Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
He was in the sparse land between shifting sands of the great desert and the last tree bearing green when he saw the vultures descending from their high flight. Breward Chandler, “Brew” to friends back in the mountains where breathing was much easier than here in the midst of little life, sat bareback on an Indian pony he had freed from a natural corral behind a blow-down. Chandler had learned that the horse would obey pulls on his mane and in this manner he had escaped from sure capture by heading into the desert, with his pistols loaded and a lariat and a canteen he had grabbed on the run. He was not sure who was after him, either renegade Indians or renegade whites out for the kill, looking for guns, clothes, saddles, anything for free. He was hoping that they’d measure the little he might have against the rigors of a chase in the desert. Perhaps, he also hoped, they were smarter than he thought they were.
The canteen was almost empty and water had to be found.
Now, arrowed out of the high sky, he saw the vultures drop down and out of sight ahead of him. There was no hesitation on his part; he’d have to check the attraction. It might only be a natural desert kill, but it could be a man caught in the last tremors of life and death, a man like him, on the run from one thing or another. It was easy to see that life was full of such chases; he was proof of it.
He dipped into a slight swale, crested a small hill as much dune as he had imagined, and saw the horde of black birds at the carcass of a horse, the saddle in place. Chandler, watching them feast on the horse’s flesh, stayed in place, now and then looking back over his shoulder for signs of any pursuit.
In less than half an hour the vultures had almost stripped the bones of flesh. Hoping they had done little damage to the saddle, he galloped in on the hungry critters and drove them off. Shortly they were aligned again high overhead on the lift of a thermal, like people waiting to get into church or for a general store to open its doors.
To his everlasting thanks, the saddle was undamaged and did not take him long to get it off the carcass remnants and onto the pony. The pony, not surprising Chandler, did not like the smell of death that came upon him, but he held the pony in place by hobbling his front legs.
The saddle looked to be a good old Texas saddle, with a high back, one that would have lasted the rider for life, wherever he was. Or if he was. The initials LGT were burned into the pommel textured into the skirts, and the whole rig showed a few years of use. He’d have to look for the owner, see if he had fallen off, had been wounded, died of thirst. He could not tell how the horse had died. He assumed that if the rider was dead out there somewhere the vultures would have gone after him also.
Chandler only agreed that he would search ahead of him on the trail for the owner, not behind him, not wanting to run into those chasing him, or had been chasing him. The desert, he wished again, might hold them back.
When he rode off, sitting comfortable at last on the pony, the vultures returned to their feeding, and no signs of pursuit appeared on the wide horizon. Chandler figured his pursuers had backed off because of the desert threats. Ahead of him, near the Barracks Rim, sat a waterhole the old Kiowa, Bent Wing, had told him about earlier in time, the night they had sat outside Knock’s Tavern at the junction of three trails in the mountains. Knock himself had introduced Chandler to Bent Wing, saying, “Listen to all he says, son. He knows more than any ten mountain men I know. He knows mountain and desert, grass and foothills, forest and canyon, like no one else does. And it’s all free for you. I saved his life one time and he ain’t never forgot it. No sir, not Bent Wing, Kiowa of all Kiowas. You mark every word he says. And he says things that will matter to you sometime down the trail, where things happen to a man the way they have for a thousand years out here, and he knows it all. Count on it. Came down to him from all the shamans that come before him, loading him up.”
Knock had shaken his finger right in Chandler’s nose at the end of that discussion; “Don’t think him an old Indian blowing steam, boy. Just realize what he says will save your life someday. He ain’t talking for nothing, he’s talking good ’cause he’s still trying to pay me back, being good to friends of mine.”
Through Chandler’s mind went the location of half a dozen waterholes in the range of the desert. The markers came back to him from his lessons at the tent of the Kiowa that one night outside Knock’s Tavern. “One water hole is like a breath of air in the desert, and sits near the Barracks Rim where the old fort used to be. The elder of all shamans told me it runs a thousand feet underground to cleanse itself for thirsty men. Comes clear through the mountain from a high lake the great god made.”
Bent Wing told him about more water holes the Kiowa gods had sent to his tribe. “We share what has been given to us. You must do the same.”
“Have any of them gone dry?”
