Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Rockland Guidry, we should know up front, was never addressed from the time he was 8 years old and a half year in school as Rockland. "Rocky" he was from his first encounter in a harsh world, and so they remained, Rocky his name and the harsh world around him. He'd never known a true home for any decent period in the early years and this place he was studying after a long ride looked as though it would prove to be the place to tie his horse, drop his hat and rest his bones ... for a spell, if not longer. He'd already decided he liked the taste of the air, how the sun warmed his back instead of burning it, how this place dipped its mysteries into secret valleys and canyons he might never visit, how a stream found its way again after a journey through lost and buried channels in the mountains as though the stream too had found its route and place.
Rocky Guidry rode out of Louisiana heading north for several weeks, found the view he was looking for on the side of a slow-rising hill above a clear, wide river in Idaho, noting the tall peaks in the distance, the steady flow of the river in late August, and off to the end of the valley, as if a chess master had set up a special board, the small spread dotted with a few barns or sheds, squares of three corrals, a north-running open-range pasture almost as big as the valley and a woman on horseback. She was just leaving the small main house. He saw this rider as the center piece of a magnificent setting and wondered how long it would take to meet her.
In his looking glass he made quick judgments, sure of his early assessments. The woman, riding with dash and class, obviously of the younger set, was headed south where the tops of a few buildings in a nearby town unknown to him caught the sun and reflected sheets of golden light at several edges. He thought them to be semaphores of special significance. Charm of a special magnitude comforted him, made the saddle softer, his legs unwearied, his eyes finding continual beauty in manifold objects between sky and good earth. In these past several days he had seen hawks and eagles and vultures sharing the high blue and the cross currents of winds, sheep on rocky ledges and cattle on verdant grass in quiet repose, wild horses and elk and buffalo sharing ground and grass, puma and wolf and coyote in their continual search of prey. His heart overflowed with the freedom and promise in all the Earth around him.
He wondered, in his pausing, if home was a place you found or a place you made for yourself. The answer could be right out in front of him.
In this pacific mood, he agreed that serenity and peace might have a chance in the area, a chance and a change that he deeply wanted, needed, implored of the high heavens. His immediate past was brittle to one who might have heard of him with a tainted ear, preset by many for strangers, new arrivals, possible contestants in the game of romance.
Rocky Guidry had been arrested for murder, charged, tried, sentenced to hang, all on the word of a careless drifter who had been fed a bag of beans and hot air by an enemy of Guidry. It had taken a gang of chain-ganged prisoners, laying low in the brush by order of their guard, who had seen the murder take place, committed by the man who had bought off the drifter, naming him as a witness.
When the gang of prisoners rode into the town on a wagon and saw the scaffold being erected and heard the story of the killing and the quick and efficient trial, the prisoners' guard asked the sheriff why the guilty man was walking around town as free as any of the spectators.
"What do you mean, Shavers?" the sheriff asked, for he had known the man on earlier meetings. "We have a witness that saw the whole damned thing."
He was about to walk away when Shavers replied, "And I got me nine men who saw that dude loafing around down there in front of the general store like he come into town to see a hanging and who's really the dude who shot that gent at the head of the bayou that you've pointed out as the murder scene."
"Nine men?" the sheriff said.
"No," replied Shavers. "Ten men, including me and my word will stand up to anything that dude can say, and you know it. Let's go down there and get this straightened out so you won't have the biggest faux pas hanging over you that you could ever try on for size, which looks mighty like it right now from where I'm standing, and those boys with me who'll shout to high heavens to say you, the sheriff, has been dead wrong in this, and won't that get a rise out of them folks so hoodwinked by a scoundrel, 'Dead wrong, aye.'?" He pronounced "dead wrong" as though it was right there in the uniformed chain of command.
Guidry, surprised at the quick turnaround, was let out of jail, fully pardoned and released with the profound apologies of the judge and the sheriff. He did not even stay to see the trial of the new defendant, saying, "I've had enough of my hometown for now."
