Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Your “They’ll be comin’ soon, Jacob,” the guard whispered. His voice sounded solemn, almost apologetic.
Jacob Harris nodded. He sat on the bunk inside the eight-foot square cell, back against the wall, staring at the dark space in front of him. The cell faced a concrete wall with a row of windows above. He glanced up and noticed the pale tint of an orange sunset sliding across the barred oblong spaces—the last sunset of his life.
The sound of someone shouting jarred his self-imposed reverie. A door opened and clanged shut. Urgent footsteps echoed through the corridors of the brown sandstone structure and drew closer. His stomach tightened. “It’s time,” he said aloud. For the last day or two, he had tried to prepare for this moment, hoping to summon the courage to help escort him to death’s door. But he couldn’t shake the shadow of fear. It lingered like the perpetual stench of stale air, dried body fluids, and unwashed dirty laundry.
Closing his eyes, he tried to hold back the burning, bitter taste of nausea pooling in his throat. He stood up and walked to the door. Strips of peeling white iron crisscrossed the metal frame forming a pattern of small squares designed to obstruct the view of whoever stood on the other side. The sound of a key scraping into the lock cavity heightened his anxiety. He took a step back, perhaps hoping to delay the inevitable.
The warden and a guard stood outside the door. Off to the side, a tall distinguished-looking man in a dark suit stared at the floor, his face a mask of anxiety.
“We have a problem and could use your help,” the warden said.
“Before or after you hang me?”
Warden Warren Hoskins, a small muscular man, ran the prison with admirable efficiency. Sarcasm played no role in his disposition. But Jacob noticed a crack in the warden’s customary armor of calm self-assurance and sensed something had gone wrong. Hoskins looked nervous and uncomfortable, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, glancing at the taller man and then back at Jacob.
“It’s about 46. Mister Kilgour,” he said in a quiet tone, dabbing his forehead with a handkerchief. He has taken the wife and daughter of the territorial governor here hostage and is holed up in my office. Never had something like this happen under my watch.”
Inmates were assigned numbers when they arrived and rarely referred to by their given names. The number 27 was displayed above Jacob’s cell door and on the right breast of his prison uniform.
“What’s this got to do with me?”
“On the way back from a work detail, he attacked and killed the guard escorting the women to their carriage. Stabbed him. Then he tried to make a break for the gate in the carriage. The sentries stopped him, and he doubled back and grabbed the governor’s wife and daughter and—”
“It was foolish of me to bring them here.” Governor Chance Stoner took a step forward. “My daughter is only fifteen.”
Henry Kilgour’s escape attempt didn’t surprise Jacob. Killing the guard did. Kilgour never struck him as the violent type. But, he knew all too well circumstances could change a man in a heartbeat. Jacob met Kilgour on a work detail assignment soon after arriving at the prison. His fellow inmate had been sentenced to five years for bank robbery and had already served about three years. On different occasions, he hinted about breaking out and now and then mentioned hunting down the banker whose testimony put him behind bars.
“What exactly do you think I can do?”
“You know the man—”
Jacob shook his head. “We cut wood together, did some gardening, and talked a few times. It’s not like we’re close friends.”
“He asked for you.”
“I’ve got my own problems, if you get my drift.”
“He refuses to speak to any of us,” the warden added.
“I know your situation, Mr. Harris.” Governor Stoner carried the look of someone coping with despair. His eyes shifted between Jacob, the warden, and the floor. Every few seconds, he swiped his tongue across his lips. “We certainly have no right to ask your help. But, we are up against it here and don’t know what else to do.”
“My situation, as you put it, calls for me to hang before the end of the day. This only complicates things, especially if Kilgour decides to kill me too. Hanging seems a lot less messy than getting hacked to death. Either way, I’m probably a dead man.”
Stoner closed his eyes for a few seconds and massaged his forehead, moving his fingers in tight circles.
“I don’t see how I can be of much help,” Jacob added.
“We’ve ruled out using force,” Stoner said. “It’s too risky. He’s made some threats. I am worried he might have hurt my wife and daughter already.”
“Maybe you should just let him go—give him his freedom in exchange for letting your family go.”
“He knows he’d never make it through the front gate without them.”
“You don’t seem to have a lot of choices,” said Jacob. “If you give him a safe way out, he’ll probably release them once he gets clear of here.”
“Probably isn’t a particularly comforting term,” Warden Hoskins remarked. “We can’t be sure he’ll let them go.”
“I’m guessing the only reason he wants me along is to help with his getaway. He needs someone along to watch his back.”
