Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Random reflections of light from Mount Groban made Sheriff Link Colburn think they were caused by something other than natural. A signal for help? A signal for danger? Either one should be checked out, even by any man with the slimmest curiosity and merest concern for a fellow human.
Here he was, due for this break he was enjoying, the posse chase possibly behind him, sudden flare of gunshots, blood flying elsewhere in the tight strictures of the mountains where Kid Crew went to ground. In every posse run for almost two years, at least one man had been shot seriously or killed by a fugitive cornered at last in a wadi or a deep canyon, an old barn, a line shack set back against a cliff touching the same sky, in the mow of a new barn, or behind a frightened captive being used as a barrier.
Now and then there’d be a man counted missing. This latest jaunt saw Ralph Timbershed adrift from the posse. Nobody had seen him for a whole day.
To the ground they’d usually run the guilty one, but Kid Crew had disappeared, had evaporated right in front of their eyes. One glance and he was in the saddle on a tricky and narrow ledge cut into the side of the rock; in the next glance, he was gone. If he had fallen, they would find his remains. But they found no remains of Kid Crew, just the horse he was riding, a mass of bloody pulp at the base of the cliff, ready for the carrion seekers. His saddle was there, his rifle, one canteen, half of a crudely drawn map with letters and numbers quite illegible, possibly destroyed on purpose.
In the pre-dawn flush of gray light, a sky hardly high enough yet to count, a coyote and an owl calling out their identical kind of hunger for meat and territory, and with the same kind of music adrift on a dreamy breeze, Colburn came alert as he rose from a sleep he swore he’d remember forever. It had been delicious, that sleep, or what he could remember of it.
The posse had been called off, acknowledging the trail had been lost, Timbershed still lost somewhere in the maze, one man wounded, one man killed; Kid Crew loose as trail dust.
Colburn had ridden off to be alone; it was his way always at the end of a posse. And his thoughts, all the images and ideas that had trespassed on his mind during long hours in the saddle, came with him. They would be refreshed, retraced, traveled back over in his mind. Declarations were in the offing.
Suddenly, all about him, the gray slammed into a high blue, a bright blue signifying the new day was at hand, making him shake with delight … and interest. Good trackers always paid attention to clues, hints, signs, changes, slight whispers caught up in the batch of a breeze, like hitchhikers eyeing a moving spot down a long straight road, train jumpers with their ears to a rail, or boaters heading downstream into tomorrow’s unknown.
Sally Bunning, he figured, had no part in all of this dreamy stuff being lost in a sudden twist of his mind, nor did Autumn ‘s Own Burke, as far as he could tell, as deep as he could go in his dreams of the immediate past slipping away from him like a fugitive in the night. “Slipping,” without notice, had become “slipped.”
Both of those women were beauties of the first take in his mind, like starlight he had once said of Sally, and readily knowing it also belonged to Ransom’s Own, a child once stolen before she was named, paid for, returned to become the raving beauty her father dreamed of, who found the kidnapper after 7 years and punished him for two long months of sleepless nights on the open grass.
And thus her name, Ransom’s Own, with hair as dark as a cave mouth, eyes as bright as the outside of a tunnel, and who moved like a sapling in a softened breeze, who sparkled the days back home in River City. He could hear the music of her being. He could hear love in some notes.
The dreams, with the sudden brightness, were gone, as well as all folks connected with the most recent posse chase.
All the signs told him he’d be alone for the whole day … by himself, at his pleasures, alone, no single temptation loosed by Sally to keep him away from Ransom’s Own, or the other way around.
These were the glorious days when they had to be so.
Unless something weird tilted them off course, or something slightly awry of the normal, the latter being the hardest to detect.
The flashing of light, obviously reflections of the early sunlight, caught his eye after he drank coffee from a tin cup, tended Romo and then saddled him, and made sure his weapons were fit and ready for what this day might bring to him; “By surprise or otherwise,” he was apt to say and usually did.
The random reflections came from midway up on Mount Groban, the massive chunk of rock that was not a mountain to begin with, but had been so dubbed by folks headed further west half a century earlier; everything small to them becoming big, and everything big becoming small, all things relating to their journeys, some without end. Those who kept heading west often found easy beliefs in supposition, transference, and inopportune shadows. Such beliefs were legendary; headless horsemen, masked men dressed in black, monsters who ate the backsides of horses and cows in one bite, beautiful woman who danced at the edges of campfires.
Mount Groban was indeed a chunk of rock popped up in the midst of the prairie running for a good thirty miles in west Texas and part of New Mexico. It appeared as if it had been torn loose by Mother Nature from the rest of a mountain chain further west and tossed like a pebble in the annals of worldly upheavals into the stretch of prairie. Bright sunlight now set on that chunk of rock much as a torch might set its beam.
Of course, Colburn’d have to investigate the reflections, find their causes; other than the sun, he hastily advised himself in precaution. He was posse all the way, riding to the end of every chase with all the energy he could summon.
The images he carried in his mind, or erupted in a wild series of flashes, shook the bright, early morning; Sally smiling from a far corner, Ransom’s Own at one fair dawn at the edge of a stream, Kid Crew on the desperate ledge, Timbershed at a dance one night in Colville’s Barn drunk as a miner with a big strike. Each image shot up differently, with or without colors or background, with or without sound, with or without odors, a variety that prevented true pictures, or roots; his imagination in riot.
After clearing the area he had slept in, Colburn mounted Romo and headed toward the source of reflections, sunshine continuing, skies solid blue as far as he could see.