Four weeks later he was in Colorado having passed through parts of Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Idaho, for some unknown but compelling reason, had latched onto his interest and headed him there. He didn't know why but thought all along that Providence in some way was on his side and had not left him alone in the world. All that despite his harried days in jail and the quickness of the trial, everybody as anxious as Hell to get rid of him; and so they would be rid of him ... and as fast as he could make it out of town.
" I'm coming, Idaho," he'd said a hundred times under his breath or aloud as he rode along, seeing the land more than he'd ever seen it, and not once satisfied he was looking at his piece of Heaven here on Earth. And not once did he go over in his mind the cause and the circumstances of the murder, the trial, the accusation. What was done was over and he let it be, the words leaving him as he took in another totally free and delicious breath, this time on a stretch of green grass in Colorado and the peaks leaning over him, the magnificence of some scenes drawing hard at his determination to keep moving in his search.
For whatever reason presenting itself within a positive sense, Guidry believed the woman was leading him to where he wanted to go. "Ma'am," he said with heavy determination, "I sure hope to see you soon and make your acquaintance. It appears Heaven hasn't left me in the lurch anymore."
To his horse he said, "Let's go, Bayou Boy, and find the lady of our dreams." There was no hesitation on the part of Bayou Boy whose loping stride headed him toward the near town still tossing reflections of light as strong as signals.
Those signals would prove to be dangerous, complicit, suggestive and , with a good turn of luck, as providential and as comfortable as Guidry could possibly imagine; and the woman in the distance, the adept rider, would as believed from the first to be the center of it all. He realized any new place bore the mysteries that had created it, sent it on its way into history, and in the end become what it was meant to be.
The place was Torbick Falls, three dozen buildings of all sizes and all needs, sitting above the banks of the Three Silvers River. All of it, from some overheard discussion deep in his past, had drawn him here as though Fate had set it all in motion.
He was in Idaho and in Idaho he would stay. It wouldn't be easy, it would be easy to say, from the very first as he counted the conceived options; he was a stranger and such creatures were looked upon as suspicious, not at all above reproach, guilty of something somewhere or else why would they be here, unless they could prove themselves worthy of some accord.
Guidry could feel it in the air as he rode, the plusses and minuses coming at him like a rockfall on a runaway. The first stop, at The Bald Eagle Saloon, was not only the tip-off but the core of reception in the town towards strangers, first visitors, new faces. This was even before he had a chance to ask about the girl riding onto the town a few hours earlier on a bold-looking chestnut stallion, spirited, suitably paired with the attractive and adept rider, most likely the girl of his dreams come to town.
A small, wizened looking man, sparrow-thin in the face, his last meal perhaps a week in the past, his thirst heavier than hunger, who stood tight against the bar at seeing Guidry, let his voice roar with pointed curiosity, when he asked the bartender, 'Shaver, you know that gent just walked in like we said hello come on in, when we didn't? Well, I saw his picture in a paper in Kansas. He was let loose of a killin' down in bayou country and appears to have run away from it, right or wrong, all the way up here with us hardy folks who don't like killers of the southern sort, which sure is bayou country with more boats than horses hangin' about. Can you believe any and all of that, like it's a whole lot of queer stuff for us to swaller?"
"Whisperin'," the bartender said, "you sure ain't whisperin' none now." The bar rag in his hand went sweeping across the bar top as though he was erasing all traces of the conversation just made public. It also said he realized his livelihood depended on social drinkers, thirsty cowboys and god-awful drunks letting go of themselves ... which happened too often when Whisperin' was around, which was too often for one man.
Guidry was sure it was the biggest mouthful of nothing the thin-faced gent had uttered in a month of talking. Plus, the speaker was trying all sorts of gestures to add voice and intention to his words as he shook his shoulders, hunched one of them towards Guidry as sharp as a pointed finger, and nodded at his own piece of affirmation, even as he put himself forward as disheveled, unkempt and outright sore on the eyes.
Guidry was sure the mouthy one didn't want to get into a fight, but sure would like to see one develop, so he stepped towards him and said, "You seem to know a lot of what's going on around here. Do you know the name of the girl riding a bold-looking chestnut stallion that came into town a few hours ago from north of here? Both her and her horse kind of high-spirited and pretty as good sunrises."
