Western Short Story
The stranger strolled into the Back of the Rose Saloon in Colorado’s Curbville City, expecting to see a few pals, old riding companions, a couple of smiling faces. It was not much different than a morgue, the cool reception as though it was just meant for him, just been cooling its heels and spurs waiting him, an hombre of the saddle.
Somehow, he was noticed when a gent leaning on the bar, asked the barkeep, “Hey, Jabber, “what’s Ought Kiley doing so close with the new bird just came in, them huddling like nesters in the corner?”
“Well, it probably tells me the new bird knew Ought’s dad before the damned sneaky sniper picked him off’n his own porch, and from damned close range, but not close enough to show his face. Probably an old friend paying his respects on the trail through here. Simple as that.”
“They’re tight as two eggs in a nest, if you was to ask me,” replied the inquisitive customer. Neither one knew that Spyglass Jack Kilrain, proud territorial investigator, was looking for clues, and why not start at the local saloon, and with the dead man’s son. His reputation made him squeeze his real name almost to shreds whenever he hit a new place, on a new assignment. Today, Spyglass Jack Kilrain was Noah Neblaska, almost like the city and state in the same world of the West, and not far from Colorado’s Curbville City.
So, Noah Neblaska told Ought Kiley why he was who he said he was, and he was on the trail of the killer of Ought’s father. “That skunk’ll know soon enough I’m on his trail. If he’s smart enough to hide his face, he’s smart enough to know a dog’s on his trail.”
“He didn’t kill him in here, and I know that,” said Ought Kiley.
“I damned well know that, son, but dollars to donuts he had a before-drink and an after-drink right in this room, maybe to settle his nerves. Killing a kind old man, for any reason probably as old as the hills, takes some doin’ for some men, and not much of anything like a born-killer on the loose.”
“Think anybody here knows who you are, why you’re here?”
“They will,” said Noah Neblaska for the time being, when I start nosing around your place and where your Dad was gunned down like he don’t count anymore. Your Pa was alone and I’m sure the killer entered the house to snag what he could of valuables. No sense leaving empty-handed.”
He swung his hand in a wide circle, denoting all the crowd, “They’ll all know this time tomorrow what I’m after. Every nosy one of ‘em.”
Sure enough, when Spyglass Jack Kilrain, as Noah Neblaska, after prowling around the whole place, walked into Ought Kiley’s ranch house the next morning with a baby pig on a leash, the stunning had begun.
The little pig was skittish, never reined-up or tethered like this before, a line about his neck thick as his tail-knot, and as sorry a lot as any group of cowboys ever saw. Or heard about, as the word ran rampant and foolish the next morning, and carrying the day all the day-long.
“Hell,” one of them said, “a pig don’t even belong on a ranch, never mind being tied up like a dinky horse to do what kind of bidding?” He could have swung his arms in the air and would have meant the same thing, like a kid playing with a runt and a rope. My, God, what are we comin’ to?”
None of his listeners, nor the barkeep himself, could imagine that Spyglass Jack Kilrain, as Noah Neblaska, let the little pig nose his way around the ranch house, in and out of each room a couple of times each, and Neblaska making notes in a little book he toted in his back pocket, going back over some of his notes some of the time.
Two days of apparently nothing explosive or conceivable in discovery, Neblaska quit the place and went back to the Back of the Rose Saloon, sitting alone in a corner and studying the whole crowd who all sat staring at him.
Again, and again, he made entries in the little book without any expressions on his face, not letting loose a single iota of fact or fiction, being as mysterious as the murder of Ought Kiley’s father, a pleasant man to begin with, compounding the murder.
Jabber, the barkeep, kept studying him, for the life of him unable to break loose any clue as to what he was up to, except that he was trying to solve a murder, as was apparent to all by this time. And one of them. obviously, getting as nervous as a rookie rider on a new horse; Something, it was seen, is up!
For three days, Spyglass Jack Kilrain, known as Noah Neblaska, studied them all, took copious notes, wracked his brain for connections, while every two hours, Jabber brought him a beer, tried to read a page in the book, tried to open a conversation, and failed at each objective. The man was as secretive as ever, keeping people guessing about what he was doing, who he really was, when would they all know.
Even Ought Kiley began to get nervous, asking several times, “Have you found anything yet?”, his head shaking with disbelief, his patience at an edge that it might make him scream out his thoughts, now and then forgetting why this stranger was here in the first place, at work at every minute, as was seen, his cover-up secure all the while. Not a guess in the passing.
Jabber at length saw Neblaska’s attention finally signaling chewing tobacco chewers from seed chewers, both at spitting on occasion, sometimes in a bucket, sometimes not. And one among the crowd, a poke named Pony Express, seemed to get most nervous, trying more than once to steal the little black book, even getting his hand knocked away by a heavy blow when he made believe he was drunk.
“Pry into my affairs one more time and I’ll blow you to Kingdom Come, I swear!”
It made do.
Finally, at Ought Kiley’s insistence, he stood up and said, “I am an investigator of crimes in the territory. My real name is Jack Kilrain who roped a little piglet to sniff out one little chew seed spit into a corner of Ought Kiley’s home, which pointed me at those of you who are seed spitters who get nervous and I have found my man in the midst of this crowd, now seen about to draw his gun and I will drop him dead before he hits the floor, or before he gets hung for the murder of Ought Kiley’s Pa.
It was all over in a roar in the Back of the Rose Saloon, one shot and a hushed crowd screaming out their lungs to a howdy-doo, and Ought Kiley’s father at his final rest.