Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
When the wife of William Gifford, a prominent rancher near the small town of Butte Legends, was murdered because she protected a child that was not hers, the law was demanded for the town. Mrs. Gifford was kicked in the head by the horse of a fleeing bank robber as she rushed to rescue a child from the path of the animal. The citizens were aghast at the latest event in a series of illegal calamities. The uproar ensued, screaming for new law enforcement.
Blackwater Carrigan was that law, all the way from Shiloh, McKenna’s Hill and half a dozen other military activities as a cavalry officer in the Great War and two succeeding years as a marshal in the Utah territory. He could be described as a man who knew his way around old trails, tough tracks and surprises handed out by Mother Nature or human miseries, and had not come as a volunteer to set a wild town straight … he came duly hired by the powers-to-be, the town council of Butte Legends.
On his arrival, Carrigan came off the train on the other side of the tracks in the fairly new cow town of Butte Legends. He wanted a different view of things, to see what the town looked like from “the other side” as he chided himself. On the distant horizon the Rockies stood tall as sequoia redwoods. Up closer his angled view of town lent him a scurrilous survey of a town that had grown fast and would die as quick unless the law, enforceable law, was brought aboard.
He liked the looks of the town, the layout, the energy at work, and did not think about the bad parts … not as yet. All along the way he had taken feelings and ideas from towns that he had been in, as a visitor or sheriff. They made up pieces of a dream town, which he figured he had invented, but it clung on him strong as a stampede. This town of Butte Legends had grown on him in such a hurry that dedication rippled his thinking.
Carrigan, on the other hand from a dreamer, wore the proper hardware for a lawman; the badge on his chest shining with hope and promise; twin Smith & Wesson revolvers sitting on his hips, and a special Sharps rifle resting in one hand and a well-worn saddle gripped in the other hand, while he balanced the weight on his shoulder. Sitting beside him was a brown and black German Shepard dog, not as tall as Carrigan, but as muscled, and as observant. The dog responded to the slightest “Tch” imaginable, as he was possessed of extraordinary hearing ability. His name was Brutus. If battlefield commendations could be displayed, Brutus would carry a chart on his chest, but little mattered to him other than the man he sat beside, or walked beside, since the day the man had rescued him from a fiery barn.
As for Carrigan, with a good horse soon acquired from the local livery, his weapons loaded, his dog handy, he’d be ready for work.
As for Butte Legends, standard things can be said. When the first building opened its doors as a saloon only a few years earlier, two other buildings immediately came under construction, a livery and an associated hotel with five rooms promised. The bank followed, stressed by need. One month later, responding to spurting growth, the general store opened its doors … off the back of two wagons loaded with supplies. The little settlement leaped up where two busy trails crossed at Butte Legends, with the river looming in sight as it wound out of the foothills.
Rancher Bill Gifford, whose wife dove in front of escaping bank robbers to save a child, was a driving force in the new community. His telegraph, as noted, brought Blackwater Carrigan to Butte Legends.
History of such quick-start towns shows other activities running too close at the heels of founding fathers… theft or robbery, kidnapping, murder by choice, and cattle rustling as soon as herds began to build up. When towns like Butte Legends resorted to a vigilante system of correction, often committed on the spot, it gave excuses to illegal interests. So Carrigan had been summoned by Gifford speaking for the town council, with the shiny star of a badge already pinned on his chest.
The star was not the only mark on him. Some element in Butte Legends, hearing of the summons, had already placed another check mark on him, and that mark was sight unseen but known by many. The town had previously had one sheriff, whose tour of duty lasted no longer than his first posse, striking out after two bank robbers who had killed a teller and a customer. Some soft voices in town said the sheriff was killed by a member of the posse. Doubts about the power of law existed, though no names were ever mentioned in particular.
On his first day in office, Carrigan did not go out of the jail, but spent the whole of daylight hours reading wanted posters, looking out the window at town traffic on the street and on the boardwalk, and marking who talked to who during that stretch of the day. Names and faces were being memorized. One meal was brought in for him from the hotel, which he did not eat but Brutus did.
As darkness fell, Carrigan slipped out of his office by a side door, eased down the alley, and walked behind five other buildings on that side of the street. He marked the livery, the hotel, the dark side of the new bank, and the general store still being supplied from wagons, three young men doing the dog work, and one man positioning the supplies once inside the store.
Carrigan, in the shadows, Brutus silent as puma on the watch, listened to the banter of the young men as they worked. “You hear about the new law in town?” His ear caught that poser.
“What law is that?”
“Not what law, but who’s the law. It’s that new sheriff, that Blackwater Carrigan they’re all talking about.”
“The whole town practically, from what I hear. Say he’s a real hero from the war, and a dead shot. Wait’ll you see the way he carries his guns, like they’re primed for killin’ soon’s he straps ‘em on in the mornin’.”
