Western Short Story
A rush of cold air preceded the weary old cowboy across the threshold. Without conscious thought, he hung his hat on its customary peg beside the door. After unbuckling his chaps and hanging up his coat, he took a seat at the kitchen table. His thinning gray hair was unkempt. His whiskered face reddened by the bitter wind. The old man’s movements were cautious, almost feeble, as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders.
“Well, Martha, that’s the last of them,” he said
A younger woman poured a cup of coffee from the pot on the stove and set it down in front of him.
“I hated to see them go,” she said.
“I know…we had no choice.”
“How much did you get?”
The old cowboy held his head in his hands as he stared at the small stack of cash on the table in front of him. “Not enough,” he said, “not nearly enough.” Coy Baker had always been an independent strong-willed man, but now, he was nearly broken. Coy, along with his spinster daughter, was struggling to hang onto his family ranch. It was west of the Black Hills near Newcastle, Wyoming.
The winter of 1900 had nearly wiped them out. Cattle died by the thousands all over the Dakota’s. Many ranchers had gone completely under. Unfamiliar with the concept of quit, Coy attempted to hang on. His surviving cows had done well throughout the first summer and the relatively mild weather of the past winter. Now it seemed another severe winter season was upon them.
Coy inherited the land free and clear from his grandfather. In trying to cover his late wife’s substantial medical expenses, Coy borrowed his way into trouble.
With the possibility of another killer winter upon them, the bankers were nervous. Their stockholders were taking a dim view of extending too much credit to cattle ranchers. They wanted their money invested in the booming mining industry around the Black Hills.
The bank holding the note on the Baker Ranch had run out of patience. Their cash reserves were lower than they liked. Coy was six months behind on his payments, and the board of directors called the note.
Unbelievably, the note was due on Christmas Eve. Coy had been into Newcastle several times over the last two months and practically begged for more time. The bank wasn’t to be moved. Everything was legal, Coy asked for the money and he put the ranch up for collateral. They had every right to foreclose and the bank wanted the land. It was worth many times more than Coy owed on it. The bank president was coming out in person to serve the papers.
Coy sold off all the cattle he could gather the week before. He just sold most of his horse herd to a neighbor. In spite of all his efforts, he was still nearly four-thousand dollars short. That was a considerable amount of money to most people in the very early days of the twentieth century, and Coy only had six days to raise it.
Martha poured herself a cup and sat down across the table from her father. “We still have each other, Pa,” she said. “Momma always said the Lord would take care of us.”
“I wish I could still believe that,” Coy said, “it seems to me, he’s pretty much forgotten me. I’m almost grateful your mother’s not here to see this.”
“Don’t say that,” Martha said. Reaching over, she took his weathered old hands, “We’re together, and we don’t know what’s down the road. We’ll go on. This won’t be the end of our lives.”
“It may be for me, I’m too old to start over again.” Coy released her hand and drained the last of his cup. He slowly got to his feet and headed to his room, “I’m going to bed.”
“Don’t you want some supper?” she asked. Coy never answered as he disappeared behind the door to his bedroom. Martha sat back in her chair and did her best not to cry. She folded her hands there at the table and prayed for strength.
Martha Baker was an attractive woman who had experienced her share of drifters and ner-do-wells over the years. They all turned out to be a disappointment and she never married. She kept hoping someday a tall dark stranger would come into her life and sweep her away.
She allowed herself to slip into that fantasy world from time to time, imagining herself in the embrace of the bold and daring stranger that haunted her dreams. It helped her stay sane while she dealt with the lonely day-to-day existence of her father’s remote cattle ranch.
As another desperate night descended on Martha, a drama was unfolding up in Squaw Lake, Wyoming. The weather was turning brutal as a storm out of Montana brought arctic cold and deep snow.
The clerk at the express office had just locked up for the night. He was thinking about supper when a man carrying a small wooden crate began beating on the door.
“You just made it,” the clerk said after opening the door.
“I appreciate you waiting for me.”
“What can I do for you?”
