Western Short Story
Some men, whether you believe it or not, come bidden by fate to fill holes in the human condition. So it was with Micah Topaz, born in a wagon train heading to California. He never got much further on the family journey than the place of his birth, a small corner of Nevada with the mountains staring them in the face. When the dispute among the wagon train leaders erupted, and deep factions developed, Micah’s family decided to stay pretty close to where they were at the time. The place was called Mattsville.
Micah’s father Armand had seen the long look at the mountains in his wife Hazel’s eyes.
“What do you stare at, Hazel, you seem so set on something out there?”
It was part of the reason for loving her from the outset back in Pennsylvania, her careful attention to surroundings, the practiced moves she invested in her efforts, her concern for things that should be beautiful and could be counted on. She might have said the same things about her kitchen, but held that argument in place; Armand might not understand the full point of it, yet it was enough to make her content.
“I look at it this way, Armand; none of us swim too well and the view on the other side can’t be any prettier than this one, just the ocean making a difference, and that only as far as it goes. And if I was to be asked, I’d settle on this side without the long walk ahead of us.” She looked off again, at the majestic peaks marking out a huge chunk of the land, at the same time grasping at the blue sky. “Just think of all that being all ours for the next fifty years or so, the good lord willing us along that far.”
The family settled down at the foot of Brass Mountain, in the little town of Mattsville on a very busy stage line, and Armand Topaz, with a good sense of things mechanical, started a small business of repairing small arms, side guns and rifles. His shop grew in pieces at the side of a small cabin that, in time and with hard work at horses and cattle filling his daylight hours, grew as the family grew.
Micah, as the first born, leaped quickly at all new interests, ready to take his place in the order of things. He rode, he hustled, he sweat; and he learned about horses, cattle, guns, taut leather and loose leather, strung wire and loose wire, the good and the bad that things might come one’s way in the course of a day, with people always in the mix.
His parents, with some caution, kept a good eye on the resolute youngster as he grew into his britches, as his father was often apt to say to company that came to visit the ranch. Armand Topaz was also fond of saying, “The boy marks his day well.” He would let others’ observations fill in the cracks. On the side, in a daily exercise, the elder Topaz provided his promising son much food for thought; “Who rises earliest gets the first post holes dug and the first line of wire hung in place. More than the cows’ll know the difference.” He might also say, “The horse with the bad nail comes second to the horse with no bad nails,” or, “One handgun oiled early and often has a keen chance of winning any marker.”
So receptive was the youngster that all who knew him began to measure his steps, watch his work. All Mattsville knew who the comer was.
Micah Topaz was fourteen when the first real indication came that he would eventually wear a badge with true authority, that he was born for the office. Fate, of course, and a bit of habit having its way, its sense of routine, had a part in it.
On a very early and still dark morning ride he found their fence had been cut and a small section of their herd had been driven off through the break. It’d be hours, he reasoned, before he could roust enough neighbors and town men to go after the rustlers, so he took off after them on his own. A few hours later he found a single line of wire across a small passage between the walls of a small canyon, one that he had been in before. At the other end was a narrow fissure where escape was possible, but slow. He tried to put himself in the rustlers’ boots, thinking what would be their next move.
His decisions came quickly, as did the flush of false dawn. He cut the strand of wire and tied it back up with small rawhide strings. On three poles he managed the same action, assuring any pressure would break the wire loose. With a quick start he rode around the ridge and came in from the other side. Thick silence sat in the small camp where four men were sleeping. So was the night guard a hundred yards back toward the wired end, his head dropped on his chest and completely motionless. The silence wrapped the small canyon like a boxed present; not a bird sounded, the cattle stood still, no animals made overtures of any kind. His steps were quiet as he tried to move like a shadow moves, hardly noticeable.
Right up behind the cattle, Micah softly stepped, saw the apparent lead animal with a huge spread of horns and fired the first of five rounds right over his head. The lead steer bolted and the rest followed as they broke for the wired end of the canyon.
Micah fired again as the rustlers’ horses, caught in the rush, also bolted. Micah fired at the camp sight, scattering the wakened men, and then he retreated through the narrow fissure, mounted his horse, and rode back the way he had come. Most of the herd, and two of the rustlers’ horses, were in the hands of Micah’s father and a ranch hand. They had come looking for Micah. One of the horses was identified and later that day, at Kirk’s Saloon in Mattsville, 14-year old Micah Topaz slipped a gun against Harry Macomber’s gut in front of sheriff Bill Knox and explained the situation. Macomber had just told Knox that some hombre had tried to bushwhack him early in the day and had wounded his horse, which had run off, not to be seen again.
Micah had jumped right into the middle of the discussion, unlike any usual 14-year older. “I got your horse outside, Harry, and he’s not hurt either. You’re a liar and a rustler and your horse is proof of it. You were sleeping at your camp when you should have been on guard. I saw you and that Mexican sombrero you’re always wearing. Some men are looking for your pals looking for their horses. We’ll get them too. They’ll be in here, probably in short order, before the day is out. You better get it off your chest now, else it’ll be harder on you later on. “Macomber admitted his part in the affair but wouldn’t give up any names.
“First thing we ought to do,” Micah said, “is to see if any cowpokes come into town without their horses. Three or four of them went afoot when I stampeded the cows. And they’ll be needing new mounts soon as you know. It won’t pin anything on them who come without their ponies, but it’ll put the eye of the law square on their backs.”
In the next half dozen years Micah Topaz, with ingenuity, young imagination and a keen eye, matched wits and skills with a variety of owl hoots, rustlers and desperadoes of various degrees, all of them with an eye on Topaz holdings or valuables cached in Mattsville. With the growing reputation out and about the territory, a small legend continually approached maturity.
Bill Knox, just before he gave up the job and headed for California himself, told everybody that Micah Topaz had come fully prepared to be the new sheriff. “He was born for this job and you ought to take advantage of his good nature, the way I mean it.” He nodded at Kirk the saloon owner and a few more of the town’s merchants and a few of the big ranch owners, the ones holding much of the town’s riches in their hands. They also could dictate the appointment of the sheriff.
Micah Topaz was 21 years old that very day, and some people said, for the longest while, that Bill Knox had waited for Mica Topaz to come of age, legally, that is, for the young man was there well ahead of himself.