Western Short Story
Fred Chandler, editor of the weekly and only newspaper in Quipilanta, The Bright Star, enjoyed looking out one side of his shop window the day the issue was printed. He’d already have placed the front page in the window and watched early risers stop to look at the page, read some of the items on the page, and pass on. A few other shop owners, real early risers like he was on most days, with a lantern to guide them to their work place, read the page under the light of the lantern, swinging their lanterns to assist in their reading. The lanterns threw soft shadows into his editorial office. The lighting activity was, he had decided early in the career of the paper, a significant part of issue day.
Also in the window this day, in the other corner from the front page, was a personal note, the first one Chandler as an editor had ever posted. The note said, in an elegant hand, “Will, if you’re alive, I’ll be in Boston. You know where. I’ll love you forever. Shirley Grace.”
The editor went back in his mind into the quick history of the note.
A beautiful young woman, Shirley Grace Hazelton, married not yet a whole year and newly located here with her husband, an adventurous sort, had handed the note to the sheriff, Tim Caswell, and explained its creation.
“They were renegade whites and Indians,” she said, “that hit our place. Will was hunting, gone most of the morning. They invaded the house, grabbed me and tied me on a horse. We were riding on the Quipilanta Trail and suddenly there was shooting. It might have been my husband Will. My horse was hit and went down the ravine. The rope broke free and I fell behind a rock. A prospector found me wandering a whole day later and ministered to me for over two months, in the back part of his mine, and protecting me, before he brought me here to town. My husband, I firmly believe, is out there looking for me. Maybe they caught him too. I don’t know, but it’s been five months and no word. I’m going back home to Massachusetts. Please keep this note posted on your office door and in the window of the newspaper. Have the editor print it too every once in a while. I’ll send money for it. Will may be dead, or he may still be alive. I’ll be praying for him. Tell him, if he comes in, I’ll be in Boston.”
She had taken the afternoon stage to connect with the railroad in Carver City, heading back to her family in Boston. Both Chandler and Caswell had seen her off, saying they’d do their best to keep the word alive and available for Will if he ever showed up in town. Silently she had hugged both men, hope and thanks intended in her gesture.
Caswell said to the editor, after the stage had departed, “Those were the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen on a woman, Fred. I swear, the saddest. But I don’t hold much stock in her husband getting back here again. If he was okay and fixed on getting back here, he’d have done it by now. The odds are too much against him and her, but if I was a betting man, I’d hold out for her doing well in life despite how this may turn out for her husband.”
They stood in the dusty street of town as the stage disappeared in a swirling cloud out on the trail, two men looking at the same incident from two angles. The sheriff had seen many harsh revelations on his job, the worst thing possible happening in too many cases. The editor, on the other hand, was thinking that somewhere down the line he could write a happy ending to the note on the window of The Bright Star. It would be true justice, true melodrama, and yet a kind of fairy tale. He realized that last point as the stage was seen no more.
In the following weeks, Sheriff Tim Caswell was searching for the small band of renegades that had hit the Hazelton place and had continued their raids, with robbery and kidnapping of women as their chief aims. Two more small ranches on the far side of the river, one upriver and the other downriver, had been hit by the renegades. One of the women was missing, the other had hidden in a drop-down her husband had dug under the barn floor and escaped her possible kidnappers.
Caswell’s posse had scoured the two areas and found all kinds of tracks leading every which way, telling him that the renegades knew they’d be tracked at first by the sheriff and his deputies and had purposely put off their trackers. Caswell also realized that at least some of the band were men that came into Quipilanta on occasion, men that he invariably had seen in town. It severely bothered him that he might have put out his hands a few times and grabbed some of the band.
The thought made him formulate a plan, realizing the “cowards and skunks that they are,” who hide themselves, become someone else when they visit the town, come into the saloon or the general store, possibly even walk into his office once in a while. It also bothered him that a few of the drunks he’d locked up after an occasional Saturday night free-for-all might have been renegade members.
He approached The Bright Star editor to enlist his help in the plan. “Fred,” he said one night at the end of the bar in the saloon, “I’d like to shake some things loose in this gang of cutthroats we got in the area. I can’t get the idea of Ella May Swenson out of my mind since she went missing. I just feel she’s been taken off by them and is suffering who knows what up there in the rocks and the high canyons of the mountains. We probably haven’t scoured a tenth of the possible areas where they’ve got a hiding roost.”
“What do you want me to do, Tim? You name it. I keep thinking about that look on Shirley Hazelton’s face when she left town. It haunts me yet, and now I see Alan Swenson every time he comes to town with that haunted look on his face. I know he’s been weeks up there in the mountains looking for his wife and hasn’t seen hide nor hair of her or any of those cowards. I heard he sat at one place on a mountain trail for a whole week swearing they’d have to come by him and he’d trail them to find his wife. Man looks half dead when he comes in for a rest and to stock up again.”
“They’re outright cowards and skunks, Fred, but they got to have feelings somehow, at least one of them. We’ve got to get that one break and shake one of them loose. Let’s make it a high public thing, the rats and cowards that they really are, and shake it right out in the open, maybe break down the one weak link we’re looking for. You write it up in the paper every issue and I’ll shout it out every chance I get.” He paused in his delivery, as he thought of the hours that faced him out on the trails searching for clues, whereabouts. “I’ll start tonight in the saloon. I just hope I can get my feelings into it as clear as I’m feeling right now.”
