Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Bola City had some names worthy of collateral of any kind; owners of businesses, a few partners, two lawmen, two saloon keepers and perhaps three barkeeps, and lovely women who made waves in many fashions. But Jehrico Taxico, from my point of view, was the leading citizen of this town. His escapades are often the meat of conversations whenever a new face comes into town and stands dumb-faced and open-mouthed as one of the old denizens spins off a story about Jehrico’s iron tub, or found piano or cock-eyed burro or his artful use of a wolf pup in a get-even scheme of “things Jehrico.” That’s especially rich when the talk gets to Lupalazo, who Jehrico up and married in a week of found, and became the happiest man in Bola City. Most of us say that it was Providence kicking in on Jehrico’s deal, his first shot at romance.
It was about a year later, after the great wedding, when Collie Sizemore, on a whim he later swore came down from On High, but some had doubts, made the first report on Jehrico’s plight, when a new, rich and powerful citizen of the west put his eye on Jehrico’s property – and kept it there.
Sizemore said, in that revelation, “Do you know Jehrico’s got an old mine or a cave he uses as a safe for lots of his real valuable stuff? It’s nowhere in this town, which should be apparent to any of us lookin’ on. It’s up there in them mountains, I’d guess,” shrugging his shoulders at the last admission. After all, he might say, “I really don’t know everythin’ there is to know, do I?” He made that face some people know the second they see it.
Collie Sizemore was somewhat of an expert in mental reservation though he had never heard the term used or explained. His round face set off with curly blond hair without any restraints on its growth or appearance were generally the first thing noticed about him. The locals, from way back in the beginning, had got to know him rather quickly from his use of language, and his short cuts to it, employed every so often. And most folks found him entertaining and bright as two ivory-handled pistols on a belt.
He was standing outside the general store, talking to a few of the townies, and he pointed off to the high peaks glistening in the sun. They all listened when Collie Sizemore spoke and especially when he talked about Jehrico Taxico, favored citizen of Bola City and their one and only junk collector supreme. No one would ever dare to usurp any of Jehrico’s ventures, least of all when it came to collecting junk and turning it, occasionally, into coin or gold or however you want to measure it. There should be no takers ever in that realm … but possession comes from want and avarice as much as any of the human traits, and it takes a special person to see the start of its run.
Some listeners thought the first person to see such an onset was Collie Sizemore, town abbreviator, short run specialist, maker of new names cut to size. “Things go with their names,” he often said. And it was Collie Sizemore at work again on this threat to Jehrico, this new man in town whose name was Lockland Righty who Sizemore instantly dubbed Lefty and then cut it to the quick as LR for Lefty Righty; like J&M was Jehrico and Mildred. He had no competition in the naming game, and went on record as saying he could be called “See-Ess” by those who knew him (because he liked to write it that way) and Mr. Sizeable by those who didn’t know him, if they knew anything about etiquette and western manners.
Sizemore paused in his revelation in front of the general store, and then came on again. “I ain’t got the faintest about where it is. I bet only Mildred his mule could lead anybody up there. If she ever cottoned to such a person and if Jehrico was apt to head elsewhere up country at the same time, J&M on the move but without Mildred.”
He nodded at the High Heavens at that point, with a grin that had pounced on his face like a mountain cat on a lost dogie, and added, “And he sure won’t let Lupalazo see where it is ‘cause he don’t want any danger getting’ near her. Nobody local can blame him for that.” His grin was as wide and as open as a man can make it without being overwhelmed by his own thoughts on a particularly attractive matter.
He took another talker’s breath, as though to settle himself down, and qualified that point. “Old Jehrico saw her that first time, the most beautiful woman in the world, and he set his heart on her. He says she’s better than anythin’ else he ever brought back to Bola City with him.”
They all nodded at that declaration, every one of them who had melted down at first sight of her, each one so disoriented they never really forgot it, and one gent admitting right off that he’d been “totally discombobulated at the first look into her eyes.”
The next evening, just at sundown, with a gorgeous purple glow slowly touching all of Bola City and Collie Sizemore having his first drink of the day at Hagen’s Saloon, he said to the barkeep and any close listeners who might be leaning his way, “You hear Jehrico’s buildin’ a new store smack against his dance hall?” Indeed that was news to many, and odd, because Jehrico usually took “old” and made it “new.”
He looked around for anyone to nod in answer to his question. A few patrons nodded, as though they were usually in the know about everything, like a small big-shot trying to be bigger in anybody’s eyes.
