Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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The steady snow blocks out most of the light the moon might have given us, so we ride slowly, our horses unsure of their footing. We’ve only ridden for about an hour, driven by a need to get away from what we left behind and to get closer to home. I don’t know how long it will take, but an hour certainly hasn’t been long enough to shake the image of Frank lying lifeless in the snow. By now, the coyotes have almost certainly started their work on the four men left unburied, and if there’s anything left in the morning, the vultures will make sure those men will soon be nothing more than a memory—and a bad one at that.
Nobody is talking as we’re all lost in our own thoughts. I have to fight the urge to think about Huck and what this night will mean to him, to us, to Sophie. As important as that is, I know I need to focus my attention on trying to figure out what happened and maybe even why. I keep coming back to Miguel’s comment, “You’re not wearing your hat,” and remembering how all of the first shots were at Frank, though with four of them—and the advantage of complete surprise—they could have shot any of us or, if they were decent shots, all of us. It takes me a bit, but I finally realize and accept that their real target was me, which makes Frank’s death even sadder, and me even angrier.
While never intentionally, I have managed to accumulate some enemies over the last couple of years, and if, for reasons I don’t understand or am not aware of, one or some of them were driven to try and track me down and kill me, that’s unfortunately part of the life I have been leading. But Frank? To the best of my knowledge, he didn’t have an enemy in the world, and certainly not in Dry Springs. Frank died because evil men exist and they often don’t mind killing and, mostly, because he was mistaken for me. At first, I might have been able to attribute this to a vicious robbery gone wrong. Maybe bad luck on our part and cruel desperation on theirs. But not with Miguel’s hat comment and certainly not with his last word—Diego—which felt like a threat, or a warning, or maybe both.
It seems clear now that Chavez is involved in this, but I can’t figure out why. I didn’t part the best of friends with him or his hired gun Diego, but looking back on what happened down in Tesuque on Chavez’s cattle ranch, it doesn’t make sense that months later he would send four of his men to kill me. For what? Pride? Honor? Money? When Cisco, Maria and the others left Tesuque, they took only what could fit in a small wagon and left behind everything else they had ever known. And that last day, when Chavez left our traveling group and turned back down Coyote Creek toward his beautiful home and spectacular ranch, Cisco rode with him for a couple of hours and came back feeling that everything between them was forgiven and buried.
But, for reasons I’ll need to figure out, it appears the only thing buried is Frank.
My mind drifts to the four men who killed Frank, the men we killed. I wonder if they have families back home, people who are waiting for them, like Sophie is waiting for Huck and me, or Maria is waiting for Cisco. People who will grow more and more anxious with time and eventually come to accept that the men they’re waiting for are not coming home, ever. If they had wives and children, did these men imagine as they said goodbye and rode away toward Dry Springs that they’d never see them again? That they’d leave them alone and unprotected in a harsh world? Did they have letters in their saddlebags that will never be answered? While I have no doubt that each of them got exactly what they deserved, I can’t help but think that there are others out there who will be hurt by the decisions they made. Are men who kill for money and greed ever haunted with these same questions?
Knowing I’ll never have answers, I turn my attention to finding a place to set up camp. Only a few minutes later, we ride into a spot that will work well for the night. There’s a large rock overhang, almost a shallow cave, that looks like it has room for the three of us. The nearby trees are thick and will provide some shelter for all eight of the horses. There’s no water, at least not close by, but we have our full canteens and can melt snow for the horses. There is grass for the horses to roll in and enough for them to eat their fill.
Huck and Cisco close up behind me, and without a word we all dismount. Cisco immediately starts gathering wood for a fire, and Huck and I look to the horses.
Unfortunately, we only have enough blankets for the horses we started with, not for the three from the killers. We find a couple of large trees that offer some protection from the wind and snow and picket them a little closer to each other than we normally would, hoping that will provide them some warmth. As usual, we don’t picket Horse and Spirit, but not surprisingly, they quickly find comfort and warmth with the others and stay close to them.
