Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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On the holy Sabbath morning of June 26, 1870, I went to church and prayed to the Father—took communion at His table. I am at peace. Today I'm going to kill a man.
Pastor Schuler met me at the bottom of the steps where he shook hands with all who had come to his service. I was the last to leave so we had a moment to talk.
"I almost didn't give you communion today, Jim. You have a look about you that worries me. It's customary to be at peace with God when you take his Holy Supper. Commanded, in fact. You must put away all hatred and ill feeling toward others. That includes offering forgiveness."
"If it's written in your Book, it must be so." I buckled my gun belt as he talked to me. I'd left it on a peg just inside the door. "And to put your mind at ease... I'm at peace with what I have to do."
"You're a rancher, not a gunfighter. It's a sin to kill a man in anger. That's premeditation. As for the other matter, we all make mistakes."
“And what do you know of other matters?”
“She came to me early this morning.”
I nodded at that—didn’t expect it. "Still... I have a job to do."
His voice stopped me as I left. "You can give up the job. It's temporary."
Looking back at him I gave his words a moment’s thought. "True. I can give up the job. But the responsibility? I cannot. Nor the betrayal."
Two days ago, I was sitting on a rickety chair in front of my office. The sign behind me read Jim Schmidt, Sheriff. I thought it a bit much, too big and colorful. The businessmen in the town presented it to me for doing my job. That is what I told them, anyway. I was doing my job. I felt neither young nor old. If anything, I'd learned a few things in my thirty-five years on this earth. I had the storied past to prove it. This was to be my last stop. The things I wanted most were here. Friends, roots and God willing, a wife and home.
Some men rode into town to make an unauthorized withdrawal from the bank. They were a motley lot with mixed appearances. Some still wore butternut and grey while others wore patched blue and gold. There were Indians with them as well, but with hats pulled low who knew where they were from.
Within a few moments of their arrival we had a short and loud discussion that prompted them to leave. Well, part of them did. A couple remained in the street. They would not move until the mortician brought his wagon.
Before the attempted robbery, I was a necessary encumbrance to the daily goings on in a small town. I would make the drunks hold the noise down, run off card sharks and tried to keep the peace between miners and cowhands. Our jail was an old root cellar next to the office. Nobody wanted to go in there, including me. The town was small and the work not too hard. Most of the bad things happened over toward Joplin.
An old Indian approached riding a small, paint pony. His grey hair was stuffed under a floppy black hat pin-cushioned with feathers. He sat loose as a bag of beans on the horse. He stopped and stared at me until he was sure I noticed him. How could I not? He had painted for war and so was the horse. We didn't see that much nowadays. There were still bad feelings between the tribes and whites. I couldn't blame them much. I supposed it would always be that way. Since our town was just north of Indian territory, it put us in the middle of it.
When he sat there and didn't speak, I tried English. "Can I help you?"
That was all right. Most folks cannot pronounce my last name. "Yeah, I'm Smit."
"John Proud Bear say you come his home."
That set me up straight. John was a Cherokee and a good friend of mine. My folks had left me a small ranch west of town. When I say left, I mean it. After I got back from the war, they gave me a hug and left for Texas. I hope they made it. I haven't heard from them.
John and his friends helped around the ranch when I was off being a sheriff. Most days the money was better coming from the county job. We made expenses on the ranch and that was about it. I paid them with very little money, but they knew the cattle represented food for them—anytime they needed it. All of them.
John and I hadn't talked in a while, but a summons was not his style. To send someone for me was out of the ordinary. It didn't take a genius to know something was wrong.
I didn't ask the old Indian's name and he didn't offer. It was their way. I guess one of the reasons I got along with them is that I left them alone.
Saddling old Red was always a lot of fun. I kept him in a stall most times, or on hobble strings. If I put him in the corral, I'd never catch him. I'm not much of a roper. After he tried to bite me and missed putting a horseshoe on my boot, I led him out of the stable.
I finally saw a ghost of a smile from the old man. "Horse make good stew someday."
I couldn't disagree with that. Maybe sooner than later.
Betty Connor was standing on her porch as we rode by and I stopped. The Indian rode on.
"Thought you were coming over for lunch?"
