Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Every good morning the sun sat like a flame in the window of Missy Drumm’s women’s store in Wallow Creek, Wyoming. She went outside early each day to see that window display for herself, from where her customers could see it and warm up to a purchase as they came into town on errands, visits or head off to jobs. Since the day the store opened she felt the scene was incomplete for some reason. The store was a gift on her 21st birthday from her father, Caleb Drumm, exactly one month before he was killed by an unknown person out on the road to town from his ranch. He had requested her not to go into town until he said it was okay, her knowing all the while that he was planning something special for her birthday coming along.
The first thing she saw on that birthday was the sign over the front entrance, “Missy Drumm’s Ladies Apparel.” Her mother, gone a half dozen years, would have loved it too, she told herself. Missy remembered how her mother would drape a sheet of fabric on her fashioning a new dress, a blouse, a skirt, her father across the large kitchen smiling at his pair of designers.
Missy was Caleb Drumm’s only child and no further information surfaced on his death for a whole year. In that time a number of beaus and prospective suitors had in some way meandered or squeezed into the scene, and none made any headway. Missy would be a good catch for any man, owning the ranch of decent size, and the store, which had been a dream of hers for a long time. In one sense she had relaxed into her duties at the store, leaving the ranch to be run by an old friend of her father’s, Hoke Willett, sometimes irascible but faithful to his last breath. And the alter-father figure for Missy.
Though not apparent to her friends and customers, she continually eyed the horizon for the secret kindred soul to enter her life, to make it complete. But the death of her father hung in the way of all prospects.
One young man, Charlie deRochemont, son of a small rancher some ways up the valley, never once approached Missy after her father’s death, but had danced with her once years earlier at a barn raising; he had not forgotten the experience. He appeared to all as a hard-working and pleasant young man with a fair complexion despite his work habits, stood almost six-feet tall and looked much taller in a Stetson that had a curved brim, laughed easily at jokes and at himself when he was the object of a joke or a prank, made proper restitution at his own speed, and seemed promised to leave the single life when he passed into his 30th year … but having no firm prospect.
So, the way fate moves sometimes, slow as a drying stream, or fast as a stampede, young deRochemont, in a distant town at the end of a drive, sat watching a poker game in a saloon as he and other drovers celebrated the finish of their task. His eyes kept moving back to one of the players, a mustached man with a small Van Dyke at the tip of his chin, quick hands that bespoke dexterity in most situations, and a pair of eyes that missed nothing of the game … or in the room about him. He had noticed deRochemont staring at him a few times, discounted the stares as coming from his three straight wins of good-sized pots. Only when he lost three hands in a row, and the young man kept staring at him, gambler and card man Chet Durwood asked deRochemont if he wanted to sit in. “
“You look like you have interest, son. Am I right?”
“Naw,” deRochemont replied, “ I just think I saw you play before, maybe over in Jerry’s Caves,” which was a town much further away from this town and well away from Wallow Creek.
Durwood sat back satisfied. He had no idea he had exposed some trait or some fact that deRochemont had seized and kept adjusting in his mind, putting things in place.
Young deRochemont, with a sudden inspiration, as if on quick thought, said, “Yeh, why not. I’ll sit in.” He took a fold of bills from his pocket and sat at the table. The move surprised a few of his old friends who had never seen him gamble before. They were not surprised when Charlie deRochemont lost his whole share from the drive in a matter of a few hands, betting crazily and steadily without a decent set of cards.
When all his money was lost, deRochemont stood up and said, “I’d like another shot at you, mister. When I get back home and get some more money, I’ll try to get back my losses. Where will I find you? Will you still be here?”
“In this business, son, you have to keep moving. I’m heading up to Fernville next and Wampus after that, seeing some old friends and my sister I haven’t seen in a few years. I’d be pleased to see you again.” He paused, reflected, and said, “Chet Durwood’s the name and poker’s my game.”
He waved off deRochemont as if he had not existed, and went right back to his game as another sucker sat in.
Charlie deRochemont left town and headed back home, knowing Durwood’s vanity had gotten the upper hand in the game.
He went directly to see Missy Drumm at her store.
Two days later, the pair, with Hoke Willett in tow as if he was a chaperone, headed for Wampus. On the long ride that took several hours, Missy kept stealing looks at Charlie deRochemont. Her smiles were hidden, she thought, though Hoke Willett, too many times around the corral, kept nodding his assessment and his appreciation of the young pair.
A number of times, so many that deRochemont thought Missy might be finding doubts, she asked, “Are you sure, Charlie? Are you really sure? I can’t believe it, after all this time.”
“I’m as positive as I’ve ever been about anything in my life, except one other thing.”
“What is that, Charlie?” she said, her interest piqued again by the young man who rode so easily in the saddle.
“Maybe I’ll get to tell you sometime,” he said.
Hoke Willett never missed a word of their talk, including the interests and aspirations, and with deRochemont’s description of the gambler Durwood set in his mind, went into the second saloon in Wampus and saw the gambler engaged in a game with three cowpokes. The cards in Durwood’s hands flew with ease, the smooth noise of shuffling a distraction unto itself. And as advised by deRochemont, he noticed other things about the man as he kept up a series of winning two or three times in every four or five pots, but always the best pots.
