Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
A hideous and frightening cry, jerking him upright from deep in the old mine that junk collector Jehrico Taxico had found in the back part of a most unpromising canyon, shrieked into his ears as though it was the voice of The Ghost of Guaymas. He suspected that it had followed him all the way from that once-sleepy town. One time he had stayed in that port city of Guaymas, Mexico where the sea meets the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range. He had, on many occasions, told his wife Lupalazo and dear friend Molly Yarbrough about the ghost, a woman who lost her child and cried and wailed so much that her husband threw her out of their home, at the heel of the mountain with the Pacific a favored sight.
One year to the day of the child’s death, in the middle of the night, a howling and shrieking began outside the home, a noise so fearsome the man hid in a back room of the house for most of the night. Of course, the man never saw anybody outside his home, but swore it was the voice of his ousted wife. On his best oath and honor, he swore it was her creating the ghastly and ghostly disturbance. It went on every night for two months, at which time, again in the middle of the night, the man, driven into the deepest fright, rushed screaming from the house and fell into a deep hole. From that hole in the earth, as deep as Hell itself might have allowed, on the same day every month, the parents of the dead child screamed at each other from the bowels of the earth, an argument that was never won and never finished.
The story frightened Lupalazo, aware of the gods and how their hands touched the hearts of men, but tickled Molly Yarbrough through and through, her ever with a zest for life and a good feeling about those around her, “no matter where the gods might leave their footprints or their echoes,” she’d say when asked.
And on this day of fright, as Jehrico crawled through tight spaces in an old mine that was long-deserted, and hearing several times the frightening screams he swore came from The Ghost of Guaymas still calling out her pain, heard another sound, a different sound, behind him, near the entrance to the mine.
Whirling around, fright still robust in his whole frame, Jehrico heard someone stumbling about in the mess of rocks and loose stones. He crept back toward the entrance and saw a man stumbling about, as though he was not used to the clutter underfoot, and who also appeared dazed.
“Hello,” Jehrico said, “can I give you a hand?” He put his hand out to assist the man or shake his hand.
“Oh, I didn’t know anybody was here,” the stranger said. “Do you have any water? I haven’t had a drink in two days. I had to shoot my horse when his leg was broken. He got the last of my water just before that.”
Taking care of the animal that took care of you was most important to Jehrico, and he found an immediate fondness for the man. He thought Mildred his mule would like such a man, too.
The stranger sat on a flat rock, in a stream of light, and Jehrico saw that he was a handsome fellow, though haggard looking, with bright golden hair, noble features, and was about 40 years old, at a guess. The clothes he wore were as ragged as possible and still wearable, including a dark shirt and pants, a soiled bandana about his neck, and a Stetson long time on the trail, worn and battered and punched with holes.
Jehrico swung the canteen off his shoulder and passed it to the man, who drank a short bit, and introduced himself. “I’m Ash Worthley, from East Chicago. I have no horse, two bullets left for my pistol, and I’m hungry enough to eat a bear raw.” He paused and added, “And I’m damned lonely for a nice female. I haven’t seen a woman in a few months, lost up in these hills looking for gold I thought was going to find me. That’s how I thought it was going to be, really, but I learned a lot by losing that dream.” He shook his head in his own disgust.
“I’m Jehrico Taxico from Bola City, only about 30 miles away. I have been in this old mine a dozen times and I just heard crazy sounds comin’ from in there, for the first time.” He pointed back to the interior of the mind. “Crazy sounds come from there, like the ghost from Guaymas in Mexico where I stayed one time a few years ago.”
Worthley managed a short, but happy laugh. “I know what that is, that sound. I found a hand-made fiddle yesterday with funny wires on it. It was on a shelf of rock covered with stone dust and I stood it up in one of the crevices in there. It catches the wind rising from the floor here and shooting up the insides of the mountain. I know the fiddle gives off weird sounds when the wind plays with it, almost human they are.” He smiled a half, weak smile, as though the other did not believe him.
