Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Tova Van Dorn, known simply as Swede in his few days in town, with a rope around his neck for a murder he did not commit and without a merciful cover over his eyes, saw three men walk to the edge of the crowd, and yelled out, just before the hangman ran the horse out from under him, “The man I saw is back there in the crowd.” The rope shut off his voice, his wind, and his life as a broken bone slammed up into his brain.
The three men, all from the same ranch a few miles outside Wagon Reach, turned and went back to Saturday’s Saloon. They were the young feisty kind, “almost grown men” in all respects, but not quite yet as a few onlookers might judge. A man from the livery, Caleb Brent, for a dollar from the sheriff, took Van Dorn’s body off the rope and buried him on Boot Hill out past Wagon Reach’s last building. He stuck a home-made cross into the ground atop the grave and then walked to the telegraph office at the railroad station. He told the telegrapher to send a short message to N-Star Ranch in Missouri. The message that went out said, “Tova behova hjalpa.”
“You ain’t such a good speller, Caleb,” the telegrapher said. “Want to change something? I can’t shorten any them words to save you a few pennies.” He shook his head again but kept a silly smile on his face.
“It’s not mine. Some dude says it’s for his brother’s wedding, a toast his kid brother’s going to say from the old days. Says he can’t get back there in time for the wedding ‘cause he’s plumb out of spare time.”
Riding into town from the N-Star Ranch, the Van Dorn brothers, Tyko and Greger, were horsing around with word play when the station master waved a piece of paper at them.
“Looks like Tova might have found a new place for himself, I’ll betcha,” Tyko said and raced ahead of his younger sibling.
Tyko, reading the message, went to the station window and said to the telegrapher, “Where’d this come from, Harry?”
“It don’t say, but it came from Stan Kujawski in Wagon Reach. I can read his hand in my sleep. Some folks call him the Mechanical Wrist, he’s so good at it, and so readable. Yes, sir, I guarantee it came from Wagon Reach. From Stan Kujawski without a doubt.” He turned to go back to the station. “Hope it’s good news from that brother of yours.”
Tyko turned to Greger and said, “We got some riding to do. Tova’s in some kind of trouble. Says he needs help. You got enough gear with you?”
Greger replied, “I’m as ready as ever. All we need is a couple of canteens of water and we’re on our way.” He called after the telegrapher; “Harry, you see anyone from N-Star, tell ‘em we had to go see Tova in a hurry. Have ‘em tell the Old Gent we’re in Wagon Reach soon’s we can.”
The brothers picked up N-Star canteens at the livery, filled them at the well and headed out of town, on their ride to Wagon Reach.
Three days later the brothers rode into Wagon Reach near dusk and went directly to the rail station. Tyko handed the message to the telegrapher. “You send this message out of here, sir?”
Stan Kujawski smiled and said, “Sure did, for a feller for his brother’s wedding, but I couldn’t understand a word of it.”
Tyko said, “Who’s the fellow? Where do we find him?”
“I don’t know the feller but Caleb run an errand for him. Name’s Caleb Brent. Find him most anyplace odd-jobbing. He’s not a rider ‘n’ such, but can do lots of things with his hands. He does all kinds of errands and such. Pleasant enough, too, ‘bout his place in life.”
“What kind of place is that, sir?”
Stan Kujawski was not used to be called “Sir.” He deliberated on his answer, and said straight out, “He doesn’t carry a full load in his saddle bag, if you know what I mean. Someone said he was kicked by a horse as a kid. Been that way ever since. His mother keeps a few rooms for rent if you’re needing space. Just back of the livery. Her name’s Justine. Tell her Stan sent you.”
They found Caleb Brent sitting at the back of the livery, fixing a broken saddle with heavy rawhide. He looked up and smiled at them. “You new here I’ll bet. I never saw you before.”
Tyko, who noticed his simple directness, said, “We’re checking on who sent this message. We heard you took it to the telegraph gent at the station for another gent.” He showed him the message.
Caleb shook his head and said, “I can’t read what that says, but that’s what he wanted to send.”
“Big Swede is who.”
“Where is he?”
“He’s been hung.”
The silence hung in the air. A suddenly missing part of life hung in the air. The three day ride hung in the air. Evening itself hung in the air, as though a curtain was being drawn. No birds whistled or sang. No hoof beats came off the dusty street.
The two brothers sat in the middle of the nothing, each trying desperately to see Tova’s face, hear his voice, locate him in a past scene.
Tyko, appearing most affected, kept his eye on young Greger, as though awaiting some kind of eruption. Greger, on his part, had only a stern face to show for the obvious pain he was feeling.
Then some driven quality called them back from their silent actions, as they pursued their questioning of the still-smiling Caleb Brent, tying a final and exultant knot in his braid work.
