Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Pounding heavily on the floor, their shoes created thudding noises that echoed slightly in the lengthy corridor. They walked slowly, the man in the cheap suit and his companion in the dark blue uniform. Making their way toward a door at the far end, the pace was set by the man in the suit. He had difficulty maintaining anything more than the effort he was now putting forth. The pain he experienced was evident and, while he doubled his attempt at speed, his gait remained the same, but a slight limp developed the harder he pushed himself.
The man in the uniform silently matched his companion’s gait.
As they passed the dim electric lamps mounted at intervals on the walls, the suited man’s features became visible. Lines in his long, gaunt face spoke not only to his advanced age but to the pain and difficulty he suffered. Somewhat round shouldered, the man was tall and slim. Small vertical folds of skin hung loosely under his chin and his mouth was thin and drawn downward grimly at the corners. His nose was long and straight and the sad light blue eyes were deeply set, all but hidden by lids and massive white brows. Also white, his hair was noticeably thinning at the temples and forehead and was slicked straight back, giving the illusion of even less hair than was actually present. The full white mustache accompanied a well groomed beard that ran along his jaw line and culminated under his chin. Although in obvious discomfort, he made every effort to refrain from stooping or hunching as he moved.
The uniformed man remained at his companion’s side, seemingly ready to give aid if required. He wore the uniform of a guard at the New Mexico State Penitentiary and its insignia indicated his rank of captain. He was short and stocky with a massive black mustache.
Their journey ended at the door marked warden on which the guard tapped his knuckles.
“Come in.” a voice called from beyond the door.
In response, the guard opened the door and allowed his companion to enter. He remained outside, simply announcing in a gruff voice: “Hultren, sir.”
The warden, a slight man in shirt sleeves and a four-in-hand tie, looked up from his desk and cracked a half smile as his eyes crossed those of his visitor.
“Sit down.” The warden gestured to the chair in front of the desk.
Doing as instructed, the man sat and stared expressionless at the warden, waiting. His eyes settled on the warden’s wild, sandy colored hair that stuck up at various lengths around the sides and back of his head, calling attention to the baldness in the center. He sat somewhat fixated on this feature while the warden finished perusing the file in front of him. Finally, the warden looked up.
“Your last day, Hultren. In a few minutes, you’ll be on your way back to the life of a free man.”
“Yes, sir.” Hultren said simply in a voice that was hoarse with age but still retained its strength and depth.
“I’ve been going over your file. You’ve accomplished a lot since you came here, helping other prisoners, teaching them to read and write. You even helped to put down a riot three years ago. And now, sadly, you’ve been paid back with an illness.”
“Cancer, isn’t it?"
"Are you going to seek treatment for it?”
“I don’t see the value in that, Warden. The doctor says I don’t have much time left.”
“What will you do then?”
“I’m going back to where I came from. I’ve got some unfinished business there.”
“Right, you still maintain your innocence, that you were framed?”
“I do. It’s time to settle that once and for all.”
“Nothing against the law, I hope. Sick or not, you could find yourself back here if you break the law.”
“What I’m going to do is completely legal.”
“I hope so. I’d hate to see you come back here to die.”
“I won’t be back here, Warden, I can promise you that.”
The warden studied Hultren for a moment and moved on, producing an envelope from a desk drawer. He held it out to Hultren. “Besides your suit of clothes, the law requires that each prisoner be given ten dollars upon his release. You’ll find a bit more than ten in there, courtesy of the guards.”
Hultren opened the envelope and counted out fifty dollars in small bills. He guessed that all those times he had helped and supported the guards in their work was now bearing fruit. He smiled at that. “Thank them for me, will you?”
“I will.” The warden signed an official looking document and folded it, presenting it to Hultren. “This is your release paper.”
Hultren placed the sheet into the envelope with the money and inserted it in his inside jacket pocket, as the warden got up from the desk and crossed to the window. “One more thing.” He motioned for Hultren to join him at the window.
“The driver in that motor car down there has been instructed to take you anywhere in Santa Fe you choose to go. My gift to you.”
Hultren peered out at the bright blue 1910 Overland automobile that sat just outside the main gate. The corners of his mouth turned up in a slight smile. “Never rode in a motor car before. Thank you.”
The warden extended his hand. “Enjoy it.”
