Western Short Story
Frances Stevens’ steady hand did not betray her eighty-two years as she stood in the kitchen ladling soup into a bowl for her daughter-in-law. The two women talked lightly about chores that had to be completed and food to be preserved before Frances’s son, Charles, and his cowhands returned from a small cattle drive to Abilene. Except for old Stumpy, the cook, and George and Sam, the two old-timers who cared for the stock, the ranch was devoid of hands.
Ever since Whitey Stevens died of old age and hard work, Grandma Frances helped run the ranch with an iron hand and she knew how to handle the shotgun hidden behind the curtained kitchen pantry. Grandma may have years on her side, but her resolve and spirit were as young as ever. So, it was no surprise to her, with her lifetime of experience in the hard west, to see outriders come galloping up to the house, six-guns thundering.
As the shots rang across the yard, old George rushed out of the barn, pitchfork in hand and mouth open. Sam was standing at the water trough. Neither stablemen was armed so they made no threatening move. The outriders were dressed in ragged and dirty military clothing. The only things gleaming and shining in the noonday sun were the oiled leather holsters, pistols, and the rifles they carried.
Stumpy looked out the window of the cook shack attached to the large bunkhouse way down by the creek. He didn’t give himself away but looked closely to see that the riders were riffraff from the war between the rebs and yanks, and they were experienced killers. The old man counted five heavily armed men. He limped with his wooden leg across to his private quarters in a cramped room behind the cookhouse. Off the wall he took a double-barreled shotgun and from a bag he took several handfuls of double aught buckshot and began stuffing his pockets.
“If those men come down here, at least some of em will not survive the trip,” Stumpy mumbled under his breath as he placed the bag back on the nail.
* * *
“I’ll handle this, Abigail,” said Grandma Stevens. “You just calm yourself and put on the large pot and make all the coffee you can put to boil.”
She walked calmly to the kitchen door, opened it, and stepped out onto the side porch.
“You men make a noisy entrance. If you’re hungry light down and I’ll feed you.”
“Why that’s right neighborly of you, Grandma,” said the one who looked to be the leader.
The man dismounted and his men followed suit. All of them looked carefully around. The leader whistled loudly and from up the road came riding two more men: one young and the other with long gray hair and wearing a black patch over one eye. Both held rifles in their right hands. The two rode up, dismounted, and stood next to their horses.
“Jack and Sonny,” said the leader. “We’re going in for dinner. Tie these two old timers up and put them on the porch. Jack, you go check the outbuildings and make sure no one else is about. Sonny, you water the horses. Find hay and toss it down right here to feed em.”
As the two latecomers left to do as ordered, the five other men made their way into the kitchen and took seats around a large table. Grandma went into the curtained pantry and brought out air tights of beans and set them on the dry sink. She went back for a haunch of bacon wrapped in cheesecloth and dropped it heavily next to the beans. Lifting down two large iron skillets from hooks on the wall, she set them on the end of the dry sink. She opened the air tights and poured beans into one pan and cut up the bacon and laid the large thin pieces into the other.
The five dirty and smelly men talked loudly and made rude and bold comments concerning the good looks of the younger woman. Hearing enough, Grandma Stevens turned. She held the large butcher knife in her hand and pointed to all the men.
“Mind your manners. This is my kitchen and you hold your piece. Show some respect or pay the consequences.”
The men stopped their jeering and looked at the stern speaking white haired woman. They began to guffaw.
“Grandma,” said the leader in amusement. “What are you going to do, slice all of us with that butcher knife or are you gonna to poison us?”
“Not a bad idea, sonny. Now you do what your mommas taught you---if any of you men can remember---and mind your manners. This is a decent house and you men will act decent.”
The five foul-smelling men were silent for a moment. Suddenly two removed their hats with flourishing sweeps revealing long, greasy, and unkempt hair. All of them burst out in loud whoops. Several thumped their fists on the wooden table in grand amusement. Abigail Stevens, her face ashen, was already building up the fire in the cook stove to heat the frying pans of food. The coffee boiled. While the outlaws waited for their meal, they told rude and ribald jokes. Abigail went for cups. On her way back toward the table she caught the warning shake of Grandma’s head. Abigail walked over to the dry sink.
