Western Short Story
Short Changed in Rockweed
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Rench Lester was a former sheriff in town and on the day when a rancher’s young son was killed, it all fell down in Rockweed. A number of crimes had been committed up to that point, all of them on the outskirts of the town … drummers, freighters, stage drivers and lonely travelers came under the gun of a lone robber out on the trail. The incidents were scattered, somewhat infrequent, but constant because of the lone gunman, nondescript to hear the word from victims or witnesses, with hardly a clue in all their reports … “he’s dressed in clothes you can’t remember, masked, never talks, just points his gun at valuables that are worn, carried openly, clutched openly, or strong-boxed.” And in just about all the incidents, the current sheriff, Marv Shadlick, was off chasing known killers and robbers who were posted on the wanted board in his office.

Sadly, the story about the boy’s beginning came back again, commanding the talk of the town, like an echo not letting go. If fever and anger were to rise, there was a hard reason.

The boy, as the story went, was a mere tad when fate and fortune first stepped into his life, his true age not known, but guessed at. He was picked up on the trail some five years earlier near the very end of a trail drive. A drover, at his lullabies, heard a baby crying in the tall grass, no dogie on the loose, but a baby boy near naked. The drover carried the chilled baby back to the chuck wagon, wrapped in his shirt. That little boy could have been adopted ten times over, on a bet, but the trail boss took him home to his childless wife. It was only right all the drovers finally agreed, after some discussion. All of them at one time or another had heard the old Indian story of finding a lost child brings the finder a share of good luck.

Rockweed, as a result of the boy’s death, now had a smell to it, a new smell but a rotten smell, and a new fever. All of it kept trying to make way in Rench Lester’s mind as he sat on his porch serving up a wide view of the town. He could see the sheriff’s office and jail, the bank, the general store on the corner of the only cross road, the livery on the opposite corner, and the two saloons Rockweed supported, The Spur and Saddle and Margo’s Place, sitting directly across the street from each other. The blacksmith shop was behind the livery, on the cross road, and at times was busier than the bank or the store.

Lester, at a regular rest on the porch, kept wondering whether the cause of the boy’s death was a random, stray shot, a ricochet, or straight-out intentional killing. Chances of the latter were doubtful but the death set things loose in the town. Killing children had payments demanded of it. It just had to, and payment promised contagion.

Or Rockweed would never be Rockweed again.

On that same point, in the midst of that argument, Lester wondered about his own state of mind … where it had been, where it was going … and none of the answers came back to him in any hurry. He’d been a lawman for only a few years, knew many of the ins-and-outs, some of the shades and shadows of many town folk, but found no persistent dedication in himself in the face of many people too callous to care, or too lazy, or too hungry for their own good … while forgetting everybody else in between.

Lester realized, on the day he quit the job, such thinking might eventually shape or change one’s character.

To him the problems around Rockweed had been the normal, but constant ones … every settlement had them one way or the other … but someone in or near the town had been instigating a whole new campaign of easy profit.

Lester, always curious about the human conscience, wanted to know who did not attend the burial services for the boy. He kept his eyes open and made mental notes.

Later, back on the porch, he kept thinking about what he knew or thought he knew … the sights, the signs, the notes of mind, things he thought he might know, but could not see. That bothered him a great deal. It was that simple. He went back over what had come to him: there were the gunshots past the edge of town that he heard on many weekends; Sheriff Marv Shadlick was always out of town on those weekends, chasing down some poster outlaws; and now and then a murder took place outside town when a victim refused to yield in a stick-up or trail robbery.

There were no suspects. The stories surfaced in the saloons time and again, the kind of things that make talk, demand talk, and give back talk. But few answers are ever produced.

He kept wondering why does a child had to get involved in the problems, not being a cause or any part of the solution?

Lester, 57 years old and worn thin for his time, let it generally show mostly on his face. But it surfaced more visibly when he walked on legs once broke all to hell in a stampede. He had tried to steer the rush away from a woman in her small plot of corn. He had failed and things wore on him every day since … the hard memory of it all, and the busted legs.

