Western Short Story
The posse out of Tribune Falls rode slowly back into town, with two live prisoners, one dead bank robber, and a wounded deputy tied to his saddle. Sheriff Bridge Salsman told Doc Hansen, “Fix him good, Doc, he’s the best man I’ve had since I been wearing this badge.” He tapped the badge with the long index finger of a gun handler. The doc believed he was touching his heart with the same move; Salsman was such a man, he had much earlier assessed, being in the mix of duels, running gunfights and death.
A lone member of the pursued group escaped into the hills and was not found. The two prisoners said he was, “Just some cowpoke down on his luck who needed money in a hurry, so he joined up with us, and never gave no name.” The sheriff thought they talked honest-like but assumed they were covering for the boss of the gang, who they might never see again. So much for honor among bank thieves.
Two posse members carried Deputy Hugh Castlerea into the Doc Hansen’s house and gently put him down on a table where Bea Hansen, doc’s daughter, soon had the deputy’s shirt off and appraised her father about the first sight of the injury. “Two bullet wounds, Pa. One in the left shoulder, and looks like a clean pass-through. He’ still bleeding from the exit wound in the back. No apparent bone damage. A hit on his left thigh, but mostly a flesh burn. Treat that last.” By then she had already cut a good chunk out of the deputy’s pants and showed no false modesty.
She was, of course, the doc’s pride and joy, his wife gone for nearly six years and Bea starting full time in the kitchen at 12 and as a kind of receptionist for her father before the age of 18. Strawberry blonde hair came from her mother all the way from Elphin, County Roscommon, Ireland, and the deputy’s name, Castlerea, was locked into her mind from poems her mother had recited for her about her native home in central Ireland.
Her interest in the deputy could not have been higher except for seeing him get better each hour, yet also realizing he’d be gone out of her care in a day or two.
She had seen Castlerea around town for the two months he’d been wearing the new badge, and wondered where he came from, what he was he like. Even before this day, he had shown courage on the job and had been well-received by the town and by the sheriff. It was now her turn; on this day she could appraise him at close range, the wounds telling her that he had been in the middle of the action and at close quarters, that he was as handsome as she had first gathered, that he did not offer needless talk about his fate or his part in the posse run. Neither did he look at her with any wonder or guessing, and no silent words with his eyes, like so much cow button stuff cowpokes usually toss into introductions.
The good looking deputy was not the first gunshot patient she had cared for, had checked out for her father. There had been more than a dozen wounded men treated in less than six months, the town a growing concern with a new bank, the railroad coming, and buildings growing like sagebrush had been transformed over night. And four murders within a mile of town and not a clue yet found. The deaths all looked like a bushwhack coward was working the region, and probably for pay, each victim associated with one of two major spreads in the area.
When Bea Hansen turned away from the table she saw in the large wall mirror the deputy looking at her with a smile on his face. He had said enough with that look.
When the sheriff took Castlerea off her hands on the following morning, both patient and care-giver realized they had spent the night together in the same room. He blushed at the thought and she dreamed about chance.
Doc Hansen, from long observations of patients, his daughter, and young folks in general, knew a romance was budding at both ends of attraction.
At the jail after a few more days of rest under Castlerea’s belt, he replied to the sheriff’s questions about the escaped robber. “All I remember was he had a quick gun, wore a neat gray shirt and vest, and there were, I swear, shiny buttons on the shirt, like pearl buttons. I can’t remember his hat, which had fallen onto his back and held by the draw string, but his hair was fuzzy, like it was pasted on, like a tight little cap. That’s when I knew my shot had missed him, ‘cause I saw his gun blast and knew it hit me before I felt it. I didn’t see his horse either, but there were tracks into that big stand of trees where they holed up overnight.”
Sheriff Salsman said, “We checked that area out a bit, but were in a hurry to get you back and we had two of them trussed up already. Lots of tracks in there, horses, cows, a bear on the edge, boot marks with square toes. But you were still bleeding pretty good. We all had to come back together; we couldn’t send one man back with you. Too tricky.”
Castlerea offered no more information, feeling he had nothing to say, but his mind was working every minute. And there was that sweetheart daughter of the doctor; in a way she had not let go of him. He recalled each touch of her hands on him, and once she had brushed against him almost frontally. He’d been gathered up by that moment; remembered it yet.
