Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Byron “Legs” Mackler told everybody when he was about thirteen years old that he would be buried in Boot Hill just outside Sawchuck, Nevada with no mourners hanging around the edges of the hole in the ground. “That’s because I’ll be the worst dude around, meaner ‘n’ hell ‘n’ whatever ‘n’ that’s how folks’ll pay me back for what I’m gonna be …plain mean ‘n’ ornery.”
The words had come out in a hurry, run up the way he wanted them.
He began to wear a beard the first time he tried to shave, cutting one lip so badly it took a month to heal, saying it made him so mad at himself that he could spit rocks. The beard was sketchy to begin with, part blond and part red, like his hair. Mackler was not put together evenly, one barkeep was heard to say later on, but stood out in every crowd he entered. His height started many an odd discussion, especially when liquor managed to grab the talk.
People in Sawchuck had watched him for years, with reasons. Outside of his sour attitude on many things, Mackler was abused in turn by two step-fathers for years. When he grew to be 6 feet and 5 inches tall, standing taller than every horse he ever rode, and the abuse stopped, everybody who saw him knew of him. They all asked the same questions about how tall he had grown, so much so that it grew old quickly and made him mad at the whole of Sawchuck and whoever rode through on the way to wherever.
Many times, as the evening sun would slip behind the Rockies, throwing the early shadows across the land, Mackler had been spotted standing alone on Boot Hill. Some people said he was trying to pick his spot, where the sun lingered longest or the shade, the choice being his. At 6’5” he was easy to see, and it wasn’t long before stories began to circulate that Legs Mackler was checking on his final arrangements, making sure of his place “in the after-world.”
Legs Mackler was 17 years old when he killed his first man, in a duel that erupted right on the single road that dusted its way through Sawchuck, a small town not far from the river, not far from the mountains, not far from good grass.
A strange rider came into town and was about step down and tie his horse off on the rail in front of the Easy River Saloon. The man, mostly in a black outfit with a blue bandana tied at his neck, sat still in his saddle as he gawked at Mackler just coming out of the barber shop where he had his beard trimmed and his hair cut. On days Mackler went to the barber, he seemed to grow an extra six inches.
“Gawd amighty,” the stranger said as he stared at Mackler.”Who made you so long, kid?”
“If it’s any of your business, mister, it was the only man I’ve ever knowed who minded his own business.” He placed the stress on “own.” That riled the stranger enough that then and there he called Mackler out in front of a dozen town folk.
“You come out here on the road, Stretch, and put your life in those hands dangling down near your ankles, and I’ll show you some manners. Cow folks is supposed to have manners for their elders.”
The stranger never really saw Mackler draw his weapon before, and he about didn’t see him this time. Mackler drew faster than any man ever, and the noisy, rankled stranger saw nothing but the long, lean fellow with a funny beard looking directly down at him on the road from so far away he could not tell the color of his eyes.
It was enough for him as he closed his own eyes for good. The wind caught some dust in the street and it rolled over the dead man, with Mackler still looking down on him, and the sun setting behind a Rocky peak, like a big piece of the world was shutting down.
Mackler looked around at the crowd. “He wanted to kill me because I’m tall and skinny. Anybody else got anything to say about that?”
There were no answers.
Two weeks later, after the stranger was put down on Boot Hill just outside town, another stranger came riding into Sawchuck, but younger by 20 or so years than the newly buried stranger without a name. He sauntered into the Easy River Saloon slow and cautious, his eyes searching the room the way one may look for a lost face. After a close study of the room and the customers he said to the barkeep, “You ever know a fella name of Alf Berrick, kinda looks like me?”
“Can’t say as I can, kid. I’ll ask around.”
“I heard he got killed on that street out there only a week or so ago.”
“Oh,” the barkeep replied, “that fellow was buried on Boot Hill two weeks ago. Was that Alf Berrick? Had no name that we knew of, so we put him down with a simple wooden cross atop him, with an X on it. Someone said a few words, came back here and tossed one down for a fellow too slow to do his own business. I suspect we’ll see more of that. Every town I been in has a share of it, like it grows up that way until things get evened out.”
The barkeep looked around the room, saw that nobody was going to explain things any further, so he said, “He was new in town, probably passing through, far as we know, and called out one of the locals, coming out of the barber’s, just cause he was tall and skinny. He drew first, this dead fellow, and never had a chance, the tall gent he called out was too much faster than him.”
“Who’s this slick gun hand? What’s his name? What’s he look like?”
“Hell, man, you couldn’t miss him on a street in St. Louis. He’s taller than Creation itself. His name is Legs Mackler, greasy fast too, though he’s so long of bone it seems he might get in his own way of things.”
“He come into town often?”
“When he does, it’s like maybe now or pretty quick.” The barkeep looked at the door as if he expected Mackler to walk in at his bidding. “Works on the spread his mom owns, out the road east a couple of miles and snug against the foothills. Nice piece of property might be his if he ever gets there.”
“Does his own thing all the time, and mean at a lot of it, if you was to ask me for my two cents. I won’t cross him any hurry, not by a long shot.”
From the gathered patrons came a series of assenting nods, and the barkeep said, “We all agree he won’t have many secrets from now on. Not after this show he put on, greasier than ever seen around here, people measuring him already against a bunch of others they’ve seen at it. That kind of word moves as fast as the Pony Express. Brings visitors and curious folk to Sawchuck.”
He dropped his eyes onto the stranger’s face and asked, “You one of ‘em?”
“I’m Alf Berrick’s son, Alf Junior, and I ain’t so slow as my father. We’ll see what this tall hombre can prove against another fast man come all the way here from Utah to put him down.”
