Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The wounded man came from nowhere, it seemed, was headed no place, had no horse, no gun and no money when he was found at the side of the trail by the Somerville Stage due hours earlier in Kellerton, Utah. And he had been mauled by someone or something, but was breathing when the driver and shotgun rider stuffed him in the coach, across the floor.
They got to Kellerton and Doc Smithers’ office about an hour later. The man was bleeding still, but not heavily, and though he had regained consciousness, had not said anything useful. Doc Smithers was mystified too, not just by the man’s silence, but by the abuse his body had taken.
The doc called out the window at one of the townies and said, “Go get the sheriff for me, like a good fellow, Charlie.”
“Is he still alive, Doc? I heard he could have been easy dead. Gotta be a tough one to hang on like he has.”
He raced off to the jail.
Sheriff Wilbur Cantry, on the job for a half dozen years, said to the doctor, “What did this to him, Doc? It sure don’t look natural to me. I never seen anything like this, like he’s been beat with barbed wire or shot with nails. Why ain’t he dead?” He had found nothing in the man’s pockets.
Doc Smithers, the doctor in Kellerton for just about as long as Cantry had been sheriff, and a poker cohort, replied, “That’s as close as I can guess, Wil, and he’s a rugged man in his regular shape, probably could have lasted a few more days, one anyway.”
“He say anything at all? Any name? Where he’s from?”
“Nothing, Wil. And I’m not sure he can. He’s been pounded at his throat too. Lots of bruises on top of all those little punctures in him.”
In the morning, after a fitful sleep of incoherent mumbling, some possible reactions to old pain or an ache with a bad taste, the man sat up and looked around. His hand touched his throat first where the doctor thought he might have been strangled or punched or both, and then his hand went to his left breast where he now wore a shirt of the doc’s, and muttered the first words Doc Smithers could understand.
“Where’s my badge?” he said, grasping a second time at his chest where his badge had been.
It meant a whole lot to Smithers, who had been imprisoned in the Great War one time without his medical bag … he felt useless amid miseries of the toughest kind. Now, sure the patient was a lawman, he was bound to get some answers. In the terrible state he was in, still clutched up in pain spasms, the man kept fishing around for his badge. The doctor realized the badge must have carried a lot of weight for his patient, the way he kept fumbling for it.
“A stage driver spotted you at the side of the trail between Somerville and Kellerton, Smithers said. “This is Kellerton and you’ve had the hell beat out of you from what I’ve seen, but you’ll get through all of it in time. You weren’t wearing a badge when they brought you in. I’ll have the stage driver look in the coach, and we can find out just where they found you and check there.” He studied the man’s expressions, which ran a course of significant differences, from pain to wonder to amazement in a quick hurry.
“Who are you?” Smithers said. “We have no idea of who you are. Me, the sheriff here and the folks on the stagecoach. No idea at all.”
“I’m Dopper Kearns, sheriff of Lumsden, Kansas.” His hand searched again for the missing badge, a most forlorn look settling on his face.
Smithers exclaimed, “Lumsden, Kansas! How’d you get over here? You’re in Utah, almost in Nevada. Another thirty miles and we’d be in Nevada.”
Kearns shook his head, trying to clear it of something mysterious or dark, and he looked around as if he did not believe what the doctor had told him. “Utah? I can’t remember riding so far, though they had me tied up in a wagon for days.”
“Who tied you up, Sheriff? Why’d they do it? Do you know who they are, where they are?”
“All I know is two of them recognized me from the war. Said I lead a charge on a Confederate position and raised hell among them when we ran over them. They said they agreed to look for me after the war no matter where they went. I just dropped into a saloon one night to get a drink, and the next thing I knew, after a fight, they had me tied up in the wagon and on the road to somewhere. I guess that somewhere was near here, though I don’t know why it was this far. They beat me several times a day, but fed me when they ate, let me wash in the river a few times, but never let me near a rifle or a gun. I tried to get away a couple of nights and they beat hell out of me again.”
“Did anybody ever try to rescue you, ask questions about why you were tied up?”
“Only once. An old gent heard me groaning and looked in the wagon and they told him they were a posse and had captured a dangerous killer. Said they were taking me to a town where I killed a mother and her three children. The old gent almost hit me with his rifle, he was so mad. I couldn’t say a word with my mouth stuffed with a rag.”
“When was that?”
“I can’t remember how long ago or where it was.”
“You have to talk to our sheriff, Wil Cantry. He’s a good man. He’ll help you. Maybe get things in some kind of order for you. He knows his way around these parts and knows most of the folks here.”
“There are six of them. They’re former Confederate Army, from the same outfit, and they recognized me by name from the battle and the sheriff’s job. They might have been attached to Lomax’s 15th Virginia because they were in the battle at Yellow Tavern where we captured the turnpike with a charge going at their line standing right firm at the start. I don’t know if these men were cavalry or infantry but we captured two guns there. I was with Gregg when we charged in the rear and the battle was over and done. We got control of the road to Richmond and they lost a couple of their generals, Jeb Stuart being one of them. That really burned them. They ain’t got over that yet and some of the other stuff that went on after the war. I guess I’d be mad at some of that too.” He looked down at himself, felt for his badge again, and said, “But not this mad.”
Cantry came in later on. “Doc says there was six of them and all ex-Confederate Army and you can recognize all of them if you was to see them. That right, Sheriff Kearns?”
