Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The war had started. Not the Great War between the states, which was over by a few years, but a war in Gunsmoke Valley, a war sure to eclipse all actions up to that time. It was June of 1868, mid-day, the sun working like a stud, a horse limping into the Prescott spread, the Snake River in the distance like a slow rattler, poised.
Time, in all matters, in all elements, was exerting itself.
Luke Prescott’s son, Thompson named but Tommy called, came home barely keeping himself in the saddle. Blood had soaked his shirt all down the left sleeve and against his chest where a huge blob of red shook Prescott right off the porch chair. The horse, still skittish from some kind of encounter, though well-trained at the ranch, had brought the lad home.
Prescott yelled to his wife, “Sarah, get some hot towels and water out here, quick.” To his foreman Harlan Dobrie he yelled, “Harlan, take Smitty and go get Doc Swenson out here. Don’t take no for an answer, if you can help it. Hear me?” He added, as he lifted his son off the saddle, “Tell Doc he don’t come out here right now I’m coming to get him.” His hand patted the pistol at his side; lately he’d be undressed without the gun belt in place.
Someone in the valley, Prescott swore, had put the Doc Swenson in his pocket. Just like the banker Holdsworth and young Jabber Cuscoe, running the saloon, had been locked away, declared. It had to be one of the ranchers getting bigger than what he was, and wanting more, fingers spreading into other holdings, other persuasions. He wondered how many people in the valley were touched, moved, like checkers on a board … a flick of the fingers, a passage of coin. When he had time he’d think about who was losing and who was gaining in the valley, who might be looking to be bigger than all the others. None of them had been that way in the beginning. They had all been honest folk, bent to the task, making do for their families, scratching the better parts of earth to reach heaven.
And for all of that his only son may have been caught in some avoidable crossfire.
Prescott carried his son to the porch and laid him flat. His wife, with a pan of water and a bundle of cloths, began to clean up her son so they could check the wound.
“Tommy,” she said, “can you hear me? What happened?”
“Who did it, Tommy?” his father said, the veins bulging on his neck, his arms shaking all the way to his fingertips. “Who did it, son? Who?” There was a rage touching on the air itself. Prescott sizzled in his body like a roast on a spit.
Sarah Prescott cleaned the wound. She had tended wounds years earlier, when the valley was first settled by wagon train folks, each staking a piece of land on either side of the river. She had experience and learned well. “It’s a bullet wound in his shoulder, Luke. Looks ugly. Lost a lot of blood. But he’ll be okay, I’m sure.” Her hand touched the forehead of her son, easily, softly, but full of messages.
Prescott, somewhat subsided in his anger, still smoldering but marveling at his wife’s demeanor, called one of the ranch hands and said, “Get the boys over here. I want to talk to everybody who’s not out on fencing or line checking.”
Tommy Prescott, bandaged, somewhat comfortable, his bleeding stopped, said, “I don’t know who it was, Pa. He was in that thicket near the Twin Rocks on the river trail. I never saw him, but that’s where the shot come from. I saw the muzzle flash right from the middle of the green, like the rifle was rested on a branch.”
“You get knocked off your horse?”
“Yup, but he came back, old Charlie-T did, like a good horse. Nuzzled me like he knew what was going on. “
“But you saw nothing except the flash? No horse rider earlier? Nobody coming up the river? Just the bushwhacker’s muzzle fire? Nothing else?”
“That’s it, Pa. But I was thinking while I was on the ground that this dude, whoever he is, could have killed me if he really wanted to.”
He nodded and said, “He was that close, Pa, but he had to be setting there waiting on me or someone for some time. I didn’t see any riders in any direction all morning. It was still out there, just a breeze in the grass. Not even a stray cow or a wild pony.”
“All right,” he said to a few of his hands gathering around, “get Tommy into the house. Put him in the front room. Then we’ll have a little talk out here while we wait on Harlan and the doc to show up.”
