Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Harold Timms ran his brown, business-like eyes critically over the customers in Joshua Swartz’s saloon.
“It’s quiet again,” he observed.
“Sure is,” agreed Joshua.
Joshua absently picked up a glass and gave it another wipe with a ragged, grey, stained cloth.
Harold nodded his head thoughtfully. “Same in the store,” he added.
“It’s at times like this that I wish I owned a smaller place,” said Joshua. “At least then it would look busier.”
Harold laughed lightly, his developing jowls wobbling. He straightened up from resting his back on the counter and turned to face Joshua.
“I’ll have another,” he said.
Joshua refilled his shot glass with whiskey.
Harold raised it and stared reflectively through the amber liquid.
“Thank the Lord for our regular customers,” he pronounced.
“Pray that we get more than are here today.”
“Don’t worry Josh, there’s less than a month until the next cattle market. Then numbers will pick up again. Not that you need to worry anymore, what with you getting that reward, and all.”
Joshua ignored the comment about the reward. “Next market won’t be as large or exciting as the last one. That has to have been the most exciting cattle market ever in the history of Wellhead.”
Harold laughed. “I reckon you’re right there.”
They were distracted by a flash of sunlight reflected from a new pane of glass that was being fitted within one of the saloon’s large window frames.
“When did you say the third window would arrive?”
Harold frowned. “Supplier said a week, maybe two.”
Joshua tutted. “I was hoping to be able to remove that last board from the window sooner than that to let the light in.”
“You’re lucky I was able to fix two of your windows at such short notice. They’re big windows, Joshua. Those two took up almost my entire supply of glass. Lucky for you I had two big panes available. With all three windows shot to pieces, you should have taken the opportunity to sub-divide them with cross frames so you could use smaller panes.”
Joshua shrugged. “I’ve been here longer than I can recall and I’ve never had one window smashed, let alone three in one day. I reckon the chances of that happening again are pretty slim. And I like having big windows. It lets more light in and feels less like a jail.”
“When did you ever experience the inside of a jail?”
“I haven’t, I’m just guessing.”
Harold gave him a shrewd look, but rather than probe, he asked, “What if those bounty hunters turn up again? Then your windows will get all shot up again and you’ll have to get more new ones. I reckon I should order three in and charge you for their storage.”
Joshua harrumphed. “I could store them myself, out back.”
“You could, I suppose.”
“And anyway, if they did return, there’d be fewer of them. They got pretty shot up.”
“That they did.”
The two men fell into silent reflection for a moment. Then Harold chuckled and said, “Do you remember the day Scully and Tidy turned up in Wellhead?”
“I sure do,” chortled Joshua.
“It all seemed so innocent to start with,” said Harold. “I mean, Wellhead, being a cattle market town, is used to strangers.”
“Hmm,” hummed Joshua unconvinced. “You should have seen the reaction of the men in the saloon when Scully walked in. You could have heard a pin drop. It was as if there was some aura about him. It was obvious that there was something different about him. For a start, he was dressed as a priest.”
Harold laughed gleefully, his white teeth glowing in the gloom of the saloon.
“The irony of his disguise will always tickle me,” he proclaimed. “And Tidy, dressed up like some eastern dandy. We should have known something was about to happen.”
“That was a bit more realistic. Tidy might have passed as a cattle agent from some east coast town.”
“Ah no, the man knew nothing about cattle. That was clear, just from looking at him. He had soft hands, for a start.”
“True, I suppose, but he did like his bourbon.”
“You got any of that left,” asked Harold, with a knowing look.
“No,” Joshua replied quickly. His eyes flicked to the quarter bottle stashed under his counter.
Harold turned to rest his back on the counter again.
“Lying bastard,” he said.
Joshua grinned at the back of Harold’s head.
“Well their arrival certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons,” he said.
“That it did,” agreed Harold. “It heralded the biggest number of gunfights Wellhead has ever witnessed.”
Joshua grunted. “Well, that wasn’t difficult. Up until then, there had never been a proper gunfight in the town.”
“True,” nodded Harold. “But, I reckon most places would be pushed to beat five gunfights over a period of just four days.”
Joshua sniggered. “And don’t forget the shooting in the brothel. And that by a woman.”
Harold shook his head. “What is the world coming to?”
“Well, when a gang of bounty hunters meets up with a gang of bank robbers, I suppose you have to expect something exciting to happen.”
“That you do.”
Harold turned back to Joshua and held his glass out for a refill.
“I suppose,” he said with a toothy grin, “we should be proud that the Parker Gang showed any interest in Wellhead.”
“Well, the gunfights certainly put us on the map. Maybe we’ll get people coming around to see where it happened, like they do at Tombstone.”
“That would be good. Maybe I should get a photograph made of me with Richard Parker before the Marshall arrives to take him and the other fellow from the gang to Dodge for trial. What was his name?”
“I thought that was the one you shot.”
“No, Samuel Thruxton shot him. I shot John Dunford.”
“Aha, yes. Wish I’d snatched him. Could have done with the reward.” He turned beady eyes on Joshua. “What you going to do with the money?”
“Do this place up a bit. Buy a few dresses for Cecile.”
“Damn right you should. Your wife deserves a new dress or two, having had to put up with you all these years. You make sure,” he waggled a friendly finger at Joshua, “that you buy them through me. Need to spread some of your good fortune around the town a bit.”
