Western Short Story
Jackson Alsop, sheriff of Dunkirk Falls in the Montana territory, rode back into town as evening settled itself like an October blanket, snow promise sitting in the air, a chill with it, and his horse tired from the long chase. Jeff Lundstedt was still out there in the hills, a fugitive but not a fugitive, an escapee from jail, but cleared of a murder charge just after he broke loose, Sheriff Alsop trying to catch up to him before one of the bounty hunters, out there too, killed him and brought back his body … trying to collect a reward no longer available.
What else bothered the sheriff was the manner of the reward posting, hung on the door of the saloon by the father of Lundstedt’s girlfriend, Gilyard Lansing, owner of the biggest spread in the territory. The reward was posted before the erroneous verdict was announced and within a day reversed by the judge when new evidence came to light. Alsop thought all of it was so damned convenient, and contrived, that he swore he’d get to the root of it.
Alsop had been on the job just shy of a year, and when he was only a month or so wearing the badge it was leaked to him, by the livery man, Max Turner, that he was really appointed by Gil Lansing through the town council that he controlled. “The man wants people owing him, even as big as he is. You can drop half the other ranches on his spread and he’d still have enough left over to take care of you and me and half the town for the next ten years. But he wants people owing him. It’s simple as that, and he’ll toss it in your saddlebag someday and try not to let you know it’s there. But it is.”
Then Turner said, “You know as well as I do, Jackson, that on the coldest day of the year you can still burn your fingers in a fire. If it’s there, you can get burned. Lansing’s a big man and by now more people owe him than we can guess at and we’ll never know who they all are. Only way to tell is how folks move when moving’s needed.”
Alsop said, “Who owns the livery, Max? Doesn’t he own it but fronted by you? Are you owing?”
“My momma made me promise never to owe anybody if I can help it,” said Turner. “If Lansing thinks I owe him, let him do so, but I ain’t an ower. And I’m telling you what I know ‘cause I think you’re straight as a gold bar.” He stopped talking for a spell, looked at Alsop’s horse and suddenly said, “When you gonna need him again. I like that boy too. He’s okay in my book. Lansing’s daughter likes him too, told me straight out, but I could never tell him, the boy. She said, ‘Let him find out by himself. I don’t want to guess on anything.’ How’s that for you, Jackson? Ain’t she the number, and like a new flower just budded?”
“I wondered about Terson’s testimony that he just about saw the boy shoot Oliver. Terson must owe Lansing, but Terson’s wife came to me and told me he was with her and couldn’t have seen the shooting. She said she couldn’t stand seeing that boy get hung because of a lie and just because he was in love with Ellen Lansing.”
“None of it goes back on Lansing, does it?” Turner offered. “I’ll have your horse ready to ride the minute the sun comes up. The girl told me once their favorite place was down by the Fox Hill Bridge, but on the other side, in that mess of canyons in there. They picnicked down that way a few times, she said, and didn’t worry about having a fire. So, if you haven’t looked around in that area, I’d start there.”
The sheriff, walking away from the livery, remembered how often that a plain old livery man like Turner could say things that popped up days later, when he might be alone on a ride, with so much clarity or such unreachable deepness that they amazed him and flustered him at the same time. Nobody else in the whole town was like Turner. None of them could bring things to mind the way he could. Now the delivery about burned fingers would stay with him and he’d have to add it to other gems like Turner, after a long pause in a conversation one day at a Boot Hill ceremony, said, “Only the dead cry lonely, Sheriff. Only the dead cry lonely.”
That still worked on him and still made the old gent seem like an elder from one of the Nations, all of life’s possibilities and realities stuffed in his wampum bag for the choosing in someone’s education. He promised himself that he’d pay keen attention to what the old gent had to offer any time they talked.
Indeed! “Only the dead cry lonely.” Everyone else has someone to lean on, to cry or wail at or with, to seek help from no matter how far away they are or how deep in their past. But not the dead.
Alsop had his evening drink at the Broken Heart Saloon with the bartender at the far end of the bar. A short while later he slipped out the back door and was at the door of Missy Plourant’s rooming house, ate the meal sitting on his bedside table as usual, had another drink and was asleep in minutes.
The sheriff went to sleep thinking that Jeff Lundstedt was a good young fellow with no more and no less promise than the other cowpokes his age, but had shown a touch of the actor when he broke out of jail. He used a ruse on the elderly night jailer, and tied up the jailer in a most considerate manner, and not too tight, so as not to hurt the old gent, whose feelings would be hurt enough by the escape. The young man most certainly knew what he could expect from Lansing and his influence in the town, in the territory.
With the sun not yet burning atop the peaks and hills, a pre-dawn gray lifting from darkness the way dew sometimes rises in a thin vapor on the prairie, Alsop was riding toward the Fox Hill Bridge well out from town. On the other side of the bridge and the arm of the Hoyt Stream it crossed, sat a conglomeration of canyons and serious divides in the rocky terrain. Hiding there, at least on foot, would be easy to do and hard to follow. The sheriff, rarely ever giving up his horse, would still resist that separation as best he could and for as long as he could. He was not a mountain climber, not a mountain man, not one of the young athletic types who could easily manage full days of searching on foot.
