Western Short Story
There were days when Deputy Marshal Brian ‘Pug’ O’Hanley felt like he couldn’t do this job much longer. Running down wife-beaters, collecting unpaid fines, arresting drunk Cherokees over from the Indian Territory, chasing bank robbers, none of it without mortal danger, and yet never-ending. Rewarding, though, you might say? Not so much, he’d answer; actual cash rewards were often disputed or just not paid, and many of the folks he arrested were released by jack-ass juries.
Then again, there were days like today, days that he absolutely hated.
Today he had to ride to the homestead of the Goldsby brothers, Sonny and Willard, to take them to task for the axe-murder of his friend and mentor, Marshal Tom ‘Bear Creek’ Jones. Riding with him was a witness to the murder, Constable Billy Burchell. They were several days north out of Fort Smith.
Pug would have liked to relish the brisk spring weather of northwestern Arkansas, but his companion needed to talk, and Pug needed to listen.
He said, “So, Billy, let me hear it again. All of it.”
“They is just no-count murderous half-breed trash,” Burchell went on. “Chickasaw, I think. God knows what brought ‘em here from the Territory. Prob’ly running from Indian Nation Police. They got some cows, but mainly they runs hogs.”
“Runs them?” Pug said.
“Yep. Raises ‘em, breeds ‘em, sells ‘em, steals ‘em. Runs ‘em, like I said. Anyways, Marshal Jones asked to go along with me to question them about shooting Chilton Manning. Word was it was self-defense, so we wasn’t expecting no trouble, but the marshal had heard maybe Manning was the same one as shot a man and stole his wagon up to Eureka Springs, back in the Fall. He just wanted to close the books on that murder while I checked what I heard about Manning’s demise being justified. I was happy for the company, ‘cause these Goldsby boys is mean enough sober and often drunk.”
Burchell paused to take a breath, so Pug said, “What went wrong?”
“Well, their place is in a creek bottom, and as we crossed the creek, maybe a hunnert yards from the cabin, they seen us coming and moved inside. Marshal Jones said, ‘Hold up here, Billy, and hold our horses. This don’t look exactly right. I’m gonna go up and talk to ‘em.’ I tole him I’d go with him, but he said naw, they might think I was after ‘em for stolen hogs or something.”
Pug said, “So he walked up alone?”
“Yessir, he did. Turns out he was right. They thought we was there over a questionable hog transaction, but didn’t neither of us know that, not right off. Marshal told ‘em who he was, said he just wanted to talk. They called out, said to come a little closer so’s they could hear good.”
“Well, he went up another ten steps or so and says he wants to ask ‘em about Chilton Manning. One of ‘em, I think it was Sonny, he says, ‘I can tell you about him. He come by here, wanting his hog back, and I tole him I had promised him iffen his hog come on my property again I was gonna keep him, and that’s how it stood. That it was my hog now, and he could kiss my ass and ride off, or just die right there. He was warned, Marshal, and he should’a listened.’
“So Marshal Jones says, ‘So Manning pulled on you, and you had to kill him?’ ‘Naw,’ says Sonny, ‘he was acting all contrary so my brother just shot him.’ ‘Hold on now,’ the marshal says, ‘You saying you just killed him? Over his own confused hog?’ ‘Well, not me, but Willard did. Bet your sweet ass he did. Dropped him right where you’re standing.’ And then Willard pipes up and says, ‘Dammit, Sonny, now we got to take care of this one too.’ And he shot the marshal.”
Pug said, “Just like that? Bang, no warning?”
“Just like that. It was a shotgun, at maybe fifteen steps. The marshal went down, and Willard stepped out and give him the other barrel. Dust and dirt flew up all around him. I started in on ‘em with my Winchester, but Sonny hit me in the left hand with a rifle shot from the window. Messed up my hand and ruint my carbine. His next shot kilt the marshal’s horse and run mine off a little ways, so I pulled my pistol and backed away firing, trying to get to my horse. I did, but before I could mount and ride, I seen Willard take an axe to the marshal. And he won’t dead. He had done set up, with all that buckshot in him, and drew his pistol but Willard ‘bout took his head off.”