"Well, I was until that old man came and got me. Says John needs to see me right away. I can't imagine why, but I'd better check it out."
"Will you be back for the box supper and dance tomorrow night?"
I sat my saddle, wishing I had time to get down. "I should be back in time. It depends on what's going on with the Cherokee. Sometimes it gets complicated."
She shaded her eyes with her hand to look at me. "You be careful. Since you won't get down, consider yourself kissed."
We'd been seeing each other for about six months. She showed up on the stage one day and went directly to see Pastor Schuler over at the church. When she started teaching at the church school about every unattached male for miles around came to see her. She was that kind of pretty. Blue eyes and honey hair, along with a shape to make any kind of clothes look good. Mostly she wore dresses. Out at the ranch, when no one was around she wore pants. I favored that.
Somewhere she'd picked up some Cherokee language. Once that was known the school grew in numbers from the locals. It was something to see kids no bigger than a pound of soap riding two and three to a horse, coming to school. She had to throw them back on when they left.
I gave her a smile and half-salute. "I'll check in when I get back."
A couple of hours later I rode up to the John Proud Bear's house. It was a wood frame structure with an un-defined plan as he'd added rooms when needed. There were at least twenty people scattered around the front, mostly men. I took the thong off my pistol. I didn't like this at all.
The crowd turned and watched as I dismounted and tied Red to the hitching rail. John met me at the door and I turned to look the crowd over.
"What's with the paint and guns? Looks like you're going to war."
He shrugged. "Depends. We just might."
We shook hands. "Come on in. We got trouble."
He led me to a bedroom filled with women, including his wife and two half-grown daughters. Almost by command, everyone parted to show a woman on the bed. I couldn't tell her age because her face was bruised and swollen. I've been around enough to know a beating when I see it.
I looked at her a moment and then turned to John. "Tell me."
He gestured and everyone left except his wife Sarah. She came over and kissed me on the cheek before returning to a chair by the bed.
"This girl's name is Fawn. She's the daughter of Ten-Wolves."
"Stumpy?" His nickname would fool some people. Born with one leg shorter than the other, he was still a warrior and big man in the Cherokee community. I was starting to get a first-class belly ache.
He nodded. "This girl was bathing by the creek on the backside of our place. A man rode up and caught her before she could get away." His wife looked at us a moment with tears in her eyes, and then looked away.
"When she resisted, he beat her—knocked her out. When she woke up he was raping her. She started screaming and fighting again. He jumped on his horse and rode away."
I stood with my hands on my hips looking out the window. Most of the men were in a tight knot and surrounding Ten-Wolves. It was an odd sight, seeing men dressed like local cowmen and farmers with faces painted with streaks of yellow and red. Their rifles had feathers adorning the barrels but I'd guess they shoot just as well all fancied up. Since a good part of them rode with Stand Watie as part of the Confederate Indian brigade in the late difficulty, I was sure they'd know how to use them. We didn't need this kind of trouble.
I turned back to John. "Description?"
Sarah spoke up. "Fawn said he was dressed all in black—everything black. She remembered silver decorations on his belt and holster. The saddle was the same."
"She noticed a lot."
She shrugged. "You tend to notice a lot of things when you think you're going to die." Wiping a tear from her eye, she looked at John. "It could have been one of our daughters."
I glanced at the girl in the bed. Her eyes were closed but I saw her face was streaked with tears. I was sure she'd heard everything we said.
Walking up to the bed I stood next to Sarah. "Fawn, I'm sorry this happened to you. I'll bring this man to justice. That's a promise." I paused a moment. "When I catch him, would you recognize him? Point him out for sure?"
Her nod was a faint movement but I saw it. I reached out and touched her shoulder and she flinched away. "I'll make it happen."
I raised my eyebrows at Sarah, asking a silent question. It had to be on everyone's mind. Would the girl be alright? She knew I didn't want to ask the question out loud, so she shrugged and then nodded. I hoped she was right.
"One more thing." Sarah's voice was soft. "She marked him. It was a white man."
"I dug the skin out from under her nails. He'll have a good-sized wound."
Backing away, John and I stood by the door. We were about run over by his daughters and a couple of other women. I could hear the men outside and none were speaking English. Another bad sign.
