Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
I hadn’t eaten in at least two days so when I spotted that trail herd bunched up in a long, low valley, I decided to head down that way hoping for a job or at least a meal. It was fairly small as trail herds go and I could already count three riders and someone driving the chuck wagon so the job prospects were bleak. Far off to the west, I could see the gathering gray clouds of a summer thunderstorm and the promise of rain for the parched prairie. I nudged my horse and we started down the long slope.
The riders spotted me right off and watched me carefully. I saw one point at me and then the wagon driver pulled up and turned to watch me too. I decided to head for him, keeping my hands in front of me and in plain sight. I didn’t want anyone to mistake my intentions and shoot me just for safety’s sake. I saw the nearest rider ease his rifle in its scabbard out of the corner of my eye. We were close to Kansas and the roving bands of cattle stealing jayhawkers.
“What’s the chance of a job?” I asked. “I’ve been on four drives and I’m a fair hand at it. And if not, how’s chances for a meal? This’ll be my second day doing without and my stomach is beginning to think my throat’s been cut.”
“Light and set, son.” He was a big, raw looking man but with a smile in his old, crinkled eyes. “We’ve all the hands we need, being’s that it’s such a small herd and all, but we don’t ever turn a man away hungry.” He started to turn, but suddenly glanced back at me with a hopeful look on his face, “Say, can you cook?”
“Well, I should hope I can! My ma was the head cook where I grew up and she taught me well. She thought a man should at least know how to feed himself.”
“Well, there’s four of us here and we all take turns trying to poison the others. If you can cook son, you’ve got yourself a job. My name is Will Jacobs and these here are my cattle.”
“I’ll just take that job and they call me Del Hammond.”
By the time noon rolled around, I had a stew done in the Dutch oven and a pan of biscuits baked. The riders drifted in one at a time and from the look on the face of the first man to take a bite of biscuit, I knew my job was secure. Ma had been some cook and I had learned well and had even developed a few specialties of my own. The best part was that I was also a good hand at punching cattle, if need be.
Supper that night was left over stew and biscuits with some apple pie I baked up in another Dutch oven, so it was three happy punchers that bedded down for the night and one contented one that rode out for the first watch. As I cleaned up from supper I could hear his calm, clear voice softly singing to the herd so they wouldn’t spook as he rode around them. I sat back and lit my pipe for a last smoke before I bedded down myself. I could smell the rain and before long a few scattered drops hit the brim of my hat. I was just wondering if I needed to break out my slicker when that bolt of lightning struck.
The herd had gathered around a big old cottonwood for what shelter it offered. That stroke of lightning hit it dead center with a blinding flash and a tremendous roar, setting it ablaze. Instantly the night was filled with running cattle and yelling men. I dropped everything and scrambled up a nearby tree, just as some of the herd ran beneath me. Somewhere in the distance, I heard the scream of the outrider but then it was suddenly cut off. Nearer, I heard men alive but groaning. Then, just as fast as it began, it was still, except for the steady patter of the rain
By the light of the burning tree, I climbed down and began to look around. The chuck wagon was still in one piece but the rest of the camp was in a shambles. I located the boss and the two hands but they were all in a bad way. The boss had a broken leg and both of the other men had cracked and broken ribs. One had suffered a bad blow to the head and didn’t seem to know where he was. I set and splinted the boss’s leg and saw to the others as well as I could. I put up a canvas lean-to against the rain and then I went to check on the outrider.
I found his horse first, standing as trained with his reins on the ground. Then I found the rider or what was left of him.
At daybreak, I cleared the gear out of the bed of the chuck wagon and loaded up the boss and the man with the banged up head and then I bandaged up the last man’s ribs with some strips cut from a blanket I found.
“Head for that peak off to the northeast,” I told him. “You’ll cross a dry river bed in about thirty miles. Then head due east about twenty more miles and you’ll come to Dodge City and a doctor.”
“What about you?” asked the boss from the wagon bed.
“I’m going to bury Jim and then I’m going to gather up the herd”
“Alone?” he exclaimed, “how do you figure to do that?”
“I don’t really know boss, but I have it to do”
“What do you mean you have it to do? You just hired on yesterday and as a cook at that!”
“I ride for the brand. I hired on and it falls to me. It’s my job now so you had best get on down the road. That man’s in a bad way and you and the driver also need tending. I’ll get by and then I’ll see you all in Dodge.”
I watched them drive off and then wondered just what I had let myself in for this time. I had proved myself on those other drives well enough, but had never attempted anything like this. But then, even if I saved a just a few cattle, it was still better than none. I filled four canteens with water from a barrel I had taken off the chuck wagon and set off.
By nightfall, I had gathered a few head but only a few. Although they had run in all directions when the lightning struck, most now seemed to be drifting west. That puzzled me for a time but then it hit me. Water. They smelled water and were headed for it. I decided to let my gather follow their noses and I’d just follow them.
