Western Short Story
The sunset blazed blood red above the rugged hills of the Choctaw nation. Heck Thibodeau stood with a deep October chill in his face. He pulled the brim of his hat lower and turned up the sheepskin collar of his coat. “Nights are going to start getting crisp, Banjo. Looks like we might be getting some weather soon. We’d better find a place to hunker down.” The bay gelding nuzzled the back of his master’s coat. Heck led his horse back into the trees, picking his way carefully. Banjo grumbled in his throat and shook his head gently. “I know boy. He’s a little ways off but I know he’s there.” Thibodeau was several days out from Fort Smith. He had spent the night before in Ataka and was on his way toward Boggy Depot. But now he moved quickly looking for a familiar spot where he could shelter from the coming storm.
The amber light in the West was dying quickly, obscured by slate gray clouds building steadily above the rugged landscape of the Indian Territory. As the twilight died outside, Thibodeau struck a match and lit a small fire which he fed gently. As the firelight grew, Heck could see the crusted walls of the cave where he crouched. He pulled a tin mucket from his bag and began to brew some coffee. He stretched back on his blanket and rested his shoulders against a convenient rock. Hector Kilborn Thibodeau was a long, taut-muscled man near thirty. The son of a New Orleans merchant and a Cajun queen, he came to the Marshall service at twenty-three and had quickly made a name for himself at Fort Smith. This time Thibodeau had been sent out to hunt down Jimmy Ray McIntosh, a notorious thief and killer, who just a week before had shot a bartender in a saloon in Tulsa. But as Heck watched the flickering light above him on the stone, he had realized that the hunter had become the hunted, and that’s what had brought him to the safety of the Widow’s Cave.
As Heck sat and quietly sipped his coffee, he listened to the sounds of the oncoming storm outside. The wind swept harder and faster across the landscape and thunder rumbled occasionally in the distance. But the Marshall’s ears detected other sounds. He calmly reached behind him and drew his shotgun from its scabbard and laid it across his knees. “Howdy,” he said in a strong clear voice. There was no reply for several seconds.
“Hello in there,” said a voice full of gravel.
“What can I do for you,” asked the Marshall.
“Well the weather is turning kinda rough. I was pondering whether there’d be enough room for two people in there.”
“Yup, looks like it’s going to be a toad drowner. I’d say there’s plenty room in here.” Thibodeau waited.
“Well, do you suppose I could come in?” The voice was obviously getting annoyed.
“No. I don’t think that be a good idea, Jimmy Ray.”
“Figured that out, did you. Just which one are you, Marshall?”
“Well. How are you, Heck? It’s been a while. I haven’t seen you since you put my brother in the ground over near Ardmore in the Chickasaw nation.”
“Yeah, I’m right sorry I had to do that. But you know he didn’t give me much of a choice.”
“No, I don’t suppose he did, but he was my brother.” There was a long pause during which Thibodeau could hear the rain start to fall. “So, Heck, just how many men have you planted?”
“A good deal less than the number I’ve brought in alive, old pard. I never take any pleasure in killing a man.”
“Well, I’m dang sure it’ll be a pleasure to turn you into buzzard bait.., old pard. So, Marshall, what do we do now?”
“Well, that’s sort of up to you, Jimmy Ray. If you toss your guns into this cave and walk in with your hands up, I’ll be happy to share the warm and dry and a cup of coffee with you before I take you back to Fort Smith.”
“Well that’s plum neighborly of you, Heck. But that’s about the same as a walk up the gallows considering that Judge Parker’s waiting at the end of that trail.”
“Set out in the driving storm or come back to Fort Smith with me. Those are your choices, Jimmy Ray.”
“That’s pretty salty talk coming from the pig trapped in a pen. I got a third choice. I’ll just wait out here until you come out, so I can blow you to hell.” McIntosh laughed. “Or you can just come out now and get what you deserve.”
“Nah, I like it in here just fine. Got a nice fire. Getting ready to fix some beans. No, I don’t see any reason to come out.”
“Okay Marshall, you just stay right there while I go and find your horse and traps.”
“No need for that. I got my horse, Banjo and all my truck right in this cave. Don’t see the sense in you looking for ‘em when they’re sitting right here.”
“There ain’t no way you got your horse in there. Never heard of a horse going into cave.”
