Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“Wanna be rich?” asked Dutch Higgins.
“Ain’t robbin’ no banks or trains if that’s what you’re asking.” replied Eli Bloom.
“Nope, a lost gold mine right here in Texas. Pluck gold nuggets right off the ground.”
“You gonna bring that up again?”
“Don’t you wanna know about it?”
“Leaving it lost is fine with me,” muttered Eli. “Just another one of your schemes like the time you tried selling rainbows and cow pies to greenhorn, or prairie dogs as youngins’ pets.”
“That was before we got hired at the Double ZZ Ranch and ate regular again,” responded Dutch. “Now they ain’t paying us till the next cattle drive so we got time.”
“The last time we went hunting for gold we found nothing but rocks, rattlesnakes, scorpions, dry holes...and poison oak. I ended up scratching like dogs at a flea convention.”
“If you’re gonna get picky, I won’t tell you where the mine is.”
Dutch hummed a tuneless tune, rolled another cigarette and eased back in his Captain’s chair in front of the Jacktaw Saloon, boots high on the porch railing. He enjoyed not working, however, not eating regular was becoming a problem for a forty-year-old tall cowpoke, who claimed having a bad back.
Eli, a shade younger and shorter, had also tightened his belt.
If Eli didn’t want to hear about an Old Spanish gold mine, thought Dutch, I’ll just wait here in the shade till he does, and enjoy thinking about how I don’t miss our regular 18-hour-workdays on the Double ZZ. Waiting was easier for Dutch than persuading a closed-mind cowboy like Eli.
Dutch licked the cigarette into a soggy stick, struck a match on his thin-soled boot, and lighted the drooping mess. He inhaled a puff, coughed, and slowly exhaled beneath his handlebar mustache. Then he stared at a slow-drifting cloud and returned to humming his aimless song. He knew how to play the waiting game when it came to dealing with Eli.
Several minutes passed without either man speaking. Finally Eli scratched his chin stubble and said, “A gold mine, you say?”
“What?” replied Dutch as hot tobacco embers burned the front of his faded shirt.
“A gold mine?” repeated Eli.
“What gold mine?”
Eli raised his voice. “The one you’ve been yapping about for days.”
“Oh, that gold mine.” Dutch coughed again and exhaled more smoke. “Said you didn’t wanna hear about it.”
“Then why are you asking?”
There was another long pause.
“Where is it?” asked Eli.
“The goldmine,” growled Eli. “The one you won’t shut up about.”
“Don’t get fussy with me, mister.” Tobacco embers added more holes to Dutch’s shirt. He brushed them away. “You’re the one that keeps talking about gold mines, not me,” he said, folding his arms.
“Dutch, you’re as hard to deal with as my ex-wife?”
“Eli, I never knew you was married.”
“Then why did you say ex-wife?”
“Well, you’re acting like an ex-wife if I had one.”
Dutch flipped his cigarette stub onto the dirt street. “Dang!” he said. “You’re getting fussy.”
“You all ready said that.”
“I know I heard it someplace,” said Dutch.
“Now,” continued Eli, “tell me about this gold mine you won’t shut up about. Ain’t that famous Lost Dutchman Mine is it?”
“Nope. That’s in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains. This one’s right here in Texas. I’m calling it the New DUTCH-man Gold Mine since my name is Dutch. Got an Old Spanish map on faded parchment that says it’s in those mountains right up there.” He pointed. “Bought it from an old bearded barefoot monk who claimed he got it from a blind miner who got it from a feller who got it from another feller who got it from the original Spanish explorers.”
“Dutch, you can’t read Spanish.”
“But I know what a big X on a map means.”
“You expect me to believe this?”
“Would Dutch Higgins lie?”
“Only when your mouth moves.”
Dutch stared at his sidekick. “That hurts, Eli. I definitely see mistrust in your eyes.”
“Dutch,” sighed Eli, “you sure that map’s real?”
“The monk swore it was. Even crossed himself and waved a Bible in my face.”
Both men were silent for several minutes until Eli lifted a cautious eyebrow and said, “Well Dutch, since we ain’t working...I guess it wouldn’t hurt to give it a try.“
Dutch jumped up from his chair. “Got a pack mule with enough provisions for two weeks and is ready to trot.”
“Dang it,” said Eli, “you knew I’d eventually give in, didn’t you?”
“Yep, you always do.”
Eli sighed again.
“Maybe when we’re riding up into those mountains,” said Dutch, “you can tell me more about that ex-wife you never had.”
* * *
The next day the two men rested under a shade tree, high on the side of the mountain.
“This is the third time we’ve passed this pine,” grunted Eli. “It’s becoming an old friend.”
Dutch compared the big X on the treasure map with the mountain’s endless peaks, rocky ridgelines, animal trails, gullies, trees, canyons, and shadows.
