Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The trap, without the slightest hint obvious, was already set, and Kate Osgood, studying one strange and suspicious rider, was in turn studied by another rider she did not know, behind her, above her.
Kate Osgood, on her red sorrel on one rim of Los Gatos Canyon, stared down at the floor of the canyon studying the lone rider roaming the area as if lost. Or, came a second thought, as if he was searching for the secret exit from Spider’s Valley, location of the Kay-Bar-Kay Ranch, her home for the past 15 years. The ranch, and the valley, was now hers since her father had been killed, in error, by a misguided posse just a few weeks earlier.
The rider had discerning traits and character moves that she’d be able to pick out later on, by her system of personal identity that was pretty solid. Kate would know him arriving in town, riding lead or drag on a drive, approaching her at the ranch on horseback with flowers in his hand. On a classic paint, the horseman rode with one shoulder somewhat ahead of the other, the right, as though he’d be looking behind him so often it was best to be part ways there all the time. He exhibited that tendency a number of times in his search.
When the rider kept the reins in his right hand, she assumed him to be a lefty, the left hand ready to draw his weapon if needed.
“This one’s a lefty, Joe,” she said to her horse, “so remember that.” She patted him in a salute of trust and loyalty. “Oh, good horse, I wonder what Toby Booker would say about him, if he’d look at him like we do?” The subsequent smile gleamed on her face as the rider took off his hat and scratched his head. Toby, she’d quickly admit, was not a second thought type of acquaintance. Her only question, never having seen him in action, was would he be able to handle some normal adversity. Heaven knows, there was enough of it floating about. You could stab it with a jack knife if you were at all alert to the full life going on in this part of the country.
The rider seemed in a quandary, as if he could not find the exit from the valley … meaning, she realized, he might have been here before, one of the various intruders over the years who had might have slipped from the valley strictly by accident or in a desperate flight from the law … or who might have been escorted pronto from the ranch property by her father.
Suddenly, Kate’s suspicion was aroused as the thought hit home, and she shifted into anger. Why was the world like this, its people scrounging around for a dead man’s property, trying to exercise new rights over old land, trying for easy pickings from a girl? She slapped the pistol at her side in a determined reaction. This was her heritage, her legacy. She’d fight to keep it that way. The rumors floating all about town and across the grass to some of the other ranches had bothered her from the first day. They loomed so unfair, the cheaters lining up to grab from a supposedly helpless girl her birthright, the choicest valley in the whole mountain chain. Nothing else measured up to it.
Back in the beginning, her father knew the value of the valley the moment he saw it unfold before him, his mule on its last legs, his water gone and his ammunition spent. His spirits had shortly before fallen downhill so fast he feared he’d never get back to the wagon where Kate and her mother were hidden in a small dead end canyon a few miles away. He had arrived here through a maze of rocks and mountain fissures cracked open by Mother Nature in an escarpment that rose more than 500 feet, like the side of a huge barn. The way proved to be the door to Utopia.
Life had changed in one look, for at that exact minute a spider slipped down past his eyes on a gossamer thread to land on his sleeve, and so he called the place Spider’s Valley.
This was her land, Spider’s Valley. She would keep it until her last breath. She slapped the sidearm again. “It won’t be easy, Mister,” she said aloud, the words coming from her mouth with the depths of an oath.
Kate knew that if the strange rider found the secret exit from Spider’s Valley, she could come in behind him from another direction. This was part of her father’s precautions to insure the safety of the family, a tunnel of sorts. The tunnel, through a thousand years of falling rocks, landslides, eruptions of cataclysmic sorts, had opened up for him with one stick of dynamite all those years earlier. After many trips into and out of the tunnel, Kate could pass through it with a blindfold in place. And her father had placed a few caches of other insurances within the tunnel, Kate being the only other person in Creation ever to know the secret locations of weapons, ammunition and sundry supplies
Time, fate, and what else could expose the glories of Spider’s Valley might now be upon her. For a long time she had dreaded a run of people into the valley, the existence of its choice location admired by many people, people who rarely came without invitation and guidance. There were those, Kate realized, who would adapt the place as a hide-out with a built-in escape route known to nobody else, if they ever found that route. Discourage the sternest lawmen, it would. The valley was surrounded on just about every side by high rises of the lofty Rockies, and would naturally bar all but the direct approach by the “front door,” as her father would always say about visitors.
