Western Short Story
Retribution at Great Caves 
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Great Caves, from the beginning, I can tell you, was Sheriff Jonathon Digsby’s town. Every foot of it, all the way from beautiful and sultry Ma Taylor’s Suitable Emporium of Taste at one end of the town to puckish Noah Cunningham’s Mortuary of the True Stillness at the other end. One time, before Ma Taylor came along off a stagecoach like she was dropped casually from heaven, Cunningham called his place The Fallen Star. It was like the two of them ended up in a naming contest, names having a place in the act of things out this way. You knew some of those names, I bet, even before you showed up here, like Gritty Sandy and Wild Bill Tango, and Kid Tusk and Lost-Finger Harrow and Pee Wee Humphrey big as a sheep dog from his first days, never mind the Injun names that can haunt your dreams from a hollow canyon echo until breakfast says something to your sleep.

Names have meaning, like I say. Mine’s Waco.

But the two of whom I’m speaking, Ma herself and Cunningham, I tell you, were no pair of peas in a pod, though they were stuck together like it was Forever-until-Kingdom-comes. The two were set up like noise and silence in a kind of see-saw balance, an equal separation of beginning and end, pleasure and dissatisfaction, winning and losing, good and bad, healthy and sickly, quiet herd full asleep in a gulley or just the damned opposite, a whole sprung-loose stampede coming right back over a campsite where you’re caught flat-out sleeping. None of them being far apart out this way, and it ain’t always so that any of them dead or breathing got their choice of the differences.

Take it from me; Great Caves was proof of all differences.

What I’m saying is most cowpokes get to spend weeks or months at a time on a drive, working streams and trails and canyons and gullies live as snakes with traps of all kinds, depending on each other practically every minute night or day. They’d be rounding up strays in the awfulest places or watching the herd, watching for hungry Indians, watching for rustlers coming for what ain’t theirs, that you’d swear they were brothers, all them cowboys slung together, like in a tight family’s little kitchen of a morning in a cabin built for two. And then finding themselves with half a dozen or more before they knew it, night making things tighter and closer as a family, adobe and board and mud hay keeping out the world and all the other stuff on the inside.

I saw it all in Waco as a kid, and carry it with me every day, knowing balance and difference like they are brother and sister and all part of the family of things.

As it was, Ma Taylor served up the drinks on the first floor of her saloon, the Suitable Emporium of Taste, with all the other favors coming from “topside,” as she called it. It all might begin with the slim stairway at the far end of the room by the piano, the shiny bannister at hand, the third step and the seventh step each making their own creak every time a healthy body stepped on it on the way up to Heaven, company in hand of course, or coming down from Hell, as you’d have it. Meanwhile, Ma’d be over at the bar or at a poker table, brightened full of smiles at how her day was working.

But long before that move up the stairs was made, you’d see it start out innocent in a way: a horse got tied off in front and the dismounted rider, often thirsty for more days than he had birthdays, amble into Ma’s place like he was in no hurry at all, at all, his throat hollering for cause, his mind elsewhere, the cows gone past every last danger he had encountered on his way to this very place.

This was the place that came to him in all its color and noise and temptation at a quiet campfire or a lone sit on a saddle at the edge of a herd and the skies full of stars taking him on strange trips right to the place he just came into. Can’t you see it all now? And here comes a bright face from across the room, so different from all those trail faces and drive faces, like it was one special night star he thought was his own from the first look, no matter what her name was or what some people got around to call her later on.  

But there’s thirst and there’s thirst, like I say.

Ma cottoned to all that; in fact loved it and often lived it, “but only in my early days,” she’d say, her blue eyes like they were full of fire, her lips red as sunsets on the grass, her cheeks lit up like clouds catching up the whole end of a hot day.

Ma’s place was like a waterhole out there in the middle of a desert or a dry place where all dreams are about water, just about every last drop you can think of. Or you’d think so until you heard it right.

I guess I’d have to say I saw some of Ma’s fire and redness one time when I was a might younger, pushed and prodded for trying by saddle pards, Ma near as young as me then.

