Western Short Story
There was a low, morning mist hanging in the Iowa woods, and not a breeze to be had. I’d heard a big old, bushy-tailed red squirrel jabbering at something, and I had him spotted. This one would make four and that’s a fair breakfast for three folks. Pa was still in Waterloo, so it was just me, Ma, and Maggie May.
That old red squirrel was laying low on the far side of a black walnut limb, and he thought he was out of sight, but he forgot all about his tail which was hanging down like big old flag. I raised my rifle and waited. Squirrels are a curious lot, and I knew he’d take a peek at me in short order.
I was out of .22 ammunition, so I was using Pa’s deer rifle. Now most folks say you can’t hunt a squirrel with a deer rifle, but Pa taught me how to bark ’em. You aim at the limb right underneath them and let the flying bark kill them, or at least slap them senseless. Then you just run over and knock them in the head and you’ve got your breakfast.
Mr.Squirrel finally peeked over the limb and started seeking me out, but squirrels don’t see you too well if you don’t move so I held still. Gradually, he sidled sideways until he was on top of that limb and I eased my rifle around and put the top of that front blade right under his belly and settled it in the notch of the rear sight. I eared back the hammer and took a deep breath.
I was just taking the slack out of trigger when I heard that faint noise. It came from somewhere behind me and I couldn’t quite place it. I hesitated. If I fired, after the blast I wouldn’t be able to hear small sounds for a few minutes. I waited. There! It was Ma’s voice and she was calling me.
Ma is strong woman who can fare for herself. She’s not one to call a man in from the fields to kill a mouse or fetch a stick of wood. She’d kill the mouse herself and get the wood to cook it, if she was mad at you. If ma was calling me, it was important, so I jumped up and ran for home, that big old red squirrel chattering and scolding behind me.
When I climbed the fence, I peered over the tops of the corn stalks and spotted Ma on the porch, bent over and hanging on to the railing. She straightened up and cupped her hands over her mouth and called me again. I cupped my own hands and answered her. She backed up to a porch chair and sat down. Ma almost never sat down during the day. Something was bad wrong. And where was Maggie May?
I ran down the rows, the sharp corn leaves pulling at my face. It was a good year and the corn was higher than usual. I held my rifle out in front of me, barrel up to help ward off the leaves. At last I came to the edge of the field and slowed down to a stop. No sense in walking out into danger and getting shot. That would not help Ma.
Satisfied that no one was about who shouldn’t be there, I climbed the last fence and crossed the barnyard to the house. I mounted the steps to the porch and Ma raised her bloody face to me.
“They took Maggie May.”
I got Ma in bed and washed the blood off her face. It was them no-account Scruggs boys out of Missouri way who had been hanging around town for a couple of weeks. They’d made remarks toward Maggie May, but she had ignored them. Maggie May is beautiful, and there isn’t a boy in town over 13 who isn’t in love with my little sister. But she is friends with everyone, and not ready to start thinking about anyone with any seriousness. After all, she’s just fourteen.
Ma had a lump on her forehead and a cut on her scalp where they’d clubbed her with the butt of a rifle. She’d taken a blow that would have killed many a man and maybe them Scruggs boys thought she was dead. I dabbed at the blood gently, but then she grabbed the cloth and scrubbed it off.
“No time for worrying about me, son.”
She got up and dug in her chest, pulling out a revolver and gun belt. It was used but in good condition. However, I had never seen it before. At my questioning look, she held it out to me.
“Pa and me bought this for you for your birthday. Now it can't wait. Go get my daughter son. Go get your sister. You go get my Maggie May.”
Those Scruggs boys had been hanging around with Pete Dolan, a local drunk who made his living hiring out as a farmhand. He lived in an old shack up on the Wapsi river, so I rode up there looking for information. I found him splitting wood, and he wasn’t pleased to see me.
“I don’t have time to dicker with you Pete, so you tell me where Harvey and Dave Scruggs got off to with Maggie May or I’ll shoot you down where you stand.” I pulled my Winchester out of its boot and levered a shell into the chamber, just to show I wasn’t fooling about.
Pete spat on the ground and glowered at me so I shot him in the knee. While he rolled around holding his knee, I tied my string to a sapling and walked over to him through the fall leaves.
“You tell me what I want to know and I’ll fetch Doc Wilson up here to look at that knee. You lie to me, and I’ll shoot you in the other knee.”
