Western Short Story
It was the longest explosion of words from the quietest hand in the bunkhouse and it startled everybody, including Gavelin and Trendle. Neither one of them could remember Kirby saying ten words at one time, never mind a whole mouthful and then some, and all of them as acute and to the point.
And it brought a sudden silence when he stopped and he became fully aware of what he had said, where he finally fit in the bunkhouse mix. He was not sorry he had said so much as a word; it had come at a good time … something was wrong in the bunkhouse, something wrong in Verna’s dream and he didn’t want to be any part of it if he could possibly help it. She was a special lady, like a sister set under his trust, and he had to measure up at last.
“This is the best place I ever worked, and I ain’t goin’ to hurt it none at all, ‘cause every bad thing comes back, not on us, but on Verna and she deserves more than that. She made this place happen and I wouldn’t want to be anyplace I ever been before but here. If it takes a dumb yokel like me to help out, then I’ll damned well do every little thing I can to help out, even if it means I got to speak up like this against you Merchant, against one of my pards. It ain’t easy, but it’s easy to choose between you and Verna; she deserves more than you. Simple as that.”
Gavelin stood mouth ajar, words failing him, knowing he’d been exposed more than ever before by a hither-to near-silent but trustworthy man. The light on him was too bright, the exposure too complete, his true aims and character never shown in such a revealing manner. He remembered saving Kirby in the canyon and thought, if he hadn’t saved him, this illumination would not have happened; nobody else in the bunkhouse would have said it the same way.
Gus Trendle, wanting to get Kirby off the center of discussion, thinking now was the appropriate time to carry out a desire he had wanted to fulfill for a long time and through a number of tell-tale incidents, said directly to Merchant Gavelin, “I think, Merchant, now is the best time for you to go. Pack your gear and light out. It’s been comin’ for a long spell, at your own doin’, but now it’s wide open and I’m not goin’ to allow any of this to hit back at Verna. And I’m damned sure the rest of you share my feelin’s.”
The silence there had been before carried on again, but all of the hands nodded a slow appreciation of what they suspected, or knew, of Merchant Gavelin, saddle pard for a few years. The quiet one among them had let it loose and it had the teeth of a mountain lion in it, or a she-bear with her young tagging along.
Trendle’s own qualifications on the matter hardly dented the scene. “You’ve been a good hand at times and a damned good horseman, Merchant, breakin’ the broncs and all that, but you carry too much trouble with you, like your saddle bags are full of trouble you ain’t sprung loose yet. Kirby hit it right on the head when he said what we do all comes back on Verna, or what we don’t do, which is sure enough at times to do a whole wagon full of damage. There’s too much poison all carried in one place for me. So best go now. You’ll catch a job someplace down or up the river. Anyone asks me, I’ll just say we ain’t seein’ eye to eye on things.”
The Ornery One did not say a word to Trendle or to Kirby and the other hands. He was quit of the place, but they would know his anger and his wrath. As he forcefully kept his mouth shut, as plans loomed in the back of his mind, he must have shaken some of them loose in his eyes, in his demeanor.
Gus Trendle caught that look and understood the man sending the hidden message.
“If I catch you pokin’ or sneakin’ around here, Merchant, on this side of the bridge or anywhere near the bridge, I’ll drop you like a charging bear or a wild bull out for no good. Don’t ever underestimate me on this. Nothing happens in or near Verna Brody as long as I’m alive.”
For days afterward, Kirby and the other hands could hear Gus Trendle’s final words on the matter delivered to one of their pards thrown off the job. A few of them, without fully voicing their concern, worried about Trendle, who was a good boss and deserved more than Gavelin had given him already … and might try to give him somewhere down the trail or out on the lonely grass.
There was a threat in the silence that they understood, like the silence of a herd of cows just before a big boomer breaks loose from the sky directly above them and sends them on the run … and beware all things in the path of stampeding cattle.
