Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
By now you all know me. I’m Prairie Pete, the unofficial story teller here in Iron Hole, Utah. Some folks has gone an’ written to the people what print out these stories, claimin’ there ain’t no such place as Iron Hole. Well, if there ain’t, I’d sure like to know what we here in Iron Hole is doing in a genuine old cowboy town. Shoot, we still has hitchin’ posts in front of most places you goes to eat or drink.
What we really like is when you all come here and help out our money situation. That’s probably the big reason I decided to let loose on some of the strange things that happens to some of us. Mostly it’s me, Ol’ Jake Withers, and the ornery Shotgun Hanks. (He’s still up in arms over my telling his family secret.) Ol’ Jake says to ignore em’, “He’ll git ov’r it.” We three have been out here the longest. I reckon you can say we re-founded the town way back when.
Now that I said all that, I think you should know that what I’m gonna tell ya about Kid Elam and his stash of gold and silver is kinda different from some of the things we’ve said an’ done aroun’ here. As far as his stash goes; he said it was his. Course, we’ll never know if‘n it were, because he died a little over a hunerd years ago.
It all started when our town barber, Henry, came over to see me at the museum. I had gone there to straighten up the place and left Ol’ Jake an’ Shotgun to run the saloon and store. I was standin’ up high on a make-shift ladder because I didn’t want to walk halfway across the building to get one, just to change a light bulb, when it toppled, and I fell to the floor.
I was tryin’ to stand up when Henry burst open the door and started his talk session with, “you ain’t gonna believe this, but I gotta tell ya. Ya just ain’t gonna believe it. Then he caught his breath and saw that I was half standin’ and half bendin’.”
“Well, maybe, maybe not?” I answered him with a sharp reply. It hit me that I maybe sounded a might mad, so I added real fast, “Sorry, Henry. You caught me in real, real deep lookin’ fer somthin’.” I lied. I couldn’t see hurtin’ ol’ Henry’s feelin’s just cuz he spooked me when he come bouncin’ through the door. Ida felt fool-like ifin he’d seed me fall. Even more so than I would’ve felt from fallin’.
He was fidgety, so I don’t reckon he heard what I said. He just started blabberin’. “Looky here, Pete. Look what I got for cuttin’ some tourist’s hair.” He held out an old, well used wanted poster. Look, Pete. Do you know the face of this guy?”
“Henry? Get a hold of yourself. Yes, I know its Kid Elam. So what? We sell those posters at my store. Did you forget?”
“Aw, Pete. Give me some credit. I know you sell them. But… you didn’t sell this one. Take real close look.”
Now, ya gotta understand ‘bout Henry. He’s a good man. He’s a very smart man. The thing he ain’t learned yet, bein’ out here for only twenty years, he’s still learnin’ the ropes. Ev’ry so often we get a slicker in here and he’ll try to dupe us up pretty good. Most of’em though leave wonderin’ hows they managed to leave agin’ with far less than what they had comin’ in here. Like ol’ Jake’s big brother always said, “Bestest way to crumble the cookie is break it first.” We always figgered he meant if’n con man tries to sell you a bridge in the desert, then you sell him the river under it. Sorta makes sense, I reckon. So, I took a real close look at the poster. Henry was right. It weren’t one of ours. It was way too old. It was strong paper like the stuff way back when.
“Henry, where did you say you got this?”
“Some tourist gave it to me. He paid me for a haircut, then handed me the poster as a peace offerin’.”
“Peace offerin’? Why what happened?
“Well, he… well, he wanted a shave and a bath along with his haircut. He pretty much was upset when I told him that that kind of service isn’t done no more in haircutting’ parlors. He commenced to brush off the dust from his clothes an’ grumbled sumt’in about ‘things ain’t like they use to be,’ whatever that was about I can tell you this much… I thought maybe he was out there in the desert makin’ a movie of the old west. His clothes was from back then. He even had a real Colt Peacemaker. I asked him how far out they was filmin’. He looked at me strange like and said, ‘Filmin’? What’s that?’ He didn’t say much after that. He just sat back and let me do my job. Afterwards he got up and when I says to him ‘that’ll be eight dollars’, he just smiled and handed me the money.
“He turned to go, but stopped and asked if whiskey was still five dollars. He figgered that haircuts dropped in money because the gold mining ran out. He was hopin’ that was the same for whiskey. He smiled when I said a drink was only maybe a dollar. I didn’t know because I don’t drink. That’s when he walked back over to me and said, ‘Here, mister. Take this and give it to whoever is the smartest man here in town. He’ll know what to do with it. Then he walked out the door. I looked at the rolled up paper and when I unrolled it, I found this. I couldn’t figger why he gave it to me so’s I went outside to ask him. Pete? As the lord is my witness… that cowboy was nowhere to be seen. The street was emptier that Shotgun’s jug after a Saturday night hoo-haa.”
