Western Short Story
The Formal Transitions
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The twist and turn of the trail grabbed him as he looked back over his shoulder, the range of mountains looming over all the land more like a bank of clouds in early morning. Gabron Gabby Burridge, new hire and due for a new start in life after two years in a Colorado prison (for a crime only him and you and me know he didn’t commit} was ready for a new life.

The horse he was riding, Toby, was a gift from the wife of an inmate that Burridge had befriended in jail, George McGurdy, who told him at parting, “Go see my wife Bertha and tell her it’s going okay for me and one more year I can do standing on my head. Tell her I promised you a horse if you drop by and say hello for me and don’t put a hand on her, even though she’s your kind, Gabby, true as a rainbow in the morning, beautiful as ever, with the memorable arch just for me. She’s running our spread now and has a good mind for it. Tell her I love her.”

Toby paused his shift in the trail, just as Gabby saw two riders galloping along the trail behind him, dust in small clouds rising from hoofs, and a warning peeked its brightness in him. It was bright enough, solid enough, for him to turn Toby into a clutch of rocks, tie him off in a shaded place, rough out the trail marks with kicking motions, and wait in surprise.

The two riders, stumped at the disappearance of Burridge, halted in place, drank from canteens as if they had been days without water, one of them saying, “I thought you had a good bead on him. What happened?”

The words were loud and clear enough for Burridge to hear each one spoken and note the vehemence attached to each of them.

“I had a good lead on him until now, but he won’t be hard to find. That horse has her brand on it, and we just have to convince the sheriff in the next town, or wherever he lights, that he stole the horse and once a thief, always a thief, no matter what. It won’t be that tough on her either, not when we can start playing her our way, good for us, good for her, and we have a whole year to get her in line. It’ll be a snap.”

“I gotta hand it to you, Harry, you had this planned right to the dot.” He stopped there, and added, “Until he disappeared right under our noses.”

Gabby Burridge had enough of the crap coming his way, mounted Toby, and walked him out to face the two scoundrels, his pistol on the pair. “Hold it, gents, right there. Drop your gun belts right where you are, one at a time, or you catch a little lead where you don’t much want it.” He pointed at the biggest, mouthiest one and said, “You first. Right where you are.”

The first gun belt fell at the foot of a rock, and then the second. “You gents better head on back where you come from, or better in some other direction back that way and remember this, that a letter goes to her husband in the jail, and a second one to her, and a third one to the sheriff of her town, telling all of them what you had planned. I’m sure she’ll appreciate the information and I’m damned sure George McGurdy will. And I have sneaky suspicion that he’s going to get out of jail a little sooner than expected. He’s a Class A guy.”

Burridge watched as the pair headed back down the trail, and then headed northerly, off the trail as if accepting good advice. Picking up the gun belts, he rode on for a few miles and tucked them securely under a shelf of rocks, first noticing the pistol handles had JB initials on one and BZ on another; “No sense getting caught with extra gun belts on hand,” he said aloud, as he imagined a scene with another sheriff on the incidence of extra guns, apparently stolen, in the hands of a former prisoner. He’d dread such an event after measuring his time behind bars.

At his new job at the huge Hastings ranch in Sombrero, Texas, a small community not a tenth of the size of the Hastings ranch, Gabby Burridge proved himself a welcome and energetic worker to the boss who had hired him on the advice of the prison warden, who had often said, “When I get a good man, I’ll do what I can for him, though there’s generally not much I can do about his sentence. That’s for the court, but I can do my little bit for a good man. There’s some good in most of us, though I’m never sure how far that goes.”

And in turn for keeping his letter-writing promises, Burridge received mail from both McGurdys and from the sheriff of the McGurdys’ town.

Bertha McGurdy’s response came in a few months: “The two men you describe used to work for me and seemed a rough pair, both of them, even from what little I’ve seen. They rode off the same day I gave Toby to you with the bill of sale. Their names were Harry Fischer and Hank Smiley.”

And neither pistol had initials for such names.

The sheriff at Beth McGurdy’s town said two men had been killed outside of town around the same time and their weapons stolen, Jackson Brown and Barret Zont.

Burridge, greatly pleased with mail developments and quick service, and seeing himself depositing the weapons in a secret place, by letter advised the sheriff of the guns’ descriptions and markings, and writing, “I am sure that I can find the spot where I hid them, if it ever comes to your needing them. I am sure they’ll be secure in that place, my not wanting to be caught with them, me so recently out of prison.”

It was almost a year later that he got a letter from George McGurdy, saying that he hoped Toby was still a good horse and advising him of certain other facts: “Both Harry Fischer and Hank Smiley have been apprehended on other less serious crimes and are still in jail not too far from here. Our local sheriff would appreciate your showing him where the weapons marked JB and BZ are hidden. They will put the pair of them where they really belong, behind the high and hard walls of a penitentiary and will put Bertha’s mind at rest because there are stories making the rounds of such incidents with revenge being mentioned that might just scare the hell out of her without her saying a word. In the meantime, we have a job open here for one good man that sure fits your description, according to me, Beth and our Sheriff Max Underwood. Both of them have great respect for you, and you know how much I appreciate your conduct in all these matters, even when Bertha says you are one real attractive man up on a horse.”

When Sheriff Max Underwood and George McGurdy met Gabby Burridge on the trail two weeks later, it didn’t take the trio more than an hour to find the hidden weapons still where they had been hidden.

Not too much later than that, Gabby Burridge and Sheriff Underwood walked into the jail in Wescott, Texas, less than 50 miles away, to the absolute surprise of Harry Fischer and Hank Smiley, behind heavy iron bars, their mouths gaped wide open at the weapons the two men were handling, the handle initials plain as seen under a looking glass.

“Gentlemen,” Sheriff Underwood announced to them, without any haughtiness in its delivery, and to the holding sheriff, “You gents are going to keep us company all the way back home to the double murder trial of Jackson Brown and Barret Zont, and we want to assure you that you are under arrest for murder and any efforts to alter your circumstances will be met with deadly resentment.

Each of the escorts cinched a dead man’s gun belt around his waist, patted them into place, the wearing firm and the potential use guaranteed.

They bid the holding sheriff to unlock the cells.