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Western Short Story
Charlie Walters sat his mount right beside the Random Two ranch house door, as stern looking as he possibly could appear, Sunday's sun warming him already. Shaking his finger at his wife, he thrust the warning at her, "No strangers in the house, Edna, not a one. I heard some strange stories in town my last trip and don't want anything odd happening around here, to you or any of our kin. Take my words to heart. Hear me?" He didn't reveal any of the particulars he had heard. Under his breath he might have said, "No sense making her worry no more'n usual. In five years nary a soul's fired a gun in anger on the whole Random Two spread , and if so, was alleviating his own mind; guns had no part in the stories that were circulating in town.
"Charlie," she responded in a placating tone, "those boys are as safe with me on this ranch as if the sheriff was hiding in the barn waiting to set on some ferocious critters come to call on us." Both of them appeared jocular about each others' worries, not daring to expose any weakness and not believing in awful possibilities after the dramas and dangers they had been through getting to this point in life, to this place carved out of the foothills and a fair chunk of prairie.
In a flash of light at the back of her mind she saw him back in Pennsylvania, a neighbor who worked from dawn to dusk but often until midnight itself, a big man, a quiet man, one seemingly with no interest other than "getting things done."
And it was mere days after the death of her husband of five years and father of twin boys that she approached Charlie and said, "Charlie, there's no doubt in my mind that I'm going to need a new man, a new father for the boys and a husband for me, and the honest truth is that you're the only one I can see being that man, and I'd rather not see any other man seek favors from me, not anybody anyplace."
He grasped her hand and said, "I've loved you since we were kids, Edna, and I'd be proud to be your new man. I love your gumption and straightforward talk. Of course, there'll be arrangements to be made hereabouts, so I'll be here in early morning with my team and wagon and we can load up your wagon and head west. I'd be honored to start someplace new with you."
Her hug was the first between them and she said, "Charlie, I am deeply indebted. We can celebrate tonight." Her eyes dipped in minor embarrassment.
"Not tonight, Edna, but after we get married in the next town we come to and I figure that's Pottsville." He hadn't even put his arm around her and had not brazened a single advance, not by deed or suggestion, but it was easy to see there was movement between them tempting their souls.
In the still-dark morning the reins of the lead wagon were in his hands, and the second wagon latched on behind them until they could acquire a schooner wagon, popular and really necessary for the road west. She had already fallen in love with him by the time they got to Pottsville, two wagons loaded with their possessions, his place sold off in the dark of night when he knocked on the door of another neighbor. And the two boys, Aiden and Cable, five years old, loving the onset of adventure, filled early morning with whispers between themselves.
Edna Walters' worries came back as soon as her husband Charlie was out of sight; and certainly the sheriff was nowhere around either of the two barns that Charlie had cut into the hill. Her double-check scan of the ranch and the nearby hills was slow, focused, more deliberate than usual. Charlie, of course, had set her patience and observation at a high level.
And, as usual in his own way, Walters drew back on the reins once he was out of sight of his wife; he could see only the peak of one of the barns and nothing much else of the ranch structures, though his close scrutiny from hidden vantage points worked itself across all the property of his that he could see on this side of Sugar Hill.
Of late, since his last trip to town, he'd begun talking to himself when he was alone: "Damned Smoky's always making mountains out of ant hills. Makes murder out of misery, theft out of borrowing, and crime just tasting the cook's pie crust. Takes me to worrying." He spent a half hour of observation before he moved toward town.
He wouldn't backpedal a bit when Smoky hailed him into the smithy off the town road. "Sit a spell, Charlie. I got more news might be interestin' for a change. Some young stud roustabout raisin' hell with our women, what I hear from good sources."
Smoky Daniels, whipping up the fire at his shop, kept up a stream of news about the recent events, knowing Walters was a listener and didn't have a lot to say, about himself or anybody else for that matter. "Some dude hides out by day, hunkers down in woods or by blow-downs, keeps watch on a place, sees who comes and goes. He's caught some women, unawares and when their man is away, on drives or in town gambling and drinking or such. He don't play no games but uses a pistol for demanding favors, then steals what he can carry off in his saddlebag. Never been caught or really seen by any woman, 'cept they say he's young, thin like he doesn't trade too much on his labor, and promises he'll be back some time. We don't know how many ain't said they'd had a visit, some gents might be fearing some women'd be waiting who knows how long for another visit."
