Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
He first hired out as a drover at 14, parents dead just weeks from unknown causes, sister married to advantage, the small cabin his to sell to the first bidder. He took 50 dollars and ran to a herder’s chuck wagon at a canyon round-up, adventure calling him.
The cattle filled his mind with long drive sitting in his eyes. On his cheek, a black birthmark he'd fought about dozens of times, ugly as dung.
“What’s your name, son?” the boss said, his eyes looking over a kid, his age hidden in muscular body, big hands, hard eyes, ugly birthmark calling for a scrap. He bet the mark had been brought up before, in many scraps, on many roads, in many towns.
“Mack Braxton. I’ve done everything you'd ask of me.” His mind leaped with Indian sayings and tales he carried with him, in his saddlebag the day he was born. One came at him now: “Like Rain Walks High said, ‘Ride the tall horse and all nations know you.’” The Indian had influenced him for the few years his father brought him around.
Avery said, “You break horse?” He liked the boy's manner, how he looked straight into his eyes, as if the ugly spot on one cheek wasn’t there.
“If’n you got a horse needs breaking, I’ll get it done. If you need trail blazing, I’ll get it done.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I already said I’ve done everything you could ask of me. No mysteries out here lest it’s injun lore. I pack a lot from good teaching.” He caught a flashing glimpse of Rain Walks High, enough to recognize him passing faintly on the horizon.
No nonsense in this boy, the boss muttered. “You got a job and a quick tongue. You been learnin’ and I like that in a fella. $20 and eats. Handle that?”
“If I don’t have to kill what I eat, I’ve got a job. My name's Mack Braxton.”
“You’ve got your ways, Mack. Don’t let go of ‘em.” With a judicious alert he added, “And don’t let loose that injun stuff. Keep it handy. They were here a long time 'fore us and’ve learned more than we have, all standing the same ground, under same sky, day in, day out. The winds change on one man, they’ll change on another.”
When Mack heard Avery's words, he spun them through his head to grasp their full intent. Life, he'd think later on, was shaped by others who gave of themselves, like Rain Walks High and Paul Avery.
So there it was there in front of him, Mack beginning a long career of working for someone else, herding cows, blazing trail, busting broncs, feeling honest, and broke after town stops and social hellos. He ate sparsely, drank lightly, stayed away from cards, hustlers, cheaters. He was eight years on Avery's payroll with muscles, devotion, and a full grasp on a special way of life to show for his efforts. He kept a two dollar gold piece hidden in his saddle. It was all he owned the end of practically every month. But he’d carry on until the end of his time. “The great warrior,” he remembered Rain Walks High said, “draws the bow string tightest on his last arrow.”
In time Mack thickened, darkened, grew trail-wise. What he learned he kept, his pockets deep, his saddlebags full.
When rustlers hit the herd outside Palmero, in a gulley with water, Avery caught a bullet in his chest. The herd was lost. Some cowpokes broke off and ran. Mack stayed by Avery’s side as one cowpoke went to get the doctor.
During the wait, Avery wrote out his will, leaving his ranch to Mack. “Son, you’re the best worker I’ve had. With nobody in line after me, you got yourself a ranch in Halden, Texas. “
When the doc came, just before he died, Avery made him sign as witness. He was buried beside the trail near a lonely tree.
Mack Braxton was a property holder, in Texas, less than 50 miles from where he spent his first 14 years in a meager hut where he learned manners, hard work, loyalty that family demands for survival, and heard Indian lore and legends from elders.
Near Halden, he came over a small rise, saw the Avery ranch house sitting in sunlight, and three men sitting horses, studying the place. Otherwise, the place seemed idle, inert, care and attention off with the wind and trail dust; a fence broken in several spots, parted wire not re-hung, a gate on the ground in pieces. No cows in sight. Two windows were broken and boards added. Care itself had evaporated.
It looked like years since Avery had been home.
The men seemed edgy. A cowpoke-feeling crowded Mack, the kind he couldn’t do without. He drew his rifle from leather and laid it atop his lap as he rode in.
The first man, mustache hanging wide, eyes like rifle bores, was armed with Colts. His face was flaccid and he breathed hard sitting in the saddle on a nice looking Paint. He looked at the rifle and said, “You always ride in like that, kid?”
“Only meeting strangers I ain’t expecting to meet.”
“We’re here to buy this place.” The big man spoke. “Money don’t matter.”
“It ain’t for sale."
“Says who? You ain’t Avery.”
“I don’t have to be Avery to own this ranch or to say it ain’t for sale.”
“No word in town about it being yours, whoever you are.”
“It is now. It’s recorded in town, too. I must have left there after you did. I'm Mack Braxton. I used to live around here. Who are you gents?”
