Illustration to accompany "Noose Hungry" . (c)Copyright 2019 by Chlo'e Camonayan. Used with permission

Noose Hungry

Story by Brandon Barrows

Illustration by Chlo’e Camonayan

It was mid-afternoon when Dick Kelley stepped through the doors of my office. He was a big, florid-faced man with a shock of wiry red hair that was only a few shades darker than his face. Just then, the blunt, honest features on that face were twisted into a look of worry. He greeted me with a wary, “Howdy, Marshal Farrar.”

I’d been sitting at the scarred old kitchen table that passed for my desk, sipping a mug of coffee and wondering how my deputy marshal, Ben Thomas, was making out up in the hills over Aldensville. There’d been a stagecoach robbery early that morning – a robbery and a murder. A single, masked rider had demanded the payroll money destined for the Silver Sky Company, the only working mine in the area, and when the coach’s shotgun-rider tried to scare the attacker off, he’d been gunned down for his trouble. After that, the coach-driver decided no amount of money was worth anyone else’s life and the bandit headed off into the hills ten thousand dollars richer.

When word reached town, I’d sent Ben out to look for trail-sign and report back as quickly as possible. I’d have preferred to do the tracking myself, but I’d taken a bullet through the shoulder a couple of months earlier and, while it had healed tolerably well, doctor’s orders were to stay out of the saddle as much as possible. I hoped that the restriction was let up soon. Frustration ate at me, but until I heard from Ben there wasn’t much to do but wait. Dick Kelley’s arrival was a welcome distraction.

“Afternoon, Dick. Have a seat.” I nodded to the chair opposite mine. The big man removed his battered slouch hat and settled himself, uneasily it seemed, in the chair. I asked, “What can I do for you?” Before Kelley could answer, though, the office door opened once again. “Marshal!” a mid-register, female voice called.

Both Kelley and I stood as a tall, spare woman entered, calico skirts swirling. Kelley’s expression had been worried when he walked through that door, but Allison Boemer’s was angry. Even if it hadn’t shown on her features, I’d have known it by the stamp of her foot and the way she almost, but not quite, slammed the door closed behind her. “Ernie Farrar! Do you have my husband in your pokey again?”

I cast a look at Dick, who seemed to shy away from it, averting his gaze, before I turned back to the newcomer. “Good day to you, too, Mrs. Boemer.” The woman’s eyes blazed, and she opened her mouth to reply, but I beat to her the punch. “Dick, here, was ahead of you in line,” I jutted a chin in Kelley’s direction, “so if you’ll give us a moment.”

“N-no, that’s okay, Marshal,” the other man said, placing his hat back on his head. The flush in his face seemed to have gotten deeper. “I just wanted to talk somethin’ over with you.” He started towards the door.

I held up a hand. “Hold on, Dick. Don’t go anywhere yet. Mrs. Boemer – Allison,” I turned to the woman, “Marty isn’t in the jail. I suppose you know he was up to some trouble here in town last night.”

“Trouble?” Allison Boemer’s sparse eyebrows pulled together. “You’re singing to the choir, marshal. That man’s been nothing but trouble since they hanged Yancey Frankes. All he does is drink himself silly and throw away every dime he gets his hands on. I wish to God…” her voice cracked a little as she repeated, “I wish…” then trailed off, her mouth forming a hard line as she worked something out in her mind. Whether she knew how to finish that thought or not, I was glad she hadn’t. No good comes of wishing on the names of the dead, especially those who dig their own graves.

Yancey Frankes had been the owner of the Squared Oh, the largest ranch in the valley. Some months earlier, Frankes, not happy being the richest man around, had engineered trouble – trouble that had earned him the hanging he’d tried to stick on a couple of innocent homesteaders. As Frankes had been unmarried and without heirs or a will, the Squared Oh had gone to a distant cousin from Omaha, who’d visited Aldensville just long enough to sell off the land and stock. The whole ordeal left a gaping hole in the community. Frankes was an agitator and a bully, but he employed a lot of people and with the end of the Squared Oh, a whole passel of folks was left to fend for themselves. Some fared better than others.

Ben Thomas, my deputy marshal, had been one of Frankes’s ramrods at the Squared Oh and now put his talent at keeping roughnecks in line to better use. He’d already saved my life once and I was glad to have him at my side.

Some of the other former Squared Oh hands, like Dick Kelley, had bought their own little pieces of range and were now trying their hands at bossing.

