Western Short Story
Will Winston and the Cherokee Chief
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

He roamed a good deal in all parts of Oklahoma, young as he was, traded with Cherokees when he had a chance, and when necessary, friendly as all get-out, trusty blue eyes marking his smile, Will Winston was a favorite among many Oakie denizens.

He remembered his mother saying, “Don’t bring any trouble into this house,” and his father saying, almost in the same breath, “Listen to your mother.” They nodded to each other in a kind of old unison of characters a long time together. This made the sharpness leap like a knife-edge when his Cherokee friend and tribal chief, Grey Horse, came to him, his head down like he’d never held it down, and said, “Come with me, friend Will, and I will show you sadness, where your mother and father are dead from bandits’ guns, and lie waiting you for the good words.”

He had taken off his chieftain headdress in quiet salute to the parents of his young friend, having known no white man like him, ever, and doubted he would meet another like Will, where things that counted were counted and those not counted drifted away on the prairie winds to be the problems for others. In some cases, it was an easy-to-let-go life; no sense in packing more troubles on your back, or in your mind.

Grey Horse and Will shared common efforts.

With tribal help assigned by Grey Horse, the Winstons were buried, the only time Will Winston ever saw it happen, and it probably never happened again, anyplace, especially in Oklahoma.

Will Winston, 16 then, grew with the sense of kindness abounding about him that all local folks could see, making him and marking him a favorite son of the territory.

It was months later, chill starting off mornings with a demand for energy, that a young Cherokee lad told Chief Grey Horse that he had seen the three men who killed the Winstons (as he was hiding behind their barn) and all three of the bandits wore the same brand on the backs of both hands, but could not say what it was, or what it meant. But at Grey Horse’s insistence, drew it on the ground, where it looked like three plain letter L’s in a row, the second and third letter each smaller than the one before it, but they lie in a row, touching each other.

Will Winston had something to search for, a marker to chase down until found if it took him his whole lifetime. He was pretty well set to spend that lifetime, no matter how long it was to be, in searching for the killers with the three L’s on the backs of their hands, like a ritual had brought them together, and so marked them forever in his

mind Often, they invaded his sleep under the comfort of stars or a lonely moon, or in the close presence of wolf cries yowling in the yonder like they smelled him every foot of the way.

There were times that freak conditions or habits of a kind led Will down the wrong path, like the time in one saloon where a man, playing cards at a nearby table, kept one hand atop his other hand like it was hiding something, Will spilled some of his own drink to startle the man who, if he had been hiding three L’s in a row, would have been dead on the instant.

Will marked the man’s face so he’d never forget the incident, how close that harmless man had come to his death at the hands of a brash youngster bent on total revenge for murder of his parents, Grey Wolf, he thought, would have known better from the outset, able to read men’s pasts in their eyes, set them apart from other players in the game of life; a murderer is a murderer, his eyes told him, or a man who loathed another man wore that feeling in his eyes, carried it there for a full lifetime, often over a silly cause that drove them apart.

Will wished many times that he had that skill, that actual power of detection, and finally had to let that envy go on its way as not part of his psyche, He convinced himself it was an extra load he could not and should not carry, enough already on his hands.

But he was faked out so many times, it seemed the world was against his ever catching the killers with the three L’s on the backs of their hands. In the end of this turmoil, this thought of failure, Grey Wolf’s words came back to him: “You, Will Winston, on your own power and not anybody’s interference, will avenge your parents when you least expect it, so don’t be upset at mindless accidents, continue to believe in yourself, and the deed will come to you. This I know from the Great Beyond, where you will never get to until your promise comes a certainty.”

Constantly fortified by those words, even when doubt or danger assailed him, Will came into San Angelo, Texas, smack on the Colorado river, to the saloon called The Pinching Saddle. He looked across the river and saw as much land spreading before his eyes as though the mirages of the river seemed to double up on every view, making the river the widest he had ever seen, Texas bigger than he ever dreamed, and The Pinching Saddle almost touching the edge of the water, as though walking right through those saloon doors would make a cowboy think he was about to wade into the river itself. It caused him to feel sweat on his chest, on his back, oh, in his very boots themselves, his toes squiggling twixt themselves, at contest, knowing the Colorado River and its touch

And some other quite different feeling made him feel as loose as a goose, his gun hands beginning to shake on their own in a ritual of shoot-outs making broadcast, telling him a special occasion was also at hand. He geared himself for any outcome as he walked daringly into the saloon as if he had been there, in that midst, hundreds of times before.

But not a soul in the room, including the long-time barkeep, had ever seen this stranger before and walked in as if he owned the place, lock, stock and barrel, the way he was thinking.

He walked directly toward the bar, right through the middle of the room, and abreast of one table of card players at poker, he spotted, beyond belief of his long search, three pair of hands marked with three L’s on each hand.

He couldn’t believe what he had seen, and went right to the bar, nodding to the bartender, ordering a beer, and asking, as he nodded toward the subject table, “Who are those gents at that table with the same marks, tattoos if you will, on the backs of their hands?”

“Oh, them who are part skunks if you take it from me, are the Swanton brothers, Louie, Link and Les. Them’s are their initials they got put on their hands before they started roaming around the country on their own, up to no good if you was to aske me again. No good!” He wiped down the countertop as though he was wiping them away, spit gathering in his mouth which he spat into a bucket at his feet, like Will Winston understood everything he had not said, but Will understood.

From the bar, his back now to the barkeep, the long searcher, Will Winston, said aloud, “I know you killed my Ma and Pa, and I’ve been looking for you three for much of my life,” looking like he was a mere 20-years old, a kid at heart.

Those gathered in the room looked at him wondering who he was talking to, some of them knew in the way of guessing who he was talking too, knew by the character of men.

“Louie, Link and Les, you know I’m talking to you, ready to meet death all at once.”

The three Swanton brothers leaped up from their table, grabbing at their guns, as the avenger for death fired away, killing all three killers in three blasts, and only three blasts, of his guns.

Silence and smoke, and death itself, sat in the midst of the Pinching Saddle Saloon, in San Angelo, Texas, one day long ago, long before Will Swanton died in a rocking chair at the only home he had ever known, even after he had chased all over Texas in his younger days, them too-long-gone down the trail too, and Grey Horse, Cherokee friend, buried in a corner of his backyard, a last testimonial of friendship.