Western Short Story
Marshall Abraham Knox stood in the back of the crowd as he watched the large hangman slip a noose around the neck of Brett Cull. The smell of dry pine was heavy in the air as close to eighty people had come to watch the execution of the last of the Wild Boys.
It had taken old Abe six years to finally put down the gang that had once laid claim to the town of Vandhorn, Colorado. Six years. Almost a year for each man. Cull was number seven. Abe seen the six before hanged, and Brett Cull would be no different.
The platform for the gallows had been erected overnight, right in the center of Main Street. The hammering of the workers all night reminded everyone not to miss the hanging in the morning. Lined by several wooden two-story buildings, the town center was the ideal spot for a public hanging. When Abe marched his charge out of the jail at the break of dawn and saw the noose, it seemed a fitting end to the long circle of events that began with a noose.
WE DON’T TAKE LAW FROM NO NIGGERS! —Was what the note nailed to the door of his jail six years ago had said. A noose hung from the rafters of the porch façade. Abe had only been there a week. Brought in to wrest control of the town from the gang, Abe had built a reputation around his unorthodox methods. Methods he had to develop to be taken seriously as a black man who indented to uphold the law in the West.
Vandhorn was a town at the edge of the mountains. It was made up of mostly farmers and laymen, but they aspired for more. They wished for their community to become a respectable locale for pioneers who intended to settle the West without roving all the way to Oregon or California. To achieve this goal, they printed flyers to be distributed at the start of the Oregon trail in Independence, Missouri. Unfortunately, their aspirations drew the unwanted attention of several outlaws, and within the first year their town had been raided several times.
To protect themselves, the townspeople hired a gang of unruly gunfighters: The Wild Boys. Only, once the Wild Boys realized how easily the town could be controlled, they instead decided to take it for themselves.
As Abe watched Pastor Elroy climb the stairs of the gallows toward Cull, he remembered the first time he confronted the gang back in the old Black Diamond Saloon.
“You’re not wanted in this town anymore.” He told Max Zindler, the leader of the group. Abe recalled that he thought Zindler looked like an unassuming man at first. Slim with dark hair, he was modestly dressed. Only, he’d already killed three men from Vandhorn and severely beaten five others.
Amused by his gall, Zindler asked him. “And who are you exactly?”
He sat behind a hand of cards at a round table with four of his men. Standing tall, Abe adjusted his hat and scanned the rest of the room. Large front windows allowed light into an open area large enough for about twenty people. But aside from the Wild Boys, there were no other patrons. The bartender was absent as well, and they seemed to help themselves to anything they wanted to drink.
Chewing on a toothpick, Abe adjusted his hat. “Names Knox, and I’ve been hired as marshal of this town.”
“Well, Mr. Knox, seems you’ve been given some wrong information,” Zindler replied, “I’ve been marshal in this town for goin’ on two years now, and these here are all my deputies.” He motioned to the two men who sat at the bar, and the four others who sat with him at the table playing cards. All of them looked on him with hostility.
Abe pulled the toothpick out of his mouth, turned, spit, then replaced the toothpick. “Looks like this deputy’s got three queens,” he said, pointing to the hand of the nearest man.
Angrily, the man threw the cards to the table. “That’s bullshit!” He yelled. It was Brett Cull.
Zindler clenched his jaw as he stared at Abe.
With a furrowed brow and a stern voice Abe said, “You’ve got two days to leave town. Before I make you leave.” The he turned and headed for the door.
“And how do you intend to do that?!” Zindler yelled at his back as Abe walked out.
Abe didn’t bother with a reply. The next day he burned the Black Diamond Saloon to the ground just to make sure they understood the message clearly.
Abraham brought himself back to the present and smiled. He could almost smell the smoke from that fire as clearly as he smelled the pine in the air now. He brushed his graying mustache with thumb and forefinger, then reached into his vest pocket for his watch: seven forty-three.
“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Amen.” The pastor ended the Psalm short, closed his Bible, and stepped to the side.
“Any last words?” The hangman asked Cull.
With tears welling in his eyes, Cull shook his head. “Nothing I can think ta say.”
Nodding to him, the hangman covered his head with a burlap sack, hiding his dirty, unshaven face from the onlookers, and walked over to the lever for the trap door. Without another word, he released the lever. Cull dropped.
The crowd cheered when his neck broke. It meant the end of a dark time in their short history and the start of a new, hopefully, prosperous one. The bulk of the people began to disburse while Cull still hung there in his raggedy clothes, but Abe stood firm. He was among the last gathered who watched as the rope was cut—the limp body fell like a heap of potatoes into the dirt.
