Edward McDermott

Western Stories

Western image
A Dash for the Timber - Frederic Remington

The Horse Thief

Sometimes the line between justice and vengeance is a very fine one.


“Yes, Sir. I’ve seen them all, first Abilene and now Dodge City. Soon they’ll close this one too,” the man in the bowler hat said, as he bit off the end of his cigar and fired it into the spittoon. “The name is John Peabody; I travel in cigars and whiskey. Your first time out?”

The tall dark-haired handsome man looked up from under his hat with a smile and replied, “Nope.”

The man wore a black store-bought suit and well-worn boots. In his mid-thirties, he had been sleeping when the drummer boarded earlier that day. He had slept as the train lurched and rattled across the endless Kansas plain faster than a horse could run.

“Didn’t think so. You don’t have the look. I can spot the pilgrims by the way they keep looking out the window to see an Indian or a buffalo. Ain’t no more Indians around now, or buffalo for that matter. They shipped close to a million Buffalo hides out of Dodge but that ended in seventy-five. I remember mountains of bones. Well, as close to mountains as anyone ever saw in Kansas. We should be pulling into Dodge in a few minutes. Cigar?”

The tall man stood, stretched, took the cigar and lit it with a wooden match. “Thanks.”

“That’s one from my line. You remember it, ask for it when you’re in town and buy a few in the next couple days and I’ll be beholden to you. ‘Never hurts to have a satisfied customer’ is my motto. Of course, with those wild Texas boys fresh from the trail, I don’t need to do much but write out the orders. See those pens? I would say there must be 5,000 head of cattle here. What do you think Mr. …?”

“They call me Mike Thornton, most recently from Boston.”

“As I said, I’ve been traveling this way for five years, since the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe ran a rail line here. I’ve seen a sight of them but this is the roughest town there is, when the herds arrive.”

Once the train stopped, the people rushed to get off. Outside, porters scurried and teamsters on wagons waited on the street for a fare. The hiss from the engine blended with the jangle of traces and the groan of un-greased axles.

The railroad tracks divided the town as did Front Street, which ran on either side of the tracks. While the train was in the station, it split the town into two pieces as effectively as a medieval wall. North of the tracks stood the fashionable stores, the quality hotels and behind them the homes of the more respectable citizens. South of the railroad track, the ‘Deadline’, anything went: saloons, the whorehouses and the outfitters.

Up from Texas came herds of fifteen hundred or two thousand cattle to Dodge where the Eastern buyers would pay twenty to thirty dollars a head. Mike took a deep breath, taking in the familiar smell of cattle, excitement and money. His Eastern suit didn’t disguise the breadth of his shoulders he had built during the reconstruction. He had ridden the Chisholm Trail, fighting the Comanche, the Kiowa and the rustlers, for the brand.

Mike followed the drummer to The Wright House Hotel, on the corner of Chestnut and Bridge streets. In his room, he filled the wash basin and sponged the travel grime from his body and clothes. He opened his suitcase and took out a well-worn holster. Picking up the pistol, he checked its action and slipped it into the holster. South of the Deadline in Dodge, unlike Boston, a man should carry a gun and know how to use it.

At sunset he left the Wright House, heading for the most famous bar in all of Kansas, the Long Branch Saloon. It was a narrow building wedged between the Alamo Saloon and Hoover’s Wholesale Liquors and Saloon. The Lone Star and the Alhambra stood further west in the same block, between Bridge Street and First Avenue. Inside, the long bar that ran halfway down the left side dominated the room. At the back, Chalk Beeson’s five-piece orchestra played “Camptown Races.” Gamblers ran their tables with games that ranged from nickel “Chuck-a-luck” to high stakes poker and the girls circulated. Most of the customers were cowboys, fresh from the trail and three months of hard work.

Mike stepped up to the bar, letting the noise surround him. Rushing over, the bartender placed a glass and bottle in front on him and marked the side of the bottle.

“Quarter a shot.”

“A beer to chase it down.”

“That’ll be another quarter but it is ice cold.”

“Here’s a dollar.”

Mike poured himself a shot, filling the glass to the brim, and downed it with a single fluid motion. He shook his head and took a swallow of beer. When the barman came back, Mike asked, “Has a herd ramrodded by Big Jim Baxter come up the trail?”

