Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
They said it was all up to Cawdy Bellrock now. New sheriff. Married the widow of the last sheriff, Rod Baker, gunned down in front of the bank. Standing there, he was, that old sheriff, a dumb look on his face. Three men coming out the bank door, one man holding their horses. No rifles. Just hand guns. All their guns going off at once. The sheriff’s mouth still open. Him in the dust as they rode out of town. Dust behind them. Dust on the sheriff’s body. A slight breeze playing dusty games around his head.
Minutes later the dust still blew into Baker’s open mouth. Nobody had gone near the body. Waiting for the robbers to return. The killers. “We’ll come back,” they had yelled out. “Bet on it.” Nobody knew when they’d come back, so nobody moved. No rifle came out a window. No hand touched on a side arm. Nothing moved in the whole town. The robbers, the killers, owned it. They knew it. They sat their horses like princes before they left town.
Some of the on-looking men would jump on the back of an unbroken pony in a second, knowing what was coming, a ride like hell to turn a stampede or chase rustlers until dawn. This day they did nothing of such measure. Drawn still. Reserved. Like marionettes on a stiff string.
“We’ll be back.” The gang said it in unison so it’d be remembered. By everybody in Fuerte Verde, a town usually as quiet as it could be, a town that wanted to stay that way.
That bad day Cawdy Bellrock came into Fuerte Verde from the other end, as always loving the look of the town, and the huge green vine had grown over an old wall. Stories said the Spanish had brought the first plant with them and it fallen in this place when a Spaniard died on his horse. From the very earliest days the town had been called Fuerte Verde.
Riding an appaloosa, loving the way the animal moved and enjoying a leisurely ride on the grass, Bellrock missed the robbery and murder crimes. But he saw the sheriff flat on his back in the road, the dust moving around him, blood still oozing from his torso, his mouth open, the last word gone unheard, if it had been uttered.
Rod Baker had been a good man. Though neither swift nor calculating as a lawman might become, he had been a good man; that meant slow on the draw, easy to catch unaware, readiness not a particularly clear quality with him, but a good man. Some thought he’d be better off as a farmer, a clerk at the general store, even tending bar at the saloon would be better for his talents, his failings, his destiny.
But not a sheriff.
The sun behind Bellrock, setting the scene into memory, burned away on two mountain tops. Shadows were as long as yesterday. In a window at the far end of town the sun shot back a flash reflection. There were no horse sounds. No hoof beats. No nickers. No push-pull of wagon wheels. No whips cutting air.
There was not a single giddy-up in all of Fuerte Verde.
Everything sounded dead, looked dead. And there was yield in the air, a big gulp of quit. Bellrock knew a vile taste in his mouth, a sudden shame of connection to men he had ridden with on posses, cattle drives, in a few races with their cow ponies. For a fleet gasp of air he wanted disconnection. Fright had moved a whole town into immobility. He shivered with the thought of what had caused it.
He dismounted beside the dead sheriff lying in the road. His appaloosa’s reins trailed on the ground, making more dust. The motes caught up a streak of sunlight. It sparkled on them. Bellrock’s shoulders went quickly bright from a layer of sunshine. To some of the onlookers, some of the do-nothings as he had thought of them, the air also carried a sense of awe, of indecision that only settled a little with a view of Bellrock locked in the minds of the onlookers. From any angle he was a man quite different from Baker lying in the dust.
The long experience of reading signs of all kinds had come fully on Bellrock, even as silence sat down atop Fuerte Verde. And the compulsion to do something positive, take charge, make amends.
First he closed the sheriff’s mouth. Then his eyes. He stood, standing up straight, looking like he could bite the tail off anything. Veins stood out on his neck. He yelled out, “Anybody tell Alma Baker? Some sorry ass stand-still go get his wife right now.”
Bellrock, in a final gesture, stood with his hands planted on his hips, his eyes moving from face to face, setting in place names, characters, temperament, cowardice.