Joshua laughed, flashing his irregular teeth at Harold.
“Yes sir!” he said. “You know when the Marshall will be here to collect Parker and Spencer?”
Harold shrugged his sloping shoulders. “A couple of days.”
“He’s not hanging about then?”
“No, old Sheriff Lawton is keen to get them away from his jail.”
“Must be the fullest his jail has ever been.”
“With gunmen, I reckon you’re right. Lawton’s getting a bit twitchy.”
“Yep. He’s concerned someone might try and bounce Parker from his jail.”
Joshua frowned. “It’s a possibility, I s’pose. What about that Blessett boy?”
“Robert? He’s just murderous scum. Most likely he’ll be dealt with by a circuit judge, next time one passes through.”
Joshua looked across as two men walked into the saloon.
“Finished, boss,” one of them proclaimed.
“Good,” said Harold.
He knocked back his whiskey.
“See you later, Josh.”
“See you later. And thanks for the panes. I’ll come by later to pay for them.”
Harold and his two men trooped out of the saloon. The saloon doors squeaked and then fell silent. Maybe, thought Joshua, he’d oil the doors when he did the place up. He picked up another clean glass, gave it a wipe and sighed. The bounty hunters were now gone and, after all the excitement, life in Wellhead had quickly settled back into its normal, slumbering routine. Now, the only matter of interest that the townsfolk had to look forward to was the arrival of the Marshal to collect the two members of the Parker Gang and the trial of Robert Blessett. The squeak of the bat wing doors at the entrance to his saloon brought Joshua from his reflections. He turned to look at his new customer.
The man was dressed entirely in black and stood starkly silhouetted against the bright, late-morning sunlight. His blackness felt ominous and seemed to seep menacingly into the room. A shiver ran down Joshua’s spine. Joshua’s customers, used to seeing strangers in town, were also stilled into silence and turned cautiously to stare at the stranger.
A black bandana covered his nose and mouth. From beneath his black hat, a shock of white hair cascaded onto his shoulders and, even within the shadow of the wide brim of his hat, that part of his face visible above the bandana was as white as the bark of a birch tree.
He stepped into the saloon and walked as silently as a ghost across the wooden floor boards, even his spurs made no sound. Joshua glanced apprehensively at the man’s feet, as if to make sure that he was actually making contact with the ground.
As the man came towards Joshua, he pulled the bandana from his face. His features were milky-white, gaunt and bony – skeletal in appearance. His skin seemed to be translucent. Joshua got the sense that he could see through to the very bones within the man’s face. But he was no albino, for his eyes were ice-blue in colour and they fixed Joshua with a cold, wolf-like stare.
Joshua, although considerably broader than the man, took an involuntary step back as he halted before him. Joshua’s eyes dropped to the pair of pearl-handled Colts that hung on the man’s hips, their pale grips seemed to be as white as his skin. Joshua dragged his eyes from the weapons to the stranger’s face.
Louis Syffere smiled. The effect was transforming. The ice melted from his eyes. They sparkled like bright sapphires. His face radiated friendliness, but the sudden adjustment in his demeanour still left Joshua with an uneasy feeling about his intentions.
“May I have a beer? It’s hot as an oven out there.”
“Of …of course, sir.”
Joshua ducked behind the bar and searched for his coolest bottle of beer from the shelves under the counter.
“You visiting someone in town?” he asked as nonchalantly as he could.
“In a manner of speaking,” said his pallid customer, “but I’m really here on business.”
Joshua straightened up, bottle in hand.
“Well, you’ve missed the cattle market,” he observed, in a friendly manner, to encourage further disclosure from his customer.
Louis’ face remained inscrutable.
Joshua popped the cap from the bottle and took a glass from the shelf below the counter. Louis held up his hand. Looking at the grey cloth hanging from Joshua’s shoulder, he was not convinced about how sanitary the glass was.
“The bottle will be fine.”
Joshua placed the bottle on the counter.
Louis removed a black leather glove. The contrasting whiteness of his hand was startling. It was threaded with pale blue veins. Louis noticed Joshua’s interest in his complexion.
“I have a hereditary skin condition,” he declared. “Similar to albinism. My skin is very sensitive to sunlight; hence all the black clothing.”
“Sorry,” Joshua mumbled, “I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Louis shrugged. He took a mouthful of beer. He looked towards the saloon entrance.
“I see you’ve had some action in town.”
Joshua raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“The boardwalk in front of your saloon is stained with blood, lots of blood, and the front of your saloon is peppered with bullet holes.”
“Yes we have, Mister …Umm?”
Louis studied Joshua’s face as he answered. “Syffere, Louis Syffere.”
Joshua’s features showed no recognition of the name. Louis was satisfied. He always took care not to leave too many witnesses to his crimes. That way his name did not get around. That way he could remain more anonymous. Of course, he was well known in some parts of the country, but not, apparently, in Wellhead.
“We have indeed had some action, Mister Syffere, more excitement in the last four days than in the rest of Wellhead’s entire history. We had a bunch of outlaws turn up. Some of them got away, but we got the better of them. Killed one of them myself. Got a good reward for him too.”
The look on Louis’ face made Joshua wonder if he should have admitted to having killed one of the gang members. But the look vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
“Did this gang of outlaws have a name?”
“The Parker Gang.”
