Western Short Story
The shivering snowflakes pelted unforgivingly against the frail man’s elderly face. Each white splash of cold seeped and sunk into his skin. Moments later another icicle had formed along his bony bridge of nose. Hanging side by side now with the seven other pearly glaziers that stretched his minute head.
Desperately he tried to look ahead towards his target. But his flimsy hat flopped and flapped annoyingly against his face. Forcing his tired eyelids to open and close like a revolving door. He coughed out painfully adding sorrow to the solitary surroundings.
Firmly he held the reins of his shaking horse. Plod by plod, the resourceful creature carried his awkward friend. Trudging slowly through the cake of snowy grass. Hoping that the next step would be his last. But the delicate tap against his hide informed him that the journey wasn’t over. Up above the lonely travellers, the starry night inter-joined so perfectly with the falling flakes that it was impossible to tell which white object beamed above their creeping souls.
This miserable torture had only lasted thirty minutes but to the two journeymen it could’ve been a day. Or a week for that matter. For the preceding sixty minutes, although bereft of lashing white discs, had been as cold as anything that followed after. This was a ferocious storm and any unfortunates in its midst deserved all our pity.
Dreams of flaming open fires and hot, teasing coffee bombarded into the old man’s mind. But this alternated rapidly with feelings of whether this journey was worth the risk. Would the end result be worth the pain that he endured? Only time would tell. And time was probably running out.
Then, like a gift of hope, from another being, his destination came suddenly into his line of sight. Between the snowy spurts, he could just about make out the familiar face of a wooden building. Then another cousin of a structure crept slowly up to say hello. Followed by a wooden rail. And then the tiniest dot of shining light. Next a moving object popped into view. Succeeded by the sound of human contact. Now the shapes all coagulated and the end result brought a gasp of joy from his freezing lungs. A town would soon be upon him.
As every inch brought him closer to the promise of some warmth, a sign standing tall veered ever closer. Lifting his head softly up, but still holding his frozen jacket tightly, his hallucinating pupils tried to read the word inscribed. ‘D...D...D...Dogstown’ boasted proudly along the oak plank of purpose. Thank God my information was correct, thought the white travelling man.
Gently the two barely breathing figures passed the town’s sign and entered the welcome setting. One by one another building dropped towards their eyes. Yet the hope of loving warmth didn’t bounce towards their eager vessels. Only a jingle of light here and there blushed into their hearts. Murmurs of conversation and the odd leering laugh were the only noises in the air. Apart from, off course, the two coughing spirits that edged through the booming storm.
Now to find this man’s home, thought the elderly visitor. It’s better to do it now while I’ve still got the strength. And the interest.
Once again he lifted his painful head up and peered eagerly at the signs above the doors. One and then two and then three and then four, and so on, passed his vision. But the man he needed hadn’t shone out yet. He was ready to lose interest when a sign ten yards away grabbed the curving river of his eye. Jackpot! There’s his place, he thought to himself.
Veering his fed-up horse towards the target in his sights, he purposely pushed through the snow. When he reached his goal, he pulled up his pal and clamoured down off him in a snail like procession. Bones and joints creaked and squeaked like an oil-less motor. ‘Aaahhh...aaahhh...aaahhh,’ he moaned in freezing self contempt.
Then the desolate traveller knocked as hard as he could against the front door. But no new sound journeyed back. Again he tried but the answer didn’t come. So he bashed his brittle finger soldiers in a final charge of flight. Even shouting out the man’s name to add some serious weight. Yet the answer remained the same. Nothing.
‘Aaahhh...’ he breathed out once more as he turned away from the door. What should I do, he thought in a panic? Maybe he’s gone out? Yeah, maybe’s he’s gone out. To get a drink. Or a woman. Or both. Well, whatever the case, I need a drink. A strong drink! The woman will have to wait!
With his mind set in stone, he trod once again along on his noble fellow creature. Shadowy shops and dimmed houses passed by in slingy fashion. Interspersed with dangerous dark alleys. The town seemed strangely morose. Like it had been destroyed by a vicious epidemic. Or a violent gang of men. Despondency seemed to be the message of the night, when to the old man’s delight a sparkling piece of news walked out to greet him. A large red painted sign stated ‘Lady Jane’s’ with a twinkle. And a cheeky promise of delight.
