Western Short Story
Jessica Perkins, 12-year-old daughter of Sheriff Max Perkins, Tablewood. Texas, did not show up for supper. Her mother sent an older son, Carl, 15, down to the sheriff’s office in the main street of the town to tell Jessica’s father that she was late for the first time ever. An hour later, his daughter still not having shown up, the sheriff had a deep suspicion he could not shake.
The sheriff, forever worried where his family was concerned, wondered immediately if the odds had swung against him and his long reign as Tablewood’s sheriff and senior lawman in the whole territory, seven years on the job amid no personal incidents. It was the first time his worry was like a headline in his day. The girl was steady in her habits, obeyed orders spread through the family for years, about initially reporting any sign of an incident, and had never mentioned any unusual incident.
In less than an hour, after contacts with known friends, checks around the familiar places that Jessica had reason to visit, there were no clues.
It was time to shake.
Jessica’s mother rode around the whole town, her son doing likewise, the sheriff in his office wondering who of any inmates at the time had connections that could be responsible. He found no connections after a hard look at two men in the cells, discounting both at once as incapable of any deep ties with others. He rumbled through past posters and wanted signs seeking the same information and was loaded down with possibilities, which loomed as impenetrable.
A fellow townsman entered his office and advised that he had roped a horse, saddled but rider-less, on the edge of town and had drawn him to the sheriff’s office. “I got him at the rail out front. Sheriff, and he’s a beauty, full saddle and all.”
“Thanks, Leroy. But I ain’t got time right now to check him out.”
“Well, Sheriff, you oughtta know there’s a note pinned on the saddle I ain’t even opened up myself. Thought I’d best save that for you, since I heard your wife was looking for one of your kids.”
The sheriff leaped out of his chair and was at the side of a grand looking mount with a note still attached to the saddle, like it was a private message to either the mayor or the sheriff of the town.
That supposition proved true, the note saying, “I advise mayor and sheriff I have a town child in my high custody who won’t tell me her name, but I guess by the time you get to climb the reason for this note you’ll know who is missing, if she’s from your town, but she also might have wandered into my lowly hands, and those of you who might know me sure would not wish that on anybody’s kid, boy or girl. I could sign my name any way I want but I’ll just make it Tex for all of Colorado just to poke some fun at you, from me with the upper hand. TEX.
The sheriff studied the note for a full hour, before a name slipped loose from his memory, one real smart dude from the past, capable of mystery and devious ways, who had the guile to exercise such a situation, and load it with devious measures at twisting the mind of a reader with any intelligence. He read the note a dozen times, and found a dozen intentional leads for a curious mind to find and interpret.
Charlie Tasker, school-bred, official bank manager, bank robber supreme, teaser and rapist of underlings for years before exposure sent him to jail that was only able to keep him in place for little more than a month before he disappeared from his cell one night leaving nothing but dust in his last footstep by the outside wall he had climbed by fingerholds, and toeholds, in a series of work-executed digital notches barely visible to one’s eyes, which he had put in place during work details.
Tasker, in composing the teaser note for town officials, including him the sheriff, told the in-depth readers he was holding the child in the local high country, the steep and mountainous barricade to passage to the other side of the mountain, called by miners, messengers, postal riders, other criminals, as The Devil’s Dog. It was a maze of falling rock and stone, patches of sheer terror for any kind of climber,
Sheriff Max Perkins, Tablewood, Texas, had never been up into that high country, either in job pursuit or pleasure outing, it was so formidable. Even old miners had let it be after belief of gold discovery that would never let them spend the spoils, as they often put it in campfires, gathered-barrel talks at stables around Tablewood, and at the saloon where sudden death often had a voice right there at the bar and in each corner of the room where doom had tenancy.
He told his wife he was headed up there to find Jessica, “if it’s the last thing I do in this life.” She knew his desperation and his fortitude, and that each one loved their daughter in a special way some folks might not know. She kissed him bon voyage when he slipped away from town in pre-dawn hours, the ache two-strong in her heart.
He left his horse at the foot of The Devil’s Dog, knowing it would find its way home. and held tight to his saddle bag with food, and ammo, carried for survival, and began a slow clamber and climb on dangerous paths of risen-stone faces, every inch paced with the sound of Jessica’s voice, a word she initial difficulty pronouncing, the name of a new friend, a favored teacher’s favored expression, things he thought he alone shared with Jessica, every inch if the way carrying such embraces.
Slowly that first morning he labored at his scaling and climbing, bringing back old tricks learned as a boy or learning new grips, toe-holds, finger-grabs, mountain hugs demanded by the mountain itself as private dues, and rose up those inches with temerity and with an unspoken glee when he might look back to see how far he had become. The whole experience of the first two days told him that Cherie Tasker had found another way up that mountain.
That thought kept working on his mind as he peered into any hole on the seemingly sheer face of the mountain. At one point, near the dark opening of a dark hole, he heard the wind whisper as if it was miles away from him, but the whisper was coming to him from the heart of the mountain.
He was sure of it. shrugged off his pack and left it hanging on the face of the mountain, and crawled into the darkness. The whisper of the slight wind coming to him “from down the centuries” as it hit home with him.
After an hour of crawling, he found he could stand in the darkness, and could make his way by securing holds on the tunnel wall,
He did not see a light first, but heard a man’s voice yelling out orders, and knew it had to be Charlie Tasker. ‘Dammit, girl, I told you not to do it your way, but to do it my way, like this.”
The sheriff heard the echo of a pan, smelled the residue of a fried egg, accepted the fact that it made him hungry, heard the whimper of a girl: his Jessica who might never have cried in his company, so happy the pair when sharing time.
His hand felt the pistol at his hip, the sure steel of the piece with a confidence in its touch.
His daughter had stopped her whimpering, and said, “Why don’t you show me how you’d do it.” There was a moment of pride and hope that leaped through him, and he urged his body forward until he was at the edge of a candle-lit space big as one of his rooms at home.
Tasker’s back was to him, and his daughter, on the other side of an open fire, saw him as he silently stepped into the spacious cavern, She kept a smile to herself, but her eyes could not hide her secret, as Tasker spun about in place and the sheriff of Tablewood, Texas put a round right between his eyes as one hand came free from the frying pan he was holding and Jessica Perkins slapped it against his body, spilling the hot grease on his hands and her father, at that split second, put a round between the eyes of Charlie Tasker.
“I don’t know how you got here, Dad. The whole way in here is covered with bells and alarm signals of all kinds. But I knew you’d come.”
She rushed into his arms. And a few hours later they rushed into the arms of wife and mother.
The day for each one of them was nearly done.