On the other end of that whole picture of things, like at the ends of a long painting set up over her bar, was Noah Cunningham who only had to put his finger to lip to bring everything to a whisper at the mortuary, there being no reason to visit except for viewing the dead and saying a proper goodbye. He only had a couple of benches to sit on while in there, but nobody was likely to hang around, just saying goodbye in a soft way; “So long, pal,” or “Have a nice ride wherever you’re going on this trip, and if Scotty Plaid or Smiling Dick or Jersey Joe are there already, just say I remember them from that drive to Sagamore Springs and they were the best of the boys, for that time anyway.”

Well, it might not be exactly like that for everybody, but I’ve been there and said it just like that, not sure of what it’s really like in the Big Round-up, but guessing I had to say something good for somebody. Like Grandma always said, “If you ain’t got something good to say about a soul, don’t drop no cow flap at their feet.”

And Ma Taylor, on the other hand, a ways off from Cunningham, was known to dance a jig or two or sing a wild song to make the cowpokes come into her place of business. Sometimes she’d make a little noise right in front of the saloon to bring some dudes across the street from other attractions, like nice town girls out walking or cans of peaches at the store they been dreaming of for a spell of riding, both being of that other difference between things.

“Heaven and Hell ain’t far apart here,” she’d say, about “topside” and the gambling tables. She never once ever knocked a man for taking a few stiff drinks after being out on a drive for a few months. She favored such men and kept them wet and comfy as long as they stayed in line, which meant not wrecking her place or drawing a gun in a stupid argument about what brand was best or what horse could run fastest or turn a cow better, or even a raw deal at cards when everyone knew they were being cheated of a drive’s pay.

Like I say, there was a saloon and there was a mortuary in Great Caves.

Sheriff Digsby, in his time, tolerated both the cause and the result at either end of town, knowing the differences just like Ma Taylor did. You had to appreciate both of them, and where the differences lit from, from Ma and Noah, the odd pair.

But we buried Sheriff Jonathon Digsby here in Great Caves’ Boot Hill one day last week, during the first rain to hit this side of the mountain in a dozen years, like it was a sign some drunk said at the bar and having people listen to him for the first time in his life. It’s still raining, for a fact, and water’s still muddied up in the main street of Great Caves. Nobody here, not even new Sheriff Garvey Masters, has gone out to check on the cave yet, the real big one, to see if it’s filled up with water, and all the ghosts locked in for good.

Fact is, for years we’ve been hearing about, and now and then seeing, a ghost that people swear lives in the Great Cave. Part Indian, some say, and part not, as others will have it, having separate camps again on things worth discussing. It’s always best having two camps set up their sites on such issues, as it often clears the air of deadwood, straight-out lies, misapprehensions, and molded rumors that have a way of getting loose in the background. Might start a fight now and again, but not too heavy on the gun end, but mainly with a few punches thrown from the edge of the bar, not much for hurting or even hitting what was thrown at, a drunk usually being the aimer, as you can imagine.

Digsby sure would enjoy this new site, this new situation … the town wet from the britches out and all those folk he used to chase away now looking to make away with whatever they could, him being dead and buried on Boot Hill, like I said.

Ma Taylor, the same night of the wet burial, sat up on the bar top, her legs dangling down, not going anyplace in a hurry you could tell, but her voice was loud and clear. She knew the lay of the land as well as Digsby had in his time.

She said, “Some no good skunk shot Jonathon in the back and I aim to find out who did it, if I have to call the ghost back down here from his tepee up there in the cave like I did before. You know, if I just crook my finger at him, he’ll come down here. He’s one of them real Injuns, you know, full of good talking and wanting a taste on a Saturday night if I were to call him down.”

If a cowpoke in the saloon said, “Tell us a little about him, Ma,” Ma would answer back, “You gents know I never talk about my men. You ought to know better.” There’d be a passel of laughs at that, most of them on the knowing side.

What most smart folks in town knew what Ma was saying; that sooner or later, between the good favors and the good taste in the throat, a cowpoke was set to being a good long talker with a girl of comfort who knew how to listen, those being the kind of girls Ma Taylor hired in the first place. And good looks didn’t hurt none of it at all, as most of us know.

“Jonathon was out in the damned rain checking on things like always,” she said, “and some sinner of a back-shooting rat’s ass took aim on his backside and killed him. That man, I swear to the highest mountain where the good and great spirit hangs his hat for me, is going to pay for killing the only man I ever truly favored above all others,” which also meant, we knew, she and Jonathon were special together.

