Western Short Story
Grandpa's Tale From Johnson's Ranch
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Me? I’m Brady Cross, the 4th, and I am going to tell you a story told me by my grandfather, Brady Cross, Jr., as told to him by his father, the first Brady Cross in the line that ran from Heatherford, Oklahoma to this old saloon practically on the edge of nowhere, but still in Nebraska.

The voice of the story, if you get what I mean, has never changed since the first telling, which happened to be in a saloon much like this one.

“Listen,” my grandfather said, “real careful and with the wax taken out of your ears, ‘cause I got a story you all know and you ain’t even heard it yet from me. But be warned there ain’t no room for misbelievin’ ‘cause I don’t allow it. You all know, or should know by the skin of your teeth, that truth and conviction, as the perfessors call it, come like a good team of horses been ridden together under the same leather for near 10 years or so, and ain’t about to be dee-vorced this time.”

“We was in the Nebraska Territory, a hundred of us, a hundred or so, maybe more or less as I figure, and bound for the area around Johnson’s Ranch, near Peters Creek, where the Pony Express had a station set up there last year. We moved on horseback, too, and wagon and good boots when necessary, and always with a rifle in hand, except some women folk who ended up carryin’ knives sharp as good stone could make ‘em. Women have a way with knives as you’ll come to know ‘fore I’m through here.”

“Anyways we was lit upon by a crowd of them Indian folk all screamin’ like ole ladies and makin’ crazy on their horses quick as darts they was, and the one leadin’ them was not one a them if you can count the cotton in that kind of stuff. He was I swear as white as yore ma’s bread with good flour at the start of bakin’ and wore a blue fancy jacket like I never seed on anybody with a belt in the middle that pulled it and him together the way a saddle gets cinched underneath. A knife with a big black handle was stuck in that belt that ‘ppeared to me might seriously harm him if it got loose on a bumpy ride on that horse of his. The hat he was wearin’, not no pioneerin’ hat nor a cowpuncher’s hat, was fancy blue too and decked out with a purple band that had yellow stripes and gidgets in it and it was like a hat some of them ole mountain men would laugh at from here to kingdom come and back if you was to drop in on them, from out of the blue sky as they might say.”

“This here strange fella kept yellin’ out orders and pointin’ where most of us was makin’ a good stand of it by unloadin’ near all at once that sent a kind of wave of minies and bullets and plain all out iron garbage in a burst that took down both horses and men in its sweep. Seems like he wanted to get them Indian folk to come at us in a big wave of their own only they wasn’t about to all get kilt that quick. When one of us, maybe me, hit him with a round or a chunk of hot stuff, he was knocked right off his horse and scrambled for another one and was barely able to get his ass up on that animal and lit out with all the others behind him like he was pulling them on a rope, and they was over the hill and outta sight before the smoke got blowed away by the wind.”

“We buried one man out there on the grass and he was a lucky one ‘cause we had to bury his woman with him, both wearin’ an arrow of their own, not a bullet, in the chest like they come outta the same quiver and maybe from the same bow. We put them down side by side, real close like, in a small hole in the ground that was about as deep as hurry can get it so critters wouldn’t feast up on ‘em, kinda like they was romancin’ their way right to heaven, them two.”

“And a few men left widows behind them from that fight and carry the memories of the good and the bad all comin’ this way.”

“Out there on their lonely way to the next stop we left ‘em, and hightailed it toward Johnson’s Ranch that was maybe fifty or so miles away the map said by measurin’ and the only one we had to go by, bein’ as not a one of us had been this way afore and didn’t know any trail signs, like I could see now if I was right back there stickin’ up all over the place to be looked at. And some other sign I didn’t read so good either.”

Course, I might give a pause here to say that he was giving us a clue for later on, but I’d best save that and get on with the story.

“We was in Johnson’s Ranch in a few days and splittin’ up from bein’ together all that time on the way out here, and some bein’ real glad to see some go and some sad at seein’ others go on their way to another place in Nebraska or even further closer to the Rocky Mountains and gold or silver waitin’ on ‘em, and some stayed in Johnson’s Ranch and I guess are still there planted, like some that was hopin’ to get growed again like some folk think, kind of across the big divide but bein’ themselves all over again. But some knowin’ they’ll come back as a cougar or a deer swift as lightning or a goat up on the side of a mountain looks like he’s ‘bout as near to God as any of us’ll ever get.”

“And it’s all of five years later and I’m comin’ back to Johnson’s Ranch, to a spread my brother Jagar owns, ‘cause I’ve been out and back a number of times and I’m sittin’ in the saloon one night mindin’ my own business and really likin’ the way my throat’s feelin’ when a fella walks in and looks around and takes a seat at a far table and gets downright comfortable for a stranger and orders a drink from one of the ladies tendin’ the house and he’s wearin’ that same damned silly blue hat with the purple band and funny gidgets in it along with the stripes that I saw out on the trail and I’m tinglin’ all over all of a sudden and bein’ unnaturally noticeable while I’m doin’ it and Jagar says, ‘What’s the matter with you, Brady, ‘cause you look like you seen a ghost? I thought you was goin’ to drop your drink in the middle of finishin’ it off.’“

“The bartender was right near then, and was one of them old hands from back then, and his name was Oliver Crowne and he says, ‘Don’t think your brother’s seen a ghost, Jagar. I seen him too, that fella with the Funny Hat down there just startin’ in to get his throat some dampened. What do we do now, Brady?’ And he poured each of us another glass and sat back and waited, him bein’ one of them kind always waitin’ on someone else to do the business, like ask for a drink usually, not pour it ‘forehand or don’t get to mixin' in stuff don’t pay enough to do so up front. Not if your life was to depend on it.”

