Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
At the top of a hill outside Fremont Hill in the Montana Territory, Torby McDonough sat his mount as he looked down at a town he knew was dying. Back down the trail he’d heard the beer was gone in the Fremont Hill Saloon his kid brother had opened only a year earlier. Perhaps they had a few weeks left of the hard stuff, and perhaps enough folks had left town already to guarantee that it would probably last until last call, his last call. He also noticed the Crow Indians were not attacking people leaving Fremont Hill with all their goods piled on wagons and heading south, out of the territory, dreams heading south too, like a truce had been declared for them, the fierce Crows standing above trails heading out of Montana.
Fremont Hill had been named in honor of the Great Pathfinder, John C. Fremont, whose maps and trail books had spurred many to the rich lands of the great plains and McDonough’s kid brother, Tarpon, had been an inspired reader, but a poor businessman, plus he was caught in an interminable war with the natives, Crow and Cheyenne tribes in the mix, rifles the staple, rifles the target.
McDonough’s throat was trying to master him and his taste buds and his promises to be sober until he had helped his kid brother finish his business in some order, in some sanity. The kid at times had a temper old men nodded at, young men stayed away from. One old gent back home had said, “That there boy walks with his finger on the trigger all the time.”
McDonough suddenly became aware of a strange sensation filling him. It was known in his cavities and channels, in his bones and muscles, in all the important parts of his body. He labored to put a name on it, tried again, and finally realized it was loneliness; he was utterly alone, and a choosy, obstinate, hot-headed kid brother in the offing offered no change. To get him out of here, to get him another chance at a good chunk of the pie, would be a worldly struggle. Life out here, he had learned, depended on what was around the corner and who saw it first … you or it.
He could envision his brother saying about Fremont Hill, “Let’s burn it down, every last damned building here. Leave nothing for someone else to walk into, to have without all the work that we had to do. You all started like I did and have to walk away like I’m doing, and we can’t do anything about it.”
Torby McDonough could hear every word of his brother’s before he heard them. It was just like him, grab the hot hammer and throw it into the crowd, and duckers duck, runners run, others die in their own footprints.
There came to him a dash of reasoning that said an alliance had been formed between an unknown gun dealer and one of the Crow chiefs named Warrior with Stolen Rifle, leader of a rambunctious renegade band, as termed by the territorial Indian agent. When an army force showed up in the area, the Crow band fled into the Big Horn Mountains, where Warrior with Stolen Rifle recruited braves from several tribes into his band, including the Cheyenne.
Time, McDonough realized, was too important to sit and gawk, but he loved Montana and knew what had drawn his brother to it.
A sudden whiz came near him and an arrow from on high plowed into the ground beside him; his horse shied a bit and then stood still. The arrow had come from high overhead, somewhere along the rocky crest that towered above him and appeared to be more of a warning than an attempt to hit him, which would have been one of a million chances.
Leisurely he rode away from the signal danger, but he was being scouted by the Crows and they would not let go easily. They’d track him all through the mountains if need be, to see what a lone rider was up to, where was bound, who he’d meet.
He remembered his first encounter with the Crows, only that time it was a maiden, though not for long, whose name then was Cheeks of Dawn, whom he pulled from the rushing waters of a quick river following swiftly on a cloud burst. He wondered what her name was now. She had come to him, after a rest and a deep sleep, her eyes downcast, her mind asunder with fears and yet with gratitude, to give some life to the one who had saved her life. She had called him Man Who Beats Water. He wondered if he’d ever see her again, wondered what had befallen her after their encounter; the Crows, he knew, had eyes everywhere, like eagles work the daylight skies and the owls work the darkness.
And continually, puncturing his awareness, appeared the image of his brother standing behind the bar, his hand on a spigot that gave no response. It sent sadness down through him. The kid would be heart-broken and would try to hide it from his older brother, a most difficult task. He’d burn the place down for sure rather than leave it, any part of it, to anyone.
Without further incident, he rode over the last crest and saw Fremont Hill sitting on a slow rise above a stream that was dry as a desert skull. In the pale of evening he saw one slant of light, most likely a lantern in the saloon with the suds all gone and the good whiskey most likely watered for a mere extension of time, but not for taste. He tapped the jug he carried in his saddlebag; indeed, there would be a last call and he’d be there with his kid brother at the closing ceremony.
Suddenly, at or in that slash of lamplight, a shot rang out, then a door slammed and a horse rode toward him in a rush, followed by a scream: “Stop him! Stop him! He killed Kid McDonough! He killed Kid McDonough because he didn’t have a drink for him! Stop him!”
