Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Now, at sundown on his latest approach to Poor Man’s Edge with a visit to Missy Gilbert on his commitment list, Cavan O’Malley thought about the night he had fallen in love … and gained a deadly enemy at the same time.
And he remembered every detail of the incident.
And so it went:
Morning had handled itself as it usually does in Arizona, bright and effervescent and wide as open arms, and so evening had its turn when the sun started below the horizon. It crawled, a peg at a time, a whisper at a time, out over the Arizona landscape and the last town on O’Malley’s route on his goods delivery. The settlement of Poor Man’s Edge lay out in front of him like a flower on a desert rim. And the wagon, with a hand-painted sign that read in big red letters on one side only, “O’Malley’s Tally, Goods and Prov.,” the last part cut short because he had measured wrong, was nearly empty, holding only Missy Gilbert’s order, the order she had personally written up for him on his previous trip, a long four months since. The horses, he noticed for the third time, mealtime pulling at all of them, were tired and grumpy, which he thought was a matter belonging only to him. But he knew he’d have a problem with Missy Gilbert if she detected that he had used his animals to extremes. She was a friend to “every critter in God’s whole world,” as she had phrased it on more than one occasion.
That she was a lady of choice, her own choice, had never been wasted on O’Malley, silver tongued as he thought he was with the ladies of the territory. It was necessary for him in his trade to be able to sweet-talk to those who dominated ranch houses and the kitchens therein. But Missy Gilbert, that trim lady, that lady of such subtle beauty it caused him at times to lose his breath, was free, at liberty to move toward or with whatever man she chose, and she had a lot of choices. The men of the territory knew all about her.
O’Malley, a 32-year old bachelor, had been enflamed with her from the first sight, with a memorable look over the tailgate when he was going to a barn dance, at a lady he had never seen before but must have dreamed about a thousand times. He would not admit cheating on that count. She was worth it all, from the moment of that first look, the eyes coming back at him with more life in them than he could imagine, and a whole bunch of mystery with them.
That first sight of her was at a barn dance at Jesse Parmerton’s ranch almost two years earlier. Fiddlers, half a dozen of them, had come from some places more than 50 miles away to play for the dance in a brand new barn erected to replace one burned down from a lightning strike. Parmerton decided he wanted to use the barn for one really big social night before it would be devoted to his animals. The residents of nearby Poor Man’s Edge were all invited and most of them came to celebrate the finish of the barn and a night of music, dancing, good food and gossip of the widest order. Some of that gossip might well have set on Missy Gilbert, a beautiful near-30’s maid, owner of her own ranch left by her parents. Suitors could have lined up two abreast and 20 deep, as some had said, Missy being that beautiful and that tantalizing in a special way even ladies admitted.
But she had her own dictates calling on her, her own inner voice, though nobody knew the profile or the make-up of a possible husband.
She wore her auburn hair in a most charming way, and one that showed her facial beauty as if framed in the border of those tresses. Light from her eyes was evident in all situations, and was quite elemental when she was looking a man in the eye. They never knew they were being appraised or vamped or teased, but it was all a delicious state in which to find oneself. So, as a result of her attitudes on things in general and love’s hope in particular, the lines of suitors could have extended to the edges of the state in any direction. The strange part was that Missy remembered the peddler for something particular, though she never mentioned it, not even to her best friend.
“Missy has a gift, and we’ll all be surprised when she settles on a man, whether he knows it or not,” said her good friend, Claire Hopkins, a beauty in her own right, who was a mere 19 years old but kept a close eye on all eligible men, not that there were all that many she often confided to Missy. If there was any close secret sworn in trust in Poor Man’s Edge, it was agreed that it would be held by Missy and Claire.
The night of the dance, Missy, from all the way across the barn, was glowing in a ruby red dress made from a bolt of cloth O’Malley had carried to Poor Man’s Edge a full year before. That association, that personal delivery, loosed in him a connection he realized was never going to end. He was in the hunt for her for the rest of his life. He saw men crowding her, bringing a drink or asking for a dance, or just wanting, daring, to get close enough to have a few words with her. With him a peddler and her a ranch owner, the odds were stacked against him, but the chance was to be taken.
None of that preamble stuff seemed to bother him, until Missy’s body messages seemed to send an SOS all the way across the room.
