Western Short Story
At the beginning came the trail, a rough ride at first to the West Virginia river towns of Vienna and Parkersburg, and then the coach line opened, followed by the railroad. People in both towns knew many in the other town. From the first the sheriffs of both towns held up their records as the best law-controlled town on the river as it rolled its way from Ohio and points north.
Some townspeople hailed from mountain folk and some were descended from river folk, the difference known and pronounced.
Often, as propelled and fomented by jealousy or ambition, justice took a backseat to personal gain. Each new sheriff got the job because he owed allegiance to his predecessor’s place of origin, hills or river. It was bound, one day, to end up in the wrong hands. That thinking was the consensus as the towns grew in their own ways.
Jazco Collins, newest sheriff in Vienna, sighed as he rode back into town after a visit to Parkersburg. Jazco, six feet tall, blond curly hair over his ears, showed a firm jaw.
The trip had plenty of sights along the way and time for thinking things, like his sweetheart Alma, his last arrest, and recent posters on his office wall.
His trip was a secret between him and the Vienna sheriff, Walt Carmichael. In each town, on successive days, a Wednesday and a Thursday for four straight weeks, a crime took place. The Wednesday days were alternated by the criminals, times were random, and sightings non-existent: no witnesses of five murders, two barns burned; one person kidnapped, a five-year old boy. The father wanted to wage war on somebody but had no idea who had taken his son, or why.
The conversation between the sheriffs was odd, each man generally knowing only small pieces of information.”
Jazco Collins sensed Carmichael’s uneasiness. “Something’s on your mind, Walt. What’s going on?”
“I got strange feelings someone’s setting us up. Stacking things up against the both of us. Like it’s all planned, even the targets. None of this is random, no idiot out for revenge. Have you had those feelings?”
“Like each of us saying our town’s been the cleanest, and suddenly it ain’t that anymore? Yuh, I’ve been on that side of the wire for a week or so. I don’t have any idea of who would gain by it. 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 from up in the hills or up-river. 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.
When the kidnapped boy was found wandering out on a wide section of grass near the river, only a few miles from Vienna, 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 and there isn’t much you as a sheriff can do to stop me.”
Collins, after the euphoric reception by the boy’s parents, went off into the hills. He spent two days looking for something … and found it … the remains of a camp fire in the hills with a 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. He found a rifle shell beside a nearby rock and pictured the kidnapper shooting an animal intent on hurting the boy.
The big challenge came when Collins’s sweetheart, Alma Dixon, a cousin of Carmichael’s who lived halfway between each town, was whisked away one afternoon 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, scoured the hills for a week and found no leads. The men came back exhausted and dispirited. Their evenings were long and bothersome in the saloons. Talk passed there of ghosts at work or unseen men who had secret passages and hideaways in the hills.
For three weeks there was quiet, silence at night, and no crimes. Sleep came back in a slow approach to many of the townsfolk, except for the sheriffs under the gun of unknown foes.
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, One Dog True, a mix of Shawnee and Cherokee, eked out a solitary existence in a valley in the hills. Other red men stayed afield of him, talk of danger and evil spirits circulating in their comments about him and his association and with the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh
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, each men
speaking of justice, loss, what God spoke fairest on the mountain.
Once One Dog True, seeing their alliance developing as good friends,
quoted Tecumseh, saying, "A
single twig breaks, but a bundle of twigs is strong."
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 renegades in the Valley of the Washata.”
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 might not 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, decided 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, two of you, but no more. That would be foolish. Move swiftly, silently, with guile. The owl is more silent than the mouse, but much more dangerous.”
The next day, packed for their undertaking, routes planned and understood, the lawmen left 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. And heed what Tecumseh has said, ‘Seek to make your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.’”
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 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. That was as keen as a knife edge.
“Jazco,” he’d often say, “take a deep breath every time you feel your heart pumping. If this trip takes 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. And he told us many wise words from Tecumseh that match what we’re up to, like saying, ‘When it’s your time to die, don’t be like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over in a different way. Sing your death song and die like a hero going home."
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, when 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.”
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, 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 one side of the cabin. There was a large porch 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 four horses tied at the hitch rail near the side of the cabin, on the side closest to their lookout site. “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. 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 here.” He paused and said Remember when he said something like ‘Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great divide.’ Makes me wish I was good at the music they have up in the hills. They can make a heart dance on its own wings, the way they have of strumming their way right at life, making you comfortable for a spell, not really knowing what’s coming.
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 another stone down on its head. He hit it three times. He could already see the image of it in action, the sweeping and swirling loop of the dead snake winding through the air at the horses, and the noisy panic it would incite. The picture pleased him and he explained the plan to Collins.
They sat back and planned their moves, including what to do with the outside guard. They guessed the room with the shades was Alma’s room, that she must have made curtains out of anything she could find and hung them. There were no bars on the window, and there appeared no way out of the valley this rear way.
They waited until full darkness came, armed themselves with only their side arms and the dead rattler and set out on the next leg of the rescue mission.
The sleepy guard, close to the cabin, was easily distracted by a thrown stone, and fell when punched by Carmichael. No there was no reaction from the far guard at the entrance to the valley.
In the dead of night, in complete darkness and mountain silence, tapping on the window seemed perilously loud. Collins, at the window, waited, counted to 10 and tapped again. He did it three times and the curtain parted, Alma peered through the opening. Collins put his hand against the window, and the youthful scar borne there served 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 nickered, 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 commotion and rushed 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, and somehow bring them to a stop. Half 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.