Western Short Story
The Sycamores, the whole awful mountain range of trouble and turmoil, were behind him, and trail signs of the bushwhacker, who tried to gun him down in near darkness, led Marshal Jonas Northcross out of The Sycamores and right to Calico Tail, a small and seemingly insignificant cowboy town near the Tongue River and the Bighorn Mountains in the high distance. The scarred bark of the trees that gave the region its name, sometimes growing in heavy groves, kept reminding the marshal of old men gathered in saloons wearing their hard years.
He had tracked alone, ridden alone, and eaten alone at the river’s edge or at the foot of escarpments and overhangs, no longer an easy target. He was as alert as his horse Birmingham, a big red and as powerful as they come. They were, he had long affirmed, a formidable pair. His mind had been made up; he would follow the coward until the end, taking it all personal, putting his badge in his shirt pocket, putting The Sycamore assignment to bed for the time being; someone wanted him out of there, out of the mix of actions. The actions seemed in concert.
So, as it developed, Jonas Northcross came into Calico Tail in the thickness of evening shade and shadow, in the soft mix of twilight. Few townspeople paid attention to another lonely rider with a dry throat and a probable eye for company, and wearing heavy trail dust. As a good horseman do, he rode Birmingham right into the livery and arranged a rubdown, water and a good feeding.
“Take good care of him, mister,” he said to the livery man, “he owes me nothing and I owe him a ton of oats.”
“He looks to be in pretty good shape. You done him good so far.”
“He just got me through The Sycamores in one piece.”
The livery man turned abruptly, his interest brought to alert. He was an older man and showed his interest in a quick manner, as if all surprises had been met in his time. “You been out there, mister?” It sounded like The Sycamores was Hell itself or a true battleground. And it was a question that carried either knowledge or awareness in it.
“Yes, I have,” Northcross said with some deliberation. He patted the rump of Birmingham and spoke as if a promise was being cemented for the long ride, “We’re going back after we do a little work in this neck of the woods.”
“You a lawman?”
Northcross’s voice was almost guttural when he replied, “I’m not a lawman now.” He patted his shirtfront where the badge had been pinned.
When Northcross left the livery, he slipped down a small alley and came back up the other side of the building, and kept his eye on the livery. Within a few minutes the livery man scooted out the livery door and made a direct run to the general store.
Northcross, in the shade of the building, watched the store for other activity. “I know who pays who for information,” he said to himself, “now maybe we’ll see where it leads.” Leaving the alley, he slipped back inside the livery, left the door open with his eye on the store, and gave Birmingham some oats and water, rubbed him a bit and put the saddle back on the big horse. He kept his eye on the store. After 15 minutes the livery man returned from the store and was surprised to find Northcross and his horse ready to ride. Northcross spotted a man, in apron and top hat and in a hurry, come out of the store, mount a horse and head westerly out of town. Dust trailed behind him in the gathering twilight, the sun having dipped below the western horizon
“Hey, mister,” the livery man said, “I ain’t got to your horse yet.’
“You left a hungry and dry horse to go running with information. Probably for money, being of more interest to you than my horse. Now I’m going to see where that information finally ends up, and I’ll let the important guys know that you told me everything. That ought to get you some more action for your money, don’t you think so, mister?”
“I guess you know what’ll happen to me they get wind of this,” the livery man said. “It sure ain’t worth the few coins they give me, wipe off a few card debts. I didn’t come here with much and don’t have much now, but I’m still on this side of the grass of Boot Hill.”
“You want to stay this side of the grass, you keep your mouth shut about me. I figure that’s a good swap for you, one I’d take in a hurry if I was you.”
“Yes, sir. Sure will.”
“Where’s he headed?” Northcross said as he nodded down the road where the store man had ridden.
“Out to the Devlin’s ranch, the 2DDown, about four miles on the straight road.”
“Who’s Devlin?” Northcross had not heard the name before. He noticed how frightened the older man was, how his eyes kept moving back and forth, trying to see if anybody was watching him talking to the stranger.
