Western Short Story
The Duke Goes West
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The brightest of days, the brightest of hopes, filled George Duke to his very brim. He thought the horse he was riding made the difference, but changed his feeling when the animal threw him almost the minute they reached open plains, as if the animal’s home was in sight or scent. No place like home ringing in the horse’s ears, Duke thought as he dusted himself off, regained his composure, allowed Time and Space their time and space, as generous as he could be; he had all the time in the world to get West, wherever West showed itself.

The first little town he entered, once the train ride was over, sat as comfortable as a pillow when he dismounted in front of the obvious saloon boasting itself on a broad sign, reading thusly, “Home of the Best Drink west of Chicago and not quite home yet.”

An uneasiness grasped him as he entered the saloon, a dry throat drawing much of his attention, and then his sore back. The drink, he admitted, sounded as if it would hit the old spot right on the mark. He never reached the bar, as a man near the door accosted im and said, “That horse was stolen from me last week, and we’re going to hang you. Around here, we hang horse thieves,”

He was a barrel of a man, as if ready to pounce on the Duke and crush the life out of him, the gnarl of his voice coming through the grit of his teeth, like a roar at its early stage, an explosion straight ahead, the Duke thinking the man was about to draw a knife or one of his guns and take him for the endless ride into eternity.

The Duke spoke up: “I have a bill of sale right here in my pocket,” as he took a folded sheet from his pocket. “I was told to carry this whenever in case I was accused of horse stealing.” He opened the sheet and showed the man who exclaimed, “That’s worthless. Harry Digby‘s nothing but a horse thief and we ain’t seen him since he got out of prison near two months ago.” His voice sounded out bugle-like, official, no way to avert it, smooth the problem.

Duke, alarmed in the first instance, asked aloud, “Is there a lawman here?” He looked around the saloon to see if anybody moved, accepted the query in the midst of an obvious error, now ascending at a serious level, silence in the saloon, folks waiting for developments, whichever way they would go, get turned.

A burly gent, who’d look uncomfortable on a horse of any kind, said, “I’m the sheriff. Rusty Gordo’s my name. Let me see that paper.” He held his hand out like it was the real arm of the law, his reaction getting Duke slightly nervous, and in new territory. “Never knowed Digby could write, not a word, dumb as a school bell his whole life. Never read a book in his life, I’m betting, which ain’t too good for you.”

Duke said, “You know this Digby?”

“Knowed him his whole life and he ain’t no writer and no reader and no owner of any horses for sale either.”

“That doesn’t sound very good for me, does it? When I bought the horse from him, I had never seen him before, so we have a difference of opinions here,” Duke spelled out slowly, “and a difference in blame. You get him and you have the horse thief. You have me caught in a sly rat trap, only for not knowing a bad guy, but you know the bad guy.”

“All his life just about.”

“But I never knew him until he sold me the horse. There’s the difference. You wouldn’t buy a horse from him because you knew him, but I never knew him.” The argument seemed concise, on its way to conclusion, but not really there yet,

“I got to admit, son, that you come at this different than me.” Sheriff Gordo said, the words still far from understanding, not scrubbed clean yet, questions wrapped up tightly in their own interpretation, as if heard but not understood, surely a lawman’s words covering his approach, not yet at a conclusion, a small dot of doubt hanging on for a grasp, like he was not ready to snap on the cuffs yet, slam a cell door shut and locked behind a perpetrator.

“Where does my statement come into play, Sheriff? Do you believe me or not?” If you do believe me, and I think you do, we ought to get going and track down this man, this horse thief.”

“It ain’t that easy, son. Digby’s hid out in the mountains, for sure, like he’s squirreled up there in that old cave of his or that old cabin when he’s comfortable and me and no other sheriff is looking for him. He’s a real earth-hugger from the first minute on the loose from the law. Heads right up there at the first sign of trouble, lays low from the law, from me, as I can remember him doing just that, digging in, digging down, hiding like a rat hides with the cheese still in his mouth. He won’t come out if he hears the clatter of hooves on all those stones rolled down up there, like they’re part of his warning system, horn-blower without the horn, if I can fix it that way for you.”

He seemed to have summed up his thoughts, and old inertia, the real kind, had set itself in place; he was set in is place, set in his ways, set at taking the easy way in the problem; he was not about to move from the saloon.

Duke said, “I’ll go with you and pay for others in the posse. I’m not going to jail for a crime I didn’t do. I sure don’t hanker for any jail time, the whole thing sounds ridiculous!” His voice was gathering energy, the saloon, to a man, had come to attention like they were taking sides in the matter, deliberating at least on safe grounds, nowhere near the hidden places on the mountain where sniper shots clicked with high accuracy every time a trigger was pulled, squeezed. It was nothing new to the area, obviously to the sheriff, and the saloon crowd, stiff in their seats or the edge of the bar against their backs, a most comfortable stance, most unlike a postparty on the mountain, of all places out of place.

Full of frustration, Duke turned to the man beside him and said, “What goes on here? Is there something that nobody’s told me yet?”

“Well,” came the retort, “Digby’s his nephew, the sheriff’s nephew. Changes his name all the time, and the sheriff says, when he hears a new name, ‘I got nothing on him, so let him be.’”

The Duke understood the logic of the situation, knowing he had to meet the sheriff’s sister, who was able to run things at her will. It was a cakewalk.