Western Short Story
and cinders hung heavy in the air as the quietness of a small-town
early morning was shattered by the piercing whistle of a train
signaling it was time to begin its journey. Ben Cooper settled into
a seat near the window of the passenger car and peered through the
cloud of steam and smoke spewing from the big locomotive. He twisted
this way and that, nervously scanning in all directions for any sign
of the McEver brothers. Their vengeful intent was the reason he was
in a hurry to leave town. Ben was on the run after ending a short and
turbulent engagement to the youngest McEver girl, Hannah.
Too late, Ben had learned of the hot temper that had made the McEvers the terror of the countryside. Their father was a large, burly Scotsman and their mother was an Apache from near Sonora. Ben had been part of a trail drive heading a herd of longhorns north when his horse, Spot, was running at a full gallop trying to head off a runaway steer and stepped in a prairie dog hole. Ben and Spot both ended up with broken legs. Ben met a better fate than old Spot, but he still wasn’t in any shape to stay with the herd. The trail crew dropped him off at the next town and as luck would have it the McEver’s offered to take him in until he was on the mend.
Ben had thought it was not a bad life for a while. Duff McEver and his wife Ela were the proud parents of two daughters; Sarah and Hannah; and two sons, Angus and Fergus. Hannah paid special attention to Ben in his recovery and before he knew it, he was staring matrimony in the face. He had tried to slow down the upcoming marriage and that was the first time he had seen Hannah’s volcanic temper. He still had a sizable knot on the back of his head where the cast iron skillet had got him. It was a dangerous weapon in her small hands. All the family except Ela were known far and wide for having a short fuse. Hannah had apparently held her temper in check until the skillet incident but after that it ran wilder than a free-range steer.
Ben brought up the impending marriage once more; this time using a little planning before broaching the subject. He made sure he was on the far side of the corral from Hannah when he mentioned possibly postponing the impending nuptials. However, his planning was not as detailed as it should have been. He had overlooked a stack of firewood located near Hannah’s side of the corral.
Hannah was a wiry little woman like her mother, but she could chunk a stick of firewood a considerable distance. The first stick of wood caught Ben square in the chest and knocked the wind out of him. He doubled over sucking wind as a hailstorm of cordwood and kindling pelted him from head to toe. Hannah’s slender arms were stronger than they looked; the firewood whistled through the air as if fired from a cannon.
Hannah finally simmered down, but word of Bens’ cold feet got back to the rest of the family. Angus and Fergus cornered him in the barn one night and bounced him off the walls a couple of times before cleaning their boots by stomping on his head. They indicated that if he wanted to remain in the bull corral, he best give up on the idea of postponing the wedding. Otherwise, he would be running with the steers. It was then Ben knew he had to make a break for it.
Night had not yet given way to dawn as stars still twinkled in the early morning sky while Ben was spurring the McEvers fastest horse into a full gallop in a mad dash for town. Hopefully, his timing was right so that he would get there just before the train left the station.
He hadn’t felt right about leaving without saying goodbye so he had written Hannah a goodbye note explaining that they had rushed the idea of marriage and maybe they should rethink things. He hoped he would be long gone before her brothers got wind of it.
Ben left the McEvers horse at the livery stable, hurriedly bought a ticket and bounded up the steps of the passenger car just as the train whistle wailed a notice that it was time to leave.
Ben breathed a sigh of relief as the train picked up speed leaving the town and the McEvers behind. He relaxed and leaned back in the seat as he surveyed the other passengers.
A young dark-haired woman with two small children was setting near the middle of the car. The woman was softly reading a story from Aunt Louisa’s Oft Told Tales. It must have been a good one as the kids sat quietly, listening to every word.
Near the front of the car a group of loud rowdy men were swapping lies and telling stories. The loudest of the group was a middle-aged man in a well-worn suit. He proudly proclaimed he was Jim Danby, the number one salesman of feed, seed and other agricultural necessities in the mid-west. He traveled from Kansas City to Fort Worth on a monthly basis, stopping at all the small towns along the way to make sure the local mercantile stores were well supplied for all their farming needs.
Ben began to relax as the train rolled along putting distance between himself and the ill-tempered McEver brothers. He was thinking of taking a nap when, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a couple of riders moving fast over a small rise off to the north of the train. As they drew closer Ben almost jumped out of the seat. He recognized Fergus McEver’s big paint gelding as one of the horses. As the riders drew near, he clearly saw the faces of Hannah’s brothers; they also saw him as Fergus pointed toward Ben’s location in the back of the railway car.
Their mounts were already lathered up from a vigorous ride but the McEver boys spurred the horses into a hard run trying to overtake the train. Ben wiped the sweat from his forehead while he watched the graceful motion of the horses as they moved in full stride toward the train. It was close, but the train gradually pulled away from the riders until the horses were reined to a halt. He was glad to see the McEver’s fade from sight as the train roared down the tracks in a cloud of smoke and cinders; but Ben doubted he had seen the last of the vengeance seeking brothers.
