Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“Nothing’s out there, boys, as far as you can see or ride in three days,” said the jail keep of Yuma Territorial Prison as he locked the first iron gate behind Paulson and Newberry, convicted of robbing three banks in the territory, killing one teller, and another robbery, a botched one, in which two customers did not live past sundown.
Their short saga at robbery was known far and wide in the territory, and their trial was meat and potatoes for local papers all the way to St. Louis and Chicago. The two men could not cast more difference in their appearances than what came to the jail keep’s eyes right from the first. Hubie Newberry, meek and mild looking, with an innocence locked into his eyes, was a stark contrast to an up-and-at-‘em type of scoundrel everybody saw in Russ Paulson… but not harsh or mean or with a killer instinct.
They had loudly protested their innocence before and after their trial, which was completed in short order.
When the jail keep locked the second iron gate behind the pair, looking as heavy as if it would withstand the charge of a buffalo herd, bars thick as a man’s wrist, he said, “This ain’t the last one, boys, but it might as well be. Nobody ever got past this gate, not since I’ve been here, and I’ve been here forever, believe me. This is the Hell Hole of the west, of the universe, the hottest, driest place you’ll ever know. You’ll be sorry for every mistake you ever made while you’re in here, behind these bars.”
The third iron gate, thick as #2, slammed shut with a dull, solid, but resounding clang against the stone wall promising it could hold off the disbanded Army of the Potomac, if necessary.
From the outside of the gate, lighting his first cigar of the day, the jail keep said, with an ominous tone in his words, “That one does it, boys. That’s the end of the booze, the ladies, and the trailside campfires you probably grew up with. No music here. No shivarees. No fun. But lots of work on the rock pile so we can build another wall. This is the end of freedom for you famous bank robbers. But you ain’t the only bank robbers worth knowing in here. There’s more, believe me.”
He walked off without a look back.
The sentence had started, for crimes they had not committed.
“None of it’s fair, Russ,” Hubie Newberry said to his saddle pard, Russ Paulson. “We didn’t rob no bank. We didn’t kill no old man and no old lady. We get all the blame for what somebody else did. What am I gonna do now, Russ? I can’t stay in here. Already I can’t breathe right. I feel like I’m gonna scream.”
Paulson, know-it-all with conviction, experimenter in many things, who delved into what makes a man tick like a clock sometimes and gets all out of whack at another time, said, “Haven’t I always taken care of you, Hubie? Always thought of you first? So, guess what I’m thinking of now.”
“You tell me, Russ. Sometimes I know I’ll never catch up to you. But this ain’t out on the grass taking our time going anywhere we please, anytime we please, or some canyon where we can light a fire anytime we want. This is jail.”
“Now, Hubie,” Paulson said, waving his hand back and forth in front of Newberry’s eyes like a fan was in it, his fingers open and falling shadow-like one after the other across his vision, “you sit back and think about me swinging my hand and you getting your mind all in one calm place outside of this jail and getting sleepy like you always do. There’s no difference for us in here. They don’t know it, none of them, and the big shot jailer thinking he scared us. Even he don’t know what’s coming, what we can do feeling the way we do, sleepy as all get-out, slow and calm and forgetting about jail and thinking all the time about being out on the grass and the horse under us in a slow trot and the stars coming out and a campfire coming up in a new place just over that next little mound of grass or over there in the shade of those cottonwoods sticking up like a bunch of arrows in a quiver, the ones you’re seeing just about now, and we can go off to sleep under them thousand stars up there or maybe a chunk of the moon coming over the hill right behind us soft as a woman’s shoulder.”
Paulson paused, a sincere smile crossing his face, the jail disappearing from his own mind as Hubie Newberry, nodding his head, started into his usual trance.
“Don’t you feel it now, Hubie? Like the grass is smooth as a buffalo robe, and warm and easy to sleep on, and those stars up there are winking at us all the time because they know what we know, all this secret stuff that that Shaman taught us in the mountains? Now it’s our turn at all the secrets, Hubie, so rest easy. This jail is easy as falling off a log for us, and don’t you wake up until I snap my fingers twice.”
