Western Short Story
F.J. Talley

Western Short Story

The sheriff’s long, lean body strode toward the hill, deliberate, but not weary. He began the climb in the early morning before sunrise to be at the site before the undertaker. As he walked, he lifted his collar against the morning frost, cursing the changing New Mexico weather.

He glanced behind him for a moment, but saw no one else fool enough to be out at the hour. He smiled; this is the way he liked it. The sheriff wouldn’t take much time at the tree, and he hoped the undertaker would get there and do his business so he could go home. Folks in this town didn’t call it “boot hill” like in some places, because they felt it set up their town as a target for outlaws. Not on Sheriff Jacob Willard’s watch. Crime was low, and lawbreakers were dealt with quick and sure.

The last one had been sticky, even though you’d think the color of his skin would have made it easier. Not many colored in this territory, at least not around here, Willard thought. But people weren’t so comfortable with this hanging. No matter. Crime committed, and justice served. Just more proof of the sheriff’s good service to the people.

Willard had been walking automatically, not noticing where he was going because he didn’t need to. He began the final climb to the hill and raised his eyes. He froze. Frowning, he shook his head and peered up again at the noose, still attached to the tree. It was empty.

Willard touched, then drew his gun and looked around, wondering who would cut down the dead man before dawn. He walked carefully around the tree, looking for something that would tell him what happened.

“He’s not here, Jake.”

Willard whipped around to see Tom Marsh, head of the town council. More like head of the idiot’s council, Willard thought, as they kept trying to slow the process of law and order. Don’t they know you need a strong hand in this area of the west? Willard relaxed his wrist, but didn’t re-holster his gun. “Why? And how do you know that?”

Marsh approached Willard without fear. He stopped when he was fifteen feet from the lawman. “Because we cut him down last night after you left.”

“Why would you do that?”

“Why do you think?”

Willard snarled and advanced on Marsh, who didn’t move. “I’m not in the mood for games, Tom!”

“Ain’t no game, Jake,” Marsh said. “It’s more like a prayer meeting.”

Willard looked around him and laughed. “This ain’t exactly a church.”

“No. It’s not. But we’ve killed enough people on this spot that God has to know about it.”

Willard’s eyes narrowed. “What are you pulling here, Tom?”

“Not pulling; stopping.”

Willard looked at him and sighed, once again, remembering to keep his grip on the gun relaxed. “Just tell me what’s going on, Tom. Like I said, I don’t have time for games.”

For the first time, Marsh smiled. “You have all the time in the world, Jake.”

“Now what’s that supposed to mean?”

Marsh suppressed the urge to cross his arms and look defiant, remembering Willard’s accuracy with a revolver. “Just what I said, Jake. You have a lot more time than you think you do, at least around here.”

Willard re-holstered his weapon and tried to smile. “We can do this sometime later, Tom. Right now, we need to get that body and put it in the ground. If you’re so worried about God around here, you know we ought to bury him proper.”

“He’s got plenty of time for that, Jake.” Before Willard could talk again, Marsh added, “As I remembered, the evidence against this man—the man you hanged—wasn’t so strong.”

“And now you’re talking about evidence and proof like you’re a lawman or a judge? Stick to your place, Tom. You own a nice little livery; I’m sure the horses could use your attention.”

“Taken care of.”

Willard tried a different tack. “Look Tom, we’ve known each other for years. Wouldn’t you say that before I arrived, this town was completely out of control? There were outlaws here all the time, and no one who could keep order.”

“I’ll give you that.”

“Well, you can’t do that without making a few people unhappy. And if you want me to make some kind of change, you should tell me before you do something with a condemned man.”

Marsh shook his head. Willard still didn’t get it. “We don’t need you to change, Jake. Like, I said, it’s already been taken care of.”

“And what kind of change are you talking about?”

“First thing is in cases like this last one,” Marsh gestured toward the tree, “is we need to have actual proof before a hanging. And if that means we wait for a circuit judge, we wait.”

“There isn’t time for that! We can’t wait while robbers prance into town and start stealing and hurting people!”

“Maybe.” Marsh approached Willard again. “And we shouldn’t have a rush to judgment that may put innocent people in jail or at the end of a rope, either.”

