Western Short Story
“Colonel, I won’t do it!” exclaimed Hutch Higgins. “I ain’t gonna hang a man for stealing cattle, especially a kid.”
“Then you aren’t much of a man,” growled Colonel J. B. Griffin.
“The law should be deciding this, not us,” argued Hutch.
“Then get out of the way and let men do their work.”
Two hatless men sat on the ground, their heads bent forward, their arms twisted and tied behind their backs. One was short and lean with a cross-stitched face of weathered time. He would have passed for forty, but was years younger. The second man, who resembled the first, was younger by a score of years. Tears streaked his suntanned face. A stubble of yellow hair covered his chin.
A small fire was off to one side, a running iron resting in its smoldering coals. Two saddled horses nibbled grass nearby in the late afternoon shade of a big oak tree. A hobbled cow was on her backside near the fire, a freshly altered brand on her hip.
“Cut her loose,” order the Colonel.
Two of his men moved forward and cut the rope binding the animal’s hooves.
“You brothers?” asked the Colonel of the two rustlers.
“I’m Jeb,” replied the older man. “He’s Lonnie. Let him go, mister. He’s my kid brother. Only sixteen. I made him come along.”
“Stealing cattle, whether you’re old or young, is still a crime on my ranch,” huffed the Colonel. “I hang rustlers! And your kid brother is gonna hang alongside you.”
More tears ran from the kid’s downcast eyes.
The Colonel was a fat man with wild gray muttonchops and beard. A big wad of tobacco puffed out his left cheek. He stood with his hands on his hips in front of the rustlers, circled by four of his riders.
Hutch stood to one side by his horse. He shook his head, muttered, and boot-kicked some dirt. “Colonel, the law should be doing this!” he repeated, loud enough to be heard. “And the kid’s just a dumb kid doin’ what his older brother says.”
The Colonel whirled, and pointed a gloved hand. “Hutch, I told you to shut up. Now, get on back to the bunkhouse and collect your things. Tell Curtis to pay you off. Then get the hell off my land. Don’t want to ever see you no more. If you can’t do as you’re told, you’re not riding on this ranch. Now, get!”
It was an hour before Hutch got back to the ranch house, collected his pay, and stuffed his saddlebags with his few clothes. It was dark when he rode off Colonel J. B. Griffin’s ranch after only two months. He was never to forget how the young rustler had cried and pleaded for his life.
* * *
It was almost a year later when Hutch stood on the front porch of a shack on the small cattle spread he was trying to buy. He had put fifty dollars down on the old homestead, and had more to go before the creek-side flatland was his. It was his first venture at trying to be a “cattle king.”
Three strangers rode up and rested in their saddles. Two younger riders leaned on their saddle horns, as an older thickset man in the middle sat ramrod straight in his saddle. His low-brimmed hat cast a shadow over two determined eyes. His right hand rested on the butt of his holstered pistol.
The two other armed men stared at Hutch.
“We’re looking for a man named Hutch Higgins,” said the man in the middle. “That you?”
“Maybe,” replied Hutch. “Why for?”
Hutch never met anyone at the door without his Walker Colt strapped on his right hip. His small spread was long out of town and he lived alone.
“They said Hutch was a tall lanky fellow with sideburns and a mustache,” said the man in the middle. “If you ain’t him, you must be his twin.”
“My twin left an hour ago,” said Hutch. “I’m the good looking one that stayed behind to oversee my vast cattle empire.”
Two lean steers munched stubble down by his barn.
“Modest, too,” said the newcomer.
“Yep, comes with my charm and good looks.”
Hutch leaned against a post on his dirt porch and carefully rolled a cigarette.
“We’re here for a cattleman named Colonel J. B. Griffin,” explained the stranger. “You know him?”
“Yep,” answered Hutch. “Rode for him for about two months--two months too long--about a year back, a cheap son of a bitch who likes to hang people, especially kids. He’s tight enough to charge birds for drinking his creek water if he could catch ‘em. Don’t remember seeing you three fellers there.”
“We do special jobs for the Colonel.”
“That’s nice.” Hutch’s words carried sarcasm.
“Colonel says you left with one of his horses.”
“That so?” Hutch stuck the fresh cigarette in his mouth and lighted it with the swipe of a match on his boot heel.
