Western Short Story
The Oath at High Noon
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

On the morning of April 10, 1868, in Deborah, California, which isn’t here anymore, as it was hardly here then, so small and quickly gone as it was, the pregnant wife of Henry “Hank” McSorly, Miriam, was killed by two men, the whole scene heard and watched by a miner on the nearby hill That evening he told the gathering at the saloon, “I saw and heard the whole thing, and she got off a shot with a thunder gun and the two killers shot back, but I know her single shot got one of them in the leg because his pal had to help him mount up. I don’t know what they were doing there, or going to do, but I thinks she knew who they were and what they were up to.” He paused, a bit breathless, and added, “I wish I could have interfered in the matter.”

One man asked, “Couldn’t you chase them, Gil?

“I was too far off,” said Gil Mason, “and they wasn’t about to hang around afore they bolted on the dead run.”

“We ain’t even got a sheriff here yet,” replied the unnamed man, just before Hank McSorly said, “I’ll be the sheriff if somebody swears me in, which somebody has to do so I won’t get hung for killing the pair of them when I catch them.” Standing at the bar, he was an imposing figure in comparison to every other man in the room, physically and presence awareness both on his side.

It was done, and sworn, and written for evidence by the barkeep, and Hank McSorly, new sheriff of Deborah, California, was off and running himself, due east=north-east where the killers had headed.

McSorly, originally out of Tennessee, was a big, bright looking fellow, likeable, hard-working at whatever task had his attention, a decent hunter for meat on the hoof, kept a small garden beside his cabin, missed his wife with a continuous pain of longing, even so lately taken from him.

The wounded man he found dead half a day later and left him there, muttering, “I already had a double burial this day and I’m not in the mood for another.” He rode on and never once looked back, never wondering what critters or what birds, like hawks or eagles, were taking him apart, chunk by chunk, their meal of the ages.

He wore the scarred sheriff’s badge the barkeep had dug out of his tid-bit drawer full of odds-and-ends, a never-can-tell mess of memories, if one could tell them apart.

Another mountain man, big as himself, likely to fend off any trouble coming his way, met on the trail, volunteered that he had seen one man leave a wounded pal on the ground after taking some of his possessions, “both of them too dang far off to get a shot at them, either one, one dying and the other back to running, which I assumed he was doing, and going that way.” He pointed due east-north-east, the same as the prior miner had pointed, like watch-dogs of the Earth, continually at work, a murmur coming anew to him.

McSorly knew the area and had already figured the man was headed for El Dorado, Hell-hole for fence busters, ridge-runners, men on the loose illegally from consignments, but gold was in its name, gold was in its calling, its draw on men of all kinds like a magic wand in the hand of a western god or some magic critter borne out of the air of the mountains, and here comes a killer and there comes McSorly in his wake, law as ordered, as might be said.

Once, in his life, he had been there and done it all El Dorado, until Miriam had shaken all of it out of his system, piece by piece, bit by bit. He laughed a little at his inner voice which she had long ago convinced him was worth listening to when times got too tough to take head-on, sort of like where it was leaning now, a man on the run, and a man on the hunt., days in the West, so set in their pattern, as so ordered.

Four days out and he wandered, after some negotiation, into the Two-Bits Saloon in Murphy’s Hill, California, asking questions, getting some answers about a lone man headed up-country about a mean-looking lone man headed up-country in a hurry.

One old timer, smoking a pipe, his sombrero slouched down over his face as though he too was hiding, said, “I saw a fellow like that yesterday, all frittery and nervous like he was only an hour out of jail and they was looking for him again.” He tapped the pipe on the back of his hand, and carried on, “Jail can do that to a man, I know from experience, way it keeps its bars on you even when they’re not there, like some jailers have a secret power over your soul even when you’re free of them.”

He laughed at his own declarations and finished, saying, “He was sure headed for the golden town up there in El Dorado, I’ll bet you dollars to bottle caps, he was. Regular gents don’t get hauled in like that, to let themselves get stoved in like that.”

The barkeep, looking at McSorly straight on, broke in and asked, “What for you looking for him” You know him?”

McSorly leaped across the bar and had the barkeep by the throat before he caught himself. As he let go, he said, “He helped kill my wife and the unborn baby she was carrying, and if you know him and know his name, you damned well better spit it out or I’ll take this place apart starting with you and breaking your arms and legs into dozens of pieces looking for home again.”

McSorly must have grown six more feet, the way the barkeep responded, quickly, truly honest; before taking another breath; “His name is Knocker Bagby and I know he’s going to El Dorado. Has family and friends up there.” Relief flooded his face as he took a deep breath, nodded at McSorly as if saying, “Is that enough?” the red of hidden blood flooding his face under once-pale skin.

Our gentle giant was on the trail again, come morning at its best, the skies a solid blue like a blanket, and the sun having slipped into his bed and his sleeping at its first appearance, saying “hello” before he knew it was all around him. Miriam’s face came first of the mortal stuff, as he saw her falling down amidst a fusillade, never the way they thought it would happen, not her and the baby in one fell swoop! It was sacrilegious, that’s what it was, come Heaven, Hell or high water!

Then, on that fateful day, a month out of Deborah, California, and coming at El Dorado with him unable to rid himself of excitement, he saw his man dismount in front of Plain Butch’s Saloon directly across the road from The Golden Nugget, a splash of brightness in itself the way it was painted and glittered with golden promises through and through.

McSorly saw Miriam’s killer leaning on the bar, his horse, tracks and all, at the rail outside, and the excitement, and pile of revenge sort of coming loose on his person, as he yelled out to one and all, “I’m Deputy Hank McSorly, from Deborah, chasing down that there man for killing my wife Miriam and her unborn child, and I’m carrying this stick of dynamite to blow us one and all into total smithereens if there’s a mere ounce of support for that man I’ve been chasing for a whole month or more. He held the stick of dynamite at the tip of his rifle like it had become a slow-moving grenade in his hands, and he was thus armed for war at his own measures.

There ensued a slow and slightly hesitance to their walk as all inhabitants of Plain Butch’s Saloon moved carefully toward front and rear doors of the establishment to stay out of another war practically in their hands, on top of their boots. The was no rushing, no cheering for the deputy, no sorrowful cries for the shivering prisoner as he was bound in a set of chains and led from the saloon and put atop his saddle.

A man with a star on his chest said, once all were outside, and a long return to Deborah ready to begin, “I’m the law here, McSorly, Sheriff Chet Gibbons, and if you ever need testimony about this capture, I’d sure consider it a privilege if I were to be allowed to support you in court.”

None of them, Gibbons included, ever knew what privations Knocker Bagby had to go through during and on his return to Deborah, California, but they might have heard stories that grew on the way.