Western Short Story
A town boy burst up to Sheriff Wilkins’ office yelling out, “He’s dead, Sheriff. He’s dead. Mr. Purley‘s dead in his store. I peeked in the window and he’s on the floor and blood all over him!” The sun had barely warmed up Carver Grove and small bunches of the story came back to the sheriff in flashes, as if they had been announcements in the first place.
The odd pieces came to him, gathered into a clutch, and became a story, as seen here.
A few weeks before the boy’s terrified cries, Sheriff Jerry Wilkins, sitting outside his jail and office in Carver Grove, finding the early sun a source of pleasant feelings as he did on special mornings, had seen the well-dressed stranger eyeing Asa Purley’s General Store with a studied manner. He watched the man walk off a measurement twice, and then make an entry on a small pad of paper. Then the scribbler went down the alley beside Purley’s place, at which the sheriff sauntered from his comfortable perch, and watched him duplicate the measuring action. Looking up to the second floor of the store, the stranger apparently had all the measurements he needed.
For whatever reason.
Wilkins had gone over to the Charnley Hotel to check the owner about the well-dressed stranger and ask if he knew where he came from and why he was in Carver Grove. The owner, from past observations by the sheriff, stood out as a tight-lipped cuss to begin with.
Owner Jeb Charnley said, “He registered as Harry Whitcomb. Said he traveled up from Plague City and is here on business. Nothing else, and I didn’t ask for that information, he offered it.” Charnley, Wilkins realized, paraphrased he was still a man who tended to mind his own business.
After lunch with a special woman friend at the edge of town, the widow Paula Fortunato, smooth, silky, literate, Wilkins went to the Double Yoke Saloon to have his noon nip with another old friend, Adam Barkley, the saloon’s lone bartender. Barkley had been hurt on a posse run a few years earlier and found himself confined to a new kind of work.
“Yuh, I know him,” Barkley said. “Came from Plague City in the territory, and before that hung around in Dawson’s Village. Seems as slick as all-get-out to me. Bought several rounds in the last couple of days, like he’s trying to make friends. Got a poke on him that’d choke a bear.” He showed a thumb and forefinger about three inches apart. “A real bankroll, a strike somewhere along the line that might excite some of the boys for cards or something else.” He raised one eyebrow acknowledging the duties of a sheriff.
“What’s he after, Adam? You have any idea?”
Barkley said, as he went off to serve the other end of the bar, “Nothing I got stitched in my head yet, but I’ll keep my eyes and ears open for you. Might ask some of our other pals. Maybe Twigs or Caleb. They’re still riding out there with the tin on their shirts.”
Wilkins sent off telegraph queries to a few old compadres, and the result came just as Barkley suggested; Twigs St. Martin came back with his reply: “Gent of ? advance buyer big eastco. don’t take no for seller answers. hires local gs, pays gc. Some jobs not solved, open. I’m rid here. I owe. Tree part will be stranger.”
Of course, it made Wilkins smile, seeing the image of his old buddy, tall and skinny Twigs St. Martin, composing the message, explaining the past and present of Harry Whitcomb, eastern rep with a big bucks company, hired killer guns who killed for gold coin, that St. Martin himself owed some of them for something but Twigs (tree part) owed Wilkins good and would leave his job shortly and come to Carver Grove as a complete stranger to the sheriff and Barkley, “and bound to help.”
It was store owner Asa Purley who came to see the sheriff after dark the following week, slipping into the office when he came out of an alley between the jail and another store. Nervous and skittish, he kept looking out the window into darkness as he spoke to the sheriff. “Jerry, it’s that Whitcomb gent, too damned pushy but scary at the same time. Said if I don’t sell my place to him, he’ll get me out of Carver Grove if I’m still alive by hook or by crook.”
“Did he use those exact words, Asa?”
“Not exactly. He said that accidents always happen to public figures, like me, because people see them all the time and they’re bound to attract bad customers along with the good ones. He puffs that fancy cigar and drops ashes when he taps it with a finger, like at the end of a sentence loaded with double meanings, or more like pulling a damned trigger. He’s scary. I’m just a store owner, Jerry. Just a store owner.”
