Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
It had happened again, in East Texas, in the Top Knot Saloon, just as sundown happened on the little settlement. One of the locals, sitting outside in his favorite chair at the saloon rail, slipped into the saloon, put up one hand for attention, and said, “Here comes Cutler. I seen him once before in Soldiers’ Pass, not more than three years ago. Me and Chas there.” He pointed at his old pard. “Ain’t that right, Chas? Didn’t we see him and heard all the talk after he left, like it was a book opened for us.”
One card player said, “You never said what he’s looking for. You know?”
“I don’t think anybody really knows. We just heard he goes from town to town all over the west hereabouts, stays a few days, visits all the saloons, looks around, works a bit to pack his saddle bag, goes on to another town. They say he’s so good with his guns, even for being a kid, that nobody wants to see how fast he is.”
“Is that all you can tell us? Is Cutler his last name or first name? Where’s he hail from?”
“Tell you what, you ask him all those questions when he comes in here. Ask him what’s he's doing here. That good with you? Think you can do that?””
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
The door swung in and every cowpoke, card player, plain drinker, and drifter turned to look at the newcomer, the one called Cutler.
They might have measured him from different views, different angles, all those individuals; how the shadows crept along with him like associates or pards of a sort, or the way his guns hung in place so loose it was as if they had been dipped in grease. A few patrons shifted uncomfortably in their seats at sight of him; it was the way a man on a dedicated mission builds an aura about his person. Assumptions, of course, were made with that observation by nervous people who tend to leap at things without thinking.
Other people noted how young he looked, as though shaving hadn’t even been thought of yet. He wore a sombrero beat to pieces by wind, rain, sun, and all kinds of weather, meaning travel for Cutler was far, wide, and often. The sombrero had a thick rawhide lace looped under his chin hanging like a half-flung lariat. Denim shirt and vest, dark pants with deep pockets, a dark blue bandana thickening his neck, made up his clothing outfit. His boots were extra tall on the calf side, the way constant riding demands protection for that part of riders’ legs.
Cutler went to the bar, ordered a beer, turned slowly and studied every person in the room by resting his eyes fully on them. When his eyes finally relaxed, he turned his back, ordered a second beer, asked for a room upstairs as was advertised on a sign out front, and retired for the night.
The stories ensued all the following week, the questions mounting, until the Zack Dugan, marshal of the territory, came in later. All that evening, in front of a full house in the Top Knot Saloon, he filled in the blank spaces about the young man called Cutler when the conversation turned inevitably o the young man on the look for some mysterious person, as most people believed in some manner.
The marshal began his version of the Cutler story; “It started about 18 years ago, well east of here. It was like this,” he said. And he told all that he knew:
A baby boy fell from the back of a wagon on a road in East Texas, his mother dead three days earlier and buried on the trail, his father numb and mumbling to himself why he had come here in the first place. His attention looked too much to the horizon, an idea bound up in him, vaguely aware of other issues.
An old Indian found the child after hearing coyote messages ranging across the wide grass and offered the little babe to a rancher’s wife in exchange for a meat cow. The deal was completed, all parties happy, including the child who ate for the first time in two days; milk, porridge, beaten eggs cooked fluffy as clouds, and soft hands once more holding him.
The rancher’s wife, Hazel May Dearing, named the baby Cutler. She announced to her surprised husband Jacob, in from two days on the prairie, ‘His name is Cutler. No first name, no last name. Just Cutler. This little boy’s due something good in this world as he’s had a bad start.”
“So you’re giving him one name?” her husband said.
“Cutler,” she said. “They’ll remember him. Everybody will. Cutler’s his name. Just Cutler.” She hugged the infant to her breast, a smile crowding her face.
Jacob said, “That’s back in Maine, Hazel. Your home town, the fishermen’s town.”
“Yes,” she responded. “He’ll carry it everywhere with him. Someday he’ll meet a soul from there, you’ll see.” The pause was significant, and Jacob Dearing paid heed, as she said, “The Indian said he will be special. He said, “The god Wabantanka put his hand on him. Wabantanka will look out for him from this day on.”
He accepted her pronouncement, as he always did, including the Indian’s words, and went back to work.
From those early moments, the boy grew around horses, cattle, lassos, guns, water and lack of water, good grass and no grass, appreciation of things that carried life forward.
But what he loved most were horses and guns. One promised adventure, travel to the horizon and beyond, people, places and things not seen at home at the ranch no matter how big it was. The other, the gun, promised protection, survival and a fair bit of excitement. He became a crack shot at a very early age, just about 9 years old, much to the chagrin of his “Mum,” but brought smiles to Jacob Dearing.
