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Western Short Story
Luke's Legacy
L. Roger Quilter

Western Short Story

“He weren’t much to look at; thin, short and wiry, showed all of his sixty years as he shuffled along, but thar wuz somethin’ about him that drew yer attention.” Rusty swallowed more of his beer as he regaled the three men, seated at a table in the Black Stallion saloon in Cimarron. The person in question was Rusty’s friend, Luke, who passed away the day before. Falling off a horse, chasing cattle kills a man, especially when his head strikes a rock.

“Now I know you didn’t set store with him fer quite a spell, thet’s yer misfortune, but I knowed him since we were young, long afore your time, and he and I got along jest fine.”

Rusty consumed beer swiftly to quench his insatiable thirst, while the others, staid, severe in appearance, sipped theirs distastefully. Rusty had insisted at holding a wake for Luke.

Lean tanned and fit, with his fiery red hair rapidly turning to gray, Rusty looked at odds with the three brothers sitting at the table. Rusty appeared to be a typical cowhand, blue eyes that twinkled with humor and a three day growth of beard, even grayer than his hair, yet he looked younger than his actual age.

Outside, the wind was blowing big-time and, though it was sunny, dark clouds on the western horizon threatened a typical Kansas storm, maybe a tornado within an hour or two. Rusty reckoned many of the hundreds of homesteaders, caught in their makeshift shelters would suffer. These pioneers seemed to be pushing the cattle ranchers further west, so Rusty felt Luke’s ranch would be worth a bit. The three men seated with him, also thought that way, and rubbed their hands thinking about how much Luke was worth.

Rusty studied his three listeners, taking in their looks, clothing and general appearance, forming an opinion about them. True, he remembered them as children, but now they were adults he wanted to compare them with his previous notions.

Nate, John and Will Wilson, three brothers in their late thirties, looked like peas in a pod. Rusty reckoned they took after their mother’s side of the family. Dark, overweight men with heavy beards hiding their jowls, typical townsfolk, out of place in this smaller town. They reminded him of Mormons he had seen further north.

Slowly, he studied them, one by one.

Nathanial, or Nate, the eldest, a successful banker, a resident of Dodge City, twenty miles from here, miserable as sin, always after the almighty dollar. Rusty reckoned his face would crack if he tried to smile. He always led the others, especially in religious matters.

“We’ll be visiting the lawyer Zeke Gibbons, this afternoon, Rusty. Reading of the will, and I doubt if you need be there. If you decide to come please do us all a favor, clean yourself up a little.”

Nate’s adverse opinion concerning Rusty’s appearance fazed the old-timer not all. He just smiled and nodded acceptance. He knew his faded, torn denims; ragged check shirt and scuffed down-at-heel boots did little to recommend him to others. Still, he thought, that’s my choice and my business.

“We have kept in touch with affairs here through Mr. Gibbons. Never met him yet, but he has a sterling reputation.”

Rusty said nothing, knowing more about the lawyer than these three imagined.

He turned to study the second brother, another morose individual who looked older than Nate. John ran an overpriced general store, where he and the youngest brother, Will fleeced the customers unmercifully.

When a new place opened up in Cimarron, charging much lower prices, people traveled many miles and avoided the costly store in Dodge. All three brothers held a grudge towards the store’s owners, not knowing Luke and Rusty were proprietors.

“Put a dent in their shenanigans,” Rusty thought, smiling to himself as he watched the trio. Scavengers, the lot of them. The three of them traveled here to attend the funeral of a man they detested, hated even. The fact that Luke was rich drew them like hyenas around a kill.

Their eyes held your attention, six slate gray eyes that stared coldly at you from under shaggy black eyebrows. Yes, they reminded him of their mother.

Rusty, the son of a cattle baron, spent over four years attending university back east. After graduating, he felt the need to see the world before he settled down, so he took off heading back to the west. His idea was to exchange readin’ ritin’ and rithmatic to rovin’ ropin’ and rustlin’! Well, maybe not the last.

Rusty and Luke met on a cattle drive, Luke, a bright, energetic, fun-loving character aged twenty, some five years younger than Rusty, struck a chord in Luke’s soul. Sleeping under the stars each night brought companionship of a high order. Working side by side, separating and driving the ornery critters around them, they instinctively knew what the other was thinking despite separated by a mass of cattle.

Luke, albeit the son of a cattleman, lacked the wealth of his new friend, still they had a common bond. They shared everything in equal parts, including food and water after losing their way in the desert one time.

In 1850, footloose and eager to explore, the pair headed to California in the late stages of the gold rush. They struck it rich in a supposedly played out gold-bearing creek. That summer was the driest on record, so more of the riverbed was exposed. The eight nuggets they dug out of the gravel were enormous and worth a small fortune.

