Western Short Story
Sheriff Held had a rough three weeks of it but finally he had all the criminal activity in the county shut down. All, that is, save for Jawbone Jones a crook and hard man of the first water. Jones was so brutal that he’d cowed many of the lawmen he’d gone up against so far. Now it was Jess Held’s turn. So far, the closest he’d come to taming the man was when he nearly wore out his leaded sap on him, but still was unable to conquer the man. Jawbone Jones was a beast.
He’d hidden out some place in the county after he’d pretty well beaten Held to a pulp. Homer Johnson the mastermind and boss crook that Jones worked for had committed Federal laws in pursuit of the crimes his gang committed.
Held had enlisted Father Butts to intercede in his behalf, knowing that Jones would leave the county if he went to Camp Smyth to beg assistance of Federal Agents from Federal Judge Lupon himself. The good Father was due home today and with help, Held hoped.
He’d gotten lucky when he tracked down Johnson and hustled him off to the clink to hold until he had Jones in custody as well.
Jawbone Jones was the last of the gang to be apprehended. Now, after nine days of recuperating from the beating inflicted on him by Jones, he was feeling alive and as confident as he had ever been in his life as a lawman. He was ready for Jones.
Held had gotten a tip that Jones was fixing to leave town after sending his wife on ahead a week ago. He walked to the train station in hopes of catching the man purchasing a ticket north, likely to Kansas City, which was where the ticket agent had informed him earlier that Gertrude, Jawbone’s wife, bought a ticket on the day she cleared out.
The sheriff waited an hour at the train station to keep his eye on Jones, although there was no way for him to arrest him outside of shooting him down, which he didn’t want to do unless he had to. By and by, the huge man stepped up onto the platform, heading quick of foot toward the ticket agent’s office. The man was dressed in his finest, lightweight suit of tan linen, matching vest, high-top dress shoes bearing a bright shine on the toecaps, and with a cigar sticking at a rakish angle from his bruised and purple lips. In an attempt to arrest him Sheriff Held’s sap had left its mark on him that would stay with him for some time.
Jones knocked him down as well as out though and make good his getaway. Jawbone was quite a dapper fellow in his traveling get-up. Sort of put Held in mind of a salesman. Jones then stepped out onto the bricks of the station platform with his ticket tucked behind the outer band of his derby hat.
“Leaving us, Mr. Jones?” Held said. He sat on a bench coated in heavy green paint. The bench was provided by a freighting company for the convenience of waiting passengers. He folded the newspaper he’d been reading as he waited. He placed it upon the bench beside him and awaited the reply. This took some time, for Jones was stunned to find the sheriff up and around already, or so it appeared to Held.
A slow, unsure smile broke his puffy face, by and by. He said, “You took to birddogging honest folks now, have you, Held?”
Held chuckled at the man’s play at innocence. He said, “No. Just the dishonest ones. That keeps me plenty busy, Jawbone. Looks like you fell off a high bluff, your face beat all to pieces that way.
“Could it be you took a spill when you tossed Louise Johnson and her young lover into Cheatum’s Sink?”
Jawbone Jones was the type of fellow who would go toe to toe with the devil and complain nary a whit at the outcome, but when it came to a direct challenge, a question of his guilt or innocence—well, the man was unequipped with the mental fortitude to withstand such a charge.
“By gad now,” he growled, “It wasn’t me. I didn’t kill nobody over there. That was more of Homer’s doings. He’d caught her messing with that young feller she took up with.”
“I just wondered how you messed up your face. They tell me that’s a mighty deep ditch.”
“Yes, well, I suspect you know damn well where these bruises came from, and you better look at your own face. You don’t look so purty either.”
“You know what the law will do to you when it comes out that you helped Homer Johnson dispose of the bodies of those two people, don’t you? That boy was how old, Jawbone—seventeen, at most, more likely sixteen?”
“Well, it was her. She trapped the boy. Suckered him in to loading all the valuables that she helped him steal from her husband. Got him to drive for her.
“Louise was the one. Don’t be trying to say I was the blame for any bit of it, and as for the lad, well he was old enough to know what he was doing.”
