Western Short Story
Deacon Allie Jones studied a crude map of Texas he'd found on the trail near a campsite long since used, the ashes in the ring of stones blown with the wind, and the ring disturbed by man or beast. He accepted the discovery as a sign sent to him. Without thought, he reached and patted a shaggy-looking dog by his side. "Good boy, Duke," he said, "and He still attends."
Plum dead in the center of the crude map, blazoned with a dark circle of black pigment of unknown source, was the name of Willstock, as though it was sent to him as a directive from straight overhead. Images of the unseen community rushed into his mind; he apprehended a scattering of small cabins and houses, a store with supplies piled on its front porch, a jail made of rock and tree parts and a few iron bars making it appear to be the strongest structure in Willstock.
His mind quickly made up, a journey already in place in his thoughts, he attended as usual the campsite another person had organized, setting stones back in order of use, piling loose logs close at hand to the fire pit, leaving a container, too big to lug on his horse, full of water from the nearby stream; it was Providence directing his care and comfort for the lost, the lonely, the forlorn who might pass this way, as he had, and found divine direction.
The good feeling, he knew, would stay with him until the journey brought him all the way to Willstock, in the heart of Texas, perhaps two days; ride for him and for Lucky Lu, his horse and for the shaggy dog.
The sun at a low angle, evening descending to sleep, he saw on the surface of the water-filled container, his face looking back at him; he'd shaved the edges a bit, left his dark mustache and beard in place, trimmed his thick eyebrows and the few hairs protruding from his nostrils. That nose had been broken only once, in his early years, and widened little in his forty years. With a heavily accented cough of approbation, he accepted his appearance for the moment, not at all thinking what the ride would do to him, checked Lucky Lu one last time, spread his blanket and fell half asleep, an edge of alertness in tow, shaggy Duke near at hand..
In the morning, before he left this site, he'd take care of Lucky Lu and Duke, make a cup of coffee, eat some crackers or dip hard bread into his coffee, several such meals planned en route for him.
The trail might swallow him at times, but he'd get to Willstock; he'd been sent there by special means.
In mid-morning of the third day, he entered Willstock to see a small crowd mingling in front of the obvious general store, a man in a black robe sitting at an impromptu desk, gavel in his hand, saying aloud, "Nate Slack, you've been a bully for your whole life, a foul-mouthed beast, a tormentor of our women and children, a man very few can call friend, you are going to hanged by your rotten neck until death takes you, as this court has found you guilty on all accounts of which I speak, not just the fiendish murder of Harold Martin, once beloved of all of us."
A burly, robust man, tied with heavy rope with heavier-looking knots, astride a horse, said, "He was a rat in a man's skin, all of us know that if you'd think about it. But I didn't kill him. I keep telling you I didn't kill him. I'd spur this horse into a run if I did. I may be a lot of things, but I am not a coward. I don't kill men from behind, from darkness, from cover, from cowardice. That's shooting a fish in a barrel, and not my style."
The robed man said, "We all know it could only be you who did this foul deed, this fiendish execution of a respected man, and we're going to make you pay for it."
"You won't get any money from me on this account, not a penny; I didn't do it. Not a soul has stood up in this stupid session and said they saw me do it. Not one of you. Because none of you can say it and be the truth from the one God all of you swear by or to or for, whatever swings in your souls."
Nate Slack, the rope
already around his neck, looked around at familiar faces in the
crowd, saw how each one hesitated to look back into his eyes, looked
instead at their own feet standing in the middle of the dusty road.
"Who'll say he thinks I might not have done it?"
"Whoa," said the robed man, "Don't try to manipulate the crowd. The verdict is in. Only you could have done it and we all know it."
Slack said, "Now you're trying to get them to stay on your side, so I'll swing by the neck here in front of all of you, stock sure I did it, and feel okay about it as a crowd of one. That's what you are, a crowd of one. Where are the men among you? Why did I always pick on you? None of you will fight me back, never stood up to me, but one of you, the real coward of Willstock, stands in front of all of us, in among us, and might do it again to anybody who speaks about this in the future."
Not a murmur came from the gathering, the assigned judge with the gavel still raised on high, when Deacon Allie Jones nudged Luck Lu forward through the crowd and grasped the reins of the horse Slack sat upon. The dog stayed in place at the edge. of the crowd.
