Western Short Story
The early sun was late arriving for Hannah O’Toole. She’d been more than an hour saddled when she saw the sun strike on the crest of Stalwart Mountain in the chain of the Rockies as if someone had spilled a bucket of light. “Lazybones,” she muttered in momentary joy. She was glad to be safely up-range after the trouble the night before. Then she spoke of her awe, half and half, part in the old way and part in the new way, saying her blessing for the day, “Mother mo chroi,” meaning “Mother of my heart”, and it came out, as always, as “Mother McCree.”
It was half proclamation and half thanks, and a prayer on its own merits.
A beautiful blonde woman of 38 years, a regal sense emanating from her person whether tall in the saddle or afoot, she was a long-time widow with many things on her mind.
Hannah O’Toole loved the earth she rode on, herded on, walked on, slept on, fed on, and no man had any rights that came before her assessments or likes. Though she knew the bent and ways of men, they had better know hers to boot. She was aware of her full dependence on Mother Earth, as did some of those around her, though too many of them did not realize it, or didn’t even stop to think of it. The night just past saw some of those illuminations. Rustlers had tried to run off her herd because she was a woman, but she was a woman who rarely slept, listened well, and always had an emergency plan at hand. She had been tried again and again since her husband Jamesie had gone down in a stampede started by rustlers.
Every day of the ten years since his death she could hear Jamesie’s last words: “Woman, yee ride that mount right proud, yee do.”
Those sweet words kept her upright, alert, and a smile on her face. Yet Hannah, it was well known, liked bigness and power in many things, and found ways to express her favoritism. She liked her horses big, that’s for sure. Big, strong stallions pleased her, sixteen hands high if one, with the speed of demons in their legs, and could look you in the eye and practically cuss right back at you. And though she carried a pair of Colt revolvers on her hips and a .45 caliber Springfield Trapdoor rifle sheathed in her saddle, she was particularly fond of “the big bang business,” which turned out to be sticks of dynamite as her weapons of choice “whenever my druthers come to fore.”
The strange sounds the night before had come alarmingly at her keen listening because they were day sounds coming her way at night. When the rustlers tried to edge her herd out onto the open ground where they could run, she threw a stick of dynamite almost on top of the dark thieves, screaming out a Hiyee as loud as she could, a signal for son Tim to scramble to safety. The cattle, at the blast, busted up into the canyon and the rustlers disappeared back across the range. Down the trail her son Tim, alerted, could have dropped another stick in their path as they fled, but understood they were now harmless. So, he saved the stick. He had not fallen far from the tree, and his widowed mother kept him at the family grindstone. For a 15-year older, he had accepted much of her outlook on life and where and how that life was to be spent.
Hannah, thinking back on who the rustlers might have been, nudged her small drove toward the spell of grass on the side of the hill. In the distance the peaks of the Rockies, in that same spilled bucket of light, made her moan with appreciation of the beauty of all around her. “Mother McCree,” she said again, as she spied the full green expanse that climbed one hill.
She was content that her son Tim was less than hour behind her.
Two hours later, the herd grazing and comfortable, looking back down the trail at five-minute intervals, she began to measure out her options, her possible course of action.
Minutes went by as she measured things. At least once every day, even on a busy day, she saw Jamesie in the critical fall from his horse that had been gored by a steer on the run. The sweet, hard-working man, flowers decked out on his every word, who had spun a new magic for her from the first night they met, disappeared in the dust of the run. He was dead before she got to him. She had sworn that very night that thieves and scoundrels of the world would not catch her again. From then on, day in and day out, everywhere she went, she carried two sticks of dynamite and fuses in her saddlebag.
And Tim, she thought again this day, was always on time. Just about always. Except when he would, supposedly by great chance, bump into Ashton Mabel out on the town road or at the edge of town. For those moments, she wondered if Tim had garnered any of his father’s sweetness. Ashton Mabel’s odd-timed, accidental encounters in broad daylight made Hannah think her son had been bequeathed the magic.
With a look of study crossing her face, Hannah took notice and measurement of the Earth and all its elements: the time of day, the sky’s conditions, the temperature, nature’s noises, the attitude of the whole herd and the lead animal in particular, the way the sun on the back of her neck determined further qualifications, and calculated when she had last watered her horse. She said aloud, “Well, Jessie, we best put all this together and see what it adds up to.” The horse snickered some kind of acceptance for the soft voice and the stroke on the mane. After all the measurements, she also sought out her own sense of timing.
It was instant, the reaction.
She rolled the reins over on one side of Jessie’s neck, touched her flanks with spurs, and headed downhill in a steady trot. She was thinking: No noise, and no dust, and kept saying, “Go easy, old girl. Go easy.”
