Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Clutch Maynard, still saddle-worthy though he had too much to drink, heard the music coming from Saddler’s barn, where the dance bounced against the walls, shaking Wells’ Ford to the joists. The fiddles, enough for an army, set his feet moving in the stirrups in an odd rhythm. He didn’t care how drunk he might be, he was going dancing. “A bit of dancin’ s what I need now,” he said, knowing his horse understood every word out of his mouth. “I been too far, Big Jack, doin’ too much, seein’ one side of hell, not to have a piece of music for my own, slow down and lazy like I’m hearin’ right now.”
The buzz in his head was telling him to hold his mouth when he got inside. No need to let the whole town hear what happened.
They’d know soon enough, what he had come across, what had happened at the Bar J. He’d get JJ Johnson aside and tell him, away from his wife and other people just bent on dancing, having a high old time of it.
On the way home to Wells Ford from a long trail drive clear up the Masterson Trail, the sour smell of something burning beside wood had come down the draw on a slight breeze. Burnt leather might be in the smell, and hair of one kind or another. Big Jack gave him first notice, snickering, jerking his head on the reins, holding back a step in his pace like he would if a rattler lay in ambush. The odor turned riper in a hurry and when he climbed out of the draw he saw the smoke twirling in the air above the Bar J spread. The ranch house and the bunkhouse were not yet in sight, but the climbing smoke sank down into his gut. He spurred Big Jack toward the ranch.
He searched and found no bodies in the front of the house, while the back part was still smoldering. The huge brick wall and fireplace had kept the fire in the back of the house, but the barn was gone and the horses turned out. They grazed in a far field, under a tree. The thoughts he entertained tried to stick in his mind, but he lost them.
He did not see one head of beef on the whole place. Or anybody moving about the way they would normally be moving with a rider coming in, even straight off the grass.
A ranch hand, one he’d known simply as Dusty, lay shot dead in the back of the barn. The bullet had gotten him in the back of the head; bushwhacked. Maynard figured whoever had done the deed had snuck up that way, by the rear of the barn where the trees clustered against the wind.
He put the fire out that was trickling yet at the rear of the house and buried Dusty, before buzzards, sitting up there on thermals as if they were held up by strings, dropped in to tear him apart. The thoughts of such desecration made him shiver, as every cowman he knew dreaded being torn apart by the buzzards as the worst of death, worse than Hell itself making way for them.
Then, studying the kitchen, his eye seeing things that were set in the usual way in the Bar J kitchen, he spotted leavings that were not so usual. “Remember what you have seen” were words that, in his haste to get humane tasks under way and completed, filtered into his mind and floated around in the fog those words had encountered.
Maynard, believing all tasks completed, yet shaken and thirsty from his long ride, grabbed a bottle he knew was tucked under the pump housing at the sink. He set out to get himself drunk, getting the job done before he got to town, heard the music coming strong from Saddler’s barn.
How would he tell JJ his barn and half the house were gone, and Dusty killed, put down now for eternal protection?
Whoever it was that bushwhacked Dusty, was a lefty, he said to himself, as if trying to put the fact in place to be remembered, to be remembered for a long time. His stomach rolled again as he thought about Dusty being dropped with one shot and left on the ground where he fell, left for the buzzards or the peccaries if they smelled his blood, if they dared come near fire.
Big Jack slowed at the Saddler’s barn and stepped up to a spot at a tie rail as the fiddles twanged away at an old favorite Maynard’s, “Sarah of the Seven Hills.” A hundred times on the trail he had pictured Sarah coming into town, as he hummed the song. Wouldn’t it be something if Sarah was waiting inside for him and not JJ, not a guy whose barn was gone and half his house, and a ranch hand shot dead in the back and now in the ground, killed by what? By who? He snapped his head about trying to remember what he was supposed to remember. Wasn’t there something he had to remember, something to tell JJ? Something to tell the sheriff when he saw him? Maynard, tottering on his feet, his legs aching from his toes to his thighs, shook his head again, foggy at best.
Big Jack stopped in place at the rail and Maynard slid clumsily off the saddle. His legs hurt, his backside hurt, his gut was burning, and his ears buzzing. The buzz came again the way it had been coming since he had left the Bar J, a long, moaning buzz. Now the fiddles were playing along with the buzz or playing him along. The empty bottle was tossed aside. It had been empty for half the ride.