As it was his timing was still poor, he’d say, finding himself “so open” to criticism whether it was direct or implied from different kinds of folk … failure always provides some people with a crutch to poke at unsuccessful sheriffs.

He was in Margo’s Place the night he heard a cowpoke say, “Shadlick’s the busiest sheriff we’ve ever had in Rockweed,” the cowpoke remarking about the sheriff “being away” at the time. The irony sat in the tone of voice like a branding iron still making a stink in open air.

Retired Sheriff Rench Lester realized he was on the firing range as well.

“Yeh,” came the quick retort from a drinking partner, “he’s busy, but he never catches any of those poster boys he’s flittin’ after all the time. He keeps gettin’ scratched up, but no catches come with it.”

Margo, blonde and buxom and boss from the very first day in Rockweed, leaned against the bar and offered her piece in the discussion. “You gents ever see Marv Shadlick in action, like when he hauled in those three members of the Timilty gang? That was a real ruckus that some of you folk managed to stay away from by hook or nook.” That last pun was accompanied by one of her heartiest laughs that made all of them think they were not included, though Lester caught her intent on the instant.

“You’re right, Margo ‘ceptin’ they was all drunker’n polecats in the wine cellar.”

She replied, “Drunks still pull triggers, don’t they? Marv will be a hero on that account, you wait and see.”

Margo was right, of course. She was always right. And this was an attempt to get Lester out of the line of fire. Off the firing range. She knew where it was aimed and would admit in a hurry that she had a sweet tooth for the gent.

In a mild manner, casual being her regular speed most times at public speaking, she said, “Well, we lost one mighty good sheriff when Rench Lester went down trying to save that Fairmont woman in that stampede. Still paying for it, as you can see, but I’d like to know how Rench’s mind has settled in on these latest problems. Why, I bet we could have a kind of question and answer period right here and now on all these late crimes and bring at least something to light, if you all know what I mean.”

Margo, the looker of lookers, blonde, buxom, the maker of dreams, was adept at twisting men’s minds in more ways than one. Her half-hidden smile, a note of awareness to Lester who was privy to many of Margo’s secrets and ways, accompanied the rest of her proposal to all the men in the saloon. “Anybody here up for a session of that kind, trying to do something to help out the present sheriff, and let the old one rest at the same time.”

She heightened the situation with a further inducement. “I might even spring for a few drinks if all this goes right.”

Her smile shone bright as a single star on a lonely night, sitting by itself on the edge of the far grass.

The promise of drinks, along with the smile, got them all going like a spur dug home.

Margo kept at it.

“Let’s look at it this way,” she said, like a teacher. “How many times has Sheriff Shadlick been told that one of the poster boys, which he studies like someone wants to be a doctor, has been seen or heard about in a nearby town or settlement? And just hours ago?” she quickly added to give thinking some provocation.

“Just think how many times he’s scrambled off on his horse, sometimes alone, just to get a sniff of a guy bad enough to have his picture on his wanted board? Tell me quick, how many of you?”

There were no volunteers.

Margo said again, “None of you? Not a single one? How does he get word? Think about it before I allow any more drinking in my house this night. I might damned well shut the place up until morning.”

That was the promise of terror from the buxom blonde leaning on the bar.

A young man named Clint Sparter spoke from the end of the bar. “Hey, Margo, I saw Jade Husick talk to him outside the office once and the sheriff jumped on his horse and galloped right out of town. That’s all I know.”

Margo looked around. Where’s Husick? He here?”

“He’s hardly ever here, Margo. Can’t remember the last time I saw him in here,” another voice said. “He’s part of the T-Bar-T spread. That’s his uncle’s place he might own someday. Least, he talks about it that way.”

A third talker added another piece. “What I remember is what the sheriff told me once when I saw him get his horse at the livery one morning. Said Husick told him Jack Pownell was loose over in Kittering Falls after raising a ruckus all on his own, and he was bound to go check on him, just like he always does … runnin’ ‘n’ then lookin’, not lookin’ ‘n’ then runnin’.”

