Western Short Story - The K-Bar Incident
The K-Bar Incident
Patches of damp morning fog lingered in the valley’s low spots, and the dark shapes of K-Bar cattle grazed slowly in the tall grasses. Near a wooded glen, a buck with a magnificent rack cautiously browsed on the branches of a low lying, white cedar. Now and then, his head came around sharply, and he suspiciously sniffed the breezes and listened, ever alert for danger. The western slopes glowed a warm red in the early morning sun, while the valley itself and the eastern slope still lay in cool, sleepy shadow.
High up on the north slope, Charlie Woods toed the coffee pot a little closer to the coals and wrapped his fingers around the hot tin cup. The warmth felt good in the chill of an early autumn morning. He and his younger brother Billy should have been saddled up and riding fence line by now, but Billy had spotted the buck that was now grazing in the valley far below, and excitedly set out to stalk him down. Billy was the younger of the two by three years, and other than a shared love for the K-Bar, the Woods brothers viewed the world through far different lenses.
At twenty one, Charlie was already wise, rock-steady, and a mature man, while at eighteen, Billy was a man grown, but a boy at heart. He would generously and tirelessly help a friend who was down or thump his skull, depending on the situation. If there was a Saturday night fight, Billy was always in the middle somewhere, but even he knew better than to try his brother Charlie. Charlie was quiet and never looked for trouble, but all the young bucks for miles around knew by reputation to leave him strictly alone.
The boys had been orphaned when Billy was fourteen, and Charlie, still young himself at seventeen, had assumed responsibility for his younger brother, with occasional help from his aunt and uncle. Billy was ever impetuous, so when he spotted that big buck, there was no holding him back and Charlie knew it. He sipped his coffee and waited.
Sudden movement caught the corner of Charlie’s eye and he reached back for his glass. A good half-mile away, Billy was less than one hundred yards from the unsuspecting buck and behind the cover of a clump of tall grass. He looked back up the mountain toward Charlie and then rose to peer cautiously in the direction of the buck. He rose slowly, took one step forward, and tripped over something, falling flat on his face. Charlie started to chuckle when he heard the hollow boom of a large caliber rifle, somewhere to his right. He swung his glass to the buck in time to see it bound off in great leaps, apparently not hit. Whoever the hunter was, he wasn’t much of a shot. He glassed the hill to his right, trying to spot the shooter but saw nothing. At last, he brought his glass back to Billy.
His brother was still down, and he steadied the glass on his drawn up knee for a better look. On the back of Billy’s shirt was an unmistakable patch of dark red, and suddenly, he realized that the unseen gunman was not shooting at deer, and he had not missed. He scrambled to his feet and ran to the horses.
There was a bloody hole in Billy’s back the size of a man’s fist. The bullet had entered on the high right side of his chest and exited just below the left shoulder blade. Death had been nearly instant.
The shooter had been above Billy and to his right. That would place him some five hundred yards away and on the hill Charlie had glassed after he heard the shot. There were hundreds of places a man could conceal himself up there, but the most obvious was the lower edge of a grove of trees, halfway up the hill.
After nearly two hours of searching, he found the shooter’s position. The grass was still damp from morning dew and crushed. There was one readable boot print in a small patch of red clay mud. It was the right foot and there were two cracks in the sole, one on each side but neither went all the way across.
He also found a freshly fired cartridge from a Sharps .50-90, a powerful, long distance round used for large game, like elk and buffalo. He knew of only one man who possessed such a rifle.
Dooley was a part-time wolfer and sometimes army scout, and in days long past, a buffalo hunter. A couple of months ago at a dance, Dooley had taken exception to Billy Woods paying attention to Miss Molly Jarvis. They had words which ended up out behind the old Gunderson barn, where Billy had whipped the older man to a frazzle. Dooley seemed to accept the defeat gracefully, but now, Billy lay dead, and Dooley was a known expert at long distance shots from concealment. Charlie pocketed the brass, looked around once more, and started back down the hill to gather up his brother.
The cold wind carried a spattering of rain as the small town procession arrived at the freshly dug gravesite. Charlie’s grandfather, Darson Killian had died years ago, leaving the K-Bar to his daughters, Lillian and Joyce. Charlie’s Aunt Lilly had married Bob Thrush, and his mother Joyce had married Andy Woods, father of Charlie and Billy. Four years ago, during a bad influenza outbreak, both Andy and Joyce had become desperately ill and had died the next day, within an hour of each other. Billy had not sickened at all, and Charlie was only mildly ill for one day. Now Charlie was alone except for his beloved Aunt Lilly and his Uncle Bob, who presently had his large, firm arm around Charlie’s shoulders as they stood by the grave.