“You figure a boy deserves to be hung and tossed away like a broken piece of furniture just because he falls for the first woman he runs across?”
This hurt Jones. He dropped his face from Held, although for but a moment, and then he reared back, saying, “I’m getting out of this rotten town, Held, and getting out of this racket.
“If you think you can stop me, just wait around and see do you keep me from boarding the train.
“You better be packing more than a lead sap this time. That won’t get it done. A man can fight damned hard for his freedom, I’ve learned over the years.”
“I can talk to the judge in Camp Smyth, Jawbone. Recommend clemency in your case. That is, if you spill what you have on Homer Johnson in a court of law. Don’t know how much time off it’ll be worth, but at least you won’t swing.”
Jones’s indecision twisted his face in thought. Part of him looked as though he wanted to take the deal, but another part wanted the freedom to spend the money he had accumulated in his dishonest years of working for crooks in the area, mainly Homer Johnson. Held continued watching the wavering of the thug’s spirit, then, in the end, suddenly saw a hot fire of defiance grow in his eyes as his backbone stiffened.
Held continued, “By and by, U.S. Marshals will hunt you down. They will take all the cash you gave your wife to hold for you. You’ll go to jail, or swing. She won’t have nothing left except memories of you, for whatever they might be worth. I’m sure they’ll not put food on her table.”
Jawbone clutched at the brim of his neat hat, tugged it tighter onto his cannonball head. The cigar, long forgotten, had gone out from his steady lack of attention. He then stomped off to the far end of the line of passengers ready to catch the train north.
Held picked up the paper and continued to read it. He could have drawn down on Jones just then, but there were too many people on the platform already awaiting the northbound train.
Ten minutes later, he heard the north bounder approaching, blowing hot and steady at every crossing it encountered. Many northbound travelers stood crowding about on the platform, talking with excitement of their trip, making plans, and keeping a good eye on their carry-on luggage.
The train soon huffed and steamed to a halt, bell clanging like mad, the sheriff got to his feet, abandoning the newspaper on the bench. Minutes later the crowds of disembarking passengers merged with the outbound passengers, and this created a mess for him as he tried to spy Jawbone in the mob.
When he saw two men, dressed in plain, sensible suit clothing, step off the train onto the platform, he knew instinctively they were the federal marshals Father Butts had gone to Fort Smith to request their help. Behind the deputy marshals, stepped the priest, Father Butts, and this put the lid on the matter for he had traveled to Camp Smyth to beg Federal assistance.
Held quickened his step, caught up with the three men, and hailed them. “I’m Sheriff Held of Pitts County.”
“Yessir,” said one of the marshals, a tall man, built lean. Everything about him was what Held could only describe as efficient. The eyes, his hands, and every move he made he made with a sharp abruptness. He introduced himself as William Fall, his partner, Jerome Piccolo.
Piccolo was also a lean, spare man. It seemed the government employed only those with little excess body fat.
Held explained his part in closing down the lawlessness in the county and that he was now attempting to prevent Jones from leaving town.
“Is he in sight?” Fall said, casting eyes over the crowd.
“No sir. He has given me the slip in the crowd.”
Fall turned to Piccolo. “Board the train with Sheriff Held, Jerome, and look for Jones? I recall seeing his name listed in the arrest warrants that also had his mugshot there too. I’ll keep an eye out here for the man.”
Jess Held stepped forward with Piccolo, ready to board the train. They needed to work fast. The train was nearing departure time.
“Jerome,” Fall said.
Piccolo turned to Fall, who, it appeared, was his superior.
“Yessir,” Piccolo said.
“If Sheriff Held spots Jones before he spots you, have him point out the man to you. You’ll approach him alone and make the arrest.”
Here he turned to Held. “Is that clear, Sheriff Held? I mean to arrest this man for breaking federal law. If what Father Butts says is true, then it won’t be any trouble making the charges stick.”
“It is true, sir.”
