Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The voice came from the dark side of the street across from the Busted Leg Saloon, from deep in the shadows. “Hey, Sheriff, hey you, Kid Bullet, you ready to face a real grown-up man with them guns of yours? Come out and find the man daring you. Show your luck, Sheriff, your beginner’s luck.” A few pedestrians moving along the boardwalk, not seeing the source of the voice, but hearing it clearly in the soft night, ducked into any alley or open doorway they could find.
Trouble was afoot in town.
It was late in the evening in Winslow Hills, in the Wyoming Territory, on the verge of grassland and foothills beginning their long stretches. A middling breeze raised unseen dust on the road in and out of town, and a faint suggestion of a crescent moon hung its lower curve on the high brim of Mount Tobar. But it was too rare to throw much moonlight onto the town buried in shadow and dimness, more than half the places of business dark, and many lamps and candles blown out. A busy day getting ready to fall into deep sleep.
At 21, Travis Henry had become the sheriff in Winslow Hills, a small but likeable town in the territory. The election was a runaway, the one opponent being 50-year old Gus Lamond, who would never be able to handle the job, but he gave the sagest advice to the new lawman: “Don’t be bigger than who you are, so make the smallest target, the smallest shadow you can. Don’t give away your shadow, but stay in the shadows if possible, use them; it’ll make the job a lot easier to get done.”
Lamond also had the keenest eye in Winslow Hills, always alert to change, circumstance, and accompanying characters that kept the town in motion, but held most of what he saw to himself. Trust was generally hard to impose on people; he had found that out a long time in the learning.
In truth, there was a history already bound up in local talk about the new lawman. That history had been building for more than a decade. He had come into the job, because of those stories, for Travis Henry was called, now and forever, Kid Bullet, with the inevitable stories attached.
Before he was 12 years old, Travis Henry had three errant bullets enter his slim body, each wound treated quickly so they were not fatal. Twice the wild bullets had found him on the trail as his family headed west, the wagon train attacked on two occasions, and Travis caught in the thick of it both times. One round ended up in his left thigh, from which he evinced no limp whatsoever, and the other lodged superficially in his upper left arm and was dug out by a woman on the train who had prior experience in retrieving slugs from the human body. It was said in ensuing years that the youngster never cried out during the extraction.
The third bullet, and the one that kicked off the Kid Bullet story becoming a legend in jail cells, trail drives and night campfires, railroad gangs, saloons full to the brim on Saturday evenings, happened outside a bank in the Wyoming Territory when robbers began firing randomly to back up their demands. The gang was the Lucky Fursten Gang, which turned out to be not so lucky on that occasion, as they ended up in jail, but had their name forever linked with Travis Henry. One of the Fursten bullets smashed the bank window and found young Travis across the street helping to load supplies onto the family wagon. Travis was in front of his father, when the shot came through the bank window, as if he’d been set in place with his arms angled just so that bullet found his hand and saved his father. That, as some old timers relate, is how stories begin about heroes and all that goes with them.
For it was that bank incident that assured early in his adolescence the name Kid Bullet came upon him, like a mantle thrown over his shoulders, and him being bound to wear it.
In school every boy wished the nickname was his own; they enacted thrills and deeds with it, from play-acting to staged duels where the name leaped from young throats. And the girls, bright and talkative and dreaming themselves onward, and brimmed with shiny eyes, looked upon him with heavy favor; he was a good-looking, fair-haired youngster, no bigger than his classmates, no smarter in the classroom apparently, but equipped with a special confidence that came earlier than usual to boys his age.
The girls knew it before all others, tuned into the message being emitted. One of them, Clarissa Mayes, with a concentration all her own, set her eyes, and heart, on Travis Henry for the long haul. Her father was one of the large ranch owners in the area and a most stubborn man.
Old Lamond thought for a long while that Travis Henry’s nickname was a misnomer, but he saw Clarissa’s intentions from a distance and kept them in the back of his mind; women, from whatever way they develop, often have the most scrutable eye.
As it was, the accumulation of those three wayward shots also left Travis Henry with a false sense of invincibility … he would live forever, he believed, in the hands of the gods, however many there were, or what name was given them; and he carried no scars of those early wounds as evidence. Both statements carried with them the eventual tests on their validity, from glory-seekers, fast guns, and the inquisitive men used to the old saying, “Seeing is believing.”
Albert Henry, Travis’s’ proud father, came up a problem every time he opened his mouth, boasting about his son and how he’d change things around Winslow Hills and in the territory in general. Not for once did he consider his son lucky to be alive in hard times, never mind becoming the sheriff.
