Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Late Visits to Verna's Turf
All Verna Brody’s suitors swore she could call down the moon any time she wanted to, call it right down on top of her, all its golden glory down atop all her glorious holdings in her own idyllic pocket of the Teton Range. When each suitor, and those who thought they were suitors, and there were plenty of them, came over the bridge to Verna Brody’s Meadow, they saw the wonder not only of the bridge that crossed the deep gorge and the magic of Verna’s place itself, but they realized that she of all people had had her dream come true. They would see the grassy plain spreading throughout the once-hidden valley, the waterfall at the far end sparkling in the sun in its free-fall from high in the heart of the Tetons, and the select herd of the finest cattle, and the fattest they’d ever seen, feeding on the rich grass of the meadow.
It was heaven, it seemed, and a
beautiful, unwed girl of 25 owned it, ran it, and had seen it grow
from the first day she discovered the site and conceived the idea to
have a bridge built to reach her dream land. She got her way on that
idea, the bridge spanning a wide, deep gorge leading to the hidden
entrance to the valley. The bridge, too, was a miracle in itself,
planned and constructed by a young engineer who had been enamored of
Verna, but he too fell by the wayside as she pushed her dream to
completion, and putting aside any romantic interests in her life.
Those in the mix or near the edge of her dream land carried off their own hyperbolic impressions of Verna’s Meadow, so that the word on it went as far and as wide as travelers went when they left Mountain City, the nearest city to Verna’s Meadow and the bridge over the gorge.
Those who might consider themselves suitors, and those braggarts who pretended to be suitors, and there also seemed to be an abundance of them, would soon be identified by the most casual visitor to the Mountain City’s lone saloon, or the newest citizen to find a local job as a cow poke on a nearby ranch. The false ones had the same delivery, which went something like the following; “I swear that when I crossed that bridge going over to pay my respects to Verna Brody, on a previous arrangement, of course, that it felt like the Great Divide was being crossed, the great difference you might find between heaven and hell, like no-Verna on this side and all-Verna on the other side. Beautiful ladies have that effect on a lonely man no matter where he lights, and Verna Brody does all of that.”
If one of the saloon listeners piped in with, “Well, where did you two go when you visited out there with Verna?” one of the pat answers would be, “A gentleman never talks about a lady no matter what they do together. That’s his and her business.”
All that came off as blow-hards doing the talking about their visits to Verna’s turf. The bartender in The Teton Ridge Saloon, having seen her only on a few occasions, didn’t blame any cow poke from trying to brag a little and gain a little notoriety, because there was always a lady just short of similar glories who would entertain such young men of repute.
Verna Brody’s story was well-known. She was born soon after the family arrival in Boston, a short walk from the Bunker Hill where the militia of the new young country had waged one of their battles against the British. Members of the family said that she had gazed west with her first look. They couldn’t argue much about that first look of the lone daughter in the family, as the lot of them (lucky en toto) had come west from Ireland because of the famine that was caused by the blight, which descended on all of Ireland’s potato crop in the mid-1840s and often was felt in Europe as far away as the shores of the Caspian Sea. The near rotted loss of every potato in Ireland’s ground, which was summarily followed by the starvation of many of Ireland’s people, sure death of many confined to death beds with no food on hand, and work-house assignments for the emaciated unfortunates. With the onset of the famine, by 1847 the poor people were crammed into work houses far beyond their intended capacities. By 1851 the number of such consignments to the work houses reached upwards of 250,000 unfortunates. One result was often the sad statement that simply said in thousands of deaths, “died of starvation.”
Verna, as she was called immediately at birth, carried the family mantle with ease. It was said among them that as much as an Indian papoose gets its name from a first sign, the name stuck and the westerly signs continued with Verna. When only a dozen years old, she told her parents she was born to follow the sun.
“Someday,” she pronounced with certainty, “I am going out there where the wind will get in my face and the mountains will get in my eyes, and where there’s enough room you can invite the stars down to share it.”
It all fell in place at Verna’s Meadow.
The grass was as green as any place of natural riches in the west, the waterfall, ever sparkling, held the promise of the ages as it poured from the Teton Range, and the brand on the cattle was a Double M. The two letters shared the second leg of the first M and the first letter of the second M. It might appear to others as MM, but it was really two Ms on three vertical legs. Verna’s Meadow was a showplace of the Teton Range, and she was going to keep it that way with all her energy and all her will.
She would spend many late hours, after work of the day was done, talking to her mother about her “new world.” Talk with her father would be entirely different, being spent on matters strictly on business, on ownership, on rights, and such.
