Western Short Story
Top Hat Out of Jail
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

He had no other name than that, Top-Hat, from the minute he got his first job punching cows for a huge ranch owner, The BC Bar (TBCB) as it was burned on more than 7000 hides of cattle in a likely number of years. The owner was a graduate of Boston College in 1892, and plum proud of it each time the brand was applied on a new addition to a growing herd, his school sprouting in old New England way back in 1863, in the middle of the Civil War.

“I like nicknames,” the owner, Gregory George Wallace, said to a newly dubbed herd boss, “because they generate a flavor and an interest to people with an eye and an ear for this part of the country, the full spread of it all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and that’s a chunk of it as you look at things broad and growing. And it leads me to say I will call you Top-Hat, and all the crew and all your friends will call you that or refer to you as that, Top-Hat, from now on, all of Pleasantville, the nearest town.

Wallace, with a load of inherited money and a ton of dreams wanted desperately to be part of the West as it exploded across the country through all kinds of trials and endeavors, East to West along the route. And he had already decided that Grant Edward Bottingham was to be called and referred to as Top-Hat from that day forward, like it was a demand, which it literally was.

“Top-Hat,” he said early one morning, “Red-in-the-Face,” one of his Sioux employees, “says we had some cattle rustled last night, the northern section wire fence broken in two places and he guesses, as he said, about 200 head taken in the night. Dammit,” he yelled, “we ain’t standing for none of this stuff,” relaxing into his common-as-you-can-get personality, sort of forcing the issue to a top demand. “Pick a crew and go get ‘em, and I don’t care how long it takes, but bring back the cattle or the rustlers or the lot of ‘em,” in his best Western-cultured voice.

The words rang in Top-Hat’s ears as he picked out his crew, four of the eight men being Sioux members of TBCB, tried and true for a number of years, and four regulars, Hank Williams, Zap Emberley. Chico Cabrez, and then Skinhead Dawson, the old man of the ranch, the sage in the group, the story teller, the historian no less, of all things western as usually delivered at a trailside campfire, to the joy of the listeners from the start, something like, “I don’t care if you don’t believe this, but this the way it all started, ‘cause I was right there in the middle of it all,” lying in his teeth from the very start.

On the day Skinhead was killed, Top-Hat had fired at a rider desperately riding to get out of sight and get away from the scene, a man he figured to be the killer, and Top-Hat was found by two riders leaning over Skinhead, smoking pistol in is hand, Skinhead as dead as he’d ever be. The two men told the sheriff what they had seen, and the sheriff locked Top-Hat in his jail at the rear of his office in Pleasantville.

He charged Top-Hat with the murder of Skinhead on the testimony of the two riders who had come on the scene, Top-Hat still with a pistol in his hand, the pistol still smoking, and could not see any rider fleeing the scene as immediately exclaimed by Top-Hat, pointing off to nothing moving, no one in flight The sheriff merely shrugged when Top-Hat told him his version of the action.

“It’s two to one, Top-Hat, and I have to go with the two instead of the one. It’s plain to see the action as I picture it happened. Bang! And Skinhead is dead. Easy as that, no matter what you say.” He folded his arms as if a legal decision had been executed.

No matter what Greg Wallace had to say about Top-Hat, what a great leader of men he was, what a super boss of men he was, how Skinhead was one of Top-Hat’s favorite characters, the sheriff paid no mind. “What’s apparent must be apparent,” was his reply. : Twenty years on the side of the law plays heavy with me; it develops an innate sense about situations, about people, and Top-Hat, as an example, is too perfect to be real, too perfect to stand by himself without question. There has to have been something going on between him and Skinhead. It stands to reason. You have to admit that no matter what impression Top-Hat has made on practically everybody who knows him. You just have to ask people and they’ll all say he’s too perfect to be real.”

It won out.

The sheriff stood still, his arms crossed on his chest, a stubborn look on his face, a sudden silence in the air and time for a listener to make up his mind between him the sheriff and Top-Hat the accused. It was an applied art he’d used before. And he was good at it.

But Greg Wallace couldn’t let things stand as they were, Top-Hat in jail thinking about the rider he saw that fateful day of Skinhead’s death, his murder, and knowing he and he alone was the best man to search for that mysterious rider, perhaps, and most likely, Skinhead’s killer.

Wallace worked on the sheriff in his own way, with strength of argument, precision of thought, wiles he possessed with his own forceful personality. He brought his argument directly to the sheriff about Top-Hat’s capability in the matter of the mysterious rider. The sheriff wilted under the onslaught of the argument, and agreed to “parole” Top-Hat to find that rider, if he made frequent reports, personally, back to the sheriff, about the search and the developments discovered, if any, for a period of six months, before the circuit judge would hold court in Pleasantville on his yearly rounds.

It was agreed to by all parties in the plan, Wallace, the sheriff, and Top-Hat himself, Top-Hat laid out his ideas for the sheriff’s understanding, until it was plain and clear the best way to go; Top-Hat would make circles around the town and the ranch site of Skinhead’s death, extending the circles each trip to go beyond his previous search. It was precise but arduous work, knowing the land and the landmarks, keeping track of each trip, accumulating any and all sightings of a lone rider on the fateful day. He’d report back to the sheriff such details as they occurred.

Top-Hat was as diligent as any detective or lawman could be, speaking to any and all people he encountered, in little villages, saloon owners and bartenders, mayors or townspeople of any order and rank, on ranches strewn for miles in the territory, riders met on his searches in the wide-open spaces. He didn’t let a person go past him without question.

His approach was always the same; lock up the fateful day in the minds of those he questioned, being very specific about the timing, noting the alertness of those questioned, asking personal questions to back up testimonies, shake things loose for some people who had to do some deep thinking on the matter, measure responses in his own mind.

He excelled in the task more on each trip from Pleasantville, each circle, each encounter with a complete stranger, allowing them at length to plumb their own minds before replying to any question about a day, a single day, in their past.

It brought fruition, at a saloon in a small town in the territory. The bartender said, “Hell, yes. I remember ‘cause it was my birthday and a strange dude walked in here and helped me to celebrate along with other folks, and some of them did not like the gent at all, like he was a sneak or a rat rolled into and off his saddle, I swear he made that impression.

He’s been in here a couple of times since then. Comes in from the mountain yonder where he has a little place of his own. Why, I bet he even comes in here today, as usual, on a Saturday of the week, this being Saturday in case you didn’t know.”

And he brought his summation to a close by saying, “Ain’t that something for the asking? Here he comes now.”

It was over before the sheriff at Pleasantville and the owner of the biggest ranch in the area, the TBCB spread, had their own discussion on personalities they knew, including Top-Hat, herd boss, as diligent as they come, as persuasive in manner and means as anybody they knew, and charges, once brought against him, cleared up on his own.