Torby McDonough exploded at the screams, at the dread news. When the rider rushed up to him, McDonough knocked him from the saddle, not with a slug from his rifle, but from the rifle butt swung in a vicious arc, the impact sounding a large crunch. Catching the other horse, McDonough threw the unconscious killer of his kid brother across the saddle and finished his ride to the saloon.
There was no jail in Fremont Hill and no sheriff, so he lugged the killer into the saloon and tied him to a table he flipped over onto its top side. As he did so, he saw his brother still sprawled over the bar. There was not a single glass on the bar … just his dead brother, blood seeping its way on the bar top.
One man leaning on one wall said, “Looks like you got the killer, mister.”
McDonough said, “You see him do it?”
“Hell, yes,” the man said. “We all saw it.” He pointed to a dozen men, sober as judges, lounging about the room they had spent a lot of time in. “My name’s Lenny Foote.”
McDonough, looking around, asked, “Who wants to be judge? I know you don’t have a sheriff and no judge’ll come up here these days, so name a judge amongst you and we’ll have you all as jury and witnesses, and I’ll be the prosecutor. That’s my kid brother he killed. When it’s all done and over with, we’ll have a memorial service for him with a last call, then we’ll bury him the morning and we can all go our own way. But don’t go alone and go south, like out of here, ‘cause the Crows are out there all over Hell.”
“How will we have a last call, Mister? There ain’t a drop in the house.” He looked about him, at the shanty it really was, and shrugged his shoulders. Several other prospective jurors did the same thing.
“I’ll take care of last call,” McDonough said, “according to how quick and how sure we get a verdict.”
The man who had spoken up first volunteered. “I’ll be the judge. Once, back in Kansas Territory, I saw Judge Spearing hold court on a killer and got him hung before supper that same day. Said, ‘No sense letting him get a night’s sleep at our expense.’ Like it was clockwork, as they say. Good and proper they hung him.”
When the killer came to, on trial but not yet convicted, so to speak, McDonough said, “What’s your name?”
“He cheated me,” the gent said as he stood up, shaking his head, looking at the line-up of men in the room, perhaps noting the mood. “I asked for a drink and he said, ‘Okay, you get the last one,’ and he put a jug over the glass and nothing came out. He was cheating me.” His anger was still like a wounded and cornered critter
“I said, what’s your name?” McDonough was looking at him curiously, at one point leaning over to study his face. He pushed his hat back so he could get a better look.
“My name’s Bert Herring and he cheated me. I hadn’t had a drink for a month and came down here just to get a drink and he said, ‘Okay.’ That’s cheating.”
McDonough, still staring at him, said, “You ever been in a bank in Peoria?”
Herring snapped his head up to get a close look at McDonough. “Never been in Peoria in my life.”
“You’re a liar!” McDonough said. “I saw you lolling around, like you had a whole day off from work and didn’t know what to do with yourself, asking the teller a bunch of silly questions he didn’t have answers to. Next day the bank was robbed and the teller was killed. Tell me you didn’t have anything to do with that robbery or that killing.”
“Well, maybe I was in Peoria, but I ain’t no bank robber and I ain’t no killer.”
“I suppose you ain’t no killer here either.” McDonough, the prosecutor and the victim’s brother, stuck his face in Herring’s face.
Herring jumped back. “He cheated me. He promised what he couldn’t deliver so that’s cheating.”
“And cause for killing a man? For killing my brother?”
“You’re speaking from one side of the wagon. I bet none of these other gents are like you?”
Lenny Foote said, “Don’t bet on it, mister. Not a penny’s worth.” Then he gathered the jurors in a huddle, spoke a piece, asked a few unheard questions, got his answers, and said, “We’re all settled and agreed here, Mr. Prosecutor. We find him damned guilty of murder and ought to be hung before we get last call.”
“You all agree?” McDonough said, nodding himself.
The jurors all nodded, raised their hands, and looked parched.
Bert Herring, murderer, was hanged before full darkness descended into Fremont Hill. When all the jury gathered again in the saloon, McDonough poured each man a drink from the jug he carried in his saddlebag, the last call at Fremont Hill.
He said, “In the morning I will bury my brother and his killer on the back slope, and then I’ll light out of here. I’m heading south.”
In the morning, at about the same place where the single arrow had landed close to him, another arrow landed a few feet from him.
“Damn,” he said, "I bet that’s her calling me on.”
He changed direction and headed into the hills. If he was the last of one family, maybe he could start another one.