“We don’t expect you to stop him or even change his mind,” Hoskins said.
“Then, what’s the point?”
“We’re hoping you could do something—anything—to keep my family safe,” Stoner said in an almost pleading tone of voice. “Perhaps discourage him from doing them any harm.”
Common sense told him to stay out of it. Of course, he didn’t have much to lose either way. If he succeeded in keep Stoner’s wife and daughter safe, chances were good the governor might spare his life and convert his sentence to a life term. Others in his position would no doubt prefer life behind bars rather than a rope around their necks. He had prepared himself to die. Or had he? Living seemed a far better alternative than choking and kicking to death at the end of a rope.
“He still got the knife, I presume.”
Hoskins gave a quick shake of the head but stopped and looked up at the ceiling. “Oh Lord,” he said in a low tone of voice. “Winchester in the cabinet. Revolver in the bottom drawer of the desk.”
Jacob frowned and shook his head.
Hoskins shrugged. “I can’t arm you, Jacob. I’m sorry.”
“I’d never get away with going in there with a gun anyway. He’s not the trusting type.”
“We’re not asking you do anything heroic,” Stoner said. “I’m interested only in keeping my wife and daughter safe and unharmed. I don’t care if he escapes. We’ll deal with that later. I’m just asking that you at least try.”
When Jacob entered the office, he saw Henry Kilgour slouched in the chair at the warden’s desk twirling a crude looking shank. The pistol and the Winchester lay in front of him. The only light in the room came from a small candle on the desk. Shadow and light flickered across the killer’s face, accentuating the dark and menacing deep-set eyes that locked on Jacob from the moment he walked in.
To the left of Kilgour, the two women sat on the floor cowering against the wall. Their faces reflected the terror gripping them. Tears pooled under they eyes. The mother blotted a small gash above her right eye with the back of her hand. Jacob also noticed a puffy bruise on her cheekbone. Sitting close to her mother, the daughter sobbed.
Kilgour motioned to a chair in front of the desk. Both men wore the standard black and white striped uniform. The man looked younger than Jacob remembered but had never seen him without his hat. Kilgour’s dark hair was cropped so short it appeared painted on his scalp.
Jacob sat down and settled back in the chair. “What am I doing here?”
Kilgour’s thin lips curved into a sneer. “Simple. I figured since you got a date with the hangman, you might want a change of scenery. Besides, this is a two-man kind of job.”
At the mention of the word hangman, the older woman swallowed hard, held her daughter tighter, and squinted at Jacob, no doubt trying to figure out whether her problems had grown more complicated.
“What about these two?”
“If Hoskins doesn’t give me what I want, it’s going to be messy.”
The daughter gasped and started crying again. The mother’s eyes flared with anger
“Enough with the crying,” he snapped, pointing the knife at them.
“Leave ‘em alone, Henry. She’s just a kid. You’ve got ’em plenty scared already.”
Kilgour appeared to soften. “I just can’t handle all this crying. Reminds me of my lousy childhood.” He pulled the knife back, placed it on the desk, resting his fingers across the handle.
He appeared in control of himself and the situation, at least outwardly. But Jacob sensed an uncertainty that could Kilgour even more dangerous and unpredictable. The man had put himself in a tight box. The two hostages represented his only way out and he’d be forced to leverage them any way needed.
“I suppose Hoskins sent you in here to try and talk me out of this.”
“You’re the one who asked for me.”
“You know, I didn’t mean to kill that guard. Everything happened pretty fast. But you know how something like that can happen, don’t you?”
“So, what’s the next move here?” Jacob wondered what more Kilgour knew about him.
“Get word to Hoskins we need civilian clothes, a couple of horses, and money—a couple of thousand in cash ought to do it.”
“He’ll want something in return,” Jacob said, nodding toward the two women.
“If the governor wants his wife and daughter back in one piece, they’ll give me what I want. He’s got an hour to do it or—”
“We better wait till morning.”
Kilgour shook his head. “The longer we wait around the more time they got to plan. We best move now.”
“You familiar with the area?” Jacob asked. “If we leave now, it means traveling at night. Trying to pick our way across the countryside with no idea of where we’re headed is suicide. That would only slow us down and make it easier for them to track us, especially since we’ll have these two along.”
Jacob hoped the stall would work. He needed time to figure out a way to end his mess. Kilgour frowned and stared at Jacob for several seconds, then got to his feet. “Tell Hoskins what we need. He has till daybreak.”
Just before Jacob reached the door, Kilgour called to him. “Tell him that if I so much as hear a guard tip-toeing down the hall when we leave, the governor will never see his wife and daughter alive again.”
