Western Short Story
“Davey boy, you’ve been askin’ where to take a bath since you arrived here two weeks ago,” Tom Bascomb, foreman of the Double D ranch, said to the spread’s newest hand. Well, here it is. And the me’n the boys have even decided to let you take the first bath, so you’ll have nice, clean water. Usually the new man gets the last bath, which means he washes in the leftover dirt from all the other hands. Consider it a favor to your pa.”
Tom dragged a tin, zinc coated number 10 size round washtub into the bunkhouse.
“There’s kettles of hot water ready on the stove,” he continued. “Fill up this tub, get your soap from your stuff, and climb in. Make certain you don’t splash out too much water. The other boys are gonna need that water, too.”
David Duane Denton III looked at the small tub, in disbelief.
“That’s it? That’s the bathtub,” he said, incredulously. “Those are used to wash clothes back home. Not people.”
“In cans you haven’t figured it out by now, Davey boy, you ain’t at home any more, with your mammy and pappy to coddle you,” Tom retorted. “You’ve been compainin’ about needin’ to take a bath. We’re headin’ into town tonight for some fun, unless you think you’re too good to have a few drinks, do a little gamblin’, and maybe dancin’ with a gal or two. So either fill the tub and take your bath, or let the other men have theirs. You won’t get another chance for at least two more weeks, because we’re headin’ out on the range to start roundin’ up the cows come Monday mornin’, at the break of dawn.”
Dave sighed, and muttered a curse under his breath. He took the kettles off the stove, and dumped them into the tub. That done, he retrieved a bar of harsh yellow soap, washcloth and towel from the footlocker at the bottom of his bunk. He also took out his razor, shaving mug, and boar’s hair brush. It would feel good to get the two weeks’ worth of stubble off his face and neck. He set his things on a small, rough-hewn table alongside the tub, then took the kettles from off of the wood stove and poured their contents into the small tub. Steam rose into the air. Dave stood there, motionless.
“Well, are you gonna take your bath, or ain’t ya?” Shorty Wilcox, one of the Double D’s veteran hands, asked. “I’m more’n ready to get cleaned up for a night on the town, after days of doin’ nothing, but doctorin’ cows, mending fences, and shoein’ horses.”
“Aren’t you fellows going to leave the room, so I can have some privacy?” Dave replied. His clipped eastern accent differed greatly from the other men’s western drawls.
“Hell no,” Shorty answered, with a derisive snort. “What in the blue blazes makes you think we’d leave our comfortable bunks or chairs, to wait outside in the hot sun, just so no one’ll see you without your britches on? Lemme tell you, kid, you ain’t got nothin’ the rest of us haven’t already seen. So either strip off your duds and get into that tub, or, by gosh, I’ll toss you in there myself, clothes and all. And don’t take too long with your bath, neither. There’s ten more of us waitin’.”
Dave let go a sigh of disgust. Shorty might be small, but he was wiry, and Dave had no doubt he would be able to do exactly what he threatened. Reluctantly, he undressed, then crammed his lanky frame into the tub. Since there was no way to stretch out and relax, even though the hot water felt mighty good, he quickly scrubbed off as much dirt as he could, washed his hair, then stepped out and toweled off. He wrapped the towel around his waist, made a lather for his shave, then stepped up to the chipped, cracked mirror hanging on the bunkhouse wall. He scraped the whiskers from his neck, face, and jaw, then headed back to his bunk. He pulled on his underwear, then stretched out on the thin mattress.
“Glad you left most of the water,” Shorty said, with a grin, as he stepped into the tub. The rest of the men were lined up behind him. Dave cradled his head in his hands as he lay on his back, staring at the ceiling and lost in thought.
Why in the world did I ever pull that fool prank on the President of Priceton University? Stealing his wife’s petticoat from the laundry and hanging it from the flagpole shouldn’t have been that big a deal. I’d never expected it to get me even suspended, let alone expelled. Not with my father’s money and influence. I thought for certain Father would endow another chair and the whole thing would be forgotten. I he didn’t, I thought Mother would, for certain. I never even imagined I’d be thrown out of school, let alone be sent to this God-forsaken place. Joes, Colorado! Dave snorted. Until Father ordered me here, I’d never even known he’d bought a ranch. I should be home in Philadelphia, with my pick of Main Line debutantes. Instead, I’m stuck here in the middle of nowhere, with a bunch of ignorant cowboys, caring for Father’s cattle. Even worse, he won’t let me return home until his stupid manager says I’ve grown up. If only Mother could convince him to let me come back.