The fates and the accidents were merging to drop their big surprise on the young mistress of Spider’s Valley. The rider below, with a seeming mild curiosity, dismounted and went behind a huge stone slab and Kate knew the secret was exposed. The rider came back for his horse, mounted again and disappeared behind the rock. He would follow the opening into the valley. She then slipped carefully into the tunnel, unaware of the second man watching her movements from above.
Kate’s suspicions, of course, were right in line, but she had no idea to the depth of the plans to take over her homestead.
Things, all adverse to her good cheer and comfort, happened rapidly. As she came out of a fissure in the mountain, the rider was directly in front of her. He was a lefty, she saw, with a revolver on his left hip. Her rifle was pointed right at him as she slowly came up behind him and said, “You’re trespassing, Mister, so I’m chasing you out of here. You keep your hand away from your gun and ride right down the valley and out the other end. I don’t know what you’re doing here, but it’s all over as of now.”
The stranger, wide at the shoulders, thick and immoveable at the jaw, and not fazed a bit by her rifle aimed at his mid-section, said, “Sorry about this, lady, but we got too many plans for this place. This is going to be our new hide-out, and there’s not a lot you can do to stop us. We got guys all over you and all over this place. You’re gonna keep house for us, that’s for sure.”
Kate studied him. “I could shoot you right now, knock you right out of your saddle, couldn’t I?”
“Then we’d have the place without any problems, wouldn’t we?” He pressed his lips together, nodded and added, “Doesn’t that bother you at all, us moving in just the way the boss planned it?”
“How’d you ever find the way in to the valley?”
“The boss left here one day after visiting your father, saying he was going off to see his folks back down the river, but met his dad on the way. When he got to town with his father, your father had been in town for almost two hours. He knew there had to be a way out of the valley that nobody else knew about, the way your father got to town in such a hurry. The boss figures this’d be a great place for a hide-out with a way out just in case we needed it. Made to order, he says, and he knows his way around.”
“Who’s your boss?” Kate said, as an unnerving and intolerable thought came to her.
“Oh, you’re sure to meet up with him doing all the housekeeping he’ll make you do to keep us comfortable. He’s got it all figured out. That’s why he’s the boss, but you wouldn’t know it meeting him the first time around.”
That sick feeling Kate had felt but a moment earlier came back with a vengeance. She ought to shoot this intruder to get ahead of them, whoever “they” were. Her rifle was pointed with authority at the intruder, but Kate Osgood couldn’t pull the trigger. She had never shot at a man before; hadn’t much as aimed her rifle at a man in all her 20 years. She tried to remember if there were any times that she had threatened to shoot a man, but nothing of the sort came back from her past. Everything wrong in her life was right here in front of her … an intruder had found his way into the valley, a false friend had intruded earlier, and her father was dead, supposedly by an ill-advised posse. She wondered about that, felt it all piling up on her.
Everything in the world was wrong.
Yet it was the other sound that commanded her attention, the click of a trigger being cocked on a weapon. A voice behind her, another but deeper voice, more threat in it, said, “Don’t try it, Missy, or your ranching days are over.”
Kate Osgood did not even turn around. Realization swiftly told her the tunnel had been breached in her anxiety to trap the first intruder. She had dropped her guard, had let herself be caught, and somebody from town, some acquaintance of hers, some friend of her father’s, was behind it all. She had to know who it was.
She dropped her rifle.
But she didn’t panic. Thoughts of her father filled her, his early and steady precautions for his family, and it would be up to her to avail herself of them at an opportune time. Obviously it was not now. More than her own safety bothered her; her curiosity was aroused to a compelling level. Who had cheated her father? Who had cheated her in turn? Who would pay for all this? The eventual pay-back aroused ferocity in her soul she had not known before.
