Western Short Story
John Bevans Tailback came on the scene in lower Wyoming Territory when he was 15 years old, riding into the town of Looping Wells, looking for the two men who murdered his mother and father in cold blood over the last loaf of bread in her oven. He told the sheriff what had happened, all the details including the descriptions of the two men he had seen on that unforgettable day four years earlier.
He had grown well.
“I have not forgotten their faces, their deeds, or their hunger at eating my mother’s last loaf of bread while she and my father lay dead on the floor and I was under the curtain on the sink where my mother had shoved me when she saw one of the men sneak up on my father from inside the barn, hit him on the head and drag him into our cabin.”
The sheriff studied the boy, saw him a determined, though young man who had been range-bred. He had sturdiness about him, and a good deal of confidence. His eyes, the sheriff additionally thought, were a serious matter, appearing as though they held the answer to many questions before they were asked. He was sure that was true of some searches, this current one to be resolved by the young one most likely on his own. He was as dark-haired as the ace of spades, with blue-green eyes that might toy with a girl, or even a lady, and two walnut-handle pistols hung loose on his belt.
To the sheriff, on a second look, Jack Tailback emerged older than he gave evidence.
“Son,” the sheriff said, “you leave this to the law. I’ll try to have some kind of poster made up and have it hung proper and move it around the territory. I want you to go off and let us work on it. Tell me where you’ll be so I can contact you.” Then sipped at his beer, shrugged his shoulders with either disdain or futility. The boy was sure his words had fallen on the deaf ears of a man too busy to pay him any mind.
“Well,” said Tailback, if you’re about chasing them gents, you’re bound to come across me ‘cause I’m starting now to really look for them. I’ll travel the whole territory for them, inside and outside, making the great circle of towns around Looping Wells until they’re dead, hanged, shot or run down by a cattle stampede, whatever comes first. If I’m there first, they’ll be dead.”
“You go killing anybody without a trial and we’ll rig one on you, son. You be careful.”
“They’ll draw on me first, sheriff,” he said, “so it’ll be self-defense.” With that no sooner out of his mouth, he whipped one of his guns from its holster and fired a round the full length of the saloon and hit smack dead in the middle of a picture of a singer scheduled to come into town in a few weeks.
The law was impressed, and the young man left Looping Wells, heading west.
Tailback, en route to the next town on his list, reflected on the things he had told the sheriff and those that he hadn’t even mentioned, letting them sit back there in his mind like secrets of the dead. One of them came at him often. Unmistakably he kept hearing the words, “Clean sleeves, clean sleeves,” and wondered why they were so important and yet so irregular an expression in cow country where every horseman worked long and hard and unworried about clean sleeves except when coming out of a mountain spring as the year warmed up. Those men were the drovers, ranch owners, stage drivers, freighters, sheriffs, marshals and just about every deputy they might have dropped a swearing-in ceremony on. Others, like bank tellers, whose hands and wrists were constantly in sight of customers, like gentle women, ladies of a town, perhaps would be the only ones who cared for “clean sleeves.”
One other sign struck his eyes on a boot no more than a foot from his face as he tried not to breathe too heavily under the sink where his mother had hidden him. It was on one boot, no spur attached, but a small quarter moon with an arrow through it. That sign he burned itself into his mind.
“Things to lead me, “ he said as he rode. Things to lead me, to keep in mind.” He’d slap his gun at such moments, feeling the shot of energy and revenge as it flashed through him. His mother’s face he had seen often, but such times as these, with the revenge running amuck inside him, his hand slapping the butt of his pistol, he saw, almost clearly, the full face of his father; the stitched, curved lip where a cow had kicked him, the slight mound over one eye from another accident, the wide ears that seemed to shoot out under his sombrero, the near-flat ridge on his nose, and the kindest, warmest and saddest eyes he had ever seen on a man.
He wondered why and could not figure it out.
In Benton’s Mark, a small settlement on his route, he stayed a full day, right through to when the quiet hours came around at last in the Gray Dog Saloon. That stay included a talk with the sheriff that revealed nothing but a “Good luck, kid.”
After a decent sleep in the livery, courtesy of the owner, he started anew on his search. The next in line, Wilford Springs, sat on the widening circle of towns he had marked out. The little town sat pretty as a picture as he looked down from a good-sized hill that broke up the trail. The sun, well before noon, sat on the town like an embrace, pulling all its parts into the one golden sweep of the sun. Light glistened on some windows, shot away on others at different angles, almost said hello to him from others.
