Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Knobby Newton stood in admiration as he saw the last nail driven in his new hotel, which he had named Knobby’s Nook and the sign over the front entrance had been put up the night before, in darkness, so that he could surprise the folks of Carson Divide, Wyoming. The sign read “Nestle Here at Knobby’s Nook” and painted pillows adorned each end of the sign. Newton loved that special touch. The last nail was put in place with a single hammer hit by Newton’s pal, Dom Petra, who had conceived and built the hotel for Knobby with twin dormers, a sight not seen locally where most roofs were flat or pitched clean to the edges for handling winter snow. The window in the first gable was not fitted with any glass, but was boarded up from the first, whereas the second gable window was a window, with a two-piece double hung window looking out over the main road passing through Carson Divide that featured ornate signs; the livery (Harry Peter’s House of Horses), the Bank of Wyoming (with spilled cash and currency as a footing), Moose Callow’s General Store and Confectioner, funeral director Calvin Monterey’s Home of Blessing and Final Departure, and the corner building at the head of the road bore its own unique sign that carried nothing but an open pair of scissors and a comb, both implements at the ready and especially drawn with vibrant strokes and colors.
People wondered about the boarded gable, and some folks attributed it to Petra’s penchant for seeking attention to his work and his being so young. “He’ll be the governor someday,” a few older folks had said, “way he’s goin’ at things now. Gotta admit, the boy’s a genius at what he does. And he ain’t got any competition at all since Purly Phelps left town.” There was total agreement on that point, as one other gent said, “Knobby knew what he was doin’ when he hired the kid to build his place. I don’t know if Purly could have done any better on building and signs, though he was pretty good too. They say he put up every damned building over to Washington Hills before he left there to come here.”
Each one of the signs was designed and finished off by Dom Petra, who had designed and built each structure from details he carried in his rich mind. He was 22 years old when the last nail was driven home on Knobby’s Nook, the night starting to come down out of the mountains, the barn owls calling each other, or frightening fair game from hiding. It was a few days before the 4th of July celebration of the year 1877, accepted as the 100th anniversary of the holiday by most of the country, and Dom Petra had promised something new for the holiday.
Petra was handsome as a lead horse prancing in a show. His black curly hair spilled over his forehead and fell atop his ears giving him a delightful boyish look that all the women in town loved, and he was considerate of each one of them that he met in daily rounds about Carson Divide. He was always on the go, which some men envied but they all tolerated him because of his youthful and mostly innocent ways … thinking often he was what they all could have been.
“Leave it up to that kid,” another of the old timers said in the Big Horn Saloon tucked under Knobby’s Nook like it was a poorly-kept secret, the one place in town not having its own big sign, only a small placard at the door with its name. “I tell you, he’ll be the governor someday, maybe the whole president thing if he keeps at it. Damn, he’s got energy in his ideas.” He looked about as other patrons nodded agreement, waved their affirmation as if the vote was being taken at the moment.
Another patron, white-bearded to the fare-thee-well, said, “Ain’t no sense tryin’ to guess what he’s brought to mind. He just skedaddles way ahead of us all the time. I’m all for sittin’ here and waitin’ f’im to get it goin’.” He drew laughter and further agreement as he drained off his drink and offered up another point off consideration, “And that damned window up top that ain’t no window at all.”
There was a whole lot of agreement there, too,
It was right about then that the Wyoming Plains Company stagecoach drew up in front of the hotel and Petra came into the saloon with his arm around a beautiful blonde in a white dress hugging her body all over including the most promising hips ever seen in the establishment, a blue hat sitting as proud as a regimental standard atop her head, and stepping off in a pair of bright-red, high-heeled shoes that made her look like she was more than 6 feet tall.
Immediate silence and wonder fell into the saloon as though a bell had been rung. The woman should, at that moment, have been hailed aloud as a raving beauty, especially by a gathering of men, many of whom had not seen a good-looking woman in a long time, and never a beautiful woman knocking them asunder from the start.
One ever-silent man, name of Cross Jenkins, patient as Time itself, well into his deep 70s, smoking a pipe locked in the corner of his mouth, feeling the awe that had pounced in his friends, exclaimed as he tore the pipe from his lips, “Swear to hell I could pass right now, my dream come to haunt me on the way. Now we got an idea what the kid Dom has got goin’ for the celebratin’. No one can beat that kid, I tell ya.”
Mass agreement ascended in a solid hum of approval, at which the blonde smiled a raving smile, and the always exuberant Petras said, “Gents, I’d like to present Maybelle Gladding to you, singer and dancer, with a voice that’ll haunt every trail from here to Frisco and back and a pair of the loveliest dancing legs to go with that voice. Maybelle will be the star of our 4th of July celebration right in here.” His arm swept about the saloon and then was placed around the slim waist within in the white dress and with that comfortable grasp Petra whisked Maybelle Gladding into a hallway behind the bar.
