Western Short Story
According to the schedule that was mentioned to me by the ticket agent before I boarded the Denver & Northern train, I knew the town coming up was Vernon Creek. To the best of my recollection, Bow Ridge wasn't too far beyond that, maybe another twenty miles. That distance gave me time to settle back, letting my Stetson shade my eyes. I was doing my best to ignore the two, what-sounded- to-be, spirited gentlemen seated nearby discussing the goings-on in the cattle business. Something about completely closing the Omaha Yards and moving all of that business down-a-ways to Kansas City. They finally resolved their differences with no further discussion and kept quiet the remainder of the ride. I also noticed a man and his young son several seats in front of the businessmen enjoying the view in low toned conversation. The ride was peaceful enough except for the rocking of the train which caused my nap to be shorten to maybe five minutes of winks. I'll be making the return trip again soon, perhaps with a passenger at my side.
I felt the train slowing down to safely take a lengthy curve over some rugged Colorado flatland before crossing the North Fork River. The train yawed back and forth over the rickety trestle tracks till it finally reached level earth again.
With my eyes barely open, I used my thumb to slowly lift my Stetson. In front of me was a youthful face with a unhurried serious expression. His small index finger was almost into my chest.
"You must be a U.S. Marshal," he said, tossing glances between my eyes and my badge. "My name is Korb. Korb Davis. Thanks for bein' on the train." His serious expression vanished into a warm smile. The boy was dressed cleanly, brown shirt and pants, slightly scuffed boots and a thick crop of dark hair. A gleam of interest shown in his blue eyes.
"I'm Warren Brothers," I said. "U.S. Marshal from Cheyenne River. I'm sure there's a reason for thanking me, Korb." I was wide awake now, sidelined from trying to get more shuteye, responding in a favorable tone.
"Ya gotta come quick, Marshal," he said, motioning in front of him. "I'm pert sure the train is gonna get robbed before we get to Vernon Creek."
"How do you know," I said. Playing along, my beginning smile widened.
"Saw two rough lookin' cowboys set foot on the train when Pa and me got on." His voice sounded serious.
"Sure 'bout that," I said. The news widened my astonishment.
"Yes, sir." He was determined in telling his story. "They was gonna meet up with another cowboy on horseback, slow the train and rob what was in the baggage car."
"Well," I said. "If the train begins to slow up before Vernon Creek, I'll go take a look as to why." I reckon he's been told too many stories from other people about trains that carry a sizeable amount of money.
"Korb?" The voice came from a man standing behind the boy. "Don't be tellin' stories to this man, son. No need to worry him to what's not gonna happen."
I nodded, understanding.
The man speaking had age to his face. His brows were thick, jaws were tight. His strong hands rested on his son's shoulders.
"Pa, you always said that when we rode the train to meet up with Ma, who's with Aunt Melba in Bow Ridge, there's a possibility that this here train is gonna be robbed."
"Pardon us, Marshal," the man said, his voice was heavy. "I'm Daniel Davis, and this here is my son, Korb."
"We've already met," I said. Immediately the boy and I shared a smile.
"Like Korb mentioned," Daniel said. "Thelma, my wife, on occasion likes to share a visit with her sister who lives close to Bow Ridge. Much safer to take the train. Ridin' the stage coach seems to take forever. And no tellin' if it's gonna get held up. Has me real scared o' thinkin' that."
"Pa!" Korb said in a raised voice. "There's always a good chance this train is gonna get robbed. You told me that before. And you was worried then 'cause Ma don't mind takin' the train."
"No matter which way," Daniel said, expressing his opinion, "I'm always afraid for your Ma." He managed a thin smile.
"We got the marshal to look after us, Pa," Korb said. "Nothin' to worry 'bout. Ain't that right, Marshal?"
My friendly smile increased. Then I said, "Nothin' to worry about from here to Bow Ridge. Enjoy the ride and tell the misses that I made sure the train wasn't gonna get robbed."
They continued a Pa-son yep-yap. From the window beside me, I was paying attention to the dark clouds overhead that suddenly opened up with beginning drops of rain.
"VERNON CREEK," the conductor announced in a heavy voice, standing near the door at the front of our car. "This is Vernon Creek. If you're continuing on to Bow Ridge, you might wanna stretch your legs a bit 'cause we're takin' on water. Won't be very long. Mosey around a bit inside the station 'till we get started again."
The two businessmen stood and walked forward. Daniel and Korb waited for me to stand and , walking in their direction, we exited the train. We quickly stepped to the platform, then inside the station followed by the conductor. He was a large man that nicely filled out his dark suit, putting a little strain on his brass buttons.
