Western Short Story
The rain had come to Constant Sorrow once again. A low flat gray sky seeped the cold liquid like it would never cease. Small pond-like puddles and crisscrossed wagon ruts brimming with rain water etched the muddy main street as a few stragglers tried to go about their morning business. Only a head or two turned as the unknown rider slowly and unceremoniously urged his weary dun gray horse through the ponderous mud.
Constant Sorrow, Kansas, was a town in name only. It had one mercantile store, a small bank that struggled to stay open, a rag-tag post office, an ancient mostly empty hotel and a long-roomed clapboard building that served as a saloon, gambling parlor and barber shop. Only the nearby undertaker’s storefront was freshly painted.
It seemed that over the years the only purpose or function of Constant Sorrow was to serve as a burying place on the long journey to the West. The town’s boot hill was, and remained the largest and most vibrant enterprise. In truth, the only promise kept by the town was its name.
“I don’t think this rain will ever stop,” Tip Ekberg said as he handed the last bag of feed to Drayton Banes. Banes easily threw the 50-pound bag into the back of his wagon with the others and grunted. He then drew a large oil skin over his load.
“At least it’s good for the crops,” Drayton optimistically observed as he looked up into the dripping heavens. “We’ll be cursing the cloudless sky in a month or two.”
Tip nodded in agreement and smiled as the rain dripped off the brim of his hat. Then, as if slapped, Tip twisted his face up. “Whew! You smell that?!”
Drayton sniffed the wet air and shook his head. “Naw, I’ve had a cold and can’t smell much….”
Tip turned his head and watched silently as the stranger rode by within fifteen feet of them. His face contorted once again as he looked back at Banes.
“You ain’t saying—?" Banes began as they watched the drifter ride on past. An odd smile came to his large chapped lips.
When the stranger had rode beyond ear shot, Tip Ekberg turned again to Banes and nodded. “It’s him! That stranger is plum rank! Don’t think I ever smelled anything like that before—except maybe a herd of hogs!”
Drayton Banes scratched his red bulbous nose and seemed to be deep in thought. He sniffed the air once again. “It does kinda smell like a wet dog now that you mention it….”
“Worse than that!” Tip rejoined. The stranger had ridden on down the mud-laden avenue and hitched his horse on the rail outside Dood’s Saloon. He was now out sight… and smell.
“Danged awfullest thing I ever did smell,” Tip said to himself as Banes drove away.
The rank stranger had pushed open the creaky batwings of the saloon and walked straight up to the bar. A few men looked up, then looked away.
“What’s your poison?” the smiling thin barkeep asked as his nose suddenly twitched.
“Wine. A bottle,” the stranger said in a low raspy voice.
“Wine?” the saloon man asked in surprised yip as he continued to sniff the air. “This ain’t no fancy place. All we have is whiskey and beer.”
“Beer then,” the stranger said as he placed his .44 on the bar.
“Yes… yes sir…” the bartender said as his face continued to screw up to the rising odor. “Coming up!”
The stranger was around six feet tall. He was dressed carelessly in dirty and what appeared to be well-worn if not ragged clothes.
A big dark burly man at a nearby poker table with two other men rose to his feet from the shadows wiping his nose. He trudged toward the bar as if walking in imaginary mud.
“Do you smell something, Dood?” the big cowpoke asked as he looked at the bartender.
“A… naw—I don’t smell nothin’” Dood Harrel, the saloon owner, stammered slowly as he pushed the beer toward the rank stranger.
“I do! Something in here stinks! Smells like a damned pig!”
The stranger took a long drink from the mug, and then sat it down carefully. He sighed.
“I said you stink mister!” the cow man said again.
The next instant, the dark burly man lay gasping on his back on the floor. The smoke from the rank stranger’s gun barrel curled like a viper in the air. The chair legs of the man’s two friends at the poker table squealed loudly as they pushed themselves back, rose slowly and walked wearily away.
“You shot Hamp Spites!” Dood sputtered in disbelief. What other patrons of Dood’s Saloon had been there had now left.
“So what?” the rank stranger murmured as he downed the last of his beer.
“So what?! Why he was the fastest and most feared man in this county! And he never even got his gun out!”
“So what,” the stranger repeated. He flipped a coin onto the counter. “Thanks.”
It was still raining when the stranger emerged from Dood’s Saloon. He surveyed the now empty muddy street, then glanced briefly at the unyielding steel sky. There was no sign of the dead man’s two friends. The stranger untied his horse and lead it on foot through the mud to a nearby stable, the only stable in town.
