Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Along with a sudden shaft of sunlight, as if they were tandem, a newcomer entered the lone saloon in Woodfork, Texas and stood just inside the swinging doors, brandishing the strangest hat seen in the saloon in years. The ridiculously looking hat, topper of toppers, might have caused an eruption of laughter, except for the loose manner guns hung on his frame, the promise hanging there too, like ready, like prominent and popular of use, the gun-side hip positioned for access and speed.
Cool gray-green eyes shifted smoothly, side to side the length of the room, as he took note of everything exposed, the busy bar draped by cowboys in odd fashion, some of them Saturday-drunk already, some of them obviously planning a drunk, two card tables seated full-up, a silver sheriff's badge shining up the chest of one player more intent on his cards than on the newcomer ... as though a stalemate had already been arranged by at least two men in this public room.
Texas Saturdays, as the past had shown, come with surprise, quick admonition or, now and then, triggers' delights.
The sun, as bold accompaniment, had come in the door with healthy approach, the full and golden splatter almost ignitable behind the stranger, almost shining him up like a store window dummy in suit ... and hat.
When a quick silence fell into the room, heavy as a sledge, like bated breath before a duel, and the crowd staring quizzically at him, the newcomer, without a bit of hesitation, stepped forward proudly and said loudly, "I never came into a town in my life that sooner or later I didn't own outright, meaning lock, stock and both barrels." The ensuing pause came just as dramatic as his entrance, when he added, "I mean this town, too."
Everything was further flat-out in the open, Texas style, when he swooped that odd hat off his head and held it out in front of him with a brisk and hearty move. "This," he said to one and all, "is my Sir Walter Scott's hat with glorious plume that you most likely have assayed at first look."
His language, his delivery, like his hat, was not ordinary saloon stuff.
The hat, plume and all, he waved over his head with a practiced flair. "Ain't she a beauty and a survivor, all at once, I swear. Mark it well, all you folks here. It has five bullet holes in it, all near the top and four of those shooters don't hang around to view the damage, not around here and not around anyplace else. That is oath from me, Manhattan Eddie, my nom de plume."
His mouth closed down like a death warrant had been issued for the outstanding fifth shooter, all the audience knowing exactly what he meant. There were no other trifles attached to his declaration.
He was standing there where the 2:00 PM sun sat right behind him, bathing his body in the bright glow, when a curt, rough-edged voice from the middle of the bar said. "Hell, man, I could draw my piece now and drop you right where you stand."
The voice did not boom like a gunshot but came with an edge more like a serrated knife and enough listeners shifted uneasily in place, as if their lives were in immediate danger, enough to control the audience response but not the tone of the building, the way tremors often move on soft shoes.
The strange hat, Manhattan Eddie, in a cocky voice, said, loud enough for all hands to hear, "I'll give you the first shot, Bigmouth, but just the first shot. Try for a second shot and I'll kill you with my own first shot, and right where you're standing" The words hung in the air like an echo of another time, another place, a promise hardly unfulfilled.
Bigmouth, as amounts to uncontrolled stupidity or simple arrogance, drew, shot and missed the talker in the Sir Walter Scott's hat with glorious plume. When he aimed his gun to shoot again, the newcomer, this self-declared Manhattan Eddie, in a lightning-quick draw, shot him dead on the spot, a silky swift move, no other part of his body moving but his right arm, most folks blinking at the smooth speed, the sudden result.
It took several agonizing seconds, perhaps an eternity in someone's measure, for Bigmouth to hit the floor with a thud. All his echoes were gone with the thud, all his past, all his comings and goings swallowed by a barroom floor.
From a corner table, a man wearing a sheriff's badge said, "No crime here but provocation, son, which is not punishable by law. Curly was a bigmouth, as you said. Got it finally the way I knew he would; he's got marks on his guns from way back and X'ses on the inside of his gun belt I saw when he was in my jail on not such a stupid day as this one. What's your real name, stranger?"
"My name is Scott Walter, Sheriff, and I'm not wanted anywhere, just in case you're wondering. Back east a-ways they started calling me Manhattan Eddie and I liked it, so I use that now." He put the hat on his head with another flourish, tapping it lightly into place.
"But your real name is from someplace else. Like your made-up name. Isn't it? Ain't they? I've seen that kind of hat before. In St. Louis. On my lone trip there. It comes from the English bloke with a name like yours. But turned tail end to. Like life is sometimes upside down quick or out of kilter knocked." The little speech came off as if from the town philosopher, perhaps self-appointed, but did exude a pile of sense, each sentence cut to a log's length, for ingestion, for quick understanding without any doubts.
