Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
In the middle of turmoil and gunfire, the barkeep and owner of Land’s End Saloon, Palmer Brooksby, saw the familiar silhouette fall from outside against the large window of the saloon, and knew it was The Roadman, the way his odd hat was worn tipped at an angle, the broadness of the shoulders like the backside of an ox, and the twin holsters sitting at his beltline as custodians in the dark. Brooksby’s nerves calmed quickly at the sight and what it triggered for him, and his hand, once reaching for a pistol under the bar, was drawn back. Silence but moments earlier had entered the room like an invisible cloud, and he looked again at the gunman in the corner of the saloon, two pistols in hand, a wild and demonic look on his face, and one man dead at his feet.
Brooksby measured the two-gun man as the kid he was; big enough to play the game, big enough to call out a cheat, but too young to die. His name was Bridge Alcott, so recently on a pony, as new as a kid without parents, the handles broken for good.
He hoped The Roadman would help and he surveyed again the scene in his saloon and all the patrons he could call by name, each one of them; he’d borrowed from some of them in the beginning, lent money to some of them when he was well-established and growing, the connections solid for the most part.
Cards were scattered on the floor, a whole deck’s worth, and currency of an unknown amount was scattered too. Several drinks from the action table were spilled in the mix, forming dark puddles on the floor, and a whiskey bottle, now empty, had rolled into one corner. A half-eaten sandwich, thick as a man’s arm, had fallen apart where it lay. Four stout chairs were tumbled on their sides, one of them with two broken legs.
The dead man’s out-stretched hand held a single card visible to every eye: the ace of spades, black as death itself, still the extra card in the deck, still the cause of death. His other hand, but moments earlier, had been emptied of a hastily drawn, and hastily lost, small derringer a lady might carry, or a card cheat. The first shot from Alcott knocked the small weapon from his hand, the second shot found his heart.
Brooksby, afraid that more gunfire would ensue, did not want another dead man in his place, and very carefully, with his outstretched hands, slowly signaled all the customers to sit down slowly as a group, to make no obvious and disturbing moves, and with shushing lips signaled for them not to issue any sounds if at all possible.
The dead man, who Brooksby now knew as a cheater, had gone for his gun when he was challenged. The second ace of spades from the deck, face up in his other hand, was a confirming statement.
Brooksby, hoping The Roadman would enter the room and hold the reins again, saw all Tabor Falls’ local history pass through his mind in a flash, The Roadman the center of it all.
Tabor Falls, Nevada, where a river cut the town in two, sat at the foot of the Rockies, and was a small but growing town. It had been the object of numerous robberies and murders of stage and freight drivers and a few passengers in a year of unending fear. It was suspected from the outset that two gangs were vying for some kind of control of the town and the local area, but were not part of a concerted effort. And when a man and wife, coming from Texas to take care of some grandchildren, were killed as they exited a stagecoach at a wayside robbery, a new and unnamed force of law and justice appeared in the town. And began a new war on crime.
He had immediately identified himself as The Roadman, a good guy in a bad guy mask.
The appearance of the new force of justice, not connected with the local sheriff, did not appear to be a community vigilante effort. For most of Tabor Falls, it just meant plain old plains justice arriving in a new form, an invisible badge incidental, wanted posters useless, and warrants forgotten and reduced to mere pieces of foolscap. Justice was justice in any manner it might come to Tabor Falls.
And it was here with a sense of humor in the whole matter, the way those robbers and brigands out on the trail were caught in the act and also reduced to the lowest level of criminals … brought to justice by the victims in many cases. The tables turned. The humor was seen by everybody connected in any way.
Brooksby, caught up in the act, envisioning some extra publicity, had set up a contest to name a new drink, “a top shelf drink in the honor of The Roadman, a drink to top off a good night or say hello to a better night.”
It made no difference that The Roadman wore a mask, gave no name, asked for no credit, walked away and said he would not be far away from any new incident, as though he was turned onto outlaws’ thinking, knew of their planned moves, knew their capabilities, and set forth his own outcomes … justice on his terms.
