Western Short Story
Jed Horning, at the gate to his ranch in East Texas, eyed the lone rider heading his way across the grass from the direction of Pottsville. He’d been watching the rider for almost an hour coming along slowly as though he was smelling all the flowers, counting all the prairie dogs. Horning figured any man riding so slow brought an odd baggage with him, other than contemplation on horseback. Chances were it wasn’t good news, with all that had been going on in the region for almost six months or more. Rustling had been rampant for a time, with murder along with it. Raising and selling cattle was his business, and trouble, of course, joined up sooner or later for the steady ride.
He wondered if the lone rider might even be a new chapter in an old business.
Horning, thick across the brow and the shoulder line, hair as gray as drifting clouds on ordinary days, did not recognize the approaching rider whose name was Caleb Bonner. Bonner was young and virile, handsome as a chieftain of a Plains tribe, quick as they come with his guns, eyes hazel green and alert as could be. Also, he came highly regarded in the hiring business, working for Mark Daniels, a big man with a big spread and a large ready force of cowpokes on a huge spread practically surrounding the town of Pottsville, 20 miles up-range. Bonner was his only “loaner,” a man who could be hired, at a significant price, for a cause or a promise, or for a job that sometimes might include guarding and sometimes might include killing.
Bonner was the best “loaner” Daniels ever employed, coming out of Oklahoma half a dozen years earlier, the law on his trail, until that trail disappeared on Daniels’ land. The law never knew what every Daniels’ man knew; the fugitive was hidden in one of the two wells near the Daniels’ ranch house until the law had departed. At that point he came up soaking wet but free and, henceforth, supposedly, swearing allegiance to Daniels.
Now, on another day, near noon, with little knowledge or foresight, Horning wondered what was coming at him, hoping it was not a bad situation just developing. His wife Dorothy and daughter Velma were back in the ranch house baking pies and cakes for a birthday party for Velma, 21 years old tomorrow, and as beautiful as her mother 25 years earlier.
Horning shucked pesky thoughts and hailed the lone rider. “Hello, stranger. I’m Jed Horning and this is my spread. Anything I can do for you?” A quick idea framed itself in his mind that said nothing would surprise him. At the same time he noticed the clean cut about the young man, his shirt freshly laundered, hair trimmed, and shaved within a day or so. Not an ordinary cowpoke. Not a saddle tramp.
“Yes, sir. My name’s Caleb Bonner and I work for Mark Daniels up around the Pottsville area. I was aiming to seek you out and say why I’ve come.”
“That’d be right interesting for me to know,” Horning said. “Want to come back to the house and have a coffee and a sandwich? My wife and daughter are heavy at cooking right now.”
“Be my pleasure, Mr. Horning.”
They rode the short ways jawing about weather, cattle by breed, any known acquaintances. Little came to light.
But when Velma Horning and Caleb Bonner made eye contact, Velma’s mother, Dorothy Horning, understood only too well what had passed between two young people meeting for the first time.
She remembered when she first met Jed Horning … like it was yesterday, fresh as it ever was. Motherly instinct crowded her, wondering at that moment if her daughter was as lucky as she had been at the same kind of eye-opening meeting. A quick prayer rose up in her mind, even as she wondered who the young man really was. She remembered what her mother had said to her when she moved into her teens, about life in general and boys in particular: “Don’t puddle jump.” She never said it again.
In a few minutes of small talk, the four of them were comfortable, enjoying some sweets from the table, when Horning, holding up his hands, said, “So what brings you this way, son? You mentioned something on the ride in.”
“Well, sir, Mr. Daniels took me aside and said he believes someone out this way is stealing his cattle. He wants to know if you have any ideas on it.”
He dropped his eyes and raised them, and continued, “Not that he’s accusing you,” he quickly added defensively, his eyes caught up again by Velma, “but maybe somebody on your payroll is making a few dollars on the side.”
He moved his eyes in another gesture of defense, and qualified his words, “Or perhaps a neighbor’s hired hands might be passing through your land with some stolen cows. I have to tell you that I saw a fence break on my way in here. Over by the wadi where three trees give good shade.”
Velma Horning, across the table from Bonner and lit up like the morning sunset, jumped right in to protect the family and defend her father and his hired hands. “Not on your life,” she said, her beautiful face suddenly set with an interior resolve. “I don’t think a single man we’ve hired would rustle cattle from a neighbor or from anybody. Most of them have been here for a few years at least. They’re all trustworthy. All good men.”
