Western Short Story
The floor dropped out from under Corbin Jeffries feet. The trap door swung free. Like the gaping mouth of hell, it opened fast and wide for Corbin Jeffries, and he obliged it without a moment’s hesitation.
He dropped like a fat sack of rocks. It was a short free fall that ended quite abruptly as he hit the end of the slackened rope. His boots continued their acute descent, hitting the ground with a loud thud and a cloud of dust.
It was a quick ending to a worthless life. Other than a slight sway of the rope that held him, Corbin Jeffries didn’t move. He just hung there, in his dirty, worn out socks.
The women who had come to watch the spectacle touched the backs of their slender fingers to their pursed lips as they turned their heads from the ghastly sight.
The men adjusted their hats and shifted their stance to protect their wives from the temptation of a second look.
The crowd of curious onlookers, satisfied that justice had been served, silently dispersed and went their separate ways.
The local undertaker wasted little time in cutting the hanged man down. He was proud to have the body of Corbin Jeffries in his possession. He went so far as to put it on display by propping up the open coffin in front of his place of business.
Quite a few people wandered by to see the corpse up close. Some spat on it while others cursed it. Most were only curious onlookers wanting to get an up close view of one of the meanest outlaws in all of New Mexico. One that had finally been sent to hell with a rope around his neck.
The mornings’ hanging was the talk of the town. Most folks were happy to be rid of the likes of Corbin Jeffries. But even so, there was one who thought only of revenge.
After the hanging, Sheriff John Burley went back to his office. He had a feeling Corbin’s brother, Mathew, would not sit idly by and let justice have its day. As sure as the sun sets in the West, he knew revenge would soon be heading his direction.
Sheriff Burley had seen Mathew Jeffries mingling with the crowd of onlookers this morning. He fully expected trouble then, but to his surprise, and his relief, it didn’t show itself.
The lack of a confrontation put the sheriff on edge. He knew it was coming. He just didn’t know when, or from what direction it would be coming from.
As he stepped into his office, the sight of Corbin’s partner, Silas Penny, sitting quietly on his cot behind steel bars gave him little comfort.
The sheriff couldn’t help but taunt him. “And just what’s the matter with you Silas? You don’t seem to be your talkative self this morning. Cat got your tongue? I seen you watching through the bars. How do you like the way we serve up justice in this town? That’s right, we serve it up at the end of a rope and tomorrow’s your turn to step up to the table. I’ll make darn sure the undertaker props you up right along side your compadre’ and by God, I’ll spit on your corpse myself.”
Silas Penny looked up and locked eyes with the sheriff. He quivered his upper lip as he let out a menacing snarl. The few teeth he had left in his mouth were dirty and rotten. A weeks growth of graying whiskers only added to the look of a caged animal.
Silas had been wearing the same clothes for as long as he had been in custody. He was beginning to stink and the sheriff was anxious to get him out of the building.
“You don’t scare me none,” remarked the sheriff. “You’re nothing more than a worthless piece of rotting meat. The sooner you’re put out of your misery, the sooner the maggots can have their way with you.”
Silas lurched toward the bars. “I’ll cut yer’ heart out and feed it to the dogs.”
“Is that a threat? You just don’t get it, do you?” Replied the sheriff.
He walked over closer to the bars. “Your menacing days are over. Tomorrow you’ll be swingin’ from the end of a rope and this whole town will give up a rousing cheer. There’s not a single person around these parts that wants you filling your dirty lungs with their good air. But don’t feel too rejected Silas, I’m sure Lucifer himself will be glad to have you.”
Silas sat back down. “Well if you’re so anxious to get rid of me, why didn’t you hang me alongside Corbin?”
“If I had my way about it, I would have done just that. In fact, if I had my way about it, there wouldn’t have been a trial. I would have hung you from the lowest branch of the nearest tree, but then… that wouldn’t have been very lawful of me now, would it.”
The sheriff sat down at his desk. “So why was Matthew Jeffries in town today?” he asked.
Silas looked up with a glare sharp enough to cut a man in two. The evil grin that accompanied it only added to the tension. He stared at the sheriff for a time before he spoke. In a low whisper, he replied. “He’s here to cut yer heart out, what else.” He laughed out loud and lay down on the cot.
“Tomorrow won’t come soon enough”, thought the sheriff. “So if he’s looking for revenge, why didn’t he try to do something before we hung his brother?”
Silas folded his arms back behind his head as he lay on the cot. “What do you mean we? You hung him. He’s only after you. He didn’t want to stop the hanging. Mathew hated his brother. He was glad to see him go. But…he was his brother after all, and as far as he’s concerned, his death needs to be avenged. I only hope I’m around to see it. Why didn’t you arrest him? I could have used the company.”
“Guilt by association won’t hold up in court,” remarked the sheriff as he pulled a small sack of tobacco from the desk drawer. “He may have a reputation but he hasn’t committed any crime that I’m aware of.”
“At least not yet,” laughed Silas. “I’d be watching my back if I were you. I hope you sleep well tonight.”
This wasn’t the first time Sheriff Burley had heard talk like that. He didn’t let the idle threat bother him. “I’m obliged to bring you breakfast tomorrow, what do you want?”