Louis nodded slowly. “I’ve heard of them. They’re led by a Richard Parker and his brother Billy.”
“They were, but …”
“Were? Is Richard Parker dead?”
“Oh, no, he’s in the jail and …”
“In the jail, huh?”
“Yes. We’re expecting the marshal to arrive any day soon. Parker’s to be taken back to Dodge for trial. Everyone is of the opinion that he’ll hang.”
“I’m sure he will, if he gets there.”
“You know him?”
“Only by reputation.”
Louis lifted his bottle in salute, “Your good health.”
He picked up his glove and turned before Joshua could respond. He walked silently to the back of the saloon to a table in the shadows of the first floor balcony. He sat down with his back to the wall. He took off his hat and quietly studied the saloon entrance. He remained so still that it seemed as though he had gone into a trance.
Things must have gone seriously wrong for Richard Parker and his gang, pondered Louis. So bad, in fact, that he’d had to come into town – that was a first.
He had been acting as the fall-back position for Richard Parker’s plans for longer than he cared to remember and had never had to get involved before. What happened to Richard must have been dramatic and completely unexpected. He glanced over at the burly barman. He could have got more detail from him, he supposed, but he had got the key information he needed – that Richard Parker was alive, albeit in prison; that was a first as well. He would get the low-down about what happened from Richard soon enough, but the fact that Richard Parker planned his raids and robberies with infinite care and an obsession to detail meant that they normally went off without a hitch. In addition, the fact that Richard selected only the best and most hardened gunmen for his gang usually meant that, even when there was a gun-fight, they were usually able to shoot themselves out of a situation. Sure the gang had lost a few members in the past, but that was only to be expected, given the type of business in which they were involved. Well, things seemed to have got out of hand this time and he, as the insurance for when the unexpected did happen, now had a job to do.
Louis knocked back the last of his beer and stood up. He pulled on his hat and strode out of the saloon.
Louis turned left out of the saloon and walked along the wooden boardwalk. Other than the creak of the boards under his weight, his footfall was silent. He lifted his bandana back up over his mouth and nose. His warm breath bathed his cheeks in the restricted space behind the material.
Checking the road briefly, he stepped off the boardwalk and paced diagonally across the dusty main road towards the livery stable. To his left was the Grand Hotel. A young woman with sleek, ebony hair was standing in front of the hotel entrance, speaking to a boy. A small white dog, a black patch on its back like a saddle, sat obediently at the boy’s feet. The woman’s glance seemed to drift across the road towards Louis. He saw her straighten up from her conversation and gaze across at him. She lifted her hand to shade her eyes from the sun. He ignored her. He was used to people staring at him. He strolled into the cold shadow of the livery stable and on through the large open doorway, again pulling his bandana from his face.
A man was checking some saddles slung over the top of a partition between two stalls. Louis, noting he did not carry any guns, walked straight up to him.
“You the livery owner?”
“Merde!” exclaimed Philippe Rousseau as he swung around. “You should not creep up on people like that!”
“Why, what might you do? Shoot me?” said Louis, with a hint of irony in his voice.
“Well, no, of course not, but …” Philippe paused. Having got over his initial shock he now scanned the milk-white features with surprised eyes.
“You the owner?” repeated Louis.
“I hear the Parker Gang was in town.”
“And that they got caught.”
“Some of them did, yes.”
“I assume the sheriff has left their horses with you.”
“Yes, some of them.”
“Some? How many you got?”
Louis eyes bored into Philippe. Five? Nine members of the Parker Gang rode into Wellhead and none had rendezvoused with him after the bank robbery. So where were the other four?
Philippe cleared his throat uncomfortably.
“Why do you ask?” he said.
“Because,” said Louis slowly, “I hear that the Parker Gang took good care of their horses.”
“That they did.”
“And I’m a horse dealer, so I’m always on the lookout for good horses. Where are they?”
“Out the back. This way,” Philippe gesticulated.
Louis followed the livery owner out of the stable through a large doorway. He pulled his bandana up to protect his face against the fierce late morning sun. They walked towards a corral located in a large yard behind the stable block. A small herd of a dozen horses trotted around the wooden perimeter fence. Although he recognised the animals immediately, Louis allowed Philippe to point out the five Parker Gang horses. Louis made a show of watching them for a few minutes.
“How much for them?”
Philippe stared ahead, contemplatively.
“One-twenty-five a piece,” he said as though talking to the horses.
Louis shook his head. “They’re good animals, but not that good.”
“Four fifty,” said Louis.
Philippe shook his head. “Not going to happen.”
Louis watched the horses again. They were very fine beasts, but then he already knew that.
“Okay five-fifty, but I want the saddles and all their gear.”
Philippe frowned at the horses. He turned and extended his hand.
Louis took his hand. Philippe flinched slightly. Louis’ grip was self-assured and firm with just a sufficient hint of him being in command to make Philippe feel distinctly intimidated. It reminded him of the grip of someone else, someone who had not been entirely pleasant. Surely the similarity was a coincidence?
“Saddle them up, ready for riding,” Louis requested.
Philippe looked at him.
“The way I operate,” said Louis, “I like to have my horses ready for any prospective buyer to try them immediately. It cuts down on the bargaining time.” He turned from the corral and as he walked away, added, “I’ll be back in ten minutes with your money. Have them ready for me.”