When seven of his ranch hands were gathered on the porch, Prescott said, “I haven’t got the eyes I used to have, boys. Now you all know that. And I have to depend on you gents to do a lot of the looking for me, the kind I used to do back in the old days. That’s part of your job, to keep your eyes open for the best interests of the ranch. It’s where your money comes from, what some of you will use to get your own place going when the time comes.”
One cowhand said, “What kind of things you talking about, Luke?”
“I don’t know,” Prescott said, ‘but anything that looks odd or different or you haven’t seen before. I’ve had a feeling for a while that something’s going on.”
All the time he was talking, Prescott watched Barnie Thrush, a hand who was a bit deeper than the others, who considered his options longer when he had the chance, who acted quickly when he didn’t have many choices. Prescott admired his stance on a number of issues. As he kept his eye on Thrush, he believed his ranch hand was into serious pondering.
“You mulling something over, Barnie? You look puzzled or unsettled about what I’ve said.”
“Not that, Boss. Now and then, riding line or just being alone in the saddle, you get to thinking about things you’ve seen that don’t have any good reason for being. I get that way. Like I got to have something to think about when I’m in the saddle and all there is is me and my horse and the grass under me and the sky over me.”
“All this brings up something in your mind, Barnie? Something floating around without a good reason for being?”
Thrush, shifting in his place, knowing his thoughts were about to be exposed, and maybe for no reason at all, said, “I just wonder why Carlton Streeter’s bought himself some dynamite when he don’t have a rock or a tree on his spread that’s in the way of anything. I seen him pick up two lots in town a couple of weeks apart.”
Prescott thought that over for a while and said, “Maybe wants to dig a big hole and bury something, or just wants it on hand.”
“Well, Boss, he’s done it twice and both times he drove his wagon into town and that’s all he picked up. Why drive a wagon just to pick up a small lot of dynamite. He could have rode his surrey into town or carried it on the rump of his horse. No need for a wagon.”
“I guess I’d wonder about that, but he’s probably got a good reason,” Prescott said.
His attention was firmly grabbed when Thrush said, “And he covered the small lot both times with canvas. I was at the livery once and in the store the second time when I saw him cover them up. It just made me wonder.”
Later, his son resting well, Doc Swenson checking him out and admiring Mrs. Prescott’s nursing care, Prescott’s mind floating things around, he said to Swenson, “Harlan tells me you were resisting a trip out here until he got real serious with you, Doc. You explain that?”
“Luke, you know I can’t be everyplace at once. Two births are close at hand, old man Cloud’s been a problem for a while, so I can’t get too thin on my services if I can help it.”
“Oh,” Prescott said, “where’d you play cards Saturday night?”
“Well, I was at the D-Bar-D. Carlton invited me out.” A nervous edge settled in his voice. “It was a nice evening. Priscilla made a nice meal for us. Why do you ask?”
Prescott said, “Cole Wrentham said he didn’t know where you were when his foreman had that fall. No one knew. Jabber Cuscoe wasn’t working at the saloon and on a Saturday night. Joel Didicker wasn’t in the store, the banker wasn’t around. Nobody knew where you were.”
“Oh,” Swenson muttered, “they were playing cards with us. Carlton invited us all out there. Priscilla had this great meal, like I was saying.”
“Who won?” Prescott said, apparently cutting the conversation off, satisfied with Swenson’s answer.
“Didicker won it all. Real lucky he was. Won the last pot in a free-for-all draw. Carlton dealt him an ace of spades and cursed us out of the house, in a nice kind of way.”
“I’ll bet,” Prescott said to himself.
The next day, Tommy doing really well, his wife pleased, all hands at work, Prescott rode into Riverside to the general store.
“Hey, Joel,” he said to the storekeeper, “how you doing. I haven’t seen you in a more than a month.”
