Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Matamoros, Mexico: December, 1862
One evening some months after his arrival in Mexico from Texas, Jurian Becker was seated at the table farthest from the door of his favorite place in Matamoros, La Paloma Blanca. It was a cantina that served good drinks and better food. The cantina and kitchen occupied the front of the abode building. The owner and his family lived in the rear portion.
Behind the main building were a vegetable garden, some pens for goats and chickens and a smaller building that had been divided into three casitas the family rented out.
The entire property was surrounded by tall, armless Saguaro cactus planted so closely together that they built an impregnable fence. The only entrances to the yard were through the main hallway that ran the length of the main building and a gate hung just to the side of the mail building. Jurian rented one of the casitas. He liked the family, the food, and the safety of the arrangement. He boarded his big, buckskin saddle horse, Jitters, at a nearby stable.
The round table where Jurian sat that evening was lighted by the indirect light of a lantern hung on the wall just to the rear and left of the table. He could clearly see all who entered the bar, and he wasn’t blinded, as he might have been at other tables, by a lantern sitting in front of him on the table or a light dangling above the table. Those who came into The White Dove found it difficult at first to see Jurian clearly, but he could always see them well. It was a small thing, but Jurian had spent enough time in Matamoros to understand the importance of small things. One small thing overlooked might lead to nothing, while another small thing overlooked might lead you directly to your grave.
Having taken care of this small thing also made Jurian capable of giving his meal the attention that it deserved. He was drinking good Mexican beer brewed by one of the families of fine German brewers who immigrated to Matamoros about the same time his parents moved to Texas. He was eating a bowl of pozole de frijoles, cooked especially for him by Elena, the owner’s wife. Elena said very little, but she cooked like a magician. Jurian had also seen her face down three drunken cowboys with the sawed-off 10 gauge shotgun her husband kept behind the bar.
Elena’s husband, Estaban, had left the bar for some reason, so Jurian had been preparing to step-in for his friend and help send the rowdies out of the bar. But, Elena had her own plans for the three roughnecks. Looking down the double barrels of a 10 gauge often gives a man, even three men, an incentive to move right along. There was an additional incentive that night. Elena told the men that she’d just found out about her husband’s new lover, and she begged them to argue with her or reach for a pistola, so she could let loose all her anger by killing them rather than injuring the father of her two children when he returned to the bar. The cowboys paid for their drinks. They paid for the damages. Then, they left quickly. All three seemed to understand that a woman scorned, a double-barreled shotgun, and an argument with a man, any man, were the ingredients for a potentially deadly stew. Jurian never asked either Elena or Estaban if what she said was true. He was curious, but he decided family business involving strong emotions and firearms was best left to the family.
That was months ago. Tonight, she was a kitchen magician, and he was eating her pozole especial. The combination of slow-cooked pork, hominy, beans and abundant, well-balanced spices, accompanied by corn tortillas and beer, was both incredibly tasty and warmly filling. Jurian had been on the trail for too many days. His six-foot frame was beginning to move from its usual well-filled-out to slender. His buckskin pants and shirt were beginning to feel loose. Though he knew it was his imagination, even his knee-high, fringed moccasins seemed loose. But, a week or so of these sorts of meals would bring him back up to his normal weight.
Jurian was finishing his meal when two men came in through the cantina’s two swinging doors that opened on to the street. The men stopped and let their eyes adjust to the darker room, and then they moved toward Jurian’s table. Jurian had seen these men before. He knew only one of them well, and he thought he might know who the other man was. They both worked in the same world where he made his living. Like him, north of the border they sold cattle brought up from the large rancheros south of the border.
Since Jurian and the others who plied his trade paid nothing for the beef acquired in Mexico, except the occasional bullet wound or the much less frequent, but much more final, mortal injury, the profits in the business could be considerable. In Texas, before The War truly reached the state and Jurian had to leave for Mexico, he’d broken horses and been a trader with both Anglos and Indians. The move to Matamoros required that he change what he did for a living, and he knew that his new work was also somehow changing him. But, there was nothing for him in Texas, and this was all he’d found in Mexico. Besides, it meant more money in his pocket than he’d ever had before.
As the two men approached him, Jurian leaned forward toward the table, reaching for his beer. In this way, the table blocked the view of the movements of his left hand as he drew one of the two Navy Colts he carried. He drew the Colt from the red sash around his waist where he carried both revolvers positioned for cross-draws. He placed the pistol high on his left thigh so that the butt was in easy reach. Then, he leaned back a bit and continued eating with the wooden spoon in his right hand. He held a piece of tortilla in his left hand and that hand hovered close to the edge of the table.
