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Western Short Story
Brushback from Death's Door
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

“Hey. Mum,” yelled 7-year old Ronnie Coppersmith, “there’s another rider comin’ our way. Never seen him before. Not one time.”

Adelle Coppersmith, widowed less than a year, a 27-year old beauty of a woman in anybody’s sight, muttered, “Won’t they ever stop and let me catch my breath, Ronald not gone a full year yet, and they keep pushing my way. A man’s got a right to want but show some respect. I hope it’s not that loud-mouth braggart, Stash Winslow. I think he’d drive a woman crazy quicker than she could spit.”

The rider was not Stash Winslow, for this rider halted a good way off, a sign of respect to a widowed woman, waved at the mother and son, and yelled very clearly, “Hello the house. Hello Adelle Coppersmith and son Ronnie. I am Stride Walkins, once a corporal with your husband in the Great War. I just came from town and heard some stories about you getting the bull’s rush from men in town and one in particular.”

“You’re right and you’re welcome, and Ronald spoke about you like you were his older brother. I swear, you’re most welcome. Come and sit with us.” She pushed her son towards him, “Go lead his horse in Ronnie. Make sure he has water.”

She fluffed her hair for a moment, and stopped quickly, proper senses grasping her.

She saw him, as he closed in on them, for what he was; an upright, honest, respectable and utterly handsome man in his late thirties, early forties. And the scar she had heard about from her husband, sat across a piece of his jaw, unadorned by beard, like it was his own standard from the war. His eyes were appealing in the obverse of war that likely rode with him as company, for they carried a piece of the sky of a pleasant day right to the midst of both orbs, blue as blue ought to be when man meets a woman or the woman meets a man.

“Have you eaten yet today?” she said, gesturing to an outdoor table beside the door of a small, comfortable-looking ranch house. She saw him inhale, as if he recognized a home smell in the air and nodded in a concerted self-agreement.

“Yes, Ma’am,” he replied. “I had egg and rabbit on the trail, and lucky on both counts. And I’ll be happy with a cup of coffee and you tell me your side of things about what I heard in town. Like you getting the rush from townsmen not wanting you to get stale at this man and woman stuff that beats at us all the time. And one of them bigmouths saying you were getting ready to claim him as yours, a fellow name Stash Winslow, and I’d sooner believe you and this account than him.”

“Not in a hundred years would it be him,” she exclaimed, “not for me and not for Ronnie, you can bet your wages on that,” and looked embarrassed as she realized it appeared he had no wages coming his way whatsoever.

“Well, there’s no time like now for taking care of problems. Ron told me to make sure I dropped in here once in a while and square away anything not going the right way. I’m sorry it took me so long getting here, but I was on a cattle drive and didn’t hear about him dying until another comrade from our outfit looked me up. He knew how close Ron and I were and he made a point of finding me. Takes a comrade to make the good choices in such matters.”

“Thank the good Lord for comrades, though not for the wars that draw them together.” Her voice was filled with conviction, and Stride Walkins knew he had met a special woman, the kind Ronald would choose to spend his life with, if other matters didn’t interfere.

“How did he die, Ma’am? Do you know? Anybody know?”

“Only that he was shot from behind, in ambush, if you want my opinion, like from behind a rock or a tree where a face couldn’t be seen, and who knows what for?”

Stride Walkins, without a doubt, could figure that out for himself.

He left before darkness came down, but only went out of sight of the cabin, dropped a bedroll and a canvas sheet on a comfortable spot, and set up his watch, at least for this night.

Before dawn, satisfied no unwanted cusses had come near the widow, he headed off to town, to check on the inhospitable therein, knowing Stash Winslow would not be difficult to find, or hear, from what he had heard of him.

It was easy as getting an ace when you don’t need it in a card game. At the bar, facing the crowd, and the swinging saloon doors when another customer entered, a lone man held sway, as if the space he was in and those on either side of him were especially reserved for him and what company he might invite to share drinks with him. His hat brim was curled Cossack-like on one brim and was slipped back on his head the way most men of the West would not wear their Stetsons, making a statement about the crowned-head wearing it.

