Western Short Story
Tenor in the Canyon
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

“Shoot! Damn it. Shoot!” The Stetson on the shouter’s head sat crookedly, not like a range rider’s would sit squarely and proudly. The voice was young, and even while yelling it was understated, as if real control was not included. The words, indeed, sounded hollow and without a solid threat.

The unfortunate bank robber, Briggs Canford, 16 years old if a day, caught alone, at fault, without hope of getting away, was yelling at the sheriff, gun drawn, Mango Village people looking on from every perch and space available in the crowded end of town.

It looked like the show-down of show-downs, with bullets flying about any minute, crime and law face to face.

All the desperation in the world, all that he ever knew, piled down on top of supposed young robber, Canford. He was a hopeless loss at this robbery business.

If the sheriff shot him, it would be all over. He’d be out of the grind. They couldn’t depend on him anymore. He’d be free of it all.

Canford saw his mother’s face and his sisters’ faces, the three of them, and dropped his gun. When it hit the floor, the trigger released and a shot went off and the wild round banged off an overhead beam under the bank porch.

“Shoot him quick, Sheriff,” someone yelled out. “Shoot him now.” He was waving his arms, yelling, standing in the middle of the crowded boardwalk across the road from the bank.

The sheriff, Carlton Dodds, said, a soft smile on his face, “Do you want to use my gun to kill him, Charlie? It’s all yours if you want it. Come over here and get it. Charlie. I’ll let you have it soon’s you get here. Course, the boy ain’t armed, as you can see now.”

The smile grew, the dare still in place. Dodds was a veteran sheriff with over 7 years on the job, a long run anyone would admit for a sheriff, even in a small place like Mango Village. The people liked him, respected him; “he’d paid some dues,” as some would have said. He didn’t show his age, though, or those years of experience. He was suitor- or husband-handsome to most of the women in the village, with a square jaw, tanned all year from days in the saddle and days under the sun, had bright green-blue eyes, a wide brow and dark lashes though his hair was a corn tassel hue. That was the young touch about him.

A second look into that part of the crowd and there was still no answer from Charlie whoever, hidden in the throng of on-lookers.

Dodds, seeing the looks on Canford’s face, all of them seemingly at once, pointed to the weapon on the boardwalk in front of the bank. “Pick it up, Briggs, nice and easy, like we agreed, and put it back in your holster. There’s no more shooting here today, and that last one was a lousy shot, if you was to ask me my opinion, coarse you ain’t asking me at this time, as we all can agree.”

He remembered his own hard times when his mother and father had died within days of each other. Then, the next meal or the next warm place to sleep was always a gift. And he knew of Canford’s problems, which must have toppled down on top of him in recent weeks.

A flash idea ran through him, whose mission was already underway, at least in part.

“Okay, folks,” he said, addressing just about all of Mango Village’s people, “With Briggs’s help here today, we showed you some things about community response and what ought and what ought not to be done in a bank robbery.” He let those words sink in, not only on the faces of the people but also on Briggs Canford’s face. The surprise lit it up.

“Now everybody look back over what just happened here. There was no shooting except for the accident when Briggs tossed his gun too hard. No one was shot. No money taken. No bank teller or bank manager grabbed as a hostage. No money in the hands of the supposed robber. And yet there’s Charlie yelling in the middle of the crowd across the street to shoot the hell out of this 16-year old boy who did not commit a crime, who was helping me to show you folks what should be done in case we ever get robbed here at the bank and you just happen to be around at the time, like today.”

He paused, leveled a stare into parts of the crowd, looked into a few faces, and continued. “Luke Frazier, you were sitting there in your wagon with at least three guns you could have swung on him, but didn’t. And Marvin Holder, you’re sitting up there on your horse big as life and those guns of yours still sitting in their holsters, like you were going on a turkey shoot and you ain’t seen any turkeys yet.”

He pointed up the boardwalk to another man leaning against a pole. “Shag, you haven’t moved a muscle since I looked up your way, like lunch was still in order and you haven’t ate yet.”

“I think we all learned something here today; look and understand what you’re looking at; understand that you might be called on before the law comes on the scene; don’t make a mistake where you become the criminal instead; know that folks around you might need your help more than you do. All I want you to do is understand what’s going on around you and make good decisions. I have to do it every day. It sure is hard sometimes, and sometimes it’s like eating a can of peaches while sitting on a log after a hard day on the trail. But that doesn’t happen very often, believe me.”

“C’mon, Briggs, let’s go back down to the office and get a few other things squared away, including when you start your new job.”

Young Canford, realization walking all over him like a hundred critters, stared back at the sheriff. The sad-eyed, glowering face had disappeared, and once again, who knows in how long, he was a smiling young man ready to face the world again. The whole world of Mango Village.

“C’mon, son. We got some tall thinking to do, and lunch is almost done from what I can smell.”

