Western Short Story
Moses Hardacre, called “Flip” by his many friends in the Wyoming settlement of Brazos Connection, studied the ridgelines that loomed around him on the uneven horizon of tors, mounts and jagged rock peaks. Nothing moved. Not earth or sky or vegetation, sparse as it was in this area, showed any sign of movement … man-made movement. He kept watching. Out there, in that complex region of the area, notorious Brook Tarbox might, at the moment, be eyeing him. It would be, if he were doing so, from a dim retreat, a notched space in a wall, a smidgeon of a cave as lowdown as a snake. Tarbox, as Hardacre knew so well, had a problem facing any odds even-up or superior; if the drawn gun wasn’t in his hands before an adversary’s gun, he begged for distance in any way possible. And he was a murderer. Plain out, the worst murderer that Flip Hardacre had ever come across in his ten years on the job.
With the glare of sun rays beating at him from early angles, he took off his sheriff’s badge and put it in his vest pocket. “Don’t give Tarbox any extra edge,” he said to his horse, Charlie Moon, a gift from Two Spears, an Indian breed he had saved a half dozen years earlier. Two Spears, the old veteran of many wars and battles, had said to him once,” From far away, way up on the high trail, I saw sun hand’s touch your rifle. Tell me where you are on the mountain, rifle in your hand. You not silly enough to use mirror talk.”
The sheriff never looked a gift horse in the eye. He always remembered that sage advice. And he also kept a few things in his saddle bag that he favored for one reason or another. One was a toy of sorts his nephew had given him: a wind-up stick that gave off a rattlesnake’s rattling sounds. “We use it to scare gents and their girls when they walked down behind the livery,” the nephew said. “Makes ‘em jump like the moon was closer. One guy shot the back of the barn almost off, like he was Quick-Draw Willie McGray himself. Bam! Bam! Bam! And the girl was so full of admiring stuff it’d make you throw up the last biscuit you ate.”
That “insider stuff” from his nephew made Hardacre laugh for a long time, picturing some of the other outcomes.
He also recalled the argument there had been one night in the White Tail Saloon in the center of Brazos Connection, all about what kind of man had been lately killing local folks, innocent folks of all ages. Nobody could understand any of it.
“T’ain’t a woman doin’ it,” one cowpoke said, “which includes all them hard ones I come acrost, an’ so that makes it a man doin’ it, an’ all that makes me plumb embarrassed to be of the breed.” The glass in his hand was emptied in one stroke as if to punctuate what he had said, in the high affirmative.
“We don’t know what we’re talkin’ about here,” Ned Pierce said, the owner of the general store, “because we really can’t imagine what kind of man would do such things. I can’t. The man’s not just a bad hombre. I’ve stretched my mind as far as it will go and I tell you I can’t think of anythin’ human that would do this.”
“You sayin’ this is some kind of spook, Ned?” A big man at the end of the bar, a neighboring rancher from the valley, had asked the leading question. “Or you just explainin’ what you can’t explain?”
“Yep, that’s just what I’m doin’ that don’t sound right. I just can’t figure what kind of man keeps killin’ like he does. It just ain’t real, is what I’m sayin’.”
“Amen to that, Ned,” the big man said. “But I’m gettin’ back to the spread now so’s I don’t let him get any closer to my kinfolk.”
Those words of alert just about emptied the bar as many customers realized the killer could be again at his murdering work. So far, no women were personally bothered by the killer but they surely found the end of their days by the killer. Nothing was taken in the robberies. No ranch house ransacked for precious property. No horses or stock of any kind run off. Just plain killing by pistol at close range, and all inside ranch houses or barns. Meaning the killer had been let in as a friendly visitor, or snuck in, probably in the dark.
The owner of the White Tail Saloon, Jed Purkle, turned to Sheriff Hardacre and said, “Things have changed around here, Flip. I’ve felt it for a while now. Men get restless in a hurry. Drink fast. Get mounted and get home before dark lets this odd fella get his edge on folks. We ain’t had a good game of poker in here for near two weeks, like no one said a thing but they all know what’s been in the air.”
Purkle carried an inquisitive look on his face as if he was holding something in place, some private fact that he might be willing to part with. It was bargain-able and not a usual stance with the man who worked the bar so often, so long of a day. He said much to customers in a manner so casual it was enticing, like being on the inside of things. He did so to keep them interested in conversations, talking, and thus drinking, and thus working the till. He was consummate at his business.
“You got something else to say, Jed?” The sheriff eyed him in an open manner, as if saying, “It’s okay to tell me, I’m the sheriff.” He knew Purkle’s ways.
