Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
In 1857 the wagon train came west to Wyoming, to Torson Valley, so fertile and rich-looking that Dabney Brunton bought a nice big piece of it along a stream that carried clear mountain water. His wife Lila had twin boys, 6 years of age, Roy and Rob. En route, without any warning, the wagon train was assaulted by a large group of horsemen. None of them were Indians from the Plains tribes. None of them were half breeds or renegades, a mix of red and white, but all of them were white men as cruel as false dawn is on some bad days.
As a precaution at the start of the journey, Brunton had slung a couple of thick boards spanning the underside of his wagon where his sons could hide if the wagon train was attacked. It had worked for Roy Brunton, but Rob never reached that haven when the big attack came. He was killed by a single bullet, fired by a man with a bulbous nose and narrow eyes. The boy was buried beside the trail after the attackers were driven off.
Dabney Brunton made a cross for the grave out of the board that could have saved Rob’s life if he had reached that small hideaway under the wagon bed. Lila Brunton said the final words for her son Rob while holding Roy’s hand. She did not let go of his hand all that day, though the boy kept looking back toward the grave for much of time. For a month of nights he had fiery, evil dreams of “Pigface,” a name he assigned to his brother’s killer. That name too was a personal secret.
Roy had seen the face of the man who killed his brother, hesitated on telling his parents, and finally did not tell them. It was not long after, in deep thought in the half-built cabin at the end of the rich Wyoming valley, when he realized his dreams were keeping visible the face of the dread killer; for a purpose.
The image stayed with him for years, clear as a reflecting image on the face of a still pond. And the details of that man never faded; he brought them back every day of his life thereafter: the bulbous nose asserting a porcine look, the eyes so narrowly spaced they might be attached by that ugly nose itself, a brow high as it was broad, and a pair of weak-looking, sloping shoulders that hung so low they seemed to be without much support.
In the short years following, Lila Brunton gave birth to two more children in that Wyoming Valley, but she too looked backward each day toward that hallowed spot where her son Rob was buried beside the trail. Though Roy, growing solid and tall each day, was a fine son, and younger children Amanda and Roger took much of her time, the void in her life was constantly with her until the day she discussed the fateful attack with Roy who had come into his 17th year as a steady hand for his father. The ranch, without surprise, grew apace with him.
The discussion, which she initiated, centered on the lack of attention that Roy exhibited for his younger siblings. “Roy,” she said outright, “I know you work like a slave for your father and me, but Amanda and Roger love you so much, even though you do not seem to love them back half as much. The seeming distance disturbs me greatly. But I do not want to discuss it with your father, who has his own way with things. You know how driven he is to increase this ranch in every aspect, but I feel much of that energy neutralizes the loss of Rob. Your father loved him the way he loves you.”
Roy, more sensitive than his mother thought, had seen much of it coming the way it did. “Mom, I have looked back every day since Rob died, every single day of my life, just as you do. He’s my twin brother. We were paired from the beginning. None of that goes away from me and I know it has not gone away from you. I had dreams for so long I thought I had gone to Hell for bearing so much hatred and sorrow at the same time.”
“Oh, Roy, you never said a word, though we knew things bothered you all get out. I kept from saying anything about Rob because I hoped it would slip back into the past for you and not haunt you the way it’s haunted me.”
Roy saw the blue pain sitting in his mother’s eyes. Memory told him her eyes had been that way for a long time; that was as long as he had thought about Pigface. It made him wonder about his father, how that man had hidden the pain, though he had been busy, it seemed, forever. From the time they bought the land, dropped the first tree, set up the first stone of the hear th, put down the first seed, brought in the first bull, twisting the tail all the way to the first corral. Work, he realized, obviously had replaced sorrow, though it could never erase it.
Roy figured it was time to tell his mother what it was like with him, thinking it might alleviate some of her sorrow. “Mom, I never told you or Pa that I saw the man who killed Rob. I have seen his face every day of my life and so many nights in dreams I couldn’t count them. But if I ever see him, I will know him in a second, no matter what he looks like now, how he has aged, what time has done to him. Rob will be avenged, that is my life’s work coming. I will become a sheriff, or a deputy, and that man’s death will be legal. That is a promise I make to you right now, as your son, as Rob’s twin brother … that Pigface will pay for killing my brother.”