The two of them, lately foes of a sort, now compadres of some mysterious kind, walked off to the sheriff’s office. And Mango Village, that little town on the edge of hill country, with a thousand acres of grass looking it in the face, mostly went to lunch too. The sun reached into every corner of the warm earth.

“Well, Briggs, after we eat, what do we do next?” The sheriff was being serious, though there was a smile lingering on his face.

“Sheriff,” Canford said in a crowded voice, as if the weight of the world was on him again, “we just got to get some grub out to my mom. She’s pushed all she could for me and my sisters. She needs help now. That’s what I was at, kind of stupid-like, at the bank. It just crawled right up in me and jumped out. I don’t know how else to say it.”

“You go get the buckboard over to Mort’s livery, Briggs. Tell him I’m borrowing it for a few hours, and I’ll bring it back later. Then we’ll go to Max’s and get us some grub. Course, it all comes out of your salary, you know, as my new deputy-in- training.”

The silence, thought Sheriff Dodds, was as good as it can get. The sun was as bright as ever on Mango Village, all its parts lit up.

Miriam Canford, widowed 7 years, had 4 children in her 34 years, Briggs being the oldest, followed by Sally 10, Carrie 8, and MaryAngel, hardly over 7, the only one her father had never seen. Their mother was a dark-haired, blue-eyed tired looking woman who seemed to be hiding in her circumstance when the buckboard, with Sheriff Dodds driving, showed up loaded with goods. There was a saucy looking milk cow tied to the back end of the buckboard.

Dodds saw the apparent change in Miriam Canford in a matter of minutes, as if something inside had busted loose of pain and desperation. And he caught a reflection from her, slight as it was, of one of the sweetest smiles he had ever seen coming from some place she had not traveled to in recent times.

He stayed for supper. They all sat out on the porch having dessert. It was the good times and music came upon them. His mother hummed a lullaby. His sisters sang a love song so poignant it touched all of them. Briggs, with a fine tenor voice, sang a song about a dog named Blue. It filtered into the darkness as the night came down.

In a short time, things had changed; lots of things.

The moon came out from behind a dark mountain and stars roamed further off, on the dim and pale horizon. One long, incredibly slow-traveling shooting star dropped a wish for the taking.

In the semi-darkness something bloomed.

Briggs Canford became a full time deputy in a matter of months, proving himself on two separate occasions when Dodds was at a minor disadvantage. His mother was proud of him and very thankful.

It was less than a week on the job for Briggs Canford, youngest and newest on the payroll of Mango Village, when several horses were stolen from a small ranch outside the village. A young girl of 13, picking some flowers by a copse of cottonwoods, hid herself when she heard the commotion and saw three men club her father and steal some horses and head off to the hills.

She watched the trail where they went, checked her father, and then ran into town to tell the sheriff, but he wasn’t there. The only one in the office was young Briggs Canford cleaning and oiling his guns.

“Some men hit my father out at the ranch and stole his horses, Briggsy. I know where they went.”

Canford put up his gear, loaded his guns and put them in his holsters. “Where’d they go, Mindy?” His Stetson set square and firm on his head. His gun belt was cinched up tightly.

“Up the Parnell Trail. Three of them. Two skinny ones and one big in the gut who made most of the noise. He’s the one clubbed my father, but Pa’s alright now. Sent me in to tell the sheriff. He’ll go after them when he comes back from wherever he is, likely out to see your ma from what I heard.”

“Ain’t no crime there, Mindy. Ain’t seen two happier faces in a long time. What kind of horses they riding, those men? You remember that?”

“Won’t ever forget them, Briggsy. The skinny sorts are riding pintos with bright feet on both mounts, and the fat man, the one who clubbed my father, is on a big gray, big as a mountain the pair is. You can tell he’s the boss.”

“You pa is really okay? He don’t need any help now?” Canford was re-strapping his gun belt. It hung looser in place. Grabbing a rifle and a box of ammunition, he said, “You wait here and tell the sheriff all you know and where I went, up the Parnell Trail.”

“You can’t go after them, Briggsy. They’re growed men.” As it was, Briggs Canford was one of three or four boys that Mindy thought she might be in love with. At this point he had a sudden upper hand.

“I’m getting there in a hurry, Mindy. You mind what I said and tell the sheriff where I’m heading. Can’t let those boys get too far ahead of us.”

He was out the door and on his mount before she could move. She saw the coffee pot simmering, grabbed a cup and poured a cupful. “Be comfortable while I wait for the sheriff,” she said to the walls.

Up on the Parnell Trail, Canford picked up the trail easily, picking out the two light mounts, and noting the gray’s deeper tracks. The rustled horses set a scattered trail and were brought back to a general file every now and then by the pinto riders. The stolen horses, he figured about 8 of them, were easy enough to identify, even in the mix. Some of them were not even shod.