As the preacher spoke over Billy’s simple coffin, Billy glanced around at the crowd. Conspicuously missing was Dooley Roberts, and no one had seen him since before the killing. Angry words were being spoken around, led mostly by Jack Stanton, a local loudmouth and a man rumored to have killed two men near Waco in a gunfight. There was bad blood between Stanton and Dooley Roberts, but then again, Stanton was another man who had been beaten to the ground by Billy Woods, so why was Stanton rabble rousing over Billy’s killing? And why was Stanton also not in attendance today?
The ropes lowered Billy’s coffin slowly into its final resting place and the crowd drifted away. Charlie’s aunt and uncle were talking quietly to a neighbor near their buckboard when Charlie walked back to the grave. Two men from the church had dug the grave and were now standing by with shovels, watching Charlie. He looked at them and they nodded, moving respectfully back and turning away. Charlie knelt at the edge of the excavation and looked down at the coffin. It seemed too small and plain to hold what was left of Billy Woods, but there it was. He blinked back the sudden tears.
“I’m sorry Billy,” he whispered. “I know I let you down, but I just don’t know what happened. I’ll find out, and then I’ll find the one who did this. You have my word on that, Billy. You have my word.” He took a handful of dirt and sprinkled it on the coffin. After a moment, he rose and strode to his horse, not looking back.
The trip back to the ranch was quiet and for the most part, everyone kept to their own thoughts. Uncle Bob had tried twice to start a conversation with no response and then went silent himself. When Billy lost his mother and father, his Aunt Lilly had bitten back her own tears over losing Joyce and Andy in order to take a broken-hearted Billy under her wing. Now Billy was gone too. She sat quietly and stared straight ahead. Charlie rode alongside the buckboard, silently mulling the killing over and over. First thing in the morning, he would pay Dooley Roberts a visit.
Charlie wanted to ride out looking for Dooley before folks talked and drank themselves into a lynch mob. He wanted Dooley tried and convicted in court beyond all doubt, rather than have him lynched without first hearing his side of the story. It wasn’t that Charlie was not angry himself. He carried a quiet fury, but for Billy’s sake and memory, he wanted this done legally and right.
Charlie sat his horse and studied the situation. Well above him and under a granite overhang stood Dooley’s low, one room cabin. The trail leading up to it showed a fresh set of hoof prints, but by the meandering course, the horse had obviously been rider-less. Like all ranchers, Charlie automatically cataloged the tracks of every horse in the area and these tracks belonged to Dooley Robert’s horse. Even now, Dooley’s saddled horse was eyeing him from where he stood quietly, outside the small corral. No one had answered his shouted greetings, so Charlie nudged his horse and they started up the trail, both horse and rider alert and looking for danger.
The place was deserted. Charlie forked some hay from the barn into the single stall’s feed box and opened the corral gate. The grateful horse entered with no urging and immediately went to a tank where a trickle of water flowed constantly. Charlie let him drink for a moment, and then removed saddle and bridle. There was a dark stain on the saddle that looked like it might be blood.
After a long pause and an examination for sores, he finally allowed the horse to take more water. He closed the gate behind him and made a mental note to come back to check on the horse if he didn’t locate Dooley.
The tracks in front of the cabin were at least a week old, and while most came from one set of badly worn down boots, another set was different. The sole of the right boot was cracked on both sides, neither going all the way across. He entered the cabin and searched thoroughly for Dooley’s Sharps 50. It was nowhere to be found. The box of ammunition he usually kept on a shelf over the bed was also missing.
Charlie back tracked the wandering, almost aimless trail of Dooley’s horse. Patiently, he stayed with it, stopping only to rest his mount and eat a cold lunch. He was now at nearly six thousand feet, and it was cold. To the west, gray clouds lined the horizon, and they had the look of snow. He might need to find shelter before nightfall. He had food enough to last two days, if need be.
An hour later, he was kneeling on the edge of a small drop off, looking down on a pack of yipping coyotes. They were worrying at some object protruding from a mound of caved-in soil from the soft bank of a dry wash. He pulled his glass from his coat and confirmed his suspicions. It was a man’s boot, and the man’s foot was still in it.
Dooley Roberts had been dead for some time. He had been shot in the chest, and so close that powder burns had singed his shirt. This time, there was no cartridge, but when Charlie removed his shirt looking for an exit wound, he spotted a lump under the skin. He slit the skin with his knife and removed a bullet. It was a .44, and since it had not gone all the way through, despite such a close range, it had almost certainly been fired from a revolver.