The sheriff paused, smiled, and continued his piece: "I'm the sheriff. Curly Domes by name. I don't wear a gun unless I'm out with a posse. But you were close to dead the minute you walked into this room. In that manner you push around off the saddle. By three of my men. There's one in the balcony overhead. One at each end of the bar. Two thin men standing like shadows or reflections. All dead shots by the way. All three of them."
He added an insignificant nod to his repertoire and three handguns were holstered quietly and without haste.
Scott Walters noted the quick reactions to the sheriff's gesture --- the artless command, the immediate response, and felt himself also relaxed. His nod was akin to a salute.
Domes, seemingly efficient in delivery and understanding, said, "The fifth bullet hole, Mr. Two Names, means one shooter's alive. One of the gents who sent a slug through that hat of yours. Out this way. Someplace near Woodfork. Where you aim to find him. Do I have that right? You sure advertised that point, son."
Scott Walters, from then on in Woodfork known as Manhattan Eddie, not taken aback by the sheriff's stance or assumptions, said with deliberation, "You hit it right on the pommel head, Sheriff. Right on the peak of it. Like Sure-shot Eddie. He used to live in Manhattan. Don't no more."
His pass at mimicry was accepted as complimentary by the sheriff. For the moment, the stalemate was arranged by at least two men in the room.
"Meaning," countered Domes, 'that you'll shoot that man if you catch him. In my jurisdiction without any proof. Which simply means you better not do it in front of me. Or behind me. Or beside me, Unless you get him to respond like Bigmouth there. Dead as he'll ever be. Whether guilty beforehand or not. But guilty. As drawn out or provoked."
He nodded in affirmation, and he added, "He sure cooked his own goose. Is that where you're headed? Plain provocation and a quick draw? For someone who hasn't got a posted name yet. Who hasn't been chased here that we know of? Who's he?"
"Name's Horn Lufkin, my size, carries two guns like he's worn them forever, rides a horse full brown as a nut, and wears a sombrero the wind keeps chasing up one side of his head." The mimicry, it appeared, was aborted, with the pact.
A new voice in the conversation came from a denser corner of the room, from a tall man, sloped shoulders, tired face, sun-bronzed, wide red suspenders bright as fire against a gray shirt. "Mister Whatever, I'm the stable owner a few doors down from here, Cliff Amesly, and I bought a horse that color from a man who looks like the fellow you painted up for us. That was two days ago, both of them plumb tuckered out and desert-edgy. Carried two guns like you said, Colts, like worn and used, handles smooth as a woman you can't ever forget, but carries warning as much as memory."
Walters or Manhattan Eddie, whatever one prefers, alert to the new voice, the obvious work stature about him, said, "Remember if that horse was branded, Sir?" There was a lot of weight in the question and the entire room directed their attention to Amesly, the stable owner, nobody in the room remembering the last time he was addressed as "Sir."
"Yes, Sir," came the amicable response, "I sure do. Seen it before a couple of times. A circle with an arrow head dead-center . Some calls it 'Circle Hit.'" He was standing now, beside the table of cronies, as part of the real conversation he seemed to recognize would continue days later in its accounting, where the stable and himself could be commented about their activities, treats for both customers and the curious, and bound to stir up a sale or two.
"He didn't even stop for a drink here at the saloon from what I saw. Just filled his canteen and was on his way, towards Jersey Echo, 30 miles more west of here, like he knew his way. The sheriff's been there. Me too. Some of us on a posse."
By then, the buzz was back in the room, recalls being made, mentioned, heads shaking acknowledgments.
Sheriff Domes said, "What Toby's saying is clear. We didn't get our man that trip. Generally a hunt like that is only as good as the sound thrown up. Or the echoes it leaves. That one was quiet. Trackless. Like we missed him along the way. But his horse was in town. Hell, if he's still hiding out that way, we'd know it by now. 'Less he found a place tight as a jail's supposed to be. But ain't always."
Manhattan Eddie, nodding his attention, replied, "Well, Toby, and you too, Sheriff, I'll have my trail drink and head on down to Jersey Echo." He stepped toward the bar and the way was immediately opened in the crowd.
The sheriff said, "I'd like to join you, with a posse, Scott or Eddie. But a few days later, after you leave. See if you can pick up the trail by your lonesome. No robust posse as sidearm armor. For any leads, on both customers, yours and mine. And I'll buy your drink for that deal. If you're game."
Manhattan Eddie made his decision en route to the bar; "You mean, for the first time in my life, I get to wear a badge."
"Yep, but you wear it like I want it worn. I sure wouldn't like you to go into Jersey Echo like you came in here. Can we make that deal, son? My man is still out there someplace too."
"Like we're buddies?"
