Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Creighton Glastenbury, last of his family, impoverished from birth despite his name and lucky to get to his 16th birthday, found his journey working on a wagon train ending in the small California town of Newbridge. Across seven state borders he had traveled seeking warm weather, safe winters, and a chance to find a cause other than simple survival. He was tired of the eternal scratching for meals, good cover over his head, and silence in the night. The stars of evening, holding sway like magnificent emeralds over wide grass, were his greatest comfort, took him to sleep most nights of the journey though he shared them with coyotes, owls and other creatures of impending darkness. He remembered at odd hours an old Indian, met out on the trail, saying, “Count on the stars. They do not fail.” When one of the stars, loose as a runaway horse, streaked across the pebble-lit sky, he found comfort in it, and once in a while a sign of coming luck.
“Listen, Crate,” the wagon master had said as he just about turned his own wagon around to start back to the beginning of places, “stay with me and earn good keep and you’ll find a place for yourself. It’s in the cards for you. You’ve earned some kind of a good deal coming to you.” He had enjoyed the young man’s company along the long trail, saw how applied himself in harsh situations, had a head for fixing broken wagon parts, and could follow orders to the letter. Skill with a gun hand was also part of his make-up.
“I’ll stay here, Mr. Robichaud. I got a name from a fellow back in Missouri, said to look him up, make a stab at staying. He runs a small freight outfit.”
“What’s that freighter’s name, Crate?”
“’Willie Budroy,’ said the Missouri man.”
“Well, Crate, you’re in luck. I know Willie Bud from way back in the territory. I’ll give you a note to him. We rode a team awhile. Yes, sir, old Willie Bud. Damned good man, too. “
The two parted company, and young Glastenbury, with a note in his pocket and a name on his tongue, went looking for a potential mutual friend. He rode his own horse and carried two pistols on his gun belt. From his experience on the long trail, from his study of meeting people, he looked the part not of a young teenager, but a seasoned killer, a shooter. Learning to impress people was one lesson he carried off on the road across the country, from Pennsylvania to a spot beside the Pacific Ocean. He thought the place looked to be next to heaven, if that was at all possible.
“How can you explain it, son,” the freighter Budroy said, “that an old pal of mine would write a note for you, but not look me up?” He nodded, smiled and said, clearly from a fond memory, “Robichaud’s a damned good man. I’d take his word afore anybody’s.”
“He said he was making one more trip and would settle here in Newbridge soon as any place else. Said he likes how the land sits between the mountains and the ocean.”
“And a gent in Missouri gave my name to you? Who was that?”
“Name was Harold Clockson. I helped him out of a problem one time, out on the trail.”
“What kind of trouble, son? You dig right in for him?” Budroy, holding his head at an inquisitive angle and his eyes right on Glastenbury’s eyes as if an answer would be written there in a clear hand. “You do tend to cut things short of the end sometimes.”
Glastenbury, admiring Budroy’s direct way of speaking, said, “Well, sir, he was in a tight bit of trouble from two gents on the road and I rode right into the middle of it coming over a small hill. They had guns drawn on him and said they had no interest in me and I could pass on by.”
“What did you do, son?”
“I said, quick like it would make a difference, ‘This man’s my father and I don’t truck with anyone holding guns on him, not one but two of them, like you’re afraid of him one on one. You ought to be. He’s faster than me with that pistol of his, and I am damned good at it.’” One hand still held the reins, the other, like a loose weed in a soft breeze, hung near his holstered pistol.
“Yeh? And?” Budroy said, his face carrying an expectant look of glee, the smile about to break loose. After all, that brazen kid was right now in front of him and had obviously survived a scary situation.
“One of them robbers laughed and pointed at Mr. Clockson and then was going to point at me and I drew and shot the pistol right out of his hand. The other gent’s horse almost tossed him out of the saddle and I had a gun right directly in his face in a second or two. We let both of them go, but I told them I was good at drawing and was going to give the sheriff a poster make-up on them so they better get out of the territory before they got hung as horse thieves on top of being roadside robbers to boot.”
“Marvelous, son, marvelous. How’d you think about all that stuff so fast? Him being your father, the horse thief bit, the whole thing? Can you really draw good pictures?”
“One of them was riding a Circle-T brand and I know they didn’t work for Circle-T. And I can’t draw a straight line with a plumb board to guide me, not if it took me a whole day.”
“Son, I’d want you riding on my rig any day of the week. You are now working for me. You got a place to stay?”
“You have one now,” Budroy said, his deep smile coming canyon-wide. “You can have my old shack. Needs a bit of work, but I’m sure you can do it up good.” He pointed over his shoulder, behind his new barn. “That’s it back there.” The smile was wide again on his face.
“You’ll really like my team of horses. They’re Clydesdales, over 17 hands, both of them, and stronger than a herd of buffalo. Come all the way from Scotland, they did, like sailors crossing the whole dang ocean in one trip. We’ll be going off tomorrow or the next day for another delivery. I got to advise you there’s been some trailside activity hereabouts makes me glad you’ll be riding with me.”
“What kind of trailside stuff, Mr. Budroy?”
“They call you Crate, do they? Well, you can call me Willie from now on, Crate. And I heard a couple of stages got robbed and a freighter was relieved of some of his goods just more than a week ago. I’ll be a little bit more comfortable with you sitting in the bucket seat with me.”