Inside the station it sounded like the clouds opened up with a flash storm pelting the entire area with pounding rain. Instantly clouds were ebony shade, shafts of lightening crackled and danced, and thunder barked from the sky. Time passed slowly as the torrential rain continued to fall.
Across from where I was, the potbelly stove was ash cold. A back-to-back hard bench seated six people. The rest of us were scattered around, standing. Korb was interested in the storm and spent the remaining time looking out the window as streaks of rain were like endless teardrops falling across the glass. Thereafter he walked to the top-glass door spending time observing two cowboys standing alone below a dilapidated overhang. Everything wearable on the two was completely saturated from the falling rain, but it seemed to not bother 'em one bit.
"So what brings you this direction, Marshal?" Daniel said, standing next to me, leaning against a back wall with one boot over the other.
"I'm bringing back a prisoner," I said. "He's currently locked up in the Bow Ridge jail."
"What's he charged with?"
"Murder," I said. "And escape from the Yuma County jail."
"Sounds like he's a dang awful person, Marshal."
"Most people fit into society real good. And then there's idiots who break the law. My job deals with those people."
"Looks like you've been around a while,"
"I've done my lawman job for many years," I said. "I started out with what I suppose is thin skin in wearing this badge. Over time I've run up against some of the worst for miles around that part of Colorado. As I got older my skin has turned thick. And that's a damn fact."
"Train's ready to roll," the conductor yelled out. His voice rose an octave. "All you people travelin' to Bow Ridge, time to get on board."
Over the years doin' this job, I've turned into a people-watching person. I get a sense of those around me. Kinda like a mental makeup, sizin' what somebody is thinkin'. Some people instantly mean something to me while others are just a quick flash o' nothin' special in my memory. As I stood next to Daniel Davis, something struck me as odd about them two cowboys standing outside on the platform in this awful rain. I think they saw me, or maybe saw my badge, wanting to not be noticed. My hunch tells me somethin's goin' on.
The other people that I was watchin' were an older couple, settler's lookin', seemingly quiet, sitting together on the station bench. More often than not they continued to stare at me. Do they know who I am or is somethin' gonna happen?
As I remained watchful, everyone boarded one of the two passenger cars of the rain. The two cowboys stepped inside the front car. Everyone else, including me, entered the second car. I took my seat near the back, able to watch those in front of me.
After the train chugged away from Vernon Creek, from my window seat I could easily see the rain slowly beginning to let up, heading in a northeasterly direction. I leaned back to get somewhat comfortable, lowering my Stetson to once again cover my eyes. The faint, screaming sound of the train whistle and the continual rocking vibration of the iron horse against the tracks kept me awake until I was finally settled and relaxed.
Just when I thought that I was on the outskirts of Dreamland, again I lifted my Stetson. In front of me, standing in the aisle, were the elderly man and woman that I'd seen in the station starring in my direction.
"You must be the Marshal from Cheyenne River." He spoke first, his voice was smooth and aged. By his looks I could easily tell he's spent a lot of time in the sun. His years of baked skin were noticeable.
I nodded. Seems as though they saw my badge and knew who I was.
"On your way to Bow Ridge?" he commented. "Me an' the misses been followin' you."
"Since you know who I am and where I'm goin'," I said, "what's your business with me?"
"Does the name Alvin Speers mean somethin' to you, Marshal?" he said.
"And bein' charged with murder," she said.
"We was at the trial over in Lockwood," he said. "Front row, t'other side of Speers."
"Couldn't stand lookin' at that scum bastard, Marshal," she said. Her words were harsh with feelings. "I know the definition to what a bastard is and he fits the meaning as best as can be."
"He killed our son," he said. Tense lines on his face were revealed.
"Ellis Haines," I said. My words were short and to the point. "Sorry for the loss of your son."
"I'm Elmer Haines," he said. "This is my wife, Clara. Sorry ain't the half if it." He gave me an angry stare. I could see emptiness in her face.
"He was a fine young man, Marshal," Clara said. "We's a good homestead family and raised him right. Bible verses ever' night. So maybe two weeks ago, without a mention to us, he goes to Lockwood and somehow gets a taste o' whiskey. Ain't nothin' but Devil juice."
"He tasted too much, Marshal," Elmer said. "We was told that he had more than his share and was funnin' a lot with a dancehall whore."
"That woman was raised in Hell," Clara admitted. "No descent woman does what she does without some terrible guilt. Drinkin' all the time then scootin' out back where the tent is, gettin' rubbed with pleasure between her legs. Damn awful scum, Marshal."
I continued to listen. Clara defined it real good.