From the back of the room, at a full table, one old gent offered his statement; “Say, Margo, that reminds me the day I saw him, that Husick feller, ride in once from the T-Bar-T and go to see the sheriff and he lit right back out of town again, goin’ like Hell itself was chasin’ him.” He waited to put in his qualification on the matter; “The sheriff went right after that, like hurry was his name, but he headed up north on the Salmon River trail.”

Young Sparter, edging along the bar from the far end, to where Margo was holding court, put forth his second bit of information. “You folks ever read that piece of paper down in the corner of the sheriff’s poster section in his office? Every outlaw he’s gone chasing has his name on that little piece of paper with a little mark checked against his name. It’s like he’s keeping count on what he’s done, who he’s gone looking for, like a score sheet when we count cattle at a sale. I think he’s waiting for that fellow who writes them stories about sheriffs and bandits all the time, that Ned Buntline gent who writes for magazines, or Ivory Langstrom who writes just like him and maybe better. I’ve got a couple of Langstrom stories that my boss gave me once. That’s good reading and I hear he writes while he sits his horse, riding all the time like we all do, every one of us. Buntline’s not the only one who talks good on paper.”

In Margo’s Place, in a crowded room, it was as though the sun had come up amid a thunderous silence. Not a chair squeaked. No spurs jingled or jangled. No leather boots scraped on the floor. The tap sat idle at the bar, the bar keep a statue. But enlightenment had come to find a place to sit down and get pondered in a saloon, of all places.

Finally, one old timer, probably having seen a bit of everything in his time, said, “Think it’s got anythin’ to do with that boy gettin’ kilt out there?”

Margo, spinning around on her heels, said, “That’s where all this is heading, ain’t it?” Queen of the show she was, a peacock, a beauty, but with some real purpose in mind.

She looked right at Rench Lester and said, “Are you thinking along those lines, Rench? Until we get that squared away, we ain’t going to be much of a town. That little fellow will stain all of us somehow.”

Lester owed her a bit, that’s for sure, for this parley. Perhaps he’d chance a follow-up on her ploy. It might be worth it. He nodded at her, delivered a smile she understood, and said, “Well, I know Husick wasn’t at the burial for the boy like just about everybody in town was and most of the folks not droving at the time. I’d guess most everybody in this room was there that day, except you boys from The Bell Bar spread and you others from the Hancock drive, and you Smitty at the store and Carson at the bank. But most others were there.”

He looked around the room again. “Did I miss anybody?”

“Yah, Rench,” said a voice from the other end of the room, “I was down to Taxico when my mother had her ninth baby. That day I got me another little brother. I was thinking about that boy getting killed out here and me with a new little brother. Yes, sir, I remember that.”

Another voice said, “I didn’t get here until, the day after, but I heard directly about what happened. That’s what I heard with my first drink in here.”

Lester said, “The T-Bar spread, meaning Husick, wasn’t doing any herding that day. I know that. I think we sit tight and wait until he shows up in town again, like in a hurry to tell the sheriff another story, and we arrange to talk to him.” He smiled and qualified his smile, “On the side, of course. And I’ll talk with Marv Shadlick when he comes back into town.”

Margo, bright as the star, her smile a mile wide and then some, turned to her bartender and said, “Two drinks for every man, Chauncey, and don’t cheat the till. You keep count or it’s out of your pay. You hear me, Chauncey? Don’t cheat the till. I don’t like getting shortchanged.”

There was a wink at him, the slightest wink that nobody else saw.

Lester met with Shadlick when he came back into town, in the quiet of the sheriff’s office, no prisoners on hand, Shadlick admitting to his hunger for fame. “I know what you went through, Rench, after working for next to nothing for lots of people who didn’t care if you died on the job … there’d be someone to replace you. So, I got the job, $25 a month, two meals a day when I’m around, a room at Lady Beth’s, a horse when I need one, ammo from the store. I admit I was looking to get a piece of the magazine stuff. I’ve read all I can get my hands on … Buntline, Langstrom, Charlie Tate who writes them songs. Some other gents whose names I can’t remember.”

