Western Short Story
It happened in a split second, the way quick decisions can hang on a person’s life with a grasp that is often an enormous weight. To this day, Smitty says he was never conscious of making a decision. “The wagon came busting down the street, the team of horses in a panic runaway. The kid being carried away was clutching at the seat with no reins in his hands and screaming as loud as he could. Some ladies across the road were screaming as well. I just bolted off the boardwalk in front of the general store and ran to head off the animals, trying to stop them or slow them down. It was just a plain reaction.”
His eyes said he was still searching, bewildered. “That’s all I remember.”
He ended up in Doc Hartnett’s office. The doc tended him for six months straight, a great deal of the time in a room at The Bighorn Hotel that Doc and some other friends paid for, the doc insisting, when asked, that Smitty would never walk again. He’d shake his head, adding strength to the diagnosis, and say, “It’s about as bad as it can get. I never saw it so bad, even a couple of drovers come out of a stampede alive weren’t as bad, and Bobby Baker shotgun like he was a couple of years ago. It just makes me sure that a power greater than me has got to take the reins. That wagon just dragged him plumb to Hell but only halfway back.”
He’d look to the heavens for a sign, never seeing a hint of anything there.
Jason Cardwell Smithers was well-liked by everybody in Parson’s Grove, all of them calling him Smitty, even though he was a rather foot-loose cowboy who had worked on just about all the local ranches for six or seven years. He was closing on his 23rd birthday, when the bad day came along, taking a turn as a drover and horse breaker with Bill Bickard’s crew at the Lazy-B ranch.
The word on Smitty having so many jobs in his short life was his taking a stand against ranchers who were blaming hired hands for their problems, not seeing their own shortcomings. He’d done it often, loudly, and with purpose, each time grabbing his saddle, blanket and quick-gear as he called it and riding away from the job. Some owners really carried a grudge for a long while, but cowhands up and down the river knew that Smitty was one who’d be their pal and spokesperson when the nitty-gritty time came. He had a flair for determined arguing, saying his out was plain riding away. “I always owned my horse. Nobody could take that away from me.” He’d add, “Just grab, pack and ride. It’s simple, at least for me.”
There was a small idea building in the doc’s head that he wanted to get out in the open. But he didn’t want it to be seen as his idea, like he was getting out from under the expense of the Smitty’s room. So one night at The Bighorn Saloon, when some of the town fathers were talking about the town and what made it tick and click or lose time, he said, “If things are so dead and quiet, why don’t we have a Rope, Ride and shoot day, have prizes, make some noise. It’d be good for the town. Shake the place up, glad-hands and all that good stuff coming out of it.”
Slaggerhorn the banker piped in with, “We have to have a cause, a reason for celebrating, something to grab hold of people, create some good publicity. It’s only good business. I say that from where I sit in the community.”
Suddenly realizing how pompous he sounded, he qualified himself by saying, “Of course, each one of us here is in a very responsible position in the community. Reparations, if needed, should fall upon us. It’s only natural, I think.” He backed off then before the qualification was seen as defensive, Doc Hartnett’s more than medical sharp eye looking at him from under the wide brim of his sombrero.
Into the breach stepped one of Smitty’s pals, Homer Gonzlow, a drover who was sitting at the next table, a big, earthy fellow, the tallest man in the room and one who commanded attention. He had a loud voice to go with his stature. Standing tall, he said in his friendliest voice, “I heard the idea you gents were comin’ up,” like an advocate for Smitty from the word go. “Why don’t you fellas try to get enough entry fee money to build Smitty a little house of his own? A place he can call his own. Doesn’t have to be too smart, just comfortable, and big enough for what could keep him goin’ with all the trouble he’s got. He can’t stay in the hotel forever bein’ paid by someone who might not be able to afford it someday. It appears to me to be a damned good idea to do somethin’ for someone who needs it and deserves it. He’s owed it. Saved that kid’s life durin’ the runaway. Plumb sure did.”
