Western Short Story
Wind whistled through the barbed wire while a million stars twinkled in the early morning sky as two cowboys sat on the front porch of an old cabin awaiting the start of a new day. Each cradled a metal cup of coffee that was part of a morning ritual; a prelude to the coming dawn and the full days’ work ahead of them.
The older of the two, Pete, had spent years working on the ranch and had aged along with the old cabin. Sonny, the younger man, was not really young. The years had slipped away and more than half of his forty years had been spent rounding up livestock and breaking wild horses. His once strong shoulders were beginning to stoop. His face reflected too many summers in the searing heat and too many winters of fierce winds and driving snow.
Sonny took a sip of the black coffee and cradled his hands around the tin cup, which provided a soothing warmth against the morning chill. He sighed deeply and leaned back in his chair.
Pete looked at his friend as the kerosene lamp on the kitchen table cast a dim ribbon of light through the small window and across the porch. Sonny had been quieter than usual the last few weeks as if something wasn’t quite right. The younger man sighed again and took another sip of coffee before he spoke.
“Pete,” he said softly, as he clutched the cup a little tighter. “I think I’m done.”
“Done with what?”
Far off in the distance the lonely refrain of a coyote knifed through the stillness.
“Done with this,” replied Sonny, his voice as lonely and mournful as the howl of the coyote. “Done with spending my life here in the middle of nowhere. Done working for other people.”
Pete was caught off guard. They had worked together for almost twenty years and it had never dawned on him that anything would or could change.
“What are you gonna do?” he asked, a little confused and not quite sure of what to make of this surprising turn of events.
Sonny took another sip of coffee before he answered. “I’ve given this a lot of thought, lately. You know I’ve been seeing Martha, that pretty little waitress at Ma’s Diner there in town.”
Pete agreed. “She’s a right purty girl, for sure. Fine woman, no doubt about it.”
“Well,” Sonny continued. “She’s been after me to get married. I been putting her off and putting her off because I didn’t have nothing to offer a fine gal like that.”
Pete nodded quietly in the darkness as memories of long ago caused his eyes to become moist. He took a long sip of coffee and looked away.
Sonny leaned forward in his chair and stared into the darkness before continuing. “I been seeing Martha for five years now, and I’ve been putting money back ever since I met her so I could buy my own spread.”
“You got a place in mind?” asked the old cowboy.
“I talked to Mr. Spurlock before we left town,” Sonnys’ voice took on an air of excitement as he spoke. “He’s going to sell me that 400 acres just north of town. Got plenty of water and good grazing land. Gave me a good price on it.”
“Mr. Spurlock has been a good man to work for,” nodded Pete as he watched the first glimmer of morning sunlight stream over the mountains. “Always pays mighty fair wages for a good day’s work. He don’t try to skin you outta your money like some of those guys I’ve worked for in the past.”
“Yeah, he’s a good man,” agreed Sonny. He was beaming as bright as the sunlight that peeked over the faraway mountains as he spoke about his future plans. “Anyway, with what’s coming to me in wages and what I’ve saved I can buy that little ranch free and clear.”
“When you gonna ask her to marry you?”
“My first stop once we get back in town is to collect my pay and buy the ranch from Mr. Spurlock. Then I’m headed to Ma’s Diner to get Martha and take her out to the ranch and ask her to marry me there.”
“Sounds like you’ve studied on this right hard,” a big smile played across the lined face of the old cowboy displaying a couple of gaps where teeth had been.
“Yeah,” laughed Sonny. “I’ve thought about this a lot. That last day before we left to come back up here in the mountains Martha and I had a long talk. She told me she wasn’t gettin’ any younger; that her good years was slippin’ away. I told her we would talk about it when I got back. Figured I’d surprise her with the ranch and everything.”
The younger man was beaming as his older friend gave his approval. “It’s about time you done right by that girl,” Pete laughed. “Me and you been pards since you was just a pup and I hate the thought of breaking in somebody new, but this is the right thing to do.”
The men stood up and stretched as the sun climbed over the mountains. “We better get to movin’,” said Sonny, looking at the sunrise. “We’re gettin’ a late start. Got caught up with the talkin’.”
Sonny took his cup inside the cabin as Pete pulled a bright red handkerchief from the back pocket of his frayed pants and dabbed at his eyes. He drained the contents of his cup in a long gulp, “Yeah, we better get movin’.”
