Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
His father was a jokester, Fisher MacKerell’d say, because the last thing he ever heard from him was a long and deep laugh, the echo of which followed him out of Gloucester harbor not far from Boston all the way to the town of Bush Hill on the Pecos River on the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in New Mexico. The year was 1884. He knew the continuous taunt of his name, but stubbornness refused to let him change his name. He allowed only “Fish” to be used as a diminutive settlement. And “Fish” he was to all those who stood on the other side of the bar.
He also only allowed that being so named by his jokester father made him a fast gun with his left hand, after the taunts on hiss western move forced him to endless practice with his revolver, a Colt with a worn handle starting to wear. The practice lasted all the way across the country, a ride that took him two years of knock-about work at other things “western.” He was a drover on a few short drives, a chuck wagon cook for a short spell after an accident to a cook, a blacksmith tenderfoot and a livery man until he knew how to take care of a horse. But he never wore a badge or robbed a bank or stagecoach or worked a bar until Papa Lorenzo offered him a job behind the bar at the Pecos Headwater Saloon near the start of the river.
MacKerell was a decent-looking fellow with wavy blond hair, brows darker than the locks on his head, blue eyes, square chin, and spoke like a professor out for a look around the west.
Home, he found, was behind the saloon bar at Bush Hill. It didn’t take the student of men too long to realize the nature of the task; keep the customers happy, keep the boss happy, and enjoy the in-between. He had become, in a short time on the job, a reader of people, a fair and ready arbitrator in minor squabbles, a ready pistol under the bar at the threat of more serious trouble, and a favorite of one of the “ladies of the house,” Clara Ridgley. Clara, new in town, new at her assignment, depended on Fish MacKerell to give her both a helping hand and a heads up whenever it was needed.
Clara told some of the working ladies that she thought MacKerell was as handsome as he was kind.
The truth be known, we oftentimes don’t know when a story starts or stops in a person’s life, or resumes continually like a serial. Such it was with these two characters here, Fish, as he was called, and Clara.
We’ve had a glimpse at MaKerell’s start on things, and Clara Ridgley, from the following revelation, had her life renewal get a kick-start when a freighter found her on the edge of the trail apparently having had the hell beat out of her. She was a bloody mess, her clothes torn in rags, but she clutched a slim stick in one hand, looking as though she had been fighting off her attacker. The freighter brought her to the saloon and Fish MacKerell because he was the most solicitous man he knew in the town he only visited for deliveries and a whistle-wetter if it was the last delivery from his wagon. He accomplished two steps because of Clara Ridgley who made him hurt when he just looked at her.
MacKerell put Clara in his bed in his room, at the back end of the Pecos Headwater Saloon, then summoned the local mid-wife to check Clara and give what help she could until Doc Hansen came into town on a weekly run from down-river. The woman took good care of Clara, got her cleaned up, attired in a proper dress during the day, and sat with her through a few meals and lots of sleep on Clara’s part. MacKerell spent his sleeping hours on a few blankets in a corner of the saloon, the light of a bright moon falling through the windows of the saloon, bringing a sense of warmth with it, and a presumption of hope: Clara Ridgley was a most beautiful woman who had totally leapt into the senses of the bartender, who had never been in love.
In the matter of little more than a week, Clara said she wanted to do some work to payback for her tender care, “but not the usual stuff,” she also advised. She went to work, at MacKerell’s suggestion, in the kitchen behind the bar. As it turned out, she was an excellent cook and soon had a list of customers who extolled her special preparations. “She makes the best pie, cooks a roast better than ever, does wonders with beans and bacon and eggs,” they’d say, and carry on about good taste hanging out in the back of the Pecos Headwater saloon.
When the time came, Clara cured and healthy, MacKerell asked her what had happened to leave her alone out of the trail. He made the approach as casual as he could, but Clara saw his minor discomfort.
“Oh, Fish, don’t be so easy on me. I can take it, even though it hurts to talk about it. It started with a big man who had no name I ever heard and who held up a stagecoach I was on. He killed the driver and two others and took me along with a strongbox that was up on top of the stagecoach. He even killed one of the horses tied to the one he used to haul the strongbox and me out of there. We got to some hide-out in the mountains before he opened the box. When he found there was nothing there he wanted, he went after me and beat the hell out of me a number of times. I made believe I was sleeping one night when he was drinking, I guess it was about a week later, and when he passed out, I ran off all the horses but took one for myself, and left there. The horse threw me off later on and I wandered a couple of days with just a stick in my hand, and the freighter found me. He was the first nice man I met out here. You’re the second. I was on my way to visit my sister in California. But I don’t know if I want to go back on the road again. At least, just not now.”
Her eyes were soft for the bartender. And they were thrown together in their work, in their interest in each other, and each was able to read the other, neither of whom would try to hide any of their feelings.
So it was a full alert for MacKerell when a big man, noisy at his entrance, and scowling at a customer with his feet sticking in the way as he made his way across the saloon to stand at the bar. He stared at Clara standing at the door to the kitchen with her mouth ajar. With his eyes opened wide, and a sickening grin on his face that quickly turned as mean as a bronc gone bad in a miserable hurry, the big man slammed his fist slammed down on the bar top.