Close enough almost to smell the band, Canford held back, sure of his prey, and not wanting to step into a trap. That warning kept sounding in his mind, and he remembered a few stories Dodds had told about being lured by those he was chasing into disadvantaged situations. Dodds was a good teacher, and Canford was a good listener, and was as proud of his job and its opportunities as a leggy colt in fresh pasture.

From a high spot after he had hobbled his horse out of sight, Canford saw Dodds enter the canyon from the another side, with his path set to cross between two of the rustlers, the skinny guys on the pintos; they were ready to catch him in a crossfire. Once he was in the open they could cut him into pieces. The urge to warn Dodds leaped up in him as he studied their positions.

He knew he could not hit either man at such range, but a shot into the general area of their locations would be enough to alert the sheriff, warn him of the dangerous ground he might trod. At least, he hoped it would. “Show the target!” he kept saying to himself. “Show the target!”

The solution came right from his thinking as if it had been processed by experience.

Taking aim, he fired his rifle. His first round landed just over the head of the first man, kicking off the wall just above a rugged outcropping, the sound bellowing as clear as a cannon shot. The second round, not with so much of an echo, hit directly in front of a clump of brush tight against the canyon wall, tossing debris into the air. For an alert on-looker, surely a spot to be wary of.

Sheriff Dodds, dismounting in a hurry after the two warning shots, hobbled his horse in a crevice, and carefully noted where the two rounds landed. He waited for additional movement from either end of the shooting. Ten minutes passed and nothing happened as he kept himself squirreled in a rocky place, invisible he hoped to all parties, including the one shooter who had marked two sites for him. He could not be sure who the shooter was, but assumed he was a friendly shooter.

He hoped it was a friendly gun doing the shooting, when high overhead he saw a buzzard in the slow languorous flight of search for carrion, or what might be marked as carrion in short order. A second set of huge wings joined the first, floating on thermals, minor but dark warnings against the pale blue sky, waiting for the kill.

Day might come to be an unusually slow day, marked by slow buzzard flight.

Canford was vaguely unsure of his next move, but was not sure the sheriff had seen anything at all. He decided to fire two more rounds, at the same sites, knowing the third man, the big boss on the big gray, was sitting still, looking over the whole scene. He shot anyway. Saw no movement for a while, no giveaway of either location, or of the big boss. Then, off to his right, in a cluster of the canyon wall where a mass of wall had fallen, he heard nicker from a horse, a low whinny catching up in an echo.

He knew he would be giving up his hiding spot now to a third person, a third enemy, if he tried to point out that third hiding place to the sheriff. It was then, in the midst of all the questions and options open to him, that all the true and deep thoughts were revealed: that Sheriff Dodds, in his quick mind and deep goodness, had saved him and his family the day at the bank, that Dodds and his mother had miraculously fallen in love, and the good sheriff, in whatever way was needed, would be sure to take care of his mother and his sisters.

He was convinced of it. And it was worth anything and everything he could do.

From his safe position behind rocks, even though he was a short distance from where he heard the nicker of the big boss’s horse, he started to sing the one song Dodds had heard him sing. My dog Blue cut the canyon air as keen as a singer on stage, and marked where he was … for both Dodds and for the rustler’s big boss.

His daring up, his hopes up, Canford fired another shot into that mass of rock where the big man and his gray were hiding. He felt good.

Now, he hoped, the sheriff would know all three hiding spots of the rustlers. It should be a cake walk, he thought. He let go another line from the song, the tenor of his voice rolling across the canyon as if he performed on stage, and waved his hat. The big boss on the big gray leaped into sight from behind a huge rock and started firing away with two pistols at Canford’s hiding place. Bullets rocked and ricocheted all around, chipping stone and fragmentation in many directions and in thunderous accompaniment his horse slammed his iron shod feet in deafening echoes on the rocky surface. The man was screaming out oaths of all sorts as he came at Briggs Canford hiding behind his own rocky pile, Canford’s own guns still firing away.

“Go get him!” yelled one of the pinto riders, standing up and waving in his hiding place, not thinking of Dodds not too far away in the base of the canyon.

Dodds, fully alert, knowing his confederate at arms, caught the exposed pinto rider in the shoulder with a single round, swung his rifle around and dropped the big man right out of the saddle on the big gray, and practically at the feet of his new but fully-tested deputy, Briggs Canford, who, at that moment, was all out of bullets. His horse had bolted, and death had been staring him in the face when the big man fell off the gray, right at his feet.

The third party, the second pinto rider, the second skinny man of the band, shouted out that he was coming out of hiding, that he was throwing out his rifle and side arms, that he had enough for the time being.

Dodds had his rifle leveled at the spot when a rifle and a pistol came flying through the air.

Dodds shouted at him, “Stand up with your empty hands in the air. And get to work putting your pards onto their mounts and strap ‘em down or rope ‘em on. We’ll get them into town and get them buried proper.”

He looked at Canford, still smiling like William the Conqueror or Sitting Bull, as he sat on the ground, and said, “Me and my deputy got to get home before supper gets cold.”