Western Short Story
Nobody knew why Chet Lincoln bought a big spool of thread every few months over at Josh Silverwood’s General Store, even as they looked to see if any of his duds were sewn or repaired by needle. And, of course, the wise cracks made their way in his path when the word got around about a new purchase of thread, “ladies’ thread,” as the way lots of folks said it. Generally, it was a bit of fun for most of the boys because Lincoln was a thoroughly likeable fellow and could tell a story or two right out of his imagination.
Those discussions, of course, generally started up in the Alibi Saloon.
There always had been the special word on Chet Lincoln that he was one of the best watch guards around, that he had a gift, that he had unknown supporters who’d jump in anytime he was in trouble, to lend their fast hands and quick guns, that any campfire on any piece of land was guaranteed its security by Chet Lincoln … if he was paid beforehand. And that help was never seen. Not once was a face put on one of the shooters, mostly because all the proposed thefts or rustlings were planned for darkness or near-darkness, the late part of the day or in the false dawn of a new day.
None of his pals were seen, but they were shooting up the areas like old man time trying to catch a few toughs in his grasp … not that he hit many men but the shooting was wildly effective in that it came from everywhere in the vicinity.
Of course, once he got himself in the middle of saloon conversations, the yarns would come out of Lincoln like they had been all rolled up and ready for the telling.
“Where’s all them pards come from, Chet? “ The speaker was a cowpoke by the name of Dave Rust. “You pull ‘em out of a magic man’s hat? And where’d they all go when it was over? I was down at Wachatowa when them rustlers tried to take Will Sharman’s herd and your mystery pards drove ‘em off and nobody saw the likes of ‘em, ‘cept one revolver one of your friends lost and no blood and no him anywhere? Where in hell he get off to, Chet? Answer me that.”
“Oh,” Lincoln said, “that was Luke Stingley and he told me that he figured he’d hit a few of them and they had his site fixed and was about to move and was putting his gun away and a shot took it right out of his hand, but didn’t draw no blood.”
Dave Rust said, “You didn’t say where this Stingley fella went, did you, Chet?”
“Why, he left out with the others and got hisself lost in the canyons like the others. I tell you, Dave, they have hideouts I can’t find myself. I have to send my dog Tom’s Stone after them with a message wrapped on his collar. I swear, that dog could find Lucifer or the good lord hisself if he was hiding in them canyons, by choice of course.”
“Hey, Chet,” another patron said, “That’s several times I heard you say your dog’s name was Tom’s Stone. It is Tom’s Stone or is it Tombstone? Got me fooled every time I hear the pup’s name.”
The expected diversion had come and Lincoln delved right into it. “I guess you were someplace else when I told folks about Tom’s Stone. When I was in the Nations with Tom West, a self-named mountain man, he brought a wounded maiden to her father’s village, the father being Dog Chief of the hearty Crow Nation. Tom doctored her for a whole week and about brought her back from the dead and Dog Chief wanted to give Tom a whole herd of horses in return but Tom pointed at a new pup at Dog Chief’s side and said, “I’ll take that pup.”
Well, old Dog Chief loosed up a smile I knew right off had touched him where it counts, for he knew that Tom had picked the best pup out of a late litter, knew the pup was going to be special. And he sure was right, the way some Indians know things right from the mouth of the God of the Nations or the God of the Mountains. That dog ran a whole year and a half with Tom West after I went off with a hiring job and when I came back Tom was missing for two weeks, no hide of hair of him and I went looking and didn’t find Tom but found his dog sitting where half a mountain had come down in a tight pass and I knew Tom was caught down under it. It took me three days to get that dog to come with me and I had to use an old kerchief Tom had given me once that I found in my saddlebag. He must have smelt old Tom in it, and that dog only left that site after I called him Tom’s Stone and he’s still with me and I still have that kerchief and I ain’t washed it yet.”
“Where’d that mountain of stone fall down on Tom Stone, Chet?”
“Oh, way up in the Nations I probably couldn’t find again ‘cept I let that dog smell that kerchief again. Like as it’s the place the good Lord picked for Tom West’s burial site on His own. “
“Oh,” Lincoln carried on as he stood at some kind of attention and respect, “Can you imagine the words that He might have said over Tom Stone’s grave. Don’t that make you think his dog is mighty special and I gave him the right name? And I really think I only have the loan of him for these five years now and get afraid it might end before I am aware of it ending.”
