Western Short Story
John Buck, ten years old if a day, was heading to the saloon in Colbert, Texas to ride home with his father on a Saturday afternoon. The ride back home would find a tasty favor from his father.
He was wondering what it would be this time, that special favor, when he spotted a pistol somehow lost in tall grass, only the splash of sunlight finding it before he did. The pistol was shiny, in good shape, not long lost or thrown by someone; his active mind playing with the many possibilities, though he was now, perhaps forever, owner of his own pistol.
It snugged down into his belt as though it had fit there since time began; he tucked that pistol home a dozen times during his ride.
Ahead of him, the town of Colbert rose as if from the hard land itself, sprung from Earth itself, sprung from 50 years of energy, some of it from his father, whom he loved better than all outdoors.
At the end of the saloon’s front rail, farthest from his view, he spotted his father’s great grey stallion, last in line before the side alley separating the sheriff’s office, with its small jail, from the saloon.
Once more, he patted the pistol tucked in his belt; this Saturday was indeed a special day. The sun was a glory above him, the single road through town like a sliver of wood from a great birch tree, motionless as far as he could see, his favor sitting somewhere in town with his name on it.
That’s when Saturday went awry, a twist to it, the hand of fate intruding with its almighty fist.
He heard the loud and singular shot of a pistol, saw a man jump out the door of the sheriff’s office, weapon in hand, and leap up on the great grey stallion. That was his father’s horse.
No way was that horse taking that man out of Colbert.
John Buck pulled the pistol from his belt, took aim, squeezed off a single round, knocking the man from the saddle, to sprawl breathless, inert, in the dust of Colbert’s lone road through the heart of town.
The dead man was a convicted murderer, had added the sheriff as another victim in the aborted escape attempt, would shoot no more
Next day, all the folks for miles around Colbert began to call John Buck by his new name, Buck John. It was an immediate acknowledgment of his skill and prowess, a real cowboy name for the youngster, as much a decoration as a medal. He grew, with the haste of the spreading west, within that image.
By the time Buck John was twenty years old, owner of his own spread, now know as Buck’s Place, left by his father to his lone son/
Then Hell began to lurk at its edges, dashed into and out of its edges with steer and gear, for Buck John was the only hand on that ranch, the thieves, the rustlers, hitting when he was elsewhere; but he was not the only victim of an obviously highly organized bunch of thieves.
And every place he visited he kept his eyes open for any possession of his in the wrong hands. He saw nothing; found nothing, finally rented the place to a near-fearless farmer, a giant of a man, who worked with a rake in one hand and a shotgun in the other.
Buck John had decided to ride in ever-widening rings all the towns within 100 miles of Colbert, looking for a lead, a single clue, to the on-going gang,
He was in Elmore, Texas, just past his 26th birthday, 90 miles away from home, having a beer in a saloon with a new acquaintance, Brick Todd, and they had mutual interests to pepper their conversations, and yet exposed early differences in their life styles. The differences, assuredly, being the attractions for each of them.
Todd was slim, tall, wore “town” clothes rather than the trail duds distinguishing Buck as a trail hand, a beef herder, a cowboy. And Todd carried no weapon or sidearm.
“Tell me again, Buck, what brings you this far from the home spread. You’re about as far as a hobo on the run can get himself from the pack.”
“What’s a hobo?”
“Oh, my pa, awfully good at books,” Todd added, “told me it came from the French word hautbois. That was enough for me. I slip it into conversations every now and then to get some kind of reaction, like yours. It’s a good practice in my business. I’m a dentist.”
Tat admission perked up Buck John. “I can see how things go like that. My real name is John Buck and I’ll tell you how that happened.”
And before the story was finished, Brick Todd said, so innocently, “It reminds me of the branding iron I bought once, just for Pete’s sake, for I often leave my mark on patients, a clean new smile, a set of new teeth that can often change a man’s life. That kind of thing attracted my interests and I began to look for things that also leave marks, like branding irons. I kind of liked the first one I saw for sale when I first saw it and bought it on the spot. It has a prominent BJ that leaves the mark on a steer.”
Buck John was straight up, as vertical as he could get, his voice demanding, “Who sold it to you? When?” He had Brick Todd by the arm. “Do you remember who it was? What he looked like? How long ago?”
“Whoa there, Buck. Slow it down. Let me get my thinking sombrero in place. It was back a piece, I know. Two or three years ago, maybe longer. I have several irons, though I never ran a herd, never owned a cow, and never went on a drive. I work on teeth, Not horses’ teeth, but teeth of folks all around. Studied at Harvard Dental School, way back east and got a degree in 1875, all because of my father who always had a mouthful of chocolates and rotten teeth. Teeth, you know, mark the man, like a branding iron marks a cow. The combination is what really killed him, and by the mouthful. So, hold on a bit until I scratch my memory for comparisons, because he was dressed just like you.”
Brick Todd closed his eyes, opened them, smiled, and added, “He was just your height, wore a pair of pistols at his hips, the left side hanging a bit lower than the right side, as I was thinking if he was a lefty and not a righty. Makes a difference the way a man eats, favoring one side of the mouth before the other side. He wore a shirt with a black color, like he could wear it a hundred years and not wash it clean, not once. I was glad he wasn’t a patient. Would have smelled the place to high heavens.”
Buck Joh was tuned in. “He have blue eyes? Deep blue eyes? Like a musician? Did he hum a lot when he wasn’t talking?”
“My gawd, Buck, you sound like you know him.”
“I sure do, Brick. I sure do. His name is Harry Tate and he lives in Colbert, Texas, right where I’m from. I still own a small place there that’s out on rental.”
“Now that’s really coincidental, Buck, you riding way up here and knowing a fellow townsman paid a visit here where you’ve never been before or him, for that one meeting of the sale is the only time I ever saw him.”
“No coincidence there, Todd,” and he told him the whole story, had his last drink, and started the ride home, his mind at last locked onto the thief or one who dealt with thieves. He’d get the connection, the real truth, one way or another. He’d see to that. It had been a long ride, and he was getting older already.
Much of the time on that ride back to Colbert, he wondered if May Eastling was married yet. She was bouncy, blonde, smiled like the Devil could. And seemed to make his ride home a bit pleasant, the soft intrusions frequently at play.
Some odds were going to change; he’d bet on it.