“Why, Henry! I had no idea you could be so colorful.” I laughed. “Look, my friend, relax, and tell me what else this stranger said as he gave you the poster.”
Henry seemed a little confused an’ then he lit up like a firecracker. “Yes! Yes, he did say sumt’in else. I plumb forgot I heard it after I unrolled it and seed his face on it.”
I stopped Henry right there. “Wait a minute. You didn’t tell me the face on the poster was the same as his. Ain’t you never seed a picture of Kid Elam? Don’t tell me you don’t have a poster at your barber shop. All the shopkeepers agreed to help each other promote their wares. Most everyone has some sort of sign or statue or maybe posters in their place. We’ll talk later about this one.
Ceptin’ fer bein’ confused real easy, Ol’ Henry got himself a pretty good head on his shoulders. He can almost always be on top of what yur talkin’ about. Fer some reason he seemed right puzzled. I asked him what was his problem was, an’ he real slow-like asked, “if The Kid is dead, who was that what came into my place?”
“Maybe yur imaginin’ things. No, it can’t be that. You have this poster. Tell you what Henry; didn’t you say the stranger said to give it to the smartest man in town? Well, let’s go see him. Come on.” I headed for the door when he stopped me.
“Hold it! I came to you, cuz I always figgered you to be the smart one. If it ain’t you? Then…?
“Come with me, Henry and I’ll show you.” We headed over to the saloon. Ain’t many of us knows that ol’ Jake Withers use to be called Professor Jacob Withers, some forty years ago. He was at some big city university as an expert on the ‘OLD WEST’. He got so wrapped into his work that he started to yearn for the wide open spaces hisself. To make a long story short (as they say) he packed up his life and… well here he is. Ol’ Jake.
Henry was a little slow wantin’ ta go into the Iron Hole Inn, because we served whiskey. I found out one day that Henry weren’t afraid of or hated whiskey, its just he ain’t never had some and from seein’ some folks act the way they did… it scared him. He quickly sat down. I went over to Jake an’ we talked fer a minute before we called over Shotgun to join us. He waved OK an’ tol’ one of the yung’ns to watch things and help the tourists.
When the four of us was seated, I repeated Henry’s story to Jake an’ Shotgun. We all sat silent for a few minutes after I finished about the poster n’ all. Each of us, I reckon was tryin’ to come up with a reason why we’re hearin’ from a ghost. If’n it is a ghost. Henry was sure it was someone who looked like The Kid and decided to joke us up a little. Shotgun didn’t agree with that. Jake was still thinkin’ deep. He finally said he had to see what we had in the museum archives about Kid Elam. Maybe then, we could come up with who the stranger was and why he gave Henry he poster. We agreed to get together the next day and go over Jake’s findings.
Although Henry wasn’t exactly the busiest man in town, he found things to do to kill time. Shotgun on the other hand finally got to work on the garden out back. He had been puttin’ off planting our favorite eats. Trying to get certain vegetables at certain times of the year can be a real pain on the part we sit on. If you git my meanin’.
I just did my own mindin’ of the saloon and let the yung’ns run the store. I wasn’t up to hearin’ from a tourist that he coulda bought the same bottle of water three hundred miles back if he knowed he was gonna have to pay an extra thirty-cents. You might say all went well for the day. We met up with Jake right after mornin’ chow. We don’t open the saloon until midday so we didn’t have to worry about no tourists ov’r hearin’ us.
Jake looked a slight different. I couldn’t put my handle on it; Ida swore he got no sleep. Maybe stayed up all night readin’ about the Kid. I told him so. He let us know in no certain terms that I was right. He could stop readin’ about Kid Elam. He started with: “We all know of Kid Elam. Some of us even wondered how he got such a name. Rest assured friends, it wasn’t his real name.
