Western Short Story
Richie Sandals was shaking in the barn where his father had hidden him. He smelled smoke or burning or an old piece of wood near his nose. He was not sure. Then he really knew something was burning. But his father had told him to stay hidden. There was yelling and noise outside.
He waited until all was silent, and then found his mother and father dead in front of their cabin, the cabin going with the flames, the winds rich with the smells.
The first thing he said aloud was, “I cannot cry. Pa wouldn’t like it or Ma either, no matter what she would have said.” Then some force, some unknown, unseen power, took over him. “I owe somebody for this.”
A rod of steel stood up on his backside. It felt like it belonged on him. Richie Sandals was 7 years old, and stretching his years at that exact minute. And the keen echoes came to him in the moments of enlightenment.
On the spot, in his misery and sorrow, that force came again. “Go see Herbie Sears. He’s a friend.” The source of that voice was not known to Richie, but it was real and insistent.
Then, also from a distant place, his father’s voice came back to him. They were sitting on the porch one evening, the stars aloft, the wind beginning to make a liar of the beautiful night, when his father said, “If you ever have trouble, and I’m not here to help you, go see Herbie Sears.”
There came a pause in his words. “Herbie has his ways,” he said. It was as if a law had had been made, enacted, put to work.
Herbie Sears didn’t scare a soul in all of Carmody Hills. He was a little on the fat side, sported a round face, appeared harmless looking, and had eyes that seemed like they always looked beyond where other eyes were trained. And some town bullies, pushers trying shortcuts to manhood, called him Fatso or Piggy or Pie Face. But Herbie never reacted to all the taunts and teasing; just went on his way, slow and steady in every step … and was soon forgotten by the bullies. Little reaction meant little fun.
“Herbie’s not strange,” his father had said one time as if an aside, “and he’s not afraid of anybody no matter what he looks like or what he does when the boys tease him. He’s just different. But he’s as real as they come. Trust is his middle name and he knows courage despite what everybody thinks.” He added another qualification when he said, “And he has other talents.”
All the words came back to Richie Sandals as he made his way from the site of his burnt-out home after covering his parents’ bodies with a wagon canvas and rocks and parts of an old wagon to keep animals away from them until he came back with Herbie.
Richie had walked a mile or two when he saw his pony at a small stream. He was able to get up on his back and headed him toward the Sears ranch. “C’mon, Snuggie, we got things to do, someplace to go.”
Herbie Sears was on top of the hay wagon when he spotted the rider coming across the tall grass. “Hey, Pa, looks like Richie Sandals coming on his pony, and he’s alone.” He bounced down off the rig and mounted his horse. “I’ll go see what he’s up to, Pa.”
Herbie knew something was wrong, for Richie appeared as if he was asleep on the pony. That was not at all like Richie Sandals. When he rode up beside Richie, Herbie saw he was sobbing, unaware of anybody being near him.
“What’s the matter, Richie?” Herbie said. He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
The tear-stained face with the reddened eyes looked up at Herbie Sears. “My Ma and Pa was killed last night and our house burned down. It’s all gone. I covered them up with a canvas. They’re dead, Herbie. Dead.”
Suddenly, like a spigot had been shut, he stopped crying. “We got to do something, Herbie. Pa said to come to see you if I ever needed anything. He said that, Herbie. He really said that.”
“What happened, Richie?”
“My Pa rushed me out of the house. Ma wouldn’t go. Pa said he was checking the horses and saw a small light, like a match lit up, on the far edge of the grass. He knew somebody was out there. He got me into the barn and told me not to show myself no matter what. I heard the shots and smelled the burning and some men riding around like they was on a round-up. Lots of noise and laughing.”
“’D’you see any faces? Hear any names called out, Richie?”
”I didn’t see anybody from under the pile where Pa put me, but I heard one name. I think one of them said, ‘Hey, Cat.’ I’m sure that’s what I heard, ‘Cat.’”
Herbie nodded and said, “Let’s go see my pa and get your folks took care of.”
A few hours later, in a corner of the Sandals’ ranch, the parents of Richie Sandals were buried. Seven neighbors were at the small ceremony, summoned by Herbie Sears’ father.
“Does anybody know what happened?” one man said. “Something’s sure got to be done about this. Did the kid hear anything?” He looked at Richie Sandals who was a dozen feet away with Mrs. Sears.
“He didn’t hear or see a thing, “Herbie Sears said. “Not a thing.”
The man replied, “I’ll tell the sheriff when I go into Carmody tonight. He’ll have to start looking at things. Do something.” He looked at Herbie and said, “You keep to home, Herbie, and keep your eyes on your folks. Strange things going on these days. Strange things.”
As he joined up with his foreman, the rancher said, “That kid’s as useless as young Sandals is when these things come to a head. They don’t seem to know anything. One’s dumb as a log and the other older one won’t make a dent in this life the way he shies off’n everything around him.”
The Sears family took Richie Sandals into their home for good, and gave him Herbie’s old room, the one he had before he moved into his own small place he’d built by himself against the side of the barn.
That evening, wearing a pair of guns on a gun belt never seen before on him, Herbie Sears, round-faced, porky, just turned 17, looking wholly out of place, walked into the Lucy’s Uncle’s Saloon in Carmody Hills. He’d never had a drink there, had never been in the saloon, and ordered a whiskey from the bartender.
“I ain’t seen you in here before, Kid,” the bartender said as he poured a whiskey. He looked at a few others down along the bar and made a grimace they all understood. The young porker, wearing guns, was a strange sight in the saloon. The snickers started along the bar, moved across the room.