Louis retraced his steps through the barn and turned left up Main Street. He crossed Stable Road, stepped up onto the boardwalk and continued along the main road past the bakery. On the other side of the road were the saloon, the general store and then the sheriff’s office and jail. Perfect, he thought.
He would tie the horses to the long tethering rail in front of the store, as close to the sheriff’s office as possible, because having six horses immediately in front of the office might seem a bit strange and might get people thinking that something was going on inside. The last thing Louis wanted was people getting nosy about what he was up to.
The other advantage of using the store’s tethering rail was that there was a back-street immediately opposite it, down which he and Richard could make their escape. Of course, as was his usual practice, he had already tethered his own horse in front of the store; it was the most innocuous place for a stranger to tie his horse and least likely to raise interest from locals.
A final scan of the streets and a quick look down the backstreet to confirm it was not a dead-end satisfied Louis. He then returned to the livery stable.
“I don’t know,” said Joshua as he checked the saddle on one of Louis’ recently purchased horses, “there is something very strange about that white man.”
“He certainly looks unusual,” agreed Philippe.
“That’s for sure, but I reckon he’s up to something. That’s why I came over to see if he said anything to you.”
“Nothing unusual, but I’m glad you came over. Without your help, I’d not have been able to get these horses saddled up in time.”
“Glad to be able to help,” Joshua replied, then, in a whisper, he added, “Look out, here he comes.”
Philippe looked up.
“Mister Syffere,” Joshua greeted the approaching man.
Louis gave him a nod and seemed to examine his face as though looking for clues as to why the saloon owner was in the livery stable.
“All done, Mister Syffere. They’re ready for you, as requested.”
Louis passed his eye quickly over the five horses that were now tethered to the corral fence. He took out his wallet and counted out five hundred and fifty dollars. He offered it to Philippe. “It’s been good doing business with you.”
Philippe took the notes. “Likewise, Mister Syffere.”
He shoved the money into his jeans’ pocket.
Louis gathered the reins, and tipped the brim of his hat. “Gentlemen,” he said, and led the horses away.
Joshua scowled at the departing man. He shook his head slowly.
“That fellow is definitely up to something. Get your gun, Philippe.”
“You know I don’t carry guns.”
“Of course I do. I meant your hunting rifle.”
“I don’t know, but I can feel my nerves tingling. The sheriff may need our help.”
“Now, Joshua, you know my views on violence. You should not expect us townsfolk to get involved in dealing with outlaws and their like. That’s for the sheriff to deal with. What can we do? Taking up weapons against those sorts of men will only make things worse.”
“I’ll tell you what we can do. We can help by defending Wellhead against these bandits that keep appearing in our town. We need to show them that they’re not going to intimidate us. Get your rifle, Philippe. You need to take responsibility for the protection of your town, just like the rest of us. Meet me back in the saloon. Something big is about to happen.”
He strode off before Philippe could argue.
Louis tethered the horses beside his own. He was aware of a man, leaning on the tethering post in front of the sheriff’s office, watching him. Louis surreptitiously returned the favour.
Although Louis could not see the man’s badge, his relaxed and confident manner and the way in which he surveyed the town, with that demeanour of being in charge, suggested to Louis that he was the sheriff. Louis studied him. His belly was starting to creep over his belt and his jowls were starting to sag. Louis noted that he was a man beyond his prime.
Having carefully checked that each rein would release with the minimum effort, Louis walked a little way down the street and went into the bakery. He bought himself a small pie and came out again. He had intended to sit on the bench in front of the bakery and furtively watch the sheriff, but the seat was now occupied by a pair of old women, who were deep in conversation. They gave him a quick appraising look and then their eyes returned and gave him a more scrutinising examination. He tipped his hat at them.
They gave him curious smiles and put their heads back together.
Next to them stood a much younger girl, with a skin like burnished bronze.
She gave him a mischievous grin that suggested she knew exactly what he was up to. He felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. He narrowed his eyes at her, but she simply bowed her head and continued listening to the gossiping women.
He shook his head to clear the strange sensation, leant against a post holding up the boardwalk canopy and nonchalantly chewed on his pie. Whilst taking care not to stare in the direction of the sheriff, he kept him an eye on him at all times.
The saloon was diagonally opposite the bakery on the other side of the road. A man was perched on the tethering rail, facing the store and talking to a young boy. The man had his back to Louis, but the boy was facing him. Louis recognised him as the boy who had been talking to the woman outside the hotel. The dog was standing on its hind legs, its front feet on the man’s thigh. The man was scratching it behind its left ear. It was a tableau of small-town folk whiling away their time. He watched them for a spell, but they did not seem to be taking any interest in him.
Louis stood outside the bakery for a good ten minutes and was about to move, in case his loitering started to look suspicious, when the sheriff stood up from the rail, stretched and walked into his office. Louis waited another five minutes. No-one came out of the building, nor went in. He pushed himself from the post and walked casually towards the sheriff’s office.
Samuel Thruxton continued talking to his young companion, Bradley Dwyer, but kept his eyes fixed on the reflection of the man, swathed in black, that he could see in the shiny new window pane of the saloon. As soon as he was convinced that the man had walked far enough past so that he could no longer see himself or Brad, Samuel slipped from the tethering rail and walked quickly into the saloon towards a table around which four men were gathered.
“He’s heading for the sheriff’s office,” he announced.
“I knew it,” said Joshua, emphatically.