Comfort sat across his lap as he stared at the strangers. “I’ve had a long ride to get here. I aim to get sleep tonight. I don’t need no company.”
The big the talker said, “You could let us get some water, neighborly-like.”
“I think you best stay bunched and move off bunched. No sense floating all over the place if you ain’t abuying it. Town ain’t far. Plenty water there. Me and my horse Banjo just had our share.”
“This ain’t going to set well with a certain party’ll pay extra good for this dump.”
“Can’t be a good businessman spending money on a dump?” He wagged his rifle pointing the way back to town. “I’m getting real sleepy now.”
Big guy spoke again. “What happened to your face? Get in the way of somethin’ foreign-like?” He was staring at the birthmark like he was looking at a colt with extra legs.
Mack’s tone of voice was hard as his neck muscles or his hands. “It gets bigger ‘n’ meaner to ill-account questions or lack of sleep.” He leveled the rifle across the saddle.
The three riders, angry in the face but not in the hands, keeping hands in sight while Mack’s rifle was swaying softly, moved off. Outside the fence they stared back, then rode toward town. Mack set horse recognition in place; he’d identify them anyplace.
Mack scouted out the small ranch house, fixed windows, started a fire, emptied his saddlebag. At darkness, the fire going good in the iron stove, he slipped from the house with blankets and spread them beside the barn. Banjo snickered, hearing him hum like hundreds of nights. Stars gathered, clouds ran off with the wind. In the distance a lobo established his territory. Banjo snickered again. Comfort crawled in the night.
The wolf was closer. So were stars. Hundreds of them. The air had gone crisp. He had slept but a few hours. Scratching a board of the barn, his hum low and short, Banjo answered with a snort. Downwind another wolf called. From beyond the fence came the jingle of spurs, hushed talk, and a quick silence.
Mack slid his boots on, grabbed his rifle, one blanket, and slipped into darkness behind the barn. In five minutes he was at the peak of the rise. He could hear horses from well outside the fence. On the blanket, he was noiseless on the ground, his eyes locked on the house.
He heard them before he saw them, sneaking closer to the house, five men bent on evil. One man gestured as he sent others to different spots near the house. They crept off, silent. The one making the gestures was the big man from earlier in the day. When he fired at the front door, Mack dropped him with one round, drove a second bushwhacker to the ground with a shot in the leg, set his sights on a dark form creeping up the rise. Fired at the deep darkness. Heard nothing from that point.
Yelling started. Swearing. Sharp queries. “Harry, you okay?”
Harry didn’t answer.
“Bergie, where are you? Who the hell is that up there?”
Bergie answered. “I’m shot. He hit me in the leg, whoever he is. I’m bleedin' bad. If he lets me out of here, I’m gone. That’s a promise.”
“Elmer, you there?”
“I ain’t talkin’ none.” Then stillness. An old Indian saying came to him; "A dead brave can talk loosely in the night, for comes daylight his tongue gets stolen away by the Great Spirit."
At length he fell asleep and let the false dawn wake him, chilled but unharmed. Banjo was letting him know about thirst and oats, that a new day was on him too. Mack’s wondered who was the boss man in charge of the purchasing committee the day before and the night bushwhacker committee. He imagined that he’d know the answers soon. Such intentions would surface in town, sure as rawhide. On inspection Mack found two men dead. One was the big guy who fired the first shot, now settled in his own blood. Mack’s shot had gone through his chest. Another man, gut shot, was dead against the side of the barn. Death was never a pretty sight to Mack, and this one was as grotesque as any he had seen on the trail. Some critter, small and toothy he figured, had gotten there before him. One eye was chewed out of place, a delicacy taken first, as if the critter had known its taste before. The dead man’s lip was ripped loose, hanging in a stringy piece. Burying him would be the only way to prevent more rendering. He wondered about the pay scale in which the man was locked; was it worth all this? Would the man in town, the boss man himself, have worked for the same amount?
But it wasn’t a man who wore the mantel; it was a woman, dressed to the minute; booted heels, tight pants more blue than black, a shirt tight in the waist and otherwise somewhat explosive, as red as the flowing blood she had commissioned, a hat cocked on her head as if she was inviting the wind to blow her away, and knowing it couldn’t.
“I’m Nora Almond. You, sir,” she said to Mack when introduced, “are responsible for the death of four of my men. They meant you no harm. Their weapons were drawn to stave off wild animals that threatened your life, and those of your ranch hands. You had no cause gunning them down.”
“I gunned down nobody. Shot those who shot at me. Their bullets were caught up in my front door. If the sheriff counts them, he’ll find more than 30 of them.”