"Yup, but I'm still the boss." Domes was beside his table, making a stand, personal cement in the mix.
The deal was cut. Manhattan Eddie gingerly palmed the deputy's badge, slipped it into his shirt pocket, buttoned it away in a flourish. With a steak under his belt, some Mexican greens, and a single drink, he went on his way, with one more piece of advice from Sheriff Domes before departure. "Toby can fix you up with another horse. He'll keep yours until you come back. Horses tell a lot about their owner. About their rider. The kind of things some of us never see. 'Less we turn that horse around every which way to hell and backwards again," as though he had done it before, just as he had explained.
"A horse is one special critter out this way of the world. Come this side of the big rivers. A horse makes the day go round. The sun come out every morning. The way it was meant from the start of horses. All the way back." His lips were firmed and nearly square, as though his words were memorialized for posterity, placed in a frame for daily observation by the curious, the miscreant and the badge-wearer.
He continued talking as if he thought he was speaking one last time to an old friend, spilling all he might have known right from his beginning."Lock and lore," he heard his father say, almost back to the beginning of things, "Lock and lore."
In Jersey Echo, new comer Manhattan Eddie, had a trail drink at the Mule Team Saloon, talked to nobody but the barkeep, but heard most of the conversations that moved in the room. He made his mind up that the general store was the best place to start, leaving the saloon without stirring up too much curiosity other than the hat he wore.
One of the conversations produced the following comment about the store owner: "Anybody owes him for food or goods gets his name in a book or on some kind of list. Old Jug ain't going to the poor farm if he can help it. Right to the penny he knows what you owe."
He walked into the store to see a big man writing in a book as a lady left the store, her arms loaded with odd supplies.
"Want me to help her, Sir? I'm handy that way. Hurt my back a ways back and have to learn new work. Can't drive no more cattle on long runs. Got some learning back East. Name's Manhattan Eddie. My father favored it before he died and sent me west."
"God, a wonder, son. I sure could use a good hand. Yes siree, go help Fortune Anna. That's her just left, and I'll write up her bill. She's a good customer. Pays me when her sons come home, but I never get to see them, though they eat like hogs. On the trail a lot, they are, but good as gold to her."
Manhattan Eddie, educated, hired, feeling luck bouncing his way, helped Fortune Anna load up a heft of supplies of all kinds, including enough food to feed her for half a year. He said, "Want me to come along and help you unload. He just hired me and he won't mind." He waved his hand back to the store.
"No, son, no bother. I'm okay doing lots of stuff, but you're a good young man to offer."
Back in the store, he said to Old Jug, "She seems damned nice. Where does she live? How often do her sons show up?" He turned away to place his hat on a rack.
Jug said, "A mile or two west of here, smack against the forest dark as Hades I swear. Them boys of hers come in from the north, no regular times, but often enough for her to pay her bills. Been that way for maybe six or seven years, then they're gone, like right back north through the forest. She's as kind and pleasant as a woman can get, that's for sure."
For three nights, Manhattan Eddie, now with a badge in his shirt pocket, watched the house of Fortune Anna and spotted two dark shadows that came and went each night after a piece of darkness had come down on the place. After daylight came on those nights, not a soul moved in or out.
"Great hideout," he whispered to himself. "Great hideout. Wait'll the sheriff gets a load of this. Will knock his hat off."
Two more nights, and Manhattan Eddie, Sheriff Curly Domes and six men in a posse he had brought from Woodfork, gathered in a thick section of the forest and watched Fortune Anna's small house with an ell attached to one end closest to a clutch of trees and brush. They saw two men leave and the sheriff wanted to chase them and capture them. "They might get away," he uttered in the darkness."
Manhattan Eddie replied, "Don't worry about them, Sheriff. They'll be back. The only place they can go is north for about ten miles, then there's desert beyond that. They'll have to load up when they want to get away from here. The longer they stay here, the sooner they're forgotten by folks like us."
The posse was set up the way Manhattan Eddie suggested, for the fugitives' returns, one being Horn Lufkin, wanted by Manhattan Eddie and the law in general. Not a shot was fired at either man, surprised in a gully one at a time, caught and trussed up for the ride back to the local sheriff. Fortune Mary was likewise set up on her wagon for a ride into town to be turned over to the sheriff in Jersey Echo, and not for her regular appointment to see Old Jug at the general store.
"Keep the badge, Eddie, until we get Lufkin his fair due, and then you have to decide what you want to do with the rest of your life, but you got some goods on your side, I'll say that for you, and not a shot fired, not a shot fired, so I'll promise never to say another word about your hat."
Manhattan Eddie thought it was the longest sentence he'd ever hear from Sheriff Curly Domes.