“Luke, good to see you, too. What bring you into town? I heard Tommy got shot but he’s doing okay. Glad to hear that.” He was full of smiles and glad-hand stuff that bothered Prescott. “What can I do for you, Luke?” The good-natured phoniness was sickening. “Sarah need something special?”
“Not yet, Joel, but her birthday’s coming. I have to blow some rocks apart on the other end of the ranch. I’m needing some good base stone for a new line camp.”
“I can order some dynamite for you, Luke. Take a week or so. I don’t have much call for it these days. Need half a case?”
“Oh, no rush on this, Joel. I got all summer to get it done, along with a few other things waiting on me. Don’t want to get too lazy. Keep me in mind. A half case is fine.” He waved goodbye and left the store, his mind still knocking things into place.
He knew he had cause for concern. He’d tell his hands to keep their eyes open. He’d even pick a few of them he really trusted to do long-search surveillances on the D-Bar-D. “All the little tid-bits added to the pie will come out in the cooking.” His mother used to say that to him in the long ago.
More than a week later, his dynamite available for pick-up at the general store, the whole of Gunsmoke Valley as quiet as a mole, too quiet for him, he saw Barnie Thrush ride up to the bunkhouse and tied off his horse.
His saunter to the porch told Prescott that Thrush carried some news.
“You look kind of smug, Barnie. What’d you see that’s got you this way?” He pushed a pitcher of lemonade to him.
Thrush carried a glint in his eyes. “You’re right, Boss. Up there behind Crater Rock, but still on your side of the property, there’s some movement. I saw three drovers I know who work for D-Bar-D carry stuff in saddle bags. I’m willing to bet it’s that dynamite they’re squirreling in for later, 'cause they rode out after a short time. I couldn’t see where they put it, but I figure they went into one of them caves up there.”
“You’re a good man, Barnie. You have a good sense of things about you. You’ll do well when you get your own place. You and me, just the two of us, will be up there before light in the morning. We’ll start out from the old line camp. I’ll send you off on an errand later and you head up to the line camp. I’ll meet you there. We’ll keep this quiet. Don’t tell the other boys. What they don’t know yet won’t hurt them.” He looked into Thrush’s eyes and said, “I don’t want a real war to start and too many people get hurt. We’ll try to do this without worrying too many people except those who were looking to steal something belonging to me.”
He clapped Thrush on the back and said, “You got a stake in this, too, Barnie. I mean that.”
“You’re a fair man, Boss. That’s all that counts with me. That covers everything.”
He set off on his supposed errand into town, cross trails, headed up to the line shack.
Later, the sun long gone and night shadows for real in every corner, he heard the whistle signaling Prescott’s arrival at the line shack. In darkness he opened the door, stood aside and heard Prescott say, “It’s me, Barnie. Okay to light the lantern.”
The glow sifted into the night and the two men slept on bunks against two walls. Night sounds they knew right to the species, settled the night with company, and they slept.
They had a quick fire, heated coffee, ate dipped biscuits, and mounted their horses for a ride, in near darkness, to the site of the activity.
After three cave searches, their two lamps showing things as they were, they found dynamite planted in several spots in the cave walls. They counted sixteen sticks, but not connected. In another cave they found igniters and fuse material. The two men carried all of it back to the prime cave.
In the flash of light, at one side of the cave, Thrush said, “Hey, Boss, look at this. This looks like gold to me.” He showed Prescott what he had found.
“Sure does, Barnie. Let’s check this whole place out before we do anything.”
They penetrated the cave almost to the end where Prescott found the bones of a man who had been dead for so long a time they could not even guess.
Thrush said, “He’s probably the gent who found the strike, Boss, and never got to stake his claim.” He looked at the back of the skull. “Here’s what did him in. His whole skull in the back was crushed in. Could have been a partner who wanted it all, like someone we might know now, but left here to do the claiming, wherever it was, and the Indians got him or some critter d
“You know what we’ll do now, Barnie, don’t you?” Prescott said. A ring of humor, subtle humor, rang in his voice.