“Don’t bother,” replied Silas. “I won’t be here to eat it.”
“That’s what they all say,” retorted the sheriff as he got up from his desk and walked outside.
He lit up the quirley he had just rolled, inhaled deeply and blew the smoke out into the street. From where he stood he could see the undertakers shop. Corbin Jeffries corpse was still on display, but the spectacle was beginning to wear thin.
Most anybody who wanted to see the corpse had already done so, plus, the gathering flies gave testament to the fact that the heat of the day was surely taking it’s toll on the body. The sheriff decided it was time to tell the undertaker to put a lid on the coffin and get it into the ground.
As he stepped out into the street a shot rang out. The bullet hit the ground right in front of the sheriff close enough to spray dirt all over his boots. He dove for the cover of a nearby water trough and rolled up against it just as two more shots rang out showering him with the trough’s cool water.
Whoever was doing the shooting was either a lousy shot, or giving him something to think about.
Sheriff Burley kept low until he was able to get up the nerve to sprint for better cover. Not another shot was fired and nobody, except for maybe the corpse of Corbin Jeffries had seen a thing, but then, he wasn’t about to talk.
The sheriff quickly searched the area but came up empty. Had the shots been a warning? Sheriff Burley wasn’t exactly sure.
Later that evening he paid a visit to the “Golden Canary”. The saloon wasn’t much more than a dimly lit room with a a few card tables and a small stage at one end. It stood empty. “I guess the bird isn’t singing tonight,” he thought to himself.
The “Bird” was a singer named Angelina, a real beauty with a voice as sweet as honey. She put on a show for the boys several nights a week. Tonight was not one of those nights.
The sheriff wandered over to a small table where Mathew Jeffries sat alone, fumbling with a deck of cards. He grabbed up a chair and invited himself to take a seat at the table.
“Where were you this afternoon?” Demanded the sheriff.
“I was home, workin’ my cattle, why do you want to know?” Questioned Mathew.
“Someone took a shot at me this afternoon and I hear you’re keen on getting the man who hung your brother this morning, and as we both know, that would be me.”
“I got no quarrel with you sheriff, My brother was worthless. Believe me, he got what he had coming to him. Take my word for it there was no love lost between the two of us. If someone’s taking shot’s at you, it must be for a reason, but I’ll tell you straight out, I’m not the one doin’ the shooting.”
The sheriff got to his feet and held the broad shadow of his six-foot frame over Mathew Jeffries. “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, for now… but if I find out different, we’ll be talking again.” He turned and headed for the door. Jeffries watched him leave and went back to his cards.
The sheriff decided he would let it go for now. He called it a night and headed for home. He had another big day tomorrow. He was sending Silas Penny to hell. No doubt the devil and Corbin Jefferies would be anxiously awaiting his arrival.
The following morning Sheriff Burley stepped into his office carrying a tray of hot food. He had done his duty and stopped off at the town’s café and picked up a nice hot breakfast of coffee, steak and eggs and biscuits and gravy for Silas.
“I told you I wouldn’t be here for breakfast, didn’t I?” Remarked Silas.
Before Sheriff Burley could answer, he felt the stinging pain of a pistol butt to the back of his head just before everything went black. Matthew Jeffries had been hiding behind the front door. He grabbed the cell door keys from the sheriff as he lay on the floor.
“That was a waste of a good lookin’ steak,” remarked Silas, as he stared down at the sheriff and his breakfast sprawled out across the floor.
Mathew unlocked the cell door for Silas and as soon as Silas stepped out, he grabbed Mathews gun and shoved him into the cell.
“Sorry Mathew, but I know you too well and I can guess your plan. You cut me loose and ride with me out into the desert. When we’re far enough out, you shoot me and haul me back into town draped over my saddle. I don’t expect you’ll be collecting any reward off me today.” Silas closed and locked the cell door.
He decided not to shoot the sheriff. The noise would surely draw attention.
Mathew tried to get Silas to change his mind, but Silas wasn’t buying it.
Not only was he hungry, Silas never could pass up a good steak and he wasn’t about to start now. He picked up the meat and one of the biscuits from the floor and slipped out the back door where he found two waiting horses. He mounted up and headed north.
Silas had little willpower and that big juicy steak was calling his name. He took a man sized bite and started chewing. Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough good teeth to chew it well. He tried to swallow the big chunk of meat way too soon. It got stuck in his throat and he began to choke. It had cut off his air supply and the harder he tried to dislodge it, the more stubborn it became.
He dismounted his horse and dropped to his knees frantically trying to remove the obstruction until his lungs felt as if they would burst.
His lifeless body was soon discovered, lying in the dirt with his hands clutched around his throat as if he had strangled himself. The steak was never discovered. A good meal for a stray dog most likely.
Matthew Jeffries was sent to prison for his part in the attempted escape of Silas Penny.
To this day, as a warning to all who enter the jail of Sheriff John Burley, the tale of Silas Penny and the righteous hand of judgment is made known.
© Copyright 2019 by Scott A. Gese All Rights Reserved.