All Stories, Crime/Mystery/Thriller

Scrawleg and the Turban Man by Tom Sheehan

He tossed a noose of thin wire over the head of the jailer when the jailer leaned too close to the bars of the cell. Moments earlier he’d unwound the wire from the heel of his boot, pulled it taught at the jailer’s throat, demanded the key to the cell, got it, unlocked the door and brought the jailer into the cell. Pulling the wire tighter until the jailer was dead, he walked off into the night taking his own weapons with him.

His name was Scrawleg, Dermott Johnstone Scrawleg, now wanted for his third murder, known, a fourth perhaps succumbing in a matter of days from prior wounds inflicted by Scrawleg. He was an ungainly sort, hands that loomed as large as skillets, a jaw that continued to quiver no matter what he was up to, showing an interior discomfort that turned his face sometimes so ugly it was hard to look upon.

Scrawleg hated Turtle Hill and its sheriff, the turbaned, sword-wielding foreigner, Habet Kordash, who had been given the badge by the town council after he had chased down three men who had robbed the bank and killed a teller and the bank president after taking him as a hostage. They left the banker hanging from a tree in the foothills. Kordash brought the three men back to justice, one for burial and two for trial, which had taken only a few hours, with the hanging conducted the next morning.

Kordash did not watch the hanging. It was Halloween and he had other things to do.

Only the undertaker knew the man brought back dead had been beheaded … and Kordash held the undertaker to complete secrecy. It was quite implicit, Kordash’s argument, with the sword catching the awful parts of sunlight directly in front of the undertaker who fully understood the meaning.

“How’d you catch them dogs, Habet?” said the head of the town council, Aldo Roberts, in the Turtleneck Saloon later that evening, Roberts still uncomfortable talking to a man who wore a turban rather than a regular Stetson. The turban, ungainly as hell on a horseman, never mind being worn by a companion at a regular saloon bar crowded with tough, rowdy drovers and other cow folk, was purple, sat high on the sheriff’s head and made Roberts, and many others, wonder why the turban did not come off during a fast run on a horse.

Roberts kept wondering how long it took to wind it into place, and had said to one of the other council members, “Ever think how long he takes to put that damned thing on in the morning? Like a woman getting ready for a wedding maybe?” He wondered if the sheriff slept with it on or off while out on the trail, at a campfire, on a posse. He could not picture it.

Nobody else ever brought up the question in front of Kordash, and Roberts thought that the silence was induced by the slim, curved, deadly-looking scimitar that Kordash wore on one side of his belt, which happened to be backed up by a Peacemaker on his other hip. The curve of the blade, insidious in its appearance, probably could sever the many parts of a man in a hurry, the measure of the provocation never mentioned either, but surely wondered about.

Kordash called the sword his “talwar,” stating, “It was made of Damascus steel and fashioned in India far across the oceans, far enough for dreams to follow it, and destiny.” When he said “fashioned” it made the weapon sound even deadlier, like something made for death itself. It became a known deterrent to close combat of any kind with the sheriff. Though ill at ease with the presence of the sword, most Turtle Hill folks accepted it as well as the man carrying it and wearing the turban; they seemed to go together.

“It is a force in battle,” Kordash cryptically qualified a few times, with his eyes adding dimension to the words. That proved to be enough to stop people asking questions, at least directly at him.

In response to Aldo Roberts’ question on how he had caught the three bank robbers, the sheriff said, “They did not see me coming. They did not hear me coming. One of them, though, looked me straight in the eyes and he was already dead.”

Roberts did not want to know how that had happened. It was enough said. Even the undertaker had kept his word.

As it was, Scrawleg had escaped the jail in the middle of the night and it was only noted when a youngster delivering breakfast for the prisoner, found the deputy jailer dead in a locked cell and ran screaming for the sheriff at Harriet’s Kitchen where he was having his morning meal.

Kordash ran to the livery and asked the owner if any horses were missing. The man took stock and said, “One gray is missing.”

“What was the gray like? He a good horse? Got good shoes on his hooves? How long broken in?”