“I buried Swede up on Boot Hill. Sheriff gave me a dollar to cut him down and bury him.”
“How’d you get that message to send?”
“Me and Swede were friends. I knew him one day and we got friends. He picked up some rocks for me were heavy. Just bent over and did it and shook my dirty hands after. I don’t think he hurt anybody. I went to the jail and talked to him through the bars in the window. It was after dark so the sheriff wouldn’t see me. I don’t think he liked Swede. Swede gave me the message and asked me to get it sent and what to say to the station man. Swede wrote it down for the telegraph man after I got some paper and a pencil from Mom. Mom liked Swede after what he did for me. She has an empty room now. You know Swede?”
The brothers went to Mrs. Brent, got a room, and Tyco said, “We’d like to know what happened to Swede that he got hung for something.”
Justine Brent, having known lots of men passing through Wagon Reach, keeping some of the vitals in her mind, saw the family resemblance immediately. She nodded and said, “I figure you’re Swede’s brothers and you’re wearing some kind of pain. I’m not saying that to anybody else, a promise to my death. That man out of plain old kindness was good to my boy and a woman in my place can tell a lot about a man. Swede was no man to put a knife in a feller’s back. When he was hung he yelled out the feller he had seen running away from the body was at the back of the crowd. The slap came on the horse’s rump right then, like it was too damn quick from the git-go, and he galloped off and Swede was gone.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know which feller Swede was talking about, would you, Ma’am?”
“No, not the exact one,” she said, “but I’d guess one of the three young pokes from the L-Bar-D, too feisty for their own good if you was to ask me. They were standing at the back of the crowd watching the hanging, lynch style all the way, and walked away without so much as blinking their eyes. I saw them kind of smirky. I wasn’t ten feet from either of them, I swear.”
All the while of the questioning and answering, Tyko kept up that constant observation of his kid brother. One time he put his hand out to touch Greger on the shoulder. Though the touch was ignored, Greger did not otherwise react.
Finally, after Justine Brent had dropped some hash and fries right under their noses, which they couldn’t refuse, Greger said, “When are we going to see him?”
Justine, thinking they meant Tova up on Boot Hill, said, “I hope you find that Caleb did a good job,”
“No doubt about his good job, Ma’am, but we ain’t going to see him just yet. We’re talking about the sheriff and those three from the L-Bar-D. After we finish our business, we’ll go see Tova to his comfort.”
“Tova? She said.
“Yes, Ma’am, Swede’s real name is Tova Van Dorn.”
Greger stood up suddenly and said, “Are we through talking here, Tyko? There’s other talking more important.” He leaned over and said, “Nothing against you, Ma’am, but I’m frayed right to my backbone.”
She replied, “I ain’t been called Ma’am in a month of Sundays except but you gents and your brother, me being back of the livery as they say. Please be careful. I don’t trust any of them gents from sun-up to sun-up. I’d keep a chair against the door ever they was in my place.”
The lamp was lit in the sheriff’s office and Tyko and Greger could see shadows moving in the office through a small window looking out on the street of Wagon Reach. They circled around two buildings and came up a small alley right beside the jail and the sheriff’s office. They saw the bars in a window where Caleb must have talked to Tova.
From the darkness of the alley they spotted two men having a heavy discussion. Finally, some bills were passed from the younger of the two men to the man sitting behind a make-shift desk. The younger man left the office after patting the older man on the shoulder. He had taken with him a knife the older man had passed in exchange for the money, a large knife looking, at the quick glimpse, to be a Jim Bowie knife.
Tyko said, “That older dude must be the sheriff.”
“And,” said Greger, “that other one might damn well be the gent Tova said he saw running that night, and one of them at the edge of the hanging crowd Mrs. Brent saw. I think I’ll go foller him see where he goes.”
“Greger,” Tyko said, “Don’t mess any of this up with your anger. We owe Tova, down to rock bottom, to find out what happened. We ain’t going to mess that up if I got to whack you on the head. That understood?”
“Oh, all right. Let’s at least go talk to somebody, Tyko. I swear, I’m getting awful jittery.”
“We’re about to see the law in this town, if that’s what they call it,” Tyko said and walked out of the alley and opened the door to the jail.
Johnson Stark, three years the sheriff of Wagon Reach, swung around as the door opened. He was as nervous as a snake in the sun, Tyko thought, and studied the man before he spoke. Stark was in his late thirties, unshaven, without the deep tan a rider or an outdoor man would normally have.
Seeing two strangers, he looked at his guns hanging on a nail in the wall.
Tyko said, “Just a visit, sheriff, from a couple of gents passing through. We heard, down the line, this was the town that caught and treated the Big Swede we know of. That true, sheriff? This town do up the Big Swede? I swear, some towns get it handed to them on a platter and some have to earn it. I guess Wagon Reach had to earn it this time around.”
