Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
When Jehrico’s wolf pup bit the sheriff, on his gun hand, and on his trigger finger to boot, things went from bad to worse. To begin with, Ruben Tarpon was a new sheriff with a fast gun and was trying his best to make his name as good as his gun and do a good job for the folks of Bola City. He was also checking out the pup as a curiosity, some folks telling him about it locked in a cage behind the livery. The sheriff had heard about Jehrico’s stunts and ventures into the business side of Bola City, like his hauling in the first iron bath tub to serve the hygienic needs of Bola City’s male population. Jehrico, Tarpon figured, was gifted with accidental entrances into things that made him money, and him being nothing more than a collector of odd things found in his travels, often just junk. Jehrico, however, knew firsthand the desert, older Indian sites and dwelling areas, ghost towns, closed-down mines, caverns and caves and canyons, and the community trash deposits for a hundred miles around that he reveled exploring in.
None of that stopped the bite when the sheriff put his hand too close to the pup.
And the bitten finger had a far-reaching effect on Bola City’s relationships between the law, local merchants and the bank.
The sheriff, an elected official, said aloud to some confederates, “This is all the fault of that damned junk collector, him and his pup.” Though he was a stalwart among the men and a favorite of the women with his ruggedly handsome looks, he was aware of his status at all times, knowing it all came with the territory of the badge, the turn of a key to a jail cell, and the hangman’s noose when it counted.
It all had begun so simply for Jehrico in his newest venture into the world of collecting things. He came up with the pup at the back end of a cave in the mountains, born to snarl it appeared, but cute as a doll.
“Look for the dog in him, Jehrico. He’s as much dog as anythin’.” Jehrico’s pal Joe Brewster was laying it on the line about Jehrico’s new wolf pup he’d brought to Brewster to get his view on having one for a pet. Brewster knew animals, once having lived in the hills around the Strict Elsie settlement on the Guila River for at least ten years before he walked out of the hills one day and came to town of Strict Elsie, leaving all the genuine silence behind him.
He’d spotted Jehrico as soon as he cleared the pass at the high point above Strict Elsie, some vultures riding the thermals hundreds of feet above him, their wings, even that far, as wide as the back side of a pair of oxen in the traces. It was not until Jehrico came within fifty yards that Brewster knew he was carrying a bundle of fur. The way he carried it told Brewster the fur was alive and, of course, had to be a young one.
“Watcha got there, Jehrico? It’s near alive far as I kin see. It ain’t peccary and it ain’t cow, so I’d guess it’s gotta be bear or wolf, and if you say it’s wolf, make sure you handle it like a dog. Like I said, it’s much dog as anythin’.”
He shook his head and said, “If you bring it down into Bola City, be ready to get some sand in your grits; them folks down there don’t like anythin’ that even smells wolf. So best tell ‘em up front it’s a dog you found with the momma dead. Them big male wolves have been nosin’ into the wind for a hundred years now. It travels on the breeze, in the wind, and if they find it like we do comin’ in from a month in the desert, knowin’ girl on the wind from a hundred miles away, they’d get mean at things plumb near forgot.”
Jehrico, all smiles, still holding the pup like he was a toy, ignoring the threats of real life, said, “What’ll I call him, Joe? Got any special names you ain’t used up yet? I favor south names, if you know what I mean.”
Brewster, looking at the vultures still at games, said, “How about Bruto, him bein’ so mean and all? Bruto’s good name for that critter just waitin’ to bite your finger off given a chance he come of age.” The two old pals laughed long and loud as they shared the bundle of fur, with white teeth in the middle of the ball.
“You keep to mind them teeth, Jehrico, ‘cause they come to growin’ easy as the ground shakin’ when the mountain moves. Bruto get set to use them there’s no kiddin’ around on him. Them kind ain’t born to chew, I should tell you. They was plain born to rip things apart, one part from another, ‘specially they any meat in between or settin’ on them parts.”
The two friends of the animal world set about to make a cage for Bruto, after Jehrico poured some water from his canteen on the pup and said, “I bless you and give you the name Bruto. Wear it where you will, but for now in this here cage we got made, me and Joe. It’s just to keep you from the dogs in town, and there’s lots of them nosin’ around all the time.”
Brewster added a bit more advice. “You best let Bruto smell you every time you feed him, Jehrico. Let him get your smell down good in his belly ‘cause it might save a finger or a hand later he come of real age and them teeth do the real thing.”
Jehrico had a rig behind his mule that he could tote the cage in, and that’s how they entered Bola City, Jehrico on his mule and the wolf pup in his cage.
For starters, the sheriff was practically out of commission, and most people around knew it, including some gang members sitting in a cabin at the back end of Snake Canyon off in the mountain range, and knowing the hand of the law was bandaged to a fare-thee-well.
“He ain’t so good a shot anymore,” Dutch the German said, talking to his small gang of robbers, all rested after their last robbery, and just about all the money spent. “He ain’t going to get the jump on us, his hand like it is. That damned wolf pup did us a great big favor. Bola City’s next for us, boys, and that bank over there. We ought to give a toast to that scrounger that brought home a wolf pup, thinking he was going to fool people making them think it was a lost puppy dog his momma run off or killed.”
One member of the gang, No-Foolin’ Toulin, at the back end of the cabin, whittling on a stick, said, “We gotta have a better plan than last time, Dutch. We was lucky on that one.” He rolled his eyes and flashed his hands in the air, both moves for base punctuation.
