Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Wedge Holland could shoot as quickly as any man in all of Jingo Valley, which had a whole arsenal of gunmen who were both fast on the draw and excellent rifle marksmen. If the rough road didn’t keep passing stage coach riders awake, the many practice ranges along the road through the valley would, for each ranch kept up its own shooting range. And such frequent activity, as it was known far and wide, required scrounging and rooting for empty jars, bottles, cans, and old potted vessels, which they used to line up their shooting targets. Practice, the gunmen all believed, could make a shooter damned near perfect. The use of such cast-off target wares, it was said, might in the end eventually toss a few stray rounds into the mix.
It was an omen waiting to come out of the shadows.
In Jingo Valley, the credo held that shooters were kings in their own right, acute marksmanship being the chief ingredient, and average gunmen rarely climbed out of the mass of men who carried side arms, as most every man did. Guns of all sorts and designs were a constant element of everyday life and in every which way in the formation and development of the west. Jingo Valley was in itself an example of western history, but on the tamer side.
The known fact said outright murder, or attempted murder, did not arise often on many of Jingo Valley’s ordinary days until Wedge Holland was shot from behind as he sat his horse on open grass. He was found just after dawn the next morning, his vigilant horse standing guard. He had failed to come back to the K Bar K Ranch from a trip to the settlement of Valley Pasture, on a bank of the Pecos River. The man was near death when Tricia Kingsbury, heading into town, found him after she spotted his lone horse at vigil. She was forever grateful, as was Holland, that she’d been riding a rig and not a horse, finding it a lot easier to load and carry the wounded man to the Kingsbury ranch less than a mile back down the road. Once there he was under the care of her mother for the ensuing critical hours. On the second day Holland regained consciousness and his condition slowly improved on the days following.
In that short time, during the constant vigil with her mother and the days of recovery, the heart of Tricia Kingsbury took leave of her on so many occasions that she realized she was in love with Wedge Holland. An orphan, all parties knew, he was brought up by a kind and providential family as one of their sons. In her quiet moments she thanked them for bringing him west, bringing him to her.
Holland’s past was noteworthy. All the locals knew that as a lad he’d been shoved away from a coal mining town in West Virginia by his father. The elder Holland, constantly coughing and aware of the illness that had come down on him, desperately wanted his only child to have a better start in life than his own, an introduction to the coal mines when he was 10 years old.
Tricia’s father, George Kingsbury, heard the beginning of the story first hand when he passed through that town in West Virginia on his way west in a wagon train. He could still see and hear a man at the side of the road begging for a ride for his son “to any place away from the mines.” He’d heard the man’s pleas and seen him put his son aboard a wagon just ahead of him in the wagon train. He also remembered the man’s egregious cough, as though it surely was a deadly sign of things to come.
That wagon train ended up on the banks of the Pecos River, and established, in a few short years, the settlement of Valley Pasture, where all the wagon train travelers eventually put down their roots. And though Holland had no blood roots within the settlement, he was accepted as one of them, his introduction to the wagon train treated as a piece of Valley Pasture’s early history.
Holland was fully recovered when the next Big-Shoot-out came along in the fall of 1870, with the winner getting a grand Thanksgiving meal for the entire family. If the winner was a single, unattached man with no family relatives, he could pick a family to celebrate with, as long as the family lived in Jingo Valley or had connections to Valley Pasture, where the contest would be held. Thanksgiving Day had been celebrated in the country since 1863. That’s when it was first promulgated by a writer, Sarah Josepha Hale, and so declared by President Lincoln and sanctioned as a national holiday by Congress, the day to be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in every November. In many places that was when the leaves began to fall and in many of those places it came just before the snow started to fall. It was thought a great shoot-out contest would feed the long winter’s fireside talks about the best marksman in the valley, and possibly in all of Texas.
Of course, the shooting match generated a burst in the collection of empty containers. Old branding pits and campfires and trail dumps were scavenged for the useful debris. Never did an empty can promise such good taste as when a single round knocked it into the air off its temporary roost on a log, a fence rail, a flat stone or a low and fairly level limb of a tree. The shooting favorites were peach cans and tomato cans, old earthenware pots, and the rare but available tin bread canisters left over from troop rations in the Civil War. A few saved canisters in local hands still contained original bread loaves, nearly a foot long and roughly two inches high on each of its rectangular sides. Folks said these metal tins were carried west from battle sites or ration and supply centers of the Civil War, where they had kept bread safe for eating. When opened the empty tins were great for multiple target shoots, great for practice. Some of the shootings were to see who could put a bullet in each “o” of the raised legend “Army of the Potomac” on one of the long sides of each tin container. The tins had been more desired in the war than wooden crates that hardtack was usually shipped in, rationed from, and in which bread or hardtack in many cases became moldy and soggy and generally uneatable.
