Western Short Story
The pickings were slim, if there were any at all, and Thorn Lavery looked down the length of the
ranch and saw one mule, three cows, and four cowpokes, all idling like scarecrows, and he made
a quick decision.
He saddled his horse and rode toward town; there was payment due and he was on the short end.
He carried no side arms and no rifle showed in his saddle scabbard. Some locals said he was
average height, average weight, with the usual blue eyes that come with sandy hair the wind
often played with. They also said he was short of bad habits, good with good friends, a decent
employer at times who was not the best businessman, but he was long on determination.
Most of those people liked Lavery, but Gus Marshall did not like him. Nobody knew the reason
why, except Marshall who had heard Lavery had spoken out against him several times, saying,
“That man wants everything he sees, takes much of it, plays to beat everybody at whatever he’s
involved in, and does what it takes to stay ahead of those who have and those who don’t have.”
At Pecos Hill, Gus Marshall, owner of the massive Circle Ought-Bar- Ought spread, was waiting
for Lavery, his arms folded across his chest as he sat outside The Pecos West Saloon in the only
chair on the boardwalk, the chair generally not used by anybody else when Marshall was in
town. A few of his ranch hands were hunkered near him, trying to squeeze themselves out of
sight, and a few others had scattered into the morning crowd. Marshall rarely went anyplace
without a likely amount of force at close call. Older folks at Pecos Hill hinted often that he was
like the queen bee with all the drones scrambling for crumbs off the earth.
A few of those folks were convinced this day promised action before noon, tempo in the air for
one reason or another.
The sun, meanwhile, shot its slanting rays into the heart of Pecos Hill. Even so early in the day
that orb sat like a fist on top of the town, much like Marshall sat on the town; oppressive in his
way, making people come to a uncanny standstill and show their worst under the pressure.
As he rode into town, Lavery entertained several thoughts, foremost being that he’d never tell
Marshall all the facts in their ongoing problems lest he appear to be alibi-ing; he had never stolen
a cow in his life, or a horse, and especially had never cut a man’s fence, even though he hated
fences and the people who put them up … like Marshall did on every new piece of land he
grabbed out from under someone who “owed him.”
Lastly, Lavery’d die before he’d let on that daughter Penny, 12, had overheard two of Marshall’s
men discussing her planned kidnapping. “She’s the only thing Lavery loves, and the boss knows
it. That’s why we got to get the edge on things for the boss, the way he likes them. He don’t like
no odd chances.”
The other man, in a deeper voice, said, “He don’t like to lose no way out of the barn, but he ain’t
plannin' on hurtin’ her, just gettin’ that edge he needs all the time, force an issue.”
Other knowledge stayed in the mix of Lavery’s mind as he mulled things over.
One of them was that Penny should never have been out there alone, at the edge of the foothills,
her horse run off towards home, and her hiding in the higher limbs of the tree, the two Marshall
hands sitting under tree taking a break from fence repair, and each one shooting off his mouth
about how they ought to “cash in on that little Penny.”
One of them left a permanent thought in Penny’s mind when he said, “She’s a troublemaker like
all girls this side of The Pecos West.” His laughter was shared by his partner on fence duty, who
said, “Give her a year or so and see what you get then.”
That brought a round of laughter she faintly understood.
Later, she said to her irritated father, “Why do they want me, Pa?” Her eyes looking as big as
flapjacks. She was as pretty as the summer mountain in the distance, or the winter copy of it
when snow topped it off. He’d say she warmed every room she entered.
“That squirrely one,” she put forth, “that Doak Witherspoon, he’s always thinking he’s the best
looking man on the whole side of the mountain, just ‘cause he is. Don’t give him the right to say
what he said, about grabbing me and taking me up to Peanut Hill to their line camp up there?”
“Penny,” Lavery had burst out with, “are you damned sure that’s what he said? He ain’t a bad
guy though he thinks awful big. You said stuff before about him. What the hell were you doing
up in that tree? You could have been killed.”
His nerves jumped at the thought.
