Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
He came west from Boston-town and carried his own bit of history with him, that history being varied, complex, and somewhat international.
For much of the early years of his life, perhaps from 4 to 12 years, Chadsey Brenault Cushing dreamed of someone being nearly strangled by a flying bola, thrown from the hands of a South American Gaucho. He didn’t know the name of the victim, but he hoped it wasn’t himself in such dire straits. From his first days of listening to stories at the knee of his grandfather, to the day he started reading entirely on his own, in a large house on the Newton-Boston line, in Chestnut Hill, Chadsey Brenault Cushing was in love with the cowboys of South America and their talent with that favorite weapon. Bolas were weights encased in skins attached to ropes of a sort, and could be one or two or three weights tied together. Escape by an animal, or a man, on the Pampas was often doomed by skilled bola throwers.
“The bola,” he’d often say in his made-up games of pretense,” is my weapon of choice.” He had heard himself say that so many times, it sat there at the corner of his mouth waiting to be said again:
“The bola is my weapon of choice.”
The Bola Perdida or Bola Loca, (Crazy or Lost Ball), had one ball and it became his first choice of bolas that included “Avestrucera or nanducera” with 2 weights; “Boleadora or Tres Marias or Tres Potreadoras” that countered with 3 weights.
Young Cushing discovered, from early history, that the Indians from Las Pampas in South America were the first to develop the bolas and the gauchos or cowboys of South America soon employed them as distinctive weapons for hunting … and hurting their enemies. The first examples of bolas were usually made of stone, with the weights encased in fresh leather that shrank as a tight cover of the heavy--weighted weapon.
His grandfather, knowing some treatment was needed to alleviate the boy’s bad dreams, made the first bola for young Chadsey. In fact, he made a succession of them for the boy, and moved him right past his fright and into a total obsession with the bola weapon and its place in history.
The elder Cushing, once a stowaway on a black ship from Ireland, who rose to prominence in the whaling and shipping business, not only made the first bolas for his grandson, but taught him how to use them. He had learned from runaway gauchos that had made their way to the open seas, much the way he had escaped hungry Ireland, land of famine and loss.
By the time he was 15, an expert in using the bola, and carrying a fever and hunger in his gut for moving on from Boston and its tamed atmosphere, he decided to go west. He did not have the slightest desire to follow his father into the whaling business, a fact known by his grandfather but not his father.
And young Cushing had no desire to go to South America either: Texas was far enough for him. He had wheat-colored hair, usually unkempt, very little flair for the niceties of the region he grew up in, loved stories about “other places around the Earth,” and harbored dreams anew
about excitements that lay ahead of him in this life.
On May Day, 1866, the Great War over, though troubles persisted on many borders, Chad Cushing left Missouri as a member of a wagon train under the command of Barnard “Barnie” Woolcomb, a man of prodigious size and strength who often rode a Percheron mount, now and then a Clydesdale, each one from his own remuda attached to the wagon train. Woolcomb was a fearful sight in the saddle.
Once seeing young Cushing practicing with a bola, Woolcomb questioned him about its use at length, asked for additional displays of dexterity from Cushing, and assigned him as an outside guard and lookout, giving the youngster special instructions.
”Listen carefully, Chad,” he advised the youngster, “I’ve been this way a few times and always had trouble of some sort from a small but inventive gang who use different ways to steal from us. We’ve never been able to catch even one of them. Shot a couple dead, right in the saddle, but never got any information from the dead. Do you think, with that wild thing you swing about, you might stop a man or his horse in their tracks? Enough so we can go raid their hideout, wherever it is? Their territory’s coming up in a day or two, however the weather takes us, or the winds, you name it. We’re lucky the big river’s behind us.”
For the next two days, exhibiting all the caution he could bring to a new job, Cushing continually remembered what his grandfather had said about being prepared for all things. Not once did he scramble his silhouette across a skyline, keeping him and his horse in lower extremes, in the wadis and gullies and low spots in the grass, or behind boulders and odd rocks and trees in small or large clusters.
With his eyes wide open all the time for slight movements, Cushing was adamant that he could see a speck moving on the horizon.
It was early on day three, the sun splayed like a torch on the grass, his horse Bunker Hill steady as a rocky outcrop under him, he saw a flicker of movement on a skyline that merged rock and trees around a stretch of grass. The movement of a horse and rider, with its slow gait and direction, told Cushing where he’d meet it. He rode Bunker Hill down into a wadi, then into a small canyon he had traveled the day before, and came out well ahead of the rider, near two large trees about 60 feet apart.
The rider was obviously being cautious about his movements, keeping to shadows when he could, staying off the skyline, the same maneuvers Cushing had used himself.
In a brief shadow from an overhanging cliff, the rider positioned himself and his horse in the heart of the shadow, about 200 yards away from the trees where Cushing watched him. To Cushing the rider was obviously set to spy on the wagon train for the legendary gang that Woolcomb had talked about.
Cushing began to consider the full understanding of his task, so he studied the spy, as he called him, as best he could; the size of the man, the type of horse, and determining the weapons he carried. Obvious to him were the twin hand guns at the man’s waist and what looked like a rifle in a saddle scabbard. The man seemed to be a definite counterpart to Cushing himself; young, doing his best to remain hidden.
Who and what that other man was and where he fit into things became affixed in Cushing’s mind, which was why he was out here in the first place.
That was his task … to undertake and carry off as best he could. For the young Bostonian transplanted into a new life, this was a huge initiation to endure. His focus kept hold of the important observations that he’d already found out.
Now and then the spy rider’s horse, looking like a chestnut in color, shifted his weight, nickered with an echo off the rock surface, but remained in place, like a well-trained animal. Cushing was glad the slight breeze was coming at him from the shadowed rider, for Bunker Hill twitched his ears and Cushing knew he had caught scent of the other pair.