Pug shuddered. Tom Jones was one of the good ones. Married, children, church-going, at least these days. He’d been a pistol as a younger man. Led the riot of the mine workers at Bear Creek, Pennsylvania back in 1869, which led to his nickname. Talk was he’d been a Philadelphia policeman before that.
“I purely hated to leave him,” said Burchell. “I weren’t scared, but I could see he was gone and I was pretty messed up, so I come back. And got you.”
“Well, sir,” Pug said, “No one could fault you for your leaving. And here you are, back again, bandaged hand and all, alone with a rogue Irish deputy.”
“You ain’t no rogue, Deputy O’Hanley. Marshal Jones tole me about you as we was riding over here the first time. Said you was a boxer from Ireland, but was in the English army or something. A sergeant. Tole me about that big-ass carbine you carry. What is it, a fifty caliber?”
“Ah. My Snider. It’s an Enfield converted to a breech-loader, a five-seventy-seven caliber. Darling of the North-West Mounted Police, as I was myself, until I killed a man in a prizefight. I had to come south, and Bear Creek Jones hired me, and I mean to do right by him.”
“I feels the same way, Deputy. Bear Creek was kilt trying to help me, and folks is already looking down on me ‘cause I left him. I got to make that right.”
Pug said, “Faith, Constable, you have to do no such thing. You have proved yourself, at least to me.”
Burchell frowned. “Well, maybe it’s for me. Had we been switched around, I think Bear Creek woulda stayed and died right alongside me.”
“You can’t know that. I say he’d have done the same as you. Else you’d both likely be dead and we wouldn’t be coming to straighten things out, would we now? How much farther?”
Burchell shaded his eyes with his good hand. “See that piney ridge there? Over it, down into the bottom. You’ll hear the creek soon enough.”
It was noon as they worked down the ridge into the bottom, but still cool.
“Sure, and I smell no smoke. You?” Pug was deferential to the wiry old constable, even though he himself was a two-hundred-forty pound prizefighter and certainly senior in status to his companion. It was a measure of his adjustment to the colonies, he thought, that he thought of his weight now in pounds rather than stones.
“They done murdered a marshal,” said Burchell. “They is long gone, or I’ll eat your socks. And I done taken the measure of them socks last night, once you pulled off them English highboots. I reckon Irish feet don’t smell no better than ordinary Americans.”
Any thought of smelly socks was soon brushed away by the awful stench of death, mainly from Marshal Jones’ horse. A handsome strawberry roan just a few days earlier, he was now bloated and ripe. The lawmen pulled their kerchieves over their noses and checked the ramshackle farm.
Burchell was right. The only human form they encountered was the body of Marshal Jones, badly mangled by the Goldsbys’ hogs, who weren’t through with him.
“God’s truth,” Pug said. He cocked the Snider and fired, knocking a huge sow over on her side. He flipped the breech open, ejected the spent shell, and loaded another cigar-sized cartridge. With his second shot he took on the father of the brood, a boar even bigger than the sow. This one snorted and pawed the ground like a bull. The huge slug hit him in the snout and he went down, splay-legged on his chin. The piglets fled, encouraged by pistol fire from the one-handed constable.
“Fornicating sonsabitches,” Burchell shouted, “I’d kill ever’ damn one of you, did I have two good hands and my Winchester.”
“Jaysus,” said Pug. “Let us go and bury what’s left, and then be after the killers.”
There were shovels and a pick in the cabin abandoned by the Goldsby brothers. Once they had scraped Bear Creek Jones’ remains into the soft bottom-land grave, the constable said, “They didn’t leave much to eat in the cabin. You want me to cut some side meat off that sow?”
“You do and that sow’s piglets will be eating side meat off you, soon enough. I will shoot your American ass dead as a nail. Sure, Burchell, and them pigs has been eating our friend, our very own friend. And would you then take a wee bite out of them?”
“Well, no, Deputy, I hadn’t thought of it that way, exactly.”
