Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Having sent Jimmy to the Bar-20 with a message for Buck Peters, their foreman, Bill Cassidy set out for the Crazy M ranch, by the way of Clay Gulch. He was to report on the condition of some cattle that Buck had been offered cheap and he was anxious to get back to the ranch. It was in the early evening when he reached Clay Gulch and rode slowly down the dusty, shack-lined street in search of a hotel. The town and the street were hardly different from other towns and streets that he had seen all over the cow-country, but nevertheless he felt uneasy. The air seemed to be charged with danger, and it caused him to sit even more erect in the saddle and assume his habit of indifferent alertness. The first man he saw confirmed the feeling by staring at him insolently and sneering in a veiled way at the low-hung, tieddown holsters that graced Bill’s thighs. The guns proclaimed the gun-man as surely as it would have been proclaimed by a sign; and it appeared that gun-men were not at that time held in high esteem by the citizens of Clay Gulch. Bill was growing fretful and peevish when the man, with a knowing shake of his head, turned away and entered the harness shop. “Trouble’s brewin’ somewheres around,” muttered Bill, as he went on. He had singled out the first of two hotels when another citizen, turning the corner, stopped in his tracks and looked Bill over with a deliberate scrutiny that left but little to the imagination. He frowned and started away, but Bill spurred forward, determined to make him speak.
“Might I inquire if this is Clay Gulch?” he asked, in tones that made the other wince.
“You might,” was the reply. “It is,” added the citizen, “an’ th’ Crazy M lays fifteen mile west.” Having complied with the requirements of common politeness the citizen of Clay Gulch turned and walked into the nearest saloon. Bill squinted after him and shook his head in indecision.
“He wasn’t guessin’, neither. He shore knowed where I wants to go. I reckon Oleson must ‘a’ said he was expectin’ me.” He would have been somewhat surprised had he known that Mr. Oleson, foreman of the Crazy M, had said nothing to anyone about the expected visitor, and that no one, not even on the ranch, knew of it. Mr. Oleson was blessed with taciturnity to a remarkable degree; and he had given up expecting to see anyone from Mr. Peters.
As Bill dismounted in front of the “Victoria” he noticed that two men farther down the street had evidently changed their conversation and were examining him with frank interest and discussing him earnestly. As a matter of fact they had not changed the subject of their conversation, but had simply fitted him in the place of a certain unknown. Before he had arrived they discussed in the abstract; now they could talk in the concrete. One of them laughed and called softly over his shoulder, whereupon a third man appeared in the door, wiping his lips with the back of a hairy, grimy hand, and focused evil eyes upon the innocent stranger. He grunted contemptuously and, turning on his heel, went back to his liquid pleasures. Bill covertly felt of his clothes and stole a glance at his horse, but could see nothing wrong. He hesitated: should he saunter over for information or wait until the matter was brought to his attention? A sound inside the hotel made him choose the latter course, for his stomach threatened to become estranged and it simply howled for food. Pushing open the door he dropped his saddle in a corner and leaned against the bar.
“Have one with me to get acquainted?” he invited. “Then I’ll eat, for I’m hungry. An’ I’ll use one of yore beds tonight, too.”
The man behind the bar nodded cheerfully and poured out his drink. As he raised the liquor he noticed Bill’s guns and carelessly let the glass return to the bar.
“Sorry, sir,” he said coldly. “I’m hall out of grub, the fire’s hout, hand the beds are taken. But mebby ‘Awley, down the strite, can tyke care of you.”
Bill was looking at him with an expression that said much and he slowly extended his arm and pointed to the untasted liquor.
“Allus finish what you start, English,” he said slowly and clearly. “When a man goes to take a drink with me, and suddenly changes his mind, why I gets riled. I don’t know what ails this town, an’ I don’t care; I don’t give a cuss about yore grub an’ yore beds; but if you don’t drink that liquor you poured out to drink, why I’ll naturally shove it down yore British throat so cussed hard it’ll strain yore neck. Get to it!”
The proprietor glanced apprehensively from the glass to Bill, then onto the businesslike guns and back to the glass, and the liquor disappeared at a gulp. “W’y,” he explained, aggrieved. “There hain’t no call for to get riled hup like that, stringer. I bloody well forgot hit.”
“Then don’t you go an’ ‘bloody well’ forget this: Th’ next time I drops in here for grub an’ a bed, you have ‘em both, an’ be plumb polite about it. Do you get me?” he demanded icily.