Half an hour later, alert to all the Earth as far as she was ken to, she saw and heard a bawler, a real young one without its momma, coming from the mouth of a small arroyo she herself had been in the day before. Hannah, motherly instincts tugging at her, seeing it as a sign, slipped quietly into the mouth of the dry gulch. Dismounting, she tied Jessie off onto brush, swung a small saddlebag, her power bag she might have called it, over one shoulder and climbed onto the higher rim of the arroyo. She kept her silhouette off the skyline and continued listening for sounds that were not usual sounds coming from the area ahead of her… quick bird flights with wings flapping, animal noises announcing surprise or fear, a small wind carrying what it ought not be carrying, and human voices in a dry place. The first sound she heard was the snicker of a horse. It snickered again, and told Hannah it was a tethered animal, hobbled in place by tied reins. She moved to the back side of the ridge, and continued on. The saddlebag was a small weight on her shoulder, and her feet, even in boots, felt just as light and did not fight her movements.
She had gone at least 200 yards along the ridge when she heard the first voice.
“Listen, kid, we were waiting for all that noise when we were back there last night. We got her pegged, the old girl. She got no surprises for us. She’ll keep her guard on the beef because of last night. We got time, plenty of time. Sometime late this afternoon, when you don’t show up, she’ll come looking for you. We’ll be waiting.”
Hannah O’Toole waited to hear her son’s voice, him as glib as his dad, pretty near as smart already. Tim, his voice inflected with a whimper of sorts, fully apologetic, said, “She’ll make the evening meal before she comes looking. You know how mothers are, feeding their kids first. Mothers are like that. Mine’s no different.”
“You’re sure wrong there, kid. She sure is different, packing off that dynamite the way she does. We know all about it. We always thought her to be a dynamite lady, and that ain’t a joke.” He laughed again. “She’s a real special lady.” His voice carried other messages. “We knowed what she was going to do, and she’ll come looking for you later on, after she tends the herd. We’ll be waiting for her, real proud lady she is the way she rides that horse of hers. Proud indeed.”
Hannah, with serious disdain, imagined the look on the face of the unknown cowpoke. Her own facial expression could be easily read. Under her breath, the dynamite lady muttered her intentions for the day, “Lessons are always hanging around on the edges of things. This cowpoke’s classroom is practically at hand. It’ll serve him right.”
Desperately she wanted to sneak a look at the site, but feared for Tim’s most immediate safety. If she had an idea of his current straits, whether bound or not, whether a rifle or a handgun was pointed at his mid-section, she would know what to do. She did not want to guess. But a sense of admiration welled in her as she heard her son say, as though it was a blazoned headline in the town newspaper, “It sure would be easier for me to go off in the bush and do my business if this rope was untied from my wrists. Makes it too troublesome to tend to.”
Another voice, older, gruffer, said, “Untie him, Luther. He ain’t goin’ far. Not without a horse, and his horse ain’t comin’ back this way ever again. Can count on that.”
That was all that Hannah O’Toole needed, knowing that Tim, unhindered, could and would get himself out of harm’s way in a flash.
Coffee aroma came to her on a small breeze and a wisp of smoke, hardly traceable, rose from a fire site. Taking a deep breath, composing herself, she carefully moved forward, doffed her sombrero, and peeked down on the gathering. Three men sat around a small fire, a coffee pot in place as if nobody would ever find them. None of them were known to her, she believed, though the older looking one had a vaguely familiar hat on his head. She wondered how stupid could they be, and how ignorant of her talents as a woman of this world. Away from the high place she was located on, Tim walked slowly into a tract of brush about fifty feet from the fire. The pride in her son, in his intelligence and plain steady nerves, filled her. If Ashton Mabel stayed in line, she’d get a man to be proud of.
Hannah O’Toole, the dynamite lady, beautiful as ever, proud of her role in life, muttered another “Mother McCree,” set fuses in place on both sticks taken from her saddlebag, stood just off the rim, let loose an ungodly cry, “Hiyee,” and with all her strength tossed the first stick of lit dynamite down on top of the rustlers. It almost landed in their midst. They scattered like flung pebbles, just as she threw the second stick, between them and their horses, which also scattered, leaving the scoundrels all afoot.
Hannah and Tim O’Toole, astride horses, rifles lying across their pommels, led the three culprits into town, and the widow lady, not yet tempted by any man, as proud as ever, rode regal and tall in the saddle, and hearing Jamesie’s words still sitting in place.
Later, in a swap talk with town folk, she acknowledged that she had not heard the explosions, that her eyes had been trained on her son as he dove behind a large rock. “He’s still my baby,” she said, and even smiled when she thought about Ashton Mabel standing off to the side of the gathering.