A wide and happy smile sat on Paulson’s face as Newberry went into his hypnotic state; and just at that minute a guard walked to their cell door and said, “I heard a lot of crazy jabbering goin’ on here, and now I see your pard’s got himself to sleep in a hurry. Takes a crazy man to sleep in this place, so we ought to wake him up,” and as he was about to rap a rod against the cell bars, Paulson put his waving hand up and said, “He’s only dreaming of being out there on the grass and us having a nice campfire and a few stories and a few drinks and some company coming from town to help us get through the soft darkness and then all those prairie stars finding their way almost down on top of us as we go off to the same kind of prairie sleep that Hubie’s having right now. That’s an honest sleep that comes to men of good souls and kind hearts, like the heart you have, seeing that campfire and company from town and those stars calling down to us or practically falling in our lap some nights. Don’t you agree to that? And you can stay calm and easy and I won’t tell anyone, even the top jailer that you rested your eyes for a while, and you can’t open them up until I snap my fingers one time.”
Paulson nodded at the guard, asleep on his feet, the steel rod he carried down low at his side.
He said to the guard, “I’m going to ask you a few questions and you can tell me the answers if you want, but I won’t tell anybody, even the top jailer. Is that okay with you?”
“Yes,” the guard said, his eyes closed, his breathing unhurried and peaceful.
“When is the best time to walk right out of here, Mister Guard? When you’re having your well-deserved rest after a hard day? And which way should we go when we quietly walk away without any trouble breaking out and no noise at all and nobody knowing we’re gone until a whole bunch of hours later? And where would we get a couple of horses if we did decide to walk away and leave this place and leave you having this nice sleep that you need all the time?”
The guard, in a monotone, said, “Around midnight, after all the guards change over for the night, and they start their own on-duty night’s sleep anywhere they can while the warden’s sleeping and all the prisoners have given it up for the night. If you went northwest, your tracks would be harder to follow. And going that way you’d find the horses are about a half mile off, down in a gully where most of Yuma’s mounts are corralled. The warden wants them out of sight as much as possible so the prisoners won’t get any wild ideas. No man has ever escaped from Yuma.”
He paused in his hypnotic state, and said, “Oh, there was one, but the warden says he died out on the desert, without a doubt. The warden’s talked about it a hundred times. How Crackbak Mellon-Mellon’s bones are out there getting real bleached in Arizona’s sun. Been dead alone out there for a long while now. Was kind of a funny guy, singing all the time. Bet he sung himself to death.”
Paulson snapped his fingers once and the guard said, “Is your pard still sleeping there?” He raised the rod, intending to make some noise.
Paulson, waving his hand, said, “He’s not really sleeping, he’s just napping,” and he snapped his fingers twice, behind his back, and Hubie Newberry yawned and said, “What did you say, Russ?”
During the next week, both men on work details, Paulson watching how things began to pile up on his pard so he had to straighten him out. In the meantime he finally realized which guard he’d set up for their escape. He decided that the route through the kitchen and off the back storage wall was the best way and gave them an added start northwest, the jailer’s horses with them, the wild, unknown region ahead of them.
“The right time would point itself out,” he said to himself. He laughed at that, easy with his own humor, Newberry wondering what his pal was at again, carrying on with the kind of stuff he could not figure out, laughing half the time, even in jail.
That same evening, after chow made itself known, foul as ever, the top jailer came by their cell, sauntering in his manner.
“I see your friend is sleeping again,” the jailer said. “I hear all he does at night is sleep, but they also tell me he works hard as anybody during the day, after a poor start on prison life. Looks like he’s consigned himself to life behind bars. Keeps a man on his back all night, too, the hard work. Nobody gets away from here. They’re too damned tired and I’ll keep them that way. Don’t you get any crazy dreams about going on any trip. It just doesn’t happen here at Yuma.”
Paulson wanted to have a go at the top jailer, but decided he didn’t need the risk of the man being smarter than he appeared to be. Anyway, the joy would come once he and Hubie were out on the trail with the jailer’s horses. That’d give the jailer something to talk about and try to go to sleep with every night from then on.