He straightened his knees as he had done every time coming off the saddle after a long, hard ride. In his boots all ten toes ached to be free. The bottle did not take away much of his pain. Tipsy or not, this was going to be a tough one. And he hoped all JJ’s family had come to the dance … he was sure there were no other bodies at the ranch. The rooms left standing were empty; he had double-checked. Sarah slammed into his mind again as he leaned on the door. Now his mouth must be still; say nothing, do nothing, until he had taken JJ aside. Get him alone. Be smooth about it. Ask first after the family.
Maynard leaned on the door, pushed it open, and fell into the barn directly onto the floor full of folks dancing like it was shivaree. The floor came up to meet his face. The floor was black as soot and so loomed his mind. The music must have stopped.
Maynard, his throat burning, his head still buzzing, woke up sitting up against a wall. JJ and the sheriff were standing over him, asking questions, making comments.
“Wonder what old Clutch was up to now.” The sheriff looked around the roomful of folks looking on. “Wasn’t Clutch on a drive with Masterson? Who saw him last?”
“One cowpoke answered from the crowd. “Saw him not more than two months ago, day he left with Jake and Henry Sills, heading out with young Masterson the day the drive was to start.”
“Well,” JJ said, “he got hold of a bottle to get him home. Was likely looking to celebrate the end of the drive.”
JJ’s voice dipped deep into Maynard’s consciousness. He had worked for JJ on several jobs, including trail work. The voice made his head spin. He couldn’t hold back. “Someone burned half your place, JJ. I smelled the smoke from way back in the big draw, first smelled like leather was burning. The whole barn is gone, roof timbers smoking on the ground and the back half the house. Dusty was bushwhacked, shot in the back of the head. I buried him between the barn and the first tree. Smack in the middle between them. He was awful bloody. I worried about the critters.” Looking around for familiar faces, he said, “Is all your family here? The horses must have been turned out before the fire was started. They were grazing by the tree line. No cows in sight, though.” He asked again, “Is all your family here?”
JJ was upright directly in front of him. Tall, broad and fair, he had been a good boss to work for. He was a man with two feet on the ground when he wasn’t on a horse. “They’re all here, Clutch, the whole family. Thanks for asking. You see anybody? All the horses out okay? All the cows gone? Any sign around?”
From the side of the barn another voice yelled out, “Let’s go get ‘em, JJ, whoever pulled this stunt. Let’s get ‘em and hang ‘em where it hurts.”
Maynard shook his head and replied, “I’m supposed to remember something, JJ, but I can’t find it.” As if angry with himself, he shook his head again. “It’s about your kitchen, JJ. Something in your kitchen. I looked to see if there was anybody dead besides Dusty. I was afraid of what I’d find. But nobody was there. At least, no one dead there. I don’t know about the barn. It was still smoky, but no flames. I couldn’t have helped anybody was still in the barn. I thought about the kids.”
In a knee-jerk reaction, JJ scanned the crowd, marked faces of his family, and said, “They’re all here, Clutch. Thanks for thinking about them. You have a good eye, I remember. So I won’t sweat you forgetting. It’ll come back. We came in last night. Mame and I spent the night at the hotel and the kids with Aunt Bessie. When do you figure it all started? Any sign of that? Nobody past us out there but the mountains and those canyons not much use to any of us.”
Maynard’s head still buzzed and the fuzziness seemed rounded up in a dark shadow. He tried to see all the scenes in his mind, but clutter came on his thinking; Dusty there behind the barn down and bloody, smell of leather burning, smoke rising into the sky like Indian signals and the awful silence that comes with death.
It all made him shiver but again with effort he tried thinking past the images in his mind. His voice came back clearer than it had been a second before, JJ staring at him like he was priming the pump in the kitchen, thirsty but patient.
“Had to be late yesterday, JJ, after you left for town. Dusty was behind the barn when he was shot. Must have still been daylight, though. Maybe he went out to check on something going on, some noise or ruckus out back there. He had no lantern with him.”
JJ offered, “Dusty was a good old boy. Been with me a long time. I’ll have to let his brother know. He’s over in Mesa Verdi with Dutch Fallon’s crew. Been there f’ever, like Dusty. Names Oliver.”
“What’s their last name?” Maynard said.
“Twitchell,” JJ replied, “Stanley and Oliver Twitchell, come down from Oregon country way back when forever started it seems. Good boys all around.”