“I’ll serve the men, you cook the food,” said Grandma.
Grandma Frances took five cups, set them on the table, then went to the stove where her daughter-in-law stood stirring beans and bacon. Grandma took the smaller enameled coffee pot, returned to the table, and poured all the coffee that was in it. She managed to fill four cups. Returning to the stove she placed a towel on the handle of the larger coffee pot and carried it to the table. She filled the last cup, and set the large coffee pot on a metal trivet.
“Good coffee, Grandma,” commented the outlaw leader. “Think you can take a couple of cups out for Jack and Sonny?”
The gray haired woman took down two cups and poured coffee into them. Carrying them by their handles she gently shoved the screen door open and walked out onto the wide porch that surrounded one side of the ranch house. She went down the steps and up to the young man. Sonny was breaking up a bale of hay and tossing bunches on the ground in front of the horses tied to the rail. Grandma Frances noted that the bits were pulled from their mouths so they could chew. She eyed the young man and realized that he was not like the others. He wore fresh clothing and was clean-shaven.
“Here’s some coffee,” she said softly. “What is a decent looking lad like you doing with this group of murderers?”
Sonny, startled by the woman’s presence, turned abruptly, stood erect, and took one of the cups.
“Ma’am? Thank you, ma’am.”
“My name is Grandma Stevens.”
“Excuse me, Grandma? You asked me a question?”
“I asked what a nice looking young man like you is doing with this bunch of cut-throats?”
“Well, ma’am, uh, Grandma Stevens. My pa died. These men came to our ranch while I was burying him and took all the food and everything not tied down. They just sort of dragged me along and put me to work handling the horses.”
“Is that agreeable with you?”
“No, ma’am. It ain’t.
“Are they as bad as they look?”
“Oh, yes. There ain’t one thing they wouldn’t do. They’ve killed and stolen all the way across Kansas and into Colorado.”
“Here comes that Jack. Give him this cup of coffee. Tell him I’ll bring dinner shortly. Are you willing to join us?”
“Doing what, Grandma?”
“You follow my lead, Sonny. If I can’t get them to leave peaceable, will you back me with that six-gun of yours?”
“It’s too dangerous,” protested the youth. “They’ll kill all of you!”
“You just pay attention and let me worry about that. I’ll ask you once again, will you join us in a pinch?”
Sonny stared into the bright blue eyes of the gray haired woman.
“Yes, Grandma,” he finally answered.
“Say there,” growled One-Eyed Jack. “What’re you two whispering about?”
“I was telling Sonny here, that dinner would be brought out shortly. He has your coffee.”
The old woman boldly walked up the steps and opened the screen door to the kitchen. She hurried to the stove where her terrified daughter-in-law was ladling beans and bacon onto stone plates. She gave the younger woman’s arm a reassuring squeeze. Grandma piled a plate high with thick slices of bread and placed it on the table beside a tub of sweet butter. Then she served the men their meals. Putting bread on two extra plates, and taking two forks, Grandma took the food out through the kitchen and onto the porch. Jack pushed Sonny aside in his hurry to grab a plate. Grandma held on firmly to the last dish, handed it to the boy, smiled, and winked.
Grandma Stevens went back into the kitchen, walked around the long table and watched the men devour their food. Using the bread, they mopped up the last of the beans and the bacon grease. All five of them were bent over their plates making slurping noises.
“Is there something you want, Grandma?” growled the leader as his eyes met her stare.
“Jake,” answered the outlaw.
“Grandma, you try my patience. Jake is the only name I’m giving out.”
“Well, Jake, I have an offer to make you and your men.”
The others stopped eating and looked up in open curiosity.
“What kind of offer?”