Her mother, a most gracious lady from the Auld Sod, said time and again, “Make room in your life, Verna, for the man that will come into that life and fill it up for you. Make it whole and worthwhile. Bring you the utmost of happiness.” She’d look into her daughter’s eyes, as if she was looking for Verna’s soul to appear and agree with her and her own romantic soul, the one which had driven the family to new hope in a new world.
“Oh, Mum, that’s so far off for me,” Verna would reply, knowing an answer, whether she believed it wholeheartedly or not, was needed for the moment. “I have a few years left in me before I can manage to find romance out on the prairie where there is so much room for so many other things to happen to a soul looking for chances, or gifts that the earth can give us, not take away from us.” Her heart was full of stories that the famine had given rise to. “It may be far off for me, this romance you speak of. You were 30 when you married Pa. I have all this time on my hands for looking.” She said it as if she had a whole lifetime to find love.
Her mother might nod, or smile half a smile, or look out the window at a shadow in the making, and figuring all the while that Verna’s future might not be up to Verna herself, but up to a man that would ride directly into her life and start filling it up right away, as soon as he dismounted from his horse or wagon, or turned around in Mountain City one day and they’d find each other’s eyes; evasion often proved less than resolute at such times.
Love’s advent might be a slow smoldering, an ignition that was never noticed at the start and grew with the slow intensity of age, like wine in a barrel, or, as it had happened to her, it might hit like a maul smacking down on a wedge, and life was different from that moment until forever was reached.
She had been there, found her sons now scattered through the west, and her lone daughter, presumably in her own heaven at the very minute.
Verna, as it was, carried on her busy ways, only and barely thinking once in a while about a small spot in her life that might be lonely if she paid it any due heed.
That was her conscious assurance, until Laird Dockery came riding over the bridge one day, sitting his mount as a handsome young man in the blaze of afternoon sun, and liquid blue skies stretching behind him like a picture set against a selective backdrop.
Verna’s breath was caught in place, perhaps only her own horse aware of the quick change as she pulled him to a standstill in front of the barn and the stranger rode right up beside her. She found a warmth enveloping her, a most pleasurable warmth and it sent her emotions in a quick swirl as she looked at a handsome face set off with blue-green eyes looking for discovery, a shapely mouth below a nose that might not ever caught a mean blow, and a smile hanging on lips so marked with promise that she felt herself alert to an ache never so plain in its onset.
She sent him a smile that was loaded with all her beauty, and a good deal of acceptance riding on that smile. He smiled back without saying a word and it was as if, at the same moment in their lives, a very special event had happened that both of them were fully aware of: he knew finally and fully why he had come west and Verna knew that her heaven had been incomplete and had been waiting for this moment.
And neither one of them knew anything about the other; the mystery of discovery thrown open to love coming in for the long ride.
The first thing Laird Dockery said was, “I have been looking for this place for 8 years. And now I’m in heaven.”
Verna could have fallen off her horse if she wasn’t the girl she was. This was the handsomest stranger that had ever crossed the bridge to Verna’s Meadow. And she found in his voice, detected she might have said if asked straight out, a most comfortable buzz of awareness in her ears.
Of three people in the immediate area, there had arrived a sense of change in the air. Each one would feel it differently. Each one would face it differently. Each one would scratch until the very end to keep in hand what was theirs to hold onto.
For Laird Dockery, it came evident at sight of Verna and the glorious surroundings that seemed to wrap him in contentment.
For Verna Brody, the handsome stranger set in motion feelings that had been put aside for too long by her drive to make MM the showplace of the Tetons.
And for Merchant Gavelin, roper, super horse rider and horse-breaker, cowpoke with illusions in his make-up, who saw, and feared at the same time, a serious candidate for Verna’s feelings and a healthy opponent in his desires for Verna Brody, boss Verna Brody, owner Verna Brody of the magnificent MM spread tucked into the Tetons like a magnificent watch hidden away in a watch pocket.
Gavelin’s hair was black as old leather, his eyes a little too close together for comfort at the same table, but his hands were large and strong and muscles moved inside his shirt like they were breathing hard. The eyes alone were enough to catch a wary man taking a second look at them, measuring their closeness, the intent in them, in their pale green and pearled color making them different from all his other parts.
He had a right to his uneasiness about Dockery, who had worked his way west from a coal town in Pennsylvania, as advised by his parents to “get out of this hell hole and when you find heaven, that dreamland, send for us. We’ll rush to your side if we are able.” That would be enough to keep most men working at it for a lifetime if need be.
With such a dream in front of him, and behind him, and imbued with a strong sense of duty and devotion, he plied his way west learning all that he could from all those who knew more than he knew, who had experienced more than he had. For a year he worked on a railroad, on freight lines and passenger lines, and learned all the nuances and bents of the trade that were exposed to him. Shoveling coal as a fireman was just back-breaking work, but he did a couple of runs at that job, and then was a flagman and conductor, and then a lead scout for one railroad line in its expansion. Learning to ride, and becoming accomplished at it was a must, and he took to it as if he was born on a ranch and given a pony on his third birthday. He became an excellent horseman, and with his native intelligence, excelled at the scouting job along with engineers who listened to his reports.
