Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
From the top of the ravine wall, in a remote canyon of the Drago Mountains, Jehrico Taxico spotted an old wagon on the canyon floor, hundreds of feet below him. It was hidden from any lower view by a few trees and brush and a huge chunk of palisade wall that had fallen long ago like a dish on its edge. He judged that the wagon had not fallen from the high escarpment because it looked to be still in one piece. Probably its driver and occupants had sought safety by hiding in that place, he thought, only to get caught by whatever they were hiding from, or yielded at length to animals or nature getting as cruel as it could. No survivors lurked in the scene, or any horse or mule or ox that had hauled the wagon to this point. Only the long shafts for a single animal hitch appeared solid still sitting at an angle on the ground. A fallen rock had crushed one of the rear wheels. There were no other traces at all. And not a bone to be seen.
He could not tell how long it’d been there, but the wagon was now, without any doubt, his bounty, his possession. Perhaps, he thought, some good luck was coming his way. Lots of folks in Bola City looked on him with a bit of disdain, some of them calling him shiftless and worse, mostly because he would not kowtow to the demands of harsh bosses who treated him meanly simply because of his name. He would not work very long for such men. There were times he’d quit after mere hours because “I ain’t putting Mildred through that sort of treatment without getting her fair share of feed.” Even the part-time minister, butting into a morning church gathering, said, “Why, Jehrico’s name is just a trade off with the Good Book, daring to match it up with a foreign name. That’s near blasphemy from where I sit.” He got up on his high and mighty horse and added, ‘A good lesson is not too good for him every now and then.” Some people in Bola City looked differently at the good minister after he said that mouthful.
In that high morning of discovery, the skies bluer than ever, random clouds throwing shadows into the canyon on top of other shadows, Jehrico Taxico rode down off the edge of the plateau on a narrow ledge. At the back of his mind he cradled two thoughts, that Mildred his mule was as sure-footed as any animal ever known (“she had better be” came up a third thought on its own) and the ancient people who had carved this path along the edge of the cliff must have spent whole lives working on it. He couldn’t imagine how many of them might have fallen over the edge while doing their work or coming and going. Their days, obviously, had to be long and arduous, and filled with immediate danger.
With those thoughts the ancient people took over his mind, which said, “Mildred hasn’t let me down yet in our long journeys.” Jehrico whacked her on the neck, knowing it was a love tap accepted by the mule. She made a funny noise for that acceptance. She had better accept, for the pair of them was a long-distance odor to anybody they met on the trail.
“J&M ain’t goin’ to surprise anybody,” Collie Sizemore once said in Hagen’s Saloon. “I smelt the pair of ‘em long before they was near enough to hear.” Collie, like Jehrico, was a fixture out and about Bola City. Where Jehrico’s claim was sometimes in dispute, like some cowboys with bad smellers ‘cause they were disturbing on their own account, Collie’s distinctive claim was the reduction in identification of things, as if he wanted to be spared of too much speech. A shot and a beer became “an S&B” and Tally Rand, saloon owner and his woman Laverne, became simply T&L, and from that initial declaration he nevermore spoke of, to, or about them as singular entities, but as T&L, the one and only T&L, the pair of them, the barsome twosome, the great salooners. A stranger, in town even for a few days, would find his head spinning on his shoulders trying to divine what Collie was saying, for in one breath of conversation he might hear about J&M and T&L and S&B and J&R and Q&A and L&D, while the other listeners nodded, and M&M, which eventually meant Me and Mine, Collie and his family, out on the M&M spread south of town. He had odd mouthfuls of the King’s English, as one patron of the saloon, passing through, was heard to utter as he climbed back on the stagecoach moving further west.
So, on this day of a major event coming to Bola City, there is M&M talking in his way out front of T&L’s place of wetness and watering and J&M going behind the huge rock slab once fallen endwise off the face of the canyon wall. The first thing Jehrico noted was that usual leather traces had disappeared. He believed them to be either taken away or eaten up by the laws of nature. “Look at that, Mildred, ain’t a good piece of leather left.” He did not see any human skeletons or bones on the ground or in the wagon’s front seat and there were no weapons, no ammo of any kind, no tools. “They done got took away, Mildred, that’s for sure.” He saw no trunk remnants or any clothing usually carried by people moving west. Thieves of some order or other had executed their claims.
“Hey, Mildred, take a peek at that natty piece of canvas flopping atop somethin’ large in the back of the wagon.” Jehrico thought the little flutter of canvas to be from a breeze he had not felt. “Best not take no chances.” He drew his rifle from the scabbard and held it steady as Mildred walked closer to the wagon. “It sure used to be green, Mildred, that canvas, but it’s gone brown and black streaks now and hardly no patch of green at all.” But it did not move again. When Jehrico pulled on it, it came apart in long thin pieces, the way frayed silk finds its end. He harrumphed and said, “Imagine what them bones is like right about now.”