“Call me Dopper ‘cause that’s my name. Yours is Wil. Right, Wil? Yes, I could spot them in evening shadows ‘cause I studied them every time I could. How they walked and talked and how they wore their clothes and handled their guns and mounted their horses and took care of them before themselves mostly and how much they drank whenever they got a chance. Yuh, I can recognize them.”
“Know their names?”
“Not any family names. Just their Christian names cut down or nicknames. Only one of them’s a lefty and I heard his name once, but don’t know if it’s first or last name. Called him Maxwell a couple of times and he’s like a scout, always out on the trail ahead of them. When he came back in to eat or sleep once every few days, they’d get together and speak so I couldn’t hear them, and then he’d go lie down and sleep. Sometimes we moved on and left him behind, him still sleeping. But he’d come back every time and they’d talk again. Sometimes they’d tie me up in a cave and go off or leave one man with me and the rest’d go off. I don’t know where, but it’d be half a day or more before they got back. And they never talked about anything when they got back. For sure, not in front of me.”
“Where’d you think they went those times?”
“Up to no good, I figure, but they didn’t let on to me like I was poison.”
“This lefty, Maxwell. He wear a gray hat with a skinny band on it? And gray shirt, dark gray pants with a Colt on his left side, and a Winchester rifle in his scabbard and ride a pinto?”
“You been studying him, Wil?”
“Well, he was hanging around Titusville before the bank was robbed, ‘cording to Harley Means over there, the sheriff. Nobody ever saw him before and never since, but that gang walked in just at the right time to run off with every bit of paper in the bank.”
“Like it had been checked out by Maxwell, the scout?”
“Yup. But the sheriff down at Turner Corners, about 50 miles away, said a man dressed like that Maxwell mailed a package to Georgia a week later. The clerk never saw the gent before or since and couldn’t remember any of the address except it was in Georgia and that was a whole week after it was sent.”
“You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Sure am, Dopper. They’re sending money home. Robbing the haves and sending it to the have-nots, the relatives of southern boys who’re getting chewed up by the Federal people. Once the package is on the train, a whole week later, they can’t catch up to it, even by telegraph. Like it’s gone forever.”
“We can blame them for how and what they take, at the point of a gun, but can’t blame them for what they do with it.”
“Oh, we got to be careful there, not letting one side of it wipe out the other. They’ll kill when the time comes, sure as shooting.”
“How’ll we track them down, Wil? They won’t come back here. Best we lay out a map and put down the places we know of that’ve been hit by the likes of them, and plot out things. Maybe we can catch onto some scheme or plan they’re using. We can use the telegraph and find out from station clerks where a package might be sent to Georgia or some other place down that way. They might not use the same delivery information more than once or twice.”
“That follows, as long as they’re doing what we think they’re doing. We could be so far off on this, it’d look damned foolish of us. Dumb sheriffs by the pair.”
“Yup, and one of ‘em’s without his badge. Well, I’m with you on that last part, knowing it’s a gamble, but we’d be chewing on a willow stick otherwise, Wil, a whole lot of wasting our time, piddling it away like chaff in the wind.”
Almost two weeks later, the sheriff of Blane Hills, north almost 60 miles, saw a stranger come into town, get a few drinks at the saloon, and saunter around town. He came back the next day and carried out the same routine, his eyes, it seemed, always on the bank and striking up conversations with bank customers in a most casual manner. He was wearing a gray hat with a thin band on it, a gray shirt, and dark gray pants with a Colt at his left hip. He was riding a pinto with a Winchester rifle in the scabbard.
He sent a telegraph message to Sheriff Wil Canty down at Kellerton, Utah.
Wil Canty and Dopper Kearns, sheriffs, headed north, one wearing a sheriff’s badge and the other with a new deputy’s badge, a loaner for the time being.
Dopper Kearns said he still felt undressed wearing a deputy’s badge.
At Blane Hills, they came in after dark as previously planned, Kearns saying, “If Maxwell is hanging around, he’ll recognize me in a flash.”
“Think you’ll recognize him just as fast?”
“Just make sure I don’t draw on him as soon as I see him. It will tempt me.”
Sitting in the hotel lobby, looking out the window, Kearns saw the bandit gang ride into town. They were visible to him in known order, each one of them clicking onto his memory banks, each off them fully familiar.
With a near single act, Kearns drew down the shade in the small window and immediately placed his hand where his badge should have been. The other sheriffs, Canty and Blane Hills Sheriff Morgan Alexander, saw the signal and alerted their men, a small force of 10, well-armed and alert, standing by for instructions or alarm.
When five members of the gang came out of the bank, Maxwell among them, money bags in hand, a teller under gunpoint as a hostage, they were forced to drop their weapons or be shot on the spot. Their horses had been commandeered and run off after one gang member, in charge of the horses, had been knocked off his saddle and disarmed by a young man carrying a plank of wood across the main street. The young man had rammed the gang member and knocked him free of his saddle with the end of the heavy plank in a sudden swing of the plank that came at the mounted man like a projectile. This was also carried out on the directions of Sheriff Wil Canty.
The first time Dopper Kearns relaxed in a long time was when Wil Canty, after a search of gang members’ possessions, found Kearns’s badge tucked into Maxwell’s shirt pocket.
With extreme pleasure, and a smile on his face, he pinned the badge back on Dopper Kearns without saying a word.
Dopper Kearns didn’t say a word either, but felt a sensation he had known before, like being on the road to Richmond after the charge at Yellow Tavern.