“I guess you’re right, Chet,” the speaker said, “‘cause that hound’s sitting right across the street with his eye on the saloon door like he’s waiting for breakfast to run out the door. What’s that dog eat for breakfast, Chet?” He was shaking his head in sound curiosity.
Behind the bar, Salvi Bertucci smiled the slowest and slyest smile of the day, for he had seen Chet Lincoln once again slide the whole saloon into a new topic that would carry for another week. Chet Lincoln was the best thing for business the saloon had since The Judge fell down dead nearly six years earlier, and Bertucci remembered thinking there’d never be another story talker like The Judge. How wrong had been that assumption.
Into the saloon that moment came Elmer Posting, owner of The Rocky Mountain Line, the local stage line, “between here and there” as he liked to say. Posting called out, “Hey, there, Chet, I need someone to do a job for me and I guess it’s you, from what I hear all the time. I’d like you to …. .“
And he had to stop, for Chet Lincoln held his hand in that shushing move to his mouth and said, “Let’s go talk in a private manner so we don’t bother these folks with business.”
For half an hour Bertucci watched through the salon door as Chet Lincoln and Elmer Posting gabbed across the street on a bench in front of a ladies dress store, their heads often locked together and Lincoln’ hand always at Tom’s Stone’s neck, rubbing him the right way. The dog didn’t move an inch the whole time, like he was still stationed on the pile of rock fall up in the Nations somewhere.
Early the next morning, the sun just rising over peaks of the Nations to the east, Chet Lincoln mounted his horse and, with Tom’s Stone at their side, rode out of town … headed for one of Posting’s stage stations, a full day’s ride to the northeast, the Broke-out Brig Station a sailor had named a few years earlier.
A week later it was Dave Rust who brought the first word of Chet Lincoln’s latest escapade into The Alibi Saloon. Through the door he came, waving his hand at Salvi Bertucci and shouting out, “Wait’ll you hear this one, Salvi, the big news on Chet Lincoln doin’ a job for Elmer Posting out at Broke-out Brig stage stop that came up right in here ‘bout a week or so ago, ‘member?”
Bertucci nodded, a smile starting. The Alibi Saloon had been too quiet for a week, too damned quiet.
“I can’t wait to hear this one, Dave. Better spill it quick ‘fore it breaks loose and runs away from you.”
Rust slammed a coin on the bar top, exclaiming, “Some gang of four or five wanted something at that line station near Shadow Hill, where Posting sent Chet to do a job.”
Bertucci slid the coin back to him and poured a shot; indeed, the old Alibi Saloon had been too quiet for a whole week. A shot was worth some noise, some news.
Rust continued his news after a sip of the good stuff. “They came in at dark, when the stage was bein’ fixed for a new wheel and was hung up for a while, and five passengers to boot. I heard they was about to rush in and take over the whole place and all of a sudden about ten guns seemed to be firin’ at ‘em from the darkness and one gent got kilt by his horse when the horse went down and rolled right over him. It was them pals of Chet’s he’s always talkin’ ‘bout, but nobody seen any of ‘em yet, but found one of their guns out in the brush where one of ‘em was shootin’ from. Just lyin’ there, a Colt old as the hills they said. Also said Posting paid Chet off for a job well done. ‘Magine that? All done in just one good old shootin’, as The Judge woulda said.”
Bertucci poured another shot, a double it looked like; the day was headed in the right direction, and he felt downright giddy at the prospect. He didn’t care in what direction Dust would bring the tale, it was as The Judge might have said, “At least he brung it with him and didn’t leave it out there on the grass.”
For one moment, he missed The Judge as much as he missed his own father, and he knew he loved his father as much as any man.
“All Posting’s man at the station said, that’s Hiram Littlejohn by name, was they found just one gun out there, somewhere on the edge of the happening’. Just a gun, just a damned Colt like that other story, the cylinder empty, empty as the chicken house after a fox got in, all the shots gone. And not one of Chet’s pals hangin’ around waitin’ for the thank yous, sir. The Colt was stuck in between a chunk of rock and an old log someone had tossed there from an old campfire, black, half-burned, like a chunk of adobe in place, tossed on top of that old empty Colt.”
Bertucci felt a hit by impatience giving him a good clout on the side of the head. He didn’t want to say it, but he said it anyway, “Any tracks around, Dave? Any hoof prints left by his pards’ horses? They walk there, those good old boys? They walk away on their own two feet? They there in the right spirits? They leave any butts? Any burnt cigars? They leave any spit?”