In five minutes the saddest sight of all was standing beside her dead husband. Alma Baker saw his eyes and mouth closed, the dust blowing around his head. Blood drying in a half dozen spots on his shirt. His hat nowhere in sight. His badge not visible. His pistols still in their dark holsters. The toe on one boot had never been fixed. He forever was putting things off. Enjoying comfort. Enjoying ease. Like today.
She knew he’d been surprised again. He was always being surprised. She expected it a lot. Depended on it at times. Presents were easy. Love was easy. Satisfaction was easy.
Death was easiest of all.
She looked at Bellrock. “You close his eyes? Was his mouth open like always? You can tell me. I understand things.” She appeared stoic, strong, but tears sat in her eyes, on her cheeks. In another life, another guise, she’d be the quick-draw sheriff; she’d have learned the role and the rules.
Her arms closed around her chest, perhaps hugging some piece of memory. Perhaps setting her resolve for a siege of one kind or another. Perhaps searching for what was to follow, besides the pain, this scene of surprise and death wrapped in one bundle of bright light. And dust coming to dust ahead of time.
“Yes. It was all like that,” he said. “I’m sorry no one came for you. It was too late anyway.”
He had his hat in his hand. The only man with his hat off in the whole town of Fuerte Verde. It moved her. Sumptuously. Her skin became crowded with a strange sensation. It went deeper for quick moments. She had known his wife, dead a year from a wild horse, two young children caught up in death she herself now knew.
Close beside her, like a new guardian, one of Bellrock’s hands pointed at the undertaker as he tossed his head at him. It was saying, “Take care of him. I’ll take care of her.”
“Come on,” he said to her. “I’ll take you back to the house. They’ll take care of things.” He said it so she’d believe it. His hand was on her elbow. She felt the sureness in it.
Bellrock had yelled out, “Anybody know who it was?” His hand was openly on his pistol.
She saw severe lines cross his face as he yelled out a second time, “Anybody?” Condemnation came along with his direct interrogation. A vein of blue showed down his neck, went under his shirt.
His voice had back-up built right into it. The word on him in the town was he had been up-front before in other situations.
A response was drawn out of the crowd, as if he had squeezed it out of them.
A voice at the edge of the street, husky, near hidden, said, “The Hobkins.” The voice paused, gathered up at least some minute determination and courage, and said, “All four of them. I saw them in Rattling once, all together, the night they killed Harvey Wescott.”
Bellrock couldn’t see the face, but he’d find the owner. Belief was in the voice, and true identification. He knew it sounded just the way the Hobkins had lived … outside everything set by law, by a weird sense of timing as if it was a deed needed doing, by their experience with fear and dread, and how to build on them.
In his quick survey, each of the Hobkins came made in the image of the father. He’d been twice in the penitentiary, witnesses killed while incarcerated, evidence destroyed, and fear rampant in some of the local communities. At least five women, last seen in the company of one or another of the sons, were never seen again.
Testaments were lame, off-handed, from the lot of them:
“Oh, you’re asking about Ella Jean?” one of them would say. “Why, she went back to Independence to spend some time with her sick sister.” Or, “That dilly of a girl, that saloon dancer, Molly whatever? Why, she ran off with a freighter heading west. Never said where they were going, and we don’t likely care. No siree, not a bit of care for that kind of woman. You can all understand what I’m saying.”
Bellrock had heard it all, and now, as he guided the sheriff’s new widow home to her little house on the edge of Fuerte Verde, he could feel the anger mounting within.
The change had begun for all concerned.
Life for Alma Baker and him leaped forward, Bellrock becoming the new sheriff and bound to get the Hobkins in place, with solid witnesses not afraid to speak up, say what they saw.
The town was afraid, until Alma Baker started the rounds on her own, in some instances shaming men in front of others, building the peer pressure, using all her wiles, wanting revenge for the death of a simple man who meant no harm, who was surprised at many things in life, who managed to get by.
But only so far.
Bellrock to her seemed different. Sounded different. Looked different. She was sure he’d have a place in her life. She needed him in her life. He needed her. In four months he had become sheriff, and she had become his bride, assuming motherhood of his two children.
Some circumstances didn’t change.