From his view he saw a single rider alone on the wide grass, not too far from the town, like a daily ride for exercise. After watching the rider, he sensed it was a girl from some unexplainable quarter telling him it was obvious. She rode lightly, now and then spurred the horse into a flat-out stretch of speed, and seeming satisfied with some exhilaration, like waving her hat and letting out a yell, she’d rein the horse to a slow trot.
She looked like she was having herself a fun day. She drew his curiosity.
Slowly he rode down toward her, and kept waving his hat to get her attention. He did so and she drew her horse to a stand-still, eyeing him all the way, but not showing any fright … not in the peak of the day, in the middle of the grass, the sun behaving too good for her, the breeze as tender as new buds, her horse able to run with full speed to evade any problems on such a nice day.
“Hi,” he said, quickly adding, “you look like you’re having a whole bale of fun so early in the day, and that horse goes pretty fast when you want him to, doesn’t he?”
“Sure does,” she said, her face a beauty of a face with full-up blue eyes, lips so pretty like they were begging for a kiss, and her complexion not a beaten-down, wind-worn, sunburned layer of flesh. She appeared slim, young, of his age, friendly, but could bolt seriously if she had to in a second. “Where are you coming from? You going to Wilford Springs? “ she said and quickly added, “'cause if you ain’t, you’re sure going to bump into it.”
Her smile lit up the prairie even brighter than he had first determined it to be.
He decided not to hold back anything because he did not want to spend it uselessly. He had no time for romance, or its approach he had decided earlier, though she had started a warm buzz inside him.
“Well, my name’s Jack Tailback and I’m on a search for two murderers, and I aim to sweep the whole territory for the next ten years, or forever, looking for them but it’s not going to take that long, I just feel it.”
“What did they do?” There was real interest in her voice, and her eyes said the same thing.
“They killed my Mom and Dad about four years ago. My Mom hid me under the sink and told me to keep quiet and not move. Next thing one of them brings my pa inside and drops him on the floor, my ma screams and they shoot her and eat the last loaf of bread she had in the oven, stuffing themselves and going off and leaving my folks on the floor. I haven’t forgotten it. Not for one minute, though I feel guilty as hell about not doing anything then, that’s why I’m doing it now.”
“What could you do when you were so young? How old are you?” Her face stood forth as the saddest he had seen since he began telling his own sad tale.
“I’m going on 16, in a few weeks.”
“Oh,” she said, I’ll be 16, too, in about three weeks. My name is Eva Valley Phillips. That’s horrid what they did. I hope you catch them and see them strung up by the neck.”
She dwelled a moment on his lashes; curling and black as the ace of spades, she thought.
“I might shoot them first, if I run into them. Only reason I’m out here is to look for them. Find one at a time or both at once.”
“So you must know what they look like, if you peeked out from under that curtain your Ma had around the sink.”
“I know them right to some of their scars, what they wear, stuff like that. How one’s eyes are set on the side of his nose like they were dropped from someplace up high in a close grip, but not heaven, for sure.” He paused, looked at her with a tender look, and asked, “What do you do out here alone besides running around and having fun?”
"I like to get some of the good air, get some exercise for me and my horse, and see nice things growing out here. The nice scenery. So I’m always looking for a nice scene or a nice flower to sketch. I really like to sketch. I can fill up a book with some things. My Pa says I’m a natural and can’t imagine where it comes from.” She laughed at some inside joke she did not share.
“That sounds like fun,” he said. “I’d like to see some of that sometime.”
“I’ll show you if you really want to see them.” She was pink in the face as she said it.
Then a single thought must have hit both of them.
Tailback asked, “Do you draw faces?”
She said, “Oh, I’ve done my folks several times. My father always says that’s how he looks, but my mom says she looks different than I sketch her. Says she’s younger looking, and I think she says that to please my father, and my father says what he says to please me.”
And her face widened in sudden amazement as she said, “Oh, my goodness, I just had the same thought you did. You tell me what they look like and I’ll sketch them, both of them, those horrid men, until you’re sure I’ve done them right.”
She shivered slightly, closed her eyes, and uttered slowly, “I’d love to do it. I really really would.” She looked at his black lashes again, but not so as he could notice.
A bond had been impressed on young souls.
Eva’s parents, as part of their western code, invited to dinner the young man when their daughter explained all the circumstances.
Eva’s father, Barney Phillips, said, “If you met up with either one of those scoundrels, Jack, could you handle the situation?”