“I told you, Ginger run off on me when I was picking flowers. I think she got spooked by a snake
in the rocks that are spread all over the hill.”
His nerves jumped again, but she had artfully shifted some of the focus again, the way her
mother had been able to do, manipulating in a mostly innocent manner, and his eyes now making
off with most of the elusive mischief. Lavery found the images of strewn rocks filling the back of
his mind along with poisonous snakes.
He finally allowed one hidden thought to stick in his mind as he rode and all the images it carried
He saw her again with the cards in her hand on the evening before at the kitchen table, as though
she was going to wave them and make you think she’d show them off, a wicked smile curving
her lips, her eyes lit up by the lamps. She had even said during the half wave, “Watch the cards,
Pa. Watch the cards.”
Then a new idea grasped her attention. “Didn’t Grandma or Grandpa or somebody say something
like that, Pa … Watch the cards?” The lamplight still sat in her eyes as though it had picked her
out for special reflections.
He had shaken his head, but she hadn’t let it go. “It keeps coming at me, Pa,” she said. “Like just
now. Like last night. Like when I think of Ma leaving so early. Think it’s her saying, ‘Watch the
cards?’ That mean anything special, Pa?”
She closed her eyes, slowly tilted her head as though one suitable image was clutching for room,
and offered up a new measure: “Think that makes me a special messenger, Pa? Think I really got
something to say? All I have to say is, ‘Watch the cards. Watch the cards.”
Thorn Lavery, never a card player outside of his own home, noticed her eyes change, her face
striking for some message too old for her few years.
Girls were a mystery to him. Always had been. And he was continually amazed at Penny’s looks,
nothing like her real father, that miserable creature sitting in town waiting for him, but like her
mother. She was the prettiest thing in the whole valley, her mom gone just as she gave birth, her
mom’s hand out to her best friend, Thorn Lavery, her last words saying, “Don’t ever let Marshall
know I had a baby, Thorn. He stole me off one night and took me up to a line camp and got me
this way.” She looked away from Thorn Lavery for a moment.
“Him and my pa would have had a war and my pa would have died. I couldn’t stand that. Told
him it was an Indian and he near went crazy. That’s when he tossed me out and you found me,
took me in here. I’m sorry to lay this all on you, Thorn. It was no Indian, but Gus Marshall.
Please don’t tell him I had a baby by him. I’d die.”
She had looked off again, adding, “I hope pa is there waiting for me. I miss him.” She did die.
She was dead in seconds after the birth of her daughter, the baby swept into another room by the
Mexican lady that worked Lavery’s kitchen … from then on working for the infant, from then on
working for the whole house. Her name was Lily-do, the name coming from Lavery saying so
often, “Lily do this, Lily do that.”
They laughed at it as the baby grew, but the name stuck. “Lily-do.”
And “Penny,” the name they gave the infant, stuck too.
Thorn Lavery was alone with the infant girl and the Mexican woman, him the apparent father to
the whole town of Pecos Hill, as well as to the girl as she grew. He gave his all in raising her, his
hate for Marshall falling away more and more each year as Penny came to be a beautiful young
girl. Marshall’s name never came up in rumor or silly talk from Saturday night drunks.
It was apparent that nobody knew.
Including Gus Marshall.
In town, seeing Marshall in repose in the chair on the boardwalk, like he was holding court,
Lavery slowed his horse, dismounted at the rail and tied his horse to the rail. He looked at
Marshall sort of apologetically, still wondering what he was going to do to pay his debt off to
Marshall, sitting on his IOU from the general store. To pay now would hold off on his purchase
of one good build to start a new herd.
Marshall looked up, saw he was unarmed, and said, “Hell, Thorn, you didn’t have to come all the
way into town to pay off that debt. I would have ridden out there to collect in a week or so. No
trouble at all.”
He smiled, looking around, seeing that his boys were spread around town like always, and
Lavery coming alone, not that there was going to be a fight, but Marshall always liked odds in
“I’m not sure that I’ll pay it off today. I got more than a week to go before you tally the new stuff
I’m going to pick up today.”
