Western Short Story
Stories are still told in the mountains of Utah, Wyoming and Colorado and in many ranges that connect with high outposts, how the shooter in buckskin always came out ahead in shooting matches. He’d show up on the day of a shoot, nobody knowing how he found out, and drop his gear at the shooting site and wait for things to get going.
The man, dressed head to toe in buckskin, answered to any and all names, as if saying he was all of them, at least to those speaking to him. Most people, wanting for his real name, just called him Buckskin.
“He’s Jim Bridger kin,” one speaker said in Churchfree Village, “has to be.” The village was halfway up one rugged chain of hills where pelts of many animals made the trading block. It was 1876 and legendary Jim Bridger, great mountain man, had come through the area more than 30 years earlier, picking his way from hide to pelt, getting goods and ammo in return, and a good jug of whiskey. The mountains, every nook and cranny of them, belonged to Jim Bridger. Even had a place named after him, Fort Bridger. Now the mountains seemed to belong to this new phenomenon of the high grounds. Not one person ever said they had an idea of where he had come from.
“Bridger rolled around up here for 10 or 20 years, the way I heard. Must have some leavings hereabouts.” The nod of his head was supposed to be enlightening, but didn’t come off that way.
The speaker was looking down the narrow road through the village as the buckskin-clad shooter had appeared from a rugged twist in the road, pelts piled on his mule in tow. “He’s as good a hunter as he is a shooter,” the speaker said. “Must have a hundred traps out there, he catches so much.” The pelts, piled high, were from different animals, and looked like a hunchback sitting a tall saddle.
Almost in the middle of those words, a rider came galloping into town, yelling for the sheriff, “Sheriff! Sheriff! Joe Collier’s dead out on the trail. Shot in the back. Bushwhacked. Deadshot Joe Collier. He must have been coming in for the shoot.” He leaped off his horse, still yelling about his discovery and a small crowd began to gather.
“Poor Joe,” Sheriff Phil Wallace said to the rider. “He was a pretty good guy, for a lonely old cuss, and stood as good a chance as anybody in the shoot. Him and Buckskin and that other big fellow from Hell’s Bed back down the trail. Nobody would shoot him to beat him out of that prize, least of all Buckskin himself if that’s what you were thinking, or that big fellow. I’ll go out there right now and take a look around. Go tell Curley he’s got a customer coming in. Get a box ready. I’m paying. Is Joe’s body right on the trail where I can see it?”
“No,” the rider said. “Behind a rock at the second bend.”
“How’d you see him?”
“I had my dog out for a run and he turned him up.”
“Where’s the dog now?”
“I put him back on the chain, at the cabin, and then I came here quick as I could. Don’t want him running loose after that killer. I need that dog for company. All I got these days.”
“Dog act funny at all, with the body, the ground thereabouts?”
“I think he caught something on the air, Sheriff, the way he wanted to go looping about, but I wasn’t about to poke around alone after a dead shot who got a bead on Deadshot Joe Collier. Shooter could be hiding behind a hundred rocks or trees.”
“Go tell Curley, and tell Maxwell I’m looking for him. He’s probably in The Sundowner.”
As Wallace waited for his deputy, Carl Maxwell, he ran the marksmen through his mind, seeing the three mountain men as near triplets as possible, though they never hung out together. “Don’t covet anyone’s ground or traps,” he thought, “the three of them saying so, like sworn obligations, and don’t get too close to another human being, being another rule for true mountain men. They‘ve spent most of their time up there as loners, free of this little chunk of civilization. Can’t blame them for that.”
Some of the gathered crowd of hill people read those words as a wish from the sheriff, mountain life hard enough in the beginning and all through it without being bushwhacked at the end.
The door of Wallace’s office swung in and Buckskin, big as a mountain himself, edged his way through. “That right, what I heard about Joe, Sheriff? Bushwhacked?”
He sat down with a bit of disgust in his movement, shaking his head, a forlorn look on his face, a deep sigh escaping his chest. “Once in a while, up there,” and he turned his head and looked off to the northern mountains, “I caught his smoke in the air. Smelt it or saw it, like company was around. Kind of trusty like. I’ll miss that. He favored our end of the mountain. That other new feller likes the other end, the big gent, the Newsome feller.”
“No signs of anybody else up there?” Wallace said.
“Oh, week or so back, “ said Buckskin, “near the second falls coming off Big Ben, I saw some tracks, but they didn’t wander far. I figure someone might have been looking at that old mine near the falls. Seen others a year back or so. Bodies playing games at getting rich, but ain’t ever happening, to my mind. Place is as clean as new boots. There ain’t a sparkle left in the whole mountain, like the ace of diamonds being the river card you’re pulling for out of one lousy deck.”
“Who’d want to cash in Joe?” Wallace said. “He didn’t have anything but his rifles, his mules, his gear. Not much for a man to leave in this life.”
“Oh, it ain’t so bad up there, Phil. Being alone ain’t the worst thing in the world. That crowd out there now makes me want to run back up there and have my fire, my coffee, and my thoughts. Ain’t many people here in town can match the silence I know. When I saw a bit of smoke or smelled a slab of bear meat on a hot stick, I always figured Joe was kind of saying hello. Be lonely now, but if you’re going out there to have a look see, then I’m bound to go with you.” He nodded in self-agreement. “Like a family thing,” he added.
