Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
At the Last Good Find Saloon, in Tremont, Texas, two old pards, Josh Madison and Max Kemler, at the end of a hard day, came in off the trail.
A third man, tall, rugged in the face and across the shoulders, early forties, entered the saloon shortly after them, and walked directly to the bar. He wore a wide sombrero, a dark blue vest over a lighter blue shirt, dark pants and no boots or gun belt. His feet were shod with a pair of strange looking “slippers,” to use another term.
Madison, a tall cowpoke and strangely neat as a pin, said to his pal, “Hey, Max, who’s the gent in the girlie boots?”
Kemler, thinking it over, said, “Reminds me of the lady works the post office in Laramie, Suzie something. ‘Member how she hid her feet all the time, the silly looking shoes she wore, like they’d fit a whole horse or even two of them.”
Both cowpokes laughed at the memory.
Madison, to the stranger, said, “Hey, mister, how‘d you come by those things you got on your feet? Don’t you wear a real man’s boots like all us others do? Good cowboy boots for wearing working spurs, riding horse, herding cattle? I’d allow you can’t put no spurs on them things.” He shook his head in anticipation of a silly answer.
The stranger, nodding, broke into a wide grin, looked down at his feet for the longest spell, which seemed to unnerve Madison, and replied, “These things on my feet are my ‘squeakers,’ as I call them. They make funny sounds when I walk while my real boots are getting fixed by the harness maker down the street. Other than that, my feet are my own concern, son. And so is what I wear on them, on or off a horse.”
Madison, suddenly realizing he’s been put down, said, “You poking fun at me, Mister? I don’t think I like that. What if I was to whip those silly looking things off your feet, them squeakers?”
The stranger, not yet agitated, quietly replied, “Well, son, I expect you’d find one hand broken or one wrist, your tongue hanging out of your mouth more tired than it is right now, and me climbing all over you just for the hell of it. How’s that for a sissy-footed cowpoke just looking to please his throat?”
Madison, threatened, finding his own composure breaking down, stood and said, “Hell, mister, I don’t like your tone none and you ain’t even wearing a gun.”
“That’s the whole point of it, son,” said the stranger. “I ain’t wearing a gun, so you can’t use yours on me if you had that faulty thought come to your mind, which I observe is busier than it ought to be instead of enjoying your whiskey like you ought. You never know when you might get the taste of the next one. You’ll find yourself in jail for at least one night, and maybe more, if you were to pull the trigger on an unarmed man.”
Kemler, suddenly seeing what might be coming, cautioned his pal. “Josh, better let it go. Now ain’t the time to get this man all riled up. He ain’t done nothin' to you.”
Madison, still upset, says, “I just don’t like his looks, how he talks, how he dresses. He don’t look like no cowboy to me.”
The barkeep, having heard the whole dialogue, began to tap the bar top like marking time. Finally he said, “Son, pay attention to your pard here, and to the gent you’re antagonizin’. It just ain’t in your best interest to rile him up and get my place messed up over a pair of funny lookin’ feet critters. And he’s a whole lot of right by sayin’ he’ll be all over you in good fashion before you can blow your nose or draw your weapon.”
Madison, really agitated, replied, “You think I ain’t fast enough to draw and get a bead on him?”
Before Madison could move the stranger slammed a fist in his face, pulled his gun from his holster and trained it on Kemler.
The stranger advised Kemler, “Pick him up real easy, son. Take him outside and dump him in the water trough. Tell him, when he’s fully awake, sober as he’ll ever be, he can get his gun down at the jail. I’m finishing off my drink now and going back to work. Before I get there, you better get your friend put in one of those cells and make sure the door is locked and the keys hung proper. He’s going to be madder than hell later tonight. You must know that, you being his pard.”
The stranger walked out of the saloon, the squeakers on his feet making a distinctive noise as he leaves the room. The door closed with another squeak.
Kemler remarked, as he’s trying to pick up his pal, “Barkeep, who the hell is that guy? What’s his name? What’s he do around this here town?”
The barkeep, holding back the easiest smile, offered his answers. “That’s Jed Hollander. He’s head of the Texas Rangers. One of the real good lawmen in the whole territory. Probably the damnedest best one of all. Tell your pard he don’t want him on the other side of anythin’. And if I was you I’d make sure I get that hothead in jail pronto lest he starts to agitatin’ the law. Won’t pay him to do so.”
Kemler, shaking his head, having felt something like this coming his way, said, “Is that man that good? As good as you say?”
The barkeep, glad there’s been no fight, offered another answer. “For ten, twelve years he’s been between whatever’s bad and whatever’s good in all this territory, all the way up as far as Plimpton, and you gotta cross the ferry there to get away from him.”
Kemler, hustling his friend erect who’s shaking his head like he’s been kicked by a mule, said, “Is he a married man, this Hollander gent, this Ranger?”
The barkeep, waving his hands like a flagman on the railroad, said, “Whoa, there, son. Why do you ask such a question? You sure don’t want to go in that direction. Not if your life was to depend on it. That ain’t likely safe from any angle no matter how the hellos go ‘twixt who and whoever.”