The livery man thought a while and told him what he knew of the horse, and gave another bare fact: “He had some peculiarities, that gray, but strange too is I ain’t got any answer why no saddle was taken by the horse thief. None of them I had here. I didn’t hear a thing all night, so he’s plumb sneaky to boot.”

For Kordash the information meant three things; Scrawleg needed a saddle, the first one he saw would be taken from under the first rider he’d meet during his flight, and his flight route had to be up into the mountains where there’d be less chance of being spotted.

Kordash, packing his saddle bag with an odd assortment of supplies after a quick visit to the general store, went off alone on his newest chase. The sun was barely overhead, the air carried the smell of dewed-up grass, and he saw the mystery of the day unfolding in front of him as he looked off to the peaks of the Rockies. Few clouds sat in the sky up that way and shadows still rested in places hard to reach by man or horse and the searching sun. If Scrawleg was hiding, he’d have to prompt him from his haven by whatever means he could. He patted his horse on the neck and said, “Jobal, old boy. Maybe you can help me there.”

He realized that Scrawleg must have believed two things right away: that he had to find a saddle, but he had to hide his flight from anybody’s sight as much as he could. That would take him into the low hills of the range first, the saddle search coming after that, after he hid himself in daylight. Accordingly, Kordash raced off to the low hills without checking for signs, thinking, “If I’m right, I’ll find newer signs, fresher signs, and a lot quicker than spending my time on the grass and arriving, eventually, at the same place but later on.”

His thinking was correct, and early in his pursuit he came across tracks of a horse, fresh tracks, heading right up to a spread of low hills, foothills of the Rockies. It was sheep country up there, the herders keeping their flocks in good feeding areas, areas that provided some natural protection for a flock, a pen Mother Nature could offer in a variety of ways.

It bothered Kordash considerably, a recurring image of Scrawleg coming on a lone Basque herder who might never be able to fend off the mad and murderous fugitive. He hoped the shepherd’s dog would provide as much warning for Scrawleg as it would about a wolf or coyote on the prowl.

He patted his horse on the back of the neck and spoke calmly to him. “You give me fair warning too, Jobal, and I will feed you well.” With another touch, his hand patted the saddle bag containing his quickly-gathered supplies.

The hills, on a gentle rise, spread out before him, and far up on one hill, sitting in the sunlight on a matt of green grass one could sleep in while his horse fed on it, he saw the white beads of what he knew to be a flock of sheep, small but hardy Mexican churros, scattered like prayer beads thrown to the winds.

And the tracks of the horse he was following headed straight in that direction. In the way were  a few ravines, some copses of trees clustered like close neighbors near a small stream rising from a sheer rock wall off in the distance, and dark mouths of caves or recesses in a tumble of rocks. Hiding places until darkness would make an easier entrance for a killer.

Kordash made for the flock, and its shepherd, in a hurry, his eyes scanning the terrain with each pounding hoof beat, knowing that it would alert the fugitive also. But he hoped the shepherd or his dog would hear him, see him coming, and set off an alert.

But he saw no movement in the spread flock, so he drew his pistol and fired it several times. That would alert the shepherd, and Scrawleg as well, but it was a good trade-off.

Ahead of him, on that splendid uphill pasture of green, two dogs coursed around the loose flock and forced the sheep into a tighter group and moved them against a small clutch of rocks and a ravine. The shepherd was also alerted, and hastened to the flock, yelling commands to the dogs as he ran.

And the turbaned sheriff, who sat rather tall in the saddle with his headgear most prominent, who had formulated much activity in his mind before it even came into play, who had seen whole scenarios take place in his imagination, pulled a knife from a belted sheath and two red objects from his saddle bag.

With blade expertise, Kordash sliced two apples into more than a dozen pieces with juice flowing freely from them as he rode by a huge cluster of rocks and sheared rock faces from one wall and flung the apple slices about him.