Stark smiled with a sudden ease. “Johnson Stark ‘s the name, sheriff for a few years and it ain’t an easy job. This thing with the Swede was locked up tight right from the beginning. Caught red handed he was, with the knife in his hand. Never gave that poor gent a chance to take another breath or say a final word to the good lord above. Took him from behind, and was standing there, in the alley, with the knife in his hand, blood all over him. Has the nerve to say he saw someone run off.”
“Who was killed? What’s the gent’s name.”
“Jim Harbaugh, as I heard it. Some kind of contact guy for the telegrapher down at the train station. I also heard it’s about some spat they got going with the railroad. Beats me what else.”
Tyko stepped right in. “Name’s Hummel, sheriff. We have kind of a history with the Big Swede, a mean one on or off the saddle. Lots of history behind him, and his work with a knife back down the trail a time or two, we heard. A big knife meaner than a stung bronc, the kind you can cut a log with. That what the Swede used?”
“Sure was, son, big and mean. Man could fight his way out of a lot of trouble with a knife like that one.”
Tyko, figuring where it was all headed, said, “I guess you keep that knife here for evidence check, sheriff. I’d like to take a look at it, make sure it’s the one the Big Swede swung loose along our trail and is finally now put aside, for history sakes, if I can say it. We heard how some people saw it a time or two. We’re going to pass back that way and want to tell interested folk it’s all over for the Big Swede. He was a hell raiser they said.”
Johnson Stark felt some kind of revelation dawning on him, but could not put his finger on the details. He was alert that his nerves were suddenly on edge. “No, once it’s all over and done with, I got the right to auction weapons off, any kind of weapons. That knife of the Swede went real quick, to a gent who has a thing for history. Fact is, he has a few other collect pieces he thinks will stand up for a long run.”
He stood up and said, “Well, gents, I got to get me a late meal. It’s been a long day.” He started to reach for his holster hanging on the wall.
“Not nearly long enough, sheriff,” Greger said as he pushed Stark back down into his chair. “Now what’s the name of the gent you sold the knife to? That’s what we’re really interested in.”
“Just what do you gents want, and what’s your name, son? You’ve been mighty quiet up till now, and too damned bossy for me.”
For a moment, at least to the younger men, he looked older than when they walked in on him. If he wasn’t immediately older, he was soon headed that way.
Greger was busting right out of his skin. “The real name’s Van Dorn, sheriff, and we’re The Big Swede’s little brothers, both of us. Now let’s do some real talking, about the gent and the knife and what happened to our big brother. I swear, I’m getting a little loco thinking my way around things.”
“If I were you, sheriff,” Tyko said, “I’d listen real hard to the younger one here. He’s real meaner than the Swede, as you call him. The name of the gent that bought the knife, that’s what we want. We figure he’s one of the three colts that come into town regular from the L-Bar-D spread. We right on that account? If we’re not, we go after the feller we saw leave here a bit ago, and tell him you gave him to us as a present, for free, no money swapped.”
Fear rode right up through Stark’s gut and almost exploded on his face. He turned a purplish red and said, “He’s meaner ‘n’ anyone I ever knew. I think he’s for hire and I don’t know who to. His name is Mead Hubbuch. Fastest draw I’ve ever seen, and runs with two sidekicks never leave his backside, like somebody’s always comin’ after him, up the trail or out of the dark, the way payback gets delivered for real mean critters.” He sat still in his chair, shaking his head, wondering what life had brought him to.
Tyko tapped him again. “You best sit where you are sheriff and let us take care of this Mead Hubbuch. You figure, like we do, that he’s the one our brother saw running away from the dead gent?”
“I always did but nothing I could do about it. He as much as told me I’d be dead in minutes.”
“So, we agree that you should stay right here and not say a word to anybody. We got your solemn oath on that, lest we do it quicker than he said, about getting even. We may not be as fast as he is, but we’re a lot surer, and a hell of a lot smarter.”
The Van Dorn brothers talked over their plans and studied the saloon from an angle, as they sat on a bench in front of the hotel. After two riders, separate and alone, showed up, Tyko walked by the entrance and saw them at different places at the bar. Over a dozen men were drinking around the room at tables or standing at the bar. Two card tables were in action. The noise level was a usual night level. The gent they had seen give money to the sheriff was standing at the middle of the bar with two others at close quarters, as if they were whispering.
Tyko walked in and sat at an empty corner table and a barmaid waited on him. She rode a deep smile along with her service and Tyko stared right past her. Five minutes later, Greger walked in and went to another corner. They in no way acknowledged each other. Tyko slowly and carefully hung his gun belt on the back of the chair and withdrew his revolver. He was checking it out, as if it needed some fixing, when Mead Hubbuch walked over and said, “You aiming to use that gun of yours someplace hereabouts, stranger.”