By noon the next day, I had doubled the size of my small herd by just letting them join up with others. I could see the tracks of more cattle headed in the same direction. By nightfall I was so tired that I had to tie my hands to the horn to stay in the saddle. The cattle bedded down and my string of horses rested too. But I had to stay awake as the lone outrider as much as I could. A man can do without sleep if need be. There would be time for sleep later.
It was about two in the afternoon next day when the herd suddenly perked up and began walking faster. I would have liked to keep them moving slowly, but alone, there was little I could do but give them their heads. Suddenly the fast walk became a run and as we topped a rise, I could see the river and green grass far below, dotted with cattle.
After I made camp that night, I studied the situation. We were about thirty miles west of the trail to Dodge City and I hadn’t seen a horse track in the last twenty miles. The stream was small and I’d never heard it mentioned so there was little chance that I’d run across any help. My other problem was that I had almost twice as many cattle as the original herd! Evidently these were the offspring of cattle lost long ago by other drives because almost all were unbranded and wild as the wind.
On a hunch, I got on my horse and rode back up to the top of the hill. Sitting there in the starlight, I looked all around. Suddenly, about ten miles to the south, I spotted the flicker of a campfire. I nudged my horse and we headed off into the night.
The camp was made up of five wagons and to be polite and also to keep from getting shot, I hailed the camp while still a hundred yards out. I was immediately answered so I knew that there was a watch posted and that I had already been spotted.
“C’mon in if you’re friendly-like or even if you’re not. We’ll feed the one kind and bury the other,” the lookout called.
Off to my left in the brush, I could see the campfire reflected off a rifle barrel. These were no tinhorns.
“Light and set.”
The speaker was a tall thin man and obviously the leader. He called in the guards and I was surprised that there were two I had missed. They too were tall men although much younger and I guessed correctly that this was their father.
“There’s coffee in the pot and stew in the kettle. Help yourself. We turn no man away hungry.”
“I’m obliged” The stew and the coffee tasted mighty good and I remembered that I had missed a meal or two since the lightning struck. We sat and talked and I found that this was a Kentucky mountain family by the name of Harkins, headed for Colorado where a cousin had started a ranch and then sent for his kinfolk. There were some thirty people in the camp and all were family. I explained why I had come and made my offer. If I could have two or possibly three men, I could gather up the boss’s cattle and the strays and drive them to Dodge City. I would pay them ten percent of the sale price for their help.
The old man lit his pipe and glanced at me thoughtfully. “How do you know we won’t just take all them cattle for our own selves?”
“Because then I’d just have to kill you and who would gain from that?”
The old man chuckled at that. “Come morning, you’ll take me, Abe, Jacob, and Moses here and make your drive. But instead of cash, we’ll want to take our ten- percent in cattle. We’ve a ranch to stock.”
For the next three weeks, we roped and branded all the stray stock with the Lazy J. It was hot, dusty labor but the Harkins men proved to be good cowboys once they got the drift of the work. What they lacked in skill and experience they made up with sheer guts and determination.
I let the cows and the hands rest up for three days and then we started the drive. The original Lazy J herd was a bit reluctant to leave the water and grass but the strays were just downright ornery about it. It took lots of patience and persuasion, but we finally got them all headed in one direction. An old mossy-horned steer appointed himself lead and we just let him have his head with a nudge now and then toward Kansas. Two days into the drive, it began to rain, just enough to settle the dust and cool the air but not enough to create mud. Things were finally looking up and I gave my thanks to a leaden sky.
We were one day out of Dodge City when we spotted the Jayhawkers. I explained the situation to Jeb, the old man. They would be wanting to cut the herd on the pretense of looking for their own cattle and if they thought they could buffalo us, they would just take them all, claiming we had covered their brand. They would have someone with them wearing a badge to make it all look legal like. Jeb went back to talk to his sons and after waiting a moment or two for them to get set, I rode out to meet the strangers.
Sure enough, the man out front on a big black was wearing a badge so I rode right up to him.
“Morning,” I said. “Out for a ride?”
“I’m duly elected Constable Owens,” said the big man, “And I don’t take no lip from such as you boy. Now you just stand aside while we cut your herd. We’re looking for cattle that ain‘t rightly yours.”
“You’re no law officer. If you’re a constable, why does your badge say ‘deputy sheriff‘? You’re nothing but a pack of thieves and I’ve run into you before. That was the time Mr. Slaughter hung two of you and horsewhipped the rest.”
I paused and they nervously eyed one another.
” Now I‘ve driven this herd way too long and way too far to let a bunch of thieving herd cutters have it, so you just move out and give me the road.”
That turned the big man first white with fury and then red with anger. But before he could speak I said, “There are four rifles pointed at you right now and they‘re all dead shots. The first one of you that moves, I‘ll shoot your so-called lawman and my men will shoot what’s left”
“He’s pulling a bluff,” said the big man, but he didn’t move. He didn’t move at all.