The stranger placed the crate on the floor, tossed some saddlebags at the clerk, and pulled a Colt, “Fill them up,” he said.
“You ain’t really shipping that crate, are you?”
“Nothing gets by you, does it,” the stranger said with a grin.
“I guess you got me good that time,” the clerk said, “Mister, you can’t rob the Southern Pacific these days. This is 1902; we got electricity and a telephone.”
The tall stranger pulled the hammer back and pointed the Colt at the now nervous clerk, “If you’d like to see 1903, you best do as I say.”
“I guess you’re after that strongbox full of silver in the back?” the nervous clerk blurted out.
“No, but thanks for the offer,” the stranger said, “How do you think I’d carry a strongbox out of here all by myself? Get the cash from the safe and we’ll call it even.”
“Call it even; this’ll cost me my job.” The flustered clerk rattled on and on as he quickly filled the bags with cash from the safe. He was scared and wondering what the final outcome of this confrontation was going to be, “Please don’t shoot me mister,” he pleaded, “I got a family and it’s nearly Christmas.”
“I don’t intend to shoot anybody,” the outlaw said, “And you’re not gonna lose your job. As soon as I’m gone, grab that shotgun over there in the corner and fire it into the front door. Tell ‘em there was five or six of us in here after the silver. While we were cleaning out the safe, you got to the gun and run us off.”
“That’s a good idea…thanks Mister…what did you say your name was?”
“I didn’t and I’m not going to,” the amiable outlaw said, “Merry Christmas to you and your family.”
“Merry Christmas to. . . .” The clerk’s eyes grew wide before he could finish. He dove behind the counter when the stranger raised his .45 and began firing into the wall over the clerk’s head. He put the last one dead-center in the face of the big railroad clock on the wall.
The clock was chiming it’s last as the outlaw slung the bags over his shoulder and slipped out the door. Jumping on a big black horse, the outlaw spurred him out of town. He smiled to himself when he heard two shotgun blasts and the sounds of shattering glass behind him. As soon as the outlaw was out of sight, the clerk had blown out the front door, grabbed the phone, and called for help.
The benevolent outlaw was none other than Jubal Early. He always took whatever he needed, but he was a decent man. He never hurt anyone if he could avoid it. Jubal had an overactive sense of fairness and a soft spot for plain hard-working folks. He never took anything from regular people, just banks, railroads, and big business.
Jubal was the great grandson of a famous Civil War General from Virginia. Jubal’s parents provided him with a good upbringing and a fine education. He had been afforded every opportunity to take advantage of his famous name.
Turning his back on all that, Jubal had gone west. He had a burning desire to see the frontier before it was gone forever. It didn’t take long before the young Virginian was broke and hungry. Not wanting to hear, ‘I told you so’, he ended up falling in with the wrong people. Now, ten years later, he was wanted in several states and he was on the run.
Jubal’s big horse was struggling through the deep snow as they made their escape from civilization. The outlaw was hoping the weather would make it difficult for the county sheriff to gather a posse.
He was partly right, there were only two men following him, the sheriff, and one deputy. After circling the town, it didn’t take them long to pick up Jubal’s tracks. Going by what the clerk had told them, they figured the outlaw gang had split up. Deciding a bird in hand was better than a flock on the wing, they went after the one lone rider.
The sheriff didn’t intend to spend the night out in the hills chasing some outlaw. With a spare horse along for each of them, the lawmen intended to run the outlaw down without delay. As soon as the first mounts gave out, they switched to fresh horses and continued the chase.
When Jubal finally stopped to rest his horse, the night was brutal, a heavy snow was falling, and it was getting cold. He was contemplating his next move when he heard horses.
Jubal was surprised to find the sheriff right on his heels. Snow was flying from their horse’s hooves as the lawmen rapidly closed on him. When they were in range, they opened up with rifle fire.
Jubal pulled his rifle and winged the man in the lead. Taking the bullet in his shoulder, the sheriff tumbled off of his horse. The deputy with him was a decent shot. His second bullet hit Jubal in the upper chest.