You had to know Collie Sizemore as much as you know Jehrico when it comes to Bola City, for one was the bugle of the other one, but you have to know the difference and good old Collie never did anything on his own except be the trumpet or bugle or clarion or herald for others, however you’ll have it. But to tell you the truth, I think Collie and Jehrico were kind of in-cahooters of the first rank.
Sizemore went on. “I don’t know when he left town these two times I’m talkin’ about, but each time, when he came back, Mildred is haulin’ a wagon-load of boxes and a couple of barrels and a few crates and such, and that wagon’s loaded to the canvas top, and all them boxes has got letterin’ on them but the only one I did see was a date. I mean, it looked like a date, a year – and it said in Jehrico’s hand, as black and as bold as could be, ‘1812.’ Does that mean anythin’ to anybody?”
You couldn’t even see the blink in his eye, or the wink of it.
He shifted his weight around, from one foot to the other, leaning his left side on the bar rail instead of his right side, and gave out more information. “Someone here in town tried to break into Jehrico’s new store for two nights and he set his dog on ‘em that some think is part wolf like before and that critter near tore him apart, so if you see a gent with ripped pants in the whole ass and he dares to come in here to get a drink at Hagen’s, then that poor bum’s probably the intended robber of some of them boxes of Jehrico’s, another of which I saw just said ‘1848’ on it, like that’s another year in his collection of junk, of which all ain’t junk, that piano of his and that tub of his being good proof of his junk collectin’ long before this.”
All that time that Collie Sizemore’s talking up a storm about Jehrico, Jehrico worked at his new store some way attached to his dance hall where the piano is he reclaimed from Welcome Fire out there in nowhere, all of Welcome Fire still going to dust, but not fast enough. Jehrico was able to get that old piano out of there. That was to the everlasting joy of Bola City, that piano, making all them sweet sounds old Heaven herself was waiting on and a whole lot of Sat’day night cowpokes.
Jehrico built the store like it was flat against the side of his dance hall, with a whole bunch of shelves in a back room with only a door to get in from the regular store part. You can see when it’s opened, that door, and the shelves were fuller by the load. That’s each load Jehrico brought down from “that wherever” Collie Sizemore talked a streak about --- boxes on top of boxes and crates and a few barrels of whatever, and every last one of them was marked up in Jehrico’s heavy lettering of numbers and letters and only things he can read and understand.
Lupalazo came in after his fourth load of boxes and such and hugged him like they both want to forget that night’s not caught up to them yet, but Jehrico had to button up his place with all the good stuff in it, like he had in that cave or mine up in the mountains.
“Are you almost done yet, Jehrico?” she said, knowing he isn’t but hoping he is, and she hugged him again and Jehrico, like he always does, was afraid to let go because he’s never known anyone like her and can’t always let go, even when he knows he has to let go and get on with the other business at hand, which was at that point getting prepared for the threat coming at him from Lefty Righty, or LR as Collie The Abbreviator said almost from the start.
“I’ll be done by sunset and shadow,” he said, still holding her. “I’ll hurry up the night fast as I can, and faster than that by wishing. Them shooting stars are miracle-like, but some ornery cuss is working to cheat us of our parts of things. It’s like Collie said we ought to do, ‘Head ‘em off at the pass.’”
“Is that like another game, like the one you played on that Indian when you got me free for free?” she said.
The laughter ran through Jehrico and Lupalazo and they hugged each other again and both wished they could shove early evening into late night, and as quick as one of the falling stars soon to climb and dive across the prairie.
By 8 o’clock Jehrico was done with his tasks, and he hitched Mildred to the side of the store, the side where he had put down some blankets for Lupalazo and him for the night, and locked the door and put out the lamps and that covering blanket was tossed off and neither could say who tossed that blanket off because they might have done it together.
Twice during the night, each of them taking turns being awake and listening for odd noises, Mildred kicked at the side of the building and woke the sleeping one up, and they listened for other sounds to come along. Jehrico knew someone had come along, maybe just to check.
Jehrico finally said to Lupalazo, “I guess them folks know when Mildred is here, so are we. They sure want to take a look in my storeroom out back, but the only way is right past us and they ought to know we ain’t sleeping too much being on the watch.”
Of course, that tickled Lupalazo some more and she hugged him some more and they waited for new sounds and heard none, and she said, “You think Mildred knows what we’re up to?” and the way she said it made them laugh and hug and love some more.
