Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Tunder Yarbrint III rode into Caligo as the first light snapped on in the saloon sitting directly ahead of him. He was as thirsty as he’d ever been and a ponderous sense of dryness came over him. Perhaps a bath at the hotel would do him well. It had been a while since he and his horse had forded the river just below Chico Corners, downriver a dozen miles and escaping the posse for the third day. And none of the posse knew they were on a fruitless mission.
His horse had fought a difficulty in the river, and Yarbrint’s rifle and lariat were gone, but he had his revolver, a small sum of money in a money belt, and his saddle bag with his earthly remains, which he had tied securely to the saddle. The list of contents of the saddle bag ran through his mind amid his wondering why he‘d kept some things and let others go, tossing them away or burning them in several campfires. In a tin that held off water were two pictures of his parents and kid brother and sister, along with the sheriff’s badge his father had worn at Willow Bend and a copy of the wanted poster that erroneously claimed he had killed the stage driver and two passengers outside Fremont, Nebraska. There was an extra shirt in the bag and a pair of socks.
The sketch on the poster was a good likeness he knew could be attributed to an old friend and artist, Shannon O'Boyle. Shannon had drawn several pictures of him in pencil when they were locked in a quick romance, summarily broken when he was denounced as a killer by an opponent of his father in a previous election, sour grapes of the worst kind.
The sour grapes fact had eluded Shannon, too, as it had a great many people in Willow Bend. She was shamed in her own family and it left Yarbrint as cold as a January morning, even as he wondered if he was really as good looking as she made him out to be.
He knew who must be leading the posse on his trail. None other than loathsome Orville McClintick, reptilian backstabber, as yet unproven bushwhacker, but successor to Tunder Yarbrint II as sheriff of Willow Bend.
As he settled his horse into the Caligo Livery and saw that it was rubbed down and taken care of, Yarbrint thought of a bath for his own good and headed for the hotel, a small addition atop the Prince of Wales Saloon, more lights now lit up in the saloon.
He felt the side-tracking influence of a stiff drink and a beer slide into his appreciation; it had an overwhelming acceptance.
Yarbrint heard the music and the laughter and the slow drone of talk from the other side of the Prince of Wales Saloon door, and felt a momentary sense of comfort and security. There’d be the smells of stale beer and floor sawdust, an odor of a hard liquor to whip the nose into hearkening, a burnt steak’s scent floating on the air from a late meal as it kept hanging out in a corner, each one of the hard scents like an old welcoming committee. Incense or bouquet didn’t matter to him because he’d be safe there for at least a night, the posse way off his trail by now … he’d seen to that with several moves and ruses learned from his father who had learned them from the many wily outlaws he’d chased to bay over his long career with the badge.
“Never refuse a lesson that can help you later on,” his father said on returning from several pursuits of outlaws.
“Let me tell you what Dirty Jack did this time,” and he’d roar with laughter as honest as a sharp ax and then he’d illustrate a maneuver or ruse Dirty Jack had used. Some of the tricks were novel and intricate. His favorite one from Dirty Jack was to carry a pair of wooden horseshoes in his saddle bag and lead the posse, by hiding his horse someplace and wearing the wooden shoes himself, right to the edge of a cliff beside a river, and try to confuse the posse that him and his horse went right over the edge. “Sometimes it was enough to get them off his trail for a short spell.” He’d snicker and laugh and add, “Perhaps it also gave Dirty Jack a laugh or two and made his flight a bit easier to take.”
The taste of good liquor and the sound of the music drew Yarbrint into the Prince of Wales Saloon, and into the bright lights for the first time in a pell-mell rush of hidden trails, deep mountain passes, constant pushing by the posse riders, scattered fears and warnings, and a dream of escape at every turn.
With his revolver near weightless on one hip, worn for an easy and quick draw, eyes trying to see every face in the room without alerting too many curious patrons about a new customer, he advanced toward an open space at the far end of the bar.
One of the ladies of the saloon smiled at him, and the bartender, a happy looking gent named Jacques Thursday, smiled at the lady and Yarbrint in turn, and poured a beer, as the lady started to move closer to Yarbrint. Her smile had not lessened at all.