Drops here and there of chitter chatter fleshed into the air. Added shortly after by chuckles from hopeful men. And teasing ladies. The frail visitor left his horse once again. But this time tied him to the handrail as rest was on his thoughts. The saloon doors which stood in his way, gently moved back and forth with the slightest cold breeze. Merrily, he danced through them in a slow but cherishing style. A warm veil of love wrapped its arms cosily around him as he stood now within the dreamy home of solace.
In front, to his left, stretched a long strong bar with a moustached barman observingly cleaning the glasses all around him. To the right of this, ten or so round tables occupied the oak floor. And scattered here and there, with golden smiles and luscious legs giggled the ladies of the night. Twirling their scented locks of hair as only a woman can, while eyeing up carefully their prospective buyers in waiting. Who seemed only too happy to oblige.
Feeling ten years younger, the white snow-peaked figure strolled over to the bar.
‘What can I get ya’?’ asked the rapid-fire liquor salesman.
‘Oh...whiskey...and a steamin’ hot cup of coffee...steamin’!’
‘Comin’ up...and steamin’ hot!’ joked the smiling barman.
Then, almost before he finished speaking, he laid down the two liquids on the counter. Which were gobbled up by the shaking, cold figure.
‘Aaahhh! That was great! Just great, mister!’ thanked the delighted visitor. He then seemed to hesitate for a moment before convincing himself to speak again. ‘D’ya’ know where I can find...?’ he inquired unsuccessfully as the loud booming sound of the piano nearby blocked out the man’s name. But this eager traveller was determined, to say the least. So he repeated the question once again. Only this time, uninterrupted.
Smiling a pleasant smile, the slender barman pointed over to the back end of the room. The elderly man’s eyes followed this line of vision until he reached a human target. All alone, a darkened figure, sat with troubles on his mind. He barely moved. Yet in his still posture, a million thoughts battled for possession. Gently, his right forefinger moved up and down the half-full whiskey glass that stood before him. A gold-rimmed and dangerous black hat tilted ominously down towards the table. Shielding his eyes from any human contact. Fencing himself off from the beautiful ladies that seemed to magnetise towards him, as they badly wanted to go and say hello to the muscular, dynamic man all dressed in black.
‘Thanks mister,’ replied the tender, old man as he left the comfort of the counter for a journey towards a simmering soul. Just as he was about to make contact, a seductive but caring flame-haired, mature woman blocked his view and stood helpfully before the target.
‘Can I help?’ she asked the forlorn figure with warm familiarity.
Softly, the head tilted up and the green piercing eyes answered with conviction, ‘No...not tonight, Jane. But thanks for askin’...you’re too good.’
‘Nonsense,’ she replied quickly. ‘Never did a man ask for less and deserve more,’ she answered with a twinkle in her eye. Then she lovingly patted him on the shoulder and walked back up the stairs that she’d come from.
After a respectful couple of seconds the white visitor darted in and said his piece. ‘Mr Murphy? Thomas Murphy?’
The magnetic, brooding figure brooded on for a few intense seconds before finally answering with a deep voice and little interest, ‘Yeah...who’s askin?’
‘My name’s Peter Strickler. I’m a friend of Jim Gardner,’ replied the elderly man nervously.
‘Jim Gardner’s a good man,’ stated Murphy, with his head tilted down, blocking his eyes from sight.
‘Yes he is. And he’s in trouble!’
‘Trouble? What trouble?’ vipered Murphy as he rapidly lifted his head up.
‘Em...eh...he’s holed up in the Douglas cabin, way up in Bony Creek...with a broken leg,’ answered the old man, clearly startled by Murphy’s passion.
‘So what are we doin’ here talkin’ when Jim needs a hand?’ rattled the powerful man as he quickly stood up and darted away from the confines of his chair. ‘Are ya’ comin?’ he boomed to the frightened man as he sped by in a flurry.
‘Yeah! Yeah! I’m right behind,’ jumped the messenger with the answer.
Ladies parted with respect as the two heroes made a beeline for the exit. Making their beautiful eyelids fluster as they were transfixed by the determination etched in Murphy’s eyes. He had a job on his mind and nothing else.