And something about the mountain was special too. Real special. Ma had brought a lot of us to that belief.

Me. I wouldn’t want to be the man Ma spoke about, caught between her memories and the Injun ghost she said was in her pocket. Those are some odds to go against. Ma had her way of convincing folks, as I said, like those instructions way back in the beginning of things for a lot of us.

I was looking around the saloon as Ma was making known what most of us already knew, when I saw an expression shift in the face of one rough and ready cowpoke, Quint Shockley. For the smallest part of a second, in a kind of declaration, I saw plain old distaste on Shockley’s face as Ma was making her point about finding the back-shooting rat’s ass still in our midst. Nobody, since the rain started, had come into or left town.

The killer was still here.

Ma knew it. So did I. I’m not sure Sheriff Garvey Masters had got that far his thinking yet. Brand new he was with the star, and not a chance him being born to it, it looked, but he was a good kid who also walked up the stairs with Ma one night in early life, getting instructions for the long haul.

I remembered what I had heard about Quint Shockley from a bunch of folks who are bound to carry such stories in their saddle bags, the kind that talk more than they do things.

Butch Bacherling said Shockley had shot a man in the back when the man drew on Shockley, hit him high on the chest, “Harrumphed” with satisfaction, turned his back and walked away thinking the deed was done. Shockley, the gun still in his hand and on his knees, aimed and fired, killing the man instantly. The court let Shockley go without a full day in jail.

Later, his wounds healed, he was said to have stepped out of a held-up stage coming in from Rooter’s Ridge and shot three road agents right out of their saddles. Will Bristow was the driver and swears to it each time he has a drink, making Shockley a hero in many eyes. Will, of course, is still drinking and still driving, and still hailing Shockley as a hero.

But there are others, just to keep things in a balance, who say Shockley is a man who carries wounds, hate and envy as deep as any man can carry them, and lets them get going every once in a while on their own.

Londo Leuter’s one such person, remembering how one sworn enemy of Shockley’s was found out on the trail with three bullets in his back and Shockley telling people he was in Stratford when the whole thing happened, “So far away I couldn’t shoot that far on my Sharpe’s best day.”

Of course, it was a Sharpe’s that had done the horrible deed, the shells found in a place as if they were left to be found by a meager search. Some said the shells were left by unknown folk trying to get Shockley what he deserved on a hundred or so other matters, like the way a few sneaky killings made the grade.

Such stories, even if half true, begin to gel in someone’s mind, like they did in mine … the little innuendos life is always throwing in our way to get us off the trail of true events, twisting a man’s character, what’s real and what ain’t, regardless of what you’re looking right at. And here I was reading Shockley’s hidden thoughts in Ma’s place of business and pleasure, which is mighty like no place for being undecided about an issue. I believed I had some reason in trying to read his mind.

That’s what I kept telling myself.

With Shockley, from where I sit in all this, it’s that the two camps on him were divided, maybe not equally so but pretty damned close, so it was tough for a neutral to make up his mind on the man. If you were to ask someone like that, they’d no way make up your mind on the man, and say something more like, “Go look and see for yourself. A man’s a man and makes his own marks; sooner than later, they get read rightly.” Some call it justice; others call it comeuppance, and some say none of it ever brings back the dead, because it’s always about someone dying on us, right when they are pleasing to someone somewhere.

Ma had a mindset that few could disturb, unless it was because of the sheriff she highly favored who was killed dead by some unknown. But you know that kind of thing gets some people stirring in their own juices, and it was going to get done again, plain and simple like, and using what was at hand to best advantage.

As it turned out from such a thinking session, talking about twists in the mind, Ma sent her best girl, Shirley, and her smartest, off topside with Shockley later in the evening to tell him a few stories. She was the most beautiful one of the ladies, in bonnet or no bonnet. Shirley told Shockley the new story making the rounds about the old Chinaman cleaner, Hun Lu Tin. Some say he’d been out on the trail and saw the man who shot the sheriff. “From a big rugged rock right beside the road,” he had said, all his “Rs” coming the way they always did, like a handful of “Ls.”

Shirley and Shockley were gone for more than an hour. Then Shirley tapped softly on the floor up there at the head of the stairs, got Ma’s attention, and motioned for Ma to come up where she was.