She’d keep her mouth shut, her eyes open, and do what she was told.
There was a way out of all this. Did her father see all of this coming?
With reins not in her hands, Kate Osgood was lead to the door of her home. The flowers she had picked on the prairie sat in a pot at the front steps, a dozen blossomed flowers with long stems and their dozen hues waved in any breath of air … someone walking in or out, the door opened to cause a draft of air, a hand reaching for the welcome touch of nature. They sat proper as daylight in an old Canopic jar she had found in the mountains. She had spent a few hours at the task of gathering, selecting, and arranging them in their variety of colors. She loved the sight of the blossoms showing against the dark wall of the house. Aromas reached her as she arrived at the hitch rail. She stared at two flowers boxes, brilliant in half a dozen hues, sitting tight against the wall on each side of the door, at the same level of the doorknob. Her personal statements were open and readable, by most visitors, by all guests. Everything said care and comfort abounded at the Kay-Bar-Kay Ranch in Spider’s Valley.
Now it was a lie.
Even in their brightness, the splash of colors from the flowers paled as she dismounted. Home suddenly felt foreign, strange in a false welcome, as though nothing would ever be the same again; a time had passed; another time was coming, and it disheartened Kate for a short while, until her spirit, always with her, found resurrection, leaped with this discovery as though it was new.
The man who had come in from behind her at the tunnel escorted into the house, holding her roughly by the elbow at first. “You better get busy in the kitchen, Lady, ‘cause the boss’ll want something to eat when he shows up. He’ll be here sooner than you think. Best to feed him quick afore he gets real angry. I don’t want him any none angry at me, I’ll tell you.”
He pushed her toward the kitchen, his hand lingering too long at her backside. She shuddered.
For sanity’s sake, Kate immediately pictured the cached goods in the tunnel; the images saved her from panic once and would do so again. Now she called them up for visual assurance as she heard hoof beats coming in from the valley opening. That she might know the boss of the gang filled her with dread; life couldn’t be any more unfair than it was now. Up with a quick start she came; the only recent guest she could remember coming to the ranch was Toby Booker. That such a mild, unaggressive man could have planned all this, played his charade to perfection, was unthinkable to her. But now she’d know what a fool she had been to hold any secret desires about Toby. Love was so damned foolish, she believed, as if her pain had falsely blossomed into love by the quick absence of its possibility. She was stupid to have held a single dream, or any such idea, of Toby Booker. Anger moved again in her blood as the door opened.
A breath escaped her lungs. Her heart dropped and then leaped in her chest. It was not Toby Booker. It was not Toby Booker! How had she been so frail in her thinking? Toby didn’t deserve any of it. The man standing in the doorway, tall, soft in the face as though he had been beaten down by something, his shoulders sloped and hardly discernable in a gray shirt and a black vest, was a man she had seen before, but always on the edges in town, like a ferret, a malingerer, a malcontent uncomfortable alone or in a crowd. The only thing that saved his presence was the stolen, molten blue of his eyes looking at her without a bit of anger or shame. They were eyes that could measure things generally unseen, that could reach down into her soul and expose her thoughts, her intentions, enforce demands.
“I’m going to say this to you once, Fancy Lady … I’ll kill the first person who comes to the ranch and you try to give them any messages or cry for help. You’re now working for me, and I’m damned hungry. You get something to eat for me and a few of the boys, all my boys. Your small crew was been taken care of while you were prancing around the country like you owned it all. No more, Fancy Lady, no more. One of us will be sitting with you as we go about your business here and our business out in the world of finances.” Distastefully, he emitted a vulgar chuckle from deep in his throat as though it was being scraped across a corrugated board.
