Western Short Story
Kirk Taatjes, blond as fallen sunlight, fast gun unknown to most folks west of Pennsylvania, pulled his horse to a halt topping a rise in the trail. His gaze sped across three peaks of the Tetons as majestic as any peaks he had seen this far on his journey and guessed it was where he had been headed all the time, "out there back of beyond," as Mountain Jack Dawry called it from his last bed. “It’s where you got to go, kid, out past beyond, after the mountains, past the grass.”
Dawry had fallen off a narrow trail and was near a full day on his back, one leg broken, but lucky enough that his rifle landed close enough to grab after he had inched his way towards it. “Damned critters’ll try to get even with me now,” he had said aloud, trying to scare off any of those so-bent critters in hearing distance. He said it a dozen times, his clarion that he was alive and ready for anything that dared try him on.
But those alarming words, as what they proved to be, fell on the ears of young Kirk Taatjes as he wandered west to find what was pushing him to where the sun “lost it for another day,” as Dawry was to exclaim as part of his thanks to the young man with the deep blue eye, skin as gold as the last nugget he had cashed in for supplies, and a pistol sitting like a ready tool on his hip waiting to be slammed into action.
“Perhaps it was my horse Pepper, who heard you first, Mr. Dawry,” Taatjes had said, once he set Dawry’s broken leg and hustled him up on Pepper and, as directed by the big man, got him to his small cabin built right against the mouth of a cave.
“Get me in my bed, boy, and I’ll be ever thankful. I ain’t too long for hangin’ around this way and do appreciate you standin’ by and puttin’ me back there in the cave when the time comes. I want to stay home f’ever, and this is home. I been here near 10 years now, and got some gold I hid back there you can have after you put me by. It’s in a tin under a square rock on a second ledge. Took me a year to whack that hole in the ledge, knowin’ some of them that look for miners and prospectors and rob ‘em blind of gold or working supplies like it was nothin’ and it bein’ everthin’ in the world to a lonely looker for gold.”
Dawry hung on for four days, the fever working on him, disappearing, and coming back each time with a vengeance, until it swallowed him up. Taatjes heard the last gasp crawl out of Dawry’s lungs, and fall on the floor of the cabin. It was the same sound, Taatjes thought, that he had heard from a dying burro back in his father’s farm in Pennsylvania.
But the burial pit was ready when the mountain man died, Taatjes working back there hurriedly to set it up, amassing daily a mess of rocks and stones and boulders from odd places inside the cave and outside.
“Make it good, boy, ‘cause them critters’ll all be lookin’ after me, makin’ up for past deeds. You can have my passel of hides I got put by, and my rifle. My horse was run off a month ago by a screamin’ lion, else I’d give him to you, too.”
The big man coughed and moaned with difficulty, and he finally managed to say, “I best make a paper sayin’ I give you my leavin’s, else someone in the two villages you pass to get back of beyond are places I been for supplies. They know me and my keepin’s, so I’ll write I give ‘em to you for savin’ me for a while and then puttin’ me down proper.”
On the back of an old poster of a wanted man (“I used to ride wagon with him ‘fore he swallered his pride and let it break loose on him,” the dying man explained), Dawry wrote, “Me, Big Jack Dawry give my leavins to this young feller Kirk Taatjes to keep long as I stay buried where he put me. Jack Dawry once’t was Kentuck born.”
The young golden boy, bound beyond, suddenly as lonely as he had ever been, placed the body of his one friend met on the trail so far, into the natural depression in the cave and carefully piled every stone in place that he had gathered. He said his last words over the grave, packed up what gear and supplies he wanted, and went out on the trail.
It was only a few miles that he heard the nicker of a horse coming from the mouth of a canyon. He saw the sorrel caught in one small area by rocks from a small rock slide, and recognized it immediately from Dawry’s description of his lost horse he called Jasper. The horse still carried Dawry’s saddle. “He knows his name, boy. He knows his name,” Dawry had said as part of the animal’s description.
The old man of the mountains had said it solemnly, as if it was an alert. Taatjes paid some regard to the tone of Dawry’s voice, and then let it go. He saw the big man again, how huge he was across shoulders and chest, arms like logs, neck like a tree trunk, and realized the horse that could bear such a man must indeed be some kind of an animal, as Dawry had expressed.
Two days later, keeping Dawry’s horse on a tether line, Taatjes rode into the small settlement of Rocky Knoll that was caught up between two good-sized peaks and a river that promised trout at the first look, and felt the sudden demand for a beer, his last one more than two weeks back. The sign over the front of a building, in elegant but bold red lettering, said, “No Noose Saloon.” It made him laugh, and he felt the suspense and the expected joy in having a beer and talking with some folks for a change.