They shook hands and bid each other goodbye. Hultren left the office to rejoin the guard captain and was escorted to the main gate. He was handed his thirty year old faded white cattleman’s hat that had been stored upon his arrival, and received the well wishes of several of the guards, before stepping through the opened gate into freedom.
He breathed free air for the first time in twenty-five years and, as he walked the concrete toward the waiting automobile, he savored this. It didn't smell any different from the air inside the prison, maybe a little less stagnant was all. His mind drifted back to the origins of his lot in life. In reality, he had been thinking about this a lot lately. It began last year when he successfully appealed his fifty year prison sentence to the new governor and was granted a lesser term. The letter from the governor, received after an impassioned plea and the support of the warden, cut his punishment in half. At the time, that gave him one more year to serve before his slate would be considered clean. It was then that he began reaching back to the time when all this started.
Before the governor’s decision, he thought little about the incident because it was too painful and would do him no good anyway since he could do nothing about clearing himself from behind bars. During the trial he exhausted every possibility of proving his innocence. The older the incident became, the more remote any hope became. Then, when freedom became available in one year instead of twenty-six, he considered that which seemed within reach, settling the score.
Looking back was still distressing but, formulating a plan required fresh knowledge of all the facts and, so, he forced his mind to reenact the specifics.
It went all the way back to 1886, which was when it actually started. His ranch was flourishing and became the object of Jason Cleary’s desire. Indeed, Cleary had made no less than three offers to buy it that year, all of which Hultren flatly refused.
The place was in his family for over twenty years. He grew up on it, learned the business thoroughly from his father, buried both his parents on that land, and was not about to let it go, especially to a speculator like Cleary. In retrospect, he now admitted that he should have done something about Cleary then, but the ranch consumed all of his time and he had little interest in things outside the business. Therefore, Cleary was allowed to grow his little empire, unchecked. Soon his name was on many concerns operating in Blue Valley, whether it got there legally or not.
Then, in 1887, after an unfortunate drinking bout in town, Hultren was visited by Cleary in the company of the town marshal. Cleary accused Hultren of horse theft. He claimed he had witnesses that would swear they saw him, in a drunken rage, pistol whip a Cleary ranch hand and run off ten prize stallions. Hultren denied it, but Cleary insisted that the marshal inspect Hultren’s stables. The search turned up the horses in question and Hultren was arrested for horse theft and assault.
The rest of it went according to Cleary’s orchestrations. The marshal and the judge were obviously in Cleary’s employ, although that could not be proven, so the trial became a sham, staying just the right side of legal. Appearing with the appropriate bruises, the man Hultren was supposed to have beaten identified him as the assailant. The marshal testified turning up the stolen horses in Hultren's barn. Hultren's only two witnesses, who could establish his alibi, never showed up for the trial. His fate was sealed when the jury returned a guilty verdict. Cleary’s pocketed judge sentenced Hultren to fifty years and he was carted off to the penitentiary.
Now, with twenty-five years under his belt, he dared to concoct a plan of revenge on Cleary that the fifty year sentence would not have allowed. By the end of that time, either he or Cleary, or both, would be dead. But now, even though this cancer he carried with him had a terminal prognosis, this could still be pulled off.
The automobile ride, while a pleasant diversion, was long enough to allow deep thought yet short enough to prevent complete emersion in the subject. The arrival at his destination, the railroad station, broke his train of thought and allowed him to put this aside. After thanking the driver, Hultren purchased a ticket south to Sorocco and waited for the train.
In Sorocco, he boarded a bus bound for, among other stops, Blue Valley. This was a dusty ride in the open conveyance, but Hultren began feeling more at home as the country changed into the open land with which he was much more familiar. Upon arriving at Blue Valley, he was amazed at the changes that had taken place in a quarter century, new buildings, concrete sidewalks, paved streets, even a few automobiles. But, through it all, he noticed the prevalence of Cleary’s name on so many businesses. He should have dealt with Cleary when he had the chance. No matter. He'd do it now.
After thoroughly scrutinizing the town, Hultren visited the hotel to book a room and went on to the livery stable to rent a horse and saddle outfit. He had not been on a horse since his incarceration and needed to familiarize himself again with the animal and its equipment. That was embarrassing for a cattleman. Mounting and riding caused him pain but he forced his way through it. His destination was worth the suffering.