"Her name's Marsha-Thistle Lee and there's gents already havin' interest in her, local gents, if you get my drift, gents proper to the town and not southern runaways of a new kind, if you get my drift there too."
"Well, I'm sure glad, Whisperin', that you're not running any kind of Welcome Wagon for Torbick Falls or the place would fall flat on its face before you could shake a hand with a stranger. But I'll be sure to tell Miss Marsha-Thistle Lee that you were the gent who provided me with her name and where she lives."
Whisperin' jumped at that and said, "I didn't say one word about the Cross Bar Spread," and tried to shut his mouth and most likely bit his tongue at the muted attempt, too late for silence and busy-bodying.
Behind the bar, Shaver was his usual self at any hint of humor, as he started shaking his whole frame in concert with the conversation in front of him, and he looked up with another interest as a good looking gent packing two good looking pistols on his belt entered The Bald Eagle Saloon.
The man was as clean and natty in his trail duds as Whisperin' was dirty, his eyes reacting to the inner dimness of the room in contrast with some obvious days on a sun-baked trail. Well-fit in the body, wide-shouldered, looking to be in his 40s and handsome in a rugged way, he nodded at Guidry, at Shaver behind the bar and ignored Whisperin' as if he had enough of him long before this moment.
Guidry caught the distance and dislike immediately, and decided he liked the man's attitude on the spot, and liked him further when he extended his hand and said, "Well, you're a stranger here and if Whisperin' didn't welcome you in a proper manner, I will. I'm Dan Hurley, just in from delivering a herd to the army downriver at Fort Gibson. I'm thirsty, hungry for any outside news I haven't heard, and glad to see a new face in an old town that some days chokes on itself."
Whisperin' leaped in to the conversation by blurting out, "He made me tell him Miss Marsha's name and where she lives. Damned first thing he did comin' in here." One hand was on his hip and the other hand had not yet found the other hip, as though the hand had no sense of feel in it.
Shaver was still shaking.
Hurley, easy on words, easy on emotion, said, "Well, that girl cooks a great meal, rides like a damned fool cowboy on show-off day, is the best looker of all the gals around here, and I'm one of the gents interested in her, with no promises and no great hopes as yet. But I don't get excited. I've been married, have two kids, lost my wife to some bad infection a couple of years ago, and my time is mostly business time."
His handshake with Guidry was authentic as well as warm.
Picking up the tone where Hurley left off, Guidry said, "My name's Rocky Guidry, freed from prison down in Louisiana just before I was supposed to get hung for something I didn't do and dreamed about Idaho all the time I was in jail and wanted out of Louisiana. I saw the lady in question from high in the hills and she made a great introduction to Idaho. I dare say I'd love to meet her, but Whisperin' here thinks it's against the local law, or something like that. Saw my picture in a paper in Kansas that was celebrating justice on my part and twisted the tale to suit his mouth."
It was Hurley's time to shake and laugh and he said, "You hit him on the head of the nail, right on. If you're looking for work, I'll be hiring soon, but so's Marsha's dad at the Cross Bar Spread just north of here. He's a great gent, widowed like me as his wife was killed by some unknown bad ass with a wild gun. He's looking for a woman like me, and unlucky like me so far."
Rocky Guidry smiled, nodded, and said, "I just knew that Idaho was going to be home for me, a new home. I like the start."
Getting his horse taken care of, Guidry snagged a place to sleep in the mow, slept deep and rose early, had a diner breakfast with two other early risers, and saddled up Bayou Boy for an early ride up the river, heading for the Cross Bar spread.
The land was gorgeous in all aspects as he rode, the grass green, animals active in many sections (he noted sheep, bison and a few wild horses, all quite different from Louisiana and could have lauded the changes), the rocks and hills off to the northeast capped with a few white peaks saying winter would be interesting, and sat his saddle with comfort.
When he saw the sudden quick reflection from high in a rocky formation, he dove from the saddle as a bullet whined over his head. He fired his pistol into the ground and Bayou Boy sprinted across the grass until he went out of sight in a copse of trees.