One marshal, sent from the territorial seat, was missing. He had been sent to Fuerte Verde. He had never arrived in town. Another “lady” from the hotel was missing after a morning ride with a gentleman, who was found being sliced to ribbons by vultures out on the grass.
The bank at Wilmore Springs was robbed by three men, one teller shot, the bank cleaned out. Three men did the robbing, three men held the horses and held the town at bay by waving their guns at anything or anyone that moved.
Everything that came to Bellrock smelled of the Hobkins. Every last detail. And their trail was lost early in any chase, up in the maze of the mountains that poked their snouts up in the middle of the Earth.
The best lead, and the only legitimate lead, came to Bellrock from a mountain man, Jess Flatlog who wandered into Fuerte Verde one evening, went to see the sheriff, met Bellrock for the first time, and said, “I was to here once before and met the sheriff, him as quiet as a man can be. I came to tell him that up near Brycer Pass a group of men have pitched a solid-looking cabin for themselves. They got a load of firewood all stacked up like they was all ready for winter. There’s six of them and three of them call one man ‘Paw.’”
He rested his mouth for a spell, got a sense of wind, and started again. “The other two look to be hanging on the edges. None of them men up there appear to be likable from where I sit. I can crawl almost on top of them through a crevice and a cave cutting through the mountain above them. It’s like sitting down in the middle of their campfire when they’re gabbing away outside. Hear every word plain as table talk at the saloon. Can read their gestures like a skunk’s tail lighting up the conversation. They’re even mean to them two that don’t call the old one ‘Paw’ like them others do. I swear them two’s like prisoners or scared to death.”
He stopped in mid-thought. “I ain’t talked so much in a long spell, but I figured to get away before they found me. I heard a mutt one night maybe they got chained up as a watchdog. I don’t need none of them kind of men sharing the mountain with me. It’s hard enough as it is, just getting by on what I catch in the irons.”
Flatlog’s eyes were hard on Bellrock, obviously taking the measure of the man. “I aim to wet down a bit, Sheriff, if you don’t mind my thirst.” He appeared as old as any man in town, but Bellrock assumed his tattered clothes and mix of hide and deerskin beaten to all and gone were making that determination for him, but the man’s eyes were alert.
“Not done with you, Jess,” he said. “Not yet. I want to know how close I can get to them with a posse, maybe using that cave and crevice you used yourself. Is it the only way in for me?”
“It’s for damned sure the only way, Sheriff,” Flatlog put in, “but you ain’t gettin’ no army in there with you. Most, I’d guess, be about three men that can scramble when they needs to, because you might need to. Them mountains get awful tight at times, I swear. A cat followed me once and I didn’t have my rifle in them tight spots and the only thing I had was one of my traps. I set it and he sprung it and all hell broke loose. I can still hear him and I didn’t know where he dragged hisself and the trap off to and I wasn’t about to look for them. Not for the life of me under that whole mountain of stone.”
He took a swig from a little flask that made a sudden appearance from the folds of hide and deerskin. “Meanest sound I ever did hear, Sheriff, and I don’t mean to spoil any of your fun whilest I’m at this, but I aim to get drunk tonight. So here’s to you and whatever you got goin’.”
What Cawdy Bellrock had going was to find three or four worthy men in Fuerte Verde that would face up to the challenge he’d lay on them in trying to squeeze the Hobkins gang all the way to court, jail and a proper hanging, if it came to that, and in his mind it would.
He knew the first task would be as difficult as the end task, which revealed his feeling toward many acquaintances. The fear of the Hobkins had worked itself deeply into the town, and yet Bellrock realized much of it was a quiet hysteria that had taken over Feurte Verde. Some of the loudmouth complainers and gossipers and regular malcontents, bored with everything else in life, had not only put it up on its hind legs, but shoved it fell force into the evident hysteria, like another routine day.