The stagecoach in the initial incident had been halted by a pile of rocks in the road, and all hands were quickly under pointed guns from three men on horseback, the guns waved back and forth as if any stupid or accidental move would set of a barrage of gunfire. Wearing full-face masks, the hold-up men demanded all valuables be placed in a bag thrust into a window of the coach, and told the driver to toss down all bags secured on the top of the wagon. The ones in the rear boot were pulled onto the ground and kicked open.
In the midst of the robbery, a shot rang out and one robber, hit in the leg but still in the saddle, raced off on his horse. The two men, examining the packages on the ground, stood to face another masked man holding a rifle on them, his hands as steady as his voice as he spoke slowly and convincingly, “One move and you’re dead,” the edge of his threat sharp as a razor blade. The new masked man manacled the two robbers, tied them onto their horses, hitched the horses to the rear of the coach and told the driver to take them into town and deliver them to the sheriff.
“Tell the sheriff The Roadman caught these two in the hold-up, a third man was shot in the leg, just where I wanted to hit him, and I’ll bring him to town after I track him down.”
“Yes, sir,” said the driver. “Can I tell him who The Roadman is?” He smiled as he asked.
“No, you can’t,” came the answer.
No more was said.
The stage coach came into Tabor Falls, the two men prisoners tightly in place, their horses hitched to the rear of the coach with nowhere else to go, and the driver yelling for the sheriff. The binds on the robbers were obvious to all onlookers, including Brooksby. He was called from the saloon by a passerby yelling out, “Hey, Palmer, get out here and take a look at this. We got jail company comin’ into town and no deputy on the job.” As an explanation, he added, “And no sheriff either. He’s out to Thornton’s about them guns that got stolen. Told Harry down the store he’d be back ‘fore supper. He ain’t showed yet.”
The driver and his shotgun rider delivered the two prisoners to the jail and Brooksby, with no official around, locked them in a cell. One of the men, the manacles still in place, and easily the surliest and meanest of the two, told Brooksby, “Get these damned things off’n me and when the boss hears what happened to us, he’ll tear this town apart more than he intended.”
The second prisoner kicked the mouthy partner, as if to say “Keep your damned mouth shut, big mouth.”
Brooksby took careful note of those words and studied the face of the one who spoke them. He’d make sure the sheriff heard about the incident.
The mouthy prisoner, the biggest of the two, said, “Oh, shut up, Duke. They ain’t got the slightest idea what lays ahead of ‘em here. They ain’t gettin’ too much from me, that’s for sure. And you kick me again like that, better sleep with one eye open. I don’t like that stuff.” The fire was in his eyes.
With help of armed townsmen, Brooksby separated the two and put the quiet one in a cell across from his partner. As he closed the door on the kicker, Brooksby said, “’Member me when the time comes.” He whispered it so his partner wouldn’t hear him.
The two prisoners were waiting on the sheriff who showed amazement when he finally arrived.
Only a week later, as if in retribution for the robbery of the stagecoach that was totally disrupted, another robbery was in progress on the north road, the other road into town. This time a freighter and his shotgun rider were ordered off their wagon, boots and weapons taken from them, and ordered to walk back to town. Two masked men stayed mounted during the robbery, one of the men keeping close scrutiny on the surrounding area. He never saw a masked man step from behind a large rock, rifle at an aim, and shoot the pistol out of his hand. The second robber fled down the trail as bullets flew intentionally and harmlessly over his head.
As in the previous blunted hold-up, the captured robber, hand bloody but empty, was manacled, tied on his horse, the horse hitched to the back of the freighter’s wagon, and the freighter instructed to take the prisoner back to town. “Take him to Sheriff Cargon and tell him I’ll get the other man to him in time.”
“Are you The Roadman?” the freighter said.
“I have no other name at the time,” The Roadman answered.
It drew a smile from the freighter. “That’s what Dutch said you’d say. He’s my brother. Was drivin’ the stage last week. He ain’t forgot how you handled them gents. Real fine.” A small but satisfying laugh came from him, and he said, “Now I got my turn to tell him my story.” He laughed again.
When the freight wagon came into Tabor Falls, toting another highway bandit along behind it, he appeared docile and childish-looking in his binds. Laughter began on the main street of the town.