Once he was out of town, the roads were more recognizable. He found his way across country to land that once belonged to him. A familiar trail led him to a knoll on which gravestones sat. These were the graves of his mother and father, which he expected, but what was that third stone? A closer look revealed his own name on this stone and the date of his death, 1890.
Initially flabbergasted, Hultren collected himself and pieced this together. This was probably Cleary’s handiwork, his way of getting the ranch after Hultren’s conviction. Not important. Cleary would be dealt with and this wouldn’t matter. But there was still something eating at him. What if there was someone buried there? Suddenly, he had to know.
Returning to Blue Valley, he made two more stops, one at a haberdasher where he purchased some work clothes; one at a gun shop where he bought a short barreled Colt Lightening and a shoulder rig. After a small meal, he changed his clothes and, leaving the weapon in his room, procured a shovel and returned to the gravesite.
Digging up a twenty-five year old grave was no mean task for a healthy man half his age. For Hultren, it was grueling, back breaking work that took most of the afternoon and several periods of rest. He did, however, persevere, finishing close to dusk, but unearthing no coffin. There was only dirt. Exhaustion was taking over, but he was determined to know what was there. A few more shovels full and he struck something. Putting the shovel aside, he scratched at the dirt until he uncovered the item he hit. A bone! More scratching revealed more bones, then a skeleton, then another.
The clothing these bodies were buried with was in tatters now but there was an object sticking out from the remnants of a pocket, a metallic object. He reached for it and instantly identified it as a pocket watch. Instinctively, he opened it to see the face and saw an inscription. He struck a match for light. The cover bore the name of one of the witnesses who had failed to show up at his trial. Cleary again. He had them killed and buried and, later, had the grave camouflaged by identifying it as Hultren’s.
All right, he had his answer. Now, was he going to leave the grave as is or fill it in? He would leave it. Even if Cleary found it, by the time he figured this out, it would be too late.
Wearily, Hultren returned to Blue Valley and collapsed into bed. Sleep consumed him for something like ten hours and, when he finally did awaken, his body was enveloped with not only the pain from the labor of the previous day but also from the cancer. It was progressing at a faster rate than he expected and all that work most likely aggravated it. He needed to tough this out. He needed to last. Cleary had to pay.
Forcing himself out of bed and getting cleaned up and shaved was exhausting enough, but enduring the painful ordeal of getting dressed and strapping on the shoulder holster was almost more than he could bear. Putting aside his distaste for consuming any kind of medication, he found in his jacket pocket the folded papers containing the powdered painkiller given to him by the prison doctor. He mixed into a full glass of water and gulped it down. Taking a seat on the bed, he loaded the revolver.
Lost in his thoughts, he sat for almost an hour holding the gun while the muscles in his hand reached back over twenty-five years to familiarize themselves once more with the structure and the feel of the weapon. Then, with a jerk, he was suddenly brought back to reality and found that the medicine had worked, leaving his body somewhat more pliable and less painful. This allowed him to perform a few practice draws. Slow as molasses, he thought, but adequate enough for his purpose.
The saloon across the street from the hotel also bore Cleary’s name and was fairly active for late morning on a weekday. The presence of a kitchen serving lunches and dinners was likely the attraction for many people, but the availability of several card games was probably the draw for most. Those tables that were not occupied by diners had been taken over by avid card players. The stakes were high and those engaged in the games were dead serious.
Hultren’s entrance into the establishment went completely unnoticed, as planned, and his perusal of the occupants and his eavesdropping on their conversations also gained no notice. He was able to zero in on a particular subject in almost no time.
The person of interest was a young, blond haired man with a sneering expression named Suter who, in conversation, revealed that he was in the employ of Jason Cleary.
This prompted Hultren to concoct a quick plan which required his participation in the card game. His method was direct, a question to the blond man, “Mind if I sit in?”
The man shrugged absently. “Sure. Your money’s good as anybody’s.”
Hultren sat and produced all thirty-two dollars of his stake. The money was changed to chips. Play was resumed.
Ten minutes into the new game saw Hultren double his money. Suter, obviously a bad loser, glared at this new player. Hultren recognized the signs and increased the pot. Suter responded by calling and covering the bet. Hultren won the hand.
