Western Short Story
Every person in the area around Pecos, and west of the river, knew that a gang of robbers and brigands and desperadoes always retreated to their hideout somewhere in the West Texas high ground after their escapades. The hideout was up there in a region of lost hills, missing men, and trails that disappeared too hurriedly in mazes of rocks, landslide debris, and toppled cliffs. The gang had robbed and ravaged many people of the territory between the Pecos and the Rio Grande Rivers. Residents were most apt to call the hideout Hoodlum Hill because this gang had little pity for their victims. Some people even said it was as if the gang was out to wreak revenge and vengeance on the whole population on the west side of the Pecos River.
Patrons of the Dutchman’s Saloon were saying these very same words with repeated conviction when the slim stranger walked in and stood at one end of the bar, like a shadow might have entered the room. His clothes were dark as night and were, just like his boots, trail-worn at first glance, the way most cowpokes look. Six foot tall, sun and trail browned, he had a Stetson tipped over his eyes. First note saw he packed a pair of pistols with handles as dark as Hell, sitting in holsters without the slightest restraint.
His aura shouted, “ready” and “shooter.”
His entrance touched off an alert throughout the room, the way a dignitary might come into a gathering not expecting the visitor. His movements were sure, deliberate, in touch with all his senses, and Jeff Beatty, working behind the bar, also noted the man had picked a spot so that he could see both entrances and all the patrons at once. Beatty, in his long-time behind this kind of bar, had seen other men make the same maneuver, dangerous men, quick men, men bent to their mission in life. Realization said quickly that not all of those men were still alive, some eventually paying for what made them so watchful in the first place, the demands of the law, the perils of flight.
He wondered about this tall stranger, this man slim as a shadow.
The stranger nodded at Beatty and said, “Beer if you got it, or a good whiskey from Tennessee or some such place.”
Beatty said, “I’ve got both, so beer’s coming up.” He poured a beer, scraped the suds and set the glass on the bar top. “You must be new in town because I’ve never seen you before and everybody off the trail comes in here right away, like thirst has driven them right to the tap.”
“You’re right there, mister. I’ve been here all of five minutes in town. First, I need a room with a good bed. Can you handle that for me? Second, I’m looking for the sheriff, Bart Berkeley. He around?”
“I’ll take care of a room at the hotel for you and the sheriff’s at the far table. The big fellow in the gray Stetson with the blue ribbon on it. Want him up here alone, so’s you two can talk?”
“I’d appreciate that,” said the stranger. Beatty, he thought, looked like he was fishing for a name.
“I’m Alben Tate, but my dad called me Ben right out. So it’s Ben to you and folks here around.”
“I’m Jeff Beatty, Ben. I’ve been here for a few years, know most folks. I’ll let Bart know you want to talk to him.”
Beatty made a slight movement of his head, and his right shoulder. At his table, Berkeley stood up as though his name had been called out.
Tate saw a good-sized man of about 40 years of age walk past a few tables and saw enough men moving their feet and legs out of the way to read respect into their movements. It put a smile on his face and a nod to his head, also paying respect to the sheriff.
“You Ben Tate? You the man I’ve been waiting for?”
“That’s me, Sheriff. “ He rolled his head and said, “He said you wanted me right away.” The “He” was stressed, and was secret, just the two of them aware of a commission of sorts.
Beatty could not hear a word of their conversation, for Tate noticed that the bar keep distanced himself from the discussion with the sheriff. More respect being paid to the man, he thought. It made Tate have a good feeling about the sheriff, how people looked at him, put respect on the line. That was sometimes hard to do without displaying too much. He believed the sheriff could tolerate it, believe what he wanted in reference to where it came from.
The sheriff said, his voice a little louder, “You want some chow, a few more drinks, a good sleep, and get to work in the morning?” It might have been a question, it might have been disdain.
Tate, sensing things in the room, an element in the sheriff’s question, said, “I’m off to work right soon, Sheriff. Just point me in the right direction when that time comes. Is that Eagle Claw cliff I saw on the way in here, the best lead up to Hoodlum’s Hill?”
He was sure nobody in the room could hear them talking, but he sensed some edge at work. His gaze swept evenly, slowly, about the room, saw a few interested parties as would be natural, and not much else. Except one man who had continually avoided looking at him, not checking him out for curiosity’s sake or whatever. He didn’t mark the man with a direct look from his eyes but let the pattern of his colored shirt sink into his memory. He’d been down this trail too often to let things slip past him.