He bought a horse from an older man in Nebraska who had taken a liking to the young man full of energy. “Listen, son,” the old gent had said, “You work as hard as any young man I’ve seen around these parts. Not any better, mind you, but as hard as any of the young bulls hereabouts, exceptin’ you’re ridin’ the poorest horse of the lot. You make up some of the difference that that horse costs you. Now listen to me what I tell you about pickin’ out a good horse, the one that’ll make every day ridin’ an easier one, and the one that might save your life someday. Out here, you’ll darnn well find out, the horse is as important as the man, and maybe more sometime and pray he’ll be with you when that sometime happens.”
Dockery listened well, learned well, and could about every time out pick out the best horse in a lot. He brought that knowledge and his other attributes across the bridge to Verna’s Meadow.
Verna knew it from first sight, as if a message had been sent to her without her being aware of it. That gave Dockery a considerable head start without him knowing where his heart would eventually go. Gavelin felt it, the fear being part of his basic make-up, which barred his way to Verna’s favor. She sensed Gavelin’s quick reaction as much as she sensed Dockery’s strengths, the two ways that the men presented themselves to her.
And from that moment on, a heady triangle was in place from the initial meeting, in front of Verna’s barn at the edge of Verna’s Meadow, the three of them in a grouping for the first time.
From every place she worked, from each window of the ranch house, from the saddle of her horse to the high trail up beside the waterfall, her eyes fell on Laird Dockery as he went about his work with energy, earnestness and capability.
Her foreman, Gus Trendle, said often enough that it sent signals to her, “That Laird, he ain’t doin’ any kiddin’ when he gets in stride, when he stretches the leather on a job, and he knows what the heck he’s about. I ain’t seen a job he can’t do as good as any hand we’ve had here for our four or five years.”
“You’re a tease, Gus,” Verna said. “You know well enough that it’s seven years now that the bridge was built. You trying to catch me up in arithmetic or something?”
“Hell, no, Verna. I guess you see as much as I do around here, except inside the bunkhouse. That’s where the first sign of trouble ‘tween them two trottin’ in your trail. They ‘bout came to fists and elbows ‘cept I broke it up. I told them straight out, they want to fight over somethin’, and me knowin’ damn well what it was, that they should take it out of the bunkhouse and off the Double M, or I’d get goin’ myself.”
“How’d that go with them, Gus?”
“Dockery took it in his usual good nature and in stride, and stuck his hand out to give Mr. Ornery a handshake.”
“Oh, as I expected, Mr. Plain Damned Ornery refused to shake hands. Now I got to keep my eyes open, keep him in view all the time.”
“Do we let him go, Gus? He’s been here a couple of years. I know he’s got ideas that I’m not buying and I hope he should have picked that up long before this.”
“Maybe he could have, Verna, and ought to have, but when that handsome one rode over the bridge, things changed in him. I can’t blame him there. If I was 25 years younger I’d have busted both of them, or tried anyway. But that’s no solution now. I’ll just keep my eyes open. You let me do the worryin’ about Mr. Ornery. You worry ‘bout Mr. Handsome.” The light and the gleam was in his eyes, and a day so long in the past he couldn’t really bring it back.
The next incident came almost from the horse’s mouth, as Trendle told Verna. “Laird came out one evenin’ to take one of those lonely evenin’ rides he’s always takin’ by hisself, and one look at the way his horse was standin’ told him somethin’ was wrong with the animal. He checked him out and found a shoe nail driven under one of his shoes, and it wasn’t jammed in there by his kickin’ sideways in the corral. So he pulled it out and went into the bunkhouse and Mr. Ornery was not there. He asked where he went and when, and one of the boys said he’d gone out maybe an hour earlier and said nothin’ to nobody, and never came back.”
“Where was he, Gus? Doesn’t sound good for him.”
“He came in and said he had a right to do his own moonlight ride. Never did it before, not like Dockery’s done it since practically the first night here, what is it, about six months now?”
“Six months tomorrow, Gus,” Verna said with a masking laugh.
“Knew that right off, Verna, and figured you do too, so we have no secrets in this matter. Thing bothers me that if Laird didn’t pick that up right away he might have met somethin’ not good for him out on his ride.”
“He does bear watching, Gus. I thank you for that.” She patted him on the shoulder and he was like a father getting a daughter’s blessing and good thanks.
“We’ll make it a two way job, Verna. You watch one and I’ll watch the other.”