“His full name was Samuel S. Bonney. He got the name Kid Elam because he was always on the lam from the sheriffs and marshals.” Ol’ Jake stopped to take a breath. He explained why he suddenly knew so much about The Kid. “I spent the night going over every newspaper and magazine I could find in the museum. So, if I start to fall asleep, just nudge me.” He chuckled at his funny. No takers on laughing. “Let’s get back to our meeting. Samuel got his Elam name because of his running all the time. People would say ‘Well he’s on the lam again’, so much that they shortened it to ‘on the lam,’ pretty soon it was The Kid on the lam. It finally went from on the lam to just ‘lam’. Somewhere along the line an ‘e’ was added. That was done by accident. As far as his last name Elam goes it seem that’s how he got it. So he went from Sam Bonney outlaw to Kid Elam, outlaw. They called him Kid because he looked so much like Billy the Kid. Some think that because he had the same last name as Billy that he was probably related. No one knows for sure. So the name Kid stuck.”
I could see that poor Jake was getting tired, so I jumped in with some nonsense chatter just to rest him a spell. We talked about the tourists, the new road that was promised. All sorts of things until I saw Jake lookin’ better than when the cat dragged him ov’r to the saloon earlier.
Henry was getting impatient. He wasn’t used to having total strangers give him things. Especially if’n they was a ghost. Come to think of it… I’d feel the same way about it. He sipped some coffee and before Jake could start up again, he asked him about the poster.
“I was just coming to that.” he answered, with a perturbed look at Henry. I compared one of our tourist maps to the one the Kid gave to you. Except for the type of ink and letters used, they look pretty close. There are a few things different about them though. Our maps don’t mention the fact that the last known places the Kid was seen was down near the Nevada border. Somewhere in Washington County.”
Shotgun was gittin a little bored with Jake’s lecture an’ said so. “Are you gonna go on ‘n on or is you gonna say sumt’in we need to know?” He looked at his watch an’ then at his coffee cup. He poured out the coffee an’ went over to the whiskey.
“My gawd, man it’s only ten in the morn. Heck the sun is still wake’ in’ up.” I said to him. “You sure you want to down that stuff so early?” Shotgun started grumblin’ ‘bout ‘peoples should learn to mind their own durned business,’ very loudly.
Jake saw that our meeting was runnin’ out of steam so he just plain blurted ov’r Shotgun’s rantin’, “How soon will you guys be ready to head down to Washington? I’ll explain the rest of these things on the way”
Henry’s voice sounded weak an’ unsure when he asked, “we?”
“Not you, Henry. I know you can’t leave here. Besides, Jake and grumpy Shotgun here an’ me will clean up yur poster mystery.” With that said, the meeting broke up.
We spent the rest of the day gittin’ things all in order for the yung’ns to run the store and saloon whilst we was gone. Jake packed a few old maps he found in the museum archives and Shotgun, being who he is, packed the pick up truck with enough rifles an’ pistols to fend off any Badland dwellers. From what Jake has tol’ us so far, we’s gonna be pretty close to the border an’ we don’t need no ‘visitors’.
Don’t really know why Jake wanted us to take some ol’ side trail to where we was goin’, but we’ve learned ov’r the years to listen when Jake suggests things. It seems he’s right five out of five times. Shoot… I celebrate when I get one in a row right.
We needed to stop that first night out. We knew it would take us more than a day to get there, plus, there was none of them electric light poles along this ol’ forgotten road. I think that onliest ones what used this road was the critters out looking fer food. We got all camped up, our fire was a bit bigger than normal, just incase some of the critters were a might bigger than a jack-rabbit.
After we chow’d down, Shotgun pull out his favorite desert and poured us all a ‘snack’. Satisfied with hisself for being a good host, he turned to Jake and said, “Tell me sumt’in you ol’ sand rat. How’s come this mornin’ you was talkin’ like a teacher that you once was? I barely understood what you was sayin’ let alone tryin’ to keep awake. You went on and on, but I heered nothin’. What’s that what I missed?”
“Shotgun, my ol’ friend, yur makin’ mountains outa mole-hills. Along time ago I made up my mind to live out life here in the West. If’n you think maybe I don’t belong… ”.
“Dad-blame it! There you go agin’ putin’ words in my mouth.” Shotgun broke. “I never said you wasn’t wanted here. I’m just havin’… ”
“A hard time understandin’ why I’m the way I am?” Jake finished for his friend. “Pete, you know what goes through my head. How about you explainin’ to this here ol’ codger for me? I need to take a ‘walk’, if you git my drift.”
“I can do that, Jake. Oh, by the way… I know you know about these things, so watch where ya squat.” I said that, thinkin’ maybes I could lighten things up a little. Sumt’in is botherin’ Jake ev’r since he read up on the poster of the Kid.
Shotgun musta bin readin’ my mind, cuz once Jake was outa earshot he asked me, “What’s with ol’Jake? He’ bin awful strange for two days now. You reckon he got bad news from wherever his home was?”
