Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The cowman Oliver Weddle sat his horse on a small hillock, looking out over his ranch, the grass running off to the hills, Texas itself stiffening his backbone as it always had. He tried again to count the help he’d need to get the ranch back in prime order after his return from the war, wishing that some of his command had come along with him when he separated from the service. They were good soldiers, good riders, and courageous and loyal to the duties; but had their own visions of search. Three foremen in a row had failed him and their mission, one or two of them he suspected had complicated issues on purpose. So glaring were the failures that they cost him a good deal of his money. Now he was contemplating what would happen if he did not get a good man for the job.
Even as his backbone stiffened again, hope still working him with its lures, he caught sight of an odd rider coming his way, ramrod straight in the saddle, commanding the horse, pride in the pair, but an unusual pride and seemingly an uncomfortable pride.
The rider was odd because of his manner and because he wore a strange hat, its brim swept to one side and up along his head, a long loop of leather twine hanging about his chest to catch that hat if blown off when riding. A saber’s sheath and holsters for a rifle and an ax were strapped to his saddle, a definite portion of each weapon clearly visible. The saddle itself was different than a western saddle. Such equipment immediately set the rider off from the usual rider in the west, marking him as an object of attention and potential derision. A cardinal red shirt, scarred or stained where military chevrons once were attached, was filled by a rugged body, huge upper arms and prominent, wide shoulders. The man’s neck was thick, tanned, muscled. Weddle suspected the man was not comfortable in the saddle but bore any and all his discomforts with command and control, like a poor cowpoke dancer challenged at a barn rally.
“Sir,” the rider said on reining his horse in at Weddle’s side, “I am one-time Sergeant Branwell Kirkness, late of His Royal Majesty’s 6th Inniskilling Dragoons Cavalry Regiment, war my training ground and war my nature. Finding my pay cut after harsh service in India and South Africa, my comrades so treated likewise, I departed the military in 1865 and I am looking for a job riding herd here in western America. The chip I carry on my shoulder concerning my military treatment is most likely evident in all my outward manners and can be determined, by the most observant people, as roiling under my skin. But I am a hard and loyal subordinate when treated with respect and will protect with my life if necessary all trusts given unto me.”
He stared into Weddle’s eyes when he said, “Do I have a position in your employ?”
“That you do, sir,” Weddle said, the iron up his back stiffer than ever, and hope as firm.
There, at that moment, began one of the great associations in Texas cow history.
Kirkness said to Weddle, upon being hired as foreman, “Tell me what you need done, but don’t tell me how to do it.”
“I need a crew to drive a herd of 3000 cows to Fort Gibson and merge them with two other herds for a drive up the Shawnee Trail to Abilene. I’ve heard they’ll be 10,000 cows in the final push into Kansas. There’s money to be made while the opportunity lasts.”
“That I will do,” Kirkness said, his voice as sure as a line sergeant’s voice. “When is the drive to start?”
“In two days.”
That evening former Dragoon sergeant and new BLB foreman Branwell Kirkness was in the Barrows Saloon, leaning against the bar, talking to one man who was a possible hire. “I don’t expect promise from anybody, only duty from men with heart. Of course,” he added with appropriate needling, “not all men have such heart. I am too particular to hire a slave or a roustabout or a lackey. I just want men. It may seem such a simple demand, but it has a lot at stake. Real men are rare when it gets tough.”
“Yeh,” said a voice from a nearby table, “how come the BLB hires foreigners wearing funny hats to be their top man? Ain’t that a kinda funny hat?” A big, bony man, looking hard as a rock, stood up and faced Kirkness. “What is that hat, mister? Your mother make it for Christmas or did you bring it all the way from Inja with you?”
With one punch Kirkness dropped the big man beside the table. The big man did not move. Five minutes later he was still motionless. Stillness, sudden stillness in a noisy saloon, came with the mystery that silence has.
Kirkness eventually said, to all the cowpokes in the saloon, “I’m looking for real men, not flag mouths that can’t take a punch. I wouldn’t have that man now prone on the floor handling my wagon on a Sunday ramble. In India he would not have lasted one skirmish against the Gurkhas or the Sikhs at their worst. Nor would he have made his way against the Africans bent on freedom. If you want to measure men, measure me. I would guess that the prostrate figure there on the floor is typical of you westerners; all mouth and no guts for a long drive, or taking orders from their betters, or averse to good pay, real decent pay and a piece of the big pie, as the boss man has promised. How you ever did wrest the colony from the Mother country goes beyond my ken.”