He said to MacKerell, “A bottle of the best, barkeep,” he said, “and her,” as he nodded at Clara. “She’ll do fine and dandy for me. Fine and dandy.”
MacKerell, quickly figuring out who the noisy big man was, though not by name, said, “She’s not part of the goods for sale.” His voice was in his best Gloucester coast English, and noticeably said directly at the big man and not as an aside. “The lady is not part of any of the goods in this establishment. You better understand that right from the start.”
The big man, not alarmed by the bartender with a voice different from what he normally heard from a bartender, offered a twist to his words. “We go back a time, me and the so-called lady. We got history. Ask her and she’ll tell you or I’ll make her tell you what she’s done for me in the past.” He slammed his fist down on the bar and said, “Off the top shelf or what you got hidden down under the bar. The best stuff. I’m gonna celebrate findin’ my old friend.”
He yelled across the room. “Hey, you, get over here now. We got business to take care of.” He slammed the bar top again to reinforce his demand.
“Don’t move, Clara,” MacKerell said. “Stay right where you are. Big Mouth here isn’t going to bother you anymore and as soon as the sheriff gets here we’re going to ask him to check out that stagecoach robbery down to Elsmore where even a horse was killed by the robber. We know there are two witnesses who can testify against the man who did it.”
When the big man swung around, hand going for his gun, he found the bartender had a Colt no more than 6 inches from his eyes, and dead center between his brows. He could see the weapon was fully loaded.
“I’d love you to go for the gun, mister,” MacKerell said. “Make this a great day. Do it up good for me, the man who beats up a lady, the man who shoots a horse because he can’t get the leather loose, the man who shoots a poor old traveler who doesn’t even carry a gun. Draw that weapon. Please do so.” The bore of the revolver was steady in the big man’s eye.
The big man went as soft as an old grape. He went diminished. His mouth was wide open in surprise as the Colt sat in his eyes as steady as the evening star. The bartender, he swore, was not breathing, and did not blink his eyes.
The Bush Hill sheriff rushed in the door. “What’ve you got there, Fish, a plain big mouth I just heard about, or what?”
MacKerell said, “You have a poster about a big man that robbed the stage down Elsmore way, killed a passenger who was not armed, an old man, and shot a horse, one of the coach horses, shot him dead on the spot still in his traces.” He pointed to the big man. “This is him.” Clara will testify to that. He beat the hell out of her before she was able to get away from him.”
At that moment, Clara came straight from the kitchen doorway and said, “He killed the driver, Sheriff. Killed a poor old passenger. Killed the poor horse. And he beat the hell out of me and I want to beat him back.”
She rushed at the big man who ducked as she flew at him, and he went for his gun again.
Fisher MacKerell, one time Gloucester resident, supposedly bound to the sea from birth, beat him to the gun with a shot that almost tore his hand from the pistol grip.
The sheriff whacked the big man on the back of his head with the butt of his gun, dropping him in a double agony, blood loose as well as his screams.
MacKerell was over the bar and held Clara Ridgley in his arms. She was crying hysterically.
The succeeding trial was to be held within the week, as the other witness was called from Elsmore to appear at the Bush Hill trial. And the big man’s name was finally revealed; Lester Goodfry, a known killer from Missouri, who had escaped two incarcerations in two different facilities, one in Missouri and one in Kansas.
Goodfry was in the Bush Hill jail, in a cell across from the town drunk who had been locked up for his own good after threatening another customer at the saloon. The drunk said, “I heard you got shot by that Eastern cowboy, the fisherman from way back on Atlantic beaches. That sure don’t say much for you as a big killer, not from what I heard. He probably couldn’t have even shot you anyway if he pulled the trigger in your face. Probably would have missed by a mile. Bartenders don’t make good gunmen.”
“I’ll get him soon as I break out of here. This place is a cinch to beat. If you shoot off your mouth about it, I’ll shut your mouth forever.” He wrung his hands together and said, “I’ll twist your neck like this and your legs’ll be shaking long after you’re gone dead in my hands.”
The drunk, favored often with a free drink by MacKerell, a free meal on the sly from the kitchen, smiled as he rolled over and went to sleep for one more night of his own incarceration, knowing this stay was also arranged by his pal Fish. He slept easily, even as Goodfry was hatching up his plan.
The drunk heard nothing in his pleasant sleep, even as Goodfry was at the lock on the cell with a piece of metal, strangely shaped, he had drawn from one of his boots in the darkness. The deputy on duty was knocked sideways by Goodfry, who hit him until he was unconscious. Then Goodfry retrieved his weapon belt from a hook on the wall, his pistol still in the holster, and took a rifle from the rack. Slipping out of the jail in near darkness, he mounted the deputy’s horse, rode slowly down beside the jail and out of town.
The sheriff, in early morning, rushed into the Pecos Headwater Saloon and called MacKerell from the rear. “He broke out, Fish. Sometime this mornin’, before sunrise. He got out of his cell, banged up Arty Swalen pretty bad and took his horse. He got his own guns from the jail. He’s comin’ back, Fish, you gotta know that. He’s the type will sneak back in here and shoot you behind the counter or in your bed, and maybe go after Clara. There’ll be hell goin’ on here, and you know it.”
