Western Short Story
She owned the place, lock, stock and barrel, and let every new customer know she was the boss.
“Listen, cowpokes, saddle tramps, sheriffs who’ve lost their way, drummers, all other gents in the mix if there are any of you, and ladies from elsewhere, where I came from, the highs and lows of Heaven and Hell and all the spots in between, I’m the boss here. Not boss man, but Boss Woman, so best listen up and hear what I have to say.”
Her name was Cheri.
Booksville sat on the Snake River in northwestern Idaho, and Cheri’s Saloon with all social attachments, which meant a second floor up a long stairway to a landing for half a dozen rooms, rode the edge of that river. And at the far end of town, like a totem for the endless history of the place, could be seen the ashy remains of the first library in northwestern Idaho, built by the inspiration of Cheri with her own funds, and which was burned down by the irate, insensible and importunate gun slinger who went by the name of Trace Waco. The remains were a toss of burned beams and planks still caught up in ashy coatings thick with devil-darkness and due to last forever. Shelves and their contents, tossed loose by the inferno, driven dowels torched by fire in their deeply appointed places, and the gutted clusters of memorable literature of the times, stayed as they were for a year by a town council order reminding people of what had happened in Booksville.
And what they hoped would never happen again!
Cheri, it will be easy to see, had a profound effect on the members of the council. She was the former wife to the council president, mother of the newest and youngest member, and confidant and true sweetheart of another member. Three of a kind is a great start in any poker game, and Cheri could play poker with the best of men.
This then is a story of a woman of the times and the first library, and, of course, Cheri’s Place, her latest landmark, a testament to the wiles of one woman, the guns of a wild man, and the code of the west that blossomed from such situations; women are different than men in all eyes, revenge is a staple of the male character, but be wary when it becomes the woman’s.
Cheri had been ushered out of one town by a sheriff, rushed out of another by a cadre of women of the town, fled another place town at threats on her life, went off with one admirer who dumped her on the road without even leaving her baggage. One day she stopped at the edge of a town along the trail in Idaho.
Changes in the landscape began.
Some of her minions said she carried the scars of all her past problems. But one thing about Cheri was evident from the word go: she was resolute. There was no way around that determination: she was resolute, and folks who knew her came to accept that no matter how long they knew her: she had learned through her tribulations.
It did not hurt her ventures or her history that she was also one of the west’s most beautiful women, a dark-haired beauty so shapely and so charming that she was the envy of all women she came in contact with and all the men whether in contact or not. In her eyes she carried the mystic’s answer to many questions, the judge’s eyes on fair play, the adventurer’s eyes for romance and new fields, and the sparkle of a fuse sat there in continual motion.
But all things counted in a woman of the early west, and whether desirous or not, formidable or not, mysterious or not to onlookers, Cheri had one insurmountable passion … she was a reader. Books were to her the single and most prominent interest in her life; she had spent innumerable hours reading every book that had ever come into her hands …whether bought, gifted, borrowed or found, she read them all. And when the library she built in a town she had renamed as Booksville, using her wiles, of course, was set afire by a drunken, illiterate, drifting saddle bum by the name of Trace Waco, she planned her revenge for the deed.
Cheri recalled too often the two screams she heard on one unforgettable night, the first one inside her saloon, and the second one from the end of town where, at her own cost, she had built the first library in Idaho and began stocking its shelves with all her own books at first, and then with hundreds of donations of other books from like-minded people. The content of the library had grown and it was in constant use and each book was recorded in and out of the library. She loved to see the younger people reading books on the premises or taking them home to read.
With these activities her beauty and disposition was abloom all the time, and when she heard that first scream in the saloon on the inevitable and horrendous night, she knew one of her girls was in trouble.
She saw one of them sag into a corner where she had been thrown by a man who accused her of stealing his money. “Damned tramp stole my money. I had sixty dollars and now all I got is a few bucks. I don’t know what she did with my money, but I want every dollar back.”
Cheri rushed to her girl and asked what happened. “Trace Waco just up and swung at me and flung me here and started screaming I stole his money, sixty dollars’ worth. He was going to buy me a drink and I saw he only had a couple of bills in his fold, so I called him a liar, a damned liar.”
