Western Short Story
False dawn’s first signal slipped into the trail-end town of Bountiful, Kansas, the cattle drive over a few days earlier, the train loaded and gone, some cowpokes from the drive hanging on for a few more laughs, a few more drinks, a last look at someone special, before they had to light out for a new drive, cows, dust, work galore on top of work, lousy food some days, thirst, sore rumps, campfire camaraderie, ballads with a guitar to fall asleep with, dreams of another life.
There floated on the air a tinkle from a sick piano, or a player who wasn’t a player, a tinkerer, caught up in dawn’s reality, only another drive sitting in the wings of his life waiting to happen, be something to do.
Sheriff Spade Pickett heard the late night (or early morning) tinkle from the piano in the Bull’s Head Saloon directly across the street from his room at Martha Henry’s Boarding House. It was plaintive, as sad as hope might be, or might get this late in the night, this early in the day. Courses in live events came back from New Hampshire cities such as Concord and Keene amongst other places he’d worked, and even little towns like Gilsum had their share of bad luck, to his good luck.
His training in New Hampshire, back along the trail, paid handsome dividends in a new setting, as long as his eyes and ears were wide open. And Live Free or Die, NH’s motto, seemed as valid as ever out here on the trail. The start for him was as a newsboy on home deliveries, but studying every murder case, sending his thirst and hunger for tracking killers and evil sorts onto legal training through an old neighborhood constable. The training stuck in place, his constable's badge in his saddle bag when he rode out of Gilsum, New Hampshire for the last time, heading west.
Now, on this night, he thought about his past as his deputy, Morgan Pulver, was most likely sleeping soundly, a hangover coming up with its kick probably an hour away yet, the bunk in the jail more comfortable than many sleeping spots on this particular morning, and one rabble-rousing cowpoke in a cell from a serious altercation, but his opponent from the dispute of gunfire unknown to this point.
Pickett spoke to the walls, as was a morning custom, as if rehearsing his day to come, what he might expect of it: Pulver would wake up with the dull ache in his head, a matter of a few hours before he’d be tip-top again, ready for a lazy day in the town, or all the action a town could bring his way.
Pickett liked him except for his tussle with the drink, a nightly thing, though he’d be ready for a long ride of a posse, or a day on guard in the jail, whatever the sheriff wanted of him.
With his face washed in the bowl on the small bureau in his room, hands free of a night’s sleep, ready for a meal at Martha’s bidding, the long-time sheriff of Bountiful donned his pants, socks, and boots, put on a clean shirt Martha left hanging on the door every day. With care, he put on his gun belt, checked the cylinders of his two pistols, adjusted his mind and frame for whatever the day would bring his way.
Martha made the start of his day easy, with fresh water in the bowl, a clean shirt, and good meal.
Morgan Pulver made it as bad as it could get.
He knocked twice at the door of his office, the jail attached. One way in, one way out, in full view of the town, sitting beside the bank, diagonally across from the saloon, just down the street from Martha’s place.
Pulver did not respond. Pickett knocked again. And again. No answer.
“Must be a beauty he tied on,” Pickett said to the morning and himself, alone at the moment.
He dug for his key in the junk in his pocket, found it, opened the door.
Murder was the scene in front of him: Morgan Pulver, bloody as hell, flat on the floor, part of the bunk atop him, posse rifles torn from the wall rack and littering the floor like dead logs. Blood was all over the floor and the walls. The prisoner was dead in his cell, a rope around his neck and hanging from the bars of the one window in the jail.
A broken bottle of booze littered the cell floor. Another bottle’s remnants were scattered on the office floor. The three chairs in the office were broken in pieces and the pieces were strewn about the room.
The most salient thing in the room other than death itself was the smell of booze, old booze, heaved booze, sickness on its own.
Just about everything in the room was smashed or upset or tossed about as if a wind or a tornado had rushed through the room, or whirled in the room like a dervish, and escaped out the lone window between the bars … the way it must have come in.
Everything was tossed but the heavy desk that was the main piece of furniture in the room. That was as rigid as ever, solid oak, a sign of durability, of permanence. It made Pickett think of death and separation and loneliness and the loss of a friend, likeable but troublesome, who lay dead at his feet, beat all to hell. Memories that would outlast even the solid oak desk.