"Other than the obvious, what do you need from me?"
"Talk to these men with me. We trailed the man's horse until it hit the main trail. If he keeps the same direction, he's in Silvertown. Providing he stops, of course."
The name of our town was kind of a joke. Years ago, someone had mined for silver. Turned out the man who sold the mine, seeded it with enough silver to get a good price for it and then skipped the country. A town sprung up like a lot of them do. It would have faded away, but by then the surrounding ranchers and farmers were using the stores and the town grew to permanence.
"Anything more? Broken horseshoe, three-legged horse—anything?" It was a joke to lighten the moment. Not in good taste, considering the circumstances, but we were friends.
His grin was quick but sobered fast. "What more do you need? She about gave you a picture."
We went out on his porch and I could feel their reluctance to hear what I had to say. I felt like I was facing a lynch mob. "Ten-Wolves, I'm sorry this has happened to your daughter. It's a bad thing."
He raised his rifle above his head. I was pleased to see there were no scalps on it. Yet. "We will go to Silvertown and find this man. He will face Cherokee justice."
I knew he was trying to save face and figured raiding our town was the last thing he wanted. "This is my county and my problem. If he's in town, I'll find him and deal with him. The last thing we need is for all of you riding into town and scaring the hell out of folks. Next thing you know, we'd have the army riding around in circles stirring up a lot of dust and getting nowhere."
There were a couple of chuckles from the men. Ten-Wolves shouted them down and turned to me. "What will we do? White-man's law doesn't care about the Cherokee."
It wouldn't if the Cherokee kept holding themselves separate, but I was wise enough not to voice that opinion.
"Listen to me. I care about the Cherokee. Who stood up for you when people wanted to take your farms, your land? I did. I'll still do it the best way I can." The grumbling was starting again. "Hold on. If I need help, I won't send for the army. If I need a posse to chase this man, I'll send for you. We all know you're the best trackers around. I'll let John know if you're needed. Give me a little time. Will that work for you?"
They didn't say either way but I saw a few start for their horses. I took that as a good sign. "Ten-Wolves, take care of your daughter. If you need anything like medicine or a doctor, let me know. I hope she gets well."
His shoulders slumped and his gaze went to the open door. "This I will do." We watched as he walked past us and into the house.
I stood with John under the shade of a live oak. A cool breeze ruffled the leaves above us as we watched the men disperse. Sarah and her daughters would take care of Fawn. It was my job to take care of her assailant. And I was having second thoughts.
He looked at me with concern. "What's banging around in that head of yours? If you need help, I'm your man."
"You'd be the first one I'd ask. No, it's deeper than that. I can arrest this man, but what then? I can't hold him long without a warrant, at least not legally. With all the new lawyers about, he'll get off free. If I arrest him and just hold him, who knows when the circuit judge will come. The whites will want him out of jail. The Cherokee will want their pound of flesh."
"So he gets away with it? That could start a war."
"I know. Look, here's what I'm going to do. I'm going to waste a day and ride over to Mindenmines and see Judge Ritter. He'll give me a bench warrant so I can arrest this man all legal like. The extra day will give Fawn time to heal so she can point him out."
"All right, I can see the sense in that. What can I do?"
"You need to go into town and find this guy. Don't do anything more. Just watch him. If he leaves, follow and send word back on your whereabouts."
"We have him spotted already. That was the first thing I did."
I gave him a hard look. "No gun play. Understand?"
"Yeah, I got it. No killing of whites by red men. I know my place."
My hand gripped his shoulder. "Your place is by my side as my friend. My best friend--.”
"Yeah, there's that. Anyway, let's be smart about it. There's enough trouble in this world without us making more."
"One other thing. You need to think about my offer to become my Deputy. It would go a long way toward keeping peace with the tribes."
“Maybe. We’ll see.”
We shook hands as we parted and I rode to Mindenmines. I got there late so I cold-camped outside of town. I'd see the judge the next morning.
It was a waste of time. I sat in the office of Judge Ritter and explained what had happened and my need for a warrant.
"Judge, I know you've accused me of being a gunman. You know my history better than anyone. If you hadn't set me on the right path a few years ago, I'd be sitting in one of your cells." He'd had breakfast brought in and was eating as my stomach grumbled. He nodded and waved his fork for me to continue.
