A town under siege and an unlikely hero with a difficult choice to make. All the hallmarks of a great short Western story as we reload the TRIGGER WARNING Short Story Contest with this piece by newcomer Haley Weiss
MRS DUNFREY’S GOLD
A Short Western Story By Haley Weiss
We’d spent the last of our money hiring a band of mercenaries to protect us. Desperate men with dirty beards and faraway stares. Deep desert tans. Men who were willing to put their lives on the line for good coin.
At least that’s what they told us.
Those we had paid to protect us stayed all of three days. Long enough to see out a single gunfight. The bandits took up position on a ledge overlooking the north end of the road leading out of town. Our mercenaries, in their wisdom, hadn’t bothered to post any sentries. Instead, they holed themselves up in the the general store and the inn across the road, waiting for the bandits to ride in.
Bullets rained on the back end of the general store, disintegrating windows and splintering wood and the bones of the mercenaries holed up inside. All told, there were eight wounded and three dead among the men we paid to protect us. It seemed unlikely they had traded any blows in return.
The next morning the remaining mercenaries rode out at first light, taking with them everything we’d paid and whatever else they could fit on their wagons.
We cursed them but there wasn’t much we could do to make them stop. We’d just paid what remained of the town’s coffers to be robbed. On the way out, one of the mercenaries looked over his shoulder and said, “They knew we were there. You got rats in your town, boss.”
The words were aimed at me, though I was just a clerk in the town hall. Until recently, my responsibilities had been to take receive forms in regard to civil disputes and file them for the circuit judges when they came round for hearings. Since the bandits started up raiding this whole stretch of the playa there hadn’t been too many judges willing to make the ride out, so I started working for the Sheriff, running messages from the jailhouse to the Town Hall or where ever else.
Sheriff Douglas was a month shy of his seventy fifth birthday and in his fifty years as a lawman had used his six shooter maybe a half dozen times. He was not a violent man but then until recently this had not been a violent town. Now he holed himself up in the jail house and rarely came out of his office. He called it the ‘war room’ and insisted strategies vital to the defense of the town were concocted there daily. But for every half baked idea that came out of there a gallon of whiskey went in. It had become clear even to the blind that the Sheriff could no longer help us.
The evening after the mercenaries left I met with three others; Judd the Baker, Hislop who had been a farmer until his whole crop was burned and his family turned out of their home, and Old Mrs Dunfrey who I was sure had some coin stashed away that she was either to senile or too greedy to give to the town. Before Mrs Dunfrey and Hislop arrived, I pulled Judd aside.
“WIthout the old lady’s money we’re as good as dead,” I told him.
Judd had been sweet on me since we were children, and I’d always counted on him to take my side. But there was something in his eye tonight. A doubt I’d not known was in him until now.
“I dunno Annie. We tried already with the mercenaries. And look where that got us.”
Judd was larger then most of the men in town, but his hands were gentle and he had a habit of rolling them together in front of him when he was nervous. I put my smaller hand on his.
“What would you have us do, tell me?”
Judd mumbled nervously. He thought the town should just pack up and flee. It wasn’t such a bad idea. The nearest town was only a couple of days ride and if we got away clean the bandits would have a hard time catching us before we got there. But I wasn’t about to surrender the town without first trying my had at Old Mrs Dunfrey.
“We pay them off with Dunfrey’s gold,” I told him. “If it doesn’t work, then we leave. We couldn’t take it with us anyway. But let’s at least try and save our town.”
Judd nodded, and I was glad to have him onside. I would need him to work over Hislop, who was close to Mrs Dunfry but had never been a fan of my ideas.
And so it worked out the Judd told it to the others like it was his idea. And coming out of his mumbling mouth, with his big brown kind eyes, it seemed to Hislop and Mrs Dunfrey both a good idea. He was well liked, and well trusted , was Judd the Baker.
The following evening I volunteered to be the one to take the payment to the bandit camp up in the hills. “It was my idea,” I insisted to Judd “I don’t want anyone to risk their lives.”
A crowd had gethered outside the general store where only a couple of days past our fearless mercenaries had holed themselves up to be shot at like fish in a barrell. Dawn was only just breaking behind the hills and they held lanterns and candles in silent vigil. Even the Sheriff had removed himself from his ‘war room’ and stood a way off gently swaying from the drink.
Hislop and some other farmers who had been displaced escorted Mrs Dunfrey on a horse and buggy weighted down with a chest of her fortune. She was sombre as Hislop helped her down from the buggy, dressed in mourning black.
The crowd watched on as I took to the coach, turning the horses towards the hills and sprurning them forward. I heard footsteps by my side and looked down to see Judd running on flat feet, his hand held to the hat he wore on his head.
“Wait Annie,” he said. “Let me come with you.”
I sighed and turned my head away. “Go home, Judd.” I said.
It took me less then an hour to reach the crossing where once a sign had proudly announced the name of the town now lay in a blackened heap.
I stopped the buggy here a while and watched the sun come up over the hills. The road forked here. The left path led to days to the nearest town. The right path towards the foothills where the bandits were holed up. I looked back towards my town one last time, then I set off, my choice was clear.