One of the men was a vaquero, a thin, wiry man probably in his late twenties. He was wearing a sombrero and Mexican spurs with their oversized rowels and the jingling pajados that Americans called jingle bobs. To Jurian, he seemed to walk with the confident step of a man who knew that other men feared him. He wore an impressive moustache or bigote. Even more importantly he wore shiny revolvers in two well-used, crossed holsters slung low on his hips and tied down to his thighs.
His Anglo companion was older and softer, his face covered by a wild beard and his clothes stained and in-need of repair. His single pistol was stuck in the belt of pair of patched pants with the legs shoved into dusty, cracked boots. The Anglo, Macy Pardue, smiled and showed those teeth that remained in his mouth as he reached the table and said, “Well, Dutchman, see you’re back in town all safe and sound. Mind if we sit and have us a talk?” Without waiting for a response, Macy signaled Estaban for a bottle and three glasses, while he and his companion settled into the two chairs facing Jurian.
Jurian had worked with Pardue just a few times over the last months. Macy only worked occasionally, and he bathed even less frequently. From the look and the scent of him, Jurian decided that he hadn’t done either very recently. He looked at Pardue for a few seconds then said, “Just make yourself at home, Macy, as long as you’re planning on payin’ for that tequila you just ordered up. But, I don’t think I know your compadre though. An introduction might be good.”
“Dutchman,” said Pardue as he looked at his companion, “I’d like you to meet my new riding buddy, Armando Guzman. He’s a good man to have at your side whether you’re moving stock the easy way or the hard way,” Then his gaze went to Jurian, “Armando, meet Jurian Becker, better known to us ‘round here as the Flyin’ Dutchman. He knows this border like he knows that thing in his pants. He’s also got hisself a high-stepping saddle horse named Jitters that most of us wanna steal, but we haven’t figured out how to get our hands on that caballo without getting killed.”
“Guzman,” said Jurian, nodding. Guzman returned the nod but remained silent.
Estaban brought over a jug of tequila and three glasses. Macy poured shots all around, tossed back his drink, poured another, and then moved closer to the table and began speaking in a lower voice meant to be heard only by Jurian and Guzman. “Rancho Santa Rita just brought a big bunch of cattle up from deeper in Mexico. We’ve had pretty good rain about here, so they plan to fatten them up a bit, and then move them on to market. They got just a few fellas riding herd. I figure we can stampede the herd and break out enough head to make for a worthwhile night’s work. We go even splits from the sale in Texas.”
Jurian looked from Pardue to Guzman. Jurian turned down more work than he accepted. Agreement to an equal split of profits in a cantina long before the dark of night, the flash of gunfire, and the splashing of hooves across the border was one thing. Honoring that agreement in the light of day when all that money was staring you in the face was something else. A chunk of lead or the sweep of a sharp blade dissolved too many such agreements after all danger passed.
The sober businessmen among his profession understood that a larger share of the profits from one raid had to be weighed against the loss of Jurian’s help in future raids. It also had to be weighed against other things. The most important of which was the strong possibility that Jurian might win or even just survive any violent confrontation. Either outcome was not something that the men who rode on La Frontera wanted to consider.
“That means, Macy, we all need to get to Texas and back. Last time we rode together you’re ol’ hoss barely made it back across The Border. You still riding that ol’ plug,” asked Jurian?
“Naw,” said Macy, “got me a nice pinto mare that’ll carry these bones ‘cross two borders, maybe three.”
“What about you, Senor Guzman? You got a good pony that’ll make the trek,” asked Jurian?
“Hell, Jurian, he’s riding the bay stallion that was Roy Herrera’s, can’t ask for better’n that, ‘cept maybe yor Jitters,” said Macy as he took another shot of tequila.
“Guzman,” said Jurian,” that’s right I thought heard a fellow named Guzman was riding Roy’s stallion. You rode with Roy awhile back, I heard. In fact, I guess you must’ve been with him on the ride where he bought his six feet of ground.”
”Si, I rode with Roy,” said Guzman, “but you got it wrong, Dutchman. Roy wasn’t killed when we rode together. He just decide to take his share and head for Arizona after we deliver the herd in Texas. I give him some of my share for his stallion, and we trade horses. He say the Federales’s hot breath was on his neck, so he thought he give them some time to find somebody else to send to jail. He wander back here in a few months, you see.”
“Funny thing is,” said Jurian, “I knew Roy pretty well. He sure cared for that horse. In fact, only thing I think he cared about more than that caballo was his family. His wife just had their first baby, right before he took off for …where was it? Oh yeah, Arizona. Doesn’t seem at all like the Roy I knew to leave his wife and new baby like that.”