The next couple of weeks passed quickly as Spring took control from winter and began the process of greening the world in the mountains. The snow caps on the distance peaks became smaller and signaled it was time to move the mustangs back down into the valley. The cowboys finished their work and drove the horses down the long rocky trail to the Spurlock Ranch. They collected their wages and by early afternoon Sonny had closed the deal on his new ranch.
Their spurs jangled a tune as the two men walked quickly down the sidewalk to Ma’s Diner. They stopped in front of the cafe for a moment as Sonny took off his hat and nervously brushed back his hair while he eyed his reflection in the window. His best flannel shirt danced bright and red in the reflection.
Pete laughed and slapped his friend on the back. “I ain’t seen you sweat this much since that Brammer bull chased you up a tree last year!”
The smell of fresh-baked pie filled the air as they nervously entered the diner. It was a bustling place filled with ranch hands in town after a long hard winter. They found an empty table near the front window and waited to catch a glimpse of Martha. A young, red-haired girl was moving from table to table waiting on the customers. As she walked by Sonny said, “Could you tell Martha somebody is here to see her?”
The girl stopped for a moment and turned back to the two men, “Martha?”
The red head moved on without replying and darted into the kitchen before reappearing in a few moments with Ma. Ma meandered her way around the tables and across the crowded room to where the cowboys were setting. Ma had run the diner as long as anyone could remember.
It was hard to tell how old Ma was. Pete and some of the old cowboys could remember when she was young and thin and her long, brown hair fell across her shoulders. Ma now looked tired and wrinkled in her faded gingham dress as she crossed the crowded room to where the anxious cowboys sat. Her hair had mostly turned to gray with a few streaks of brown still holding out against the advances of time.
The men stood and removed their hats as she stopped in front of them. “Hey, Ma, how are you?” Sonny asked.
“Howdy, Ma, “said Pete.
“Howdy, boys,” replied the old lady, as she pushed a wisp of gray hair back out of her eyes.
“Where’s Martha?” asked Sonny, surprised she wasn’t there. She was always there.
Ma looked at the floor and back up at Sonny until their eyes met. “It’s hard to tell you this, Sonny,” the old woman stammered as she talked. “There was a fella by the name of Scott Campbell that came to town about a month ago. A young, strappin’ fella. All the ladies liked him. He was a salesman of some kind. Martha took up with him and they got married a couple of weeks ago. They left for New Orleans this last week.”
Sonny stood quietly, still holding his hat in his hand as his world spun out of control.
The old woman continued, “She said to tell you she wasn’t getting any younger. Said you would know what she meant.”
Sonny hung his head and nodded as Ma hugged his slumping shoulders before she turned back toward the kitchen.
Sonny’s world swirled out of control for a minute before Pete took his friend by arm and nudged him toward the door. “Let’s get some fresh air.”
They lingered in front of the diner for a minute or two before shuffling down the street. Large dark clouds swept down from the hills signaling an afternoon rainstorm was on its way. The cowboys stopped and sat on the old wooden sidewalk to watch the storm blowing in across the valley.
They sat in silence on the edge the sidewalk for a time before either of them spoke. Sonny looked at his hat that he still held clutched in his hand. “Pete, you have been a good friend to me through thick and thin. I can always count on you in a tight spot.”
“Well, that’s what friends are for,” said the old man, as he took the red handkerchief from his pocket and wiped away a bead of sweat running down his face. He quickly moved the handkerchief across his eyes before stuffing it back in his pocket.
Sonny continued, “Now that I got this ranch, I want you to come in as partners with me.”
“Sonny, I ain’t got enough money for that.”
“You don’t need no money,” said Sonny, as he stood up and put his hat back on. “We’re pards. We’ll work out something.”
“Well, I always wanted to be a ranch owner,” said Pete as he flashed his picket-fence smile.
Sonny reached over and shook hands with the old cowboy. “It’s a deal.”
The two men set off down the street, their spurs not jingling quite as fast as they had earlier. Pete slapped Sonny on the back. “You know that little red-head there at Ma’s was nice looking. If I was about ten years younger; well, maybe thirty years younger I might go a courting’ her.”
The men laughed a loud, uneasy laugh and headed on down the street as raindrops splattered on their well-worn hats. The rain became a downpour and the raging wind hurried them on their way. The blowing rain soaked them and as water streamed across their faces no one could tell as the tears began to fall.