Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
With him still in the saddle, Trainor Palmsworthy felt his horse die between his legs, the signs almost half a day old.
“Old Pal,” he thought, atop his commiseration, “you gave a good ride.”
He put a confirming single round into Old Pal’s head before he left him to the animals of field, flow and hill. The solitary echo, he realized, would regenerate itself at countless occasions down the trail. Such mounts never need a spur thrust at memory. Nor heel or toe at random application in chase or flight, for they share the mighty push that man and animal are often joined in. A good horse is needed, a great horse is a friend of the staunchest kind.
He was never addressed as Palmsworthy because he felt it was a mouthful of too much name for a cowboy, and especially for a sheriff. Big Train, he was called, by friends, and in work as a sheriff in three towns to date. And now he saw the railroad tracks down the mountain from him, as they leaped in a straight line toward Fisher Hill, where they made a slow climb on a low range of hills. He figured it was almost two full days before the next train bore down on him from out of the east and places of sunrise the east.
In that meantime, old Muskie Watts, bred of darkness itself. was still loose out there in the slow rolling foothills of Utah, Muskie being a loner of a mountain man, bent on murder of anyone in his way, flight or destination. “They’re tearin’ out the heart of the land and I ain’t sittin’ easy ‘bout it,” was all he had to say about the railroad work disrupting the land, his hunting, his peaceful nights under stars ‘”sure as big as pie plates some nights,” he was apt to say to himself on occasion, perhaps hungry for a kind of discussion to break up the long nights, to break up a big chunk of monotony that such men realize every once in a while. Life sure ain’t what I expected it to be,” he’d said at a bar or two in between long, lonely and dry stretches.
His “I ain’t sittin’ easy ‘bout it” had extended to six murders in one day in Mountain View, Utah, within 10 miles of new track, the town suddenly gripped by a terror it hadn’t felt since the most recent attack by Ute Indians, and a sheriff thereby sent out on a search for Watts.
Now, Mountain Views’ sheriff, Big Train, was afoot.
Big Train thought it might not be the worst thing ever to come his way, for his thinking had been bent by his listening to men wiser than himself, without any discrimination as to race, creed or color: “Men walking think different than men riding,” was an adage in the making, he believed. And he set about to make that adage prove itself right from conception. All he had to bargain with was his badge; all else was defensive gear, and kept until death or departure, one way or another.
One of those voices, those thinkers, was an old friend, Rain Devil, a Ute with great intellect and compassion and a sense for the history of his tribe, passed down through the years by other “talkers” in the tribe.
Rain Devil had said to Big Train, “We Utes have been raising horses, gotten from the Spanish nearly 200 years ago, really about the beginning of the 16th century when the Aztec conquest was all done and Hernan Cortes came with huge numbers of Spanish soldiers. That time was called the Spanish Incursion. Since then, in some two and a half centuries, we Utes have become experts in raising magnificent horse stock. The year is associated with the god Quetzalcoatl’s mythic birth. Motecuhzoma II interpreted the news of the Spaniards’ arrival as the return of the god Quetzalcoatl and sent many gifts to Cortés.
Big Train had filled his mind remembering some of Ute history told to him by Rain Devil, befriended some years earlier, the Indian also being a grand story teller, historically and otherwise. “We got our first horses during the Spanish Incursion hundreds of years ago. The horses gave us the capacity for big game hunting, buffalo, bison, and wild horses that evolved over the long years, and the like. And we became great warriors with a solid grasp in trading slaves and horses. Not many people, like hunters and settlers, came into our territory or onto our tribal lands without some element of trepidation.” Big Train was not sure the last statement was a fact or a throw-in from long ago, but it had been said in a proud voice, the warning carried aloft the way proud announcements are delivered.
With those words in mind, and often hungry for historical data as well as stories that became a real part of history itself, Big Train began his walk to search for another horse, one with prospects as good as Old Pal’s.
During one discussion, Rain Devil had told him, “The first Mormon settlement in Salt Lake Valley saw a joining of Utes and Shoshones, with no troubles between us. But those settlers began hunting for scarce game that was our game for our subsistence. That was fact. We were pushed from the land, our land, so Chief Wakara led some Utes to retaliate in raids against the Mormon settlements springing up on the land. Some collective farms were eventually put aside for we Utes by the government. President Lincoln, as part of that plan, set aside the huge Uintah Valley Reservation for Ute groups or branches. But Autenquer, a San Pitch war leader, called up both Ute and Southern Paiute to resist removal through many disastrous raids which ended up being called the Black Hawk War (1863-68). By 1869, starving and suffering from Mormon retaliation, Utes turned to civil leader Tabby-to-kwana who finally led them onto the Uintah Valley Reservation. It was a sad time.”