“Oh, it ain’t that hard. You just throw a blanket over their head and then lead them in nice and slow. He’s laying down not ten feet from me munching on some feed and a little bit of grass.”
“The devil he is!”
“Well you don’t have to believe me, pard. If you want to go looking, you go right ahead. Still, it seems like an addled-headed thing to do, when the horse you’re looking for is eating… sorry, sleeping not twenty feet from you.” Thibodeau listened intently to McIntosh as he grumbled outside in the growing cloudburst. The Marshall waited a few more moments and then spoke again. “You’re sure you don’t want to chuck your irons in here and give it up?”
“You can go to blazes, you son of a bitch. You’d cut the balls off a bull and tell him he’s lucky to be a steer.”
There was a long silence between the two men during which Thibodeau imagined the outlaw huddled close to the rocks trying to find some kind of shelter from the storm. The air in the cave grew damper as gusts of wind blew rain in through the opening. “You know, Jimmy Ray, I imagine you’re looking like a drowned cat about now. You’re probably lucky though because all that rain is keeping the local braves at home under their Buffalo blankets. Otherwise, some of them might come along and shoot you full of arrows like a hedgehog. I guess that’s life on the dodge. You outlaws. Hell, you couldn’t tell skunks from house cats. Just how bright is it to try and hide out here in the nations where the local tribes would be just as happy to cut you up for scraps and feed you to the coyotes.”
“Just about as dangerous for you Mister US Marshall. I don’t imagine any of these red boys like white men on their lands whether there wearing a badge or not.”
Heck laughed lightly. “Oh, it’s no problem for me. You know chief William -- over there near Wilburton? Well, I married one of his daughters. So, the Choctaw around here like me just fine. Yes, Sarah’s a fine-looking woman. Good cook too.”
“You’re so crooked, you could swallow nails and spit out corkscrews. I see your plan now you’re gonna talk me to death. Just prattle on till I get so bored that I’ll eat the barrel of my own Colt.”
Thibodeau ignored the bandit’s complaints and just prattled on. “Yes, old son, I’m now a part of the Choctaw nation. Been learning their customs and stories for years. I remember knowing some Choctaw’s when I was growing up in New Orleans. Used to love it as a young’un, sitting and listening to their tales about the Great Spirit and their superstitions. Ain’t been any different since I come out here to Oklahoma.”
“I swear! If you don’t shut your gob soon, I might risk getting shot to ribbons just for the chance to put in a couple slugs right in your teeth. Now shut your hole before I make you wear a marble hat.”
Convinced that he was grating on Macintosh’s nerves, Thibodeau smiled and just kept going. “Do you know why the Choctaw call this Widow’s Cave? The story goes that there was this beautiful Choctaw native girl who had married the son of a Choctaw chief. They say he was a fine fellow, handsome and strong. But one day while he was out hunting, he was tracking a bear up on a high hill. Suddenly the bear charged the young brave, knocking the man off his horse and over the cliff to the rocks below. When the young girl heard that her man had been killed, she was so struck with grief that she ran away from the village. The chief feared for his daughter-in-law and gathered men with him to go and search for her. Several days and nights they scoured the hills above the village until one evening near sunset they heard a mournful cry like a Whippoorwill, filled with sorrow. They followed the sound to the mouth of the cave. The chief came up to the entrance and called to the young girl, but she wouldn’t answer. All she could do was to cry and pray. The men outside the cave could hear her prayer. ‘Oh Hushtahli, oh Great Spirit! You are wise, and I honor you, but you have taken away my husband to sit in the great beyond with you. Please, Great Spirit, hear me. All I ask is that you take me too, so that I may sit with my husband at your great counsel fire.’ For hours the men outside listened to the poor widow’s prayers. Then as the moon rose late into the night, the prayers stopped. No sound came from the cave. The chief feared greatly for his daughter-in-law. And so, he entered the cave followed by some of the men. It was empty. There was no sign of the young widow. The Choctaw were of two opinions about what happened. Some said that the girl had been taken by one of the nalasa chito, the shadow people; soul eaters who find the despair in people and eat out their souls. Still others believed that the great spirit, Hushtahli, granted the young woman’s prayer. Either way, the Choctaw believe there is magic in this cave.”