“Oh, many. Those that were hidden from a decent thirst were fired dry by an angry god. No man owns a water hole.”
Land marks had been explained to him by Bent Wing, places to look for, to look from, measures to be made, marks that were left for Indian eyes now coming to his eyes. The eagle talon on the face of a rock as he closed on Barracks Rim told him the waterhole was close enough to grasp. He found the slit of water at the base of Barracks Rim, in a cluster of rocks. In half an hour he had filled his canteen. The water had appeared in a slit of rock and disappeared in the rock cluster not pooling up at all. He had never seen one like it, and was thankful the old Kiowa had shared its location with him.
As Chandler prepared to leave he caught sight of a flash of sunlight reflected from a surface down the trail ahead of him. It flashed again and then it flashed again. A minute later it flashed again.
Someone was signaling him. Chandler looked down at the initials on the saddle, thinking he had found the saddle owner, that he had found LGT.
Chandler urged the pony toward the flashing source, perhaps a mile away. Behind him there appeared to be no pursuit, and under him the saddle, LGT’s saddle, was new to him but comfortable in a few strides of the Indian pony. With nothing behind him, Chandler wondered what was in front of him. Would he find LGT up there with the reflections, obvious signals for help? If it was the owner of the saddle, he’d be riding bareback again. Perhaps soon.
Perhaps not. The place of the signals he had marked by an overhanging outcrop, a bulge that Bent Wing would have attributed to the Great God pushing on the earth, making new places, new gardens, new forests, and, of course, to test man, new deserts.
From a hundred feet away he saw the man’s arm swing slowly, the way a tired man swings his arm or a wounded man. Chandler, approaching with caution, knew from about ten feet that the man was wounded. Blood was all over his shirt, one arm solely red. It was not the arm he had waved.
“I’m glad to see you, mister. I thought I’d never get another drink of water. I’m bone dry, near dead, but want a drink of water.” Then, after looking at the pony, he said, “I see you found my saddle.”
With his finger pointing at Chandler’s canteen, he said, “Yes, Lorne Taylor. I’m from the Barrel Ranch, the Bar-Circle-B. Got jumped by some renegades and galloped down this way hoping they wouldn’t chase me. But a round caught me square from a long way off and I crawled in here as my horse ran off. Must have been hit too.”
“What’s the G for?”
“Gawaian. My father brought it from Australia a long time ago. It’s a native name, like he wanted to hold onto something. He jumped ship on the west coast. Was a sailor and became a herder. Had enough of the sea.”
Chandler held the canteen as Taylor took a small sip, then a gulp. “Sorry for taking your water, but it’s a swap … you got my saddle.” He tried to laugh, but it didn’t come out right. He coughed deeply.
“My pals will be looking for me,” he said. “If they find you with my saddle you better be able to explain in a hurry why you have it. I can’t be any clearer than that. They’ll look for me until they find me, no matter what shape I’m in.”
He coughed again, and this time it was deep and sounded as if it was not going to let go of him.
He waited until he caught his breath, and Chandler knew he was in the presence of a tough, tough man, who said, “If I had a pencil and paper I’d write you a bill of sale, my saddle for the best drink of water I ever had, but I haven’t got them. If they catch up to you tell them my middle name. That’ll be proof enough that I gave it to you. I won’t make it out of here, I know that. Tell them my last thoughts find them doing what they like best. You have to swear to that,”
“I swear,” Chandler said. “I swear.” He raised his hand.
Taylor began a small litany. “One’s a singer and writes his own songs, plays great guitar. One would rather fish than anything in the world and then eat the catch at an open fire. He’s a dreamer, but a worker like the others. One’s a lover, enough said. But they’re all good men on a drive. We’ve been together for a long time. Since we were half a knee high. Be careful, though; they can be impulsive when one of us has been hurt or misjudged or even called a bad name out of turn, the likes of which have started a minor brawl or two in a few saloons.”
Besides the coughing, Chandler knew other things were working down in Taylor. His face grimaced several times, the way one might measure the onslaught of different pains, how deep they went, how long they lasted.
“What are their names?” Chandler said.
