Western Short Story
The Heel or the Spur
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The shot had come down from the needle-like Nail Mountain, killing the second of Rico Belotti's sons in a month, and former sheriff Doyle Pickler, on the scene less than a month as temporary sheriff, was sure of a few things: "The shooter, a sniper first class, you gotta admit, was the killer, and he's been hiding out on Brother's Cliff since the night before at least."

Nail Mountain

"What makes you come up with that idea, Doyle? Could have been 50 cowpokes in there yesterday. We can't check out no 50 men. Hell, the whole Carvin crowd was there yesterday for Pate's birthday." Doyle's assistant, Jack Smitlyn, in the sheriff's estimation, was still learning how to breathe properly, or hold his breath at the right time. "No two ways about it," he might have erroneously muttered.

"That makes our job easier, Jackie boy, because they all came together from the ranch the other way down the Territory Road, every last one of them. Folks and yolks get caught in the same mix, often or not."

His father once said that to him, and the old man's ways had become part of his inheritance. "This shooter was in town yesterday and was out here ahead of us, and that was before last night came on us. No way he could have come from out of town and climbed up there in darkness. Don't think about it any other way. He'd have been dead on his own choice; fall, slip, jumpin' for a grip on a real bastard of a mountain which we all know," the voice cold as the steel of twin pistols loose at his hips.

"Why's all I want to know, Sheriff. He was such a good kid. Never hurt nobody I know of, not even a pup."

Pickler' s voice was flexed by its adamant tone, authority straight and stiff in its delivery. "Course, you don't mean his brother Albie wasn't such a good kid either, do you, Jackie boy? Sayin' it twice don't make it nice."

"I didn't mean nothin' by it, Sheriff, just wonderin' who the hell'd want to kill poor old Nick Belotti. Makes no sense to me." The gray sombrero on his head shook with reaction, as though it was in sympathy with the youngster.

"Two sons off of one man is two too many no matter what way you look at it, Jackie boy, Sayin' it twice don't make it nice. Time'll let you know that when it comes around the way it allus does, out on the grass or up on the mountains." He wanted to say, "You gotta keep listenin' for the messages aimin' your way, Jackie boy," but managed to hold back on that delivery, thinking it over in a hurry as a waste of time and energy, the trade-offs almost visible to him.

The sheriff was figuring out how he was going to tell his best friend, Rico Belotti, that his second son was dead, and again by a sniper, a sure shot, from long range, and most likely coming all the way from old times. Old times and old crimes had connections one way or another.

Yet nothing in Belotti's past, and he figured he knew just about all there was to know, had or would have been told to him, all those card nights piled atop one another like stones in a wall a brickie set in place, like forever, a wall for protection, a barricade, yet as simple as keeping old pals out of the prairie sun.

There was something held back, some deed or daring completed long before the pair had met, leading to the murder of two sons, unthinkable to some men, especially men like Rico where the past is cast under a herd of hooves.

He kept thinking it over, trying to scrape up little pieces that had dropped out of hearing, the asides or mutterings at cards, winning a hand, losing a bigger hand, measuring things as they were.

His mind settled itself on the issue: It had to be money, cattle or women, he guessed, the only causes that came to mind ... and it made him think of seeing Maria Melody Belotti right away, one time in a cabin window making Rico's day for him, the new sun barely risen. That image never went away, hanging in his mind like a first kill, or the last whipping his father ever gave him, permanent as mountains looking downhill. "Such times can be sublime," he remembered. "A woman at giving is the best of living."

Possibly, there was a similar image hanging on for somebody else, another plain cowpoke, Maria being nothing but a plain knockout woman from first sight.

That memorable morning, Rico had come out of the cabin in the heart of the prairie, a world-beating smile on his face, a questioning look on his face when he saw his pal as red-faced as he had ever been ... which was like ... never, and looking as though an apology was at hand. Rico, aware of the situation, waved his hand, said, "Regular start of the day, Doyle. Happens all the time, now we got work to do."