It all happened so fast that from then on the stories were different coming from the mouth of each witness in the saloon at the moment. Legs Mackler stepped in the door and the barkeep, with open-faced alarm, looked over the shoulder of Alf Berrick Junior, his alarm wide open to quick interpretation. Young Berrick knew the look, even as his words fell like echoes from his mouth. He spun about at the bar, went for his weapon with his left hand, and never got off a shot. The lanky, fluid arm of Mackler, greased all the way, drew and fired one round that caught Alf Berrick Junior in his neck. Before he fell down he bled all over the bar top from an artery cut in half by Mackler’s single shot.
Sawchuck leaders saw that Alf Berrick Junior was buried beside his father on Boot Hill, but this time the two names were carved into the simple markers atop the graves. And every thinking person in Sawchuck knew the legend would build on the deaths of a father and son and would bring to town the glory seekers, the newest fast guns of Nevada and maybe the entire west, or those vengeance-righters simply bent on revenge for double losses in one family.
Only a week after the burial of Alf Berrick Junior, Mackler accompanied his mother as they left Sawchuck aboard the stagecoach headed for Placer City a hundred miles away. They were off to visit his mother’s sister and her only other living relative.
Halfway down the dusty road, the sun beating up the whole Big Smoky Valley, three masked horsemen stopped the coach and ordered the passengers onto the side of the road. The masked men held their guns loosely in hand, shifting their eyes between the shotgun rider and the passengers. The passengers climbed down from the coach, five of them, some voicing stern complaints. Mackler’s mother was as loud as any of them, but Mackler, last one out of the coach, as slow getting down as he was lean, said nothing, his eyes watching each bandit in turn, measuring and determining each bandit’s alertness.
When the lead horse of the coach shied at some unknown critter at the side of the road, Legs Mackler, greasy-fast Legs Mackler, shot the three bandits right out of their saddles. Two of the horses bolted and ran off down the valley and the shotgun rider killed a rattler just off the road.
The men of the stagecoach were about to bury remains of the bandits under rocks when three cowpokes came upon them. The cowpokes were heading back to Sawchuck and took over the burial detail.
Thus it was that the legend of Legs Mackler had widespread and rapid awareness of his newest escapade, brought back to Sawchuck by the cowpokes of the roadside burial and carried ahead by the coach passengers to Placer City, site of a gold mine and Mackler’s aunt’s place of business. Both sites were hungry for late news from the outside.
And so the word spread, in relation to the restraints imposed by the lay of the land, first and quickest through all the Nevada valleys, of course, through the Great Smoky, Armagosa, Ruby, Antelope, Mason, Diamond, Ivanpah, and Ruby valleys and the Truckee Meadows, among others, about Legs Mackler, the greasiest gun in the west carried by the tallest cowboy of all. The word leaped by horsemen and stage and wagon drivers and herders and river men and a dozen drummers loose on the trail, as well as desperadoes from other states or territories coming into Nevada. The word was only held back from mountain habitats by the steepness of the climbs.
The legend and the legacy were working in odd unison toward the inevitable conclusion.
And Sawchuck, with the news pouring into town, saw new strangers every week, sometimes two in one day, men who wore their weapons at the ready but who avoided each other, as if a target was pre-selected, by name, by description, by appointment if necessary. They were a strange lot from the very beginning, a loose collection of glory seekers, dreamers of the swift draw, men who dared not face a day of honest labor and looked for the quickest way to get comfortable, outcasts in their own line who had been cast to anonymity. If two strange gun hands happened to be in the saloon at one time, they stayed clear of each other, such a step insuring their eventual success. There had to be one target for each of them, and it was Legs Mackler. And any reason for their quest seemed suitable, redeemable, in the eyes of those standing by, those who would not be involved in an eventual conclusion, but who would talk about it at length for as long as they lived.
And it went on as long as Byron Legs Mackler lived, through each and every one of his days, from morning sun past the evening moon and clean through every darkness in the valleys, for all of four long and torturous years.
For that’s how long the reputation and infamy lasted, with Mackler spotted most nights as evening came to Boot Hill, standing there alone, oftentimes like a thin shadow against the shallow skyline … a man most people said who was looking at his destiny, his legacy, his goodbye to all that he knew.
In those four years, Legs Mackler saw his mother die of a wild gunshot in town one day and dropped her killer at the side of the road the very next day as the killer worked on the shoe of his lame horse. He killed the lead rustler who ran a gang trying to get Mackler cattle mixed into a huge herd they were driving to a railhead. In monthly visits to town he was dared, challenged, called out by five of the glory seekers, some of whom died with nobody in Sawchuck knowing their names, men who ended up on Boot Hill with an X on their grave marker.
The end came one Sunday morning at the Church of the People in Sawchuck. Mackler never wore his gun in church. That had been noted by a number of people, good and bad, but the situation was not taken advantage of by men who had an ounce of charity or gentility in them, despite their leanings otherwise.
Of course, there’s always a taker for an advantage and it came one morning as Mackler, leaving the church, working his gun belt around his waist, didn’t see the man standing in the middle of the road in “that” stance that said everything needed to be said about his temperament, his mission.
Mackler saw the stranger as he was swinging his own belt into place and it hit the shoulder of a boy passing by him. Before he went for his gun in the loose holster, he shoved the boy aside, out of harm’s way.
The ready stranger shot Mackler dead on the spot, and in turn was killed by the boy’s father and three other men who drew and shot at the same time.
The stranger, nameless forever, was buried on Boot Hill with an X on his marker, and Byron Legs Mackler, as destiny had written it, the way he had seen it all coming, had the legacy of his name on a marker as the town of Sawchuck buried one of their own on Boot Hill, north of town a short way.
Even to this day, on that small rise of a hill, all markers long gone to dust, some people swear they can see a thin shadow standing high against the evening skyline, the meaner ‘n’ hell kid at home in the shadows.