One day, in the mid of winter, Mum hid the boy in her small pantry when she saw two men furtively entering the ranch property. They looked very suspicious. She had not seen them before. They broke into the house where she was working at the iron stove and the poker had heated red hot in the stove where she had been adjusting the firewood.
The strangers pushed her around until she tried to protect herself with the poker. The smell of burned flesh was acrid, and memorable. One man clubbed her with his gun butt and she fell and hit her head. The boy sat for hours with her, but she died that evening just as her husband came home and held her hand for the last time, hugged her to death.
The boy Cutler, in shock, said nothing. Jacob Dearing could not get a word out of him. But nightmares ensued the following evening and were part of every night for a long while.
Jacob Dearing died about 7 years later and left the ranch to Cutler who had turned 16. He loaned the use of the ranch to a friend and left on his journey. He went east and west, north and south, in the territory; went home occasionally, set back out, going into every town and settlement he came across, checked out each saloon and livery, hung around a while and moved on. From then on, people in towns would hear someone say, ‘Here comes Cutler. I don’t know who he’s looking for, but I hope it ain’t me.’ I bet someone said it in a 100 Texas towns already, and perhaps in some of the border territories.
”What ‘was’ he looking for, Zack? That’s what we want to know. We been banging this around for years. Nobody said anything direct yet, from what I know. Anything ever happened with him, Zack? What’s the last you heard about him? You know what happens to some of this stuff … it fades into the tall grass, the hayloft of the barn, gets lost in shadows forever.”
“I was just coming to that part,” the marshal said. “I was there, down in Barnstead, the last time I saw Cutler. It was the first time in about six or seven years, when I saw him do all his checking up in a lower Nevada settlement that was right on a major trail. That time he didn’t find what or who he was looking for. “
Zack Dugan was going to continue his story when he spotted a face in the crowd, a cowboy way off in a corner table, alone, a bottle in front of him on the table, his hat pitched back on his head, taking in a social visit to the watering hole he obviously needed.
Dugan, generally alert to the smallest details about him, was rudely and suddenly brought aware of something he had not foreseen at all. Even as she stared at the stranger, the marshal saw a quiver of conscience cross the man’s face, a curl of a lip, a grimace of small pain, and a sudden sense of awareness. Perhaps it amounted to light of an idea or a sensation. Almost at the same moment, from down the dusty road of the town, from the heart of shadows, he heard a most familiar cry, faint though audible, come from far beyond the door.
“Cutler’s coming,” said some wide-eyed citizen, sending his message toward the door of the Top Knot Saloon. The words grew louder, more anxious in their intent. “He’s coming here again, Cutler is. The driver of the Overland Stage said he saw him meandering on his way here, taking it easy, not in any hurry.
The voice grew louder, closer. The yeller made a judgment and added, “Like he knew what he was going to find.” He made another qualification: “I tell you, that man fires things up in me to an awful pitch. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was all spooky. Yes, siree, all spooky like.”
Dugan knew the sense of timing and irreversible coincidences, and held his hand up to make an announcement. The Top Knot Saloon sank into a sudden silence, as if all the patrons knew something special was at hand.
The lawman tossed his hands in the air again and scooped his shot glass of the top of the bar. Timing hit home in him. There was an audience fully into his words. With that impetus, Cutler coming into the scene, he decided it was time to let the story go as far as he knew it.
“I was about to tell you what this kid Cutler has been looking for all these years, since the day his mum, Mrs. Jacob Deary, got killed by a couple of gents who broke into her home and scared hell out of her. She fought back, with a hot poker. She managed to slap the poker against one of the home invaders across his face. Damn near marked him for life. Well, I guess it did, because Cutler, having seen him get poker-whipped and burnt, caught up to him and got him to draw down. He dropped the bad guy with one shot to the face, landing practically on the mark that she left there with the red hot poker.
Down in front of him a gent, lightly into his suds, said, “I hope the ratter suffered a lot before he passed on. I don’t like nobody who hits mothers like that. Ought to have been hanged, I say. I hope he catches the other guy.”
Dugan was on a roll. He could feel a sense of timing come down atop him, make demands, force his actions, and turn his words.
“I don’t think justice is far away for Cutler,” Dugan said, “or his prey.” His gaze swept the room. People, with or without marks on their faces, ducked the stare of the marshal.
Dugan heard a footstep on the boardwalk. The sound told him who it was. He scrunched against the bar. “The other fellow, with a poker scar on his face, is in this room right now.”
The man in the far corner, alone, a bottle on the table in front of him, with his face marked for life and for death, who had caught Dugan’s eye and was suddenly unnerved, stood as the door to The Top Knot Saloon opened.
Cutler, the young man with one name, who had never met anybody from the town he was named for, after all his years on the trail, after all the faces sought and seen, came through the doors of the Top Knot Saloon.
He was not in a hurry.