“Yes,” she answered, “if he could count that high, the clod. I've been informed you are the new owner of Avery’s place.” She was trying to be just plain tall in the saddle. Mack knew he didn’t like the cut of her from the first. Dislike glowed on her as if it lit up from inside. “I don’t see that’s any business of yours, whether true or not.”
“Everything out this way, everything beyond the divide back at Merci Duende, concerns me. On that you can count.”
Mack said, marking his own ground, “To go along with that, lady, I’d say the only things concerning me are my horse, my guns and a piece of land a dear friend gave me.” He added, “And no one that touches them gets away with them.” He reined Banjo around and headed away from her, wondering what his luck would be in this new stretch of life … finally meeting a damned good looking woman after all this time, and her a stuffed toy all the while.
Her retort flew against the back of his head as if she had hurled a spear at him rather than a taunt. “No one out this way ever touches a woman when she doesn’t want to be touched, by gun or otherwise.”
Mack marveled again at her continued sense of self-importance, and then wondered about her remark concerning the sheriff, “the clod.” That made an impression on him.
In the morning Nora Almond was found dead on the trail. “Back-shot,” a deputy reported to the sheriff, “as if someone was waiting for her to pass. One round, up high, and heavy caliber at that. Might have blown a few bones ahead of it and out her front door."
The sheriff rode up to Mack the next morning. Still in his saddle, hat high on his head, he hailed Mack and said, “I understood you had words with Nora Almond yesterday. Threats, one way or the other, I take it? She get nasty? You get nasty? Someone back shot her last night. One of my deputies found her before the animals did. Why’d a man do something like that? Any call on your part?”
“I wouldn’t waste my time on a big mouth, Sheriff. Anybody wastes time talking to your back, ain’t worth wasting a bullet on, woman or no woman. That woman was favored of her own mouth and though I didn’t have anything to do with her death, I can see it happening. You must have some idea of who she didn’t fit with or who'd profit from her loss. She have partners in town? You have some suspicions other than me, being here a lot longer? I’m new here like a store-bought. Don’t know what twists to take or what turn. Don’t even know who serves the best meal around here, but I don’t suspect that it was that Nora almond, may she rest in peace. “Well, I thought I sat in her favor. But too much business for me to handle being sheriff.”
Being what else, Mack almost said aloud. “Sure was an attractive lady, Sheriff.”
“Ah, that’s okay, kid. I’ll get by. I think we’d be married in short order, though, way she favored me and my job. Star-shine might have had a little to do with it.”
It all sat hard in Mack’s mind, the way it really didn’t mesh, and the way they supposedly looked at each other; his statements standing against her declaration about him as a man.
It was all worth a steady eye, Mack confirmed to himself.
One night, in town for supplies, he rode out as if heading home. In darkness, he came back into town and from a dark spot watched the traffic in and out of the sheriff’s office. It was too heavy to be usual company. None of it surprised Mack.
After midnight four men left the office, mounted and rode out, on the route he'd have taken if he had gone back to his place.
Muffled by night, a moonless sky, he followed them, stars his only direct company, now and then a hoot owl, a wolf calling across the range.
Some of the talk he heard in town came back as he rode in the darkness. He could trail blaze with the slightest bit of information. It was a gift, he realized, that had set off much of the trail for him while working for Avery, and what he had heard about the sheriff fell into place. “We’ve had better sheriffs,” was one comment, “ones with more than their own interests.” “Ever see a man’s eyes light up like his when he thinks his own spread is getting bigger.” “That man he don’t really know what Nora had in mind, and it wasn’t him no two ways of lookin’ at it, but more land for herself, the queen bee.”
The riders halted above his ranch, in the spot he'd protected the place on the first night. The location must have been passed on, so things were in cahoots. He watched from another vantage point, a notch lower than them, seeing their silhouettes, their gestures, wiping their noses, scratching. For an hour they sat on the ground and talked in hushed voices. He assumed they were planning a second bushwhack, as one of them kept pointing out different vantages with good views of the house. After an hour they rode back to town, to the sheriff’s office, Mack following them, the provident moon still hidden behind provident clouds, the owls no longer saying “who” but “how,” his mind full of confirmation.
“One eye and a sky full of stars not enough to watch a tepee,” kept sounding in his head, the way promises or omens are made or kept, the words of Rain Walks High never far from his mind.
With what he knew, men and horses recognized and identified, motives and reasons brought into play, Mack knew the road he had to travel. It wouldn't be easy. Nothing ever was easy out here on the plains, where each man did what was necessary, dawn to dusk, dusk to dawn.
He felt confidence filling him as he rode Banjo, smooth and loyal animal, under the gift of clouds, a saddlebag of knowledge riding with them. They’d have a hard time moving him from what Avery had given to his trust.
Dawn, it was obvious, would start up for Mack Braxton on a new note.