Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
When I walked into the Red Rock Emporium I was tired, hungry and grumpy as a bear with a sore tooth. The desert moccasins I wore barely made a sound as I scuffed across the hardwood floor. My left shoulder was sore, right under that bloody tear in my buckskin shirt. Barnes MacDougal took one look at me and poured a shot glass full of rotgut.
I dropped my grey, low-crowned hat on the bar, stared at the bloodstain on the crown and then put it back on. I didn’t want to get anything on Jenny’s countertop.
How did blood get on my hat?
“I’d rather have coffee, Mac.”
He shrugged at me. “It looks to me like you’re dragging your ass. You need a little something to get you going. The tobacco and strychnine in this will put some hair on your chest, if you don’t mind the soap and gunpowder. Ain’t enough whiskey in there to hurt you—I know you’re trying to teetotal on the hard stuff. I’ll bring a fresh pot of coffee in for you… I think it’s only been setting a week.”
“And food.” My elbows hit the counter with a loud thump. More bruises. “I need food.”
“Well, free lunch was over a while ago but I think we got some beef and beans, maybe eggs. I’ll check with Jenny.”
The rotgut whiskey slid on the soap and burned all the way down. I shuddered, tensed a moment and finally took an eye-popping breath. My voice sounded squeaky and rough to my ears.
“Give my regards to your beautiful wife. Tell her I said please. And none of those buzzard eggs I got last time. Every time I went outside, I could see a turkey-buzzard shadow following me around. Big sucker, too.”
Mac shook his head. “If I tell her who the food is for… well, I wouldn’t be in a real big hurry to eat it.”
I sneaked a look at him from under my hat brim, unsure if he were joking. “Now, that last little shindig we had in here wasn’t my fault. I was just minding my own business when those miscreants from the Lazy Bar Y jumped me.”
“Yeah, but it’s your business that’s the problem. You attract trouble like one of them magnets. And, they wouldn’t have got mad if you hadn’t told their boss you’d shoot him on sight if he didn’t stop bothering those farmers.”
Mac rolled his eyes. “I’ll see if I can stir up some grub. I take it you fetched Beaufort?”
“Yeah, I got him.”
Jonas Beaufort had a wanted poster decorating the sheriff’s wall in every place he’d lived, but it was all penny-ante stuff. He was more of a nuisance than anything. I didn’t much care what he’d done in other places, but a storeowner had filed a complaint in our town. I needed to talk to him about it.
When he took off, I expected to catch him in less than a day, and didn’t pack much in my saddlebags. Unless I missed my guess, the nag he rode would die after a day of hard riding. Well, I missed my guess.
There would surely be a whole book written someday about how even the simplest tasks can go wrong a dozen different ways. And do it with some regularity. Maybe I’d write it.
The first day out, we had a gully washer of a rain that ended with me on one side of a flooded creek and him waving at me and grinning on the other. He may have thought this was a game but I was getting too old for this crap. My slicker was back in town and it rained so hard I had water inside my leggings.
The next day my jug-headed horse picked up a rock in his hoof. I dug out the rock, but the horse still limped so we started walking. I wasn’t mad yet, but I was getting there.
I needed another horse and damned if I wasn’t close to Allison Boggs place. She’d been a widow for a year or so, and was a real nice lady. She was pretty and had a friendly disposition, so she was popular. She couldn’t afford to hire hands to help her, but the chores seemed to get done. The trail to her door seemed well travelled. I have to admit some of those tracks were mine. I heard she always turned the others down.
When I drug my horse into her corral, she fetched me into the house and fed me apple pie. She sat across the table smiling at me. That was mighty fine pie.
“Alli, you ever give thought of being squired by the local sheriff?” I always figured the direct approach saved a lot of time.
Her smile seemed to turn sad a moment as she looked me over. “Latigo, I been made a widow once. I didn’t like it. If we hook up, I’d stand a good chance of being one again. That’s not much for a woman to look forward to.”
How do you argue with that? “Well, I’m trying to avoid that. Why don’t you think it over?”
I was tempted to linger a bit, but Beaufort was a burr under my saddle I needed to get rid of. I figured to stop by later. I’d already played my hand. She could up the ante or fold. She did swap horses with me, which I took as a good sign.
It made me wonder if Beaufort saw my limping horse and led me that way hoping I’d get distracted.
“It took me three days and I chased him all over hell and gone.” I looked at Mac. “I guess I shouldn’t have chased him at all. I get stubborn sometimes. All I wanted to do was bring him in for the judge. When I finally caught him, I told him that.
He’d stole a pair of pants from Johnson’s dry goods store and roughed up Fred on the way out. I told him if he came back I’d buy the pants if he needed them that bad, and Fred wasn’t hurt none—mostly his pride. I told him he’d spend maybe thirty days in jail.”
“So, what happened?”
“I really don’t know. He just stood smiling at me all friendly-like and I thought he’d come in with me. When he went for his gun—I didn’t expect it. His expression never changed. The way he was grinning, he must have thought it was all a game. I think he was addled, or something.”