Philippe shook his head in frustration.
“You know nothing, Joshua. Mister Syffere’s visit to the sheriff could be completely innocent, a business meeting, perhaps?”
“Oh, it’s a business meeting, alright,” responded Joshua cynically. “What do you think, Sam?”
“Well, it is a bit strange that he waited for fifteen minutes, with the sheriff standing outside his office and only went in once the sheriff did.”
“So tell me, Philippe,” asked Joshua, “why would he wait outside for fifteen minutes and not just go right up to him and say, ‘Hello sheriff, let’s do business.’. Explain that to me … to us.” He gesticulated at the men gathered around the table.
Philippe shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe he did not realise he was the sheriff.”
Joshua grunted, unconvinced. He looked at Samuel.
“So Syffere only went to the office after the sheriff had gone in?”
Joshua grunted again. “Must be very private business he wants to talk about,” he said sarcastically. “No, the man is definitely up to something.” He scanned the faces of the five men. “We need to go in there and stop whatever it is he’s doing.”
“But what could it be?” persisted Philippe.
“Oh, how would I know? Maybe he’s going to release Richard Parker,” he said flippantly. Then his eyes grew as big as saucers. “Oh, my God,” he said slowly as realisation dawned on him. The others stared at him, startled. “Come on! Let’s go!” He picked up his shotgun and stood up.
“Wait!” said Philippe sharply, grabbing Joshua’s arm. “We can’t just go barging in. We’re facing expert gunmen. You know the reputation of the Parker Gang. And we’ve seen what they can do, just recently. If we storm in there, some of us will get killed, maybe all of us. And what purpose would that serve?”
There was a mumble of agreement around the table. Joshua looked at the faces in front of him. They were obviously not up for his gung-ho approach. He sat down again, thumping his gun on the table.
“Okay,” he said sardonically, “What do you suggest we do?”
Philippe shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not a military man.”
“I suggest,” said Harold Timms, “that we position ourselves in the bank. It’s opposite the sheriff’s office and made of brick, so we’ll be well protected. Would that be okay Clarence?” he asked the bank manager.
Clarence Holsworth looked startled. “I … I suppose so.”
“There you go,” continued Harold. “And as soon as the man appears, we’ll shoot him.”
“What?” choked Phillipe. “You can’t just shoot Mister Syffere, just because you think he’s up to something!”
“Well, we can’t wait or we’ll lose the initiative,” countered Harold. “And we need the element of surprise if we are to win against hardened criminals.”
“We don’t even know if he is a hardened criminal,” said Philippe with exasperation.
“Well then, what do we do?”
“I could help,” said a small voice.
Everyone looked at Bradley.
Joshua smiled at him.
“Now Brad, I know you want to be helpful, but this is not something you can help us with. You’re not old enough.”
“But, I …”
Joshua held up his hand. “Shoo, Brad. We need to think of a plan.”
“Come on fellas,” Joshua encouraged his comrades-in-arms.
“I suggest we hear Brad out,” said Samuel. “Since he seems to be the only one here with an idea.”
Joshua looked at the kid. He sighed.
“Okay Brad, what’s your plan?”
Bradley pushed forward and looked Joshua earnestly in the eye.
“I could find out if the man is an outlaw or not.”
“Okay,” said Joshua slowly. “How?”
“You go and hide in the bank and I will go into the sheriff’s office and find out what is going on. Then I come out and tell you.”
Joshua struggled to stop grinning at the boy.
“Usually, that would be a very good plan, Brad,” he said patronisingly, “but I don’t think it would work today.”
“Well, if everything is fine, then it would work, but if the man is an outlaw then he might hurt you for being nosy.”
Bradley frowned. “But one of the Parker Gang was my friend. Remember?”
“I do, Brad, but Mister Syffere probably doesn’t know that, so he would most likely be angry at you butting in. So we’ll need to think of another …”
“Hold on, Josh,” said Samuel. “It might work.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No.” He looked at the boy. “Brad, are you happy to go into the sheriff’s office, even if the man is an outlaw?”
Bradley shrugged. “Sure, he doesn’t scare me.”
“Hey, hey, hey!” said Joshua. “We can’t send a kid in there! It’s wrong and anyway Martha would be livid if she found out.”
“Mum will be fine about it,” said Bradley, matter-of-factly. “She never knows where I am most of the time, anyway.”
“Still,” insisted Joshua, “it’s not right.”
“Look,” said Samuel, “we can’t go in ourselves and even once we’ve got the sheriff’s office covered from the bank, we still do not know what we’re dealing with. If Brad goes in, maybe to deliver something to the sheriff, he could help. If nothing is wrong he can come straight out. If something is going on …well … he will probably not be allowed out, but …”
“Exactly,” interrupted Joshua. “It’s too dangerous.”
“I’m sure Brad will be fine,” said Philippe.
“Philippe, I’m surprised that you think so!”
“Look, Joshua, no-one is going to harm a kid, not even a hardened criminal.”
Joshua gave him an exaggerated look of disbelief. “What makes you so sure?”
“Human nature. If Mister Syffere is planning to release Richard Parker, then he’ll probably lock the sheriff in one of the cells. When Brad turns up, he’ll simply put Brad in with the sheriff.” He turned to Bradley. “I think it’s a good idea, Brad, and you are very brave to suggest it. If you do not come out of the sheriff’s office, we’ll know that something is wrong and be ready to shoot the outlaws as they try to escape. It’s a great plan.”
