Western Short Story
Elbow Grease and Ankle Deep
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

It was in Kansas City that Jay Rod Largo woke up in the back of a barn full of horses and a few mules, the knob on his head at a rude awakening, and him trying to remember how he got here, not only to this barn but to wherever it was, which was Kansas City as said.

The lump on his noggin bore weights and pains of its own, as if inscribed in place with a surgical knife, knives to begin with not favorite weapons to use. The battered face of Cal Thornell came to him of a sudden, as though it was always marked in such a way that it seemed not long from a fight of the night in the Lazy Weeds Saloon. He had walked in there looking to have a quiet time in a quiet corner, perhaps Don Smith, good friend, joining him for a drink or two, each waiting for the night to open up, lead to other friends, warmer places.

Instead, here he was, just coming around to his own senses, in a manner of speaking. He just about hurt all over, like a wagon had rolled over on him, or he’d been caught in a stampede and jumped upon by uncounted animals. After throwing a punch at some loud mouth, he recalled the sudden darkness taking his mind elsewhere to unmarked territory.

Obviously, he’d been hit with a hammer or a sledge or some such weapon never part of a duel or a true draw-down. The aches would not leave him in a hurry, he realized with a sudden clarity of senses. In truth, he might be lucky to still be alive, trying to remember, but the night stayed dark for him.

A hand softer than prairie flowers touched him. It was Gloria, a girl from the bar, who said, “Jayrod, I’ve been sitting here with you for most of the night, waiting for you to wake up. If you want the whole story, I’ll tell you, but you were protecting one of the girls and swung on a man and his pal hit you on the back of the head, smashing the end of a pool cue with a mighty swing. God, I thought you might have died, you went down so fast, so limp. I got a couple of guys to bring you here, and I half-dreamed the night away waiting for you to tell me you were still alive.”

She smiled, nodded her head, smiled again, and continued, “I’m so glad you are. It would have spoiled the whole night for me, for both of us, but it was just a fight that had a quick and crazy ending. No real bad guys. No hate. Jut a barroom fight I’m sure you’ve been in before.”

Who hit me with a mountain?” He was still a bit blurry-eyed.

“Never saw him before and I know he left town before the night was over and that’s the end of him. You just have to get some rest, clear your head, and forget last night. It’s gone.”

“You hung by me, Gloria. That was special of you. I’ll remember it. But what happened to my guns? My horse and saddle?”

“I think some cowboy stole them. They’re gone. Went out of town last night. I couldn’t have even woken you up for that. He has a long start on you, heading north, up through Colorado, I’d guess.”

“Well,” Gloria added, “With his last look at you, I’m sure he’s not in any great hurry about you catching up to him. You might have an edge there.”

She added the punctuation of a solid smile, an insider’s smile, knowing the character of at least one of the principals to a fare-the-well, as it was.

Jayrod got a borrowed mount, loan of a rifle and two pistols and set himself on a northerly departure. There was little haste in his leaving, Time was on his side. For sure. Lots of it.

He would cross into the Valley of Stone Rings, marked so by Arapaho, Utes, and Comanche among others. The Stone Rings were circular lines of prehistoric stones that were so perfect in construction that they must have been directed by a foreman in space, in the high heavens. Successive tribes, like Apaches, Kiowas, and Navajos, made the ring formations the centers of holy men activities, calling them The Rings of the Holy Lords of the Earth. Only a very serious and other-worldly man would enter such divine centers, drawing down the wrath of all tribes on his soul, on his horse, on his foul entries.

Aware of these sins of white nature, Jayrod went ahead with his invasions and made up severe time on the man he was in pursuit of, cutting time difference to mere hours between sought and seeker. Because both men were acutely evasive of Indians on the whole, the pair kept their heads in place, their scalps on their heads, arrows from their backsides on the similar paths and trails, like the spiders and the flies, like cougars and piglets, like Angels and Devils of the march.

Finally, just out of the Colorado demarcations, they came together in the local saloon, Broken Arrow, in the small village of Carmon, though they had no idea they had come so far to be so close.

Jayrod saw his horse with his brand in view and his saddle initialed, in front of the saloon, tied to the rack, he thought of final resting places for the thief, even as his horse nickered his recognition, said his hello.

Then, it was time for goodbyes, tale’s end, trail done. Almost.

Jayrod felt the surge of connection fill the air of the crowded room, as bright as an announcement, as though it was saying, “The man you’ve been chasing, the man who stole your horse, is in the same room with you and you don’t even know who he is. For all you know, he may be standing next to you at the bar, Yuh, that one”

Th gent beside Jayrod surely wasn’t about to tap Jayrod on the shoulder and say, “I’m him. I’m the one who stole your horse. He’s been a special animal for me. A special mount. A mount for the ages, if you were going to ask me. But you ain’t asked me yet. I don’t think you will in this crowd; they’ll kill him as soon as breath, as that’s what comes for a horse stealer; him sittin’ tied up on a saddle and a rope around his neck and the sheriff or someone in the crowd ready to slap the horse’s rump, and off they go, the horse on the run, the horse-stealer dangling in the air, the crowd, for the first time all day, gone absolutely quiet, all of them having just seen life squeezed out of one man in front of them, his only movement was a quick dangle above ground, in the air, a single dangle. A hard spot to have a drink, to salute the action, to wonder where the horse goes after being the half-star for a while. Does such a horse come back for a second trip, another try?

Have the local folks dubbed that equine, The Hanging Horse? Is that his career? It’s casting an animal off to the Devil himself. Of course, they can’t let him run loose with that tag; the criminals would knock off the animal before the hanging could take place; breakfast would be as usual.

The mind of Jayrod plummeted with such questions, as though he was at fault in all of this, that he had set this act in motion, had caused this death, was able to do it again right in the face of the law itself, in front of himself.

He swung a glance at the man in his mind, the man standing next to him at the bar, a sort of good-looking gent, mid-thirties, no mad scars on his face, no mob knife marks having left such traces, no infirmities visible, no false arm slung in place, no hand-made crutch or crutches supporting his frame, his lifetime as of now, and him filling an ordinary space at a bar on an ordinary day ready to be drawn to a close … for someone.

Jayrod was beside himself with fear, desperation, sorrow that a wife and child may be holding their breaths someplace down the line, that it was all going to come down on top of him, him whose horse had been stolen, him who had trailed the thief through bad lands and holy lands and Indian territories of all kinds and all level of belief, and he himself still breathing God’s free air, and could continue to do so, as long as he came out of this situation.

It was the easiest thing he ever did, that move for Jayrod that followed all these self-queries, all these wild possibilities, as he turned from the bar, walked steadily to the double-door, left the saloon, mounted his own horse, and rode off to a life-time of explanations, the horse under him as comfortable as it had always been, life wide-open, and free of blame.

Luck, he believed, had to be curried, no matter the loser or winner.