It was all out in the open, and there came agreement and understanding about the town’s need; the killer of the young boy had to be found.

They’d wait on the next alert from Husick.

It took only a few weeks.

Husick, nearly breathless, rushed into Shadlick’s office, pointed at a poster face on the wall, and said, “One of the boys told me Hartley was spotted over in Hammerville just yesterday.”

He found himself suddenly facing a gun held by the sheriff.

“We’re going down to the saloon and have a little question and answer session. Some folks’ll be waiting for us.”

“What, about Hartley, that no-good killer. I just heard he was in Hammerville and wanted to tell you. That’s nothing to ask questions about.”

The sheriff jabbed him with the gun. “Let’s go,” he said, in a tone as hard as Husick had ever heard from the man.

He was jabbed again.

The saloon, in the matter of 15 minutes, filled up with drovers in town for the day or on errands and townsfolk who’d been out and about. The gabbing was loud and constant until the sheriff and Lester both pounded on the bar.

Shadlick said, “We’re here to listen to any new evidence about the death of Burl Whitney’s little boy. Since I was out of town too many times, with apologies, I think it should be Rench Lester who handles things from now on. As of this day, and he is my appointed deputy.”

Lester, former sheriff, showed the deputy’s badge to everybody as he pinned it on his shirt.

Then Lester said to Husick sitting at a table up near the bar. “Why did you tell Sheriff Shadlick about all those poster boys running around the country?”

Husick smiled, nodded, and said, “It was funny, the way he went running all over the country looking for guys who weren’t there. We used to laugh about it all the time. Like it’s a big game with him.”

“Who laughed about it with you?” Lester said.

“The boys at the ranch.” Husick nodded again and smiled a wide grin. “Boys are boys, right? Fun is fun, right?” He looked comfortable until Lester spoke to a man at the bar.

“Ponch, do me a favor.” Lester said to the man standing beside him. “Go out to the T–Bar and bring in some of the boys. We’ll find out about this.”

Then Lester spun about and pointed his finger at Husick and said, in an angry voice, “What do you know about the murder of Burl Whitney’s little boy?”

“What?” Husick screamed. “What are you talking about? I don’t know anything about no murder.”

Lester noticed that Husick was going to come apart at the seams if he continued.

“Well, Mr. Husick, spreader of rumors and other kinds of lies, “we’re going to get the T-Bar boys in here and we are going to bring in a witness to the murder. We finally found a reliable witness. He’ll be here soon, probably before the T-Bar boys get here.”

“What witness are you talking about?” Husick said, his face already gone white. “I heard there was no witnesses.” He looked around the room for support and found none. There was silence in the saloon.

Absolute silence.

Then footsteps were heard on the boardwalk outside, getting louder, approaching the saloon doors.

Lester spun about and said, slowly and loudly, “That might be our witness. Another boy who was out there that day when Burl’s boy was murdered, shot in the back.”

In Margo’s Place, it all happened in a flash.

When the doors swung open, an older man stood in the doorway with a young boy, and the boy, without being asked a single question, immediately began pointing with a steady hand directly at Husick.

Husick started to scream. “There was nobody out there that day. Nobody else. It was an accident. An accident. I was shooting at a rider who galloped off on me, and the bullet bounced off a rock and hit the boy. I didn’t see this kid there. And I couldn’t tell anybody what happened.”

The boy in the doorway said to his father, “Did I do okay, Pa? Just the way you and the sheriff told me? Was it okay, Pa?”

“You did fine, son. Fine. Just like we practiced,” and then he added, “almost.”

Margo nodded at Lester, her smile still the brightest thing he had known, and said, “Want to have a drink with me, Deputy, while the sheriff tends to business?”