Western Short Story
The Mysterious Grave Digger
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The driver of an Overland Stage dropped the reins in front of his regular stop in Portuguese Bend, Colorado and yelled down to the barber sunning in front of his place; “Who died in town, Cutter? I saw the new hole dug nice and neat on Boot Hill.”

“Nobody I know of,” Cutter Cellini said. “It’s been church-quiet for months. Last one buried was old Marshal Betlick and he was porch-sitting for over a year and I went over there to cut his hair and shave him once a month.” He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Jessie’s due in at noon. I’ll see if he made a new box ahead of schedule.”

Both men laughed heartily.

An hour later Jessie Strom, funeral director and final box maker, came into the barbershop and was followed by Sheriff Earl Banford. The undertaker said, “Go ahead, Sheriff,” and the sheriff replied, “No thanks, Jessie. I want set a while and hear all the news that I miss while I’m sitting in the office.”

The barber said, “Well, that reminds me. The Overland came in and Petey Stoddard asked me who died ‘cause he saw a new hole dug at Boot Hill. Who’s it for, Jessie? You make a box yet?”

The two patrons looked at each other, shook their shoulders, and asked in unison of the other, “Who died?”

Both men shook their heads. The undertaker took a seat to get a haircut and a shave and the sheriff left, saying, “I’ll go check on it.”

Nobody in town knew anything, and the hole, indeed, had been neatly dug.

Banford had not experienced anything like it in his career in the law in three towns, and began to get uneasy the more he thought about it. He had always believed in signs of some kind, and could track a man or a suspicion with the best of men.

If the new gravesite was not dug for the usual measure, it soon had a taker.

The livery owner came into the sheriff’s office the next morning and exclaimed, “I found a body in the last stall this morning, Sheriff. Been dead I guess since yesterday. Looks plain awful. It’s that fella Olga Steadman complained about sometime back, Arnie Hult, who spent a few years down Yuma way, and mouthed off a lot. Probably said the wrong thing to the wrong man.”

Banford thought, “Maybe he said the wrong thing to the right man.” And he figured it was better said than not; Hult had really bothered a lot of folks since his return to Portuguese Bend, like it was a campaign he enjoyed and worked hard to keep nerves on a rare edge.

Hult, he found, had not been shot, but was knifed in the back. Jesse Strom came into the livery and said he’d make a box now and wondered who’d pay for it. “He have any money on him, Earl?”

“I ain’t looked yet, so we’ll look now.” A pocket search turned up 11 dollars and odd change. The sheriff handed it to Strom and said, “That’ll do, I guess, Jessie. That’s all there is.” He stood up and said, “You go do your thing now. I’m going to talk to Olga Steadman who complained about him a while back.”

Olga was not helpful at first. “I don’t want to talk about him. He scared me halfway to the brickyard.” Her face was deeply flushed and the sheriff knew there were some parts of the complaint that had never been stated accurately.

“He’s dead, Olga. Somebody stabbed Arnie Hult in the back and there’s already a hole dug on Boot Hill and I’m supposing it was made ready for Arnie.”

Olga Steadman’s color changed, her manner changed, and her complaint was re-issued in short order. “He practically tore all my clothes off, the stupid drunk, and he smelled like an outhouse. He was a groveling, grunting pig who got all he deserved.”

The sheriff figured he had finally gotten the whole story from Olga, but someone had stepped in for her; the knife was still hilt deep in his back when he was found in the livery.

He wondered who would take on a man as dangerous as Hult, crude, cruel, strong as they come, and oftentimes just as mean as a bore could get. He remembered when the bartender poured the “wrong stuff” in his drink and Hult emptied the glass on his face and threw the glass across the room. He didn’t pay for the drink, scooped up a lone pard and said, loudly, “Let’s go someplace where they know how to treat the customer.”

When the bartender was about to ask for the cost of the drink, Banford shook his head, advising “no” on the demand. It was easier to handle the cost than Hult; “his due” would come someday.

But the mysterious digger had been at work about two weeks later when a set of brothers who’d come to visit their parents in Portuguese Bend saw the grave freshly dug outside of town. They were afraid it was one of their parents and rushed to check on them.

