Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“I swear,” stammered Collie Sizemore as he spouted to the patrons in Hagen’s Saloon in Bola City, “this gent out there has a little tyke with him looks the spittin’ image of Jehrico.” He was looking out the door of the saloon at the hitching rail. “Kid has the same eyes lookin’ at things like he’s ameasurin’ any way to get more out of it that’s been dead for so long it’s rusted or broke or half what it once was, and if that ain’t a clue for some shenanigans, I’d take it home and mother it, so to speak. You never saw the look-alike like this look-alike.”
He stared around the whole room, saw many of the familiar faces that had seen good old Jehrico at his very best, and further spent his thoughts; “Jehrico and Lupalazo and their whole gang gone for near a whole year now and this damned town just ain’t the same, but this kid I’m seein’ starts me to hopin’ all over again just like Jehrico was out and about afore we met him.” His wink of inner knowledge was as wide as a prairie schooner in the wind. And there was enough innuendo in his spouting that heads began to nod the affirmative way, and talk started, and laughter, and old Jehrico tales started all over again in solid rounds as good storytelling swung its way through the saloon.
Keen joy, laughter, hurrahs and guffaws made their bardic announcements. “Never was such a sight as him comin’ down the stretch with a real honest-to-goodness people’s iron washin’ tub on a pair of old wheels he pulled free of some canyon yonder and brung home.” “Yah, well what about that cock-eyed burro or that damned if it ain’t or was a real wolf pup he skinkered on some jazbo waitin’ on revenge and who ain’t got half of it yet?”
The knee-slapping and table banging carried forth at each tale, like voice pages of a book.
Collie, of course, knew what was at hand: another good day in Hagen’s that he could talk about for another whole year.
Out front of Hagen’s, even as Collie Sizemore kept sizing up things, the boy Chico was staring at parts of Bola City as if he were star-gazing. “Is this really the place, Lew, where this Jehrico lives?”
“It was so the last time I heard, Chico, Part and parcel he is of Bola City.” His eyes went again to the Hagen sign and he offered up what he figured was his best advice of the day. “We best go wet these dry throats, Chico, if they’ll let you in. If they don’t, I’ll buy a couple of bottles and we’ll go smother it some other place real handy.”
He had a second thought and asked, “What will you tell this fella Jehrico if he asks you where you come from in the beginning?”
Chico Vestra replied, in his honest and best voice, “Soy un huérfano de una ciudad verde pálida, abajo en México.” His words carried close to 8 years of determination in them. In English he explained, “If he’s really from Mexico, he’ll know I said, ‘I am an orphan from a pale green city, down in Mexico.’”
Osgood, 32, ex-sheriff, ex-train robber, ex-prisoner of the territorial jail, now a miner convinced gold was always underfoot, had become so fond of the boy, he was afraid of what might happen when the junk collector met and came to know the boy as he did. There’d be a final separation without a doubt.
Sizemore stepped aside when they entered Hagen’s Saloon, but he said, “No chickens allowed in here.”
Osgood, surprised, bristled and replied, “You ain’t telling me he can’t come in here.” He looked down the full length of Sizemore, his face reflecting his measure of the man. “We’re just here looking for a father for him.”
Of course, Sizemore only heard what he wanted to hear, as he spun about and yelled out, “You hear that? Didn’t I tell you? He’s lookin’ for his father. I wish to Hell that Jehrico was here right now. We’d have ourselves a party, a celebration to end ‘em all.” Around the room he jumped and hooted, yelling all the way, “Wouldn’t that be a time? Wouldn’t it? My, oh my, just think about it. Makes me think the mornin’s beans’re all sweet. Think on Jehrico findin’ this tyke and him not all used up.” His laughter was contagious, spreading like germs around the room, finding titters and guffaws and solid laughter that was first held in check and then let go like the customers were all saying “What the Hell!”
Surprised again, Osgood said, “Where is the Mexican junk collector? That’s who we’re looking for.”
“Hate to throw a downer at you, mister,” Sizemore said, “but Jehrico and Lupalazo brought their selves and kids down Mexico way ‘bout a year ago.”
Bobby Bell, Hagen’s bartender, looked at Chico and said to Osgood, “That boy, does he want a sarsaparilla, mister? He looks dry as a prairie skull. Bring him up here. I’ll fix his ailments, he got any.”
