Western Short Story
The Carney Boys
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Jefferson and Jacob Carney, Jeff and Jake from here on in, could shoot like Hell, quickly, accurately, deadly is what that means, from the draw to the fall of the target. The way things happen to close brothers, especially to twins, as were the Carneys, assume a remarkable turn of events.

One day, in their 16th year, heading away from home, Jeff continued on the trail to town, Bugle Crow, Texas, and Jake split off the main trail to visit a friendly female at her father’s ranch, a dozen miles away, the Al Sheldon spread and he had a daughter named Olivia. He was not exactly a newcomer, but had only been in the area for less than a dozen years, those ties demanding more time on the job, as it was.

When Jake didn’t come home that night, the father, Sidney, said, in the morning, “Jeff, you saddle up and go see what Jake’s up to. What dang fool trouble he might have gotten into this time. If you run into any ruckus, get word back to me.”

When Jeff didn’t come back either, Big Syd, with a few of his hands, rode off the next morning to investigate.

Two days later, none of the crew had come back, nor either of the twins. Their mother, Cora Mae, told one ranch hand, “You go into town and tell that sheriff, Roscoe Sears, he better catch up to me somewhere along the trail ‘cause there’s going to be Hell to pay or some blood spilled, which might be mine because of the mood I’m in.” She whacked him on the rear end and added, “Be damned quick about it, Joey, or else.”

The sheriff met her at the gulch, on the trail to the target ranch. “I don’t know what your boys got going on, Cora Mae, but one of my guys spotted a lookout watching this trail and reported back to me rather than shooting him off’n his perch. Twixt you and me, we ought do our best to talk to him before he moves on. I’m getting a feeling something ain’t quite square at the Sheldon place which, by the way, is where Jeff went earlier yesterday in a damned hurry, if I remember.”

Cora Mae said, “You’ve always been square yourself, Roscoe, and mostly ahead of everybody else which is why I pushed for you to get the job. How do we get that spotting rat out into the open?”

The sheriff mused awhile before he came up with a suggestion, or a dare, if you’ll have it, for the lady. “It’s got to be you, Cora Mae, if you’re willing. You, by yourself, can draw him practicly off his lookout and down to check you out. Then we can grab him, but you can keep this gun handy.”

He tried to hand her a small, pocket-type pistol. “Keep it. Roscoe, I got my own,” she said, showing him her .38, shiny, silvery, new in one hand like it had grown there.

Sauntering into the gulch, the walls squeezing up around her, she dismounted, and began to check her horse’s hoofs and shoes. She was immersed in the task, as if she was on a stage someplace, when the lookout rode up beside her and said, “Hey, lady, whatcha doin’ out here all alone?”

The intent in his voice was detectable, and that building avarice became his sudden enemy as he was surrounded in a hurry by six men with drawn weapons, all of them mean-looking but not jittery, the odds, for a change, highly in their favor. He handed his gun belt to one of the posse who draped it across the rear jockey of his saddle.

Cora Mae said, “You better start talking now, mister, ‘cause them’s my boys and my husband ain’t come back home yet from up yonder.” She jabbed her .38 into his ribs, and fear lit up his face, his eyes showing it wholesale.

“Quick,” she said, ’afore I really let go with this lonely woman’s best line of defense against a scoundrel of a man sneaking behind rocks and trees to keep her in his up-to-no-good mind. You got some answering to do for your scouting and peaking around. What’s your name, to begin with and who’re you watching out for, by his Christian name, and what’re you looking for?”

When he did not reply immediately, she had more advice for the sneak-about. “It’s all good on my side, Sonny Jim, if I put a round in you just about heart high ‘cause you’ve been following me and I’m sure any decent judge in any decent court will have sympathy as well as justice for me.”

She finished with a blast. “Now what the hell you got to tell me before I change my mind and put my first round right into your privates?” In a flash, her pistol was in that mutable territory, her hand shaking with a dramatic rage, her tongue delivering her rage almost down his throat, his mouth wide open with fear of the unthinkable deed completely in her hands.

He spoke, that threatened man, blurting out his own name. “They call me Curly Tillson and I work for Sam Warrington, who owns the Twin Bulls spread and half of the other spreads in the valley and wants the other half as well. He’s got those folks stowed up in a barn on his spread, all of them in irons or ropes, and ain’t no way for them to get loose.”