He remained motionless, though his eyes scanned the area where the shot came from. He saw nothing move but animals on a lower level, making him think eventually that the shooter had moved on. When a bird of prey came down like a thunderbolt and grabbed off some squirming critter from the grass, Guidry rolled himself into a swale in high grass, slipped deeper into the grass, and finally moved into the shade of a small group of trees.
No shots followed him. When he whistled, Bayou Boy was at his side. The pair went looking through the higher area where the shot had come from. Guidry would tell a few folks later on that it was Bayou Boy's quick reaction to a reflection that led him to a discharged shell on a shelf of rock. From his inspection of the casing he determined it was newly fired, the smell of burnt powder still alive no weather had hit it yet. He didn't know what it was, but he'd find someone who'd identify it for him.
he put the shell casing in his pocket and rode on to the Cross Bar spread.
He saw her when he topped a small rise as she hauled water up from a well and emptied the bucket in a trough. Four horses surrounded her as they drank and he saw little more of her until a man called to her from the wide porch and said, "Company's coming."
She took one look at him and sprinted to the house, the man on the porch raising his hands in full expectation of the move, and waved Guidry on to the porch. "That was my daughter Marsha doing the dash," he said. "Does it every time a young, good looking man comes to visit. She'll be out in a bit. I'm Jed Lee and this is my spread, the Cross Bar. My daughter's name is Marsha-Thistle Lee and she's much like her mother was; a spark for a man. I was lucky, but lost her to an accident."
"I'm Rocky Guidry, once of Louisiana, now of Idaho, and looking for work. Dan Hurley said you might be looking for good help."
Lee laughed. "He's looking too. Now there's a good man for you." He shook his head in wonder, and Guidry read his mind perfectly.
Before he could produce the shell and ask for its identification, Marsha-Thistle Lee came out of the house and Guidry stared open-mouthed at her beauty. Both her and her father noted the expression on the Louisianan's face.
"Mr. Rocky Guidry, this is my daughter, Marsha-Thistle Lee, 21, unmarried, rider, roper, cook, and too much like her mother to allow me too much comfort." His smile was a saddle wide.
The young ones shook hands, her eyes aglow with new interest, his too, and in the middle of a thought, Mr. Lee said, "He's looking for work," and she said, in a sudden burst, "He's hired."
They talked a while, had lunch on the porch and she gave him a quick tour of the ranch, part of it on horseback, part of it on foot.
Guidry was in love, had felt all along that life in Idaho would prove highly interesting, and was about to depart the house when he remembered the shell casing in his pocket and said to the elder Lee, "Can you tell me what kind of a shell this is? I saw its reflection on the trail, that's how I found it."
Marsha grabbed it from his hand with a loud and surprising exclamation, "Pa, it looks like it would fit the Sharps up there on the wall." She pointed to a rifle hanging over the fireplace.
"It sure is, Marsha. It's a .50 caliber cartridge for a rifle just like this Sharps of mine, an 1874 model that caught a round directly into its innards the first time I was ever going to use it, out there after a wolf had fed on about enough of my herd. Saved my life, it did, when it caught that wild round from some wild man out there." He shook his head in wonder and looked sheepishly at his daughter. "Thought I'd hang it up there for looks. It's proven to be a topic of conversation whenever we have company." He tipped his head at Guidry. "You're not familiar with rifles?"
"Never fired one of them, that's for sure. Looks like a lot of gun. Many of them around? Is it a long range weapon?"
"About one of the best," Lee answered. "There are a few of them around. Mountain men are favored of them, for game mostly when hunger strikes them. I won this one in a poker game when I caught a pair of aces for a full house, but never got to fire it. " He was sheepish again.
"It's okay, Pa," she replied, "I know. I wish Mom had one in her hands when she was hit. That was all of 10 years ago, but it's still strange to me." There was a small thrust of her chin, as if a secret vow had been touched anew.
There were secrets here, Guidry thought, whose inside stories he had to know.
