Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
"Something's wrong," Torbic Malkev said under his breath as he looked past the open door of the Whippoorwill Saloon and saw people standing in a small crowd, gawking around oddly and not directly at the saloon door where the sheriff stood framed in the doorway and staring inside ... at him. In Malkev's hand, his gun hand, was the first drink in a month and a half of trail driving, and the thirst and need in his throat, in his mouth, crawling on his teeth as though it might never be assuaged.
Beyond the sheriff, across the town street, gathered on the store boardwalk, he counted at least a dozen people who had halted in their tracks, obviously noting the sheriff's interest, his position of alertness, his right hand as if he was holding a favored fishing rod and a deep keeper already throwing his weight at the bait, a tremor starting on its journey to a sensitive finger, to a touchy trigger.
Malkev was less than a half hour in Birdstorm, right at the foot of Mount Reynolds, and apparently the word had ridden in ahead of him. But others were expected, at least by Malkev; those who had ridden with him for six weeks or more; he was not sure how long it had been. He had ridden out first from the new railhead, his advance scouting job ceased, paid off by the drive boss and sent on his way.
An hour's ride brought him to the crest of a hill where he heard a fusillade of gun shots, the last one practically visible as the lone man standing in Malkev's sight fell to place with several other victims, all dead for certain, grounded forever, as proved by the next maneuver, a spasmodic after-death movement by the last fallen man. He was shot again as the ground hugged him deeper, closer; life's fancy out in the open, dying twice, twice moving on to heaven. Malkev, the on-looker, shuddered his belief.
The rough pile of stones across the width of the road kept the stagecoach team at a halt. Nothing moved but the three men idly swinging their side arms in slow loops as they looked for movement. None came and the apparent robbers were reduced to killers, as not one of them searched for anything of value, frisked no body for rings or money belts, looked nowhere for a valued shipping box either in the boot or topside of the coach.
The mission, obvious to Malkev, was plain murder ... of one or all, of a target and all witnesses. It was complete.
The killers, satisfied all the victims were dead, rode off toward Birdstorm, and Malkev had no surprises, no sudden miracles, no other life on site and when he arrived in town he did not see any horses done up by a hard ride, ones he could identify, and decided on the spot not to check the livery in case it was being watched.
And so word must have arrived about the death scene on the road to town. And the sheriff was only too interested in the last man known to have come to town. Malkev, about as smart as they come in Birdstorm at the time, decided that he was on the spot and not those unknowns he had seen kill all occupants and driver and shotgun rider on the coach. Strange eyes fell upon him from different parts of the saloon, and from one man who sauntered and immediately began whispering to three other at the table.
Knowing he was under scrutiny, not knowing where any action might come from, he measured the odds at hand, and what he could do to divert some of the attention.
With a flair of sorts, a testament to his nerves and his outlook on life and odd chances, Malkev tipped his glass to the sheriff and motioned him into the saloon. Behind the sheriff he could see a flurry of activity on the other side of the street; people moving excitedly, some jumping around and pointing at The Whippoorwill Saloon, some running off to tell family or friends, or anybody in hearing stance ... perhaps of any strange riders who had recently entered town and whose arrival escaped the attraction or detection by others.
Imposing in his stride, careful in his demeanor (his hands clear away from his twin pistols, but still and motionless in accompanying his stride), the sheriff walked straight to Malkev, eyes locked to eyes and not seeing any danger there, said, "I heard you just came into town a while ago. See anything out on the trail? Anything worth talking about?" His jaw was rigid as he spoke and added, "And I'm expecting straight answers, including your name and current job, if you have one."
Ducking his head slowly, making no false or threatening moves, Malkev ordered two more drinks, put his empty glass on the bar and turned his back on the sheriff who sidled up to him at the bar. Then Malkev whispered to the sheriff, "My name is Torby Malkev, scout for the Debner herd just landed at the railhead, and I saw the whole thing out there, sheriff, the shooters, their horses, how they shot the last man on the ground who I thought was already dead, then they just whipped round and headed for here, for Birdstorm. I didn't check out the livery because I thought it might be watched by some nosy people looking for nosy people. They did not see me out there, but I saw them, all three of them, and can pick them out in a crowd of drinkers or drovers. And I know their horses, too."
The sheriff, Will Hatherby, said, "Sounds like you got this all planned out. Why?" He studied Malkev as he would a prisoner in his jail, noticing hair line, color of eyes and the depth of them, the scar on one cheek as though a sharp blade had just missed taking an eye with one swipe, leaving not just a mark but a statement that this man had perhaps been near death ... and survived. He also studied the firm way his chin sat when he was not talking, saw it particularly stiff when he knew the man was deep in thought. The hat tipped on his head had been weathered by the drive, tending to lose its brown wooden-looking color to a denser stain with a few black spots, and the brim curled up on the left side with a most personal signature not seen on anybody else in the room. In any place across the whole country, he'd recognize Torby Malkev in a second. "In whiskers," he also thought.