As he swallowed the last of his beer, he looked at the sheriff and then at Beatty the bar keep and said, a little louder than he had been talking, “Sheriff, think you got a few men here who’d like to be in on a surprise tomorrow night at the hideout. I’ve got a pretty good idea where it is. Saw some strange stuff on my way here.” His hard eye was on Bart Berkeley, the message in it and in his louder voice.
“Hell, yes, Deputy, for that is what you are from this minute one, my new deputy and we have a few good men in this room right now who’d like a piece of the reward money coming down with the job.” With an open movement he pulled a deputy’s badge from his vest pocket and pressed it into Tate’s hand.
Berkeley looked around the room. “Some of you gents want to get in on this raid tomorrow night? Speak up and we’ll have a meeting on the who’s and what’s with the new deputy here. His name is Ben Tate. He’s the same Tate out of Yuma two years now and straight as an arrow, and brought an awful lot of information with him on this here gang up there in Hoodlum Hill.”
A dozen men approached the bar, including the gent in the memorable print shirt that Tate had marked.
Bart Berkeley gathered the probable posse members around him and Tate and said, “You take over Ben. This is your show.” He stepped aside and took a spot so he could get an idea of what Tate had in mind … if that’s what he was up to. He had heard that his brain was better than his gun, and had kept him going this long.
“Be glad to have you along tomorrow night, gents. I have a pretty good idea of where these bozos are hiding out. They leave marks on the trail like you wouldn’t believe. I’ll lead us up there tomorrow evening, just before dusk. It might be a little clumsy but it’ll be a big surprise when we jump ‘em in the dark. Load up with ammo; we’ll use it if they get tipped off from one of their lookouts, of which I have an idea of their locations. Other than that, I’m going to get my mount squared away right now, a good horse I tell you, get a decent meal and get some sleep. I’ve been riding a long way. Feel like I’ve been on a drive. Even my bones ache.”
He shook hands with the sheriff and said, “See you tomorrow, Bart. I’m bushed.” Lowering his voice he whispered a few words to the sheriff. As he left the saloon he said over his shoulder, to Beatty at the bar, “I hope the bed is a good one, Jeff. I’m counting on it.”
Jeff Beatty waved and smiled at Tate as he departed.
Tate was into the hotel, dropped his gear in a room, and slipped out the back door and mounted a horse the sheriff had set up for him. Without any rush he was outside of town, on the trail to the hills, and soon settled himself off the trail in a growth of trees and brush, comfortable, having a chew, watching the stars twinkle between the gathering clouds.
Tate was alert to all sounds the late evening offered to listeners. An owl was in the vicinity, letting his presence be known. In a far corner of the night, probably in a canyon up ahead, a cat, a big cat, declared property ownership, the screech making rounds of the area, the claws and teeth almost visible in the cry. None of it disturbed Tate who let it all register in his mind as part of the area’s properties.
In his mind came all the information that had been advanced to him by the sheriff and other interested parties. He knew habits and traits and numbers and descriptions of gang members, the summaries of more than 40 robberies and hold-ups that had taken place in the wide area over a few years. Some of them might have been imitations, he assumed, but the senseless killings in most other crimes were seen by him to be a message to the world in general that “this gang stands for no nonsense and will make anyone pay for such nonsense.”
Time and night and facts and figures moved in his mind in a constant search, ideas coming into play, resolutions arriving, until he was alert to the hoof beats of a horse coming from town. The hoof beats were slow and deliberate, not in any rush, a rider knowing his way, trust in his mount.
Tate saw little but a vague shadow of man and horse, and just knew that the rider was a man from the saloon. He was willing to bet it was the gent in the colored patterned shirt. In less than five minutes he slipped out of the trees and began to follow the night rider. Every few minutes he stopped to listen, reaffirming the direction of his prey.