One of the guards outside the door escorted Jacob to an office where Hoskins and the governor waited. When he walked in, Stoner bolted from his chair.
“My wife and daughter. How are they?”
“Scared,” said Jacob, and then decided to bend the truth a bit. “Otherwise, they’re okay. No one hurt at this point.”
He watched Stoner’s shoulders slump with relief. “Thank God.”
“I don’t think there’s any way I can stop him from leaving here. He’s got the knife and the two guns. I did manage to convince him to stay till first thing in the morning. He wants a change of clothes for both of us along with horses and a couple of thousand dollars.”
“What about an exchange? The money and his freedom for the women,” said Hoskins.
Jacob shook his head. “I already tried that. He’s holding the high cards, and he knows it. For the safety of the two women, you better play it his way for the time being.”
Hoskins sat down and drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair and stared at the floor. “I don’t know. Once he gets away from here, we’ll have no control over the situation—”
“We have no control now,” the governor pointed out. “Better do as he says.”
“What’s your plan?” Hoskins asked Jacob.
“I’m taking it a step at a time.”
“You must have some idea in mind how to stop him,” Hoskins said, his voice reflecting frustration.
“Once we get away from here, he won’t be so jumpy, and maybe I’ll have a better idea of how to handle things.”
Hoskins shook his head and looked uneasy. “I don’t know. Maybe isn’t very definitive. Before we allow him to walk out of here, I’d like some assurances—”
“I can assure you of only one thing,” Jacob added. “This guy is unpredictable. If he doesn’t get what he wants, this won’t end well. ”
“How can we be sure you’ll even do anything to stop him?”
“Look, I can leave this office and walk back to my cell if you’d rather handle this yourself. You asked for my help. I didn’t ask for anything in return.”
Hoskins looked away.
Governor Stoner shot a disgruntled glance at him and shook his head. “I think we’re all on edge here and rightfully so. I’m grateful you agreed to help. So I’d prefer you carry on.”
Jacob nodded. “Have the clothes and money outside the office at daybreak and the horses at the east door. One other thing, keep the guards out of sight.”
When Jacob returned to the office, he found Kilgour still behind the desk. The Winchester rested on his lap pointed at his hostages. Jacob noticed the two women had either fallen asleep or pretended to be sleeping.
“Wasn’t sure you’d be back, Jacob. Or, I thought they might slip you a gun. I’ve heard about your shooting skills,”
“How long you plan on keeping them with us?”
Kilgour glanced at the women and put a finger to his lips. “So what’d you do before you robbed trains? You fight in the war?”
“Me too. War of the Rebellion we called it,” Kilgour said with a smile.
“Oh, a Yankee.”
“You a Reb? Damn, that beats all. Where’d you fight?”
“Lots of places. I was part of a small unit. Lots of hit-and-run raids. We worked mostly on our own.”
“Kill many Yanks?”
Jacob frowned, caught off guard by the question. “I wasn’t counting.”
Kilgour picked up the rifle beside him, and ran his hand across the stock, sighting along the barrel. “I was in an elite unit myself. I remember most every man I killed. And, I hit everything I aimed at. Distance didn’t much matter. And most never saw it coming.”
Jacob glanced at the two women and back to Kilgour. “What brought all this on?” he asked, hoping to change the course of the conversation. “Killing a guard. Taking hostages. This is risky business. You had less than two years to go.”
“Any risk is worth what I’ve got waitin’ for me,” said Kilgour in a quiet voice. “You know, you and I are a lot alike. From what I know, you stashed about sixty-thousand away before they caught up with you for killing those two lawmen.”
The comment took Jacob by surprise.
“I got something stashed away myself. Mine’s maybe twenty or thirty times more. If I had stayed in here two more years, it could be gone, even though I’ve got it hidden. I can’t take the chance of someone finding it while I’m rotting in this miserable place.”
Kilgour roared with laughter. “Is yours?”
“West of here,” Jacob said.
Kilgour smirked. “Yeah, mine too.”
The rest of the night went by with little conversation between the two men. The women appeared asleep. Every now and again, Kilgour would study them, perhaps trying to catch them listening. But the women never stirred. Jacob had no success in getting Kilgour to elaborate on what he planned for his hostages.
The next morning, Jacob retrieved a box left outside the door and dragged it inside. After changing, Kilgour ordered the two women to stand up. He looped a short length of hemp around the governor’s wife and placed the pistol against the back of her head.