The proprietor stared at the angry puncher as he gathered up his saddle and rifle and started for the door. He turned to put away the bottle and the sound came near being unfortunate for him. Bill leaped sideways, turning while in the air and landed on his feet like a cat, his left hand gripping a heavy Colt that covered the short ribs of the frightened proprietor before that worthy could hardly realize the move.
“Oh, all right,” growled Bill, appearing to be disappointed. “I reckoned mebby you was gamblin’ on a shore thing. I feels impelled to offer you my sincere apology; you ain’t th’ kind as would even gamble on a shore thing. You’ll see me again,” he promised. The sound of his steps on the porch ended in a thud as he leaped to the ground and then he passed the window leading his horse and scowling darkly. The proprietor mopped his head and reached twice for the glass before he found it. “Gawd, what a bloody ‘eathen,” he grunted. “ ‘E won’t be as easy as the lawst was, blime ‘im.”
Mr. Hawley looked up and frowned, but there was something in the suspicious eyes that searched his face that made him cautious: Bill dropped his load on the floor and spoke sharply. “I want supper an’ a bed. You ain’t full up, an’ you ain’t out of grub. So I’m goin’ to get ‘em both right here. Yes?”
“You shore called th’ turn, stranger,” replied Mr. Hawley in his Sunday voice. “That’s what I’m in business for. An’ business is shore dull these days.”
He wondered at the sudden smile that illuminated Bill’s face and half guessed it; but he said nothing and went to work. When Bill pushed back from the table he was more at peace with the world and he treated, closely watching his companion. Mr. Hawley drank with a show of pleasure and brought out cigars. He seated himself beside his guest and sighed with relief.
“I’m plumb tired out,” he offered. “An’ I ain’t done much. You look tired, too. Come a long way?”
“Logan,” replied Bill. “Do you know where I’m goin’? An’ why?” he asked.
Mr. Hawley looked surprised and almost answered the first part of the question correctly before he thought. “Well,” he grinned, “if I could tell where strangers was goin’, an’ why, I wouldn’t never ask ‘em where they come from. An’ I’d shore hunt up a li’l game of faro, you bet!”
Bill smiled. “Well, that might be a good idea. But, say, what ails this town, anyhow?”
“What ails it? Hum! Why, lack of money for one thing; scenery, for another; wimmin, for another. Oh, h—l, I ain’t got time to tell you what ails it. Why?”
“Is there anything th’ matter with me?”
“I don’t know you well enough for to answer that kerrect.”
“Well, would you turn around an’ stare at me, an’ seem pained an’ hurt? Do I look funny? Has anybody put a sign on my back?”
“You looks all right to me. What’s th’ matter?” “Nothin’, yet,” reflected Bill slowly. “But there will be, mebby. You was mentionin’ faro. Here’s a turn you can call: somebody in this wart of a twoby-nothin’ town is goin’ to run plumb into a big surprise. There’ll mebby be a loud noise an’ some smoke where it starts from; an’ a li’l round hole where it stops. When th’ curious delegation now holdin’ forth on th’ street slips in here after I’m in bed, an’ makes inquiries about me, you can tell ‘em that. An’ if Mr.—Mr. Victoria drops in casual, tell him I’m cleanin’ my guns. Now then, show me where I’m goin’ to sleep.”
Mr. Hawley very carefully led the way into the hall and turned into a room opposite the bar. “Here she is, stranger,” he said, stepping back. But Bill was out in the hall listening. He looked into the room and felt oppressed.
“No, she ain’t,” he answered, backing his intuition. “She is upstairs, where there is a li’l breeze. By th’ Lord,” he muttered under his breath. “This is some puzzle.” He mounted the stairs shaking his head thoughtfully. “It shore is, it shore is.”
When Bill whirled up to the Crazy M bunkhouse and dismounted before the door a puncher was emerging. He started to say something, noticed Bill’s guns and went on without a word. Bill turned around and looked after him in amazement. “Well, what th’ devil!” he growled. Before he could do anything, had he wished to, Mr. Oleson stepped quickly from the house, nodded and hurried toward the ranch house, motioning for Bill to follow. Entering the house, the foreman of the Crazy M waited impatiently for Bill to get inside, and then hurriedly closed the door.
