Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
John “Cutter” Cutlass climbed the tree right where their wagons had formed up before the first bullet ripped into the side of one wagon. The Indians, Comanche or Cherokee he figured, had come at them in the contorted and tight passage through a rocky stretch.” If they’re coming,” Tuckerby had said a few minutes earlier,” this’d be the place.”
The stubby-looking metal object Cutlass had developed was attached to his pistol as he positioned himself in the tree. From the first time he’d used it, in an experiment, he’d called it a “Noise holder.” In essence, it was a suppresser, not yet seen in the west, probably not “invented” at the time, and Cutlass had designed and made this one, the idea sitting in his grandfather’s head for years long before a gentleman named H. P. Maxim had introduced it later on, perhaps 25 years later, near the start of the new century.
Below him, Cutlass saw the Indians slipping silently through a maze of rock falls and boulders that had made the run tens of thousands of years before. He let the first Indian crawl under him, held the pistol with the noise holder clipped to it on the back side of a limb so the other Indians would not see any of the muzzle flash, but which would be seriously reduced by the fancy new piece.
When the Indian was directly under him, Cutlass fired down at him, saw him curl over, look up at him with great surprise, and die on the spot.
When the second Indian came upon the dead Indian, he saw the hole in the back of his comrade, shook his head back and forth and finally looked up into the tree, directly overhead; Cutlass killed him with the surprise still flashing cross his face.
It was not early western style, which was the name of the game then, as thousands and thousands of people streamed westward in search of game, glory, grandeur and all-out plain adventure. The noise holder was the only one in the whole west as far as Cutlass and his partner Brainerd “Barnsie” Tuckerby knew.
It saved the wagon train this trip from the full harm of the attack. Possibly more attacks were coming. Cutlass dismounted the noise holder from his pistol, tucked it into his shirt and came down from his spot in the tree. Eleven Indians were dead in the attack area, one was wounded that Tuckerby tended and left with a container of water when the wagons pulled out.
Coming westerly, some folk had a choice, made a choice, fell to the wayside, or climbed the peak of success. Or at least found some comfort in a newer life. Some of them had come off the black ships from ports around the world, or their parents had, in a search for liberty and freedom and a daily fare. The trailside gathered many of them to its fold. Boot Hill did, too, in many locations, those small hills just outside so many towns too soon gone down into dirt, dust and ashes, into Mother Earth who had spawned them in the first place. Many stops were made en route by people who found the land attractive for farming, raising cattle or special crops like grain, vegetables, and apple orchards. All situations required a supply route at the outset, until local producers filled the bill.
So it was that Brainerd “Barnsie” Tuckerby and John “Cutter” Cutlass, friends from boyhood, had come from a small town just north of Boston and in four months, by all sorts of conveyance and opportunity, found themselves in Leavenworth, Kansas, the town that had grown up near Fort Leavenworth, the first settlement in Kansas Territory. The fort looked out on the Missouri River and its troops protected wagon trains heading out on the Santa Fe Trail, the Oregon Trail, and other trails all the way to the Pacific, such trails making their way through Cherokee and Comanche Indian country and other tribes along the way. Those trails would eventually came to or spawn places like Olathe, Gardner, Baldwin City, Council Grove, La Junta, Elkhart, and Dodge City, towns that would in turn spawn names of heroes or villains of the western expansion, as America spread its wings.
Cutlass was a mechanical wizard with tools and weapons. Tuckerby was a terrific game tracker, a singular hunter and marksman, and as brave as any man they had come across since they had left New England. “Bound for glory, glory comin’ round,” they might have sung around night campfires.
More stations or settlements were needed on these routes, and Tuckerby and Cutlass thought long and hard about a new business of establishing points of trade on the way further west; suppliers, conveyors or other means and methods of business.
Tuckerby liked the feel of gold in his pockets, and Cutlass could be happy any place with a tool in his hands and a project to do. The noise holder was known only by Cutlass and his pal. Any questions from cohorts on the wagons were dumped off as if they were intrusions into the matters of the business. It made do.
The pair, in a search for something worthwhile for the future, sank their savings into five wagonloads of supplies and headed for a small settlement called Thurston in the Kansas territory, off the beaten path, off the Santa Fe Trail, but founded at the edge of a small river that had not dried up anytime in the reportable past. They carried salt, coffee, rope, cooking utensils, a fair amount of other condiments, weapons and holsters and gun belts, ammunition, several saddles, clothing, dozens of boots, a big box of Stetsons, a few reflector ovens, bolts of material for clothing, tools, nails in kegs, and other necessary supplies and equipment of constant and particular need in the spreading frontier.
The crew had 15 men all armed with repeating rifles and held off four distinct attacks on the wagons before they got to Thurston, in the territory.
It was Tuckerby, not Cutlass, who was worried about one of their crew spilling the news about the noise holder, and he kept his eye on him when the pair selected a piece of ground in Thurston on which to build a store front and start their business, the store and a freight line. The man’s name was Edgar “Eddie” Pye and he was an entertaining campfire talker. Like an actor presented with a new role, Pye would always gather and hold in reserve any and all information available to feed his tall tales.
After the wagons were parked on their new piece of land, many of the crew went to the Wayside Saloon to wrest their throats from dire thirst. A portion of the saloon was still under construction, and a second floor was part of the on-going effort, so it was a busy place, the heart of Thurston at any hour.