The heavy-set bartender, his face wide open and expressive as if he had never held a secret, said his name was Irish Ned and poured Taatjes a beer. “Where you headed, kid? You passin’ through here? To where? Lots of trails out there. They go every way you look.” He smiled in an easy manner, his eyes as blue as a bottle sitting on a shelf behind him.
Taatjes said, “I’m going out there,” and he tipped his head west, “to the back of beyond.”
Irish Ned said, “Damned if I didn’t hear that someplace before, but can’t remember where.”
The door of the saloon was shoved open by a heavy thrust and a man stomped in wearing the badge of a deputy. His name was Zack Henry. He looked around the room, now half filled with customers, and said, “Who belongs to them two horses out there tied up together?” He pointed back over his shoulder in case anyone didn’t know where the horses were that he was talking about.
“Them two out there,” Henry said, his legs spread as though he were making a stand for a duel in the street.
There was no answer, and Taatjes thinking the horses were his own business and not the deputy’s.
The deputy was insistent. “You all heard me,” he said, pride and anger both in his voice, “whose is them horses? I’m the law in this town while the sheriff ails in his bed.” He looked around the room and at the bartender for a special look, and added, “And that could be a time if you ask me. A time and some. Whose is them horses?”
Taatjes didn’t like Henry’s tone of voice, his stance, and his threats to the customers and to the bartender in particular. He said, “I brought them. Rode one and dragged one. And I came in here to have a quiet beer and wet my throat.” He turned back to the bar and the bartender sent him a look of warning.
“You’re a damned stranger,” Henry said. “Where’d you get that sorrel?”
“Like hell he is. You stole that horse.” He had gone into a more threatening stance when Taatjes turned his back.
Taatjes was about to say, “You better back that up, Deputy,” but when he turned around the deputy had his pistol aimed right at his heart.
“That horse belongs to Mountain Jack Dawry,” Henry said. “We all know it. Seen him in here a month or two ago. He got drunker’n hell and was gone in the mornin’ on that horse. I saw him go. On that sorrel.” He looked around the room for a sign of support and said, “Drop your gun, stranger. I’m taking you in for stealin’ a horse.”
“Who’d I steal him from?” Taatjes said. “Jack Dawry is dead.”
The deputy had a sneering smile start around his mouth and almost went up to his cheeks. “How do you know he’s dead? You kill him and then steal his horse?”
Taatjes looked at the deputy’s gun, a slight waver in his hand, but it would be hopeless to gun him down. He said, “I know he’s dead because I buried him, and in that cave right behind his cabin, and under a decent amount of rocks to keep him from the critters.”
“Yah,” said the deputy, “fat chance him bein’ scared of anythin’. How’d he die?”
“He fell and broke his leg and got real feverish for four or five days and died.”
“Well, stranger, I’m arrestin’ you on suspicion of horse stealin’ and killin’ Mountain Jack Dawry. I’ll check out your story sometime, but you sit in jail ‘til I do.”
“How long will that be?”
“Look, you, stranger on another man’s horse, I’m the law here. Most likely I’ll be the sheriff sooner than later, him feelin’ poorly as he does. So you just move on ahead of me to the jail. We’ll get the judge in here soon. That’ll take care of you.”
“When are you going to check out Jack Dawry up there in his cave?”
“Hell, I don’t believe half the stuff you’re sayin’ and the rest is plain lies, now get goin’.” He waved the gun again and Taatjes walked out ahead of him. Heading for jail.
Late that night, serving up the last of the drinks, the owner ready to shut down The No Noose Saloon, Irish Ned suddenly remembered where he had heard the expression “Back of beyond.” He could see the image of the big man as if he was standing there in front of him, wide as a stump, strong as a pair of mules in the traces. And the expression came back to him, from across the bar where Dawry and another man were talking. For sure the kid had been with Jack Dawry.
Evading the sheriff’s office and jail in the middle of the night, seeing the lamp still bright inside, knowing that Henry was probably studying wanted posters, Irish Ned went to see the sheriff in his small cabin on the edge of town. Sheriff Fred Dooley was a likeable gent that Irish Ned had taken to on his first day in town, the sheriff welcoming him like he was an old friend in grand style to his new spot behind the bar of The No Noose Saloon. He trusted the older lawman as much as he had ever trusted a man, and he often wondered how he had picked his Zack Henry to be his deputy.
His knock on the sheriff’s door was answered quickly, the door swinging open immediately, and Dooley saying, “It’s real nice to get a visitor when I’m supposed to be in bed, Ned. Breaks up the sleep.”
They both enjoyed a quick laugh, and then Irish Ned told him about the kid, Kirk Taatjes and Mountain Jack Dawry and Deputy Zack Henry. He finished off his story by saying, “Zack said he went up there today and saw how Big Jack was probably killed and buried under rocks in the cave behind his cabin. He says he has the judge coming in the next day or two and he’ll get the kid hung as soon as he can.”