He laughed loudly at that thought. "Hell," he cried out in afterthought, "I'd kill 'em both finding that be true." Angered at such a possibility. the hammer arced down with a solid smash on the ready anvil, sparks flying at impact.
"How close to my place you talking, Smoky?" He worked his way out of the saddle and tied his horse to rail. Even Smoky saw how big Walters was, wide across the shoulders, neck corded with muscles, arms like logger's arms. "You ever in a fight, Charlie? You look like a heavyweight'd have trouble with you?"
"Honest to the heavens, Smoky, I never even punched a gent, not once."
"Not mad enough?"
"Oh, mad enough, but never worth killing a man with one punch, ending up in jail. I'd seen too many men get caught up once they were in jail, if you ken that."
"I do, that, Charlie. Almost got me once to join a gang. Dumped that proposition right quick. A good lawman helped me out. He put a deputy's badge on me 'fore I could say nothin'. Times come when lawmen do the good trick, if they be good to begin with. I knowed some crooked as a stick." The hammer smashed down as if he remembered a bad face looking up at him.
"When was the last time did this young, thin gent spoiled the day for some woman? And where was it? Anybody I know?"
"At Sylvester Farrell's place, his wife Nelda and just last week. Didn't hurt her, just pleasured his own self, took some of Syl's gear, but don't know what. She's doin' okay, what I hear, but Syl's been on a parade since then. Been everyplace from here to Smithville 'n' back a couple of times, lookin' for somethin' he might remember what was stolen."
"I'll look too," Walters promised, nodding with a serious affirmation that Smoky understood.
"Never know what sign comes your way," Smoky said, still nodding, deep thought saying nothing else, but its message sent.
The sign came back to Walters as slowly as he had seen it; two large vultures in circles so wide there might be no center, but he remembered how long it took them to circle his property in a flashback in his mind. It was as if they had spotted a live but motionless body hidden in brush, in a copse, behind a rock. To him it was a young, thin gent, still as a decoy, motionless, frozen in place, just for hiding's sake. He could see him breathing slowly, not scratching an itch, not arching his back from discomfort, from a twig's intrusion, a rattler's slight invasion of the area.
It was, with sudden impact, not a sign to let pass. When was the last time he had seen such little motion in motion, heard no cries or domination yells from the wilds beyond his barns, seen a gopher's shadow make a subtle dash in the corner of his eye. In a wild search of his mind he tried to remember what the boys had done last evening that might keep them to their bed or get them up as he rode away from the ranch house. They were 10 now, the ways of the ranch working on them. Sunday, though, was an earned sleep-in.
Somehow, at first thought, he knew they would be whispering in their room, trying to convince their mother that they were still asleep.
That wouldn't do for the occasion, for he could hear their whispers slipping under the door, slipping out the window, finding him someplace along the line, somehow saying what he did not want to hear. "She's our mother. You can't hurt her." The voice toxic, vengeful, promising ... all at once. He wasn't sure which one would have said the words ... they were cut alike, as though two voices had uttered the duo of promise.
Suddenly, the words found him, the voices found him, and the huge soaring birds had somewhat flown the coop at movement of a strangely inert body. The thin young terrorist must have been watching the ranch for hours, maybe for days calculating his movements, his habits, his times away from the house, readying for the strike.
Spurs went home in a stab and Walter's horse burst back on the return trail, even as he recalled Edna's not placing her rifle over the doorway, but in the kitchen in a corner by the stove, where she spent much of her time. Not more than a week earlier, he had gone off to sleep one night, when he heard her oiling and cleaning the rifle in semi-darkness, away from the single lamp she'd lit. The smell of gun oil came thin but identifiable. She'd be ready, he thought, for any unwanted visitor. She was as handy as any woman he knew and, obviously, aware of situations and complications of any order, went without telling him what she was up to or even considered possible. He'd love her in all desperations came his silent acknowledgment as the horse headed on the trail to home.