“You tell me when you want to go back to work,” the sheriff offered. “It’ll be your call on it, but make sure you’re ready. Never know what we’ll run into if we turn a corner around here.” He was hoping Castlerea would not hustle back too quickly.
Still mulling things in his mind, Castlerea replied. “I won’t get you too nervous, Bridge. No rush with me. I’ll do a little casual riding and get back into shape that way. We don’t do much of anything without our horses, and it’s the best way to start. I’ll talk to Doc about it and I’m sure he’ll be all for it, long as it doesn’t bring too much too fast; slow riding on a good horse. Can’t beat it.”
The sheriff gave off a knowing smile after Castlerea left the office, knowing full well that “Doc” also meant “Bea” for his deputy’s intended visit. He and Doc had already swapped knowing glances about the “young couple,” as he might have put it.
Doc Hansen agreed with Castlerea’s planned recuperation on horseback. “It’ll be good for you to get back in the saddle and, more important, to keep your horse from missing you. Anything else on your mind? You can tell Bea what you have in mind, and where you plan to ride, just in case.”
Bea was sad to hear that Castlerea was going to be away for an unknown time. “I hope you don’t push yourself, Hugh. Come back soon as anything happens, or if you feel like it.” She was as open as a barn door in the wind.
“You know I’ll be back, Bea, but there are a few things, a few places, I want to check out. This is the first place I’ll come back to.”
Her broad and happy smile sent him on his way with deep comfort … despite a heart ablaze with feelings.
Down along the river after a five –day ride, Castlerea entered his fourth town on his journey, the small settlement of Grave’s Corner, built outward from a Boot Hill section used by an old ghost town gone into dust, into wind, to the Nevermore. He’d been to Grave’s Corner before, but he didn’t know it would be his last stop in a long circular ride in the territory, and here he remembered seeing a gray shirt with pearl buttons in a store window on his to Tribune Falls for a new job. The gray shirt wasn’t in the store window, but a black one was, and the pearl buttons showed off their glitter in another special contrast … as did the price affixed to one sleeve, almost a month’s pay to buy the shirt.
He went into the store and the clerk behind a small counter, most likely the owner, pleasant enough but with long hair from one side of his bald head swept clear across the bare spot like it was glued there, said, “I saw you looking at that shirt, son. It’d look great on you.” His smile was authentic. Some discerning ladies hereabouts really like a change for a change.” He snickered at his own remark. And kept a broad grin in place, a true salesman at work.
Castlerea was right up front with him. “I couldn’t afford it, sir,” he said, “but a pal of mine, Bret Hardaway, has one like it, only its gray. I figure he must have bought it here. “
“I don’t recognize that name,” said the clerk, still trying to get on the inside of a sale, “but mine’s Cecil Clangwood, and I have a thing for names, if you get what I mean. What’s he look like, your pal Hardaway? he said, and followed it with, “and what’s your name if I can ask? “
“Oh,” Castlerea said, “I’m Hugh Castlerea just poking around, and my friend’s a tall thin man with a mass of blond hair under his hat that covers his neck. Said he never got burned by the sun on his neck. Swears by that style. And he has them damned blue eyes that look like they‘re looking down into you, the kind of eyes most ministers have.” That was friendly and upright informative , he allowed, all clerks and store owners usually caught up in new arrivals, information, and new of other places, all so that can add it to their sales effort by bolstering talk and rumor.
He figured he could tell a lie with ease; as good as anyone if the aim was for justice and the capture of the man who shot him, so he had another lie to tell: “He rides a palomino that looks look sunset on the dry grass.”
“No, that’s not Sandy Burr,” the clerk qualified immediately. “Sandy’s the one who bought a gray one from me. Not a tall fellow, kind of average, ‘cept his hands are snaky-long. But I keep one or two shirts of that style around for gents who like to impress the ladies, like Sandy. He’s got a tight cap of hair on his head, like a mat of black burrs. Personally, though I wouldn’t tell him, I think it’s kind of a fetish thing with him, being a Burr to begin with, if you get the connection. I guess he can be pretty mean when he wants to from what folks say, the talking kind. I haven’t seen him in a few weeks. Heard he was up at Santa Rosa Field, up near Conway in the Canary Hills, a day’s ride. At least that’s the last I heard. But he’s not your pal with that tumbleweed of blond hair and them minister’s blue eyes. No, sir, Sanford Burr is the fellow I’m talking about.” He paused, looked to summarize his remarks, and explained, “No, he’s not a fellow with them minister’s eyes and he don’t ride no palomino, but a big stud-like black gotta be 16 hands up to forever.”