“That boy of mine will outlast any sheriff we’ve ever had, that’s for sure. It’s a good thing we didn’t elect that old man who sits his days out on his porch and in the sun. Some god up there favors my son. I don’t know how far up he is, but he’s reached down here and touched Travis like no boy’s been touched I know of. Been that way for years. Let me tell you about that time when we were beset by villains and thieves wanting all our goods on the wagon train.”
With a flair for the dramatic, with the storyteller’s ability to build up momentum and concern in his tales, he’d append to the story a dire pronouncement, “Probably our women too.” Such simple words extended the influence of each tale, and so those tales grew.
“Travis caught one that time and didn’t even cry. That I’ll swear to.” He looked overhead, at some level of the divinities, tapped his forefinger repetitively down on the bar in the most declarative manner, before he swallowed his next shot of whiskey in quick gulp.
Off in a corner, smiling softly to himself, Gus Lamond, long on heavy thought and the human puzzle, quick in his mind and slow on his two feet and with his two guns, found appreciation in the elder Henry’s presentation and storytelling.
Lamond realized the most important element in the whole story had never been mentioned by the man, or by any other townsfolk of Winslow Hills, that being the question of young Henry’s ability with either hand gun or rifle. The subject, seemingly innocent at the present time, had never come up, and Lamond assumed that failing arose from “the invincibility of the new sheriff and the hands of the gods on him.” Every citizen in the town had bandied the name about as if it was the word of the High and Mighty Himself.
The whole scenario had a ringing charm and hope in its company. But Lamond, half a century of life, experience and knowledge packed away in his saddle bag, figured some information lingered that he so far could only assume. He’d wait and see.
He’d keep his eye on young Henry, on the girl who obviously loved him, hoping, like many of the older set wanting to see the young breeds move on in life.
Travis Henry, it was apparent to Lamond, would have to outlive the badge, his father’s tall tales, his nickname, a nearly hidden love affair, and threats that are often born and appear in shadows for lawmen all over the west.
And so it was, as we go back to the beginning in the saloon the night of his election, still sipping a beer too warm for enjoyment, knowing a sense of elation moving in him, that the new sheriff heard his name called from outside, and the first openly-declared use of his nickname.
“Hey, Sheriff, hey you, Kid Bullet, you ready to face a real grown-up man with them guns of yours?”
Even before Henry recognized the voice, he assumed correctly it could only be fast gun, big-mouth cowpoke at times, Turkey Trainor, mean, ugly as two buzzards with one piece of meat, but only when he was drunk. Trainor had been, for a good spell of his 30-ish years, the Saturday Drunk, a nickname he enjoyed immensely on that weekend day, but hated otherwise. He was lucid enough this night to compare it with Kid Bullet and the difference sent him into a bad spin.
It was 7 of the evening, early for many men to slide up to the bar, but Henry knew that Trainor had been in town all day, that gruff and thickening voice reaching him several times in the late afternoon, from the livery, the general store as he purchased a supply of bullets, and from the saloon before the supper hour.
As much as an echo, Henry heard Gus Lamond’s words search him out of nowhere. “The shadows” of the message came as clear as a new lamp lit in a dark tunnel.
He yelled out to the road, “Hey, mister, I hear you. Wait’ll I finish my drink and I’ll be out pronto.”
He slipped behind the bar, went out a rear door, crossed behind several buildings, heard a horse nicker in the livery, and then another pick up the call, crossed the dusty road in dusky shadows, and came up behind the building where Trainor had secreted himself.
It had taken him no more than three minutes, and he was mere feet from Trainor who impatiently gave away his place of recess, standing behind two boxes of burlap bags waiting for pick-up. He made no assessment of the man’s selection of a stand or his intentions or the state of his character, other than he was drunk and most likely would live to regret any harm he caused.
Travis Henry, silent as a housebreaker, slipped in behind Trainor, slammed the handle of his own revolver on Trainor’s wrist, heard the man grunt with pain and his gun fall to the boardwalk, whipped his own gun up at Trainor’s chin, heard the thud, and shoved the collapsing drunk over the two boxes. Both guns were holstered, Trainor draped over his shoulder. With the potential bushwhacker thus arrested, Henry walked out of the deep shadows and went directly to the jail.
In the morning, under a bright sun, Henry gave his prisoner the first cup of hot coffee when he woke up.
With two gestures, one heavy and one light, he had gained a friend, and a slew of admiration from some of Winslow Hills’ citizens.
One such citizen was Clarissa Mayes, her love growing deeper by the day, who told the story over and over again in the presence of her parents, her kid brothers, and any ranch hand who listened. She was coming on 18 years of age, wanted marriage before anything else, and let her parents know it. And there was a continuing sense of beauty and desirability emerging about her person that made it a good possibility of marriage, maybe sooner than later.