Dave sighed again. There was no way that was about to happen. His being thrown out of his father’s alma mater had brought great embarrassment to the Denton family. It had even made the front page of all the Philadelphia newspapers, and most of the New Jersey ones. His escapades had even made the New York Times. No, he couldn’t see any way out of this fix. Not this time
Dave’s father, David Duane Denton, Junior, was a wealthy Philadelphia banker and financier. He and his wife, Natalie, were pillars of Philadelphia society, and expected their three children to behave as proper members of the upper class should. Dave’s older sister and younger brother certainly toed the line in that respect. However, Dave had a rebellious streak, which was always landing him in hot water. The prank which had gotten him expelled from Princeton was the last straw for the family. Unbeknownst to Dave, his father had purchased a large ranch in Colorado, the Rocking S, as an investment several years previously. He’d changed the name to the Double D, but other than that made few changes, leaving Jake Skinner, the experienced cattleman who was already running the ranch, in charge as manager. Between Skinner’s savvy and the money Denton, Junior invested on improvements to the ranch and its livestock, the Double D had thrived. Now, Dave’s father hoped the hard life of a cowboy, on an isolated Colorado ranch, which was fourteen miles from the nearest settlement, the tiny hamlet of Joes, would instill in his son the virtues of hard work and responsibility. The ranch, and town, were out on the desolate, windswept plains of eastern Colorado, hard by the Kansas state line, well over a hundred and fifty miles from the temptations of Denver to the west and Dodge City to the southeast.
Still exhausted after two weeks hard work, Dave dozed off. He started dreaming about his arrival in Joes.
When he’d found out he was being banished to Colorado, Dave’s first stop was at Wanamaker’s, the premier department store in Philadelphia. He’d told the sales clerk of his fate, and asked him to order a proper cowboy outfit. It took almost a week, but a package finally arrived from somewhere out West. Dave didn’t bother to ask where. The package contained an oversized, flat brimmed and high-crowned white Stetson, two pairs of tan whipcord riding pants, two silk shirts, one bright green and the other a dazzling yellow, two silk neckerchiefs, one bright red, the other royal blue, a pair of shiny brown boots, and last, but not least, a twin gunbelt and holsters, along with two silver-plated, pearl-handled Colt .45 Peacemakers. Dave donned the green shirt and blue bandanna after getting off the train in Colby, Kansas, while waiting for the stage that would take him to Joes.
Dave’s arrival in Joes was more horrible than any nightmare he’d ever had. The crew from the Double D had met the stage at the edge of town, firing their six-shooters into the air as they accompanied it to the depot. Once the coach stopped, one of the cowboys, as it turned out Jake Skinner himself, leaned over in his saddle and opened the door.
“Howdy, Mr. Denton!” he shouted, then, when Dave stepped out of the stage, fell dead silent, along with the rest of the Double D hands. That stunned silence only lasted for a moment, before the entire crew burst into raucous laughter, their guffaws so loud they seemed to echo down the street. Tears rolled down their cheeks as they slapped each others’ backs at the sight of Dave and his colorful outfit.
“Boy howdy, Mr. Denton, I’ve never seen the likes,” Jake said, when he was finally able to stop laughing. “You’re the flashiest dude I’ve ever laid eyes on. I’m Jake Skinner, manager of your pa’s spread. The hombre next to me is Tom Bascomb, the ranch foreman. I’ll introduce you to the rest of the boys on our way to the ranch. But I guess we’d better stop by the store first and get you some real workn’ clothes. Those you got on wouldn’t last an hour on a cow spread. Soon as we get you the right duds, we’ll head for the ranch. Tom’s leadin’ your bronc.”
Things had only gotten worse since that first day. Dave had been assigned only one horse so far, a palomino called Sunflower. The spirited gelding has thrown Dave several times before they finally came to a truce, of sorts. He did have to admit the horse had taught him how to become an adequate, if not expert, rider. As for cow work, he hated every bit of it. He did have to admit though, if only to himself, that the hard work and outdoor living had toughened him up. His skin was bronzed by the sun and wind, and his muscles pushed at the seams of his shirts. Slight wrinkles had appeared at the corners of his brown eyes, and his brown, wavy hair now hung to his collar.
“Davey boy, time to wake up if you’re goin’ to town,” Tom yelled. He slapped the bottom of Dave’s bare right foot.
“huh? What?” Dave mumbled, startled awake. “Oh, yeah.” He sat on the edge of his bunk, running a hand through his hair.
“The hell with what anyone thinks,” he muttered. “I’m wearin’ my fancy duds to town. Duds? Heaven forbid, I’m even startin’ to talk like a cowboy.”
He reached for his yellow shirt and red neckerchief.