The Goldsbys’ tracks went due west, back into the Territory from which they came. Fort Gibson, maybe, but more likely back to the Chickasaw Nation. Better to take a chance with your cousins in the Indian Nation Police than with white lawmen bent on revenge, or so Pug figured.
Burchell said, “Deputy, I got no authority in the Territory.”
Pug said, “And faith, neither do I. Go home, if you’ve a mind to. I’m going in, and I’ve no wish to arrest them. This is war.”
Burchell said, “Well, shit, Deputy. They durn near shot my hand off, and kilt my friend. Guess I’ll ride along, if you ain’t still pissed off at me.”
“Ah, Billy, I was never pissed off at you. Let us go amongst the heathens.”
Two days later, they came upon a shack on a creek bank early in the evening. Smoke curled up from a stovepipe, then lay flat across the little hollow like low clouds. The smell of the woodsmoke had brought them to full alert, long before they saw the camp.
The two lawmen tied off their horses less than a hundred yards from the building, and began a slow approach through brambles and scrub. Their goal was a jumble of boulders, not thirty yards from the serene picture presented by the little cabin. Much of their sneak was on hands and knees, and Pug’s carbine and bandolier didn’t make it any easier.
“Lord love a duck, Constable. I am too old and fat for this.” Pug was wheezing as they got close.
“It ain’t no lark for my boney old ass neither, Marshal. Just be glad they ain’t got a dog.” “I say we are close enough here, Billy. Will you take my glass and look it over whilst I catch me breath?”
“Same two horses as was outside their cabin back in Arkansas,” Burchell reported, as he handed Pug back his telescope.
“Should be,” Pug said. “They left tracks straight to here. You can hail ‘em, does you have some doubt, but I think I’ll just start in on ‘em, soon as we’re set.”
Pug got as comfortable as he could among the rocks, putting the bandolier at his side in easy reach. He laid his Schofield revolver beside that, then withdrew cleaning rod sections from the compartment in his carbine’s buttstock and assembled them.
Burchell whispered, “Lord, Marshal, you gonna clean your bore before you start to killing?”
Pug had stifle a laugh at that. His breathing was almost back to normal. “Why, no, Billy. It’s in case I need to punch out an empty shell. They sometimes split or get jammed with grit.”
The constable nodded and settled in prone behind some low boulders. He put his crumpled hat on the rocks and rested his revolver on it.
Pug whispered, “And there’s a fine idea, Billy. I’m thinking I’ll be doing the same. And who says a new dog can’t learn old tricks?” He pulled off his battered Mounty campaign hat, punched the top down with his fist, and used it like a benchrest for his carbine.
He thumbed back the hammer on the Snider, and sent a massive slug through the flimsy wall of the shack, waist high. The blast of the first shot was startling as it ripped the still evening air, and it reverberated down the hollow. It was the first of many, and the echoes soon ran together. The fifth round shattered a lantern, and set the place ablaze.
There was a burst of profanity as the eighth round crashed through the wall, flinging splinters in all directions.
“Damn you out there, who is you? What do you want? Stop and let’s talk.”
Pug sent another slug through, and Billy put another .45 bullet into a window.
“All right, all right, we quit. We’s all shot to hell. Stop shooting. The fire is getting to us.”
Pug shouted, “Come on out. We’ll give you the same chance you gave Marshal Jones.”
One man ran out, his clothes afire, and tried for the horses. Billy sat up and dropped him with a shot from his long-barreled Colt, laid over his left arm. It turned out to be Sonny. Willard ran out a few minutes later, limping, his shirt and scraggly hair burning. Pug put him down.
As they walked forward to check the bodies, Burchell said, “Goldurn, Marshal, that shot knocked him ass over teakettle.”
They slept nearby, basking in the warmth of the burning cabin. As they saddled up to head back east the next morning, Pug heard snorting in the bushes by the burnt-out camp.
“What in the name of heaven is that?” he said, as he swung into the saddle.
“Them’s wild razorbacks, without no doubt. Razorback hogs.”
Pug smiled. “I hope they don’t mind their breakfast partly cooked.”