“Sooner or later,” Tyko said back, his eyes not looking up at Hubbuch, standing sideways in front of Tyko.
“You any good with it?”
“I’m still here,” Tyko said, still keeping his eyes on his revolver. “You and your compadres at the bar figure to find out how good I am?”
Hubbuch, turning to look at his pards who he smiled at, Greger across the room finding the distaste rise in his throat at the sight of the grin, was lead right into Tyko’s planning. “You think you’re better than me. My name’s Mead Hubbuch?”
“Probably not any better than you, but just as good as you paint yourself to be. That might make the only thing in your real favor to be those two compadres you left behind you at the bar.”
Tyko let that all sink in, able to measure with certainty that his words had hit an edge of the man. Then he looked Hubbuch square in the eye and said, “But if you know what an equation is, it’s all balanced out because there’s five of us in here now ready for whatever comes at us from whatever direction. I guess you must be ready for the same thing.”
Hubbuch and his pards quickly scanned the room and saw Greger in one corner, two strange gents at the bar, and the kept scanning the room to find another. And Hubbuch, as Tyko could read his facial muscles, eye maneuvering, body talk all over, had found the usual odds in his favor to be somewhat lessened. His face showed the suddenly nervous results, as his eyes also had found the three other strangers in the saloon, but not the fourth one.
“He’s hidden is where he is,” Tyko said. “None of you can see him right now, he’s like a prairie dog gone home for a spell.” His gaze went back down to his gun and Hubbuch could see the exposed chambers as being empty. Tyko quickly looked up and saw the revelation on Hubbuch’s face.
“He’s a strange kind of gent that has great interest in your knife. He knows something about it. Where it comes from, where it’s been. ‘Specially where it’s been. He wants to talk to you and your pards about that knife and the big Swede some people think used it against that telegraph gent from the railroad. But that’s a pile of buffalo turd and we both know it, don’t we, wondering how he got your knife from you?”
Hubbuch had almost exposed himself for what he really was, and Tyko didn’t miss a wink of it, as Hubbuch muttered through nervous teeth, “Everybody here, ‘cept maybe you, knows the Swede done it.”
“You mean me and my four compadres, don’t you?” Tyko said, feeling the supreme moment of his life coming upon him, remembering his older brother in quick flash of events, feeling the total loss at last come into place.
He looked at Mead Hubbuch and said, in a voice full of icy cold words, “Our brother Tova, who you call Swede, never harmed a human soul in this here lifetime, and your pals, according to the sheriff, will own up to what they know, or else face what you’re facing.”
It all went loose for Mead Hubbuch, as he hastily measured again the empty chambers in Tyko Van Dorn’s revolver. He lips gave his hand move away as they pursed and pinched together tightly in a quick bite, and his hand had drawn the gun from his holster. At that exact second, Tyko Van Dorn fired the one round in his revolver, catching Hubbuch high on his shoulder and spinning him around, his gun falling to the floor.
One pard went for his gun and Greger dropped him from across the room, one round as deadly true as he had ever shot. Nobody else in the room had as yet moved. Then Greger stood with his drawn weapon dead against the other pard’s guts and said, “You’ll get the same if you don’t talk. I swear I’m just getting mean about someone responsible for my big brother’s life. I swear to Hell and back, I’m getting itchy! Not just my trigger finger, but my whole hand. It’s really shaking.” His voice had come loud and full of uncertainty. He looked over his shoulder at Tyko and said, “Shall I give him his due right now, brother?” He jammed his gun deeper into the man’s guts, his whole arm shivering and shaking madder than a hornet from an invaded hive. He was like the whole hornet hive about to burst apart.
“Mead did it,” Hubbuch’s one standing pal said loudly, nodding at mead Hubbuch prone on the saloon floor, as if telling the whole world, testifying. “We had no part in it. Someone paid him to do it but he wouldn’t tell who. And then just because he’s really stupid, he went and bought the knife back from the sheriff, who ain’t any angel from where I see it.”
“Well, Wagon Reach,” Tyko said to all the men in the saloon, a politician on the stump, “I guess you got some problems on your hands. You got a killer here bleeding like he won’t stop any too soon, a sheriff who is on the edge of something strange, a man in town who hires killers to get some kind of railroad people out of the way. What we are going to do, we Van Dorns, after we get written statements from some of you folks about what you just heard, is to take our brother back home and out of this rotten town.”
He and Greger walked out of the saloon as the barkeep yelled after them, “Where’s your other pard hiding?”
Tyko Van Dorn looked back and said,
“He’s right in the mix of you gents, but we didn’t need him this time out of the barn.”
The last that Wagon Reach saw of the Van Dorn brothers, the three of them, was heading out of town after Caleb Brent had dug up what he had buried for a dollar.