Joshua shook his head unhappily.
“On your head be it,” he said.
Louis entered the sheriff’s office and shut the door behind him.
Sheriff Anthony Lawton looked up from the report he was writing. A look of surprise flitted briefly across his features when Louis removed his bandana, but Lawton caught himself and corrected his face into a business-like visage.
“Can I help you?”
“I hope so. I’m here for Richard Parker.”
“You from the Marshall’s office?” asked Lawton surprised.
Suddenly Lawton was looking down the barrel of a Colt Peacemaker.
“I’m his friend. Get the keys for Richard’s cell.”
Lawton hesitated for a moment. His first thought was that he could make a move to get the drop on the gunman. But, almost as quickly, he knew it would be hopeless. He would be dead before his hands disappeared below the top of his desk.
“He must be a good friend for you to risk your life for him like this.”
“He is. He’s good enough to kill for, so get a move on.”
“The key’s in my drawer.” Lawton flicked his eye down at a drawer beside him.
“Stand! Slowly. With your hands high.”
Lawton did as he was told.
“Using your finger and thumb, slowly place your gun on the desk.”
Lawton, with his eyes fixed on the gunman, very carefully removed his revolver from its holster and laid it on his desk.
Lawson pushed his chair out of the way with his leg and stepped away from the desk.
Louis stepped forward and placed Lawton’s gun into his own holster.
“Good. Which drawer are the keys in?”
Louis walked around the desk and opened the drawer. He looked up at Lawton with a wry grin and took the gun out of the drawer. He stuffed it into the front of his trousers and picked up a bunch of keys.
Lawton nodded. Louis tossed the keys at him.
Louis followed Lawton to the back of the building. Richard Parker was in the second cell. He was lying on his bunk and lifted his hat from his face when he heard the approaching footsteps and the jangle of keys.
“He’s here,” he said to the person dozing in the other bunk.
Marcus Spencer sat up and flinched. He pressed his hand to his side as he looked through the bars. He stood up and went to the barred entrance to the cell.
“Marcus,” Louis responded, in greeting. He gave Richard a silent nod. Richard responded in kind.
“You crazy sons-of-bitches,” scowled Lawton. “Do you expect to get away with this?”
“No,” responded Richard, as he got up from his bunk, “but it’s better than hanging around waiting for a rope to tighten around our necks.”
“You knew he was coming to get you all along?” asked Lawton, as he unlocked the barred cell gate.
“No wonder you’ve been so relaxed about the whole affair of being locked up.”
“I can assure you, relaxed is not what I’ve been.”
“Well, you sure gave a good show of being relaxed.”
“It’s a thin veneer,” said Richard tightly. “Inside I’m burning with hatred.”
“For that woman, Mary Doyle?”
“You bet. I’m going to hunt her down like the bitch she is. Her last acts are going to be to apologise for the murder of Billy and then to plead for her life.”
“Your brother’s death was clearly a case of self-defence,” Lawton said, acerbically.
“That might be the view of your court, Lawton, but that is not going to save her.”
“Let’s hope, then, that you get caught first.”
Richard grunted at Lawton. He stepped aside, gesticulated into the cell and said to Lawton, “In!”
“What about him?” Lawton asked looking at Marcus. “He’s wounded. The doctor said he should keep still until the wound has healed a bit.”
“Don’t worry about me,” replied Marcus. “I’ll manage.”
“I said in!” repeated Richard.
Lawton frowned unhappily, but walked into the cell.
Richard shut and locked the gate.
“Let’s go,” he said.
The three of them started to return to the main office.
“Hey what about me!” the occupant of the first cell called out.
Louis stopped and looked at the man.
“What about you?”
“You’re not just going to leave me here, are you?”
“Who’s he?” Louis asked Richard.
“No,” said Robert proudly. “He’s not.”
Louis stepped up to the bars and with the speed of a viper reached in and grabbed the shirt of the man. He pulled Robert up against the bars.
“You are one of the lowest forms of life on this planet. So, yes, I do intend to leave you where you are. You’re lucky I don’t just shoot you here and now, but that would be the easy option. I like the idea of you anticipating a rope around your neck and the sensation of it tightening and choking the life from you.”
“You son-of-a-bitch,” Robert snarled back at him. “If I ever get out of here alive, you will be the first person I’ll hunt down and leave to the coyotes.”
Louis flung him away.
“You can try. I’m even tempted to let you out, so you can.”
“Come on then!” Robert yelled at him. “Any time!”
“I don’t have time to waste.”
“You’re yellow! That’s why you won’t do it! You’re a coward.”
Louis panned his Colt at Robert.
“Do not try my patience!”
Robert narrowed his eyes at Louis.
“Watch your back, snowman, because someday you going to get a bullet in it.”
Marcus spluttered. “Snowman! What a great name! We should call Louis that, don’t you think, Richard?”
Louis scowled at him. “You can try.”
“It would fit your nature, as well,” retorted Marcus, “Cold!”
“We’re wasting time,” said Richard.
Ignoring the curses that erupted from Robert, they continued into the main office.
“Right,” said Richard, “Let’s find our weapons and get out of here.”
