Western Short Story
The late afternoon sun cast a golden glow as Bronco Bigrivers sped toward the small town of Buzzard Gap, South Dakota. A billowing dust cloud trailed the pickup across the otherwise pristine buffalo-grass prairie. Bronco was on an errand of mercy. His partner, Lester Jiggs, was down with the miseries and in urgent need of medication.
Bronco and Lester owned the Dead Cow Ranch, six deeded sections of paradise, just east of the Black Hills, and twenty miles south of the Buzzard Gap Exit off Interstate 90. They were lifelong cowboys, confirmed bachelors, and certified short-end-of-the-stick holders. In spite of being just shy of Medicare eligible, Bronco and Lester were still quite a bit more than a handful. After you got to know them, it didn’t take long to figure out where the name of their ranch had come from.
Bronco was stocky with snow-white hair and a short beard. He was gruff, opinionated, and hard to get to know. He wasn’t comfortable around strangers and he wouldn’t suffer fools or braggarts. Bronco gained a modicum of fame as a saddle-bronc rider back in his youth, but over the years developed a bad habit of landing on his head and the medics finally convinced him to give it up.
Except for his little potbelly, Lester was tall and skinny as a rail. He had thinning gray hair and a big mustache. Easy going and quiet, Lester never met a stranger.
Bronco and Lester had been saddle-partners ever since they graduated the eighth grade and went cowboy’n. These two never made much money but they had one heck of a good time. Over the years, the old buckaroos had cut a pretty wide swath through western South Dakota.
Turning onto Front Street, Bronco pulled up in front of the Buzzard Gap Feed-N-Seed. “What can I do for you, Mr. Bigrivers?” the kid behind the counter asked when Bronco came through the door.
“Need some scours tablets.”
“I got Terramycin.”
“24 or 100?”
“If 24 of ‘em don’t cure him, 100 probably won’t either,” Bronco said.
The clerk retrieved a bottle from the shelf and started to ring it up. “One tablet for every hundred pounds of body weight, twice a day,” he instructed. “Seems a little late in the year to have a sick calf.”
“Don’t have any calves,” Bronco said, “sick or otherwise.”
“Well what’s this for?”
“It’s my partner, he’s down with something.”
“You can’t give this to a human,” the clerk said, “He needs a prescription.”
“And what do you have to do to get a prescription?”
“You take him to the doctor.”
“Exactly my point,” Bronco said, “Now give me them. . . .”
“Hold on,” the kid said, still holding the pill bottle, “What point?”
“The point is; I ain’t waiting a week to get an appointment with some immigrant, who’s religiously opposed to eating beef, just so he can charge me a hunnerd bucks to tell me what I already know. Then pay some drug company another hunnerd bucks for the same pills I can get here for twenty.”
“I guess you got a point, but I don’t know if I can sell this to you, knowing it’s for a human.”
“Not a problem,” Bronco said, “Lester ain’t exactly human.”
“He’s close enough.”
“Look Kid, I’m about done with this debate. If you don’t want me coming over this. . . .”
“Alright, alright … calm down … that’ll be $22.50 … you ornery old. . . .”
“Mind your elders, Boy,” Bronco warned, “Mind your elders.”
Bronco left the Feed-N-Seed and went to Injun Joe’s Discount Tobacco Shop, Pizzeria, Two Bed Tanning Parlor, and Convenience Store.
“Bronco,” Joe said, “I hardly recognized you without Lester. Where is he?”
“He’s down with the scours. I come in for some ginger ale and crackers to settle his stomach. I need a fifth of snake bite medicine to go with it.”
“I thought Lester’s drink was Black Hills Barleycorn.”
“Ordinarily, but he’s gonna need something stronger to kill whatever’s got hold of him.”
“Well, you picked the perfect time to come to town,” Joe said, “I got a big favor to ask.”
“I got a new lady in my life and I bought her a present.”
“What’s that got to do with me?”
“It’s a reproduction sixteenth century suit of armor.”
“Armor,” Bronco repeated.
“She’s into that Renaissance stuff. You should see her in that bodice with her. . . .”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bronco said, “what’s the favor?”
“I need you to hide it out at your place for a week or so. Her birthday is coming up and I want to surprise her. She’s in here all the time. She’ll find it for sure if I keep it.”
“Alright, but let’s load it up. I got to go.”
“Take care of this thing,” Joe said, after they got it in the pickup, “I paid nearly four-grand for it. And for goodness sakes, don’t let it get wet.”