The deal came to Suter. Hultren watched closely as cards were distributed. Bristling at having lost a good deal of money, Suter, rather clumsily, allowed a card to enter the game from the bottom of the deck. It fell on top of his own cards.
“That last card came from the bottom,” Hultren said sharply.
Suter glared at Hultren for a second before speaking. “You saying I’m cheating?”
“I’m saying that last card did not come from the top of the deck.” Hultren's statement came slowly and distinctly.
Suter pushed his chair back from the table, his face beet red. “Nobody calls me a cheat and gets away with it.” His voice was low and threatening, spoken through clenched teeth.
Hultren stayed calm. “I just did.”
Suter rose quickly, upsetting the chair. He made a telegraphed move for his holster. Hultren's hand was closer and faster. Before Suter could clear leather, Hultren's Colt was leveled on his middle. “Don’t try it!”
Suter dropped his hand to his side in compliance.
“Now take what’s yours and get out.”
Suter nervously reached into the center of the table and separated his money from the rest. Awkwardly, he scooped up the cash. Hultren waved the gun to emphasize his last order. Suter stepped around the other players and left the saloon. Hultren holstered the pistol.
A few more hands ended the game with Hultren the owner of seventy-four dollars. More satisfying, however, was the way his encounter with Suter played out. He returned to the street and leaned against the outside wall of the saloon as he watched people go about their business. This brought to his view a meeting down the street between Suter and a well dressed stocky man. They completed an intense discussion at which time the stocky man dismissed Suter and began approaching the saloon.
Watching the man’s gait and allowing him to come close enough for his features to become clear, Hultren recognized the man. Jason Cleary. The face was chubbier as was the frame but this was definitely the man Hultren sought. He knew the jowls, though they were more pronounced now, and he knew the wide set tiny eyes as well as the slight limp that Cleary seemed to always have. The corners of Hultren’s mouth curled into a bit of a smile as he watched the man approach.
“Afternoon, Mr. Cleary.”
Cleary glanced at the source of the words but did not stop as he replied, “Afternoon.”
“Nice day, isn’t it?” Hultren forced pleasantry.
“Yeah, I guess.” Cleary’s answer was vague, inattentive, as he brushed past Hultren and entered the saloon.
After standing in place for a long moment, Hultren followed Cleary inside. Remaining off to the side but in spots where Cleary could easily see him, Hultren watched the man intently.
As his visit to the saloon progressed through greeting customers, conferring with the bartender and signing some papers in his office at the back of the room, Cleary became more uneasy with each appearance of this stranger. By the time he was finished and leaving, Cleary was fairly unnerved. Hultren stayed with him.
For the next several days, Hultren was a constant accessory to Cleary’s daily routine. And, with each day and each sighting of Hultren, Cleary displayed more anxiety, to the point of confronting the irritant. “What do you want, mister? Every time I turn around, you’re there. Now what do you want?”
“Nothing.” Hultren pushed his hat back on his head a little.
“Then what are you hanging around for?”
“Nothing. I’m just walking is all.”
“Well, walk somewhere else. I don’t want to see you.”
“Sure.” Hultren readjusted his hat and walked away, leaving a bristling Cleary standing on the sidewalk. Checking over his shoulder, Hultren waited until Cleary started walking and then continued to follow him.
This same scenario repeated itself several times over the course of a week. Cleary abandoned confrontation and paid a visit to the town marshal.
He was a scrawny little man who, because of his manner of dress, appeared more to be a preacher than a lawman. Cleary’s request for the stranger to be arrested was refused by the marshal because the stranger had done nothing more than happen to be where Cleary happened to be. In the marshal's opinion, there was no law broken. He advised Cleary to ignore the disturbance. Pressing the issue, Cleary called the lawman’s attention to the support he had provided during the last election. He further demanded that the marshal confront the stranger and determine his intentions. Reluctantly, the marshal agreed.
Hultren’s next appearance in Cleary’s vicinity was interrupted by the lawman. “You seem to be making yourself a nuisance, stranger. What are you up to?” His voice had a sneering quality to it.
Hultren observed the badge on the man’s vest as the marshal pulled his jacket away to reveal it. “I’m not up to anything, Marshal, just walking.”
