Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The common factor with the guns-for-hire gang in Hatchet Falls, other than their love for Hatchet Falls on its own, was their contact man, their hiring agent, Quick’n’Dirty Harry Spillwater. Artful, cute as a kitten in the back of one’s mind, he sat in the Quarter Horse Saloon in Hatchet Falls every night for seven long and busy years running the most notorious guns-for-hire agency known in the west. Into his greasy palm on each settlement would go a percentage of the pay-off. Some folks, whose names were never given, said it was about half the going rate for killing a named person, for any reason that could be termed “appropriate” by no less than Quick’n’Dirty himself.
That left a lot of room between the interpretation of plain old assault and plain old murder.
The names of those-for-hire had become infamous, from the great river to the far ocean, and the litany of them ran to every extreme, the hired gunmen that had settled in the loveliest of towns, Hatchet Falls in the foothills of Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Range. To a man they said it was the prettiest and most comforting place they had ever lived in or ever seen. They adopted it as if it took them “Home from the War,” as some Civil War veterans had said after the last shot was fired in that horrible confrontation.
For starters, there stood in mountain glory the biggest man of the lot, No-Thumbs Callahan, big as all out-doors, dead shot with his Hawkins rifle, and mean as a rattler in a rocky vise. Near him might stand True-Fix Charlie Tempest who, it is said along the Rockies, had never missed hitting what he shot at as long as he wasn’t fighting a fierce cross-wind. Serving as a double with him could be Spit-Catch Dukeshire, quick enough to shoot spit and said to have shot the eyes out of a boar at 50 paces. Then there loomed Edjo Wozny, the diminutive Polish fellow, all dead-exact 5-feet of him, still trying to get enough money to bring his true love, Wanza, to this country from Warsaw, Poland and oftentimes getting too close to the card table for love to handle. But he could shoot in the dark without missing, it was said.
In the hiring line with them was Ten-Caliber Clawson, another of the potential hires from Hatchet Falls, who roamed far and wide with one hand on the reins and one hand on his pistol, for many old enemies had tried to get their revenge on him and were still trying. In line also lingered skinny, emaciated and looking as if he had been raised on asparagus and beans and nothing else, not even a mother’s milk, Thor Lemonides, the Greek God aspirant, thin as lightning and just as fast, who had wandered most of his life seeking a second home to fight for, found it in Hatchet Falls, and would protect it with his life, as each of the other men swore he’d do the same.
For all of them there was one and only unanimous agreement that none of their hires would be executed in or near Hatchet Falls on the slopes of a slow rise in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain range. They held this tenet so closely that they brought their women here, their wives or loving friends or spiritual confidantes, to help secure a valid place in at least one community. The women were also an oddity of selections and would make interesting reading under a separate light.
The hires thus were, as it was ever said, home boys down to the very last kernel. It also marked them as very special and very wanted.
And history of every sort would spin around them.
A rhubarb had started on a local ranch concerning the daughter of the rancher and the son of another rancher, and the affair grew out of hand, with some stand-offs and stand-downs administered by the local sheriff who enjoyed a safe liaison with Quick’n’Dirty Harry Spillwater.
Sheriff Wallop Wilson was in the saloon the night that one of the local ranchers wanted to hire a killer to “keep some infernal kid away from my daughter, but don’t kill him; just scare him.”
Quick’n’Dirty dashed the attempt and replied, “You better get out of town now. If the boys hear you want to start a real ruckus in Hatchet Falls, they’ll get rid of you quicker than spit.” That was the end of the small inconvenience in the ranks of young love.
Hatchet Falls stayed beautiful, calm, and pleasant, for a while.
And when a gang of rustlers ran a stolen herd onto Hatchet Valley grass, in an attempt to get them to a choicer market up-range, they were met by the entire roster of hires, at Quick’n’Dirty’s direction, who drove them out of the area with promises to kill each rustler before nightfall if necessary. The rustlers fled, to a man, and left the cattle for the owners to retrieve, as duly advised.
Hatchet Falls became a trumpeted town of the new west in spite of the employment agency run by Quick’n’Dirty. Folks moved into the area bringing their families, their talents and interests with them. Thusly, the town grew as a splendid example of “the new life” available in the Rockies’ region. A church was built, the “hires” helping with manual labor, then came a library of area newspapers at first and a few books, and then, with a donation of a thousand dollars from True-Fix Charlie Tempest, which was matched by Quick’n’Dirty himself, came a dozen wagon loads of books from Chicago, St. Louis and San Francisco.
Culture, at the point of a gun, was making headway in Hatchet Falls.
But there also came the secretive riff-raff looking for the quick kill, the easy way out. One of them was a man named Horace Wiley, undertaker, coffin-maker, and masterful elocutionist of the final words, though a man without his own breviary or prayer book. Wiley memorized passages from the bible and other tomes to use in his services, though he did not believe any of what he was saying at celebration or interment on a hill outside Hatchet Falls.