Kate, pride and thanks in hand, swallowed a whole lot, took deep her thanks that it was not Toby Booker making demands on her. She’d have some freedom of movement about the ranch as long as she stayed alert for an escape attempt. Sometime, with patience and planning her father was so good at, she’d make a move to reach arms, find help, get rid of the reins holding her in place, perhaps say some words to Toby that had long gone unsaid. She hoped that she would say the right things in the right way, that rescue would not make word choices for her. She wondered how she really felt. Toby Booker on a white horse did not come into her mind; another comfort found its way.
For three weeks, with a shepherd along every minute, Kate Osgood moved within the closed bounds of the Kay-Bar-Kay Ranch as the gang of hoodlums and hooligans went out and came back on following days. Loud talk filled in the description of their days; two stage hold-ups, a bank robbery, one former member of the gang, telling tales, ambushed on a lonely trail, his mouth shut forever.
At the end of that third week a rider came into the valley and rode up to the hitch rail. It was a friendly ranch hand passing by who wanted to say hello. She heard him talking to one of the gang. “Would you tell Kate that Joel Haggland wants to say hello. I’m just passing by. My sister said to say hello too.” And realizing he was talking to a new hired hand, he said, “You’re a new hand, ain’t cha? Ain’t seen you afore.”
“Yep. I came on a few weeks ago when some of the boys just up and finally rode off after the old gent got killed. Like they didn’t want to work for no woman boss. I’ll get Kate for you, but she ain’t been feelin’ too good the last few days. You best wait here.”
Kate’s shepherd came into the house and said, “There’s a fella name of Haggland wants to say hello. Take care what you say or the boss, over in the barn, will drop him right off’n his saddle. You got his life in your hands now, so do what the boss says. It’s easy for you, I bet.”
Kate went out to the porch and said, “I’m glad you came by to say hello, Joel, but I’ve been feeling poorly lately. I know your sister wants to come by sometime. Just tell her I’ll let her know when I’m feeling better. And tell Toby too.” She saw movement at the barn door and continued, “I do feel poorly, Joel. I better go inside and rest. I’ll see you another time. I’m sorry about this.”
She turned around, walked slowly into the house and closed the door behind her. From a window she saw Haggland sit his saddle and ride away from the ranch.
All was quiet. Her breath came back slowly with the silence. Haggland turned onto the trail to town and went out of sight.
Control of her nerves seemed sufficient to get her through the following days, just as they had for the three past weeks. It was nighttime when the frayed edges worked a bit of trouble, waiting for the door to her room to open in the middle of the night. That never happened.
Two more expeditions left the camp and the gang was gone for two days on one trip and one day on another trip. They began drinking heavily at night after the second trip and she knew another bank had been robbed successfully. All the bragging and descriptions of the robbery came audibly to her room where she slept fully clothed every night. The noise level rose, the drinking got louder, and then silence descended as night crawled into the next day.
The squeak at the door sent a tingle down her backside. Kate fished for the horseshoe hidden under her pillow. Her hand circled a grip on one end of the iron shoe. The floor also sounded the tread of weight as it whispered a protest. A hand was touching her leg under the blanket. The smell of whiskey came close to her face. Too close to her face. With all her might she swung the horseshoe at the smell and caught the intruder flush on the temple. He collapsed with a groan onto the edge of the bed and slipped to the floor.
Her heart was in her throat. She listened for action. The silence continued, then loud snoring from the rest of the house. The intruder, of course, was not wearing a gun belt. She took two belts from her rack and bound his hands and legs and stuffed a kerchief in his mouth. Wearing moccasins and a light jacket, Kate Osgood slipped out her bedroom window and made her way toward the tunnel. She did not go near the horses fearing their noise would wake up one of the gang; she’d have to walk, hoping to meet somebody on horseback or in a wagon. Perhaps a stagecoach on the river road or a freighter’s wagon. Her mind leapt with possibilities.
In 15 minutes she was in the tunnel and unearthing the supplies she needed. God bless her father! A gun belt and a handgun in a holster fit snuggly on her waist. A rifle and two boxes of shells came out of a blanket and canvas that had been set deep into a niche well off the ground. From a deeper and tighter niche she withdrew a few sticks of dynamite.