“He tol’ me he want things to cool down some. But, who knows why a man do what he does? Maybe he ‘ad another woman in Arizona. Maybe he jus’ got scared’, said Guzman.”
“Maybe. It’s awful hard sometimes to say why men do what they do.” Jurian then looked at his hands, rubbed his thumbs across his fingers and frowned as if he felt some grease on his hands from his meal. He dropped his hands below the tabletop, and he seemed to be rubbing his palms lightly against the tops of his thighs beneath the table as if to clean them. He continued as Guzman raised a glass to his lips and said, “’Course, some things you do know, like I know it was the smell of gold and silver that turned you into the back-shooting coward who gunned down Roy Herrera and stole his horse.”
Pardue immediately tried to intervene. “Now, Jurian,…..” But Guzman had dropped the glass and was already rising, kicking over his chair and stepping back as he reached for both pistols.
Jurian’s left hand that he’d been “wiping” on his thigh grasped the butt of his concealed Colt. He brought it up quickly, cocking it as it rose. He put two .36 caliber bullets into the center of Guzman’s chest, cocking and firing his Colt so quickly the explosions seemed like one long roar. Guzman looked down at his chest, looked up a Jurian, took a stumbling step backward, and fired one shot into the floor before he tumbled in a heap to the packed earth floor.
This was the first time that Jurian had known he was likely to kill a man. He had been in gun battles with vaqueros protecting the herds he raided, but he knew that just shooting near them was usually enough to make them disappear. After all, they didn’t own the cattle. Their jefe paid them for an honest day’s work. They hadn’t taken a blood oath to die for their boss’s beef cattle.
One time raiders tried to ambush Jurian and his men after they crossed back into Texas. It was deep in the night, and he rode with his reins grasped in this teeth and a pistol in each hand, aiming and firing at dark shadows behind the blossoms of fire created when they shot at him and his men. He thought he might have left a few of those shadows in the dust, but that was all they were, dark shades falling while cattle stampeded past them.
This was completely different. Jurian rustled cattle and stole horses from the enormous ranchos on the Mexican border, where owners could easily afford to lose ten times the amount of stock taken from them and suffer no hardship. He wasn’t a pistolero, a gunman who killed other men for the highest bidder. But, tonight he had acted exactly like a pistolero. He thought he recognized Guzman when he walked in. He had his pistol drawn, and he let Guzman sit down where his pistols would be hard for him to reach. He then purposely insulted the man in a way he knew would mean that one of them would die.
Guzman was not a dark shadow riding in the night yards away from Jurian. This was a man who sat only a few feet away from him at a table. Jurian had seen the small scar at the right side of his mouth. He had seen the sweat stains on his shirt. He had seen Guzman look down at the two holes in his chest and then raise his eyes to Jurian’s. In those eyes Jurian had seen surprise and pain, and he thought he might even have seen sorrow or fear. Then, he saw the man’s final moments. There was no confident walk with jingling pajados. There was just a stumble as he tried to step back and then the awkward, uncoordinated flop of his already dead body onto the cantina floor.
My God, thought Jurian, men do this for a living? Can someone do this just for pleasure? He was trying desperately to control his convulsing stomach and his shaking hands. This was, he knew, no mistake. He had done what had to be done. But, he felt like it was a brutal bargain he’d unwittingly made with the Devil that brought him to a place in his life where killing another man was what he had to do.
To calm himself, Jurian began reloading his Colt. Pardue was beating his hat against the tabletop time and time again as he yelled at Jurian, “Damn you, Dutchman. What the hell were you thinking? This man was my partner. We were just trying to bring you into our deal. Damn. I ought to…”
“Shut up, Macy,” said Jurian, taking time with each word so that his voice wouldn’t shake. “This was no deal. That man killed Roy Herrera in cold-blood after a successful raid, then he stole his money and his horse. He would’ve done the same to you and me, if we gave him the chance. Stop your pissin’ and moanin, old man. I just saved your life. It’s only too bad that killing Guzman couldn’t bring Roy back to his family.”
As this discussion continued, Estaban went into the back of the bar and brought out blankets. He and others rolled Guzman’s body onto a blanket, threw another blanket down next to it, and then rolled the body up in both blankets and carried it into the back room. Estaban and Elena’s oldest son watched at the door for any sign of the Mexican authorities.