Bradly suddenly felt very scared. He looked back at the bank. He could see the heads of the men through the bank’s windows. They had opened them so that they could shoot through them. He could vaguely hear Jimmy barking like mad. He and Jimmy were hardly ever separated and Jimmy was making sure everyone in the bank knew that he was not pleased with this forced separation. Bradley turned back to the door. He took a deep breath and put his hand on the door handle, turned it slowly and quietly pushed the door ajar and gingerly stepped into the sheriff’s office. He started to close the door, but then stopped. His heart leapt to his mouth. Something was definitely wrong.
In the far corner, three men were gathered around a big cupboard. They seemed to be loading guns. The sheriff was nowhere to be seen. The men’s attention was focussed fully on what they were doing. They had not noticed him. As quietly as he could, he stepped back to leave. He had found out that something was wrong and, now, he had the chance to sneak out again. Then he stopped.
If he reappeared the men in the bank would think that everything was okay. He could run across to the bank and tell them, but that would take time and might allow the outlaws to escape. He had to stay. He gulped, and with his voice trembling with fear, said, “Excuse me, where’s the sheriff?”
Before he had even finished speaking, he had four guns pointing at him. Bradley shot his hands in the air. The bottle he was holding fell to the floor with a loud clunk and rolled across the gritty, wooden floor.
“Shit, boy! You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that!” exclaimed Marcus.
“What you want?” demanded Richard.
“I … I … I … erm … w-whiskey. F-for the s-sheriff.”
Marcus laughed. “A bit of bribery for the law, hey?”
Louis strode over to the boy.
“Pick it up,” he ordered.
Bradley scampered across the floor and picked up the bottle. Louis grabbed him by the arm. He half dragged and half carried Bradley towards the second cell.
“Bring the keys,” he ordered.
Marcus snatched them from the desk and followed.
“Someone to join you,” Louis announced.
“Bradley?” said Lawton astonished. “What the hell are you doing here?”
He stood up from the bunk and strode to the bars.
Bradley winked at him.
“Mister Swartz asked me to bring your whiskey,” he said holding the bottle for Lawton to see.
Bradley winked at him again.
“Your whiskey, sheriff.”
“Oh, my whiskey.”
Bradley nodded emphatically.
Marcus opened the gate. Louis roughly shoved Bradley in. Lawton bent down and swept the boy into his protective arms. The iron gate slammed shut and was locked. Louis and Marcus stamped back to the main office.
“What’s going on?” whispered Lawton.
“Mister Swartz and the others are waiting outside for the outlaws,” Bradley whispered back.
“Why are you here?”
“To find out what’s happening. If I don’t go out again, Mister Swartz and the others will know the outlaws are trying to escape and be ready for them.”
“What! Joshua sent you in here? He put you in danger! I’ll have his balls when this is over!”
“Ready?” asked Louis.
The two men nodded.
With his gun at the ready, Louis strode to the door and opened it. He stepped out into a hail of bullets. Instinctively, he threw himself back, bowling Richard and Marcus over, and slammed the door shut.
“Jesus Christ!” cursed Marcus.
“You seem to have attracted a lot of attention,” yelled Lawton, with amusement.
“Bloody hell, Louis, how the hell did that happen?” asked Richard.
Louis ignored him while he examined himself. He had not been hit.
“Does the sheriff have any deputies?” he asked irritably.
“No,” replied Richard. “It seems Wellhead is normally quiet enough not to require one.”
“Okay, so we have a bunch of amateurs out there.”
“Amateurs?” said Marcus. “They’ve still got bloody guns!”
Louis went to a window.
“But they can’t shoot straight,” he countered, looking cautiously out of the window. “None of them hit me.”
“How many do you think there are?” asked Richard, as he guardedly examined the building opposite.
“Difficult to say. Five, maybe six.”
“Enough, even for men who can’t shoot straight, to have a lucky shot,” observed Marcus. “We could use the sheriff as a hostage. Use him to cover us as we get to the horses.”
“He’ll slow us down,” reflected Louis. “And when we mount the horses, we’ll still be vulnerable.”
“Louis is right,” nodded Richard. “Where are the horses, Louis?”
“Next door. In front of the general store. It’ll only take seconds to get to them.”
“Good. So we’ll use the sheriff as a distraction. We’ll send him out to speak to them, to tell them to put their guns down, to stop them from getting hurt. While he’s talking, we’ll run for it. It’ll take them a few seconds to realise what’s happening and, even then, they’ll hesitate to shoot in case they hit the sheriff. That should give us enough time to mount and be off. We’ll ride north, up Main Street, towards the hotel, and out that way. Okay?”
Louis and Marcus nodded.
“We should take Blessett,” suggested Louis.
“What?” said Marcus. “Are you kidding? After what just happened.”
Richard looked at Louis, a quizzical expression resting on his features.
“He’ll be an extra target,” said Louis. “They’ll have four people to shoot at, instead of three. He’ll draw some of their fire. It would increase our chances of escaping.”
“You don’t mean give him a gun?” asked Marcus, doubtfully.
“We’ll have to,” replied Louis. “Why would he come otherwise?”
“Cause he might escape.”
“He’s a gunman. He’d never agree to get into a shooting situation without having his own gun. I wouldn’t,” said Louis.
“You’d be happy for him to have a gun?” asked Richard.
“Not happy, but …” Louis shrugged.
“Okay, but Marcus you’ll lead.”