Ben’s relief was short lived with the train making good time for a couple of miles before the engineer gave a short blast on the locomotives’ whistle as the train screeched to a quick stop.
Salesman Danby and his rowdy group of story tellers made their way forward to the front of the train to check the cause of the delay. He returned in a couple of minutes to spread the details to those who had remained in the car.
“Ain’t but about ten trees in this part of Texas and three of them are laying across the tracks.”
“What’s going on?” asked the young woman with the children as she, too, had remained in the passenger car.
“Trees blocking the track,” replied the salesman. “The rest of the passengers are up there right now trying to move them so we can get going.”
Ben looked out the back window to make sure the McEver brothers weren’t bearing down on them.
About that time a shotgun blast rocked the tranquility of the prairie.
“All right!! Hands up! This is a stick-up!”
“What now?” Ben asked in surprise. “We need to get movin’.”
The woman and her children hunkered low on the floor between two seats as Ben and the salesman peered out the window.
“It’s the Wardlow Gang,’ stated Danby, as he stared out the window. “And they’re robbin’ the train.”
“Robbin’ the train?” Ben was shocked. “What’s wrong with them? Ain’t nobody robbed a train in years!”
“It’s the Wardlows,”replied Danby as he shook his head in amazement. “They ain’t real smart, but they make up for it by being ambitious.”
“We don’t have time for this,” said Ben as he peered down the tracks behind them; nervously looking for blood lusting McEvers.
Danby continued as he pointed to four men holding guns on the passengers and crew who had been moving the trees from the tracks. “See that dried up old man wearing the derby hat? That’s Pappy Wardlow. He’s the leader. Them three fellas with the bushy beards; that’s his sons Mel, Ott and Del. Mel and Ott are twins.”
“Who’s the little wiry guy?”
“That’s Frog Higgins. I think he’s one of their cousins. They call him Frog on account he don’t never stop jumpin’ around and movin’.”
“I wonder why they ain’t checked here in the passenger car?”
“Like I said; they ain’t the brightest fellas in the territory,” said Danby, drawing on knowledge gained in his many travels. “I’ve seen them before. Usually rob way stations and dry good stores.”
“Well, we ain’t got time for this,” declared Ben as he pulled his Smith and Wesson Schofield from its holster and checked to make sure it was loaded for action. “I need to get on down the road.”
With that he slipped out the back of the car and into the underbrush where he was out of sight. Ben scurried though the shrubbery along the railroad tracks until he was in a clump of bushes well behind the gang of robbers.
Four of the outlaws were still on their horses and had their guns leveled at the crew and passengers who had been clearing the tracks. An old man with a well-worn derby hat perched atop his head and three burly young men with shaggy beards were on horseback. The little skinny guy had dismounted and was running back and forth along the tracks.
The gang members were dressed in threadbare faded clothing and their hats had more holes than a pound of swiss cheese. Their horses were an assorted collection of worn out old hay burners who hadn’t seen a good meal in a month of Sundays. The outlaw trail had not been kind to the Wardlow Gang.
From his hiding spot in the underbrush Ben got off a warning shot from the Smith & Wesson that whistled over the head of the old man in the derby. The old guy ducked and one of the bushy bearded boys fell off his horse.
“Drop the guns and raise your hands!!” commanded Ben from his position in the underbrush. “And be quick about it!”
The outlaws hurriedly complied as the train crew scrambled to grab the gang’s weapons from the ground. Ben stepped from the underbrush as Pappy Wardlow squinted at him.
“You shouldn’t ort to be shooting at an old man”, said the gang leader, his left eye in a perpetual squint. “You ‘bout give me a heart attack.”
“If you’re robbin’ trains you should be expecting to get shot at”
“This is our first train robbery,” replied the old man. “It’s harder than it looks.”
“Ain’t nobody robbed a train in years,” said Ben.
Pappy Wardlow nodded his head, “I can see why; it’s a lot of work.”
The old guy continued as he scratched his scruffy beard, then pointed to the little skinny fella. “Frog, there, he’s full of vinegar. If it warn’t for him, we never would have got them trees on the tracks.”
Frog strode forward and eyed Ben. “You red-headed peckerwood.”
Ben ignored him. “You men get them trees off the track. We’re wasting time here.”
The luckless gang set about clearing the tracks while Frog continued to chant, “You red-headed peckerwood,” ignoring the fact that Ben was not red-headed.
As Pappy Wardlow had said Frog was a bundle of energy. Between the peckerwood chants and his jumping around in all directions he and the Wardlow’s cleared the tracks in a hurry.
Soon the tracks were open for travel again, and the locomotive slowly lurched forward chugging down the tracks as the Wardlows squinted and stared at the slow-moving train.
“You ain’t gonna leave us our far-arms?” called Pappy Wardlow as the train began moving.
“You would just try to rob us again if we left you the guns,” yelled Ben through the cloud of smoke and steam.