There was a long pause while the rain splattered against the stone walls and the wind twirled helplessly in the entrance. “That’s a load of bull squirt. I never heard such bosh. There ain’t no story about this cave that I’ve heard.”
“You never lived with the Choctaw.” Thibodeau stood up with his lever action shotgun in his hand. “Well I’ve enjoyed jawing with you, Billy Ray, but I’ve got other chores to do. I’ll just be on my way and you can have the cave to get warm and dry.”
“You ain’t going nowhere, Marshall. Not unless you’re ready to go through me.” Billy Ray worked the action on his Winchester.
“What made you think that I’d come in this cave if I didn’t have another way out? Ain’t you been watching? You know I got a fire in here.” Thibodeau paused.
“So?” Outside in the angry weather Macintosh was soaked to the skin and near boiling with rage.
“Well where did you think the smoke was going? I’ll be seeing you, Billy Ray.” There were sounds of movement from the cave then silence. Outside the entrance the stormy night was blowing itself out. The outlaw stood for several minutes, his grip tightening on his rifle.
“Okay, you’ve had your joke, Heck.” McIntosh waited for a reply but all he got was the sound of dripping water and dying wind. “Thibodeau! Thibodeau! I’ve had enough. If you don’t come out this minute, I’m coming in spraying lead!” There was still no response from the cave. The outlaw grasped his Winchester hard and tight like he was choking the life out of his enemy. Then he crouched low, raised the weapon, and charged into the cave. In quick succession he fired six or seven shots in different directions in front of him. The ricochets rattled and echoed off the stone and nearly struck the shooter. Macintosh held very still in the dim firelight and peered around the cave. He realized quickly that the Marshall had lied – that there was no room for a horse in the small space. As the gunsmoke mingled with the smoke of the fire, Billy Ray watched it rise. He followed it, walking only a few steps to the back of the cave and stared up towards the ceiling where a small wet hole in the limestone framed a picture of the clearing night outside. “No way in hell he got out of here through that,” mumbled the confused outlaw.
“You know you’re right, Billy Ray.” Heck’s voice was followed by the sound of his Winchester shotgun as he levered a shell into the chamber. “There’s two ways this is going to go. Either you lay down your weapons and come with me or I blow you to kingdom come. It’s your choice son; I hope you make the right one.” Heck Thibodeau stood behind a large rock directly behind Macintosh. The outlaw hesitated glancing slightly over his shoulder, his Winchester still firmly in his hands. Thibodeau stood, his muscles taut but with his eyes calm. Water dropped quietly like grains of sand in an hourglass. Each drop struck the stone with a hushed pat, pat, pat.
Within the descent of the next drop, the two men moved. First, Macintosh released the barrel of his rifle and swung it under his armpit as he began to spin. Thibodeau, in the same moment, raised his shotgun to his cheek, the butt pressed hard against his shoulder. The two men fired at once and the cave shook with an earthquake of sound. A sulfur cloud enveloped the small space.
There was coughing from the large rock where Macintosh’s round had struck. Thibodeau pulled his bandanna up over his nose to shield himself from the fumes. He stepped from his hiding place and surveyed the other side of the room. Billy Ray’s body was sprawled tight against the stone wall where the 12gauge had thrown him. “What a shame,” was all Heck said as the smoke slowly cleared.
The night outside had been blown clear and crisp. A pale breeze freshened the rain-soaked prairie. Banjo stood quietly munching grass as his master approached leading an Appaloosa stud with a bloodied burden across its saddle. “Hey boy, how you doing? Hope it wasn’t too bad out here in the storm.” Heck untied the rubber poncho that he’d left covering his saddle. Banjo nuzzled his friend in the back and grumbled softly. “I know, boy. It’s a shame to have to fool a man like that right before you kill them.” Heck stopped for a moment and sighed. “I guess I’ll never get used to it. Still, the dang fool left me no choice.” His gear all squared away, Heck untied his horse’s lead and wrapped it around the horn. He quickly mounted and taking the lead of the other horse, kicked up Banjo into a trot. “So, old friend, what say we find some place warm and dry on up there in Boggy Depot?”
As the Marshall headed back to the trail, the night deepened across the expanse of the Indian territory; a lone coyote seemed to wail about the lateness of the hour. Thibodeau hummed quietly to himself as he imagined Sarah’s smiling face and the smell of her cooking.