Her father announced on several occasions, “Not without a churchman, whenever the time comes, and hopefully that will be well down the line from now. There’ll be a churchman or no wedding in this family.” He spoke with vaunted assurance, as there was no church in Winslow Hills, one not seen in the near future, and a rare visit by any man of the cloth.
She never told her father or mother that she had been seeing Travis Henry on occasion, though her mother sensed a change in her daughter. She too withheld her intuitive feeling.
When one of Clarissa Mayes’ younger friends was caught stealing from the general store, Henry covered for her, pulling the “taken” money from his own pocket. To cover the loss, he told her. Only Gus Lamond was aware of the exchange, and then Clarissa when her friend told her the story. Now, without doubt, Travis Henry had to become her husband. He was precious, kind, understanding, and entirely suitable for her; life would be a charm with him.
No more than a week later the Trainor incident, a shot rang out in the dawn flash. Henry, fitfully trying to sleep on a cot in the jail, and not having much luck, coffee not even on yet, leaped from a deep sleep, heard yelling, grabbed his hat and gun belt and ran toward the livery, where he thought the shot had come from.
Efram Hornbelt, the livery man, was yelling in the road. “I don’t know where he went. I don’t know who he is. I don’t think I ever saw him before, but he tried to steal one of my horses and I shot at him. I don’t know where he ducked out. He could have run out the back of the livery. He could still be in there. I don’t know, but he didn’t get my horse, that’s for damned sure. He wanted the big black.”
With caution, and trying to get what sleep evidence there was out of his eyes, Henry went into the livery, gun drawn, separating where he could shadow from substance, shade from reality. He heard nothing, not even the mice at work or play, or the owl high in the peak of the structure where he could see all below him.
It was a single strand of straw, floating from above like a forlorn leaf, that grabbed Henry’s attention, and held it in place; he realized someone might be directly overhead in the loft, gun in hand, fear working his veins. He wondered what the supposed horse stealer was thinking. It came fast on what he had thought but a minute earlier.
He was less than two weeks onto his new job, the badge a shiny button on his vest, and his guns still holstered; he had yet to fire a shot as sheriff of Winslow Hills. Some thought it a strange thing, a sign of a coming time, an omen to be found in the sheriff’s make-up, in his abilities.
In the middle of the livery, in the faint shadows in some spots, a lamp lit outside the door, he thought of Clarissa, the way he always did … in a hurry, in some measurement, in a way he thought of no one else in Winslow Hills. He’d do nothing foolish, he said to himself, looking forward to seeing her again, thinking of the life with her in the coming happy years. He knew he could get caught up in such thoughts, for here he was with a thief or a horse stealer who might be on hand, who might be right above him.
As quick as Clarissa had come upon him, she departed with the strand of straw floating like a needle of light down beside him. With a shot up into the floor of the loft, he might shake the man loose … and night draw the man into a shoot-out. But nothing was stolen, not as yet. He thought seriously on that point.
Loudly, he yelled to the livery man, saying very clearly, “Efram, I think he got away out the back, so close that door after you and fix it so he can’t get back in here if he’s the tricky sort. I’m going out the back door and see if I can get an idea where he went. He can’t have gone far. Now lock that door good, Efram. I’ll be out back.”
Henry made enough noise to influence the man overhead he was leaving by the back door of the livery, slammed it tight, and stood still in the spot. He breathed slowly, lightly, not moving a muscle. He heard the mice moving. Outside an owl made comment. A carriage went down the main road in town and he could picture it stopping at the general store rather than at the saloon. For a good 10 minutes he stayed that way, his muscles itching to move, trying to exert themselves, rebelling against his silent, motionless stance. His eyes almost became accustomed to the deepest shadows where he could identify bridle and harness and assorted equipage, and two saddles sitting over a stall wall.
Lamond, having heard the shot as well, went out on his front porch, but no further; his legs making the determination, his guns hanging inside where they’d apparently be for the rest of his life. But he was again the eagle looker, and stayed in place on the porch.
He had kept all things to himself, while watching the young sheriff at his work. The times, he knew, were changing; they were not like the wild gun-shooting days of trail drive finishes, of personal confrontations that drove men to shoot-outs, those stupid quick draw circuses that saw death as the only result and no other decision coming forth. Even though there was greed and avarice about land and grass and fences and no fences, and the introduction of sheep to the wide grass, the advances of one element served only to change the times in a permanent manner.
He wondered what the sheriff was up to.