In the saloon that night, Saturday to make it special, the sheriff shared a place at the end of the bar with a few cowhands. Before he could break into some sort of arranged tirade against “cowards and skunks that might live among us,” Chandler walked in and was asked in a loud voice from a corner table, “Hey, Fred, some of us was wondering why you named your newspaper The Bright Star. Seems like an odd name for a cow town newspaper. We was talking about just this minute, and here you are.”
Chandler stepped right into the breach of the sheriff’s plot to shake things loose. I’ll be glad to fill you in on that. On my way here, to do what I was not sure of, becoming a cowboy, do some mining, maybe start a newspaper in some nice little town. One of the last nights on the trail, out in the open, near midnight, I saw the brightest star I had seen in years. It sat out over this area where I knew the next town was, Quipilanta. That star just grabbed me with its splendor, its majesty, its lone beauty. It brought the idea of a newspaper into my mind to extol the beauty of a place like Quipilanta, to let everybody who’d read my newspaper know what a lovely little cow own I had found for my future, and a place to start a newspaper.”
He shook his head at that last part even as many in the audience were nodding their heads in confirmation of his speech.
There was a silence at his pause, the roomful of men waiting for him to continue.
Sheriff Tim Caswell, still at the end of the bar, stepped into the silence. “Well, Fred, I guess you didn’t know how damned wrong you were with those thoughts of yours about this nice little town as you called it. What do you really say about this place now, about what might be living here among us citizens of Quipilanta, who might be sharing space with us some days and some nights, just like tonight for that matter.”
He swung his gaze around the room, let it rest now and then, not on individuals, but on clustered men at tables. “What comes to mind now, Fred? You got some more explaining you’d like to drop on these folk right now? You have some real stuff to chew on, but only for the able men among us, not for those hiding behind a mask of sorts.”
Chandler, feeling the sudden change in the air, the abrupt tenseness that the sheriff had caused, said, “How right you are, Sheriff, now that among us live or spend time with us, a scurvy bunch of cowards and outright skunks, those bandits that are hitting lone houses where only the women are at home, only them able to fight back. It’s amazing how most times these scurvy cowards know when the men folk are out and about their work, herding or driving or hunting or catching up strays. That says they have spies among us who hear of plans or see opportunities they’re looking for and advise their cowardly and scurvy comrades that a raid is in order. Isn’t that the height of cowardice so gross that when a man dies with that on his soul, the evil Satan sits waiting for him to come down among his kind.”
The charge was like lightning loose on the grass.
The Bright Star editor ran right into his next thought, and said, “The day that Shirley Hazelton left town to go back to her folks in Boston, and her husband maybe looking for her for months out there, or being plain all-out dead, was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen. We’ve never had a single word about Hazelton, not a good word or a bad word to send back to his wife in Boston about him. That’s horror enough for a lady, except when I see Al Swenson come in from another leg of his search and think of his wife out there with those skunks and cowards and wonder what she’s going through. Tell me what a good old town Quipilanta is, go ahead, I dare you. None of you have the guts. And I’m convinced there are a few scurvy cowards wearing a different face sitting right here now, trying to pry information loose about when the next gent might leave his wife alone so the house can be robbed and she can be grabbed. Look at your neighbor, look at those at the table where you’re sitting now. Is there anyone there you wouldn’t trust your life with out on the trail, wouldn’t trust your wife with, or your daughter?”
That was like Thor’s hammer had slammed into the middle of the room. Righteousness had certain ways of being recognized
He paused once more, the silence sitting in the room like a tornado waiting to bust loose.
Not a soul in the room said a word, though chairs shifted and creaked under moving weights and the shuffle of boots swept across the floor like a single broom was working the sawdust into place. The sheriff and the newspaper editor left the saloon together, stares following them, measurements being made, assessments working in the spirits of good men, and guilt starting to work, perhaps, in the innards of a few bad apples poisoning the room.
Oh, there was talk after the pair left, noise, braggadocio, exclamations, denials, and a rustle of discomfort sitting like a pall over the whole saloon. Certain fears were loosed that day in the saloon by the sheriff and the newspaper editor.
And word spread around town in a hurry.
For all that matter, Quipilanta was quiet for more than a week. It was not another raid that broke the silence, but another note, not to the editor of The Bright Star, but to the sheriff. It came under his door in the dark of night. The hand was crude but legible and simply said, “Swenson’s wife and that lady’s husband are working as captives up in Davidio Canyon. They ain’t the only ones. Look for a tight passage way past the end of the canyon to the other side of the mountain. Two lookouts always watch from the high trail. They sleep a lot.”
A righteous posse of townsmen, all volunteers for the “crusade” as the sheriff called it, was led by Caswell into the sly exit from Davidio Canyon to the site of the bandits’ lair. It was a cakewalk unnoticed by posted lookouts and both Al Swenson’s wife and Shirley Hazelton’s husband were freed from the captive torments, both hurting but alive. Two other kidnapped “slaves”, both women, were freed at the same time. Six captured men were hanged after a quick trial where the “captives“ were the chief witnesses for the prosecution. It was a 30 minute trial.
And it was Fred Chandler, editor of The Bright Star, Quipilanta’s lone newspaper, who sent off a telegram to Shirley Grace Hazelton in Boston, saying, “Do you come here to greet your husband or do we send him off to you.”
All of Quipilanta, seeing the telegram now sitting in the window of The Bright Star as a second note, waited for the reply.