Western Short Story
Craig Gabler ducked into a nearby cave when a sudden windstorm came across the whole region from the north, the wind with a bite in it mad as a runaway. He’d been loose from the Yuma prison for a few days, on the escape route from the first jiggle of a key well after midnight, bought and paid for, passage guaranteed through the recent death room of prisoners found dead in their cells, two of them that very day.
He’d known several of the quickly-departed tenants of that room, but wasted little time on those memories: his mind was crowded yet, as it had been, since his internment from a crime he did not commit but was convicted of by a crooked judge and his crooked jury, all gathered at The Bent Iron Saloon owned by, of course, the crooked judge, Keith Hamilton. In the selection of the jury, one man’s story about him seeing a young man kill his own parents over a stupid family dispute carried ammunition for a verdict.
“I heard every word,” said the long-remembered face of Kelly Knox, known spinner of tales and blame-it-on-hims, and the servile and obeisant underhand (hand for quick hire) of the judge and saloon owner. “He up and fired his father’s pistols, both of ‘em, into the window of their little cottage and bolted on a loose mount. ‘Course, when I went in there, into that neat little house, it was plain all-out death and devastation because those poor parents of his were scattered around that one room like they’d been busted by a dozen pair of wild horns, blood and body parts all over that room. I figured they must have both been hit by more than one bullet and each had tried to help the other by trying to pull the other into a safe nook and neither one ever got there. It just killed me to see them killed like that, scraping to the last minute and dying right there where they had been so happy for so long.”
He lied like a songstress under duress and could have had tears in his eyes by then and even the non-believers believed his story, for prison was the lone sentence “so that a killer of this sort will have years atop years to think about what brung him to that place in the first place.”
Craig Gabler, through the aid of a jail hand, made his escape through the death room, the lone room reserved for inmates found dead in their cells come mornings of the death days. That jailer knew the parents never raised their son to be a killer, had himself been on the wagon train that brought them here in their earlier days, none of them ever knowing it was a condemnation right from the outset, by ending up the way it did.
Now young Craig, not yet 20 years of age, was out and about on a death hunt of his own, looking for the killer of his parents and lying all about it by his sworn hand pledging nothing but the truth, “so help me, Gawd,” right there in the courtroom in the saloon.
None of the jury ever remarked how innocent and sweetly-young the accused killer looked, because each one of them, to the last man in the last seat, was drunk on booze of every sort and taste as supplied by the judge, “the great spender, that man, is treatin’ us poor slobs to a whole long damned-it day of free booze that maybe not comin’ agin until there comes another murder for us to sit in on, right from the first word of any witness tellin’ us his story no matter how long-winded he can git.”
They could all tell which side their bread was buttered on even if it wasn’t toasty.
In that cave for two whole days, young Gabler spent all his wakeful hours recalling every single look, mannerism, piece of clothing, size of Knox’s belt buckle, how he rode his horse as though he was bent in the saddle, that belt buckle squeezing him to less than his full figure. At one point he said to himself, “That man ain’t bent for retribution, but he’s sure weighted by his sins.”
The face of Kelly Knox refused to go away for any minute of any hour, its devil marks riding freely on his skin, the chin nudged into a narrow appearance, much like a hungry snout, his nose the keen edge of a falcon’s beak, his eyes as though Hades sat just inside the lenses and all hot with Lucifer’s fire. “Pity I shall be the one who cures Knox of all that, brings to an end a most miserable life.
When the winds died down, young Gabler set out for the old home town, him knowing that Knox never put much room between himself and the protective judge and saloon owner, a great job if you can handle it, it seemed to say, for nobody in years had tried to take it away from him. It all said that doing a job the right way, even if it’s crooked, has got legs better than an unbroke steed on the right side of the corral fence.
Hamilton’s Plaza, the old home town, was about two days’ ride and he spent his saddle time thinking of ways of getting even with Knox, Hamilton and the whole damned jury for that matter. The two nights were full of similar thoughts.
When he met two prospectors heading the other way, they informed him, “Had to git clear o’ that place, sonny boy, ‘cause Hell’s a-raging’ in the main road from one end to t’other. Two men shot dead and the saloon gent says he saw both men draw first and try to kill his bouncer and we din’t see him bounce one man in a week we stood aside of livin’, as it might be said.”
Gabler, all ears of course about Hamilton Plaza, asked, “You carry away any names with you.?”
“No names but the one of the bouncer bein’ Knox, as we heard it a few times, and ‘specially in whispers cuz there was no guarantee of rememb’rin’ it if it was known to bein’ rememb’red.”
“So, he’s still there playing his games,” Gabler said. “The man is a murderer, thief, liar, scoundrel of the Devil’s own courtroom.”
“Why, son, them thar words just fit perfect for him like you knowed him right down to his dirty boots. You been thar before?” He had a solemn look on his face, turned to his traveling companion, and said, “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’, Abe, that there’s a body back thar best be on guard for his unholy life?”
“I sure do, Hector, and I wish him whoever the best of luck.” He clicked his dull heels in a thump and clucked a cluck in his throat, just the way it’s best known to move from a speaker with an eternal blessing. It could have been an “Amen” all three men might have said in response.
At parting, the three waved and wished good blessings on their journeys and their intentions.
In Hamilton Plaza, in darkness each of three nights of sly visits, young Craig Gabler found the window to the room where the judge met his underhand, Knox, on several occasions, found a way to open the window, found a stick to prevent the window from being opened from the inside, and spent a night formulating his moves.
When it was all set for his undertaking, he slipped the window open when the room was empty, the air with hardly a breath in it, and waited for the insidious pair to meet.
His mind clicked into place, the memories sat still for a few moments, the feeling of a new power came up through his body, and in one fell sweep he fired a pistol directly at Knox, hitting him twice in the chest, flung the gun empty of shells into the room, flung down the window, applied the stick so the window couldn’t be opened from the inside, walked to his horse, and rode quietly into the night, wondering how the judge was going to explain what had happened.
He never had a doubt about the outcome, no doubt about it.