“Hell, Jerry, I can’t arrest him for dropping ashes or saying what can be true in any town about bankers, grocers and sheriffs. But I’ll keep my eye on him.” Noticing that Purley still acted unsettled, he took him by the elbow and said, “C’mon, I’ll walk you back to your place. It’ll be okay.” From the touch, Wilkins knew Purley shook in his boots.
The lanky stranger was already in the saloon by noon the next day, a gawky looking fellow with long arms and legs and looking like he needed a horse 19 hands high to ride on. Perhaps a few patrons conjured up a picture of him throwing his right leg over the back of a horse with his left foot still on the ground. His face ran narrow and thin and a bad under-bite exaggerated the length of his features. A small rumble of remarks had started because of his appearance, among which came a series of nicknames for skinny men who could drink like he could. On his 5th or 6th drink at a corner table, often leaning forward as though he’d fall asleep in a minute, the stranger wasn’t sleeping and he wasn’t drunk.
Some of the names were clearly audible to him and every now and then a speaker, using a new nickname, would double-check the stranger’s demeanor or reaction. All was quiet in the room until one customer with a loud voice said, “That beanpole can sure put ‘em away down that skinny trunk like he ain’t got no bottom to it. Must have leaky boots at the far end. Wore the toes right off ‘em, I’ll bet.” His laugh pried sharp as a knife under the skin of the stranger.
Before he knew it, the speaker’s butt banged on the floor of the saloon as his chair was whipped out from under him. With a grunt and a thud he had fallen, along with a bunch of embarrassment mixed with awe and fear as he looked up at the mountain-tall man standing over him, saying in a voice so deep it might not properly belong to a skinny man, “When you’re atalkin’ to me or about me, best look at me for an okay, or else it’s somethin’ else comin’ down on ya, down and deep.”
In truth, the gawky but fearless stranger had earlier noticed the sharply dressed man across the room working a rich-looking cigar at his mouth, and had decided to cater to his curiosity. The man Sheriff Wilkins and Barkley the bartender knew as Twigs St. Martin responded to Whitcomb who had shortly approached him at the bar after the escapade.
Whitcomb put out his hand with a wide smile on his face and dealt his humor card. “That was some piece of wrangling, Mister. Sure took care of that big mouth. I’m Harry Whitcomb up from Plague City and a few other places along the trail. What do you call yourself?” The humor was clear in his words, on his smiling face.
“Hell,” the lanky gent said, “I call myself what my Pa called me all the way back to Tennessee near like a 100 years ago. Called me, ‘Sticks,’ he did, the second ‘Sticks’ in the family. Had an uncle came home with a leg missing from the first day of the Big War. The very first day, by practic’ly the first shot fired. My Pa cut him a chunk of branch from an ash tree growin’ right in the front yard and made this rig for him fit right up under his armpit, right up here.” He jammed one fist up into his armpit. “Snug as a porker in a hollow log.” He took his turn at a loud laugh.
Whitcomb said, “Well, I really like a fellow that brings a sense of humor with him.” Looking at the gun belt on the tall Sticks, he said, “I see you’re carrying two side arms. You any good with them?”
“One of them’s in your belly right now, Whitville or Whitfield or whatever else you been called.” It was as though Sticks had not even moved. But Whitcomb felt the gun in his belly, too low to be nice.
It didn’t seem to faze Whitcomb and he asked, “Are you looking for work, Sticks? Do you mind how you use those side arms if the pay is good?”
“Sticks don’t hate money at all, and you can bet my last dollar on that. These small cannons can be used to knock down a desperado or the fella chasin’ him with the little tin okay on his shirt. Makes no difference to me.” He put the gun back in its holster, almost as quickly as it had come out. “It gets a rest whenever it gets tired, like as all I can promise.”
Wilkins and Barkley stood together when Asa Purley was buried at the edge of Carver Grove. Mrs. Purley
dd not shed a tear or blink an eye at the short services, but when she looked at the sheriff she subtilely nodded her head back toward town, which he understood to mean she wanted to talk to him … and alone.
An hour later he met her in the small apartment above the store. “I can’t prove anything, Sheriff,” she offered, “but that Whitcomb fellow is behind this. Told Asa he had to sell to him or he’d burn us out, me included, but he wanted the only store in town to be his. He offered a ridiculously low figure to buy this whole place. When Asa didn’t bite at it, he wagged his cigar and then waved a small pistol at him he carries in a jacket pocket. Right in his face he waved it. I don’t suppose that little gun did all the work that killed Asa, but that gun wagger’s behind it, mark my words.”