“Above all, do nothing to cause an exchange of gunfire aboard the train. The safety of the public must be of supreme concern here. If Jones escapes, let it be. We’ll run him down later. Officer Piccolo and I have a good idea what he looks like from his wanted poster, but to be sure, ring out when Jones shows his mug.”
Held boarded the train along with Piccolo. As luck would have it, Jawbone saw Held first. He burst into a sprint, ripping through the crowded passenger car, knocking people off their feet in his haste to escape. There was no need for him to explain to the marshal who the man was. He had gotten his own good look at him.
“All right, Sheriff,” said Marshal Piccolo. “Exit the train now. I’ll pursue and apprehend him when he feels it safe to take a seat, or until he flushes off the train. In that case, Marshal Fall will make the grab at the south end of the train.”
Held turned and stepped back through the car and onto the platform. Father Butts had taken a seat on the bench now—his job done in the matter. He sat fanning himself with the newspaper Sheriff Held had discarded, watching the events unfold, interested enough to remain seated there.
Jess Held turned and looked down the full length of the eight-car train. Marshal Fall stood near the steps at the rear car. Held began worrying that Jones might detrain on the opposite side, next to the switchyards.
A sudden blast of the passenger engine’s whistle announced the train’s imminent departure. Suddenly the train started up, moving off in magical silence and silky ease. Held watched Marshal Piccolo step down from the train. Jawbone Jones was not with him. He had given them all the slip. Held hurried down the platform to join the two marshals to see how he might further help in locating the wayward Jones.
“I saw Jones leave the train on the opposite side,” said Marshal Fall, as the departing northbound train began picking up speed. “He’s in the switchyards now on the far side, I suspect.”
This was what Held had feared. But, at least, the man was still in town. But now, they would likely have to do a search of the switchyards, and this would be a tricky, dangerous piece of work. Poking his head inside empty boxcars in search of a criminal bent on escape was not what he called fun.
The train cleared the platform. The men stepped across the tracks and into the switchyards. Then, right away, a jovial yardmaster stormed out of his shanty, balled fists, hanging at his sides. He was almost running to turn the trespassers.
“What in hell’s going on here, anyway? I can’t spend all day chasing trespassers out of my yards. Now get to hell off this property. There’s already one man running loose. My bosses will hold me responsible if a boxcar cuts him up. Now you three get on out of here.”
The man was fuming, hot and sweating.
Marshal Fall flashed his badge.
“We’re U.S. Deputy Marshals, mister. We’re on the trail of a man we need to arrest. We saw him enter your yards.
If you have any security people handy, we’d appreciate their help in making the arrest. I suggest you halt all switching operations until we complete a search of the entire yards.”
This bit of news did not meet well with Hargis, the yardmaster. His face turned three different shades of red before it settled down to the color of a ripe tomato. “Sir,” he said, still with balled fists, “I can lend you a couple of railroad dicks to help with the search, but I damned sure can’t stop all switching.
“I got trains to build, and if they don’t leave this station on time, my ass’ll be in a sling.”
He turned and yelled toward the shanty. Presently two men appeared in the doorway of the trainmaster’s office. “Get your shotguns, boys. You got work to do.”
The two cinder dicks lit out then down the switch-lead, carrying their shotguns over their shoulders as if they were going squirrel hunting. Piccolo’s hand rested on the butt of the revolver in his side holster, and Fall was doing serious business as usual, which showed on his lean, hawk-like face.
“We each should take a walkway between two tracks and search every car on each side, empty gondolas, empty hoppers, flat cars,” Held said. “When you reach the end of the track, wait until the rest show up, and we’ll pick more tracks to search.”
Fall answered, “Sounds like a solid plan, Sheriff.”
Held continued, “Whatever you do, make sure if you’re forced to shoot, it’s the man we’re after. The last thing we need is to shoot down some car-knocker, oiler, switchman or any other railroad employee. Keep your eyes open for freshly broken door seals. That’s a good sign he’s inside the boxcar.
“If you see him and he resists, fire off two warning rounds in the air and we’ll come running.”
