Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
He came riding into Contention with the chill of the desert night.
A cold, hard-looking man up in his years and down on his luck. The deep lines in his face were worn and aggravated, much like his demeanor as he swung down from the saddle and picketed his horse at the hitch-rail across the street from the saloon. His horse looked equally as old and worn out, and offered no struggle when he tied the reins to the rail and left the horse there when he started for the saloon.
As he walked, he glanced either way down the street. As far as he could tell, no one had seen him ride into town.
With luck, he thought, he could keep a low profile long enough to grab a warm meal for himself and restock on supplies.
He slipped through the batwing doors and into the loud, boisterous interior of the saloon. The drunkards, which consisted of mostly all those present, paid him no mind, but he caught the eyes of a couple of card players sitting at a table in the corner. But the man kept his head down and adjusted the brim of his hat to sit a little lower.
He made his way up to the bar, and the bartender looked up into his tired face.
“What’ll it be?” the bartender asked over the babble.
“Whiskey,” the old man grunted. “And some food.”
The bartender nodded.
The old man glanced around the saloon. In his years, which consisted of up ways of fifty in number, the old man had seen so many boomtowns not unlike the one he was in. Dodge City, a place where violence nestled itself in the bloody streets and in the guns of those who walked them. Tombstone, a town appropriately named for its reputation and what occurred there. Deadwood, El Paso, Odessa, the list went on and on. He had seen them all. And he knew the type of individuals that lived there.
They were individuals who knew how to survive, individuals who knew when and how to speak with their shooting irons. He had been like them once, a young buck who could handle a gun as easily as he could a horse. Now he was an old man, withered by his time on the frontier.
He had fought during the War.
The battle scars left behind were prominent in the malicious glimmer of his eyes as he stood there in the saloon, his ears perked and his mind alert.
That was one thing he had yet to lose, he thought.
It was his will to survive, the will to do what was necessary.
He had killed men before. Many men, as a matter of fact. Men that were as cold and hard as he himself had been, if not colder or harder. But never once had his killings been outside of the realms of a fair fight. He had always been staring into the faces of the men he’d killed when he’d shot them, either in the street or in a musty saloon not unlike the one he was standing in.
The bartender returned with a tray of food and a bottle of whiskey. He served the old man the food and poured a shot glass full of whiskey. The old man downed the drink as hard as ever, the very taste of the whiskey burning his throat all the way down. He shook off the bitterness of the drink and turned his attention to the meal before him.
He forked a piece of steak and brought it to his crusty lips. As he took the meat from the fork, the saloon doors swung open and four younger men came swaggering in. He chewed his piece of meat thoughtfully and glanced around at them.
The first man was no more than nineteen or twenty, the youngest by a few years, but by far the wildest. The second was a taller man, with a scruffy face and a wide-brimmed hat. The third was the shortest, round and plump, his red shirt bursting at the seams, and not as a result of muscle. The fourth man stood a head higher than the others but kind of skulked behind them.
They all four wore their guns tied down.
The old man went back to eating his steak and the four men moseyed their way over to the bar.
Somehow, the old man thought, he could see himself in all four of them. They were all young, uncertain, probably headstrong and a bit brash.
He minded his own and ate quickly. He did his best to ignore the voices of the four newcomers, and was at the end of his meal when he suddenly perked up at the words of the first of them who had entered.
He glanced in their direction and swallowed hard his last bite of steak. “What was that name, boy?” he asked quietly.
The four of them stopped talking and looked his way, as if they were only then becoming aware of anyone else’s presence in the saloon besides their own.
“What’s it to you, old man?” the first and youngest retorted.
No respect, the old man thought. Oh yes, he could definitely see himself in this boy.
“These old ears of mine ain’t like they always was,” the old man, forcing a small smile while resisting the urge to step over there and bust the youngster once across the mouth. “Thought I heard a name I recognized, that’s all.”
“Well,” the man in the wide-brimmed hat perked up, “you’d best ought to’ve heard uh Jim Benjamin.”
“Oh yes,” the old man said, a slight twitch in the corner of his mouth. “I thought I recognized that name. What of him? He must be dead by now, shouldn’t he?”
“Jim Benjamin was my grandfather,” the first man piped up and said.
“That’s right,” the short, plump man said, “you ought to see this boy shoot. He can outshoot the best of ‘em any day.”
The old man looked into the short man’s chunky, boyish face. “That so, huh?”
The boy nodded.
This is where the old man should have just left it all alone and let them have their fun. He knew he should have just let it be, but he couldn’t.
And he had a good reason.
“I’m willin’ to bet,” the old man said after a moment, “that you boys ain’t seen the best of ‘em.”
“Just what you sayin’, old man?” said the fourth man, the tallest of them, who had remained silent up until this point.
“I’m sayin’ that unless you boys’ve have made it as far as Dodge or El Paso, you ain’t seen half the best of ‘em.”
The youngest stepped forward and looked hard into the old man’s face. “Now look here, mister, you ain’t got no right to tell me who I am.”
“I know one thing, son, and you ain’t the grandson of no Jim Benjamin.”
“How’d you know?” the boy pushed.
“Because Jim Benjamin ain’t got no kids,” the old man returned sharply, “and if he did have grandsons, they sure would have more respect than what you got!”
Suddenly the old man became aware of his surroundings. He had grown increasingly louder, and now the entire saloon was dead silent. He was posed with his body facing the group of boys, and his eyes were mere slits through which he stared down at the youngsters, who stood not ten feet away from him. His right hand was hovering over his hip and the holster that resided there. Instinctively, he had pulled back the edge of his duster to reveal the older model Remington that rested in the holster.