“What’s your business here?”
“As a matter of fact, I’m looking the town over. Might want to open a business.”
“Well, do your looking where Mr. Cleary ain’t. You’re making him nervous.”
“Whatever you say, Marshal.”
“Well, move along then.”
While the marshal might have believed he had routed the stranger, Hultren continued to be seen by Cleary. He remained well in the background, but he was there. He was not staring, not following; but he was always there. And Cleary was well aware of it. His disquiet increased as the sightings progressed.
In response, Cleary met with Suter who now became a part of this dance, following Hultren as he followed Cleary. It took less than an hour for Hultren to recognize this new development and to deal with it.
Making certain that Suter had him in sight, Hultren moved away from the area in which Cleary was walking and headed into an alley. Suter followed and, once inside the alley, drew his weapon. He stepped cautiously past some crates and moved toward the far end of the alley. Hultren rose from behind the crates after Suter had passed and closed the gap between himself and Suter.
“Hey!” Hultren said as he swung his Colt, barrel first, across the back of Suter’s head. The gun met bone through Suter’s hat with a dull clack. Instantly, the man caved and slumped to the ground, senseless. Hultren dragged the limp form behind the crates and left the alley.
The next time Cleary saw Hultren, he failed to find Suter nearby. Troubled, he paid another visit to the marshal’s office, this time demanding that the officer do something about Hultren.
“All right, I’ll have another talk with him.”
The door to Hultren’s room moved ever so slightly due to the energetic knocking coming from the hall side. Finishing a wash, Hultren buried his face in a towel and went to the door in undershirt and trousers with suspenders dropped to his sides.
“Open up! It’s the law!”
Dutifully, Hultren admitted the man.
“I’ve had another complaint about you. Now, I’m ordering you to stay away from Mr. Cleary.”
“Am I breaking the law, Marshal?”
“Well, no, not exactly, but you’re causing Mr. Cleary a lot of upset.”
“All I’m doing is walking on the street, Marshal. Seems to me, if Mr. Cleary is upset with me doing that, then that’s his problem.”
Confounded, the officer looked around the room, seemingly to observe his surroundings, but more likely to arrange his thoughts to probe deeper. His gaze settled on the shoulder rig hanging from the back of a chair.
“What do you need that gun for?” The inquiry sounded duly official.
“This is still wild country. I keep it for protection. Is there a law against it?”
Hultren tried to appear cooperative while still divulging no more than necessary.
“Look here, mister.” The marshal showed signs of anger. “I know there’s more to you than you’re letting on and I want to know what that is. What’s your business with Cleary?”
Hultren turned away and thought for a moment. He would not be able to drag this out much longer. Things needed to come to a head now. But it still needed to be according to his plan.
“Well?” The lawman's demand displayed impatience.
Hultren faced the man. “You’re right, Marshal, there is more.”
“There’s something I need to discuss with Mr. Cleary. I’m going to have that discussion with him at nine o’clock tonight at his saloon. You be there then and you’ll know what this is all about. That’s all I can tell you right now. Everything depends on the outcome of that discussion.”
The marshal tugged at his chin, unsatisfied with Hultren’s answer.
“That’s a tad too cryptic for me. What’s the discussion about?”
“It’s a business discussion, just business. Come to the saloon tonight and you’ll find out all about it.”
The marshal had an apprehensive expression on his face. Hultren expected more questions to come and sought to end the conversation.
“That’s really all I can tell you right now. It’s just business.”
The marshal let out a harrumph, signaling he was ending this pursuit.
Hultren eyed him as he turned for the door, hoping he put the man off with the information he provided, but, at the same time, whetted his appetite for that which was coming later.
“I’ll see you tonight,” the lawman said with a snarl. satisfying Hultren’s expectation.
At ten of nine that night, with the saloon full of patrons engaged in gambling, drinking and conversation, Cleary stepped out of the back office. He surveyed the house and the absence of his stalker brought a smile to his lips. It remained there as he approached the bar until Hultren stepped through the front door. He walked purposefully to Cleary and stopped in front of him.
This being only the second time that Hultren was this close to Cleary prompted Cleary to take the initiative. “What the hell do you want with me?” The demand was loud.
“You might want to step outside with me before I tell you that.”
“You can say it right here and right now.”