“Whatta ya mean ‘we was lucky?’“ said Dutch. “We came out of there with a whole satchel of dough. So we lost Butchie. Well, he ain’t no big loss to us. You gotta admit he screwed up on the Timberfield job and I think he was asleep again this time. No way he shoulda taken one right in the face. Just wasn’t payin’ attention and somebody else coulda been dropped too, in case you ain’t thought of that yet.” He stressed his statement by pointing to each one in turn and saying, “You or you or you and even you. All of you coulda had the deep end of the tunnel all to hisself, if you really think about it.”
A small wave of mumbling ensued and Dutch the German knew none of the others would speak up; they were too scared, but Toulin came right back. “That stupid scavenger, that Jehrico lug, he ought to be part of us, way things happen with him. You heard about his bath tub and his pianer he brought back one time, like the whole world turned over on its backside for him. They say he smells like gold or silver up close and even gets a free bath once a week. Man like that could throw a whole passel of Rangers right off our trail, he give it a mind to do so.”
Dutch the German had a sudden idea, and he let it run around in his head before he spoke up about it. “What about this?” he said, leaning forward, looking them in the eye, drawing them in one by one. “We turn that wolf pup loose. Let him shake up a few folks, the whole town maybe, and while the pup raises hell of any kind, we rob the bank when they’re all messed up with the thing being loose, like maybe he’s gonna bite a kid or some old lady hangin’ up clothes on her line, or just layin’ around like nothin’ ever’s gonna happen, but the sheriff hisself is already punched out of action by a baby wolf.”
“He still keep that pup behind the livery, near the tub set-up?” No-Foolin’ Toulin obviously knew the answer to his own question. “Want I should take care of him, Dutch? I ain’t too queasy doin’ somethin’ like that.” His head came down into the circle where Dutch’s head had been, demanding attention, getting it, along with a share of responsibility and command. Smiling at Dutch, and then at the other gang members, he laid out a plan. “I figure I ought to feed him somethin’ good, what he likes, while he’s still in the cage. If he’s on the running line, loose as far as his leash lets him go, I’ll still feed him with that somethin’ goin’ to get his blood all lathered up inside, waitin’ to bite the hell out of anybody else comes near him. I learned a trick from an old Indian one time, about dropping a piece of meat in a special sauce, makes an animal go kinda crazy he eats it,”
“Sounds pretty smooth, No-Foolin’,” Dutch said. “He scare half the women in town to screamin’ and we got a walk-through at the bank, and Sheriff Tarpon ain’t gonna draw down on us no way, while all the men folk try to be heroes for their women and kids.”
It all went awry, of course, by the intervention of, not by Jehrico himself, but by his pal, the joker and animal man, Joe Brewster, who, during the darkest part of the night, extricated the wolf pup from the cage, put him in a box in the loft of the livery, and inserted a badger in its place. The badger was as mean as possible for one his size, and Brewster was just hoping to have some fun come morning.
He got all he was looking for.
In the forenoon of the day, a full night’s sleep behind him, Jehrico came to feed the pup and was surprised, but not amazed, to see an entirely different critter in the cage. Instinctively he knew that Brewster had been afoot in the night. He decided not to show any anxiety or any of his surprise, because he wanted to set off Brewster in his own way. The critter was a new one to Jehrico and he decided not to feed him, just to get back at his pal and omit what might be an exciting moment. He heard the wolf pup up in the livery and went to check on him and to feed him his morning ration.
Of course, the exciting moment came when an unsuspecting and usually morning-sleepy No-Foolin’ Toulin came to initiate his plan to feed the wolf pup and set him free to raise havoc all around Bola City. He did not pay much attention to the critter and when he opened the cage to toss in his “special food supply,” that all-out mean badger latched onto the ankle of his boot with a grip that was not about to loosen and sent No-Foolin’ Toulin in a mad, wild, screaming escapade all around the livery area. He wanted desperately to shoot the critter but he could not get his handgun free of his holster, falling knocked down repeatedly or getting knocked against a wall and further drawing out from his deepest insides the unholiest of screams.
Those screams swept across the morning of Bola City like a wild animal caught in a deadly snare, which did force the actions of an uncounted number of people within hearing range.
Jehrico thought it to be Brewster getting hung up in his own tomfoolery, Dutch the German and his gang thought it to be the outcome of the wolf pup on the loose, as promised by Toulin, and Sheriff Tarpon thought someone was being attacked by thugs or a wild thing inside the town limits.
Jehrico sat back in the loft laughing his head off, the wolf pup locked under a box with a heavy weight on top of it. Dutch the German and his gang rushed into the bank to rob it. Sheriff Ruben Tarpon grabbed a pistol in his left hand and fired a shot in the air, then fired another shot, in his attempt to scare off any wild critter or a thug on his rounds of doing nothing good, whatever was going on in his town.
When No-Foolin’ Toulin rolled out into the main street of Bola City, the badger let go of Toulin’s leg and rushed towards the bank in his attempt to escape. Some women screamed their holy terror. People on the wooden walk, which ran in front of the bank and the general store, rushed into the open doors of both establishments, spilling goods in the store and throwing the bank hold-up into absolute turmoil with every man in the place wielding a gun, some expecting to rob the bank and some expecting the wild critter to come right through the front door and were ready to shoot him.
Sheriff Tarpon ran into the street with the smoking pistol in his left hand and screaming all the while for his deputy to get on the job.
Jehrico stayed in the loft, the wolf pup under wraps, envisioning what pal Joe Brewster might be thinking at the time, all the screams and the gunfire and the general excitement gathering steam in the middle of town.
To his credit, pal Joe Brewster was on his horse outside of town heading back to Strict Elsie, hearing the gunshots, thinking that somebody in Bola City was taking shots at the badger out and about town, thinking of Jehrico looking for the wolf pup all the while, and he himself counting ahead to all the laughs they’d have next time him and Jehrico got together, away from Bola City, probably during one of Jehrico’s scavenger hunts.