He wished he hadn’t asked such loaded questions; really loaded questions, give-away questions wild enough to start up a belief in as yet an unknown truth. He suddenly realized he could have bitten off his own tongue. He could have kept his big mouth shut. He could have sat in the middle of a joy and entertainment good enough for one man. But one glaring image kept jumping up at him again, like it was alive, breathing, poking him in the ribs on the side, and it was Chet Lincoln over in Silverwood’s General Store buying another roll of thread, and every once in a while, like he was playing games all the while, buying a new needle, saying to old man Silverwood himself, “It’s ‘cause I lost the last one I got here, lost it in the haymow at the livery, and no sense lookin’ for it there in all that big pile of straw. Looks like I’ll have to do my stitchin’ things in place with my very own teeth. ”
The bartender could hear the echo of each word. It all was so much dusting off of footprints, of scratching out the tracks of one man at the work of many men. It was, in every sense of the word, colossal participation … and from his distant vantage behind a bar, he loved every minute of it. At one point, Bertucci shook his head at the gullibility in some men … and the sweet imagination of another man.
Posting, probably from his own vanity, and ignoring any future need of Lincoln’s services, was the one who talked too much. He was in The Alibi and humming along at the bar with a few pals, when Dave Rust was at the door and shouted, “Here comes Chet, down the road like nothin’ ever happened out there at the coach station. Looks like he does every time he comes in here.” There was excitement in his voice and his eye caught the eye of Salvi Bertucci behind the bar. The glints were telltale.
Rust let Lincoln have his first drink at the bar, and Lincoln went to sit at a table with another local who had motioned to him. Before the cowpoke at the table said a word, Dave Rust said, in a lectern’s voice, “You oughta know, Chet, that we really think you’re the best thing ever come in here since The Judge fell down dead.” The laughter came right up out of his gut. “He went down there, right where I’m pointin’ and he took all them great stories with him.”
His pause was for more attention, and then he said, “Can you tell us about how it went with you and your pards out at Broke-out Brig line station.
“That’s interesting that you ask, Dave. But it’s simple. Only one way they were coming to take the station and all the goodies there. Had to be off the north side of Shadow Hill where the light has a hard time hanging on. They just came down real quiet and went past my men and the special lookouts they use. Came right past my boys, sometimes only a few feet away, and when they got bunched up again near the station and were about ready to take the place, I just let my boys cut loose with their guns and the lead was popping all over Hell and in between them, too, and plain scattered them to Holy Hell, and one fellow cried out before he died and the rest took off like the banshees was after them, and I don’t think they stopped running yet.”
“Wow!” Rust said. “Wow! How many shots you think your boys took at ‘em? Any idea, Chet? Must have been so many you couldn’t count, huh?” His gaze swept the room and in its course found Bertucci and Posting smiling back at him,.
“Oh, not at all, Dave,” Lincoln said. “I counted every one of them, but it took some doing. I bet I didn’t miss but maybe one or two shots fired, all by my guys because those hombres didn’t have time to fire back. And it was just about 60 shots and only one or two missed being counted, I swear.”
“What’d’ya think The Judge’d say about that, Chet?”
guess Judge Priest’d say those boys are the
wiriest, ridin’est, ropin’est, hallaluajin’est, shootin’est
bunch of cowboys he’d ever heard about or ever might see, if he’s
lucky enough to get a chance.”
The warm days of Judge Herman Priest somehow had a foothold again for a while in The Alibi Saloon, and then Dave Rust said, “Chet, some of the boys have asked me if you know what a lanyard is. Do you?”
“I don’t rightly know that word, Dave. What is it? Something out in the barnyard or the corral?”
“From what Josh Silverwood says at the store, it’s a long cord sometimes that gets pulled and makes a cannon fire a round. “
“That’s a pretty good way to keep away from a big blast.”
“He says you can make smaller ones out of thread, like doubling up the lines and you can fire a pistol if it’s wedged in the right place and the recoil won’t toss it on the ground. Can fire as many pistols as you want. Even rifles, and you don’t need your finger right on the trigger, just a pull on a bunch of strings all set to go, and it’s one man’s army of sorts. Whatdya think of that, Chet?”
“Why, I think Judge Priest could sit and talk about that all day, especially if it was a Saturday. Lincoln paused, in the old way, looked around the room and said, “Once, up in the Nations … …”
And everybody knew that Saturday was back at The Alibi Saloon.