Western Short Story
Jake Craddock used his mouth to chew, drink and curse; those were the only efforts he employed, be damned any other exercises come to mind. Yet his horse had more care than a child; “Derby,” he called him.
So, on this chosen day, the two of them rode into Reagan’s Hill. Oklahoma in the middle of an argument on the first corner, between two older man, both in their later years and surely survivors of the Great War Between the States, insisting the greater generalship of a couple of opposing leaders in that war.
“We’re the damned winners, you friggin’ jokers. Us,” Craddock yelled, his voice surging right there in the middle of the dusty road, that good old taste coming back in his mouth, in his throat. “Whatever general you prayed for, we’re the goddamned winners. Put that in your god-damned pipes and smoke it ‘til it’s gone.” The rush of obscenities was trying to form further down in his throat; he could taste them again, each one climbing the scale of values; good, god, god-damned each one taking its turn.
He didn’t go more than a few clops on the dusty road, when another voice hailed him from the other corner with, “Serves you right, mister, for gettin’ in an argument you can’t set straight when it can’t be set straight from the beginnin’, not ‘tween them two at it for years, far as I can tell.”
Craddock, glad for a chance to talk to someone in town before he started drinking, raising a bit of Hell just for the Hell of it, said, “They been doin’ that since they come home from battle?”
“Long as I been around,” and added, “If you’re a cattleman lookin’ for work…”
“Now, you’re intrudin’,” Craddock replied, nasty as usual.
“Hell, no, son. I was just tryin’ to help out a friend who needs cattle prodders and riders to move his herd up-country.” The man was in his 70s himself, rigged in old cowboy garb as if he was making a statement about himself, like, “I am what I look like I am, at least by my gear.”
“You too old to ride?” Craddock responded, a bit softer in his question, as though he really wasn’t trying to offend the older man. He also appreciated the other man had not butted back with a ragged explanation.
“No, son, not too old to ride, but once I get mounted I don’t want to get off and that makes people use me, even friendly people, for what they can get out of me, and that’s not much less than a whole day in the saddle.”
“I can understand that, sir,” which came out of his mouth like a foreign word.”
“Whatcha doin’ here?”
“Oh,” came Craddock’s reply, “I’m lookin’ to get drunk and lookin’ for a special woman.”
“Yep, this is the place, bein’ that place down on the next corner all lit up, both of ‘em there, at the Horns Up Saloon. Lots of traffic there. I ain’t been in there in 10 years, by no cause and no reason. By the way, my name’s Lefty, Lefty Konder.” His voice was solicitous, neighborly, mind-your-own-manners kind of stuff.
“I appreciate the location of the drink, Lefty, but I’m lookin’ for my sister and I know I won’t find her in there.” He looked up to the heavens, chance and change always at the edge of the fence line or the campfire, just the way the West had been laid out on the move.
“What’s her name, son? I know all the souls in town except any that squeezed in last night.” He looked back over his shoulder as if all the alleys and back sides of buildings were in his ken. “Not much I don’t hear ‘bout, my ear to the ground the way it goes like we’re always on the trail.”
“Molly Craddock Hasper, 40 or so, probably gray by now.” Lefty knew he was searching for a face in his mind and wondered how long since he had seen his sister.
“You’re damned right about that, son, since her husband was killed watchin’ his own stock a couple of years back maybe and she’s still got a reward offered for the body of the killer, no questions asked but proof wanted right up front. Quite a lady, lives north a ways out of town in a small place a friend owns, since she couldn’t keep her own place goin’. But you shouldn’t try to make it tonight. Get yourself some booze and treat your horse.”
“I’ll do that, old man, both counts, and probably bust the Hell out of the place afore they gang up on me or try to.” He finished up by saying,” I’m lookin’ for some relaxation ‘fore I go to work on that killer stuff.”
The old man, after hearing the ruckus start in the Horns Up Saloon, waited for a whole hour before he saw several men throw a man out the front door, just about unconscious. He waited before he attended his new acquaintance: who, as promised, was a man of his word.
Craddock woke in the morning in a small shack at the edge of town, and listened as the old gent, after a steak breakfast told him what, how and why.
“You’re sure about that, Lefty?”
“Sure as shootin’ and he couldn’t wait to get good favors like a mama does for a heifer. I bet all I own he was a thief in a suitor’s suit. You can smell that kind of man, but she was owin’ all the way, almost.”
“How long ago?”
“Been near two years now. Says he’d like to marry her, but she says not now.”
“How often does he visit her?”
“Twice in the last year I know ‘bout and you know what that says ‘bout the man and his kind.”
“That he’s still playin’ games. He’s not in love with anything but land and cows on the land.”
“Yep,” said Lefty, “and now, at last, it sure looks like she’s got someone on her side.” He clasped his hands in joy. “I can’t wait to see what I’ll never get to see. Just save all the tricks and tales for me for a night like this one. What’s due is gonna get done. I can feel it. Chip Galton got some news comin’ his way”
For a second or two Craddock thought the old man was going to start dancing.
