Western Short Story
Barney Shilling, sheriff of the town of Morgan, camped well off the Morgan-Lincoln Trail, woke from a deep sleep, swearing the earth under him had shaken him from a dream. He had dozed off beside the remnants of a small fire snugged in the middle of a circle of stones, watching the dimming of hundreds of stars crowding the overhead and wondering where they went when they disappeared.
Another rumble in the earth crossed under his frame and he sat upright. Nearby, in the walls of the mountains, there had to be a rockslide, a canyon wall sheared by ages of pressure. Or perhaps, with another thought, a storm was making its way across the land. When he looked up, a single star, the last visible star, blinked once, twice, and disappeared.
It was as if total darkness had boomed across the whole universe. The disappearance of stars had been told to him as myths, folk tales, old wives tales, and the like, for all of his younger life, but for young Barney it had always been the disappearance of the last star visible in the sky. It had to be special to a boy who had not caught up to keen association with other meanings: he had not heard of images, metaphors, similes … nothing but the last star.
He heard the old echo of his Grandfather, Asa Shilling, as the pair of them sat at the loft door of the barn, looking out over Kansas grass fading into darkness, “That last star you see up there might stand for something you’ll never know or find, but then again, you might.” The old gent had an almost secret way of saying what was on his mind. A boy ought to listen, he might have said.
He had come to this place on the trail of a killer, following leads and tracks and knowing the history of Thurman Trebaughn, “Trouble Tees”, as he was called by most all the folks in the territory. His newest crime was the murder of a bank president, a teller and a lone customer who had the misfortune of just depositing a good sum of money in the bank vault, which the president refused to open for Trebaughn.
The killer fled town in the echoes of the shots, people in that end of town ducking out of sight. “He rode a big gray horse, Barney,” one boy said to Sheriff Shilling, “and he has a gun on his belt but no rifle on the saddle because Ned Pauley from the livery came and took it from the saddle. I heard him say the horse owner had refused to pay him for something. Walked right back to the livery with it, like he didn’t know the man was a killer.”
“How was he dressed, son?”
“He wore an ugly gray Stetson like the dogs’ve been at it, a gray shirt showing off a meal and black pants. No spurs on his boots. He looked mean as old Jeb Williams, the casket maker. Meaner than my teacher.”
Ten or so fast miles out on the Lincoln Trail, Shilling found the gray in a growth of trees, the saddle gone and new tracks heading out again. The new horse had left signs he’d been hidden there for hours, including a water bucket kicked over and dry.
Some folks said Barney Shilling could trail a puma across the desert. “He must smell them out,” the Gray Wolf Saloon bartender said. “Ever see him with a drink? Spends more time on the smell than he does on the taste. He’s right particular there, too. Likes Kentucky Good better’n any other.”
One newcomer to the saloon said, hearing talk about Shilling, “Sounds like you folks cornered yourself a good man for the star. I don’t see him in here today. What’s he look like? So I can tip my cap to the right one.”
“Average like us, I reckon,” the bartender said, “but his eyes never stop movin’, not for friend or foe. Strong as Dixie’s mule out at the rail, shoulders the same, and a jaw like it ain’t never gettin’ broken.” The picture of Sheriff Shilling sat complete when the stranger nodded.
Out on the trail, the morning sun recovering all sights, the stars really abed, Shilling put a line on the horse that Trebaughn left , watered and cared for each horse, had a bite of breakfast, and headed out with both horses after sitting the saddle for long minutes, remembering some of the things he had learned about Trouble Tees Trebaughn: the man liked anyplace higher than foothills, loved cave crawling and hiding out where no man might have hidden, once had stayed alive in the Tetons for a whole winter and not a sign seen of him all that time; not by hunter, trapper, posse, even a few Indians who knew just about every spot there was to hide. But it meant he had to have wood source for a fire, a place to hunt, and a water source, but snow melt would take care of that. It also might mean that he had eaten his horse, or most of it; killed it in or near winter, froze some of it and kept it away from critters. He had a way in the wild, no question on that.
Once in the higher reaches of the Tetons, he moved around for nearly a week, his attention always alert, not missing the least suspicion. In a maze of walls and canyons and cliff openings and cave entrances or mere niches and crevices in the jumble of mountain stretches, he found a place that provided a view of a small but heavily wooded section where squaw pine had been broken off and obviously hauled away. The signs were not on the ground but in the trees. The site was made more conclusive when he found a loop of rope wound about a stone. He pictured Trouble Tees swinging the rock on the line up over a dead limb still in place on a tree, and yanking the limb down. He’d done the same thing himself a hundred times and remembered losing more than one rock wound with a worn rope, how it might have sailed to an inaccessible place.
