Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
He was checking the canyon for stray cattle yet to be rounded up from a stampede, when a single shot tore the Stetson off his head. It damned well hurt and he expected to see a lot of blood. Bigelow, hitting the ground in a roll, was glad he was short, glad he was just barely five feet tall, glad he was still alive. The bullet had creased his scalp. Blood flow was minimal, but if he was an inch taller he’d be an inch dead. Nothing moved out and beyond him in the passage of the canyon, tight as a stall, in the Bear Mountain area. For long minutes, waiting another shot, he stayed prone and still on the ground. The bushwhacker, he realized, would not show himself, telling Bigelow it was likely someone he knew, not just a down-to-earth coward looking for a horse or another saddle.
Another welcome to Morton’s Cross! Almost immediately he recalled the first encounter not more than a week earlier, late in the day, near the saloon.
“Hey, Shorty” a voice had yelled from across the alley. “That gun you’re carryin’s bigger than you I bet. Can you lift it high enough to shoot? You need some help? I’m the helpin’ kind, willin’ to give the little man a leg up.” Laughter followed, a streak of laughter, billowed by other cowpokes gathered in the alley beside the Last Stand Saloon, the busiest saloon in Morton’s Cross, Wyoming.
Morton’s Cross was a thinly developed young cow town. Plenty of room for growth remained between buildings, like calling cards for prospective builders. Trees were still plentiful in all areas, and one stood rather stately at the head of the alley beside the saloon where horses were tethered on real busy days. Less than a year earlier a herd of cattle could have walked right through the area without anything in their way but a few trees, including the one beside the saloon. And Calvin Morton, who owned a sizable chunk of the land, started a town; the stage line ran through the area, the river slipped its beginnings out of the hills in the distance, with the mountains beyond, the grass was good for a good part of the year, and he felt the need for more company. Four men of his were well-trained in running a small saw mill and he was assured of a steady demand for wood for a while, until the town got on its feet. With another crew he built the livery and the saloon in a week’s time, hustled business, brought in goods and other supplies, and rented the two sites to hard-working people he could trust. Also, he welcomed a few relatives from back across the territory, those he also could trust, to come and share in the opportunities he had opened: the west, the whole west he was sure, would grow and grow and grow.
One of his relatives, the object of the alley ridicule, Thurston Edward Bigelow, at a mere five feet on the button and a second nephew of Morton, spun in his place at the ridicule as though a door turned at his hand. Friends, and some learned foes, called him Teddy B; the others, like the mouthy poke in the alley, called him Shorty. Neither name bothered him; he turned only on results and good directions. Now this verbal slight, the kind he often spurned, or tried to pay little attention to, had garnered some nasty respect from him, demanded fair response. He supposed it was the congregated laughter that tipped the scale, or his uncle’s warning.
Morton had laid it out plain and simple to Bigelow right from the beginning. “It won’t be easy out here,” he advised the small man on arrival. “Everybody rushed to Morton’s Cross to get in on the ground floor. I knew some of them would be scamps, scallywags or outright thieves, looking for the fast buck, beating some poor soul to the pot. They’re the kind’d steal your drawers while you’re in the creek, or your guns if you ain’t holding them real tight. Get to know them right off. You’ll know who I’m talking about. Let them know who you are, I mean who your real self is as well as being a relative of mine. I don’t know how much that’ll help, but the first impression you make should be damned hard and unmistakable. Don’t take a lot of crap from anybody, but do it within reason. I’ve heard how you’ve been teased and taunted about your size. Probably won’t be a damned bit of difference here, but sometime they got to get paid back. I’m all for that. Payback pays back. I’m all for it. And you can depend on me. Me and the sheriff go back a long time down the trail. It’s all countable.”
Bigelow heard and understood everything his uncle told him.
To others Bigelow looked miniscule, half boy and half man, probably everybody assuming he was used to jokes and good-hearted bantering and teasing. In truth he was at times a spectacle, the gun at his side hung in a lop-sided manner, more likely to tip him on his butt than add to any arsenal of firepower, and his Stetson loomed atop his head the way a kite waits for a decent wind to lift it to flight.
This time, by design, was different. In a move that amazed the mouthy cowpoke, and all his cohorts lounging in the shade of the lone cottonwood, the tipsy, clumsy-looking revolver appeared in the little man’s hand as though it had leaped from its holster. A shot, loud and deafening from that drawn gun, landed in the middle of the tree about three feet from the loud talker.
In an early effort to establish his Morton’s Cross personality, Thurston Teddy B. Shorty Bigelow said, “If you check, you’ll see that shot, where I aimed, is at the same level as your heart, like where plumb dead center could be. I think that’s enough from me, and enough from you for the time being.” “For the time being” meant now and forever the way he said it, and all the cowpokes knew the tone of his voice.
Little man with a big gun. Little man with a big voice.
The first impression was clear as good water, and as good as gold.
Silence sat in the alley as Bigelow mounted a roan mare and rode off behind the saloon. Then, as if to cover his embarrassment, the mouthy cowpoke said, “Damned good thing I didn’t draw down on the midget. One round might have blown him all the way down the alley like bouncin’ tumbleweed.”