In the corner of the saloon, in the shadows where he spent most of his adult life, a protector, a watchdog over the likes of Missy Drumm, willing ever to step over the line when needed, Willet knew he was in contrast to the young deRochemont, not as eager but as sure, not as quick as he once was but lethal all the same, all the while keeping Missy’s best comfort in mind.
With an age-old comfort, he measured the gambler, noted his actions, saw the distorted “Ds” but still “Ds” on the holsters Durwood wore on his gun belt. The holsters were not those of Caleb Drumm, but the two “Ds”, hammered a bit to disfigure them somewhat, had been fired up on the Drumm ranch for the boss himself. There was not a single doubt in Hoke Willet’s mind, as there had been none in Charlie deRochemont’s mind.
They were probably being worn by Caleb Drumm’s killer, who had stolen much of his personal gear at the scene of the crime.
The three sleuths gathered in a small café to discuss their plans.
Missy said, “I’d like to run in there and shoot him now, but I know you’re right about him maybe finding or buying those Drumm “Ds” that were my father’s. How do we prove it?”
Willett said, “If we can get him to say he bought them or had them made up, we can trace back to who he says sold them to him. If he says he had them made, we know he’s lying and can get the sheriff in on it.”
“How do we do that?” Missy said. “All he does is play cards from what’s said about him.”
Hoke Willett said, “We use a card game to get him strung out, and use his strength against him.”
Missy, alarmed, totally transparent in her response, said, “You don’t want Charlie in a game with that killer, do you, Hoke?” Her hand reached and covered deRochemont hand on the table. It had confirmed all that Willett had wished for in the pair.
“No way, Missy. This old man here will get in a game with him and twist him just the right way. All I want him to say is that he had those “Ds” made special, then I’d duel him myself if it came down to that. Your father kept me on through the lean years. It’d be payback time, I figure.” There was a distant look in his eyes, as if debts had already been cleared, restitution made. “You two stay outside until this is all over. I don’t want either one of you getting hurt, and I’m counting on that.”
His voice changed. Missy had not heard that new tone before when he said, “Hear me?” His eyes made the punctuation too, as the old friend asserted his control.
In the saloon, Willett eyed Durwood’s every move, saw him win more than he lost, drive poorer and less skilled players right out of the game. The man’s hands were as slick as any Willett had ever seen, and he had every belief that his gun hand was just as skillful. Yet a sliver of an idea seemed to lean out of Willett’s intelligence, trying to be known. At first he fought it, then saw it and realized it, and abruptly left the saloon, but not without saying to the whole saloon in general and to Durwood in particular, “That man sure has a ton of luck hanging around him. Before I sit down with him for a game I’m off to the old sachem of the hill tribe to catch onto some of that luck. The old Injun up there in the hills said I could come by anytime and get some more. I tell you, gents, it’s got me this far in life.” His hand waved in the air as he added, “Them Injuns got something we ain’t found yet.”
There was a roll of laughter that ran clear through the saloon as Willett stepped outside the swinging doors.
Caleb Drumm’s favored ranch hand, and protector of the boss’s daughter, lit out of town, telling Missy and Charlie deRochemont he’d be back in a few hours, and for them to “Stay clear of that gambler in there.” He nodded at the saloon as he left them.
In a matter of an hour he was back, entered the saloon, flashed a wad of money, and stumbled as he sat beside Durwood in a vacant chair. The stumbling move was a cover for his affixing to the “D” on Durwood’s holster a rather small and crude object that immediately clung to the iron “D.” it was a piece of cobalt and iron that had come out of Canada a long time ago, and was fully magnetic.
Willet didn’t doubt that the magnetic pull would slow the draw of the weapon in the holster.
And he’d have to wait for the right moment.
He didn’t see Charlie deRochemont enter the saloon and stand at the far end of the bar.
When Willett saw the move he was waiting for, he challenged Durwood to produce the Jack he had discarded from his hand. “I saw that move with my Jack, mister. You’re cheating and I want my money back.”
Everything happened in a hurry.
Durwood went for his weapon.
Willett went for his.
One of Durwood’s cronies, elsewhere in the room, went for his weapon. He happened to be too near Charlie deRochemont who knocked the gun out of his hand.
“Another stupid move like that, Mister,” deRochemont said, “and you won’t believe what’ll happen to you.” A gun was stuck into the man’s side.
Meanwhile, called out in the open, exposed as a cheat, Durwood’s draw was slow. He had difficulty in getting his gun from his holster with his usual speed, something strange slowing down his draw.
Willett’s gun was on Durwood, and the old man said, “Tell us where you bought those “Ds” on your holsters, or where you had them made.”
The gambler, and the killer, suddenly knew he was exposed as a killer also. Flustered, realization hitting him, he finally told his entrapping lie, “I had a man make them, from over at Dunphy way. He’s an iron man.”
“You’re a liar, Durwood. You stole them from Caleb Drumm when you bushwhacked him on the trail a whole year ago and stole his gear. Those “Ds” were made right on his ranch.”
The hunk of Indian cobalt and iron that had come out of Canada a long time ago with the old Injun sachem, also full of a spiritual magnetism, still clung to the iron “D” on Durwood’s holster.
And Charlie deRochemont, an observant and thoughtful young man, also fully aware for a long time of a lack in Missy Drumm’s store window display, ordered a dress maker’s mannequin for his betrothed all the way from St. Louis.