Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
For the third time in a month, Crater Barnes had not seen Mrs. Binnie Minn at her home up in the end of Grob’s Canyon. But this was the first time that his suspicions were aroused. The man who answered the door to the huge house was the third man in a row who said that “Binnie, being sick, is not able to see anybody, or have any visitors.”
The physical appearance of such men, especially range types, had never bothered Barnes. He had seen too many good men in bad clothes and too many bad men in classy clothes. These doormen were a mix of the two, yet he felt an awed sense of foreboding hanging in the air of Shangri-la, the name that long-dead Bartholomew Minn had given to the mansion he had built deep in Grob’s Canyon, hopefully out of the way of murderers, rustlers, card sharks and general horse hoboes trying to beat out a living by not working for it. An old Chinese cook, who had worked for Bart Minn for a few years, had spoken a number of times around an open fire about a mystical place out of his family’s past. He had called it Shangri-la and the name was usually whispered when spoken among other Chinese people, as if it only existed in dreams.
If ever there was a lady and a Queen of the Rockies, high lands and low lands, ridge lines and foothills, crags or wooded climbs, it was Mrs. Binnie Minn. And nobody, not even Barnes himself, long-time friend and one-time trail pard of her husband, had ever called her Binnie. To most of the west, at least this side of the Rockies, she was Mrs. Minn of Shangri-la. It was not that she looked the part, or played the part; she “was” Mrs. Minn of Shangri-la.
Barnes did not feel at all strange about the arrangement. “Some things just are,” he was apt to say if asked, especially by a curious sort who knew some of the Barnes/Minn history. Barnes was a rugged, good looking cowpoke who rode his mount easily but with authority. Two Colt Peacemakers sat loose on his hips in the manner of many cowmen bent on protection of their goods and riding stock. The horse beneath him set well with him aboard, and they made a handsome pair, as if partly on parade.
Barnes, casually looking back, left the mansion grounds the way he had come, riding down the wide path that supply wagons had gutted during the construction. The path was wide, lined with Douglas firs and slim pines and an assortment of silver and red maples that Bart Minn had seeded himself. Looking back over his shoulder, Crater Barnes saw more than one curtain or shade moving in windows of the house, and spied one rider slipping away from the side of the house and move off behind the big barn set away from the main building.
He assumed he’d be trailed until he was clear of the property, perhaps well down the canyon and all the way over to Carveville City. Someone, he felt, wanted to make sure the old trail rider and pard of Bart Minn was out of the immediate area. He wondered if he had been trailed on his prior trips, and reminded himself to ask Jake Askins, down-range and uphill, if he had ever noticed anyone following him on earlier visits. Jake, an old prospector living on a rim of the canyon, could spot a wolf crawling down on a cow in heavy grass, or a thief in evening’s shade.
Barnes and Minn had ridden together for a number of causes, all on the good side of life, until an old prospector that Bart had befriended left him his claim. Life, even as good as it was for the pair of them, turned awfully good for Bart and his new bride, Binnie Braycott. She was newly arrived from back east, the daughter of the new Carveville Bank president, and a graduate of a Boston school. She read books every day, played the piano and three other instruments, and could put both innkeeper and guest at ease in a manner of minutes, but keep her own place. A few busybodies talked about her early on, but when she climbed up on a saddle an aura filled in around her. Some people of town, even some of the wives, said she looked like a queen up on the saddle. The regality of her bloomed. Her beauty bloomed. The saddle could have been her throne. And the aura never left her side, like it was her trail pard. Women knew it. Men knew it. Some even said the damned horse she rode knew it. And Binnie Minn carried the aura about as if it was a most private property.
When Bart Minn was bushwhacked five years earlier, shot several times in the back as he rode along a new fence line, a team of suitors tried their best to reach the side of the Queen of the Rockies. None of them got close. One son, a child of seven, Max, had kept Mrs. Minn close to home, but not shut away. Barnes now believed that someone had gotten too close. Much too close. He’d go see the bank president when he got into town. If anyone knew anything, it should be him.