“They’ve got onto it some way,” he said, his taciturnity gone; “but that don’t make no difference if you’ve got th’ sand. I’ll pay you one hundred an’ fifty a month, furnish yore cayuses an’ feed you up here. I’m losin’ two hundred cows every month an’ can’t get a trace of th’ thieves. Harris, Marshal of Clay Gulch, is stumped, too. He can’t move without proof; you can. Th’ first man to get is George Thomas, then his brother Art. By that time you’ll know how things lay. George Thomas is keepin’ out of Harris’ way. He killed a man last week over in Tuxedo an’ Harris wants to take him over there. He’ll not help you, so don’t ask him to.” Before Bill could reply or recover from his astonishment Oleson continued and described several men. “Look out for ambushes. It’ll be th’ hardest game you ever went up ag’in, an’ if you ain’t got th’ sand to go through with it, say so.”
Bill shook his head. “I got th’ sand to go through with anythin’ I starts, but I don’t start here. I reckon you got th’ wrong man. I come up here to look over a herd for Buck Peters; an’ here you go shovin’ wages like that at me. When I tells Buck what I’ve been offered he’ll fall dead.” He laughed. “Now I knows th’ answer to a lot of things.
“Here, here!” he exclaimed as Oleson began to rave. “Don’t you go an’ get all het up like that. I reckon I can keep my face shut. An’ lemme observe in yore hat-like ear that if th’ rest of this gang is like th’ samples I seen in town, a good gunman would shore be robbin’ you to take all that money for th’ job. Fifty a month, for two months, would be a-plenty.”
Oleson’s dismay was fading, and he accepted the situation with a grim smile. “You don’t know them fellers,” he replied. “They’re a bad lot, an’ won’t stop at nothin’.”
“All right. Let’s take a look at them cows. I want to get home soon as I can.”
Oleson shook his head. “I gave you up, an’ when I got a better offer I let ‘em go. I’m sorry you had th’ ride for nothin’, but I couldn’t get word to you.”
Bill led the way in silence back to the bunk house and mounted his horse. “All right,” he nodded. “I shore was late. Well, I’ll be goin’.”
“That gun-man is late, too,” said Oleson. “Mebby he ain’t comin’. You want th’ job at my figgers?”
“Nope. I got a better job, though it don’t pay so much money. It’s steady, an’ a hull lot cleaner. So long,” and Bill loped away, closely watched by Shorty Allen from the corral. And after an interval, Shorty mounted and swung out of the other gate of the corral and rode along the bottom of an arroyo until he felt it was safe to follow Bill’s trail. When Shorty turned back he was almost to town, and he would not have been pleased had he known that Bill knew of the trailing for the last ten miles. Bill had doubled back and was within a hundred yards of Shorty when that person turned ranch-ward.
“Huh! I must be popular,” grunted Bill. “I reckon I will stay in Clay Gulch till t’morrow mornin’; an’ at the Victoria,” he grinned. Then he laughed heartily. “Victoria! I got a better name for it than that, all right.”
When he pulled up before the Victoria and looked in the proprietor scowled at him, which made Bill frown as he went onto Hawley’s. Putting his horse in the corral he carried his saddle and rifle into the barroom and looked around. There was no one in sight, and he smiled. Putting the saddle and rifle back in one corner under the bar and covering them with gunny sacks he strolled to the Victoria and entered through the rear door. The proprietor reached for his gun but reconsidered in time and picked up a glass, which he polished with exaggerated care. There was something about the stranger that obtruded upon his peace of mind and confidence. He would let someone else try the stranger out.
Bill walked slowly forward, by force of will ironing out the humor in his face and assuming his sternest expression. “I want supper an’ a bed, an’ don’t forget to be plumb polite,” he rumbled, sitting down by the side of a small table in such a manner that it did not in the least interfere with the movement of his right hand. The observing proprietor observed and gave strict attention to the preparation of the meal. The gun-man arose and walked carelessly to a chair that had blank wall behind it, and from where he could watch windows and doors.
When the meal was placed before him he glanced up. “Go over there an’ sit down,” he ordered, motioning to a chair that stood close to the rifle that leaned against the wall. “Loaded?” he demanded. The proprietor could only nod. “Then sling it acrost yore knees an’ keep still. Well, start movin’.”
The proprietor walked as though he were in a trance but when he seated himself and reached for the weapon a sudden flash of understanding illumined him and caused cold sweat to bead upon his wrinkled brow. He put the weapon down again, but the noise made Bill look up.
“Acrost yore knees,” growled the puncher, and the proprietor hastily obeyed, but when it touched his legs he let loose of it as though it were hot. He felt a great awe steal through his fear, for here was a gun-man such as he had read about. This man gave him all the best of it just to tempt him to make a break. The rifle had been in his hands, and while it was there the gun-man was calmly eating with both hands on the table and had not even looked up until the noise of the gun made him!