“He’s sound as a hickory bow, this boy, and just as true. Been on his own so long he owns where he’s been. But it’s never been home. I can’t make one for him, not the way I hoof around, but I heard about this Jehrico fella and Chico here’s a new image of him from what I heard along the trail all the way through some of them territories north of here and looking for life. Chico, he sees through things dead or not, useless or not, worth something or not. He’s special and needs a special man. That ain’t me and none of you here, from what I see and heard already.”
Chico was at the bar and the sarsaparilla was quickly in hand, as quick as the smile on the bartender’s face. “I knowed that boy was dry as a dead head out there. Look at ‘im go.”
All eyes went to the bar as Chico got his throat full of sweetness he’d never had, when suddenly, in that minute of quasi-glory, there came a yell from outside Hagen’s doors: “Hell, Collie, I damned well got you beat this time. My holler, it is. My holler.”
There was a pause, as if the suddenly-recognized voice of one of the newer town drunks, Cotton Grove, was assembling his words, as if waiting for the trumpets or bugles to accompany his announcement, which came clear, framed, but dependent on another’s earlier decree, Collie Sizemore’s; “Damned if it ain’t J&M or their lookylikes comin’ down the street and Jehrico’s walkin’ and leadin’ Mildred or her young one and there’s a Indian done tied up on Mildred like he ain’t goin’ anyplace but Hagen’s or Hell.”
The first thing said, or thought, was Collie Sizemore, upstaged for the very first time on his announcements to the Hagen’s crowd, saying, “I’ll never buy that drunk another drink long’s I live.”
The saloon crowd scattered and re-gathered in a line to get out the door to see the arrival of the favored and profitable junk collector supreme, at which bartender Bobby Bell said to Osgood, “Mister, you got all the stars gathered in your favor even if it’s daylight right now.” He looked at Chico, his drink consumed and staring at the bottom of the glass looking at the last drop, and advised, “And you got lucky again, kid. Plain all out lucky like the stars are your’n too, even in daylight. Why, we ain’t seen hide nor hair of Jehrico in a powerful long time. If that ain’t a charm for you, I’d chew it to a nuzzle.”
It was Jehrico, to the delight of the crowd spilling into the street, and Jehrico said right off, “Someone get the sheriff for me, like quick. I need him. And the doc, too.”
Chico and Osgood joined the crowd.
Sheriff Chuck Stocker, having heard the yell from Cotton Grove, was at the edge of the crowd and yelled out, “I’m right here, Jehrico. What’d this Injun do now? I think I seen him before. Is that Joe Dogtail?”
“It sure is, Sheriff, and he ain’t done anythin’ bad, but good. But you got to go out a few miles and see what’s left of what I saw.”
He wanted to say “Two bad cowpokes looking for the cheap way,” but it came out in his other language, “Dos vaqueros malos que buscan la manera barata.” And he quickly added, “Two hombres jumped the stage and killed the driver and all the horses and hurt the shotgun so bad I couldn’t move him, and Joe here killed the two bad gents, but got himself a bad shot I can’t fix and needs the doc too.”
Stocker issued his first question, “Know them bozos, Jehrico? Seen ‘em before?”
“Regulars they were, right here at Hagen’s. Luke Pollick and Jigger Ormsby, but both dead.
Joe here was more mad at them killin’ the horses than the driver and shotgun. But that ain’t all, Sheriff. There’s two passengers dead too, killed by Ormsby, cause Pollick’s gun don’t work no more, from what Joe says. Just jammed up, it did, so Ormsby, as Joe says, killed the horses and the drivers and the passengers. Just six shots all it took.”
The sheriff asked his second question. “How’d he get shot if there were only six shots took?”
“I figure,” Jehrico said, “that one of them went clean through one and hit Joe worse. It’s layin’ in Joe’s gut.” There was a pause and Jehrico proffered another statement. “Joe told me there were some other gents he saw hidden in the brush a hundred yards away, like they were part of the killers’ gang, but stay-aways. Not mixers.” And like he was tossing a clue on the ground in front of the Stocker, he asked, “That mean anythin’ to you, Sheriff?”
Stocker was nodding as if he was saying, “It sure does, Jehrico,” because his eyes went scanning through the crowd and Jehrico (and a few others) figured he was placing people that were in town at the moment, who had recently returned from elsewhere that he was aware of, or who was missing. The sheriff, of course, knew that Bola City had not grown so big that he couldn’t put a name and/or a face to some particular or peculiar characters, those that were on the other side of the fence or were fence riders, like shadows near evening, not quite evident, no firm silhouettes.