Casting about for tracks, he almost immediately found the same, cracked sole boot print. Whoever had killed Billy had also killed Dooley Roberts. There was little blood, and no prints from Dooley’s boots, so Dooley had been killed elsewhere and then brought here to be concealed. But why?
There was a little money in Dooley’s pockets, and nothing seemed to be missing…except his Sharps .50 rifle.
He found a place where he could cave in another bank over Dooley’s body, but one that he could secure with large rocks that would keep out predators. He then tried to pick up a trail leading to the murder spot, but wind and rain had removed all traces except the lone print of the killer.
He glanced at the lowering skies and decided he had time to get off the mountain before the snow hit. He gathered the reins and mounted, noticing a burr caught in his horse’s mane. As he bent to remove it, he heard the crash of a large caliber rifle from a nearby stand of trees, and something tugged at his coat. Instantly, he reined his horse around and charged the hidden gunman. He spotted Jack Stanton bending over, frantically trying to reload the big rifle, but panic made him drop the fresh cartridge, and glancing up at Charlie, he clawed for the gun at his hip.
From the slope behind Stanton, Charlie heard a rifle bark, and then again. Stanton was on his knees, his mouth open and a bewildered look on his face. He tried once to look behind him, but didn’t make it. He was dead. The barrel of the Sharps .50 lay under his body, but Charlie knew the rifle by its stock. It belonged to Dooley Roberts. The revolver on Stanton’s hip was a caliber .44.
Up the slope, his Uncle Bob rose from his kneeling position and walked down the slope, levering another shell into the chamber.
“Followed you out to Dooley’s place. Your Aunt Lilly was some worried. Followed your trail and then picked up his trail too,” he said, nodding at Stanton’s body. “Figured he was not out for a pleasure ride. Never knew you and him was enemies.”
Charley told his uncle about finding Dooley’s body, but not his missing rifle, the one he was sure had killed Billy. Apparently, Stanton had killed Dooley, and then used his rifle to kill Billy, knowing that Dooley would be suspected. With Dooley missing, folks would believe he had fled to escape hanging for murdering Billy, and never suspect Stanton.
Uncle Bob looked down at Stanton’s body, and nodded. “Reckon he was that mad about taking a whipping from Billy?” He glanced over at Charlie who shrugged. Uncle Bob spat over his shoulder and shook his head. “Damn fool thing to do.”
They got shovels from their packs and dug a grave. As they readied Stanton for burial, Charlie glanced at his boots There were two cracks in the right sole, one on each side but neither went all the way across.
Charlie slipped the barbed wire under the gripper and grabbed the fence stretcher rope in his gloved hands. In a few pulls, the block and tackle had done its work, and the wire was taut enough to play a tune. He nodded at his Uncle Bob who lifted the wire to its correct height and drove a staple into place.
On the other side of the fence was a deep ravine, and they had lost a head or two of cattle when the edge had crumbled under them, so they had decided to fence off the most dangerous section. They had completed nearly half a mile and had at least that much more to fence. Both Charlie and his Uncle Bob were good hands and they enjoyed making a good fence.
Uncle Bob finished stapling the nearest post and walked over to him. He pointed over Charlie’s shoulder. “Is that another dead cow down there?” Charlie turned and was trying to see what his uncle was talking about when something slammed into his head and everything went black and silent.
Waves of pain rolled through the gray mist of his mind as he gradually came back, blinking his eyes to clear the fog. They were in the cool shade of a grove of trees. He was seated against a tree, bound hand and foot, and his Uncle Bob sat on a nearby stump, regarding him quietly. He could feel blood on the side of his face. He felt sick and empty.
“Thought them fencing pliers had done for you, but you’re a tough one.” At Charlie’s bewildered expression, he spat over his shoulder. “You’re going to have an accident and fall off that cliff in a minute, so I reckon it won’t matter if you know the why of it.” He smiled slowly, obviously beginning to enjoy himself.
“I rode the outlaw trail before I married your Aunt Lilly. I’m wanted back in Illinois for a killin’, but that’s years ago. Never had much, but now, I guess you could say I’m about to own the K-Bar.” He grinned, and for the first time, Charlie recognized the dancing madness in his eyes. “That lucky influenza outbreak was just what I was waiting for. A little poison in your folks’ coffee, and nobody suspected nothing.” He winked at Charlie and then reached in his shirt pocket and bit off a chew from his tobacco plug. Charlie glanced down at his holster. His gun was still there, but it might as well have been back at the ranch with his hands bound tightly behind him.