Cheri swung around and faced the drunken Trace Waco. “Where’d you get sixty dollars, Trace? You’ve been sitting in here for a week and I know you haven’t worked for a month or more. So where’d you get sixty dollars?” Her hands were resting on her hips, her chin thrust out further marking her doubt about his claim.
“Maybe it wasn’t sixty dollars, but it was a lot I got from gambling.”
Cheri looked around the room, and in a loud voice, said, “Anybody here play poker with Waco and lose some money to him in the last month or so?” She had many ways of commanding attention.
Nobody answered. Nobody said yes and nobody said no. It was enough for Cheri. “Throw him out,” she ordered two of her hired men. “Throw the liar out in the street. If he comes in here again like he is now and hurts any of my girls, I’ll shoot him myself.” This was Cheri’s Place and she was the boss.
Trace Waco was tossed out on his ear.
The second cry came about an hour later.
All that she heard was a cry of terror, “Fire. Fire. The library’s on fire.”
Cheri’s heart was in her throat as she rushed out to be greeted by roaring flamesburning up her chunk of civilization. Not only fiery sparks flew skyward from the inferno, but shards of magic, shards of pages, shards of words by the thousands flying aloft, words that she had read, perhaps a hundred times, words she’d never forget this side of her grave.
Tears flooded her eyes, and immediate anger … the fire was so quick in its claiming the building that she knew it had been set. And with it went part of her heart and part of her soul. The words went aloft in the flames, her great hours of reading, and the load of them nearly crushed her as the litany of burnt-words flying into the air included innumerable favorites; Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist, Wuthering Heights, A Tale of Two Cities, The Three Musketeers, Moby Dick, A New England Tale, The Lion of the West, Westward Ho!, Twice-Told Tales and The Last of the Mohicans … the losses careened in her head. It brought again the eternal thought about where she was, what she was doing with her life, and what she might have been otherwise. And yet satisfaction stayed within her, at some yield, because of her reading, because of her favorite hours at a favorite task.
She’d find out who had set the fire, and why. There’d be payback.
Down along the Snake River, and along the lower foothills of the mountain range, Waco, in the way of some fast gunmen and braggart bullies, quick with the gun, slick with the tongue, boasted continually of his act, shooting off his mouth in a number of locations in northwestern Idaho; “Books are for the weird ones who’d rather read by a fire than cook at it or be warmed by it. They fill their minds and their mouths with pretty words some damned easterner or some idiot from far-off Europe made up to fool folks from the Mississippi all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They just try to cheat us of what hard work brung us. Simple as that. Libraries are for burnin’ books, like I did. Nice big fires feedin’ on silly words fillin’ up silly pages in silly books don’t know what ails a sick horse or a sick cow, or what can take care of a few stray Injuns and renegades. What damned cowpoke you ever see had time to read instead of doin’ his work? We all were born for the saddle; that’ll never change. You got be proud of what I did. No more lallygaggin’ for any of us out this way by smarty pants or bronco ladies from way east of us. Like someone we knowed right along the river here.”
But before the day was over, Cheri had collected from her reading, and from her vast memory, some solace in attributes and comments so fitting for the occasion that she could have imbedded them on the rocks along the Snake River for all good men to see, and women, but collected them instead on paper, her hand neat in large block printing and hung it on a board she mounted on the bar of the saloon so everyone would see it:
“Until death do us part,” recalled from a wedding performance recently attended.
`“When death comes, all that we have is left to others, all that we are we take with us.” (Some kind of baggage in the case of Waco, she thought.)
“One who does not know when to die, does not know how to live.”(From John Ruskin’s work.)
“When one man dies, a chapter is not torn out of a book, but translated into a better language.”(A quote from John Donne that she dearly treasured.)
(And lastly came a tale twisted from its unknown origin by Cheri herself.)“A person doesn’t die when he can, but when he should.” (She’d pick the time for Waco, if she had her druthers and she was sure that time would come.)
She quickly agreed that with a second breath she could mine dozens of other apt quotations from her memory, from her books, and promised herself that she would rebuild the library, especially for the children. Nothing pleased her more than seeing children’s eyes light up at some passage in a book that had touched them so they’d remember the words and the place where those words came from.