The outlaw nearly went down when the deputy’s bullet ripped through him. It took all the strength he had to cling to the saddle horn and spur his horse away. The deputy followed for a short distance, but turned back after Jubal disappeared into the dark timber. He rode back to the sheriff’s side and bailed off his horse.
“We got to get you to town,” the deputy said, after examining the sheriff’s wound.
“What about the outlaw?”
“Judging from the blood up there in the snow, he won’t be far away. I’ll come back in the morning and gather up his body.”
“Good enough for him, but we need to get that money.”
“It’ll keep until morning, and you need a doctor. Right now, that’s more important than the money.”
Jubal was in bad shape by the time the sun started to come up. He had traveled over thirty miles. The heavy snow falling through the night covered his trail. He was probably safe from anyone who might be after him, but he was nearly frozen and just about done in. He was trying to decide what to do when he smelled smoke.
Martha had just gotten dressed and stirred up a fire in the stove. When she passed by the window, she noticed a steaming black horse standing in front of the cabin. Opening the door, she discovered Jubal lying in the snow.
“Pa!” she yelled, “I need some help.”
They carried the stranger inside, stripped off his wet clothes, and got him into bed. The bullet had passed clean through without hitting anything vital, but he lost a lot of blood. Martha cleaned him up, and bandaged the wound.
After doing all she could and getting him tucked into her bed, Martha said a little prayer for the handsome stranger. She sat by his side for most of the day, hoping for some sign he would live.
It was late that evening when Jubal finally came around. As his mind cleared, he wasn’t sure where he was or how he had gotten there. When he opened his eyes, he found a very attractive lady sitting near him reading the bible. He cleared his throat so as not to startle her.
“Oh, you’re awake,” she said. Laying her bible down, she walked over to his side, “How are you feeling?”
“Not too bad. Where am I? Who are you, ma’am?”
“I’m Martha Baker, my father and I run this ranch. We found you on our doorstep this morning.”
“Thank you for taking me in,” Jubal said, “Where’s my horse?”
“He’s in the barn. That horse was worn out; you must have come a long way. We got him dry and fed him some grain. He’s doing fine now.”
After hearing their voices, Coy joined them in the room, “I see you’re finally awake.”
“Yes sir,” Jubal said, “Thanks for helping me.”
“Think nothing of it. What happened to you?”
“Had a little disagreement with some boys who were pretty fair rifle shots. How bad am I?”
“You’ll be fine after some bed rest,” Martha said. It never crossed her mind the man in her bed could be an outlaw, “Would you like something to eat?”
“Yes, thank you kindly,” Jubal said, “It’s been a spell since I’ve had any hot food.”
Martha left the men alone and went to get something for Jubal.
“I’m obliged to you for taking care of my horse,” he said to Coy. Jubal really wanted to know about his saddlebags, but wasn’t going to ask. It didn’t seem as if the man sitting with him knew anything about the money.
“It was no trouble,” Coy said, “He’s a fine animal, thoroughbred isn’t he?”
“Yes, sir…from Virginia.”
Martha returned with a bowl of stew and helped Jubal to sit up. She arranged his pillows and set the bowl in his lap. “This smells mighty good,” Jubal said.
“What’s your name, stranger?” Coy asked.
“Jubal Early,” Martha repeated, “That’s so familiar.”
“Yes ma’am, my grandfather made a name for himself in the Civil War.”
“Of course,” she said, “General Jubal Early. I didn’t know you were such an important man.”
“I’m sure I’d be a disappointment to the general if he was alive today,” Jubal said.
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” Martha said.
By the next morning, Jubal was feeling much better. Martha brought him some coffee and biscuits and sat with him while he ate.
“Where did you come from?” she asked.
“I was up north when I ran into trouble,” he said. Jubal didn’t know it, but they were alone. Coy was out in the hills looking for more cattle. He hoped to find them and get them sold. It would be far short of what he needed, but it would be traveling money for them when they had to leave.
“It seems to me, there’s a lot that you’re not telling us,” she said. Martha was intrigued by Jubal. She felt drawn to the mysterious stranger in her bed. This was almost like her fantasy, but she was trying to remain a proper lady.