The man demanding her attention at the time was known to O’Malley. He was Yard Braksell, a thug if there ever was one, who rode a big horse, carried two pistols on his belt, and wore folded kerchiefs in his shirt pockets. He was a dressed-up dude who did not match the behavior he tendered to a lady. She was vigorously shaking her head, saying no to something that did not need interpretation. O’Malley, clear across the barn, sitting between two buxom ladies who were demanding his attention, saw it, felt it, reacted to it.
Out of his chair he heaved himself, a man on an errand of mercy, a hero breathing his own air.
But life, the way it comes at some people, had something else to say that night to O’Malley the peddler.
Regardless of what came at him, or them.
“I detect, sir,” O’Malley said in an upscale attempt at superiority, “the lady neither likes nor wants your company nor your intentions.” He did not touch Braksell, he was conscious of that, but his chivalry already had gone past that omission. In a wild swing, the ruffian threw a punch at O’Malley, who sidestepped the blow and knocked Braksell down with one punch. His arms, his upper chest, were solid in their muscle, gained from endless tossing of his goods from kitchen wares to foodstuffs in barrels and heavy crates. He was no sissy, to boot, and did not fear the man he opposed, though he himself carried no weapon, and never had. This latter fact was known along O’Malley’s whole route.
So there he stood, with Braksell squirreling on the barn floor, Missy in the calmest mood he could imagine, as though his interruption had not been warranted … but she was smiling this dazzling smile at him as if he had pulled her from the mouth of some dragon, or from the very gates of Hell.
Braksell, it was noted by all the people at the dance, almost went for his weapon. His hand fell on the butt of his revolver, but never made a grasp on it because the sheriff had placed one single finger right on Braksell’s nose, saying in a deep and threatening voice, “If I were you, Yard, I’d not draw that weapon. We all know the peddler don’t carry a gun. Probably never fired one, as far as any of us know. But you’d be best advised to keep it cool. I ain’t here for decoration.”
He slowly withdrew his finger from its threatened emplacement, and stood over Braksell.
“Oh, I ain’t goin’ to shoot him, no how, Sheriff. I’ll just owe him a piece of my mind someday.” The look on his face said he’d be tending to things in due order, meaning as soon as he could out of the sight of the sheriff and any witnesses.
“I better not be in hearing distance, Yard. I wouldn’t like it any more than the peddler would. Nor Miss either, as she’s the one caught up most in this. You just about spoiled her whole night, I’ll bet.”
O’Malley, thinking about the sheriff’s words, and Missy’s night being spoiled, came to stand over Braksell with a power moving in him that he had never felt before. “Sheriff,” he said, ostensibly to the sheriff, but also for Braksell and anybody within hearing distance, like Braksell’s associates, “it won’t matter if you’re around or not, but if this crude man dares mess up her time again, I’ll be ready for him.”
A sense of timing worked on him as well as the newly leashed power, and he added, “I’m going to learn how to shoot, Sheriff, how to handle a pistol or revolver or whatever name they’re given so that I will become most proficient in dispatching their due intentions.” His smile was wide and pleasant, serving as casual impetus in his stance.
Braksell shook his head at those words, the sheriff looked off as if seeking answers, and Missy Gilbert loosed the second loveliest smile O’Malley had ever seen. Nothing, he realized, would replace that first impact of hers, the one that had knocked him for a life-long loop, and this smile just added to his good fortune.
Missy took his hand and said, “This dance is yours,” and she used his first name as he had never heard it said before, “Cavan, and it won’t be our last dance of the night either.” She took his hand and said, “And please show me home when the dance is over.”
Three days later, O’Malley’s last delivery made, his route finished, he returned to Poor Man’s Edge and Missy Gilbert announced, first to friend Claire, that she was engaged to Cavan O’Malley, former peddler, and in the near future, depending on how fast he learned, the boss of their ranch. She said “their” with careful stress and intention to set the background for her intentions.
Claire Hopkins, not surprised at Missy’s quick moves, mentioned to Missy one glaring warning. “Best tell him to keep his eyes on that Yard Braksell. He won’t let go the other night at the dance, not by any chance. I’ve heard he’s been spouting his mouth off around town, not caring who’s heard him, saying that ‘things will get even between me and the peddler afore you know it.’ It sounds just like him, the crude man he’s always been. Tell Cavan not to take any of this lightly. Be on guard all the time. Braksell would shoot him in the back as soon as look at him.” She pointed a finger at Missy and said, “Pip, just like that. Quick as you can imagine.”
