Western Short Story
Sam Kirkness rode as
fast as his horse would go, across the low grass of Melwood Alms, a
territory of the open West. May, 1864 had arrived. Now and then a
swirl of dust could be seen behind him when he topped a slow rise in
the grassy stretch and looked back over his shoulder. The gang would
not catch him, he was sure, before he reached Melwood and many guns
would be on his side.
He had admitted to
himself, as early as the night previous, that he'd been foolish to go
after Jed Pelthrow on his own and saw the light of an open fire down
in a crevice in the earth, between strange cliffs where history could
have been written unknown hundreds of years earlier about the
Shicawgan people, the canyons nearby full of cliff-side dwellings
literally carved or chiseled out of the cliff faces, hundreds of
them, and myriad narrow routes connecting them. He wondered how many
Shicawgan mothers, lugging a child, had fallen from the slim and
The openness of the
fire set his imagination to work. And he was sure it was a trap set
for him, that fire so brightly blazing, the night and the valley cut
in two parts, one of the gang obviously posted on watch for him,
alert to a hoof hitting on a stone, a deeper shadow than ought to be
seen as a silhouette, a cough only half smothered in the thick night.
There intruded on his thoughts the realm of possibilities leading to
his capture, and likely his death. It was too much to bear the
calamitous thoughts, so he veered off the trail, thinking of getting
back to town before he'd be killed, marshalling up a posse, making
his way back on the trail for Pelthrow.
In another direction
he went, leading his horse through areas where track remnants showed
less trail marks, where he had dodged them again, as they had dodged
him in the very start of this chase, now in reverse mode.
He had come upon the
stagecoach, afire, the driver dead in his seat, the shotgun rider
dead in a mix of black leather reins, the passengers dropped where
they once stood, obviously ordered out of the coach, searched, shot
in place, the coach set on fire, the horses killed. It was as quick
as the bank had been robbed, Douglas Widmore the banker saying to him
that morning of revelation, "Don't worry, Sam, if the money's in
town, we'll find it." There had been no noise, no gunfire, no
horses bolting into the night when the robbery took place at the bank
and thousands of dollars taken. Not a sign or signal had been raised
or left, a Who-Did-It nice and clean, getaway clean. There were no
clues, so no ideas popped up.
But Sam Kirkness had an idea that the banker had an idea, it appeared that simple to him.
He'd wait on the banker.
There was no
explanation from the banker, but a few nights later, near three of
the morning, the town as quiet as field mice, the sheriff unable to
sleep in his office, when Widmore drove his carriage into town with
his two dogs, both Bloodhounds, the dogs as quiet too as the mice and
the town. They were on leashes as the banker walked them through the
bank, behind the counter, as slow and as furtive as thieves. Widmore
took the hounds back for a second trip, and Kirkness, in his
sleepless night directly across the street from the bank, couldn't
take his eyes off the trio. He studied them as he watched the
silhouette of the banker pause every few feet, giving the dogs a rest
or those dogs were getting the smell of the land. It hit on him,
later in the night, that Widmore's Bloodhounds, two great black and
brown small monsters at first sight, were locking onto the smell of
money, entrusted to the bank by the general store, the barber shop,
or townsfolk of a trusting nature. They were not locking up the smell
of the robbers, which would have been tossed into the general users
of the bank, much of the town for that.
Still being pursued
by the gang, but sensing their following him all the way into town
had diminished, he wanted to get as near as he could to a protective
group of citizens. And the idea had developed about the dogs from the
night Widmore and the sheriff led them one night into Rubio's Place,
the only bar in Melwood, the sheriff brought along in case his
testimony was needed, as Widmore explained: "I'm breaking into a
place of business, Sam, and I have to have your version of what and
how this venture goes down, what it discovers."
On the very piece of thick mat where Juan Rubio usually stood for hours on end tending bar in his own joint, the two Bloodhounds had paused, noses down and then thrust directly into the air ... no howls let loose from either dog, but target found and declared!
When the mat was
moved aside, a small door was revealed and the bank money found in
the space below. The sheriff and the banker didn't tell anyone how it
was found, but later that day there ensued hoopla, gaiety and free
drinks for half the town as Rubio's Place changed hands, for the good
of the town and for the bank, and the jail housing a new tenant.
Now, as he rode to
evade capture from a gang of blood-thirsty murderers and thieves,
Sally and little Sam waiting his return, Sam Kirkness twirled the
idea over and over in his mind: "If these characters chase me
almost to town, and then steer clear of town, it's assured that they
didn't bring with them the stolen goods, money and whatever from the
stagecoach robbery, but have buried it or hidden it someplace in the
canyon, among the long-dead Shicawgans, in the peace of the ages. The
Bloodhounds, for sure, if given the chance after a visit to the
stagecoach scene, will turn up any place where remnants of the
robbery are buried, where new odors declare their location. The
stagecoach was a wreck out there on the grass, the horses shot dead
and probably ate up by buzzards or eagles or wolves, and the dead
passengers in their own graves on the edge of town, such notices sent
back along the stage line for those who might have concern.
town safely, told Widmore his idea about tracking down the stolen
goods in the canyon if they were still there, under earth, stone or
debris. The banker said, "I know what the dogs are capable of,
Sam. I don't doubt for a minute they could turn over the remnants of
the holdup, but we can't go alone. We have to have a posse with us,
numbers enough to fight off the gang and then get them to jail and a
trial and a hanging, if such be the case."