At the door, he looked back and took the contents and the conditions in the room right into the depths of his mind. He yelled to a passerby, “Go get Doc Randolph for me and Hickory over at the saloon. I need them right away.”
The three men gathered in the midst of the mess.
Doc Randolph said, “Morg was beat with something heavy, blunt, but nothing like anything in the room. It was carried off, but it must have been heavy, or big. I can’t see how it was carried out and through the town, no matter what time it was. Cowpokes were all over the town last night.”
He looked at the sheriff and said, “The door was locked, Spade? Tight as the old drum?”
“I knocked a few times, then louder, and nothing. I had to dig the key out of my pants pocket. Never had to do that before, Morg always opening up though he was hung over. You know how he was. Hell, I miss that boy already.”
Dell Hickory, owner of the saloon, said, “It sure as hell sits kind of impossible with me, Spade. The door must have been opened and shut, then locked by someone with a key. How many keys?”
Pickett said, “Mine, which was in my pocket, and the one for the office, and it’s still in the desk where it’s always been. That desk ain’t been touched.”
The three men looked again around the office, taking in all they could, and the doc said, “I’ll take care of Morg if you got nothing else coming out of him, Spade, but you got a mystery on your hand I can’t help any more than I have. I’ll get some boys and get him out of here.”
He turned with the most quizzical look on his face, looked at the office again, peered into the cell, and said, “I’ll take care of him too.” He pointed at the murdered prisoner, dead in the cell, a rope around his neck. “Looks like a serious party took place here last night.” He walked out and into the new day.
Hickory, watching as the doctor left, said, “Spade, it sure looks like someone had it in for Morg,” then he tipped his head and looked at the dead prisoner, and added, “or him, and Morg got in the way of it all.”
He shook his head as the doc had done, looked at the door, then at the one barred window, at the mess all about the entire jail. “Anybody mad at you, Spade? Anybody serious like? Dumps a lot on you, you know. Your office, your deputy, your prisoner. You having the only key that could lock the door. Don’t look nice at all.”
With an immediate qualification, he said, “Hell, I know it ain’t your style, ain’t your way at all, Spade, but it will sell some of the wagging tongues that always come around like clothesline stuff when the law gets questions on itself. You got any ideas?”
Pickett shook his head. “It was not quick, this whole thing,” he said. “It was some time in the making. I feel positive of that.”
“How do you figure that, Spade?”
“Well, the booze got in here. Morg never had a jug in here before, or a bottle even. Never once, and he’s been drunk before, a dozen times.”
“I think it came in through the window in the cell. The prisoner got drunk, Morg saw it eventually, perhaps joined in, got drunker himself.”
Hickory said, “Think the prisoner killed Morg and then locked himself back in the cell? But the cell key is on the hook over there on the wall.”
“Then who killed the prisoner? Who hung him on the bars? He commit suicide?”
“That’s what it looks like to me,” Hickory cracked quickly. “Just like that.” The light of sudden resolution was in his eyes like a lamp had been lit.
“How’d the door get locked from the outside?” the sheriff said, still studying the room. He thought and answered himself, “Unless it was never unlocked after I locked it when I left last night, Morg asleep on the cot, the town almost on its last legs, me heading for Martha’s and a nightcap with her, and the key in my pocket.
“It only locks with a key from the outside?”
“Yes,” Pickett said. ”It gets locked from the inside with a twist of the little stopper there.” He pointed at the little gizmo on the face of the lock. The way they made the lock, like the gent who made the cell lock made the door lock too, almost in the same way, but no gizmo on the cell lock. Once I lock the door from the outside, only a key opens the door from the outside but anyone on the inside can unlock it.”
“The cell door locks with a key?” Hickory was full of questions.
“Yup,” Pickett replied. “And the key’s still hanging there on the wall.”
Hickory showed puzzle anew on his face. I can’t offer much more, Spade. I’ll have to be going to start the day at the saloon. Takes a lot to get it on the road.”
He saw a new twist on the sheriff’s face as the sheriff said, “You’ve been here a lot longer than me, Dell. Who built your place?”
Quizzically Dell Hickory answered, “Why Claude Auger, and he built the bank and I’m pretty sure he built the jail too. He had a lot of projects going at one time.”
“Did them in a hurry, too, did he?”