“My Gawd, ‘e must be a wizard with ‘em. I ‘opes I don’t forget!” With the thought came a great itching of his kneecap; then his foot itched so as to make him squirm and wear horrible expressions. Bill, chancing to glance up carelessly, caught sight of the expressions and growled, whereupon they became angelic. Fearing that he could no longer hold in the laughter that tortured him, Bill arose.
“Shoulder, ARMS!” he ordered, crisply. The gun went up with trained precision. “Been a sojer,” thought Bill. “Carry, ARMS! About, FACE! To a bedroom, MARCH!” He followed, holding his sides, and stopped before the room. “This th’ best?” he demanded. “Well, it ain’t good enough for me. About, FACE! Forward, MARCH! Column, LEFT! Ground, ARMS! Fall out.” Tossing a coin on the floor as payment for the supper Bill turned sharply and went out without even a backward glance.
HE proprietor wiped the perspiration from his face and walked unsteadily to the bar, where he poured out a generous drink and gulped it down. Peering out of the door to see if the coast was clear, he scurried across the street and told his troubles to the harness-maker.
Bill leaned weakly against Hawley’s and laughed until the tears rolled down his cheeks. Pushing weakly from the building he returned to the Victoria to play another joke on its proprietor. Finding it vacant he slipped upstairs and hunted for a room to suit him. The bed was the softest he had seen for a long time and it lured him into removing his boots and chaps and guns, after he had propped a chair against the door as a warning signal, and stretching out flat on his back, he prepared to enjoy solid comfort. It was not yet dark, and as he was not sleepy he lay there thinking over the events of the past twenty-four hours, often laughing so hard as to shake the bed. What a reputation he would have in the morning! The softness of the bed got in its work and he fell asleep, for how long he did not know; but when he awakened it was dark and he heard voices coming up from below. They came from the room he had refused to take. One expression banished all thoughts of sleep from his mind and he listened intently. “ ‘Red-headed Irish gun-man.’ Why, they means me! ‘Make him hop into h—l.’ I don’t reckon I’d do that for anybody, even my friends.”
“I tried to give ‘im this room, but ‘e wouldn’t tyke it,” protested the proprietor, hurriedly. “ ‘E says the bloody room wasn’t good enough for ‘im, hand ‘e marches me out hand makes off. Likely ‘e’s in ‘Awley’s.”
“No, he ain’t,” growled a strange voice. “You’ve gone an’ bungled th’ whole thing.”
“But I s’y I didn’t, you know. I tries to give ‘im this werry room, George, but ‘e would ‘ave it. D’y think I wants ‘im running haround this blooming town? ‘E’s worse nor the other, hand Gawd knows ‘e was bad enough. ‘E’s a cold-blooded beggar, ‘e is!”
“You missed yore chance,” grunted the other. “Wish I had that gun you had.”
“I was wishing to Gawd you did,” retorted the proprietor. “It never looked so bloody big before, d—n ‘is ‘ide!”
“Well, his cayuse is in Hawley’s corral,” said the first speaker. “If I ever finds Hawley kept him under cover I’ll blow his head off. Come on; we’ll get Harris first. He ought to be gettin’ close to town if he got th’ word I sent over to Tuxedo. He won’t let us call him. He’s a man of his word.”
“He’ll be here, all right. Fred an’ Tom is watchin’ his shack, an’ we better take th’ other end of town—there’s no tellin’ how he’ll come in now,” suggested Art Thomas. “But I wish I knowed where that cussed gun-man is.”
As they went out, Bill, his chaps on and his boots in his hand, crept down the stairs, and stopped as he neared the hall door. The proprietor was coming back. The others were outside, going to their stations and did not hear the choking gasp that the proprietor made as a pair of strong hands reached out and throttled him. When he came to he was lying face down on a bed, gagged and bound by a rope that cut into his flesh with every movement. Bill, waiting a moment, slipped into the darkness and was swallowed up. He was looking for Mr. Harris, and looking eagerly.
The moon arose and bathed the dusty street and its crude shacks in silver, cunningly and charitably hiding its ugliness; and passed on as the skirmishing rays of the sun burst into the sky in close and eternal pursuit. As the dawn spread swiftly and long, thin shadows sprang across the sandy street, there arose from the dissipated darkness close to the wall of a building an armed man, weary and slow from a tiresome vigil. Another emerged from behind a pile of boards that faced the marshal’s abode, while down the street another crept over the edge of a dried-out water course and swore softly as he stood up slowly to flex away the stiffness of cramped limbs. Of vain speculation he was empty; he had exhausted all the whys and hows long before and now only muttered discontentedly as he reviewed the hours of fruitless waiting. And he was uneasy; it was not like Harris to take a dare and swallow his own threats without a struggle. He looked around apprehensively, shrugged his shoulders and stalked behind the shacks across from the two hotels.