I shouldn’t have done it, but there was a reckless anger coming over me at the thought of these low thieves trying to take what was not theirs. Maybe it was meanness built up from old resentments. Whatever the reason, I looked that big man straight in the eye and smiled. “Did your back ever heal from the whipping you took from Mr. Slaughter?”
Furious and humiliated, he grabbed for his gun and I shot him through the second button of his plaid shirt. Instantly, four rifles barked and four saddles emptied. In the following silence, the remaining three men sat perfectly motionless and then slowly raised their hands, far away from their guns.
“Get down, “ I said. Carefully they dismounted. “Move away from your horses and drop your weapons. Keep your backs to me.”
I gathered up their guns and then, kind of like an afterthought, threatened to shoot anybody I caught with a holdout weapon. Three knives and a derringer hit the grass.
Shocked, they looked over their shoulders at me for confirmation.
“You heard me. All the way down to long johns and socks if you have any.”
“Who the hell do you think you are? It ain’t decent to leave a man this way!”
“I’m not leaving you. You’re leaving me. Now git.”
They turned to their horses.
“No horses,” I said, “you’ll walk.”
“Walk? Why it must be twelve miles!”
“It’ll give you time to think about a new line of business. This kind sure doesn’t suit you. Now git!”
We drove on in to Dodge and penned up the cattle at the stockyards. The Harkins men stayed with them while I looked up the boss. I found him soon enough at the Cattleman’s Association. He was hobbling around on crutches and looking mighty gloomy until he saw me standing there.
“Well Del,” he grinned, “Did you find out that one man alone can’t bring in a herd?” His smile faded a little. “Now I know you meant well son, but some things just can’t be done. Tell me, did you find any cattle at all?”
“Most of your herd is penned up down at the stockyards along with once again as many strays that I picked up along the way and branded with the Lazy J. Your herd is saved and then some, Mister Jacobs.”
I explained what had happened including my run-in with the herd cutters. I could still see the doubt in his eyes so I asked after the chuck wagon, fetched it, and took him down to the yards. By that time the word had gotten around and a crowd had gathered. I showed Mr. Jacobs his brand and for a while he just stared at me. Finally he said quietly, “I’m thanking you for this Del. I’m thanking you son.”
I introduced him to the Harkins men and explained our deal. He thanked them too and told them to cut out their ten percent from the very best of the herd and make sure they were good breeding stock. Then he told them to come by and he’d make them out a bill of sale.
Later that night, Mister Jacobs and I had supper at the Cattlemen‘s.
“I suppose you’ll be wanting to pick up your wages Del?”
“Well sir, I was hoping I might stay on as a hired hand but if not.......”
“No Del, I don‘t need a hired hand.“
“Yes sir,” I said, “I understand. I just hired on for the drive“
“No, you don‘t understand at all. Del, everything I had was tied up in that herd. If I had lost it, I would have lost my ranch. Instead, I have enough to pay it off and enough left over to stock it with young stuff. Do you understand what you’ve done son? You saved my ranch. I don’t want you as a hired hand. I want you to be my partner. You’re now half owner.”
I guess I must have looked plumb silly with my mouth hanging open like that. He just laughed and handed me a packet of papers.
“ I had a lawyer draw those up this afternoon. They’re deeds to property, equipment and cattle. It may not be the biggest ranch in west Texas but it’s half yours Del.” He took out his pipe, cleaned out the boll with his penknife, and refilled it, watching me read the papers with a goofy grin plastered over my face.
“Now don‘t look all that pleased about it son. You‘re going to work harder than you’ve ever worked in your life. But it‘s all worth it Del. It‘s all worth it”
Three weeks later we were on our way back to El Paso. I rode up beside the chuck wagon to check on Mister Jacobs. “How’s the leg?” I asked.
“It’s sore but tolerable. The doctor said that you set it so well that he didn’t need to do any more to it. Where did you learn that?”
“I was a surgeon’s helper in the War Between the States. That is, when I wasn‘t fighting”
“North or South?”
“Well then, where did your mother work as a cook?”
“In Alabama sir.”
“Alabama?“ He glanced quickly at me, “So then you … ”
“ That’s right Mister Jacobs. I was born a slave. After the war broke out, ma and I took off one night during a bad storm and made our way up north. Then I came back as a soldier and fought wearing the blue.” I looked up at him. “After ma died, I came west. I heard a man out here is judged by his character, not by how he looks.”
“Well I’ll be forever damned” He puffed at his pipe, softly clucked the team up a small grade and then halted. After a moment he took the pipe out of his mouth and spoke to me quietly.
“Well Mister Del Hammond, I reckon the only slaving you’ll ever do again is over a hot stove when we develop a hankering for some of that apple pie of yours.” He glanced at me and smiled.
He turned back and flicked the reins lightly. “Now let‘s go home son.”