“You walk ahead of me, slow and careful.” He turned to the daughter. “You follow behind me. Don’t do anything stupid or I’ll kill your mother. Jacob, you get behind her.”
“What about a gun?” Jacob asked.
“When we get outside, I want the governor’s wife behind me on the horse, just in case anyone gets the bright idea of takin’ a shot at us. You get the daughter up behind you. Let’s get out of here.”
The four made their way through the building and found horses waiting. While mounting up, Jacob looked across the prison yards and spotted the gallows. A noose swayed from the crossbeam. A few dark clouds scattered above gave the wooden structure an even more foreboding appearance. Jacob swallowed. If it had not been for Kilgour’s brutal act, he could have been twisting from the crossbeam last night. He shook his head at the irony.
Two inmates and two hostages headed out of the compound, with Kilgour leading the way. Jacob glanced around several times to make sure Warden Hoskins kept the guards out of sight. The four rode on without stopping, skirting farms and avoiding a few small towns. Several hours later, Kilgour led them off the trail into an arroyo and ordered them to dismount.
Jacob watched the two women stand off to the side. The young girl’s face reflected the terror she would no doubt remember for the rest of her life. The governor’s wife pushed back the long red hair from her face and stared at Kilgour. Her eyes flashed with defiance, replacing the fear Jacob saw in her the previous evening. He worried she might do something foolish.
“How long before we leave?” Jacob asked. “The governor’s no doubt organizing one of the biggest posses ever seen in these parts and may be on our trail now. The sooner we light out of here, the better.”
Kilgour ignored the remark, pulled a pistol from his belt, and motioned Jacob away from his line of fire. The two women stood about thirty feet away, locked arm-in-arm. Mrs. Stoner stepped in front of her daughter to shield her from any danger.
“You harm these two, and they’ll never stop hunting us. Let’s get out of here.”
“These two heard us talking last night.”
“About what? Hell, they were sleeping.”
“No one that scared can sleep. They know where we’re headed.”
“Hell, even I don’t know. So how could they?”
“You don’t understand, Jacob. I’m not going back. And no one’s gonna point a finger in the direction they even think I went.”
Kilgour sounded paranoid, complicating the situation even more.
“Killing them isn’t the answer. Leave ‘em and let’s get out of here.”
Kilgour lifted the gun to take aim. The governor’s wife widened her eyes in disbelief, grabbed her daughter, and yanked her to the ground. Jacob lunged, hitting Kilgour just as he fired and the shot went wild. The two men slammed into the ground hard. The impact dislodged the gun.
“Run!” he yelled at the women, waving his hand.
“You bastard.” Kilgour crawled toward the gun, but Jacob leaped on his back. They rolled over a couple of times before Kilgour shoved Jacob away and followed with a kick to the knee. The impact sent Jacob to the ground, but he lashed a fist to Kilgour’s head.
The two men grappled in the high grass trading punch-for-punch before struggling to their feet pushing and swinging. Jacob jolted Kilgour with a blow to the midsection but his knee gave out, and he went down. Kilgour, eyes flashing with fury, moved in and smashed a fist against Jacob’s ear, almost knocking him out.
Groggy and aching, Jacob battled to his feet limping and breathing hard, eyes blurring from the sting of salty sweat, on the brink of exhaustion. The two men began circling each other. Something distracted Kilgour. Maybe the gun. He looked away for a second. Seizing the advantage, Jacob lowered his head and lunged, driving it into Kilgour’s midsection, provoking a loud groan. Kilgour fought back, pounding his fists against Jacob’s head. He lost his footing but managed to grab Kilgour’s shirt and drag him down too. Kilgour twisted away and got behind him.
Before Jacob could react, he felt a horrific pain in the back of his right shoulder and he slammed face-first into the ground, bringing tears to his eyes. A sharp, burning sensation raced along his arm and back, the heat so intense he thought Kilgour had struck a match to his skin. Vision blurring, he fought back against a wave of dizziness washing over him.
Favoring his right side, he dug a boot heel into the ground, pushed away, and rolled down a small incline. Dazed, he looked up. Kilgour stood at the top of a small hill, back to the sun, holding a blood-smeared shank. Desperate, he glanced around. The pistol rested in the grass a few feet away.
Ignoring nausea and coping with a nearly useless right arm, Jacob stretched for the pistol, retrieved it with his left hand, and rolled onto his back. He pointed the gun at the approaching shadow and squeezed the trigger. Once, twice, three times. Vision fading, he listened to the echo of gunfire. Then, everything went dark.
