Western Short Story
Never Too Late for a Hanging
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

Young Greg Woodling, fishing in the small stream near his parents’ ranch in a corner of Colorado, heard the full gunshots and the screams, and knew they were from the ranch. He dropped his fishing rod and grabbed his rifle and started running for home. It took him, at fourteen, at least ten minutes, checking the rifle twice to make sure it was loaded, his heart pounding every step with horrid. Suspicions.

His mother lay dead, her clothes dirty and ripped apart, in front of their ranch house, his father dead at the front door, bullet slugs at home in his body. In the distance, three riders were riding away, in a hurry, and he could never hit them with a shot, nor could he ever identify them; but the horses he could pick out of stable. He remembered, at that moment, how his father had said, “You can tell a man by his horse. If you ever have a question, remember his horse.”

In a matter of minutes, he knew the breed and color scheme of each horse, and locked them into his mind, and later, after services and burials, he began to talk to old timers and cowboys about what horses did or should look like, and how to tell breeds apart from each other. He became a walking, questioning dictionary with all his queries and all the answers, preparing him for his eventual search for those three murderers. He got three straight answers to his queries and knew, with a group of three, he could lock them down in his mind.

Two of the horses in flight could have been colorful twins, both high-lighted Appaloosas with colorful, spotted coats shining like name plates on rainbows, of that he was deadly sure. The third horse was a dark Quarter Horse, already out in the lead, flight born early to it, speed its gift. He couldn’t see a face of the riders, but knew their horses as though he owned them.

Young Woodling knew if he ever saw that combination of horses mounted by men he couldn’t identify, he most likely would have found the murderers of his parents, the cowardly, desperate trio in flight after their crimes, and bound to be caught and hung for their deeds. Bound to be caught and hung; he’d see to that no matter how long it took.

He soon found a map of the territory and copied points of it on a piece of animal skin, able to note the areas he’d be in during his searches for those men.

Once, outside Mountain View, a tidy little town plumb tight to its own little mountain, he thought he had hem sighted, reigns tied up in front of the general store, the exact colors and breeds still in flight, though at a pause. He had his guns ready, the anger in him ready to snap the triggers on them, but their riders turned out to be a trio of women on a shopping tour. This latest sighting made him come to a sudden realization on the spot: he couldn’t kill the murderers, they had to be hung by the neck until awful dead. He’d drop the rope if the judge’d let him do the deed regardless of existing laws, after his years of looking for them.

Young Woodling, never tiring of the look-abouts on mountain tops or low valley dents in the Earth, some of them dark and dreary, like being closer to Hell itself, but his drive at search coming off with total energy and passion, both of them limitless.

In saloons all over Colorado, and extending beyond all its points, he came up for discussion: “I wouldn’t want to be one a them bozoes waiting as they ride to get caught and hung for good before this damned day comes to its end, you mark my words as spoken here today.” Or another old-timer, having seen everything in his own time, might say in a crowded saloon any place in the whole West, “Damned if I can’t feel that rope burning its rough edges right around my own neck right this second, like revenge makes its own fiery flames.”

It was said, probably more than once, that one drunken character, waking from his drunken dream on a saloon table in wide-open Durango, or any other saloon for that matter, kept screaming, “Don’t let that Woodling kid catch up to me, chasing me all night like I was one a them men who killed his ma and pa,” his screams sending chills up and down the backs of necks of many of the saloon’s customers, some truly in flights of their own from the law, from such revenge, its hands reaching to drop the rough rope in place around a scrawny neck.

So, it was in his third year of driven revenge, powerful hate, endless misery at the thoughts of eventual failure, that he spotted that exact trio of horses tied up to the rail in front of The Scorned Saloon in small and secluded Outermost, Colorado, having been there before and something driving him back again, that he entered the saloon, as he had before, this time his mind all aflutter with signs he didn’t know, with faces he’d never seen, that he leaned against the bar and began a conversation , saying, “”Do you remember me, Horace.? I’ve been in here before.”

“I sure do, kid, like it was yesterday, and if anybody was in here then, they know all about you and the big bug of revenge you’ve been haulin’ around for a few years.”

Both of them were aware of a commotion gathering itself in the room, coming alert, knowing that young Greg Woodling was in their midst, but for the moment was hidden in one of the many tables in the saloon, especially a table in one corner where commotion seemed might break loos from it any second.

Greg, tuned in to years of listening, watching, hearing things belonging in his mind and clearly out of his mind, were making demands on him, telling him the trail and search had come down to this point, three years of anxiety in his hands so that he wanted to kill someone, his pistols ready for his hands. But there came the signs of a hanging, justice coming out on top regardless of his hatred, tired soul, long days and hours from dawn to dusk, and then beyond when necessary, were in order.

He saw the table in the corner, three men seated, signs all over them saying he had come to the end of his search. In his mind. he saw ropes drop into place, three of them.

Before they could move, a rustle in place below the table top, Greg Woodling had two pistols aimed at them. He said, “It’s now or then, gents, death at this minute if you move an inch, or a wait for the rope, not knowing how long before the judge drops sentences on you, finishes off your long run and escape, and my long run, too. But it’s been worth every minute of it, the looks on your face saying you’d never seen my face, like I’ve never seen yours, but I knew your horses, gents. They pointed me to you all the way.

Don’t blame me, blame your horses, and to everybody in this room, I’m taking your horses, all three of them, as my own.

He fired a single shot into the wall directly over their heads, and added, “I trust there are no objections, gents. No objections.

The silence remained in place, like a stunning at its finish.