Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Of all the people in town, I'm the one who looks closer, deeper, measures more of what I see in front of me, behind me, in darker corners and the hidden places where danger hangs its hat any day of the week. I'm a newspaperman and as far as I'm concerned, danger's a sneak that usually rides a black horse, a fast one that is suddenly there where it wasn't a moment ago, and with a pistol or revolver it really doesn't make any difference once its fired in anger or plain threat, like "all aboard for the action." From what I've seen and reported in my time here in Rockville, Colorado, danger's occasionally a runaway horse or wagon, a drunk with gun in hand, or the nasty gunfighter with a nasty reputation still trying to cut another nasty mark. A few times our bank's been the centerpiece of attention as complete withdrawals of cash have been tried at gunpoint. Being this far west of the great river slicing down the country, often says to me, and thus to my readers, "These two parts of us are building different histories; watch for the differences."
My name is Lucas Bishop, owner, editor, writer, set-up man, printer, dispenser of news in the form of a weekly newspaper I have named The Odyssey (though most folks hereabout think it's named for a village back in Maryland ... sometimes you can't make out what you make of people), and I make the news as accurate and clean-handed as I can; clean-handed meaning I don't write color for the sake of color or for sales of the paper (I'm not about to get rich down that road), nor artful fabrications or lies, but make it true and as righteous and/or as evil as all the evidence mustered says for itself.
Meaning, "This is how it is."
Fact is I've never shot a pistol or a revolver or a rifle, in anger or otherwise, but once shot an arrow into the air, not sure that if I sent it parallel to the ground it might find some living thing. Yet, firm as I stand here, I am not a coward; I just haven't had the call to be a hero, though I feel like I'm about to be tempted in the near future. I've worked a shovel, a tiller on a barge, picked beans and corn, worked a mine to experience expectation of riches that actually resemble dreams, shoveled coal on a train heading this far west, as it was cheaper than a fare, spent a night in jail and was destined for more time when a drunken judge suddenly sobered up and saw what ludicrousness had volleyed upon the misidentification of "this here criminal standing before me as innocent as a babe."
That all was before I wrote, reported, and felt, "I've been there in the middle of it all no matter what angle you're looking from." That just means experience counts when you're picking sides;" those being the profound words a constable once told me back in Pennsylvania on my way through.
Calumet Cal Stockridge, I must tell you though sad to say, has the wherewithal for all such matters, especially in the matter referred to as "calling out." It's not like the neighbor's boy yelling, "Hi, yo, Stevie, you coming out?" It's death winning the balance of odds. It's death being portentous, expected, imminent.
Stockridge, I have to iterate, looked the part as an element of this report; eyes deep as coals with or without fire, wore his Stetson tight to those eyes making him more formidable, stood six feet tall and taller in the saddle, had hands that could stroke a kitten, a woman or a side arm, and his face saying outright to any on-looker that he had been in the desert sun, on the wide grass in the sun and the wind, but not often in the rivers of the land. He might have groveled in a mine or two for gold or silver, which he'd admit as to pushing the dream, but never grovel for vegetables. Truth is he'd most likely fire his gun if he was called a farmer. "I'm a cattleman and a gunman, but I ain't sure which comes first," he'd often boast with liquor well on its way to souring up his belly. When it was fully soured, the night longer than usual, he might admit, "I got more meanness in me than my Indian blood and that'll give you a hint what makes me the sourest apple you'll ever bite into."
For this moment, he stood off a way from all cowhands, stage and freight drivers and a few odd railroad men as the old and the new made contrasting statements in the Eagle Claw Saloon. A large audience had gathered as soon as he started shooting off his mouth as usual when listeners were about. A few times, to stress the point, he'd utter his oath and mantra, sort of stuffing it down certain throats, mine being one of the main targets; "I don't cow-tow to nobody in all creation, and that goes for any marshal or sheriff or chunk of the law wanting to get in the way," and looking directly at me off in a corner, as a personal declaration, "or any ink-stained newspaperman in the premises who does his talkin' on paper skinny as a fish tail."
His lazy left hand hung over the edge of the bar rail, as if it was entirely useless, but many of the patrons had seen that feint stance before and knew it as a predilection of a speedy draw of his weapon, the calm before the storm, as has been said before. That he was still alive, according to all the stories floating into Rockville in all manners of communication, including fabrication, guesswork, pointed claims (from a distance), rumors, dandified other reporters of events of note all the way back to the Mississippi River, sporting the idea that he was the fastest gun man of our time ... "bare fact is he's still breathing on his own to prove it." As long as he was around, they could fall, back on it in proving their point
"Cal" Stockridge, during the whole while of his talk, stared at Sheriff Peale Doyle and loosed another barrage of words from his snarling lips, the left hand still still. Doyle had not moved and waited for all the wind to get out of Stockridge's sail, fully aware of the speaker's drinking habit; while he talked he could not go very long without a sip, or a whole slug of whiskey if the topic merited it.
