Western Short Story
The West Roads Company stagecoach, on its regular run from Timkins Corner to Denver, was a half day late coming into the Pyburn Exchange Station, Jack Slack riding shotgun for Amos Leander. Slack had hurt his leg in a fall a few months earlier and was on the mend when Leander hired him to ride shotgun for a few trips.
“You can pick up a few bucks, a few free meals, and a few free drinks while you’re still sitting on your butt,” Leander had said to Slack as they shared the end of the bar in Timkins Corner Saloon before the ride began.
“Ain’t that a real bumpy run,” said a comfortable Slack as he sipped his drink, the coin in his pocket carrying less weight than yesterday, and him really conscious of being broke before he knew it.
“If you’re afraid of a few bumps, you don’t need or want the ride,” Leander came back with, “but before I go I figure you owe me for the last round.” He slipped that demand in as sly as a knife tip, knowing how bad the cut could get.
“Alright,” Slack replied, “I’ll take the job, and you buy the last round.”
Leander smiled slyly as he dropped the coin on the bar. “Two more, Jasper,” he said to the bartender, “me and Jack’s taking a ride ‘cause I need a shotgun and Slim Debner’s gone home for good, back to Chicago and ‘enough of the wild land,’ as he says.”
The bartender said, “You won’t miss old Slim you got Jackie boy here with you, but don’t give him no shotgun, make it a repeater rifle. He’s as good a shot as I know, but it ain’t with no shotgun.”
The stagecoach, with only three passengers aboard, bound for Denver, topped the hill above Pyburn Exchange. Leander was getting the most out of his team as they tired near the end of their run, and Slack studied the small station in a clear area on the wide grass. He had not been at this station before and quickly noticed many of the features of the layout; a small building for quick meals for passengers and where the station manager lived with his wife, smoke rising from the chimney, a corral that held almost a dozen big team horses, a man already running from the cabin to get a new team ready for the exchange, and, in a bright red dress a lady sitting on a bench out front of the station.
Slack immediately thought about the passengers in the stage and what a lady would do for the conversation, or for the awareness of all parties. One of them was a talkative drummer who had been this way before, as he heard him say on boarding the stage, “I am an old hand out this way. Been here a half dozen times and the ride has always been a comfortable one.” He was talking to a woman whose son she was going to visit, “and he’s the marshal of all Denver.” She was a quaint but proud woman who was wide-eyed at most things that came new to her. Slack had heard her say, “My, oh my, everything out here is so big and wide and seems to go on forever.”
The third passenger was a slick-looking gent, well-dressed in a never-seen suit, wore black dress gloves the whole trip, as if he was afraid to touch anything or anyone in the stagecoach, which made Slack think the man’s outlook might change because of the lady in red sitting out front of the exchange station.
And the closer the team came to the station, the more Slack saw that the woman would be a most welcome change for crew and passengers. When the coach stopped in front of the station building, the woman looked up at Slack who was staring down at her.
She did not seem to notice him staring at her, and turned and looked away, out across the prairie.
But Slack thought that for a bare second their eyes had locked, that there was recognition in some manner, at some level. He was not sure.
The lady in the red dress kept to her seat as the station manager, Harry Lampler, came around from the back of the building with the replacement team. He yelled to Leander, “Amos, I’m glad to see you. I don’t know if you’re late on your run or early for tomorrow.” He was a big burly fellow with a wide grin and a chuckle in his throat any time he spoke.
Leander joined in his levity. “You know I ain’t no later than usual, Harry, and never ahead of any schedule. Not with the horses I get from you gents on the trail. Sour Schmidt said hello to you and the Mrs. on our last stop.”
“You know he don’t mean it, Amos,” Lampler said. “He ain’t made for any kind words. Been that way f’ever.” He looked over his shoulder at the lady sitting on the bench and said. “I got another passenger for you if you’re moving on this late; names Sandra Toner. She came up in a cart with a gent last night and he just dropped her off. Didn’t say a word and she ain’t said none neither, but she‘s a looker, ain’t she?” He looked at Slack and said, “Who’s your new gun slinger? I ain’t seen him before, but he looks like he seen her before the way he’s staring at her. You know her, Son?”
“Naw,” said Slack, looking off to the prairie. “I just thought she looked like a lady I saw once, name of Linda Dove.” Many people heard of Linda Dove, though some may not have admitted it; she was supposed to be the most beautiful “house mother” in the entire region west of the Mississippi.