“Biggest rancher in these parts, ‘n’ gettin’ bigger if’n he can help it any way he can. Name’s Carlton Devlin. His son, Bricker, is just as hungry and a bit meaner. Got me all wrapped up in one night of cards, and sets store on me now for information about new folks comin’ into town, usually comin’ in here for their animals. Nothin’ I can do about it.” He absently rubbed a portion of his jaw as if he had been paid in other currency.
“What’s his stake in The Sycamores?”
“Danged if I know, all that mountain and rock. Can’t graze up there. Can’t hardly get over the top if you had to. All I ever heard was about some old gold mine where an old prospector was shot holdin’ onto his stake. Before he died he set off a charge on the mountain above him that buried him and all he knew under half a mountain, like a whole avalanche came down. That’s the story I hear. Don’t know anythin’ else.” He rubbed his chin again, showed another edge of fear in his eyes.
Northcross was thinking it was bigger than he had thought in the first place, even with the unsuccessful bushwhacking attempt slotted into the action.
He started out of town, the stars first on the horizon and then overhead, the road heading straight to the 2DDown Ranch, and more trouble on the vine, he admitted with experienced surety. Quitting the road when he felt the timing on his side, he soon came to a slow rise and sat looking at the ranch house with four windows just lighting up. He tried to picture the scene inside; the store man telling Devlin that a stranger on a big red horse had come into town from The Sycamores, and bent on questions. The sense of timing that was part of his attitude and learning was in full swing, as the store man came out of the door and mounted his horse.
Northcross, at a discrete distance ambled along behind him all the way into town. When the store man went back into his place of business, Northcross stabled his horse at the livery, admonished the livery man with his bounden promise, and headed for the hotel, which he studied as he approached it.
“I need a room for a couple of nights, maybe more,” he told the slim, mustached clerk. “What have you got?”
“On business, sir? We have a room on the backside, first floor, but away from the noise. I have one room on the second floor, front, over the street, and one over the alley.” The clerk seemed to want to ask more questions, but held off, finding something potential in the guest with a severe tone in his voice.
“I’ll take the one over the front,” Northcross said, his voice almost at a demand, “and some supper, steak and eggs and a pitcher, sent up to my room as soon as you can. I’ve had a long ride and need a deep deep sleep.” Leave no doubts with him, Northcross was thinking.
The room was perfect, he thought, with his gear set in a corner, including his rifle, and his belt and holster with his guns hanging on the rack.
In ten minutes the clerk brought a tray of food and a pitcher of beer, looked about the room, and departed. The famished marshal ate the plate clean, drank off at least half the pitcher, and stretched out on the bed. Sleep did not come, as he would not allow it.
After midnight, the town as quiet as a chuck hole, his boots beside his bed, he slid a blanket off the bed, stuffed the pillow under the cover, and crawled out the window with his rifle and one sidearm and lay down on the porch roof. He had been cat-quiet in his movements and lay in one position for almost an hour.
The creak he heard, almost muffled by stealth, was not below him or on the porch with him, but had filtered out the window. He rose to a kneeling position beside the window. The door to his room from the second-floor landing was being opened stealthily. It was so quiet in the room, he heard a man breathing lightly. Then he heard a second man breathing, almost in unison. Their soft steps advanced toward the bed.
The Sycamores, whatever was going on up there in the mountains, had followed him here to Calico Tail, to the Calico Tail livery, to the Calico Tail general store, to the 2DDown Ranch and to his room at this Calico Tail hotel. Right to his bedside.
He was closer than ever to the mystery, and to those involved, one way or another.
When the pistol was cocked, with a slight snap of the trigger mechanism, he froze up waiting for the firing pin to hit the charge. When it came, loud and deadly, closer than hand to hand combat, he fired six shots into the room with deliberate hatred for bushwhackers and heard both bodies fall. The sound banged around the hotel and out the window.