His laugh was the sole laugh that followed. But it hung in the air like a mean echo, the way memory gets a foothold.
Bigelow did not hear that mean laughter, but he knew he’d remember the cowboy, and the cowboy would remember him. He was thinking that as he rode off.
As he stayed in one place on the canyon floor, Bigelow recalled that encounter and tried to spot his horse. The roan, Pal-o-mine, head down, quiet, stood against a rock wall. The canteen, the rifle and the rope were in plain view and he knew they must be retrieved, kept close to him. Whispering, keeping his voice soft on a dry breeze, he called the horse. “Here, Pal. Come over here, Pal.” The snap of his fingers sent a small demand. The horse shifted his weight, looked at Bigelow still on the canyon floor, sauntered over to the little man who had studied his predicament, the lay of the land. Without question, Bigelow needed the gear Pal-o-mine carried on the saddle. If he was pinned down for any length of time, he’d need the gear one way or another.
At the foot of the canyon wall, rent by huge cracks and splits in the rocky formation, a small opening came into view. The measure of it, from first judgment, could hide him. But he needed his gear. Snapping his finger again, he whispered, “Here, Pal.”
The horse came near, Bigelow bolted upright, grabbed canteen and rifle and then the rope as the last of his gear. The second shot, from above, rang out, the horse made a miserable sound whose echo ran rings in the canyon. Before the sound came all the way back to Bigelow sliding on his belly into the opening in the fissured crack of the canyon wall, Pal-o-mine fell with a clatter of shoes on rock and a final thud. The sound of a bone breaking whimpered as another echo in the walls of the canyon.
A third shot shattered rock fragments near him as Bigelow slid his way into the fissure. Anger surged through him as he thought about his horse, the long rides they had shared, the rivers crossed and trails devoured. In his mind the face of the mouthy alley cowpoke tried to insert itself, but it would not come clear. There was no doubt in his mind that the man was capable of killing a harmless horse, the most despicable deed in the minds of most cowboys who often put their lives in the loyal gifts of a good horse.
Pity, sorrow, lamentation, and then anger surged through him, each sensation coming in its own turn, taking nips of him, bites, chunks of his consciousness. At length, in silence, he felt them burn away. With emotions subsided, he focused on his future, framing it in his mind; there had to be a way out of this predicament. Then, the ground cool beneath him, his faithful horse near as cold, the echo of the breaking bone making its awful return, vengeance came upon him, and dedication, and resolution.
Two more shots rang out shattering rock and stone nearby. Echoes carried on stone and bounced away. He slid himself deeper into the first fissure. He encountered a series of breaks and small alcoves and minor spaces, and then another fissure opened. His Stetson was too big and he rolled it up tightly and looped the rope around it. Crawling, pushing his canteen and rifle ahead of him, dragging the rope with the Stetson at the end of it, he moved deeper into the mountain of rock. He was not sure he could ever find his way out. The thoughts of critters and spiders and snakes and all such dangers rose in his mind. Darkness shrouded him and any and all who shared the mountain with him.
Hours passed. The decision to go on was never doubted. The kind of a man who would purposely kill a noble horse would stop at nothing to kill him; he could be waiting back there in ambush for a week, and Bigelow’s water would never last a week.
He tired, he slept, and unknown hours later, his thirst asking for response, he woke. He shook his canteen. It was better than half full. He had done well, had refrained from drinking only when his throat threatened to break in half. He reset his resolve, felt it to be bigger than he was.
Cautiously, discovering palpitations he was not sure were his own, a fresh breath of air crossed his forehead. He was jammed in a tight spot, but the breath of air, like morning itself or the thought of a river, washed over his face, touched his neck. It was cool, the way morning announces itself with newness and promise. It was as if a voice from outside was coming at him from an opening in one whole mountain of rock. The resolve set him crawling and squirming and dragging his rope.
It must have been hours. He measured time by his canteen, how the sound of the water line moved when he shook the canteen, how the volume had changed, telling him how thirsty he had been. How often an ache was known became another measurement, his body talking back to him. But the cool air stayed in front of him, coming along its way, on his lashes, on his lips, saying an opening was ahead. Once he laughed at a thought, seeing himself come freely into the bright day. If it was not bright day, with a glorious sun, he’d take a night grand with magnificent stars. What difference would it make? The Indians would give him a new name, bless him as the Man Who Walks through Mountain. He laughed again, “Tell that to my knees,” he said, into the darkness, into the whole mountain, into day or night whatever it was.
Other ideas penetrated his mind, threw themselves upon his senses. Darkness, he decided, had volume, had shape, had a solid if untouchable essence. “If it had a finger, it could tickle me, tease me, pick my nose if it wanted,” he said aloud, knowing he was trying to ease himself out of morbid thoughts. More than once he reached his hand into the heart of darkness, knowingly on a lark, and found little to settle his mind. “Darkness is,” he said in one huffy whisper, “and it pays me no mind. Can’t say that I can argue with that.”