At the edge of the growing crowd, someone yelled out, “The doc’s comin’ with his bag,” And then added, “That Joe Dogtail’s probably got some white man’s blood in him now.” He looked around for agreeable comments, received none, and noticed Jehrico staring at him but not saying a word. It made him nervous.
The sheriff pointed at the livery owner and said, “Henry, rig up a team of horses for the coach and a wagon for carrying the dead back here and bring them out there soon as you can. I’m going out to check around.” His eyes scanned the crowd and he asked if anybody wanted to join him in a possible posse run.
No immediate response came from the crowd, and it was Lew Osgood who offered the only reply, “I’ve done my share of posse and sheriff work, Sheriff, and I’ll be glad to join you. My name’s Lew Osgood, but I have to leave my little buddy, Chico Vestra, with someone and I’d like it to be that Jehrico fellow. We both been hearing about him along the trail, all the way to the Nations.” His hand sat on top of Chico’s head. “Chico’s a fair right collector of things, too.”
The ground was broken for Chico, and Osgood realized the road was at least halved for the boy.
All this time Chico was staring at Jehrico, and Osgood could see he was probably looking into his soul and behind his eyeballs, perhaps the same way Jehrico looked at a piece of iron or lead he found beside the trail or at an old campsite. He knew he had come to the right place, at least for Chico. Jehrico would be a piece of home for him. His own intuitions had been right so far.
Jehrico, wide-eyed, a huge grin coming with the wide eyes, exclaimed, “Ho, ahora, es este un nuevo recaudador mexicano de bienes viejos o dañados para guardar, esto pequeño uno con ojos oscuros? This, of course, Chico understood as, “Ho, now, is this a new Mexican collector of old or damaged goods for saving, this little one with dark eyes?” It was said in Mexican undoubtedly as a welcome to Chico, and Chico and Lew Osgood were quickly aware of it.
Chico’s dark eyes had also made a transformation, and he replied, as he put his hand out to shake hands with Jehrico, “I speak good Inglés o norteamericano, too.”
Jehrico was delighted and shook Chico’s hand vigorously, and nodded at Osgood and the sheriff and promised, “If the boy has no mother and father, then I will be a father for him, but wait until he meets with Lupalazo, he will know he’s come home, all the way home. She comes right behind me. I had to rush Joe Dogtail here.”
The doctor, from his kneeling place in the street where he’d tended the wounded Indian, said, “He’s going to be okay, Jehrico. I can fix him up for you. Some fellows give a hand to get him to my office.”
The first two people to move to the side of Joe Dogtail were Chico and Jehrico, Chico saying in good English, “This is our first time saving something for good.”
There was an inflection in Chico’s words that only Jehrico understood. His nod was a solid affirmative to Chico Vestra’s first salvage job in the company of Jehrico Taxico.
By that time, Osgood and Sheriff Stocker were heading out of town, the pair raising dust as they rode, and a sheepish feeling seemed to come over those folks gathered in the street of Bola City, the way a single person shows personal embarrassment at having not stepped up when it counted.
Chico took a look and saw the pair disappear around a turn. He didn’t know if he’d ever see Lew Osgood again.
Stocker and Osgood looked around the site and found nothing that Jehrico had not told them about; all was as he had described … the dead driver and shotgun rider, the dead horses, the two dead passengers whose personal minor valuables were still in their possession. But it was apparent each man had been searched; shirts and vests had been ripped open and marks where their money belts were pulled forcibly from their bodies, the marks of the force visible.
“Killed for something the holdup men were aware of,” Stocker said, shaking his head in absolute question.
The livery man, Henry Tartan, came with a wagon and a team for the coach in tow. Only a young boy of 14 or so was with him, to be the second driver.
Osgood said to Stocker, “What’s going on in Bola City, Sheriff? Am I really seeing a message being sent by the people? Is there something I should know, now that I’m in the ranks with you, so to speak?”
The sheriff eyed Osgood’s stance, his wide shoulders, his hard-set chin, and had already measured his agility in the saddle. He found assurance and loyalty in the man, on which he was prompted to reply, “There sure is, Lew, but it’s all hidden. No one’s come to me or said anything openly, but there’s a big shadow hanging over the whole area and it’s has to be from one source. And I suspect that bodily threats have been made to keep things quiet. I have no idea. We have some big men in the area, hungry men, but nothing I know has been declared.”