“A better one than you’ll get anywhere else. The war is over and has been for four years. The country’s changing, and people and the law won’t tolerate takers.”
“Now, Grandma, I’d kill a man for standing there and saying that to me,” said Jake. “Be careful what more you say.”
“I’ll give you an opportunity to leave here in peace without the law having to look for you.”
“What do you have on your mind, old woman? I’ll remind you before you start to fib us, that one of your good neighbors told us your men are on a cattle drive to Abilene. Not expected back for weeks. We already know we can pretty well do as we please here for quite a while.”
“Well, go on, what’s this big offer you want to make us?”
“In exchange for leaving the ranch and my daughter-in-law alone, we’ll cook for you and wait on you until you’re ready to leave.”
“That’s not much of an offer, Grandma.”
“Hear me out. In that cookie jar up on that cabinet over there is one hundred and eighty dollars. Back at the cook shack is a month’s supply of flower, bacon, rice, and air tights. In the bunkhouse are extra range clothing, boots, hats, Sunday-go-to-meeting suits, underwear, socks, and a big tin bathing tub. We could heat water for you, and each of you men could have a good bath with lye soap and throw out those awful clothes you’re wearing. Heaven knows you sure smell ripe. You could re-supply what you need. We’ll butcher a yearling steer, cook potatoes, take greens from the gardens, and cook for you until you decide to go. How about it?”
“Lady, we can already do that without your help.”
“You telling me that any of your men can cook like I can?”
“She sure got that right!” yelled one of the outlaws.
“You leave here on peaceable terms and I won’t call the law,” Grandma offered.
“Grandma!” said Jake thumping the table hard and his dark eyes flashing. “You trying to put something slick past me? We like taken’ what we want---besides, the boys and I plan to have a little fun with that daughter-in-law of yours. Right boys?”
The four men hoo-rawed followed by a shout from One-Eyed Jack listening in from the porch.
“See, Grandma! We take what we want, and nothing ever stops us.”
“Is that your final answer?” asked the gray haired woman.
“For now it is. But second thought, I like that part you said about the boys getting a bath and some clean clothes. They ARE ripe and I can’t even stand myself downwind. Old lady, you and your daughter-in-law get that tub and heat er up. We’ll take turns taking a bath. Me first!”
The men laughed and hooted again.
“Don’t you get no ideas, old woman. We’re good at re-supplying, but we could use some down home cooking. Jack!” called the leader through the screen door. “You untie those two old men and get them to catching and butchering a steer. We’ll fill up on beef tonight, compliments of our two lady cooks!”
The men cheered again, this time much louder. One of them jumped up, grabbed the terrified Abigail, and swung her around in a circle. He bent to give her a kiss and Grandma Stevens thumped him on the head with a wooden ladling spoon. The man dropped Abigail and reached for his pistol. The leader’s arm shot up and blocked the gunman.
“Not yet, Zeb. Not til I say so,” he ordered.
Again the men in the kitchen began to laugh and point at the angry killer---the loudest of them all was the leader Jake.
“So long as you want us to wait on you,” said Grandma Stevens angrily, “you men will behave yourselves.”
“Well!” shouted Jake still laughing. “You heard her, boys!”
With this momentary truce, Grandma shoved Abigail through the screen door and they hurried to the cook shack. They entered the small building and Grandma called out in a loud whisper.
“Stumpy? Stumpy, are you in here?”
A muffled voice answered and from the back bedroom Stumpy showed his face.
“No time to talk. These men plan to do us harm. I want you to hide and be ready with that shotgun of yours.”
“How will I know when it’s time?”
“Stumpy, we’re going to take the tin tub and carry it over to the porch. We’ll heat water and the leader is going to take a bath. You watch out, the men will be looking around for clothing in here. I suggest you get outside the back door, sneak around the side of the house, and hide in the bushes. But first, give me some of that poison you got.”
“Stumpy, don’t fool with me. The poison you give the cowboys when they act up. I need something to put in the coffee and make these men sick, and I mean in a hurry.”