Cisco gets a fire started, banking it up against the rocks and as far back in the opening as he can get. It offers some protection from the growing cold, a strong fire having as much impact on the soul as it does on the body. Even though we didn’t get to eat earlier, none of us are hungry now, and Cisco skips the antelope steaks and just gets the coffee going. Normally the smell of coffee on a freezing night is one of the great smells and one of the great medicines for men on the trail. But tonight, it just doesn’t seem like quite enough. I walk over to our gear, slip a flask out of my saddlebag and add a bit of bourbon to our mugs, even a little for Huck. It’s another one of those things I’ll have to talk to Sophie about, but if I’m being honest with myself, it’s only to share with her, not to ask if it’s OK. I’m still trying to figure out how to be a dad, but some things just seem right and this is one of them. Huck nods and takes a sip, and when he doesn't react at all to the strong taste of bourbon, I’m reminded of the time he spends with Sophie’s dad and the rules they break together. On occasion, bourbon must be one of them.
We settle down around the fire, and the quiet, while not uncomfortable, is still there. I light up a cigar, but without taking my time as I usually do when sitting around a campfire. Wolf appears, so quickly and quietly I wonder if she’s been there the whole time. She comes closer to the fire, and Huck, than I can remember her doing before. She settles into the snow, facing Huck and the fire, her thick fur protecting her from the cold.
I know Huck has a lot of thinking to do and we have quite a few conversations coming up about what happened tonight. Even with everything he went through last year—being beaten by outlaws, witnessing killings, burying his own father, and living alone until Sophie and I took him in—up until tonight, he has never killed a man. And Cisco, who up until last year when I found him pinned down by thieves who had already killed his best friend and were trying to kill him, had never even been in a fistfight, much less a gunfight, will have to start dealing with having killed a man tonight, no matter how justified it was.
These are tough things for good men to deal with. And then I realize. Huck, who has only been a part of my life, has only been my son, for the last few months, is no longer a boy. With everything he has been through, with the way he has handled things, it is unfair to think of him as anything but a man. You don’t have to have been through what Huck has been through—and you certainly don't have to have killed a man—in order be a man. But you can’t have gone through and seen and done those things and stand tall like Huck is doing, without being a man.
Watching Cisco and Huck, I find my mind drifting back to London. I loved being raised by my mom and my uncle, but I realize now how isolated I was. I didn’t have any brothers or sisters, and I didn’t have any true friends, not in the way that Huck has Tom, or—and it hits me for the first time—I now have Cisco and some of the other men in town. Even my first couple of years in America, while I met quite a few people—and spent some time with many of them—I would struggle to remember most of their names. And now I have a family and friends. People whom I wouldn’t hesitate to risk my life to protect and who would—and have—done the same for me.
My uncle trained me to be able to defend myself, with my brains, my fists or a gun. But because of where and how we lived, I never really needed those skills until I moved to America. And now I need them on a regular basis, far more than I could have ever imagined when I boarded that ship in London, and far more than I would like. The life I’m leading is nothing like the life I led in London or expected to live while visiting America. But, I’m suddenly struck by a thought: I’m no longer visiting—this is my life. I realize it’s been a while since anyone has commented on my British accent, something that happened all the time when I first arrived in America. I wonder if I even have an accent anymore. If I visited London, would I stand out now? Would I be the one who speaks funny?
And then I realize I’m not going back to London. I came here looking for my father, knowing I would eventually be heading back home to the life I knew and the people I love. But I now know this is my home, and while I love and miss my mom and my uncle, these are my people and this is my family.
And this is where I wish Sophie were here. Having grown up in tiny Dry Springs—and having rarely left, never going farther than Denver—she is somehow much more worldly than I am. When things move beyond the simple for me, she has a way of clarifying things, helping me understand them. And tonight, I need her. Maybe that’s what marriage is.
As I’m thinking about that, the silence is broken by Huck, who’s decided it’s time to talk about what happened tonight.