"I'm with you
on all of that, Doug, and the sooner the better in case they divvy
the goods, split up, or start internal fights, and end up stealing
from each other, wanting more than their share."
It was all underway
when he added, "I'll get the posse up and ready for tomorrow.
You bring them dad-blasted hounds of yours and we'll give 'em a new
chore to get done, in an early morning start."
Setting out the
following morning were a dozen town stalwarts, good with pistol and
rifle, each one a family man, the sheriff on horseback and the banker
in his carriage with the two dogs, whose names he had never revealed,
bound for discovery, recovery, revelation, capture and court. What
they recovered would be saved for kin of the dead, if any showed up,
or held for a year and sold off to best bid, the funds, if any, added
to current reward money posted at the sheriff's office, the town at a
Kirkness, in that
first hour that followed their departure from town, reflected on the
information that had come his way on the gang leader, Jed Pelthrow,
as bad a dude he'd come across in his years as sheriff of two towns
crawling up from the western dust to become what they were. He'd seen
Pelthrow shoot a man and wife for nothing more than being rebuffed
about unfair treatment of his own horse, as sad as death can be,
orphaned children in the mix, lives changed forever, sadness only
outlived on the far horizons of life. Even the rhythm of his horse,
and that of the posse in its gait, could not knock Pelthrow from his
thoughts, hard as he tried.
Time would come for
erasure, he knew, at the end of this trail, in some canyon or valley
or out on the spread of the grass, gunfire in the mix, perhaps some
of the posse going down. The facts were known by all, for if they
didn't join in for such communal efforts, even their own families
would be hurt in the end, letting beasts like Pelthrow off the hook
... one crime deserves another, each man might have said in his quiet
Pelthrow came to the
sheriff again, he and his gang riding off from too near the town, and
heading back, "May be," he thought, "back to where
they'd spent two or three previous nights, the stolen loot hidden
among the stones of the area, history disturbed again.
One of the posse,
approaching the Shicawgan remains, cried out, "There goes a
cloud of trail dust, Sheriff, heading south, them buzzards probably
clearing out of the area. Looks big enough, that cloud, for a gang.
Must be them."
the posse in the area and said, "We'll let Doug and his dogs
check out the place. If they find the stolen goods, we'll gather the
stuff to take back, but we have a chance to get Pelthrow and his gang
if they think we're done here. We'll have to post ourselves, spread
our forces around the area so we can grab them and get rid of them
for good. And for our own good," he added with emphasis, each
member of the posse thinking about family members.
Doug Widmore, from a
clutter of fallen stones in a matter of half an hour, waved his hands
and pointed to his dogs, both standing practically at attention at
their find. The search was a huge success and all the loot recovered
in a matter of half an hour, ready for a return to town when
Finally, after the
excitement of discovery, night on its western crawl, it was a silent,
thoughtful group of men who positioned themselves, one by one, under
various secretive and protective cover within the myriad stone
remains of an ancient people, the old ghosts keeping them company for
sure, each posse member at his own imagination.
Water was portioned
out, as the wait might be a day or two at the outset, and comfort
arrangements, best as could be managed, horses checked to cover as
well. In doubly-shared position, stories were told, mystery added to
each telling by hushed voices, whispers, soft talk of stories and
little lies being embraced, the first night passing with black
darkness, no moon, no campfire, only stars of small candles overhead,
talk in whispers passing night, sleep being shared as well as
It was a small chunk
of dawn, the eastern sky a brittle slant to begin with, when a short
repeated whistle, like that of a bird of unknown breed, alerted the
entire posse: riders, not part of the posse, were entering the
canyon, unknowns approaching and the Shicawgan ghosts retiring to
their singular histories. The posse was wide awake, to a man, and
their silence and inertness melded into the cautious dawn now afoot
wondered if the posse would show itself too early to the new riders,
coming ever cautiously into the midst of the canyon. he studied the
faintly-camouflaged posts of the members, listened to silence and the
soft, trepid steps on the incoming horses, heard little else.
When he saw Jed
Pelthrow was one of the incoming riders, he discounted the others
with him: this was the prize, this would break up the gang if he
could be caught and punished; this was his prize capture to date if
it could be accomplished with nobody killed, not even Pelthrow
To his surprise, the
posse rose as one man in their many places, rifles at their
shoulders, eyes squinting at targets, aiming the rifles at the
incoming threesome, rifles steady as a lone bull at choice of a herd,
the false dawn full of real tension.
Not a shot was
fired, no great vocal exchanges came between the caught and captured,
not a word of pride or of accomplishment, nor of curses of damnation
coursing in the morning air, came to any ear.
silence, the posse at a moment of grace and thanks, Sheriff Sam
Kirkness, thinking about a noon meal with his wife and daughter,
flushed with a sudden amount of pride at a new deed done amid no
deaths, the posse whole as yet, another night in the wilds of ancient
history adding to that old history, hoping none of them would wake.