Her tone changed immediately, as she carried on. “And how long have you been working ‘on’ the Daniels spread?” Her sarcasm was like a whip that lashed across the table. Her mother sat back, her father sat open-mouthed. The air nearly bubbled with feeling. It was as if she had said, “You work there, so why should you be here?”
Her blue eyes leveled at Bonner, who stared right back, a slight smile breaking at the corner of his mouth. He tried to find all the feelings that poured through him. “Six years, Miss. Six years. I do all kinds of things but never rustle cattle. Cattle make this end of the country turn green in more ways than one.”
His smile became brighter and Dorothy Horning understood that singular brightness; admiration hung in its shine as the young man must have found Velma Horning to be an outspoken young lady with a mind of her own, a very special young lady, and lovely.
But something else, in front of her parents too, was happening to young Bonner. An entirely new something.
The lady knew it first; it was a gift long known to her, as it was known to mothers, to prime ladies of the land of known cultures and thus, in the wild west, hardly ever spoken of.
At a table in a Texas ranch house, something had changed, or at least had started a change amongst odd company.
In his few years, Caleb Bonner had been there for the action, right in the mix, in the thick of it; stared into the eyes of a puma ready to leap at him from close range overhead on a mountain trail, stared into the maddening eyes of a drunken gunman who held two pistols on him from the other side of a jail cell; sat directly in the eyes of rampaging wild bulls and so many rambunctious horses he could not recount them. He’d been threatened with bullet and bow and arrow, rock slings, ax heads thrown with abandon, lead from unknown sources.
Though he was still unmarked.
Those impressions were indelible, dark and indelible, but the eyes of Velma Horning, from someplace near Heaven or Utopia, slid subtilely into him like none of the others. Did his face show it, he wondered? Were his cheeks red? Did his eyes show the heated reflections? Was his mission over before it had really started?
“Would you kill a rustler?”
“If he drew down on me.”
“Is it worth it, a man for a cow? What if you’re wrong about what he’s going to do?”
“I’d rather be stupid alive than smart dead. What if they were to run off with all your father’s cattle?”
“Because of the cost, the loss of cows you’re planning to sell?”
Horning finally caught the eye of his wife, and vaguely understood what she was hinting at. He raised his hand again and said, “Do you have wire cutters in your saddle gear, son?”
“Of course I do. Every good cowpoke carries wire cutters for the job or for accidents if a cow gets caught up in the wire. Or a horse. Or another cowpoke. Why do you ask?”
“I was out there early this morning, son, and there was no cut wire anywhere along that fence. So it must have been done after I left and before you got there, or when you were there. Now I don’t know when that could be except for close to the time you came through. That sound reasonable to you?”
“Sure does, Mr. Horning. And I didn’t cut any wire any place today, on your land or elsewhere. And that’s the honest truth.”
Velma cut in to the discussion. “If somebody else saw you coming, Caleb, from way off, they could have cut the wire and try to blame it on you.”
Dorothy Horning said, “So what should be done now?”
Bonner, without taking a breath, said, in an insistent voice, “Me and you, Mr. Horning, and some of your hands, ought to do some scatter walking over all that territory and see what’s going on. Somebody cut the wire for a reason. It wasn’t me. It wasn’t you, so let’s see who it was.”
The two men left the room, with Velma’s eyes locked on Bonner and Dorothy Horning staring at her husband’s back as he left the house. Their thoughts were on each man, hoping there’d be no trouble.
Horning and four of his hands, and Bonner, saddled up and left the barn, Horning saying as they rode, “We’ll spread out to cover all the way to the river and off to the hills. A single shot means you’re in trouble and you need help. Two shots quick together say you got somebody on the run, with cows or just plain suspicious. You all know who belongs and who don’t.”
He turned to Bonner and advised, “You stay with me because you don’t know my other men. I got a fence rider out there, one gent in a line shack due for his relief and two brothers due back today from their sister’s wedding over in Kilmartin Town. They might all be coming cross-range. I don’t want any crazy killing going on. This whole thing sounds strange to me, but strange has been here before.”
The men spread out and Horning looked at Bonner. “How many men you killed, son?”
“Three,” Bonner said. “They were slower than me and meaner than me and the odds didn’t favor them, though I told each one of them all of that.”
“They didn’t listen?”
“They never do, not when there’s more than one of them and only one of you.”
They had been apart from the other men for less than half an hour, when a single shot rang out, coming their way from the edge of the foothills, off to the north.
Horning, straight up in the saddle, said, “Let’s go this way,” and he pointed right at the origin of the gunshot.” He started to go in that direction when Bonner said, “Not directly at the sound, Mr. Horning, Let’s edge up this way, toward that cluster of trees and come in from that end. It’s probably safer that way, and if there’s real trouble there, we don’t want to walk right into it.”