“That ain’t right, leaving us with no weapons,” called out one of the scraggly bearded boys.
“You red-headed peckerwood!”
Ben ignored the hard-luck outlaws as he cast a long searching glance back to the far horizon. Thankfully, no sign of Hannah’s brothers.
Miles of prairie slipped away before the train rolled into the station of its next stop. Ben was feeling a sense of relief as he waited for the other travelers to disembark from the passenger car. As he moved toward the exit, he glanced out the window at the loading platform in front of the station. He stopped in his tracks as his heart skipped a beat. There was Hannah and her family waiting in front of the train station! They were giving each passenger a long hard look as they stepped down from the train.
Ben dropped to the floor and hurriedly crawled down the aisle to the back steps and onto the loading platform. He cautiously inched his way forward and peered around the corner of the passenger car as he kept a close watch on the McEvers.
As he pondered his next move, a voice behind him made the hair on the back of his neck stand at attention. “You red-headed peckerwood!”
Ben spun around to be confronted by the Wardlow Gang. Pappy Wardlow gave him his best one-eyed squint. “We come to get our far-arms.”
“How did you get here so fast?” asked Ben hoping to distract the gang as he edged closer to the rest of the passengers. “Your old wind-broke horses must still have a little life left in them.”
He took off in a run only to come crashing to the ground as Frog jumped on his back. The rest of the gang surrounded the men sprawled on the platform.
“We fixing to whoop you now,” said Ott Wardlow as a gleeful smile played across his bearded face.
As Ott drew back to deliver a kick to Ben’s ribs, Ott himself was sent reeling by the powerful right fist of Angus McEver.
“We’re a whoopin’ him first!” roared Angus, as the McEver clan joined the fray.
And the battle was on. There was punching, kicking, biting, eye-gouging, and name calling of the worst order as a full-blown brawl broke out at the train station. Wardlows and McEvers battled for the right to be the first to give Ben a sound thrashing. Ben still lay on the platform dazed by what was happening around him.
To their credit the Wardlow Gang did not shy away from a good beating. In fact, they seemed to relish it. Angus McEver sent Mel Wardlow crashing to the ground with a punch that would have stunned an ox only to see Mel leap to his feet and rejoin the battle with renewed vigor. Frog was hopping, running and jumping in all directions as he dodged McEver punches.
“Somebody grab that little skinny feller,” yelled Angus, as he threw a punch that missed the jumping Frog. “He’s got ants in his pants. I ain’t been able to touch him!”
“Watch that old man! He don’t fight fair!” hollered Fergus, as he staggered around the platform rubbing his face with his shirt sleeve. “He done spit tobaccer juice in my eyes!”
The McEvers were dishing out far more punishment than they were receiving but the Wardlow’s didn’t seem to care. Pappy Wardlow proved to be the toughest scrapper in the fight. What he lacked in youth and vitality he made up for with toughness and dirty tricks. The old-timer was giving as good as he was getting, squinting all the while. Pappy pulled a short metal pipe from his back pocket and used it for a well-placed punch that dropped Fergus to his knees. The low blow brought Fergus to the ground in such agony that he now firmly believed he would be unable to contribute to the procreation of future generations of McEvers.
This was an odd predicament for the McEver’s, generally, their opponents had turned tail and were in full retreat at this point in the battle. The ongoing donnybrook gave Ben the chance he was looking for. He rolled off the elevated station platform and onto the street where he moved quickly away from the melee.
As Ben darted down the street, he cast a wary glance back toward the fight just in time to see Hannah jump on the back of Ott Wardlow. Ben quickened his pace as he heard Ott shrieking, “Lawdy! Somebody hep me! This hellcat done bit a hunk outta my ear!”
Ben rounded the corner just as a stagecoach slowly weaved its way through the curious crowd that had flooded the street on their way to the ruckus at the train station. Ben flagged down the driver who pulled back on the reins and brought the team to a stop.
“You comin’ or goin’?” asked Ben.
“Leavin’ town. Headed to Fort Worth.”
“I need a ride,” replied Ben as he fished through his pockets and pulled out several Yankee Dollars.
“Seven dollars fare; another two dollars if you want meals,” said the driver as he spit a stream of tobacco juice into the street. “Ain’t got no room inside the coach. You have ride on top.”
Ben handed the driver the money for fare and meals as he scampered to the top of the coach and got as comfortable as possible in the midst of various bags and trunks. He cast one last look at the brawl which appeared to be in its final stage. The Wardlow gang was making a slow but valiant retreat; battling all the way.
Ben reached in his pocket and pulled out three dollars more and handed them to the driver. “Do you think we could pick up the pace a little.”
The driver palmed the greenbacks, stuck them in his shirt pocket and let loose with a long stream of tobacco juice before popping a long black whip over the backs of the horses.
“Giddyap!” yelled the driver as the team raced forward.
Ben gave a long sigh of relief as he was leaving Texas on a fast stagecoach.