“Ain’t one of us, boys, “the father said, “but somethin’s goin’ on around here. That’s another grave dug afore somebody’s ready to get put down there that we ain’t heard of yet, and Ma knows everythin’ goin’ on in Portuguese Bend. Y’oughta go down and tell the sheriff about it. He gets interested much as anybody.”

The two sons went to see Sheriff Banford and he told them, “Plain all-out mystery, boys. I haven’t heard about anybody dying or getting killed, at least not yet.” It was 4 in the afternoon, the sun still hot but starting to make long shadows. “Something will come up. The new grave is a sure sign.”

It was another full day, almost to the hour, the sun almost at the same point over the mountains, that a girl working for Lily Chamber’s Rooms saw a hand sticking out from an old water trough at the rear of the rooming house. The hand belonged to Woodsie Trumper, one of the two celebrated drunks in town. Woodie was apt to spend his nights in a dozen places around Portuguese Bend, but was always up near dawn and ready to peddle for a drink to get him going for the day.

Not a soul in town had seen Woodsie Trumper for at least two days. He was buried in a matter of hours, on Boot Hill; he’d been strangled with a rope, and the rope was left in place. Like a sign of signs, Banford thought.

Talk around town was full bore and commanded all the attention in the saloon, the barbershop, the livery and the general store. It seemed to end up saying one thing, “What’s the danged sheriff doing about all this?”

Banford, of course, couldn’t think about the whats and whys in any of those places, or even in his office when men and women of all social levels called on him with the same question.

It made his mind up to slip out of town early in the evenings and situate himself and his horse in a comfortable place but out of sight of anyone digging a grave on Boot Hill.

Alone with the stars, a few nickers from his horse, a coyote or wolf cry coming from as far away as possible, he began to spend time on every point of the situation, trying to boil things down to some possible reason or reasons for the murders that followed up the mysterious digging of graves..

He’d agree with anybody that the stars were the best company for such thinking, because he’d think as far and as wide as possible and as deep inside his mind as they were out there in the night sky.

Four times in the following week, in his secret spot, he saw and heard nothing but the usual night sounds. Some nights he fell asleep well after midnight nut never heard a shovel hit a stone, a pick bite into hard ground.

But he did manage to bump into and measure a hundred ideas and circumstances, all ending in further questions: “Who? What? Why? Are the graves dug when there’s a dance at the barn or after a turkey shoot and the whole town’s celebrating with drink? But never after a burial where mourners might return at night to mourn their loss alone?

Might it be an old enemy of his? The deputy who wants his job? Someone interested in the same lady he’s been seeing? But whoever, the man’s a killer.

Late one night, after falling asleep, he’s suddenly awakened by seeing a smoky image of a prisoner behind bars. His thinking tells him it’s a former prisoner at Yuma Territorial Prison, someone with a past and a poster with his name and face on it that hung for years on sheriffs' wanted boards, and a man who can be recognized by any former Yuma inmate. That someone had likely been released from Yuma in the last five years, but who had his own poster. How many people in town, he wondered, had been Yuma prisoners and released in the past few years?

Yuma he knew was a hell hole, one of the biggest hell holes in the entire west, with hundreds of stories carried abroad about the cruel guards and about the warden himself. The possibilities were as many as the stars overhead.

It made him ask himself if it might be one person who drinks but who has never been in the popular saloon, the place where every man in town ordinarily visited? A man who buys his liquor through a friend or family member?

He asks Yuma officials for a list of people released or paroled in the past few years, and seeks any posters with pictures of men wanted at one time and no longer in prison.

Before that requested information is delivered by stage, two more graves are dug, two more bodies are found.

Along with his lone deputy, Bailey Bridges, Banford goes over the list of men released from Yuma and finds nothing that draws his attention. Nor do the posters cause any attention for the sheriff. As he goes through them for the second time, still finding no clues, he passes each one to the deputy, and suddenly he becomes aware of a tenseness passing through Bailey Bridges who is looking over his shoulder.