“Oh,” Missy said, “Cavan and I have been a few places and done a few things already. But I’ll say this, he’s not helpless in any of this, believe me, Claire, and he’s not as innocent in these things as much as people believe. I hope Braksell makes that same mistake of thinking so. He’d get a big surprise.”
“So, mysterious friend,” Claire said, not knowing just what Missy was talking about, “where have you and Cavan been for three days when I didn’t see hide or hair of you, and what have you two been up to?” A listener hearing them talk might think it was prenuptial gossip they were talking about, but Claire had a fair idea of what Missy had said, in her own way of course, though the mystery of it continued.
Neither one of those ladies believed what was coming, in spite of the signs, for sudden happiness has a way of softening all edges, weighting attitudes, shifting fulcrums. Missy was bright as usual, but a further luster was evident, and Claire, best friend or not, felt a twinge of that happiness as it struck a small place of jealousy in her heart. Missy, this day, had dressed with her heart and not her eye. The red was eager and fiery, the yellow, two shades of it, was pure sunlight, and though these chosen hues clashed with the Chicago style they loved, letting natural enhancements do most of the work, a certain grace of contrast cast a spell on Missy’s presence. It all said “love” to Claire, though she was still aware of the odds that stood in the way of a short engagement and a long marriage … if that engagement actually existed at all. She assumed, for all practical purposes, that the Missy and Cavan O’Malley had accepted life as it had come at them, that they felt married, had assumed marriage was their due.
The odds, Claire realized, existed, and they were gaining impetus.
It was after twilight descended that developments came to light. In the Bent Eagle Saloon Braksell was getting drunker by the hour, and finally admitted, “I got plans for the peddler who stole my gal.” When prodded about his boast and other exclamations the drink had broken loose, Braksell added, “Tomorrow ain’t too far away for getting’ even comin’ up on its own.” He patted one of the guns at his side. “It’ll only take one of these twins to get it settled.”
He swigged straight from the bottle in his drunken manner, made absurd noises, slurped, grunted, coughed and spat, giving his person an odious appearance. The look in his eyes, coupled with the scowl on his face, made a few of the hardier patrons flinch in place. All of them had seen Braksell in action, a mean brute at the least and a malevolent adversary to anybody who crossed his trail.
It definitely was not a time to cross his trail, which now had been done so publicly by the peddler. Confidants had see Braksell in action before and wanted to see it again. Acquaintances of both parties wondered about what would happen and where. True neutrals in the saloon were worried about the peddler, but managed to avoid any confrontation with Braksell, especially when he was in this frame of mind, though it wouldn’t last long before sleep calmed him down.
Swagger, whether sober or drunk, manages to have a way with people. It was so in the early west where noise of any sort was attractive to news-hungry people who lived hard and worked hard and often died hard. Perhaps people were cowed or curious about such conditions or attitudes, but there was always a reaction. So it was in Poor Man’s Edge that face-offs or shoot-outs between adversaries were looked upon as noteworthy if not the most current news of the day. They had fostered tales and legends that already ran rampant in the growing west.
Poor Man’s Edge was no different. Nor were its citizens.
Such as it was that very evening, the sun just gone down over an Arizona mountain top, twilight on the prowl, night animal noises just starting to come clearly on the air, when one man rushed into the Bent Eagle Saloon and yelled to everybody in the room, while directing his look directly at Yard Braksell, “O’Malley’s in town and he’s carryin’ on his belt.” He whipped his hand down to his hip and back up, in a swift motion, sure sign of dare and death on the prowl. He feigned a puff of breath to clear the smoke from the bore of his imaginary weapon.
It was like a gunshot in itself, the dramatic move of a false thespian.
The saloon burst with excitement. Some patrons rushed out to see what the man looked like who was surely exposed to death in Poor Man’s Edge, what poor fool of a man dared to carry weapons when he ought never to carry such unfriendly invitations on his belt. They ran outside to see the subject of the news. If the shouted news was true, a gunfight was at hand. Hearts raced in strict confines. Hubbub accelerated. In some corners money was wagered on the outcome, cards were slid off the top of a deck, coins tossed. The peddler’s account had few takers. If there were sideline seats available, they’d be taken in a matter of minutes.