“You got the same idea I been carryin’ for a bit, Flip. I’m bettin’ on that. Else I wouldn’t tell you.”
Hardacre, during his time on the job, had improved his assessment of people, finding what made them tick, what moved them to action, or in another breath let them sit and stew over other things. He was willing to bet the saloon owner had pored over the situation, had made declarations on his own, or had envisioned some plan of attack.
Purkle could not hold it in any longer. “It’s someone we know, Flip. Drinks here. Plays cards here. Rides out of here at night to right his bed, tend his horse. It just drives me insane to think I been tendin’ him.” His head nodded in deep agreement with his own statement. His eyes were clear about it, his face, the way he held his head waiting for affirmation from the sheriff.
“If it is, we got to have some starter information, some point to move from,” Hardacre said. “It can’t be guessing. That guessing stuff gets us nowhere.”
Purkle smiled. “I’m no dummy, Flip. I’ve been keeping my own journal here of nights. Who leaves. Who stays. Who’s here when I shut down. I got all kinds of information in here that might surprise some folk, but not you.”
The sheriff had not misjudged Purkle at all, not for a minute. He’d always found the barkeep a step beyond other saloon owners, more than just a simple dispenser of beer and whiskey to men who not only demanded it, but needed it. Drink, in a hell hole of a town, in most towns of the wide and wild west, after desert crossings, after near drowning in too many rivers to save a head of beef, was as comforting to some drovers as an old saddle worn at the right pitch on a horse’s back, a favorite horse, the reins in the rider’s hand like a piece of an old glove. The right drink, after a burning pitch, had the mellow built-in down deep.
There was no conciliation when Purkle withdrew from beneath the counter an old and beat up ledger. “I started it when all this killin’ broke out. Especially when Ida Mae and her daughter Clara got gunned down like they was nothin’ at all. I once heard you or your Pa say, I’m not sure who, ‘But It’s always someone we know.’ That leaves a peck of trouble for us, don’t it, Flip?
Purkle tossed the journal to the sheriff. There were only 10 or 12 pages to it, with the first page carrying the names of all the regulars, the ranchers and foremen and drovers, and card players, and the usual visitors that came into the saloon in some regular pattern. Then there was a series of days and a list of customers who left before 5 o’clock each day, like their own kitchen was at work; those who left after the supper hour, but before dark, and the final lot … those who left after dark no matter how late. Some of those departing late were the real drunks, or the real lonely souls in Brazos Connection … no warm kitchen, no warm hearth, no warm bed waiting on them. It was enough to make a man take stock of his life if he was to read the journal … and find his name in those last pages.
“You draw much from the lists, Jed? You see a bend one way or another? See suspect movement?”
“Look for yourself,” Purkle advised the sheriff. “All these lines across names mean they left early on account of something.”
He shivered and shook and had a wild look in his eyes as if murder was his next move. “If I ever thought one of them customers of mine, drank here, ate hear, went off from here and killed Ida Mae and little blonde Clara, why, I’d lose it all. I’d cut him down walkin’ in the door, leanin’ on the bar, drinkin’ the last of his shot, or out there in the middle of the town like he was one of us common folk. I’d do it in a minute and not worry about what was goin’ to come at me for doin’ it. There’s been enough times when I was watchin’ a hangin’ that I could feel the rope around my neck like I was tagged by the hangman. No fun there, but there ought to be justice for the justice that wasn’t there for Ida Mae and Clara when they needed it most. That little Clara looked like the daughter I lost when the stage comin’ out here so long ago was jumped and robbed and wild shots thrown around so that my little Mary couldn’t duck one crazy bullet from one crazy man. It killed my wife right then, it did, but took five years in the doin’.”
Hardacre knew the saloon owner had spun his full orbit. He could feel the pain and the loss that must ride inside the room on most days. “Let me borrow this journal from you, Jed, and see how the pieces fit in my mind.” He paused a while, and continued, “Who has to be where; who ought to be where; who should be where; and him or them that don’t have to be anywhere at all. Those gents could be interesting.”
The two men looked into each other’s eyes and saw the possibilities, however meager they might appear to them.
That last part that Hardacre said was ominous, (“them that don’t have to be anywhere at all”) like a dark cloud saying out loud to the folks in the land down below, “I’m coming to play my part. Get your horse and saddle ready to ride or get inside where you’ll be safe.”
With a rapid stride the sheriff left the saloon and hastened to his office where he set the journal wide open on his desk. Studying the journal for almost an hour, he slowly began to draw circles around names with a dark pencil. He kept at the latter deed for a couple of hours.
After the chart was complete, taking a look at the calendar on the wall, going back to a few places in the journal for double-checking, he circled one small passage in the journal.