Yarbrint thought about Shannon’s pencil sketch and wondered if the lady recognized him, liked his looks, or was just quick to get down to business. He decided he’d savor a drink before anything else.
That decision sat in his mind as he reached for the beer the bartender shoved his way, and the bartender said, with great surprise to Yarbrint, “I think the poster sketch looks just like you.”
Surprised and alarmed, Yarbrint almost drew his gun, but the bartender said, “Easy now. My name’s Jacques Thursday, and they were in here today, ahead of you. I’ve known that rat McClintick for a few years and when he showed me the sketch and gave me the story, I saw the other side of it, him bein’ the barn rat he is. I go back a long way with him, even before he got to Willow Bend. He ain’t changed none that I can see, so I’m on your side. You best find a place to hide for the night because some others were in here today and saw the poster. McClintick only had one and wanted to hold onto it and wouldn’t hang it up. I’d guess you’re some lucky on that account ‘cause we got some folks here with mouths like clothes on the line on a windy day.”
Thursday looked around and said, “She’s your best bet and is a square shooter,” as he nodded at the girl still looking at Yarbrint. “Her name’s Carolanne, which ain’t her real name but a make-up name, but she’s a good lady and dependable. She owns the place since her father was killed about a year ago in a crazy shoot-out between two stupid punk gunmen couldn’t handle the drink. She almost got killed too, standin’ in the middle of it screamin’ at them two crazy kids.”
Thursday high-signed Carolanne, and when she came to the end of the bar, he said, “Carolanne, this is Tunder Yarbrint and he’s a good guy runnin’ ahead of a bad lawman, that noisy sheriff who was in here this mornin’. I know you got up a heavy dislike for him in a hurry ‘cause of the way he handled the cook and makin’ all kinds of demands when you was upstairs. Tunder here needs some quick hidin’ in case the sheriff comes back, which is likely what he’ll do if he runs out of signs out there. They always come back if only to wet out the dryness. They got a sketch of him on a poster, but didn’t hang it up. Tunder’s father was the sheriff over there in Willow Bend one time, a good man.”
Carolanne said, “Did that animal show that poster around? I didn’t see much of him except how he acted like he was the king of the hill.”
Thursday said, “He showed it to a few people in here then, but I can’t remember who saw it, who was here then. This gent needs a spot to duck into for a spell. Believe me, that guy chasing him is a poor excuse for wearing a badge.”
Carolanne smiled at both of them, looked around the room, and said to Yarbrint, “Go into the kitchen and wait for me. Be kind to the cook. She’s a good lady.”
She spun on her heel and headed for the other end of the room, every eye looking at her as she walked, her movements sliding over her chassis the way a reflection moves on a pond in a gentle breeze.
Yarbrint, watching her like he was seeing the sunrise come up after a bad sleep, marveled at the sensation touching him.
Carolanne’s room, on the second floor front, looked down on Caligo and the river in the distance where it caught a few stars on wet brush along one side of the river. Yarbrint thought the stars looked like lamps lighting up another street in the town, a comforting image. Also coming on him was the long day of running ahead of the law as it claimed him. He closed his eyes as he sat on the edge of the bed, thinking to relax only for a few minutes and, with the exhaustion at work, slowly leaned over and fell asleep on the one bed in the room.
Some sound other than voices woke him. He didn’t know what sound it was, and then he heard voices, the first one being Carolanne’s just outside the door. “I suppose you want to check my room, too, Sheriff. I’m only the owner here. I don’t work here, but if you want to see my room, I’ll let you in. Don’t even breathe in there. Take your quick look and get out of my place. I don’t like your attitude or your lack of manners toward proper ladies.”
Yarbrint was upright in a flash, but made no sound. He had his revolver in hand, his eyes looking out the corner window, guessing the distance to the livery and his horse, and understood Carolanne’s making a stand in her own place of business. He wondered if she’d turn him over to the sheriff and be done with him and thought she wouldn’t.
But he waited for the latch to noisily climb free of its roost and the sheriff enter the room and arrest him.