Eli wiped his sweaty face with his sleeve and looked over Dutch’s shoulder. “You’ve got the map upside down.”
“Then why are all them Spanish words upside down?”
Dutch turned the map around and placed it on a flat boulder. “Thought maybe those old Spaniards just wrote upside down to confuse us Gringos.”
The map was covered with faded lines, wiggles, symbols and strange markings. Arrows and numbers were scattered across its cracked leather surface.
Dutch pointed to a spot on the map. “I think we need to go that a-way,” he said.
“Why?” question Eli, gulping water from his canteen.
“Cuz this jagged peak here on the map is that jagged peak way over yonder...I think.” Dutch scratched his ear and added, “Don’t you think they look alike?”
“Sorta,” replied his skeptic companion.
“Well, if you close one eye and then look at that mountain peak it might make sense.”
“Eli, I think I know why your wife left you.”
“I told you I was never married.”
“But if you had been, your negative attitude would explain why she skedaddled. Hope she was a good cook? If I ever get married I’d want my wife to be a good cook.”
“I ain’t never been married,” yelled Eli, “and ain’t planning on it...ever!”
“See, it’s that kind of attitude that got you divorced. Yelling like that made your lovely, sweet young wife run off. I hope it wasn’t with a sheepherder?”
“I told you I was never hitched.”
“Your losing such a good looking woman-—and a good cook at that-—you should be ashamed.”
Eli kicked dirt and cursed.
“What was her name?” asked Dutch.
“Your ex-wife? What was her name?”
“I ain’t never been married,” shouted Eli. His words echoed through the mountains.
“Yelling like that I can see why she left you.”
Eli muttered more cuss words. It was several minutes before he spoke through clenched teeth. “Dutch,” he said, “if you really think that mountain over there is the same one on your map, then let’s get there before dark.”
Dutch smiled, whistled the same non-melodic tune, and followed Eli up the steep trail.
Hours later they reached the rocky peak.
Dutch again compared the site with the X on his map. “I think this is it!” he said with more confidence.
“Don’t see no big X on the ground,” said Eli, “or gold nuggets laying around, or a sign saying, DIG HERE FOR GOLD.”
“There won’t be no big X on the ground.”
“It would sure make things easier,” confirmed Eli. “Ain’t fond of digging since I can’t do it from a horse.”
“Is that map right side-up this time?” questioned Eli.
“Of course,” growled Dutch.
“A good place to camp is under that ledge,” said Dutch. “That okay with you?”
“Bedding down next to a saloon would be better,” shrugged Eli.
“Or sleeping in a soft bed,” added Dutch.
After eating boiled beans and jerky they shared smokes and the last of Dutch’s half-pint of Red Dog Whiskey.
“I wanna be fair when it comes to digging tomorrow morning,” yawned Dutch, squirreling into his blankets. “Eli, you dig first.”
“Why don’t we both dig?”
“Only bought one shovel. You’re left handed, ain’t you?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“It’s a left-handed shovel.”
“There ain’t no such thing as a left-handed shovel.”
“Eli, it’s obvious you ain’t been educated good like me. Don’t you know it’s bad luck for a right-handed person, with a bad back like me, to use a left-handed shovel?”
“A great philosopher named nose-truh-dom-mouse...I think.”
“Never heard of him.”
“That’s cuz you never went to college like I did.”
“You never went to college,” challenged Eli.
“Well...I walked across one once. That’s more than you’ve done. And besides,” continued Dutch, “I drew straws as to who would dig first. You lost.”
“Drew straws? I wasn’t there.”
“Eli, I was saving you time knowing how busy you are.”
“Dutch, I think they’re something seriously wrong with you.”
“That’s the thanks I get,” shrugged Dutch. “I’m giving you the chance to find the gold first.”
“Don’t make no difference. We’ll split everything fifty-fifty anyway."
“I been thinking on that, too.” Dutch rolled and lighted his last cigarette of the evening. “Since I bought the treasure map it’s only fair we split the gold sixty percent for me...and forty percent for you.”
“But I’ll be doing all the digging!”
“And I’ll be doing all the thinking. Thinking’s harder.”
“Don’t think I’ve ever seen sweat drip off your face. It’s either fifty-fifty or I’m heading for Jacktaw.” Eli began rolling up his blankets.
“Well, all right if you’re gonna pout.”
“Dutch, you’re something else,” said Eli.
“Been told that before.”
“It ain’t a compliment.”
“Wasn’t then either.”
* * *
Before sunrise the next morning Eli hit the mountaintop’s hardpan with pick and shovel.
“That pick fits both left- and right-handed people,” declared Dutch, “but with my bad back I can’t...”
Eli glared and grunted as he swung the heavy pick into the rocky soil. Dutch wanted to go back to sleep but thought complaining cuz Eli was making too much noise wasn’t a good idea.