So convincing was Kirkness’s approach that the following morning he arrived at the BLB Ranch with 11 men, and more on the way. The sun was shining on the small parade, with former sergeant Kirkness riding out front of the new hires, straight and upright in the saddle, his funny hat perched atop his head. Some of the new hires were battle-tested on the way to the ranch when Kirkness was openly challenged. He pummeled three men before dawn slipped up on them. Now, in the clear sunlight of morning, Oliver Weddle watched his new foreman bring a trail crew to the BLB. A sudden shot of surprise and happiness flooded his frame and he rode out to meet the men.
Weddle stood in his stirrups to get a clear look at his new crew. “Gentlemen,” he said, “I am pleased to meet you. I trust you have met Sergeant Kirkness and know now who the real boss is. I too am a mere hireling here, but with a great project in front of us, with the promise of a great payday for all of us, we can complete our task.” He pointed at Kirkness and added, in a voice full of will and determination, “That man will take us to Hell and back if that is what it will take, clear through the Oklahoma Indian territory. I don’t doubt for a minute that he’ll get us through and that some of you, wiser after the journey, will start your own business. There’s room for all in this part of the land. The east is hungry for good beef, from Chicago to Philadelphia to New York City to Boston, Texas steaks have caused a craving. I don’t know how long it will last, but let’s get in on the feeding.”
In the ranks a soft voice said, “Amen.”
In the matter of two days a cook with trail experience was hired, a remuda assembled for herders and a remuda boss put in charge, assignments wagered between the men, and a partner system set in place. Kirkness was highly in favor of the partner system. “Stony, no matter where Clint Harkness goes, you be his pard. Keep your eyes open when it’s your turn to do so, and he will do his in turn. The man who falls asleep at his watch gets the holy hell from me, and then some. And you’ve seen some of that and then some. I don’t have time to fool around or play games this side of beef delivery. Be alert. Be aware. Be smart. It’ll all come back on you.
At the outset of an Indian attack in the middle of Oklahoma, the Indians rode in against the herd in a double column, as if trying to split the herd and drive cattle off through whatever proved to be the weakest side, a maneuver none of the cowpokes had seen before.
“What the hell they up to, Cap’n?” one rider said. “I ain’t seen them do this before.”
Kirkness replied from horseback, “I’ve seen this before, in India, at the hand of the Gurkhas, some of the finest fighters in the world, and the meanest I’ve ever seen in action.” He yelled to any herder close enough to hear him, “Fire on the right column. Concentrate on the right column. Obliterate the right column. Fire on the right.”
He said it a dozen times.
Then, heedless of the onslaught and the odds, he swung head on at the left hand column and brought his rifle to bear on the column heading in on his herd and emptied the rifle. Then he blazed away with his six guns and saw several Indians fall from their mounts in succession. The raiders veered off from the left hand column as the right column suffered significant casualties as they were repelled by the herders, and the cattle in a mad turmoil it would take hours to arrest. The main attack, though, was stemmed in a matter of minutes and three other riders rode out and joined Kirkness in his continuing rush at the Indians.
Kirkness made a point of driving a couple of cows toward the retreating Indians, knowing it was cheap enough to buy some time by assuring they had meat for their meals. When the Indians were all driven off, including the few cows that Kirkness assured were in close pursuit of the fleeing braves, night came down on the herd as most of the herd was finally rounded up. Kirkness went on a regular night watch. He had done so since the drive first started.
Near midnight, from the edge of a small dip in the land, he heard the moans of a distressed person and found an Indian suffering from a serious wound. He managed to stop his bleeding, bind him with a piece of his shirt, and hustle him back to the chuck wagon where his cook could better treat and dress the wound. The cook was a good man at his trade and almost as good as any doctor in the area, and had no aversion to treating the Indian who was still unconscious.
“You know what this’n be like when he wakes full, boss. He won’t be any less meaner’n he was afore. Too bad he won’t git to know what you done for him. Want me to tie his hands?”
“Best do as you ask, Silas. Tight at each wrist but loose enough between them so he understands he’s been left to have some use of his hands. We will try to communicate any way we can. Let us hope he has some understanding of the situation.” Looking down at the brave, who was obviously a normally rugged individual, he added, “Poor bloke is not about to go too far in his shape. Set a bit of food where he can have it if he chooses. Keep trying to communicate any way possible.” He went back on his watch for another hour and came back to sleep. In a matter of minutes, under a blanket and beside the wagon, he went to sleep.