“Is that your horse that smells so bad?” a short pock-marked man asked as he held out one hand to take the horse reins while his second hand swung from behind his back. Again, a single shot rang out. The stable man lay dead in the mud as rain and blood painted the livery. The man’s gun lay in the mud. It was almost a thing of beauty, the rank stranger thought to himself as he picked it up and then lead his horse into a stall. Almost.
Constant Sorrow had one of just about everything in town except for a marshal. They had, in fact, never had a marshal. They had never needed one. Hamp Spites had been the unofficial law in Constant Sorrow, and now he was dead.
“We’ve got to do something!” Tip Ekberg told Clabe Riley, the Constant Sorrow Hotel owner. “He’s practically taken over the town!”
“I know! He marches in big as you please and signs his name in the register as ‘Man’! Man!? That’s not a name!”
“Now don’t get all worked up Clabe!” Tip said as he began to soften. “Maybe he’ll just ride on out of town tomorrow morning….”
Clabe Riley tugged at the seams of his brown checkered suit and adjusted his derby hat. “I certainly hope so! The only two other folks in the hotel checked out an hour after that stranger checked in! They said they couldn’t stand the smell and wanted their money back!”
“Rankest thing I ever did breathe in!” Tip said as he tidied up the canned goods on his back shelf. “Is that why you came in here?”
“If you don’t mind, Tip… that smell was getting to me. If I could just sleep in your store tonight—on the floor….”
“You sure it’s not because he killed Hamp and Ferd, too?”
“Well, that did cross my mind….”
The next morning the rank stranger slept late. The rain had finally quit, and the sun was like a sickly yellow yolk of an egg trying to slide through the shredded gauze of the morning sky. By mid-morning only a few people had emerged to conduct their business and go on with their meager lives. At noon the rank stranger finally came out of the hotel, and walked out upon the still damp gallery.
Clabe Riley had left Ekberg’s store early to return to his hotel duties. Tip hadn’t seen him since. Nervously, Tip watched the stranger walk back and forth in front of the hotel staring out into the street. After a few minutes the stranger disappeared back into the hotel. Then, what sounded like a muffled gunshot rang out. Tip jerked his attention toward his front window and stared for a few moments at the front of the Constant Sorrow Hotel. Finally, the stranger reappeared. He seemed to be dragging something. It was Clabe Riley. The rank stranger pulled the limp body up and dumped it into a chair on the gallery. Tip watched in terrified amazement.
There was suddenly the rattling of a wagon rumbling through the mud of the street. Tip looked out his other window and saw Drayton Banes in his wagon frantically urging his horses toward the hotel. Following him were Hamp Spites’ two friends from the day before. What are they doing… Tip asked himself till then it dawned on him. They’ve come to save the town!
But before Drayton could even raise the rifle in his hand or stop his wagon, the rank stranger had jumped down from the hotel porch and into the mud with his greener blazing. It’s first blast caught Drayton squarely in the face. A moment later Bane’s body was flopping in the mud. Then the second and last blast of the shotgun pounded into the chest of the first rider and threw him violently back off his horse as his shots went wild.
“Put your hands up or you’re dead!” the rank stranger screamed as the second rider pulled his horse to a stop, threw his .45 down and put up his hands. “It’s over Barnhart!”
Tip Ekberg had seen enough. He pulled his ancient double-barreled shotgun from under the store’s counter and stumbled off the porch and into the mud toward the rank stranger. But before he could shoot, he tripped over a hidden rock in the mud and fell face first. When he looked up, the .44 of the rank stranger was planted between his eyes.
“I think there’s been a misunderstanding,” the rank stranger said as he suddenly smiled and pulled back his greasy vest to reveal a U.S. Marshal badge on his chest.
“But… but you killed Drayton… and Clabe… and….”
“All the other members of the Shadden Gang. Hamp Spites was really Hamp Shadden. Clabe and Drayton were his brothers.”
“But Ferd, the stable man… and these two…?”
“All members of the Shadden Gang. They’d been laying low here for a couple of years till I tracked them down. That’s the whole bunch. They’ve robbed eight banks, two trains and who knows what else in the last six years. Killed at least seven men….”
Tip Ekberg sat in the mud of Constant Sorrow still in disbelief. How had he been such a fool?
The sky had clouded up and once again it began to rain. The rank stranger helped Tip out of the mud and tried to wipe off his old shotgun. The last member of the Shadden Gang was shackled on his horse waiting.
“You know,” the stranger said as he turned to walk away, “if I can lock my prisoner up in your back room, I think I might take a bath before I ride out. I’m starting to get a little rank….”