Western Short Story
Good to the Last Drop
William was a pretty average man, average build, medium tempered, and hardly outspoken in mixed company. Yet he had a few qualities that shone down. A man well-traveled throughout the southwest, he worked hard, though not a Sunday man, had a spiritual stripe, and most of all, was a man to take action. Not that he led the charge when the time came as a lowly private at Gettysburg, though charge he did. Yet he would take care of what was needed when the times arose. For all his character, he could blend into the shadows. No stories would be written about him back east, no dime novels, but many a man knew he was a good pard to have on the trail.
Out here under the dust of near two thousand cattle, he was the biscuit shooter, the bean master that governed the chuck wagon with a fair but firm hand. Working for Mr. Armstrong for the last few years had been one of the better stretches of his wandering and now aging life. It beat riding the line, which he had done for a good part of his years. Though with his patchwork of trades, he helped out where he was needed.
This contract was definitely better than the month he spent slaving inside a silver mine not even three years ago. Longest three weeks, four days, and thirteen hours of his life. Those poor brutes liked to kill themselves each and every day for tortuous hours of pitiless anguish. Get a bucket shower, a cot, and two meals for your trouble. All the while surrounded by the security crew. They weren’t called security, but poorly named as linemen, for they protected the line both ways. As much of their job was to keep men in as it was to keep men out. Most of the men on the ‘line’ were more ruthless than prison guards in a little observed ward of an understaffed and underfunded penitentiary. The owners maintained the little store where everyone accrued debt every week at inflated prices. None could survive without selling a little of their soul to the unseen men. One night he slipped out under the cover of a sliver of a moon and left a broken pick axe, an unconscious “lineman”, and four dollars and seventy cents in debt in the brush of the Little San Juan Range.
“Come on you ol’ belly cheater,” an approaching man said. He had already grabbed a tin plate and brought it up underneath a smile that hid behind his drooping mustache and a month of scruff.
“John,” William said with a raised ladle, “you keep talking back and you’ll have nothing but lumps for supper.” Both grinned and sunk into their side of a pot of salt pork and beans.
It may have been a joke this night, but more than a few reckless rough riders had felt the justice of his heavy iron ladle when taking the etiquette of the food line too far. He did not put up with such horseplay. The ladle itself was not only heavy, but vaguely shaped like a short Iroquois war club. Even more so the day it acquired a slight knuckle bend in the handle near the scooper. This pucker of metal came from adjusting the attitude of one young cowboy, after which neither the ladle nor the cowboy were ever going to ride straight again.
John rode flank and should have eaten enough dust to be full by nightfall, but the young man just never seem to get topped off. He was a good natured spirit, played a washed-out guitar around the fire when the lulls lasted long enough, and gave everyone just enough ribbing to lighten the mood at the end of most nights. Behind him in line was Thomas Perkins the Trail Boss of the whole outfit. William stopped spooning for others and made a gracious plate to hand right over. ‘Boss’ seemed to only speak when giving orders. Otherwise, his scowl did the talking. The distance he put between himself and the rest of the company was little more than feet, but seemed like a chasm. He waded to supper in silence and William always made sure his portions were just on the verge of questionably large. Of which none ever questioned except with hungry eyes. With a solemn face that would make any momma sad, he took his plate and moved out. William still smiled, as was his way. As the intense faced man stepped off, there was a quiet about the line. Within that quiet, way out over the heard, one could hear a man singing off in the distance as his horse rounded the grass clipping heads in clip-clops over hard packed earth.
Both the swings and the flanks made their tired way through the line with a meal and a warm word from William. Taking the furthest place in line for all but the men riding drag, was Miguel. He was always humbly last among the front and middle riders, though he had been riding as long as any here. An ex-Padre, he graciously ushered others to eat before him, which was a true act of kindness as none had earned the right to line first as modest Miguel. There was hushed speculation that he was making up for a sting of sins that he had not yet forgiven himself for, as behind his humble eyes and work hardened hands, there was an edge of mischief with a strength no less than that of a man bent on revenge.
Last brought in the drags, the horsetail of the cattle drive. Dirt eaters and pert near all greenhorns. Each could be identified at a glance as they were perpetually covered in more dust than denim, leather, or wool. The grime would precede their outstretched hands as it made its way across their plates as if they had ladles of their own. Still, these youngsters were energetic, if not even half broke by this time of evening. They joked their way to the grub as if youth could conquer all.
“Eh Will,” said one, “ain’t you got some airtight peaches or something?” He called himself John but they already had a John. Everyone light-heartedly called him Wailin, as he was always quick to gripe about something like some kind of ‘aw shucks’ little kid.