But Guidry, not saying much else except for his goodbye and promise to be back with his gear in a day or two, had the answer he was looking for ... or part way to revelation he figured. The image of the Sharps was cemented in his mind along with other images that began to filter through his mind, and when he rode off he was filled with those sudden images and the constant beauty of Marsha-Thistle Lee, a woman with the looks found on no woman he had ever seen. She had released something in her besides beauty during his visit, and he plumbed the depths of his being, hoping to read things the right way, that she had a real interest in him. Aiding him, of course, was her hurried, and decidedly affirmative words, "He's hired." He kept hearing her voice saying the words, trying to put the nicest tone in the works of them. She spoke fast, rode fast, decided fast, and he shoved his mind to slow things down to a solid, pleasant, long-lasting otherwise, dream-wise trip back to Torbick Falls.
The uneasy idea of getting closer to her rode with him all the way.
He went directly to the saloon and met Dan Hurley on the way in. "How'd you make out at the Lee spread?"
"I've been hired." he said it with a wide smile on his face.
"C'mon, I'll buy you lunch and you can handle the beer. Deal?"
"Sure is, and there's something I'd like to talk to you about."
Hurley, of course, assumed it was about Marsha right from the outset. But he was wrong.
They had been served a beer and a thick sandwich, after which Guidry looked around the room and slid the shell casing across the table, keeping it out of sight, and asked, "Many guns around here fit this?"
Hurley, understanding Guidry's body language and his attempt at secrecy, looked quizzical, but said in quick response, "It comes from a Sharps, probably 1874, but I don't have one. Was this meant for you?" He kept it in the palm of his right hand, as though he had to squeeze it out of sight. "It leads me to think it was and that you and the Lees had a talk about it and you're now a one-man search party."
He patted Guidry on the back. "You need any help, just ask. I have had some strange questions in my mind over the years, so I'm offering help right up front, just trying to get answers also." His voice, its tone and its words, were past doubt, thus were authentic in Guidry's mind.
Rocky Guidry had an ally he could count on, so continued with a plan of sorts. 'I'm looking for one man, who fired at me in the hills while I was going out to the Lee's spread. Mr. Lee showed me his shot-up Sharps rifle, and I went off and running. They hired me on as a hand, but I'll look for the bushwhacker forever if I have to. I know I can't track all over Hell and Creation to catch him, but I can try to keep my eyes on any man who totes one of these Sharps 1874 in his arsenal. I'll have to use the town as a backdrop along with occasional encounters on the trail for men carrying a Sharps 1874. If you'll keep watch in town, I'd sure appreciate it. Just a list of names will do. I'll do the smoking out. No sense you getting caught up in my deep interests and someone else's cross hairs. I'll make sure anything needed in town by the Lees comes to my chasing down. That'll ease your burden."
The new alliance parted ways after another round of beer.
And so it was that any errand calling for a visit to town, it was Rocky Guidry who made himself most quickly available. He'd jump on Bayou Boy and be on his way.
And it happened so many times, and so quickly, that Lee and his daughter talked about it, the father saying to her, "It might mean he has a 'friend' in town he'd like to see as often as possible. You have to face that, Marsha." It was the way he said it that did not find favor with her. It cut to the quick and she fired back, "His eyes can't lie to me, Pa. I know that. I knew that from the first minute. It's just the way Ma said it, that you could never lie to her."
And so it was that almost four months later, a list of four men, not including Lee, each sported a Sharps 1874 in their saddle sheath. The list came from observation in and about the saloon and the general store, where ammunition was sold, and the livery, and from casual conversations in the saloon about marksmanship and rifle toting in general.
Of the four Sharps carriers, two seemed entirely free of any suspicion ... to a point. And the other two seemed so loaded with suspicion and a kind of tempered hatred for different objects or objections, like fences, landowners and sassy, saucy daughters of the same landowners that they deserved and got closer inspection from the alliance; Lee being one of the landowners did not appear to count.
Both men of the new alliance promised they'd keep their eyes open for any shortfall of information or dastardly trends concerning any of the suspects ... at the saloon, the store, the livery or possible encounters on all trails beyond town.