“I don’t know anything about the herds. I serve the drinks and sweep the floor; that keeps me busy. See the skinny fellow at the table over there? You might ask him. He plays cards with a lot of those cowboys. But, be polite; he’s as mean as a snake and twice as fast.”

Mike wandered over to watch the game in progress as he drank his beer. The skinny man the barman had pointed out played quietly, just sipping his whiskey. Every so often he’d get a fit of coughing that was painful to hear. His fellow players were two teenagers in brand new clothes, still creased from the store shelf, and a middle-aged Mexican.

The skinny fellow won the hand with a pair of aces to the disgust of one of the young cowboys whose slurred speech betrayed his drinking habits.

“Doesn’t make sense how a man wins so often,” he said.

“Sir, poker is a game of skill not luck,” the skinny man replied in a soft South Carolina accent. “If you have the skill, you win.”

“Don’t make sense that any honest man wins so often.”

Barely had the words been spoken when the players fell silent. A curious half smile lit up the slender gambler as his hands began to move but Mike acted faster. He brought his beer mug down on the young man’s head. The young cowboy’s companion sprang to his feet but stopped suddenly at the sight of the deadly single action Colt in Mike’s hand.

“Take your friend home, he’s had too much to drink,” Mike said.

“When he comes to, he’ll come hunting you.”

“You be a good friend and make sure he hunts in the wrong direction. I didn’t waste a beer just to kill him tomorrow.”

After the two teenagers left, the skinny man spoke. “Sir, I think you’ve intruded upon this game and my personal affairs.”

“My profound apologies,” Mike replied. “However, I had been observing the game and I found his remark so uncalled for, I felt it best that I interfere.”

“That was the intrusion I referred to. I was prepared to deal with his insult to my honor in my own way.”

“You misunderstood. I didn’t step in to help you, sir, but to keep you from killing the lad; he’s young.”

“He’s old enough to carry a gun.”

“With a little luck, he’ll grow old enough to hold his tongue. Tomorrow he’ll have a sore head and hopefully a little wisdom.”

“I doubt it,” the skinny man said, smiling faintly. “I don’t think he’ll come looking to thank you for your kindness. However, I’ll overlook the matter. Few men in Dodge would waste a beer on a stranger. Perhaps you would care to join us.”

“Mike Thornton, most recently of Boston.”

“West Texas before that, I would guess, from the way you handle a gun. Five Card Draw, nothing wild.”

The cards skimmed across the table. Mike played a cautious game, staying away from the big pots, rarely bluffing, waiting for the talk to wander where he wanted.

“So, Mr. Thornton, what brings you to this small piece of Hell?”

“What brings everyone here: money and cattle.”

“Some come for the cattle, some come for the railroad, and they all come for the money. I take it that you’re interested in the cattle.”

“You might say so. I’m looking for a specific man. Do you know Big Jim Baxter? He’s ramrodding a herd up the trail.”

“Big Jim is a religious man. He doesn’t hold with strong drink, gambling or the other forms of entertainment native to the places I prefer to frequent. I have never met the man but you might talk to Rory. He’s the little fellow at the end of the bar, a buyer for Chicago who knows the location of every damn cow from here to Texas.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Mike replied. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ll talk to him now.”

“You might as well. You play a reasonable but dull form of poker, Mr. Thornton; I don’t think your heart’s in it.”

Mike rose, cashed in his chips and wandered back to the bar. After buying a new beer, he introduced himself to Rory. A few minutes later he left.

In the morning sunshine Mike found a glut of good horseflesh corralled beside Ham Bell’s livery stable on Locust Street, south of the Deadline. During the cattle drive every cowboy needed three or four horses. At the end of the trail, the drovers sold their remuda as well, creating a glut. Mike chose a dappled gray with good lines and a soft mouth; the saddle cost more than the mount. Lastly, he bought supplies, a bag of Bull Durham tobacco and a second hand Henry rimfire repeating rifle from the firm of Wright Beverly & Company whose store stood beside the Alamo Saloon. Full equipped, he rode south.

On the trail a herd of two thousand cattle spread out for miles. Each ramrod tried to bring his herd by a different path, moving it though untouched grass to graze and grow fatter.

Mike hunted back and forth, riding over the flat Kansas grassland so recently cleared of buffalo. By the time he saw a ‘circle 8’ brand, he had spent a week in the saddle and was over the worst of the soreness. Circling the herd, he found the chuck wagon setting up for dinner.