Jehrico told Worthley about the screeching, howling ghost from that otherwise sweet and idyllic Mexican town tight between the ocean and the mountains.
Worthley nodded at the described differences, took a second drink from the canteen and handed it back to Jehrico, then, cocking his head, asked, “Is this your mine?”
“Yes,” said Jehrico. “I paid for the papers, so it’s my mine now, for doin’ what I can, makin’ it work for me and Lupalazo and our children and some day we can move to Mexico, to Guaymas right between the ocean and the mountains.”
“That’s a nice dream. I hope it happens for you. I’ll keep working on my dream.” As an aside, he said, “Have you found any gold here?”
“Not yet,” Jehrico said, and asked, “Is that fiddle all that you found? I did not see it when I looked for things. I always find things when I’m lookin’.”
“No,” Worthley said. “It looks just like one more end-of-the-road find for me.”
“Maybe we can find some treasures together,” Jehrico said, knowing that he liked the man Worthley from the start.
The two new friends spent the rest of that day, and several days following, talking, getting to really know each other beyond dreams and daring. They also spent some time checking out several areas of the mine, but did not find any gold.
“It looks kind of barren, Jehrico,” Worthley said at one point, “but I’ll hang in there with you on this project. From what you’ve brought back to Bola City on some of your other trips, I wouldn’t pass up a chance here for love or money. Not after hearing about the bathtub and the piano and the wolf pup and all that other ‘good stuff found.’”
They both laughed at that, but Jehrico laughed loudest, his mind filled with all kinds of ideas, which included one big surprise that just had to surface from this trip.
“Oh,” Jehrico offered in a kind of summation, “I have been found havin’ a keen eye for discarded property and a hand good for weighin’ the value of another’s man’s piece of junk.”
They laughed again, in hearty unison, as Jehrico said, “Yet I know now I have found a new friend instead of an old friend.”
At that very moment, in the midst of hearty laughter, a strange sound issued from an upper place in the mine, as though it was hanging over the heads of the two men. Terrible screamed reached for them as though carrying threats in them.
“That,” Worthley said, “is not the sound of the hand-made fiddle I placed upright in the deep crevice.”
Jehrico answered, “But it is the sound of the Ghost of Guaymas. What does it sound like to you, Ash?”
“Indeed, it does sound like a man and his wife in a bitter howling rage, as if they could kill each other, just as you described before. Oh, such a terrible existence for a couple. I hope never to wed, if such be the fate for me. Truly dreadful, the portent.”
Silence ensued, one man in terror of the dreadful fate, one man deeply in love and, as always, full of great surprises.
Thus it was, on this day of Jehrico’s return to Bola City, that Molly, from the balcony of her place built on the side of her livery where she could keep a good eye on Jehrico and Molly’s Emporium of Cleansing (J&M’s EOC) spied at a distance the figures of Jehrico and Mildred his mule, J&M as Collie Sizemore had dubbed them way back in the beginning, coming over the rise, coming from another search for discarded goods and remnants that were solely owned by the wide prairie or the rocky mountains and all waiting for salvage.
Molly was always pleased to see Jehrico coming home from his trips. He told the best stories and he was the best scrounger in the whole region around Bola City, and probably in all off the west for that matter. It always seemed that he had stayed away on each trip until he found something to bring back, a relic of sorts, of value to someone … and he would be the middle man in all the deals ... a most propitious position for a man up from Mexico only a few years earlier, down and out on his property but not his hopes.
Jehrico, Molly realized early on, was a survivor, a magician of sorts.
Now she noted that Mildred, the loyal mule, was humpbacked, even at this distance, meaning Jehrico had found “a new relic out there,” wherever he had been. Her mind raced back to all the dead goods he’d brought back for another shot at usefulness. Jehrico, it was said early on, wouldn’t waste a bent nail if it could be straightened and driven home into a piece of wood, like holding up the doctor’s shingle on his doorway or the sheriff’s sign on the front of the jail, or the long sign that read “Hagen’s Saloon” to any drover off a drive and wanting to wet his dusty throat.