One cowpoke, the same one who wanted to “get ‘em and hang ‘em where it hurts,” stepped out of the crowd. “C’mon, JJ, let’s posse up and chase hell outta them critters that done this.”
Maynard recognized the impatient cowpoke as a lazy burn, a smoldering man who did little to add to his place in life, hanging around where he could pick up easy goods, working when he only had to get a meal or buy a bottle or pay a debt. The poke’s name came in a rush – Toss Margins.
“No rushing around like chickens near a coyote,” JJ said.
“Why not?” Margins replied, edging his way closer.
Maynard looked up at Margins, felt the “shiftlessness” coming right off the man’s skin, and the phony demands in his words and in his voice, like he didn’t mean what he was saying. And he focused his eyes on Margins, how he wore his gun belt tight at the waist, above the hip. Some other details about the man scratched for footholds in Maynard’s mind.
He was supposed to remember something special about the kitchen at JJ’s place, not this mouthy cowpoke.
Margins spoke up again. “Ain’t you in a hurry to get who done in Dusty? Ain’t you in a hurry to run a rope up on him, JJ? Was me I’d be out there chasin’ him now.” His hands rested on his hips, on his belt line, like it was his place got burned out. “I wouldn’t be wastin’ no time talkin’ ‘bout who I was after, that’s for sure.” Looking at the crowd around Maynard, he searched for sympathetic answers.
JJ said, “I’m not worried about catching the man those who did it. I don’t want a whole bunch of riders, like in a crazy posse running all over my place.”
“That’s kind of funny talk, JJ. If your cows are gone, don’t you want ‘em back?”
“If they’re gone to hell, we’ll find them. I got Blue Feather, the Kiowa, down in the livery waiting on us. He can find any man who was on my spread if I let him be by himself. Hell, he can track Clutch here, right to the door when he fell in, looking for us. He sure didn’t come here to dance, not from how I look at it.”
Margins said, “How’s that, JJ?”
“He came to tell us what he’s forgot for the moment. We just sit patient with him and it’ll all come back.” JJ put his hand down to Maynard and brought him to his feet. “I’d get you another drink, Clutch, but I don’t think I better. We’ll get that later, if you’ve a mind. Try again about the kitchen. Mame did a bit of decorating before we left, sprucing things up.”
Maynard tried to picture Mame at work in the kitchen. “What’d she do, JJ?” Then another picture came at him. “She a lefty, JJ?”
“No,” JJ said. “Why?”
“If you and Mame aren’t lefties, whoever was in your kitchen after you left for town had coffee and was a lefty. Before he torched the barn and whatever, he had coffee and he was a lefty. That’s part of what I remember. The pot on the table was set down by a lefty. The cup was on the left side of the table. I don’t know what made me notice, but it was like I felt keen all over noticing things. I knew I had to come tell you whenever I found you. I didn’t want to be a dummy about things. I kept my eyes open. What did Mame do in the kitchen before you came to town? You said decorating.”
JJ shook his head, saw round Mame at work. “Painted a couple of chairs. Mercy’s getting married in a month and she’s getting the place primed for company. “He looked around until he saw his daughter Mercy staring at him from the crowd. “Painted the chairs a dark red. Looked pretty good.”
It was as if three men, JJ and Maynard and Margins, shared the same thought at the same instant. Maynard steady now on his feet, JJ’s hands free of him, both noticed again the red smudges on Margins’ pants, just as he started to back away and go for his gun, left-handed, across his mid-section, desperate, found out.
Maynard and JJ’s guns were leveled at Margins’ gut before his hand reached his gun. A big, rangy cowpoke, his night out for dancing interrupted by all the news, dropped his arms around Margins and locked Margins’ arms in place. He was quick and powerful and looked very angry as he squeezed the breath out of the left-handed killer, the left-handed bushwhacker.
JJ put his arm on Maynard’s shoulder. “Cows won’t be hard to find. Blue Feather can do that in a shake. But we got a barn to build, a house to fix, and a wedding to get ready for. You’re top man on the guest list, Clutch. What do you say to that.”
“I thought I come here to do some slow dancing.”
A snappy looking girl in a red dress stepped out of the crowd and took his hand. The fiddles started just as Dusty Twitchell’s killer was dragged to the door by the sheriff and a deputy.