He lost all measurement of time when he realized the canteen was almost empty. The last drink was so long ago, and he dared not take another. It might be his last.
But the air was fresher, still cool, but then, like a surprise, it came with a hint of warmth in it. A rush of wind sounded, as if it was around the corner. He hustled ahead, still on his stomach, rifle out front, canteen out front, elbows torn through his shirt, knees bared, knees aching. He had no idea how weak he was, but knew he’d need the last gulp of water soon. “Soon as I get around the next turn,” he said aloud. Resolve said it was another step on the way to whatever. He was still in charge. That was important.
The sound of his words came back to him. He pushed the loaded rifle ahead of him again, felt it had more space for passage, tipped the bore up a bit to measure the opening. Felt it reach higher and, then, higher.
He could not see but knew that greater space was at hand. In a small surge of energy, he believed he was in a large cavern with measurable sound that rushed at him. A strange image said it was like calipers being applied, a ruler being used. From above, like in old eaves on an old house, he heard the rustle of birds’ wings. More than one bird, he figured. He could not be dreaming. It was the rustle of birds’ wings and sound, as though it dropped down from space above. Lots of space. Echoes said space. Wind’s breath said space. His skin said space. Open space. Daylight. Escape. Freedom.
Then, he wondered, were his eyes playing tricks on him? Light fell into them, he swore. Fragile light. But light. Light from above. From high above. A gift, he wondered? Sunlight or moonlight, he could care less, but it was light. The birds sounded again. Wings. Bird talk. It was a beautiful sound coming at him, music of the whole earth, rhythm, notes from the ends of time. The cool rock floor he had been crawling on told him it was so.
He was as survivor.
He was still whole. And he had a good mouthful of water left. And there was sunlight, and warmth, and getting even for Pal-o-mine’s murder. The sheer bestiality of the act came upon him again. His horse had been murdered. His horse. He kept saying, “My horse. My horse.” The rhythm of riding Pal-o-mine came back in a rush, trails and paths with it, scenery abounding, everything on earth moving as if new for him.
The resolve worked through his body again. Muscles reacted. He knelt and then stood up. Dizziness passed through his head. He stared at the patch of light above him. He’d be ready. The rope came along as he pulled on it, looped it after taking his Stetson from its grip. With the Stetson on his head, the rope over his shoulder, the rifle in one hand, he started the climb toward light.
Teddy Bigelow came back into this life from a cave opening, or a grand fissure that traversed a whole mountain of rock. The sun spread its hands through his whole body, flushed his face, warmed his own hands, sifted through the fissure sleek as a knife from the sun in its circle of movement.
Still, vengeance moved its way through him, gathered reason and cause, amounted to a full sense.
In one flash he saw a brown root of a tree’s tenuous grasp, and the green of a single leaf. It flooded him, that leaf, and found new root.
On top of a mountain the little man came from underground. It was dazzling, the light, and the river falling in its beginning from a flat crest of rock across a wide canyon. Bigelow did not know where he was; the whole landscape seemed new, unbroken, virginal. In one deep breath he caught the smoke of a meal fire. Coffee slid across a wide space, it was so thin in its approach. But it was coffee. Then he caught the essence of beef and beans, a campfire on a mountain top.
Awakened senses led him across the rugged, rocky crest, the coffee aroma dragging him by the nose, other smells trying to identify themselves. It became apparent to him that his senses were sharper than they ever had been; perhaps, he thought, he was paying closer attention to their yield.
In this manner, quietly, more cautious than he thought he could ever be, he advanced on the source of the aromas, rising from what looked to be another huge break in the very mountain he had crawled through. Pride for that accomplishment pushed at him from all his insides.
Smoke from a fire rose slowly in the still air until it got above the rim line, where it drifted away on a soft wind. Horse sounds came next, from a hidden site. Bigelow moved to investigate the source.
Two huge boulders, left from an upheaval millions of years ago, he was thinking, sat on the saddleback of the mountain, and he slipped between them to look down into the depression. A big stallion, tethered on a flat stone, snickered; the fire spit a few sparks, and the noisy cowboy from the alley episode, at ease without a threat in the world, poured coffee into a tin cup, stirred a plate of beans. A gray Stetson sat on the back of his head. Strangely, his gun belt lay across a log beside him and his rifle leaned against a pile of logs, looking as if they had been gathered for a long siege by the bushwhacker.
Nobody in Morton’s Cross, or anyplace in the west up until that time, knew how good Teddy Bigelow could shoot. His first shot took care of the bushwhacker’s rifle, its trigger mechanism gone asunder. The second shot, nasty and noisy, ricocheted off the hand gun in the holster, exploding a round in the chamber. Pal-o-mine’s killer, smarter than he had ever been, raised his hands in quick measure, knowing without doubt who was upon him.
Bigelow, in a moment of triumph while mounting the bushwhacker’s stallion, said to him, “Take off your boots, mister. You’re walking back until we find you a horse. This is Morton land and Morton justice waits on you.”
From the canteen on the stallion’s saddle horn, he took his first swig in many hours. He could not remember how long it had been, but elation for the little man was too much to question.