“What did Miguel mean when he said, “You’re not wearing your hat?”
As I’m struggling to find the best way to answer Huck’s question, knowing this is another of those conversations that will stay with Huck—and with me—for a long time, Cisco jumps right in.
“It means they were trying to kill your dad.”
I’m not sure I would have been that blunt, but I guess there is no other way to answer the question. Huck looks at me for a moment, but without the surprise that I expected. He turns back to Cisco, who continues to explain.
“They knew about the hat, and when they saw Frank wearing it, they thought he was your dad. So, they killed him. They were going to kill the rest of us to keep us quiet, or to be sure they had gotten your dad, or maybe both.”
I take a sip of my coffee and bourbon, watching Huck and, if I’m honest with myself, relieved that Cisco has been the one to explain to Huck what happened. I watch as a couple of snowflakes drift into my mug and melt instantly. The only sound I can hear, other than the horses softly whinnying to each other, is the fire crackling. I look up at Huck, but he’s still looking at Cisco, knowing there is more.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, Huck, I am. There is no reason for them to know anything about what kind of hat your dad wears unless they were looking for him.” They both look at me or, rather, at my hat, which, as stubborn as I am, I now know I’ll be wearing for as long as it holds out.
“Those men had no reason to be here, so far from Mr. Chavez’s ranch. I knew Miguel from the ranch, and while I didn’t see the other men, they either worked on the ranch or were hired for this job. I don’t remember Miguel ever leaving the ranch before. The surprise he showed when he saw your dad was still alive tells us why they came, and when he said “Diego,” it meant this isn’t done.”
Huck asks, “Who’s Diego?”
I jump in. “Huck, do you remember Black?” He nods yes.
“Cisco, you’ve heard us talk about Kurt and what happened when I first came to Dry Springs.”
“Black was Kurt’s enforcer, and other than Kurt, he was the top gun in the gang. In all the time you worked for Chavez, did you ever see Diego do any work? Do anything other than always be at Chavez’s side?”
“That’s because his only job was to protect Chavez and do his gun bidding. Miguel, who was clearly afraid of Diego, knew that if they failed to kill me, Chavez would send Diego to do the job. When did Diego first start working for Chavez?”
“He showed up shortly after Mr. Chavez switched from sheep to cattle.”
“I’ve been thinking about this since we started riding tonight. Things didn’t seem quite right with Chavez, even before he tried to steal your money. I remember when I was in Santa Fe the men were talking about how, for the past few months, he’d been doing more gambling than ever before and was losing a lot of money. I think Chavez has gotten himself into some serious financial trouble, and when it started, he got scared and brought in Diego for protection. Even if I’m right, and I’m pretty sure I am, I still don’t know how that would lead to what happened tonight, or to what I think is going to happen once he figures out Miguel and those other boys failed. But you’re right, Cisco—this isn’t over.”
I let that sink in, as much for me as for Huck and Cisco. I have to start accepting that for whatever reason, I am now a hunted man. That’s never good news, but now it’s not just me. I have Sophie and Huck to think about, and after what happened tonight, it’s clear that those around me are in danger too.
“Huck, we’ve never really talked about why Cisco and the others moved to Dry Springs. Cisco, OK if I tell him?”
“You know the story of me finding Cisco under attack in Coyote Creek and how we were both saved by Delgadito and the other Muache Indians. How when it was over, Delgadito gave Cisco Regalo. What I never told you, was how when Cisco and I made it back to the ranch he worked for, Francisco Chavez’s Rancho del Cielo, Chavez tried to steal Cisco and Maria’s money. Together, we were able to get their money back and keep whatever belongings they could fit into their wagon, but Cisco was forced to leave behind the only job, the only home—the only life—he had ever known. On the trip home to Dry Springs is when we fought the Apaches and when Cisco’s brother, Danny, was killed.”
Huck looks over at Cisco, and I realize they share something that I can’t fully understand, each having suffered terrible losses and had their entire lives uprooted by events they couldn’t control and for reasons they can’t understand.