Discarding what he could of the images working on him, he concentrated on the last image he’d seen of Timbershed, forcibly bringing it back from an edge of the posse campfire, the night flames throwing illumination into scattered pockets, Timbershed working his rifle clean, driving a rod up and down the bore with his left hand, the rifle gripped in his heavy thighs. The man’s wrists were thick as axletrees, and he was nearly as big as a horse in the chest. The size of some men is memorable for the long stand.
Now he was missing.
Romo, a fabulous ride Colburn often said, climbed with ease into the lower part of Mount Groban, picking his way among abrupt and jagged edges, around rock chunks, like scatterings from the ultimate weapon, and sudden overhangs that sat heavy as threats on calamitous walls. It’d all make anybody nervous, and Colburn realized he was no different himself, but his horse was. A long time in their past, Romo had let him know he was as alert as any horse he’d ever sit on.
Now the great horse sent a message; something here was amiss, a danger crept or lay hidden, and chance was at play. His ears perked abruptly. A step forward was halted, that great foreleg suspended in mid- air, the gesture enough to serve notice to most any rider.
Colburn, already tuned in by Romo, feeling the message even before he read the move, ducked his head, shortened his silhouette in the saddle, and shot his eyes ahead into every darker phase of Mount Groban … cave mouths, overhangs, blackness anyplace else, any mere sense of movement, light as a bird’s beak dipping for a seed blown here by the wind.
The thought rushed him momentarily back to Ransom’s Own who once spent a day telling him about Anna’s hummingbirds and blue-throated hummingbirds that made their way in the rolling plains and the high plains of Texas. Her interests were as varied as her suitors, and included both hand guns and rifles
The images, of a sudden, came back in their swift travels: Sally making a pronouncement in minor shadows, Ransom’s Own revealed in absolute beauty, Timbershed cleaning his rifle with his left hand, Kid Crew on the last ledge handling the reins with his left hand and he was a known killer with a swift right hand on the draw.
Who, he wondered, was on the ledge that time?
The wondering, even sensed by Romo from hesitant spur touch, caused Colburn enough concern that he pulled Romo up short. The great horse froze in place, like man and rider were one entity, with all ears attentive, all eyes alert.
Coburn’s instincts told him he had not really thought about what was in front of him, what waited on Mount Groban. He parsed and diced options in a sudden game of choices and chances in a mind exercise that could have bewildered a lesser man.
Things he had seen were now, of a certain, not ringing true, were not what he had believed they were. He thought of disguise and masquerade and silly play-acting games they’d done as kids in the warm kitchen in cold winter, that his father called “finding extensions.”
One of those extensions now came to him, that Kid Crew had looked like Timbershed, and Timbershed, for a moment, looked like Kid Crew. It was ridiculous, of course, because they were so physically different, but the obvious had not shown that, either because of faint light or shadow, a man being where he was supposed to be and not another man, or a side glance is often enough to disguise a person better than that person intended to be someone else.
All this thought formulated a decision for Colburn, a determination; if he heard, but did not see, Timbershed, it would be Timbershed; if he saw, but did not hear, what he thought was Timbershed, it’d be Kid Crew. That’s how it would go down. He was sure of it.
It said that Kid Crew had captured Timbershed and would use him to get out of a trap. If he, Colburn, was the lone and last man close enough to arrest Kid Crew, that’s how it would go down. Thus, trickery, deep trickery, was afoot.
If the reflections were Timbershed-caused, they’d all wash out.
If the reflections were Kid Crew-caused, to get the last posse man in a treacherous and deadly position, he’d have to extend himself beyond the apparent.
In a deep shadow, under an overhang, Colburn made his preparations. He used what was at hand, what he could find in the immediate vicinity.
He found enough.
If Kid Crew wanted masquerade, disguise, Colburn’d send it his way.
He stepped into dim sunlight chopping its way down into lower recesses of Mount Groban, into the thick fastness of rocks in such a mad scramble it would take eons to straighten them out.
Colburn heard his name, distinctly his name, called out, but with a sense of urgency in the voice, a sign of pain.
The pair, Colburn and his great horse, emerged from under the prominent overhang and the thick shadows, into a patch of bright sunlight. They were lit up like a torch played on them.
Ahead, the burly Timbershed sat his horse on a ledge. Timbershed waved his right arm in a short wave, as if showing signs of painful concern. The wave was weak, pleading.
In an abrupt maneuver, Colburn waved back, his wave also curt, short, and somewhat contrived from where he stood.
As quick as any man could be, Timbershed, the supposed Timbershed, whipped up his rifle and shot the supposed Sheriff Colburn out of his saddle, the bullet straight and unerring through the dark blue shirt of the sheriff.
But Colburn, who had placed his shirt and hat on sticks tied together and mounted on Romo, had walked out on the unseen side of the horse, his rifle laid over the saddle pack, fired one shot and took the real Kid Crew out of the saddle right there on a ledge of Mount Groban.
Kid Crew was dead. Ralph Timbershed was found badly wounded in a cave mouth and carried out by Colburn who found a doctor for him at a local ranch.
Later that evening, Colburn and a group of the original posse buried Kid Crew under a ton of rocks on Mount Groban. That is, as much of Kid Crew they could find after scavengers had first pickings.
Hanging is not always the only way that justice gets done, Colburn agreed, but a magnificent blue dawn often leads to a good day, for somebody on the open range, for somebody in the shadows of a mountain.