“But I don’t carry no gun like I was a gunfighter, ‘cause my hands are slow and clumsy and belong more on a shovel or a hammer and would be awful late gettin’ a gun out of a holster tied down on my hip, but them hands is as hard as rocks and ain’t never broke under or from anythin’ and all I need is a chance to hit somethin’ and it ain’t never goin’ to hit back, never again.”

“So I’m on my slow, meanderin’ way down to introduce myself and I seen this gent beside the door with his hand inside his coat and he’s real nervous like there’s a gun attached to that nervous hand of his and he’s part of Funny Hat’s troupe. I don’t like bad odds, so I turnt around and went back and said to Jagar, ‘You go make sure that nervous fella at the door don’t step into the middle of what’s between me and Funny Hat, which is some serious, like you might tap him on the back of the head as you’re gonna leave here all done with drinkin’ for the time bein’.’”

“And Jagar, like the quick cat he is and not all clumsy as a bear like me, slaps the fella on the side of the head with his gun and grabs him easy and walks easy and cozy out the door like he’s hauling hay into the barn and practic’lly nobody notices anythin’ includin’ Funny Hat and I make my way again like I was goin’ in the first place and I ain’t got a itch in my fingers like a fast gun must have but I could feel the power buildin’ up in my fists like the iron I said was there. I was almost to the table where he’s sittin’ and another fella I never even seen and who’s sittin’ right beside me as I walk by, says to me as he stands up, ‘Say fella, do I know you?’ And I figure he does and is one of Funny Hat’s crowd and I slammed him aside the head and he goes down like a rock’s hit him and Funny Hat stands up and is about to get his gun when quick as a cat Jagar belts him on the side of the head like he’s already done to one of them, and Funny Hat lies across the table where his drink is all spilt.”

“Someone in the crowd, maybe another of Funny Hat’s folks, whether he’s tempted, pushed or challenged, fires off a shot and it must have gone down at the floor ‘cause nothin’ or no one gets hit and nothin’s broken but silence.”

“Of course, there’s all kinds of noise and commotion goin’ on, and people runnin’ back and forth and someone runnin’ for the sheriff and I sit at the table and wait for law and good works to come and visit the scene.”

“Then someone shoots from the doorway and Jagar, at the end of the bar, shoots and there’s a scream from outside and it’s the mother of a kid who’s been hit and kilt on the spot. When the sheriff comes in in the middle of all the ruckus and hears the stories as folks sit back down to drink, he arrests Jagar and says he’s gonna charge him with murder as a bunch of folks say the only one they saw shoot was Jagar.”

“They call the judge and court comes into the place and the jury’s put in their place and witnesses answer the sheriff’s questions and it all points to Jagar, and one gent says, ‘I was outside when the shooting started in here and everybody in the street looked at this place like it was going to blow up or come apart with gunfire and then the kid falls down and the mother screams,’ and the mother’s in the court and says, ‘He killed my son,’ and she points right at Jagar and she’s madder’n that hen got caught in the rain.”

“The judge says, ‘It plain looks to me, Jagar, that you killed the boy even if it was an accident, and I’ll have to send you off to jail.’”

“Then, right there in the middle of court, a couple of wild things happen and one gent tries to run out and a few gents grab him, wonderin’ where he’s goin’ in such a hurry and Doc Mederson says, ‘I got a question, Judge, because the witness said that everybody outside was looking at the saloon here when the ruckus was going on.’ ‘So?’ said the judge.’ And the doc says, ‘Then how come the boy was shot in the back?’ And the judge says, ‘Case closed, Jagar. You can go home tonight after we get drunk a bit. And I want to know where this fellow was when the shooting started, the one who wanted out of here in a big hurry.’ And the storekeeper jumps up from his table in the corner and says, ‘He was standing outside my store right on the corner of the alley and he had his rifle out like he was going to have it cleaned or fixed, like he was plain studying it.’ And the judge says, ‘Say, Doc, was it a rifle shot that killed the boy and you can swear to your answer?’ And the doc says, ‘I sure can and do.’”

“And it was all over just like that.”

Of course, down the line somewhere, a few details came to light and Funny Hat in the beginning had escaped from a long prison term and formed a band of bad guys who traveled as a gang when they wanted to and as single agents when they were directed by Funny Hat to gain any edge on opponents or targets.

The good word has it that two women recognized a couple of them one time a few years later outside a store in the next town and invited them to “our own little private-like campsite out in the foothills if you know what we mean” that was not anything of the sort, and sliced them up pretty bad with knives they must have been saving forever. One gent I know says there’s more than two women with long-memory knives sitting not too far from here, and that ought to make a few strangers a bit uncomfortable if they are recognized and set on by women with the long-knives, because even the best butchers learn from their mommas how to cut the steak nice and properly.

And that first Cross relative of mine telling the story sort of looked into the eyes of his listeners and must have made a few men shake, especially thinking about mistaken identity.