This was news, the headline readying itself for a black border on its edges.
There was no way around that fact: there would be a gunfight and the peddler, poor fool Cavan O’Malley, would be killed at the hands of a guaranteed killer, Yard Braksell.
The Arizona sun was gone. Night was at hand. Cool air rushed in. The geography of shadows changed the landscape of Poor Man’s Edge. Fate moved its fingertips.
Yard Braksell staggered from the Bent Eagle Saloon as dozens of men formed behind him in a queue of curious folk; and across the dusty road running down through the town, the fateful peddler stood at attention on the boardwalk of the general store.
Behind him the owner placed a “Closed” sign in the window.
There were no sideline seats lining the dusty road, no special places of observation, but many of the citizens took up positions that would offer good vantage for the coming fight. Others, concerned about stray shots, the accidental dangers surrounding a rank amateur at dueling and a drunken master of the art, proceeded to find safer places to park themselves for the show. Some of them found spaces behind the doors or windows of odd buildings of the town, the general store, the sheriff’s office, the milliner’s shop. Only a few men, fatalists in their own right, stayed in the saloon.
But most people of Poor Man’s Edge would be able to see the killer gunsmith ready for his deed, and the fool peddler, even if he was as brave as any fierce warrior, likely to shake in his boots. It was inevitable.
Boys of all sizes were making noise, snapping imaginary whips, riding imaginary horses at full gallop. Each one of them was alert to the coming action in the town, but oblivious of the deadly outcome sure to be visited upon a harmless peddler. Here was a man who delivered goods to ladies in their kitchens, gossiped with them over incidentals, carried rumors to the next kitchen for a living. Some elders shushed up the boys or sent them scooting off behind near buildings.
Death, many know, has weird attractions, strange associations, and Poor Man’s Edge was no different than many other small cowboy towns in Arizona. Or elsewhere in the wide open west.
In front of the saloon, Braksell shook his head. He was somewhat aware of the drunken cobwebs stringing out his eyesight, and twilight working at the same time its magic of shade and shadow. All the elements were gathering to work against him, flattening the odds. He was vaguely alert of some measurement moving in his mind, as O’Malley seemed to be coming toward him, getting bigger, and his shoulders growing wider. He did not appear as he had appeared before. It was as if the peddler had become another person.
Braksell squinted again and again, shaking his head vigorously. Some of the onlookers, closer than others, saw a change slowly developing about the killer, grasping not only countenance but attitude. To a man they believed that the odds, if they were embellished with the power, would be changing seats, shifting around.
Drama grew in the street of Poor Man’s Edge.
And, as all such things have a chance to go by the board in a way not at all expected, Fate making demands of its own, it all went down faster than any of them, participants included, believed.
A strange rider, unknown to anybody in Poor Man’s Edge, came galloping into town. He came down the single main, dusty road, as if a horde of Indians or desperadoes was chasing him. It was only when he sensed that he had intruded on an abnormal situation that he tried to draw his horse to a trot.
But his entrance was like a bugle call had sounded loud and clear, and Yard Braksell, seeing the stranger coming directly at him, drew both his pistols and fired at the unknown rider. Six shots he fired at the newcomer, and six times missed his target. Shaking his head again, he aimed a seventh shot, which ricocheted off the milliner’s sign and flew harmlessly into space.
It was noted in later discussions, that Cavan O’Malley drew his revolver, thinking perhaps that Braksell was shooting at him, but never fired the weapon.
But the celebrating rider, coming to town to announce that a son was born to his wife on the trail in a wagon train, seeing Braksell firing and hearing his bullets ringing near him, fired one shot in retaliation.
That single shot, fired from the saddle, found its mark dead center in Braksell’s forehead.
The town buried Yard Braksell on Boot Hill, a short way from town. His name withered and faded in due time on the wooden marker. And Missy and Cavan O’Malley, who never fired a gun in anger, but who had learned how to shoot in three intense day’s coaching by his intended, lived a long, long time in Poor Man’s Edge, and raised their family there, where sundown comes special for those on the alert.