“As long as the Arbuckle’s keeps spitting up sticks,” another interrupted while saluting with his empty coffee tin, “we are still going to be friends.” The dust lay so thick on him it was only his eyes that gave him away as human rather than a mobile part of the landscape.
“Can’t have enough friends,” William said while pointing to the oversized pot of brunette melt on the fire. Before the man could walk away, he asked another question of William and those around, his smile dropping away, “Did you see any more of those fellows that horsed up on that ridge this morning?”
“Yep,” Wailin responded, not wishing to divert too far from the idea of filling his belly. “I did, but seemed that nobody came close that I know of. Just seemed to watch us like some crazy injuns from up in there among those rocks.”
“I saw them. Thought they might have popped up again down trail, seemed they wanted to train rob us,” said a man named Wilkes, another of the youngsters riding drag. Speculation was that he was only thirteen and hid his youth by being unnaturally tall, but since he worked hard, no one questioned his infancy too much. He twisted his dust creased kerchief before beating even more from his worn hat, respectfully far enough away to not sprinkle a layer of fine grit across the array of cast irons of food. “They weren’t even hiding or nothin’. Just sat up there like Geronimo sizing us up.”
“Seemed like they was ghosts or something,” Wailin put in as he lingered for a spot of bread.
“Don’t believe in glimmers or ghosts or witches,” William said, “never seen anything that went bump in the night that didn’t bleed.”
Wailin looked at him with an inquisition that spoke of his age, “What about the devil? You ‘fraid of him?”
William smiled as he filled another man’s plate with warm lead belly, “The devil has to get in line like everybody else. Otherwise it’s a lump up side his head too.” Anyone even close to the spot chuckled. Most had seen someone earn a lick, and that most often fixed any future issues of line cutting, talking back, or such.
Wailin stepped sideways away from the food fire, balancing an oblong hunk of bread that teetered this way and that with every step. Wilkes followed and took a seat in the grass near the coffee. None were too close to the fire yet, but with the sun already down, the cool of night was pressing at their backs. The talk around the fire ranged from stories about each others day, light-hearted jokes, and of course, the strangers that stood above them on the ridge that morning. Once everyone was done eating, or at least when John was done, he took his guitar out of the wagon and played all the punchers a few tunes. Out amongst the herd, another was already singing the cattle to low with another round of hymns.
The short evening plodded on. With everyone fed and the crockery all sand scrubbed, William edged to the front of the wagon. Half of the men were already fast asleep. John strummed chords that gave harmonious color to the night. Taking a pouch from beneath the front seat, he began rolling a smoke, which he rewarded himself each night with all the work done. The paper burned and William sighed. After a long moment of preponderance, he dashed the remnant of a tip out on his boot heel and flicked the nub tail into the grass. Leaning over, he took the wagon tongue in his free hands and stared up into the sky. Within a practiced moment he sighted the Big Dipper and followed the line to the North Star and lay the tongue to pointing right at it. In the morning, Boss would use it to know exactly which way to take the herd, though he was already a walking topographical map.
Having set aside everything he would need at hand in the morning, he stepped to pull his own bedroll from the wagon. Last to sleep and first to rise. He cocked his head to one side, strangely noting that he hadn’t heard the singing carrying over the herd for a few minutes now. ‘Perhaps washing down his throat,’ he thought. Even John tipped forward in a half slumber over his guitar as night sounds replaced his strumming. William went over and slid the man back into his blanket and took the guitar back to the wagon. He looked over the circle of rough cowboys at the edge of a low fire and felt a patriarchal satisfaction. Knowing Boss probably still had one eye open, he considered it his keep to look over what he would ever consider his family.
He almost got the chance to bed down when he remembered he had left a knife out on the back lip of the tailgate from when he was pulling down slices from the salted pork. Were he to leave it there overnight, a good morning dew would turn the surface red to rust and ruin, so he stood and soldiered his way around back the wagon before sleep could give him chase. Away from the now dim firelight, he had to feel around in the dark, gently in case he found blade instead of handle. It was his pride at how sharp an edge he could put on a stretch of steel. His fingers brushed the very point of the blade’s tip and touched their way down the spine. At the same time, he heard something too near the wagon. Then he saw the shadowed outline of a man’s face, his hat, and a hand cradling a gun.
Knowing everyone in camp was accounted for by slumber and the last supposed to be singing the herd up a Texas lullaby, his mind instinctively flinched with dread. In the same instant, his nostrils registered the stink of hard trail, far sourer than any from the men here he recognized. Here was Wailin’s ghost, his composition subconsciously knew this to be true.
