Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
For the fourth day in a row, Sheriff Dermott Candler sat his mount on a hill outside his responsibility, the growing town of Saddlebox, Texas. He was hoping to catch sight of a gang of hooded riders who for weeks upon weeks had committed a host of crimes from murder down to kidnapping, including bank robbery, stage robbery, and burning the barns on two spreads, a half day's ride apart. The hooded riders had been seen only once by a young lad on the outs with his parents, and lying low in his own hideout.
"Sheriff," the boy had explained, "I couldn't tell one from another. They wore hoods, black hoods near black as night and no stars. I couldn't mark their horses either, so I can't set them mounts off in a crowd at any rail. And there was no talkin' 'tween 'em but hand pointing by one fella on a black horse too. They all looked quick and mean and I'm sure they'd a done me in if they'd a saw me." His smile was self-satisfaction itself, and a small bit of reality of sudden good sense and a whole lot of good luck.
Candler, on the job for only a few months since the shot-in-the-back death of the first sheriff of Saddlebox, still unsolved, dreaded what would come next. Every man in Saddlebox, in church, at services, at burials, was now packing a gun; a few of them had never carried arms of any type, as imposed by restraint of family or church affiliation. It's easy to say a town changes its rules as much as it changes itself or the way it manages itself.
Some men carried rifles, armed guards on full watch, as though the Civil War had come back on its own, rolling out of the hills where it had hidden itself pending revival for whatever reason. The ultimate fire, Candler knew, was on its way. "Tinderbox," he was thinking, "an all-out tinderbox, ready to end the life of a young town, but for what reason? By whom? Who lost and who won as a result?
That perplexity lingered on him like cactus spine needle deposits, more than mere irritation, while dread and doubt raised their anxious heads in continuous alert.
For more days than he knew, he was listing the sides that men were on as factions atop factions developed, as fingers began pointing, as lies and excuses became standard ploys of defense. The nature of man exerting odd presumptions, self-doubts, rethinking old decisions. Old friends, trails pals in some instances of long journeys, had lined up as of old and some even sided against each other, as boyhood acquaintances from other territories seemed to favor different aims making different statements. Three or four conclaves had marked their favorite cause, which, to the sheriff's thinking, smelled only of greed or gain or the flop of floating indecision.
He'd have to enlist help of some various nature, or strange company, and it suddenly came to him that help was available in the oddest places, one being in the Saddlebox Saloon itself, where jolly Roger Tuttle worked the bar, until midnight called him for sleep, and Miss Margot herself who bossed and directed the host of favored ladies standing in lieu of poker, chips, coin, or a new deck of cards from the back room behind the bar, Tuttle in possession of the lone key.
About the trustiest of all men he knew, Sheriff Candler would put his money on Roger Tuttle, of an unknown background before settling in as a stable barkeep for Jesse Albert's Saddlebox Saloon. Tuttle never breathed a single word about anything he was witness to, saw from any angle, heard about in talk at the bar in sideline whispers, heard through the walls behind him, or was told in private.
"He's as dumb as they come," one rancher said of him with an assertive nod of his head and a further wink at the spoken silence he was referring to. Tuttle would not answer any questions directed to him by the sheriff, any cowpoke's wife, girlfriend or intended, and any man's mother looking for her son and/or daughter. Saddlebox, it appeared, would move along at its own pace and with the usual hungers ... and then mounting to an unusual touch, like the masquerade of hooded men in a parade of black horses.
After weighing all the pluses on Roger Tuttle's side, the sheriff pulled him away from the bar one morning as he was doing the bar set-up for the day. "You know I'm in a bit of trouble hereabouts, Roger, with these damned hood wearers and you're the best man I know for helping me out of my fix, trying to save this town from certain death or any subsequent withering back to the little plot of land it once was."
"Dermott, you name it and I'll do it to the best of my ability and not a word said to another soul good, bad or indifferent. Your last silver dollar's safe in my hand." They shook hands, Candler knowing it was unnecessary, Tuttle solemnizing his promise.
"This hooded corps, for the lack of another name, always do their dirty work at night, that means they won't show up at the Saddlebox at all or until the particular job's done, whenever they do one. I'd like you to keep a chart, in any manner you want, that shows me who didn't show of a night or came in late. Every man jack in town comes here practically every night, to lean on the bar, get your best or cheapest drink, play some cards, say hello to Miss Margot and the ladies, and you know all of them from both sides of the fence. I wouldn't care if you used some kind of initials, like an identity code, whatever, as long as it provides me with at least a single starting point of information. They're pretty well organized, these Hoodies I'll have to call them," he added with instant derision, "must have an intelligent leader or top man to arrange things, and each of them must want the same thing ... and I sure as hell don't know what it is. I assume they play at more than one activity as a kind of cover-up, keeping me off track."