I shook my head, remembering it. “My pistol caught on the front edge of the holster and I had to hurry. I tried to hit his arm, but this new Remington has a hard trigger pull and it moved my aim to the right a little. It was just enough. I didn’t mean to kill him, but I punched his ticket sure enough.”
Mac looked at my shoulder. “Looks like he got a shot off.”
“Yeah. He scratched me some. Even with hanging up my draw, I waited too long trying to aim my shot. Why would he do that, Mac? Why’d he do a damned-fool thing like that? It made no sense.”
Mac didn’t have an answer and I didn’t expect any. Sometimes crazy things pile up so high you wonder how you get through it. It seemed an everyday occurrence for me.
He left for a few minutes and then came back, looking at the front entrance. “Ah, hell. Here’s another one. Sometimes I think we have a notice in the paper for idiots.”
I watched in the mirror as a young man, a kid really, came in the door. After looking around, he came straight to the bar. He was dressed in clothes so new the crease was still in the pant legs from where they’d lain folded on the shelf. His long-sleeved shirt was a bright red-checkered cloth that looked like the table coverings from the café down the street.
Leaning on the bar, the man hooked a thumb in a brand new, black polished pistol belt that made my old brown one look paltry and cheap. Mine is dirty and hard with sweat, dirt and grease. Got a few scratches on it from when I went ass-over-teakettle off the front of my horse once. The horse said he was sorry but I didn’t feed him until the next day.
His pearl handled pistol sat in a holster cut low in the front. I guessed he didn’t want his barrel to get caught on a draw—unlike the local sheriff. His gun looked like one of the new Colts. The young man looked like he’d just walked out of a catalog that advertised all those dime novels coming out. A wannabe shootist looking for a cover painting.
He spoke to Mac. “I’m here looking for a man named Latigo Jones. I was told he liked to hang around here for the free food.” At that, he turned to me. “You don’t look like much, so you can’t be him. Have you seen him around?”
The man looked closer at me, making an obvious show of it. “Man, you got blood all over you—been working cattle?”
I glanced down at my dirty clothes. What the hell? I had a rain-bath this week. I finally replied to him.
“Latigo? I heard he died. Left town on a horse called Satan and we ain’t seen him since.” I looked him over. “Why do you need him, just in case I leave town on the same horse?”
“He’s got something I want.” He drew himself up to his full height. “I got to face him down, or kill him. He’s supposed to be the fastest gun anywhere, and mean as all get-out. It’ll help build my rep when I put him down.”
I traded glances with Mac. Jenny was peeking out of the kitchen waggling a finger and shaking her head at me. I grinned at her. “I’m curious. What do you need with a reputation?”
The young man looked at me like I’d grown two heads. “Why, I’m the Pecos Kid. I’m a gunfighter. A man handy with a gun can make a lot of money hiring out to the big cattle outfits. I just need to add this Latigo Jones to my bona fides.”
“Pecos Kid? I‘ve seen four or five of those in the last month. Have you ever been to the Pecos country? And what the hell are bonny fighters?”
“Bona Fides are like a list of accomplishments. If you were educated you’d know that.”
“Huh, I’ll be. Well, ya got any?”
He put his hand on his gun and said in what I’m sure he thought was a menacing voice. “I don’t like your tone, Mister.”
I just stared at him a minute and he was getting mad. Jenny was glaring at me from the kitchen and I figured to swear off food for a while.
“Mac, you still got that bung starter under the counter?”
Mac gave me a curious look, pulled out a mallet and started to hand it to me.
“No, the longer one. The one you made from that broken pool cue awhile back. I need to show Pecos something.”
The Pecos Kid was right-handed and he sported one gun that I could see. The stick was about three feet long. When Mac handed it to me, I raised it and whacked the kid right on his shoulder bone. I knew what would happen. His arm and hand would be numb for hours.
His face went pale for a second before he started jumping around. “Ow… jeezus… what the hell did you do that for? I ought to….”
He stopped when I reached out and pulled his gun from its holster and laid it on the counter. I returned the stick to Mac.
I hadn’t eaten in two days so I decided to chance it. I’d left with just some beef jerky, and it was tough and salty. Going through Beaufort’s things, I found he didn’t have much either—which made me wonder again why he took off in such a hurry. Yesterday I missed a snap shot at a small deer and was about ready to ride down the first jackrabbit I saw.
Mac brought the food and I stared at the funny-colored eggs a moment before I started eating.
Pecos just stood there rubbing his arm and making faces. He took his left hand, lifted his right arm and dropped it on the counter with a thump. After doing it a couple of times, he looked at me.
“You’ve killed my arm. I don’t think it will come back.”
I ignored him enjoying those funny eggs.
“Can I have my gun back?”
“You going to try and shoot somebody with it?”
He tried to move his right arm but he couldn’t control it. “How? I won’t even be able to feed myself.”
After checking his brand new .45 Peacemaker and extracting a cartridge, I set an empty chamber under the hammer. Then, I reached over and put it in his holster.