“Uh uh,” Marshal said. “I’m not giving you any more credit until this one’s paid off.” He looked
around, saw all eyes on him, like the lord on high had made a pronouncement. He figured, with
the opportunity right in his hands, he’d make it go as far as possible.
“You never come into town except to buy at the store. You rarely have a drink with the other
boys at the saloon, you don’t go to the barbershop, and you’ve never stayed at the hotel. Hell,
Lavery, I never saw you in a card game in my whole life. You afraid of the cards, Lavery?”
His smile ran right through the crowd that had filtered from sundry sources at the sight of the two
men talking, two gents at odds.
“Cards were never for me, or haircuts, or a hotel bed when I have my own bed back at the ranch.
And why would I go to the saloon if I don’t drink? That thinking throws me off. Is there
something else there that I’m missing?”
As soon as he said that he heard Penny say, a dozen times if once, “Watch the cards. Watch the
cards.” A strange feeling came over him, as if he was in the grip of a surge of energy or a light
was trying to shine in him.
Marshall, feeling he was in absolute control of the whole scene, said, “We could play poker,
Lavery. You could bet what you owe me, if you don’t happen to have any cash in your pockets
It was one of his standard ploys.
The snickers ran through the crowd, much of it spawned by Marshall’s men.
Not believing what came out of his mouth, Lavery said, “Why not? Let’s play poker. I’ll ante up
some of the debt I owe you, if that’s okay with you.”
“That’s fine by me,” Marshall said. He yelled to one of his men, a sly looking cowpoke, thin as a
split rail, a mustache just as thin, like a black wire sitting on his upper lip holding a sneer tightly
“Jake,” he said, “go pick a table for us and set up the cards and the chips like usual. We’re going
to have a big game of poker. Thorn Lavery’s going to play poker!” He yelled out his words,
which worked slick as a veil.
“Can you imagine that? Me and him, me and Lavery, like it's a Duel at Pecos Hill. Ain’t that the
top of the day for you? The Duel at Pecos Hill, and right here at the card table in The Pecos West
Saloon. Don’t that beat all hell.”
He shook his head in false disbelief and uttered a laugh rife with derision.
The gathering in The Pecos West Saloon caught it on the first toss.
The two men went at it, virtual as sworn enemies. They played and played and the game went
back and forth, Lavery winning some, losing some, and the edge slowly sliding away on the
hands with bigger pots. At the far end of the room, silence hanging in the air like a prairie mist, a
few men heard the whisper of cards being dealt, chips falling in place, breath abated at raises,
cards tossed onto the table top. Some of the watchers wished they were right in the game, but
others knew their place; this was trenchant, extraordinary, the salient game in the history of The
Pecos West Saloon.
At length, thirst working, Lavery accepted a drink from Marshall, then another. He appeared to
be getting dizzy, and after winning one good pot, turned to one of Marshall’s men and said,
surprisingly, “If you caught me cheating, what would you do, Doak?”
It was the good looking gent that Penny had mentioned a few times. He would agree with Penny
that he was a good looking fellow.
“Hell, mister,” Doak said, “if you was caught cheating at cards we’d do a couple of things I’ve
seen done before … either hang you right outside the door or run you out of town all slickered up
with tar and feathers on your own horse.” He slapped his thigh and yelled a loud, “Yippee! Ain’t
that a sight to bust your britches!”
Lavery turned to another one of Marshall’s men sitting at the next table. It was Jake Preble, the
one who had set up the table, the cards, the chips. Jake Preble had huge grin on his face.
Lavery looked at him right in the eye and asked, “You wouldn’t be so quick as your pal there,
would you, Jake? Would you run a cheat out of town, or worse, hang him out front?
Preble laughed loud enough to be heard outside and down the boardwalk. “I sure would, mister.
I’d hang you on the spot. I wouldn’t waste my time slickin’ you up on a horse. I’d do it good,
quick, right and proper, and right out front. It’d be a good end to the Duel at Pecos Hill.” He let
loose another loud laugh that bounced off the walls of the saloon.