But he was not dispirited as he rode along, bringing to mind several of the bounty hunters that Turner told him had set out to capture Lundstedt. They were a determined, serious, and wholly merciless group, with Trigger Bascombe being the meanest and the most successful one in the lot. He shot early and often and was most deadly in his aim. Three times Alsop had seen him come into Dunkirk Falls with a fugitive across the saddle of a horse, the rifle in Bascombe’s hand as though he’d use it against anyone threatening to take his bounty from him.
Alsop had the uneasy feeling that it would be Bascombe that he’d have to beat out in this race … and that’s just what it was, a race to save a young man from a deadly, but usually lawful, killer.
The sheriff said aloud as he approached Fox Hill Bridge, “I hope Bascombe’s still sleeping someplace.” Several times that thought crossed his mind, but he had doubts about that edge in the game.
In one of the canyons in the range on the other side of the bridge, Alsop smelled the smoke from a fire, and breakfast remnants in the mix of odors. All smelled burnt … bacon, bread, beans, coffee. The breezes moving around the area were random and seemed without a visible source. The fire, however, was not in the canyon he was in. He saw no smoke, no flames, and no figure moving about, so he backtracked and went into the next canyon.
The smells came stronger, the smoke near visible at the deep end of the canyon, and Alsop saw a figure at that deep end. The size of the man across the shoulders said it was not Lundstedt, and told him it was Bascombe, big and brawny, and sitting as though he expected company. The figure turned around, lifted the coffeepot in the air and waved him onto the fire site.
“Damned bounty hunter knew I was coming,” Alsop said to himself. “What else does he expect?”
“C’mon in, Sheriff. I knew you’d be here sometime. That’s a mighty big reward Lansing’s put on the boy, who’s somewhere in these canyons. I found sign early this morning. Sit down now and have a hot cup. It’ll do you good.”
“The boy’s innocent, Bascombe. The judge reversed the decision. There’s no bounty. Not a dime coming from my office.”
“That don’t go for Lansing, Sheriff. That was a personal promise to me and I aim to keep my end of the bargain. It’s too damned good to turn my back to it. I know Lansing’ll follow up his promise. He wants this boy dead for some personal thing and I ain’t about to disappoint him.”
“That’d be murder, Bascombe, if you kill the boy, and I’d chase you down long as I had breath.” He dismounted as he spoke and in that moment Bascombe had his gun trained on him.
“Not if I was never to know the boy was let off from the conviction, Sheriff. Long as I can say I was out here and didn’t know, I’ll collect from Lansing, and that’s for sure. He won’t dare refuse me. Man has hunger’s bad as me. We know each other too well. I done work for him before.”
The gun was steady on the sheriff.
“You kill me and leave me out here and they’ll get you, Bascombe. I know that.”
“Drop your gun, Sheriff. I ain’t playing no games with you. Sit down there on that rock and put your hands behind your back. I’m tying you up, and if I get that boy in my sights, you’ll be next. If I don’t, you can explain this talk all you want back in town, and to Lansing, and nobody can do anything against me. That you can put in a pipe and smoke up forever. My word against yours.”
The rope was knotted on Alsop’s wrists, his gun set aside, and Bascombe offered a cup of coffee to his lips. “Drink it now, Sheriff, ‘cause I’m going to look for that boy after I tie you to a rock. It might take me the long part of the day, so drink now. If I don’t get him, I’ll be back much later, but that boy can’t fight off me and the thirst and the hunger and the smells of food in the air. I’ll get him.”
That’s when Alsop first noted the burnt mess in the skillet beside the fire, charred ruins of a possible decent breakfast and origin of heavy smells. The man was as cruel as he sounded, and as devious.
He thought, “I hope that boy's a lot stronger, and smarter, than I figured him for. He’s going to need it with this gent after him.”
Bascombe walked off behind Alsop where he couldn’t see him and hid the sheriff’s handgun and rifle, came back, offered another sip of coffee and headed into the deeper part of the canyon, his rifle in hand and ready, wide in the saddle as he rode.
Perhaps 15 minutes later, Bascombe out of sight, Alsop heard scraping sounds behind him, then the skitter of a stone on stone, and a whisper from behind a rock. A voice said, “Don’t move, Sheriff. It’s me, Jeff Lundstedt. I got your weapons where he hid them and I heard all the talk. Does Ellen know that I didn’t kill Oliver?”
“Better untie me quick, Jeff, before he comes back. That man meant every word he said about doing us in. Hurry now. Untie me.”
“Oh, I’ll do that right away, Sheriff, but he’s not coming back in any hurry. I planted enough teasing sign out there, all the way to the end of the canyon, and enough there to keep him guessing where I went from there. I saw him last night set his fire up like he wanted me to try and get to him.”