"Alvin Speers was drinkin' too," Elmer said. "He claims the whore was his favorite. Him and Ellis start with words at each other. No tellin' what they said. Probably a real bad argument."
"So Alvin pulls out his gun and shoots Ellis dead," Clara said. "Plain-as-day murder." Emotions tightened her throat.
"Alvin was arrested and jailed in Lockwood," Elmer said. "After Ellis was buried, we went to the trial an' that worthless no-good was found guilty. To be hanged in Cheyenne River."
"But he escapes Lockwood jail," Clara said. "Word spread that he was locked up and had some friends get him out. Not much to argue 'bout. He was ready to meet his Maker, but others thought different."
"That's where I come in the picture," I said. "He and his friends didn't get that far. I got word from Sheriff Boyd Ford, telling me that Alvin was captured when he and two others tried to rob a bank in Willard, not too far from Bow Ridge. Two of his partners were killed in the shootout."
"Somebody in Cheyenne River spread the news, Marshal," Elmer said. "Said that you was headin' to Bow Ridge to bring Alvin back to hang. Cheyenne River was the only town around with legal authority to yank some outlaw's neck. Ain't that right, Marshal?"
I said nothing and didn't disagree. At that moment I continued to stare out the window. The train rounded a lengthy bend, followed by a gradual downhill slope and within another mile thereafter was Bow Ridge. Once I had turned from window-watching the scenery, I immediately noticed that Elmer and Clara had returned to their seats.
They barely had time to sit down and relax before the conductor's deep and authoritarian voice spoke loudly. "BOW RIDGE," It sounded stuffy, yet commanding. "We won't be long here, folks. Enjoy what you can, but don't go too far 'fore we board again."
I was the last to exit the train, following behind Elmer and Clara, Daniel and Korb and the two businessmen. Leaving the station, I walked in the direction of the Sheriff's Office in the middle of town. On the boardwalk I paid attention to where Elmer and Clara might be headed. They answered that question, entering Fine Lady Cafe, across the road from where I was headed.
At the moment and more important to me was the whereabouts of the two cowboys who were seen standing in the rain on the platform in Vernon Creek. From what I remember, they were the only two who were riding alone in this direction in the first train car. Glancing around where I stood, the two had vanished somewhere around here. That made me a little nervous.
I entered the Sheriff's Office and waiting for me was a hard handshake and the recognizable smile of Boyd Ford. We'd been friends for years. He had coffee ready and we enjoyed. In conversation, I mentioned meeting Elmer and Clara Haines on the train. It was their son who was killed by Alvin Speers. Boyd mentioned that he'd heard their names and knew who they were at the trail.
I also mentioned two unknown cowboys who were on the train, looking suspicious, especially not seeing their faces and, at the same time, riding the same train and getting off here. Seems too much of a coincidence.
"Two of 'em?" Boyd said, relaxed in his chair, sipping coffee. "Might be the Basscum boys. Ned and Johnny. Not exactly the brightest of the bunch, but they've been following Alvin Speers, who's down the hall, like they was kin to each other. More like shadows."
"The train back to Cheyenne River leaves at 2:17," I said. I withdrew my pocket watch and glanced at its face: 1:15. Close to one hour of waiting.
In that length of time, Boyd and I caught up on old news around Bow Ridge, family matters and him givin' me the idea that maybe it's time for him to retire from the law business.
"Been here a long time," he said, resting the empty cup of coffee on his desktop. "I get to thinkin' o' what it's like to go fishin' ever'day without havin' to worry 'bout this town and all that goes with it. Never thought I'd say that, but age is catchin' up and time for me to pin this badge onto someone else's shirt. Somebody decent to take all the responsibility."
"Sometimes I'm thinkin' the same thing," I said. "Even though I got me a deputy to help manage Cheyenne River, it's a big job to handle the sons-a-bitches causin' trouble while keepin' the good folks happy. No matter what happens, it seems the blame always comes back to me."
Boyd nodded in agreement.
"Sheriff!" Alvin Speers yelled from the back of the jail. "I hear you talkin' up front. Don't recognize the voice. I'm guessin' him to be the marshal from Cheyenne River? He's supposed to take me back there. Ain't gonna happen. You let me go before you end up dead. And that includes the marshal." His laughter was rich and gruff.
I retrieved my pocket watch. Two o'clock. I mentioned the time to Boyd, resting my coffee cup on his desk.
Boyd stood and walked to the back of the jail. The sound of a key could be heard unlocking the cell door followed by foot steps forward to where I was standing. Alvin Speers was rough looking, gray in the temples, letting him study my muscular profile.
His eyes stared at me and a grin was showing discolored teeth. Looking at each other was a challenge. I was figuring that he had more meat to his bones. Nothin' but a skinny little runt.