“Look there, Mark,” one man on the boardwalk said to his son, “and see what happens to thieves in Tabor Falls. This is now the best town in the territory bar none. Here’s the only place where thieves get delivered to jail free of charge, and all of it is compliments of The Roadman, whoever the hell he is.” His following laughter, and that of his young son, ran its contagious through people gathered on the street as if they were watching a carnival act put on especially for their enjoyment.
Another man, bravely louder than he had ever spoken before, finding himself in the middle of a quiet miracle in a once-nasty town, said, hopefully but with a little jest in it, “Next thing we know, The Roadman will be giving any reward money to the good citizens in town, sharing all his good will, and I’ll help him any way I can.” He hooked his thumbs under his bright red suspenders in a clownish act that drew more laughter. “Good feelings,” as a wise man would say, “beget good feelings.”
All these recent events passed through Palmer Brooksby as he saw the wild-eyed young man in the corner of his saloon, one man quite dead and still at his feet, raise both guns, ready to shoot.
Brooksby didn’t know who the young man was going to shoot. He didn’t know much about him, except he had lost his folks way off in a corner of the range, that he was too young to die, had the guts to call a professional card player a cheat at his own game, back it up with a quick shot when the cheat pulled a hidden gun to action, and continue to stand his ground … though there appeared to be something new coming from him.
When the door swung open and The Roadman, mask and all, including the odd hat, stood in the entrance, Bridge Alcott spun around, and The Roadman called his name. “Bridgie,” he said loudly, and it was so clearly full of familiarity that Brooksby was instantly alerted to an unknown hidden connection.
Alcott turned, guns raised and ready to shoot, and the Roadman repeated the name. “Bridgie,” and added,” put down the guns. No more shooting, Bridgie.” The words were conciliatory, condescending, yet demanding attention to what Brooksby had already determined to be an unknown connection.
Brooksby thought it sounded like an adult talking to a child, and visions filled his mind so quickly he couldn’t pin one down. But he was sure there was a connection; the possibilities ran quick as an arrow: an older brother, an uncle, a grandfather, a dear and long friend of the Alcott family talking to one of its youngsters in trouble.
Bridge Alcott, already dumbfounded by his actions in the most immediate minutes, looked up to see who had used his name in a familiar manner, a familiar tone. The expression crossing his face was all quizzical; no recognition leaped at him. He waved both guns again, unsure of himself, the situation.
“It’s me, Bridgie, but don’t say my name. There’s no need for anybody to know my name.”
Then The Roadman looked at Brooksby as if he was the most logical man to ask his question. “Was it self-defense? Did the man cheat? Did he draw his weapon first? Do we need a trial in this matter?”
Brooksby, nodding, looking around the room at all the faces, said, “Yes, the man was a cheat. There’s the extra ace in his hand. And he drew first, a sneaky little gun up his sleeve, maybe where the ace was all the time, too. It was self-defense all the way and everybody in this room will say so.” He looked around the room again and said, “Isn’t that right with all of you? Self-defense all the way.”
A murmuring assent filled the room. No one spoke otherwise.
The Roadman walked toward Alcott, his hands extended with nothing in them but acceptance. “C’mon, Bridgie, let’s go home.”
Alcott, dumbfounded, said, “Nobody’s there. They’re all gone. Is it really you?” He lowered his guns, and then placed them back in their holsters. Looking down at the dead man again, he said, “He cheated. He drew on me.”
The Roadman had his arms around the stunned killer. They walked out of the Land’s End Saloon in quiet Tabor Falls, scene of another death, but this one was not mourned.
With the contest over for naming the top–shelf-drink, and the winner declared as “The Roadman’s Secret (because nobody but the barkeep knows what’s in it),” Brooksby enjoyed immense popularity and good business. He regaled in telling the tale about The Roadrunner time and again to any and all who would listen.
“It was uncanny the way The Roadman went about getting folks out of tight situations, all under some outlaws’ guns, of course, and his own guns brought into play. It was like he could read their minds of where and when they’d try to rob somebody. Some said it was a spy in their midst spilling the beans or maybe one of the gang, but we knew there were two gangs and he’d have to be a member of both gangs in such a case, and that didn’t fly with us.”
He’d stop now and then, especially with a great crowd on hand, like he was on stage, a real showman, and say to his assistant barkeep, “Give that gent down there, the one who bought that last round for his two pals, one of those Roadman Secrets, for one big favorite deserves the other.”
