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Western Short Story
Stretch Mulligan and the Calaboose
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

Some folks around Dimstalk, Texas said Stretch Mulligan sat ten-foot tall on horseback, and spread out only four-foot on a short cot in the Dimstalk jail, not a very big place to begin with, and smaller the longer you stayed, especially in the jail, with no company besides Sheriff Burt Conley, asleep and half-awake according to the time of day. Other folks said that when Stretch yelled “Whoa,” to his horse, that horse damned well better stop in his tracks.

But it was in the Dimstalk Jail where Stretch met the accused killer, Jobber Brooks, bound for hanging and it’s where Jobber told him the absolute truth of the whole situation, front to back, side to side, edge to edge, and A to Z, as sworn on the souls of his Ma and Pa already resting in the western turf through no fault of their own, like any condemned couple with time in the hoosegow, the calaboose, the losers’ lot, the lot of them.

Jobber told Stretch, “They said I killed my wife when I found her with the deputy, that good-looking kid name of Jeffery looking like he’s a saint already and who still works for Sheriff Conley, still wearing the tin star, swearing to this day that I killed her and left my little daughter alone in the world, crying in the night, every night, I hear, for her mother and me. If I ever get out of here, I’ll hang that damned liar from the beam across the front of the saloon, so drunks will know right from wrong with every swig they take, so help me God.”

Stretch, those ten-feet of him saddle-wise, believed every word that Jobber told him, especially him already knowing that the deputy had played around with a couple of wives of jury members, to help direct a guilty verdict after a couple of turns around the voting block, lest information get loose about the loose wives, and a kind of Hell coming to a few more families besides Jobber’s, his hanging being the best way out of the whole mess, one hanging for the whole group. The cheapest side ending up on the top side, fair and square like it’s supposed to be.

“What the hell can I do in here, Stretch? Ain’t a foot of truth in his words, and me paying for the whole mess, lock, stock and barrel, but I’d gladly give up anything to get my hands on him, as him and the sheriff watch me like a hawk sitting on the top of the chicken’s coop roof.”

Stretch kept listening to Jobber, kept believing him, that belief beginning to take over him like a warm blanket on a cold day, took hold of him, stretching Stretch to his limits the way he hung on every word said in the cells by the cellmate, trying not to miss a word, until Stretch wised up and began to whisper in the dark of night. “Listen to me, Jobber, I’m due to get out of here in a few days and when I do, I’ll start nosing around on my own, see what side stands up the clearest. I believe every word you say, but it looks like it’s up to me to prove it. What’s your daughter’s name? Who she staying with now? Is she a flighty type, loose as a goose, or kind of regular?”

His questions, his points of interest, sort of ignited a bit of hope in Jobber, almost lowdown now as far as he could go, some men show it earlier than others.

“She’s a great kid, Stretch. Learned how to read by listening to her mother. Never had a word lesson from me, and I still can’t read like I can read people, and I talk to you like I find you, true as an Injin brave out there now carving his name into history.”

Those words swung the tiller for Stretch. “Count the days for me, and for yourself, Jobber, until I get out of this here hoosegow. I’ll make some of my own thunder hereabouts, so the stinker in this mess will think the sky’s falling down on him. And that’s a promise.”

Four days later, Sheriff Conley opened Stretch’s cell door and said, “Your time’s up, Stretch. Get out of here and keep it clean while you hang around, but I’d best advise you that this ain’t the town for you, the way things have been.” He shook his head in doubt, all the way inside and all the way out. “You’ve been a good prisoner, a good card player, not a cheat on a bet, but you oughtta get out of town.”

Thereafter, big as he was, ten-foot in the saddle, Stretch kept himself to darkness of early night and saw enough to write a book about the town if he could write a book. His main discovery was the sheriff’s deputy who also moved like a shadow in the night, practically unseen by anybody but the eagle eyes of Stretch from hidden spots in the black of night, as the man of law broke the law innumerable times with local women, being the handsome dude, he was.

Then he thought it was a good time to talk to Jobber’s daughter, ten of a dime if she was worth a nickel, but his eyes that showed some other light or lights in her head.

“I’m a friend of your father, Marcie, and he told me to talk to you about that deputy causing all the trouble for your dad.”

“He smiles pretty,” said Marcie, “but he ain’t that pretty.” She had hit the nail on the head, right on the button. “He hung around my mother too much, but only when my father was off working, then he started smiling like he could beat down the whole world around us, and around my mother.”

Words from the mouths of children often come loaded with bear for some folks, that’s sure, for kids see things some of us never see, not in our whole lifetime, trying to keep things on the up-and-straight they ain’t on.

Stretch picked up early the sense of hate and distaste the girl had for the good looking, softly handsome deputy, Greg Toomey, three years on the job, more a lady’s man than a lawman,

So, he began a dark night vigil watching Toomey at his games, a continuous flow with several women, including the wife of the owner of the general store, a hard-working son of a gun, dawn to dusk, too tired for an kind of nuptial favors and sleep-bound as quick as he turned the key in the store’s door latch.

But that didn’t lock up his wife from night romance and her constant stories about “that Jobber in jail is as guilty as we make him to be. Take it from me. We hear it all in the store and swear by it. He could have shot Deputy Toomey while he was at it. Lucky, he didn’t.”

She’d half-wink at some ladies in-the-know and snub the standard housewives who made up the lot of the town. “often with stray cowhands or mere passers-by in the night, Anything for a sense of variety. We all know the type loaded for bear if you know what I mean.” She carried off a chuckle

as part of convincing them as well as herself.

There was the knuckle of the whole story about why Jobber was in jail, at her whim and call, and not another care in the world. It sparked Stretch into action.

Stretch counseled a few pals, saying, “I need some witnesses, and you guys are it, the backbone of Dimstalk. Just get ready to see what I point out to you tonight, and swear by it tomorrow and days hence. It’ll all count for Jobber and for his daughter. The deputy’s lies will come rushing to the surface. They’ll be a cell-swap about to happen, I swear.”

It was all done as directed, seen and heard from secret posts Stretch had managed to position his cohort pals, and Jobber was freed at a second trial, Marcie running into his arms and the good looking deputy taking Jobber’s place in jail, soon as the sheriff was awake to all things once hidden.