"I'm walking a fine line between the Cherokee and whites. This needs to be done legal as can be."
He sat a moment looking at me, and then dabbed at his lips with a napkin. "Well, you'll get your warrant. I think I have a good enough grasp of the problem. Do you think for one minute you can get a conviction? You can't set the Cherokee on a jury. It'd be sort of legal if you did. But, right or wrong most folks wouldn't stand for it. If this man has the money for some jack-leg lawyer, he'd get off easy."
"That ain't right."
"That's the way it is."
Judge Ritter got busy writing as I slumped in the chair. "So, what now? I can't let the man get away with something like this."
"Of course not." He handed me the useless paper. "This warrant will give you all the excuse you need to go get him."
"Jim, sometimes the law can't do what's right. That's why we have a sheriff. I expect you to take care of business."
"I've sworn to uphold the law."
"You've sworn to serve the people."
Well, that wasn't the answer I was looking for when I came. Some might call the judge old fashioned, but if push came to shove I knew he'd have my back. We shook hands as I prepared to leave.
"Now, you go and get some breakfast instead of trying to shame me into giving you mine. Send me a letter sometime to let me know how it turns out."
As I left the building old Red and I looked at each other. If I rode him hard we'd be back late tonight. But, he was the horse for it. He might be meaner than a snake, but he always got me where I needed to be. I'd miss the box supper and dance, but get a good night’s sleep.
I caught a quick breakfast while Red munched in a feed bag. Once he was watered, we took off.
They must have been watching for us because John met me at the edge of town. "You look plumb tuckered out. Your horse ain't much better."
"We had a hard ride. Who's watching our man?"
"He's easy to find, right now. I got bad news for you."
"You killed him?"
"No. Maybe we should have. Look, Jim. There's no other way of saying this. He's at Betty's."
A rapist at Betty's? I started to rein Red around and found myself surrounded by men on horses. Most were men who helped on the ranch.
John moved his horse next to mine and grabbed my arm. "I can't let you go there. Not like this. Listen to me. She knew him, even introduced us. His name is Rob Timmerlane, from Joplin."
He shook his head. "They went to the box supper and dance together. To be honest, I didn't think much of it even with him being a bad actor. Since she knew him I couldn't see the harm. When they went back to her house, I got concerned and snuck up to her window. Just in case she wasn't willing. I didn't hear any protest."
I couldn't get my head around it. "She knew him? What the hell?"
"I know. What was I supposed to do? Jim, if you're thinking of saving her... there's nothing to save. Not tonight."
He kept his grip on my arm until I settled down. If she was a willing participant, there was no point in going in and making a fool of myself. "All right. I'll be fine, now. It was just a shock."
"I can understand that. Did you get the warrant?"
"Oh, I got it. I'll serve it tomorrow after church. That will give you time to get Fawn into town. Guess I'll go home now. I need the rest."
He let go of my arm. "A few of us will stay here and watch the house, just in case." He gave me a sad smile. "You don't mind if some of the men ride with you? Just to make sure you make it home?"
I looked around and they were all grinning at me. It didn't look like I had much choice.
She stopped me as I was walking away from my talk with Pastor Schuler. Sitting on a picnic table under a shady elm, her soft voice carried to me.
Why not? Might as well get this over with. I moved over and stood in front of her. "So, how was your night?"
Her eyes widened as she flinched away. "You… what do you mean?"
I don't know what she was going to say, but that name hit her hard. She seemed to shrink and withdraw, her gaze wouldn't meet my eyes. I turned to leave.
"Wait. How did you know?"
"Does it matter?" I couldn't keep the anger from my voice.
"No. I guess not." Her gaze finally met mine. "When we started seeing each other you never asked about my past."
My eyes were searching the street before us. I noticed John Proud Bear sitting in front of the mercantile and old pastor Schuler stood by the church... waiting.
"I didn't figure it mattered. You didn't ask about mine either. I thought we both had a fresh start going here."
She nodded, tears leaking down her cheeks. "Well, I guess it matters now. I knew Rob in Joplin. That's where I'm from. I guess you'd say he was a good customer." Her cheeks turned ruddy. I saw blood on her palm from clenching her fists so hard. "You know how it is...."