By noon Eli was two feet down and exclaimed, “Dutch, I think I’ve found some gold!”
“Sure looks like gold to me,” confirmed Dutch, carefully examining a gold-laced rock in Eli’s swollen hands. “See, I told you so.”
Both men did a little victory dance.
“We’re gonna be rich,” proclaimed Dutch, “richer than the Jacktaw Bank.”
“Hate saying it, pardner,” said Eli, “but you was right about gold being here.”
“Money well spent,” said Dutch, waving the cracked leather map.
After a week of digging, Eli spoke from the bottom of a ten-foot hole, “I’ve found more blisters than gold.” He held up another rock veined with gold. “Dutch, you still sure this is gold?”
“Sparkles like gold,” replied Dutch, looking down from the edge. “We’ve all ready got three big sacks full like that.”
“That don’t make it gold.”
“Sometimes the clouds look like buttermilk, but you can’t drink it, or you think there’s water a mile ahead, but it’s only a mirage.”
“We should of brought your ex-wife along,” said Dutch, “so she could cook us up some biscuits and gravy, or flapjacks.”
“Ain’t never had a wife,” spit Eli, throwing a shovelful of dirt toward Dutch’s boots. “And if I did she wouldn’t let you in our house till you shaved, combed your hair, cleaned your muddy boots, and took a bath at least once a month.”
“Eli, control your temper. Your face is all red.”
“It’s red,” roared Eli, “cuz I’m the only one doing any work around here.”
“But you’re learning a trade. Something to fall back on if the Double ZZ ever folds.”
After more beans for lunch Eli rested in the shade and again scanned their treasure map. “Dutch, you say you bought this gen-u-wine, ancient, lost Spanish treasure map from an old monk?”
“The monk looked as honest as my sober granny.”
“You say it’s supposed to be hundreds of years old?”
“Yep. The monk claimed it would lead us to millions of dollars in gold some Spanish con-quest-a-doors mined here long ago.”
“You’ve been had.”
“This map ain’t real.”
“Sure it is,” exclaimed Dutch, sliding over beside Eli. “Paid cash money for it. A sandal-wearing monk in a long robe with a cross around his neck wouldn’t lie.”
“Then why does it say...right down here in the corner of this so-call, gen-you-wine treasure map...in real tiny, tiny lettering...copyright 1870?”
Dutch ripped the parchment from Eli’s calloused hands. “Well...I’ll be...” He choked on his own words. “If you can’t trust a monk...who can you trust?”
“Maybe he wasn’t a real monk? Just a conman.”
“But we found gold, didn’t we?” smiled Dutch, lifting a gold-filled rock.
“You still sure that’s real gold?”
“Only one way to find out. We’ll ask that assay feller in Jacktaw.”
They left behind a sign:
The 2nd Lost
* * *
“It’s pyrite, better known as fool’s gold,” said Chester Grubber, the assay office manager “Your three sacks aren’t worth more than seventy-five cents.”
“After two weeks of digging?” questioned Eli.
“Yep,” replied the man. He dropped some coins on the counter.
Dutch and Eli’s faces sagged like mud banks in a thunderstorm.
“We’d planned on buying a cattle ranch with that gold,” said Dutch.
“Well, maybe you still can,” chuckled the assay man.
“Just find someone who’ll sell you a cattle ranch for seventy-five cents.” He laughed louder.
They didn’t think it was funny.
Outside Eli turned to Dutch. “Now what are we gonna do?”
Dutch jingled the coins in his hand and said, “Go see how many beers and free eats we can get at the Jacktaw Saloon for seventy-five cents. Then tomorrow,” he said with determination, “I’m gonna track down that monk and make him eat his map.”
“Thought you were gonna shoot him?”
“Killing’s too good for that liar. After I catch him I’m gonna drag him upstairs in the Jacktaw Saloon and have Magpie talk him to death.”
“Hear she talks when a customer is making love.”
“Never shuts up. But if you give her two dollars she shuts up. Otherwise a man can’t concentrate.”
“Money well spent.”
“Eli,” said Dutch, “while I’m out looking for that no-account monk you ought to get back together with your wife since she’s such a good cook. And invite me in sometime for Sunday chicken dinner cuz it’s been a long time since I had a home cooked meal.”
Minutes after the boys left Chester Grubber’s assay office the man hurriedly loaded a small satchel and the three sacks of pyrite in the back of a freight wagon and covered them with some old blankets.
“Those stupid cowboys don’t know what they’ve got, and I ain’t telling ‘em,” mumbled Grubber, as he eased the wagon’s two-mule team out of Jacktaw. “That’s the richest gold ore I’ve ever seen. Hope that fancy woman I met in Denver last summer is still there, cuz I ain’t never coming back. We’re gonna have us one hell of a good time.”
He smiled and began humming a tuneless tune.