He untied the sheriff. “Does Ellen really know I’m not a killer?”
“The whole town knows it including her father. He’s got some deep reason he wants you dead.”
“It’s not very deep, Sheriff. He doesn’t want any cowpoke like me, someone real ordinary coming along and getting his daughter and his ranch, which are about the only two things he loves in this world. And all Ellen and I love are each other. That’s what bothers him so much. He can’t stand that. I don’t think the man has a happy thought in his life outside of the ranch and Ellen.”
“Well, Jeff, you’ve done a good deed here today, lots of smart moves, so I’m willing to listen to what you think we should do now.”
“That’s what I’m thinking about, Sheriff and I think we ought to keep everything the way it was when he went out there. You sitting there like you’re tied up, but you’re not, and like you don’t have a weapon, but you do, and we’ll catch him right square. But he took the water with him, and we have to face the day without water.”
Alsop looked at the remains of the fire and the burnt breakfast and said, “We still have his coffeepot, Jeff. We can share that. It should be enough.”
So they stayed for five or six long hours of the day, sneaking drinks from the coffeepot, Alsop looking as if he was still tied to the rock, his hands behind him, his handgun in one hand, and Jeff Lundstedt, lying behind a large rock with the sheriff’s rifle in his hands. He’d been once convicted, once jailed, the conviction overturned after escape from jail, a supposed fugitive to some bounty hunters, but not to the one apparently now in charge of things.
Sunshine in waves poured down on the still pair waiting on the bounty hunter with the supposed upper hand.
The full turn-around was in the making.
The canyon became furnace-like, and a deadly silence hung in the air, most critters around off in hiding from those present, the smell of gun oil possibly cast about by the heat waves. And overhead, riding the unseen thermals, the vultures, ready sometimes to investigate the still figures, kept their distance as one or the other of the “prisoners” made a definite movement saying life still moved in them.
Later in the day, the keen ears of the sheriff at work, he heard sounds from the heart of the canyon. He kept still, but whispered to Lundstedt, “You awake, Jeff?” He had not heard from him for almost an hour.
“I’m awake, Sheriff, and I heard that sound. It’s got to be him. I’m not going to move a muscle. The play is all yours. I’m just a back-up.”
Alsop entertained the sudden image of him pinning a deputy’s badge on Jeff Lundstedt. It would be well-deserved and a note for the future.
Bascombe, in a matter of minutes, appeared about 100 yards away, standing beside his horse, studying the layout of his campfire and his prisoner, still tied to a big rock, the rope still in prominent display about his body, his hands behind him. All else seemed to be the way he left it earlier.
The bounty hunter was slow and deliberate in his approach, walking on the right side of his horse, the reins in his left hand, his rifle in the other hand. He was not going to be surprised if there was a change. He saw the sheriff as though he was sleeping, and figured the heat and thirst had got to the man, and the campfire and the surroundings were exactly as he left them; the fire was out, but the coffeepot sat on a rock at the edge of the fireplace he had made, the sheriff’s horse was still tied further away, and all looked to be the same.
Still, he came on slowly, walking and not riding, caution in every step.
Eventually, not 20 feet from the trussed-up sheriff, his curiosity and security now pretty certain to be valid, the big bounty hunter slid his rifle into the scabbard on the saddle, turning his back for a few ticks of the watch. When he swung back, hearing a new sound, reaching for his handgun, the sheriff of Dunkirk Falls had his gun trained on his chest.
“Don’t move, Bascombe, or you’re dead.” He straightened his arm and pointed the handgun even closer to the bounty hunter.”
“I ain’t moving, Sheriff. Nothing’s changed. It’s just my word against yours, so there’s nothing you can do and Lansing will take care of everything, just like I said. My word against yours.”
Bascombe's whole stance and demeanor changed when the sheriff said, “I’ll just ask him to speak in my behalf, Bascombe,” and he added, “Keep that rifle on him Jeff. We want him to testify with his lies. If he moves one inch, shoot him in the hip.”
Jeff Lundstedt, once fugitive, stood up carefully, the aim of the rifle right on the bounty hunter not more than forty feet away from him.
“I’ll get him straight on, Sheriff. If I miss his hip, it won’t be down, but up along the chest.” His aim was steady and on target.
They rode into Dunkirk Falls at dusk, the sheriff, the one-time fugitive and the new prisoner. At the livery, near the head of the town, Max Turner rang the town bell as loud as he could, yelling at the same time, and the townsfolk poured out of the buildings, the saloon, the general store, a few other shops, as the mini-parade neared the sheriff’s office.
There was a roar of approval from just about all the townsfolk, except a few Lansing confederates, but some of that changed too as Ellen Lansing rushed from the crowd and repeatedly hugged Jeff Lundstedt, the sheriff’s rifle still in his hands.
At the edge of the crowd, tears on her cheeks, a true sense of joy rushing through her, Missy Plourant promised herself that she’d have another surprise for the sheriff when he came back for his night’s rest.