“Who said all that stuff? I know you didn’t hatch it up.”
“Chuckber’s who. He says he’s the one probably goin’ to send him away for good.”
“Said it right out?”
“I swear he did, with that look in his eyes says he ain’t tellin’ no lie, not for a bit.”
“Who was he sayin’ it too? He don’t seem so big or so tough. What’s he done anyway that you believe him?”
“He was tellin’ the guys at the livery. They was in the back and talkin’ kinda quiet and I was up in the mow, working for Cliff, an odd job. Chuckber rides with the Proulx crowd. Like he’s the second in command, only faster than Proulx hisself.”
“Why’d they want to get rid of a new sheriff? Don’t we need one? That woman gettin’ killed stuck in my craw same as other folks. A good sheriff’d haul ass on that guy who did it. You know who it was?”
“Chuckber’s what they all say. Mean as green apples. He’ll draw on Proulx someday and be the cheese all by hisself. For now, Proulx’s the boss. What he says, goes. If you don’t cross him in any way, you got no problem with him. Otherwise, you’re up the creek. He’d as soon as kill you as look at you. He wants it all to hisself, from what they say, and they ain’t very wrong at such saying.”
“Not if the new sheriff is good as they say.”
Carrigan, getting the tenor of another piece of the town, slipped back into darkness. Brutus was quieter than Carrigan as he slinked away with his master.
Later, when Proulx and his loud bunch came to the saloon, Carrigan watched them from across the street, in the shadows of another building with only three sides thrown up yet. He saw all of them, including the one addressed as “Boss” and another addressed as “Chuck,” marking him as Chuckber.
When they all entered the saloon, and the street was as dark as it would be all night, Carrigan and Brutus slipped across the road and Carrigan introduced the dog to the saddles on Proulx’s horse and on Chuckber’s horse. Brutus ran his noise and tongue over both saddles, let out a sniffle and settled down beside Carrigan who traced his hands over the saddle and equipment mounted on each horse. He paid no attention to the other mounts. Still in the shadows and the darkness that swallowed up the night, man and beast retreated back behind the unfinished building and went on their way.
Entering the jail the same way they came out, Carrigan and Brutus went to sleep.
They slept the night away.
During the night, in different parts of Butte legends, widely separated, cruel and horrific crimes were committed on outlying ranches; men and women were murdered, a child was killed by a stray short, several fine and decent horses were shot on purpose, it appeared, and one of Gifford’s barns was burned to the ground with doors stuck in place by small boards tipped against them. Animals had been burned to death.
The sheriff’s office in the morning was stormed by citizens, all screaming that the sheriff was asleep while the town was being overrun by murderers and scum of the earth.
Gifford, tall and distinguished looking for a rancher, showing dispirit as well as displeasure, led the charge. “Why did I ever think you could help us? These madmen have now established their rule, and we have a pretty good idea who they are.” He yelled at Carrigan, “You know what this night is, don’t you? It’s their response to my getting you hired. My giving the job to you. It’s them saying we have given the town over to them. What do we do now?” He looked like a man who would never forget his wife.
“Let me handle things, Mr. Gifford,” Carrigan replied. “You get these people off my neck today and we’ll see what happens by tomorrow.”
Gifford did as the sheriff requested, and later that morning, with Brutus at his side, Carrigan began to check out the scenes of all the crimes committed during the night. He and Brutus went to each site, spent at least an hour at each place, and moved on.
As darkness descended over Butte legends again, Carrigan and his dog entered the jail and Carrigan lay down to rest. Thoughts of pleasant little towns filled his mind, twisted his thinking in different directions. He remembered charm and happiness and boys learning rope tricks and girls cooking apple pies a person could smell a mile away. His yearning ran as deep as his kind thoughts. Well after midnight, he and Brutus again left the jail by the side door and he went off on horseback, Brutus following.
On foot, sly as could be, Carrigan put his rifle down against a big rock and tied his horse off at a small rise facing Proulx’s spread. Proulx and his crew of seven were asleep in the house when flames erupted around the house and the barn at the same time. Four of the men got out, only to be shot in their escape. Three others were trapped by flames. Proulx was on the ground outside, his gun belt still in one had where he had not been able to strap it on. The barn was demolished. The animals, able to get out of the barn, were off across the grass someplace.
Butte Legends, as stories began to circulate, went back to being a growing town, quiet and mostly peaceful after their few nights of terror that happened over ten years ago. The sheriff, Blackwater Carrigan, was still in office, still a quiet man of the badge, walking his nightly rounds with a German Shepard dog that people called “Caesar” and who looked a lot like the sheriff’s old dog Brutus, now two dogs dead. Some boys had hung a star on Caesar’s neck.