Stride Walkins measured him in quick pronouncement, certain of his determination, the man’s character leaping at him like the lily pond frog.

“Hey, stranger, step up here and get yourself a drink, loosen up, ‘cause you look a might tight around your gizzard.” He laughed at his own attempt at humor, the laugh breaking down any bit of resistance, his place still secure in the face of an unknown character, standing at his bar, so far ignoring his welcome, a man in place extending a hand.

The response clamped down on Stash Winslow like hammers, like shots from the hip, like bellows from the heavens above; “I choose my own company, man with big mouth, my own space, and don’t like interruptions at any time.” The words came like a repeating rifle, one after the other, their intent not the least evasive.

“Who the Hell do you think you are, wise mouth, coming in here like you own this place?”

Stride Walkins said, “Like you think you own it? Every man in this saloon knows you don’t own it, only stand here as if you really did own it. What’s it going to take to wake you up? Straighten you out?”

“I ought to draw on you right now and get it over with,” Stash retorted, but did not go for his gun as Stride Walkins flipped a coin on the bar top and said to the barkeep, “Give the man a drink on me, and better make it a stiff one, ’cause he needs some stiffening from inside out.”

He started for the door, his eyes on the gathering, knowing they’d tell him with movement alone what Stash Winslow was up to. When he reached the door, he spun about and said, “And I have a piece of advice for you, Winslow; stay away from Ron Coppersmith’s widow. Ron was my comrade and I made promises to him like he made promises to me. I’d like nothing better than to pay back an old debt, an old promise.”

He slowly rode out of town, went directly where Adelle told him Ron Coppersmith had been found after being shot in the back, determined what was the most likely spot the back-shooter had fired from. It was a rock large enough to hide both man and horse when dismounted.

His following study of the lay of the land provided several points where a prone shooter could lay undetected in wait.

Not one word would he tell Adelle, until it was over. Early in the morning he found where the back shooter had hobbled his horse for the murder.

He knew it wasn’t a game he was playing, but it certainly felt like it.

When he went off to sleep, he imagined he heard a bell ring.

Morning brought birds, a song or two, some flights in quick circles. The sun popped over the horizon and began its own flight toward mid-day before it would head for the far west, and the sound of horse hooves came down the road from town.

It was apparent that a lone rider was going to visit Adelle or had intentions to exact demands for some personal slight. The guess, again, was easy for Stride Walkins, man of the world, student of behaviors between cowboys, as Stash Winslow positioned his horse in a gulley and returned to set up his rifle at the large rock.

He scrunched down in his selected place, low, at ground level, the huge rock and nearby surroundings in full view. No sounds came from the rider’s hobbled horse, no activity at the rock, but at mid-morning more hoof beats came from the town road. A rider made his way onto the short stretch of road to the Coppersmith home.

Stash Wilson set his rifle site in place and would have blown the rider off his horse, a rider that Walkins did not recognize, until expert rifle shot Stride Walkins knocked the rifle right out of his hands, the hit rifle firing harmlessly into the air.

“Hold on there, cowboy, but that there gent behind that rock was about to shoot you in the back, the way I’m sure he got rid of Ron Coppersmith, my army buddy, whose widow’s been drawing bees all around here.”

“Not me, Mister,” said the new rider. “I’m her brother, Kermit, Kermit Stanley, and you’re the gent who stood him up for what he is in the saloon last night. I saw that whole damned good shooting match with no guns firing. Was a damned show of shows. My compliments, and you were Ron’s comrade to boot.”

Stash Winslow, on the word of two eyewitnesses, was convicted of a murder neither of the two eyewitnesses had seen, neither one of them.

And Kermit Stanley had the last say in matters, telling Stride Walkins he ought to stick around town for a damned good while, swinging the odds in his sister’s favor.


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