The lady in red, who called herself Sandra Toner, did not move an inch or a muscle when Slack said the look-alike name. She continued to look west, as if she was seeing a part of Denver that she’d soon get to, had been waiting to see. But all the people at the station had noticed her beauty, her regal air and the quality of her attire; she presented a most lovely picture of a woman, made more acute by the crude surroundings of the Pyburn Exchange Station, the open west at its feet, the wild west here for the mere looking.
The wondering and the curiosity mounted in the three working men, and soon worked on the three passengers as they entered the station building for a quick meal, all knowing they might have to spend an evening in the vast middle of nowhere.
The decision was made by Amos Leander and Harry Lampler that they’d best stay at Pyburn Exchange for the night and start out at daybreak. Both Slack and Lampler kept eyeing Sandra Toner, unable to take their eyes off the beautiful woman, and Lampler’s wife laughing at him half the night about his “crazy dreams in the back half of his life.” He laughed with her.
It was Slack who penetrated Sandra Toner’s careful reserve, not aloofness but a want to remain separated as much as possible. Slack interpreted that to mean she did not want to talk or have to present alibis or stories about her current travel plans. He made it a point to talk about other things as soon as he determined that she had interests other than what her appearance gave off.
“She’s a real good cook, isn’t she?” he said to Sandra after Lampler’s wife had fed them, a meal which she seemed to whisk up in a hurry after their late arrival.
Sandra responded, “I always wished I could cook like that, like my mother used to cook.”
“Where was that?” he said, a smile on his face as if he was remembering his mother’s cooking at the same time.
“Oh, back in Vermont before my father moved us out this way. He was chasing gold and never found it.”
“I hope you find what you’re looking for,” Slack said, looking off as if he too had someplace to head to.
It did not take much more of his sensitive approach to hear what was in her short history.
In explanation Sandra Toner said, “A really bad man named Slade Briskom said he was going to kill me and my brother, for a simple slight, which I can’t even remember now. I didn’t believe him, but when my brother was shot down in the middle of the night, at close range right in the back, I left town. I fled to my former husband’s place in Chandler Valley.” Her head shook in acute disbelief, and condemnation.
She paused there and Slack realized she was trying to figure if she should continue.
The answer came shortly, when a soft look crossed her face as she studied him and saw his real concern. “I’d been married to him only for two years and he ran off. He remarried and had twin babies and wanted nothing to do with me anymore. Said it should be easy for me to understand how he feels because I couldn’t give him any children, so he agreed he’d ride me out here so I could get a stage and not have to go into any town and get noticed. He said that word would be sent on to Briskom wherever he was and he’d chase me to the High Sierras on a chance he’d catch me, and anybody with me. I know that man that well.”
Slack, suddenly disarmed by her plight, said, “I’m sorry you had to run into two men like that. You sure deserve better. I would guess you are the loveliest woman I’ve ever seen, and that includes the woman I saw who I really thought was Linda Dove.”
“Where did you meet her, Jack?” she said, her hand touching his with a sense of humor, “back along the way?”
He blushed, “Yes, Ma’am, back along the way.” But he found a sudden brazenness to say, “I’m glad it wasn’t you and I’d sure like to get you to where you want to go, if I can.”
She said, softly so nobody would hear her, “I’m in your hands, Jack.” She touched one of his hands again.
In the early morning, as the team started out on the next leg of the journey, dawn unwrapping around the Pyburn Exchange and all the way out to the far peaks of a high rocky range, the last star sitting at the edge of one of the high peaks, distance finding its way into a coyote call so far off it came lonely and measureless, Leander said to Slack, “You sure had some vittles to fit you this morning, Jack. You got more energy than any man laid up for a time with a bad leg than I’ve seen in some time, Yes siree, Bub.”
He clapped Slack on the back. “I can’t wait to get home either, Jack.” He roared with laughter, as the team picked up speed.
But even with their early start out into the wide expanses of the west, Slade Briskom was not out of the picture, and not far behind them, as it turned out in short order.
Slack kept hearing some of the other information that Sandra had given him about Briskom. “He has many friends, or so-called friends, those men who are afraid of him, afraid of their lives and the lives of their families. He’s a killer, and if he ever finds out I am here in this station, he’ll get here quicker than you can imagine.”