“Welcome stranger,” the cook said as he stirred the contents of the large iron pot. “You’re welcome to step down and fill your face with what we got. There’s nothing but beans and beef in the pot. We ran out of salt a week back. The coffee’s been boiled so often it don’t get dark no more and we don’t even have a chaw of tobacco.”

“Thanks” Mike said. After he unsaddled the horse, he filled the dish and took a cup of the coffee. When the riders straggled in, Mike passed around his tobacco pouch.

“Mike!” a tall dark haired cowboy yelled as he rode up to the camp. He slid off his horse like a Comanche warrior and practically picked up the older, heavier man in his enthusiasm.

“Mike, what the hell are you doing here? What’s it been? Five years since you traveled back East to study law? You don’t look like you’ve gotten too soft sleeping in a feather bed. What on earth are you doing in this Godforsaken part of Kansas? I remember you saying nothing in heaven or hell would ever lure you back.”

“Timmy, slow down,” Mike replied, as he hugged his younger brother. “You’ve grown. The last time I saw you, you were barely up to my belt buckle. Now I’d swear you must be a bit taller than me and you’ve put on a bit of muscle too. Must be the fine food they serve.”

“Big Jim does hire the best cook. He also hires the orneriest man that ever chased a poor cowboy for stealing a bit of sugar. Still, we’ll be in Dodge inside a couple of weeks. I hear there’s even a bakery there that will sell you an entire apple pie to eat all by yourself. Come on; sit with me and tell me everything that’s happened.”

“Great idea,” Mike replied, as he filled his cup with more coffee. “Why don’t you tell me about the chestnut mustang Jack Slattery claims you stole from him?”

“He’s a liar. I paid him five dollars for that horse and I broke him myself, gentle, just the way you taught me.”

“Jack Slattery swore out a warrant for your arrest, claiming you stole that mustang. Wait Tim, there’s more. He’s also offered a five-hundred-dollar reward to the man who brings you or your body back.”

“What? That’s crazy. No horse is worth that type of money. Besides, I have a bill of sale Slattery signed himself.”

“What else has been going on Tim? The man must have a powerful hate for you.”

“Nothing, I swear. Unless he got the idea I was sparking his daughter.”

“Were you?”

“Naw. I teased her a little. She does get pretty when her color’s up.”

“Well I’m here and we’ll get this thing settled. Let’s talk to Big Jim.”

Big Jim listened to Mike’s story before asking, “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to take Tim here back to Dodge with me, then back to Texas on the fastest train I can find.”

“You figure someone’s following him on the trail?”

“I figure they’re waiting for the herd to arrive. There’d probably be a couple of them. A bump. A quick shooting. With the reward poster, everyone would forget the whole thing the next day. If I found Tim, they could.”

“Your brother’s a good hand. In a couple of years he’ll be a top hand. He’s good with the horses and the cattle and the men like him. Harvey! Jake! Get your sorry hides over here. I’m tired of water for coffee so I’m sending you into Dodge to get some supplies. Come straight back; don’t stop for even a single drink. You ride out with Tim and his brother tomorrow. Cookie, draw up a list of supplies you need for the next week.”

On the evening of the second day, the four men rode abreast into the town, under the light of the stars. In the distance, they heard a calf bawling for its mother in the pens. In the other direction, they heard the distant tinkle of a piano and the sound of a woman’s laughter.

Harvey and Jake rode to Ham Bell’s livery stable, while Mike took Tim to the Sheriff’s office in the City offices, on the corner of Front Street and Railroad Avenue.

“What do you want?” Sheriff Lane asked, as they entered.

“Sheriff,” Mike said, as he reached around and took Tim’s gun. “I’m delivering this wanted fugitive into your care. Here’s the flyer on him. They want him back in Texas bad enough to pay five-hundred-dollars. You stand over there, Tim and keep still.”

“Hmm,” Lane said, as he looked over the flyer. He walked to his desk and sorted through a box of papers. “Yep. I got one like it here. Are you Tim Thornton, boy?”

Tim nodded.

“Put your hands on the table and don’t make any moves. First, we’ll check you out and then we’ll show you to your cell. Clean. I knew one fellow who carried a spare pistol in his boot until his horse took a tumble and landed on him. Both of them had broken legs. We shot the horse and we should have shot the man as well.”