I chewed on a piece of week old beef, until I finally washed it down with a big gulp of coffee. “You’re a damned fool, you know that?”
“Your opinion ain’t worth much, mister. And you wouldn’t give it to me if I had two good arms.”
“Yeah. I suppose you’re right. I’d be plumb scared.” I thumbed my hat back so I could see him better. “You had a round under the hammer of your shooter. You know damned good and well if you drop it just right, that gun will go off. And you will drop it, because there’s no loop on that fancy holster you have. The bad thing is… it’s never you that’ll get shot. It’ll be some innocent bystander or maybe some kid.”
He tried to sound offhand, but didn’t carry if off. “I figured to be careful. A gun hand never knows if he’ll need that extra shot.”
“If you’re any good, you’d just need one.” I reached out and nudged him. “You’re no gunman and never will be. My advice is to take off that gun until you grow up enough to wear it.”
I could see him getting all bulled up. “I’m better than you, that’s for damned sure. I’m better than this Latigo Jones or anyone else you can trot out.”
“Hell, I’m not even medium fast and I’d beat you. Even before you were hurt, you were leaning on your right arm. By the time you straightened up, you’d be dead. And you’ve let me hurt your gun arm and gain advantage. You couldn’t hold a bar of soap, much less draw a gun.” Then I asked him straight out. “Why on earth do you want to be known as a gunman?”
He looked between Mac and me. “I never had anything. I want respect. Everyone looks up to a gunfighter.”
“People are afraid of someone like that. That’s not respect.” I shook my head. “You want respect?” I pointed my thumb at Mac. “He runs a business. He’s a good man and has the respect of everyone.”
A voice yelled from the back. “Not me.”
I glanced over my shoulder toward the kitchen. “Don’t you believe it. Even her. You try and hurt Mac and she’d bust out of there like a flock of hornets. This town is full of business people all trying to make a living… to make their lives better. They have respect because they earned it. They work for a living and make something of themselves. The ranchers and farmers around here are doing something—producing things. That’s their bona fides.”
“These people you’re looking up to. What do they contribute to life? Other than kill people and brag about it… what do they do?”
I could see the boy finally taking some interest, so I pressed on.
“The men with fast guns looking for a reputation will eventually kill each other off, mostly by getting shot in the back. Outlaws try to kill off the lawmen. Sometimes they succeed. Who’s left, boy? Look outside. Look around you. What do you see? You should see people making an honest living and going about their lives. They are the ones who’ll be left. The rest of us will just be outside, looking in. Or, worm food in boot hill. One or the other.”
I was out of coffee, and the plate was empty—I didn’t remember finishing the food. “What’s your name, son. Nobody named you Pecos.”
For a moment, I didn’t think he’d answer. “Fred Kittrick.”
“Jim Kittrick’s boy? Got a place south of here about fifty miles or so?”
“He know you’re here?”
So that’s where he got the money for the new outfit. “Well, Fred. You take the advice of a tired man. Go home. Make peace with your folks. Be glad of what you got. Work from can-see to cain’t to make it better. If you do that, you’ll have the respect of every man around you. Those are the ones who count.”
I let that last comment sink in while he stared at the floor. “And change those clothes. You look like a saloon fancy man.”
His gaze met mine. “You’re him, ain’t you.”
We watched that boy walk out and climb on his horse. He kind of stumbled once on his way, but that was OK. I figured he had a lot on his mind. He reined his horse around and started down the street at a slow walk.
Mac cleared his throat. “I’m surprised. There was a time you would have shot that boy. Maybe you should have because he might come back. You sure laid into him.”
“I hope he remembers and it does some good. Besides, my gun isn’t loaded. I fanned her dry at a jackrabbit.” I smiled a little. “It was confused some, what with all the dust blowing up around it, but I never touched it. Worst shootin I ever done. I guess I forgot to reload.”
He stared at me a long moment, trying to catch my gaze. “That killing really got to you, didn’t it?”
“Why’d he do it?” I stared into my coffee cup, but found no answers. “There was no reason for him to grab his gun. Just none at all.”
Jenny poked her head out of the kitchen door. When I glanced at her, she had tears in her eyes. Her voice was soft. “Idiot.”
Mac cleared his throat. “So, are you going back to see Alli?”
I looked out the windows. People were going about their lives, doing normal things. I was tired, but not that tired. “Yeah, I figure so. She’s a good woman.”
“I can save you the trip.” Alli was standing in the kitchen doorway, next to Jenny. They both had tears in their eyes. Women.
She walked toward me. “I’ve got a ranch that needs a firm hand. It’s getting kind of run down and needs attention.”
I had to wonder if we were talking about the ranch. “I’ve heard a slew of good hands have been volunteering for that job.”
“Boys, not men.” She smiled up at me. “I have a lot of jackrabbits that need dusting up some. Sound like a deal to you?”
I looked at Mac and Jenny. I’d always wished for what they had. “So, how do I get into this good deal?”
Alli did that one eyebrow thing that some folks can do. “I figure a bath should be the first thing on your list.”
Cain’t argue with that.
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