The slow chase lasted about two hours when all sound ceased. Tate sat his mount in the darkness, and figured he was in a blind canyon. For an hour he waited, thinking the rider was trying to chill him out, make him show himself, get discovered. He went to the canyon wall and found, after another hour, an opening behind a fallen sheaf of cliff that a rider and a horse could pass through. On foot, spurs tied over his saddle back at the opening, Tate went through an apparent tunnel that had been made in centuries past. At the end of the tunnel he sat down and looked across a small valley in the heart of a mountain range, a cabin with lights in the windows shone back at him. He guessed at distances, at valley layout, but was satisfied with conclusions that quickly formed in his mind.
Uphill a wolf howled, and he heard the sounds of horses somewhat disturbed by the howl. The horses settled down in a few minutes, a door slammed, he heard water being tossed, and a voice, in a heavy whisper said, “All okay, Harv?”
Not 50 feet from Tate another voice answered, “Yep.” Tate saw nothing, but noted the approximate whereabouts of the “Yep.” In one swift move, as silent as pads on a cat, Tate headed back to his horse, unloaded a package he had tied over the pommel, and returned to his last position. With the slightest movements, silence becoming him, he slipped up on the sleepy watchdog for the gang.
In behind the man he moved, clamped a length line around his throat and culled him into silence.
Tate spoke to the prostrate man, his voice as if it was coming out of another level, another world, a dimension the man had never known. “I am the scourge and the devil of death. I am the Texas Shadow and I have come, not to capture this gang but to erase it from the land itself. None of you will leave this hidden valley on this night or in the day that follows.”
He pulled the line taught and continued his warning. “You go tell all your comrades down there that they will kill and rob no more. None of you will leave this valley, just like I said. I want you to carry that message to all those who ride with you. Tell your trail pards. Tell your fellow killers. Tell the lot of them that the avenger is here. Tell them The Texas Shadow is here to reap revenge for all the killings, for all the lost ranches, for all the poor folk driven from the area. Tell your fellow riders that death awaits them. Tell them this is the end. Do you understand me? I am the Texas Shadow and my shadow has fallen on you and all those men down there in your hideout cabin.”
He released the choking line so the man could say, “Yes,” then he knocked him on the head with the butt of his gun. The man fell down and Tate tossed the lookout’s weapon into the darkness, retrieved his package, and moved like a preying cat toward the cabin, a shadow moving within shadows.
Out and around him a horse snickered lightly. An owl hooted. Above, a star fell across the sky in a miraculous arc almost freezing time on the spot. A cloud bumped against the moon. And silence reined as Tate, with the secret package under his arm, walked easily around the cabin, marking the parts of its structure, noting alignments, angles, windows and doors.
Satisfied with what he had noted in the semi-darkness, with the moon working overhead along with a field of stars, Tate sat down against a pole in a small corral, waiting. After this night the word would spread again, with a new fervor about The Texas Shadow. It was guaranteed.
For twenty minutes he sat still, seeing another star rush across the sky, hearing the same owl, he assumed, sending the same message, and a coyote joining the night chorus.
Off to his left, from a place of darker shadows, he heard the guard moaning, waking up, half cursing, and then stumbling down to the cabin, screaming all the way. “Some guy’s in here, in the valley. He took my guns. Says we’re all going to die and not get out of here. Says he’s The Texas Shadow.”
There was a rushing sound as men woke from dreams, sleep, restlessness. A couple of them cursed. Tate could hear them as if he was sitting inside the cabin. That’s when he lit the first stick of dynamite and tossed it at the door of the cabin. The next stick went onto the roof. The next one, in its turn, knocked the corral to smithereens and the horses scrambled, running across the valley. For insurance, Tate tossed another stick onto the remnants of the cabin barely falling into place. Someone moaned. A man cried out one wild yell. The fire that followed leaped up among the fallen timbers and boards.
With a deliberate walk, Tate strolled to the tunnel and threw sticks of dynamite behind him as he retreated along the tunnel to the outrside, hearing the walls and the roof come down into the passageway. If one man got out of there alive, he’d have to climb high to do so, the stories of The Texas Shadow would run like wildfire across Texas.
When Tate got to town, when he talked to the sheriff and explained that the town would no longer be bothered by the gang, he knew he’d barely have a moment of satisfaction, and then he’d have to go on another assignment.
He’d slip out of town at high noon. No shadow of his would fall on the ground. No one would notice he was leaving. It was the way he wanted things, being what he was, a shadow working in the shade of many lives. The man back at the capital who sent him would want a report, would send him on a new assignment.
That was also guaranteed.