"You must be the marshal from Cheyenne River? I figured you to be that person, lookin' at that badge on your chest." His grin widened showing more yellow teeth.
"Let's get a move on," Boyd said after securing heavy bracelets on Alvin's hands and shackles around his boots..
"Ain't no rush, Sheriff," Alvin said. His voice was clean without emotion. "Train 'll be gone by the time we get to the station."
"You heard the sheriff," I said. "I intend to be on that train. You can be a passenger with me or rest easy in the boxcar car. Or have a marker above your grave here in Bow Ridge."
Boyd shut the office door and together the three of us made our way on the boardwalk to the station at the end of town.
Something didn't feel right and I was getting edgy. Mixed emotions swirled. Alvin kept pace with us, shackles pinging on wood.
Suddenly, coming out of the shadow between two buildings, Elmer Haines was walking toward us, Colt in hand, leveled at Alvin. I squared around in front of my prisoner.
"Out o' the way, Marshal," Elmer yelled, waving the pistol in our direction. "Sons-a-bitch ain't gonna make it to Cheyenne River to be strung up. Real simple...time's up, Alvin!"
From behind the water trough in front of the livery, near to this end of town, I could see a head come up. His hat looked wet. He raised his Colt and pointed it toward Boyd. The sheriff saw the same image, pushing the prisoner to the side of a building, hidden from our boardwalk location. Boyd had his gun in hand, firing a first round that gouged into the trough. Water began to trickle out, forming a small puddle that slowly began to evaporate.
"That's Johnny Basscum," Boyd yelled, making sure Alvin was pushed out of site. "The minute he lifted his face, that's him alright." The sheriff fired a second round that zinged over Johnny's face, piercing into the livery door.
"You ain't gonna board that train, Alvin," Elmer Haines said. He continued to walk toward us in a stumbling manner, waving his Colt, finally pulling the trigger. I ducked as the bullet shattered window glass to the building in back of me.
"Put the gun down, Elmer," I yelled. "Get off the street before you get shot. No reason to get involved. You'll see him hang in Cheyenne River."
Elmer paid no attention, pointing his pistol at a glimpse of Alvin and pulling the trigger. Alvin ducked but not in time to get hit in the shoulder, his cuffed hands covering the wound.
At the same time, from a rooftop across the road, a rifle and a man's face could be seen leaning into view. Aiming and firing a round toward Boyd, the bullet sliced off a piece of pillar wood close to where the sheriff was protecting Alvin. Another bullet from the rifle zipped even closer to Boyd's location.
"Up on the roof," Boyd yelled, pointing his gun in that direction and firing. "Gotta be Jed Basscum up there with that rifle." Boyd waited until Jed leaned a bit forward creating a better view. In a clear shot, Boyd pointed his Colt to where Jed was located and fired twice. One bullet tore into Jeb's face and the second in his upper chest. He staggered a moment on the rooftop, the rifle fell to the ground first, followed by Jed who landed with a heavy thud in the dirt road. Dust lifted and showered over his dead body.
Elmer inched closer, still mindful in wanting to kill Alvin. He and I argued for a minute, pointing my gun at him, making him understand what would happen if he shot at me or Boyd or the prisoner.
Johnny Basscum scooted away from that end of the trough to the other end, hoping to get a better angled shot. I followed his movement and as soon as he raised to shoot, I unloaded three fast rounds. Two missed their target but the last shot got Johnny in the eye, traveling inside his skull. He lifted up and his face fell into the trough as blood blended with the water.
With his mind still disturbed at the sight of Alvin, Elmer drew near and was close enough to see Alvin continuing to hold his hands over his wounded shoulder. In a rage, Elmer quickly lifted his gun and fired directly into Alvin's gut. Screams of pain echoed from Alvin, as he dropped to the boardwalk, curling into a ball and died.
I turned to face Elmer, his gun now facing me. I spoke peaceably for him to drop the gun. He didn't listen, firing at me that grazed my left shoulder. Instantly I aimed my Colt toward him and fired. He fell backwards, dropping to the dirt road and died instantly.
It would be a lonely ride back to Cheyenne River. Four bodies were to be buried. It's a damn shame that people can't follow the rules of law and order. I think a lot about Elmer Haines and his widow misses. He coulda come peaceful like, along with his wife to witness the hanging in Cheyenne River, but that will never happen.
Right now she's making burial arrangements for her loving husband. The doctor in Bow Ridge took care of the scrape that I received.
Tomorrow, Boyd and I will visit the cemetery in saying goodbye to Elmer Haines. Their family grudge against Alvin Speers will end. But will it ever end?