“You think Zack is rushing things?” Dooley said and added, “And him wanting my job it makes him lose himself at the first chance?”
“That’s it, Fred. I don’t see how he got up there today and study things and get back here to have a drink at suppertime.”
The two friends talked another hour. Dooley went to bed as soon as Irish Ned left to go back to his room in the rear of the saloon. He went back the same way he had come, away from the jail and the Deputy Henry.
The judge came in a day earlier than expected and called for a trial first thing in the morning. It took place in The No Noose Saloon, and the jury was seated against one wall. The deputy presented his case; “I went up to Mountain Jack Dawry’s cabin and walked around the side and went into the cave where I saw Mountain Jack buried under a measly pile of stones. He had a big cut on his head where he must have been hit by the suspect, Kirk Taatjes. He’s as guilty as bugs on a dead critter, Your Honor.”
He paused and then said, “And he come strollin’ in here with Mountain Jack’s own sorrel like he owned the damned thing.”
Kirk Taatjes jumped up and said, “Where’s the note Big Jack wrote and gave all his property to me and a bunch of gold nuggets. Where are those things, Mr. Deputy?”
“Your Honor,” Henry said, “You can see with all your experience as a man of the law what a liar this kid is, this plain all-out horse thief and killer. He ought to be hung. There was nothing in the saddlebags on any of them horses. No note from the mountain man. No bunch of gold nuggets. Just plain nothin'.”
The door of the saloon popped open at that moment and out of his sick bed came Sheriff Fred Dooley. He walked in, a limp in his gait, his color pale as easy-done flapjacks, but a fierce look on his face.
He looked at the judge and said, “Sheriff Fred Dooley here, Your Honor, and you know me from way back. I would like to say my piece and take part in this trial, seeing as I’m the sheriff here.” He looked disparagingly at his deputy.
With the limp still with him, he came to the judge’s table, then leaned over the bar, held a whispered conversation with Irish Ned, and sat down on a chair one of the cowpokes had dragged up for him.
The judge said, “Do you want to question the defendant, Sheriff?” He had a look of pity on his face as he addressed the sheriff.
“Not at first, Your Honor. I want to get some hard facts squared away to my satisfaction with my deputy, Zack Henry, if that’s okay with you?”
“Of course, Sheriff. C’mon up, Deputy, and remember you’re already under oath, so no more swearing needed.” He sent a slight smile with his humor, which got a little reaction from the patrons and the jury. And nothing at all from Deputy Zack Henry.
Dooley looked at Henry with sadness sitting on his face. “Tell me, Zack, like you told the judge and jury about how and what you found up at Mountain Jack’s place. Tell it like you told it before. Just like you did before I got in here, the way I heard you from outside the window. I have to get these pictures straight in my mind.”
Kirk Taatjes caught a look on Irish Ned’s face. He tried to interpret the look, but kept thinking about everything he had heard.
Zack Henry, practically in the exact words, told his story again.
The sheriff said, “Okay, Zack you can step down. That’s all.” Then, with a twist of his head, said, “For now.”
Both Irish Ned and Kirk Taatjes sent looks at each other, some message blossoming between the two men at that very moment.
Fred Dooley said, “Your Honor, I’d like the kid, Kirk Taatjes, the defendant, to come up and speak for himself.”
Taatjes sat in the witness chair beside the judge.
“Kirk,” Dooley said, “tell me what you think about the deputy’s statements that he gave two times to this court.”
“Well, Sheriff, he’s lying about nothing in the saddlebags because that’s where the gold pouch was and the note from Mr. Dawry.”
Henry leaped up and said, “He’s just plain all-out lyin’ again, Judge.”
Dooley said, “Sit down, Zack until I’m finished with the witness.”
“What else, Kirk?”
“He’s dead wrong about the pile of stones I put down on Mister Dawry. I did it like he wanted, and not measly, to keep the critters away from getting even with him for all his deeds. He said that straight out to me, in those same words.”
“Yes, Kirk Taatjes said, at last understanding what Irish Ned had been trying to tell him. “You don’t go outside the cabin to get into the cave. There’s a door right in the back of the cabin. I’d like all of us to go up there tomorrow and see what is true in all of this. And I’d like the deputy to go with us and show us how you go outside of the cabin to get into the cave.”
Dooley and the judge both said, at the same time, “That’s what I’d like to see.”
Zack Henry tried to run to the door of The No Noose Saloon, feeling the saloon name was as wrong as it could ever get. He only got a few steps into the crowd and several of them stopped him and held him fast.
Sheriff Fred Dooley said to Kirk Taatjes, “Son, you go over there and pull that deputy’s badge off. You can have it for your own, if you want it.”
Kirk Taatjes, weighing all things, simply said, “No, sir, just like Big Jack said, I’m going to the back of beyond, still out there someplace waiting on me.”