And along with him was Dirty Dan Donovan, former “hire” who had originally retired to Wicksfield down the river about 100 miles. Donovan, having several personal problems in his past with bounty hunters, sheriffs and marshals of several territories, had become an unannounced sidekick of Wiley’s, doing odd jobs, trick jobs, and general dirty work for good money. He had changed his entire appearance and was always, it seemed, out of sight and out of mind. None of his old cohorts had become aware of his presence in Hatchet Falls even when he’d been in the area for close to three months.
As it was, and concurrent with Donovan’s arrival in the area, all the hired guns were up in arms over a killing on the edge of Hatchet Falls. It was so close they took it as a personal affront, some infringement on their home territory. They did not seem nice about it when the subject came up in the saloon or the general store, or in the barber shop. One wag, not afraid of the hired guns, knowing they had never drawn their weapons in the area, said, “And most of us thought we had the best protection west of the big river, and it ‘pears to me we don’t, if that matters to anybody hereabouts.”
He didn’t get a gun drawn on him, but he got a good rap on the head, and when he turned around to see who had hit him, he was kicked hard enough in the rear end that he just about flew out the door. He was slow getting to a standing position, but figured quick as a hoop that he ought to keep his mouth shut.
He did. And he walked away a bit sore on both ends.
The action did not go unnoticed by none other than Dirty Dan Donovan who was sitting on a box inside the livery where he had a good view of the center of town. While he whittled away with a favorite knife, Donovan’s view included the Quarter Horse Saloon, the Bank of Hatchet Falls, Wiley’s Funereal Parlor and Pre-resting Place before the Eternal, Micah Burley’s Barber Shop, and Ma Edgerley’s Diner on the first floor of the hotel, which had eight rooms upstairs, four in front and four in the back, and a rear door for at the end of the hall for quick exit.
It was from that accustomed point of view that Donovan, not as yet recognized for who he really was, saw the barber kick a small boy out of his shop, possibly seeking a donation of coins from the patrons. When Burley kicked the boy, small as a gnat, for a follow-up of good measure, it so irritated Donovan that he spent some time late that night carving Burley past recognition.
The news of the barber’s slaying tore through hatchet Falls faster than Thor Lemonides could draw, a rush of both fear and insurmountable anger coming like one breath.
It was none other than Edjo Wozny, himself small as a gnat, who said in the Quarter Horse Saloon that night, which happened to be “Ladies Night or Who Else You Can Bring,” “That job on barber Burley looks to me like the work of an old friend of ours, Dirty Dan Donovan, but I heard he retired way down river and I ain’t seen him in near three years or so.”
“Well, I‘ll be,” added Spit-Catch Dukeshire to the argument. “I too swear that looks like the dirty work of Dirty Dan Donovan who we ain’t seen in a few years. I’d bet my next job’s pay on it, that it’s Dirty Dan done it.”
Those pronouncements of confreres did not sit on deaf ears. Ten-Caliber Clawson, nursing a second bottle and a host of memories, said, “It looks like he still works the knife like he used to, in that old way of his, like he’s taking time and makin’ each slice a thing of ‘membrance. I think Edjo and Spit are right on this. Looks like Dirty’s work.”
Of course, names being what they are, he clearly meant Dirty Dan’s work and not Quick’n’Dirty’s work. Quick’n’Dirty wouldn’t dare pick up a knife in such an act, for it would kill his income in a flash of multiple gunfire.
The troop of hires started to be more aware of what was going on around them, and taking closer looks at everybody in Hatchet Falls. It was a cinch, they believed, that Dirty Dan Donovan was hiding among them, right there in town.
Plain and simple, it was his whittling that gave Dirty Dan away, as Edjo Wozny, in one of his hardly noticeable perambulations around town, spotted Donovan working his knife on an old stick while he sat on a wooden box looking out over the town.
The diminutive one approached Donovan and said, “I know it’s you, Dan, the way you use the knife, just like you used to, like it’s been brought down by some avengin’ god to do the real dirty work for you, but this is our town and you ain’t supposed to be doin’ that kind of stuff here. If my Wanza was here, you’d be dead now, for I’d kill you soon as look at you though you was one of us once.”
Dirty Dan Donovan said, “I’m not scared of you and I’m faster than you so I’ll draw and you’ll be out there lookin’ back at us, or up there lookin’ down at us, or down there lookin’ up at us, and I’ll be right here bein’ looked at, but you won’t be.” He said it clear as day, just like that, and before he barely got the last word out of his mouth, four of the hires from different places in Hatchet Falls, but in plain viewing, shot the hell out of him even as he drew his gun.
But quick as hell Dirty Dan Donovan had been sitting down, with the knife in his hand, and was easily beat to the draw.
“This is a good town,” Edjo Wozny said, as he looked at the picture he carried of Wanza from Warsaw, “and it’s goin’ to stay that way long as I can stand up to things.”
The others nodded, Quick’n’Dirty nodded and smiled, seeing his income a steady thing, and they proceeded to bury Dirty Dan Donovan and the mean barber on the same side of Boot Hill, just for a last word on the situation of kids and local murder and the future of their hometown, Hatchet Falls.