Prisoner 27 rolled his eyes open, blinked a few times, and stared at the ceiling of the prison infirmary. The first thing that came to mind was the fight. His head ached from the barrage of punches he absorbed. The dark bruises on his arms had been smeared with arnica to help with the healing. The knee felt as if someone had taken a hammer to it. He wiggled his fingers and found them stiff and swollen. When he attempted to shift into another position, a sharp, agonizing pain sliced across the back of his right shoulder, and he sunk back into the mattress with a moan. He remembered the stabbing and a had vague recollection of shooting at Kilgour.
“You’re a dead man, Harris.”
The voice belonged to Kilgour. Jacob shivered, helpless to react. He looked left and then right, relieved to find Kilgour occuping a bed at the opposite end of the infirmary, chained to a bedpost. His face looked puffy. Bandages, spotted with blood, covered his right arm and leg.
“You better hope they hang you because my way is gonna be a lot more painful. Nobody shoots me. And lives.”
Jacob ignored Kilgour. He saw no sense in trading conversation with someone so eager to see him dead.
“Just keep looking behind you ‘cause that’s where I’ll be. And you know what happened last time I got behind you…”
Kilgour kept up the threatening chatter. Jacob wished his aim had been better.
“You’re not safe anywhere in here. I can get to you—inside or outside. I’m gonna help you meet your maker.”
Jacob looked away and closed his eyes, but heard every word. Kilgour was right. He wouldn’t be safe. And he’d always be looking over his shoulder. His actions may have saved him from the hangman but not from Kilgour. The gallows might have been the better option after all.
A few days later, he returned to his cell limping and with limited use of his right arm. A couple of weeks later, he learned through the prison grapevine that Kilgour had recovered from his wounds and sent back to confinement but in another wing. Authorities also planned to put Kilgour on trial for murder and kidnapping. Prison officials told him they would do everything possible to keep the two men separated. But Jacob doubted such vigilance would succeed for the rest of his prison sentence. Life is a long time.
The following month, the warden summoned Jacob to his office late in the day. He walked in to see Warden Hoskins at his desk. Governor Stoner and his wife occupied the two chairs in front. Hoskins motioned him to an empty chair near the visitors.
“The last time we met,” said Stoner, “it was under unpredictable circumstances. But, thanks to you, all is well.”
Jacob didn’t know what to say or should say. He nodded. Stoner continued.
“This is my wife, Elena.”
The woman brushed back the long hair that flowed over her shoulders, blinked once, and smiled. Jacob noticed the bruises were gone.
“We have so much to thank you for. You saved our lives and we, as a family, wanted to express our gratitude. Rebekah wanted to be here too but we didn’t think it would be a good idea to dredge up the memories associated with this place.”
“She went through a pretty bad experience for someone so young. But, so did you. “How’s she doing?”
“She’s doing better, thank you. We all are.”
“By the way, it was my wife who helped care for you on the way back to the infirmary.”
“You had a very nasty knife wound.” She took a breath and then looked at Jacob with her chestnut-brown eyes and smiled. “You are a brave man, Jacob Harris. I have never witnessed such a display of courage, especially in light of the suffering you endured. The fact that you were willing to sacrifice yourself to save our lives says so much about you.”
Jacob lowered his head, wondering if she knew anything about his past.
Hoskins cleared his throat. “We’re all here for a reason. And it has to do with your situation here. We know 46 has made harsh threats against you.”
Jacob nodded. I guess promising to kill me would count as a harsh threat.
“We aren’t in a position to protect you 24-hours a day. Kilgour is cunning and dangerous. So we’ve come to an agreement. Governor?”
Jacob wondered where they would transfer him.
Stoner opened a notebook and removed a single page document. “This is an executive order, Jacob. It includes a couple of paragraphs of legal blather followed by the most important one. Let me read it.
“Now, Therefore, I, Chance Stoner, governor, under and by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Laws of this State, do hereby grant to Jacob Harris a full, complete, and unconditional pardon for the crime and conviction named herein and henceforth, shall be absolved from all legal consequences of this crime and conviction.”
Jacob sat stunned. The words carried as much impact as the knife Kilgour plunged into his back. He let the words sink in. “Does this mean what I think it does?”
“You are a free man, Jacob. Every now and then in life, you get a second chance. And you deserve one. Make the most of it and don’t ever come back here.”
Later, Jacob returned to his cell to change clothes and gather a few personal items. Before leaving, he happened to look at the barred windows high above the concrete wall opposite him. He recalled the night of his expected hanging when he watched the glow of an orange sunset fill the spaces. On that night, he never expected to see another sunset.