Gonzlow had commanded the attention of everybody in the room, and looked into each face, cementing the deed, the way commanding orders are laid in place.
Doc Hartnett jumped right in, his voice also ringing in the saloon, reaching across all the tables, a clarion if you will. “That’s a great idea, Homer Gonzlow. It’s perfect. Do it for your pard Smitty. Smitty deserves all he can get, like you say and everybody here knows, and I bet the kid’s father will start things off with a donation, won’t you Paulie?” He looked at the runaway wagon boy’s father who nodded happily.
The Rope, Ride and Shoot Day was off and running in Parson’s Grove.
Slaggerhorn offered up a small piece of land on the outskirts of the town. “It’s not worth much, I’ll admit, but I’ll make it a gift for Smitty. We just got to get the barn builders together and build Smitty a little house of his own, a comfortable place like Homer says, maybe hire a few ladies come in now and then or every week to keep house, look after him, keep his spirits in place.”
The whole idea went right to the top of the hill.
And several side issues came to light.
Nobody in town knew where Smitty had come from in the first place, sort of wandering in one day and hooking a job with a rancher. So, no one knew of any of his relatives either, meaning there was no where to put him into relatives’ hands.
The most important item, though, was Julie McKeever. She was Emerson McKeever’s daughter, him being one of the bigger ranchers in the area, and she’d been seeing Smitty before he was hurt. She didn’t go far away afterward, dropping into the hotel to say hello every day, relieving Doc or whoever was on watch, doing her thing. Folks thought she felt herself obligated to Smitty, believing there was no future for her with Smitty … “no real future,” they’d add. None of them knew the truth, how much she loved the gallant cowboy. Even her father had no idea.
But, in spite of those side issues, the Rope, Ride and Shoot Day advanced for Parson’s Grove.
The word went out from horseback to horseback as the cowpokes from dozens of ranches spread the word about a place for Smitty, the word going up and down the river, and across it at the ferry at Low’s Crossing.
“Hey, Waco,” one cowboy said out on the trail, ‘did you hear about the Rope, Ride and Shoot Day coming down in Parson’s Grove. All the money’s goin’ to build a place of his own for Smitty. Already got a piece of land from the banker. Entry fees gonna do it all, and what some others might kick in who can’t shoot a gun or throw a rope.”
Waco said, “I’ll tell all the boys up at Campsoon. They’ll be there, bet on it, and if they got a problem goin’, well, I’ll light a fire under their bottom sides. Most all of us owe Smitty directly the way he stands two-footed as a man, and a pard.”
That’s how it went on horseback telegraph out to all the ranches that Smitty had worked on, to all those pards who rode with him on a hundred jobs; each one favoring to tell the news to the next pal he met on the trail.
Meanwhile, the folks in Parson’s Grove mobilized their forces in a decent manner, and courses and targets and other pieces of entertainment were assigned and aligned in neat order. The registration table would be set up by the banker and his tellers, to collect the entry fees, tab them in a log by name, and spirit the money off to the bank when it became providential to do so.
The energies being gathered and spent for the Rope, Ride and Shoot, “all for Smitty,” had truly galvanized Parson’s Grove and much of the surrounding area, and Julie McKeever kept coming, every day now, to visit and tend Smitty. That way the doc could tend to other business and his own romance with Hattie Bergerand who owned The Owl’s Hooter, a small restaurant in town. The two women were becoming closer friends and were able to confide and encourage each other in entirely different ways of romance and love.
Hattie had asked, “What kind of a life would it be if you spent it with Smitty, crippled the way he is.
“I plain all out love him, Hattie,” Julie had admitted.
Hattie, marveling at the younger woman, said, “I know love works on the heart, Hon, but it doesn’t bring the bacon or the steak home and put it on the kitchen table.”
“I’ve been through all of that, Hattie, must be a hundred times. I haven’t told my folks yet, but they’ll warm up to the idea. There’s no way I’d ever leave him, and he knows it,” She hung her head and said, “He tries to put me off all the time. Keeps harping on it. Every day he gets right to it. Some days he doesn’t even kiss me, but begins to argue right off.”
