Western Short Story
Chasta Hills in Central Texas was at last entirely, literally, figuratively and formally, in the hands of Duke Desmond, thief, gunner, demander of his cut from every last business in town, tailor to barber to Hick’s General Store to Eleanor’s Knitting Spot, Eleanor being the last one to yield to the oppressive leaning from Desmond.
But not forever, not for long; as she spent much time waiting for a savior, a hero, a decent cowboy down to his toes in is boots, to come onto the scene of Chasta Hills on its knees and not liking the sight, especially the woman at a window directly in front of the tie rail, his horse Trumble at rest after a long ride on a hot day.
Newly arrived in town, Barney Pike didn’t fit her picture of a hero in boots as he tied up in front of her store, perhaps lost, looking around, nodding once in a while, shaking his head otherwise, not finding Chasta Hills as he thought he would; something right in front of him was out of whack; nobody walked the open street through town, no hellos or howdies came from open doorways or from hidden voices behind doors or windows on the street, all its reception created a chill coming in the July air, winter in the very mix.
His eyes met Eleanor’s eyes as she studied him from within her shop. He wondered what she was like; we soon find out she had decided he was not her hero in boots, with a pistol hanging on his belt as if it was never used, either in self-defense or protection of a lady in distress, which she surely was, another arrival not to her liking. But he did not avert her looking, keeping his eyes steadfast and locked while she studied him.
She found him string bean tall, wavy hair peeking under his sombrero, and a most handsome face not yet littered with scars from his adventures, wherever they’d occurred He came off the horse with great ease, his long legs serving him well, his clothes wearing much of the desert out and beyond, her guessing he had come from Ciudad-Juarez in the dry country. He presented himself completely uncomfortable, and looking for a free wash-in bucket.
Eleanor tapped on the window and pointed down the alley between her store and the next one, where he found a wash tub, spent an hour producing a nicer sight, and then went back to meet the kind lady.
When he entered her shop, his sombrero was in his hand, a smile on his face, and a warm thank you filled the air. “That was delicious, Ma’am. Thanks, a dozen times over for letting me get back to my old reliable self.” His smile was pure pleasure, his posture a bit jittery as if talking to a woman was strange territory for him. He paused, looked out the window and added, “It sure is quiet around here, where are the people? Did I scare them off?”
She let go both barrels without stopping, the total story about Duke Desmond and his hard grip on the small town, down to its last citizen, putting herself in those shoes. “He hates me because I resist so much, only relenting because he might kill me, and I never owned a gun in my life. Can’t even use one, for that matter. But his threats, and his men, are as real as I say, completely rotten to the core, not caring who they hurt or bother their business to where it might fold up and die, them too.”
“Anybody ever resist, fire a shot at him, try to scare him off?”
“Not and live to talk about it. Every now and then, a body appears in the desert, eagles tearing at it first, horrid remains of a man brought in to bury, a new burial site at the edge of town, several recent deaths planted like you might put down an apple tree, and short growth at that,”
She gave him every account she was aware of, “and there are plenty more with questions hanging over them,
She came up sharp when Barney Pike said, “He sounds like my kind of enemy, death waiting for the moment of truth and daring. Does he have a big gang, lots of crew, gunmen by the dozen, or a careful, talented few who conduct his business for him?
“They call him Scars, but his name is Greg Stallwood, mean as a skunk with a stick up his rear end, and six or seven henchmen of the same breed, all alike, like they all breathe the very same air and spit it out, at someone, when they’re done with it.” She hung her hands beside her hips, the first of his physical measurements of her, supple, moveable, enticing on their own. He was becoming charmed by her in the regular old way of the centuries, and it made him feel good in spite of the topics of discussion, knowing down to his boots what his future held for him, a slam-bang encounter with the lords of the town of Chasta Hills, neat as a loaded firecracker, and as explosive once its tail was lit up.
In a circular route, eyes wide open, Trumble picking his way, Barney Pike encountered Greg Stallwood, Scars to many, on his way to another ranch for its monthly persecution, saying, “Your days are done here, Scars, you’re going down,” and when Scars went for his quick draw, it was not quick enough, getting drilled twice in his heart, falling with a thud to earth where he remained until two eagles made dinner of him, and nobody the wiser.
Barney Pike spent the night alone in the darkness waiting for some of Scab’s crew to come searching for him. The eagle mess signified the end of a search, the end of Scab. One of the men bolted across the desert, free from threat, and the other sought to report the loss to Desmond. He never got to make a report, meeting the new arrival en route, the swelling knowledge of the new man already in the mix, news on the run, new fears flying all about, a twist in the direction, Desmond’s empire at chaos from a tall, skinny gunhand.
Chasta Hills began to wake up, Desmond’s threats now with a hole in them, and Desmond keeping himself out of sight, locked down like the town had been for five whole years, his Number One man, Scab, gone, with the birds, to the birds, as if he had flown the coop, no difference in the matter. His circle shrank, the squeeze coming in leaps and new grips, townsfolk beginning to walk the long single road through town, Hellos and howdies and hallelujahs on their lips, Desmond on the way out, and a skinny, good looking new sheriff had found the woman of his life and married her.