A woman named Sarah Josepha Hale had helped make Thanksgiving a permanent celebration for the young country. She wrote many articles campaigning for its adoption. Her obsession came to fruition in 1863, when President Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November to be a national day of Thanksgiving. The date was moved around a couple of times until Congress sanctioned Thanksgiving as a national holiday, always to occur on the fourth Thursday in November. Texas had become a state in 1845, and there in Jingo Valley, 25years later, the locals had taken Thanksgiving Day to heart for a gala national celebration.
Nobody in the whole valley had any idea of Holland’s bushwhacker, nor could they hazard a guess; such an attempt on the life of a young man was unthinkable because he had not done any wrong to any soul.
It was during a conversation with Tricia Kingsbury that Holland asked if his horse was being taken care of and he wondered, when Tricia said his horse was fine, what happened to the bags he had slung on his saddle.
“I saw no bags, Wedge, one your horse or anywhere near him or you. He was just standing out there looking down on you. Once, when I was approaching close, I think he even leaned down and nuzzled you. But there were no bags around. What was in them?”
“Way off in one of the canyons, where the Hazel Stream joins the Pecos, I found the remains of an old campfire, and cast off in a nearby dump I found three empty Army of the Potomac bread tins, the kind that people talk about and the kind that’s great for target shooting. They were rusty but whole except for the opened end where the bread been removed. I had a few small cans in the two bags on my saddle.”
He stopped talking when he saw the strange look on her face.
“Do you think I might have been shot for something like that, for a couple of sacks full of old tin cans?”
“No,” Tricia said. “I can’t imagine anyone in the whole valley doing that. Maybe a stranger might do it, but nobody that I know or you know, I’m sure. Whoever it was didn’t take your horse or your guns or any money from your pockets.” She blushed when she said, “You didn’t have much of that either. We put it on the mantle over the fireplace.”
She pointed to the fireplace in the room. The black soot of old fires had scarred the bricks to a deep black. A black iron pot hung on an iron bar cantilevered over the quiet firedogs on the floor of the fireplace. Holland figured that the fireplace would soon be put to regular use.
“Did your father have anything to say about my getting shot? He have any ideas?” She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. It might not be true, he thought, but she’d come awful close. Her eyes were innocent yet full of secrets he hoped to discover one day, there was a soft pink on her lips that made a smile as powerful as any weapon he’d ever known and from the luster of her hair to the graceful lines of her neck there was a graceful swoop that sent his imagination to a near riot. His eyes could not stray from her face and the hope and promise he detected there.
In the room, as if ascended from a higher level, came a sincerity each of them was immediately aware of. Within that aura she was emitting her own hopes and replied, “My father’s as puzzled as we are, maybe more so, because he’s known everybody longer than either of us, longer than me and you, at least as adults. Lots of them came in the wagon train with him and those that followed were all part of the struggle to get this place going. They were hard workers, the lot of them, that’s why he’s as puzzled as we are, and it makes him think it had to be a stranger or one of the younger folks, someone our age who hasn’t accepted his own lot.”
She hesitated, and then said, “You didn’t hear anything before you got hit, did you, Wedge? Anything at all? Anything that’d make you think of somebody you knew? Someone I know? Someone our age?”
“Tricia, I was just looking at the stars and thinking how much I love the place, the whole Jingo Valley and everything in it. It was real comfortable, the feeling I had, a kind of joy I was having all by myself, then I saw a shooting star and the whole place came to life for me, me thinking where I had come from, the coal mine country and having all this. I could even hear my father coughing, just like I hear it every night before I go to sleep.”
When he said that, when he flung his arms wide, Tricia knew that he was sharing, that she was in his thinking, and she blushed again.
They were interrupted by her mother, a lovely woman in kitchen garb, her apron colored by meats and vegetables, her hair tied back so as not to bother her concentration on a special recipe, or a special meal in the works, and Holland saw what Tricia might look like down the road in 40 or so years. It knocked him silly.
Tricia’s mother, loudly, packaging excitement in her words, said, “I just heard they found a new shooting range up in one of the canyons, and they found three Army of the Potomac bread tins punctured by bullets. Each “O” in the tins was hit right in the center. It looks like a great marksman and sharpshooter was practicing up there, and I’m thinking those tins or bread canisters might have been the ones taken from you when you got shot, Wedge.”
Her look settled on her daughter, reading what was in her eyes, knowing Tricia had found the love she herself she had been fortunate enough to find. “If you lose in the contest, take a good look at the winner; he might have had a hair-brained idea that he had to get you out of the contest, or,” and she paused when looking directly into her daughter’s eyes, “getting rid of you.”
Again, in the limelight, Tricia blushed, and Wedge Holland sat up in his chair with enlightenment on his face. For the second time in his life a home had been opened for him. He found a well of thanksgiving in the acts, and became determined to win the shooting match just over a week away as a way to pay back the Kingsburys for their generosity and Melva Kingsbury for her good medical assistance.