Meanwhile, even with Dockery living in the bunkhouse and a member of the ranch outfit, his time with Verna accelerated quickly, and he was spending much of his off-work hours with her, either out on her rides around the valley and beyond the bridge when he was not working, and as a guest in the ranch house where the cook and handy-man at all tasks, Lem Too Sin, had a small room at the back end of the building, just off the large kitchen. He was devoted to Verna and her parents and served every need he could without ever a harsh word or the least reluctance. He had found, early in his service to the Brodys, that the more ways he could find of preparing potatoes for a meal, the greater would come the relish of those at the table. He was inventive, and called often on the mystical masters of his past world in the far mountains of China. They had been ingenious at meals, making the land give of its gifts to those who had imagination.
Lem Too Sin, with a first advance on the subject of Verna’s love life, volunteered one day his opinion on the matter, to which Verna paid heed. He had been in the kitchen for nearly six years and was treated by Verna and her parents as close as kin.
“He too is a good man besides being one who is happy with himself,” Lem Too Sin said. “Old Chinese wise men say, ‘Man who is happy with self is a good man and make the umbrella stay open.’” And he added, with a clumsy turn at a wink, a quick qualification so the opportunity for his vote on the matter would not be wasted, “Lem Too think Mr. Dockery is to be a good man to keep around forever, for when it rains.” He let off only a minor touch at laughter, it saying he had said what was on his mind, agreed with the way it came out in the conversation, and found pleasure in the chance to speak his mind on a family matter. Like them, he had come from somewhere else, from far-off China and deep within the Asian continent. It had taken him five years to complete his journey to this place. In a few more years, not known to any of the others on the ranch, he would send for his family. His timing was “Right on the frog’s back and ready for the leap,” as the old masters of his past world would have said. He’d hate to leave Verna and her parents, all of them fair and decent to him in his daily work, but they were not really his family.
His memory of his woman Ah Won Ya never faded, nor the memory of his children, but he enjoyed each and every day thinking of the coming surprise he would have when he’d see just how tall his two children had grown, only now and then putting aside the constant though single memory to engage in a kind of guess-work on what they’d look like the next time he saw them. It was a most delicious trick he’d use to get him through any sense of lost time that came down on him, though the kitchen and his other chores kept that sense of lost time at bay; he had a knack for losing himself in work, and being good at it. Verna was the first to make not of his efficiency to her father, when she said, “If all our workers and hands could handle themselves and work like Lem Too Sin, we could sit back and just get rich, but there’s no fun in that. She did notice that her father, but not her mother, went into a deep study after she had said it. Her mother, obviously, had known it all along, whereas her father, as with many men, had to be pointed at a fact or a condition. Men were often unaware or unconscious of some of their surroundings, especially the traits and habits of others that were not in their path every day.
Verna, thinking back to what Lem Too Sin had said about Laird, being used to his references to masters of philosophy and conduct as old as the world itself, nodded, then smiled with a brightness that filled the kitchen for Lem Too, and said, “Your wise men, Lem Too, always say the right thing,” and punched it up with her own qualification, “and know when to say it.” Her smile radiated the whole message.
He, of course, accepted the compliment, and whistled much of the day at his work, believing Verna and he were in total agreement on the subject of Laird Dockery. He had seen too much of Merchant Gavelin, upon whom he measured his judgments on others, all to the others’ benefit.
Of all the people on the ranch, including Verna’s parents, and Gus Trendle, foreman, and all the cowpokes and old Harry Crosby, the barn man, who never spoke up about anything, Lem Too Sin realized he had the best view of everybody and everything except what went on out there on cattle drives, and branding time, and how the chuck wagon cook might manipulate his trade secrets to scratch up quick meals on the fly. Labor and constant attention were needed for such work, and he could imagine what men would perform well; he knew each one from only the contact within the confines of the ranch house and the barn. Even then, from the way body language talked to him, the way some treated their horses with the greatest kindness and awareness as opposed to those who were too casual in that deepest of obligations, he marked his men, said they were most dependable or not. It was simple with him; most dependable, or not most dependable. All the other possible rankings did not enter his acute judgment.
And Laird Dockery, from the first minute, measured up as a most dependable man, and Merchant Gavelin did not.