"Hold it, Your Honor, Your Judgeship, whatever you can call yourself, this whole thing sounds like a travesty on the heart of justice."
The reins of the second horse were tight in one of the Deacon's hands, the other was too close to one of his holstered weapons, too close to spur any defiance.
"Who are you, Sir?" said the robed one, leaning forward in his seat. "You're not one of us."
"You are right on that account, Sir," Deacon Jones said, "I am not one of you. I'd be ashamed to be one of you."
"The who are you that you can bust in on this court?"
"This is not a court, Sir. This is a travesty about to happen. I am Deacon Allie Jones sent here by the Good Lord, He on the Most High, to do the right thing for this man accused of a crime that not one soul among you saw and spoke that mind. A travesty on this crowd, on all of Willstock from this day forward if it is allowed to happen."
A nervous rustling, interpreted as doubt by the Deacon, started at the edge of the crowd, those farthest from the presiding judge, but that rustling, as if a spirit was found in it to gather strength, moved through those townsmen collected to see the death of one of their own.
"What church do you represent, Sir? We have no church here, I'll have you know. How can we accept you?"
"You will have a church, Sir, whether it's just a temporary tent I will put up, or we adopt one of these structures to house its beginning, like this store perhaps that's been adopted by the court."
"This is my store, Sir. I own it. I allow it to be a court when necessary."
"Then you'll have no objection to it housing a church, even temporary in nature, and a court as well, as we would prepare and present a new defense for this man so unjustly accused of murder without witness."
The Deacon held tightly the reins from the possible death horse. "If you agree to what I propose, I'd like to see this man untied and dismounted before a shot goes off messes up this town forever."
The store owner-judge, backed down by a stranger, casually waved his hand, and Nate Slack was freed of ropes and the noose around his neck, and dismounted on his own.
"Thank you, Sir," the deacon said, and asked, "What is your name, Sir?"
"I am Gregory Buckman, storekeeper, store owner, judge, and now housing what church?" The previous humor in his face had disappeared.
"The church of the One God, the Church of Him who sent me here, with such information to be presented to you at an early convenience, which would be after a meal for me and this man who so recently had the noose of death around his neck. I am sure he'd like to share a meal with me."
"I'll buy," said the judge, tearing off the black robe without his previous dignity.
The three men ate a meal at a corner table of the saloon when Deacon Jones said, "And you, Mr. Buckman, do not own this place too? Is there a reason for this?"
"I sell goods, so I'm a storeowner. I am a teetotaler, so I don't own a saloon."
"But you work at being a judge but you don't deal in justice. That affair earlier was as close to travesty as I've seen. Why is that?"
"I'd guess it's my assumption I could be a judge in these matters, but realize what you told me to be true. I'm not a dispenser of justice. I was sure from what I heard about Mr. Slack here, that he was guilty, the only one who could be guilty of the crime. The whole town seemed to feel that way."
"That's why Willstock needs a man of the cloth, to steer them away from such apathy, death followed by another needless death, haste of waste, need of deed, din of sin."
Buckman was nodding assent as if thoughts had come into his mind, and Nate Slack sat open-mouthed for the first time in a long time, and Deacon Allie Jones slapped one of his holstered pistols and remarked, "Those are reasons I have not fired a shot in months."
At that very instant, as if punctuation for his statement, a shot went off outside, a woman screamed, "Somebody shot my husband." She screamed a second time.
Deacon Jones rushed to the door of the saloon, and yelled out, "Shooter, Duke. Shooter, Duke."
Duke, in a sudden leap at the command, ran directly to the outermost building in Willstock, a dwelling on the second floor and a leather shop on the first floor. As if practiced in other searches, Duke looped once around the building and stood out in front of it, firm-legged, head up, barking at the upper floor.
It was, as it appears, cut and dried, finding a man with a smoky rifle hiding in a closet space, a man known as an excellent shot on hunting forays.
Buckman, more alert than ever, open-minded at the proliferation of evidence, sought out his discarded robe and set about to convene court once more. This time he had witnesses ... of a sort .. and knew a comfort in his work. He was already designing a church in his mind.