Although neither one would admit it, Dave and Sunflower had developed a great affection for each other. Before cleaning up himself, Dave had curried Sunflower so that his hair gleamed like a newly minted gold coin. As they loped to town, Dave kept his horse well to the side, avoiding most of the dust thrown up by the other horses’ hooves.
It was just after sundown when they reached Joes, so the dusk hid most of the brightness of Dave’s shirt and neckerchief. A few passersby did shout something and point at him, but Dave rode stiff in the saddle, ignoring their loud, and sometimes crude, comments.
“Dave, don’t worry,” Tom assured him, as they reined up in front of the Cowman’s Saloon. “You might be a tenderfoot, and that outfit you’re wearin’ sure marks you as a dude from back East, but you’re part of the Double D now. That means, if any man tries to take you one, he’ll be takin’ on all of us. We all ride for the brand.”
Dave nodded his head. “Thanks, Tom.”
The Double D crew dismounted, climbed the stairs, and piled inside the saloon. They bellied up to the bar, shouting their orders. When the bartender reached Dave, he started to snicker, then stopped short at Tom’s glare.
“This is Dave Denton, Mack,” Tom said. “He’s one of the owners of the Double D, along with his pa. You might want to think on that, since without the ranch this town will dry up and blow away… and your saloon with it.”
“All right, Tom. What’ll it be, Mr. Denton?”
“Do you have some cognac?” Dave asked.
Mack shook his head.
“I dunno what that even is,” he said. “Muster, I’ve got good whiskey, bad whiskey, real rotgut, and beer. Take your pick.”
“I’ll have the good whiskey,” Dave answered. “Bring me a bottle.”
“That’ll be two bucks,” Mack said. He removed a full bottle from the back bar shelf, uncorked it, then slammed the bottle and a glass on the bar. Dave slapped two silver dollars next to the bottle, Mack slid them off the bar and into his apron pocket.
“I’d go easy on that stuff, son,” Tom cautioned, as Dave filled the glass. “It has a kick like a mule.”
Dave nodded, then picked up the glass and downed the contents in one swallow. He began choking.
“Something wrong, Mr. Denton?” Mack asked, his voice full of innocence.
Dave grabbed him by the shirtfront.
“I told you I wanted the good stuff,” he answered, his voice tight.
“That is the good stuff,” Mack said.
“Then before I come back, you’d better have some better liquor in stock. Don’t worry, I’ll pay for it.”
“Yessir. Yes, sir, Mr. Denton,” Mack sputtered.
For the next hour, The Double D crew drank, quietly. One woman had approached Dave to offer her favors. He sent her away with a drink. No one else had bothered Dave, although they weren’t afraid of this Eastern dude. It was the tough outfit he rode with that kept them at bay. However, as the night wore on, liquor gave one of the other drinkers the courage he needed to confront Dave.
“Mister, that outfit you’ve got on is real purty, but it’s blindin’ me. I reckon I’m gonna have to rid those clothes off you and see just what kind of hombre would wear somethin’ like that.”
“Don’t you start any trouble in my place, Hank Snyder,” Mack warned.
“Why don’t you just leave him be, Snyder?” Joel Feldman, another of the Double D cowboys, said. “Dave ain’t botherin’ you any.” To Dave he added. “Hank Snyder, here, is a rider for another spread south of here, the Triangle T. The ranch isn’t much, and neither is he. Just ignore him, Dave.”
“I don’t believe I can do that,” Dave answered. “Mr. Snyder, you just insulted me, and my choice of clothes. I am going to respect Mack’s wishes, and avoid any fight in here. However, I would be most pleased to accompany you outside, where I shall thrash you soundly. I was champion of the Princeton Boxing Club, just to warn you.”
“Hombre, you talk as funny as you look,” Hank sneered. “It’s gonna be a real pleasure to tear you limb from limb. Let’s go.”
“Just one minute,” Tom said. “Both of you, take off your gunbelts and leave ’em at the bar with Mack. Your knives, too. We won’t have any cheatin’, by a man who decides to pull a weapon.”
“That’s fair enough,” Hank said. “I don’t need anythin’ but my fists to teach this dude a lesson he’ll never forget.”
“It’s gonna be a clean fight, too,” Tom said, glancing at Dave in hope he caught the warning. He knew Snyder had no intention of making this a fair fight. He’d beat Dave to a pulp any way he could.
Dave and Hank took off their gunbelts, handed them to Makc, then headed outside, followed by everyone who was also in the saloon. When they reached the middle of the street, Dave turned to face his challenger. He spread his feet and lifted his hands in a classic boxer’s stance.
