Western Short Story
Arizona Territory, May 1st, 1883
“Sam, you know I can’t just let you go.” Wickley wanted to sound like he meant it, but his throat was tight, and his voice cracked.
Sam stood tall at attention under a lone, half-dead tree, callous and defiant. She shook her head then looked past him at the red desert filled with dying scrub. The horse she had stolen from poor deputy Eli was tied off to the lowest branch of the tree. Outfitted with Eli’s oversized clothes, his gun belt and revolver hung from her waist.
Wickley urged her. “It’ll be easier for everyone if you just come back and face what you’ve done.”
“Bullshit. I did what I had ta do and you know it,” Sam replied. She had one hand on the gun belt while the other held up the pair of tan trousers that were ten sizes too big for her. “That judge was a friend of Barrett’s. And no friend of yours, I might add!”
“It ain’t about who I’m friends with. It’s about the law!”
Sam’s face twisted with anger at his words. “I ain’t hangin’ for nobody! Especially not some crooked judge!”
Not taking his eyes off her, Wickley adjusted his hat in the bright sunlight, then pulled down his vest to straighten it. “This ain’t how I wanna do things.”
“Well if you’re so stuck to the law, you gonna have ta kill me here and now.” Her hand shook as it hovered over the handle of the revolver. Wickley stared her straight in the eyes from under the brim of his creamy white hat. She tried to swallow, but her throat was drier than the sand that shifted at their feet in the breeze.
“Please, don’t make me do this.” He was begging in one final attempt, though he knew what it would come to. Did she really think she had a chance?
Sam went for the gun…
* * *
Stocksburg Town Jail, April 30th (The Day Before)
The rope hung down from the gallows in the town square, taunting Sam through the window of the jail. She was set to hang tomorrow at noon. Just outside her cell, Eli sat hunched over the desk playing checkers by himself. Sheriff Wickley had left his young deputy in charge while he conducted his regular evening patrol. Carefully plotting each move, the portly teen grew visibly irritated as he progressed, blocking himself at every turn and continually ending each match in a stalemate.
Intrigued by his strange effort, Sam turned her attention away from the gallows. She got up from her cot and leaned against the black metal gate, tapping her fingers along the bars as she curiously watched from her jail cell, while Eli became more and more frustrated with the game.
With an inviting tone, she said to him. “You look like you need a real opponent.”
He was quick to dismiss her. “Sheriff told me not to talk to you.”
“How’s a game of checkers gonna hurt anyone?”
Eli paused to contemplate her words, then adjudging no real harm could come of it, waddled over and set the wooden board down onto the floor in front of her cell.
Sitting down with a smile and stretching her arm through the bars, Sam made her first move. “You don’t have ta worry. I’m no good.”
Their first game went quickly. Eli wore a proud grin across his pudgy face when he soundly defeated her. She had only taken three of his checkers.
“Promise ya didn’t let me win?” he questioned her with suspicion, brushing at the small bit of peach fuzz on his upper lip.
“I promise I can make the next game more interesting,” Sam replied.
Eli’s face turned skeptical. “Hold on now. No tricks.”
“No tricks,” she assured, holding her hands up innocently.
“What you got in mind?”
“Well, figure a boy such as yourself likely ain’t had much experience with a woman,” Sam said in her softest voice. “How ‘bout if you win again, I show you my bosom.”
Eli’s face went red. “W-What if you win?”
“Hmmmm.” Sam feigned thinking out loud. “How ‘bout a kiss for me?”
As soon as the words came out of her mouth, the young deputy looked as if his head might explode. She was mature and pretty, possibly the prettiest woman in the whole town. His boyish desires took over him. Vigorously nodding in agreement, he immediately reset the checkerboard.
“I’m black this time,” she insisted.
This time, her victory was swift, almost the complete reverse of their first match. To Eli’s surprise, Sam commanded the colored squares like a general, pulling him into traps where no matter what he did he would lose a piece.
“You said you was no good,” Eli said.
“Looks like my luck has turned,” Sam said with a smile as she jumped his final red checker.
Sore from sitting awkwardly on the ground, Sam stood and stretched her legs. Watching Eli’s face as he continued to stare at the board, she raised her dirty yellow skirt revealing bare skin, and firmly rubbed at the soreness in her hip.
Instantly, his eyes locked onto her exposed legs.
“So, where’s my kiss?” Sam asked pressing her face between a gap in the bars.
“Right!” Eli replied. As he stood his hands shook nervously. Inching closer to the cell door, he puckered his lips and held his eyes shut.
Sam pulled him in close and firmly placed a kiss onto his lips. She could feel the heat of his excitement as it radiated from his body.
With a big smile on his face, Eli began to pull away, but before he could get too far, Sam grabbed him by the fat of his arm and whispered into his ear. “This might be the last chance I have to be with a man.”
