Western Short Story
“Jacksboro ain’t much of a town, and this cantina ain’t much of a courtroom,” he said, “and I dang sure ain’t no judge, but this is the hand you drew. Tell yore story. I am a Ranger, and this’ll go fair.”
He was the smallest Texas Ranger I’d ever seen, at least two hands under six feet. He wore two cut-down Navy conversions, cross draw fashion, and held a ten gauge Greener loose across his left arm. He was talking to me.
I tried to talk, but nothing came out.
“You got four dead men to explain. Maybe five, by now.” The Ranger pointed toward the front porch, then jerked his thumb toward the door behind him. It was hanging from one leather hinge. “ Worse’n that, there’s them four dead horses.”
I was sitting at a table in front of him. I can still hear the wind blowing through that busted back door, and a piece of tin roof flapping somewhere. Somebody was hammering them four coffins together down the street, and I can still hear them horses screaming even though they hardly made a sound when I shot ‘em. That much is still clear as a spring morning to me, though it weren’t spring at all. All this happened back in September 1876, over a year ago. It was hot as all Hades.
Back then, though, I tried to speak again, but my heart was right up in my throat. I weren’t but sixteen, and hadn’t seen much of nothing at all afore that week. That week purely changed my life.
“I seen a lot of it,” a woman said. She was old, maybe twenty-five.
The Ranger gave her a look. “And who might you be – the owner or the whore?”
“I might be the whore. That’s the owner you hear, hammerin’ on them coffins. He don’t miss a chance for a profit. My name’s Fanny.”
She had one, too. Couldn’t help but notice, even as messed up as I was. “You know this boy? He have a history with them dead men, or is he just loco?” The little Ranger was frowning pretty hard.
“He ain’t never been in here before. I been here six years, ever since them Comanches kilt my husband. Naw, that boy is from down to Weatherford. I seen him in the mercantile a few times with his pa, but his pa always left him on the porch when he come in here. These dead boys is the Billy Posey gang. I heard they was chased out of Fort Worth, and in here they bragged they kilt some folks.” She didn’t hardly take a breath. ”They been here a few days, terrorizin’ the whole entire town. Just takin’ whatsoever they pleased. Women, likker, cigars, you name it, they took it, and never paid for nothing neither. Even messed with the sodbusters and their families who come to town, hollerin’ and cussin’ and even takin’ the Good Lord’s name in vain. And I can’t hardly stand that. We don’t need no more lightnin’ than we already get.”
The Ranger nodded. “I don’t care for such talk myself. Well, there’s some fresh graves over near Weatherford at the Chamberlain ranch. Missing some horses too. Now, who’s the other man was shot, missy?”
“Pop Neville. He’s our bartender, but he’s also Billy Posey’s uncle. I think that’s why they come here.”
“You think?” That Ranger made a funny face and almost grinned at me. It made me feel some better, as I remember.
“Yessir,” she said. “Onliest reason they didn’t do no more mischief was I got all five of ‘em knee-crawlin’ drunk the last two days, when I seen our no ’count sheriff wasn’t gonna do nary thing. That’s when I sent that little stable boy Brett to get us a Ranger. Anyways, I got this little crib out back where I, uh, work, and I was in there, uh, working with the owner. That’s Chuck Spitzer. We heard two loud gunshots and we gathered ourselves and stepped to the door to see what was happenin’. Here come that boy runnin’ down the alley from in front, totin’ that big old musket.”
“Hold on, there, missy. You talking about this?” The Ranger pointed to my Daddy’s Winchester, laying there on the bar. It was a brand new ‘76 carbine in .45-75, and that cartridge was a hammer. He had let me borrow it the week before to go on a hunt with some friends, and I hadn’t got it back to him. It was full-stocked, so I suppose it might have looked like a musket. To a whore, maybe.
“Yessir. I mark it as the very one. Anyways, as I was saying, that boy there shot them two horses tied by the back door, KA-BANG, KA-BANG. It kind of took me aback, and ol’ Chuck took off running – he don’t miss an opportunity to flee danger – and then that boy kicked in the back door and went in shooting.”
“That’s all you seen?”
“Nossir, it ain’t. I heard a bunch more gunshots, and hollering like I ain’t ever heard before. Don’t know if it was them dead men or in my head. Once it quieted down some, I stepped on inside, tender-like, and the whole place was full of smoke. At first I thunk it was afire, but then I smelled it was gunsmoke. Billy Posey was down by the front door, halfway onto the porch. His brother Rufus and the Caitlin twins was on the floor by that turned-over table there. That boy was a-setting in that same chair, just as he is now, only he’d laid that musket on the bar and had a pistol in his lap, still smoking. He looked right sweet, to be such a killer.” She rattled on worse than my baby sister.
That woman could sure talk, and right then she was talking about my Daddy’s Colt. It’s a bone-handled Richards forty-four that he had cut down to five inches. He was a part-time deputy in Weatherford, and he liked a short pistol and a sawed-off ten gauge for town work. I still have the Colt and it’s still smooth as silk. Back then, though, it was stuck in that Ranger’s belt.
“That’s it?” he said.
“Mostly,” she said. “That boy didn’t show no signs of bein’ shot. Then I heard moaning, and I finally seen old Last Stand setting right in the corner where he always sets, sipping his beer. I ast him if he was shot, and he shook his head and pointed at the bar. I looked behind it and sure enough there was old Pop Neville laying there moanin’ and groanin’ and bleedin’ to beat all hell. Looked like he was shot twice and had pissed his pants. That’s when I run out front to holler for help and seen them other two dead horses. And then you come along.”