Lila Brunton thought there was so much hard steel and fire in her son’s eyes that in one sparse moment she let go the anguish and pain carried nearly visible on her person for ten solid years. Those feelings fled like balloons let loose to the sky, for her son had also carried the pain for her. Someone truly shared with her. She did not blame her husband, who had been a hard worker from pre-dawn until late-bed for those ten years.
On days following, a new spirit working its will in her body and her mind, she began to see things about the ranch, and her husband, a bit differently, but also continued to watch Roy with a keener eye. The break-out, she realized, would come sometime, after certain demands made themselves known in the maturing young son she loved twice as much since his revelations. It was a love that she thought was not possible, so much pain had preceded it.
“Lila,” her husband said early one evening, “you’re like the girl I first met. I see the change and I’ll have you know none of this has been lost on me. No particular surprises from me now, but I realize as much as you that Roy is working his way to a special place in his life. He will do as he wills, I am sure of that. He has grown into a remarkable young man that this ranch needed every step of the way, no matter how hard I worked on it. He has been a godsend, but his mission in this life has yet to be completed. We must pray for him every night and every dawn as his day starts. Rob, I am sure, watches with us. We’ll let Amanda and Roger grow into all of it. We’ll let them have their time. Roy was robbed of his early, just as Rob was.”
As her pain and anguish had fled into the skies earlier, she now rushed into her husband’s arms, the circle in their lives almost gone the full cycle.
Meanwhile, while the transformation proceeded in the family, Roy Brunton did his civic duties as well as ranch duties. He went on at least a dozen posse runs after bandits, robbers, killers in the great Wyoming valley where the family had made a new and successful life. Becoming a sure tracker, a reader of men on the run and their habits that let slide hints and clues of their passages, he was hailed as a new force in criminal tracking, treatment and pay-back.
“Hey, Roy,” the sheriff once said while they were on posse, “How in heck did you now that scoundrel went up there in them rocks where we can’t go in any hurry and where no one can last very long, with no water up in there?”
“That one’s easy, Sheriff,” Roy explained. “Before he robbed the bank he’d been in the general store and bought, mind you, bought, four canteens. He was not going far, not on that old mount Timmons from the livery said he rented; he was going long, meaning for a long time in the rocks and caves. When I saw where he broke off those burrs, I just figured he wanted to set off that old critter, with burrs under his saddle, on a long run for us to chase foolish like and had another mount tethered off in some place near those rocks, like maybe in the cave where we found it. The man was thinking but never thought one of us would cotton to his tricks.”
“I tell you, son, no man ever on a posse with me could figure that one out. That makes you special in my mind. You should be sheriff some day.”
“I aim to be, Sheriff,” Roy Brunton replied, and all who heard him say it believed it.
The posse was skirting a huge bend in the river east of Torson Valley, with the day gathering down to evening. They had not seen a sign of their prey this side of the river and the sheriff offered that they ought to head back or hole up in the nearest town and start out the next day back at the last sign.
“Who’s for heading back and who’s for wetting his throat and holing up in Scattercross?” He looked first at Roy Brunton, sitting his horse right beside him.
“I’m heading into Scattercross,” Roy said,” no matter who says what.”
“You going searching again, Roy?” the sheriff said, fully aware that Roy Brunton never missed a chance to check out a new town or a town he had not been in for a while.
The nine-man posse broke off in pairs that wandered into town, wetting their whistle, looking for an old friend, seeking lodgings such as above the livery or with a friend or relative. The sheriff and his deputy made for the sheriff’s office. Roy Brunton, as always, dallied around town, looking in windows, visiting the general store, window shopping in a few glass-fronts, and checking out the barber shop.
Late in the evening, when most traffic came to one of the two saloons, he dropped into the first saloon, looked around, and left.
The second saloon, The Great Divider, was a different story.
He gasped, though inaudibly, as he entered The Great Divider, slipping in through the swinging doors as soft as a shadow. In the large mirror gracing much of the wall background behind the bar, he saw in absolutely clear reflection, as in many of his dreams, the dreaded, deadly, haunting visage of Pigface. The murderer of his twin brother was dealing the cards in a game with four other players at a poker table. The dealer did not look up, but kept dealing the cards. He did not see Roy Brunton walking slowly towards him and his tablemates.
