Western Short Story
Sheriff John Stone stepped out from the cool shade of his office into the heat of the noonday sun. Reaching his fingers into the small watch pocket of his vest he deftly fished out a wooden match. With the flick of his wrist he scratched the match on a nearby post and it instantly burst into flame. He held it to the tip of the smoke he had just rolled and inhaled deeply. As easily as he had lit the match, he flicked it to the ground, smothering the flame in the dust of the street.
Good tobacco and a quiet afternoon. Just the way Sheriff Stone liked it. Unfortunately, the day was not over yet, and little did he know, his quiet afternoon was soon to be disrupted.
He strolled the length of the old wooden walkway that ran past the front of his office. As he reached the end, he stepped off into the dusty street where a voice beckoned him from behind.
“Hey buddy, you got one of them for me?”
Sheriff Stone turned to see the face of Thomas Pick peering out through the bars of his jail cell window.
“How ‘bout it sheriff, I haven’t had a smoke in three days.”
“You’ll be smokin’ plenty tomorrow when you’re burnin’ in hell,” came the reply.
Stone didn’t hide the fact that he had an unfavorable opinion of Thomas Pick. The Pick brothers had been terrorizing the local area for well over a year and the sheriff had made it his personal quest to put an end to it.
Even though the picks’ weren’t the brightest boys in town, they had managed to somehow escape his grasp on more than one occasion. But the sheriff had gotten a lucky break a few weeks back when Thomas Pick took a bullet in the leg during a botched robbery attempt that left two men dead. He would have gotten away that time as well if his horse hadn’t been ‘accidentally’ shot out from under him. He couldn’t run on the injured leg and was easily captured by Stone and his men, who were hot on his trail.
His two brothers, Eli and Mathew continued kicking up dust and didn’t look back. Once again, they had managed to escape. But Thomas wasn’t so lucky this time around. After a speedy trial and a just sentence, the time had come for Pick to meet his maker. He was due to hang the next morning and sheriff Stone was in no mood to be giving Thomas Pick anything more than what he rightly deserved.
“I ain’t dead yet,” growled Thomas from behind the bars. “When I get out of here you’ll be sorry you ever laid eyes on me.”
The sheriff ignored the comment as he walked across the street to where several local carpenters were hard at work. The city square was where the town hangings took place and the gallows were just about finished. It was the sheriff’s responsibility to be sure everything was in good working order.
As he surveyed the site, he could see Thomas Pick watching him from the cell window. Sheriff Stone looked straight at him as he yanked on the lever and dropped the trap door with a bang. Thomas Pick’s face vanished from the window as sheriff Stone smiled a vengeful smile.
The trap door put Thomas on edge. He sat down on the cell’s small cot and wiped the beads of sweat from his brow. He was beginning to get nervous. He couldn’t understand why he hadn’t seen nor heard from his brothers since he was captured. There was a pact between the three of them that if any one of them ever got into trouble the other two would be there to get him out. But Thomas was due to be hanged in the morning and he had yet to receive even a slight indication that that would be the case.
As the sheriff came back into his office he walked up toward the bars. In a half serious, half taunting sort of way he spoke to Thomas. “Tomorrow’s your big day Pick. Any chance you might want to come clean about your past crimes before you meet your maker?”
Thomas stood up and pressed tight against the bars. “Come a little closer and I’ll tell you all about it. Otherwise, I got nothin’ to say to you.”
Sheriff Stone knew better than to fall for that old trick and he wasn’t about to step within reach of Thomas Pick.
“I wasn’t talkin’ about me you fool. Seeing you swing from the end of a rope will satisfy me just fine. I meant I’d fetch the preacher for you if you had half a mind to do some serious repenting.”
“No thanks,” came the reply. “I don’t plan on swingin’ from no rope any time soon.”
“Suit yourself if that’s the way you want to play it. But if you think for one minute those no good brothers of yours are comin’ for you, you’re sadly mistaken. I hear they’re layin’ low somewhere in New Mexico.”
“You’re a damn liar,” shouted Thomas. “My brothers are comin’ for me. Just you wait and see. We got us a pact. They’ll be here.”
Sheriff Stone turned away from Thomas. He was finished with this conversation. He had done his duty with the offer to get Thomas a preacher and that was enough for him. He had better things to do than listen to the kid ramble on. As he walked back toward his desk, Sheriff Stone’s earlier thoughts of a quiet afternoon were suddenly shattered by the sound of a very large explosion. He ran outside in time to see the building at the opposite end of the street engulfed in a ball of dust and fire. Men from all over town wasted little time as they ran toward the flames. An out of control fire could easily spread to other buildings so all efforts were made to control the blaze as soon as possible. Sheriff Stone stepped back inside long enough to grab his hat and then he was gone.
As soon as sheriff Stone had left to assist with the fire, Eli and Mathew Pick came in through the back door.
“Yes siree,” Thomas shouted with glee. “I knew it. As soon as I heard that explosion, I knew it was you. Yes sir, I knew it. Get me the heck outa this cage.”
Eli began checking the drawers of the sheriff’s desk.
“Why you didn’t think we were gonna leave you here to hang now did you little brother? We’ll have you outa’ there in no time. Where does the sheriff keep the dang keys?”
Thomas pressed up against the bars. “Keys? Why there aren’t any keys in here. The sheriff has the keys. He keeps them in his pocket. What were you thinking anyhow? Do you think he just leaves the keys laying around for someone like you to just waltz on in and pick up? Didn’t you two come up with a better plan than that? Why the heck didn’t you just come in here and shoot him like any normal person would’ve done? Why do you always got to make things difficult?”
Eli looked up from his searching. “Why don’t you just shut yer mouth before we turn around and leave you here. How were we to know he carried the keys in his pocket?
