Western Short Story
Sam Kirkness, Sheriff
Tom Sheehan

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 precipitous passageways.

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.

Kirkness reached 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 gain.

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 thoughts.

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."

Kirkness gathered 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 feasible.

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 stories.

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 about them.

Sam Kirkness 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 himself.

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.

Shicagawns at 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.