When the third mysterious sound came, Jehrico leaned over to the shotgun he had pointed out a slit upright in his wall and let go a round that blasted the night to pieces and they heard a couple of pair of boots scrambling for safety.
Lupalazo said, “Jehrico, are you really saying that they only want to get a look in the back room and not steal anything not belonging to them?”
“Oh,” he said, “they want to steal it all but in another way. We’ll see what they come up with.”
They went to sleep for good, and the night moved off and into the glow of morning, and they woke up with the birds and Mildred wanting to stretch herself.
It was LR himself, Lockland Righty, who finally came to the store and stuck his head in and said, “Is it safe to enter without getting shot at? I heard that you were taking shots at some of the populace last night. Is that a habit of yours, Mr. Taxico?”
LR was a handsome dude with a mustache thin as a knife blade sideways looking. He had a way of standing tall and rigid, his way of saying he was bigger than you, taller than you, more important than you, richer than you, and more hungry, apparently, than anybody local to Bola City. His reasons for arriving in Bola City were open to several points of discussion, but nobody in the town knew anything about the real facts; most of them always gambled on guess work to begin with anyway.
“Well,” Jehrico said, “it goes like this; Mildred out there is my insurance against intruders in the night, but I have a caution to take just in case.” His smile was entirely inoffensive and he looked as if the entrance of the rich man, smartly dressed in an eastern-type get-up, right to the streamlined ascot on his shirtfront and the bowler on his head, had no impact on him at all.
“How do you explain that to my satisfaction, Mr. Taxico.?” LR said, still up on his mighty legs and a full head over Jehrico and his eyes on Lupalazo all the while, at which she abruptly turned her back to him.
“Oh,” Jehrico mimed, in the way he had already said in his mind, as if he had practiced it to perfection, “I don’t consider taking care of your satisfaction. I just have to try to prevent Mildred from kicking someone to death who tries to steal away something of mine and she’s wide-awake aware of it for as long as the night is good clear through to Sundays, when it all counts.”
Oh, we all know that when the high and mighty get dug back at by those they think are lower than them, slips and errors are bound to happen, even to the smartest among us, even those gents who think they own the world around them, know all the ins and outs, and were born smarter than the whole gang put together, and LR said right out, his tongue falling by the wayside, “How would you know those two trying to break in wanted to steal something from you?”
”Those two?” Jehrico said, not making any funny faces, but closing his lips tighter than a good cinch on a new horse. “I didn’t say anything about two men. How’d you know there was two of ‘em?”
LR’s eyes did a little flip-over before he said, “Oh, I heard some folks say they saw two men running away right after that shotgun was fired.”
“Them witnesses know any of them men running?” Jehrico said it straight out and it made Lupalazo come right to the attention of big business of the west on the move. “And I’m supposing they don’t know who fired that very shotgun you are talking about.”
Lupalazo’s grin was a mile wider than she intended, but it made her awful proud of the man who freed her from slavery and brought her to plain old love.
LR jumped in with a change, in attitude and in topic of conversation. “I’d like to see some of the valuable pieces you have here in the store and make genuine offers to you on purchasing a few items. Would you escort me through the stock on hand?” A statement he clarified right away by saying, “Just to get fixed in my mind what types of curios and old pieces you have that might be worthy of purchase.”
That, to Jehrico, was a mouthful of mouthfuls, but it found a response in him. “I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Jehrico said. “I have an agent for a buyer coming in here in a day or two, and he’s got my word he’ll see everything I got. That includes some of the good stuff you might make real interesting offers on and I can’t do that without breaking my word, solemn as it is.”
Lupalazo was almost giggling at this point, seeing how her man was handling the pompous rich gent who seemed to want everything around.
LR said, “That is surely not a worthy business decision on your part, Mr. Taxico.”
Jehrico’s now worldly woman liked the way it sounded when LR said, “Mr. Taxico.” It tickled her fancy every which way and flat-out because now she was “Mrs. Taxico” from the word go and always would be, heaven amen.
LR, really looking for the moment like Lefty Righty, in a mix of feelings and realizations, stormed out of the store without saying any goodbyes, and not looking at Jehrico’s wife again.
He and his men, those who had come under his wing and the spread of his almighty dollar, met in the saloon that LR had purchased on his second day in Bola City, making it his headquarters and business center. He said to the half dozen men gathered, “Do any of you know anything about the contents in those containers that that Mex has in the back room of his store? Any one of you?” He was pointing to each one with his index finger like it was set tight on the trigger of a pistol.