He had mounted his stallion before his pal could move, or offer a statement.

Day, in a hurry of its own, had jumped on them good and proper.

Now, another day was on top of Doyle Pickler; he set about for his first duty of the new day.

Rico, at a window, saw him coming down the road, no hurry in his gait, a certain stiffness in his riding, the way he might ride alone in his own procession. He knew the awful feeling that he was getting a message before the message could be delivered.

He called Maria to his side, putting his arm about her waist. "Doyle's coming for a visit, Maria, an early one."

The quick stiffness in her body shook through him.

"Oh, God, Rico, he's riding like he did before, so slow, oh, so slow."

She shivered again, blessed herself, muttered, and clung to her husband.

The visit was short. The temporary sheriff saying, at length, "I'm stayin' 'til we get answers, Ma'am, Rico. I'll do the best I can to find out who and what and why," the sternness and promise carried in each word, as if his oath was mounted and saddled.

As he turned to go, he stopped, looked back at Rico, and said, "I know it all, Rico, that right?" The question loomed as though it ran through a courtroom, and came out on the other side of the open delay.

When Rico replied, "You got all of it, Doyle," he caught a quick look from Rico's wife that he'd have to dwell on, determine if it was a warning, a sharing, a condemnation of her husband, perhaps an all-in-one grimace, if it was a grimace to be understood at the moment of delivery.

"Women, he thought, "have a way about themselves. They're more informative than we dare think, often holding a fact or an idea closer to secrecy than we think, wondering when, where and why they can let it go, cause of causes, mystery of mysteries."

Doyle Pickler, for the next few days, kept thinking about that scene in Rico's kitchen, trying to wrap his mind around every word, movement, facial expression, and momentary silences that stayed with him. Often, and in turn, each one demanded explanation, further discussion, clarity.

Doubt about anything else coming from Rico made him more than nervous ,,, the Belottis had lost two sons, but they had a daughter, Sofia Amanda, a beautiful girl almost in her twenties, married early as the custom, moved out with her husband, had a new baby, away from danger, or so it seemed. 

From a distance, he promised himself, he'd keep watch and hoped for sudden or accidental revelation of causes behind unexplained murders. Chance or plain stupid luck was often a participant in the arrival or discovery of important clues and data. Of course, he never counted on it, wouldn't say a word of that nature to his deputy, but being alert to all matters, physical, emotional and at-all-possible, they lurked about in his attention span; he was not a dummy, he assured himself.

He was sitting at the bar a few days later with a couple of pals when a stranger entered the saloon, thin, somewhat inconspicuous, unarmed to the quick glance .... no unexplainable bulges. The man slithered to the far end of the bar, his light, airy voice saying, "Beer, please."

The bartender poured the beer, and then spun about in place and sent a knowledgeable facial expression to the sheriff at the far end of the bar, who leaned forward over the bar, waiting to hear what was unsettling the barkeep.

"Sheriff," the barkeep whispered, "that new fellow down there is Slats Peabody. I seen him in court some years back, maybe ten, and he was sentenced to Kingston Jail for rustling and some associated deeds of the kind. I'm guessing he must have just got released, done his time, but can't figure what he's doing in here. He's a mean one in jail I heard, Even Jessie Wilks the stage driver heard talk about him. Fact is, he ain't goin' to any party an' got no family 'round here."

The sheriff strode down along the bar and addressed the new man in town. "Peabody," he said through the edge of his teeth like he was also trying to say something else, "I'm the sheriff here and I know you just got out of a cell in Kingston. I want to know who and what brings you here, how long you think you're gonna hang around lookin' for work or friends or old rustlin' pals who ain't here anyhow."

The sheriff was crowding Slats Peabody close to the bar, satisfied he was not armed, and said, "If I buy you another beer and you tell me who, what and why, I'll let you stay the night before you mount up and move on. That sound like a good deal to you?"

