Western Short Story
Clyde Burber, rancher, rode into Traverse Falls to see a body, facially unrecognizable from more than one slug, still flat on the undertaker’s cart.. Clyde asked the storekeeper who the dead man was.
“Why, that’s Crate Sears,” said the storekeeper, Joe Rosberry, “shot by Lem Cramer who said he saw how Crate sidled into town, and saw how he drew his gun as he was slidin’ off his horse, and shot him twice instead of him gettin’ kilt hiself. Me and the sheriff found Crate’s guns, both ‘em, on the ground, drawed and lost, like the whole world itself was up in arms and decided peace quicker than breathin’, ‘course he ain’t ‘bout breathin’ anymore, is he?
“Cramer see the whole thing,” asked Burber, “all the whole way?”.
“Yep,” said Rosberry, “saw it all the way, includin’ the look that was on his face before he done lost it all.”
“Well,” said Burber, “I don’t know who Cramer thinks he killed, but it sure ain’t Crate Sears who’s layin’ back on my spread these past three days with a broke leg he ain’t even stood up on yet.”
He paused, shook his head a bit, and added, “Sure be interestin’ around here when that dead fella’s folks finds out what really happened, like what Len Cramer says, who’s nothin’ but a gunman on the loose anyway, always keepin’ the count, he is, maybe 21 by now, from what I recollect him sayin’, like a barroom orator ginnin’ up the crowd Satday nights.”
Burber’s shoulders shrugged with an ordinary dismissal of doubt, like as though answers don’t come as easy as questions, bound to happen on days of doubt as well as days of death, the way them two get it all mixed up right from the first shot
“Shoot first, run the tally up, celebrate alongside folks not knowin’ any better, but not me. I just want the folks belongin’ to whoever’s dead, find out about their loss, whoever he is. Maybe he’s a killer, too, got squared away, but supposin’ there are some maybe’s, like he might be the lone son of an old man awful good with his shootin’ rifle. And that wouldn’t be the last part of justice, now would it?”
And he shrugged his shoulders again in a minor disinterest; death itself, it seemed, came along every day in Texas, at least every other day, where and when there’s ridin’, ropin’ countin’ head, cursin’ and finally shootin’ over one for another.
Rosberry spread the word to every customer, starting out that same day, saying, “We ain’t sure that disfigured dead man with his face all tore apart is
Crate Sears the way Lem Cramer says it is. I ain’t wishin’ it on anybody, but that body belongs to somebody and it ain’t belongin’ to the Sears family whose both boys are off in the military more’n 500 miles from here and both boys alive from their last letter, makin’ this plain murder far as I kin see and not givin’ a hoot what Lem Cramer says about it. Justice just got to be found standin’ up some time and not lyin’ on the ground like it’s already give itself up.”
He reached under the counter and was willing to show his rifle to anybody who had any doubts. “It plain says I’m ready for him or whoever comes knockin’ at my door.”
The weapon was a The Springfield Model 1861, a Minnie-type rifled musket shoulder-arm used by the army. it was widely favored for range, accuracy, and reliability, and all troops held it in high favor. The storekeeper had easy access to one, and one was enough to embolden his statements. “Let him come; I’m ready.”
He meant Lem Cramer or anybody else doubting his word.
He had no such callers, not right away.
But when young Web Wilton came into town from his ranch with his father, Gus Wilton, on a wagon, the boy screamed when he saw the body, rushing to hug it, and crying out, “Pa, it’s Lee. Them’s his boots I cut my initials on, right there on the heels.”
He pointed out two places on the body’s boots. “That’s my brother, my big brother.” He kept crying and his father, coming close, looked at his belt buckle. He, too, hugged the body, stood upright, demanding in a loud voice, “Who did this, who murdered my son?” He held his young son in one arm, pointed the free hand on the other arm at several places in the town, at the saloon, at the sheriff’s office, at the secluded little dance hall tucked into the back side of a barn. It seemed he had made the world responsible.
There was silence in Traverse Falls, the whole length of the dusty road, and as far out of town as townies could measure. The silence was full of hallow and Hell both ways at once, a mark of survival and death coming two ways at once.
He went to talk to the storekeeper first, for he was the circuit point for all happenings and doings in the territory; everything came through the store, from stage drivers, coach riders, visitors, ranch men from the spread of the plains from the river to the far mountains. News often didn’t go past that point. “I’ll tell you everythin’ I know, Gus, from a to Z,” he said to Gus Wilton, a bear of a man, and so he did down to the tiniest detail, skipping nothing that had settled in his mind, which was a bit of everything so far, about a father losing a son, in an impersonal manner, but not meant so, it being the newest bit of news for the town.
“Where’s he now?” Wilton asked of Rosberry, “because you know everythin’ else goin’ on around here. Where he hangs out? Who he hangs out with? Does he have a gal he favors, pity her pore soul for what’s comin’ her way in short order.”
Wilton then told the storekeeper, “You tell him I’ll meet him in the street first thin’ in the mornin’, first thin’ as the sun comes callin’ and tell him to grease up his guns much as he wants, cuz it ain’t goin’ to take much to get it done, me and my Betsy Springfield all leveled and ready for him.
When the sheriff heard that, he grabbed a few men, swore them in as posse men and told them, “We’re gonna make sure Lem Crater don’t miss his appointment with Gus Wilton, as I suspicion he’s gonna try to save his ass, but not on my watch!”
His burst of energy jest set his posse on fire and they leaped to saddles in the black of night, to set ‘a perimeter guard’ as the sheriff claimed it to be. Of course, they nabbed Lem Crater on the lam barely outside town. The sheriff said, “I got nothin’ agin you, Clem, as I didn’t see you take care of Wilton’s son, but we’re sure goim’ to take care of his wishes, come mornin’ or Hell and high water and there ain’t much chance of that.
The whole town watched as the two men faced each other, one with a pair of pistol strapped on his belt, and the other with a pretty long Springfield rifle at the level and ready; a sentence of sorts being handed out.
When Lem Crater, 22 kills as far as most folks knowed, tried to run for it, Gus Wilton dropped him with one shot.
He told his son, “You can have them guns a his, but don’t ever bring ‘em in the house.”
He faced the sheriff and the town and added, “We’re gonna bury Lem Crater so far outta town, nobody won’t ever find him again.
That’s the way one killer was lost out on the prairie grass, no place to visit, and nothin’ goin’ to be said over him, ‘cept justice mutterin’ in the wind.