Western Short Story
The Kid Witness
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

High in the saddle, stretching his gaze out on the wide grass, rancher Bill Curtis spotted a rider sitting a horse with one of its forelegs hoisted as if in pain. There was no movement to man or horse other than the occasional foreleg in its long-range message.

Curtis called out to his wife, “Shelley, I’m going out to check on a three-legged horse with its dumb rider still in the saddle.”

“You be careful he ain’t about to draw you out there on purpose. It’s been tried before. Member when Scratch Harris tried that trick. He was about to shoot you, I’m sure. It ain’t worth an ounce of curiosity, like my grandpa always said; not one ounce worth.” She nodded her head as if a double thought had come home to her thinking and worrying.

“Ah, Shell, this one looks a ways too young to be mixed in with a sorry-ass group. Keep your eyes peeled though, just in case.

The closer Curtis got to the still-mounted rider, the younger he looked. In one hand he held a rifle that was shoved back into its scabbard; an immediate sign of intentions to Curtis, who raised his hand in a similar announcement, and said, “Oh, that horse of yours sure don’t appreciate the way you’re handling him, son. Ought to get off his back and we’ll see what we can do for him. What cha doing way out here by your onesies?”

The boy was in his early teens, face colored by a dry ride, raised his voice above a whisper, the crackle of a dry throat in its delivery, but able to reply, “Me and my pa were working a mine for gold and some rat gang tried to shoot him, got him in the leg and chest and he told me, even as he began firing back at ‘em, that he’d hold them off until dark when I could get on the horse and slip away in the shadows, get uphill someplace where I could watch, and when he couldn’t fire any more, for me to light out and keep going, there’d be no point in hanging around.”

“He was just thinking of you, son. What happened?”

“They rushed him ‘cause he had hit a couple of them. and he got a couple more and then there was no more shooting. I know he died, so I lit out and been riding for three days.”

“You had anything to eat, son?”

“Nothing but spit, as he used to say, and not much of that.”

“Well,” Curtis said, you hop off there, give me his reins, and get up here with me. We’ll all get us some eats when we get back there.” He pointed off to his small cabin on the side of a small rise, smoke curling from its chimney. “My wife Shelley will treat us, your horse will get fixed up after a while, all you got to do is tell me your name so I can proper introduce you to Shelley. She’ll like you a lot, son. Don’t have none of her own.”

“My name is Billy Curtis.”

“Well, I’ll be!” said the older Curtis. “Well, I’ll be!” He reached around and patted the boy on the back. “Well, I’ll say it again… Well, I’ll be! That’d be me, too.”

He threw one hand in the air and shouted, “Yahoo! Wait until Shelley hears this. Now there’s two of us. Be a treat for her, just bet on it. Now she’s got two Billy Curtis boys on her hands. Be a dream come true for the girl. Sure will!”

The elder Curtis said, “We got a surprise for you, Shel, but you got to feed this critter afore he shrivels away to nothing. He’s been riding for three days and dry as an old well. Feed and water him while I take care of his horse. Needs some mending.”

Off he went around the corner of the cabin to a small barn behind the house, couldn’t be more that four stalls in the whole thing, sort of matching the small cabin, post to rail.

Shelley Curtis was about to ask the boy what he was doing in these parts when she saw him digging into a pile of greens and taters and slugging down more water. Her heart went out to him and she bit her tongue. Her man never ate as if the meal was the last he’d ever get or like the first one after a long day at the small herd in their small corral.

She had always learned ways, women’s ways, of measuring things about her, the situations and the folks in them. In that brief assessment, she realized she had what the boy needed, a whole passel of love for his very own, and probably the first bunch of it in a long, long time.

Things would change around her, much of it of her own making, and the first pronouncement came when her husband walked back into the cabin and she addressed him: “Big Bill, Little Billy here has about decided we can be his Ma and Pa for a while, if not a whole lot longer than that.”

She was beaming at Little Billy’s warm smile of acceptance. “I’m thirteen now. Before you know it I can be doing for you folks.”

The couple knew they had found a winner. And it went on that way for three solid years, the boy copy-catting what he saw and heard, knowing what tough living demanded of its own. His visits or errands into the local town of Cameron became regular duties, and on one of those trips he saw a man he recognized, at the same moment the sheriff walked by in the opposite direction.

He almost yelled for the sheriff, and decided it was not the sheriff’s problem; it was his and his new family’s problem. The man with a hawk-like nose, like the sharp part of an ax-head, made his way to lone small rooming house, Miss Kelly’s Place in town, and Billy spotted a curtain being closed on one window, probably where hawk-face was quartered.