“Did you?” questioned the newcomer.
“You—-and the Colonel--shouldn’t be calling someone a horse thief,” said Hutch. “Ain’t polite. And I find it downright unfriendly.” He exhaled smoke, looked the man in his shadowy eyes, and spoke slowly: “I ain’t no horse thief! You got that? I left the Griffin Ranch riding my own gray. Took nothing but the clothes on my back, a month’s back pay, and a bad taste in my mouth.”
“You sure about that?”
“Momma always told me to tell the truth. Check my barn if you want.”
The stranger nodded to the man on his right, who nudged his horse toward Hutch’s small barn and stables.
“You could of sold it by now,” continued the man doing all the talking. “It was a roan mare.”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about.” Hutch remained calm, but his face was turning red.
“The old Colonel,” continued Hutch, “sure took his time if he thought I took one of his string. If I had--and I sure as hell didn’t--I wouldn’t be here. I’d have left the territory so I could steal more horses.”
The rider on Hutch’s right moved his right hand from his saddle horn to his hip.
“Where’d you get a name like Hutch?” asked the middle rider.
“It’s a long story.”
“I got time.”
“You ain’t gonna be here that long.”
The stranger doing the talking tightened his grip on his pistol.
“Mister,” warned Hutch, “if you’re thinking of pulling that, you’ll be the first to die.”
“You threatening me?”
“Think on it.”
“There’s three of us and one of you.”
“Even if you kill me,” said Hutch, “I’m shooting you first. A .44 makes one hell of a hole. A supposed stolen horse ain’t worth you dying for.”
The outrider reached the barn, dismounted and went inside. Within seconds he emerged and yelled: “Jonas, it ain’t here.” He climbed back on his horse.
“And it never was,” clarified Hutch.
“The Colonel says you owe him a horse,” said Jonas, the man in the middle.
“Mister, I didn’t steal old Colonel J. B. Griffin’s horse, and I don’t take kindly to people saying I did. The last feller who called me a horse thief is six-feet under in a long pine box staring up at lots of rocks, dirt, and grass. Now, I suggest you turn around and go back the way you came.”
“That ain’t gonna happen,” replied Jonas.
The man by the barn rejoined his companions in front of Hutch’s one-room shack.
Hutch’s eyes darted left and right as he studied each of the three riders.
Hutch and the strangers seemed frozen in time. No one moved.
“I want that horse back,” growled Jonas.
“It doesn’t exist,” said Hutch. He lifted his left hand, dropped his stubby cigarette alongside his boot, ground it into the soil, and added: “I think it’s about time we ended this farce. Take a look over my right shoulder.”
A shotgun poked out from the bottom of a window. Its double barrels weaved back and forth toward the riders.
“Eli, you still in there?” shouted Hutch.
“Ain’t leaving ‘til all the fun’s over.”
“That,” smiled Hutch, “is an ugly looking cowhand with an ugly looking shotgun. He comes by once in a while so he can kill people I don’t like, especially people calling me a horse thief. If anyone of you three go for your gun, Eli there will blow some heads and arms off. And if you don’t die real quick he’ll reload and shoot some more. Now, someplace in all this shooting and jackass braying I’m gonna shoot ol’ Jonas, first. One of you may shoot me, but by the time this afternoon party is over, at least two--if not all three of you--will end up in long pine boxes, backside down, also looking up at rocks, dirt and grass. So, why don’t you just turn around, ride out of here, and tell the Colonel you couldn’t find me. It’ll make for a better day than the one that’s gonna happen if you decide to pull your guns.”
Hutch paused, and smiled: “What do you think about that idea, Jonas?”
“You ain’t heard the last of this,” growled the stranger.
Then Jonas and his companions turned their horses around and moved out of Hutch’s yard, and onto the rutted road heading south. They kicked their mounts into a trot and disappeared over a small hill back toward town.
Hutch slid down the post he’d been leaning on and squatted on the ground. He was shaking. “Eli,” he said, “you can come out now, and bring a bottle. I hope you get here before I die of heart failure!”
Eli stepped into the sunshine. “Hutch,” he said, “I only have one question.”
“Just what in the hell did you do with Colonel J. B. Griffin’s horse?”