That circle took him next day to the place in the mountains where he was currently studying the uneven horizon of tors, mounts and jagged rock peaks that swung around his place in the small universe.
Tending his mount, rubbing him down, giving him water from one of his canteens, he spent the night against a cliff wall under an overhang prominent on the face of rock. He lit no fire. He did not even smoke his pipe or a cigar, or the cigarettes carried in his vest pocket. It was , he surmised, like keeping the barrel of his rifle out of the bright and refracting sunlight leaning into the trail in the canyon. There might be two ways out of here, he thought, but one of them was covered.
He slept lightly, his horse snickering vaguely at a distant coyote marking his territory. The moon, as golden as a ship of the desert prancing in the sun, sailed by its slow degrees across the face of a subdued dark blue sky. Peace filled the air, as if it had been wafted from a solar engine. Silence ranked as the leader of mystical statements. And Hardacre, still measuring the man who was responsible for all the killings, wondered how that man could deny what was evolving about them, what was making a universal statement. The clouds rolled on. The breeze had its say on the dark air.
In one quick belief he knew it was total ignorance of things that marked their places in the life of one man, any man, all men. The moon spun silver; the clouds were so imbued, the light of the moon floated like a lazy swimmer across the prairie, across the mountains, across the deep trails that divided one hill or mount from another. That light made its way up to peaks and mines and dreams, the way the magic of light rays dissect and cut and penetrate the heart of a mountain as well as the soul of a man … most every man. Silence was an undertow to a mass of inertia; it belonged, and yet it was foreign.
The name of Brook Tarbox, underlined, circled by both the sheriff and the saloon owner, put itself into a singular setting. It sat alone. It pointed a finger. It said the name over and over again. It caused “arjeda” and pains in Hardacre’s stomach and gave him a headache as live as a punch. It made him say the word “Sheriff” so many times it fell at his feet in a pile. He realized it was saying something else: that for the time being he was the sheriff; it all amounted to that. Anything else was a diversion, a departure, and that was the part that bothered him the most … what would he do if he came face to face with Tarbox, even if it was on the lowest piece of ground imaginable. Snake low.
Ample proof in hand made him a most possible suspect; and now, hiding in the mountains, belly-down in some low cave after another merciless killing, Brook Tarbox was hiding from the law, hiding from Flip Hardacre.
The voice of the killer came out of some ground spot, so low on the trail that Hardacre could not locate him.
I know it’s you, Flip,” Tarbox said. “You’re the only one who knows it’s me. I knew it’d be you. Nobody in that whole town had any idea it was me.”
“You’re wrong there, Brook. One other person knows it was you. Had you pegged for over two weeks now. ”
“Impossible. Nobody caught on to me. Nobody, I say.”
“Just think, Brook, about what brought me here. Somebody’s been keeping tabs on you. Knew every time you left the saloon one of them murders came about to hound us. You were too close to all of them.”
“If it was that damned barkeep, I’ll gun him next. Piece of cake.”
“Why, Brook? You that unbalanced? Things so wrong in your life you can’t go alone without killing folks mean nothing to you.”
“All them in town, meaning you too, looked at me like I was the hind end of everything. Well, Flip, it’ll be hell getting me out of here. I’m in a spot you can’t touch in a hunnert years.” He laughed the way a donkey might laugh, and the laugh came broadside and low-down and so secretive it was scary. “I found this place a couple of years ago. I knew it would be a good hide-out. There’s things here, ways, you’ll never know. I just knew it’ll be me and you. Yes, sir, this was bound to be. Me and you.”
Hardacre knew he should start blasting away. The thought of Tarbox standing trial weighed on him like an excess to justice. It would prove to be so needless. He’d get dead in a hurry as soon as the trial was over. The next morning, for all of the palaver. People would demand it. That evil man had an acre of pain due him. Hardacre would see it come to pass, even as the badge on his chest began to weigh down on him in a devious manner. He could chuck the badge off into the depth of the canyon; lose it forever.
Instead, harkening to a deeper piece of himself, the sheriff took the snake stick from his saddle bag and tossed it into the suspected crevice low to the ground. The sound of a rattler echoed as if it was ready to strike for the warm body sharing the same hole in the ground.
Shots were fired wildly from down in that low spot and screams followed all the explosions, as if a real rattler was ready to sink its fangs into flesh, claim a victim, end a life.
But, as justice would prevail, all his ammunition gone, Tarbox crawled from his deep crevice and said, “Anything but a rattler, Flip. I knew you’d leave me out here if a rattler stuck me. I’d deserve that.”