The Ranger turned to the old drunk in the corner. I knew him from setting on the porch with him when I’d come here with Daddy. He was an old Cherokee soldier from Stand Watie’s First Mounted Cherokees, back in the War. Confederate, like my Daddy, only Daddy was with Terry’s Rangers.
“How come they call you Last Stand ?” the Ranger asked.
He was a big durn Indian. Thick built and tall with bloodshot dead eyes, but always nice to me. He pushed that beer away and said, “I am Stand William Ridges. I am named for my uncle, General Stand William Watie.”As he talked he waved his hands some, and they called to mind my Daddy. His hands was thick and meaty too. The Ranger grunted and said, “Well, lemme hear what you seen.” The big Cherokee went on. “The little white woman told it purty good. The shots out front sort of woke me up, and then there was some shots out back. That door was busted in and the boy came in and the screaming started. He shot Billy Posey with that Winchester, and used it on them other three as they tried to stand up and pull their pistols. Old Man Neville tried to bring his shotgun up, but the boy pulled his pistol and shot him twice before he could cock it. The screaming stopped and I thought it was over and I might live some more.” The old Cherokee stopped and took a sip. “But then he walked over and shot Posey and his boys once more, and I thought maybe he was gonna rub me out too. Then he set down. After a bit, I started to breathe again. I figger he run out of cartridges, and that is why Old Man Neville is not dead already. I do not think the boy wanted to kill me, because we have talked about things before.”
“Will somebody tell me just who was screaming?” The Ranger leaned his shotgun against the bar, pulled off his hat and scratched his head. “Three of you-all in here and nobody knows?”
I finally found my voice. “It was me, I’m pretty sure. I can hardly talk, I’m so hoarse. Y’all please tell me I didn’t sound like no girl.”
A skinny gambler, Doc Somebody-or-other, had stood in the doorway all this time, listening. He coughed some and said, “It sounded more like the old Rebel Yell to me.”
The old Cherokee nodded.
“Why’d you shoot ‘em?” asked the Ranger.
I swallowed hard and told him, simple as I could. “My name is Billy Chamberlain. They come by our ranch last week, down to Weatherford. I’s out hunting. They kilt Daddy and did worse to my Mama and baby sister. I just can not talk about that, not yet. Maybe never. Kilt them too. Daddy got off one shot with that Colt. I found it under him and I found one of them bled out halfway here from our ranch yesterday.” Daddy had put a .44 right in his brisket afore they shot him to pieces. I just hope they kilt him afore they went at my Ma and sister Josie, but I still just can hardly think about that. The Ranger nodded and said, “We found some cash on these dead boys.” “A thousand of it is our’n. Well, mine, since I am the only one left. Last month we drove a small herd to Dodge and sold them. That’s how come Daddy was able to buy that new Winchester. And pay off the bank. Things had looked right good for us, back then. For a little while.”
“I can track with all that,” said the Ranger, “but I still don’t see why you shot them horses.”
I near cried then. “I don’t know for sure. Them two roans out front belonged to Daddy and Josie. Some of it was I didn’t want ‘em to get away again and some of it was just crazy.”
“Well, I ain’t never seen nothing like it, son. I mean, I seen men kill horses deliberate in a runnin’ fight, especially if they were Injin ponies, and I seen horses kilt and ate on bad patrols. Never nothing like this, though, in cold blood. I hear tell Custer did it, up to the Washita back in 1868. And Colonel McKenzie too, over in the Palo Duro Canyon. They was all Injin ponies though, and too many to herd. Did you think you was a soldier here, or something?”
I had run dry again. All I could do was just shake my head. “I have seen something like it, and it ain’t cold blood,” said Last Stand Ridges. He finished his beer and slammed the mug down on the table and stood up. It kind of startled me and even the Ranger, too. “In the war we were tracking some Osage murderers in Yankee uniforms. I was a sergeant and had fifteen good Cherokee men. There was seven of them Osage and we spotted their fire one night. I wanted to surprise ‘em, so I had my boys uncap their Enfields and put on their bayonets.”He belched and sat down. “We let them Osage get good asleep and then we went amongst ‘em, yelling. Killed ‘em all and then stabbed all their horses and mules too, and they screamed more than us or them Osage. Bayonets is bloody work.” He rubbed his eyes.
Everybody stared at him like they couldn’t believe him.
“Me and my men,” he said, “we cut our thumbs and shared blood and swore we wouldn’t tell no one. Not ever. And I ain’t til now, but I don’t want you hanging this boy for something he don’t understand, and maybe couldn’t help.”
“Sweet mercy, Ridges. How do you deal with it?” I guess that Ranger spoke for all of us others, and nobody there cared about them dead Osage.
*** He did, too, for another six months or so. Sort of wasted away in front of us, then must of choked to death. They found him in his bed. I drink too, but not so much as I did afore the old Cherokee died. That is no way to go. The Ranger hired me. I am young, I got no family to worry over, and I can ride and shoot. He thinks I got no fear. The more truth of it is I got no care. I try not to put that Colt in my mouth, but I can hardly sleep. Ever’ time I doze off, I see four horses, and I hear them. A sorrel, a pinto, and two roans. They’s screaming even though they didn’t hardly make a sound when I shot ‘em. And what nobody else knows is this: that day last September when my family was wiped out? I had swore to my Mama that I would be home from my hunt by then for sure. I hear her screaming too. And Josie. Sweet Jesus, how much longer can I do this?