Western Short Story
It was a hot July day in Fort Smith. Few people were willing to brave the heat, but there were still people in the street going about their business. Many hid from the sun wherever they could; under canvas verandas, or at the back of buildings or in the slightly cooler saloons and gambling parlors. Out behind the stockyards, three young men were having fun shooting cans and bottles off the fence posts. They were young cow punchers who had just ambled into town looking for something to do. As one of the men fired again, he heard a voice behind him. “Hey, how you boys doing?”
The youngest of the bunch holstered his gun and turned around slowly. He spotted the badge right off. “Why were just having a good time, marshal. Anything wrong with that?”
“I’m marshal Lorenzo Lane. Who are you fellars?”
The young one spouted first. “Well, that big guy is Larry Anders. Next to him is his brother Bob. And my name is Mike Hagan.”
Larry Anders added his part to the conversation saying, “That’s right, old man. This here’s Kid Hagan.”
“That’s so. Well, I like nothing better than doing shooting practice. But you can’t do it within city limits.”
The Kid squared himself in front of marshal. “Well, what if we wanted to keep doing it here?”
“Look son, all I’m asking you to do is move out in the prairie over there where you are outside of the city limits.” Lane stood his ground. “I don’t want any trouble, son.”
Just as the marshal had finished his sentence, Hagan drew his gun. He didn’t fire. He just stood there smiling. “Are you scared, old man? Now how are you going to move us? Marshal Lane stood silent. He had barely flinched when the Kid pulled his gun. Then, as the Kid raised his pistol and pointed it at the marshal, he heard the action of a Winchester coming from the shadows of the stalls to his right.
Kid Hagan slowly holstered his gun. “Hey, I was just funnin’ with you, marshal.
“You know, pulling your piece on a marshal is a crime. Had you pulled it on another man, you might not be talking right now. Now I think we’ve had enough fun around here, so you boys move along. The three young cowboys moved slowly away grumbling under their breath. Lane walked calmly towards the shadows of the open stalls. “Thanks Heck. I figured those three might be trouble. Thanks for backing my play.”
Heck Thibodeau stepped from the shadows with his Winchester on his shoulder. “Always happy to back up a fellow marshal. I know you’d do the same for me.”
“You’re darn right I would.”
“Well, you can go on about your patrol, Lorenzo. I think I’ll keep an eye on those three for a little while.” The two men shook hands and went their separate ways as the sun climbed higher.
It was just past noon when Kid Hagan and his cohorts stepped out of the Fort Smith Saloon. Larry Anders stretched his arms up and leaned back. “There just ain’t nothin’ to do in this old town.”
Bob Anders took off his hat and wiped his brow with his sleeve. “Maybe we could go over to Buckley and Welch, you know the dry goods store. I got me a hankering for some taffy.”
“You are such a baby,” said Larry. Just then the prisoners’ wagon came rolling up the street. It was empty with Marshal Lane in the driver’s seat. As he passed the three young cowpolks, he tipped his hat.
“Eh gentleman,” he said with a grin full of sand. “Remember boys, there’s always plenty of room in here.” He slapped the reins to quicken the horse’s pace.
“That son of a rattler,” said Hagan.
“Dang it!” said Larry. “There ain’t even a hangin’ today.”
Just then the Kid noticed a willowy figure walking the boardwalk across the street. It was a young Indian girl who had just stepped out of the Mercantile, laden with packages in brown paper. “I think I just found me somethin’ to do,” said the Kid. His partners followed Hagan’s gaze and smiled. Kid Hagan stepped from the boardwalk into the sun. “Follow me.., gentleman.” The trio made their way across the street and fell in behind the young girl like some ambling parade. The maiden stopped at the next street and could hear the clop of boots behind her. Before she could step in the street, Hagan advanced quickly around her and blocked her path. “Why howdy, missy.” He took off his hat and bowed slightly in a mock show of manners. “My name is Mike Hagan, but you can call me Kid.”