But off in one corner sat the posse sheriff, his eyes on Roy Brunton as he approached the poker table where Pigface sat. The sheriff, scowling, indecision showing on his face, searched his mind quickly for the details that lingered about the man.
Criminals, those who evade jail-time for much of their active lives, must depend for survival, and their continued freedom, on certain abilities or senses that include perception, intuition, and suspicion. Without using perception, not having seen Brunton at this point, and not employing suspicion, he was suddenly brought aware of his intuition trying to shake loose of the poker game. Something new hovered about him. Because of the intrusion of intuition, he sat straight up in his seat, but had not moved otherwise.
Pigface’s real name was Moke Oliver, and the strangest thing with that brutal murderer was his evasion of any jail time in his long criminal history. Some might call it luck, but lawmen know that odds always swing around eventually. That information was also shared by jailers and prison wardens, like the top dog in Yuma Territorial Prison and other such places where reality always touches down like a bird from flight. Wardens are those men being the last custodians of luck, all of it finally gone sour for the bad guys of the west. Somewhere, in the penal system, a warden was waiting for Moke Oliver … unless an avenging twin got in the way.
As Moke Oliver sat there at the poker table with murderous friends and saddle pards, any on-looker would have seen the give-away character-molding signs that lingered on his person: he was as ugly as a sty, mean as a carrion-seeker, self-centered as a judge in a kangaroo court, and as hungry as a newborn. The signs also said distance should be maintained, meaning “stay away from Moke Oliver.”
But Roy Brunton was approaching him, his hands positioned at his sides, poised. The sheriff felt fate in the air.
Upright in his seat, Oliver was also acutely aware that luck may have shifted its place of operations.
More than seeing the shadow descending on his person, he felt the weight of an old crime descending with it. The particular crime did not reveal itself, but it was present in some manner, in some form.
The full shadow of Roy Brunton descended over the back of Moke Oliver, fell upon the poker table, on the money mounding in the pot. And young Brunton, rage beginning to assemble itself in huge cumbersome doses, could have shot Oliver right then and there. But something held him back. Perhaps it was his twin brother casting an alarm, or his mother’s words about the horrors of revenge coming into place for the last time.
His gun was in his hand.
Oliver looked into the large mirror behind the bar and saw Brunton with the drawn gun. “You don’t look like a bushwhacker kid and I know I never saw you before, so what’s this all about?”
“It’s about murder, mister, a murder I saw you commit. You killed a six-year old boy more than 15 years ago and I’ve been looking for you all that time.”
“You’re crazy, kid. I never kilt no six-year old boy in my whole life.” But he felt the weight of some shadow still pushing down on him. “Where was this supposed to be, this killing?”
Brunton waved his gun again, saw the sheriff standing now across the room along with the Scattercross sheriff, and said, “15 years ago, in the Walters Pass. You shot a six-year old boy as he was trying to hide under a wagon.”
“You’re still crazy, kid. I never saw you before in my life, and 15 years ago, how the hell old was you then anyway?”
“I was six, Pigface. And I was under the wagon and his name was Rob and he was my twin brother. I saw you do it. I saw you shoot him like he was a sheriff chasing you or some grown-up who had already lived a lot.”
“What did you call me, kid?” Moke Oliver said, as if being called that name was worse than being called the murderer of a six-year old boy.
“I called you Pigface ‘cause that’s all I could ever remember about you. And you can ask any man in this room, including the sheriffs over there what they’d remember about you if they only saw you once.”
There was only a slight movement of the players at the table. The Scattercross sheriff said, “Don’t do it, boys. None of you. Firsts man tries to help this killer of a six-year old kid gets hung along with him.”
Four pairs of revolvers, in the hands of the law, were trained on the table.
Moke Oliver, looking at his pards, felt the weight of the long shadow still laying its hugeness on him, and Roy Brunton, like his mother, felt something let itself loose in the night.
He’d have to tell his ma and pa how it all felt. He no longer had any visions of being a sheriff, and saw himself content as a rancher, like his father, which is why they had all come west in the beginning.