“No there won’t, Sheriff,” MacKerell said. “Just put out the word that I’m going out to look for him. I’ll do that. You know I can beat him. He doesn’t know that. You just make sure Clara doesn’t get hurt. That’s all I ask.”
The town was quiet all that day and well into the night. The moon, on its last legs, made a low trip on the horizon. Night creatures signified their presence with ownership calls or searching calls out across the grass, the calls going down the Pecos until they failed in darkness. The owl in the livery made a hit on a mouse, only its wings heard by a few horses. The mouse was not heard from.
A single light was on in the sheriff’s office, all the cells empty, when Fish MacKerell mounted a big gray at the livery, assured the rifle was sheathed in the saddle, and rode out of town. On his belt he wore the revolver that he had come west with, the Colt with the handle worn down to dread comfort.
The sun found MacKerell well out of Bush Hill, the river sitting off to his right as he headed east. A range of small hills and hummocks sat out in front of him, like bread dough piled up for baking. The horse was an easy rider and the low rays of the sun hit his face and felt comfortable on his skin.
Aloud he said, “It’s a good morning for a shoot-out, Mr. Goodfry. I’m here hoping you will oblige me.”
He put his arms out beside him in a gesture that said he was welcoming the day, saying hello to the prairie and the mountains and the river and the sun aloft in its promise. A great part of his early life came rushing back to him and heard his father’s laughter and his great voice around the cracker barrel in the old bait house and he saw the sails out in the harbor and on the rim of the ocean where the whales and sharks and the real mackerel swam by the thousands, and he felt the keen breeze coming off the water as it comes to a person from no other place else in the world, but he was not unhappy where he was. Clara was here. He thought he’d been looking for her forever; and she was here, waiting for him to come back to town.
A sense of good comfort rushed back into his whole body to take its place again and he began to sing an old sea ditty, the only song he could remember from home:
men on a dead
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum
Drink and the devil had done for the rest
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.
The mate was fixed by the bosun's pike
bosun brained with a marlinspike
And cookey's throat was marked belike
It had been gripped by fingers ten;
And there they lay, all good dead men
Like break o'day in a boozing ken
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.”
He sang it a few times, nodded his head as though locked into the song, attention-grabbing, though his eyes continually searched for movements, surprises on the horizon, or creatures disturbed from their places of rest.
And there, off to the right, between him and the curl of the river showing off to the right, a tree moved. He looked elsewhere, came back to the spot, saw it had moved again, saw it was not a bear, saw it was not a wolf, saw it was not a tree.
Everything said it was Goodfry sitting like a bushwhacker in a hidden place, but obviously moving around to get a better position for his attack.
The once-destined fisherman, confirmed westerner, bartender, student of people, a hopeful lover of a lovely lady, studied the land, thought about moves, made a plan on the instant.
With a quick tug on the reins, he drew the gray to a halt, dismounted and bent one foreleg of the horse as if to study its hoof. For a minute he studied the hoof and shoe, touched it a few times, set it back on the ground, stood solicitously and patted the horse on the neck, as if to say he was sorry the gray was hurting. He led him off the trail, down into a woody swale where a few trees were clustered.
Knowing he was out of sight of Goodfry, he hastened to the bank of the river, closer to him now than earlier, ran along the banking and kept out of Goodfry’s sight. When he found a defensible position, he halted his advance, gained his breath and sat to wait out the villain lying in wait.
It did not take long to wait out the impatient bushwhacker, who took leave of his position and squirreled his way down the river bank from tree to rocky mound to tree and swale until MacKerell heard him about 30 or so yards away from his position.
MacKerell, suddenly standing, caught Goodfry in an unwary position, half turned to him, looking at a boater downstream yelling at someone on the far banking.
Goodfry, aware in an instant that he was not alone, turned quickly and saw the innocuous, wise-eastern bartender standing and facing him, his left hand hovering in a position to draw his weapon.
Goodfry laughed. “I heard you was comin’ for me, so now you got me. Whatcha gonna do? Shoot me like you didn’t the other day. Gonna draw down on me, barkeep with the funny words? “
“You afraid to draw on me, bushwhacker? Were you sitting out here like a snake ready to jump me when I wasn’t looking, catch me not paying you mind? Do you think me that stupid to play games with you?”
His hands continued their steady position in place to draw, left-handed, his Colt revolver with the handle worn smooth.
High overhead a hawk screeched on a sudden diversion of its flight. On the river the distant voice of the boater called out again and another man, hidden by some obstruction, answered with an unintelligible retort. The hawk screeched again and dove swiftly down on the grass where a rabbit leaped around to escape capture.
All of it crammed Goodfry with its natural being, which transferred itself to an immediate thought that maybe the bartender fit the scene better than he had reckoned.
Desperately he went for his weapon, and knew the swift and terrible realization that he had not gotten off his own shot before one hit him high on the chest. He died staring up to the sky and seeing the rabbit struggling in the clutches of a deadly hunter.