Behind him as he rode, he could spot nobody trying to keep hidden. When he waved to Jake Askins sitting a chair on the ridgeline, Jake waved him on up. It took him almost ten minutes to make the climb.
“Jake, this is my third trip up here this month to see the lady of the house and some strange dudes keep saying she’s sick and can’t have any visitors. I swear, at least this time, that some rider is coat-tailing me until I get to town. I’m wondering if you’ve spotted that odd party this time, and on my earlier visits.”
“I got to tell you, Crater, I spotted him last time I know, but couldn’t signal. It probably would’ve given things away. And you’re sure right about this time. He’s in the holler that runs down the canyon. Been there behind a big boulder, just like last time, I suppose until you swing around toward town and he can’t see you no more.” He paused, spit a chew off, and said, “But it ain’t the same one’s last time. This sneak rides easier, better, like he don’t hate his horse. The last one didn’t like horses no way I could see, like he was a damned bunny whipper.” He spat again in disgust.
“Would you recognize him if you saw him in town?" Barnes said.
“If he climbed up on a mount, I’d know him from one end of town to the other. He ain’t no real cowpoke, I can tell you that.”
“Jake, get old Persimmon out and saddled up. I’m taking you to a meal down at the hotel.”
Jake Askins lifted himself from his outdoor chair, smiled an old-timer’s grin and said, “Make it the saloon and you got a customer, Crater.”
The pair had been in town about an hour and in the bank Barnes was speaking to Harvey Braycott, the president. “How’s things with your daughter, Harvey? You see her lately, up there in the canyon? See the grandson? How old’s he now?” He did not want to explain anything to Binnie Minn’s father, did not want to cause any alarm.”
“I’m ashamed to say I’ve been awful busy lately, Crater. Meant to go last week when she didn’t come down and got caught up again. Lots of work on those new land deals that Proctor’s got going. Business is good, I must say.” He looked a little sheep-faced as he added, “But I promise I’ll get up there next week or so. Boy’s got to see his grandfather. That’s a promise to an old friend.”
Barnes thought the banker looked like he just closed a big deal, and said, “Proctor got his hands in a lot of things, from what I hear,” in a tone that raised Braycott’s eyebrows.
“Anybody’s got money gets to move mostly whichever way he wants. Bart did. I do. Proctor does. It’s no sin to have money, Crater. Sometimes it gives cause to worry, but you can get by that.”
Barnes noted how well the banker was dressed, how smooth he looked when he spoke, how sure he was of himself. At the same time he wondered how the man could go weeks without seeing his daughter and grandson; he himself couldn’t handle that kind of separation.
At that same moment, Jake Askins slipped in the door and pulled Barnes aside. “I just seen him, Crater, down by the livery.”
“Who?” Crater said.
“Why, the bunny whipper, but not the other one from today. Saw him ride right up to the livery like the damn horse had promised to hurt him he wasn’t fed and brushed down. Sure did. Like I said, he’s a log in a puddle. He’s still in there, probably talkin’ to Pete, getting’ the horse off his hands, plannin’ a night in town.”
The odd pair walked out of the bank with proper goodbyes and walked down the town road and into the livery. Pete Marston was talking with his one customer, a slight, uncomfortable looking man with big eyes, small chin, and hands that couldn’t be still. “I’ll keep him the night, yessiree. Dollar takes care of everythin’, yessiree.”
Marston and his customer looked up as Crater Barnes closed the livery door behind him, and his Colt was in his hand. “Pete,” he said, “you go take a walk with Jake who’s outside. I got business with this hombre who’s been trailing me lately along with a couple of other dudes. Something’s going on up at Shangri-la and I aim to find out.” He stuck the gun in the customer’s guts. “Let’s talk mister, before I get this whole town right down on top of you.” He nodded to the door and Pete Marston walked off with Jake Askins like they were old trail pards back together for a spell.