Elena brought out a bottle of wine that she splashed onto the blood staining the packed earth floor. She moved an empty table so that it covered the wet area and placed an open jug of tequila and four glasses on the table. She announced the jug was free to the first four men who reached the table and took a chair. After only a few seconds, the four chairs were filled. Four glasses were raised, and four men in rough cotton clothes said in unison, “Salud!” as they clinked glasses and all nodded to Jurian.
The entire enterprise took less than a minute. This had happened before. Not with Jurian, but with others. The rules at La Paloma Blanca were clear. As long as it was a fair fight, a matter of honor, or no law men got killed, Estaban and his family made all remnants of the gunfight disappear. But make no mistake, in return for this service, the body, clothes, the gear, the contents of the man’s pockets, and the dead man’s horse became Estaban’s property to dispose of as he wished.
Though Pardue had taken a few more shots of tequila, he was still agitated. “I can’t believe that you just went and killed Armando, and now you got four drunks drinking to your good health for doin’ it. Hell, you didn’t even know him. Now, I’m a man short for the drive, and it’s your fault. Besides, you damn near scared me to death. One minute we’re sitting here havin’ a friendly, little talk, and the next thing I’m doing is sitting between two men trying to kill one another.”
“Macy, have another drink and calm down. You weren’t between us; you were just next to us. Besides that’s what happens when you decide to ride with putas like Guzman. I’ll still go with you to the Santa Rita. I’ll even find us another hand. I’ll pay for the other man out of my third of the money. Guzman’s third goes to Roy’s family. You got any objections to that arrangement?”
“Jurian, I ain’t usta somebody just killin’ someone sittin’ next to me. It makes me wonder about you. That was as a cold thing you just did, boy.”
“Macy, it’s not a cold thing to kill a rattler who’s just bitten your partner and is curled up in your blanket. Guzman was a pistolero, a killer. He gunned down Roy, and nobody gets a pass when they kill my friends. You know as well as I do, we’ve got enough to worry about in this business without having to check our backs all the time. Now, do we visit Santa Rita or not?”
“You consider me a friend, Jurian?”
Jurian looked at Macy, hesitated for a moment, and then said, “Macy, we’ve ridden the river together a bunch of times.”
“You make sure my wife and kids have some dinero and help ‘em get to my brother in Laredo, if somethin’ happens?”
“Of course, Macy,” Jurian said.
Pardue shook his head then said, “I got no problems continuing with this deal. I’ll be in touch in a coupla days, and, by the way, you’ll be payin’ for this here jug of tequila. I ordered it, but you’re sure as hell the one who made the drinkin’ of most of it necessary.”
“I can’t argue with that, Macy," said Jurian. “I’ll round us up another hand and see you in a few days.”
Macy left, taking a long look at the table now placed over the blood stains left by the man he had entered the bar with. Jurian continued slowly sipping his tequila. Estaban walked over to Jurian’s table with two glasses and a bottle of the good tequila he kept for himself. He moved the jug and Jurian’s used glass to the edge of the table, and Elena took them away.
Estaban looked at Jurian for a moment and said, “No one will miss that perro you killed. Two days from now, even his amigo Mr. Macy will have forgotten he ever took a breath, unless Mr. Macy decides he might gain somethin’ by comin’ here and tellin’ me that Guzman was carrying his money, an’ he wants it back. That Macy don’t care ‘bout nobody but Macy, and you tell Macy you take care of his family. When did you become a priest, amigo? If you take the vows of poverty, then you need to give me yor horse, you hear?”
“I didn’t get religion all the sudden, Estaban. My daddy was a preacher, and, best I could tell, all he got out of it was a buncha folks at his funeral,” said Jurian. “It didn’t seem like that good a deal for a good man like him. Don’t think it would be any better for someone like me.”
“Then what you doin’ talkin’ to that ol’ goat, Macy, like that,” asked Estaban. “you know he more likely to shoot you in the back hisself than go after someone who kill you.”
"Oh, Macy’s pretty harmless, by Matamoros standards. The shots he takes come out of a glass. My bet is he only partnered up with Guzman because he’s pretty desperate for money right now for him and his family.”
“But, so, why you tell him all that like he your brother or somethin’?”
“You ever noticed me pay much attention to the law, Estaban?”
“What? Amigo, ever since I know you, you always been lookin’ for cheap cattle and horses, I mean really cheap. So, no, I don’t’ think you pay too much ‘tention to the law, ‘less maybe they chasin’ you ‘cross the Rio Grande.”
“So, I’m just like that man you got in the backroom there all wrapped up in blankets? He was a rustler, just like me.”