Hickory said, “I realize that in the winter when the place gets cold as hell for a while. I put down some rugs under the poker tables and along the bar, but they get ripped to hell after a while. Keeps the feet a bit warmer in the winter, though. Why’d you ask?” He was staring at the sheriff in another quandary.
“Whoever did this sure didn’t come in the door, didn’t come down through the roof, but could have come up from underneath here.” He stomped on the floor, hoping to feel a loose board.
“You wait here until you hear from me.”
Spade Wicket, sheriff of Bountiful, left his office, walked to the side of the building, got down on hands and knees and saw the marks in the ground where someone dragged himself, and dragged something behind him. The marks were easy for a trail reader to read, a posse scout, Pickett with several years at that task. They lead him to his last suspicion, where he found several floor boards of his office gripped to beams with a strange clamp, twisted tight as one could manage with his fingers. Three of the boards were no more than four feet long.
With a quick twist he loosed all the clamps, pushed up on one board, which came easily free from the beams it spanned and he stuck his head up into the office, on one side of the desk which had not been moved, the only piece of furniture in the office that had not been moved.
He had accomplished the maneuver soundlessly, and said in a light voice, near a whisper, “Dell, can you hear me?”
“Where the hell are you, Spade?” Hickory said, unable to see over the desk to where the sheriff stuck his head up through the opening in the floor.
Another board was moved out of the way, and Pickett pushed himself off the ground and up into his office, to where an amazed Dell Hickory watched him rise as like a ghost from the nether world beneath them.
“Now we got some answers, Dell,” Pickett said, and let me tell you something else … check under your own building for what I’ll tell you I found under here, and there’s the same thing under the bank next door. I’m thinking that whoever did Morg in and the prisoner and would get away with it, they’d think about your place and the bank in the dead of night, and be done with each one of them too.”
Hickory was amazed, to a point, and said, “That damned Auger had this set in place for his big payday, didn’t he?”
With another look on his face, the sheriff said, “We can’t prove it, Dell, but we sure can set it up for the next try, which would likely be at your place, and after a drive is over and lots of cash from a few big nights is on hand, but we have to plan it, like he’s planning it on his end, only we feed him the right bait.”
So it went for a few weeks, an unknown killer had beat the hell out of a deputy in his own jail, killed a prisoner who might have seen it all, and got away with it free as a lark on the prairie.
Some townsfolk laughed about Spade Pickett and his plight.
But it didn’t take long for more action of the same kind.
Another cattle drive, almost 10,000 head, came up the trail from Texas, with a large crew on hand, and they broke loose for a few nights, with Dell Hickory exclaiming loudly, “These are the best nights we’ve ever had in the Bull’s Head Saloon, the best nights ever.”
The salon was shut down at 2 A.M. on a fateful day, the last drunken patron escorted from the door at that time, the lights doused, the doors locked, and the light in Dell Hickory’s room thumbed out just after 3.A.M.
It was just before 4 A.M. when Sheriff Spade Pickett and saloon owner Dell Hickory, in their stocking feet, free of boots, sitting quiet as possums with blankets under their feet, heard the sounds under the floor some 20 feet away, in a corner of the room.
Every lamp in the saloon had been turned off, darkness sat across the room dense as a cloud, and the simple noise of a few metallic snaps echoed upward from the floor. A sound like that of a board sliding on another wooden surface came audible. It sounded like a whisper to the two men sitting still as night owls, their pistols lying on a blanket draped over the table.
Pickett held up his empty hand in front of Hickory’s face, suggesting silence, patience.
Neither man moved, their breaths coming as muted as possible, only the threat of a sneeze or a cough hanging in the air to mess things up.
Then came the whisper of another board sliding on a wooden surface, followed by the slight gasp of a man at labor, and Claude Auger rose up in the darkness as strange as any apparition ever seen in the Bull’s Head Saloon.
Only when Auger was fully erect and had stepped away from the hole in the floor, did he feel the gun in his back, and the words of Sheriff Spade Pickett say, “You’re under arrest for the murder of Deputy Morgan Pulver, Bountiful prisoner Lucas Wilbur, breaking and entry in the early dawn of the Bull’s Head Saloon, and the planned robbery of the Bountiful Bank. Nice work, Auger … if you could get it done.”
It was all over but the hanging.