Osgood wanted in, and made a declaration. “I’d be a good, quiet observer once we get back to town, once I’m sure that Chico’s been taken care of, accepted by Jehrico. Despite the boy’s abilities, he’s going to need a father, a mother, a family.”
“Well,” the sheriff offered, “He’s got the best in Jehrico and Lupalazo, that’s his wife. Jehrico traded with an Indian for her when she was tied on a horse and got the horse with the deal. Great story.” He chuckled loudly and added, “No doubts at all by me on the boy with them. And I accept your offer to help in any way. It’s needed. When we get the team and the coach started back, we’ll go check that brush and trees up there where Joe Dogtail said someone was hiding during the attempted holdup.”
In due time, the bodies were all placed in the wagon, the dead horses pulled off the trail and left for carrion eaters, and the two vehicles headed back to Bola City, driven by Henry Tartan and the youngster who came with him.
At the suspected hiding site, where Joe Dogtail said two men were hiding during the holdup, Stocker found nothing out of the ordinary in his search … no tell-tale signs that would give him any kind of a lead … no cigar butts, no trash of any kind, but a smooth place where perhaps two men might have sat on a poncho or saddle blanket playing cards while waiting for the stagecoach.
“Pretty cool, they were, if they were playing cards,” Stocker said, and Osgood got a small chuckle from the sheriff when he said, “And no discards visible either … but … “ and Osgood was looking at the ground where the horses had been tied off. He pointed to one spot on the ground bare of grass and a hoof print was clearly visible.
“Look here, Chuck. See this shoe print. I’ve seen that before. See how that shoe has heel and toe caulks on it. That’s special made.”
“I’ve seen a few like that,” Stocker said. “Why’s it so special to you?”
Osgood shrugged his shoulders and said, “Maybe nothing, but when Chico and I were coming down this way, just to find Jehrico if we could, and one night when the rain was in the air, we found a line camp up above Bola City, north of here, near the foot of a tall hill. It’s been used often enough from the things we found there, and that hoof print was fresh in the ground at the hitch rail. That was two days ago. I don’t call that a coincidence. Not this close. Not from someone who’s looking to stay hidden for a short time, at a place which is damned near here?
Is that worth a look?”
“Sure is, Lew. Let’s go see.”
When they spotted the line camp from a slight rise, Stocker said, “I know who owns this place, Charlie Evers of the Triple E spread. Edson, Evers and Edgerley, and Edson and Edgerley both bushwhacked in the last two years …”
“Leaving Evers as the lone owner?” Osgood said, as though it was not a question at all.
“Right you are,” the sheriff said. “Let’s see what’s around. We might find something to follow up on.”
Back in Bola City, for two full days that Lew Osgood and the sheriff were off on their search, Chico sat in front of Hagen’s Saloon, his eyes looking at the trail into town. Jehrico could not persuade him to move at all. Dawn to dusk he sat there, and Jehrico and the whole town were amazed at the boy’s loyalty to a man whom was not his father.
On the third day, when shadows first began to lean into town, Chico rose from his appointed place. People who were out and about, all knowing about the boy, spun around to look at the trail into town.
There came two riders, and Chico rushed toward them.
Word passed through Bola City as fast as a hot rumor.
In the saloon the crowd began to buzz, but no one rushed to greet the sheriff and Chico’s pal.
In one corner, at a crowded table, Charlie Evers sat with men in his employ. Some of them were known as bullies, but little had been said about them, at least openly.
One bystander, who had seen the arrival and Chico’s quick rush to his pal, came into the saloon and said to bartender Bobby bell, not a thing about Chico, but about the actions of the sheriff and the new gent. “Chuck’s out there with the kid’s friend and they’re looking at the shoes on all the horses on the hitch rails along the boardwalk. Even did the mortuary and the general store. Didn’t skip a horse in the whole bunch.”
Jehrico had come down from the room he had taken for a week, and heard the announcement made to Bell as if it was meant for the whole of Bola City. And with his knack of seeing into things, all around things, what things did or meant, he said, apparently also to all of Bola City, “Sounds to me like the Sheriff and Mr. Osgood have found somethin’ ‘bout them murders out there and are lookin’ for lost parts to go with it, and lookin’ right here in Bola City, of all places.”