“I got an idea, Boss, and if it isn’t the one I’m thinking of, I’d like to twist your arm to do it.”
“Okay, Barnie, you tell me what I’m thinking of.”
Thrush smiled in the light of his lantern, a wide, incredible grin, and said, “Hitch ‘em all up and blow hell out of the place. See what we end up with and who comes looking sooner or later.”
“Right on, my friend. Let’s do it.”
They set to work and loaded, primed and connected every stick of dynamite they had found.
“How do we handle this, Boss?” Thrush said.
“We find what other cave’s the best to hold off any troubles that come this way, like someone who might hear the blast. I’ll stay here and you go get the boys. Half a dozen will do. It won’t be a war if things break our way. How’s that sound to you?”
“That’s fine by me, Boss. You’re probably sitting on a gold mine.” He chuckled at that. “It was enough for this poor old gent to get knocked on the head, enough for people now trying to scrape it away from you on the sly.”
The blast shook deeply into the heart of the mountain of rock. When dust and rock debris cleared the air, the site revealed a solid gold hit, a lusty vein angling down into the earth, throwing sparkles in the light of the lanterns that popped rich and often. They cheered each other, and Thrush ran to his mount and Prescott headed into the cave they had selected to hold off anybody with a mind to change ownership of the mine, or make off with as much of the take as possible.
A half day later Prescott heard horses approaching, men talking, and Carlton Streeter’s voice saying, in a loud voice, “How do you know someone was blasting up here? Nobody could hear it if they were just a half mile away.”
The next voice belonged to Holdsworth the banker. “I’m telling you, Carlton, an Indian told Craggy Harkness he heard it. He’s got no reason to lie, not that Indian and not Craggy. If Prescott doesn’t find it before we get what we can, maybe work the place for a few weeks, it’ll be gravy for us. You convinced the others it was the only way to go. Prescott will lock it up solid and we’ll be on the outside looking in at him rolling in what was an accident coming to him. You tossed that piece of rock right at his feet when you boys settled this place. You remember doing that?”
“Don’t remind me of it again, Mr. Big Banker. You had a chance to have the whole hunk yourself too. So what did you do with it? Tossed it aside like it was nothing. Let’s get what we can and get the hell out of here before Craggy or that Indian tells one of Prescott’s boys. They’ll light all over this place, like vultures on a dead cow.”
Prescott put a round into the cliff face right over their heads, pieces of shale and lead bouncing around with a whiz and a roar.
Streeter and the banker and three other riders leaped off their horses and scattered in among the rocks.
Streeter yelled, “Who’s up there? Why you shooting at us? We didn’t do anything to you.”
A second round, shattering rock with a ping and an echo, kept their heads down.
Their horses had run off on them.
“You gents rush that shooter right now.” Streeter’s voice was in an ordering mode.
“Rush who where, Streeter? Who’s shooting at us? Why’s he shooting? What the hell do we get out of it? This ain’t your land. This ain’t our job.”
Holdsworth voice jumped in. “Do what he says. Do it now or he’ll kill us all.”
“Why will he kill us?” said another voice from further away.
“You damned fool, we’re trying to get his gold into our hands.”
said the voice of Barnie Thrush, coming from his own hidden position
further down the valley, “Mr. Prescott knows that all ready. That’s
why he’s got these boys of his down here holding onto your horses
for you gents. Just so you can ride back to jail instead of walking.
He’s mighty considerate that way.”
“Who are you?” Holdsworth said.
“I’m just one of his new partners in this here mine we shook up this morning, nice and early. Ain’t that right. Mr. Prescott.”
Luke Prescott, holding his rifle like he was going to shoot it again, stepped out of a cave and said, “When we go into town, boys, and see the marshal, we’re going to find out who and why someone shot my son Tommy from ambush. That’s the next piece of business we do. The business in this place here is all done.”