This time, it was my turn to spit on the ground, but I guess I missed and hit old Pete in the eyes, and that tobacco chew must have stung something fierce because Pete started crying like a baby wanting his mama. I levered another round into my rifle and shoved the muzzle between his legs.
“Ma and Pa set some real store by Maggie May and she’s my only sister, Pete, so if you don’t tell me what I want to know, I’m going to hurt you real bad.”
Pete suddenly saw things my way, and a few minutes later, I rode off. Them Scruggs boys were headed for Missouri and so was I. I’d lied to Pete about fetching Doc Wilson of course, but I figured Pete knew I was lying, so all was square. Pete would probably get treated somehow, but that was no concern of mine.
I picked up their trail where Pete said I would, and I followed it with ease. I reckon they figured that nobody would know it was them that took her or would be on them that fast. They probably thought ma was dead. Low criminals like them always think they’re smarter than honest folks, never giving a thought as to why their kind always seemed to get caught.
I was traveling light with a string of four horses, but the Scruggs boys had only the three horses they and Maggie May were riding, so by switching horses, I was catching up to them. By the time the sun set, I figured I was less than a mile behind them, so I rode up on a small hill and watched. In less than an hour, I spotted a campfire about half a mile away, so I stretched a rope between trees and tied off my string. I pulled off my boots and put on the moccasins I carried for when I wanted to be silent in the woods. More than one deer had failed to hear me, and had ended up in our cook pots.
They were all three sitting around the campfire, Maggie May seated between Harvey and Dave, who were facing each other. Maggie looked a little pale and I suppose she was more than a tad frightened, but her eyes showed that she was thinking all the while, and not about to accept any fate that wasn’t her own idea.
“Reckon she’s mine.”
Dave was the oldest and larger of the two, so he was making claim, but Harvey was mean as a bull and damn near as strong, so it was by no means settled.
“I don’t reckon that at all, Dave. Seems like I was the one who saw her, and it was my idea to fetch her up. And I’m also the one who clubbed the old woman, so I dispute your claim.”
I would remember that remark, when it came time to pay up.
I was on my hands and knees, and I crept around so I was directly opposite of Maggie May. I felt around for a small stick, and when Harvey bent over to add fuel to the fire, I heaved that stick high over the fire and some distance behind Maggie Mae, where it rattled against some brush. Instantly, both brothers were on their feet, guns drawn and facing away from me. I rose up from behind the brush and Maggie May saw me, her eyes growing wide. I nodded at her, and got back down out of sight.
After a moment, Harvey and Dave concluded that it was only an animal or maybe a falling branch. Dave reached behind him and brought out a bottle of whiskey. He took a long pull and handed it to his brother. Maggie May looked deep in thought.
“I need to go to relieve myself.”
Dave and Harvey exchanged glances.
“You just went hardly two hours ago.”
“I’m a woman. Women have to go more often than men do.”
“Well, go on over there behind that oak then, but don’t try running off. I got a whip on my saddle, and I’ll use it on you if need be.”
That was Harvey talking. Like I said, he was the meaner of the two, and the one to watch. I watched Maggie until she disappeared behind that big oak and then I tossed another stick. Again, both brothers jumped to their feet facing the sound and Dave backed up almost into my arms. It was two against one, and my sister was in danger, so I said the hell with it and shot Dave in the back of the head.
Harvey whirled around and fired at the same instant. I felt something tug at my sleeve and I shot Harvey in the gut. Then I shot him again and he sat down hard. I kicked the gun out of his hand and then I kicked him in the face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Maggie May walking slowly to the fire.
Dave was dead as last year’s political promise, and I gathered up his gun, all the while keeping an eye on Harvey.
“That was some smart making up an excuse to take cover behind that tree."
I paused. "They hurt you Maggie May? I’ll ask you straight out, did they touch you in a bad way?”
“No, Matt, they roughed me around some, but they never touched me like that. How’s Ma? Did they kill her? They clubbed her something fierce.” She was looking at Harvey.
“No, she’s not dead. She’s banged up some but she’ll be OK. She sent me to fetch you."
Before I could say anything else, she walked over toward Harvey and bent down to pick up his gun. She eared back the hammer and placed it against his temple. His eyes went wide and she pulled the trigger.
Maggie May turned to face me, letting the gun slip from her fingers to the ground.
“He hit my mother. I owed him. Let’s go home Matt.”