After he had flung the apple slices about, he brought Jobal to a halt, dismounted, and sat as the morning breeze had become a ready ally, carrying the apple scent all along the small cliff and the pile of rocks and on to the more open parts of the foothills. The area smelled like an apple orchard as the breeze toted the scent in a widening stretch.

He saw the shepherd get his flock into a more secure area, saw the dogs standing guard as the pair moved in slow motion along the front of the flock.

Kordash sat and listened as the slight breeze seemed to gather momentum, or the scent became stronger in his nostrils. All the while he kept full alert to new sounds and as well as to Jobal’s reactions.

And then, as if prescribed in all his imagination, he saw Jobal toss his head in a stallion’s rapt attention, and from a cluster of rocks off to his right, along the face of the small cliff, he heard the distinct nicker of a horse, the one that Jobal paid heed to, the sound of the gray mare.

Into one hand came Kordash’s Colt, a Peacemaker western-style, and into the other hand came the dreaded “talwar,” all the way from the East, from India, and from the hand of the Damascus steel craftsman that had fashioned death in its most serious approach.

Kordash, turbaned sheriff of Turtle Hill, felt invincible as he recalled the face of his trusted but fatally inept jailer. He also saw the face of Scrawleg looking at him through bars again … if Scrawleg could get that lucky for the second time. He had serious doubts.

In another moment of predetermination, of a scene he envisioned with utmost clarity, Kordash tapped the sword of Damascus steel against a boulder sitting about shoulder high on a pile of rocks Mother Nature had deposited in place most likely centuries earlier. The sound rang on the breeze, overpowered the scent of the apple slices, rang into and onto every rock surface where sound would carry and be reflected, just like a deadly tuning fork.

He tapped the sword again and again, and finally, without any fear of hurting the weapon, he banged it flatly against the smoothest surface he could find. The sound was notorious, and was clearly traceable to one and only one source, Habet Kordash, Sheriff of Turtle Hill, a purple turban sitting high on his head and marking him for legends.

It was a target too, and a few shots rang out from a hiding place in the rock cluster. But they were not rifle shots, but handgun shots. They came spasmodic, wild, from the hand of an unthinking man, a man bred on murder and abrupt cunning when it was to his advantage.

Kordash moved closer to the source of the shots, and once behind another rock in his approach, saw another vision. He applied the vision to reality, wanting it to come to be, as he saw his jailer again in the cell.

From his hidden position in the rocks, Scrawleg saw the tip of the sword as it appeared over the edge of a large chunk of stone, the sun sitting on it for mere seconds before flashing off as reflections. The sword moved once, moved a second time, and finally stayed in place, still in the sun, still a base for reflection. He left his hiding place, moved slowly and silently to his right, and circled the sword on the stone. It was not Excalibur. It would not give him new powers, but it would take away the power of the sheriff.

He moved in slowly for the kill, just becoming aware himself of the scent of freshly-sliced apples, and forgetting the sound of ringing steel.

He moved closer. Saw the tip of the sword again. He aimed his pistol and was about to stand atop the sheriff and fire down at him, like a pig waiting in the killing pen. As he stood he saw the sword leaning by itself against the rock.

No hand on it, and no sheriff behind it.

He spun about quickly, suddenly alert to trickery, but the Peacemaker of Kordash was at work before Scrawleg could get off a shot, and his hand was smashed against the handle of his own weapon when the shot slammed him into uselessness … and a second and final turn at the jail in Turtle Hill.

Kordash, of course, never told anybody about the apples, nor did the connection ever come to the attention of the owner of the general store.

And Scrawleg had no time at all to tell his side of things.

Tom Sheehan

Image – Indian Kukri Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

3 thoughts on “Scrawleg and the Turban Man by Tom Sheehan”

  1. Hi Tom,
    I’ve read about cowboys in all shapes and forms but never like this.
    What a brilliant piece of character writing!
    All the very best my friend.


  2. Interesting old West story with a different twist. Kind of reminds me of the T. V. Western Series “Kung Fu,” starring David Carradine, bringing in an Eastern aspect, the sword being the talisman here.


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