Tuttle, musing aloud for a few moments, said, "I'll design something on paper and will include a reference to time of arrival or departure, as such as it might be, and it'll be hit or miss some nights when the place really gets going, that's for damned sure. I can't catch sight of everyone coming or going, getting drunk, dancing, slipping off or out for a time, coming back, even for second passes."
"That's okay, Rog, as long as it shows me a tendency, a lead, like one name to start with. I can't ask for more than that, but you'll have to disguise it somehow while keeping it hidden or flat out in the open, if that'd be ruse enough." His wink was as sure as a handshake on the matter.
Tuttle shook his head affirmatively, a light in his eyes, as he suddenly said in a quick surprise, "One idea hit me already, Dermott; a chart measuring how much of which kinds of drinks or brands are ordered, like I'm keeping it for Mr. Albert or my suppliers. Could be plain and simple."
"Damn it, Rog, that's about as good as it can get. You got more than one talent, my man." A broad smile crossed his face, as if to say he was damned glad to have competent assistance in clearing up a significant problem for Saddlebox and most of its folks.
And as if on cue, the Hoodies struck again a meager three nights later, stealing a string of horses that disappeared on a rainy night and folks in the town, once the news got out, figured the horses were eventually hustled off to Mexico for sale.
On his chart for that night, Roger Tuttle, a decent crowd on hand, had entered the fact that two regulars were "no shows" for the whole evening. He promised he'd keep them in mind on other busy nights, even as he entered coded information about the two men; DJMj9 for John Desmond missing June 9, and CLAj9 for Leo Clandor missing (or absent) on the same night of June 9; inverting first and last initials for both men and further clouding their status with an M or an A for missing or absent.
Tuttle was sure, if ever there were questions on the chart, that he could manipulate simple replies to satisfy the curious with noses out of joint.
The sheriff in the meantime, while sneaking naps in his office, often in one of his two cells, empty of course, moved around Saddlebox territory during his aforementioned nightly trips, never seeing a single sign of the Hoodies.
Within a month the chart revealed ten cow puncher possibilities, with one man excused for the birth of twins and another after a bad fall in which he broke his leg.
Tuttle prepared data on the remaining eight men, with the sheriff scratching one man as a weakling that would not have been invited to participate in the first place.
He began his study of the remaining seven men, and drawing on all his observations and some known activities, finally knuckled one of them as his best starting point; Benjamin Neal who had been posted on one line as NBMj13182230j61119, wishie-washie to start with, a puppet on a string on many personal endeavors. All entries were clouded with other abbreviations such as qts or glls or brrls. Every clouded entry was made as Tuttle stood his back to the counter and appeared to be studying the shelves behind the bar. No bar regulars ever questioned the manner or method of his accounting operations; it was the lone saloon in town, every once in a while subject to a dry spell causing serious objections, invectives and utmost threats of an out-of-order order, thirst being a leader of causes, as well as it could for hard-pressed alcoholics stuck in dry grass country for days at a time.
After all the study, and the obvious selection of Benjy Neal, the Sheriff of Saddlebox began a nightly watch above the Neal spread northeast of town. Reward came on his third night when four other riders, indistinguishable, were joined by Benjy Neal at one far corner of his spread and headed off toward another spread; it was easy for Candler to deduce where they were headed, to pick up the next member of the chart, so there was no reason to follow them, which soon would be 7-1 against him, odds too stiff to test, and they'd be sure to bury him out on a lonely piece of the plains after any kind of challenge.
He made up his mind to follow-up on the Benjy Neal lead, at his own pace, on his own time, in his own manner. And he'd start in the morning, and no later than noon, when Neal ordinarily made his usual first call of the day at the saloon. His book on Benjy Neal was not a big one; a spread owner who had it dropped in his lap by his father who suffered an early death. Along with the spread, he inherited one of the best ranch bosses in the whole territory, Cliff Avery, as able and as devoted to the Neal family and the spread as the gent who started the family and the ranch at about the same time, giving each element his hardest work, his honest hopes. The only good thing in Benjy Neal's favor, in spite of his father's wishes and hopes, was the implanted and firm belief that nobody but Cliff Avery could run the ranch and he, as owner, could enjoy the fruits of another' s labor and diligence. He was locked to him, lock, stock and rifle barrel ... the way things had turned out, the way things were going.
It was, as one confederate surmised, the best of all possible arrangements for one lucky kid getting more than he deserved in one flat-out delivery. "This grown up kid has a silver platter handed to him, a real silver platter, those cattle like freaking diamonds, and he's damned double lucky to get someone like Cliff Avery to hold it all together in his own hands or it'd get downriver faster than you can imagine, I swear on the Bible."