Molly yelled down to three men enjoying the sun and suds in front of Hagen’s Saloon. “Tell Collie I saw Jehrico first this time, and he’s not coming home empty handed. He’s got Mildred humped on her backside. Looks like she’s loaded up with a new find.”
Then she yelled down to a boy passing below. “Scotty, go tell Lupalazo that Jehrico’s coming home.” She tossed a coin at the boy’s feet, which he picked up and ran down the center of Bola City. She thought the homecoming scene, minutes off, was worth every cent she’d give to announce, and then to enjoy. Jehrico and Lupalazo, in Molly’s estimation, were the best of all arguments for love and marriage and family … a long way from where she found herself, though it was a long, steady wish of hers to be caught up as they were in a solid relationship. She and Jehrico had several business ventures together, like the time he brought in an iron tub and they started their business with it, which was still flourishing, especially when a trail drive ended outside of town and the drovers clamored first for a drink, then for a bath, and then for old friends.
Molly saw, minutes later, Lupalazo, Jehrico’s wife and mother of three kids, running from their modest home on the slow incline south of town. Jehrico had built the cabin on his own, with goods he got free for the picking, all material found on his travels, each and every stick and each and every nail he’d brought home on Mildred’s back. A hundred times he had explained about his mule to anybody who was listening, “Mildred ain’t picky ‘bout what she totes home with me, long as it ain’t movin’ all the while.” They’d all get a laugh out of that, some of the listeners in Hagen’s Saloon picturing a rattler or a cougar pup moving around on their own back, never mind on Mildred’s back. Very few of them had mules, but they knew Jehrico loved Mildred like they loved their own horses.
Lupalazo was aware, in her own way of seeing things, of how Jehrico and Mildred were perceived in Bola City, and the sight of her man coming home thrilled her beyond far beyond her perception.
She waved one hand at her man and held their newest child in the other arm; the reception was the best kind Jehrico could know. Their kiss was long and sure and Mildred his mule stood apart in her observing way; as did Molly on her porch and Scotty after completing his errand and Collie Sizemore, rushing from Hagen’s Saloon and helloing Jehrico from afar. Sizemore’s life, too, had changed since Jehrico had come to Bola City, where both of them now stood out among its citizens, because of Jehrico’s finds and Collie’s Abracadabra of Abbreviations and Acronyms fitting much of Bola City. His basic mouthful, his normal introduction or Abbreviary, was known far and wide: “Abracadabra - Any Basic Remake among Collie’s Abbreviations/ Definitions about Bola’s Rack-Abones.”
The scene was a near repeat from other of Jehrico’s search for someone else’s junk.
“I found something that makes the most frightening noise I’ve ever heard. It’s ghostly.” He shook and shivered and hugged Lupalazo and kept saying, “I’m happy I’m home with you. I’m very happy.” He shivered all over, his eyes rolled in his head. “I have great surprises this time.” He hugged her again and kissed the child cradled in her arm. “Little one, I hope someday you know the joys that I have.”
“What Jehrico have piled up on Mildred?” Lupalazo finally said, her curiosity all geared up for the surprise find. Jehrico had made some great finds before and she wondered if this pile on Mildred, under a sheet of canvas, was another great prize that Jehrico could celebrate with.
She kissed him again and said, “I hope surprise look like your face again. It is happy. I am happy Jehrico is happy. We can kiss the sky anytime we meet, anytime we have child, anytime you come home from a far trip to somewhere.” Her look was into
Her head turned quickly when she noticed the canvas on Mildred’s back appeared to have moved slightly in place. Instantly she recalled what Jehrico had said in Hagen’s Saloon one day and which Molly had repeated for her: “Mildred ain’t picky ‘bout what she totes home with me, long as it ain’t movin’ all the while.”