Just as dawn broke over the plains, Kirkness was awakened by the coughing of the wounded Indian, who had risen on the other side of the wagon. The rope at his wrists allowed him to kneel, and then, with a struggle, stand upright. Kirkness pulled on his boots, went to the Indian, and put his hand on the bandaged wound. Then he set the food the cook has prepared at the feet of the man, taking a piece of dry beef for himself and chewing on it. Retrieving his blanket he put it about the Indian shivering in the morning light.
Silas the cook, already awake, said, “Boss, some of the boys be mighty upset at the kindness you’ve spent on the critter. They been shootin’ at us and tryin’ to make off with our pay stake ‘n’ that don’t sit well.”
Kirkness was back to his old self in a hurry. “Any man wants to change things, tell him to see me, Silas. I’ll take care of his ailments too.”
The story, the rest of what has come down to me, went something like this, with portions or snippets some of which I must have conjured up in my own way of telling it; but Kirkness, that late afternoon, rode off with the wounded Indian on another horse toward the far hills. The Indian sat a horse that Kirkness told the remuda boss to “get the one we can most spare.”
Half a dozen riders watched the boss man ride off with the Indian still trussed up like he’d never get any place on his own. But somewhere out of sight of the herd and its riders, Kirkness untied the bound wrists of the brave who rode on ahead of him, turned on the crest of a small hill and held his hand palm upward. Kirkness did the same, the universal salute between warriors of the first line. The Indian rode down into a wadi and was out of sight and Kirkness, a sense of timing and circumstance working in his mind, sat his horse and waited.
He might have been waiting for a sign, an omen, any signal that his efforts, his belief in man, would have brought off a response of a similar nature. Most men would bet against him.
Kirkness stayed in his place, giving his horse a bit of water, watching for the evening star to give promise of night, hoping one harsh day would lead into one of clearer comfort and ease. Man, at his labors, at his wars, whatever the causes and the reasons, needed his rest. He clearly wanted his. This business he was into, the adventure in a new land, this liaison with a trusting owner like Oliver Weddle, had come like a reward to him, even though the costs might be high. He again hoped for the best in man, as he had often seen the worst in man … on both sides of the fray.
It was at first a small illumination that came to him in the wavering shadows, from north of him, from where they were planning to drive the herd, right through country inhabited by Cherokee or Cheyenne or Arapaho. He could not tell the difference from one to the other if they stood in front of him at parade rest, but assured himself that they were as different as Gurkhas and Sikhs standing in the same formation, under the same colors.
The illumination grew, brightened, came on the obvious rise of a small hill hidden in darkness. It was, he knew, a signal, for the Indians could have gotten a lot closer to him. In the morning, he assured himself, other signs would be evident.
He hoped he had made peace for the time being.
He would like to do the job right for Oliver Weddle; trust was always part of his duties.
Beside the wagon, under the light of stars, the former Dragoon slept a deserved sleep.
Silas shook him awake. “Boss, coffee’s up, biscuits on, shift change.” And in a most condescending tone, said, “It looks quiet out there ‘n’ all the way back toward the risin’ sun ‘n’ clear through to Montana up in front of us I'd a bet.” It was an affirmation of what the old soldier had done the night before.
Kirkness, with soldier skills still working his system, changed his socks, pulled on his boots in preparation for the day. When he rinsed his used socks and hung them on a pin on the wagon, he spotted the dried blood of the wounded Indian on the spokes of a wagon wheel and thought of the flames from the night before. “There, he said lightly, "was enough light for all of us.”
Again, as it had so often happened, his whole life passed in quick review, as if a silent bugle had summoned his thoughts. “Call to Colors” came to him and “Reveille” and other bugle calls that were locked into his system. He remembered, coming this way, arriving at this place, the morning he walked through West Point and felt the ramrod spiking up his back. The military in him would, even in separation, carry him through. It had made him the man he was.
Oliver Weddle, of course, finished off the story as it had begun with him. Time and time again, in all his meetings with old friends and old comrades, in saloons, at card tables, at the spiked bowl at a now-and-then barn dance, said always that “Branwell Kirkness, late of His Royal Majesty’s 6th Inniskilling Dragoons Cavalry Regiment, is the best herd driver I’ve ever known, the toughest man I’ve ever met, and the most trustworthy man that ally and foe can possibly know.”
He told them all that Kicking Horse, a son of a Comanche chief, had cleared the way for Kirkness’s herds for three years in a row. Not a shot was fired, not a cow was lost, though other drivers had their problems.
“The man’s a soldier no matter what he wears,” was often the way he said goodnight.