When a soft movement gave off a sound overhead, Henry froze still again against the back wall, right near the door. He waited.
The man overhead moved slowly, came to the ladder leading down from the loft, managed to carelessly kick loose a few more strands of straw, and started down the ladder, his searching boots making the most sound so far. He was stealth itself when he came to the bottom of the ladder, and began taking soft steps across the floor toward the back door. With one hand out in front of him to push the door open, his hand gun in his hand right near the sheriff, he pushed the empty hand slowly forward, and Henry slammed his gun hand with his revolver.
The grunt of pain was loud, as was the immediate whack on his head from Henry, dropping him to his knees, his gun already gone from his hand.
In 10 minutes the man was behind bars, screaming about a cowardly sheriff afraid to face him.
Henry, relaxed, looking up as Gus Lamond entered the jail, said to the prisoner, “Just like the coward you are, trying to steal a horse from an old man. Wait’ll they hear that about you in court, because you’ll be facing the judge soon enough. You’re lucky you’re not facing a real theft or that you shot somebody. There’d be a long time before anybody would see you.”
He nodded at Gus Lamond who walked right to the cell and said to the prisoner, “You’re mighty lucky, is right, son. Mighty lucky.”
He figured it was time to spring the news to the whole town through one man. “Let me tell you how lucky you are, son. Sheriff Henry here is the fastest gun I have ever seen in all my years. I have watched him long before he became sheriff. He was making hay all the time with his gun. So fast at times he made me dizzy watching him from long range.”
Then the wisest man in all of Winslow Hills took Sheriff Henry into one corner of the office and, in a low voice, said, “Is it true that Clarissa’s father won’t let her get married without a man of the cloth.”
Surprised at first, then realizing the man in front of him knew more than any other man in the town, he said, “That’s right, Gus. He’s said that to Clarissa until he’s red in the face and she’s gone into tears. I don’t know what we’ll do. And she wants marriage more than I wanted this badge.”
“Well,” said Gus Lamond, I hope things work out for both of you before something ungainly happens.” He smiled, nodded as if he had made a deal with himself, shook hands with the sheriff, said to the prisoner, “Luck may not be enough for you, son. And guns ain’t ever going to do it for you, not in this town.”
He left the sheriff’s office and headed for the livery.
It was a quiet week later, the prisoner sentenced to two months in jail by the judge, that a handsome black stallion road up to the Mayes ranch house, and the rider said to Mrs. Mayes who was sitting on her porch, “Ma’am, may I water my horse. I believe he is thirsty and would abide a moment’s rest here in this pleasant shade.”
“Of course,” she said, having noted the rider’s black jacket, white shirt, a black string tie in place, the reins in one hand, and a black book in the other hand. “Where are you bound, stranger?”
Her heart was telling her something. She just knew it. “Would you care for some lunch, sir? I’m sure I can rustle something up, or my daughter can. She’s in the kitchen. Would you tell me your name so I can introduce you to her and my husband who is due here shortly?” She looked out across the grass and said, “Why, here he comes, and right on time.”
“You are most hospitable, Ma’am. Most hospitable. I am Reverend Justin Dockery of the Gainful Ministry and we are looking for a place to settle into, possibly to build a church hereabouts in the future. We are not sure where.”
The wedding took place in a week’s time, Clarissa’s father amazed by the speed and organizational capabilities of both his wife and daughter. Clarissa Mayes was married on the porch of her home, to the new sheriff of Winslow Hills, Travis Henry, whom she had been in love with for several years. Her mother said she was the most beautiful and happiest bride she had ever seen.
Over a hundred people attended the affair and a great time was had by all of them.
And later in the evening, after Reverend Justin Dockery said he had an appointment down the road and must depart, he and Gus Lamond spoke quietly near the barn.
“You did well, Jake,” Lamond said. “You really carried it off. It’s worth the hundred dollars. You did great. You don’t have any bad feelings do you?”
“Not with the way that girl looked, Gus. She was a beautiful bride. I haven’t seen one that beautiful in a long time. Besides, I made an oath to the Big Man Upstairs on the way in here. I promised I won’t mess around again. We’re okay on this.”
“Well,” Lamond said, “I guess you haven’t been to too many weddings, have you?”
“No,” said Gus Lamond’s nephew. “I won’t be in a hurry to do any more either. I had a hard time finding the book. The jacket and shirt and string tie were easy.” He let out a soft laugh.
Lamond closed the night for the both of them, saying, “He’s one of the new breed, Jake. I’ve watched him all the way. I guess you know that.”
The both looked at Kid Bullet and his bride riding off to who knows where, the full moon in place, as well as love and a most welcome bit of connivance.