“Would you really do that to a cheater, Jake?” Lavery looked all around the room, finding few
eyes in the room that had ascertained fully what he was saying. Most faces were thick with other
thoughts, other leanings.
It was only the bartender, smarter than some folks, who had a slight grin beginning its place on
his lips, thinking about pouring himself a beer before the situation developed into an interesting
“What the hell did I just say, mister?” Preble said. “Can’t you hear me any good at all. What did
I just say?” He was standing beside his chair, his hand too near his revolver to be incidental. On
his face an old scar threatened its perceivable redness, liquor dotted his eyes, and anger was
having its way with him.
The bartender put one hand on the butt of a rifle under the bar, and with his other hand he slid a
beer mug under the tap. The taste was on his lips, in his throat … and a bit of suspense, like
seeing a cougar preparing to leap.
Lavery wanted to be as quick as Preble’s gun hand appeared to be. “Well, Jake, what you just
said was that you’d hang a cheater quick and good and right out front. Am I right on that?”
The bartender poured himself a beer and waited for the suds to settle on the top before he wiped
them off. One hand was still on the butt of the rifle.
Lavery, thinking all the time about Penny, what would happen to her if he messed things up,
knowing full well what had developed in front of him, alerted from the first word to be watching
the cards, as she had advised, as she had foresworn, as she had prophesized from the beginning,
was not worried about Marshall.
Lavery took stock: Marshall was now the pawn in the whole mess, in this place, in the seat he
would never have chosen. His guns sat hanging at his hips.
Doak, the good looking kid, didn’t bother Lavery.
But Jake Preble did. Jake had set up the table. Jake Preble had set down the deck of cards. Jake
was Marshall’s man from the very first minute, Jake Preble with the thin mustache, like it was
clipped from a strand of barbed wire, like it could twist a smile into a snarl.
It was Jake Preble he was worried about. But Jake Preble, at the same time, seemed to be the key
to it all and Marshall the mere pawn.
Nothing told him he was wrong.
Lavery knew it had to be quick. It had to be firm. It had to be so open there could be no
complaint. No false moves. No alibis or excuses or mixed words tossed into the mess to twist it
further, to hide reality.
Lavery, turning slowly, noted that Preble and Witherspoon, as well as Marshall, were all of a like
mind. His eyes, in a sweep of the room, caught only they eyes of the bartender, with minute
admiration … and hope.
Lavery knew some men were smarter than he was … and he hoped the bartender was one of
But he made his move, depending on Preble’s attitude, Witherspoon’s youth and basic honesty,
and the bartender’s alertness. He did not know the man’s name, but he hoped he was
He looked at Preble, his eyes narrowing in intentness, and said, his words coming alive across
the whole room, “If I told you the deck of cards we‘re using had 5 aces in it, would you say that
was cheating? Would you hang the guy that put it there? Would you hang that gent who would
stoop as low as a common barn rat?”
The room was deadly silent.
The bartender gripped the rifle under the bar and slowly lifted it onto the bar top. Many
customers in the saloon saw the move.
Preble, frozen in place, coming up as bare as a sudden decoy, did not move, except for the
grimace that traversed his face, a grimace that carried all he knew.
Doak Witherspoon, the handsome kid, stuck in a spot, was stunned; he knew who always set up
Marshall’s card table.
Marshall, caught in the midst of his usual way of odds-leaning, seeking the edge, seeing Jake
Preble about to break a long trust and the handsome kid Doak Witherspoon now caught without a
paddle, his own status brought into the open, slyly reached one hand for his pistol.
“Don’t,” said the bartender, pointing the rifle directly at him, his single word resounding in the
Marshall reached anyway, measuring all the consequences, coming up the loser no matter what
happened, and the bartender fired the rifle at him as he pulled his revolver free of the holster.
Marshall never knew he had a daughter, about the prettiest girl in the whole valley, and Penny
Lavery, 13 and going on 30, never knew that Gus Marshall was her real father.