“Yes, sir,” said Jack. “Both of them together or one at a time, makes no difference to me.”
“But it might to them,” Eva said, and Tailback knew exactly how she meant that observation. He felt warm all over all over again.
There came some discussion of his problems in life, but the parents managed to skirt much of the murder, only hoping the fiends would be caught and be treated as the had acted. After dinner, the two young ones sat on the front porch, Eva with a board in her lap, pencils at hand, and a bubble of energy to get on with the task.
“Tell me again, Jack,” she said, “about the one with the eyes dropped from on high.” She added a humorous look to her countenance and let it speak for her knowledge that it did not issue from a holy throne. “Tell me what else they looked like, and the color of the pupils and the eyelashes and eyebrows and every single thing you can remember. If we get the eyes down right, I think all the rest will come after a few different views, and mostly about nose and chin and how the lips looked when he made a face or cursed or whatever.”
They sat on the porch for a few hours, by themselves, her father coming out only once to bring a lamp as evening thickened, but never once looking at what his daughter so far had sketched.
Once, in the middle of things, he said, “Make this happen in the sketch; make his sleeves clean or neat or how they might bother a gunman if his sleeves are messy or his cuffs might get tangled in his gun play. I don’t know why I remember that, but he kept saying he had to get another shirt, his sleeves were messy. He looked in my father’s clothes and there weren’t any with sleeves clean enough to steal. It might mean something and it might not, but I’ll keep my eyes open.”
And with the darkness descending on top of a series of descriptions of chin and mouth and lips and ears from Jack’s memory, and how one scar made a left cheek stick out like a signboard all on its own, and one arm drawn under the face as it might have been folded, the sleeve of the shirt neat and trimmed, Jack suddenly leaped up and shouted, “Oh, Eva, Eva, that’s him! That’s him!”
He held the sketch out in front of him, admired it as if he was in a museum, and kept exclaiming, “You did it! You did it.”
The shouting and commotion brought Eva’s parents out to check on them.
Young Jack first showed Mrs. Phillips the sketch, which brought a vile look of hate across her face.
When Eva held out the sketch to her father, he sat down, studied it for a few serious minutes and then said, quite loudly and with definite affirmation, “Jack, I know him. I know him, I’m sure. He’s a hand at Thornwell’s ranch, the Daisy D. It’s in the next valley. He’s been there over a year that I know of. Jake Thornwell says he’s a decent worker, but not social at all and hardly liked by the rest of the boys. His name is Bouncer Ditson. At least that’s what they call him. Some of them said he’s mean as hell. Had some trouble once, I remember, about not going into town with the boys. Doesn’t drink with them, they say, but goes off with a fellow from another ranch, just a guy named Londo and no other name, to see some Indian girls in the hills any chance they get. I guess that doesn’t set well with some of their pards who have fought off some wild renegade Indians on several drives.”
Tailback, standing as if at attention in the ranks, said, “I want to thank you folks for giving me a hand and letting Eva sit around with a complete stranger after having had supper at your table.” He talked as if he was suddenly a lot older than “nearly 16.”
A bit of difficulty came into his voice, but it wasn’t indecision. “This day is the finest thing that’s happened to me in a long while. I can’t thank you enough, but I’ll be leaving now.”
He stood tall, and Eva thought handsome as he turned to her and said, “I’m so happy that I met you. You’re a great rider, a great drawer of faces and the prettiest thing I about ever saw.”
He shook her hand.
She kissed him on the cheek.
Her mother smiled in memory.
Her father said, “I can send a few of my boys with you, Jack. This might be a tough swing for you.”
“No, thank you, sir. I’ve been this long hating a few people so I have to take care of it all at once, and alone, as best I can. I would like to come back and say hello again before I go on to wherever.”
There arose a distinctive pause, and pre-announcement in his voice, as he said, “I’ve got to get shuck of this feeling of hatred. It sure doesn’t help me here.”
Eva said, “Wherever you’re headed sure is not going to be far from here.”
Both women, at that moment, loved the boy-man, Jack Tailback, for different reasons, as they would be perceived to a regular on-looker.
In a short time, Tailback learned a few things:
He sat for two days in the hills above the Daisy-D Ranch in the next valley, and prepared to leave as the sun started to set when he saw two riders leave the ranch and proceed not toward town, but into the foothills on his side of the valley. He had chosen a fairly secure position to keep watch on the valley; his horse was tied up nearby, hidden from just about all other vantage points, and provided free passage for him to travel in different directions.