“The shoot goes off an hour before sundown. I’ll have you back by then, so’s you can get your shots in.”
“It ain’t very important, Phil,” Buckskin said, and the sheriff could sense him balancing out his values.
The sheriff, his deputy and Buckskin wandered through the area where Joe Collier’s body was found. Neither of the lawmen noticed any kind of clue, the sheriff feeling they had to look anyway; perhaps a clue might fall into their laps. It sure wasn’t going to come from the ground, he thought, shaking his head, lost, though knowing where he was.
But it was Buckskin, in a mess of rocks that had probably fallen in place a thousand or more years before, who raised his arms, then his voice. “Up here, Phil. Take a look see here.” He pointed at his feet, where he was standing in the maze of rocks and two huge blow downs well into a rotting stage. The two trees had fallen, crossed each other, all limbs about gone, the trunks almost like old oatmeal.
“I’m looking, Buckskin, but I don’t see anything that’d set me thinking. Better point it out to me. I’m getting too old to see the spots in front of my eyes.”
“What I see is easy for an old mountain man, Phil. Right here, up against this old tree trunk a man with a rifle knelt himself down and pointed his rifle over the other trunk. He would have had an easy shot at anyone on the trail.” He looked both ways and said, “Coming or going. And it looked like Joe got by before that bushwhacker rat pulled the trigger.”
“It doesn’t point out anybody to us, Buckskin. Could be anybody in town. Anybody come in for the shoot. Got Joe out of sight is all else he did, hiding his body.”
“Told us one other thing,” Buckskin said, “told us he was a lefty.” He put his one knee into a depressed spot on the lower trunk and his other elbow on the crossing trunk.
“Like this,” he said, assuming the pose of a bushwhacker, the scowl of hatred on his face. The pose was a natural for taking aim, shooting. With his face turned away from the sheriff’s sight, Buckskin could have been anybody in Churchfree, anybody there all the time, anybody who come in for the shoot.
Sheriff Wallace said, “We’ll have a look at any lefties that turn up, ask a few questions. ‘Bout all we got.”
Buckskin, smiling, said, “Well, we’ll see, Phil. We’ll see.”
Wallace detected something in Buckskin’s voice, but let it sit in the back of his mind.
The trio of searchers was back in Churchfree before the shoot was to get underway.
It was a scene in the village that late afternoon. The sun was sitting on the mountain tops, like a flash of fire on taller peaks, and rushes of sweet pink and pale green and summer orange shone down through the passes and the valleys forming mountain range connections. Bustle was afoot in the village, and ladies rushed with trays of goodies for the contestants and had long set to flames the carcasses brought to butchering.
In the squeezed-in hamlet, the children of miners and hill people, servicing travelers that had to climb the Rockies to get to the Pacific and San Francisco and other points, tossed their energies into the end of day and could be heard all over the mountain walls, the sounds bouncing, the glee contagious. Three short-haul stages were due in, one staying, two passing on. Denver Pacific Railroad men, working a dozen miles away, signaling the end of Churchfree within a few years, came in for the shoot. The railroad, already to Denver a half dozen years earlier, was doing lots of maintenance work and had a large force of workers. The gaiety and anticipation and excitement built a common fever among all the inhabitants and visitors in the tight little village. Five minutes earlier the bar at the Sundowner Saloon was filled with men shoulder to shoulder, their voices rising, their bets being made and money held for prize winners. At the sound of a bell they all scrambled to get a viewing position or to get into the shooter’s line to take their shots.
Buckskin, in line with all the other contestants, managed to get beside one lefty known to him, and the big feller, Newsome, from the other end of the mountain.
“Say, Newsome, any strange events happen around you on your way into Churchfree for the shoot?”
“Damned right there was, Buckskin. Either was a stray shot or a bad shot, because I felt or heard a slug come too damned close for the liking. But I didn’t see anybody. If I had my dog with me, we’d have run him to ground. You thinking there’s some connection with Joe Collier’s getting counted like he was?”
Buckskin chimed in, “Right on. We found where the bushwhacker took a shot, over an old blow down.” He looked from Newsome to the other lefty right beside him in the line. “We got a pretty good lead on who did it. Left his calling card all over the place.”
“How you meaning that?” Newsome said.
“The rat was a lefty. Me and the sheriff saw that real easy. A lefty rat.”
Newsome, irked, quizzical, said, “You ain’t talking about me, are you, Buckskin? I’m a lefty.”
Buckskin was ready for his deepest thrust. “No. We already checked you out, Newsome, and we know you didn’t do it. The lefty who did it knelt on the old blow down and picked up some of the coloring from the rot. His knee would be messy brown by now.”
The other lefty, looking down quickly at his own pant leg felt the gun in his back as the sheriff took away his rifle. “We’re going to do some talking, mister, back at the jail. Me and Buckskin and this other big feller who’s awful interested in things. If I was you I wouldn’t think of running. These two gents could drop you half way down the mountain. And you ain’t even gonna get a chance to take your shots in the contest after all of this. I call that even Steven stuff.”
The sheriff said to Buckskin and Newsome. “You two fellers go win some prizes while I run this feller right to a comfortable jail cell. That’s about all he’s gonna win.”