Silence sat anew in the saloon, which seemed also crowded with wonder, curiosity and a whole bunch of wishful thinking as they watched the young wonder take the beautiful Maybelle Gladding out of sight.
The pipe smoker Cross Jenkins, taking another puff, offered a further pronouncement, “That boy leaves more questions hangin’ about than a barn owl. He comes in with a beauty, goes off with a beauty, makes promises for a whole holiday shindig, hangs fearful good signs on places, puts a wooden window in a gable to keep us askin’ what he’s up to all the time and all the time he’s like one big question mark his own self.”
Breaking up the silence was the entrance of the driver of the Wyoming Plains Company stagecoach, a slim and wizened-looking, weather-beaten man in his mid-40s or so, who called himself Willy Who’s with never any explanation at all. He had been the first driver for the company and had been through a few robberies and shootouts, a dangerous washout of the trail in a sudden and violent storm, had an unknown part in the abduction of a baby, and helped one woman deliver her third child who asked him what she should name her new son and to which Willy Who’s said, “Why Trailside would be perfect for him, a name the child carried from then on.
Willy told one of the younger patrons to bring in Maybelle Gladding bags on the boardwalk and took himself to his favorite end of the bar where he could take turns leaning on the bar or against the wall. He was joined by the old pipe smoker, Cross Jenkins, who asked Willy if he had a good ride this trip.
“I sure did,” Willy replied, “with that sweetheart of a lady sitting near plumb under me the whole way. And there was not much of the usual bellyaching coming from the other passengers like there always is, about things that can’t be helped like bumps and bruises got and food that only speaks for itself after you eat it and you’re caught up in the coach directly on the run.”
That whole mouthful made Jenkins cough on his own smoke and he started laughing loud enough to bring the whole saloon to attention and to a path of gentle good humor that liquor did not or could not easily displace. Willy Who’s was a light for many people of Carson Divide and the towns and settlements on his stagecoach route, some saying that they knew the hour of the day by his arrival or departure “if not hampered by storms or guns or the casual renegade come loose of his normal village.”
Willy was so dependable at his work that his word had proved the final word in a number of court cases in which he swore where he saw a defendant on trial to be in a place other than the crime sight at the time the crime was committed. Not a soul would doubt his word “once the breakaway liquor’s spent its run and Willy gets his due sleep.”
And so it was that evening, when Cross Jenkins asked Willy where he had taken Purly Phelps on his trip out of town a week or more ago. He was wondering at this time if Phelps had just gone out of town, “As he had gone out of Washington Hills a year before, and was now gone for good from Carson Divide?”
Willy looked at Jenkins with a funny grin on his face. “Why’d you ask that, Cross? I never had Purly as a passenger on my coach ever that I remember.” That statement was a final statement, and came true as any Willy ever made. He had no use for lying and always said so. “Never once, Cross, has he been in my coach. Who told you that he was?”
Cross Jenkins said, “Why, Knobby told me Purly went out of town as a passenger on your stage. Said it right here at the bar one night after you had gone on to Percival and other places on the easterly run.”
“Why would he say that when Purly never stepped up into any coach I was ever driving?”
“Reckon I don’t know that, Willy, but I’ll ask him when he comes along, which will be soon.”
And there was Knobby in a few minutes, striding into the saloon. Jenkins hailed him and when he joined Jenkins and Willy at the bar, Jenkins said, “Knobby, why’d you tell me Purly went on Willy’s stage that time? Willy says Purly ain’t ever been a passenger on his coach.”
“Hell, Dom told me that Purly was going out on the stage. Said he had some job to do somewhere.”
Willy jumped in ahead of Cross Jenkins. “Purly never stepped a foot in my coach ever, and that’s the truth. Why would he say that?”
Knobby, shaking his head, said, “Maybe he got mixed up. Hell, I can’t hardly remember him saying it, but he did, and right here at the bar.” With a slightly contemptuous look he shrugged his shoulders that actually said, “There’s no accounting about what some folks do.”
All three of them shook their heads, not understanding the simple poser, but Cross Jenkins, older than the other two, having been around a lot longer than them, being a pretty good judge of body language and responses sent off by facial effects at questioning, knew the other two were not lying … and his curiosity started to rear its little head somewhere at the back of his mind. If nothing else, he was aware of liars and cheats and cowards, or their opposites … old fashioned, plain natural heroes holding for the good way in life, for most men he knew were one or the other in their daily doings with other folks.