Bailey says, loudly, with affirmation, “Whoa, hold on! I think I see something here.” He holds out a poster of a man who is identified as George Mason, wanted for a robbery in Tucson 10 years earlier.

Banford still sees nothing he can recognize.

“You see anything I see, Sheriff?” he says. “Look at the eyes.”

“I see nothing there,” Banford replies, an edge in his voice. He’d hoped the deputy had found something positive, a clue he could run with, pin the tail on the donkey.

Bridges comes back at him, just as strong. “Look at the eyes first. Just at the eyes, and then look at the glasses he’s got on.” His whole body language, stance, even his breath, says he finds recognition at some level. His posture more than his words gives him a round of credence.

Banford finds himself fishing for something he must know, must recognize, but can’t bring it forward to full recognition. He feels it’s like a word he’s forgotten the meaning of in the dim past.

Bridges comes back just as strong. “You know who I’m dating these days? Dora Ramsden. Her father owns the Three-Moon spread down toward Cartertown.”

“He doesn’t look like this guy,” Banford said, as he drew his hand casually across the poster of a man wearing glasses with thick black rims, as though he was getting rid of some dust on his desk.

“Not him,” Bailey responded in a hurry, and going into some declarative motions, “his cousin, her uncle she calls him. He wears glasses just like these. Thick, black rims. Wears a string of some kind on the glasses, so he won’t lose them when he’s mounted and riding hard and fast.” His finger traced the string attached to the glasses. “His name’s Dud Ramsden.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in the saloon or any place in town, this Dud Ramsden with thick, black rims on his glasses.” Even before those words were out of his mouth, Banford had his turn at sudden awareness, alarm, the solid thrust intuition has when it kicks you in the rear.

“Oh, he only drinks at the ranch. Dora sometimes asks me to bring him a jug of good old Kentucky every once in a while. But he’s a strange dude, if you ask me.” He nodded firmly at that declaration.

Banford already had the feeling.

And that feeling was as sudden as the snap of a whip as a pounding came loudly on the boardwalk, and a shrill voice yelled, “Sheriff, there’s a new grave dug, but this one’s got a cross in the ground already.” There was a pause like an overhand punch had taken aim: “It has your name on it.”

The hair on Banford’s neck was already at attention.

For two nights, again under the stars, Banford kept vigil on the road from the Three-Moon spread leading to Portuguese Bend. Dusk had fallen on the second day when he spotted a rider emerging from the road to the Three-Moon spread.

The sheriff, figuring where the rider was going, did not have to follow him too closely; if he went into town, he had no interest in him. But if he headed to Boot Hill, that’d be a completely different story.

In the general darkness but under a starry sky, Banford heard the shovel hitting on stone, heard the swish of gravel as it was tossed from one place to another. He had hobbled his horse in a tract of trees and approached Boot Hill on foot. He saw a figure moving at work, heard the shovel working hard. The man’s horse was tethered to some nearby object, perhaps a stone or a wooden cross.

When a shovelful of gravel went flying in mid-air, the last sound gone, and the next sound about to echo in the night, the sheriff clicked his pistol. The ominous sound caused stiffness in the man shoveling and he came to quick attention. It was followed by the clang of a shovel falling on a rock and punching the night.

“Don’t try anything, Dud Ramsden, or you’ll be wearing the next bullet in your chest. I got you now, right in the act. Banford here. My name’s on the cross there, where you scratched it. But you spelled it wrong. You spelled it “dead” of which I ain’t. Now, we’re going into town where you’ll get all the wages coming to you for your grave digging.”

He had Ramsden manacled and roped and then he mounted the prisoner’s horse and rode to where his own horse was tethered. Ramsden was put up on his own saddle and the pair headed for Portuguese Bend, night settled all around them, but the sky alive with stars.

Nothing was ever said afterward by Dud Ramsden, even at his hanging after a quick and sure trial. The man had wanted a new life, wanted to hide his past in another identity, but kept meeting people who recognized him as a former Yuma inmate who had carried a different name all during his imprisonment.

When Sheriff Earl Banford moved on, nobody in Portuguese bend ever found out if he had another cross on his final gravesite.