Western Short Story
When the mayor of Colbert Falls swore Shag Monroe in as new sheriff, and pinned the badge on his chest, Shag spun on his boot heels, jammed his pistol into the gut of the man beside him, Task Shiner, and said “I arrest you for the murder of Clint Osterfeld.”
It was the quickest, cleanest act of justice ever seen in Colbert Falls, especially in the reign of the current mayor, who was dumbfounded but the crowd went wild. Screams of joy, final ease, civil comforts returned to place, could be heard in the valleys at both ends of town, and perhaps all the way along the river that ran off to other more legally controlled parts of the state.
“Atta boy, Shag, ‘bout time,” a comment on righteousness. “Serves you right, Mayor.,” a comment on tables turned the correct way at last. “Best move in a long time, Shag,” a comment on Task Shiner’s being too long free in the face of justice. “Glory be, Shag,” a comment on personal favor for town justice through an honest man, as much upright as any of them knew.
There were hundreds of comments, most all of them good to the core, none of them distasteful or negative, a collective of citizens hungry for true justice in a town that needed it, a town in the hands of the wrong parties forever it seemed.
Shag Monroe heard one voice, Shiner’s, in a solemn whisper, “I still got my boys out there, Monroe. They’ll remember this. And soon, likely before you even mount your horse for your next ride.”
Shag had Task Shiner cuffed and on a clear path opened in the crowd directly towards the only door to the jail, the double cells holding but the one prisoner prone on a cell cot.
Well after midnight, the sky black as Hell might be, or a lone jail cell, the moon off elsewhere in the universe, a shot came through the small jail window, shattering the pane and driving into the far wall. In the echo of the shot, a horse leaped into a gallop and the sounds carried the unknown shooter out of town.
Task Shiner said to the sheriff, “I told you about my boys and how they’d feel about this.”
“Yah, you did, Task, but none of your boys and never you before, know what the inside of this jail looks like because none of you have ever been in here. Take a look above your head if you can and see where that shot landed or fish around for it. It sure came close to you just a-laying there on the cell cot. Those boys of yours, that lone rider running off in the night, came damned close to taking care of you all the way home.”
The sheriff could hear Shiner’s hand sliding across the wall behind him until it stopped at discovery. His intake of breath was loud in the dark jail, and Shag lit a lamp so the slug hole could be seen.
It was inches from the prisoner’s head.
“So, Shag said, “what’s that say about justice? Maybe getting closer than you think, huh?”
He blew out the lamp and went back to sleep on his cot in the corner, behind the heavy door. Soon his snores were back in rhythm of keeping the prisoner awake, only the listening was more in tune with his predicament and the sheriff’s final statement: “Tell me where to find all of them and we’ll try to count it in your favor.”
Shiner made no reply, as if the two cells had no occupants.
In the morning a clerk from the general store replaced the broken glass, saying, “I heard the shot last night, Sheriff, and a horse galloping off, all in the dark, of course, but it sticks in my mind. I hope you catch that guy today.” His wishes were spoken earnestly, the kind that draw additional comments from a speaker, not saying, “Tell me more,” but meaning exactly that.
“Well,” replied the sheriff, “I have a lead and I’m off to Westside Valley today to find him and maybe some of his pals.” At that point, he pointed at Task Shiner scrunched down on his bunk. ” You know who I’m talking about.”
It was all the clerk needed to hear.
Well, as all stories go about loose mouths in small towns, the whole town knew in a short time what the sheriff was up to on only his second day on the job; searching Westside Valley holding the river, wild horses now and then, miners searching for gold, random hideouts in the clutter of cliffs and caves and tight passages in every which way a man can look, including the remains of deserted cabins left behind by those who quit too soon on their dreams.
Much like desolation in the western mountains.
In other words, perfect places for criminal or gang hideouts.
But the valley had one way in and one way out.
The posse had divided in two parts after coming together and after the sheriff’s orders in dribs and drabs before dawn. Many of the posse had snuck out of their homes so as not to alarm their women and families.
The sheriff continued his cautions and his needs for carrying out the posse’s objectives. “I want three real marksmen with me on a special assignment, and he pointed at known rifle experts, saying, “You’re with me and each one with extra ammo for a special serenade for our hidden friends. The rest of you in two groups, one at each end of the valley. Split in two and go now.”
Common sense ran in their acceptance of the directive, ridding town of the bad actors who had ridden free for years of agony and mistreatment, and they split as clean as a commission.
When the sun rose from the edge of Earth, its light finding all kinds of entryways and cave mouths and sneaking looks into slim passages of cliff-face breaks, the dark abysses fell open to another day. Light itself made entrance, allowed hints and clues to inner secrets, to the possible hideouts of criminals, thieves, despots, rustlers through all recent history, much of which Shag Monroe knew from old stories, new forays, escapees and thieves bent on joining forces, bonding in their own fashion.
Shag explained his plans to the three special riflemen he had selected. “There are lots of places inside of these cliffs and huge rock falls. I’ve peered into a few but never ventured far, but I’m willing to bet somewhere in there, in one of those hidden-away places, there’s room enough for a gang of thieves to hang out. We’re going to serenade those places with rapid fire, all three of you at a time as fast as you can go with three rounds apiece, that’s nine shots making music and what else you want to call it at some deeper place inside, if indeed there are such places we choose.”
“Hell, Shag, that’s just like practice shooting in a big back yard. That’s a whole mountain out there, staring us right in our faces.”
“Nobody knows that better than me, but I’ve heard for years of men getting lost up in there someplace like they don’t ever want to be found. Like that big slice in the wall directly over that clutter of rock fall, each one’s near big as a shanty. When I tell you, send your music into that crevice, quick tempo, like life depends on it, and when I tell you.”
He did and they did and the echoing slugs were hitting whatever parts of the crevice and came back to them like a drummer at his best beat.
There was no return fire, no rushing escape of a thieving gang screaming for mercy.
“How was that, Shag? That music enough for your ears?”
“Oh, that’s fine, boys. Just what I wanted to hear.”
A few more places of promise were picked out and slugs, in tune and tempo, poured into what might lay beyond. Nothing happened from those selections; not a sign of life, but when they fired at the dark mouth of a cave behind enormous boulders that had fallen like a landslide off the upper mountain cliff, replying gunshots poured from the inner parts.
“We found us some outlaws, boys. Let’s hope they belong to Task Shiner’s crew. At least Colbert Falls will be rid of them pretty damned quick.”
When five riders burst from hiding, they only got as far as the posse waiting at the east end of the valley. Each one of the gang was dis-armed, tied up and planted back on his saddle and led, like a loser, back into Colbert Falls, the wild stories running from posse members so that the whole town knew about the entire escapade in a hurry.
They were ushered into the jail, presented to Task Shiner as “company for your time being.”
“That was some hunting party, Sheriff,” the general store clerk said when they met outside the jail, and Shag Monroe’s retort went around town in a hurry; “That, son, was my new orchestra at its finest hour.”