Western Short Story
With the sun still pouring down on him after three days in the saddle, Jed Roby’s mouth began to water when he saw Cactus City gathered to a small and flat silhouette straight ahead of him. He’d never been this far west before, but never heard of a town or city without a saloon. He tried to count the beers he’d have before he spoke to anyone besides the bartender.
He ran out of numbers.
The ride had been that dry, and the weeks’ old note in his shirt pocket was indented in his mind; “Whenever you can get here, you’d be my best friend ever. I need you. Jackson.”
Jackson had never called for help before, though they had been through a couple of Hells already with rustlers and bandits of every sort, back in the day.
He was thinking that he better down the first beer at least before he saw the trouble, what there was of it. Jackson’s age had slipped away from him in the few years of separation, even that count did not come back immediately, and he was too tired to figure it out.
The trouble took care of itself.
He didn’t get to see Jackson before he saw the trouble.
It stood in the middle of the road, at the entrance to Cactus City, as if a barrier had been established for foreigners of any sort, horse or carriage-borne. A thin and wiry character from head to heel, the greeter of sorts looked to be a spokesman with a quick gun hand and a smile as nasty as the prairie ride Jed Roby was just finishing.
Jed said, in a hoarse voice, dry as a dead cactus, not much extra movement to his lips, said, “You got something to say to me, standing there one foot almost behind the other, like you’re going to spin and fire that pistol at me right between my feet to show me how good you are, and that bartender standing there wearing an apron in his doorway trying to see what you’re up to, which I have seen at least a hundred times on the trail and I’m still here? That good enough for openers?”
He hadn’t moved a step on his own.
There was silence, and not a soul moving on Cactus City’s only road, even the dust at rest, when the greeter, as such, spun off one boot, swung his body to his left, drew his pistol and had it knocked clear out of his hand by the newcomer’s single shot.
Jed Roby was unerring with his pistol and saw the bartender raise two hands in the air like a silent cheer, and at the far end of that road, and come riding fast as if in response to the single gunshot, was Jackson, in the same manner he had ridden all the trails with, one shoulder at a slight dip, his Mexican sombrero wider than his shoulders, the twin pistols that had saved both lives, the rifle in its scabbard with a yellow knot tied on the gunstock as a though it was a warning or a way of offering help to some side of a dispute. .
By the time Jackson had leaped out of the saddle to shake Jed’s hand, the gun whipper and greeter was out of sight down an alley.
“I see you met The Kid who can disappear like a rock down a steep hill. He don’t like one bit being shown what he is, but he’ll be back, you can be sure of that. He’s long on memory like he’s long on his legs.”
“Who’s he ride for? He’s tricky as dirt.” Jed Roby, quick to the point.
Jackson pointed over his shoulder to a mountainous climb a few miles off. “My spread is up against that peak and covers most of the approach. Some old prospectors, who I gave permission to dig, found a tunnel into the base of the mountain, and maintain there’s gold in there, which a group of hungry slobs want to check out and I won’t give them permission, not for a minute.”
“They got real serious objections?” Jed being quick again, to the point again.
“Every inch of the way, Jed., but we got to get you a beer or two after that ride, and after your greeting to Cactus City, which, until pretty recently, was a great place to live.” He shook his head in disbelief and discouragement and it across as almost vocal
The bartender greeted them with a dozen beers already on the bar like he too had a long memory for good times and good men. He held his own glassful up in salute, and said, “To the man driving off pesky kids, especially when they got guns in their hands.”
The drinks didn’t last very long, and were filled again, the bartender in awe of thirst getting even with the world. He kept his eyes on Jed Roby as if he was studying a wanted poster, but this trip was of a likable nature, a wide smile continuously at work.
The pair of old friends left the saloon after being well-treated by a thankful man, mounted up, and headed out of town, Jackson advising his pal, “You keep your eyes on alleys between buildings on your side, and I’ll take this side.”
“You expecting that kid to come back at us this quick?”
“I wouldn’t think that of any man but him. I guess he was born with a needle stuck in his gut, like venom at work all his live-long days.”
Their careful ride out of Cactus City was like two scouts out in front of a troop of mounted riders. Mute townsfolk all along the way were silent in their admiration and curiosity about the pair bound to go up against the gang that sought Jackson’s cave, raised havoc now and then in Cactus City. The whole town despised the hungry and notorious gang, headed by a man mean as a wild steer on a cow chase; Hog Stickens was his name.
Jackson had known Hog Stickens since boyhood, and explained his hatred of him to his riding pal, who felt the derision like it was rising full-force from within, a vast difference in Jackson from their past outings, Roby realizing circumstances can change personalities either pronto or at long range. Already he had begun to measure Hog Stickens, right to the core.
The sudden fusillade of shots came pumping out of the first rise of stone half a mile outside town, and the old riding pals, many times in tight scrapes, split themselves as targets, each one racing in opposite directions, leaping off their horses and firing their own return fusillade.
Jed recognized Hog Stickens from Jackson’s description, who’d raise pity for the horse he rode, and The Kid from their first introduction. Jackson was right on the money about Stickens, and The Kid fired his pistols as though he was operating a machinegun, young, out to beat down the world, loaded with deadly talents—to a point.
His opposition had changed; a bystander could mark the difference from any angle, and Stickens and his small crowd took off, on a cross-hill ride, every man whipping his horse, “to beat the devil,” as some have often said.
Jackson said, “I know where they’re going, Jed, to a little cabin near a cliff-edge, not too far and not far enough, but where we can pinch them into tight quarters, reduce the ranks, cut them down to size so we’ll be better off, us two and all of Cactus City. Sound interesting?”
His smile produced the answer he expected, and in a short but circuitous uphill ride had the hideout cabin below them, with seven horses hitched to a tie-rail. “The white horse is The Kid’s and Stickens’ mount is the one on the far left, the black stallion that could haul a wagon. Calls him Butchie.”
Jed said, “We won’t kill any horses. Somebody somewhere will be able to use them, so we can handle it from there. Let’s scatter them, lock Hog and his gang into one tight spot. We got plenty of ammo to do the job.”
With rifles in hand, their initial rounds broke the horses loose, all fleeing in a downhill run, return fire coming from the cozy-looking cabin holding seven men at bay, like fish in the old barrel story. And the first of the gang to come into sight was The Kid who must have climbed out a back window and shot back at them from a corner, his shots close, but not good enough. One round from Jed’s rifle dropped him useless to the ground, curses filling the air.
Hog Stickens burst out the door, all of him, firing away with two pistols, and fell dead from a single slug after a few steps. Silence followed, after which came from the open door and a broken window a bunch of weapons scattered on the ground where the tie-rail had been,
Capitulation was complete, Cactus City cleared of a bad bunch, and two old friends united for the good of all, and themselves.