“Thanks, mister,” Castlerea said, “I wanted to get a close look at that shirt,” whereat he paused and added, “and the price on it. If a find a lost goldmine, I sure would come back and buy it. My girl would love it. I’m bound to get married soon if my luck holds out.”
He winked at the clerk and was on his way to Santa Rosa Field as soon as he was mounted.
Santa Rosa Field had a busy ferry that crossed the Pequonet River practically every other hour of the day, and the town was situated at the river edge of about 12 miles of glorious grass. The town grew almost flash-like when the ferry was introduced, for the ferry brought loads of lumber and other supplies from the forest along the far side of the Pequonet, and from several larger towns on the northern end of the river. The Last Mile Saloon and the Broken Spur Saloon had practically risen together. Soon, the livery came, and a bank and a general store, and smaller buildings with a variety of services.
The town’s name, he had known, came from a Spanish-owned herd that broke from a dry and torturous drive onto the green grass of the prairie, and was thus named Santa Rosa Field by Lopez de Moka, all the way from a coastal Spanish town on the other side of the Atlantic, who wanted more than anything to be a cowboy in America.
And it brought the mix of good and bad that growth draws the minute pegs or square nails are knocked into board, beam and lintel anyplace west of the Mississippi. The general store was named The Keg’s Half Full, (El barril está lleno por la mitad), the livery was blessed with a sign that read The Lucky Shoe and Equine Gems (El afortunado y equina Joyas), and the funeral place had a small and delicate sign in a pink and blue paint that simply read The Last Call of Evening (La última llamada de la tarde). De Moka, of course, now that he was a successful and full-blown cowboy, made sure that some of his native land was set up for quick memory by making the translations stay as a kind of sub-explanation to the choice of names.)
The town, therefore, possessed a certain zest and vitality, as does any town where the ferry is run by a system of ticket purchases that reserve a place in line, the line of passengers and wagons often being larger than the ferry could handle at one time. The name on the ferry sign said, The Way to Santa Rosa Field, and was explained in a sub-line as El camino a Santa Rosa Campo.
de Moka had grasped the new, but did not let go of the old. And it was at the hitch rail of The Keg that Castlerea spotted the big black he assumed had been ridden by Sandy Burr, wanted by the law, wanted by him.
For a span of seconds that carried a host of images and sensations, Castlerea filled his senses with parts of Bea Hansen, knew the sensual touch of them, and knew the next few minutes might carry some formidable weight in odd corners.
He let his eyes roam around the town, saw the signs, the movements about the street, the arrival of a few horsemen, not from the ferry but possibly upriver. Two well-dressed women, laughing gaily as they walked across the main street, looked at him closely, nodded at each other with a manner of acceptance or a vote given informally, and continued their sauntering.
The quickest-grabbing eye attraction was a man running from the telegraph office with a piece of paper in his hand, hustling as though war had been declared or a war was over. And the man went directly to The Keg with whatever information he’d obviously received.
In a few minutes, a very few minutes, one man stepped out in front of The Keg and gazed the length of the main street both ways, poised for challenge, his body language saying he was at full alert, his right hand poised for a quick-draw. His arrival on the main street was accompanied by two stealthy men who appeared in Castlerea’s oblique eyesight as slick, subtle, secretive and up to no good. They had slipped from the back of The Keg and took up protective positions at the head of two alleys, the three men forming an obvious three-cornered crossfire to anyone coming down the street toward the center of town, which was The Keg.