I did, although it was a surprise she was involved. Joplin has more bawdy houses than outhouses. "I get the picture."
"I left all that to make a new life—thought I'd done it. When he showed up yesterday, I didn't know what to do... you weren't here.... When he asked me to put him up for the night I agreed. I didn't want to, shouldn't have. Anyway, once inside he didn't take no for an answer. I thought it would be easier to let it happen. That you'd never know."
"Well, surprise. I found out."
"You were watching me?"
"Him? Why? What's...?"
John was standing before us. I hadn't seen him approach. "He's at the stable, saddling up."
I nodded. "Thanks."
She came off that table and grabbed my arm. "No. Not for me. I'm not worth it. I know you're angry. If you must hurt someone... hurt me."
I looked my question at her.
"He's fast, Jim. He hires out to kill people. Nobody gets close to beating him."
I looked at her a moment, my anger settling. Hurt her? Not in this lifetime. "It's not about you, Betty."
Well, that was sort of a lie. Behind me, I could hear John talking to Betty.
The stable was about a hundred feet away and it didn't take long to get there. He was cinching the saddle when I spoke to him. "Rob Timmerlane. You're under arrest."
He turned and pinned me with a gaze, and then as quick looked around for anyone else helping me. "What in hell for?"
The man was dressed in black and silver and had a red streak on one cheek. He stood relaxed in the morning light, a taunting look in his eyes. John was right. They'd painted me a picture.
Hoof beats and the sound of a wagon came up behind me and stopped. John spoke up. "Fawn is here."
I didn't take my gaze from Timmerlane. "Fawn, is this the man?"
"She said it is." John spoke for her.
"Fawn, I need to hear you say it. Is this the man?"
Her voice was weak, but strong enough. "Yes. That's him."
"All right, y'all can go on home."
After a few moments, the street was quiet behind me. "Timmerlane, you're under arrest for rape and assault. Throw down your pistol."
He took a wide step away from his horse. "I don't think so."
I had to keep my gaze locked on him because he had his hand on his gun. "John, if you're behind me get people out of the way." Stray bullets have no sense of right or wrong. Shuffling footsteps told me they were moving.
I saw the weasel in him when he started talking. I figured his reputation was made as a back shooter. This wasn't his style.
"It was just an Indian girl. You can't arrest me for that. Nobody cares."
I just stared at him. "You're not going to trial."
"So it's your woman? Forget it. She didn't want to... I made her. For old time's sake."
"You raped and beat a young girl. It's time to pay."
He shook his head, smiling at me. "You're going to force me to kill you, sheriff. I don't want to. Maybe Betty didn't tell you, but I'm one of the fastest guns in the west."
"I'll put that on your tombstone."
I watched his eyes. When they twitched, I shot him. He stood with his pistol dropping from nerveless fingers as his horse shied away.
"Nobody... who are you? I never heard of...."
He crumpled in slow motion, like a sack of potatoes trying to stand straight. Pastor Schuler came and knelt with him, doing whatever preachers do.
I turned to see the Cherokee riders going away with a buckboard holding Fawn. They had a tough way to go, but I knew they'd be fine. They had strong families. I envied them for that.
Betty stood before me. "I'm sorry. Is there any chance...?"
"How could I trust you? Who else will come riding up someday? We're not married, so what you two did last night was your business. But, it can't be without consequences. We had an understanding. At least, I thought we did."
She walked away crying. I reached out to her but it was an empty gesture—arrested in mid-thought as I dropped my hand to my side. Anger and sadness fought for my soul.
Pastor Schuler stood by me. "You gave a lie to me this morning. Are you still at peace?" He shook his head, his gaze never left my eyes. "Who did the greater sin? She broke your trust. You killed a man in anger. If you ask forgiveness for the one, you must do the other."
I stood alone in that street as the wind kicked up dirt that hit my eyes. In the distance, I could see John and Sarah standing with Betty. Sarah's arm was around her—I supposed in consolation. They turned as one and looked at me.
The first step is the hardest when you're mired in anger and self-righteousness. But I took it. I've never regretted it.
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