The Cherokee girl in pale blue calico smiled nervously, bowed her head, and turned to walk down the side street. Hagan followed with his two friends tagging along like lapdogs. The Kid caught up and walked along at the girl’s side. “You must be a Cherokee. Well, yur the prettiest darn Cherokee I ever seen.” The girl did not respond except by quickening her pace down the street. Hagan was getting annoyed at being ignored, and once again jumped around in front of the girl. “Now here I am being all nice and polite and here you are being so goll darn rude. Just give me another little smile. Just look at me and smile.” The girl looked up with fear in her eyes, but there was no smile. She simply shook her head. The Kid’s anger began to take hold. She started to turn away from him. “What’s the matter, squaw girl? You think yur too good to talk to me?” Hagan grabbed the girl by her dress and spun her back around. He held her by the shoulders. “I asked you a question, you damn squaw.” When the girl still wouldn’t talk, the Kid’s anger exploded and he slapped her to the ground. Just at that moment, a hand grasped the Kid’s shoulder and spun him around in time for a fist to connect with the young man’s jaw. Hagan collapsed in the dust of the street. His hand gripped the handle of his pistol as he looked up at Heck Thibodeau.
“You pull that pistol, you little runt, and it’ll be the last thing you do on this earth.”
Hagan picked himself up and dusted himself off with his hat. “Hey, marshal. We was just have a little fun.” Hagan’s voice cracked with false bravado.
“It was a little more than that. Mike Hagan, you are under arrest.” Thibodeau turned and looked at Hagan’s two compadres. “You two. Get outta here and stay out of trouble!” And the two young men seem to fade quickly into the dusty street scene, their hats in their hands and their heads bowed. Thibodeau pulled Hagan’s pistol from its holster and pushed the Kid onto the street. The young Cherokee girl gathered her things and quietly went on about her business. She smiled slightly at Thibodeau, who tipped his hat slightly and smiled back.
The courtroom at Fort Smith was an impressive sight for those used to the prairie and the Western wilderness of the Indian nations. It was a large room with tan walls and huge wooden doors. The high ceiling was held up by two marble columns flanked by the jurors’ chairs on one side and a stone fireplace on the other. Green covered tables and wooden chairs sat on either side near the columns and faced a large wooden desk with two great globed lamps on it. Judge Parker sat in his leather-cushioned oaken chair with packed bookshelves behind him and deep green curtains on the windows.
There was no jury this morning. Just a few locals sitting back in the gallery and Heck Thibodeau standing with his prisoner before the judge. Isaac Parker was a dour man with a gray beard betrayed by streaks of white and a furrowed brow. He looked up from his papers. “Marshal Thibodeau? The jury will be arriving soon, and we have a full docket to deal with. What do you have for me?”
“A clear case of assault on a young woman, sir.”
“And who is this?”
“Michael Hagan, sir.”
The judge addressed the young man. “You’re Mack Hagan’s son, aren’t you?”
Hagan didn’t answer right away, until Thibodeau poked him with an elbow. “Yes. Yes, sir.”
“Now there was a bad lot. An angry, twisted man who ended up on my gallows. Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, eh?”
“That’s what they say,” replied Hagan with a slight grin.
“Doesn’t mean it has to be that way, boy. And wipe that grin off your face. Assaulting a girl is not a matter for levity.” Parker turned his stony stair at the boy for a long time, and in the silence and heat of the courthouse, Hagan’s defiance melted a bit as he looked away at the floor. “Ten days in the hole. Maybe that will take some of the juice out of you.”
“Judge Parker? If I may approach the bench.” Parker motioned with a wave of his hand and Thibodeau stepped up to the desk. The two men spoke for a few moments, then Heck walked back to his prisoner.
“At the suggestion of Marshal Thibodeau, young Mister Hagan, you will not be a guest in our jail. For now!” He added. “Instead, I am remanding you to the custody of the marshal and you will work off your ten days under his supervision. Now clear out of my courtroom before I change my mind.”
As the two left the courthouse and stepped into the afternoon sun, the Kid spoke up. “Whatcha got in mind for me, marshal. Muckin’ out the stables? Or polishing the marshals’ boots?”