His surprise, she suddenly knew, was going to be a good one, “like it is all good times,” she whispered to herself, loving endlessly the man who had freed her to become her own woman who loved life and gave life, to her children as well as to her man.
J&M, with the canvas wrap still in place, walked slowly toward the center of town and Hagen’s Saloon, where all things were discussed, all friends collected, all enemies named, all petty grievances put aside with a pint or two of cool beer, dry throats found a reason for the next day on the calendar, and love always had a chance to keep an edge in a person’s life, meaning hope is never completely shed or shorn.
Collie Sizemore, as he did every time Jehrico came back from his trips, yelled out to the all the customers in Hagen’s, “Here comes J&M all dolled up in canvas, heading for T&L’s for a S&B and one more great big shindig of a Q&A session on his new junk search. I heard he’s looking for TML, and for all you new folks, that’s just The Mother Lode the way it’s spelt in Collie’s book. Don’t know if he found it, but he’s got something hid from us on Mildred’s back and buried under canvas cover, which might become M’sCC before we get done with this day.”
One man in Hagen’s, just off the latest stage, was heard to say, “What the hell is he talkin’ about?” to which was heard, “Hang around a few more days and you’ll learn a whole new language.”
Seeing Molly up on the balcony, Jehrico hailed her and said, “Come on down, Molly. I got a new surprise. And this one’s all for you.”
The crowd was in a tizzy, drinks bubbling and frothing outside Hagen’s, people pointing and guessing, heads shaking, “He does it every time,” issuing from more than one mouth, and Molly Yarbrough, dashing from the livery door, wonder and joy shining in her eyes, her feet lighter than they had been in years. “He never misses,” she said to herself. “He never misses. And I can’t guess what it is. I couldn’t guess in a hundred years. God bless my Mexican hero!”
The junkman up from Mexico only a few years, Jehrico Taxico, stopped Mildred in front of the crowd in front of Hagen’s Saloon. Each and every man and woman that had been in the saloon stood there waiting to see “what he brung home this time.”
Anxiety and wonder filled the air, a cool edge to it tickling everyone, and happiness afloat in Bola City as fat as a goatskin balloon.
In front of all of them, Jehrico said, “You know how much I love my Lupalazo, the best thing ever I find on my search for good goods, rare treasures, some lost things come back again. And I have another favorite, another woman who comes second only to Lupalazo, my good partner in the Cleaning Emporium and The Emporium and Dance Hall where you folks like the piano. My best friend, Molly Yarbrough, who deserves the best she can get from anythin’ and everythin’, especially what I can bring to her from out there.”
Collie Sizemore thought he was going to get giddy before Jehrico finished what he was at, and even thought of rushing at Mildred and tearing the canvas wrap off her back. Then he had a rush of breath instead, for he swore he saw movement within the canvas wrap. He’d swear it forever. And he felt a sense of wonder sweep through him and race up the middle of town.
Molly Yarbrough, though, held her breath. Jehrico knew every one of her dreams, her hopes, her deep wishes. She said all that to herself; she wouldn’t share any of it with anyone but Jehrico.
It was just as Jehrico had planned it. From under cover of the canvas wrap, previously brought down to and out of the river, washed, cleaned, including every piece of fabric that touched the skin, as perfect a present or a prize he’d ever find for anyone, appeared the form that Collie had seen move, as Jehrico said, “For sweet Molly Yarbrough, this is the best thing I know for her dreams,” and he whipped off the canvas and said, “Molly, here’s Ash Worthley, the best man I know, and just for you. He knows all about you and is dyin’ to meet you.”
The smile on Jehrico’s face looked like the smile on the Man in the Moon.
The heart of Molly Yarbrough was thunderstruck. She didn’t know who to kiss first, Jehrico or the man called Ash Worthley. He was a handsome gent and must be someone special; Jehrico had said so, the miracle junk man.
That was enough for her, the long wait done.