Another figure crept from the protection of Hawley’s corral like a slinking coyote, gun in hand and nervously alert. He was just in time to escape the challenge that would have been hurled at him by Hawley, himself, had that gentleman seen the skulker as he grouchily opened one shutter and scowled sleepily at the kindling eastern sky. Mr. Hawley was one of those who go to bed with regret and get up with remorse, and his temper was always easily disturbed before breakfast. The skulker, safe from the remorseful gentleman’s eyes, and gun, kept close to the building as he walked and was again fortunate, for he had passed when Mr. Hawley strode heavily into his kitchen to curse the cold, rusty stove, a rite he faithfully performed each morning. Across the street George and Art Thomas walked to meet each other behind the row of shacks and stopped near the harness shop to hold a consultation. The subject was so interesting that for a few moments they were oblivious to all else.
A man softly stepped to the door of the Victoria and watched the two across the street with an expression on his face that showed his smiling contempt for them and their kind. He was a small man, so far as physical measurements go, but he was lithe, sinewy and compact. On his opened vest, hanging slovenly and blinking in the growing light as if to prepare itself for the blinding glare of midday, glinted a five-pointed star of nickel, a lowly badge that every rural community knows and holds in an awe far above the metal or design. Swinging low on his hip gleamed the ivory butt of a silver-plated Colt, the one weakness that his vanity seized upon. But under the silver and its engraving, above and before the cracked and stained ivory handles, lay the power of a great force. Under the casing of that small body lay a virile manhood, strong in courage and determination. Toby Harris watched, smilingly; he loved the dramatic and found keen enjoyment in the situation. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a carelessly dressed cow-puncher slouching indolently along close to the buildings on the other side of the street with the misleading sluggishness of a panther. The red hair, kissed by the slanting rays of the sun where it showed beneath the soiled sombrero, seemed to be a flaming warning; the half-closed eyes, squinting under the brim of the big hat, missed nothing as they darted from point to point.
The marshal stepped silently to the porch and then onto the ground, his back to the rear of the hotel, waiting to be discovered. He had been in sight perhaps a minute. The cow-puncher made a sudden, eye-baffling movement and smoke whirled about his hips. Fred, turning the corner behind the marshal, dropped his gun with a scream of rage and pain and crashed against the window in sudden sickness, his gun-hand hanging by a tendon from his wrist. The marshal stepped quickly forward at the shot and for an instant gazed deeply into the eyes of the startled rustlers. Then his Colt leaped out and crashed a fraction of a second before the brothers fired. George Thomas reeled, caught sight of the puncher and fired by instinct. Bill, leaving Harris to watch the other side of the street, was watching the rear corner of the Victoria and was unprepared for the shot. He crumpled and dropped and then the marshal, enraged, ended the rustler’s earthy career in a stream of flame and smoke. Tom, turning into the street further down, wheeled and dashed for his horse, and Art, having leaped behind the harness shop, turned and fled for his life. He had nearly reached his horse and was going at top speed with great leaps when the prostrate man in the street, raising on his elbow, emptied his gun after him, the five shots sounding almost as one. Art Thomas arose convulsively and dove headlong under the horse he tried to gain. Harris looked hastily down the street and saw a cloud of dust racing northward, and grunted, “Let him go—he won’t never come back no more.” Running to the cow-puncher he raised him after a hurried examination of the wounded thigh. “Hop along, Cassidy,” he smiled in encouragement. “You’ll be a better man with one good laig than th’ whole gang was all put together.”
The puncher smiled faintly as Hawley, running to them, helped him toward his hotel. “Th’ bone is plumb smashed. I reckon I’ll hop along through life. It’ll be hop along, Cassidy, for me, all right. That’s my name, all right. Huh! Hopalong Cassidy! But I didn’t hop into h—l, did I, Harris?” he grinned bravely.
And thus was born a nickname that found honor and fame in the cow-country—a name that stood for loyalty, courage and most amazing gun-play. I have Red’s word for this, and the endorsement of those who knew him at the time. And from this on, up to the time he died, and after, we will know him and speak of him as Hopalong Cassidy, a cow-puncher.