Western Short Story
His name was Will Halfloaf and he was known by everybody in Craterville most simply as The Bumbler, or The Halfwit, or The Idiot. Tordlique the blacksmith, around for ages it seemed, said, “I saw the kid the day he came into town on that half dead mule he was riding, the pair of them as out of place as they could be. Nothing’s changed for Will the Bumbler since that day, take it from me. He was wearing these dang spurs, on a mule if you can imagine. They were more like leg irons on him, like they were dragging him down and the mule too. And him dressed like he stole his duds off half a dozen clothes lines or out of stolen luggage, they were so different, like he was never going to be himself, and that’s just about what it’s come to. I don’t think there’s two good slices in him, but he won’t hurt a fly, and that, my man, might get him into heaven. Not much else will.”
The big man in Craterville, Theron Jackson, who everybody called Big T, gave the bumbling newcomer his first job, as a do-this and do-that in exchange for a place to sleep in the back of his livery and one meal a day in the kitchen of his hotel. “It’s the least I can do for someone as out of place as that kid is.”
Some people, in truth, smiled at Big T’s “the least I can do,” knowing how true it was. It appeared Big T got big by not giving much of anything away. He owned the hotel, a chunk of the bank, the livery and one of the two saloons and was sure to grab the second saloon some time down the road. Big T and Tommy Heggarty never had gotten along; Heggarty owned the second saloon.
When “things” happened to Will or happened around him, people would shrug and say, “Nothing happens to kids or drunks or poor idiots on regular days except what they get in the way of, like a runaway horse and wagon or a regular stampede or an avalanche. It was that way when the bank was nearly robbed successfully. That’s when Will Halfloaf suddenly fell down in front of the bank just as two robbers were rushing out. They tripped over him and fell headlong into the street. Sheriff Bill Slater, having heard the shots fired in the bank, was standing there with two guns on the robbers when they got to their feet. Will Halfloaf, with that stupid look on his face that even newcomers to town recognized right away, a cough caught in his throat, mumbling about how sorry he was for getting in someone’s way, smiled the imperfect other-worldly smile at everybody treating him like a hero.
“Let’s face it,” one bar leaner said, as he stumbled out of the saloon hearing the excitement going on, “the dummy lucked out. Lucky them guys wasn’t looking for someone in their way.” He laughed his deep saloon laugh, and said, “I guess the hopeless and the innocent really do have their day, but it don’t appear to me to happen very often.”
With many people busting to slap him on the back, for most of them kept their few dollars in the bank vault, Will snuck back to the hotel side door to get his lunch; it was close to high noon and he couldn’t afford to miss a free meal.
But the bigger story of the day was the rustlers hitting and getting off with a whole herd of cattle during the previous week from the B-Bar-B ranch just a dozen miles away. It was said the cattle had just disappeared during very early morning in one of the numerous canyons fronting the Hogwash Mountains. None of the cattle were expected to be seen again; no brands, no hides, no trail. The sheriff was dumbfounded, riding around for two days and finding nothing. That would normally raise a few eyebrows, but he’d been on the job for close to six years, and had it out with desperadoes a number of times. People trusted Bill Slater as much as anybody.
The Hogwash Range, it was said, had been penetrated by a few mountain men, but bears and cougars had taken the toll of all of them, with no remains ever to be found. The last one of them known to anybody in Craterville was Tall Timber Jeffries who had come to town once to lock up some fur money he had saved up for a few years, about the time Big T and a partner opened the bank, six years earlier.
The recent rustling story was even bigger because the same thing had happened three or four other times in the past year … with no trace of the cattle, every last one of them gone missing for good … the Hogwash getting a reputation as a place only for mountain men, missing cattle and anything else that had all questions and no answers … questions that Sheriff Bill Slater could not answer, no matter how hard he tried.
Slater, seeing Will Halfloaf scrambling to get out of the limelight and off to get his dinner, smiled at Will’s sudden perception of things. “Wish I could run off like that,” he said to one deputy, “’cause it sure makes life easier to bear. Maybe Will’s found all the answers to life. He’s got right comfortable since he lit here on that old mule, half dead as he was.”
He might have spoken too soon.
Three days later one of the townsfolk walked into the sheriff’s office. “Bill, I don’t know what it means but I ain’t seen Will Halfloaf for a couple of days anyway, maybe three, and he’s always around like cow cakes everywhere you step. I ain’t seen a whisker of him. I bet it’s really three days anyway.”
“Come to think of it, neither have I,” Slater said. “Let’s go down to the livery to check if he’s sick or slept in and then see when he had his last meal at the hotel.”