There’d be a round of applause and cheering at such times and then Brooksby would get back on track again. He’d jump in with a quick start: “He didn’t stop every one, of course, The Roadman, but he got enough of them bad dudes and would have them strung out behind a wagon or a coach and the laugh’d be on them and we got the biggest kick out of seeing who looked most foolish among the outlaws. I tell you, that’s the high point of embarrassment with some folks, getting dragged in like that, and right to jail. That’s the joyous part of it, don’t you see, the best part, because we had no lynchings here in Tabor Falls, not a one. Never was an outlaw strung up by his neck off the livery barn like it was in some towns, his horse slapped on the rump and him on the rope trying to get his last breath. It was all like a dream for us as a town and like a nightmare for the outlaws who kept losing gang members right and left. And another thing about it that got spun loose is that nobody knew where the gang hid out up in the Rockies, but it really didn’t matter. We didn’t have to send the sheriff and some posse up there looking for them and getting shot up ‘cause all we had to do was sit back and wait for them to come down and start up some outlaw business and there’d be The Roadman sitting and waiting on them like he was the devil himself at the ugly gates.”
“We all thought it was over when The Roadman came home to his family, not one of the sons or one of the brothers, but a cousin, we had heard, who had been raised by the Alcotts when his own parents were killed by road agents. He was here a few years as a youngster getting along okay and word finally came that the ones who killed his folks had been captured and he went to see them get hung. It was a good ways down the river, at Pressburn Hill where he was born, and he said, just before they got hung, ‘It isn’t enough and you should be treated worse than hanging, because I believe the bad soul has to hurt. You have to share some of the misery and I’d like to dump some of mine on you right now.’
“One of them getting hung swore at him and laughed, and the boy who was to become The Roadman, replied, ‘You and all your kind will have the last laugh, and I’ll do my best to see that it gets dumped on you, in public, with everybody laughing at you and your kind.’”
“Like I tell you, he continued his relentless assault on road agents, robbers, killers, housebreakers and other criminals, often catching them in the act, and when that was accomplished, he’d make sure the criminals were embarrassed to all hell and back, like we’ve seen here in town so many times I lost count.”
Brooksby’s voice would change at that point, which said something else was coming along.
“Of course, as time went by, as it comes to all of us, there came the night of last call at Land’s End, right here in front of you, right there at that spot,” and he’d point to one spot at the end of the bar where a balcony threw down an overhead shadow on the corner of the bar. His finger pointed steadily at the one spot, his mouth hanging open, his facial expression hanging in one place, as if sorrow had settled within him, and suspense would sit in the room like doom was afoot.
“There was noise and commotion, and Bridge Alcott was in the middle of it again, yelling at nobody in particular, and The Roadman came in before any shots were fired, and he walked right to that spot there, and a shot was suddenly fired from the door, and The Roadman went down. Bridge screamed, ‘He’s dead,’ as he leaned over him, and two of his ranch hands and the doc and the undertaker took him out and we buried him the next day. All the sign on his grave ever said is, ‘Here lies The Roadman who had a drink named for him.’ You see, that was part of his humor at getting back at the outlaws, to leave the laugh hanging right above his grave.”
And every once in a while, when traffic in the Land’s End Saloon had filled every seat and the string at the bar was continuous, Brooksby would yell out to his barkeeps, “Set up the house, boys, a Roadman drink for every customer, in his memory.”
And there’d be jostling and laughing and uproarious memories spun out from the good days of The Roadman’s work, laughter coming so heavy it was like making him live again. Most of the customers could remember at least an outlaw or two trussed to the wagon or coach they had tried to rob, “and the whole town just hootin’ and hollerin’ on the side of the road as they were trundled off to jail and the trial waitin’ on ‘em.”
Brooksby never told any of his customers, or anybody else, for years on end, about the plan he had hatched up with several people, and, as requested by The Roadman, one that was to take place at Land’s End Saloon.
And down river at Pressburn Hill, the real Roadman went on with his life as one of the cousins of Bridge Alcott, with an empty coffin in his grave for well onto 50 years.
Every once in a while during those long years, a townsman would re-paint the marker on the grave, laughing when he was done with the wording, knowing a laugh was good enough for ever, but he’d never know the truth of the matter.