Guidry, on good days, like Saturday or Sunday, a week's work under his belt, took to sitting out front of the Bald Eagle Saloon, hat tipped on his head, seat tipped under him, but his eyes on all saddle sheaths for Sharps 1874's as horses were hitched at the rail in front of him.
The first man on the third Saturday of August was Hatchet Jack Hubbard, a burly mountain man, wide as an ox, thick as an oak trunk, mean as a cornered bore or a rattler, whose horse looked too tired to carry him and arrived thirsty. Dirt and grime beat on him, meaning the rider had not visited the river on his way to town but was waiting to get a drink first. The mount looked as though he needed a drink more than Hatchet Jack, road and trail dust in a frothy mix on his frame.
Guidry, having seen in n the saloon before, said, "Morning, Hatchet Jack, you get a glimmer of that big bear up on the trail everybody's been talking about? Think you could knock him down with that gun of yours? Some of the boys say he's a real big one, terror of the hills some say." His hat was still tipped as was his chair.
Hatchet Jack Hubbard apparently didn't like Guidry right from the start of his arrival as a stranger in town but came back with hard retort, "With that rifle I can knock down anything I see in a thousand yards or even better. Don't stand no chance with me. I never miss."
Guidry snapped to attention, rose from his seat, flipped his hat back on his head and dug in his vest pocket.
Holding out the shell casing, the sun catching it just the same way he saw it the first time, and said, "Did you miss with this one?"
The shell casing glittered in his hand, the sun bouncing away from it like a cosmic shot.
Hubbard was alive with anger. "I never miss. Never. This is the best gun ever. I never miss. Where'd you get that shell?"
"Found it on a bushwhacker's ledge high in the hills after a round just missed me. Just missed me." He held his fingers about an inch apart. "Missed me by that much." He shook his head in disgust at the shooting result.
"You think I shot at you from cover?" I ought to call you out on that. You better go get a gun and put it on, then I'll call you out." Puffing himself up, thrusting his chest out, he appeared bigger than ever, double the threat he was, death in his hands one way or another.
Guidry was totally cool at the sight and at the threat."What difference does wearing a gun make? I wasn't wearing a gun when the round from this shell missed me by a whole inch." He held his fingers even wider apart, exaggerating the miss. "You really that good or that bad?"
Flushed, angered all to Hell and back, Hubbard, screamed, "You're a snotty-assed kid too good for folks. Been that way since you come high-falootin' in here and got a job out at the Lee's place. Nobody 'round here wants you around, like we heard you was a killer down there in swamp country." The disdain and hatred rode his face deep as a mine shaft. "They was talkin' 'bout you 'fore you got here. That's got a lot of meanin' in it."
Rocky Guidry was primed. "Does that mean you have something else in mind? I don't carry a gun." He showed his empty waistline; no gun belt, no holster, no side arm.
Hubbard walked to his horse, pulled the Sharps from the sheath, and as he turned, to face Guidry, he unfastened his gun belt and heaved it, holster, pistol and all, to Guidry, who caught it in flight as a reaction.
"You're armed now, Swamp Boy."
He was about to raise the Sharps when a solid, loud, clear click of a gun sounded and the two adversaries turned to face Ben Hurley at the head of alley alongside the saloon holding two pistols directly on Hubbard. He said, "Drop that gun belt, Rocky. I've got him covered."
Guidry carefully sat the gun belt on the boardwalk as the sheriff came on the scene, saying, "I heard your whole confession, Hubbard. Shooting at this stranger and killing Mrs. Annabelle Lee all that long ago."
"I never said that. It was an accident," Hubbard yelled loudly in a defensive voice, and stiffened as if he finally understood what he had said, all of which most of Torbick Falls heard also, the long mystery solved.
Over drinks in the saloon, Hurley said, "I was thinking of making a trip out to see Marsha on my own account, unless you got that territory all wrapped up."
"I never talk about women like that," Guidry said, with not a single smile in the works, not a one, but seeing images that Hurley would never see. Somehow Hurley already knew his time was beaten, from Guidry's silent expression.