Heck, forget the keys, we don’t need no keys to get you out of there. You just stand back and I’ll shoot that lock open.”
Thomas moved away from the bars. “I don’t care how you do it, just get me the heck out of here. That sheriff ain’t stupid. As soon as he figures out what’s going on he’ll be back in a hurry.”
Eli could detect a sense of urgency in Thomas’s voice so without delay he fired two shots at the cell door lock. The second shot ricocheted back and caught Mathew in the chest and dropped him to the floor. Mathew grabbed at the wound and cried out in pain.
“What in the hell did you do that for?”
Eli turned to see Mathew lying on the floor. “I didn’t do it on purpose. I was just shootin’ at the lock. I told you to stand back.”
“You didn’t tell me to stand back, you told Thomas to stand back, now look at what you’ve gone and done,” groaned Mathew.
“Well if you would have stood back too, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Oh, so this is my fault? If you would have told me to stand back I would have done it, but you didn’t tell me and now I’m shot.”
“Hey,” shouted Thomas. “I hate to interrupt your fightin’ but if you two morons would stop for just one second maybe you could get me out of here. This door is still locked and were runnin’ short on time.”
Eli went back to the lock and put four more shots into it with no luck. Then out of pure frustration he pistol-whipped it.
Thomas looked at Eli with a glare of pure bewilderment, “Oh ya, that’ll do it. Why don’t you just kick it while yer at it.”
So without hesitation Eli gave the door a good hard kick. “Oh damn!” he screamed. “That hurt my foot real bad.”
Thomas pushed up tight against the bars and squeezed them in a fit of anger. “That was a purely stupid thing to do.”
“You told me to do it,” yelled Eli as he sat down in the sheriff’s chair to rub his hurt foot.
“Do you do everything I tell you to do? I was being sarcastic you stupid moron.”
“Stop callin’ me a moron and I ain’t stupid. I still got me another idea. I’ll tie a rope around the bars of that window and use my horse to pull it right out of the wall.”
Mathew, who was still lying on the floor, started to groan. “I’m hurt real bad Eli. I’m bleedin’ all over. I think I need a doctor.”
Eli helped Mathew to his feet. “Let’s get you on your horse Mat, I’ll have you and Thomas out of here soon enough. You just be ready.”
Eli and Mathew hobbled out the back door. Mathew stumbled and they both fell in a heap in the dirt.
Thomas shouted after them as they both laid in the street. “You better hurry, the sheriff won’t be gone much longer and I ain’t gonna’ hang.”
Eli tried to get Mathew back on his feet but Mathew wasn’t moving.
Eli began to panic. “Thomas, I think he’s dead, I think I killed him, I think I killed Mat!”
Thomas pushed his face up tight against the bars and looked out the back door. “Just leave him. Get your horse and pull this dang window out, we don’t have much time.”
Eli left Mathew in the dirt and grabbed his horse. He led it around to the window where he tied the end of an old worn rope around one of the bars. He mounted his horse and backed him up. The rope was stretched to its’ limit but nothing was happening. Suddenly, without a bit of warning, the rope snapped. It flew back towards Eli hitting him square in the eye with such force it knocked him clean off his horse.
Eli rolled in the dirt in agony. “Oh my eye, my eye. That dang rope hit me square in the eye. I think I’ve been blinded.”
Thomas couldn’t believe it.
“That’s it, just get back inside here and wait for the sheriff. When he comes in… shoot him and get the dang keys like you should have done in the first place.”
Eli, half blind and limping badly, stumbled back toward the door with all the grace of a drunken’ cowboy. In doing so, he managed to trip over Mathews’ body and lose what little balance he had left. Falling forward he slammed his head into the doorframe with such a force it knocked him out cold.
Thomas’ jaw hit the floor as he stared at the scene outside his cell. “Eli, get up,” he yelled. “Get up now.” But Eli wasn’t moving.
‘I’m a dead man,” he thought to himself. “Sure as hell, I’m a dead man.” He slumped to the floor in utter disbelief.
A short time later Sheriff Stone walked in through the front door and stared at the scene before him. Eli Pick was sprawled out on the floor by the open back door. Mathew Pick was outside the back door lying dead in the dirt, and Thomas Pick, he was slumped on the floor of his cell with his face buried in his arms, sobbing like a baby. With the pitiful face of a broken man he looked up at Sheriff Stone, and in a rather quiet and defeated tone he spoke. “I’ll take that preacher now, sheriff.”
The next morning Eli Pick stared silently out the cell window at the gallows down the street. His brother Thomas was at the end of a rope slowly swinging in the breeze.
Thomas was the youngest of the three. More than once he was heard to say… “I was born to raise hell, but I don’t plan to go there.”
And according to the preacher who spent most of the night with Thomas, he didn’t.
Sheriff Stone stood next to the gallows. Reaching into his vest pocket, he pulled out a match, struck it against a wood post and lit the smoke he had just rolled. He turned toward the direction of the jail to see Eli Pick staring through the bars of the window.
Without taking his eyes off Eli he shouted, “Don’t tear it down just yet boys, we’ll be needin’ it again real soon.”
Eli Pick’s anguished face vanished from the window. He had accidentally shot and killed his brother Matthew. His little brother Thomas had just been hung and he was sitting in a jail cell waiting his turn in line. It was not a good day for Eli Pick.
Sheriff Stone wandered over toward the site of yesterday’s fire. A smoldering pile of rubble was all that remained, and its dying embers would soon grow cold. Sheriff Stone’s thoughts drifted toward Eli Pick and his brothers. He couldn’t help but think of the similarities.
The judge would soon be in town and Eli’s trial was sure to end in a hanging. He smiled at the thought of Eli’s neck snapping when he hit the end of the rope.