"It'd be them against me, Sheriff, and I'm only one voice, just one man off the trail after a drive, lonely and thirsty and in that order. I've never been here before, so if they're from Birdstorm, I'd be on the short end of rope in a quick hurry if I was to point my finger in the same quick hurry. I bet you know that as much as any man in here." Around the room his gaze moved, slow, laboriously, without a single flinch, tremor, smile or expression of any range at the sight of every man in the whole of The Whippoorwill Saloon.
Hatherby noticed the man's eyes never showed any sign of recognition as they swept methodically around the saloon taking all the time he needed, much like a tourist or traveler on the first trip to Birdstorm. "It sure don't point things in your favor. You got anything else to brace them with?" With one hand he pushed the hat back on his head, which came off as, "I wish the hell I was someplace else or I wish somebody'd solve this in a hurry so I can go fishing."
Malkev replied, nodding a slight half nod, "I figure I can pick out the lead dog of the pack, just the way he handled himself, the others, too, though they're sort of wishy washy but killers just the same. I saw no hesitation in their shooting old people, a kid, or the one who looked dead, flat on his back, his arms folded on his chest like he was praying.."
"Want to give me a few leads?"
"Not yet, Sheriff. The boss dog'd cut me down soon as look at me, but I have an idea." Leaning closer, he explained what and how he wished things could happen to catch the killers. The sheriff listened intently, found sage advice delivered by the young man, knew that his interest had been stirred to a higher level, swigged off his drink and abruptly left the saloon.
Several people in the saloon, at the bar and at tables, watched the sheriff leave, keeping their eyes on his back until he was clear of the door. None of them passed any signs, made any contribution. Some of the patrons looked questioningly at each other and shrugged shoulders as the silence continued.
Swinging his head lightly at the bar, as though inner music moved him, Malkev managed his view of the room and saw that the two wishy washy killers were holding still in their places. He was comfortable that they would not start any action in the crowded saloon. Malkev had seen the cowboy in the derby hat when another man stepped away from the bar.
As soon as the sheriff got to his office, he told his lone deputy he had a few leads on who killed the people on the Birdstorm coach, including the driver, the shotgun rider, and three passengers, a man and wife and son by the names of Mr. & Mrs. William Terry and William Jr., who'd been due in for a week or more to take over the Birdstorm Bank, now run by Roger Haskwell, the current representative from the home bank, State Bank at Capital City.
"How'd you come by any information, Will? Did it come from that fellow last come in to town?" He leaned forward at the desk as the sheriff looked over a rack of rifles, knowing that arms-checking was a message in itself. The sheriff had hefted a new Springfield, made himself off as comfortable with it, almost at work.
The deputy, young as green corn, whose name was Eddie Searles, felt he was about to be let in on some new lead in the case. All Hatherby's cases intrigued him from the first shot, the first wrong step of a perpetrator, from a murder to a rustled herd of cattle. Realization never came to him that his excitement and interest controlled his mouth.
"Yup," offered Hatherby, as he sighted down the barrel of a new Springfield, "the man said he saw them from a good long distance leaving the scene, but knows their horses, two paints and a red stallion big as all outdoors. 'Real big,' the red, he says."
"Want me go looking, Will? I'll go right down to the livery and start from there." Deputy Searles, in due time Hatherby knew, would spread the story all over town, unable to hold news and excitement within himself, starting right at the livery, his first stop in the search. it was one characteristic of his deputy he could always count on, and often use to advantage when necessary, even though it made himself feel like he was taking advantage of a weakness. Hell, he'd adjudicated on more than one occasion, the law does that as much as the damned law-breakers, the arch criminals that live round us, the killers of the innocent as well as ganged enemies fighting for spoils or territory. He was pretty positive that Searles would not be the man to take over his job someday.
"Sure thing, Eddie. Good idea to check the livery first 'cause I ain't seen the likes of them horses around town, then go looking in all the odd spots and hit the local ranches, but don't let too many people know what we're looking for." Then, as a weak aside, added, "Keep it under wraps for a while." He winked at his deputy, confirming the weak message, thinking at the same time, "Life sure is crazy every once in a while."
Searles, passing all information through his mind, asked, "What's that new fellow's name, Will, and what's he doing in town? Does he check out? Want me to watch him too?" His breath was heightened with clear expectation.
"He's harmless, Eddie. Just keep your eyes open on everything, like usual. Him included if you like." The sheriff pictured his deputy at work, smiled, nodded, clasped his hands and waited. The young deputy was often a godsend for him, and trusted that he'd be so again. As he thought about Malkev, he knew he'd have the makings of a great deputy and in time a sheriff and then a marshal. There were not a lot of young men who thought like Malkev thought, like life was a school and he was great at his studies and doing his homework.