“Will paid me a dollar for the loan of a horse and saddle, and just rode out of here,” said the livery man, who also said, “he looked kinda clumsy on that roan I gave him, like you’d expect him to look, all arms ‘n’ legs ‘n’ not really all together.”
“He carrying anything with him?” Slater said.
“He was wearing that gun belt that Big T gave him, with that old broken down six-gun ain’t fired a shot in a dozen years.”
“Say where he was going?”
“Just said he was taking a ride out of town a ways.”
“You haven’t wondered why he’s been gone so long?”
“Hell, Bill, how can you worry about someone who really don’t know what he’s all about himself? That’s mighty hard and I’m not too swift on my own, not about any other folks. It’s me and horses that count. No more and no less. It’s just like I’m the landlord here and Will stays, but Big T pays the bill, inasmuch as he owns the place mostly.” He shook his head and went back to his work, pointing overhead. “Ain’t been up there to sleep in three nights that I know of.”
A week later Will Halfloaf still had not been seen. In the saloon that night Big T yelled across the room to Slater sitting a table with a few pals. “You hear anymore about that dummy, Bill?”
“You talking about Will Halfloaf, Big T? That what you call him? Does he come to do your bidding when you call him that? Maybe that’s why he lit out of here, tired of the way we look at him, treat him like a regular idiot. But that boy ain’t cheated one soul since he’s been here. That should count for something.”
From another table a big kindly looking man, newer to town, said, “You gents talking about that kid looks kind of funny riding on a horse? A few days ago he came into the telegraph office at the station head in Clouterville and asked them to send a telegram. All I heard him say was his uncle was in town, like he wanted that sent on the telegraph.”
Big T said, “How many days ago?”
“Two, maybe three,” the man said. “No more ‘n that.”
Big T looked at the sheriff and said, “He’d be gone about a week then, won’t he, Bill? Why’d you think he’d take a whole week to send a telegraph, and why go out of town to send it? Sounds a bit beyond the dummy and a bit beyond me.”
Slater said, “I guess it’s like folks have said, ‘You can’t tell what’s in the back of their heads, folks like Will that come and go in this life without a real chance. But if he got to Clouterville it means he didn’t get torn apart by animals up there in the Hogwash, like those mountain men did, from what we all guess.”
“And where all my cattle done disappeared,” said an older man at another table. “My whole herd just disappeared up there. Just plain disappeared. In the Hogwash.”
Big T fidgeted at the bar and said, “Why think he went up in the Hogwash, Bill?”
“Oh, the livery guy, Polk, said he always talked about the mysteries up there. Maybe he wanted to have a look for himself.”
“Like an idiot getting answers for us?” Big T said, as he left the saloon, waving his hand in disgust, but moving quickly out of the saloon.
Bill Slater, turning back to his pals, was not unmindful of Big T’s quick departure. He wondered about all the loose ends that moved around him. It did seem that the disappearance of Will Halfloaf had kicked some things onto the high ground from low, dark places. He agreed with himself that it was more than coincidence.
Not one person in Craterville, including Sheriff Slater and Big T, or in Clouterville including the telegrapher, or in the whole state of Texas including all of its citizens, except a few confidants of Chief of Rangers Cliff Harvey, had been privy to one private conversation and secret commission that had taken place many weeks earlier.
Harvey had been hearing of the problems at Craterville and knew that a different approach must be taken to seek a solution to the mysterious disappearance of cattle, whole herds of them. For a few days he mused on some things, dreamed of some others, and remembered some idle conversations he had heard among his own men. One of his younger rangers, a really bright young man from Abilene way, was Merlin Moseby, who had a celebrated relative in the recent war of the states. Young Moseby had talked one night, out on the plains after a highly successful capture of several bank robbers at a secret hideout, how he had taken part in a few dramas in school that were conducted by a great young teacher from back east.
Moseby had said, “I played the part of this young, wacky prince of Denmark, a country across the sea, who was mad at his father, the king. But not his real father, mind you, but one who sort of slipped into the family. I did a good job play-acting and the teacher said I was a natural.”
That did it for Chief Harvey, and the conversation and the commission took place a day later. “We have to put someone in there and he can’t be known as a Ranger,” Harvey had said to young Moseby. “You’ve got to come up with some way to be someone else. A real outsider, separated from all the other people in the town. Be a ferret, a mouse, hear everything said and say nothing. Be alone. Be apart. Be unsuspected. If they are as big as I think they are, you could be in serious trouble if they find you out. Think you can become somebody like that, Merlin?”
The young Texan said, “Any deaths there, Chief? Or is it just cattle gone astray?”