“No. This poster thing has got’em. Seems to me he figgered out sumt’in ‘bout Kid Elam’s poster, but don’t quite know what to do with it. I reckon whatever he read on that poster, it ain’t good. Its not like Jake to ask us to join him in gittin’ killed. Right?”
“Right!” Shotgun answered quickly. “What makes you think that way? You figger he saw sumt’in tonight in that paper that he didn’t see b’fore?”
“That, my old friend is rightly what I’m thinkin’. He just ain’t come up with a way to tell us ‘bout it. He’s afeared we’s gonna git mad and want to go back. I gotta believe you wouldn’t do that and I sure as blazes knows I won’t. So, let’s jest wait him out. Sooner or later, he’ll come ‘round.”
“I’ll drink to that. Want another?”
“Shotgun, you’ll drink to anythin’.” I said as I held out my cup. “He should be back any minute. Give him space.”
Maybe five minutes passed when we heard Jake step on a twig or two, to let us know he was comin’ back into camp. That’s sumt’in ya gotta do out there. Especially at night. The last thing you want is a bullet hittin’ you in the head. When he came in, he sorta stood there for a minute and finally picked up his cup and held it out to Shotgun.
Once he settled down, Ol’ Jake Withers said things I never thought I’d hear from him. I sat down on a boulder next to Shotgun to hear him out. “Fellas. I’ve done you wrong by askin’ you to come with me on this trip. I finally got a handle on why Henry was given that poster of The Kid. You see, once the three of us get to where we are going, or maybe sooner, only two are coming back.”
“What!” Shotgun yelled out. “What in the cow’s pile are you sayin? You show me where it says one of us dies. I’ll show you and yur danged piece of paper yur wrong. I’ll have you….”
“Shotgun!” I stopped him. “Listen to what Jake has to say b’fore you git all excited. There’s gotta be a reason he says what he says.” I shared Shotgun’s thoughts, but I respect Jake’s concern.
I looked at Jake and said, “You know, you gotta explain what you just said. You got Shotgun here thinkin’ yur gonna up and die on us.” I waited for him to tell us not to worry. All he did was pull up the piece of old log he found and sat on it. He looked real serious. He finally spoke to us.
“Well, he might be too far off of what he’s thinkin’, Pete.” He saw me staring blank-like at’em. “You see, fellas, the notes on the back of this poster?” He held it out close to the light from the fire.
I spoke up. “I don’t get it, Jake. There was no writing on the back of this paper yesterday. ‘Cept fer the four lines about where he was last seed. Now the whole thing is covered. What happened?”
He stared at Shotgun an’ me for the time it took him to take a sip of his whiskey, and then real quite like, he leaned in closer and said, “You fellers recollect that I was once a professor, right? Well you need to learn a lot so’s as you can teach. Course back then I sounded more like a educated man than I do now. I guess hanging around you two ol’ sand-rats… like Shotgun here, likes to call us… I’ve learned a new language. I reckon you could call it Cowboy Talk.” He paused again. So I was about to ask him if’n he was alright. Talkin’ the way he is has got me to think he’s in real pain, but I don’t know why. Before I could say anythin’, he started up again.
“I’m pretty sure you ol’ coots are thinkin’ ‘maybe he’s gone off his rocker,’ well, no. I haven’t. Let’s forget all the professor stuff. I was just tryin’ to get you to know how I found all this righting. In plain English… I spilled my whiskey on the poster last night and it seems that Kid Elam left a message for me.”
“For you? I jumped in. “For you? How? He’s dead. Been Dead a long time.”
“I’m coming to that, Pete. Look, we’re not going any further than this camp-site. You might say I strung you fellas along. I didn’t mean to lie to you, but I needed you both here as witnesses to my death.”
Shotgun jumped up so fast that if I ever had any hell in me he scared it right out of me. “Death! What are you goin’ on about. You ain’t dead an’ you ain’t gonna die. Leastways not out here, like this. Lay off the hooch.“
Shotguns reaction to Jake’s words caused poor ol’Jake to near fall backward off the log. He composed hisself quick-like and went on to explain what he’d been sayin’. Look, you ol’ coot, you, and Pete is the closest I got to family. That’s why I wanted you two out here. You see… I lost all my family back in ’95. There was a terrible storm….”
Again, Shotgun fired up. “What in blazes is you talkin’ about? What family in ’95? You’ve been with us since the fifties. We never saw no family.”
For some reason I knew what Jake was sayin’. I just suddenly knew what was comin’ next.”