His hand scrabbled forward to wrap nervous fingers around the handle of his knife and quickly slammed it down towards the figure in the dark. The ghost fell forward, out into the fading firelight, as it was no longer a ghost but a white man with a dirty, contorted face. The handle protruded from his chest so fully that not even the smallest sliver of the blade could be seen. Sounds of commotion from behind rushed towards the forefront of his mind, and in one swift motion he wheeled while in the same instant picked up the man’s gun where it had fallen from his hand.
A fearful glance showed at least four other shadows working their way through his sleeping family. To his horror, knife blades were cutting through them like butter. Falling to one knee, for he knew without thought the parameters of trajectory that could endanger his own, he shot the first man down. With little aim, he brought down another with a second report of the gun. Fire smoke mingled with powder mist and disguised his view of what now truly appeared as ghosts dancing through the night. He took two more shots through the grey mist but missing due to the obstruent haze. He hoped it would at least cause the criminals to hesitate, or with luck, run away.
Men awoke in confused rolls and angry shouts, but not nearly as many as had the morning before. Miguel was one that had not been surprised in awareness. He held a large knife in hand before his head fully rose from his pallet. A man stooped over John, right beside Miguel, and the knife cut through the back of the outlaw’s leg with the speed and severity of a puma’s claws. As the figure fell backwards, Miguel caught his head and jerked it backwards to expose his throat. The blade made a harsh change in the man’s future.
Casting the man aside, he did not hesitate to lunge at the next nearest that he knew was not one of his own crew. From a shoulder led tackle, they fell and rolled at the edge of the fire, sending up a dance of sparks. Again his knife was unstoppable. The man fell his last in a sprawl across the ground, limp, the arms splayed above his head as if he were being held at gunpoint. Guns would no longer threaten him.
Miguel stood to find the next foe. A shot rang out at his back. At the sharp report, his face slackened from a mask that portrayed the angry struggle of life and death, to a mask of nothingness. It was as if someone had turned off the lights above the bar when the last coin had left for the night. His body fell forward, already dead in flight, forever to be unaware that his once strong vestibule landed hard in the fire.
“Noo!” William screamed as he took aim on the killer that flickered at the edge of night. But his borrowed pistol only gave him a sound of empty metal chamber. The dead man had only four bullets loaded, which likely meant that he had little else. This told William in an instant that these men were fighting for more than just rustling or common thievery; they were running hard on survival. This would be a fight to the last.
Sliding the revolver into his belt, as you never know when one might need to hammer a skull, he step-crawled to the front seat. From its bowels came a Greener double barrel knockoff from Belgium. It had always been reliable. A chink of seat flew into the air at his shoulder. In the excitement, he hadn’t even heard the tell-tale thunder, but knew where it came from. He turned and aimed in a fluid motion. The first barrel went off and doubled the man to his knees in an unnatural slump. One that he would never recover from.
A series of shots went off all around him. As he turned, he saw two last men firing rounds into anyone that still could move or make trouble for them. One of those troublemakers was Wailin. He had finally pulled his iron and spun, firing at both the two men. Under a cauldron of enthusiasm, he missed each with four successive shots. Both brutes took momentary aim and one of them caught young Wailin high in the shoulder. With bent armed ambitions, he pulled off his last two shots, sending one man backwards in a staggering step. The remaining man raised a steady arm and sent Wailin back into his blanket.
William raised his last barrel a second too late to save him, but just in time to send the man into an uncomfortable afterlife. His side opened up beneath a spray of moonlit crimson. He spent his last moments on earth confused under heavy blood loss and slow organ shut down.
Looking around, the only man moving was the one Wailin had staggered, now down on one knee and questioning the inability to use his left arm.
The bleeding murderer looked up, “You shot my Pa.” His face was deeply concerned considering the situation.
William walked his way, “Your Pa was a bad man. I suspect so are you.” When he approached close enough, the firelight revealed a tall, lanky young man barely ushered into his teens.
“How old are you boy?” he asked, some surprise crept into his voice at the new sight of him.
“Fifteen,” the kid announced while staring at his bloody arm. “I’m afraid you’re right. I am bad.” With that he raised his pistol on William.
William replied in turn, raising the shotgun, but his fingers found the trigger taught with only empty shells to fire. The kid still had at least one round left. It ripped into William’s belly with a fire that made bad whiskey seem as smooth as buttermilk. The sensation closed his eyes in a spout of tears and throttling agony. When his eyes opened, after a short lived battle with searing pain, he saw that the kid could no longer lift his gun. He tried twice, but could hardly clear his belt with his wrist. The kid’s slow decline was a evident as a second hand on a pocket watch.
William exhaled a scorching breath, his internals clinched in knots. He knew his own time had a ticker placed on it as well, but one thought gave him pleasure. If this was a race to hell, the kid and all his evil companions were about to win the race.