The snow was still belting down as they left the place of pleasure. It bounced and bit with fierceness onto and through their clothes. Desperately, with exhaustion, Mr Strickler tried to keep close to Murphy’s tail. But the black dressed man was pacing with steely purpose.
When he got to the front door of his home, he finally stopped and looked back. Towards the white, shivering figure that’d pulled him from his demons. For the first moment since the old man had encountered him, Murphy showed him comfort.
‘Are you alright there? D’ya need a hand?’
‘No...it’s okay, thanks. I’ll be with you now,’ answered the frosty figure as he finally reached the shelter of the building.
‘Okay,’ replied Thomas Murphy as he unlocked his front door.
‘Huhhhhh!!!’ shouted a primal beast to the two disturberers.
‘What the hell is that?’ cried Strickler in a shocked and awful whimper.
‘It’s only my good friend, Red,’ replied Murphy as he lit a lantern on the table.
‘Red? That’s the name of a...?’ inquired the shaken figure.
‘That’s the name of my horse,’ smiled the proud host as light begot more light. Until the light lit up the living room and the beautiful creature in the corner.
‘What’s he doing in here?’ asked the puzzled visitor.
‘It’s cold outside! Too cold for me! Too cold for him! And I think, too cold for you. Am I right? Too cold for you?’ challenged Murphy protectively.
‘Ye...Yes. You’re right. Too cold for me,’ replied the trembling, white-peaked man.
‘Good. Well then let’s get to work,’ stated Murphy firmly. ‘I’ll pack everything we need for the trip ahead, while you make us a fire. Don’t wan’ you diein’ of cold. Now, do we?’
‘No, not at all. That’s a good idea,’ returned Strickler as he relaxed a bit in Thomas Murphy’s presence.
‘Too cold tonight to head out. We’d freeze out there. So when we’re finished our work, we’ll have some food an’ call it a night. Okay?’ asked Murphy assuredly.
‘Okay,’ replied Strickler obediently.
An hour later, after having some hot chicken and beans, the two mismatched men rested for the night. A night in which both men slept well considering they had issues on their minds.
‘Hey, old timer, there’s some bacon and coffee waitin’ for you, when you get up,’ smiled Murphy to the sleepy visitor, seven hours later, as morning was upon them.
The old man crept slowly out of his cosy bed as the first beams of snowy sunlight flashed into his eyes. Then he sat down to a very welcome breakfast which he munched happily. He could feel his brittle bones strengthening and warming up as the reinvigorating coffee flushed throughout his system.
‘Thanks for that. It’s worked a wonder,’ remarked the guest as they left the safety of Murphy’s home for the cold, trip ahead. ‘I’ve just got to get my horse. It’s tied outside the saloon.’
‘No problem. Go ahead. I’ll wait right here,’ stated Murphy with authoritative ease.
The slender man trudged through the four inch snow towards his horse as Murphy eyed him up, while resting comfortably on his trusted pal, Red.
A few minutes later, the four determined souls were out of Dogstown and on their journey’s route. A slight icy breeze was blowing but the snow had halted its downward pour. The two travelling men barely spoke as they conserved their vocal chords. The previous night, Murphy had quizzed Mr Strickler about this Gardner affair. How they knew each other? How long they were acquainted? What had happened to Gardner? Why he was up in the Douglas cabin in Bony Creek? And so on.
With all this information now at Murphy’s disposal, thoughts and ideas jumped and danced for clarity in his razor sharp brain. Fighting for ownership of his mind.
This coincided suitingly with the form the journey now took. After a very gentle opening, ploughing through the snow-filled plains, a sudden rise in altitude meant that the trip had raised its stakes. Transcending along a narrow icy cliffside passage, the two parties moved with gentle care. To their right, the jagged mountains above stretched with fierce intent. Rows and rows of tall, boasting redwood trees lined the steep decline to their left. Holding their spear-like branches out like an African tribe in battle. Ready for the slightest slip of balance. As the path went higher and higher up the mountainside, another extra rock slid over and down towards the soldiers with the leaves. CRASH and BANG and WALLOP they flew into the unrelenting sturdy plants!