Lem Too Sin settled on himself the fact that he’d be a constant watchdog for Verna, in her love life as well as her dealings with hired hands. “The eye sees other shapes when one is in love,” the masters had said long in his past, “and sometimes the shape is a tiger and not a lamb for petting.”
Dockery, caught up one night in Verna’s moon, the moon she had drawn down upon them in a ride out of the grass, looked at her in the moon’s soft beauty and said, “Verna, I love you. I’ve loved you from the first moment I saw you. Now, in this moonlight, in the setting in which I could be happy forever, I never want anything to change, except that we get married someday, that you think on it as often as I do, knowing that you make all the beauty there is here for me, all this that abounds around us at this very minute.”
They were standing beside their horses, all the creatures caught in the moon glow, a soft and sensuous breath of a breeze at their necks, on their faces, and silence coming at them from the mountains ringing Verna’s Meadow, a silence that came golden in the moon, full on the air and the breeze moving that air. At one moment there came silence, and the next moment there was the call of a coyote so faint and so distant it could be imagined, and the hoot of an owl so close it might threaten a mouse or a small rodent at their feet.
And before Verna Brody could say yes to a proposal of marriage, there came a gunshot. A bullet passed in the air over their heads. Dockery dove against Verna and flung her down on the ground, his pistol in hand as he prepared to seek out the shooter, and Verna grasping his ankles and dragging him down upon her again.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I’ll marry you. I love you, but don’t go looking for someone in the night, even with this moon lighting up the Earth. Let’s wait until tomorrow.” She refused to let go of him and he gave up the struggle as a cloud passed between them and the moon.
“Quick,” Dockery said, “mount up and we’ll get out of here and get you home. I’ll come to check things out in the morning. There must be signs left. The shooter might not find an ejected shell in the dark if he went looking for it. He might have dropped something else belonging to him. I'm sure he must be scrambling now somewhere in the vicinity. That shot was within a couple of hundred yards of us.” He looked eastward, toward a peak that he had come to know well. “Whoever he is might have shot from up there. There are lots of places to hide in this range of mountains, which is full of caves and tunnels and crevices wide enough for a man to slip through.”
In their quick mounting of the horses, in the relief of getting Verna out of rifle range he hoped, Dockery put out his hand on Verna’s arm and said, “This is heaven in spite of that shot, Verna. Pure heaven, and I’m the luckiest man in the world.”
Verna Brody, on the cusp, of a new and dramatic turn in her life, said nothing, and let the moment sink into her whole person, and found it as good as anything she had known in her 25 years.
In the moonlight, in the broad and golden glow from that celestial power, she was the most beautiful woman Dockery had ever seen, and she too felt that way as he and the moon looked on her with favor.
They were speechless on the ride back to the ranch house, the threat of the rifle shot gone past them, each one of them locked into their feelings, knowing their love was shared … and that someone was trying to break it up.
Verna didn’t tell her parents about the single shot coming near her and Laird on their ride, keeping all of it, and the proposal as well, to herself, rolling that pleasantness clean through her mind time and time again during the following morning, though her good spirits were soon detected by her mother..
Dockery, though, was with Gus Trendle the first thing in the morning, pulling Trendle aside before going into the great kitchen for Lem Too Sin’s breakfast spread, the staple smell of steak and eggs and fried potatoes filling the air, drawing attention upon the rich aromas from everybody in the ranch house vicinity, the sun still a promise, with daylight so far on weak legs as it advanced from the mountains that circled Verna’s Meadow.
They found nothing. But that night, hidden in the shadows and the darkness, Lem Too Sin and Huang Hu moved silently out of the ranch house area and walked for an hour across the grass, to the area where he had heard Dockery say the shot came from. He opened the bag he was carrying, a small parcel, and removed the denim leg torn from a pair of pants, with its owner’s odor hopefully still present on it.
“去寻求，黄虎，并找到隐藏在这里，他去的, ” he said to Huang Hu, his voice full of sincerity and simple direction. (“Go seek, Huang Hu, and find the one who has hidden here and where he goes.”)