Willard went face to face with Marsh now, and the smaller man didn’t move. “You can’t have it both ways Tom. If you want justice and peace, you have to sacrifice for it and—”

“The price is too high; at least the way you run things.”

Willard threw up his hands. “No more riddles. I need that body back. Now!”

Marsh looked at Willard, then asked, “So how did you know this man was the one who stole the horses, Jake? Why were you so sure?”

“Because he was leading them! He had five of them right behind his horse, and he wasn’t riding into town to turn them over to me!”

“So I heard,” Marsh said. “But where was he headed?”


“What direction was the man going with the horses?”

“I don’t remember. North, I guess.”

“That’s what he told me.”

Willard frowned again. “When did you talk to him?”

“The day he arrived. And he told me he was going north, because that’s where the horses seemed to have come from. He was looking for the nearest ranch where he could ask about the brand.”

“So he says.”

“And he told me he told that to you, but you ignored him.”

“He was a colored man with stolen horses who doesn’t belong here! What more did you want?”

“I want justice! Real justice, by a man we can trust to protect us, not set up his own little kingdom in our town!”

Willard laughed. “You’re a fool, if you think I’m going to just let you bring me down.” Marsh said nothing, but pointed behind Willard. Willard turned and saw more than twenty people, mostly men but some women as well. Many were carrying rifles. Turning back to Marsh, Willard asked, “What are they doing here?”

“They’re with me. And they support me too. You don’t plan to take on the whole town, do you?”

“Ha!” Willard said. “The town I’ve saved from the outlaws, the town that—”

“You’re no better than an outlaw at times, Jake. And you have to go.”

“What?” Willard advanced and heard the cocking of a rifle. His eyes shifted, but he didn’t turn his head or his body.

“That man,” Marsh said, pointing again to the tree, “was trying to return horses that had gotten out by mistake; Oscar told me that himself. Oscar just hadn’t figured that out until later. And the man that you were so sure had stolen them is a former Buffalo soldier, Tom—24th cavalry regiment—a decorated army veteran!”


“Don’t act surprised, Tom. He told you he had been a soldier, and you just told him to shut up and gagged him.”

Willard’s eyes were wide. “And you believe him over me?”

“I do.” Marsh got in Willard’s face now, having grown over the last ten minutes. “Because that Buffalo soldier is one who helped save a wagon train in the Kansas territory seven years ago. My wife’s sister Abigail was part of that wagon train, Jake, and if it wasn’t for that Buffalo soldier and others, the Pawnee would have killed her. So yes; I know this man and I believe him over you!”

Willard was confused: was the man really a Buffalo soldier? Willard took a breath, then asked,

“What now?”

“What’s now is that the town needs a new sheriff, Jake. We’ve hanged too many people around here. That’s why we couldn’t let the last one happen.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, he didn’t get hanged; you just thought he was.”

Willard stared. “But the rope; I saw the noose.”

“Give Doc the credit for that one, Jake. He rigged up a second loop that supported the man’s back when we slapped the horse and he fell. It was risky, and his neck is still sore, but it worked.”

Willard shook his head. “But it can’t be, I saw,”

“What we wanted you to see, Jake. Didn’t you notice how fast we took you to the saloon to celebrate the hanging? That’s so we could cut him down and make sure he was okay. Doc Adams said he’ll be fine, he just needs a couple of days to recover from the beating you put on him and the strain on his neck.”

Willard continued to deflate with everything Marsh said. “So you’ll welcome him with open arms, now that he escaped the noose? You have to watch those people.”

“We already have,” Marsh said. “But the man we should have been watching all these years was you.” Marsh smiled. “Did you know that he’s been a deputy sheriff in another town, Jake? In fact, he’s our next sheriff.”

“But you can’t do that!”

Marsh pointed to the townspeople. “Already happened. We had a vote yesterday. Even the people who live way out supported him and they knew everything about him. Oscar argued hard for him. We think he’ll do a fine job.”

Willard looked down at his star, then back at the townspeople.

“I suppose you’ll be wanting my star.”

Marsh pointed to it. “No,” he said. “That one’s dirty. We’ll make him another one.” He pointed toward town, leading Willard away from the hill. “But we won’t lynch you, Jake. Our new sheriff has something else in mind.”

“What’s that?”

“A fair trial.”