That afternoon, Molly Craddock Hasper spotted a rider coming down off the southern rise where land and sky joined hands. She saw several movements of the rider’s left elbow and recognized an old recognition signal, meaning she was going to get a visit from her only brother, one man she had not seen in uncountable years, and felt a surge of joy in her lonely world.
She hugged him with love and eagerness and sat him at her table and fed him in the middle of small talk that barely closed down the lonely years they had been parted.
“What brings you here at this time, Jake? I can’t remember how many years it’s been.”
“Oh, Molly, it’s long been callin’ on me to come see you before it all ends for me, the way life has been goin’, troubles, fights, drinkin’, cursin’ my way to Hell like Ma said to me so often.”
“You sick, Jake?” The strange feeling of loss had crossed her face before it happened to her again, having a bitter loss to face with her husband’s death.
“Not that I know of ‘cept too much drinkin’ and fightin’ right after. But I heard all ‘bout you from an old gent name of Lefty Konder down in Reagan’s Hill.”
Oh, yeah, Lefty keeps his ear to the ground and never gets too personal.”
“Whatever you know ‘bout him, Molly, he’s on your side, right from scratch. Told me how your husband died and how this gent who owns this place, this Chip Galton and is sort of chasin’ you, this Galton gent, has took your old place over and added it to his half of the Earth. And it’s god-damned easy for me to say I don’t like him like I got the same itch you got.”
“Well, he stepped in and helped me right away, which was too fast in the first place, but he’s so damned transparent I can see right through him, and I know he’s planning on breaking me down his way. You rest easy on that, Jake, ‘cause I don’t like him any more than you do.”
“Where was he when your man was killed and the cattle run off?”
“Told me once he was so far up-country he didn’t hear about if for three days.”
“You believe him?”
“No. One of his riders told me he was real local when it all happened. Swore he saw him mounted the same night coming back to his place, sneaking in the barn to tie his horse off, and get in the house before daylight. He says he wants to marry me too and I got nothing at all to bring with me to a marriage. Not even a proper dress.”
“Like him some?” asked Jake. “Like him enough? What’s his name?” He was smiling for the first time and it warmed her soul.
“He’s got a good start for openers. His name is Roy Crownler. Told me that story about Galton without me asking. I appreciate that. It’s not love but it’s a starter and I’m convinced of that.
went back to town and spent a few hours with Lefty, bringing him up
to date. He asked Lefty about Crownler and was happy at the verdict;
“He’ll do ‘til a prince comes along. And him and the whole of Galton’s crew are at the saloon right now and hootin’ it up. Hell, you kin hear ‘em over on the county line.”
Jake Crowder figured there was no better time than to start cussin’ up a storm. “I’m goin’ that way right now, Lefty, and you kin stand by the door and keep your eyes open for any backstabbers or back-shooters. What’s Galton look like and where’s his favorite table, if he has one?”
“Back in the corner beside the bar’ll be a pudgy gent with a funny black hat like it was made by injuns in the deep woods. Always has a few toughies with him, and Crownler’ll be there too but he won’t take sides in a fake fight. Got some sense in his head. I like him and glad he was the one what told your sister about the boss man. He’d be a good man in a fair fight if you was to aske me.”
Jake Craddock, on his first mission in a long time, walked into the Horns Up Saloon and saw one gent lean over and say something to a man in a funny black hat who was sitting at the corner table.
There sat his prey and he started toward the table as Galton, in a loud voice, said, “Well, here comes the tough guy who was throw out of here the other night, right on his ear and his butt at the same time.” His hands were grasping the edge of the table where sat three other men, but Craddock had a clear look at Galton.
It was face-down time. Cradock said, “Didn’t hurt me other than knockin’ my head dizzy for a while. My sister is Molly Haspen whose ranch and cattle you got one night, the night her husband was killed, and I know you were there that night and not up-country like you said, and some one here right now, one of your own men, can swear to it and if you or any of your men, a single one in this room, goes for a quick shot, I’ll shoot you dead in that spot soon as spit on you, and I never miss with gun or spit.”
Uneasy to say the least, not being able to measure this new foe, Galton looked around at his support force. Faces, it came apparent, were suddenly blank, commitment at odds with words. The whole saloon had gotten smaller, tighter. He’d sure be more comfortable back at his own place.
Jake Craddock drove in another lengthy nail. “Don’t make no difference which one makes a move, Galton, ‘cause you get shot and spit on and then a couple of them, maybe all of ‘em’ll be lookin’ to see who the Hell is gonna pay ‘em from now on. It sure won’t be me. Spit is one thing and pay is another.”
Jake Craddock looked at the bartender. “Send someone for the sheriff, and you better tell him to run fast, ‘cause I’m itchin’ to get things goin’ again.” He was wondering where all the curses were hidden. He couldn’t even taste them, so he spit on the floor directly in front of Galton who nearly folded in half.
The bartender pointed at Lefty Konder standing in the doorway. “Will you tell the sheriff we need him here, old man.”
Lefty Konder saluted the old-fashioned way.