Some of the townspeople rushed to her aid, and some, abashed or alarmed by Trace Waco and his implied threats against good health of those who thought readers were exalted people, sat back waiting for developments within the situation. She knew them beforehand, by name, by face, by their infrequent visits to the library, or, most grievous, by their reluctance to let the young ones in their families enjoy the gifts of the library. At length she built up a pity for them … they were missing so much that was at hand, and was free.
Waco meanwhile heard some of the talk about Cheri’s promise to rebuild the library. He’d take care of that deal in a hurry. Sitting with some other ornery pals in a dark saloon downriver about 20 miles, he admitted how much hate he had for “that damned witch up there in Booksville and her damned books. When I get through there they’ll call the place Ashville.” He roared at his own fun at somebody else’s discomfort or pain. Some of his pals figured they could see right down through his soul.
More than 40 or so patrons of that saloon heard him say as he held his idea of court right at the bar, “I’ll let that crazy woman go as far as I want her to go, buildin’ up what she can build up, before I take care of the whole new shebang with one lit match and a can full of lamp oil where it’s most needed.”
Without half trying he could scare a lot of people with his threats … because he had fulfilled so many of them.
One of those folks in the know would say that Waco had anger in him sinceas a lad he was burned intentionally by his father. For all time thereafter he hated seeing happiness in others, and he found much hate for Cheri and her library, and “those mealy-mouthed kids who come out of there talkin’ a language no good cowboy would wrap his tongue around no matter what.”
In Booksville, coming back into the properties of its name, the new library construction was underway, with rocks in a large square that would be the seat for timbers on the bottom of the walls. It was Cheri herself who stepped off the 8 feet for each pile of base rocks that outlined the sides of the building. She had read it all in a book and made sure that each instruction she had read came into place. Even some people not of her mind stopped to admire her dedication and drive.
And so the building rose from those rocks and timbers to find a pitched roof to that would protect the new collection of books in the new library; some donations had already come her way.
But she was busy not only in the day but at night, late at night, and some of it was commanding a secret cadre of watchers who’d report any suspicious activity to her. There was no accounting for what Trace Waco would do to back up his constant talk; he was still blowing wind with his raggy mouth and the word had spread all along the Snake River. He was a real rat with his mind set on more destruction in Booksville.
One cowpoke said, “What the hell you got against that gal, Trace? What’d she do to you?”
“You shut your mouth, amigo, or I’ll shut it for you. That mighty miss threw me out of her place right in front of all my friends, like I was a trail bum, a saddle tramp, and I ain’t goin’ to forget it ever. Would you ever forget bein’ tossed out of a saloon in front of all your pards? Tell me, would you?”
“No, I guess I wouldn’t.” He didn’t bring up the reason for Waco’s being tossed out on his butt. No sense going there with Trace Waco, his hand sitting too close to his Colt, him being as fast as they all said he was.
And it was a few nights later that an old buck in the town, a supporting friend of the old burned-down library and a supporting friend of the nearly completed new edition of the Booksviille Library, Homerus Sattersby, slipped up to Cheri at the saloon and said, very secretly, “If you were to look behind Chelsea Ed’s Barbershop you’ll find a tin full of lamp oil that some critter hid there last night after he rode in from the black beyond and left out the same way. I’d best watch out who comes into town tomorrow who hasn’t been here, as far as you and I know, for some time. I‘m not saying who I think it is, but you and I would have a damned good guess what he’s up to.”
A warm feeling welled up in her as she looked at the old man, a regular customer since she had opened the saloon. He wore his age in a series of folds and wrinkles, managed with a stutter in his step, carried an almost-seen pain sitting in one hand, but his blue eyes came up as friendly as a new-found waterhole.
Cheri snapped her finger on the bar and said to the barkeep, “Chuck, set up Homer for as long as he’s here, today, tomorrow, next year, as long as I’m here.” She gave Homerus Sattersby a long and delicious hug, and whispered in his ear, “Don’t do anything about this except drink. I’ll take care of the details.”
She tapped Sattersby on his backside, which brought a blush to his already warm face and he kept it there as the bartender slipped another mug up on the bar.
The moon had gone behind the clouds where the stars were hidden. Midnight passed into the next day, a barn owl was quizzical in his dim retreat, a far coyote trumpeted a conquest in the darkness, and Booksville, most of it, had gone to sleep. But, with rifle in hand, Cheri stood at the edge of Hogan’s Hat and Dress Store that was diagonally across the street from the new library needing only a few decorations at the front door. She had set herself up diagonally across from the new library, in an even triangle with Ed Chelsea’s Barbershop.