“Now, now, Carolanne,” the sheriff said, “don’t go jumping too fast. I’m not as bad as you think I am. I’m just an old cowhand trying to do a tough job, and this time I’m chasing down a killer. It’s simple. It’s him and me and the dead person, the one he shot from behind a rock, just a plain old bushwhacker, that’s all he is. That’s all that counts. I don’t want to look in your room. I trust you. You have too much sitting in your saddle to risk losing it all by going against the law, against the badge I’m wearing.” The threat in his tone was easily noticeable. As a further degradation of his elusive prey, he said, “That’s just the way someone killed his own father too, so you never know how things go, do you? What makes people spin the cylinder the way they do.” He placed one hand over his side arm that showed a bone-white handle.
The sound of several pairs of boots came from the hallway, and the descending movement on stairs made a new sound followed by a heavy silence. Yarbrint let out a breath he must have held in his lungs for the whole time of the outside discussion. He went back to bed and rolled over easily in the bed, though sleep did not ensue.
He lay awake for a few hours, not daring to move about too much, all the while searching in his mind for answers, reasons, the immediate past and the immediate future. He had not heard from Carolanne after the sheriff and his men departed. They may have gone out of town, he figured, or were put up somewhere local; but he was sure they were not in the hotel.
The latch was lifted on the door and Yarbrint stiffened in the bed, gun in hand.
The door swung open with a slight creak, and the essence of a perfume entered the room. It carried the aura of Carolanne.
Yarbrint said, “Did he bother you, Carolanne? Are you all right? I heard you last night putting him off by saying it was okay to look in your room. You must have been pretty sure of the outcome.” He hoped he had correctly interpreted her action.
“Oh, I’m fine,” she said. “I knew what I was doing. I’ve been a gambler before, and I had the good odds.” With a sincere smile she said, “Did you get some sleep?” then quickly added, “They’re down at the livery, in the loft. The sheriff and five other men. I think they’re leaving after breakfast.”
“I’m afraid they’ll recognize my horse down there. I should have known better than to leave him there.”
Carolanne replied, with some consideration and care in her voice, “Jacques took care of that. Your horse is with a friend and your saddle is in the leather shop, supposedly getting fixed.” She smiled a wide smile.
“Why’d you treat me like this? I don’t even know you.”
Carolanne replied, softness revealed in her voice as shallow as a whisper, “I don’t like those who pretend when they’re wearing a badge. Our own sheriff is a loser too, just like the one chasing you. And Jacques Thursday is like an uncle to me, and he tells the truth every time out of the stable. He never lies, unless it’s for me.”
She looked down from a corner window onto the dark street. “Nothing’s moving out there. They’re probably sleeping good, getting rid of the long chase you’ve lead them on for the past few days.”
He said, “Please take your bed back, Carolanne. I’ll sleep in the hall or down in the kitchen.”
“No,” Carolanne replied, “I’ve been sleeping in another room and a couple of the ladies have doubled up. I’m the boss, you know. You lock the door, go back to sleep, and I’ll wake you up when they’ve gone, but don’t come out until I tell you, or Jacques does.”
She gave him a look that melted him, and for a few more hours he saw it again and again, that look, the look only angels can share.
The knock was light as an echo in the back end of a cave, and Yarbrint was not sure he heard the knock, but he felt he had been summoned from a tossing sleep.
At the door he whispered, “Who is it?”
“ Thursday, Tunder. I think they headed out of town, goin’ east. They might be back if they don’t pick up any sign of you. I’ve got your horse out back of the kitchen. You can grab some grub on the way. Best to move it and keep Carolanne out of trouble with that McClintick. I think she’s got a soft place for you.”
Saddling up, putting a bag of grub in his saddle bag, Yarbrint headed out of town, also heading east. Now, for a change, he’d track them. A small pleasure engulfed him.
Toward late afternoon, the sun touching most surfaces, no clouds evident to the whole horizon, he finally spotted the posse at a cross-trail water and grub stop that he was very familiar with, and knew the owner. The posse had looped across a few valleys, crisscrossing their own trails a few times, which had raised Yarbrint’s curiosity.