“Ms. Martha,” he said, “You’d be better off not knowing everything about me.”
Martha decided not to pry any further into Jubal’s story. She cared for him all day and fixed his supper that night. In the days that followed she read from the bible and talked to him for hours on end.
Late on the afternoon of the twenty-second, the two of them were sitting together at the table. Out of the blue, Martha began to cry.
“What is it?” Jubal asked. Moving to her side, he placed a hand on her shoulder.
“You have to go,” she said.
“Have I done something wrong?”
“No…no,” she said taking his hand, “I want you to stay, but…tomorrow night will be our last on this ranch. We’re being forced to leave.”
“Forced to leave…why is that?”
“The bank’s called our mortgage. We have no way of paying it.”
“They won’t give you any more time?”
“They’ve extended it before, but not again. It must be paid in full or we have to go.”
“I know it’s none of my business,” Jubal said, “but how much is it?”
“Nearly four thousand dollars.”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“I’ve been praying about it, but I’m afraid it’s just too late.”
By the morning of the twenty-third, Jubal was up and around, and feeling much stronger. Martha’s care had probably saved his life. He came out of the room where he had been staying and joined Coy and Martha at the table. He was fully dressed and appeared to be ready to leave.
“I have something to say to both of you,” he said.
“What is it?” Martha asked. She knew the handsome stranger was about to ride out of her life forever.
“When I said I would be a disappointment to my great-grandfather, I meant it.”
“I don’t. . . .”
“Please,” Jubal said to her, “let me finish. I’ve done some things in my life that I’m ashamed of, but after meeting you…both of you, I’ve decided to change that.”
“What do you mean?” Coy asked.
“You took in a total stranger and never even asked why I was here. You’re losing your home on Christmas Eve and yet, you’ve shared everything with me. Your generosity as deeply touched me.”
“We were glad to do it,” Coy said.
“You all stay right here,” Jubal said.
Leaving them alone, Jubal went to the barn. He counted out four thousand dollars from his saddlebag, just about all that he had. He wrapped the bills in a neckerchief before heading back inside.
“I know Martha has been praying for a miracle,” Jubal said when he was with them once again, “I ain’t exactly a miracle, but I’ve heard it said the Lord works in mysterious ways…so…this is for you.”
Martha’s eyes grew wide as she opened the neckerchief, “Jubal…where…what, I don’t understand.”
“That’s enough to settle up with the bank and you can stay right here as long as you want,” Jubal said. “I want to know you’re here…maybe someday. . . .”
“Where did all of this come from?” Coy asked, “I don’t hold much with charity.”
“This isn’t charity,” Jubal said, “It’s an answered prayer, pure and simple. I wish you wouldn’t ask me any more.”
“Joshua Bean is going to die when he sees this,” Martha said.
“Who’s Joshua Bean?” Jubal asked.
“President of the bank that holds the note on this place,” Coy said, “He’s coming out tomorrow to foreclose. He’s bringing the sheriff with him. I think he’s scared of what I might do to him.”
“That’s good for you,” Jubal said.
“What do you mean?” Martha asked.
“Everybody knows you can’t trust bankers. If you just give him the cash and he goes back to town, it would be your word against his that you ever paid him.”
“You got a point there,” Coy said.
“Whatever else you do,” Jubal said, “make sure you get a signed release for the mortgage and a receipt for the cash. Have the sheriff witness it.”
“That’s a good idea,” Martha said.
“It’s more than a good idea,” Jubal said, “It’s extremely important. Promise me, Martha, promise me you will.”
“Bean won’t leave here before we get a receipt,” Coy said, “You have my word on it.”
Jubal was ready to leave just before sundown. “Why do you have to go now?” Martha asked as they stood on the porch. With the burden of the mortgage gone from her mind, Martha longed for one more night to capture this mysterious stranger. She was ready to do whatever was required to convince Jubal to stay with her.
“It’s best I’m gone before they get here tomorrow,” he said.
“I’ll never forget you and what you’ve done for us.”