“Man knows his own heart too, Julie. You got good taste in them critters. Some of them are in great hurry all the time and some hardly ever move at all.” She sighed audibly for her young friend who squeezed her hand. They were soul mates caught up in different camps.
Julie said, “What can I do to help? I feel so helpless.”
“Knock that stuff off, Julie. You got the bull by the horns in this. That’s weight enough for anybody.”
The two women, in love, obstacles in the way of each romance, spent much of the early part of the eventful day, Rope, Ride and Shoot Day, talking over their situations. Each understood the other, the prominent obstacles; Smitty’s easy to know, Doc’s a bit obscure, but boiling down to a new commitment that kept chewing at him.
The registration table at the edge of town was busy all morning as ranchers and cowpokes and saddle bums came into town, did their thing, like registering for the contests, getting a few drinks, looking around the town, feeling some of the buzz.
A few lazy ones, hardly visible in the confines of the active day, took other approaches.
At noontime things really got going and the roping matches and shooting contests, scheduled so that interests would hang on for much of the day. Sales at food tables were at a brisk pace, and the town was wrapped around itself and its main cause, building a place that Smitty could call his own.
Julie went up to the hotel to spend time with Smitty and Hattie Bergerand went down to the affair area to check on the tables her restaurant had set up.
The bank meanwhile had accepted several sums of fees and donations to the cause delivered up from the site. Most activity was at the other end of town from the bank and the hotel.
That’s when, in early afternoon, gunshots went off in the bank, two doors up and diagonally across the street from the window in Smitty’s room. His bed was right by the window, with his gear at hand where it had been since Doc Hartnett had placed him there … in the hotel, in a front room on the second floor, by a window with a view.
His gun belt was at hand, his rope, his rifle.
He rolled over and saw, across the road, two masked men come out of the bank, one with the teller at gunpoint, as if he was not only protection at the moment but would be a hostage to aid their free exit from town.
Smitty knew what had come down, the loose money in the bank was from the Rope, Ride and Shoot action, and was put up by friends, drover pards, old bunkhouse mates, trail riders for months on end. He felt the guilt pile down on top of him that he was the cause of all the drama out there across the main street of Parson’s Grove.
Julie was about to scream out the window and Smitty railed at her. “Stand back, Julie. Get away from the window.” He put out his hand to push her. She pushed his hand away.
“For gosh sakes, Julie, get out of the way.” He could feel something cooking within him, gathering energy.
A look of anger, then of fright, crossed Julie’s face as Smitty laid the barrel of his rifle over the windowsill and took aim on the masked bandit holding the teller close to him, a gun in his hand.
Smitty aimed the rifle, took a deep breath, squeezed the trigger slowly, and shot the bank robber in the leg. He fell to the ground, the teller running down the alley between the bank and the next building, the second robber standing confused, wondering where the shot had come from, the sheriff running down the street from his office with a deputy.
When the second robber was about to start shooting at the sheriff, Smitty fired his rifle for the second time, also hitting this man in the leg, knocking him to the ground like a felled tree.
Smitty, of course, was the town hero, and the day roared into a grand finale with the final contests taking place.
In due time the little house on the edge of town was built, Smitty moved in, Julie and him were married, and one night, near a year later, when lightning hit the house, near demolishing it, a fire starting to roar out its freedom on all sides of the fallen clutter, Smitty, calling on an unknown strength, managed to crawl out of the mess dragging an unconscious Julie with him.
Doc Hartnett, some days later, figured it was something Smitty did the night of the fire that tied things together in Smitty’s legs and nerves for the first time since the runaway wagon rolled over him, allowing him to walk later in the year.
Down in Parson’s Grove, all these generations later, Smitty’s great great-grandchildren still tell all the stories that came out of Rope, Ride and Shoot Day.