The words of the Mexican junk collector, part owner of the Jehrico and Molly’s Emporium of Cleaning and J&M’s Emporium and Dance Hall, founder of townships, were as good and as solid as any piece of junk he had brought to life or to a new life.
And Charlie Evers was suddenly hit by a furious bolt of thought that the sheriff had a lead on his actions, not only for the past few days, but for a long time prior to that. His nerves began to tumble like they were in a shake-box the Indians made for their children. All that came to him was the prophetic voice of his wife who kept saying to him, “Charlie, It’s not right. You can’t make it right. It’ll never be right.” He also remembered his father saying, “She’ll have the last word on you, Charlie, so you better watch out.”
After silence from the street, with no more announcements, including Jehrico, Sheriff Chuck Stocker and Lew Osgood entered Hagen’s Saloon, with Stocker looking back over his shoulder at something he might have forgotten, or something he was trying to remember. While he approached the bar, Osgood slowly, like a shadow, slid to the other side of the saloon. Jehrico saw the movements of both men, and spotted Chico at the door. He motioned, subtly, to Chico to stay outside the saloon.
The sheriff, as casually as he could, said, “Who owns the gray at the far end of the hitch rail?”
In the middle of the room, a man stood up and said, “That’s my horse, Sheriff, if he’s got a black saddle and no saddlebag on. Is she okay? Anything happen to her? She’s been good to me.”
Stocker said, “Nothing, Luke, just wondered about her. Nice animal.” And he almost spit out the next question, “Who belongs to the paint at the other end, wearing four snow socks?”
“That’s mine, Chuck, and there’s nothing wrong with him and he ain’t missing me too much, is he?” A tall man, lean as a matchstick, stood beside his table, cards spread on the table, a pot worth two Saturdays sitting in the middle of it, and the drinks all gone bone dry with the betting.
“I think his axle’s broke,” the sheriff said, and the whole room had a great laugh, the ease coming swiftly after, the way a cake is smothered with sweetness in a baker’s hand.
Jehrico, still on the stairs, knowing Chico was still outside, out of the most immediate danger, nodded slowly, as if he had seen the sign of one of the old folks from the southern mountains, one of the shamans paying respects to the one god of the mountains, and knew the sheriff was setting the table for a possible visitor. He held his smile back.
Stocker, not done with his questions, and with Osgood situated at the far end of the room in a corner with unobstructed view in all directions, said, in a jaunty kind of voice, “And who owns that lumbago-stricken, arthritic-looking specimen of horseflesh with the ears of a clown in the suit of a palomino just outside the front door?”
It might have appeared that all of Bola City had needed that laugh, but more folks than Osgood and Jehrico were aware of the sheriff’s maneuverings.
Evers, of course, leaped up and yelled out in a frantic glee, for apparently the sheriff had not found out a thing about his exploits, his wife and father back in the mysteries of ignorance, “Hell, Chuck, everybody knows that’s my Cyclone, best hunk of horseflesh this side of the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Ohio all rolled into one pond.” He felt loose and free and away from suspicion. Far away. The sheriff was a dolt.
“And I bet he wears them special shoes you’re always talking about,” Stocker said. It was almost a question, and Jehrico could have easily twisted it that way.
But Evers leaped into the steel trap, “Wouldn’t let that critter wear anything else, Chuck, and Hervey burns them up special for me, just the way me and Cyclone like ’em,” and even as the words left his mouth, he was sorry he had said them. He could not bring them back.
It all flashed across his mind, the whole reality of the scene just acted out for him alone of all the people sitting in Hagen’s Saloon at the time. He reached for his gun, had it halfway out, and Lew Osgood, crack shot, knocked the gun out of his hand.
It was all over. Evers was convicted of murder, as were two more members of his gang; Lew Osgood had made a contribution to the folks of Bola City, not that he thought a helluva lot of them; Jehrico and Chico, both in new comfort zones, and knowing new destinies, went out to meet Lupalazo as she approached Bola City with a wagon train; and Chuck Stocker bought the Triple E spread from Charlie Evers’ widow (after Charlie was hung) and one day down the road he married her for good.
And Chico Vestra promised Jehrico that he’d pick the territory clean, right down to its bones before he was through, all the while knowing that Lupalazo had the softest hands he’d ever known and that she made the best enchiladas he’d never had before.
Life smelled good for him, for a change.