Western Short Story
First the trail came, a rough ride at first to the river towns of Beaumont and Breadloaf, then the stagecoach line opened and that was followed in a dozen years by the railroad. People in both towns knew many in the other town, from relatives to old riding pards on the cow trail to acquaintances in the beef business. And from the first the sheriffs of both towns held up their records as the best law-controlled town on the river.
Often, as propelled and fomented by jealousy or ambition, justice took a backseat to personal gain. It seemed a certainty that each new sheriff would get the job because he’d owe allegiance, and experience, to his predecessor. It was bound, one day, to end up in the wrong hands. That thinking was often the general consensus as the two towns spread and grew in their own ways.
Jazco Collins, newest sheriff in Beaumont, once chief deputy to his pal and cousin Lorne Comiskey, now retired to a ranch in south Texas and not to be seen again, sighed as he rode back into town after a visit downriver to Breadloaf. Jazco, just short of six feet tall, wore his blond hair in curls that fell over his ears, and came at people with a firm jaw that gave him a sense of solidity.
The trip between towns usually took under a full day, with plenty of sights and sightings along the way and precious time for thinking of valuable things, like his sweetheart Alma, his last arrest, and the most recent poster placed on the wall of his office.
The purpose of his trip was supposedly a secret between him and the Breadloaf sheriff, Walt Carmichael. In each town, on successive days, a Wednesday and a Thursday for four straight weeks, a major crime had been committed. The Wednesday days were alternated by the criminals, times were random, and sightings were non-existent: not one witness had stepped forward on five murders, two barns burned in the night; one person kidnapped from his bed, a five-year old boy, son of a rancher with a large spread. The father wanted to wage war on somebody but had no idea who had taken his son, or why. He had haunted the sheriff’s office every day since the kidnapping, asking questions, making suggestions, getting more lost in his misery.
So, the conversation between the two sheriffs had been odd, each man generally knowing only the “what” but unsure of the “who/why/where.”
Jazco Collins had sensed Carmichael’s uneasiness. “Something’s on your mind, Walt, other than what we’re talking about? What’s going on with you?”
“I got the strangest feeling, Jazco, that someone is setting us up. Pulling us in from each town, or stacking things up against the both of us. It feels like it’s all planned, even the targets. I don’t think any of this is random, not the work of some idiot out for revenge. I don’t think it’s anything like that. Have you had any of those feelings? I mean, really asked yourself about them?”
“You mean like each of us saying our town’s been the cleanest, and all of a sudden it ain’t that anymore? Yuh, I’ve been on that side of the wire for a week or so. But I don’t have any idea of who would gain by all this stuff. Nobody I know is out to get me, ‘cept maybe a few guys I put in jail for a good spell.”
“Or their kin,” added Carmichael, “some young cousin or older gent ought to know better, but it takes all kinds. It says we ain’t going to get much sleep on this matter. Keep me fixed about what’s going on in your town. I’ll do the same.”
They had parted company, each to their own troubles, which to any outsider were affecting both men, both offices and both towns in a concerted effort.
When the kidnapped boy was found wandering out on a wide section of grass near the river, only a few miles from Beaumont, Collins realized another statement was being made, more so to him than the boy’s father. It almost said, “I can do what I want to do and there isn’t much you as a sheriff can do to stop me.”
Collins, after the euphoric reception by the boy’s parents at having their son back in their arms, went off by himself into the hills above the wide grass. He spent two days looking for something … and found it … the remains of a small fire high in the hills with an exceptional view of the area where the boy was found. It set him to thinking about the kidnapper’s intentions … that the boy was being watched and protected from the high point. Then he found a rifle shell beside a nearby rock. He could picture the kidnapper taking long aim at something, perhaps an animal that might have been intent on hurting the boy.
The big challenge came when Collins’s sweetheart, Alma Dixon, a cousin of Carmichael’s who lived on a small ranch halfway between each town, was whisked off her carriage one afternoon and hustled off into the hills. A note, tucked under the cushion, said, “So much for those who can’t take care of their own.” And the horse had developed a bad leg from being run into a rocky area.
The two sheriffs, each with a separate posse, had scoured the hills for more than a week and not a sign was found that would give them a lead. The teams of men came back exhausted, and fully dispirited. The evenings were long and bothersome in the saloons. Talk passed there of ghosts at work or unseen men who had secret passages and hideaways up in the hills and amid the towering peaks.
For three weeks there was quiet, silence at night, little of crime. Sleep came back in a slow approach to many of the townsfolk, except for the two sheriffs, really under the gun of some unknown foe.
In the midst of the silence, Collins, at a terrible loss without his sweetheart, rode out of town one day and sought out an elderly Indian high in the hills.
The old Indian, a mix in himself of Comanche and Kiowa, never seen in the company of another brave, elderly or not, eked out a solitary existence in a corner of the mountains. Other red men stayed afield of him, talk of danger and evil spirits circulating in their comments about One Dog True.
A few years earlier, at the end of a hapless search for a bank robber and killer, the search extending deep into the mountains, Sheriff Collins had spent the night at One Dog True’s fire, both men speaking of justice, loss, what God spoke fairest on the mountain.
This trip Collins did not mention the kidnapping of his fiancé, but One Dog True said, “I have heard that a strange woman, very young and with hair of the raven, is kept under guard by a band of renegades of all mixes in the Valley of the Washato.
Collins leaped at the information, seeing the dark tresses that his fiancé kept in long and luxurious waves, seeing the smile that still haunted him.