Early on the morning of his second day in Newbridge, they were out a half dozen miles on the main trail, when Glastenbury saw at a distance two riders coming toward them. He studied their trail manners for a few minutes and said, “Willie, we got suspicious company up there ahead of us, and I’m going to get comfortable on the load, sort of out of sight.”
He grabbed his rifle and slid up on top of two crates wrapped in canvas, squeezing himself down in between the two crates. The two riders he could see clearly from where he peeked between the canvas shrouds.
From his view, the young shotgun rider saw the two men with hands hanging too close to their side arms for neighborliness. And they looked nervous as they came closer, with the pair splitting up and moving to each side of the wagon, another knock on their neighborliness.
One of the men drew his gun and waved it at Budroy and said in a harsh and demanding voice, “Hold it there, old man. We aim to take something off your hands. Don’t make any trouble and we’ll let you go with most of your freight. We want just the one package going to the Three Circles Ranch. Now you hop down out of there and we’ll all be quiet about this.” He waved the gun again.
Glastenbury, fast as a hawk on the dip, put a single round into the hand carrying a pistol and had the rifle trained on the other man before he could move.
“Take your boots off and throw them up here along with your weapons.” He waved the rifle at both of the robbers. They dismounted, took off their boots and threw boots and weapons up on the top of the wagon, seething all the while, curses and grunts coming loose from the bottoms of their souls. “We’ll get you for this, kid,” the wounded man said.
Glastenbury put a round into the ground near their horses and the two animals went off at a gallop and out of sight over a small hill. The hoof beats could be heard getting fainter and fainter until there was no more sound from them.
“If you go looking for your boots, I got a pretty good idea you’ll know where they are, if you dare come that close. In the meantime, we’re going to find your pal at Three Circles Ranch who gave you information about this load. That sure ain’t going to sit well with those folks over there.”
He put another round right between the two men, making them dive for cover, and then yelled, “Giddy up,” to the wagon team, and the wagon rolled on its way.
“You think they’ll come looking for them boots, Crate?” Budroy said.
“About once at the most,” he replied, looking back over his shoulder at the men going gingerly after their horses, their tender feet making visible statements.
At The Three Circles Ranch, the freight master said to the ranch owner, “This here’s my new hire. Name’s Crate. He’ll tell you what happened on the road here. Real interesting, if I do say so.”
He paused and said, “Go ahead, Crate. This gent, Max Burnham, owns the spread. Tell him what you know.”
Glastenbury, speaking a little louder than necessary, for more of an audience than just the owner, said, “Mr. Burnham, two gents, both husky sorts with battered gray Stetsons like they been trod on in a dirty road, wearing a gray shirt on one fellow and a checkered black and white shirt on the other, riding a gray and a paint both about 14 hands, knew all about the delivery coming to you. They said directly they wanted only one piece, the one we just unloaded for you. Said they would let us move on. So, we want to make sure you know that someone here, we think on your payroll, told them fellows all about it.”
“That’s quite a story, son. Any more to it?”
“Yep,” Glastenbury said, “one of them’s got a bad hand that I quick shot. He must still be hurting. If he ain’t bound to get out of the territory about now, you might be able to find him.” The hesitation in his voice said some other pertinent facts were coming. “The last I saw of them, on the road back there, they had no guns on their belts, no boots on their feet, and no horses under them.”
“Oh, I know who they are, son. I want to welcome you to Newbridge. You’ve made a good start already.” He smiled and looked at the house set back against some tall trees.
As they were leaving The Three Circles, Budroy said, “Crate, you missed something back there you ought to be interested in. I guess you don’t see everything.” He leveled a hard stare at his young employee.
The new hire, smiling, said, “Oh, I saw her, Willie. Ain’t she some kind of a beauty? Looks like a prairie flower all shining by itself on the grass. I saw her the minute we rode into the place, her checking me out from the window at first, then from the doorway, hiding but not hiding, if you know what I mean?”
“Crate,” Budroy said, “I don’t think I could catch up to you if they gave me another 50 years to do the job. The girl’s name is Emily, Burnham’s only kin. A horse killed her mother a few years ago. He sets all his store on her. She’s your age.” He realized he had learned a whole lot from his new hire in a short time and laughed almost all the way to their next delivery.
Putting the team away that night, he was still smiling at his good luck, and the luck of Creighton Glastenbury. He had no question about who made the best pairing of the day: his set of Clydesdales, true giants of the road; him and Crate, new pards of a sort in the freight business; or Crate and Emily Burnham, something beautiful about to blossom in Newbridge.
Glastenbury wasn’t right on all accounts, though. The two road agents came calling in the dead of night. They were almost into the house when squawking guinea hens in the trees woke the young striker from a deep sleep in his little cabin behind the barn. He was up and armed in seconds and ran to the house where the two intruders were trying to force open the ranch house door.
He fired off one warning shot, which was ignored by the two men, and he was forced to drop both of them before Budroy was out of bed. It was revealed that Burnham’s men had chased the two robbers off into the grass, and lost track of them in the night. The band of hunters heard the gunfire at Budroy’s place and came to investigate. They found Budroy and his new hire standing over the two wounded road agents bleeding on the ground, Glastenbury’s gun still smoking.
And putting all things together, the way he usually handled his business and all that went on about him, Creighton Glastenbury didn’t’ waste much time before he went calling at the Three Circles Ranch.