The three men who had entered with the youngster drew back suddenly, leaving the old man and the youngster standing toe-to-toe, mere feet apart.
“You callin’ me a liar?” the youngster asked, his voice loud and forceful.
“Looks that way,” the old man said softly.
The bartender swore softly and ducked down behind the bar.
The others in the saloon scattered, several ducking down behind their tables while others rushed through the batwing doors with hopes of watching the action through the windows.
The youngster’s chest rose and fell quickly, but the old man’s hand remained steady and calm.
Like so many times before, the old man felt his heart pounding in his ears. For a moment he felt young again, young and headstrong. But he reminded himself right there that he was old and weather-beaten. And it was that very thought that kept him grounded right there.
An instant later the youngster’s hand fell to grip mahogany.
The old man’s hand fell down smoothly at the same moment. His hand came up in a blur of motion.
The gun bucked once in his grip, and the youngster stumbled backward.
The three boys he’d come in with caught him in mid-fall and held him upright for a long moment.
Smoke rose from the muzzle of the old man’s Remington and he thumbed the hammer back again.
The boy’s gun had barely managed to clear leather, when the old man had shot him. He now stared at the old man with a mixture of silent rage and disbelief in his eyes. A red splotch stained his shirtfront, but he struggled upright again and lifted the Colt.
The old man fired into him once more. The bullet spun the youngster around a full circle before he collapsed onto the wood floor of the saloon.
Silence hung in the air.
It seemed as though every breath in the saloon had ceased. The place felt empty and dead.
The old man turned the Remington on the other three boys. “Whose next?”
They glanced at each other and started slowly for the batwing doors. They disappeared through them a moment later.
The bartender emerged from his position behind the bar and he looked over at the old man. “You’d better get out of here right now, mister.”
“How come?” the old man asked as he fed two fresh rounds into the empty chambers of the Remington.
“You just shot Jim Benjamin’s grandson. His pa lives just outside of town, and he’ll be a-comin’ in here lookin’ for you.”
“Let ‘em come. He ain’t no son of Jim Benjamin.”
“What makes you so sure, stranger?” the bartender asked, inclining his head.
The old man slid the Remington back into the holster and looked over at the bartender. “Because I’m Jim Benjamin.”
The bartender’s jaw dropped and he stood gaping at the old man. Rarely in those times did a man live to see past the fifty year mark, and if they did, hardly ever could a man still handle a gun as calmly as Jim Benjamin had right there.
“Look, Mr. Benjamin,” the bartender managed to say, “the boy you just shot was named Val Benjamin. Now, Lord knows he got what was a-comin’ his way, but his pa is Dent Benjamin, and Dent ain’t gonna take too kindly to you shootin’ his boy. But, Mr. Benjamin, if you don’t mind my sayin’, wouldn’t that make Dent Benjamin your son?”
“I ain’t got no kids,” Jim Benjamin said, pouring himself another shot of whiskey. “I’ll be waitin’ at that table over there, and when this Dent Benjamin shows up, you just point ‘em in the right d’rection.”
An hour later, a man bearing a striking resemblance to Jim Benjamin rode into Contention on a lively red stud.
He swung down from the saddle as the three boys his son had ran around with drew rein behind him. He forced his way through the batwing doors of the saloon and looked hard at the bartender, whose expression showed that he was worried.
“Where is he?” Dent Benjamin asked harshly.
His hands trembling, the bartender pointed best he could to the old man sitting at the table in the far corner of the saloon. The three boys who had witnessed Val Benjamin’s death peered in through the batwing doors as Dent Benjamin turned and started for the old man at the table.
The old man rose from the table and Dent Benjamin stopped just ten feet in front of him.
Several moments passed in silence as the two men measured each other’s size.
Then Jim Benjamin shook his head. “I ain’t got no kids.”
“You wouldn’t know, would you?” Dent muttered. “Does the name Fiona Cash mean anything to you?”
Jim Benjamin looked as though he were deep in thought for a moment, then he looked back at Dent but said nothing.
“Well?” Dent urged.
“Yes,” the old man said in a quiet voice. “Yes it does. But you ain’t no son of mine. My son would raise his son with more respect for men that you did.”
“Well I wouldn’t know much about how to raise a son. I never had no father around to tell me any different.”
Jim Benjamin stared hard at the man who was seeming more and more like his own son with every passing moment. They resembled each other in their features, and their posture and build was almost perfectly matched for each other.
“You left us alone,” Dent said softly. “You left us alone and you didn’t care. That’s the difference between you and me. You never gave two cents for anything important in life. I do. And I gave more’n two cents for my own son.”
At that moment, Jim Benjamin’s hand fell and gripped the butt of the Remington. It was a smooth, fast draw, and both men fired at almost the exact same moment.
Only Jim Benjamin’s shot had been too quick, and his round cut close to Dent Benjamin’s cheekbone.
Jim Benjamin felt a sudden burning sensation deep in his chest, and then his upper body exploded into pain. He looked down at his shirtfront stained with blood, and then back up at his son. He shouted a curse and moved to draw back the hammer.
Dent shot into him again, and then again.
The old man fell against the wall and slumped down to the ground. As his vision dimmed, he watched as Dent holstered his weapon.
At that moment, Jim Benjamin accepted his fate. He accepted what was happening to him. Suddenly all he wanted was someone to be there for him, to comfort him as he died.
The last thing Jim Benjamin ever saw was his son turning and walking away, leaving him there to die.