Western Short Story
Too Young for Shackles
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Todd Thistle felt the cool iron before he knew he was being put in shackles, for some unknown reason, by the sheriff he had known his whole life, all sixteen years of it. Sheriff Len Cardiff had often played cards at his father’s cabin, outside Thurgood, Colorado, and practically for all those years.

Like a friend in need, indeed!

Todd’s best friend, Jeb Gardner, lay dead at Mussman’s Mortuary plunked in the midst of Thurgood, sticking out sore as a bent thumb, all the more so with a new body every week for six weeks in a row, each one done in at a distance and from behind, the way a lowly coward does his dirty work, then later slips back into The Crossbow Saloon like he’d only gone out to take a leak in the back of the building. That traffic was as steady as the bar was at its end of things, or the beginning, take one’s pick.

Todd had found Jeb just outside town, on the ground, minutes after hearing the gunshot that apparently had dropped Jeb, pistol in his hand, the bullet in his back, his horse run off someplace, and Todd, late for a meeting with Jeb, with a warm pistol in his hand from firing one shot at a shadow moving in the twilight, the sheriff, at alert, arriving as soon as two standby witnesses “guessed” Todd must have fired the shot. “nobody else was around. It had to be him, friend or no friend, we saw him first and nobody else, and heard no horse carrying off a ghostly sniper, if there was such a one as Todd said, and as we have come to know about, scared every time we leave town, lest we’re in pairs, one watching behind and one watching the trail ahead.

But there, in front of them, was one friend standing over another friend, dead as a snare in a trap, caught dead=between two gigantic rocks slammed into place centuries ago by some god-awful upheaval only Time itself could measure.

Sheriff Cardiff, at his job for nearly a dozen years, honest as a puritan on the long trail from elsewhere, didn’t believe Todd was guilty of murder, but put him in jail, to “loosen up” the real killer, keep Todd away from more danger, set his hat for the deep search of a murderer just about owning his town.

He held a very private conversation with Todd while his deputy was elsewhere.

“Listen, Todd,” he said, “the best place for you now is in my jail. I don’t believe there’s one chance in all of Hell on Earth that you killed Jeb, but we have a few loopy citizens that work at such crazy ideas, like instant revenge for a mysterious and unlikely murder of a good pal, I guess as good as any pair in town from where I sit. You guys have been model finds for so long, it shakes me to think of losing a good pal, like Archie Grant is to me. I can’t begin to think of what it would be like without Archie at my side like he is these days.”

With this explanation to his prisoner, he set about his investigation, knowing right up front that some big surprise or surprises were going to come his way; he could just feel them lurking like that damned sniper, off in shadows, deep bush, around a corner, behind a rock, taking aim for what kind of Hell he could play with folks.

Two days later, while Todd was still in jail, the unknown sniper struck again from semi-darkness on the trail toward town, or away from it, telling the sheriff that he had to let Todd out of jail, the ruse not working; the killer still, for some reason, taking lives that were not directly connected on the every-day list, but always men of the town. He made up his mind to tell Archie to spend his days right there in the sheriff’s office, safe as a bug on the middle of one’s back, untouchable, really out of range when you think about it; just try reaching it when it begins to itch , exasperation at its peak. a great horse with a loose shoe, a most kissable girl about to kiss you when her father suddenly stands in the way, menacing.

This new murdered citizen was the husband of the town’s loveliest lady, a knock-out woman now on the loose. It would have to be some special kind of gent who could approach her at this hour of death, one gent with a soft and understanding demeanor, a man of whispers and soft hushes nearing darkness, a cad in sheep’s clothing for sure, and Sheriff Cardiff had known a number of such rats out of their holes.

He kept his eyes, not out on the trail, but on new widows in town, the good-looking ones, the raving beauties now bound to the lonely house, lonely kitchen, lonely bedroom. From recent murders, there were a few possible beauties who would soon lean deeply into their loss, their loneliness.ir

For help in this venture and search, he couldn’t and wouldn’t use any deputy, but it had to be a good soul that would do his best to find the killer, if this kind of search would turn something up. There was only one good choice for him to select an ally, and that was Todd himself, aware of the times, the opportunities, the reasons possibly behind some deaths, with other deaths masking the main victims, the beauteous widows now open for unspeakable approaches, all depending on their own principles of character.

And of course, it was Todd who advised the sheriff of something he had seen;

“Sheriff,” he said, “Beau Brander, smooth talker from way back, has made several visits to see the new widow, Grace Welker, whose husband was killed by the sniper a few weeks ago, perhaps a month. Grace is the proverbial knock-out you’ve been seeking, a high-riding and proud woman that could heat any bed in the territory.”

He paused, thought a moment as his face said, and added. “She’s the prime target of all targets. I bet the lone target among all the woman now caught up with fulltime loneliness, but before you do anything about it, which you can’t pass up, you ought to get his rifle and examine it. See what’s been going on with it, if it can be done without him knowing what you’re up to.”

Cardiff thought a while. musing soundlessly, and finally said, “I’m going to round up a special posse of riflemen to go look for our sniper. To get on the posse, you have to show what you can do in a shooting contest.

Before you’d know it, the sheriff had a dozen riflemen on a line of fire, each man staked for the whole event to a numbered place in the line, Beau Brander, the smooth talker, in Space #5, like a rat in a trap.

The shooting was not a wrap-up, but the bullets were, and thusly, the rifle itself. The trap was successful. Beau Brander led all the shooters.

“Congratulation, Beau,” said the sheriff, “and what kind of ammo do you use to be so damned good at this?”

“Oh,” said Beau Brander, his face full of the good-looking smiler at a moment of pleasure, “I use a derivative of 8mm Mauser cartridge from Germany. It’s the best I could find. Better than the 30/06.

The slugs from 5 long-range sniper murders matched the 8mm Mauser cartridge to the specific characteristics.

With Beau Brander’s imprisonment, the sniper activity declined immediately; in fact, not one more from that day on.

Todd Thistle, too, has been lost in a folded page of history, as though he’d never been here in the first place, just “a plain figger of ‘magination.”