After he’d locked Tim in the cell, Lane said “You’ll have to wait at least a couple of days for the money. We have to wire Texas and they have to make arrangements with Wells Fargo.”

“I’d just as soon take him back myself; I only wanted to keep him safe in here. After all, it’s a rough town and five-hundred-dollars can be mighty tempting.”

“It’s your money. If you want to take him back yourself, get your tickets and be out of town tomorrow. I don’t want horse thieves or bounty hunters in my town.”

Mike left without another word. He took his dappled gray and Tim’s chestnut mustang to Ham Bell’s livery stable. After he paid for stalls, he took his saddlebags and rifle and headed toward the Wright House. As he crossed the railroad tracks, over the tinkling of a piano somewhere in the distance he heard another sound, the sound a rifle makes when it’s cocked. Five years in Boston society hadn’t broken the habits learned on the Texas frontier. Without thought or hesitation he dropped to the ground.

He heard the whipping sound of the bullet passing over his head. Still holding his saddlebags and rifle, he rolled into a depression beside the tracks. In Dodge, no one bothered about a couple of shots. Mike waited for someone to move or shoot; He waited for them to make certain of their handiwork. If he moved, they would see his body silhouetted against the light from the saloon in the distance.

Then he heard a clatter as two railway workers moved a boxcar along the track to the siding that joined the main line between Bridge Street and First Avenue. As it passed between Mike and the source of the shots, he jumped up and grabbed the ladder on the side of the boxcar. He hung there, waiting for a bullet between his shoulders until the railroad car carried him all the way past railway water.

Once clear of the boxcar, Mike caught his breath in the darkness, wondering why anyone would take a shot at him. Maybe someone mistook him for Timmy but how could the hunters have found him and how could he find them? Mike decided that he needed a beer.

A different crowd of cowboys filled the Long Branch but Mike recognized the bartender who brought him a beer. He took his beer over to the table where the skinny gambler was playing a game of solitaire. The table was empty except for the cards, the whiskey and a bloody handkerchief.

“Well, Mr. Thornton, you seem a trifle less elegant tonight,” the gambler said, with a twisted smile. “Have you returned for just the beer?”

“Not entirely. I was hoping to ask you about the livery stable.”

“I’ve been thinking about the other night. That boy you bashed came in the next day. He marched up to me and apologized for his remarks. He may have the makings of something. Maybe you did me a service after all. What’s your interest in the livery stable?”

“If I’m not mistaken some men have been waiting around the stable for the last few weeks. They spend a lot of time in there and they’ve been asking about a chestnut mustang with a ‘Lazy Z’ brand.”

“Are you looking for them?”

“They’re looking for me and I want to know them when they come. I’ve no problem with settling differences honorably but I don’t want a bullet in the back without warning.”

“Stay here while I’ll look into it. If you start a game, the house gets five percent.”

The gambler returned about half an hour later. He bought a bottle and sat at the table. After taking two stiff drinks and coughing for a minute, he grinned at Mike. “Three of them. They paid a couple of men, one at Ham Bell’s and another at the Dodge House livery stables, to tell them about the horse. The leader’s bunked out at Long Nose Sally’s place.” The gambler gave Mike a complete description of the three men, their outfits and horses.

“Thank you, sir. It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“Thornton, you have panache. Go; visit your friends. I’d suggest you talk to them one at a time but that’s your choice.”

Mike set out to find Long Nose. He had to ask for directions at the Varieties Dancehall and resist the appeals of the soiled doves who promised they could provide any pleasure that Sally could. Eventually he found the rough clapboard shack on the last street on the south side of Dodge.

Sneaking a look through the uncurtained window Mike could see two men drinking at the kitchen table. He stepped to the door. One jerk broke the flimsy catch and he stepped inside, pressing his rifle against the nearer man’s neck.

“Let’s keep this polite, gentlemen. Hands on the table.”

“Who the hell are you?”

“Someone you’ve paid to see dead. Why are you here hunting me, Mr. Slattery?”

“I ain’t hunting you, mister. I don’t even think I know you.”

“It’s been a few years but we’ve met. Of course I was younger,” Mike replied. “Maybe you’ll tell me why you’re hunting my little brother.”

Slattery started. His hands left the table but only for an instant. “I just come for my horse and to see that horse thief gets what he deserves.”

“He says he has a bill of sale.”

“He’s a liar.”