If he could get the other man to ride away, perhaps in a sprint and not catching sight of Cushing for a short period, he’d have a decent chance of stopping his flight. The bola was comfortable in Cushing’s hands, Bunker Hill would do as prompted, and the new assignment might be completed.
“Presence of mind,” came back to him, as he heard his grandfather’s voice say for seemingly the thousandth time. “Presence of mind and a plan without quit in it.”
A procession of order came out of his mind, “Came up for air,” as his grandfather might have said.
It made him grind away at the mix of knowledge he’d come into, conceive a plan, and set about to complete it. With Bunker Hill off a ways from his position, he gathered a few small branches, found one round stone, dug out a piece of jerky from his shirt pocket, and set his plan into operation. The stone, a round one, sat atop a miniature tepee-like structure he had set up, with the jerky on top of the stone. It would not take long for its scent to be picked up; he had already heard small animals moving near him.
Silently Cushing went off to get Bunker Hill, disappeared down a dip in the grass, and then into a deep wadi. With shadows beginning to spawn from high places, and able to move slowly within the shadows, he was soon beyond the other rider, still sitting hopefully in the same place, merged against the rock face.
Cushing had a good idea that the rider, if surprised, would rush back the way he had come. He and the bola would be waiting for him.
A breeze rose in the east and blew across the grass toward the mysterious rider. It carried the scent of the jerky with it, for the horse nickered a few times. Cushing, off behind a rise and another growth of brush by a pile of rocks, did not hear the other horse, but was keeping Bunker Hill as quiet as possible. Cushing felt the breeze behind him and realized the scent of the jerky would be carried along with the breeze.
As Cushing moved closer to the watchful rider still sitting the saddle, from just about where he had come from, he suddenly heard the noise from his jerky-tepee contraption. Some hungry critter, catching scent of the jerky, must have gone after it, broke down the small structure, from which the round stone rolled down the rocky slope. The noise, though not very loud, was distinct, and set the spy rider into flight back the way he had come.
With his horse at a quick gallop, the spy was in hasty flight and might not have seen Cushing swing in behind him, Bunker Hill at a pace with the other horse, the bola twirling over Cushing’s head. The spy had no idea what was coming his way, even as he finally noticed Cushing coming up behind him.
The aim of the bola, as if it had eyes in the encased balls, swung through the air in a concentrated arc, a slight hum in its wake, an unearthly and surprising result coming in on the targeted young rider and his horse.
The hoof sounds were drum-like, the whir of the bola like a sibilant music, the quiet prairie alive with flight and desperation in two quarters.
Flight ended quickly, as the spy’s horse went foundering with his two front legs tautly enmeshed in rope bindings tough enough to drop him in his tracks. That sudden halt threw the rider head-first over his horse and onto the ground where he lay stunned.
Cushing leaped down from Bunker Hill and tied the rider’s hands and feet as quickly as he could. The horse was not hurt by the bola and Cushing tossed the captured man belly-first over his saddle, tied him in place, and set off for the wagon train.
Woolcomb, out front of the wagon train as it started to roll into its nightly protective circle, spotted Cushing and the second horse appear over a rise in the grass. He rode out to meet them.
“What cha got there, Chad? Looks like you been busy a while.” He pointed at the man draped over the saddle. “He any part of my discussion a few days ago?”
”He sure is, Mr. Woolcomb, Caught him sitting up in one place where he could watch us as we moved, Could tell a lot about us. How many guns. How many men. Had kind of an idea what they could take from us or run off.”
“How’d you know all that, Chad?”
“Oh,” Cushing said, “we had a little discussion soon as he woke up from being slightly unconscious when he was toppled right out of his saddle by the gaucho’s weapon of choice.”
The wide smirk on his face was a joyous one, as if he was saying he was glad he had not gone to sea to become a whaler and settle eventually into the whaling company office.
“What else you find out, Chad, in your little talk?” The smirk was shared by the older wagon master.
“Well, I know they have seven men in their fold. The leader is Black Lester, only name this boy knows him by. They are sitting in a small camp back in those hills out past us, waiting on Jessie’s return.” He pointed to the other man, “This here’s Jessie, Jessie Bowdring, in case you don’t know it yet. And he’s most willing to join up with us and get away from that wild gang he had to join or get shot.”
He paused to get his breath, set the tone, set the command, all the things he had been taught. “We could go up there and drive them right out of the territory, and we won’t have to worry about them anymore. Jessie says he can get us right in on top of them. That should take care of this problem, because he says they are bound to go after the next wagon train, and that’s us.”
Woolcomb said to Jessie, “You up to all that, son?”
“Yes, sir, I am. I was scared all the time I was with ‘em. Chad told me it was easier this way, being on the other side, sleepin’ better, not worryin’ ‘bout no sheriff or a posse or stuff like that. Yes, sir, I’m with you and Chad.”
“How old are you, Jessie?” Woolcomb said as he began to untie the knots about Jessie’s ankles.
“I’m 16, sir. Just turned 16 ‘bout a month ago.”
“Why, you and Chad are just about the same age.”
Woolcomb shook his head and said, “Ain’t it a wonder how two boys can learn so much in just a couple of days. Ain’t that a wonder.” He was all smiles as he looked at the two young cowpokes, now under his command
He looked from Cushing to Jessie and said, “You ever see a bola before, Jessie?” as Cushing put it in Woolcomb’s hands.
“No, sir. Never did, and I won’t forget this one either. Course, I couldn’t explain it to Black Lester either, no matter how hard I tried, and he wouldn’t listen no how.”
“Oh, he’ll hear about it, son. Sure as shootin’.”