Sheriff Held had thought it hot out on the streets of town, but he soon found that in the middle of a switchyard it was hotter than his dear mother’s oven. Absolutely no wind was blowing, no breeze, or anything that might even be remotely mistaken for one. The sun caromed off the sides of the hopper cars that had steel coverings like a hard blow to the head, and the pinging of the heating metal under the sun, struck up a weird sort of music. That and the work of climbing up to peer down into an empty hopper car or a gondola proved hard business indeed. By the time He reached the end of the long line of cars in the two tracks he had just searched, he stood wringing sweat from his handkerchief with which he had just mopped his brow.
He waited for the other men in the party to arrive, and the distant boom of boxcars striking other standing cars being switched out in the tracks, sounded as loud as artillery fire. The impact of the cars striking together knocked the slack out of the track under siege, and this made the entire line of cars rattle like the skeleton of a giant. This wore on his nerves, because when the cars moved ever so slightly, he figured at every moment Jones would leap from one of them into his face, and this kept him on edge.
There were twenty-one tracks on the inbound lead, and eighteen on the outbound, plus a rip-track, and several tracks known as sluff-tracks to hold cars with lost documentation, waiting for proper way billing before shipping. In all, the search party had a lot of hot, sweaty work ahead.
Back up the tracks, at the head-end of the yards where the yardmaster’s shanty stood, the air hung heavy with dust created by the switching activities and mingled with huge clouds of engine smoke. Beneath his feet, the sun-heated oak ties soaked with creosote stirred up a foul odor that filled his nose and forced tears from his eyes.
When Fall, Piccolo and the two cinder dicks arrived, they all took a small break in the shade of a boxcar. “This will take some time,” Fall said, as he counted the great number of tracks left to search.
“That’s what we’re all getting paid for,” Held said.
“Yessir. We did ask for the job, didn’t we?”
They continued the search.
At their next meeting, they were all so dirty they looked as if they had spent the day in a coalmine. Fall wiped his brow with a sodden handkerchief, and when he put it in his hind pocket, said, “This will take some time.” Which was exactly what the man had said earlier.
“The sad thing is Jones might not even be in here,” said Piccolo, and this was what Held had begun worrying about as well.
“He might’ve passed right on through,” said the shorter of the two railroad detectives.
In answer, his partner said, “Yep. He might even be in a saloon over in town, drinking a beer and laughing his head off at us.”
Fall sighed and said, “But like Sheriff Held said, this is what we’re paid to do. So, let’s get back after it.”
Again, they separated.
Halfway down the track toward the lead where the cars were rolling freely down into the yards, banging loudly on impact, Sheriff Held flushed the big man.
Jones sprang from a boxcar and started running as fast as a big man is capable of, toward the depot, and he was throwing out his feet in a most nimble fashion. Desperation can make even the largest, clumsiest man a fast runner at times.
But Held was faster.
“Jawbone,” Held yelled. Jones ignored him and ran even faster as if the sheriff had just spurred him. The chat flew upward from beneath his churning feet in his mad dash.
“Stop, man,” Held yelled. “The deal we talked about still goes. We’ve got you dead now. The U. S. Marshals Service is on your trail. They won’t stop till they nab you.”
Jones ran on, saving his breath to make haste. Held had no choice but to run as well, and it hotter than a forge fire, with no breeze, and he with but little sweat left. He drew his .44 as he ran. He fired off two rounds into the sky, as a signal to the other men, and continued running for all he could get into the proposition, which, because of the heat, was little.
Just then, Held saw a switchman riding the end of a cut of cars, preparing to join the cars on the south end of the track with those on the north end, and this on the very same track down which he was pursuing Jones. The switchman was signaling the distant engineer with hand signals using an old newspaper sheet so as to be seen better. The cars slowed down slightly with his signals on the cars he was riding, as the distance of separation between the south end and north end boxcars loomed smaller. In time, the switchman would join both ends together as one solid track. Held saw then that he would wind up on one side of the track, Jones on the other. So, he ran even faster, for it looked as if Jawbone planned to cross over in front of the approaching cars and complete his escape.