“You thought of everything, Pa.” The tears came to her eyes in the darkness. “I know they had something to do with killing you, Pa,” she said slowly, “so we’ll take care of them right proper. I don’t know what happened to our ranch hands, but somehow we’ll find out about that too.”
Two sticks of dynamite received an extra steady insertion into a crevice no bigger than her wrist. It was a critical point in the tunnel, at a spot where her father had spelled out specific instructions. The wall of rock about her seemed to tremble as the dynamite was placed between two solid surfaces.
“A sign of things to come,” she muttered to herself and to the whole of justifiable Creation, as she patted the stone slabs. A giddy sense of achievement slid into her being, which she shrugged off as too early for a celebration. The caution came as a full alert: this was her only chance and she better make sure of each step and not get too far ahead of herself. There was no telling what they’d do to her if things went awry.
The rock slabs were patted again, as if she sent good luck their way.
“This’ll break bones, Pa,” she said aloud,” and shake the mountain to pieces, I swear.” A savage joy tickled Kate Osgood for a moment; she felt it all the way down to her toes snuggled in the moccasins. Her imagination was lit up as lightning and thunder and earthly cataclysm echoed and vibrated with the arm of justice doing its promised work. Getting even could be as sweet as an early blossom in the snow or a cool sarsaparilla on the hottest day of the year.
The giddiness came again.
Kate positioned herself by the escape route and aimed her rifle into the narrow aperture, just as shadows of night began to play tag with false dawn. The gang members could only come one at a time, never two abreast, never two guns against her one rifle. As directed so long ago, she lit the fuse that would blast the tunnel into a solid impasse, and hefted her rifle to take on any of the gang who might try the escape route.
She watched the sparks of the fuse as it crawled toward the tunnel, about 30 feet from her position. Breath seemed to hold itself in her chest.
The whole Earth did not explode, to her surprise. There was a mere thud, a meager bumping of the Earth. Then a slow rush of sound. A cloud of dust. And only then, beneath her feet, did the mountain shake.
It was a dull revelation. She was convinced, however, that the tunnel was blocked and she’d now have to contend with gang members trying the escape route. They’d know she had set off a blast to cut down one route.
Behind her, totally unsuspected, came another sound; spurs touching rock, a man walking, a voice saying, “Who’s there? Who are you? Speak up.”
It was the voice of Toby Booker. It rang in her.
“Toby, that’s you, isn’t it? Oh, my, you came right in time. Right in time.” The giddy feeling came back. Something else was with it. She wished she could see Toby’s face. Only parts of it flashed in her mind.
“My gosh, Kate, what’s going on in there? I knew something was wrong when Joel told me what he saw, what he knew, that you were sick and your old hands had all run off on you. I know no one would do that, Kate. Not one of those boys would leave you like that. Your pa took care of that a long time ago.”
“Why are you here, Toby?”
“Joel knew something was wrong, but he couldn’t say what. He had a feeling, and so did I. I’ve been here for two days. Came out a few other times, but was careful. I always knew about the escape your pa had found from the valley. The sheriff and the posse will be at the other end either today or tomorrow. I told him I could hold off an army at this end for a week if I had to. I’ve been in and out of there half a dozen times. Even saw you one time the way they were treating you, but I had to convince the sheriff he ought to do something. So he’s on the other side and I’m at this end, waiting. Like I said, been here almost two days this trip. We know it’s a hooligan gang been doing lots of hold-ups.”
Catching his breath, obviously happy to know she was okay, Toby declared, “Nobody knows what happened to your crew, Kate. Not a word. Sheriff fears the worst. We might never find out. What was that sound I heard a little while ago?”
“I set off a couple of sticks of dynamite to block off a second way out of the valley. My pa had it set up all these years. Kept it right up to snuff, he did. You ready for company, Toby? They’ll be coming our way soon.”
“One at a time, Kate,” Toby said. “That’s all they can do. We got them covered, you and me, Kate Osgood and Toby Booker. What a pair.”
Kate Osgood figured Toby Booker was smiling in the dark and she knew the tingles again.