Ma was up those stairs in a shake and in a confab with Shirley who was busting with all her information, “He says he’s gonna shut that Chinkie’s mouth for good and forever, Ma. Gonna do it tonight as the Chinkie leaves his shop at closing time and goes home. We all know that’s like midnight.”

I was ready for it, for the new developments, ever since the look came on Shockley’s face, like an advertisement in The Prairie Star newspaper. And things just called on me to see how it unfolded.

Ma and one shadowy man, might have been an old barkeep she kept for such purposes as an edge on the law, and a man who knew how to stay in the background like he wasn’t there in the first place, had set up near Hun Lu Tin’s shop. I could not tell who it was siding Ma like that, and ran through a few of the past bartenders and still couldn’t figure out who it was. But he sure knew his way around of not being there like he was making himself look. Even Ma was cuter than she appeared, if you know what I’m getting at, ringing someone in to do the dirty work that might need doing. Shockley needed doing because everybody’d believe the Chinaman afore they’d believe Shockley if he was to say he didn’t do anything to nobody. That’d include the sheriff and the Chinaman, no two ways on that.

One minute there’s a light in Hun Lu Tin’s shop, way in the back like it’s no more’n a candle, and then it’s out. I mean, dark went to darker, and there’s no moon, and shadows are thick as heavy brush when you don’t need it out on the trail, and I don’t see Hun Lu Tin come out of his shop. But I heard the door close, like it would close normal-like, with a bang to make sure it got closed tight.

And right there in front of his place, now that he’s outside, a light flares up and Hun Lu Tin’s lighting up his pipe that I had seen before and it’s about a foot long, and it looks like a hunk of rope running run up to his mouth from that lit source. I saw Hun Lu Tin’s face like a torch was on him and only him. And with it there’s a shot from the edge of the next shop and it’s pretty certain Hun Lu Tin’s down and the mystery man with Ma unloads a repeating rifle at the place where the single shot came from. There’s a cry and a thump like a body hitting the ground.

Ma’s mystery man ran across the street and dropped his rifle at the feet of Hun Lu Tin lying dead on the street, and then he ducked down an alley and I heard hoof beats going off in the night even before the crowd comes out into the street and Sheriff Garvey Masters is yelling at everybody to keep quiet. But they knew something had been taken care of in a certain manner and were already wondering who and what and why.

Ma’s gone one way and I’m still in the shadows and I made my way into the crowd of gawkers, and the new sheriff, with a torch finally handed him, looks down on Hun Lu Tin with a rifle near to hand as well as his long pipe, and Shockley being just as dead with his Springfield still grasped like it was a crutch that still ain’t done him any good.

“Plain as the nose on your face,” the sheriff says, “Old Shock was trying to put the quit on the Chinaman, and he was waiting on him, like we heard in the saloon only a few minutes ago from Shirley.”

“Think it might have been the ghost from up yonder, Garvey? I ain’t never seen the Chinaman holding a gun, never mind shooting one.”

“Only Ma can speak about that, I’d guess,” Masters said. “She’s closer to that ghost than any of us. What do you say, Ma?” He looked out over the crowd, raised the torch and said, “You out there, Ma?”

From a window on the second floor of her place, Ma answered, “I’m up here, Garvey. You look like you got some new business down there. Who is it?”

“Looks like Shockley tried to knock the tongue out of Hun Lu Tin and the Chinaman shot back. Must have known old Shock was sitting and waiting on him.”

“Well, you wrap that up out there, sheriff, and bring the folks back in for drinks on me. It’s pretty plain what this is all about.”

“Yes, Ma’am, we’ll be right in.” He pointed to four men and said, “You boys cart them two dead ones over to Cunningham’s place and Ma’ll hold your drinks for you.”

I thought about all the loose pieces on both ends of town, and finally decided there wasn’t anything to worry about. It all figured that Jonathon Digsby knew what he was getting into right from the start. Knowing the field, and playing it, are two different things.

And Noah Cunningham said he’d take care of the burial cost and not even Ma Taylor argued with that.

Next day it stopped raining. Wet went to dry in a hurry. Sheriff Jonathon Digsby slipped into history. Ma Taylor, knowing her calling, went back to work. Noah Cunningham sat back and waited his turns; he knew both ends of town, too.