She heard the horse first, at a walk, and heard it come to a stop behind the barbershop. The horse’s entrance seemed to have come from a copse of trees at the end of town and if retraced would lead any rider directly out of town and on the road up or down the Snake River.
This end of town was as dark as it could be, but she had accustomed her eyes to the deep night. At the peak of one mountain she knew was out there a faint star appeared. Her mind flooded with known images, and words came with them. She was so confidant and held the rifle so loosely in her hands that she almost dropped it at one point.
It was in that moment when she heard a small tinny clank and guessed it was the tin full of lamp oil bumping against a smaller object. There followed long minutes of nothing, as if the secreted person was taking all precautions against being found at his errand, with silence having only the owl as company and most likely the same coyote. Not a nicker came from the man’s horse.
The faint star above the unseen mountain peak had faded.
And the first boot step sounded as it found a stone in the road. Silence, utter stillness, sat again in place for another minute. Cheri held her breath, secured her hands on the rifle, and set her eyes out on the middle of the dark road.
There was, she could have said aloud, Hell to be paid in short order.
The figure out there on the roadbed was a man holding a dark object in his hands, and he was moving with very cautious steps toward the new library.
Cheri knew she could not shoot at this time. There could be lots of reasons or excuses brought up in a court hearing of why the man might have been there at that time.
She’d wait. It was worth the wait. She saw again the words rushing in flames off into the night sky from the old library. Hell was so uneven in its very being.
The argument reigned in her as the figure stepped slowly with each step toward the library. The owl called out again and the figure stopped, held itself in place for nearly a full minute, and then advanced again. Directly over the new library a single star, brighter than the earlier one, appeared in one simple way, as if a door had opened.
She brought the rifle to her shoulder, leaned against the solid wall of the store and took aim on the figure as it neared the library … a library needing only a few decorations at the door, she thought, not a tin full of lamp oil.
In the almost total darkness, set off by the single star, the figure turned in place, looked around, at one point in that arc seemed to be staring at Cheri. She did not breathe, did not move, and did not even squeeze the trigger of the rifle, afraid that the sound would set off an alarm.
Miraculously, as if by special intervention, a second star came from behind the far mountain peak, and then a third star and a fourth star came from behind the far mountain peak or from behind the thick clouds. She smiled, more images coming into place for her, as the dark figure finally faced the library mere feet in front of him. With two hands he lifted and positioned the tin of lamp oil off to one side of his body as if to swing the contents in a high arc and toss them upon the library.
He was a mere second away from dousing the library, its new shelves lined with new masters of the language, donations from the good folks of the entire local area.
Cheri squeezed off one shot, not at the man but at the tin of oil as it closed to its highest point. The rifle shot sounded as loud as cannon in the street of Booksville, and the slug itself tore directly into the tin of oil. It was followed by the unbelievable clang of two metal objects coming together with great force. A few sparks ignited. The contents of the tin flew all over, some of it coming down on the dark figure … that did not stay dark for very long.
A single flame from the sparks lit up on his person, and then a second flame and a rush of flames leaped into brightness. The once-dark figure screamed.
The sleepy town of Booksville was awakened in a hurry. Feet pounded into action. Screams ran into the night, and Homerus Sattersby, hidden while on his own duty watch, yelled out, “Get some water. Trace Waco is on fire. He tried to burn down the library again, but Cheri caught him at it.”
Other folks arrived. A bucket of water was tossed onto the prone figure of Trace Waco writhing on the ground. The sheriff, once the flames were doused on Waco, took him into custody. “You’re going to jail, Waco, and no one deserves it more than you.”
Trace Waco said nothing, his braggart days over, his tail between his legs and the library lady of Booksville back where she belonged, in two places … in her new library and in her own saloon.
A few nights later, after the grand opening, more secret activity took place at the site of the library. In the morning the first risers saw a new sign on the library that simply said, in heavy black letters, “Cheri’s Place II.”
Nobody ever admitted putting the sign there, but Cheri suspected it was Homerus Sattersby who was still enjoying himself at her bar. Every night she felt like giving the old man a hug and a kiss. It was worth every page of all this, she would argue at the drop of a coin, or the first word offered on the matter.