Kemler, smiling sheepishly, gave his answer. “Not me, mister. I’m no lover boy, but Madison here thinks he’s the whole shebang to any woman he fancies, and he don’t miss much that way either. It’s like his getting’-even weapon, if you know what I mean. Seems as though he’s been raisin’ that kind of hell since he was halfway to the saddle, maybe even ‘afore he saw all the sights the barn was holdin’ on to. And in the time I been around, that’s all the way to Houston and half the ranches in between. Second thought, probably three quarters of ‘em. He’s like fire and ice, that boy, the miracle worker’s what he is. Heats ‘em up and leaves ‘em cold and him on the trail again. I can’t count how many times he’s been chased down the trail and the guns goin’ off behind him and him laughin’ like a damned fool, but smilin’ like the ears on his head was really red and black and pointin’ the way to Hell itself. “
“He leave any kids on the way?” the barkeep wondered aloud.
Kemler, still holding Madison erect, said, “I’d guess half the kids in this part of Texas have that same long clean nose and those deep blue eyes like the whole ocean was here sayin’ hello to one girl at a time. He just gets meaner’n Hell if I tell him about them husbands lookin’ half the world over for him.” He laughed loudly, and continued, “And their women, too.”
“Why’s he like that?” the bartender asked. “He’s a decent lookin’ boy.
Kemler thought that point over and said, “My guess is he hates what he can’t be. Knows he ain’t ever goin’ to be a good husband or father or plain law-abidin’ son of the west. It just ain’t in him for such goodness.”
“And you? Why are you like this?”
Kemler said, “I can’t be what I want to be either. Simple as that. And that Ranger scares me to Kingdom Come. I should know better.”
The barkeep mused, “I’m bettin’ he ain’t done his bit yet, son. He don’t like the bad guys, and ‘specially those that play women for trinkets and husbands for fools. The law and most men say women this side of the saloon ain’t fair game for any drover comes off the trail like he’s the angel itself but ain’t.”
Kemler carried Madison from the saloon, bound for the jail down the street.
At the jail, with Madison in a cell, young and attractive Alma Hollander, the Ranger’s wife, strolled in at noontime carrying a tray of food.
She said to Madison, “I have your lunch here. Please step back and I’ll place it on the floor. I’m Mrs. Hollander.”
“I know who you are, sweet one,” Madison said. “You’re the girl who escaped from that bright moon I was studying all last night after I got locked up in here, the one the moon didn’t want to let go of, afraid you’d get scooped up by some lovesick cowboy like me who thinks Texas women are the most beautiful women in the whole world, ‘specially the married ones. Your husband’s a real nice fellow, if he is what he seems to be with someone like you at hand. He does have a great eye for beautiful ladies. How I wish I was not in here, lost to the world, lost to the fairest of ladies in the world.”
Alma, turning to exit after placing the tray on the floor, advised him, “Just eat your meal, Madison. That’s all you have to do. You’ll have your chance someday at true love.”
“I just wish it could be you, Ma’am,” Madison offered sweetly. “No moss growing all over me. When I move on there’ll be some live wishing going on here. You’ll just be in the mix then, like a dream that never happened, a beautiful woman locked into a lonely town where the moon can die every night, like death comes on every breath if you let it.”
“You are a smooth one, Madison,” she said, ready to leave the jail.
Madison, still playing, tried again, “Knowing my name for starters is all it takes. Now let me dream how it might be. I’ll let you know how it goes some other time when I’m shuck of here.”
Alma is about to leave and Madison snaked his hand through the bars and grabbed her by the hair. He immediately covered her mouth with his other hand and pulled her against the bars of the cell.
Madison, holding tight, whispered in her ear, “That prairie rat of a husband of yours shouldn’t let high and mighty you work like a slave. You got some comeuppance coming to you, you and that man of yours who thinks he’s the world to you. Well, soft lady, you got some news coming your way.”
Madison shifted his position to get a better grab on her, and Hollander stepped into the cell section of the jail.
Hollander, in a deep voice, warned, “You keep your hands on her and you’re dead before you hit the floor.”
“I got the knife here, high and mighty Ranger, and I’ll cut her pretty face so you won’t want to look at her come morning any more. I’ll mark her fearsome, Ranger boy, real fearsome.”
Hollander offered a quick thought on the matter. “She’ll probably do what Chico does when she yells at him.”
Alma, a quizzical look on her face, imagined her pet dog being corrected, smiled, and then ducked, as Hollander fired one round high onto Madison’s shoulder. It knocked Madison across the cell. Alma fell once free of his grip, and the dull knife taken from the food tray dropped harmlessly to the floor.
Hollander added another thought to the matter. “You’re going down to the third level at the penitentiary, Madison. You won’t see the sun for a few years if you can stand it. I’m willing to wager you’ll be nearer to Hell than you are right now.”
“And no closer to heaven,” Alma Hollander added as she brushed off her clothes.
Hollander laughed all the way out of the jail, even as his “slippers” squeaked again.