“I’ll not likely forget you either,” he said, taking her hand. “I’m a better man because of you. My life is going to stand for something good from now on.”
“I’m sure your grandfather would be proud of you,” she said.
“I’ll do my best to make that happen. I’m going to change my ways, I really am. I want…I want you to be proud of me, Martha. Someday…I want. . . .”
“I want that too,” she whispered, “And I am proud of you. I know I always will be.” Martha’s heart was racing. Her face was flushed as she found herself standing so close to this tall dark stranger.
“Martha, I’d like to come back here someday…I. . . .”
“I’ll be waiting,” she said. Her heart was full to nearly bursting as he took her in his arms and kissed her.
Martha was wiping the tears from her eyes when Coy joined them on the porch. He took Jubal by the hand, “I don’t know how to thank you,” he said, “You’re nothing like your reputation.”
“You’ve heard of me?”
“Yeah, but I always draw my own conclusions, Son. You’re welcome here, anytime.”
“I’m the one that should be thanking you,” Jubal said, “You folks have shown me there’s a better way to live my life.” Turning back to Martha, he hugged her once again. “I’ll be back,” he whispered. Jubal had a lump in his throat when she started to cry. The repentant outlaw climbed on his horse and rode away without looking back or any further words.
As promised, Joshua Bean showed up the next day at noon. The sheriff was riding with him in a buggy, with his horse tied on behind.
“Ms. Martha,” the sheriff said as he removed his hat and walked in the house, “I’m sorry, ma’am, for being here, especially today.”
“Don’t be sorry, Sheriff,” she said, “We’re glad to have you.”
“I don’t understand,” Bean said, “why would you. . . .”
“Is your head cold?” Coy asked before he could finish.
“What?” Bean asked with a confused look. The sheriff pointed to Bean’s hat.
The banker rolled his eyes and pulled it off as Martha continued, “Today’s the day we pay off our mortgage,” she said, “and it’s Christmas Eve. Won’t you both stay for. . . .”
“Pay off your mortgage,” Bean blurted out, “How are you going to do that?”
“I believe cash is customary,” she said.
Bean was flabbergasted as she counted thirty-nine hundred dollars into his hand. “I don’t understand how this happened,” he said, “where did you get this money?”
“St. Nicholas,” Coy said with a grin.
“Very funny,” Bean said, “now where did it come from?”
“None of your damn business,” Coy said.
“He’s right,” the sheriff said, “It’s none of your business.”
Bean gathered up the cash and stuffed it into his money-belt. “Let’s go,” he said to the sheriff. The old skinflint was angered he lost his claim to the ranch. Replacing his hat, he headed for the door.
“Just a minute,” Martha said, “I’d like your signature on this mortgage verifying it’s paid in full and a receipt for the cash…if you don’t mind.”
“I do mind,” Bean said, “I need to get back and that really isn’t necessary.”
“Give her a receipt,” the sheriff said, “then we’ll go.” Still in a huff, Bean reluctantly gave Martha what she wanted.
“Won’t you reconsider and stay for dinner?” Martha asked.
“I believe I will,” the sheriff said, “It sure smells good.”
“I’m late now,” Bean said, “good day!”
“And a good day to you,” Coy said as he opened the door to show Bean the way out.
After dinner, Coy and Martha were standing arm and arm on the porch as they watched the sheriff go.
“Someday, you’ll have to tell me who Jubal Early really is,” Martha said.
“He’s a guardian angel as far as I’m concerned,” Coy said, “and he was right about one thing.”
“What might that be?”
“The Lord does work in mysterious ways. A week ago our life was as dark as it had ever been, and now, thanks to a total stranger, it’ll be the best Christmas ever. And daughter, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Jubal Early.”
“I hope not,” she said, “Merry Christmas, Pa.”
The latest edition of the Newcastle Herald came out a few days after Christmas. The front-page story was about a Christmas Eve robbery on the road just outside of town. It was pulled off by a bold and daring highwayman on a big black thoroughbred. Bank President, Joshua Bean, was quoted as saying, “It was almost as if he knew I had the money on me.”