Strickler began to pant and exhale louder with fearful worry. He could feel drops of sweat rolling and freezing along the side of his head. His heart thumped and shook in circular voodoo beats. Concurrent with a careless slip of his horses reins. His partner’s front hooves tripped and scrapped along the glass-like cliffside wall.
‘Aaahhh!’ shouted out Strickler and his horse as they feared a tremendous drop. Murphy sped around in his saddle and looked back towards them. With fearless speed of thought he unleashed the lasso from his saddle and flung it at the old man’s hands. It pulled in rigorously in a noose, sealing the elderly man’s palms with the sliding reins of his horse. Then a sharp, forceful tug hauled the slipping couple from an awful end. Quickly they regained their balance and the caravan was back on track.
‘Thanks Murphy! Thanks a lot,’ muttered Strickler with the first words spoken in over an hour.
‘No problem. Best to hold on to my tail though. Don’t wan’ you to hang proudly from a tree,’ answered Murphy in a deadpan tone.
With that in mind, the four travellers crept slowly and carefully further up the rising surface. As they lifted higher and higher, the air thinned out, the temperature dropped below zero and those white snowy flakes returned again. Back to inflict more damage.
‘Thank God we’re here!’ pointed Strickler to a small wooden lodge a hundred feet away.
‘I see it. Let’s get there as quick as we can but still be careful,’ ordered Murphy to the man behind.
The cliffside passage now opened up to a broad plateau in which the cabin stood. It jumped swiftly from eight feet across to sixty feet in width. The wide expanse allowed both men to breath in better rhythm.
Purposely but carefully they trod over to the Douglas cabin. There were no horses in front and no sound came from inside the building. When they reached the house, both men slowly dismounted.
‘You go ahead inside. I’ll just be a minute,’ remarked Murphy casually.
‘Oh, okay,’ replied Strickler obediently.
The old, frail man knocked on the front door and when no one answered, he opened it and plodded in.
Suddenly a loud bang boomed into the air. Followed swiftly after by an awful scream of pain. The thin, elderly figure crashed savagely through the opened doorway and landed with a ferocious thud. His dead, outstretched corpse lay half and half inside and out of the wooden structure. Instinctively Murphy reached for his gun as his hawk-like eyes caught the slightest glimpse of a rotten scoundrel in the shadows of the house.
Rapidly Murphy pulled his weapon from the holster and unleashed a speeding bullet. It torpedoed through the air towards the unknown target. Simultaneously a booming wallop informed Murphy that a little cylindrical devil was coming back at him. He dived violently to his right hand side, barely missing the enemy’s bullet and planted himself into the icy snow. But his opponent was less fortunate. The power from the six-shooter exploded through his head. Lifting him two feet off the ground before walloping him back against the cabin wall. His blood-drenched carcass slid down the oak lined beams to the hard pine floor. Desolate and destroyed.
‘Aaahhh,’ screamed another vicious man in anger, from inside the lodge. Then complete silence like the world had stopped. A moment later, the evil scenario was restored.
‘Listen up, Murphy, if that’s your name. All I want is your horse. So if you wan’ your pal, Gardner, to stay alive, you’ll do just that. D’ya’ hear me?’ challenged the bitter voice.
Murphy’s mind quickly weighed up the pros and cons of the villain’s request. Obviously, he had to save Gardner. But give up his horse, Red? His best pal? And his only real chance of getting back down this wretched mountain. Strickler’s horse probably couldn’t hold the two of them, not after going up and down this icy rock.
A familiar, welcome voice tried to help him in his trouble, ‘Don’t listen to this rodent! Save your own skin!’
But his little interjection resulted in a belting. From a sturdy Smith and Wesson.
‘Aaahhh!’ shouted out the injured victim.
‘Okay! Okay!’ cried Murphy rapidly. ‘Come out slowly with Jim and I’ll stand aside.’
Once again the eerie scene was overcome with deadly silence. Then the loud murmur of ‘Alright mister, we’re comin’ out,’ interjected with the sounds of moving feet.
Thomas Murphy slowly stood up and walked away from the cabin entrance. A couple of moments passed and then the two well-worn figures appeared in the light. The proud, caring Jim Gardner in his normal white attire. And a scruffy, unkempt bearded man of a sneaky disposition.