Heck turned and stood nearly nose to nose with the young man. “Do you use your brain before you start jawing with that mouth? People don’t like arrogance. People don’t like snot-nosed bullies trying to act like they’re a big bad outlaw. If you want to get somewhere in this life other than on the run from a posse, or waiting in jail for the noose, then you better learn some manners and learn some respect for folks.”
“You can’t talk to me that way. You sure as hell wouldn’t if I had my guns. You ain’t my father.”
“A gun doesn’t make you a man. And your father is dead, boy; hanged for his evil ways. Now shut your hole and come with me.”
“Why I oughta…” The kids face was red with anger.
“Son, you can start walking or start bleeding. Your choice.”
Hagan sighed and grinned. “Whatever you say marshal. Seems like yur the boss.”
“Nope. But you’re about to meet the boss.” The pair walked to the West side of town. Along their way, the brick and clapboard buildings slowly gave way to adobe and mud dwellings. Small stands of trees provided some shade along with wood and canvas awnings that were painted in various Cherokee designs. A slight breeze started down the street as Thibodeau and Hagan walked to the door of one of the huts. The marshal knocked on the door and taking his hat off nudged Hagan so he would do the same. Soon the door opened and a short elderly woman greeted the men with a smile. She wore a ‘tear’ dress with a green paisley skirt and a faded blue blouse tricked out in white and green ribbon. Thibodeau spoke briefly and softly to the lady in her language, while the Kid kicked at the dirt clods and turned his hat in his hands. He heard the old woman laugh and figured it was about him which made him a little angry. The conversation soon ended, and Heck turned toward the young man with a smile. “Mike?”
“I prefer Kid.”
“Yes, I know. Mike, this is Kachina. She would like you to come in.” Kachina stepped back into her home, beckoning with her hand. Hagan returned the smile with a rather ordinary looking one. “Well Mike, this is where you’re going to put in your ten days.”
“Are you joshin’ me, marshal?”
“Yes,” said Kachina, “you will work here.”
“That’s right. You’re going to help this woman and her granddaughter for the next ten days.”
“Doing what?” said Hagan.
“Whatever she asks you to do. These two women don’t have a man around to help them anymore. You’ll work here, sleep here, eat here, and you will do this for the next ten days or you will find yourself in the Hole. Do I make myself clear?”
The Kid hesitated for a moment then grinned and said, “Why sure marshal. Whatever you say.”
“I’ll be back each day to check on you.” Thibodeau smiled. “And if I find that you’ve misbehaved or run out, I’ll find you and drag you back bruised and bloodied and throw you in the Hole.” Heck turned to Kachina. “Is your granddaughter at home? I want to introduce them to each other before I leave.”
Kachina nodded and walked to the back window. “Adsila! Adsila! Come in. Marshal Thibodeau has someone he wants you to meet.” Kachina came back to the two men. “She is coming.”
Just then the back door opened, and Mike Hagan’s jaw dropped. It was the same girl in the same blue-and-white calico dress. Kachina took the girl by the hand and dragged her somewhat reluctantly into the room. “This is this is my granddaughter, Adsila. Adsila, this is Mike Hagan.”
“Eh, they actually met earlier today ma’am,” said Heck.
Kachina looked at her granddaughter, “This is the boy?” Adsila nodded nervously. Kachina rounded on Hagan with a look that would make a cougar nervous. Then she smiled and said, “You are going to work very hard here, young man. Very hard indeed.”
And work he did. He hoed in the garden, repaired the roof of the house, smeared adobe on the walls to repair cracks. From the moment the sun rose, until it set, Kid Hagan was working harder than he had in his life. The first night, when he thought he would sneak away while Kachina and Adsila slept, he fell just feet from the door, his boots in his hands. Kachina had tied a piece of twine to Hagan’s big toe. “You don’t leave yet,” she cackled leaning up in bed. “You need to sleep now. Much work to do tomorrow.”
“All right, lady. You win.”
“My name is Kachina or you can call me grandmother, but I am no lady,” she said with a smile and rolled back over in bed.