Still others, like Martin Boemer, hadn’t done so well. Boemer, I knew, had been a childhood friend of Frankes and that relationship was all that had kept him employed. He was far more interested in whiskey and cards than working cattle. With the reputation Boemer had, and without a friend like Frankes to indulge him, there were few in the valley who’d give him a chance.

“Come on, now, Allison, sit down a spell.” I guided the distraught woman towards the chair Dick Kelley had vacated. She angrily brushed my hand from her shoulder, but sat down, anyway.

I went to the stairs leading up to the rooms above the jail where my wife, Annie, and I lived. “Annie! We’ve got guests! Can you bring Mrs. Boemer a cup of tea, please?” She called back something that sounded affirmative, so I turned to Kelley and motioned towards the front door. The big man looked relieved and headed outside. I don’t think he’d expected me to follow him out onto the porch, though, and when I did, asking, “What did you need to talk about, Dick?” he seemed reluctant again.

Finally, he said, “Well… it was about Marty Boemer, Marshal.”

“What about him?”

Kelley’s big, square features scrunched up as if he was trying to keep from saying what he needed to. Finally, as if it hurt him to do so, he blurted out, “He tried to kill me!”

I held up both hands, palms out, and said, “Hold up again, Dick. Start from the beginning.”

Kelley flopped down into the old wooden loveseat where Annie and I often sat in the evenings, relaxing and watching the world go by. “Happened up on the ridge above my place this morning. There’s turkeys up there, you know?” I nodded, and he went on. “I’d been hearin’ em off and on around the back few acres the last couple days and thought maybe I’d bag me one for supper. Well, I’m up there, seein’ what’s what, and I come out into this little glade and there’s Marty. We were comin’ into the clearin’ about the same time but from opposite directions. I thought it was pretty strange, Marty bein’ way out there and a horse to boot. Cuz you know that area back there’s too brushy and close for ridin’.”

“Keep goin’.”

He did.

“Well, Ernie, I thought it was strange, to begin with, but then I notice Marty’s got this box strapped to the saddle-horn in front of him. Kind of a green, solid-lookin’ thing and I thought, ‘What’s goin’ on here?’ so I hollered to him. And instead of answering back, he startles like a rabbit in the brush, this wild look in his eyes, and he grabs up his six-gun and points it right at me! I thought maybe he didn’t knowed it was me, so I yelled at him again, sayin’, ‘Marty! It’s Dick Kelley!’ And he still doesn’t answer except to cut down on me! His first shot missed, thank the good Lord, and I wasn’t about to let him try for a second, so I brought up my scattergun and fired back.” Kelley paused, breathing heavily, all worked up as he relived the events in his mind.

“Then what happened, Dick?”

“I must have hit the horse, at least, cuz it started squealin’ and buckin’ like mad and while Marty tried to get it under control, I dropped the scattergun, pulled out my own six-gun,” he patted the long-barreled Smith & Wesson .44 strapped to his thigh, “and fired back. Just the once.” He looked up and met my gaze. “You know, maybe I shouldn’t have, but I was scared and angry and— “

“Did you hit him, Dick?”

Kelley shrugged. “Maybe. He got that horse under control, whirled and took off into the brush. There was blood on the grass, but whether it was Marty’s or the horse’s, I just couldn’t say, Marshal.”

I rubbed a hand across my jaw. I needed a shave and a think. Kelley had told me a lot. Maybe more than he realized.

“I ain’t mad anymore,” Kelley said, interrupting my thoughts. “More puzzled-like, you know? I guess Marty must have been pretty boozed up, maybe just as scared as I was. Still, I knew I needed to tell you, Ernie. Marty didn’t hit me, but he might hit the next man he shoots at.”

“Yeah,” I said. “He might.”

I gave what Kelley had said a moment’s more hard thought and made a decision. “Come on back inside, Dick,” I told him, “but keep quiet while I put some pieces together.”

Both women seated at my sad excuse for a desk looked up as Dick and I re-entered the jail. With a mug of tea and some soothing words from Annie, Allison Boemer had settled down some. The anger was gone from her face and in its place was the kind of worried strain I usually expected to see, the kind her husband regularly induced. Nobody seemed to know why a woman as strong and capable as Allison thought so much of Martin Boemer. Always broke, often drunk and perpetually in some sort of jam, the man was more like a troublesome son to Allison than the husband she deserved – and she took care of him the way a mother would. I didn’t understand it. I didn’t really want to try.