Finally satisfied his work was done, Abe turned and made the short walk back to the jail.
He gazed at the structure. Framed in a backdrop of snowcapped mountains, it sat at the edge of town, separate from the rest of the buildings. It wasn’t large, and when the weather was hot as it had been, Abe preferred to sit out front. His dog laid on the far end of the porch, waiting patiently. Its long, salt and pepper fur ruffled by the breeze. At the other end of the porch sat his wooden armchair and a small table with a pipe on it.
The dog twitched and raised its head as he approached. Abe carefully moved all fifty-three of his years up the three small steps of the porch and took a seat in the empty chair. Soon as he did, the dog got up, came over and laid its head on his thigh.
It whined for attention.
“Just can’t be bothered to get left alone,” he said, running his fingers through the shaggy fur between its ears.
The dog settled at his feet.
Abe picked up his pipe and pulled a pouch of tobacco out of his pocket. The aroma of the dried leaves carried as he grabbed a pinch and packed it into the bowl of the pipe. Producing a match, he struck it on the arm of his chair and lit the tobacco. Abe watched the brilliance of the red-hot embers as he took a heavy draw of smoke into his lungs. As he blew it out, another breeze picked up, taking the smoke away from the porch and into the street. Tipping his hat up, he leaned back in the chair and relaxed. The tobacco helped numb the aching in his worn-out knees.
His thoughts drifted back to the Wild Boys.
After running the gang out of Vandhorn, he tracked them down one by one, chasing some of them as far as the Utah and Arizona Territories. He’d especially never forget the day he finally caught up to Max Zindler. It was a wild chase through the desert just a few miles east of the Grand Junction at the edge of the Colorado boarder.
Zindler had been holed up in the small frontier town, making trouble, best as he knew how, much as he had in Vandhorn. Abe had taken him by surprise one September morning. Apparently, he hadn’t expected the marshal of a small town to chase him across the entire state.
He’d caught Zindler hunched over a chamber pot with his pants down—Abe laughed out loud as he recollected how wide Zindlers eyes were when he kicked open the door; they looked like tea saucers. The scoundrel reacted so quickly, he jumped through the window with his manhood still hanging out!
The dog rose at the sound of Abe’s laughter and nudged his hand with its snout.
“Ah, not right now,” Abe said patting it on the back.
With a whimper, the dog gave Abe a saddened look, but again laid back at his feet.
Abe took another drag of the pipe then exhaled heavily.
“Max you tried to run. But I gotcha, didn’t I?” He said it out loud as if the man were still somewhere nearby.
Fleet-footed, their horses raced along the Grand River, the mesas and peaks towering over them in the distance. The chill of the autumn morning bit at their extremities, but they pushed on, horses in full stride. In an attempt to throw his pursuer, Zindler cut off into the desert badlands.
Hooves throwing dust high in the air, their chase cut through the landscape. They weaved through a colorful, rusty terrain of boulders, eroded hilltops, and hoodoos.
In the end, Zindler’s horse took a bad step that sent him, his horse, and a mess of loose rocks tumbling into a shallow gulch. Abe slowed and waited for the dust to clear.
“I’ve been bit!” Zindler yelled up as Abe sat mounted at the edge.
Abe remembered how tightly Zindler clutched at his left wrist as he looked down upon the man. “If you promise not to be any trouble, I’ll see to it that you see a doctor.”
“Get this snake poison outta me! I’m whipped!” Zindler cried, extending his bloody hand.
The second Abe gave him his own hand, Zindler tried to shift his weight and send Abe tumbling down into the gulch, but Abe was too large a man to be moved by Zindler’s skinny frame. Not one to be made a fool of, Abe knocked the man out cold with the barrel of his pistol and brought Zindler back draped over the back of his horse.
Zindler had, in fact, been bit. By a rattler no less. On the day he hung, the hangman couldn’t tie his hands together at the wrist because he only had one hand left. Instead they pinned his arms to his sides and tied a rope around his whole body.
Abe sighed as he stared out from his porch. “C’mere.”
The dog jumped up and Abraham took both its ears in his hands and furiously scrubbed.
Worked into an excitement, the dog leaped and licked him in the face.
“C’mon now, settle down.” He told the dog as he playfully batted it away.
Six years. For the last six years he’d made it his mission to take down the Wild Boys.
He didn’t know what he was supposed to do next.