“I paid Jack Stanton to kill old Dooley, get his Sharps, and then kill Billy. I knew folks would blame Dooley. Stanton was supposed to kill you too, but accidental like, so when I saw he was about to shoot you, I shot him instead.” He chuckled. “I’ll bet he sure was surprised.” His eyes narrowed. “Now it’s just you boy. Once you’re gone, it all falls to Lilly, and when she gets sick and dies in a year or so, the K-Bar will be mine.”
He got to his feet. “Well, let’s get this done.” He stepped forward and out of the corner of his eye, Charlie saw his Aunt Lilly step out from behind a tree, raising the ranch rifle she always carried from the folds of her dress and bringing it to her shoulder. “You stop right there Bob Thrush. You take one more step, and I’ll put a bullet in your miserable heart.”
“Well now, Lilly, I got it to do, don’t you see that?” he pleaded. “I’ve gone too far to stop now.” Charlie could see that the man had lost all sanity. He looked at his Aunt Lilly and her lower lip quivered as she stared at the stranger she called her husband. She lowered her rifle slightly and Uncle Bob saw his chance, grabbing at his gun. Instantly, her rifle came up and they both fired.
Lilly had been raised a ranch girl, and she knew instinctively how to put a bullet where she wanted, so she kept her promise. Bob Thrush fell dead, shot through the heart.
Charlie rubbed his wrists, working the circulation back. His head was throbbing, but he felt better now that he was back on his feet and free of ropes. Aunt Lilly sat on the stump and gazed at her dead husband. She was very pale and shocked. Always a strong woman, she suddenly looked weak and frail
“Behind that tree Charlie, is a basket with lunch in it. I was bringing it to you and Bob when I heard Bob talking and saw you bound and helpless.” She lifted her chin. “There’s pen and paper in the basket. I was going to write a letter while you ate. Will you fetch it for me?”
Lilly talked to Charlie as she wrote. “I found out about Bob’s past soon after I married him. I discovered a wanted circular folded inside his hatband. It was for Bob, and it was for murder. A man was poisoned. I couldn’t believe it, or perhaps I should say I wouldn’t believe it. Then, when Joyce and Andy died so suddenly, for a fleeting moment, I suspected Bob had a hand in it. I also refused to believe that.” She looked up from her writing. “You must forgive me for all this Charlie. I am responsible because I knew all along that Bob was no good, but he was my husband, so I stubbornly refused to accept it and said nothing to anyone. Not even Joyce.”
She handed him the papers. “One is a bill of sale for the K-Bar. It’s all yours now, just as the family would have wanted. The other is my confession about who Bob was, what he has done, and that I killed him.”
Charlie looked at her, stunned. “There’s no reason to do this Aunt Lilly. It’s your ranch as well as mine and I certainly don’t hold you responsible for the acts of your husband. You must stay.”
“I’m afraid I have no choice Charlie. Bob was an excellent marksman and he didn’t miss.” She drew back her shawl and the front of her dress was covered in blood. She raised her eyes to him. “I’m dying Charlie. I can feel it, and all things considered, it’s a blessing.”
She looked down at her hands and tears fell from her eyes. ”But do this last thing for me Charlie. Bury me in the family plot with the others, but bury Bob somewhere far away from the ranch.” She looked up at him and he saw a long suppressed anger in her eyes. “Pay someone to haul him a thousand miles off Charlie, and then have him put in an unmarked grave. It’s the least I can do for my family and the K-Bar.”
The frozen earth was covered with a dusting of late afternoon snow, and more was spitting from dark, low-lying clouds as Charlie stood quietly over his family, hat in hand. The graves of his father and mother had never been marked with anything more substantial than wooden crosses, so when he ordered stone markers for Billy and Aunt Lilly, he ordered proper monuments for everyone. He had also contracted with the blacksmith to build a wrought-iron enclosure for the family plot, complete with an ornate gate.
He paid his respects to all, one by one, and came finally to Billy. For a long time, he paused, pondering the way of things, and then cleared his throat.
“I know you’ll get a chuckle out of the way things worked out Billy. Molly Jarvis made sure I knew which box was hers at the social, so I bid on it and won. Now it looks like she’s set her cap for me, and for the first time, I don’t mind at all.” He raised his head. “I want all of you to know that I’ll do my best to make you proud. I have some plans for the K-Bar, big plans that will make her the pride of the territory and that includes being a good neighbor and friend, as I know all of you would have wanted.”
He closed the gate behind him, and this time he did not deny the tears. Down the lane, Molly quietly waited for him beneath the big oak and when she saw his damp cheeks, she dug in her bag and handed him a handkerchief, saying nothing. Charlie took her hand, and somewhere to the north, a wolf sang his song to loneliness.
This one recently took the grand prize in a western short story contest. Since I was up against many published authors, I was very pleased to have won!