Annie smiled, a little sadly, I thought, and excused herself, adding, “Come by any time, Mrs. Boemer. I’ll always be glad to talk, okay?” The other woman nodded and tried to smile back, though it wasn’t much of an attempt. Annie gave me a sympathetic look and retreated upstairs.

Dick Kelley kept himself by the door, fidgeting uncomfortably as I settled myself behind the desk, across from the seated woman. “Allison, you know what Marty was up to last night? The specifics, I mean.”

The anger crept back into her features as she nodded.

Marty Boemer had come into a little money somehow and spent most of the afternoon and all-night drinking and gambling at the Golden Cup, the less-reputable of the two saloons on Aldensville’s Main Street. Come into money, lost it and then lost a considerable amount more besides. When, after midnight, his card-partners finally demanded he pay up, Marty had tried to write a check in Allison’s name. Nobody would take it, of course. Everybody knew Marty well enough not to trust any paper of his that wasn’t green. After a minor ruckus, he’d managed to slip out of the Golden Cup and leave town, but he obviously hadn’t gone home.

“From what Dick here tells me,” I flicked a glance Kelley’s way, “it gets worse, I’m afraid to say.”

The big man flinched as if struck. “Marshal, I don’t— “

“Quiet, Dick,” I said. “Allison, you know there was a stage robbery this morning that left a man dead? Well, Dick says he saw Marty out in the hills above his place, crazed and with what sounds to me like a Wells Fargo strongbox strapped to his saddle. And the description we got of the bandit from the stage-driver says the man was riding a dun mare with a white-splotched face and wearing a buckskin vest studded with brass buttons. That sounds like Marty’s horse and Marty’s clothes to me – least what he was wearing when I saw him yesterday.”

Kelley drew a sharp, unsteady breath and said, “So that’s it! Marty had just robbed the stage, so when I run across him, he must have thought I was trailin’ him. That’s why he tried to kill me!”

Allison Boemer burst into tears. Her hands flew to her face and she wailed, “It can’t be true! Marty wouldn’t— “She uncovered her face, looked at me with red, raw eyes, tears flowing freely and said, “Marty is wild and maybe morally weak, but he isn’t bad. He wouldn’t kill nobody!”

I said nothing, but Kelley started up again.

“That jasper must have gone plain crazy,” Kelley said miserably, shaking his head slowly. “Either that, or he must be positively hungry for the noose to pull that kind of thing in his own country.” His eyes met mine. “You got to get out there and track him down before he hurts someone else, marshal!”

Mrs. Boemer had resumed weeping, quieter now, but with no less anguish. I felt bad for her, but there wasn’t much I could do. To Kelley, I said, “Ben Thomas is out doing just that. It might not come to much, though, when word gets around about the reward.”

“Reward?” Dick’s eyebrows went up.

“The stage company and the mine have put up a thousand-dollar reward for anyone who brings in the one who killed their man and took the mine’s money.” I paused and added, “Dead or alive.”

Allison Boemer’s soft crying turned to wailing again. Drawn by the sound, Annie rushed down the stairs, wrapped her arms around the taller woman’s shoulders, whispered into her ear and hurried her up into our private rooms without giving me or Dick Kelley a single glance. I sent a silent thanks after her.

Kelley stood by the doorway, brows furrowed, chewing his lower lip. I let him chew. Finally, slowly, he said, “I don’t like blood-money, but it’s an awful thing that Marty’s done. If only I’d known this morning…” He let that hang, then continued, “But, like I said, marshal, I think I might have winged him, and the more I think about it, I for sure hit his horse. There must be a trail. Think I’ll head back up that way and have a look around. Unless you got objections?”

I shook my head. “I couldn’t stop you if I wanted to, Dick. There’s no law against crawling through the brush. But I’ll warn you: trackin’ down killers and thieves is the law’s work. You said Marty Boemer shot at you once already. The next time might not be a miss.”

“Maybe next time, I won’t give him the chance,” Kelley said, suddenly grim. He paused a moment, staring hard into my eyes, then added, “You know, I got to say, it’s funny you aren’t out there lookin’ for Marty yourself, Marshal Farrar. That man’s dangerous and he’s just out on the loose, doing who knows what.”

“If he’s out there, Ben will find him. Besides, in this instance, I’m of the opinion that if you give a man enough slack, he’ll end up hanging himself.”

“You think so?”