The pair bought some land near the proposed site of Cimarron and set up ranching. At this stage in life a more settled approach to life appealed to them after a couple of years prospecting and wandering all over hell’s half acre, as they described it.

Raising cattle and taking part in cattle drives, each taking turns while the other looked after their spread; the pair amassed a lot of money.

After settling in to their new lifestyle, Rusty took up business in Cimarron, but spent every weekend on the ranch.

When Maggie Doherty reached town with her mother, all those many years back, both Rusty and Luke fell in love with her. The mother dominated her daughter spouting religion every chance she got. Maggie appeared to have a free spirit and deeply resented her mother’s attitude to life. Within a week, both Luke and Rusty courted Maggie. She may have played them against each other, but the lads treated this phase as a sort of game. There was no jealousy between them.

Returning from a cattle drive, Rusty heard that Luke and Maggie were about to marry.
“Sorry pardner,” said Luke, “Seemed I left you out in the cold.”

“Congratulations, Luke. I’ll fergive ya if I can be best man.”

So it was that Luke and Maggie settled down on the ranch. Rusty, as best man, felt happy his partner now was settled completely.

Every weekend he helped on the ranch, smiling to himself when Maggie’s mother moved in with her daughter.

Despite the mother’s interference in their life, Maggie bore a daughter eight months after the wedding, telling the old lady she bore her child prematurely. Three sons followed within a few years and everyone, but Luke thought Rusty was a hired hand. Both Luke and Rusty kept their partnership to themselves. Maggie was aware of it, but remained silent.

Eventually, Luke and his mother-in-law had a bust up. He accused her of being too bossy when she insisted the children attend church. Things settled down to a grudging acceptance that their lifestyles were incompatible, until Maggie fell ill and died a week later after bearing a stillborn son.

A few days after the burial, Luke took his turn on driving cattle along the Santa Fe Trail, returning to find his daughter alone. She had refused to accompany her Grandmother when she took the other kids and spirited them away. Since then she stayed on the ranch, helping both Luke and Rusty run the business. Outgoing, like her mother, she never complained, and proved so different from the three boys.

The three listeners finally rose and left, hoping to reach the hotel before the storm broke. None of them appeared moved by Rusty’s tale; in fact, they only anticipated their share in Luke’s fortune, because, after all, they were his children.

Outside, with raindrops starting to fall, Rusty straightened his bent body, and with a gleam in his eye and a satisfied smile on his lips, he appeared ten years younger and sober. With a spring in his step, he headed for his place of business to wash, shave and change into his best suit.

Passing two elderly ladies, hurrying to get home out of the weather, he tipped his hat and wished them Good Day.

“Good afternoon, ladies, the weather is deplorable today.” The Harvard accent was discernable, the voice of a cultured well-educated man.

If the three sons visited occasionally, they would know about his status. As he stated when seated in the saloon, it was their misfortune!

After the storm passed through the area, the sun shone brightly. Very little rain had fallen and only the severity of the wind and the thunder and lightning, disturbed the tranquility of the peaceful town.

At precisely two o’clock, the three offspring of Luke Wilson gathered outside the law offices of Zeke Gibbons. Zeke, retired now, agreed to return for the purposes of distributing Luke’s wealth according to his last will and testament.

The Wilson boys’ first surprise occurred when they turned the corner and came face to face with their sister, Molly, who greeted them with less than enthusiasm. In fact, she felt like dressing the men down for their indifference towards their father. She refrained, as she knew a bigger surprise awaited them inside the office.

They had seen her at the funeral, but she kept away from them, returning their greetings with a curt nod of her head.

Ben Lowther, who now ran the office, greeted them civilly enough and ushered them into the inner sanctum, a large office containing a huge mahogany desk, wall-to-wall cupboards plus a number of chairs.

“Please be seated,” said Ben, “Mr.Gibbons will be here, shortly.”

Arriving five minutes later, Zeke Gibbons asked Ben, “Are they all here?”

“Yes sir,” Ben replied.

Freshly washed and shaved, dressed smartly in a black, broadcloth suit and highly polished boots, Zeke ‘Rusty’ Gibbons opened the door to his office and walked in.

“Good afternoon, Ma’am, gentlemen,” rounding his desk, he sat down and stared at his clients, smiling ironically, adding, “And now to business.”

Zeke, knowing the contents of the will, felt delighted with the pittance left to Luke’s three sons; it would leave the trio deflated. Serves them right, he thought. As to the main beneficiary Molly, their sister, so different with her red hair and blue eyes, he felt satisfaction. People stated she looked more the image of Rusty. Luke and Rusty always smiled after these remarks.

He glanced at the girl, feeling a great tenderness well up inside him. He was proud at how she had matured.

Luke and Rusty had always shared everything equally, hadn’t they? He smiled, knowing Luke was well aware of certain events that occurred prior to his marriage.