Jake looked at Shotgun and smiled real funny-like. He took another swig and then told us things that blowed our socks off.
“Fellas, A long, long time ago, down toward the Arizona border I had a family. We had a small ranch. One day a devil-wind showed up and ran through everything and then ran through again. It was almost as if the Devil himself was riding herd on it. It wiped out everythin’ we had. I didn’t care about the ranch or the cattle, but it took my wife and little girl too. I swore to the heavens that if my wife and little girl could come back I would devote my life to doing good for everyone who needed it. No matter how long it would take.” A tear formed in his eye and he stopped to get a better grip on hisself. Then he started up again.
“I was granted that wish. My family was back, but there was a price to pay. My life for theirs. What hurt me the most was that they didn’t know that I was still there, watching and listening to them. My God, how they loved me. My soul was pulled away and when I arrived here, right where we stand now, I was told the conditions I needed to go by. I would be placed in a town where people were trying to live life the right way. I was to help the best I could and yet never tell anyone who I really was. Once I fulfilled my obligation, the Messenger would contact me.”
Before he could go any further, I asked, “Why are you telling us this story? Is this yur way of camp-fire ghost stories? I never knowed you to play games. How does Kid Elam fit into all this? Me and Shotgun are here to help you, Jake, but ya gotta admit it, you ain’t makin’ much sense right now. One minute yur already to find this Kid Elam’s grave, next minute you say he ain’t dead or he ain’t real? What’s goin’ on, pardner?”
Jake sat silent for so long that I thought maybe just didn’t want to yak anymore. Suddenly, he raised both arms and yelled out, “Now!” Then he looked at us both and spoke real low and said, “I’m sorry, fellas. I’m real sorry. I can’t explain it any more than I did. They won’t let me.” He pointed up to the sky. “They are allowing me to say these last couple of things before I go. Please remember that I was proud to know you two. Now, to explain Kid Elam. All the stories ever written about him were made up by people thinking they would be famous for knowing an outlaw-killer. Truth is the only bodies Kid Elam was responsible for were already on the divine list. It was their time to go. So Kid Elam would…”
I stopped him. “You want us to believe that Kid Elam is this ‘messenger’ you talked about? That Kid Elam is the Angel of Death the preacher talks about? Come on, Jake, this is gone long enough. You won’t tell us what’s on the back of the poster. You say you found the writn’ by accident, and now you say the Kid is here to take you away. So… let’s all have a good laugh and head back to Iron Hole. Whatta you say Shotgun?”
Shotgun wasn’t too much in the mood fer talkin’. He jest pointed behind me. Finally he got his voice and called out real scared like, “Look, look behind you , Pete.”
I did. I almost fell over when I saw the cowboy standin’ behind me way back into our shadows from the fire’s light. He stood there looking through me as though I wasn’t there.
Jake stepped up next to me and said, “Pete, Shotgun, I want you to meet the legendary Kid Elam… ‘The Messenger’.”
Seein’ as I wasn’t too hep on shakin’ hands with a ghost… I jest nodded an’ said, “Howdy.”
The Kid jest started walkin’ toward Jake, never sayin’ a word. He stood next to my ol’ friend an’ softly said, “It’s time my friend.” Then they was gone. I closed my eyes for a moment to clear my head. The next thing I knows is my name was being’ called out. First-wise it, sounded soft, then louder an’ louder. “Pete! Pete? PETE! Wake up!
I looked over to Shotgun, but he wasn’t there. It wasn’t night by the fire either. I was in the museum, laying on the floor starin’ up at Henry. He looked at me as though he wasn’t sure about what to do. He asked, “Pete, you OK? Looks to me like you done fell from up there.” He pointed up to where I was tryin’ to do the bulb thing.
I shook my head to clear out the cobwebs formin’ an’ asked him how I got back here and where was Shotgun an’ Jake?
He backed up a step, then softly asked ifin I was alright from fallin’. Then he said that my two friends was still at the saloon wheres I left them twenty minutes ago.
“Twenty minutes? Henry? Are you fun’n me.”
Henry said, “You’d better sit for a while wiles I go and get Doc Mike. He’s gonna want to check you. You took a nasty fall, pardner. It’s a good thing I did like you wanted an’ come over to tell you I can cut your hair now. Else-wise you may have been in real trouble jest lyin’ there. I’ll be back right off.” He left for Doc Mike.
I sat there wonderin’, Was this all some kinda dream? Why Jake. Why anyone. Was there really a Kid Elam or did I go beyond where we should be?’