“Louis can’t have Blessett at his back,” Richard explained. “Even with us helping him escape, that scumbag is still likely to put a bullet in Louis’ back. So you lead. Blessett follows you, then Louis, then me. If Louis sees Blessett even point his gun in your direction, Louis’ll plug him.”
“It would be my pleasure.”
Marcus thought about it for a moment.
“Okay,” he shrugged. “How do I know which horses are ours?”
“You’ll recognise them. They’re the ones you rode into town on.”
“Uh-huh. I bought them back from the livery owner. No use leaving good horses behind.”
Marcus winked at him.
“Good thinking, Louis.”
Richard prodded Lawton with the barrel of his gun.
“Okay sheriff, you know what to do. And give it your best shot. We’re desperate and killing you adds nothing to what is likely to happen to us if we don’t get away.”
Lawton looked into Richard’s eyes. They were like stone. God-damn it, thought Lawton, what happened to my nice peaceful job, my nice peaceful town? He was about to put himself between some twitchy, trigger-happy townsfolk and a bunch of hardened killers. If he got out of this alive, he’d give serious consideration to retiring. Life as the sheriff of Wellhead was just getting too dangerous.
“Sure,” he said. “I’ll make sure they put down their weapons and let you ride out of town.”
He looked at the weapons in Marcus’ hands.
“You taking my guns?”
“Only temporarily.” Marcus grinned at him. “I’ll leave them outside for you once I’ve finished with them.”
“Good. They were presents.”
“I’ll look after them for you.”
“Get on with it,” said Richard impatiently.
Lawton placed his hand on the door handle and started to open it. The door was immediately splattered with bullets. He howled in shock. Richard pulled him aside and slammed the door shut.
“You get hit?” Richard asked.
Lawton examined himself. He was shaking.
“I don’t think so.”
“Good. Try again.”
Lawton looked at him. Really? he thought.
Richard flicked his gun barrel at him.
Lawton looked at the others. Louis and Marcus were stony-faced.
Robert gave him a grin.
“Go on Sheriff,” he mocked. “Go have parley with your mates.”
Standing behind the protection of the brickwork, Lawton reached forward, turned the handle and pulled the door ajar. A fusillade of bullets burst through it.
“STOP SHOOTING, GOD-DAMN IT!” Lawton yelled. “It’s me, Sheriff Lawton. Stop shooting.”
The shooting petered out.
“Is that you, sheriff?” Joshua called out.
“Yes! Yes, god-damn it! Have you stopped shooting?”
“Good, ‘cause I’m coming out, so hold your fire. Do you hear me? Hold your fire.”
“Yes, sheriff. We’ll hold our fire.”
Lawton looked at Richard.
“This is bullshit,” he declared as he pulled the door open.
He stepped out and walked to the edge of the boardwalk. Behind the windows of the bank he could see the heads of his supposed rescuers bobbing about.
“Now you folks listen to me,” he shouted across the street. “We’ve four men in here that know how to use guns, unlike you bunch of half-wits. Now I’ve made a deal with them and we have …”
Lawton almost leapt from his skin as the air behind him exploded with the crack of a Colt as six shots went off in rapid succession. Bullets whipped past his head and a window in the bank shattered. Beside it, the brickwork erupted in little puffs of brick-dust. The heads at the windows disappeared. Lawton heard a thump at his feet. He looked down. It was his Colt.
“Thanks,” shouted Marcus.
Lawton turned to see his prisoners sprinting from him, past the front of his office. The outlaws’ boots thumped on the rough wood of the boardwalk and their guns snapped angrily.
“God-damn!” Lawton shouted and threw himself onto the dusty road.
Lawton saw his other gun thump in the dirt of the street near him.
Marcus pointed at a horse.
“Take that one,” he yelled at Robert.
He ran to another one and snatched the reins. He leapt up into the saddle and drew his gun. He noted with glee that, so far, not a single bullet had been shot at them. He dragged his mount’s head round and drove his spurs into the animal’s flanks. It leapt forward. Robert followed him, yelling with excitement. As Louis gained his saddle a bullet whizzed past his ear. He turned and emptied his cylinder at the building. He holstered his gun, pulled his horse around and spurred it on down the road. He raised his second Colt from its holster and blasted five rounds at the bank, and then spurred his horse on. Richard was not far behind.
Louis returned his Colt to its holster. One round left, he thought, and I know what that’s going to be used for. His eyes fell on the back of the departing Robert Blessett.
Lawton lifted his face from the dirt and watched the outlaws gallop away in clouds of dust. He stood up slowly and bashed the dust from his clothes with his hat. Six men came running from the bank. Joshua stopped in front of him, his shot gun hung limply at his side. Lawton looked at Joshua’s shotgun.
“I don’t suppose the shot of your god-damned gun even reached them,” he said acerbically.
He looked down the road. The outlaws were gone. The only evidence of them was the settling dust they had left behind.
“No-one thought to take their horses and hide them, then?” he said to no-one in particular.
Lawton turned his eyes on Philippe.
He gave him a Gallic shrug; his lips stuck out and his palms turned towards Lawton.
“We going after them?” asked Joshua.
Lawton glared at him.
“No, we’re not!”
“No. Good riddance. That’s what I say. If we go after them, they’ll just shoot at us. And if we do manage to catch them, we’d only have to bring them back to Wellhead. And the last thing we need in our town is more god-damned outlaws!”