Rain Devil finished off that session by adding, “Don’t push for reasons too many for my quiver to hold, because we suffered completely as a tribe. I am one of few voices left to carry our story onward, the Ute’s story. I tell it to you as a friend. Someday it may come into use for you.”
The pause issued by Rain Devil insured the full acceptance of what would follow. “History has a way of coming back down the same trail it went away on, like the buck or the doe doubles back during the hunt on their tail. That, somehow, will become truth for you, and escape.” There were moments his words slipped into a short history, only to become faith in foresight to lucky listeners, now including his current audience.
Big Train, legs strong yet itching for saddle and ride, went along the railroad watching and alert for a new mount, his lariat looped across one shoulder, and, as usual, prophecies often worked the trail with him.
The echoes of voices, important voices, carry weights that alert men carry in heart as well as in mind, treasured by men of his kind: “Listen to one’s words once and you won’t have to struggle for them a second time.”
After several miles, Big Train noticed a series of horse tracks crisscrossing the rail beds. These steady repetitions of search or mission by a horseman, were accompanied by mule tracks, telling him a load was being transported. At first, several places showed digging had taken place between track beds. At the fourth or fifth site, he unearthed a bundle of dynamite, and with it came a slightly exposed length of fuse. Each fuse on inspection proved to be attached to the next burial site. All of them therefore could be ignited by one spark, one cigar, one match, surely the single light of hatred … and delay trains no end for days at a time, with the quick rustle and hustle for men and supplies to repair the roadbed, reduce the down-time for engines as well as engineers.
Ruination was implanted.
Whoever was in the process of trying to ruin he railroad, Big Train realized, must be waiting to ignite the passels of dynamite and be near enough to hear or see the explosions to verify his deed, to satisfy his query as to success.
It might be the only clue that would be available for him: he decided it was.
So, with ideas working his mind, he cut the connecting fuse line in several places, to stem much of the impending damage, of course, but also drive the scoundrel from cover at failure of a full mission.
With darkness coming down on him, he drifted off the trail line, moved uphill toward a place of advantage and sequestered himself in what he figured was a good lookout position. From this perch above the railbed, he could make note of all activity along the line, where he noted about a dozen plantings that were aimed at more than a dozen sections of railbed.
He remembered Rain Devil saying “All murder and mayhem have signatures of preparation left by culprits bent on deviltry. One may think they like to autograph their work in some ungodly measure.”
That point, too, stuck in his mind. He’d be alert all night and into the next day, if need be: “Deviltry needs a watchdog, for sure,” whispered through his mind. It was not of his creation.
In the early light, he saw nothing or heard nothing suspicious, nor any more sign of the calamity that was afoot. Staying in place on the side of a hill, he sent his eyes scanning back and forth, alert to any movement. He saw a bear sniffing the air, an eagle in high flight, a hawk in a tree as patient and as still as he was, culprit and prey at morning movement. The eagle uttered a cry, the hawk never moved, the bear sniffed the air again: Big Train check his weapon once more.
Nothing else moved, but he was prepared to wait, sure that the fuse was going to be lit at a nearby location. He heard Rain Devil say, “Silence can be eternal, but motion cannot be still, as there would be nothing.” His mind bent to a new understanding.
Within the matter of seconds, he heard no sound, but saw movement, downhill from him, by a thin grove of slim trees almost locked onto the hillside. Then he saw a flash, the single light nearly making him stand up, and then the single BOOM tore across the morning, a single BOOM
Telling him that only one package of dynamite had ignited, one section of track disrupted, or destroyed or flung into the air. He waited, the seconds like minutes, and no more explosions came. He kept his eye on the single grove of trees where the ignition flash had caught his eye, and saw a man move away from the grove and start downhill in a hurry.
Big Train, launching himself almost in the same seconds, too started downhill, the lariat on his shoulder, one hand patting the pistol in his holster.
Their arrivals were seconds apart, Big Train coming up behind the burly man ahead of him cursing through the morning air, curses as big as the mountain, curses measuring and matching his anger, disappointment, his incredulity of the situation, his eyes rapidly scanning both ways on the track bed, as if waiting for other dull BOOMS. Nothing came to him, except the voice behind him. “Don’t go for your gun, Watts, or I’ll drop you where you stand and where you’ll likely die before you hit the ground.”
The huge mountain man turned slowly, his eyes measuring Big Train Palmsworthy. “What happened here? There should have been more. What did I do wrong?”
“You came into my territory, Muskie Watts, where you shouldn’t have dared in the first place. Now you’re going to watch the man from the railroad fix this new problem and get rid of the rest of the dynamite package by package, stick by stick, before we head back to town.”
Big Train paused and added, “By the way, you’re going to get a ride into town.”