It was not a drawn map that Flatlog gave him but a descriptive map the way a mountain man might do the leading: “There’s two ways in there, Sheriff. One’s right up from the narrow canyon that’s like a snare where you could catch ‘em comin’ out once you got ‘em on the run, and there’s a secret way gets you in I used once or twice. That’s near a rock, tall kind of, at the edge of the trail where the good bend is I told you about. Just before the sun hits it makes you think of a girl you knowed once back in some other place, maybe in Curtis Rock or Margie’s Place in Alafond down the trail, or all the way back to Independence or even a chunk of St. Louis the other side of the boat, and for a minute you wonder what in tarnation she’s doing out here, that good old girl. That’s mighty important at the time ‘cause you got to get there just before the sun comes down in among you, and you get settled so breakfast don’t make them fellas hear you or that dog put them up to you.”
“A whole way right to their cabin. They’d never get a look at you. It’s a tough squeeze in a lot of places, but it’s a surprise they’d have on their hands. You could flush ‘em like quail or meadow game.“
He held up for a few seconds, drawing his breath, and added, “Once you get in there, past the head-thumper and the hip-squeezer like they was playin’ tag with each other all the time, you best find with your hands a sharp edge otherwise it might do some slicing at your backside if you ain’t payin’ pure attention to what’s at hand all around you.”
Not used to all the palaver, Flatlog had another go at a few deep breaths and said, “When you’re comin’ outta the big squeeze at the end like there’s no tomorrow comin’ at you, they ain’t no way to get more’n three rifles with good aimin’ to do what you want, including yours of course, so I’d say you best have the best shots up front, the two best and yourself, and them two others, ‘cause they’s only three of you even gettin’ close that can do anythin’, just doin’ the loadin’ for you, ‘cause two goin’ against six ain’t what you call good enough odds for regular folks.”
Bellrock, seeing all the images that Flatlog conjured up for him, put much of it in place, and realized no matter who went with him, he’d have to point the whole way for them to take advantage of the inside information to get into a decent position, provided he could hold half of what he had heard from the mountain man.
As he went back over the “map,” he had a laugh or two for himself. He knew it was needed, for hard times and whirlwinds often make room for humor, even if they’re good for nothing else.
The hard part of selection was narrowed in quick order when the call for posse help was ignored except by a dozen or so hardy looking but supposedly concerned volunteers. Some of them, Bellrock realized from the outset, were doing it for show, standing up to be counted and then dodging the whole show.
The new sheriff dismissed two married men in a hurry, and did it politely and with no other reference but to the children involved. The two fathers went without objection. Bellrock dismissed two men he had seen in action before and wanted no part of them. He was quick and firm and made their dismissal a direct order: “You two can go back to the saloon and wait for us.” It caused a momentary passage of ruptured bravado and false embarrassment that lead to quick turnarounds, as expected by Bellrock. He admitted to himself that he wouldn’t even go fishing with the pair.
With a final look at the balance of volunteers, he picked his four and assigned the others, “To man a barricade at the canyon when we flush them out of their hideout and keep them penned in. You can pick your own spots and you’ll know they’re coming. We’ll do all we can to make them run. Best way is to catch them from two ends at one time.”
The two elements of the posse made their ways, as directed by Bellrock. Now and then he’d let go a laugh as he went back over Flatlog’s vocal map delivery. It gave a momentary break to the daunting sense of what faced them. What he had with him, he hoped, was the best he could have picked. That each man would hold up, in the heart of the mountain, in the squeeze of the rock that none of them would likely try again. The hope was for them as individuals, for himself, and for a successful mission.
The group had managed to get through a last difficult passage, each man forcing himself past a tight squeeze, congratulating each other on the completion of the hardest test so far, when the mountain shuddered, and a section of rock wall shimmered and moved. The motion, at first, was imperceptible, but the air changed, then the knowledge came in one sudden crunch of stone … the passage behind them was closed forever. There would be no going back, only on to finish the mission.
“This old mountain was here long before us, boys,” Bellrock said, putting some confidence into his voice, into his person, “and just told us things are now different. There’s no going back, only on ahead. It’s like the mountain just commissioned us to get this whole shebang done and wrapped up and don’t bother her none again.”
He felt transparent too quickly and hoped the others had not noticed. He’d have to be very careful with the lot of them.