Estaban shook his head and looked at Jurian with some amazement. “No, you and Guzman not alike at all. You know that. I know that. Guzman was a back-shooter and cheat. No one trust him, ‘cept maybe that crazy ol’ man, Macy.”
Jurian took Estaban’s glass and put in on the far left side of the table they were sharing. “Let’s just say that your glass is my Daddy. He was a good, god-fearing man who walked the straight and narrow.” He puts his own glass on the far right side of the table. “Let’s say my glass is Senor Armando Guzman. Jurian stretched his hands from one glass to the other and said to Estaban, “You see that distance between what kind of man my Daddy was and what kind of man Guzman was?
Estaban picked up his glass, raised it to Jurian, drank it down, and said, “I drink a tu Padre. He was a good man. He raise a good son.”
Jurian raised his own glass to Estaban, drank it and said, “Gracias, mi amigo. He was a good man.” Jurian then replaced the glasses at the edges of the table.
“Now,” said Jurian as he pointed to the two glasses back at opposite sides of the table, we’ve got ourselves two men. One’s an upright a man as you’ll ever find. The other’s a lowdown criminal.” He took his knife from his boot and stuck it into the heavily-scarred table top about three-quarters of the way across the table from the glass representing his father and only one-quarter of the distance from the glass representing Guzman. “That knife is me. We both got to admit I been leading a life a whole bunch closer to the life of our dead man in the backroom than a life like my Daddy’s.” He touched the knife’s handle and said, “I just hope I’m still no closer than this to Guzman and those like him.”
Elena had been standing just to the side of the table and listening to this conversation. Now, she sat down in one of the empty chairs, looked at Jurian, and shook her head. She looked at her husband sitting at the table with her and asked,
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“Estaban, what was Senor Guzman going to do to that fool, Macy?”
“If he got a chance, he was goin’ to kill ‘im, said Estaban.
“What’s our friend, Jurian Becker, going to do for Macy?”
“He is goin’ to give that smelly ol’ man a chance to earn some dinero, and he has promised to take care of his family if he gets killed.”
“What did Senor Guzman do for Roy Berrera?”
“He killed him dead, stole his horse, and stole his money?”
“What did Senor Becker do for Roy Berrera?”
“He revenge his death and make sure his family they get some dinero.”
“What did Senor Becker do when Luis Bustado get thrown from his horse last year and couldn’t get out of bed for months?”
“He sent you, mi amor, ‘round to Luis’s house every week to give his espousa money that you tell them was from his friends at La Paloma Blanca.”
“Was Luis a special friend of Jurian’s?”
“No, he ride with Jurian a few times. But, I think Jurian meet Luis’s family, Idalia and his five kids, like one time.”
“What do you think Armando Guzman would’ve done for Luis and his family?”
“If they had any dinero he steal it. Since Luis couldn’t do nothing, if Guzman want Idalia, he take her, then shoot Luis so he can’t come after him if he get better.”
Elena looked at Jurian, pulled the knife from the tabletop, forcefully stabbed the table with it just a few inches from the glass that represented Jurian’s father, and said, “You don’t care about Mexican law, and you don’t care about gringo law. You got your own laws you live by. Don’t you ever insult me again by thinkin’ you’re anything like that Guzman. I don’t make my pozole especial for villanos.”
Estaban looked at Jurian and stroked his short beard with a thick hand as Elena went back to the kitchen. He finally said, “I always knew you was crazy, but I didn’t know you was crazy ‘nough to insul’ Elena’s pozole. Hey, you wanna jug to take out-back with you?”
Jurian stopped for a moment, looked at the position when Elena had buried his knife, and then pulled it from the table and put it back in his boot. He went to the bar and picked up a fresh jug of tequila and a clean glass with his right hand. As he walked back toward his casita, he turned and said, “I know there’s damn little you can depend on Macy for, Estaban. But, that doesn’t matter. My rules are for me. They’re my way of keeping that knife from slipping too close to Guzman. It only matters if I break them.” He turned to continue on to his casita.
Estaban looked up at Jurian and said, “Guzman was ridin’ Roy’s horse. I make sure Roy’s family get that caballo back.”
Jurian stopped, looked back, and said, “you breaking your own rules here, Estaban?
Estaban smiled and said, “Maybe I like you, amigo, but just maybe I sometimes break my own rules to help me ‘member who I am. Besides, Roy’s wife is a good frien’ of one of Elena’s favorite primas, one of her cousins, and you know that Elena, she got her own rules, too.”
Jurian touched his left hand to the brim of his hat, turned back, and walked on toward his bed, hoping there was enough tequila in the jug he was carrying to dim the memory of Guzman’s eyes. He wanted to sleep.