Western Short Story
Sheriff Corv Magnus broke up the lynching with three shots over the heads of the mob, each man of the mob knowing that Magnus could hit any target that he aimed for; he was a deadly shooter, and now was no time for testing him.
“Let him go!” Sheriff Magnus had shouted, dropping the bore of his rifle about three inches that said someone in the way would get hit, might die, or at least get scattered to Hell and beyond. The crowd of might-be lynchers shifted into smaller groups, sucking in their breath, each one trying to be a smaller target, trying to stay alive.
Magnus’d celebrated the day earlier listening to the calls of mourning doves, one of the most beautiful sounds he experienced on any morning, including that of any lawman whose days often ended in shoot-outs, the clang of jail bars closing behind another loser in the law’s fight for order of the day, or knowing the threat of never hearing the doves again. It was that thought often dictating his peace of mind or destroying it outright.
Corv Magnus, nobody yet told what or where the “Corv” came from or what it meant, and most likely never to hear an explanation from Corv himself, was in his tenth year on the side of law, his third year here in Portersville where barns seemed to enlarge overnight from wagon train exodus the night before. The town and all its near environs was growing like a crop of mushrooms and he could measure the degrees and high temperature of gathered locals, new in their collective power, to want to administer the law as they saw fit. It was a natural calamity that many people brought upon themselves.
As it usually did, such as this most recent incident, a declaration arose in the minds of folks, collected into a bunch by slick maneuvers of a few out-and-out mouthy folks who just wanted some excitement at anybody’s expense but not at any cost of their own.
He had his eye on one such person, pointed him out with the point of his rifle, and said, “Why are you sparking this crowd, Dade? Tell me, tell us again, what it’s really all about.”
He jabbed his weapon as if to fire it full bore at the closest target. “Tell us again what you’ve been saying.”
In the limelight, one Dade Wilcox, stentorian, bar-bender galore, replied, “Why, they all say he did it, killed that fellow, that herder, Jeff Jackson, with one shot, his eye that good, and him being right there on the edge of town where it took place, like he was planted there all the night.” His smile shone on the crowd, his convincing manners on display, his signals easy to read by the mob, even sought by them., each time a sure way to blame somebody else.
Magnus came right back at him: “Tell me who in the crowd said that, Dade. Point out who said it.” The snout of the rifle kept its promise of threat in the slow maneuvers.
“Well, a whole bunch of them. I heard ‘em all.”
“Show me who, I said, and I’m going to make each one you point out to go up there and pull the release when I tell ‘em. That’d satisfy you and them, I bet. Now who?”
The crowd, en masse, was edging away from the sheriff by this time.
Dade, in an undesirable position, replied, “I can’t tell now because they’re all in a mix and all look like each other. Can hardly tell one from another. Yah, it’s like I can’t tell one from another.”
“That kid you want to hang, the one with the quick gun as you say, had his gun shot out from his own hand two nights ago by me, and it’s with Greasy down at his shop supposed to be getting fixed. What do you think of that?” he shook his head in nasty disgust at the whole gathering and could feel them, like a collective of one, shrink away from him, shy. near innocent.
Of a certainty, there’d be few if anyone who’d call Corv Magnus a liar and he damned well knew it.
Back at the jail, the crowd dispersed, the lonely gallows leaning toward a new night of inertia, Magnus asked the young jailed gunner, Chuck Manter, what he was doing in that end of town where he was grabbed in the middle of the road by a dozen men who seemed to come out of nowhere.
“Hell, Sheriff, Betty Compton gave me a time to call on her and I was plain goin’ to her place when I was jumped, and I didn’t even hear a shot fired until after they grabbed me.”
“You ever been to Betty’s place, Chuck?”
“Naw, not yet, but figured it was time. Lots of gents made that trip to see her. I bet that dead gent, that Jackson fellow, was headed the same place. Why else be there?” He was posing questions that the sheriff had already asked himself and found likely answers.
“Figures somebody doesn’t like the idea,” replied the sheriff. “We’ll have to figure that out, but after a few of them town folks clear their heads and send a messenger to come tell me I ought to let you go.”
“It’s that simple?” said Chuck Manter in amazement, as young looking as any kid puncher working the range the way the range was worked all over the territory, standards being set, habits being formed, life in the open developing its own ways, as demanded by the land, the task, the need to reach markets at distant points.
“That’s how it is,” the sheriff said, shrugging his shoulders at his own words, but hoping all the time that reasons would be cut and clear by a responsible citizen who ought to know better in the first place.
He knew his folks thereabouts, did the sheriff, who was not a bit surprised when the town’s lone doctor approached the jail and said, “Sheriff, a number of people came to me and said they felt they were set up by forceful tactics to nab and grab the kid and they think they acted in haste and stupidity. They actually used those words, which lightened my soul, I swear. Now I can feel a little better about them, at least one at a time.”
His understandable expression carried some of his truest feelings, which in turn lightened the sheriff’s response. “I’ll see it gets done, Doc,” and he spun about and said to young Manter, “You hear that, son? What’d I tell you? It’s done and gone now, so, you can go but I’d stay away from that Dade dude, and as far as you can get in the quickest hurry.”
The cell door had a merciful clang to its closing, even as the young herder strapped his gun belt back in its usual place, stepped in under his sombrero, and shook hands with the sheriff for the first and only time. When he stepped out the door of the Portersville jail, the sheriff hoped he’d never see him again.
He didn’t see him again, ever.
But even as he saw the youngster head out of town his mind went back to the unexplained and unresolved murder of Jeff Jackson.
Right there, he knew, practically right under his feet, a killer walked freely about his business.
It was about time, Sheriff Corv Magnus realized, that he paid a visit to the infamous Betty Compton at her own place in her own end of town, a trip and purpose which had never entered his mind.
Those folks, surprised to see him approach Betty’s place, figured it was a one-way visit, with him conducting the business.
Sheriff Corv Magnus knocked on her door, his sombrero in his hand, the glitter of his badge almost announcing his intentions.
“Sorry to bother you, Ma’am, but I’m trying to solve a murder and need to ask you some questions.”
She rolled her eyes, her lips, and her hips and understood right away she had wasted a fair amount of her wiles. This man, this sheriff, she had long suspected, had no interest in women from any angle.
“What else can I do for you, Sheriff?” She felt plain-out candid. It was his power and personality weighing on her.
“If someone in town was out to endanger you from a killer on the loose, who would you ask for help right away?”
“Dade Wilcox is the first man I’d call. He does all kinds of favors for me. Always has. I owe him a lot.” Her folded hand, her fist, closed on her mouth a second too late.
She hadn’t closed her mouth quick enough and knew she had spoken too soon, too much, too truthful, even as the sheriff doffed his hat and departed.
She had an uncanny feeling it was time to move on, time to leave Portersville before it left her all alone. In a sense, it was done and gone with alacrity, climbing aboard the next stagecoach out of town, not even knowing its destination, nor caring.