Herbie Sears swigged the contents of his shot glass and pushed it back to the bartender. “Do it again,” he said, and added, “And you might never see me in here again if the gents I’m looking for are in here now or come along sometime this evening.”
“Who are them folks you’re lookin’ for?” the bartender asked, again looking around the room, again with a certain fully understood grimace. The standing customers at the bar all nodded at the grimace, as if they understood everything around them, as if they were in the know on all matters, as if they expected someone to call the kid “Porky or Pie Face” or one of the other names that had been pinned on him.
Herbie swallowed the second drink, then announced, “The damnedest cowards ever come in here or ever come into Carmody Hills gunned down Richie Sandals’ ma and pa last night and left them dead in front of their own house, which the damnedest cowards of all time even been burnt to the ground without so much as a fare-thee-well, never mind a prayer.”
He pushed his glass forward again. Fatso, Pie- Face, was making a stand,
“How you gonna know who did it, Kid?” the bartender said. “You gettin’ up some gumption to do somethin’ about it.” The laugh was almost delivered from his throat, but he kept it quiet, in place. There was no way you could tell what the young ones were going to do. He almost said, “Especially what this fat kid might do. Oh, heavens forbid.”
“Oh,” replied Herbie, “we have a witness.”
The silly smile, the taunting smile-in-reverse, came across Herbie Sears’ face as his eyes slowly scanned every customer in Lucy’s Uncle’s Saloon.
In the silence of words that followed, there came the warning sound of chairs moving, weights being shifted, unrest being exposed.
One man standing at the bar said, “I heard about that, Kid. You’re right, it’s a damned shame. The witness ought to come forward and say what’s on his mind. Is it you? Were you there?” His smile was only half-announced on his face, the way some men manage to speak half-truths or cannot say what’s really on their minds.
“Not me,” Herbie Sears said, “but I was told about it, and some names that got bounced around as the fire was being set to the house of some folks already killed. That includes Mrs. Sandals. She was a wife as well as the mother of a little kid. Now you all know that’s a sign, a sure sign, on the easiest trail of the biggest cowards any of us ever knew.”
There came a new silence in the saloon, which was now packed with folks. The whole town of Carmody Hills had heard that something special was brewing in Lucy’s Uncle’s place.
Again, Herbie slammed his empty glass on the bar and the sound ran into the corners of the room as if a bugle had been blown. The full attention of every customer centered on him. A few folks there could not believe the fattest boy in Carmody Hills was making noise on his own, and in the saloon where he had never been, and wearing two guns on his belt.
His right hand went near the gun at his right side a number of times. They saw his right hand make the move, as if itching to draw his gun, measuring. Everyone in the room noticed the repeated move, a dreamer dreaming the real thing.
He turned fully away from the bar and rested his back against it, his eyes still studying all the faces in the room, now and then settling for a brief moment on a pair of eyes, a chin that seemed to hang low, or a mouth that stayed open with surprise or expectation.
The bartender spoke up. “You ain’t said what the fella’s name who was at the Sandals’ place. Is he here now?” His shoulders shrugged indifferently, as though he didn’t expect anything else to develop from the fat boy wearing the two guns for the first time ever. “You ain’t kiddin’ us about that name, are you, Kid?”
Herbie, still with his back to the bar, asked for another drink. The bartender placed it on Herbie’s right side, a foot away so he’d have to reach for it. The glass sat in the middle of the bar, at a good stretch.
He had made that move again toward the gun, faintly subtle, but still looked out over the room.
Herbie didn’t answer the bartender, but glanced at his drink, like he was measuring that distance too, and the time it would take to have a sip.
But he didn’t reach for the glass, though he looked at it a couple of times, hunched a shoulder, glanced again.
Behind him, the bartender slipped from behind Herbie and seemed to slide down the bar a dozen feet. He said again, “You got that name, Kid?”
“Yup,” Herbie said. “One of his dumb pals called it out right as the fire really started. Called his name, he did. A nickname if any of you folks believe in nicknames.” A self-serving smile crossed his face.
In one corner an old man of several wars, his own and a few others, suddenly smiled. He’d been called “Horse Face” as a boy and though he wore a full set of white-as-snow whiskers that went up under his hat, anybody knowing the name now would recognize him with the long face. But the old timer kept the smile on his face, and slowly, so that very few people in the saloon saw him, began to nod his head in full acknowledgment of what was happening in front of him.
“Yup,” Herbie said again, “that dumb pard of the gent with the nickname called it out like there was nobody else in the world to hear him.”
Herbie looked at his drink again, shrugged his shoulder and said, “Called him out loud and clear he did. Called him by his nickname.” He paused, then loudly said, ”Called him ‘Cat.’” He reached for his drink, his right arm on top of the bar.
And across the room a man jumped up from his table swearing and said, “You’re a damned liar,” and went for his gun.
He had it clear of his holster but never got off a shot, for fat Herbie Sears, Pie Face, Fatso, with a move slicker than anybody in the saloon had ever seen, drew his gun and killed Cat Higgins on the spot, with a shot from his left hand. The drink was in his right hand.
The old man once known as Horse Face finally managed to get Herbie aside after all the commotion was over and two other men, at the same table where Cat Higgins had sat, stood up with their hands raised.
“That, young man,” Horse Face said, “was quite a show. I caught on to it part way through. Pretty damned smart. You made him draw, didn’t you? What if your gun misfired? Think you could have got to the other one quick enough to answer him?” He looked at Cat Higgins, still on the floor, but now covered with a red and black table cloth.
“Oh,” Herbie Sears said, “this other one’s not a real gun. It’s a make-believe gun. I made it myself about 10 years ago, to practice with.”