"Tell the barkeep to fill it to the top this time, Sheriff. I'm just lookin' for a friend I met in the hoosegow. Said he had something special up this way and to look him up if I ever got a chance. He was a quiet dude behind bars but I bet he's got somethin' special pullin' him all this way. Kept it all to himself, he did, but I saw it in his eyes, a kind of payback glow or a dream he can't forget, you know, the kind of stuff you go to sleep on and it sure wakes you up again first thin' o' the mornin' you ever been there in the first place."

Peabody plain stopped right there, as if he'd said too much to begin with.

Pickler held his hand up to the barkeep to hold up on the beer he had poured for Peabody, followed by a direct and hard eye on the ex-jailbird, saying, "The name, Peabody, the name of your pal or you go nowhere you like but somewhere you must be plain old sick and tired of."

He was still holding back the barkeep when Peabody, in the low voice of a secretive whisper, said, almost as an aside, but peacock-proud even breaking a sworn confidence, "Sawbuck Britten, the one and only, best break-in man in the west, ladies man, land-grabber, you name it and he's done it. There ain't no place he ain't been or no deed he ain't got done, for one kind of reason or another, and he's been my pal for a long spell, a magician, you ask me."

Peabody finished off his beer, and left without a further word, the saloon suddenly empty without him, and without the sheriff who left by the back door ,,, bound for Rico Belotti's ranch, knowing he couldn't pass up the possibilities swimming in the back of his mind, right alongside Maria Melody Belotti's one-time grimace. There lingered hidden clues, hidden angers, hidden enmities, All life rolled into connected balls. And accident and fact have strange ways of getting locked up together, or "one good tern or one bad tern deserves another," as his bird-loving father once said to him, the joke and laughter loitering in his voice, a man with many talents, many intents.

Indeed, odd assessments were allowed to lighten Pickler's day. He'd remembered another one.

Maria Melody Belotti saw the sheriff coming down the trail to their home, the evening sun setting behind him, remembering what her husband had said on an earlier visit, how the sheriff sat his saddle, the message of death coming at them, now the messenger was coming again, all that was left was their daughter, miles away, a new baby at her breast.

Her heart sank; the Devil, she knew, often made amends in life, getting even for a bad time with similar payment, the messenger somehow attached to all of it. Was their old friend now employed by the Devil? She dared not think about er daughter ... but the thoughts pounded at her guilt, unintended, unwanted, part of her stolen in life and scratching to get back. She had not told her husband about the attack by a stranger, knowing in her heart she had been impregnated, Rico proud as ever thinking it was his baby. The stranger, as he left, advising her, "You've been introduced to the one and only Sawbuck Britten, scourge of the whole damned West, take my word for it."

He'd kissed her goodbye before he left her beside the trail. The gentle signs coming were signs she had known with her sons.

Was this sheriff coming on a repeat errand? Did he find any evidence about her sons? Had he found connections in their deaths? Was she going to be punished again? Should she try to blurt out the whole horrible truth before everything in life was turned upside-down?

She took hold of her husband's arm and said, "Doyle's coming again, like before. I know something's wrong."

He shook his head in the negative; there was not a clue or fact unseen. He was clean of blame of any kind. His sons' deaths were accidents. They had to be. Even if life stunk to the high heavens. and all the way up. He did not think about his daughter for one second.

Maria Melody Belotti spoke even as the sheriff entered her home: "Is it about Sofia Amanda? Please don't tell me it's about Sofia Amanda.."

"No," smiled the sheriff, "I'd received some information and followed it up and staked out her home and found a man who said he was going to tell her that he had killed her brothers, but that's when he tried to draw on me, so I shot him dead on the spot. He never told me why. I guess it was just a lie."

Maria Melody Belotti asked, "Did he not say a word about why?"

"Not a word, Ma'am. Not a word. He took what he knew to the grave. Nothing shared is nothing bared. My father said that to me when I was a kid, all those years ago. I remember it every now and then. Can never tell you when."