When the faint smile appeared on his face, his lips in a half-curve, a nickel’s worth of guts on display, Cora Mae slapped him across his face with her pistol. The act drew enough blood to

loosen his tongue further; “There’s a back door the boss has built for his own escape if the need ever comes. It’s flush against some bushes on that backside where horses can be hidden too.”

“You saying it’s also a way we can get in there if we need to? I can see that and I can see you selling your soul to get out of this jam, but you ain’t going anywhere in no hurry, Sonny Jim Tillson, nowhere at all.”

Cora Mae had him buffaloed all the way and she knew it.

The reflections of Sam Warrington came into her mind and began to pile up, piece of top of piece, telling the story of a man who wanted more than he had, more than he had a right to, all escalating into a dream about a real land baron, insatiable to every measure, dominance atop a bunch of little people, the poor hustlers of personal energies making way in small way in the big, wide open spaces of Texas.

She had often wondered about a few known transactions between Warrington and some of the early settlers and ranchers in East Texas. Some of them were completed in a dazzling hurry, as if those sellers had been whisked off to another planet, to one of the stars in the night sky, to anywhere out of sight. Her curiosity had never been fully explored, but she now thought a change was due and was coming. In the back of her mind was a whole grave of people tossed under earth and rocks all traces of them lost forever.

And she had never spoken to Warrington, nor looked into his eyes and seen what was on fire there, fire from Hell.

She called one of her hands and said, “Harry, take this rat, tie him up good, throw him across a horse and make sure he doesn’t get off our place. Tie him up in the barn and stay with him, you and a rifle. I don’t care who makes what demands of you. All he can do now is spoil our chances of getting my boys and my husband back and the rest of our hands. Not for a minute is he to get free of you from now until we’re all home.”

She waved off the pair of them, saying, “Just make damned sure it happens the way I said.” Her pistol waved in their faces, the keenest reminder of all directives.

Then she turned to the sheriff and said, “Roscoe, let’s put our heads together and see what and how we’re going to get this done. I know you already have done some deep thinking. Let’s lay it on the line.”

Hours later, the plan studied and rehearsed, duties spread out between whoever or whomever, lawman or otherwise in the gathered allies, the stage was set, and a certain lot of them had assembled beyond the bushes, trees and brush behind the bar. They had been told by the sheriff, “No matter how those guys in there are locked up, secured, remember, everything in iron or otherwise, is rooted or connected to wood, pillar or post or beam, so saws will be handy.”

Cora Mae, with the most to lose, and the most to gain, was the sacrificial lamb, a part she had played before without pause, eager to see her family as one again.

So, nearly fallen over on her horse, one of its horseshoes loosened, she drifted aimlessly onto Sam Warrington’s spread, a lady in distress from any view.

“Ho, boys!” yelled out Sam Warrington, “Look what we got out here. If it ain’t the old pest herself, lady be damned, Cora Mae Carney herself! Let’s all give her a welcoming hand, so she can join up with the others, and we can get rid of them all in one big swoop. Then we’ll have all the rest of the spreads out there, all to ourselves. We’ll have one big piece of East Texas all to ourselves.”

In the hullabaloo, in the noise, in the teasing and berating the lady by all Warrington’s hands, including the guard inside the barn who had left his post, the rescue group had slipped into the barn with guns, saws, and eagerness, to free the Carney boys, their father, and some of his hired hands from their places of capture, by saw, bars, or odd tools brought along for their necessary use and application.

All went smoothly inside the barn, the prisoners, now freed, were quickly armed and went out the back of the barn to group up as a force to turn rescuers and save Cora Mae Carney from her


They all managed to move, not away from the barn, but to positions in the near darkness, and all around Sam Warrington and his bedeviled crew in a big circle, all attention on Cora Mae Carney.

You need not to be told who fired first, quickest, and deadliest, with sixteen-year old vengeance to free their mother from her peril, as did Jeff and Jake Carney, cutting loose with a withering fire at Warrington’s gang, a good dozen of bad men on the ground in a hurry, moans and cries and curses galore afloat in the night.

At the end of the small war, as the final gunshot was exchanged, Sam Warrington stood alone facing Cora Mae Carney, her husband Sydney and her twin sons, a dark remnant of gun-smoke around them all.

It was the end of an empire in the making, East Texas not quite being what it almost was in another dream, and all of it empowered by a lady of Texas.