“Like I said, if this operation is as big as I think it is, there has to be some deaths associated with it. There’s been talk of several mountain men just plain disappearing like the cattle have. Poof. Gone. Just like that. Those gents have a different value about them and a different sense of smell. They can smell trouble down the trail or up the trail and when some of them just plain leave this world, it’s more than one man than that’s doing it. It’s a gang, sure as hell.”
Texas Ranger Merlin Moseby thought one full day about his assignment, and he thought about his teacher who had said from day one that imagination was as strong as steel.
Merlin Moseby, wearing all the odd clothes he could find, donning weird-looking spurs, buying a broken-down mule from a passing farmer, sitting by himself beside the river thinking about who he was and who he was supposed to become, found his character. It did not take him too long to develop a mind set and then a facial set, including a certain look in his eyes. He looked and felt dumbfounded. It brought a silly smile to his face, and a few days later, with his odd set of spurs hanging from his boots, riding the mule he was not sure could finish the trip, moseyed into Craterville.
Slow as he was, he was off and running, Will Halfloaf born and moving on Texas ground.
In a flash, play-acting coming to the fore, his ruse perfected, Craterville and all his mundane activities for Big T behind him soft as an old dream, he was in the Hogwash, wary, alert, watching every movement like it was a rattler ready to strike. The horse was comfortable under him, his regular clothes unearthed from a secret place outside town and donned, and real guns were holstered on his gun belt. He was in command of his efforts and the proud horse under him.
His plodding venture, slow and deliberate, like a ghost rider in the shadows of the canyons, allowed him after a search to find a cleft in a line of cliffs of the Hogwash. It was a miraculous split in the huge face of rock wall, and was hidden from all views except an up-front twist around a high totem of stone. The passage beyond, a curling, devious entrance to almost a new world, was guarded by a single strand of wire. That strange passage lead him into one of the prettiest little meadows he had ever seen, the high peaks surrounding it like a jail cell, and a thousand head of cattle, stolen he was sure, stood out there in front of him, feeding on deep green grass, as rich as any grass he had ever seen. The cliffs of that seemingly undiscovered secret valley, at least to most Texans, hid the place from everything but the daily sun and the occasional rains, which were caught up by the rim of the mountains, and which kept the unique valley as green as new shoots.
This place was a most generous part of creation and must have been known generations back to some of the older Indian cultures he had heard about and talked about. Some older Indians he knew had spent their whole lives speaking such words that had come from counterparts within tribes of Mogollons and Anasazis and Hohokems and Zunis, as well as the remnants of those tribes he knew much more about, like the Aztecs and their closer relatives in the nations of tribes. They had existed in parts of this region a thousand years before. It sent chills through his body as he thought about them.
At the far end, he figured, was a way out of that lovely valley, and a route to another railhead, or the beginning of a drive to another market. His job was almost finished. From what he figured was a small campfire, at the far end of that heavenly place, rose a slight twist of smoke. Though he saw no movement of man or horse, it was surely the site of a guard post, keeping cattle within the confines of the secret meadow, waiting for the herd drive to start.
His next move was to get the information back to the Chief of Rangers, so that the secret and highly successful system of rustling could and would be ended. All he needed now were the names of those people who had set this operation into action, and who gained most from it. Though he had his suspicions, he would say no name until he had proof. Undeniable proof.
Convinced of what he saw and how it operated, young and exuberant Merlin Moseby, Texas Ranger, studying the lay of the land that spread its beauty out in front of him across the width of the secret valley, never saw the three men sneaking up on him. He heard only the click of weapons. When he turned he was looking into the faces of Big T and two of his hired thugs, and all three had had guns aimed at his midsection.
The air crawled with silence. Big T smiled a wide grin, and said, “I heard your uncle was coming to town, Will Halfloaf, or whatever your name is. That gave me the first tip on who you really are. Set me off wondering about you. Played a nice game, Will. Had me fooled. Had the whole town fooled as far as that goes. What’s your real name?”
“I am Merlin Moseby, Texas Ranger, and the whole brigade of Rangers is on their way here to get you and your gang.”
“They’ll be lucky if they find this place. We’ve had it hidden for a dozen years or more. Think they’ll find it before we’re gone?”
“It only took me about seven days, Big T. Caught it almost coming out of the chute.”
Big T laughed long and loud, as did his sidekicks, and none of them, in their turn, saw or heard Bill Slater until he leveled his rifle at them from behind a clump of rock and said, “It’s all over Big T. The kid did you in, him and all his play acting, as I see it.”
When the Chief of Rangers showed up to help take Big T away, he said to the young Ranger Moseby, “What was the name of that there fellow, Merlin, the one whose pretended madness you copied?”
“I heard his name was Hamlet, but I think that was his play-acting name. I never knew his real name.”