I nodded and made an affirmative noise.

“Well,” Kelley shrugged stiffly, “All I know is Marty Boemer is dangerous and something oughta be done about him. That, and a thousand dollars, blood money or no, would go a long way.”

“Money troubles, Dick?”

“Well…” Kelley drew it out. “Not troubles, exactly, but bossing your own spread sure ain’t as easy as Yancey Frankes made it look.”

“Be glad of that,” I told him. “Look where it got him.”

Kelley snorted and shook his head. “See you, marshal,” he said. He went out the door and disappeared from my sight.

— ♦♦♦ —

The day after the stage robbery, the sun, huge and red, was sinking behind the mountains to the west when Dick Kelley rode back into town. He was leading a second horse, one that sluggishly dragged its hooves and kicked up a curl of dust. The man on the second horse didn’t seem to mind, though, because it was Martin Boemer and he was dead.

From the porch of the jail, I watched Kelley approach, lugging his grisly cargo behind him. As a crowd started to gather in the street, he called to me, “Didn’t think I had it in me, did you, Marshal Farrar?”

I frowned at the crowd, murmuring and staring at Boemer, strapped to the horse like a side of beef. “Come inside, Dick.”

I went inside the jail. Dick Kelley dismounted, tied the horses, then followed. Ben Thomas, my deputy marshal, was seated just inside the door, straight-backed chair tilted against the wall, creaking under the weight of his huge frame. As we moved past him, Thomas stood, closed the door and then positioned himself in front of it. I leaned a hip against what passed for my desk, then said, “So, you beat us to Boemer. How’d it happen, Dick?”

Kelley looked almost apologetic for a second, then something like pride took over and he said, “I’m sorry it turned out this way. I’d hoped to find him alive.”

Ben Thomas and I shared a look. The huge man said, “Is that right?”

Kelley ignored him.

“He try to shoot at you again?” I asked.

“Never had the chance,” Kelley admitted. “He was dead when I found him, out in Cold Creek Canyon, slumped down in a little mud-hole of a cave, just about four miles from where I saw him yesterday morning. Looked like he managed to stay in the saddle that far then just stumbled off and died. No sign of the horse he was ridin’, so it probably just went off on its own way without him. At any rate, there’s only but one bullet-hole in Marty so there’s no doubt I killed him.” He grew something close to bashful and added, “Though I didn’t mean to at the time, of course. I didn’t know nothin’ about the robbery or the murder. Still, it was my bullet, so that puts me in line for the thousand-dollar reward, don’t it?”

I glanced over at Ben again then nodded. Stoney-faced, the big man said, “There’s no doubt you killed him, but your reward’ll be a noose soon as the circuit judge comes around.”

Kelley’s eyes went very wide for an instant, then narrowed down and grew suddenly cold. To me, he said, “What’s he mean?”

“It means,” I answered, “that we know Marty Boemer didn’t rob the stage or shoot that guard. He was already dead when it happened, and you killed him, Dick – shot him in the back from no more than a couple feet away. There were powder-burns on him. I don’t know how you missed it when you swapped clothes with him before you hid the body. After that, you took Marty’s horse over to the stage-route, robbed the coach, then went back to where you’d hid the body, swapped clothes again and buried Marty under a pile of shale. That story about Marty shooting at you near your place and you shooting back was a good idea; I suspect the part about coming upon Marty in the brush, crazed, drunk and scared, was even true. Maybe he told you he was in trouble and on the run and that gave you the idea for the whole set-up. It was a good plan, but you got greedy, going back for the body so you could try to collect the reward.” I let that hang a moment, then added, “You must have needed money awful bad, Dick.”

Dick Kelley’s face was no longer flushed nor did his big, blunt features look honest anymore. The heat from his skin had moved into his eyes and something wicked flared and danced behind them. “And you’re sure that’s how it all happened, marshal?”

“Sure enough. Ben?”

Ben Thomas spoke up again, saying, “I followed the stage-robber’s trail like Ernie set me to, up into the hills. Someone tried to brush it out, but they weren’t too good at it, and when I picked it back up, I found where Marty’s body was hidden – not at Cold Creek, but in Horseshoe Canyon. I didn’t know who’d done it, though, so I left poor Marty where he was and came back to town.”