“I don’t think you’d call him that to his face. After I take him home for trial, we’ll discover the liar. I came here to tell you to stay off my trail.”

“Don’t you think you can tell me what to do. I’ll see you and your brother in hell. That bastard took my daughter from me.”

“I’ve been shot at tonight. I’m in the mood to shoot back. What’s Tim got to do with your daughter?”

“He came ‘round with his good looks and his smiling ways and he turned that poor girl’s head until she didn’t know north from south. Then he rode off and broke her heart. I told her he was no good but she wouldn’t listen. I forbade her to leave the ranch but she went off anyway, right in the middle of the storm. He killed her, just as if he’d taken a gun and shot her.”

In the lamplight Mike saw Slattery’s face. The man looked like he hadn’t slept well in a long time. The creases in his face were canyons, deepened by suffering.

“Mr. Slattery, it’s a terrible hurtful thing to see your child die and you have my sympathy. My brother says he didn’t trifle with her. I can see you might not believe him but to charge him with stealing a horse and come here to bushwhack him with two hired guns is the most despicable thing you could have done. Now I’m leaving but I’m warning you again. If you come hunting me or mine, I’ll kill you.”

With that, Mike blew out the lamp and slipped from the shack. Outside, he dodged around an outhouse and waited but no one pursued him.

In the morning Mike entered the City offices with two railroad tickets. The Marshal sat behind his desk, looking tired from a long night of handling trouble. “See you got your tickets. Jebb, bring the boy out.”

When Tim left the cell, Mike smiled to reassure him. “Much obliged. I’ll be taking the lad now.”

As they left the sheriff’s office, Mike spoke in a quiet tone. “Slattery’s in town; keep your eyes open. Once we’re on the train, you’ll be safe.”

“Give me back my gun.”

“No. He wants you dead. If you have a gun, he will shoot you down like a dog. Without one, he wouldn’t dare attack you in town. That’s why I left you with the sheriff last night. Jail was the safest place I could think of. If there’s any shooting, I want you to hug the earth. Remember; you’ll be the target, not me.”

They walked along the boardwalk toward the station platform. Mike had his saddlebags in his left hand and his rifle, with the trigger cocked, in his right hand. As they stepped from the boardwalk to cross the street to the train station, Mike heard Slattery ask, “Hey, thief. Where’s my horse?”

Tim stopped and turned to face the man who wanted his blood. Mike spun on his heel, dropping the saddlebags and pushing Tim to the ground. Slattery stood on the boardwalk outside a store about 10 yards away. The other Texan was already on the street, watching Mike. Both had their guns in their hands.

Mike didn’t say a word. From the look in Slattery’s face he knew the time for talking was past. He cursed himself for a fool and fired his Henry rifle from the hip at the Texan.

Mike’s shot missed but it spooked the Texan into firing high. As the Texan cocked his single action pistol and took aim again, Mike jacked a new round into the breech, lifted the rifle and fired. He saw a puff of dust from the Texan’s shirt as the bullet struck. In that instant Mike saw on the Texan’s face the realization of his mortality.

Slattery was shooting in the cool controlled manner of a seasoned duelist. He walked towards the brothers, firing with each step. Step, fire. Step, fire. Each shot aimed at Tim who rolled desperately on the ground trying to find some cover but there was none.

Another shot. There was a thud and a scream of pain from Tim. Mike turned to Slattery. With another curse he wished he’d let his brother keep his gun. He had misjudged the depth of Slattery’s obsession. Mike rushed the shot. It hit Slattery in the shoulder and half spun the man around but he shook it off and started to take another step.

Mike didn’t dare let him fire again. He knew that Slattery’s hatred would drive him to kill even at the point of his own death. Mike shot the old man a second time, a third. Finally, like an ancient pine tree, Slattery tottered for a second and fell.

Mike looked down at Tim. His younger brother was rolling on the ground holding his leg and spouting the foulest language Mike had heard in years. It was sweet music.

“Let me see it, Tim. Now it’s not that bad. It didn’t hit the bone or any major arteries. You’ll live. Now, up on your feet; we have a train to Texas to catch.”


Copyright 2006, 2014 Edward McDermott. A similar story was printed in Rage Machine  in 2006.

Notes: Dodge City, Kansas still exists, although it is much quieter today. It has a population of  27,340 as of 2010.

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The Horse Thief and Other Stories

Hell's In Session