He’d been to this site several times with his father in years past and remembered fondly the old man who ran the place, Homer Iacobellis, and how difficult it was to first say his name carved on a piece of board.
The old man made it easy on him the first visit. “Just call me Yaco ‘cause it’s easier to say,” he’d said, putting an end to the problem of saying correctly and with respect an old man’s name. Yarbrint wondered how many times the old gent had gone through the same routine.
Almost aloud, he said, “I wonder if the old one is still around,” remembering how he was physically bent over back then, when the old man confirmed had his condition by saying, “I’m closer to the ground now, and getting closer, so it won’t hurt too much when I go down.”
Yarbrint was high on a crag looking down at the posse’s horses tied up at a rail and none of the riders in sight. He pictured them at a decent meal and started to munch on the grub Carolanne’s cook had prepared for him, all the time keeping his eye on the cross-trail stop.
And then, in one sweep of his vision, he saw the reflections, saw them a few times, coming from the same spot at the edge of the small building, tossing off blips of sunlight, and suspected one member of the posse was watching the trail behind them with binoculars, his field of vision sweeping back and forth, and the movements of the spy glass or binoculars catching old sol.
McClintick, it was plain to Yarbrint, was expecting him. He had known his father, what he had been like in dire straits and circumstances, and what the son was most likely to do in certain situations.
He’d also count on McClintick’s reactions.
The voice of his father came back, re-affirming an off-hand study; “Never forget a lesson that can help you later on.” He meant, “You have to use all your skills to catch some bad dude who might be just as smart as you.”
McClintick, he figured, was aware of a lot of lessons and was likely clued in to a few others he’d come across. This one might be, “Lure a desperado into your clutches by making him follow you right to the hoosegow.”
Yarbrint weighed that possibility with deep concern and spent time on a new routine. But he kept thinking about McClintick leaving a wide trail a tenderfoot might follow with ease. Going back over the trail, he recalled the broken twigs, the snapped branches, the deep hoof prints in especially open places, a fire that had been warm to his touch well after a water stop. “Why didn’t he leave his name on a hunk of wood and plant it on the trail?” Then, as though brightness slammed into him, he asked, “Why the hell didn’t I see it all earlier, him playing with me? I wonder if he suspects Carolanne of having any part in it. That’s the last thing I want to happen.”
A deeper and more malicious thought came to him that McClintick was setting her up for a gigantic fall right into the sheriff’s grasp. And he was playing a part in it; what would his father say to this situation?
He kept thinking about Carolanne and how she had shaken him up on more than one occasion, his life probably in her hands more often than not during the night at Caligo. She didn’t deserve any pain from him.
He’d remember that forever, he was sure. Just as he would remember Shannon in their short time together and her quick exit in the face of family embarrassment and ridicule. He was excessively lucky to balance that fact against Carolanne’s stance with McClintick, and knew the scale was heavily in Carolanne’s favor … and thus his.
What further came to him was the possibility he might know some members of the posse. The few times he had them in his view he could not identify any of them. He was looking for that break. It might give him an edge.
Yarbrint made a decision on that assumption, that some of them were good acquaintances from his early days in Willow Bend. His friends had always been bouncy, young enough for any adventure, instant volunteers for a posse or a search for a lost soul. They were good kids, young, in love with every new girl, part explosion in their own right.
There was a time, he recalled with clear vision, that his father had great influence on all his close friends; the old man showed them endlessly the difference not just between right and wrong, but winning or losing in the battle for justice and temperance of emotions; “You lose your head and you’re dead before your head hits the ground. A quick trigger means a quicker death, yours or his. A wasted bullet can save your life, or someone you love, and only minutes later. These options come as quick as you can deliver bullets. Options are quicker than bullets. Make the difference on your own ground.”
The wise sheriff’s son slipped down toward the cross-trail stop, making sure the eye glass user would not spot him, found a secure hiding spot, much closer, where he could see some of the men, try to identify them; help could be used no matter where it came from, no matter what side of the badge.