“And then I,” I cut in, “asked the stage company to put up that reward, figuring whoever killed and tried to frame Marty might be greedy enough to try to cash in twice. We already knew Marty was dead when you came to see me yesterday, Dick.” The thought of the play-acting I’d had to do in front of Allison Boemer pained me, making like I didn’t know her husband was lying under a pile of stone out in the hills. She hadn’t been part of my plan, but her arrival on Dick’s heels couldn’t have been better timed if she had. There was no way to know, at the time, how perfectly it had worked out. It didn’t do much to lessen my guilt, though.

“None of that proves nothing, “Kelley sneered. “Maybe I lied about how it happened, but I could still have found the body and brought it in for the reward.”

“You remember what I said about giving a man enough slack to hang himself?”

Kelley looked warily at me but didn’t answer.

I let out a sigh and said, “The lie you told just now proves you’re the only one who could have hidden Marty’s body in the first place. After Ben came back to town and told me what he’d found, I had him go back up into the hills and watch that spot where Marty was stashed. Who do you think he saw, not three hours ago, ride right to where poor Marty was hidden, dig him out, and then head back towards town? Only the man who buried the body would know exactly where he was. You were caught red-handed, Dick.”

Dick Kelley’s eyes blazed, and his hand moved up to hover near the butt of the pistol riding his thigh. He looked from me to big Ben Thomas, standing in front of the door, realized there was no route for escape and made a decision. He roared like an animal and his hand flew, bringing up the gun – but it was too late, I was already moving. Dick was only a few feet from me and by the time he’d brought the weapon up, I’d already ducked, bent low and charged, tackling him about the waist. The gun went off over my head, dizzying me with the explosion of sound, but I locked my arms tight around the other man and dragged us both to the floor. The landing set off a jolt of pain in my shoulder, but I only needed to hold on for a moment before Ben rushed over, grabbing for Kelley.

Caught, desperate, Kelley flailed like a wildcat, hatred and fear boiling behind his eyes. He broke away from me, rolled and sprung to his feet, smashing the barrel of his gun down against Ben’s wrist as the bigger man reached for him. The blow earned a grunt of pain, but Ben managed to get a grip on Kelley’s forearm and pushed the man’s gun-hand off to the side, where he could do no harm even if he got off another shot.

I scrambled to my feet, drew my own gun and brought the barrel of it crashing down across Kelley’s wrist, the way he’d done to my deputy a moment earlier. Kelley grunted, and his hand opened, the gun dropping harmlessly to the floor. Ben Thomas slammed a huge fist into Dick’s belly, sending all the air out of him with a whoomph! Gasping and wheezing, both the breath and the fight knocked out of him, the man slowly sank to the floor in surrender. He put up no more fuss as I half-dragged him to the nearest cell.

— ♦♦♦ —

Later that night Annie and I sat together on the front porch, nestled on the loveseat, holding hands and looking up at the stars that appeared over the dark ridges of the mountain to the north. Neither of us had said anything for some time.

Finally, quietly, Annie broke the silence. “Ernie, why did he do it, you think?” She sighed and added, “Poor Marty Boemer.” That’s what she said, but I knew she was thinking of poor Allison Boemer. I’d done what I could, finagling things to make sure that the reward money would go to her. Her husband was the reason Ben and I had caught the real stage-robber, after all, and I knew she’d need that money. I also knew it wouldn’t help, not in the way she really needed it.

“I can’t say for sure, sweetheart.” I squeezed Annie’s hand, remembering what Mrs. Boemer had said, sitting at my desk, the day before. “Some people aren’t good, but they aren’t really bad, either. And then some people… well, they try, but eventually, what’s inside of them comes out. Sometimes, it’s just looking for an opportunity or maybe an excuse.”

Annie surprised me, leaning over suddenly and kissing me, long and deeply. She was always affectionate, but rarely so bold. When she pulled back, she looked at me, very seriously, through the gathering gloom of the night. “I know sometimes it’s hard, but you’re a good man, Ernie Farrar, and I love you. Please don’t ever change.”

I smiled. “Annie, I don’t think I could if I wanted to.”

She stood, looking invitingly lovely in the faint, warm glow spilling out through the windows of the jail. Her dark, almond-shaped eyes caught a little bit of that light and something flickered and reflected it back. She smiled slowly, took my hand and said, “Let’s go upstairs, Ernie.”

She didn’t have to ask me twice. I followed Annie inside, leaving life’s hard questions at the door. They’d still be there tomorrow and the day after and the day after that, but the rest of the night, that was all ours.

— ♦♦♦ —


Next Week: 

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