“You got that right,” said Hagan under his breath. “You sure as hell ain’t no lady.” He crawled back into his cot.
Heck came to check in on Mike Hagan at a different time each day. Sometimes he would just ride by on Banjo and wave. Other times he would come at midday and joined them for a meal. Afterwords, Hagan split wood, and the marshal would sit nearby in the shade. The first few days Hagan didn’t say a thing, and the two men sat in silence listing to the thwack of the axe.
However, on the fourth day, Mike was swinging the axe and then staring off across the plain. It was clear to Heck that the young man had something on his mind. The marshal waited patiently. And finally, Mike spoke up. “Been wondering somethin’, marshal.”
“What’s that?” said Thibodeau.
“Did these...,” Mike hesitated. “Did these two women do all this work on their own or is that…, that grandmother just making up chores for me.”
Thibodeau smiled. “No, this is the kind of work they’ve been doing for years; just the two of them, all alone.”
“Huh.” Mike went back to his chores and Thibodeau went back to his work. That night Mike was little more attentive and helpful in preparing the meal. And even said “thank you” to Kachina three different times. When they prepared for bed, Kachina smiled at the young man and did not tie the twine to his foot. The next few days, Mike worked harder on his chores and also tried to help Adsila with her work. This was always done in silence; since Mike didn’t know what to say and Adsila never spoke.
It was on the eighth day. Thibodeau had stopped by in the afternoon, and he sat with Hagan as a cooling breeze swept up Main Street. “Marshal, I just don’t… You know it doesn’t… Marshal, I’ve been here now for eight days, and working hard, and trying to be good…, but Adsila still won’t talk to me. I think she kinda likes me but… then I think she hates me”
Thibodeau rocked forward in his seat and looked at the young man right in the eye. “I’m going to tell you a story, Kid. A few years ago, the gang of men came roaring through a Cherokee village just west of here. It was a peaceful village filled with friendly people. The kind of people who would give food and water to any stranger that happened to need it. Then this game came. They robbed the people taking anything of value they could find. These were hard-working, proud Cherokee people. When the men of the village tried to stand up to this gang, they killed them; some thirteen men in all. Then the gang ran everyone out of their homes so they could burn the village to the ground. The leader of this gang saw a family running from the place like the devil was on their heels. In a way, it was. This man rode up and shot the father in the back. And when the mother tried to shield her thirteen-year-old daughter, he shot her too. Then he took the girl and ripped the clothes from her body and raped her there in the dust. And when he had finished, he was so angry at this brave girl because she screamed and clawed and fought back, he beat her to within an inch of her life and then he cut out her tongue.”
As the marshal told his story, Hagan grew more and more upset. By the time Thibodeau had finished, the lad was starting to cry. “That’s a terrible story, marshal.” The Kid looked at Heck through his tears. “What was the man’s name? The leader of this gang?” Thibodeau hesitated. “I said, what was the man’s name, marshal?”
“Mad Mack Hagan.”
The young man sobbed uncontrollably. It was several moments before he could speak. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“I apologize for that, Kid. I was waiting for the right time. I wanted you to get to know these two people before I told you the truth.”
Hagan broke down with his face in his hands. “I get it, marshal. I get it.” The sun was starting its slow descent toward the horizon by the time that the young man had regained his composure. He sat in silence with the marshal, admiring the bright blue sky and the cooling breeze. He sighed deeply as if to release some kind of demon that laid deep in his chest. Then he turned to Thibodeau.
“Marshal? Do you think Kachina would mind if I picked some her flowers and gave them to Adsila?”
“No, I don’t think she’d mind, Kid. I think she’d find that right nice of you.” Heck mounted banjo and turned to go.
“Oh, and marshal!”
“Call me Mike.” The young man smiled.
“Sure thing, Mike. You take care.”
“You too. And thanks marshal.” Hagan went back into the cabin.
Heck rode away. He smiled, “Marshal Hector Thibodeau…, Matchmaker, ” he said then he laughed softly as he rode back to the courthouse.