To his eternal surprise, he admitted later all down the line, “That old, torn canvas was coverin’ an iron bathtub, a real iron one, with claw legs for its four feet like it could walk away on you if it had a mind to. Two people could fit in the dang thing at one time, it was so big. Ain’t that a pretty picture for thinkin’ about? I seen pictures of such tubs and knowed immediately that there ain’t no other tub like it in all of Bola City, or in the whole of the territory. I never had me a bath in anythin’ of the sort: the river, every once a blue moon, as old Crowley said, was good enough if a woman teetered herself on the bosom of the horizon, being as what hope is.“
The cowpoke Crowley had spoken likewise for Jehrico Taxico, whether he knew it or not.
Jehrico Taxico, as slow in his thinking as Mildred his mule in obeying the strap, began to think how he could best utilize his new found treasure: a sole, unique, one and only, bathtub for all of man.. with appropriate dues paid for its use. He wondered aloud where in Bola City it could be best used. “Sure enough, Tally Rand would offer a goodly sum for its purchase, or Scales at the other end of the street. But I’m thinkin’ real hard here that a separate place would be best, could get more users, make more money.” His mind wandered through all the citizens of Bola City who could backbone a new enterprise. At length, after close measurements and other judgments, Jehrico Taxico informed Mildred, “Molly Yarbrough at the livery’s the one most promisin’, and the most honorable. Though tough old Barnaby Fremont does all the heavy work and fronts the livery from dawn to dusk, it’s Molly Yarbrough who holds the purse strings close to her bosom.”
“But, Mildred,” he added, as he looked at the tub again, “we got to get the damn thing to the livery.” He set to work.
The shafts were apparently still in decent shape, and when he took them apart he pictured them closed on Mildred. With a half day’s work, he had the front wheels and axle free from the wagon and the shafts ready to mount. Not without a struggle, he managed to get the bathtub off the wagon and lowered down onto the axle. He had to balance it and tie it down, with the claw feet in the air and rope lashed around them.
As he and Mildred headed back toward Bola City, a squeak of humor hit Jehrico Taxico right where it’s funniest. It felt good, almost as if his whole body regaled with the feeling, and he could see the good townsfolk of the place lined up all along the street and pointing at him, making the silly noises they sometimes do. “They can laugh all they want, Mildred, but we got the last laugh this time.” He looked over his shoulder and the tub sat as even as it could be, balanced over the heart of the axle, the single line of rope as taut as it was at the beginning of their ride.
“When we decide we’re ready to go to St. Louis, Mildred, with all the money we’re gonna make, we’ll be used to all the hullabaloo. Even old Collie’s got to fathom somethin’ new outta this, like JTM or JMT or TMJ or MTJ or however he’ll have me and you and this here tub of ours. Yes, siree, Mildred, we is now a triple measure of names and bound for St. Louis in a few years.”
It was, in fact, Collie Sizemore who first spotted them coming into town and he rushed into Hagen’s Saloon and yelled out, “T&L, you gotta come see what this is paradin’ into town, if you want to believe it. It’s J&M and somethin’ I never seen before, all scrunched up on half a wagon and tied off like the damnedest windstorm’s a comin’ cross the Big Divide. Looks like a boat, it does, all tied up with rope and plunked down on wheels, and Mildred hustlin’ along like she allus does. Just J&M and this thing I ain’t got a name for.”
Tally, in a second, knew what the trophy catch was that Taxico was parading into town. People were coming fast along the street, making noise, exclaiming on high that a mystery was upon them, and Scales was in the lead.
“Jehrico,” Tally said, “if that thing is yours by found, I’ll buy it from you, fair and square. You name a goodly price and we can discuss it over a few pints a beer.”
Scales cut him off at the pass. “Forget him, Jehrico, I’ll give you top dollar for it, and you get first and last wash of the day any day of the week you choose, and that’s my given promise.”
“You neither one spoke any money yet, not for real. I got lookin’ in other places to do.” Jehrico let Mildred drink from the water trough. The crowd was bigger, the word already spreading wide.
Most honorable Molly Yarbrough, by now standing front and center of the gathering, smiled at Tally first and then at Scales, knowing which way their roads took them. She said, loud enough for everybody to hear, “Jehrico, I won’t buy it from you, but I’ll rent it, for out back of the livery where my two rooms are, and you get free use of it every day if you so choose. You get half of what comes in and washes off, trail dust and all, as what can fit it. We can be pards in a new business and I’m thinkin’ now of a name to go with it.”
She saw Tally and Scales trying to measure things. “Like a big sign that says Jehrico and Molly’s Emporium of Cleansing,” and she smiled as she saw Jehrico Taxico nod his approval and Collie Sizemore, his mouth set tight and his head tipped in thought, already going to work on a short-cut.