Horning was going to say something he immediately thought he might regret. Instead he said, “Okay, we’ll do it your way.”
In a matter of minutes they had a view of one of Horning’s men protecting himself behind a rock with three men trying to edge in on him without firing their weapons. In the opening of a wadi dipping into a low area were perhaps two dozen head of cattle.
Bonner, in a low whisper, said, “They want to get your man without firing any shots if they can. They don’t want to scatter the cattle.”
At that moment Bonner saw two of Horning’s men approaching and waved them down, pointing ahead of them. Horning seconded the wave and the men dismounted, tied their horses off, and began approaching a large stone outcropping, looking like a good place to defend themselves, or check out the signaled trouble.
After tying off their horses, Bonner took his rifle from the saddle scarab and he and Horning moved slowly toward the strangers. Bonner, leading the way, had his rifle at his shoulder, ready to get off an accurate as well as an instant shot if necessary. More than once he motioned Horning behind him, until they were behind two good sized trees, the strange men clearly in sight, no more than 30 or 40 yards away.
Bonner, calm as anyone could ever be, pursed his lips to hold Horning in silence, and stepped out into plain sight with the rifle at his shoulder.
One of the strangers, sensing more than seeing him, started to turn around and Bonner put a round right between his legs, pumped a second shot at the man next to him, and yelled out, “The next one catches one of you in the chest, I’m not saying which one, and high up where it will hurt like hell. Now drop your weapons. There are half a dozen of us out here around you and we don’t want you dying before the trial.”
He put a third round right between the legs of the third man.
They dropped their guns, and saw Horning’s two men coming from their positions. A third rider of Horning’s rode right into the situation with guns drawn.
Hands down, it was hands up for the strangers.
At the table that evening, Bonner invited and dinner over, Horning told the story at least a dozen times, all with variations of one sort or another, but all with the step-up and step-in details about Bonner.
Dorothy Horning, in a glorious mood, kept her eyes on her daughter and the dashing young man, still aware of questions hanging about him and his past. The motherly instinct kept working on her, even with her high regard for Caleb Bonner this newest incident had stimulated. She had to bring them all out, dig into all of it for her daughter’s sake.
Her voice carried deep concern, when she said, “You told Velma you had some kind of a problem back there in Oklahoma. Something to do with the law. What was that all about, Mr. Bonner?”
Dorothy Horning, at that moment in her life, was indeed the matriarch of her realm, her dinner table, her dining room, her home, her daughter who leaned on the verge of newness, excitement, a quick change in her own life.
Even then, Bonner felt warm in her company; she was a most attractive woman, like her daughter, and not yet rounded but still fairly slim … which boded well for Velma. Each one of the women’s eyes were totally attentive, their sweet lips were enticing even sitting demurely pursed. His comfort zone, he realized, was growing. If his observations escaped either woman outwardly, they were most likely aware of them on some level that women shared.
Bonner looked her right in the eye and answered, “It was a big mistake that some scoundrel dropped at my feet. Mr. Daniels kept me from getting caught by a wild posse and found out the truth about what went on back in Oklahoma. Even a sheriff was in on it because it was a relative of his that messed things up for me. That’s all squared away. I’ve paid my debt to Mr. Daniels. I’ve told him so a few times and he understands. I’m not wanted anyplace for any crime, but if a man draws down on me, he better be ready. That’s just how I feel about things.”
Mother and daughter were smiling at each other in a way that Horning did not catch.
Instead, in a sudden grasp at reality on a different approach, said, “Caleb, do you think the men we caught today were the ones that your boss sent you after? They haven’t let on a thing other than they found a cut wire and found some cattle in one of the low spots and that was outside the fence. They say they didn’t rustle any cattle and the signs point to that. Neither your or me saw any cattle tracks near that break, so it throws me for a loss. Can you add anything to that?”
“No, I can’t. Not now. Maybe they really aren’t the real bad guys, but they had guns drawn. Maybe it was self-defense on their part too. We reacted to the whole scene out in front of us. It might take a good man to find all that out.” He held off on the balance of his statement, stressing a point to his listeners, and then finally said, “Not everybody is a bad guy.”
Horning said, “Do you know anybody that could do that for me? Perhaps a man to be hired for the job.” An enlightening smile had crossed his face as if he was the first person to have such an idea.
Velma Horning simply said, “I do and I’m looking right at him,” as her mother folded up all her curiosity issues and put them neatly away, like her dinner napkins would go back into their little box on the top of the buffet.