The cook limped on his peg leg over to a cabinet. He opened a drawer and took out a bottle wrapped in a brown cloth. He removed the cloth and handed the bottle with the dark liquid to the woman.
“Put this in the coffee. Two drops will make them darn sick. Use the whole thing and within five minutes they’ll be doubled over in pain and hardly be able to move.”
“Thanks, Stumpy. One last thing, don’t hurt the boy with that gang; he’s on our side. Now get going!”
Grandma motioned Abigail into the next room where standing against the far wall was the tub. They both picked it up and wrestled with it to the front door. As they were struggling, two of the gunmen came in through the cook shack.
“Say, what’s taking so long?” asked one of the men suspiciously.
“I’m too old to get the tub through this door,” answered Grandma. “Suppose you help us?”
The rough garbed men came over and took the place of the women. They lifted and turned the tub and managed to get it out the door.
“Where do you want it?”
“On the porch,” answered Grandma. “Next to the kitchen. That way we can fill it with hot water.”
The outlaws carried the metal tub across the yard and placed it where the gray haired woman pointed. Then Abigail and Grandma turned to go back up the steps of the porch and into the kitchen. On the way, Grandma Frances went near Sonny who was currying one of the horses.
“Sonny,” she whispered. “Whatever you do, don’t drink any more coffee!”
Grandma put more wood in the huge iron cookstove and stoked the fire. Abigail filled pots and pans with water from the kitchen pump and placed them on the cook plates. The two women pumped cold water into buckets which they carried to the porch and poured into the tub. To this they would add the hot water. Grandma picked up the large empty coffee pot from the table and filled it with water. She took down more coffee beans and ground them with the grinder fastened to the end of the dry sink. Removing the little brown bottle from her apron pocket, she pulled out the cork. As she added coffee to the large pot, she turned over the bottle, and dumped the brown liquid in. She closed the lid and placed the coffee pot on the stove to boil.
Abigail was standing at the sink with a frightened expression on her face. Grandma gave her a stern look, took a deep breath, and then smiled at her daughter-in-law. Abigail understood and tried to relax. After several deep breaths, her look of terror lessoned. Grandma kept right on smiling.
All the men except One-Eye Jack, who now had entered the kitchen to watch the women, were in the bunkhouse picking out new clothes. Even from this distance, the men could be heard laughing and making loud comments over their newfound possessions.
“I want some coffee, woman!” growled Jack.
“It’s boiling now,” answered Grandma smoothly.
“Well, hurry up!”
“It’ll be ready as soon as the men get back.”
“Won’t do no good. Then it’ll be my turn to grab some duds. Don’t know why they always make me last. Me and that boy always got to do the guarding. I don’t get no respect.”
“How about some cookies?” asked Grandma pleasantly.
“Don’t mind if I do.”
Grandma went in the pantry. While she was behind the curtain, she quickly pulled out the shotgun and took a coat off a hook on the wall. She placed the shotgun on a shelf in easy reach and put the coat over it. Then she brought out a tin with cookies. She opened it and set it on the table in front of the filthy one-eyed man. Jack grunted and turned over the tin and dumped all the cookies onto the wooden table. Greedily he began to bite into them, chewing two at a time and swallowing loudly.
“Ummm, good, would be better with coffee.”
As the man ate, Grandma went over to the sink and picked up a small but sharp carving knife and put it into the pocket of her apron. She looked at Abigail. Clumsily, the young woman picked up a knife, and dropped it into her apron pocket. The two women then stood against the dry sink and watched and listened silently to the noises of the one eyed outlaw as he devoured the decreasing pile of cookies.
The gunmen began to return to the kitchen. With them they brought new clothing. One outlaw was carrying a brand new broadcloth suit; others had combinations of Sunday suit jackets, canvass pants, vests, boots, hats, underwear, and socks. The leader, Jake, brought back the best of the pick. Besides dress pants, he had new boots, shirt, hat, vest, and a leather coat. Disregarding the women, the leader began to strip in the kitchen and Grandma spoke up.
