Western Short Story
A fanatic reader of western stories, a dreamer of the wide and far land and what it had to offer, Fenwick Mercer had come all the way from Birmingham to find his way in the western plains. Early on he was proper, courteous, well-dressed, but that demeanor, raiment and habit became old, worn, discolored, faded, as the west introduced its real self. He was entranced and enraptured, yet frightened to the bone in the beginning just about every minute on a saddle. As it turned out, for nine years of his quest and his adventure, he had been a saddle tramp, moving from town to town, ranch to ranch, herd to herd, seeking his place in the world, not without some trade-offs in his ongoing western education.
At the start he might have been meek and mild, a bit lost under the wide skies and open plains, the legends unfolding all around him in one fashion or another, but Fenwick Mercer was a good student and learned quickly and well. He had encountered Indians, rustlers, owl-hoots, card sharks, as-fast-as-you drunken gunslingers, and all the in-betweeners. That he was still alive and kicking pleased him no end, and the west kept tempting and teasing him. The sky was the highest, mountains the biggest, nights the loneliest. Somewhere in the middle of it all, Eden surely flourished, and Utopia spread its arms.
His face was slightly angular, of some Scottish stock, with a straight nose, blue eyes, thick brows that matched his blond hair, and he walked with a tolerable gait for a stranger. That gait went with his Scottish twang that soon wore off, the two essentially disappearing the more he mixed with company.
The western brand, of course, the cowboy brand, at length began to settle on him. He could comfortably wear the west, as if age and experience began to matter. His face carried the weathered look no matter where he was, dry in the saddle, wet in a saloon, as tricks and the trade came into place. Dust found a home in his clothes, rawhide became the major connection in life, and awareness loomed as a necessity at all times.
His place in the world, though, was always at a distance and at a reach, toward the high blue morning, the evening red sky, the green foothills leading to another monster of a mountain coming up proud at the edge of everything flat. That’s the way it usually went for him. Out of the fire and into the frying pan; bullets, beef, hardtack, scrimpy outings, dusty herds, dry lands crying for water, hard climbs between jobs. A man against nature and all the frills and thrills that came to hand.
Most saddle pards called him just plain Fen. He got used to it. Early in his quest, some people called him other names, but they too fell to the wayside as time passed.
Most all of those names had faded when he heard about the Fenns. He came into Bola City to grease his guts, clear his skin, mellow his needs. It was the Fenn name that grabbed him upright in the saddle, as stories unfolded about the widow Fenn. The name association made an instant play for his mind.
Tom Fenn had been the sheriff, a decent man on the job through the birth of two children, and one night a stray bullet from a crooked card game found him. His wife, Annabelle, as it turned out, wanted a man and needed a man to handle her small spread. Rancher, rider, coachman and stray from any rank, began to spread the word. Annabelle, to most eyes, was a most beautiful woman and was most practical. “I will do what I can to feed my kids, but I can’t make any great promises for them. In the end of all arguments, I will need a new husband. It is the law of the land. Anyone trying other persuasions will be shot dead on the spot. I am a most honorable woman.” She did laundry, waitressing, odd jobs for married women who needed a break, or whose husbands could afford it, and kept her eyes open for the new man who would surely come into her life.
The first time Annabelle saw Fenwick Fen Mercer, she didn’t really see him. Dust is what she first saw, and she could discount that, but when she heard about the things the man could do, interest sparked her. Her neighbor, Bethany Milrayne, mentioned the new man in town they called Fen. “I heard from Josie Grey’s husband that he’s from back down south maybe ten years ago, made himself a cowpoke and can just flat out do anything. He can shoe a horse, run a mule, and shoot like a hunter needs to shoot. He’s kept store, tended bar, been on a posse or two from what they say. And they say he reads anything he gets his hands on, newspapers, books, posters of any kind. Knows every darn word he comes across. Real educated man spells good for learnin’ kids.” She flashed her eyes in proposed delight and self awareness. “He ain’t Mister Handsome, Annabelle, but Mister Handsome ain’t about to come to Bola City.”
The interest brought Annabelle Fenn back to town that afternoon and in the front of Jade’s General Store and she wangled an introduction as Fen sat out front with Chris Jade and a few other townies. She found Fen’s looks acceptable, his manners polite, his clothes for the moment clean, and his eyes full of a secret or two from back down the trail. Those intrigues caused a glow within her.
“Mr. Mercer,” she said, after proper introductions, “what brings you to Bola City? You passing through?” Time was not to be wasted, she believed. She looked him directly in the eyes. They were blue and clear.
At that exact moment, the way fate hangs around on corners, shots rang out from the Bola City Bank and a stray round thudded against the store. Glass shattered. People in the street screamed. More shots sounded. Fen Mercer just about tackled Annabelle Fenn, as he drove her into the store through the open door, ending up lying across her body, his arms shielding her face for the moment. He had covered her completely. His eyes, she found, were still blue, his weight most comfortable, and she said, “Thank you, Mr. Mercer. Welcome aboard.” She kissed him before he could move. “When this is all over, the robbers caught or jailed, when the posse comes back if there is a posse, I’ve got me a new husband if you’re willing.” She kissed him again.
Fenwick Mercer, in due time, found Eden, of course, and Utopia.