It didn’t take much on Barnes’s part to get the man talking. “Proctor’s the one got it goin’. He scares me. Held that little kid of hers right over the well and told her if she didn’t do what he wants done, he’d drop the kid down the well. It’s got to be a hundred feet down, that well. If he’d of sneezed the kid’d be dead now."
“What’s his plan? What’s he after?”
“He’s gonna marry the widow, or make her marry him. He’s bringin’ a phony minister in to do it, keepin’ the kid hid out all the time. Supposed to happen next week, her getting’ used to it all, the kid hid out and stuff.”
“When he’s married to her, real or not, he gets one of his gang to kill her and he gets everything … the house, the mine, the kid, and that means he’ll end up with the bank sooner or later.”
“Where’s he hiding little Max?” Barnes jammed the gun barrel so deep into the man’s guts he heard him belch. “Spill it or I’ll turn you loose on a bull I got in mind, meaner than you could ever stand.”
“Up in the barn, in a small room at the back of the loft he made special. One of the gang babysits him all the time. Even sleeps there. Some of them take turns. Proctor knows they don’t like it, but the payoff looks like pure gold all around.”
“Where’s his mother? Where’s Proctor keeping her?”
“I guess it’s her room, front side on the left, lookin’ out at the mornin’ sun. He keeps talkin’ to her through the door, sayin’ she’s got to play it his way or the boy goes down the well … head first, he keeps sayin’ it and that scares me. I didn’t want no part of that, but Proctor’s pure mean. Pure mean.”
Crater Barnes, thinking of his old trail pard and the Lady of the Rockies, smacked the talker with one sudden blow of his Colt and he was down on his back. When he was tied up and thrown deep into the mow, behind piles of hay, he went to look for Jake Askins and Pete Marston, explaining to both of them his intentions for the night. They would take care of their end of things and he would take care of his.
Crater Barnes, during the next hour, conscripted four old pals he could trust and explained the task to them. All were anxious to do their bit. Armed, anxious, angry, they left town after darkness had set in. At midnight, they were in place, and Barnes made little Max Minn his first responsibility. It was a cinch, getting right beside the door of the room where the boy was kept. A little rustle of noise on his part and the babysitter poked his head out and was clobbered on the spot. Max Minn was bundled out and taken to a safer point against the canyon wall by one of Barnes’s pards.
In the deepest part of night, Barnes and one pard silently laid a ladder against Shangri-la, front side, left, right below a window. It was one of the windows Barnes thought he had seen a shade move. He now thought it must have been a signal. They had waited while three men went on a drinking run and had fallen asleep in the big front room, in stuffed chairs.
Bootless, holding his breath, Barnes climbed the ladder slowly, tapped lightly on the window three times. At the third tap he saw Mrs. Binnie Minn, the Lady of Shangri-la, rise from her bed and slide effortlessly to the window. She hugged him. “Oh, Crater, I knew you’d come sometime. I don’t know where Max is. We’ve got to find Max.”
She still was the loveliest creature Crater Barnes had ever seen. “”Don’t worry, we’ve got Max safe away from here.”
He almost fell off the ladder when she kissed him. “You were always the best of his pals, Crater. He always said that, that’s why I was counting on you.” She was over the windowsill and into his arms and the new pair started down the ladder together. He held her tightly, and she let him.
When she was safely away from the house, still quiet, Barnes and his pards walked in the front door, pistol whipped a couple of the gang, and tied them up tight as knots. All three were shoved onto a wagon and headed off to town for their comeuppance in the morning.
Crater Barnes and Mrs. Binnie Minn went to the back of the canyon and found Max Minn and Crater Barnes’s pal huddled under a rock overhang. She hugged her son, and hugged Crater Barnes again, saying, “I’ve been alone too long, Crater, and I swear you’re the only man alive I’ve done any thinking about. It’s been my pleasure.” She kissed him again right in front of her son and Barnes’s pal.
“Let’s go to town,” she said, “and see some justice done. It’s been waiting too long, all the way around.” Her smile was brighter than the sun the morning had in promise.