Now, most folks would be thinking the tanning bed business must be pretty lucrative, for Injun Joe to be able to buy expensive gifts for his new girlfriend and her bodice. Actually, his business was doing okay, but Joe arrived in South Dakota with a pretty nice grubstake.
Injun Joe was really, Joseph Caparelli, a full-blooded Sicilian from New Jersey. It had been nearly ten years since Joe hit the jackpot on a two-million dollar slot in Atlantic City. The I.R.S. figured half of it was theirs, and Joe’s wife had the crazy notion the other half was hers.
Joe had no choice but to settle up with the tax man, but later that night, while his wife was phoning all her friends to rub it in their face, he slipped out the back door with the money and disappeared. That’s when his mob-connected brothers-in-law got after him and Joe split for parts unknown.
Just by chance, Joe hit the west-bound side of the Interstate and pulled into Buzzard Gap forty-eight hours later. He just happened to stop at a little coffee shop-convenience store with a,
FOR SALE BY OWNER, sign in the front window. Joe figured this was as close to the middle-of-nowhere as he was likely to find and bought the place.
After closing the deal, he spotted a hitchhiker and his hippie girlfriend just leaving the coffee shop. Joe offered them five-hundred bucks and the keys to his car if they would head south, avoid any Italians, and stop only after they were deep into Mexico. Injun Joe had been a fixture in Buzzard Gap ever since.
In addition to Joe’s olive complexion, he had grown a long black ponytail over the years. In the summertime, he would dress up in a turkey feather war bonnet and stand around next to his naugahyde tipi. As long as he shaved twice a day and kept his mouth shut, the tourists were more than happy to pay the five bucks apiece to have their kid’s picture made with a genuine redskin.
Bronco was nearly back to the Dead Cow access road when he spotted a big black-and-tan, wire-haired dog limping down the road. He pulled up alongside and rolled down the window, “If you want a ride, fleabag, get in.” Ignoring Bronco, the big dog continued on his way. The dog had a reputation to uphold. He wasn’t some run-of-the-mill truck dog and even if he was, he wouldn’t lift his leg on the heap Bronco was driving.
Bronco got to the house, just as it got dark, and found Lester still a sick man. Except for a couple of trips to the outhouse, he hadn’t moved from his bed. Bronco poured a stiff shot of snake bite medicine in a glass of ginger ale and took it in to him. He gave Lester a couple of scours tablets, figuring his weight around 160. “That’ll get you back on your feet,” Bronco said. He left a little plate of crackers, the snake bite medicine, and the bottle of tablets next to Lester’s bed.
While Bronco was in the kitchen fixing a bite of supper, the big curly dog stuck his nose in the door and shoved it open. Without even a howdy-do, he went to a spot between the wood box and the stove, swapped ends a couple of times and plopped down.
“You think you can just waltz in here anytime you please?” Bronco asked. The dog just gave him a look of distain. “Did you finally get all the pooches in a family way or has the Cat Lovers Society upped the bounty again?” The dog gave out a sigh and closed his one good eye. He was in real need of some sleep and not in the mood for any frivolous conversation.
The dog came into Bronco and Lester’s life one cold night, when he was just a pup. They were leaving the Buffalo Bar in Buzzard Gap when they found him lying next to the pickup. The little dog was road burned, bloody, and his off-hind leg was broken. He looked like he’d either been thrown out of a passing car, or run over by a semi out on the Interstate.
The boys took pity on the tiny stray and carried him home. They set and splinted his leg, as best they could and gave him a warm place to sleep by the stove. After being put on a regular diet of beef and beans, the pup started to recover. Over the months that followed, his leg healed a little stiff, but practically good as new and he began to grow.
It turned out the pup was absolutely fearless; almost to the point of being obnoxious. Because of that, the boys named him Wyatt Earp. By the time he’d been there a year; he weighed nearly seventy pounds and developed a real air of superiority.
They figured Wyatt Earp was mostly Airedale. Over the years, there had been some lengthy discussions about the dog’s ancestry. They finally decided Wyatt Earp’s mother was probably an Airedale, but his sire must have been a timber wolf.
The longhorn-crossed cattle on the ranch weren’t afraid of much but they respected Wyatt Earp. He learned early-on that he could call their bluff any time he felt the need. If an ornery cow pushed him, he’d charge in, grab hold of her nose, Bill Picket style, and hang on.
The fight didn’t usually last very long and it only took one go-round for most cows to learn their lesson. Wyatt Earp got so good at it; the boys would occasionally see him bulldog yearlings just for the fun of it.