When the glass of whiskey was gulped down, the left hand fisted for a moment, Doyle said, "Nobody's looking for you now, Cal. No bounty on you. No posters. You're just not wanted in the territory for any crime." His voice halted, as if he was saying, "Why, nobody at all wants you around." His feet shifted, but not with a sign of impatience, and he qualified it all, saying in a soft and sure voice, "At least not for now."
Those words floated softly about the room, whisper level, secretive, the way a séance might be heard by way of a door left merely ajar.
The smile from Stockridge was wide and almost innocent, and he offered a salute of a sort, saying, "That's lucky for you, Sheriff."
Silence slipped into the saloon, as if on a dare, but I heard it move; I'm always listening; like hearing a leaf land on three toes, mark a falling star by an intake of breath, or never underestimating the clicking set of a trigger makes in absolute darkness. The sheriff, spinning in his boots, headed for the door and said over his shoulder, the casual manner more punctuation than imaginable, "At least for now, Cal." The séance, apparently, moving to another phase.
But at the door, in a move of a second thought or of one refined clarification, the sheriff said, "I'm waiting word from Sheriff Able Cummings back in Kansas. He's promised me a lead on some other activities that have surprising connections in our general area."
"What kinda things, Sheriff?" To some drinker-observers, Stockridge was setting up the sheriff for the ultimate draw of weapons. I could feel it in the air. Neither man was known to give in to a slur, curse or manly threat. Interpretations and views on the personal make-up of both men had been chiseled to the finest edges by many of the patrons, meaning me too. Each one of the potential foes was understood without doubt; the understanding ones kept their mouths closed, their jittery hands tight in pockets, their bodies motionless.
Audiences, we might see here, make the stage; or is it the other way around?
The sheriff squared himself in the doorway, hands at his side, not a sign of fear showing, as he stated his case, "Oh, murder among them, Cal, and plain old bushwhacking of the highest rebuke and lowest condemnation of a man, like gents, pals, pardners, shot in the back from close range for measly gain in this world. That kind of foul stuff." His shoulders were as wide and square as a door frame and his energy did not shift but seemed to build in place.
He could have been halfway dead for all he knew, for all I knew; but the truth held that nobody in Rockville had ever seen Stockridge shoot a man, from the front or from the backside. That included me, but a gnawing was at me.
"You putting me in that bracket, Sheriff.? You calling me out on it?"
"Oh, I wouldn't be that stupid, Cal."
"Then what kind of stupid are you, Sheriff?"
The hand over the edge of the bar seemed to flicker for an eyelash's flicker and the single creak of one chair broke the otherwise silent air in the room. The scenario said someone's life might well be on the line, so be prepared to move, duck from sight, avoid scattered shooting, or be slow and dead, "a saloon scene too often seen," to coin a phrase I might use one day
Cummings' retort was, "Stupid enough to leave my weapon in my holster and my rifle sitting outside with my horse, both of us waiting the next meal." He slipped out the door, leaving only the echo of his voice behind him. I studied the resultant look in Stockridge's eyes, and when he swung about to look away from the crowd, I studied them in the large mirror behind the bar. Ghoulish those eyes came at me, saying the ominous; "Death and dying and obituary," they said to me, as if internal composition was at work, my composition and his work. In their darkness his eyes still told stories and made a pronouncement that I had to obey: "Carry a gun," they said to me; "carry a gun." In the middle drawer of my desk sat a Peacemaker Colt .45 I'd found at the side of the trail while visiting friends at their ranch. No loss report ever came to my ears, but curiosity lingered every time I looked at it. Now, curiosity leaped at me.
The sheriff had departed
This writer, the set-up man, the printer, the huckster of news, I told myself, would soon be caught up in real life drama. My teeth began to chatter through the final draught of beer as warm as a spent bullet, nerves worked in odd places of my body, fingertips included, and I felt silver clinking its small weights in my vest coin pocket. Was that talking measurement to me, making choices, setting odds? I began to wonder about the values of life and silver or gold in their steady contrasts, even as a few people, into the drama, began to stare at me, if not as a player, at least the playwright in part or the off-stage voice at an aside and with nonfiction credentials.
Here I was, riding the interminable line between two strong characters in the story of the day, or bound to be the one story of a day. It was so vivid to me, as I looked out over the host of customers, seeing a partial headline saying that one of three people so deeply involved would not escape the story that had begun directly in front of us. One of us three was bound to die: Cal Stockridge, assumed killer and bushwhacker of note (or so it was said and coolly acted out by him), the Sheriff, for all his good intentions, social care, and general awareness, and the lone newspaperman in Rockville, Colorado, yours truly, Lucas Bishop. whose last headline said, "Who stole Killington's Cows?"Ain't that alliterative?