Huang Hu went off on a trot, his nose more in the air than on the ground. In 20 or 30 minutes he was standing at the entrance to several small caves, where the scent surely had faded away, or had been displaced by another odor or had been obliterated for one reason or another, which Lem Too Sin quickly assumed to be an attempt, a successful one, to cover all traces of the culprit … no one other than Merchant Gavelin, whose pants had been thrown into the trash after a bad fall from breaking a rather wild horse, and which Lem Too Sin, never trusting the man for one minute, had put aside … just in case there might be a future use. He heard at that time, on the whisper of the slightest wind, one of the old masters say, “一个出逃事件的人必然要离开比在地面上他的靴子的轨道，为他刷上，他倒是自己. (A man who flees an incident is bound to leave more than the track of his boots on the ground, for he brushes himself on all that he touches.) Lem Too Sin knew that it also meant the marking on the very air that was breathed in by the man and then breathed out again, for all to know and own who could find it.
He could not recall the name of the old master who said, on the voice of the wind also, faint as ever, 一名男子并不住在一个秘密的，它需要至少有两名男子是秘密, (“One man does not live in a secret; a secret takes at least two men to be a secret.)
The kitchen’s jack-of-all-trades, with his usual deep thought, knew he could not tell Verna or her loved one, Dockery, about the secret he and Huang Hu had discovered, that Merchant Gavelin, Mr. Ornery, had holed up for a time in one of the three caves, according to the trail that Huang Hu followed, and lost. One of the caves, for sure, would be a better place to start than what Dockery had described.
So Lem Too Sin went to Trendle and unloaded all he knew, and volunteering to lead him out there along with his dog.
Trendle rejected his help, but thanked him in his manner. ”I know the place, Lem Sin. I’ve been there before, but never inside. I have no idea what’s there, but I’m damned pleased you didn’t tell Verna or her friend, or her parents. That would have been a real problem for me and Verna and all of us. Merchant may get to be the animal he’s capable of becomin’. I’ve seen his kind before, out on the trail where you need it least. I’ll take care of him.”
In half an hour, with one trusted hand, Dutch Miller, and under cover of darkness, they headed out for the caves. There was no moon to see with, no stars popping in the sky, no falling stars dragging your eyes from a hard watch. The horses, for some reason, were skittish, and each rider was aware of a change happening, in the horses, in the air.
As they road, Trendle said to his pard, “Tell me what you think of Verna and Dockery, Dutch. How they stack up in your mind? Can we brand them as a couple?”
“Honest, Gus, I think they’re both winners. I thought that right from the first, knowin’ I’d never be in the tent with Verna, no matter how hard I tried. And Laird came as the perfect spoiler for Gavelin, who was plain-ass mean all the time when anythin’ came between him and Verna, him tellin’ lots of folk he had the inside track.” He almost halted his horse in the middle of a thought, then added, “Course, none of us ever believed his line of bull crap. Him and Verna never matched and never would. Verna’d make damned sure of that.”
The stance of his riding pal at the moment pleased Trendle, and he pictured, almost in one frame, Miller’s broad and round face full of a smile and Gavelin’s tight eyes in a narrow head, sort of like he had seen in a funny drawing with pencils a drawing artist had done one night in the saloon in Mountain City. The obvious difference came full bore to the ranch foreman.
As the two searchers neared the caves, darkness fully around them, night noises from the mountains in the usual slow chorus, one shot, a wild shot, rang out as if it was a warning in the shooter’s mind and there was no target. Neither Trendle nor Miller heard a bullet whiz through the air near them, nor did they observe a muzzle flash from the weapon.
Neither man dismounted as they read the signs attached to the shot.
“Someone heard us out here, Dutch,” Trendle said, “but he can’t see us. We can’t see him and he can’t see us, so we’ll use that. He’s not out on the grass, that’s for sure, so we’ll split up, go on foot from the big rock at the base of the cliff, and try to flush him out. Don’t take any chances. Shoot if you have to. I’ll be on your left, at least 50 yards away, so gauge on that if you think you might shoot.”