“Jones,” Held called out, “It’ll go easier if you give up now.”
Jawbone had made up his mind already, it seemed, for he continued running, intent on beating the solid joining of the track.
The switchman riding on the side of the approaching car started cursing, screaming, warning Jawbone not to try making the crossing. Jones ignored the warning, and kept on hotfooting it, attempting to beat the coupling. The switchman released his grip on the grab iron he was clinging to, stepped from the stirrup to the ground and began to signal with wild swings of his arms for the engineer to stop the movement. Just before the cars crashed together, Held was close enough to Jones he could see the ridges in the fabric of his suit coat, the stitching of his shoes.
In a last shot at stopping him, he leaped forward. His fingers scraped without effect on the man’s wide back, trailing downward, seeking a purchase. He missed his grab, and sprawled face down in the deep chat of the walkway between the two tracks, skinning both knees, ripping a long-jagged gash in the left knee of his trousers.
He lifted his head spitting dust and small pieces of chat. He peered fearfully through the dust he had created in his wild dive and watched as Jones and the cars arrived at the same time.
“No!” Held screamed.
The cars won out, of course, as always, in cases of a tie, such as this one. Gunning down a man was more in the line of Sheriff Held’s work, and he’d become used to this, somewhat. But this type of death was a thing new and worked on his mind.
By the time Held gained his feet, Jones was standing pinned in between the two opposing knuckles, crushed and mangled, held upright by the car in the track, and the one the switchman had ridden up on to make the track complete.
“Warned him.” The switchman walked in nervous circles. But would not dare to look at the man hanging coupled-up between the cars. “Warned the man. I shouted. He wouldn’t stop. Hell! You heard me, didn’t you mister? I know you did.”
Held said, “I did hear you. You are in the clear.”
He didn’t want to look either. But he was forced to. Jones was still alive but silent. His face had turned white, where earlier it had been burnt dark by the sun. His eyes were turning back in his skull, then reappearing as he regained focus, then rolling away again, creating a frightful display.
Jones’s stomach had burst from the impact, and his guts already started leaking to the ground.
Held approached the doomed man. Jones’s eyes found his and locked onto them as if this act might save him.
By and by, he whispered, “Held.” Then he fell silent. His head slumped to his chest, and at first the sheriff concluded the big man had gone over. His shirtfront ruffled then with his faint breathing and he saw the man was still alive.
Marshal Fall showed up first. He said, “I feared something like this.”
The shorter of the two detectives arrived next, followed right away by the second marshal, Piccolo, then by the other cinder dick, and no one knew what to do. They all stood about and stared in complete helplessness at the man hanging there between the two boxcars.
The switchman was retching, throwing up his dinner, breakfast, and even last night’s supper, if he’d had any, on his knees, one hand holding to the foot stirrup of a car on the adjacent track.
Presently, it seemed, all the switch crews in the yards as well as the billing clerks, the telegrapher, and of course, the ruddy-faced yardmaster showed up, pushing in as close as possible, straining to see the man who was pinned in between the cars. They all looked on in silence. All save the yardmaster. He had plenty to say.
“This is what comes of civilians playing ‘round in a switchyard,” he said, rolling his cigar in great agitation between his teeth with stubby fingers.
“We have our hands full trying to keep these damned cars off our own men, let alone having to watch out for the whole town coming in here for a jaunt and a peek.”
He turned now and pointing his cigar at the sick switchman, added, “It surely ain’t no kind of wonder Odell’s sicker than a mule down with the scours. This is the second man he’s coupled up this away.
“Now there’ll be a big investigation. Somebody’ll catch hell over this, and since I’m the old boy in charge I suspect it’ll be me.”
He swung on Fall next. “I told you not to come chasing around in here. Told you it wasn’t safe.”
Fall stepped up, handed him his card, and said, “And I told you to stop the switching operations. Obviously, the railroad feels business comes before the public’s safety. If there are any nasty letters to answer, just refer them to me, sir.
“We do all we can to protect the public. However, as long as we have our man in sight or have a reasonable idea of where he might be, we are required to push the chase. We don’t like it any more than anyone else when a thing like this happens.”