He'd offer the young man a job in a minute ... if he was what he said he was. He wondered, almost aloud, if he had taken too much of a chance with him. Shouldn't be any trouble knowing what the man was up to while he was in Birdstorm.
On Saturday morning, the herd Malkev had been scouting for, was delivered to the railhead and a bunch of the drovers, money thrust into their pockets, came to town, and soon heard about their lead scout, who had not been spotted in the saloon where they soon were clustered. The bartender and a few of the ladies of bright dresses said they had seen a bit of him, but he was most likely out looking for the killers' horses, and thus the killers, because a hefty bounty had since been posted on the killers of the bank replacement by the bank at Capital City. The word being spread also said that a marshal was en route to investigate the crime.
Hatherby and Searles stood at the rail in the saloon looking over the crowd, which at the time consisted of local ranch hands and drovers from the completed drive. At one table, talking about the crime, were the supposed pillars of the town, the bank president, the mortician, the general store owner and the head of the town council, retired Judge Edgar Malcolm, shot in both legs by a crazed inmate who escaped from prison "to even the scores." The judge was called "The Sufferin' Judge" because he wore his pain the way some judges wear the cloak, clean, pressed and prominent.
"What would you do, Judge," the banker said, "if you had found them guilty in your court and you were ready to sentence them?" The banker's eyes were hard on the judge, as though he was ready to give his own judgment if he heard something that would not satisfy him. He put his hands on the table waiting for an answer, his upper lip quivered once, twice, three times, apparently unnoticed by the judge
Taking in a deep breath, leveling his eyes right at the banker, the judge said, "Six silent steps up to the rope, the kind that doesn't work too quickly." He slammed his hand on the table. The banker held his breath as though he was looking directly at the scene.
At the next table, in a friendly-at-first poker game, sat two drovers and two local ranch hands who had ridden in to town for the day, and for most of the night, quite likely. Another ranch hand, who had ridden in with them, stood at the end of the bar and continually surveyed the saloon and the crowd, which thickened a short while after noon when every seat at a table and all standing spots at the bar were in use. He wore a derby type hat that set him apart from other men in the saloon, looking villainous at first glance but in a somewhat joking manner. If a figure filled the doorway, his eyes measured the figure, made a judgment, went elsewhere when he found no interest.
When the sheriff walked into the crowded room, the place went silent; there were no chairs pushed back with creaking sound, no spurs clicked under any table, no heels clicked against one another. The man at the end of the bar was entirely vigilant, both to the sheriff and to the crowd now silent. His eyes sought out two pals at the table with two drovers and saw them just as attentive as he was. He sent a slight nod of approval.
The judge, seeing the look on the sheriff's face and working with him for nearly 10 years, knew something was afoot. The banker watched the judge's eyes with close attention and a sense of alarm. At the friendly poker table a drawn inside straight was being held in mid-air.
And no sooner had the sheriff made himself room at the bar by squeezing between two thinner men, Torbic Malkev entered the saloon. For a short moment he was known by a few people in the saloon and unknown to most of them. That all changed when the drover with the filled-in inside straight, waved his cards in the air and yelled, "Torby, where the hell have you been. We looked all over and heard you saw them people killed. Everything okay?" That obviously meant, "Is anybody looking for you now?"
He carried on. "Have you been hiding? C'mon over here. Look at my cards." He flashed his hand in the air so nobody could see but all of them knew of his lucky draw.
The man at the end of the bar nodded at his two pals and they rose from the table and looked around the room.
Malkev gave the card player a drover's warning sign by touching his neck with his left hand. The hand of cards fluttered to the table top and he slid his chair back so he could move. His partner at the table did the same thing.
The judge kept his eye on the banker, the sheriff kept his eye on the man with the derby hat standing at the end of the bar flexing the fingers on his right hand. His two card playing pals were struck dumb by an overpowering sense of fear and sudden expectation of trouble, and were frozen in their seats.
An ominous silence settled again over the saloon. When the banker started to rise from his seat, the judge said, "Don't move, Roy. I've got a gun on you. Your time has finally come. The bank knows everything. It's all going to fall at your feet. All that missing money, the murder of your replacement and his wife and child. We know who your cohorts are."
In those moments between silence and the sordid story bouncing like an echo in the room, the nervous and unsettled knew dread was at hand. When the derby hat with the itchy fingers tried to step away from the bar, the bartender threw a mug of beer directly in his face and Torbic Malkev shot the gun out of his hand as it came out of the holster, the other hand still wiping beer from of his eyes. He yelled loudly, "Me and my pals don't have two paint horses and a big red stallion. We ride two grays and a palomino. They're tied up out front."
Malkev said, "Same ones I saw. We've been waiting on you."
Sheriff Hatherby knew he was going to make an offer to the new man in town.