The contemplation went into full swing for the old gent and any odd event or change in Carson Divide that he remembered came into his ken: Why had one side of the livery been painted red and the opposite side painted gray; or why Dapper Gregory at the barbershop suddenly began to shave customers with his left hand; or why Chaz Durfee’s lovely widow Lorelei Elizabeth of a sudden pulled her night shades down well before dark; or why Brick Henderson the blacksmith put down his tools before all daylight was gone, as he had never done before; or why didn’t Purly Phelps take the stagecoach out of town as two people said he did?
All of those posers and more ran through Jenkins’ mind, each query taking its place, found wanting or clarified by quick and good reason, or left to ponder.
He was sure there were more minor changes or inadequate alterations in places or customs or actions that he had noticed and somehow discounted as nothing but the idle considerations of an old man with nothing else to do in his daylight hours.
The three men broke up their discussion when each one in turn was hailed by a friend or acquaintance, and each one went off into another discussion.
Jenkins, his mind not put to rest, wandered out into Carson Divide and ambled about the one main road through the center of town and looked down alleys and between buildings as though simple answers lay about for the finding, like discarded empty boxes. But there was nothing new, nothing he had not seen before, no answers to silly questions of taste or comfort or a sudden character change in a person that he had not encountered before. Life, as ever, rolled on in its own way, in alleys, on the main road of towns like Carson Divide, with faint pronouncements in the souls of men.
In one turn about the small town, along its partial boardwalk sections, in the dust of the dry road, past two new establishments trying to make a start in the commercial world, he looked up and saw the boarded window in the right hand gable of Knobby’s Nook.
“That,” he said, almost under his breath, “has no answer.”
He would investigate. Somehow, someway, he had to get up there, into the room behind that gable.
Knobby Newton answered an apparently idle but nosy question from Jenkins. “Oh, the gable. Dom Petra asked for the room in exchange for his pay for his work on the hotel. I told him he could have it for two whole years and he agreed. I think he takes his women up there. They’re all married, you know. He’s got a thing for married women. Best that I can guess. The other gable’s on a room I rent by the month. It happens to be empty now.”
He looked at Jenkins and said, “You have a nose for stuff like that, don’t you? Do you ever get answers? Find answers?” He laughed and added, “Curiosity is a curious animal, isn’t it?”
Jenkins puffed on his pipe and laughed as he said, “What’s an old man to do with himself, Knobby? He can’t do any more what he used to do. It comes with the territory I heard one man older than me say.”
Newton was laughing as he walked away.
Later in the evening, the saloon busy as ever, Jenkins slipped behind the bar, entered the hallway, climbed the stairs and stood before the door to the empty room-for-rent. He found it easy to open. The gable window looked down on the street, lights visible along the street, the barber shop and the livery signs still visible, but the little house on a knoll at the edge of town, the one owned by Chaz Durfee’s lovely widow Lorelei Elizabeth, showed to be in complete darkness. He wished her well.
There was a door to the second room with a gable. It was difficult to open, but Jenkins’ curiosity had a firm grip on him and he could not shake it off, as though it had dropped down into his gut and was working hard on him.
After some difficulty, he opened the door and stepped into the room.
It was bare, except for a large luggage trunk in one corner of the room. The trunk also opened with some difficulty. Jenkins found wrapped entirely in canvas the body of Purly Phelps, not yet bound for someplace out of town.
Jenkins carefully made his way out of the room and returned to the saloon down below, his mind working every which way with the problem of what to do with the find. The killer was unknown as far as he was concerned, though the man had been hit savagely on the head. Certain facts might point right at the kid genius, Dom Petra, but all were unsubstantiated at the time.
He slid up to the end of the bar and ordered a drink and swung his head about in his usual and casual way of sensing the tone and tenor of the saloon, who was spunky or lit up already before darkness was full, and who and what offered him a bit of entertainment, a bit of talk, a touch of warmth for a piece of the evening.
He admitted that he needed a change.
It came in a hurry as Knobby Newton banged on the bar and said, in a loud voice for all to hear, “Don’t rush now, gents, but there will be a pre-4th of July celebration taking place here in a few minutes, with you know who lending her absolute beauty to every one of us.”
He paused to let that sink in and said, “I have a couple of other special announcements to make. So please bear with me as I invite everybody to an open bar for the next two hours, all in a goodbye salute to our own kid genius, Dom Petra. Dom just told me that he is leaving town tomorrow for a new and highly exciting job in the capital city.”
Before there was a rush of noise and a rush of bodies to the bar and an endless hurrah bracing the crowd, Cross Jenkins stepped quickly up beside Knobby Newton, took off his Stetson, held it over his heart, raised his other hand and said, “Like hell he is!”