Western Short Story
“That damned dog almost bit my leg off.” The cowpoke, Sledge Burke, noisy as his pals, and getting as drunk, swinging his arms around, was making excuses about a near fight with an old man beside the livery stable. He and his trail-hard pals, dust squeezing out where they walked and talked, were making a racket as they drank at Gee Buff’s Open Tavern. The three young herders were hardly 20 years a piece, made room for themselves with false noise and bluster, and were therefore extended some tolerance by older hands in the saloon, men who had grown the same way with the same sudden leaps of confidence, and the same paltry mistakes.
“I accidentally bumped into the old patch and he smelled like a herd of dead sheep, like a sheep bath. All I was doin’ was makin’ sure my mount got his due at the livery. I thought this old codger was goin’ to stink me up too, so I pushed him away and the dog, big as a small cow, came out of the dark like a shot. Got me right by the ankle, near tore my boot off. If I had my spurs in place I’d a kicked hell out of him, hound was big as a house.”
Taking a big swig of beer, the white suds of the header marking his lips like a clown, Burke said to the bartender, “Hey, Keep, who’s that old buck what’s got that big dog? The one that smells like sheep dip I swear. He live around here? What’s his brand?”
“Son, ‘f’I was you,” Gee Buff the barkeep said, “I’d steer damned well clear that old man and his dog, which ain’t no dog nohow you look at him. That one’s mostly wolf… by his bite, by his bark, by his howl when the moon falls into the open window at night or slips down to touch your crotch or your toes when you’re blanketed out there on the range. He’s got pedigrees that don’t need no countin’ and no matterin’ no way you look at it. Word is the old man, name is Josiah Weaverlake, found him scraggly as a bare bush up on Tuncon Pass a few years ago. Had busted a leg, he did. Had bad cuts or bites from some awed critter, and old Weaverlake fed him and nursed him, had him nights under his own blanket, and trained him to be a guard dog. He’s apt to be that herder’s best pal.” Buff dropped his head to forecast a stern warning to the young dude still swinging his arms like a cow’s tail at flies. He looked over his spectacles like a wise old man making points. “Be smarter than you ‘pear to be right now, son; stay away from old Weaverlake. He’s got more’n one a them dogs, I hear.”
“Oh, somethin’ will level the ground for them, that’s for sure,” the young cowboy Burke said, nodding at his pals, making the face of a know-it-all, the kind that wants to make you puke. “He better watch his manner the next time we pass by. I sure don’t like that sheep dip smell gettin’ on my duds.” When he brushed down on his vest and shirt, the dust fell away from him in a small puff of gray matter.
Buff, of course, knew where he was coming from. He had seen the likes of him on so many nights he had lost count. He continued his warning. “Take it from me, son, that ain’t the only dog, or wolf for that matter, Weaverlake’s got. Has a passel of hounds, all breed-mixed, up there where he keeps his animals. That big one latched on to your ankle’s got a few blood brothers mind Weaverlake’s critters while he’s about here on his needs.”
Buff could feel the thick signs of his words being ignored by the cowpoke still sloppy at the bar.
Across the dry road through the center of town, a few buildings down, Josiah Weaverlake was loading his small two-wheel wagon with supplies from the general store. He was wearing a dark, thick, short coat he had not taken off all day. Leather boots stood up to just below his knees. A scabbard sewn into one boot carried a small, sharp knife. His mule Skinny was waiting to get back to a patch of grass in the canyon where the herder’s sheep were kept penned by wire.
The storekeeper shook hands with the old man. “See you next time, Josiah. Use some of that soap you might get to see a woman some time.” He laughed and patted the old man on the back.
“Lost all that interest a ways back, Myron. The bow don’t string the fiddle much anymore.”
They both laughed deeply, with mutual acceptance of each other, and the night slipped its cover down on them. The mule Skinny started out the back way from town and Josiah Weaverlake was asleep before the wagon was barely out of town, heading up the incline to home. A rifle rested under his feet on the wagon bed. The large dog, unseen, by any eyes, moved ahead of them. His name was Caesar.
Burke and his pals started early the next day to get rid of the trail’s taste still hanging about them. Buff noted once in a while how they pushed their heads together and whispered. He suspected little good to come of such maneuvering, so he himself whispered to the sheriff about his suspicions.
The sheriff laughed lightly. “I ain’t ever worried about old Weaverlake being alone up there, Gee, ‘cause he ain’t alone. You and me know that. The young uns’ll get to know it too, one way or another, they want to find out.”
So it was, with young foolish bravado, and liquor of odd sorts fueling it, that the three cowpokes slipped out of town and headed up the road where Skinny the mule had sauntered home with his sleeping rider the night before. In an hour’s ride they were at the mouth of the canyon. They wanted to cut the wire and scatter the sheep into the hills. They wanted to laugh all the way back to the saloon. They wanted to get some more liquor before the night was over. One of them dismounted and approached the wire stands with a pair of wire cutters he had taken from his saddle bag. Their smell was in the air. The odor of oil was in the air from the wire cutters. The smell of their horses was in the air. Silence sat as still as a wet bush no longer thirsty.
The night was full of opposites.
Their horses felt it first, some intangible edge in the air, the night seeming to be alive with announcements of one sort or another. Burke at first ignored the snickers of his mount, the skittish feet prancing aimlessly, the reins coming taut in his hands, then he said, “Whoa, boy. Whoa. Easy now.” The horse moved sideways, shook his rider as if their heartbeats were no longer together.
None of the young cowpokes wanted what came at them.
There was no noise. No howl or cry. No warning growls deep as night itself.
The riderless horse saw nothing, but knew the sudden flight right between its legs, a dark unseen rush of an unknown species full of terror and threat. The horse bolted and was downhill in a rush. The cowpoke with the wire cutters dropped them with a clink on a rock and started after his horse. Burke, almost thrown from the saddle, raced after his pal’s mount. His other pal slipped a hand out and lifted his horseless pard onto his saddle and the pair of them also fled back toward town.
There followed after them, not wild critters but the noise of wild critters, barks and howls and cries from deep in the canyon and from the close-by hills where canine guards watched over the old man’s holdings. The critter sounds chased the errant cowboys all the way to town.
The next night Gee Buff’s Open Saloon, filled with customers, was noisy and raucous as usual. Burke and his two pals were standing at the far end of the bar, strangely quiet in the midst of the noise. Gee Buff and the sheriff were talking low at the other end, seeing now and then the looks coming back their way from the three young pards.
“Wonder what slowed them down to just breathin’?” the sheriff said. “Think we’ll ever know? Them one’s’ll never tell us. It’ll have to come from elsewhere.”
Gee Buff looked up as the door opened. Josiah Weaverlake, still in his heavy coat and tall boots with the knife sheath, walked into the saloon and right up to the bar. Silence, like the night before, sat on top of everybody in the room.
Josiah Weaverlake, in his thick voice as though it was full of the ages, said to the barkeep, “Pour me a beer, Gee, if you will.” Slowly, without any disdain in the movement, he placed the wire cutters down on the bar. “And give these back to whomsoever. I am not hiring anybody. I don’t need no more sheep men. Tell ‘em I got me enough sheep help.”
Every man in the room knew the message had been delivered, with authority.