“I don’t think you’re going to want this overheard by anyone.”
Cleary thought for a moment. He wanted this ended and he wanted to know what this pain in the ass was up to. Before moving, he called the bartender over told him to send someone after him if he was not back in ten minutes. Then he led the way outside, followed closely be Hultren. Without a word, they entered the dimly lit alley. Hultren positioned himself so that he faced the light coming from a street lamp outside.
“All right, mister, talk.” Cleary said in a growl.
Hultren shook his head in apparent disbelief. “You really don’t recognize me, do you?”
“What? Why should I recognize you? I don’t even know you. Now, tell me what this is all about.”
“Maybe you’ll recognize my name. It’s Hultren.”
Then it registered on Cleary. Hultren could see it in his face, in his eyes.
“Yeah, you know me. Hultren, remember?”
Cleary was suddenly sweating, a cold sweat that caused him to tremble slightly.
“You can’t be here. You’re—”
“In prison? Naw, that’s over. Appealed my case to the governor last year and he cut my sentence in half. Twenty-five years of a fifty year sentence. I was released two weeks ago and the first thing I did was to come here for you. You took everything from me, Cleary, everything, my ranch, my freedom, my life! You don’t get away without paying for that.”
Hultren watched Cleary’s face as he spoke and saw the change taking place, from confidence to fear, just as he had planned. Cleary was going to feel at least some of what Hultren had felt at the trial and behind those bars, that sinking feeling that there was no hope of survival. Hultren smiled, observing the mounting panic in his opponent as he became the victim of the victim. Cleary looked around, perhaps for a place to run, to hide, but found nothing. There was only him and Hultren, facing each other in the alley.
“Long overdue, Cleary.” Hultren took a step forward. “And now I’m going to have my revenge. But I’m going to do something for you that you would never do for me. I’m going to give you a chance, a chance to even the odds. You've got a gun. Go ahead, use it.”
“No, I … I won’t.” Cleary raised his hand, palm forward.
“Come on, Cleary, draw! Use the chance!” Hultren sank his hand into his jacket.
“No!” Cleary backed up a step.
“Fight, you gutless wonder.”
Hultren waited a second for a reaction that did not come. He continued prodding. “Draw or I’ll shoot you anyway.” He moved his hand.
“All right!” Cleary shouted as his hand went to his holster and brought up the revolver. Almost automatically, he fired once, the sharp report splitting the night silence, sending a bullet into Hultren’s middle. The slug doubled Hultren over and forced him back a few steps but did not fell him. He grunted and drove himself to straighten up. Laughing now, until he choked on his own blood, he staggered forward.
Cleary fired another shot. This one hit Hultren in the chest and propelled him back off his feet to a position spread-eagle on the ground. Cleary watched this as if it was playing out in slow motion. He stood transfixed over the body of this man he hardly knew but knew well all the same. His hand dropped to his side, loosely holding the smoking gun.
A hand reached from behind him and pulled the weapon from his grip as the marshal’s voice said: “I’ll take that.”
Brushing past Cleary, the marshal went on a knee next to Hultren’s body and examined it for signs of life. None were present.
Cleary came back to glaring reality as the marshal stepped in front of him and eyed him quizzically. “Mr. Cleary? What’s going on here?”
Flustered, Cleary searched for words to explain the incident. “He … eh … he tried to kill me.”
The marshal stared at Cleary. “I ain’t seen anything like this in twenty years. Did he draw on you?”
“Yeah, yeah, he drew on me.”
“And you had to kill him?”
“Yeah, I beat him to the draw. Self defense. I had to kill him to protect myself.”
Cleary watched as the marshal turned and crouched at Hultren’s body for a closer examination. He stood there, still trying to get a handle on what just happened. Then the marshal faced him again. “I’m going to have to arrest you.”
Cleary was adamant. “What do you mean arrest me? This was self defense here. I got him before he could get me.”
“That’s going to be hard to prove.”
“What do you mean?”
“The man had no gun, Mr. Cleary. You just shot an unarmed man. You’re under arrest for murder.”
Suddenly, it was all crystal clear. Hultren had engineered this whole thing and now he had his revenge. He boxed Cleary in just as surely as Cleary locked him away twenty-five years ago. Now Cleary would surely pay the ultimate price.