The two men rode directly up into the lower hills and Tailback was able to see the trail they had chosen. The trail was now known to him as he had familiarized himself with the trails leading into a few Indian dwellings spotted in the hills. His observation of the riders provided him a view of the bulging saddlebags slung on their horses. He figured the bags contained presents or pay-off goods for the squaws they were bent on visiting.
The men rode slowly but steadily and Tailback followed them at a discrete distance, keeping back at turns in the trail, avoiding rises now and then by slowing down, assuming at one point where the trail split, that they were going to one small group of tepees he had seen earlier. It was situated in a corner of a small canyon protected on three sides by high cliffs.
Tailback kept patting his horse on the neck, saying, “Good boy, Pancho. Nice and easy, boy.” They had been partners in this affair and he felt bound and bidden to treat him well. His thoughts were interrupted by Eva and her talent; she had captured the characteristics of both men quicker than expected. He thought her to be a genius, able to plumb his mind in such short order.
More than four years of hate and immediate revenge were near at hand; he could feel them rising in him, just as strong as they had risen years before.
The two killers, seemingly at ease in the small gathering of tipis, tied their horses off on a small tree, removed the saddle bags and advanced to two of the tipis, each one entering one of them. Nothing moved around the tipis, but off on a corner he saw older squaws at work on furs or hides of one sort or another.
From a new vantage point, closer than he had ever been to his parents’ killers, he sat on a rock and thought over the situation. Eva kept intruding, and he figured she was telling him to be careful, to be sure, to come back to her. It helped him with some of the decisions bound in his prospects.
The evening wore on, drinking noises and hell-raising sounds came to him from both tipis, and eventually the shrill cries of women being abused swept across the clearing. What saddlebag contents could pay for abuse? What were the trade-offs? He could not imagine, but there lingered the way these two men had gulped down his mother’s last loaf of bread from her oven, and her and his father dead at their feet.
Bouncer Ditson and Londo, the pair of them, at last were at hand.
Young Jack Tailback walked into the small group of tipis, the noise still audible, nobody moving to help anybody in pain or in trouble, the names Bouncer Ditson and Londo sitting like poison in his throat, on his tongue, held back from his lips lest he be further cursed.
The weight of the names held him back only for a short time.
Then he let it all go:
“Hey, you murderers. Hey, Bouncer Ditson, hey Londo. You pokes remember you killed my parents and ate the last loaf of bread from her oven while her and my Pa lay dead on the floor, right at your feet?”
He waited, his hands loose, his heart eager.
No response reached him.
He stepped to the side, behind a rock, and the silence continued.
“Hey,” he yelled. “You guys afraid of a kid? C’mon out and face me and my guns. C’mon cowards. C’mon.” He had stepped forward, both guns in his hands.
Still no answer.
He walked deeper into the area, waiting for one or the other to make a move, shoot from one of the tipis, and try to slip out through an open flap while shooting all the way.
Nobody moved, so he shot at the top of one tipi. The bullet shattered the tip of a pole. Debris flew apart from the pole.
“No shoot! No shoot!” It was a female voice from one tipi, and was immediately followed by the same words from the second tipi.
“No shoot! No shoot!” came again from the first tipi. “They are dead. We have seen you. We know you are not friends. We have killed them. Both cruel. Both mean. It was time for death. This one here die changing his shirt, looking away from me.”
Two young females, of rare beauty, slipped out of the tipis, their hands thrown out in front of them seeking supplication.
Tailback said, “Are they both dead?”
“They are dead,” each one confirmed.
As though a kite was lifted on high, Jack Tailback felt a fierce energy leaving him, fleeing upward. And he discerned a note of freedom on the faces of the young Indians, two maidens finally cut loose from their terrors.
There was an undeniable understanding struck between the three of them, and with the two dead men hauled out of the tipis and identified by Jack Tailback as the killers of his parents without a single doubt: the faces he remembered, the half-donned shirt on one man telling a story, along with eyes so close to his nose they might have come from one place in one grasp. Each of his boots carried a small crescent moon with an arrow through it.
The signs all falling in place.
A sudden flare of intelligence hit him; since he met Eva, since she committed her talent and drawn the sketches, he no longer needed to clutch at bad memories.
In a twist of justice he quietly ignored the apparent deep wounds that had killed the men and did not see the weapons of mercy that had been employed. Nor did he bother to search for them.
He couldn’t wait to tell Eva what had happened. And he didn’t have to tell the sheriff at Looping Wells where he was or what he was up to.
Not at all.
He might just say his search was over.