But that confederate was also talking about one of the Hoodies, none other than Cliff Avery, his own man, which the sheriff was unaware of, who also did not know the confederate was also connected. His own curiosity was growing by leaps and bounds, and the connections and membership of the illicit gang were uppermost in his mind; little that appeared seemed connected, but the strings might prove they went everywhichway there was.
Dermot Candler, this very morning, but in the pre-dawn darkness yet holding sway, was stationed early at a point out of town, an earlier intuitive message telling him something was afoot on another strike, the intuitive part was observing the foreman leaving the Benjy Neal bunkhouse, as he himself was searching for a likely site of the on-set planned for the day.
Candler's nerves were jittery, and he muttered to himself, "Something weird told me it was again this night that a hit of some sort will be made. I don't know where it came from, who sent it, why it was sent so strongly, but something's up this day and I can't disregard it. I've got to hang on like a hungry dog, stay alert, bring my mind to what I know, what has come to me this very day, what information from town events and happenings were crowding my thinking, daring me for appropriate separation..
He felt overloaded, like a wagon holding back its team of horses.
Avery, well ahead of him as he rode to some destination, met up with two other men en route to wherever. At one point, where they met two more riders, all the men, five men then in total, donned their hoods in unison.
Well behind the group, he followed their trail until, going between two other spreads, looked most likely to be headed to Rocky Thomas ranch ... and Rocky was back in town, had gotten a bit tipsy and was sleeping it off in the jail ... which everybody in town knew, including those who left for home destinations.
Candler came up straight in the saddle when he realized Thomas's daughter, 19 year-old Marissa, was alone at the ranch. If she was the target for this late ride, because her father was in-town, it promised little good for her. The sheriff began to think about a plan of action, to at least protect Marissa from any harm. Then a different route to the ranch came to mind, a ride on the other side of the small stream where a long line of leafy trees had been growing for years, a route he had once used to get away from another gang trying to pin his tail to a donkey for good. His good luck, and escape that time, pushed him back on that trail ... promising him one chance to get to the Thomas spread before the hooded gang ... and his own foreman in the mix.
At a gallop, he arrived ahead of the hooded riders, and startled and comforted Marissa Thomas with a quick explanation and his orders to place any weapons, well-loaded or a supply of ammo close at hand, at each window and two places outside the squat cabin of the ranch house.
"You've heard about the Hooded gang, I know, Marissa, and they're coming this way and we have to greet them with firepower any way we can. They're obviously up to no good, and I think you're most likely their target."
"When she said, "What do they want with me?" he imagined the look that immediately came across her face in the darkness.
One of them is my own foreman, Cliff Avery. I think they're trying to scare up the whole area and get a lot of it at little cost other than fear and a few bodies lying around."
She surprised him when she said, "It's also obvious that they've bitten off more than they can chew with you, Sheriff." She patted him on the back and said, in a hush, "I just heard something out there, Dermott. How do we handle this?"
She was standing closer to him than she had ever been and the comfort of it was quickly noted on his part. Her bravado had surprised and pleased him and so did the light touch of her hand on his back as she used his name. He knew a bond was possibly starting if they could manage to get through this night.
They spread rifles and handguns at four windows, all ready opened to the night, and a close supply of ammo for each weapon, for round-robin firing at the gang. She understood his reaction from the first words, and moved to one window.
"I see two men sneaking up this side, on foot, so their horses are tied off behind them someplace." Dermott Candler imagined her in the interior darkness taking aim, suddenly thinking how brave she was, how beautiful she really was, wondering how he had not realized it all before such a turn of events. And realizing that life often made its own demands on its own time.
"There's two more on this side of the rail fence, and one of them," he said with solid conviction, "is my foreman, for sure." He took aim and added, kind of solemnly, "When I whisper 'Fire' make sure to get one of them on your side. I'll get my foreman." A sudden distaste was carried in those words.
The confident answer came again in a whisper, "It must make you sad and me a whole lot of angry. I got one dead center and I guess I know now what they were up to." A half chuckle gurgled in her throat, as she added, in a whispered "Here's what for, for you, pal."
The sheriff whispered, "Fire," and two dead shots shot three of the four men sneaking up on the house in their hoods. The fourth man turned to run after one bullet blazed past his covered ear. Then, from another window, the sheriff fired two follow-up shots and the retreating man stood stiff in place as he dropped his pistol.
For the young sheriff, excited on two levels, it was a quick, noisy awakening for the rest of his life, as three more men stopped in their tracks, dropped their weapons, and the beautiful young gunsmith hugged him in release, adoration, and love all coming at him in one swoop of events.
And Marissa Thomas wondered what her father would say when he woke up in the jail cell and heard about the turn of events, but it wouldn't matter much, now that life had taken its best turn for her and the young sheriff of Saddlebox, Texas.