of heart had taken place.

The new deputy, Matt Nightcloth, heard the door swing open, saw in the mirror Thud Manger enter the saloon, spotted the new deputy, reached for a pistol, saw the blunt, dark snout of the long-rifle aimed at the exact same point in his stomach where it most recently had been jammed.

It froze him still, so much for bluster in the face of eternity.

Gordan Hall had already undergone a dramatic change, all the way from east Tennessee.