When the posse members came out of the small building, Yarbrint was unable to identify anyone though a few seemed somewhat familiar. He decided to wait out their departure and check the proprietor of the place and try to get some answers that way.
The posse rode east again, and disappeared beyond a bald-faced cliff the sun was hitting. They re-appeared later still further down the prairie after coming up out of a dip in the prairie. Then were gone from sight again.
He rode up to the cross-trail stop and old man Iacobellis, still leaning, still hanging on, came out and dumped a small bunch of garbage in a sump hole, two birds overhead swooping low when he turned to leave. Yarbrint yelled out, “Yaco, this is an old friend, Tunder Yarbrint’s son, Tunder III. ‘Member me?” He waved his hand as he neared the old man.
“Yah, Yaco remember you and your papa. Bless his name. Bless his journey.” Then said, “The men just go out look again for you. I hear them talk. That big man, the sheriff, ‘ha la bocca grande bugiardo,’ he big mouth liar. He say wrong thing about your papa.”
“I know he is, Yaco. He blames me for killing someone I did not kill, i swear to the Almighty.”
“You don’t have to swear for Yaco. Yaco know. Yaco know for long time you and good papa are good men, good friends.” He blessed all memories with his hand making a cross in the air, his eyes closed, an unknown image seen or brought to mind.
“Did you hear any of the names of the men riding with him?”
“Two names I hear.One, Corsica like island, and one, O’Hara, young man have red hair like fire under hat. Corsica swear in old tongue and tell me he hate big mouth liar. He say he only ride because big mouth liar say he will put friend in jail and beat him, beat his woman. Maybe worse.” Then the old man muttered it several times, all in his old language: “Metterà amico in carcere e picchiato picchiato la sua donna. Forse peggio.”
Yarbrint didn’t understand a word of it, but somehow knew what the muttering was all about. He had liked Yako in the past and was fond of him all the more; it was understanding a good man that made it so.
Now, he assented with surety, that Angelo Corsica, the curser, was a good friend from the old days, the younger days, but no more so than Rod O’Hara, who slept in the loft of the barn with him many times, telling stories, of their favorite horses, best hunting adventure, where they’d go if they ever got the chance, what girls smiled at who at the general store or around town at picnics or dances. Even in church.
Both of them, with a chance for an escape from McClintick’s clutches, would take a chance to do so and in his favor. He’d have to count on them right from the start. It made him wonder about friendship, how deep it could go, how it made deeper friendships or let them be. Shannon had been locked in by his looks and had sketched him. Then she had departed at the first sign of trouble. He saw distinctions, differences because Carolanne on the other hand hung in tight when it really counted. “Now,” he said with coniction, “there’s a girl of interest.” He could count on her if hell wass rushing at them.
Advice from Yarbrint’s father surged back into attention: “The less foes you face might give you an edge in comrades. Change the numbers whenever you can. Spoil their ammunition. Run off their water. Reduce their cover. But don’t ever steal their women. It will never pay you back for your troubles.”
It was left-over campaign maneuvers the old sheriff had used in years of outlaw pursuits, endless face-offs at the finish of a long journey, the back trail littered with errors and illuminations about the minds of men.
His predicament made him decide in that instant that he’d best use his friends to try to dilute McClintick’s forces, reduce the odds. O’Hara, it came evident, would be the one to take a chance with on the first try. The redhead was a good man, reliable in a fight.
He said to his horse as if it was a listener, “It’s time to put it all those lessons to work, horse, and get on with all of this.”
He bid adios to Yaco and headed back up to his previous lookout, hoping the posse would come back.
They appeared later, on the horizon, trail dust making the announcement, and slowly rode back in to Yaco’s place. About to search for best ways to approach the cabin while they were there, Yarbrint saw two of the posse take saddles off their horses and get them ready for the night. The posse, he realized, was going to spend the night again at Yaco’s place.
A plan slipped into his mind. Rummaging in his saddle bag, he pulled out the tin container with the pictures and badge and wanted poster in it, checked the shiny surface and decided it was still shiny enough to reflect morning sunlight. He wrapped the contents in his extra shirt and put them back in his saddle bag. The shiny tin he set on a clear surface of rock where the sun would catch it sometime in the morniing.