He kept looking back over the trail from Pyburn Exchange, until Leander said, “Jack, we already been back there. Keep looking up front of us, that’s where trouble’s most likely coming from if it’s coming at all.”
Briskom had been advised that the lady in question, the one he was looking for, had been escorted to the Pyburn Exchange by an unknown man. Her flight path was determined by Briskom to be Denver and he set out to chase her down.
The stagecoach was about two hours out of Pyburn when Slack saw a rider behind them coming across a wide stretch of the road more than a mile back, dust flying up around him and his mount. Quick thoughts flipped through his mind, much of them loaded with certain attributes of Slade Briskom that Sandra had told him, about his way in the world, his way with people, his way with a gun.
He scanned the trail out ahead of them and suddenly turned to Leander and said, “Amos, we got company coming up on us awful fast, and he ain’t going to be nice company. I know that for a fact. When you get over this rise up ahead of us, slow the team down and I’ll jump off and sit waiting on him.”
“You’ll break your fool leg, Jack. Bust it all to hell.”
“It’s better than all of us dead, Amos.”
“Is it something to do with your new lady friend?”
“Yep, it sure is, and she’s scared to death, as I am, and you ought to be. When I get off, you get going but not runaway style. I’ll have my rifle with me and I want to come up on him from the backside.”
Amos Leander, just over the slight rise, the silhouette of the coach hidden from the oncoming rider, slowed the team to a slow trot and saw Jack Slack jump off with rifle in hand and quickly duck behind a small rock formation. When he saw Slack give him an okay wave, he flicked the team onward.
It happened as fast as anyone can imagine: Slack heard the rider pounding on the trail behind him, and then abreast of him. From behind the rock formation he got a look at the man in the saddle, a pistol in hand, a look of death about his whole person as if the devil himself had taken over his body. There was no doubt in his mind it was the one person bearing the most harm to Sandra Toner, the love of his life, and whose life now and surely depended on him and his wits, his shooting skill, his prayers already in motion.
Briskom, up ahead of Slack, had stopped the team, his gun in hand and waving it around. Apparently ready to shoot anyone of them who did not do as he’d say.
Slack saw Amos Leander toss down his rifle, then three weapons flew out of the coach door that had swung open at Briskom’s loud command. That command was fully audible to Slack who was now walking toward the coach with a slight limp but with his rifle at his shoulder, his eye ready to settle on the sight at the tip of the gun barrel.
Briskom, not looking once around the area, his eyes locked onto the stagecoach door, waited for the passengers to step down out of the coach. The drummer came first, his hands in the air, then the gent still wearing black dress gloves, and he was followed by the mother of the Denver marshal “sure that all this would be taken care of.”
Slack could hear her words clearly on the gentle breeze. He heard the horses nicker at their rest.
In her red dress, startled, looking around for Jack Slack and not seeing him, Sandra Toner stepped down from the coach. She looked up at Briskom, who looked own at her and said, “Well, Lady, I caught up with you just like I said I would. Who brung you to Pyburn? Tell me now so I can get him and give him what he plain deserves, after I take care of you like I said I would, and all these other folks who’s interruptin’ my day.”
The cool lady in the red dress, not moving a muscle, not saying a word, trying to save who was trying to save her and all the others, saw Jack Slack, still with a limp, coming up behind Briskom, a rifle at the ready in his hands.
She said nothing. She did not take a breath.
It was the Denver marshal’s mother who said, loudly and clearly, as she looked back down the trail at Jack Slack coming toward them, “I knew someone would take care of this situation.” She was about to point at Slack as she stared at him, when Sandra Toner said, “Keep your mouth shut, lady.”
Briskom, twice alarmed, spun around as he still sat high in the saddle. He swung his gun about, as Jack Slack, knowing he had perhaps but one shot at the killer, took aim, took his time as one bullet whizzed over his head, and killed the killer in his saddle as he was about to take another shot.
Sandra Toner rushed to Slack as he sat down in the dusty road, the reserve of pain in his leg finally letting go. She hugged him as he knelt in the dust, his smoking rifle also in the dust.
“Don’t tell anybody I’m her,” she said, “because I love you and want the best I can be for you without any surprises.”
He leaned against her as he stood up. “Never a word,” he said, “and I mean forever.”