One True Dog held up his hand. “An army cannot get in there, but one man or two good men, can make an entrance, escape with the girl. In the far end of the valley, under a huge overhang, a narrow crevice allows a person to leave the valley and come out after a long walk at the end where the river runs below an opening. The river must be crossed at that point, for there is no crossing for many miles below, and no way to go up the mountain.
Collins, in full excitement, leaped to make his way north. One True Dog said, “I would go if I were younger, but take your brother badge man. You will be a force, the two of you, but no more. That would be foolish. Move swiftly, silently, with guile if need be.”
The next day, packed for their undertaking, routes planned and understood, the two lawmen took off at midnight in a circuitous route to their destination. One True Dog had advised, “Beware of those close to you. Bear no good wishes for your journey but mine.”
With a few minor distractions along the way, losing the trail for a time, scattered by a bear and her cub on a narrow trail, smelling smoke from a fire, the two lawmen made their way into the hide-out valley in the reverse route outlined by One True Dog. The trip was on foot through the heart of the mountain, through tight places, low overheads, on a slim ledge that poked above unseen but heard water.
They had more than a few precarious escapes, near falls, and heart-stopping moments when rock falls threatened not only their lives but their route in and out of the secret valley. It was Carmichael, only a cousin as he would say time and again on the trip, who made the best decisions, took the least chances, made the most of each moment; he realized he adored his cousin but Collins loved her beyond bearing at the moment, and that was as keen as a knife edge.
“Jazco,” he’d say time and again, “take a deep breath every time you feel you heart pumping. If this trip takes us ten days instead of one day, it’ll be worth it. The old Indian was right when he said, ‘Take deep breaths and make no noise when you do. It will do you well.’”
So it was, two days later, after a scare from spiders, unknown creatures making night noises in a tunnel section, daylight a full 48 hours behind them, that they saw a glitter of light ahead of them. It sat out front of a small entrance like a glowing diamond with all the glitter
“Don’t rush out, Jazco,” Carmichael warned. “The sunlight will blind you. We’d be cooked if some lookout saw us and we were half blinded by the sunlight. Let’s go slow, pace it, be ready for anything. The old boy said we’d only get one chance. Just one chance. We have to make it good.” He paused, put his hand on Collins’s shoulder, and said, “I want to be an uncle. It’s my only chance too.”
From their retreat in the side of the mountain, they had a full view of the valley, a tight and narrow valley, a small waterfall at one side that seemed to disappear into the ground again, and a cabin that looked as if it was wrapped around three or four rooms. One room had shades or curtains on two windows at the back side of the cabin. There was no rear porch, but there was a large one out front, with a scattering of wooden chairs and benches tight to the wall. One large door, of two sections, sat in the center of the structure. At an early part of evening, smoke and attendant food aromas spilled from a stone chimney in the center of the front roof with a steep pitch.
Collins pointed to the four horses tied at the hitch rail directly to the side of the cabin, on the side closest to their lookout site. “Might be four or more of them in there, Walt. That big gray looks familiar to me but I can’t place it. Wish I could see the saddle he wore getting here.” He pointed to a small shelter near the far side and said, “Might be more company in there if there’s any more horses. Maybe we can figure that out when they feed the animals.”
He sat back, and said, “I wish we could rush in there, but you and One True Dog are right in all this. We have to plan our one chance. I think it’s gotta start with their horses, then get Alma out of there and up in here. We can hold off an army if we have to from in here.”
At that moment both men heard the rattler in a corner of the tunnel. Carmichael, his hand near a rock, clutched it and fired it into the corner and then threw three more stones. There was no more rattling. He slipped closer, kicked at the prone rattle snake and brought the butt of his rifle down on its head. He hit it three times, crushing it. He could already see the sweeping loop of the dead snake winding through the air at the horses. The picture pleased him and he explained the plan to Collins.
They sat back and set their plans, excluding the one guard who sat way out in front of the cabin and changed places with a replacement every two hours. They guessed the room with the shades was Alma’s, that she must have hung the curtains. There were no bars on the window, for there appeared no way out of the valley this rear way.
They waited until full darkness came, armed themselves to with only their side arms and the dead rattler and set out on the next leg of the rescue mission.
In the dead of night, in complete darkness, in mountainous silence, the tapping on the window seemed perilously loud. Collins, at the window, waited, counted to 10 and tapped again. He did it three times and then the curtain parted, Alma peered through the opening. Collins put his hand against the window, and the youthful scar borne there was full evidence of his identity. She peered closer, saw his eyes, lifted the window and slipped out without a sound.
She did not kiss him. He did not kiss her, but took her hand and led her away from the cabin. He got her almost to their tunnel when an owl screeched, a horse snickered, and Carmichael flung the dead rattlesnake onto the top of two horses in the leaning barn at the far side. The three of them said later it was like the screech of banshees if there were any banshees around, and the horses broke loose in a thunderous calamity and rushed, all of them, down the known trail.
Several bandits rushed out of the cabin and chased the horses on foot, screaming at the far guard to slow them down, shoot in front of them, somehow bring them to a stop. Half a dozen shots rang out even as the threesome reached their escape tunnel.
None of the shots came their way, and they were into the tunnel and on their way to freedom before any accounting was made … except Alma kissed Jazco and Jazco kissed her back for a long while and Carmichael thought he might get to be an uncle sooner than later.
All other accounting was done in town as Alma, on the day of her marriage, pointed out the culprits one by one, each one naming another in a move to get control of the two towns, all headed by one teller at the bank who knew more than any of them how well the two towns were doing.