He headed home, thinking all the time about the last day he had seen his true father go to his death at the hands of murderers, and one of them here this day. He could feel his blood moving and wondered how Big Bill would handle it.

Little Bill didn’t dig into the evening meal as he usually did, and Shelley asked, “Anything happen in town today, Billy, that’s got you off your feed?” She stood behind him with hands on his shoulders and he could feel her warmth and love, and that meant trust, too.

“In town today, I saw one of the men who killed my father.” He shook his head in a moment of disbelief.

Big Bill said, “How did you recognize him, Billy? Are you damned sure?” He was already standing up from the table, strapping on his guns.

“He’s tall and skinny and has a nose like a hawk nose or the edge of an ax, sharp and thin as a razor at the ridge line. Wicked sharp. Unmistakably sharp. I’d know him any place in any town in the whole west. And I saw him in Cameron today. I didn’t tell the sheriff because it’s my problem, not his. He’s got enough stuff to take care of on his own end of things. Besides, I saw Ax-face go in Miss Kelly’s and saw him pull down a shade in the corner room, so we know he’s there for this night at least.”

Big Bill was about ready to bust out of the door, when Shelley grabbed his arm and said, “Whoa down there, Bill. You’re not going into Cameron tonight and certainly not alone. Not after a hard day’s work. I can see how plumb tired you are right there in your eyes, like you’re really bustin’ for bed. We can all get a night’s sleep and go early in the morning and take care of business the right way. Now, I mean it, both of you. We’ll all get a good night’s sleep, so go off to sleep and I’ll clean up here.”

She was all business from that minute, ushering the two men in her life off to bed, and starting to clean off the table. There was a taste of her energy, and her good sense, in the air, and the two Bill Curtises did as ordered, down to night clothes and onto their beds. Big Bill was asleep in a few minutes, snoring away, and Little Bill managed to twist his way into sleep, probably wrapped up in old memories.

When all her work was done, and she was sure the men were sleeping soundly, Shelley Curtis, woman of the house, grabbed a rifle off the wall, slipped out the door, saddled her horse, and quietly started on her trip to Cameron under a quarter moon lighting up the nearest mountain. She was glad the town was closer, and the rifle butt continually nudged her leg from its scabbard as she rode along the road away from home.

Shelley Curtis knew she was ready for anything; she hoped the ax-faced man was ready for his comeuppance, whatever it was going to be.

She woke the sheriff from his sleep in a back room attached to the general store. “Digby, there’s a gent with an ax-faced nose at Patty Kelly’s place that my young Billy saw earlier today and identified him ass one of the men who killed his father at his mine a few years ago, before young Bill came to us. Big Bill was about to come to town and rile that man into a gunfight, I swear. But I wouldn’t let him or little Billy have any part in that kind of action. We’re going to put that killer in jail and make him stand trial for the murder of the real dad of Little Billy. He’ll be our star witness.”

She pointed her rifle at the sheriff. “You understand me, don’t you, Digby?” There was a curl to her lips that the sheriff understood from the very onset. He had never seen anything more righteous than a woman on her avowed mission of protection of her brood.

The pair shushed Patty Kelly in her night chair, where she stayed put after spotting the sheriff behind Shelley Curtis carrying a rifle, somehow knowing a justice was coming into small rooming house in a big way, led by a woman, for heaven’s sakes.

They found their prey sleeping on a blanket on the floor, no other way, obviously, of comfort for him, and long-standing as it would prove.

“What’s your name, mister?” Sheriff Digby said. “Your real name.” He let the weight of his voice become backbone for the star on his chest.

“Burton Barber, but friends call me Sledge because of my nose, how sharp it is. What do you want with me? I ain’t done nothin’ to you folks.” He seemed mighty clean to himself. “Ain’t never been to this town before and I sure ain’t about to come here again.”

“You sure won’t have another chance,” Shelley offered, still waving the rifle. “You remember shooting and killing a man at his mine a few years ago over there at Bellcross?”

“Nope. You think I should?”

Shelley continued: “A man named Curtis was killed protecting his mine property and you were there.”

“He’s a damned liar, whoever it is. Couldn’t have seen me there. There was no one around.”

Those words were hardly out of his mouth when he realized he had condemned himself, and the sheriff said, “If you had a longer foot, Sledge, you could have kicked your own ass just now. But we’ll let our witness do his own kicking, all the way to the gallows.”