* * *Two Days Before
“You really all right with hangin’ a woman?” Eli asked Sheriff Wickley, gesturing at Sam, who lay silently on the cot in her cell.
Busy behind his desk, Wickley didn’t immediately respond, leaving his young deputy in an awkward silence.
Without looking up from his paperwork, he offered a terse rebuttal. “God made us all capable of sin, Eli. If a woman turned a gun on you would you hesitate to shoot?”
“Never seen a woman with a gun, so I wouldn’t rightly know, sir. Never had ta shoot nobody neither,” Eli mused.
The boy wasn’t much older than eighteen, but already getting so fat he had trouble finding clothes that fit him properly. His badge was out of place on his tan shirt and looked as if it were ready to pop off his chest along with the rest of his buttons.
“Boy, you’d make quick bait in any fight.” Wickley replied.
Eli was inexperienced, but in a small town the options were slim and Wickley needed someone who could at least mind the jail when he left to make the rounds about the town.
Finishing his paperwork, Wickley rose and walked over to where Sam lay in her cell.
Behind his back, the pudgy teen frowned then mimed drawing his pistol in a fight.
No, John Wickley was not afraid to hang a woman. He’d already hanged two during his tenure as a Sheriff in Arkansas: one for murder, one for horse theft. As far as he was concerned, crime was crime and, in his mind, if justice truly was blind it shouldn’t matter what physical attributes the criminal had. Wickley was fine with hanging a woman, all right.
Trouble was, he didn’t feel all right about hanging this particular woman.
“You don’t have ta be so damned hard on him, John,” Sam said from behind the thick bars.
“Ain’t being hard, just being honest.”
“Well, be honest with me then,” she said sitting up, “How’s it feel ta be hangin’ your brother’s widow?”
Wickley paused for a moment. “My brother was nothing but rotten. I always loved you more than him, and to this day I’ll never understand why you didn’t choose me,” he said trying to keep from showing any sadness in his face.
* * *Four Days Before: Stocksburg Church
The sanctuary was packed as men and women sat shoulder to shoulder. In a town like Stocksburg, a murder trial was a big event and almost all the townsfolk were in attendance. It was a hot day and the windows had been opened to allow air circulation into the room, but with such an abundance of people the excess heat was not able to escape.
Silence took the room and everyone stood in anticipation as Judge Marks returned from the back room. It did not seem that he had been gone long enough for any serious deliberation.
Rising to the pulpit, he was quick to give his judgment.
“The verdict is guilty,” the judge said in his deep booming voice. His vengeful stare cut into Sam as she stood before him. “Far as I am concerned, if you take a life in this territory you’ve forfeited your own, no matter the circumstance.”
Several women gasped as the verdict was read, but to Sam it was no surprise. She had known all along.
“I sentence you to hang from the neck until dead.”
Sam stared back at him with no remorse.
* * *One Week Earlier
The pop of the gunshot resonated throughout both floors of the inn. Whipped into a frenzy by the sudden noise, the other residents and guests peered from their doorways down the hall, looking for answers among their neighbors.
Sam held out the smoking .38 revolver, the smell of burned powder in her nose as the Barrett Wickley lay dying on the bed. For this, she knew she would hang, but it was better than getting beat on day in and day out by a man like Barrett.
Setting the gun on the bedside table, she gently touched the gash at her lip and then fixed her hair into a bun. Rising to the mirror, Sam washed her bruised face in the basin, then sat and proudly waited for Sheriff Wickley to come take her away…
* * *
“Well if you’re so stuck to the law, you gonna have ta kill me here and now.” Sam tried to swallow, but her throat was drier than the sand that shifted at their feet in the breeze.
“Please, don’t make me do this.” Wickley said.
Was he begging? She knew he didn’t want to kill her, and that might be her only hope.
Sam was at the ready. Heart racing, her hand shook above the revolver. Opposite Wickley some ten paces in the barren red desert, she moved to draw.
“Wait!” he yelled. Holding up his right hand, Wickley signaled for her to stop.
With his left hand, Wickley slowly removed the brass five-pointed sheriff’s badge pinned to his chest and tossed it to the side where it landed in the sand with a soft thump.
Sam gave him a look of confusion as he returned to a fighting stance.
“Alright, c’mon,” he said, wiggling his fingers at his sides.
Taking a deep breath, Sam drew the heavy revolver as fast as she could, expecting to feel Wickley’s bullet tear through her at any moment, but as she squeezed the trigger, John Wickley had still yet to even draw.
When she exhaled, Wickley laid still on the ground. Untying the horse, Sam didn’t bother to check if Wickley was alive or dead, riding off into the uncertainty of the desert badlands.