Pye had just finished his dramatic bar side tale, about “this dangfangled thing one of the gents on our wagon train mounts on his pistol or rifle that keeps a bullet sound practic’ly to itself when fired. Kind of surprising, don’t you think?”
Tuckerby knew he was too late, for he heard only the last part of Pye’s pitch. He also knew it would spell trouble down the line. A devious man could and would use such a tool as the noise holder in order to shoot from secret. Like in an ambush or bushwhack or even in the middle of the day in a lonely bank, normal alarms such as gunshots not heard.
It was too late also for Cutlass, because a few nights later the one and only noise holder in the entire west went missing from its place under the seat of one of the wagons parked beside the site of the new store construction. The store building was underway, newly cut lumber in piles and in some fashion now part of the store, such as a beam, a support, a joist, a piece of siding.
In the morning, Cutlass checked under the wagon seat and saw that the noise holder was missing. He told Tuckerby right away, then told the newly-appointed sheriff, Frank Millrose, and then told everybody who was in the saloon that he’d appreciate any or all of them if they kept their eyes open for the noise holder and report anything back to him.
“I suspect,” he said, “that the someone who took it will kill somebody and not be heard in the murder he surely is planning right now, which might be anyone of us. There’s no other reason for him to steal it.”
He scanned all the eyes in the room, saw fear in some eyes, disdain in other eyes, but no sign of planned murder. A second time he scanned the room, sending the message again, unsaid this time but just as valid.
And it didn’t take long for murder to take place, and not a sound was heard in the night.
It was a scream that came with the dawn, as the sheriff’s wife was surprised to see her husband dead at the entrance to his small shed where he corralled his horses. It was obvious that he had been shot during the night, having left his office and the saloon after a late drink just past 10 o’clock and had taken the saddle off his horse and fed him. She said she thought he had been working on an old case and had stayed in his office as he had done on many occasions, and slept well herself and hearing no sound at all; no gunshot, no cry for help.
Tuckerby, by force of his will, and his demand, was appointed temporary sheriff by the town council. “You owe it to us, to Cutter and me, to try to find the killer because some of you, down the line somewhere, will say that it was our fault for bringing the noise holder here in the first place.”
The town council acceded to his request on the spot, and pinned the sheriff’s badge on Tuckerby and a deputy’s badge on Cutlass.
“The answer, Cutter,” he said, “will come to us in the saloon. Everything gets exposed there. We’ve seen it a hundred times.”
“Well, what about last night,” Cutlass said, “and what I said in the saloon? I saw no reaction there, at least not about guilt.”
“Do you remember all those that were there last night, in the saloon?” Tuckerby had cocked his head at him with the question.
Cutlass thought a bit, said, “Yes,” and smiled. “Meaning you think if I saw nothing of guilt, then the killer was not in the room last night.”
“Yup, all the way,” Tuckerby enjoined. “All the way.”
“Can it be so damned simple?” Cutlass replied.
“We’ll see, won’t we?” the new but temporary sheriff answered, with a nod of his head and a smirk-like smile that said it was a sure thing. Cutlass believed him.
As the pair entered the saloon, the head of the town council approached them and said, “We noticed that neither one of you ventured far from the office today are the construction site. Do you expect the killer of the sheriff to give himself up?” He looked around the saloon for confirmation of his words. Nobody said a word, but facial grimaces supplied some answers.
Tuckerby whispered to his pal, “See anyone that qualifies?”
Cutlass looked around the room again, as he had done on the previous night.
He took several minutes, marked two faces, and whispered to Tuckerby, “Smatters at the bar wasn’t here and neither was the fellow in the far corner, in the side-whipped Stetson curled up on one side.”
Tuckerby whispered back, “I’m going to take a chance on them, just for starters.”
He turned to the head of the council, Myron Toodly, and said, “Myron, we have a witness to the murder of the sheriff, to the killer who used Cutter’s noise holder to hide his crime, though we don’t have the reason for it as yet.” He paused in his explanation, as far as it went, and then added, “But we’ll get to that before this night is over.”
He slammed his fist on the bar top and the two law officers kept their eyes on the two men who were not in the room the night before.
“Who’s the witness, Sheriff? What’s his name?” The demand came from Toodly the councilman.
“Well, Myron,” Tuckerby said, “we’re holding back on giving his name because the killer happens to be in the room too, and we fear for the witness’s life.”
While all the discussion had been going on, Cutlass had moved and positioned himself by the lone door of the saloon, his hand on his pistol.
Myron Toodly said, “You mean to say with all the men in this room, you fear one man will hurt the witness, try to kill him in the presence of others. That’s pretty stupid on his part, I’d say.” Again he looked around for support off his words, and received it.
The man in the curled-up Stetson said, as he stepped toward the door, “That man sure would be stupid, Myron. Stupid as hell.”
He was almost to the door when Cutlass’s gun was in his face. “You’re not going anywhere, mister.” Then he looked around the room and asked, “Anybody know where this gent is staying?”
“At Ma Teller’s place,” said a voice in one corner.
Cutlass said, “You go check it out, Barnsie, and I’ll sit on this guy if I have to. ‘ Course,” he added, “I’ve got plenty of help now.”
Tuckerby was back in 10 minutes … with the noise holder in his hand. “Is this enough to hold court right now, Myron?” He showed Toodly the noise holder after smelling the acrid odor of spent gunpowder.
“The judge is here,” Toodly said. “He’s at Ma Teller’s place right now.
Court went into session in a matter of minutes.