He pictured the resultant scene in the morning. With the scene locked into his mind, he found a decent spot to sleep, prepared it, saw to his horse’s needs, and went to sleep.
Well before dawn he was downhill in a good surveying position. A lamp glow appeared at one window and was followed minutes later with smell of a new fire filtering in the air. Morning rounds were being done, and coffee aroma soon came after the fire’s smoke. Other flavors came on the air, like bacon and burnt bread.
All five riders used the outhouse in a matter of 10 or 15 minutes, and he easily recognized old friends Angelo Corsica and Rod O’Hara, then McClintick. He did not know the others, and Yaco did not come out of the cabin.
While the sun was coming up and touching surfaces with its warmth, the posse members saddled their horses. They were in the middle of mounting when McClintick himself pointed up at the rocky ledge where Yarbrint had left the shiny tin.
“Do you see that reflection up there, boys? That’s him, that’s Yarbrint. I’ll bet on it. Got him right where we want him.” He chortled and made sounds in his throat, and said, “Now we got him. Followed like I knew he would, and he’s up there and there’s only two ways down. So we got him. You three go that way, up the south trail and me and Gabbler’ll go up the other trail. We’ll have him in a couple of hours. Don’t let him slip into a cave on you, and you better shoot at first sight. Knock him down. Get him under cover where we can smoke him out one way or another.”
There was a fair amount of glee in his voice that Yarbrint, closer than he had been in a long time, heard clearly. And measured.
The posse took off in two directions and Yarbrint, after making sure they were out of sight, slipped into the cabin. Yaco was in his cot, his head bloody but unbandaged. “Big mouth hit me when I was going out. Said I had to stay here. Hit me hard. That Gabber one he killed your father. I heard him and big mouth talk. Say they get you and it done.” He rubbed his hand in the old gesture.
Yarbrint said, “I’ll write that down on the back of this piece of the poster and you sign your name to it. Is that okay with you?”
Yaco said, “I sign it I-a-c-o-b-e-l-l-i-s like real way. Yes, I will sign.”
Up on the ledge where the tin container had lost some of its shine, it sat on the rock clearly visible to Angelo Corsica, Rod O’Hara and another rider. The two old friends had worried they’d be the ones to find Yarbrint, but what they found was a note on the back of half of Yarbrint’s wanted poster that said:
“To whoever finds this note, the killers of my father, Tunder Yarbrint II, Sheriff, and a siddekick named Gabbler are part of the posse that has been chasing me. I will get them before it’s over. This is signed by me, in my hand, knowing that the end depends on who finds this note. Signed, Tunder Yarbrint III.”
O’Hara, in a second, said, “We’re getting out of here. I never wanted to find Tunder on this search. I don’t believe he killed anyone and the sheriff and his sidekick are in on it. I’m going. You with me, Angelo?”
“Yes, I am, and Harry here’s going with us whether he likes it or not.” He whipped the gun from the other man’s holster and said, “Excuse me, Harry, but just in case.”
They went down the mountain, leaving the note in place.
McClintick, finding the note as he came up the other trail, rushed with his sidekick to get down off the mountain, knowing that Yarbrint was now down below them and not on the mountain at all.
They found Yarbrint, of course, waiting for him. He was standing in front of Yaco Iacobellis’s cabin, three riders behind him, each of whom had read Yaco’s signed note.
“I know you killed my father, Gabbler, and McClintick sicced you on him and now holds that over you, so you best do one of two things right now, draw on me or draw on the rat who’s got a hold on you.”
McClintick couldn’t wait, feeling the noose coming closer. He drew and shot Gabbler in the back, grabbed him as a shield, and faced Yarbrint straight on. He didn’t get off a shot, as O’Hara, at a better angle than Yarbrint, dropped him with one shot. Gabbler and McClintick fell as one body, lay on the ground as one body, and Yaco Iacobellis knew good old justice had come this far west.
And Tunder Yarbrint was sure to give thanks to Carolanne back in Caligo where he had already spent one long night and hoped for more.