Down below, someone yelled. In the street, someone else yelled, “At the hotel. Gunshots at the hotel.” Someone was running up the stairs, pounding as he climbed. It was the clerk who entered the room. “Everybody okay?” He had different expectations, Northcross assumed instantly.
“I sure am,” Northcross said,” but these two bushwhackers, your pals there at your feet, ain’t doing too good. And now, mister, me and you and the livery man and the store man are going to have a late-night talk. And in the morning, we’ll all head out to the 2DDown if Devlin ain’t in here by sun up, which I think he definitely will be. You’re going to talk to this here marshal loud and clear, knowing that you all will soon be visited by my deputies and federal militia, if it is necessary, and I’m thinking it will be so.”
Northcross took a pair of irons off the belt hanging on the wall and hooked the clerk’s wrists. “You sit there and wait until who else is planning on coming up here. Then all of you can take care of them dead ones.
Two more men came up the stairs. One of them yelled, “Caiaphas, where the hell you at? They get him?”
Northcross jammed his rifle into the gut of the first man and said to the second man, “Stay right behind him, so I can get both of you with one shot if you dare move. I’m sick and tired of being bushwhacked and set up for dying. You tell the boss man that I ain’t up to no dying at this time. There’s just some getting-even rhythm moving into the area, and it’s already started. So, you two gents make yourselves useful and move your dead compadres to some suitable place in Calico Tail. I don’t want bushwhackers in my room, which I aim to keep until the Sycamore thing gets cleared up. It’s followed me too damn long.”
The second man, standing in the doorway, had almost the same reaction the livery man had. “You been out there, to the Sycamores? Did you find the mine?”
Northcross said, “You talking about that story the livery man told me, ‘bout the old gent that blew up the side of the mountain?”
“That story ain’t no story, mister. It’s true as a windy flag. Devlin knows it, but there’s a big question about the claim rights and some nephew askin’ questions. The nephew was shot at twice in the last two months, ‘n’ that’s a fact. I heard Devlin sayin’ so. Had Parkins there at yore feet do the dirty work, makin’ him a three-time misser from where I see it.”
“So, his trail is what lead me to this Calico Tail, huh? I’m glad I got to know that and I got to him good and proper.”
The talker in the doorway said, “You the law Devlin’s been worryin’ about? He got himself awful itchy lately worried about somethin’, ‘n’ now I can see why. He don’t know what’s comin’ after him.”
Northcross wagged the rifle as part of his statement. “Yes, I’m the law. Devlin and Calico Tail got things to answer for. You two get rid of these boys here on the floor. You got someone takes care of burying?” Then he added, the rifle waving around like the trigger might be squeezing on his finger, “How long before Devlin gets into town?”
The talker said, “I suspect he’s prob’ly comin’ into town right about dawn, knowin’ what he set up. I’d asoon be movin’ bodies than seein’ him. He gets meaner ‘n’ a wounded cat, but he’s gonna find today’s different for him. I ain’t too sad ‘bout that. Treats people like dirt, he does, me included, so I’d be movin’ on soon as these gents get buried.”
The rifle still waving ominously in his hands, Northcross said, “Alright, get them moved and Christian-like if you will. The Lord put them here and He’ll take care of them His way.”
The bodies were moved by the two men. The clerk was taken out of the iron twisters about his wrists and told by Northcross to go about his business and keep his mouth shut, that he would have to pay up later. At that statement of the marshal, the rifle was so close to the clerk’s nose the burnt powder smell burned again up his nostrils. He accepted the declaration of a man in full control.
Then, the dawn flash lighting up the sky east of Calico Tail, astride the big red horse he had named Birmingham, and knowing that Devlin’s company of cohorts had been seriously reduced in number, Jonas Northcross, marshal, wearing his badge again, sat the trail leading west out of town, awaiting the arrival of man who would soon find his comeuppance.
He patted Birmingham with a sure hand. “We come a long way this time, big boy. It’ll be over soon.”
The sounds coming down the road from west of town were those of a single rider.