“What the….?” Hank didn’t finish, when Dave threw a left hook at his chin. Hank easily ducked the punch, and slammed his right hand wrist deep in Dave’s belly, driving all the air from his lungs. Dave grabbed his gut, folded, and toppled to the road. He rolled onto his back, helpless while Hank drove blow after blow to his face and body. One of the punches broke Dave’s nose, with an audible crack. Blood streamed from both nostrils, pouring over his mouth and dripping from his chin.
Hank pulled his left arm back, to deliver a finishing punch to Dave’s chin. The blow never landed, for Dave drew back his right foot and kicked him squarely in the groin. Hank screamed in pain, grabbed his crotch, then dropped to his knees. Dave kicked him again, this time hard in the belly. Hank sagged to his face. Dave struggled to his feet, lifted Hank by the collar, and slammed three short, brutal punches to his face. He loosened his grip on Hank’s collar, letting the Triangle T cowboy drop to the dirt, out cold. The Double D hands let go a rousing cheer. Dave used his silk neckerchief, almost the same shade of crimson as the blood seeping from his nose, to staunch the flow.
“Dave, your outfit sure ain’t as pretty as it was,” Tom said. “I don’t think your face is ever gonna be, either. Lemme try and fix your nose.”
Tom put a hand on each side of Dave’s nose, then snapped it back into place.
“That’s the best I can do,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s always gonna be crooked.”
“Makes you look tougher though, kid,” Shorty said. “I’ve gotta admit, I never expected you stand up to Hank Snyder, let alone knock him senseless. Come back inside, we’ll clean you up and get you some more whiskey.”
“Just gimme a minute,” Dave said. “I need to check on Sunflower, make certain he’s still got hay and water. I’ll meet you back in the saloon in a few minutes.”
“You sure you’ll be all right?” Shorty asked.
“I’ll be fine,” Dave said. “You boys get your drinks. They’re on me. I’ll be with you in a bit.”
“As long as you’re certain,” Tom said. “But put your guns back on first. “Shorty, go get Dave’s rig.”
“Right, Tom,” Shorty answered. He ducked into the saloon, and returned with Dave’s Colt .45s.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Dave?” Tom asked once more,
“I’m positive,” Dave insisted. He buckled his gunbelt around his waist, picked up his now battered, dirt and blood stained Stetson and jammed in on his head. While his partners tramped back inside, he stumbled toward the livery stable.
When Dave passed a dark alley alongside the dress shop, two men emerged from it, and jammed the barrels of their pistols in his back.
“Hombre, you punched your ticket to Hell when you fought Hank Snyder,” one of them growled. “Now we’re gonna take care of you.”
“We sure are,” his partner added. “Turn around, real slow, and step back into the alley.”
“I don’t think I care to do that,” Dave said, his voice low and deadly. Before the two men could even blink, he jerked the Colt from his right hand holster, spun, and shot both men through their bellies. Both of them jackknifed and fell, twitching as they bled their lives away in Joes’ one dusty street.
Men and women came boiling out of the Coweman’s. Tom Bascomb was the first person to spot Dave, who stood looking down at the two men he’d just shot, his smoking six-gun still in his hand.
“Dave! What happened? Are you all right>”
“Yeah. Yeah, I am, Tom. These two men…. Uh, hombres, snuck out of the alley and jabbed their guns in my back. I reckon they figured on pluggin’ me. I wasn’t gonna let that happen.”
Shorty was looking over the two men Dave had shot.
“One’s just breathed his last, and the other one ain’t got long,” he announced. “Is what this here tenderfoot sayin’ the truth, Mister>” he asked the man who was still clinging to life. “You were gonna kill him?”
“Yeah... for... what he did to Hank,” the dying man gasped. “Never seen… anyone… so fast… with a gun.” He shuddered and was still.
“Well, I guess it was a fair fight,” Tom said. “Dave, I reckon we’d better head for home,. By the way, your speech seems to be changin’. You’re beginnin’ to sound like a real cowhand>’
“I reckon I’m not… yet,” Dave said. “But I’m plannin’ on learnin’ the job. Meantime, soon as I check on my horse, I’m gonna write a message to wire to my father tomorrow. I ain’t goin’ back to Philadelphia. I think I fit in a whole lot better out here.”
“What about the rest of the night?” Joel asked.
“I figure I’ll just mosey back to the saloon, and see just what that gal has to offer,” Dave said. “Let her know I’m on my way, will you?”
“Sure, Joel answered.
Dave turned and headed for the livery.
“Well, I’ll be a treed raccoon,” Tom exclaimed, staring at Dave’s back. “C’mon, boys. Let’s get those drinks.