She paused and said, “And I’m not selling either.”
“Did you hear anything in the night?”
“I went down to Paula Fortunato’s place earlier, stayed late helping her on some decorations she wants to do (she offered a coy smile to the sheriff), stayed late and came home to see the lights in the store. The lights meant Asa was busy and I was exhausted, so I went right up the back steps and into bed. Didn’t hear a thing, but I want to show you something.”
She went to the back of the store and brought back a stuffed leather pillow that was a mess. “I found this in a trash box out back. I think this was held by the killer because it’s got some holes in it probably made by bullets and stinks of burnt gunpowder. Look for yourself.” She handed the leather pillow to Wilkins. Her “Smell it,” sounded like a marshal’s order.
“That’s really helpful, Ma’am,” Wilkins said. “Anything else?”
“I’m guessing that whoever did it likes apples. Two of them, chewed to the core, were tossed in a corner.” She held the cores out to the sheriff. “See, down to the last bite. Asa would never leave them around and neither would I.”
The sheriff picked two apples out of a barrel’ “How much?” he said.
She managed a smile. “We’re having an Asa Purley Special Give-away today. They’re on the house …. and do good with them.”
They nodded their understanding to each other.
The sheriff motioned Barkley to the end of the bar. He took the two apples out of his shirt and spoke of his needs; “Keep them in back of you, under the mirror. Tell me who asks for them, and then eats them down to nothing if it happens. And announce so all can hear, but from a conversation, that I’m off to Seth Crawford’s spread to check out some robbery in his house. Make sure our old pal hears where I’m going. I’ll meet him out on the trail somewhere.”
Twigs St. Martin found him on the trail. He hailed Twigs as Sticks, at which both men laughed. “You meet with Whitcomb yet?”
“Was supposed to two days ago, but he had a tight meeting with one of his boys, name of Turkey Coalwell.”
“Know anything about him?”
St. Martin replied, “Only that he’s never been caught at what he does best, and that’s killing for a price. But they got a whole gaff of stores they bought behind them, all the way back to Independence and some in Illinois and Ohio. Noise and trouble with each one changing hands, but nobody settled behind the bars. Not yet. This Coalwell’s been hanging on his pockets for a few years.”
They went back to Carver Grove by different trails, at different hours. Wilkins came in after dark and went directly to the Double Yoke. The room, on a Saturday evening, was filled; the tables were full up and a stream of men lined the bar. The noise was raucous, loose, weekend spirits on the fly.
Barkley poured him a beer and said, “Whitcomb’s in the corner and the ugly gent in the funny hat, name of Turkey Coalwell, ate both apples in an hour. Like there wasn’t a nip left to either of ‘em.” He added a guarded qualifier, “Then he tossed the cores into the corner like he wants me to clean up after him, of whom I ain’t so burdened. Not ever.”
Wilkins studied the table, saw Whitcomb staring at him in return, and decided now was his best time. He left the bar and walked right to their table and stood over it.
Whitcomb said, “Can we help you with something, Sheriff?”
“Yes, you can,” Wilkins said with a clear voice. “I’m here to arrest Turkey Coalwell for the murder of Asa Purley, store owner.” He held a gun on Coalwell.
“You’re crazy on that account, Sheriff. I don’t know a thing about any of it.“ Coalwell sat back, smiling, looking sideways at Whitcomb.
“He sold you out, Turkey,” Wilkins said, and nodded at Whitcomb. “He told us about the leather pillow you used and where you threw it away and how we’d most likely find some apples bit down to the core on the floor of the store.” He looked into the corner and added, “Just like them two down there, right to the last bite.”
Wilkins didn’t know it, but Coalwell had pulled his pistol under the table when the sheriff started walking towards them. Now, the tables turned on him, he turned on Whitcomb and killed him with one shot under the table. Before he got off a shot at the sheriff, Wilkins knocked him out of his seat with a single round.
There’d be no trial on the pair, but the expansion of the big eastern stores combine came to a halt, in tiny Carver Grove.
Later, the sheriff told his old pal Twigs St. Martin about the apple clues.
“Looks to me,” St. Martin said, “like a case of apple pans doubty.”
The two lawmen were loose enough to laugh at anything.
And they did.