“Jake, have some coffee,” she announced. “Then remove your clothing outside so we can pick it up and burn it.”
All the men laughed crazily as Jake stopped undressing. He sat down and took the offered coffee. The other four men did the same. Grandma put the hot coffee pot on the iron grate on the table and then walked to the screen door. She watched as the one eyed bandit and Sonny made their way to the bunkhouse to select clean clothing. It was obvious that Jack wasn’t going to have a chance to drink the coffee. Grandma Stevens worried if the young man Sonny was up to what needed to be done.
Following Grandma’s lead, Abigail began carrying the steaming pots of hot water outside and dumping them into the tin bathing tub. Jake went out, stripped, and got into the water. Grandma went back into the pantry and came out with a large cake of lye soap and a white towel. She handed the soap to the outlaw leader and he complained loudly.
“More hot water, Grandma! And bring me a scrub brush!”
Grandma went back in the pantry and brought out a brush and took it to the naked man. In her mind she began to count up to the five minutes---the time Stumpy said the poison would begin to take affect. It was very near that time now. Suddenly the outlaw leader convulsed in the tub full of water and violently grabbed at his stomach. The leader looked over at the gray haired woman. There was surprise and pain in the man’s face.
“My stomach hurts!” gasped Jake.
There was another violent stab of pain and yet another and the outlaw doubled up in agony and water splashed.
“What did you do to me?” bellowed the angry man.
Jake reached out his right hand and grabbed the old woman by the sleeve of her dress. Savagely he pulled her across the tub and began to throttle her with both hands. Grandma struggled and reached down and pulled the carving knife from her apron. With all her strength she plunged the point of the knife deep into the man’s chest. Dark crimson flowed from the wound. As she let go of the knife, he slipped down into the water and it turned red. Grandma Stevens hurriedly made her way into the kitchen and to the pantry. Two of the outlaws raced past her and onto the porch. The men were doubled over and grabbing at their stomachs. It was the same for the two still sitting at the kitchen table.
There were loud shouts of “Murder” and “Kill them” from the two men on the porch. Outside a shotgun blasted and then fired again. There was the thump of falling bodies. The two men at the kitchen table arose from their seats, doubled over in pain, and reached for their guns. From the pantry emerged the old woman. In her hands was the double-barreled shotgun with both hammers pulled back. Abigail looked on in disbelief at the grim expression on Grandma’s face as she pointed and pulled the trigger of one barrel. Abigail saw her mother-in-law kicked back by the awful blast of the .12 gauge and nearly fall. She recovered and aimed again. The double barreled shotgun blasted and blood again splattered across the kitchen wall. The two outlaws were nearly torn in two as they flew back from the power of each discharge. Grandma, for a second time was thrust backwards and this time she lost her balance and fell.
Abigail ran to her mother-in-law’s side and noted that the older woman had hit her head. Blood was flowing from underneath her hair and pooling on the floor. Abigail grabbed a towel from the counter, bunched it, and pressed it against the wound.
“Grandma!” she said. “Talk to me.”
“Daughter,” whispered Grandma. “What about the bunkhouse?”
Both stared at each other, there was a pistol shot, and then another.
“Help me to my feet, daughter. We have to reload the shotgun. If the boy hasn’t got that one-eyed monster, we’re going to be in a whole heap of trouble.”
Too late, they heard footsteps. Both women turned their eyes and there stood the young man, pistol in hand.
“Grandma,” called the lad. “Your plan worked.”
Both women sighed in relief. They heard running footsteps followed by the entrance of George and Sam. Then came the steady thump of wood on wood and eventually Stumpy was at the door holding his shotgun.
“Well,” he said. “Don’t want to do that again.”
“What I want to know,” asked old George. “Who’s going to explain this to the boss?”
“For now,” said Grandma Stevens sternly. “That would be me, and the only explaining needed to be done, is to the Sheriff.”