Yet the news about the finding of the canisters was somewhat querulous; it did not fit Holland as the reason he was shot in the back. He’d have given the canisters up simply for the asking if it was put to him kindly. He still wanted to know more than anything else the reason he had been shot. An accident? Unintended? A mistaken target? He ran through the possibilities, and did not find a single clue to satisfy him.
The match finally came, two days before Thanksgiving Day, with the town of Valley Pasture abuzz with excitement and active betting on the winner going on around town. The two favorites appeared to be Wedge Holland, because of previous target shooting accomplishments with hand gun and rifle ( and might have included a sympathy bet from some folks because of his being shot in the back), and Carlos Brazos, whom he had shared a bedroom for most of his growing years in the Brazos home. The senior Brazos had welcomed the young Wedge Holland aboard his wagon when the pleas of his father could not be ignored.
They were like brothers, and as it was bound to happen, they were the last two men standing in the contest. When Carlos Brazos finally missed a shot, Wedge Holland also missed with his succeeding attempt. It went, on and off, hit and hit, or miss and miss, by each of them, until the committee, in desperation, decided that it was a tie and each one would share in the prize. It could be in either home, The Brazos’ ranch house or the Kingsbury’s in order to be fair, and would be settled by a draw from a hat.
The Brazos family won the draw and Thanksgiving would be celebrated by both families in the Brazos ranch house, about a dozen miles from Pasture Valley, and on the river.
“That was some shoot-out,” Carl Brazos sr. said, at one point during the sumptuous meal. “I was hoping neither one of you missed a shot, but you sure took care of that worry for me, playing games with all of us, just like you used to do as kids.”
“What tricks were those?” Melva Brazos said, knowing there were some things she’d never been told about ‘her boys’ in the early years.
“Oh, they’re just between us men, Melva. Just men talk. Just old stuff now.” Carlos Sr. directed a simple smile at each of “his sons” and let it go at that.
Carlos Jr., in an embarrassing moment of revelation about his dexterity in the match, said, “I was able to handle things in the match because I got in some really good extra practice one day up in the canyons where I found campfire remains and some of those old ration tins from the Army of the Potomac that we saw a couple of years ago. The drive I was on took longer than I thought it would and I was on my way back from Mercyville when I found them. ‘Member, Wedge, when we found some of them in that pile of junk by the river one day, got to be six or seven years ago? We sure shot the hell out of them tins, and it was great practice. So I got some more in this time. Set me right up to spar with Wedge this time around. I think it came out great.”
“Anything around where you found them, Carl, that’d tell you who left them?” Wedge was looking at him with an expected look on his face.
“Oh, that’s easy,” Carlos Jr. said, no surprise on his face and obviously unaware of the theft of tins from Wedge Holland. “It was a small branding fire that the Lofton boys had set when they found some of their strays, or what they think were their strays, up in that same canyon. I met one of their riders on the trail on the way home, that Poncho kid they pressed into work. He’s only about 13 and was looking kind of nervous and he told me about finding stray cows and how they branded them by that fire. I think he was worried about being in on some rustling and wanted to get out from under. Those Lofton boys do take some latitude on things.”
Wedge Holland looked first at George Kingsbury, then at his wife, and then at Tricia. Each one of them nodded an assent of some order about the bushwhacking situation and the sudden connection to the Loftons.
George Kingsbury, in a quick thought, figured he should have brought the Loftons into the mix long before this. They were not killers or bushwhackers, but had let loose with a few overzealous or raw moments in their time; an extreme connection, but a possible one, he thought.
Holland, to his credit, after the celebration of the day and the great meal, did not go rushing after the Loftons, but waited until he met one of them outside of town no more than a week later.
Ned Lofton, the youngest of the brothers, seemed nervous as Holland rode up beside him on the road, with Lofton jumping the gun and saying right off, “That was some shootin’ you boys did at the match, Wedge, you and Carl. I’m glad you were able to get it done, seein’s how you got jumped by someone on the trail a while back. That’s a good comeback you made.” His voice was filled with apology when he said, “Wish it never happened, don’t you? I do.”
Holland said, “Ned, we found something out in the canyon that throws a light on the shooting, lights it up like as flare was used .”
Ned Lofton fell apart right in front of Holland.
“Honest, Wedge, it was a damned fool accident. I thought you were aiming a gun at me. I didn’t know it was you. It was almost dark. Then I thought you was dead and I couldn’t help you at all. So I took the bag off your saddle thinkin’ it would look like someone robbed you. I didn’t know what was in the bag. When I found out much later that it was target junk, not much to worry about, I figured I was safe and shot them up like a practice shoot. I just kept my mouth shut about all of it. Even my pa doesn’t know, or any of my brothers. They’d have whipped my as for leaving you. I’m damned sorry for it all, Wedge. Really sorry.”
Wedge Holland, measuring the trade-offs, Tricia finding him, him finding Tricia, let it all go into the past. It all would get leveled out one day, the day he’d find his roots in West Virginia, if there were any roots left.
If none were found, he and Tricia would be making their own roots in the meantime.