Once outside the saloon, the late sun shimmering on the west sides of buildings and on the mountain peaks I knew names of and had visited early after my arrival here, fishing where the water gathered at the foot of falls, tracing its route down to the stream where I managed to spend one day a week away from hustle and bustle. Warmth invaded me and I assumed it was more than the sun on the hills or on the back of my neck but rather because I had left the saloon in one piece. Several times since my arrival in Rockville I had witnessed accidental death in that room when words, fears, and mere boasting had gone awry; a farmer with a gun is the essence of mistakes, as surely is a tourist, a card player called to task, or a newspaperman without caution from his own ink.
It quickly made me think of the Colt Peacemaker in my desk ... and then I remembered Stockridge’s eyes staring at me from the bar mirror, felt in my bones I'd be writing about him, him knowing it too depending of the day's outcome. Sundown didn't close everything down in a town like Rockville or any other place heading west or going back the way most of us had come.
Night, as we all understand, has its own character.
Darkness had come full bore with meager lamplights fighting it off as long as they could. Windows quit their glow, the feeble yellow sense of living quarters or business places faded into solid black, with whole buildings so gathered in blocks on the main street. One small lamp flickered in the sheriff's office, signifying that the sheriff was there along with at least one prisoner in one of the four cells. Also, a tiny light burned in my office beside the dark general store, where I sat at my window desk conscious that this day's actions were not completed, smelling ink, lead and total silence in part. My skin was crawling with nerves, apprehension and what else comes involuntarily to humans on the edge of certainty or uncertainty. If I were to write about it I'd call it right at the beginning a fastidious rhythm as though some musician, not me, had control.
I heard the hoof beats even as I made up my mind to go outside and watch the stars in their endless evolution and revolution. They hung up there in a constant statement, saying there'd be back on the morrow, same time, practically the same place for all I knew. Along the other side of the road I saw one light in the saloon where Smithwick the owner and bartender were working stock.
The hoof beats came closer, louder, as if in desperation.
I leaped to the door, but after grabbing the Colt Peacemaker from the top drawer of my desk for some dark and dreadful reason and stepped outside. I didn't recognize the rider, but I recognized the horse; it was the telegrapher's horse. Something told me it was not the telegrapher's son making the delivery of a message ... but the telegrapher himself. He stopped in front of the sheriff's office. For a second or two the two shapes of man and horse cut off the light of the sheriff's lamp.
I heard a voice I recognized. "I got it, Sheriff. Right from Sheriff Cummings in Topeka. It's an all-state all-territory wanted notice. It's Federal!"The telegrapher's voice could have awakened the whole town. And the next thought that hit me was why he had not sent his son to bring that notice. It was, again, portentous; the telegrapher, in the news business himself, sensing what was coming.
The sheriff and the telegrapher were on the boardwalk in front of the jail, the slim light visible behind them, showing one man hatless, one man in a Stetson.
To this day I don't know if it was starlight or light from a window lamp, but I caught the dark movement of a third person, upright but leaning forward, against the framework of a dressmaker's shop directly across from me.
All the world, all the senses I had, all the intuition I could muster, all daring, said it was Cal Stockridge on the uneven hunt, in the bushwhacker's darkness. I could almost read the wanted notice without seeing it ... as I suppose Stockridge could.
The shadowed man's pistol raised up, and I lifted the sudden enormous weight of my old Colt Peacemaker. In a nerveless tone of voice, curt and steady and each word pronounced clearly as possible, carrying easily across the night of the street, nothing else about but live and ghostly silence, I said, "I wouldn't pull that trigger if I were you, Cal. I've got a Peacemaker aimed right at your beltline."
Without warning, without the slightest hesitation, but with alarming speed, Cal Stockridge spun and fired a shot at me. It grazed my left shoulder, the pain awesome but bearable. I could feel the blood running sticky and red under my shirt and down the inside of my arm. Then, like inevitability was waiting to be heard from, the silence in the town smashed and broken, lamplights promising to pop on, there ripped a second shot from another darkened area and I waited until the bullet would hit me, also inevitably, the new pain to ride atop the first wound.
It did not come my way.
The telegrapher had screamed from wherever he had awaited the night's events, but the sheriff had acted, probably in the same second or two that Stockridge had shot at me and put a bullet directly into Stockridge's chest.
One shot from the sheriff and the wanted notice on Calumet "Cal" Stockridge was passé.
The headline was already written, the leaded composition would have to wait until morning and Calumet Cal Stockridge's name, on purpose, did not make the front page of The Odyssey because I made it happen. All that publicity belonged to Sheriff Peale Doyle, hero of Rockville in the dark of night, catching a bushwhacker at work, in an act of vengeance.
The telegrapher and I shared our stories many times with beer and interested parties in the Eagle Claw Saloon, but his versions always seemed longer than mine.