One of the men said, almost an answer with another question, “What does all this mean, Sheriff? You got any ideas how we’ll get this done? I don’t figure any of us’d like to be caught up in here for very long. It ain’t the most pleasant place I’ve ever been.”
“We’ll have to do our best, Jeff. Catch them asleep or looking the other way or plain idle and not paying attention to anything but themselves. Let’s go on and I’ll take a look.”
Just ahead of them, through an aperture about twice the width of a man, they saw the soft gray of morning. A bird chirruped a long way off, and one answered just as far away. A dead silence followed, and then each of them felt the mountain shake again, a shimmer as before, slight but full of omen.
“Damn it, Sheriff,” Jeff said, “Let’s get it done. Rather be out there getting’ shot at than bein’ buried in here under all this stone. Hell, our folks could look for us for a hundred years and not even find our boots.”
Bellrock, at the opening, on his stomach, saw the cabin down below in morning’s gray light. It was a small but solid looking structure, probably having two rooms from the looks of it. A window sat in each of the two walls he could see. A stone chimney poked up through a slanted wooden roof, and a thin line of smoke emanated from it and drifted off slowly.
But he saw no movement outside the cabin. No horses were visible and Bellrock supposed they were on the other side of the cabin. He saw no hitch rail and no door and realized they had to be on one of the two sides he could not see. A well covering showed in the lifting shadows, a pile of fire wood under, and a pile of debris off a ways from the cabin. From the size of the pile he could tell that the place had been used for a long time; he could not contemplate how many robberies and crimes they had come back from to find solitude and safe refuge in this place.
The first thought that hit him, was not that they would lose the coming encounter, but that he would burn the place down before he left it.
As fate never works from a calendar, or mountains on the move, it happened again, and the panic slammed into his posse as noise and dust came in a rush of air from some opening behind them, and one rifle was accidentally discharged. The sound reverberated in among the crush of stone and ran off surfaces.
A light showed from both cabin windows as a flickering flame of a lamp cast its glow. In rapid succession a series of rifle shots came from one corner of the cabin and went wildly up against the wall of the mountain. They came again from the other side of the cabin.
“Oh, my God,” one of his posse screamed, and Bellrock fired his rifle, not at either side of the cabin, but directly into each window. He heard a scream and then another. Then he fired at each corner where the initial shots had issued from.
A deep voice yelled, “Get them horses ready. We’re gettin’ out of here.”
“Them other boys is hurt, Paw. They may be dead.”
The deep voice replied, “T’hell with ‘em. Let ‘em be. Whoever’s up there can hide all day on us. Get them horses saddled.
Jeff Lorrie, prone beside Bellrock, said, “I got your lead, Cawdy,” and he fired half dozen shots into the cabin windows. A quick light showed, then flames flickered in the windows and Lorrie said, “I bet I hit the stove, Cawdy. I bet I hit the stove. Look at that.”
The light of flames had escalated, and smoke issue from some corners of the roof. The cabin was aflame.
Four horses bolted down trail from the cabin. From far down the canyon a series of rifle shots signaled that the rest of Bellrock’s posse was making its stand in keeping the Hobkins pinned into place’
As quick as they could, Bellrock and his four men slipped out of the fissure in the mountain and climbed down the rugged side of the mountain.
The only shots heard were coming from down the canyon, a steady barrage of rifle fire and hand guns ablaze.
Bellrock got his boys on the run after the Hobkins and he had found two horses that must have belonged to the two dead men who had escaped whatever kind of hell they were in by a fiery death.
The fight did not last long, for once the elder Hobkins went flying off his horse and did not stir on the ground, one of the sons yelled out, “Paw’s dead. Paw’s dead.” He threw his rifle on the ground and raised his hands. The two others, seeing what was in store for them, kept firing until both of them were knocked out of their saddles, one dead, one seriously injured.
It was over that quick, all the misery and pain and fear they had inflicted on the town, and much of the territory, disappeared in short order.
Cawdy Bellrock made Jeff Lorrie his permanent deputy for a few years, found some peace in his later days with a loving wife and mother to their four children, and eventually retired to the working life of a ranch owner just outside Fuerte Verde, deep down in Texas.