“When we left Chavez’s ranch, I was concerned that he would send men after us, as much for pride as for the money or whatever small belongings Cisco and his family had taken with them. We had to move slowly because we had the wagon and because Maria was with child, though she lost the baby on the trip back. We would have been easy to trail, and it wouldn’t have taken many men to wipe us out. To make sure we weren’t followed and attacked, I forced Chavez to ride with us for a while. He tried to bring Diego along, but I wouldn’t allow it. Neither Chavez nor Diego was happy about it, but there really wasn’t much they could do about it. Chavez was true to his word—we weren’t followed. And I thought, apparently incorrectly, that was the end of it.”
We all take a quiet minute to think about what this means. Chavez has plenty of resources to call on, and sending four men tonight means that for reasons not yet known he’s serious and this isn’t going to end tonight. The snow starts coming down harder, and the wind seems to be picking up again. It feels like it’s getting even colder. I button my coat up tight, move closer to the fire and freshen up my coffee, both from the pot and the flask. Cisco does the same. Huck warms up his coffee, but I shake my head no when he looks at the flask.
“Once we felt safe, I allowed Chavez to go back to his ranch, and Cisco rode with him for a while. Cisco, when you got back from your ride with Chavez, other than saying everything was OK, you never said what you talked about. You just said we didn’t have to worry anymore. I didn’t want to pry, but now I’m wondering…”
Cisco looks away from Huck and to me. “I will tell you what I remember, though I don’t know if it will help.
“He didn’t say anything at first, and so we rode the first few miles in silence. He didn’t look at me, or at anything. His eyes were down, and we just rode in the middle of the creek, heading back in the direction of his ranch. Eventually he started talking, but he still didn’t look at me. I’m not even sure he was talking to me. It almost seemed like he was talking to himself. He said he was sorry about what happened to P’oe and to the rest of us, but he never apologized for what he did. It’s like he was talking about someone else.
“He mumbled that things weren’t going right and he had to figure out what to do. I still wasn’t sure he was talking to me, as much as he was to himself, so I still didn’t say anything. So many bad things had happened in that creek in the past week, I was happy not to have to talk so I could watch for trouble. We kept riding, and even though he kept talking, he kept getting quieter and quieter and I couldn’t understand anymore what he was saying. Suddenly, after not talking at all for a while, he shook his head, looked up and seemed surprised to see me. He reached out, shook my hand and wished me good luck. He put the spurs to his horse and was gone without another word. I watched until he was out of sight, then turned back and caught up with everyone else. I didn’t think I’d ever see him again, so I didn’t think much about it. Until tonight.”
I kind of wish Cisco had told me then, but I don’t know that I would have done anything different. It does seem to confirm that Chavez has real troubles, and like many a man who is in danger of losing what he has, especially his pride, he had started to make some bad decisions. While I understand that, after what happened tonight, he’s lost any chance of gaining my sympathy. And while I wonder why he’s doing what he’s doing, I’m far more concerned with what he’s going to do. I don’t know how long ago those men left to track me down, but even riding hard, it’s a few days ride from Tesuque to Dry Springs, so I figure it will be a while before Chavez realizes they aren’t coming back. That gives me a little bit of time to try and figure out what to do.
Huck, who appears to take all of this in stride and seems to be afraid of nothing, asks, “What are we going to do?”
“For now? Nothing. We’re going to try and get a good night’s sleep, get back home tomorrow and then figure out what needs to be done.”
Knowing he’s not happy with the answer, but not knowing what else to tell him—or Sophie—I shake off the snow, walk over to our gear and bring back all three bedrolls. We set up pretty close to the fire, happy to all fit under the overhang. Trusting Wolf and Horse to let us know if someone gets close, we settle down, each silently reflecting on the day. Trying to put aside, just for a little while, what’s happened and what this all will mean to Huck, I turn my thoughts toward home—and Sophie. And for the first time tonight, just a little, I smile.