One man said, “I saw him once, way back, comin’ from Whiskey Run, an old place all dust by now, and he had an old rifle must have been real junk ‘cause I ain’t ever seen it again. No place. Like it wasn’t bought and ain’t hung up someplace on a wall. Think most of his stuff’s like that and not like his piano or his tub and makin’ money quicker’n you can count?”
Another voice said, “Probably had it hid up there in that place in the mountains old Collie’s been doin’ all this talkin’about.”
Off in a corner one man offered his view on the situation. “He ain’t so dumb as some of us think, that Jehrico. Look at the junk he found that’s bringin’ in money and where does he keep it? It ain’t in the bank, and I know that for sure. Maybe he keeps his money in one of them boxes, or up in the mountains. Bank ain’t been robbed in three or four years, but he still don’t trust it. Old Boxcar’d like to see some of Jehrico’s money.” Boxcar Jones was a former rustler, rancher of sorts, and now banker, chief owner of Bola City Bank. Not all his past was known.
It might seem that Jehrico could smell the mouse before the mouse could smell him.
A few days of mystery followed, Jehrico and Lupalazo on watch much of the time and LR working his mind to a frazzle over a junk collector. It didn’t sit well with him and he made a decision that pressure made for him, not seeing the whole picture for such a high and mighty man.
He had asked one of his new men to hang around the store as much as he could, buying trinkets or whatnots, shooting the breeze with Jehrico, and trying to see into the backroom whenever the door was opened. More than once he spun about to see the back wall of the backroom and an open space between shelves where the angled boards looked exactly like the dancehall siding, and he never got a decent look at any particular box on the full shelves.
He told that to LR. “And the back wall of that backroom’s the same as the dancehall. The same angle. Hell, I’d swear some of the boards lean right down into that backroom in one swoop.”
LR made his pitch to Jehrico in a hurry. “Mr. Taxico, I will buy this store and everything in it, and all it’s connected to and I’ll give you $3000 for it.”
“Well,” said Jehrico, “that’s real generous of you. I’ll meet you at the sheriff’s office in the morning and sign the papers, which with the sheriff as a witness will make it real legal.”
That night Jehrico and Lupalazo, with the steady but enormous help of Mildred the mule, completed some long-laid plans of Jehrico the junk collector of Bola City on his store beside his dancehall, as he and his wife had further involved themselves in the big business of Bola City.
In the morning LR, Lefty Righty, Lockland Righty, signed along with Jehrico Taxico and pushed the paper toward the sheriff for his signature.
The sheriff, as they had come to say, signed on the dotted line, signifying that the document was legal. LR had made three copies, all official copies, and when the sheriff had signed all three copies as witness and gave one each to Jehrico Taxico and Lockland Righty, the three men stood up and shook hands.
LR then said, “Well, with this document I now own the store, the backroom storage place, the dancehall that is connected to the store, and the piano in it.” He summed it up in one word: “Everything.”
He turned to go and Jehrico said, “Sheriff, it don’t say that on that paper, does it? That he owns the dancehall too, and my piano?”
“No, it doesn’t say that, Jehrico. It says LR here bought the store and all in it and all it’s connected to.”
He looked quizzically at LR. “You have a question there, LR? You contestin’ what you just signed?”
LR, confounded by Jehrico’s stand, suddenly aware that the old junk collector was not as dumb as he thought, said, “It’s plain and simple, Sheriff. We go over there right now and see what’s attached to what and see what I own that’s joined together, which means, in any man’s language, what’s connected.”
The revelations sped through Bola City like a firestorm carried the news – and all was revealed in time:
In the night, with Mildred harnessed to a special rigging of rope and beam ties, the back room of the store had been pulled forward and was tight against the store proper, the way it had not really been, and was in no way connected to the dancehall, even though the back wall looked just like the dancehall wall that all folks thought was connected, as if Jehrico had used an existing wall as back wall for his store.
The second part of the revelation was that LR spent no more than half an hour in the back room opening boxes and crates and cartons that did not contain anything at all. All the boxes, with numbers and years and dates and unknown codes of sorts in big, black lettering, empty from top to bottom, were flung by LR wildly about the store.
Collie Sizemore would tell the story for years on end, and ending it with, “Lupalazo, the most beautiful woman I ever did see, hugged her husband junk collector, Jehrico Taxico, a 100 times and LR, Lefty Righty, Lockland Righty, left town that night and nobody’s ever seen him since the night he got hornswoggled by an ordinary junk collector who was anythin’ but ordinary.”