Edna was at the stove when Aiden came out of the boys room and said, "Where's Dad, Mom? There's a thin young cowboy left his mount behind the barn and he just put mask on his face. Cable's watching him every step of the way. I think he's going behind the house, like he don't want to come in the front door."
She grabbed the rifle, shushed Aiden to get Cable and crawl up into the small overhead storage area hung between roof rafters, an easy climb for them. When they were hidden, Edna sat herself at the end of the kitchen facing the back door of the room; when she felt a movement of weight squeak its presence right near the door, she slowly slid the bolt home on the one round in the chamber. With the tip of the rifle she rattled two pans sitting on a shelf with other pots, dried goods, a few bottles.
Then she clinked two bottles together; the kitchen, it all said, was in the hands of a busy woman. Another clink of bottles settled the issue for the intruder, who slowly opened the back door, slipped into the room, and faced a rifle aimed at his chest.
"You ever shoot a man, lady?" A wizened smile covered the lower half of his face. His hand was hanging beside his holster.
"Never shot a full grown man, a brave man, an honest man, but I'm tolerably close to shooting a half grown coward who preys on women and little boys don't happen to be home at this time." She flicked the tip of the rifle so its aim stayed centered on him but on different parts of his body. "Tolerably close," she repeated, the rifle still in minute circling of a live target. "If the boys were here, you'd be dead now. I don't ever miss my target."
"I never saw them leave." He cocked his head as if he were listening for give-away sounds, nervous rustling, accidental sounds.
Remaining seated, color slowly mounting in her face, she said, "They'll be hunting in the hills by now and will meet my husband in town later this morning."
"Gives us all the time in the world," he said with a half-hidden smirk, "for what's bound to happen here, you fire and miss with that one shot you have in that rifle. One shot has to be good to get you out of this hassle, Ma'am." His voice had loaded up on charm for his new pitch.
And the obvious danger.
Edna Walters was nonplussed. "One's all I need," she replied, "to reduce any manhood you thought you had." The tip of the rifle made a half arc in a new circle.
"Where's them kids of yours?" he said, needing to regain some edge, change the subject, seek an opening for a move.
"You're so brave you walk in on people with a mask on. Takes real guts to do that, I'll bet." The rifle moved slightly in her steady hand, a minor show of positional power, a woman with the drop on a man. "The boys at the saloon ought to see you now. How'd that suit you, sonny." Her voice carried her instant change in demeanor.
The masked coward of sorts, shifting in place, hands trembling enough to show, broadcast his nerves as each of them heard the hoof beats of a horse. He thought she'd switch attention, cock her head to hear better, to make a judgment on the horseman's arrival ... but her attention did not waver one bit as she stood up, ready to get off a shot. The rifle was steady as a stout limb in a slight breeze, her gaze the same, not even looking at the door when it slammed opened.
"Aiden, Cable, you boys pop down out of there and tie up your Pa's horse out front before he runs off if I shoot this intruder right now, directly in front of a witness."
The two boys popped down from their hiding place, alighting upright and flashing great smiles at their father, who carefully took the rifle from his wife's hands, approached the masked man, jabbed him in the gut with a savage thrust, grabbed the pistol from the masked man's holster who quickly fell to his knees.
Charlie Walters yelled to the boys, "One of you bring me the rope from my saddle, the other tie that horse up and go get Homer from the barn and a saddle. Me and our new friend are riding into town, unless your mother wants me to do otherwise."
To his wife he said, "Edna, you take that damned mask off his face so we'll know who he is."
With a smile on her face, she replied, "Charlie, I think it best if you let the town and the sheriff know just how he looked when he snuck in here after hiding his horse behind the barn, afraid to show himself to one woman and two young boys."
Charlie Walters nodded, seeing the whole picture of the coming scene in town, his brawny self basking in the limelight of a very special lady who picked on him for the very start of it all.