So he kept his hands clasped, his eyes down, in a show the top jailer would think about before he went off to sleep, and his mind echoing “another tough hombre taken in hand.” Paulson remembered the old Indian shaman who told him he learned a lot from the wolf pack and their ways in the world, how a whole pack of them would almost bow to the leader of the pack.
Dawn came over Yuma the next morning like a gunshot, sunlight pouring in on the prisoners as they got ready for a day of work, some on the rock pile, some on yard clean-up, some at the small garden near the kitchen where a few hardy plants kept their heads above ground and their roots in place.
Paulson and Newberry were with the rock gang again, the top jailer moving them around, finding something odd with the two and not wanting them to get too familiar with certain details of the prison. Newberry, he noted, worked feverishly but didn’t accomplish what Paulson did, with the same tools in the same time frame. That difference sat working in his mind, but he couldn’t fathom any reason behind his observation except the handling of tools looked easier in the hands of some men. Perhaps part of it was actually an art. Some men, he noticed, had a swing and a rhythm in them that came out in their work. Now and then he remembered Crackbak Mellon-Mellon and how work was easy in his hands, tools had a grace with him, and the song was always on his lips regardless of how much it irked him, the top jailer.
So, after a hard day in the sun, after a meal as poor as usual, all the prisoners went back to their cells, letting sleep call on them. Night crawled into and through all the bars of the prison, making its statement to all the prisoners. The calm settled on many of the prisoners, sleep being the only answer to the problems beating at them.
Hubie Newberry slept as calm as always after a hard day’s work. Paulson, alert, always on the watch for any edge, any useful information, waited for the right hour to come, for the right day was at hand. He could feel it in his bones, in the very air of his cell, in the slow breath of night advancing on Yuma its ultimate closure.
He woke Newberry up to tell him that they were leaving that night.
“Where are we going, Russ, if we get away from here?”
“We’re going to see that Jed Hammond who told those lies about us. He will write an admission of his guilt, telling who put him up to it. We’ll give that to Lloyd Wagner at the newspaper and let him use it. He’s one honest man, at least.”
“We won’t have to come back here, Russ? Not ever again?”
“Never again, Hubie, if I can help it. So you have to do exactly as I tell you, right down to the minute, to the last detail.”
“Are you sure I can do it, Russ? I don’t have any idea of what’s going on.”
“It’s a snap, Hubie. The skids are greased, have been for weeks and weeks. Don’t worry about it.”
At five minutes past one o’clock in the morning, at the cell of the two innocent men, Paulson hypnotized the guard, who gave them his keys and side arms and laid down in their cell to continue his sleep.
“You won’t wake up, Tory,” Paulson said to the guard, “even when the sun hits the high windows in the morning. And we’ll be going southwest with all the speed we can instead of the way you think we’ll be going.” He patted the guard on the shoulder and left him on a bunk, closing the door behind him.
It was a cakewalk, he would say, as they used the guard’s keys to get past two doors, slipped into the kitchen where not a soul was yet at work, and slipped over the wall at the back of the kitchen. The final wall, beyond the slop bins and sump dump, was managed in total darkness and near silence. Like sparse shadows, they slipped down the road and into the gulley where the horses were. They had their pick of the mounts, including saddles and full canteens, and two rifles scrounged from a tool room. They rode off as silently as ghosts, with two extra horses on lead lines.
No names were called out. Nobody got hurt. Not a shot was fired. At dawn that day, as the sun rose behind them, they were more than 40 miles away. They unsaddled their tired mounts and saddled the spare horses for the next stretch of the ride, and all four horses set out. They covered 200 miles in a circuitous route, and were northeast of San Diego, in a canyon, a fire lit, a meal in the offing, when they were attacked by a sheriff and two deputies.
Paulson shot two of the men right off their horses and Newberry got the other man.
“What’ll we do now, Russ?” Newberry said, his face as sad as ever.
“We hightail it northeast tomorrow. If they catch us and send us back there, we’ll know now that we belong there. We’d just do it all over again. Nobody but the injuns knows how we did it. That’s our secret every time out.”
And he gave off a little laugh that Hubie Newberry never caught up to.