Trendle thought he was through with directions, but was suddenly grabbed by another warning that he relayed to Miller. “Dutch, we got to be careful on all of this, for Verna’s sake. That’s the only reason we’re in this fix, and if we don’t do it right, Verna’s the one who’ll have to pay. Give it your best shot.”
“Sure, Gus,” Miller said, “I wasn’t plannin’ on doin’ anythin’ else while I’m out here. Gavelin ain’t no nice fella and I ain’t about to worry my life away on account of him.”
As he walked away onto the path he planned, the echoes of words came to Trendle like dire warnings … “Give it your best shot … I ain’t about to worry my life away on account of him.”
The unease didn’t drift through his body like a tumble weed caught in a slight breeze, but slammed home the way a bullet would have in the eventual end to its making. He shivered so much that he felt it in his legs and in his hands. The bother of it came home to him.
Trendle, no dummy, a man who had been on a posse a number of times, went slowly at his work, placing his boots down softly with each step, and moved toward the three caves. Once, in a careful step, he felt the presence of a stick with his booted toe, and knelt down to move the stick out of his way. At first he was surprised to find the stick had been recently broken, snapped in pieces, with sharp ends. He was about to put it aside when he felt another one, another recently snapped stick. The ground was littered with them. The realization came with a fully blown image of Gavelin salting the path to the cave with a bunch of freshly broken sticks, which would surely give off a crunching sound or a snapping sound if stepped on.
He said to himself, “I hope if this trick is over there with Dutch that he finds it quick.” He had a sudden picture of Miller stepping on a stick and the sound resulting in a shot coming directly at him. The picture caught him with its terror. He picked up a stick and flipped it in the air toward a point further to his left, and away from Miller. Let’s see what happens now, he said under his breath.
The stick hit a solid surface and emitted a snapping sound. Immediately following the snapping sound came a rifle shot, a muzzle blast from off to his right, at which he fired both his side arms in a steady volley, and saw and heard the same sounds and sights coming from off to his right as Dutch Miller, seeing the gun fire develop, and aware of the lay of the land, fired away with his guns too.
Caution and suspense developed. Breath was held in place for a long stretch and silence came down off the mountain, from the caves, from the secret shooter’s place of hiding. Burnt gunpowder filled the air with its acrid smell. But no moan sounded its death knell. No man cried out with his last breath.
Then, at a distance, faint as a spiritual punctuation, nature finding a resolve in the sudden eruption of gunshots, a coyote gave warning, as if to alert all living things that death was on the march. A horse nickered out of bounds somewhere, the sound coming off a rocky face with its giveaway clue. Scrambling claws said a peccary was in flight on a rocky surface.
Gus Trendle and Dutch Miller, in the bright light of morning, the sun already warm on the whole meadow, came riding across the grass. They were doubled up on one horse, and across the saddle of a second horse was the body of a dead man.
In a sad ceremony, the body of Merchant Gavelin was laid to rest, the first body ever put down in Verna’s Meadow.
A month later, life continuing on Verna’s Meadow, the threat of a too-serious Merchant Gavelin put out of their minds, and their romance blooming stronger than ever, they went on with nightly rides on the meadow, knowing the land, its impact on them, and what it would demand of them as a couple in the future.
The night was a dark night, overcast with unseen clouds that seemed to be nothing more than a solid blanket, and the two lovers rode slowly in a routine that each one loved and doted on.
“Don’t worry, Verna,” Laird Dockery said, “about that moony stuff. I never believed any of it, so don’t worry about me being disappointed when it doesn’t happen. I’m just so happy that we’re getting married and all that Merchant stuff is behind us.”
His arms were around her and all her glories as they stood together out on the grass, her white horse standing behind her and his black off behind him. As she hugged him back and then kissed him, he felt the awe of the woman who was to become his wife, and the warmth now coming from her body and a new-source warmth settling quickly on the back of his neck.
He opened his eyes in a moment of revelation and saw their shadows, now one shadow, fall across her white horse, and Verna said, almost like a fortune teller, “Don’t be too sure about that, Laird. If I ever call and you come this quick to me, I’ll be as happy as any woman in the entire west.”
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