“Jawbone is still alive,” Held said.
The big man opened his eyes again, and they were remaining open now. He seemed no longer in pain, and was lucid, at least his eyes shone with the light of intelligent thought.
“There’s a priest sitting at the depot,” Held said to the yardmaster. “Could you send someone to fetch him? Jones looks as if he will need someone of the cloth. A doctor as well.”
After he did as Held requested, the yardmaster said, “We’ll have to back off, and uncouple the man. It damned sure don’t look good though. They usually die right away when they get uncoupled. Seen this happen several times these past fifteen years. It ain’t never pretty.”
“All right,” answered Fall. “Let me speak to the man first.” He stepped forward, leaned in close, and said, “The yardmaster says that when we separate these cars you’ll likely die, Jones. If I were you, I think I’d be worrying about the future? Might want to confess now, while there are witnesses.”
Jones nodded in agreement.
“Step up here with me, Sheriff. He wants to confess to all his crimes.”
Knowing this might work in court he stepped up and listened to Jones clean his breast of his crimes.
Then Fall said, “We can’t allow you to hang there like this. Besides that, there is a chance you might live. You want to die hanging there, or have us take you down?”
Jawbone Jones nodded his head then let it drop onto his chest. He mumbled, “I’d rather die free on the ground.”
They waited until the engineer, who, too, had come for a look, to return to the cab of his engine before they could free Jones.
The yardmaster said to the departing man’s back as he walked toward his engine, “Move them cars as easy as you can, Smitty.”
Smitty waved a hand over his shoulder in reply and continued hurrying off, although he was likely thinking that a dumb request. There was only one way to move a track of cars. Easy was not involved. When he was back on his high seat, he whistled off to announce he was ready.
The switchman, Odell, who by now, had regained his composure, gave the signal to back up, and the cars parted slowly. When they moved off fifty feet or so, Odell made a slashing downward movement, signaling the engineer to stop.
Held stood with Fall, and they caught Jawbone as he tried to crumple. They placed him on his back upon the chat in the walkway between the two separate tracks. Many in the crowd turned away from the fearsome sight. Held heard a few of them heaving. But the switchman, Odell, by now, was standing tall again after having regained command of his stomach.
Jones crooked his finger at Held, and the sheriff knelt at his side.
“Do me a favor.”
“Tell Gertie, I love her.”
Jones nodded, and closed his eyes, as if he had fallen asleep. Held thought he had spoken his last, but as he attempted to rise up, Jawbone said, “And my boys. Just done what all I done for them. For all of ‘em.
“Tell Gertie to give up the money she lit out with, but to keep the other. She’ll know what you’re talking about.”
“I’ll do it, Jawbone. Do it, or have it done. Bet on it.”
Held had just agreed to go along with an act probably illegal, but he did not know for sure if the money Jones was referring to—the “other”—was dishonest money or not, so he planned to do as the man requested.
Held had found in his years enforcing the law that there was the law of man, and there was the law of the spirit of man, and, in the latter, all men were brothers. At any rate, Fall had not heard Jones make the request.
Father Butts arrived all in a sweat. A man bearing a stretcher followed him. The doctor had yet to arrive. It was far too late for a doctor, however. Father Butts was more in line with what Jones needed. But, just possibly, if the big man knew there was a doctor on the way, he might feel comforted.
Father Butts knelt to attend Jones. The big man sighed, dropped his hands, and died.
Later, after all the paperwork was done and over with Held sent a wire to Kansas City informing Gertrude Jones to return to town to reclaim her husband’s remains. He finished his work for the federal men then and hoofed slowly down to his office. It had been a tough couple of weeks trying to round up all those involved with the criminal activity in the county, and Jones was the last one down. There were times like this when he felt that he should retire his job or at least take a short vacation.
“One thing about it though, I made out much better than Jawbone did. Of that, I can be thankful.” He chuckled then and mumbled, “Here I am, the law, and I’m feeling sympathy for a crook.
“Wonder if the fish are biting.”