‘Nice move sending my trusted pal, Strickler, in first,’ stated the twisted cretin. ‘My trigger happy brother saw to him.’ He hobbled badly as he spoke, while still ramming his gun’s nozzle into Gardner’s chin.
So that’s why he needed me, thought Murphy to himself. Or needed a strong horse, unlike Strickler’s creature, to get back down the mountain. Especially as he obviously had a shattered foot.
‘Drop your gun, mister,’ snarled the slime to the saviour.
Murphy did as he was told and flung it to the ground. The dastardly demon disturbingly pulled his twisted body onto Red’s saddle. A bruised, blood-splattered Gardner moved away from the evil perpetrator.
‘Nice meetin’ ya’ Murphy,’ jeered the arrogant man as he moved away on the black horse. For a man with a rotten leg, he surprisingly pushed Red on quickly until he was fifty feet away from the two remaining human figures.
Swiftly Murphy swiped his weapon from the bedding in the snow and pulled it up rapidly. He was ready to unlock a quick succession when a horrendous image flashed into his view. Probably to make certain he wasn’t being followed, the thief stopped and turned Red around. His mouth was primed to speak when a ferocious, snarling growl bellowed from behind him. A powerful, hungry beast was closing in severely. The villain knew this sound wasn’t good and tensed up in sheer fear.
‘Whatever you do, don’t move! Stay still! Very still!’ shouted Murphy to his horse, Red, and the trembling, shaking man as the snarling grizzly sniffed his human prey.
Ounces and ounces of bodily fluids leaked from the horror stricken spirit. He so badly wanted to charge away or turn around to see if the threat was real. His mind, heart and soul didn’t know what his body should do. Red, meanwhile, was scared as hell but trying desperately to remain calm. Murphy slowly and softly stepped forwards towards the awesome sight. Five feet closer. Then ten. Then another five. Closer and closer he came. Closer and closer to his firing range. Now the majestic beast was on his hind legs and holding his front limbs towards the human figure. Sniffing and snarling in rapid succession. It looked like he decided against the smell he smelt and was going to leave these spirits alone, when the bearded man had reached his limit and turned around to see his maker.
Savagely and with bestial, hellish force the roaring grizzly swiped the scoundrel off the horse and onto the freezing ground. Red miraculously charged away as the monstrous bear stamped, slashed and bit into the defenceless being. Deafening cries of pain flashed into the sky as the shattered man said goodbye to life. Bullet after bullet flooded out from Murphy’s gun but the enormous creature seemed undeterred in his actions. In fact, the barrage of gunfire only seemed to make him madder. Annoyed that he was being interrupted in his eating, he pulled his horrifying head up with those volcanic eyes bursting with demonic rage.
Murphy furiously pulled the trigger of his gun but no angelic beam of light ventured forth. Rapidly, he looked down at the empty gun as the monstrous monster now set his sights on a different victim. The roaring, carnivorous giant suddenly charged at the man in black. Behind, Gardner had been through enough today and simply froze in horror. So it was all up to Murphy.
‘GGGGGGRRRRRHHHHH!’ sped out like a tidal wave from the bear to the humans. A signal of pure, violent and unforgiving purpose. Desperately, with sweat seeping forth from parts that Murphy never used before, he shakingly tried to reload his empty gun. Bullet after bullet dropped to the snowy floor as his hands trembled like never before. Then, with the monster only yards away, he took a desperate chance and lifted his pistol, unsure if a single bullet had dropped inside. And agonisingly pulled the trigger. ‘BOOM!’ torpedoed out like a rocketing missile and then the explosive crash signalled to the two haunted souls that somehow, unbelievably another single bullet had felled this demonic beast.
Then once again the world was completely silent as the afterlife welcomed another being. A reawakened Gardner trudged nervously up to Murphy and softly patted him on the side. ‘Horrific! Truly horrific! But thanks for saving us, Tom.’
A shell shocked Murphy couldn’t speak and simply nodded.
‘Now all we have to do is to recover the priceless Apache smoking pipe which that dead man stole from me,’ stated Gardner softly.
The thought of going anywhere near or past that massive beast, even if he was now deceased, was too much for this moment. So a smiling Murphy replied simply, ‘Let’s have a rest, first, Jim. A good rest.’