Out of respect for the ladies or any children who might accidentally pick up this story, I’ll refrain from describing what Wyatt Earp did to the bulls who dared challenge him. Suffice it to say, every bull on the place gave him a wide berth. One ornery old sorehead of a bull, named Crazy Horse, used to hurl insults at Wyatt Earp from a distance, but the wise old bovine would take to the timber before things could get out of hand.
Wyatt Earp found himself minus an ear, after a scrap with a mouthy mountain lion way up in the high-country one night, and he lost the use of his right eye after a brawl with three cocky coyotes that made some snide remarks about his limp.
In spite of all that, nobody should go to feeling sorry for Wyatt Earp. He started both of those fights, as well as most of the others he had ever been in. He could have walked away from that lion and no one would have blamed him, but he didn’t. The coyotes probably deserved what they got.
One night in town, he took on two drunken Labradors out behind the Buffalo Bar. The Labs were in South Dakota on a pheasant hunt and thought they were somebody. They were trying to arrange a one night stand with a couple of the local pooches, and Wyatt Earp wasn’t having any of that.
Even with all his battle scars, Wyatt Earp had never seen the inside of a vet’s office. Bronco and Lester patched him up when he needed it, and they bought his yearly shots when they could catch them on sale at the Feed-N-Seed. They’d mix a shot of snake bite medicine in his water dish, and inject him, when they found him passed out in a drunken stupor.
Wyatt Earp was more than capable of taking care of himself. Normally, he would stay gone for as long as a month at a time, but now, with the weather cooling off, he would stay a little closer to home. Wyatt Earp liked his spot by the stove when the north wind was howling outside.
The rain on the roof of the trailer house woke Bronco up about midnight. Lying there in bed, he suddenly remembered Injun Joe’s suit of armor was still in the pickup. He jumped up and ran outside to retrieve it.
The cardboard shipping container was soaking wet. Bronco got the armor out of the box and stood it up in the living room to dry off. It didn’t appear to be damaged, so he left it by the window and went back to bed.
It was about three a.m., when Lester awoke with a start. His gut was in the grip of powerful forces threatening immediate and extremely unpleasant consequences. The old cowboy’s head was spinning as he jumped out of bed, ran into the wall, grabbed his hat, bumped into the kitchen table, found the back door, and ran for the outhouse. The night was wet and cold, but there was no time to put on jeans or a jacket. He sat out there shivering in the dark for twenty minutes.
By the time Lester got back to the trailer house, he was chilled to the bone and as sick as a man could be, and still be on his feet. He was light-headed and suffering with severe double-vision.
His medication level would have been just about right if he weighed 900 pounds, but at 160, there was a strong possibility that he shouldn’t have taken another scours pill and a healthy shot of snake bite medicine, every time he woke up during the night.
Lester didn’t bother with the light switch as he was headed straight to bed. The old cowpoke was staggering across the kitchen, trying to figure out which shifting hallway led to his bedroom, when he spotted two strangers standing in the living room. They appeared to be watching out the window. At first Lester thought it might be Bronco and a late-night lady friend, but he could hear Bronco snoring back in his bedroom.
Neither of the strangers appeared to be that big. Ordinarily, he would have taken them bare-knuckles, but Lester wasn’t himself. He figured in his weakened condition, he might need the double-barreled 12 gauge that was always propped by the back door. The boys used it for running off pesky varmints and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The strangers never moved or made any sound as Lester eased back toward the shotgun. Just as he got it in his hand, Wyatt Earp got up to see what was going on.
Lester wasn’t aware that Wyatt Earp was in the house. In his haste to get out of the cold, he neglected to fasten the trapdoor of his longhandles, and as luck would have it, he was on Wyatt Earp’s blind side.
Fully prepared to shoot both intruders if it became necessary, Lester braced himself against the kitchen table, slowly raised the scattergun, and cleared his throat, “All right,” he warned, “you claim-jumpers picked the wrong outfit to. . . .”
It was at that precise moment that Wyatt Earp, trying to get a better look with his one good eye, stuck his cold wet nose up against Lester’s exposed backside … KABLAAMMM!!!
Bronco was yanked out of his slumber by the sounds of crashing glass and falling furniture. Grabbing his .44, he headed to the kitchen. Bronco got the light on just in time to find a headless suit of armor attempting to escape out the shattered window, Wyatt Earp in the floor holding his sides and howling with laughter, and Lester trying to stay on his feet long enough to reload the scattergun and shoot both of their smart mouthed dogs.