Suspicion filled Castlerea on the spot, where he sat his mount at the edge of town in the brush of a small bushy growth on a small rise in the road. The evening sun was just descending beyond the highest peak of the western horizon, and odd light glittered on the face of far rocky walls
It was obvious they had received notice of someone’s pending arrival. The quick thought that crowded him said he was the expected arrival. At the same moment he considered the two major options of his fate … did he want Sandy Burr more than he wanted Bea Hansen, the woman he was in love with and who he was sure loved him. His horse nickered with a kind of impatience, and the sun dazzled a few more higher surfaces further west, as though a clock began to wind itself into the scene. One knot twisted in his shoulder, saying it was still in place, but his gun hand and gun arm, up to the armpit, was loose, was ready.
His mind flashed back and settled on Cecil Clanghorn. Not even Clanghorn’s personal appearance at the very minute would be any clearer to Castlerea. He could see the storekeeper caught in the decision concerning one of his favored customers, the one and only Sandy Burr and the assurance of him buying the expensive black shirt with the pearly buttons. Perhaps road dust would settle on it before it could be sold, if ever if Burr was killed or jailed, and so the telegram to Burr, who unsurprisingly stationed two hombres of his in favorable circumstances, nearly hidden at the head of two alleys, ready for a crossfire, ready for ambush, ready for a dastardly bushwhacking of the deputy once thought as too wounded to matter anymore.
Castlerea recalled the presence of Bea Hansen, the dazzling strawberry blonde hair, the messages her eyes could send, the womanly warmth and comfort radiating from her he had never known … all too soon followed by the continual threat that Sandy Burr would pose for them as a couple, an actual physical threat and the uncountable and unsavory taste of avoiding him at this point in his sworn duties.
Duty, for the time being, came to the fore … and it would be there in a mirror forever if avoided for now. When he remembered her strength, the words she whispered thinking he didn’t hear them as she worked on his wounds, “Payback has a way of happening,” he was sure of his chosen way.
He saw other things too; the rear door of The Keg whereby the two potential bushwhackers had slipped out of the saloon. It was his way back in, without them noticing, if he could make it happen.
It was easily accomplished, totally unsuspected and completely surprising as he slipped onto one end of the bar, the bartender looking up and saying, “Sorry I missed you. Didn’t see you come in. What’ll you have?”
“A bit of the dust killer, if you don’t mind,” Castlerea said, “and a beer.”
“When did you get into town?” the bartender said.
“Oh, I came downriver and slept the last part in that copse north of the big rock. Horse was plumb worn out. I’ll get the ferry sometime later. I’m Dermot Clancy. Pleased to meet you.” He tossed out his hand for a shake.
The bartender nodded and said, “One and one it’ll be for a countryman. Comin’ right up. I’m Jim Roche.” He shook hands, and then Roche stepped off a few paces and looked up as Sandy Burr walked in.
Roche said, “Any sign of that gent your shirt-man wrote about? He show yet?”
“Naw,” Burr said, “he had enough of me. Imagine him trying to rob me. Ain’t that a bee buzzer? Won’t show his face around here, for sure. My friend has warned me afore of strangers who don’t even know me. But he means okay.”
“Yah,” Roche said, “might never see that guy again.”
“You’re prob’ly right, but a couple of the boys are still on the lookout, just lookin’ out for me, you know.” He gave off a huge smile as he turned and looked down the length of the bar for the first time and saw the familiar face facing him straight on, his hand by his gun, his hat on square, and a deputy’s badge pinned on his shirt.
Roche measured it all in a hurry, and nervously crumpled the telegraph note in his hand as though it had never existed. He dropped it at his feet.
Two guns went off, Burr’s shot slammed into the wall behind Castlerea, whose shot was unerring, driving Burr first to his knees and then onto the floor face-down. Before he hit the floor he released a most ironic smile that said he really wasn’t dead and the deputy’s shot had missed him, but he was dead wrong on both counts.
When the two posted and potential bushwhackers rushed in the door together, not knowing what they’d find, Deputy Hugh Castlerea said, “I saw where he had posted both of you bushwhackers. If you still want into this, pull your guns. If you don’t, I’m giving you one chance to hightail it out of here and never come near me again. I have your faces locked in my mind, your pal is done for good, and soon as all of you here know it, I’ll become the new law in Santa Rosa Field.
Before the new sun was up, Hugh Castlerea was on his way to marry Doc Hansen’s daughter Bea and bring her to Santa Rosa Field where they’d begin their new life together.
At odd times, that was the way it was, out west.