Western Short Story
Outlaws' Peak
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Some sheriffs and marshals in Montana didn’t care where Outlaws’ Peak was nestled in the mountains, for if those outlaws stayed in place, it was as good as jail or the penitentiary for them, kept them free of stage robberies, bank robberies and plain old murders-by-hire, the many ways that outlaws conducted their work, make up your own name for it, if a name is put to it.

Each of those officials, by regular informants and nasty big mouths, heard it was hidden in a cluster of rocky peaks, up high, in their own state, unionized since 1889, and many of them argued thusly in their own manner, “It’d be a tough search to find that hide-out. Best to leave well-enough alone. It’s quieter and safer for every citizen that’s exposed to dangerous and cantankerous ways of known law breakers. They shoot to kill, leave few witnesses, shut up the irritants, if they themselves are not masked or otherwise have their faces hidden.”

The words rise quick as snakes in the gardens, ready to knock down any idea of rising up and getting a posse and search underway.

“Don’t pose for a poster, if you can help it,” seemed to be a routine exclamation of their conduct. “The less seen are the less taken in cuffs to iron cells.” Some of them could sing about it for their supper, and in tune with the times, different creatures with uncommon traits. As far as folks go, any and all ideas go for bandits or killers or gang members or other ilk of the not-to-sociable kind.

High Montana ran itself that way, in towns, on the stage routes, in the mountain-peak country, the up=high places where life carried on, and the prevalent attitude, between bold strikes and strokes of bandit groups. Life went on in such a manner, two centuries ago. You can take that from me, scene watcher, people measurer.

But, the regular exception for these turn-your-head-sideways lawmen, and every situation seems to have one such individual, or character, was Luke Garner, sheriff of Castle City of the Beartooth Mountains, which, sad to say, had its own odd termination later on as that century turned towards the next one. Some places, we all know, leap with changes, while others sleep into the next century, ready to meet anything new with a fuzzy countenance.

Garner, from the inputs of concerned folks, was born and blessed as Lucas Grant Garner in 1859, who as a young man volunteered for the sheriff’s job when his father was killed, by an unknown masked man in a stage robbery, attempting to protect a lady passenger bound for Castle City to meet her betrothed, like the twain might never meet if it’s left up to the bad guys.

Young Garner, then 16, waited only 5 years to volunteer to be sheriff of Castle City. His opening task, Day 2 on the job, was to blast two robbers who had set their hearts on getting the goods, all of it, out of the bank. He shot them dead on the front steps of the bank, their hands full of loot, as they fled the site of the robbery. He was hailed as a hero, quick to react, swift and deadly with his guns, callous as a killer could be, while that badge was sported on his chest.

A day later, a later afternoon arrival, a gold miner come to town for chat and chew, said he had seen them a few days earlier cooking breakfast on a downhill trail off the nearby local ridge of a mountain’s face. He admitted to being frightened of them and had stayed hidden until they moved further downhill, apparently heading for Castle City, a dozen miles away, the lone target in dozens of miles.

Graner leaped up in the bar that very night and demanded, by the names, those who would ride with him next day as volunteers of the town posse to nab the bad guys, to get rid of them fully and finally at last.

He didn’t have any takers, even when he called them a bunch of townie cowards, supposed to scramble them into service. No such luck. If nothing else, they were solid in their thoughts: nothing dared, nothing gained. “We’ll leave no widows, this way, they argued, and Luke retorted, “Not until they come into town the next time, and who knows who’ll be widow then and who’s to be a widower?”

And then, after all the palaver and name-calling, the bandits came again, this time in the dead if night, all Castle City, even the saloon, was sound asleep until the blast went off at the front door of the sheriff’s office and also inside the bank, like timing was in perfect sync. The sheriff’s office was blown into smithereens and lucky Luke was courting Linda Blare at her parents’ home, the couple wide awake and the parents sound asleep.

Luke leaped for his horse, but he was a mile away from the bank and his office, and when he arrived the town was alive with many folks, and a bunch of them glad he had not perished within his office, now scattered in pieces, a sign of warning, no doubt.

There was no doubt this time. Some stood and slammed themselves and others for not responding sooner, for not listening to the young sheriff before he too might have been dead in the ruins of his office.

As a result, he got his posse, lest he be dead next time and brigands and bandits on the near and ever roam in the place where a good sheriff worked alone. For the most part.

Now times changed. They saddled up. They rifled up. They wore diverse sidearms to have their say; It was time for all to say something, do something, get something from their long apathy.

Luke, at first stunned by their reactions, their speed at the change, their force massed as a force for the good of Capital City, for all of Montana, found himself at the head of most men from the city. The women saw them go, the long line of them, some fearing the consequences if this action was overturned, if they were to become prisoners, subjects of pain and inhumanity in their own homes, without the man of the house, and his rifle, at the ready.

Their prayers and hopes joined the long line of riders, and the young sheriff bound for Hell, or seeing one side of it before this day was over.

The posse surged uphill, in the direction that most miners and casual observers had seen bandits heading for their hideout, up in them thar hills.

Late afternoon came, when it brought one scout back from his observations ahead of the long line. He reported to Luke: “They are directly ahead of us, in a tight little cabin against the peak of the mountain, like it’s been planted there. Looks as old as the hills themselves, holding more than a dozen men because there’s more than a dozen horses roped up in a small fenced-in area beside the cabin. There’s lots of noise comin’ from inside, like a celebration of some sort, music and all that goes with it and with liquor. We can catch them all in one barrel, Luke, if you hit them with a powerful broadside, scatter their horses, knock them all off in one big barrage. Leave nothing of them but the remnants of a gang.”

“Like leaving nothing but ashes for the women and the other citizens to look at, or see them tied up in jail, out of action forever for as long as we can hold them helpless, really helpless. That’s the best way, so let’s scatter the horses to Hell and back to freedom. Let them run free on the mountain, and then walk our prisoners back to Capital City, parade them back, all the way down the mountain and back to town. A lesson learned for everybody!”

He said it again; “Scatter their horses. Throw up a wall off fire over their heads. Tell them they’re all dead in the next broadside right in their laps. Right in their laps!!” It came loud and regal and right from the throne itself.

He could have been standing at the last statement, at the last promise.

The lead scout knew the sheriff had called the shot on the action, and it was the best way: A lesson taught for everybody involved, gang, town and posse.

“How will we do it?” the scout asked.

“By fire,” said Luke, “By fire and smoke. There’s enough music and noise in there for you to get close enough to the fence to light up some dry grass and brush from behind us to get things going in a hurry, And when the gang breaks at the noise of the horses breaking free, we’ll level a barrage over their heads strong enough to dare a break, where they’ll get cut down, or throw up their hands as a group. Caught and captured is simple salvation.”

It went off that way. The fire started, the flames leaped, and the smoke was pushed around by the nervous horses who broke free in a hurry, scattering all across the mountain, down from the Outlaws’ Peak.