But it was not his eyes or his ears that served up the next sign for Shilling: it was his nose that found an odor he was familiar with … the similar scent of a reclusive old man he had found in a line cabin a few years earlier, the odor as ripe as a human body can get and still survive what most likely was crawling on it, not using water for washing but for drinking, for survival. It was not the same experience as checking on the aroma of a drink of Kentucky Good, but the outcome was just as convincing: he’d discovered the hideaway of a criminal, a murderer, a man who smelled to high heavens here in the Tetons.
Composed, silent, from a niche in a wall, he caught the scent on a slight breath of air. The scent lasted only as long as the breath of air that carried it. Nothing warm to it. Nothing lasting. But it was real. He did not try to confirm it; it was real, so he sat out of sight, waiting, and he was rewarded. A cough came from above. Then a second cough. An hour or so later, the cough came again, and then a rope tumbled down from a dark mouth of a cave on an upper wall. The rope was knotted along its whole length and Shilling readily assumed it was so knotted to allow re-entry to the cave from below.
A second though thinner rope followed the first one; the second rope lowering a rifle to the ground level. The rifle touched lightly on the ground and the rope went still, attached to something in the cave.
The rugged and knotted rope shook its whole length and Trouble Tees Trebaughn ‘s rear end came into sight as he managed himself over the lip of the cave entrance and started his way down the knotted rope with apparent ease, his boots knuckling the rope as they placed his body weight on each descending knot.
When Trebaughn was about halfway down, Shilling fired a round directly above him, and at the thick rope. Caught midway on his descent, the murderer in flight came to a stop, frozen in place, unable to use his side arm to shoot back. “Who the hell are you? Why you shootin’ at a plain old miner just doin’ his work?”
Shilling stood up and said, “Miner, hell, Trebaughn, killer yes, and now under arrest.” He aimed his rifle and shot at the thick rope again. “You come down real slow, and don’t make any stupid moves.”
He put a round into the rifle as it lay on the ground, the rifle went off, and a slug ricocheted up the wall and fell beyond them. The rifle was now useless, Shilling assumed, but for surety he put another bullet into its mechanism and small pieces scattered on the rocky surface.
“Before you come down any further, Trebaughn, take off your gun belt and toss it away. Do it now or I’ll cut that rope with a couple of shots and you’ll have a sweet landing, I’m damned sure.” A careful aim brought the rope onto his gun sight.
The gun belt was dropped to the ground, hitting the rocky surface with a clunk and a thud. And the killer in flight climbed down the rest of the way and stood defenseless at the end of the knotted rope. He looked hapless.
Shilling tucked the dropped pistol inside his own belt and flung the gun belt down an incline. He pushed Trebaughn against the rocky wall with the rifle tight in his back, ordered him to put his hands behind him, and placed manacles on his wrists. So bound, the killer was lead from that place to where Shilling had hidden the two horses, hoping all the way that they were okay.
With his prisoner mounted and tied on his horse, Sheriff Shilling headed him down out of the upper Tetons into the foothills and onto the trail leading back toward Morgan.
It was an uneventful ride, even as they rode past the place where Trebaughn had hid his horse for a horse he had hidden earlier, guaranteeing him a fresh mount for a flight after the planned robbery.
More than a week after he had set off in pursuit of a heartless killer, the sheriff of Morgan came riding back into town at the peak of noon.
Folks stood as if at attention in the ranks as the pair came down the main street of Morgan. There was instant gabbing after recognition of the pair of riders, and youngsters on the boardwalk and at the head of alleys where they had been playing stood still in their tracks, motionless for the first time in the day.
The awed silence was highly noticeable.
The new bank manager, nervous to say the least at starting his new job, having heard the stories of the attempted robbery and murders hashed over a dozen times, managed a smile and nodded his head, his future more secure than the previous banker’s had been.
Outside the Gray Wolf Saloon, the bartender smiled and waved a welcoming hand for the returning sheriff, knowing a hard job had been completed by the sheriff and the tales, all the tall tales, would begin to grow before the coming evening was long underway. His job would prove more pleasant than ever, and he always joined in with his own versions of popular stories, created, of course, from those he heard along the bar.
He even heard one of the tall tale magpies say, “Does he wear that star wherever he goes? Where’d you think he went wearing it this time? I can’t imagine what that man did out there.”