Taylor, about to speak, held one hand up in a pause, took a noisy, deep breath, shook, looked at Chandler right in the eyes, and died on the spot. Blood ran from his mouth in one gush, and stopped, as if the whole mechanism of the body quit on the spot after a final shiver and shake that ran down his frame.
Always looking around him for signs of danger, checking out every swirl of dust, Chandler assembled enough rocks and stones and limestone slabs at the foot of the rim to inter LG Taylor from the ravages of animals and vultures. The only mark he left was scratched into the face of the cliff … LGT. A good eye would be able to see the letters.
Taylor’s hat, a good Stetson, became Chandler’s, but he left Taylor’s boots in place, burying them with the man under the pile of rocks. He did not want to step into the other man’s boots, plain and simple. The Good Words were spoken over the site and Chandler, with renewed spirit, set off again.
Late in the day, after drifting across an arid stretch of land, he found a break in the cliff face and started the climb to the top of Barracks Rim. At the top, after an arduous trip even for the Indian pony, he was in an instant surrounded by five riders.
“We heard you coming up, mister, so we just waited.” The speaker not only sounded mean, he looked mean, as he said, “Tell me where you got that saddle, mister. And you better be clean and quick about it.” His hands bore two Smith & Wesson shooters, aimed right at Chandler. “Say it all slow, mister, but say it all.”
“The saddle was given to me by a man named Lorne Taylor. I found him wounded down below the rim. He said he was chased by some renegades though he wasn’t sure if they were Indians or what. I think it might have been the same ones who chased me, got my horse.”
“Where’d you get the pony?”
“He was trapped in the corner of a canyon by a blow-down that cut his escape route. I had to break his way out of there. Those who were chasing me went right past the blow-down and the pony kept quiet. But they might still be after me.”
“So where’s this Taylor fella you’re talking about?”
“I buried him down below the rim. Marked the wall with his initials, like on his saddle. See, LGT there.” He pointed down at the skirt of the saddle.
“Maybe you killed him. How does that sound? How do we know you ain’t lying about it all? Even making up the story about him giving you his saddle. Where’s his horse?”
“Gone to vulture food,” Chandler replied. “I saw it straight off. They dropped in on the horse like they were shot at it. Half the animal gone when I came close on them.”
“Where was the rider?”
“I got the saddle off and put it on the pony and a bit later I saw some flashing from the base of the rim. That’s where I found Taylor, been shot bad. Said he’d write me a bill of sale for the saddle, but had no pencil.”
The reply was still mean. “You could have made it all this up.”
“Told me his pards would come. Told me about them. The singer. The lover. The fisherman. That you boys?”
“You could have heard that from anybody who knows us. None of it is secret. We don’t know if we’ll believe you or not. You got his hat.” He looked down at Chandler’s boots after he checked the Stetson. “Where’s his boots?”
“On him when I buried him. I didn’t need them, but I didn’t have a hat.”
“Told me what “G” stands for.”
“Oh, yah, what for?”
“Said his daddy brought it all the way from Australia when he jumped ship on the coast. Stands for Gawaian, some native name.”
“That’s okay with us then. You sound like you treated Lorne square. Let’s see where you buried him. We have to say our words for him. He was a good cowpoke, a good friend to all of us. We’ll miss him. We’ll miss him a lot.”
He shifted in the saddle, looked at his pals and said, “Let’s take care of this and then tomorrow we’ll chase down those coyotes. We’ll need a horse for this fella. What’s your name, mister?”
“Breward Chandler. No middle initial. They call me Brew. I was on my way to a new job in Parkersville.”
“For now, Brew, you got another new job.”
They all started back down the trail, through the break in the rim, with Chandler in the lead. They were just about at the bottom when he threw up his hand after he had spotted movement back along the base of the cliff. It was not more vultures but half a dozen riders just about where he had covered Taylor with rocks.
One by one the new friendship team slipped into a low break in the land, and moved half way to the group of men working at the burial site.
They were disinterring LG Taylor.
Without a signal of any kind, like a single mind was working, the men charged at the men at the site. The battle did not last long. And one man lived long enough to tell them who he and his pards worked for, and why.
Chandler, as it turned out, was no longer just along for the ride … he had become one of them, and sat the saddle that had always had been part of them .
To a man, Chandler knew, they would see justice was done, to one and all.