Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Everso, Nevada must have seen McKenzie Dodds, newly quit of the Great War, coming all the way, all the time, sitting as it did on a rise with a splendid view of the river and the grass running for miles beside it dotted with cattle. It could have been termed a welcome in some quarters the way the town hummed, had bustle in the streets, doors opened and closed, hellos and good mornings and halleluiahs blending in Dodds’s hearing. It was all saluted by a group of boys in an old game of tossing slender sticks at the side of the livery where leaners were yelped up to victory; “Huzzah. Magnificent! Numere uno!.” Or “Attaboy, Vinnie! Attaboy!” Or “Do it again, Carlo!” coming as "Lo hace otra vez, Carlo!"
Dodds took in many of the features of another cowboy town, another trail town, the sights and the sounds becoming familiar to him and immediately appreciated. There was nothing like a nice town.
Everso, from the ground up, brought itself well to a good listener, to a good observer.
At the head of the noisy alley he noticed an old man wearing a trail-found hat and other visible cast-offs. He sat deeply in his cascading winter-white whiskers and a broken rocking chair, a black jackknife against a stick in hand finding form, watching the boys, nodding his appreciation of certain tossing skills and the shrill cries of joy. The cries included those of his grandson Carlo. Indeed, Carlo, born in a wagon to the man’s daughter on an endless journey to get to this place, served as the old man’s marker of arrival. Every time he heard the boy’s shrill “Eureka” he smiled his own thanks.
Everso was a special place, the old man freely admitted to anyone who would listen.
McKenzie Dodds, still in the saddle, believed he heard a lone harmonica working at mouth-watering rhythm coming from some building, and though he could not tell which building, his fingers replicated the beat on the leather reins, lightly tapping his fingertips as though they touched the black and white keys of a piano from his past. He thought his ear fortuitous.
But Everso came different than other towns on the trail, he quickly believed; music flowed in the air for a good listener, any old tune and, perchance, any odd note.
Another moment he thought he heard a distant violin cutting cleanly through the warm air with an unknown but lovely lilt, much like the cut of honey called upon by a sweet tooth or a sore throat. Might he, he thought, hang a shingle with that image?
That tune sat on him like a grace given from elsewhere and seemed like calmness itself, which could be an assumption; such transitions, he supposed, likely do not happen. There was neither bounce nor jump to the tune, but it made him again think of the good flow of honey.
Oh, that caught him up in the quick: All war’s horrors and the harsh events of his westward trail finally lost their footholds. In truth, the horse beneath him might have been the only residue of encounters on the line of battle and in the numerous infiltrating skills he had mastered in his cavalry duties. In those duties he found, marked the locations of, and reported the enemy’s wealth of goods if he had not, just as often, destroyed such finds to the last box, barrel, or bore. He’d been perfect in that role; admired, touted, be-medaled.
And he’d been proficient at hearing odd or faint notes: His troopers carried tales that Dodds had proved he could hear a trigger being cocked more than 200 feet away in evening’s bare shadows or dawn’s first light.
So high was his regard that he came out of the Great War as a captain of cavalry, noted as an excellent horseman and an intrepid fighter decorated beyond his young years. “The spirit of the saddle, he bears well,” one general called out at a dinner in a deep retreat not far from Washington in 1863, and not far from the Confederate advance.
Yet the great war that ravaged half the land had tired Dodds with death of friend and foe, the old and the young, all amid the sight of men maimed for life, their missing limbs taking their owner’s skills, tossing them directly into earth. In relief occasions, on official leave, he visited Washington area hospitals where comrades had been borne for treatment and found himself conversant with Walt Whitman and Louisa May Alcott at their merciful tasks. Who knows what words found reserve with him, and hence had been carried westerly, packaged in his mind? Literature he loved, great phrases he’d memorized, characters he understood at introduction.
But for Dodds in all his fervor, Private Ralph Dortmond amounted to an impression so indelible he had seen a thousand times the sheer and knife-sharp scale of wood sever both his legs below the knees. It happened so quickly that Dortmond had been caught upright on the face of the earth, and not touching the hallow ground where his feet had been but a moment earlier. The explosion had with unmerciful fury burst from a munitions supply in a cave, the mouth of Hell afire, he’d allowed. Dodds, at odds with his own secretive undertakings, had found the dread supply and attached the measure of ignition … and thus the separation of Dortmond’s limbs, never to be found. The haunt of responsibility did not depart.
He had seen all of it from the only seat available for such activities, in the very heart and line of fire. His penchant was making himself visible not only to his enemies, but to all the men of his command. It rode in the saddle with him.
At war’s end McKenzie Dodds went west, having no other place to go, no place to call home except two foul orphanages of his youth that succeeded in but one way, cementing him as a survivor in the face of interminable odds. War and orphanage be damned.
It was early that the hero found a sense of humor too, but never deciding what his mantra would be, “Odds for Dodds” or “Dodds at Odds.” He liked the sound of each twist, knowing he could build images there, comfortable at the task, sensing the words floating around in his head waiting to be grasped, put to work, to be seen.
Out of uniform as soon as he could manage, swapping his uniform, including all the medals he had been awarded, to a drummer for a set of clothing ill-fitting, sorry-looking, but carrying no emblem to make distinctions, he found a road to what he termed “the beyond.” It was the part of the Union he believed to be less pained or burdened by war and its remnants.
The big red stallion he rode, Top Knot his appointed name, brought Dodds a fair amount of attention, as he was a magnificent creature for whom Dodds had paid dearly. The young man knew horses from the long hours in a stable attached to one of the orphanages that sheltered his early years. “TK” for Top Knot, was brazenly burned into the saddle for all to see, to wonder about. But a fair reader can find in the message Dodds’s tribute to a subordinate in the cavalry chain of command during the Great War.
Just as all the other impacts of the war made deep impressions on him, Dodds carried no weapon on his belt and no rifle in his saddle sheath. There on the pommel hung a length of rope, some wound thin wire, and a stout knife for skinning animals for pelts or food and for shaving wood. Such minor tools kept him bound to the usual routes of travel, made company a necessity for the long roads in harsh country, and likely set him up as a possible pigeon for the takers who populated the way west, the thieves, the roadmen and the armed braggarts.
Incidents, of course, in light of his equipment, or lack of, occurred in saloons where he stood out as unarmed and therefore subject to derision and humorous scorn, which he handled in a moderate manner, usually with humorous babble. Most men were satisfied or put off by his words or manner and the incidents faded in geniality. But in a Kansas saloon, a big loud mouth kept up his tirade against “Men not man enough to wear a gun, which ‘ppears to be you, sonny boy.”
Dodds did his best to ignore him, but once he turned his back to the blow-hard, a hand touched Dodds on the shoulder and the big mouth said, “Are you ignorin’ me, sonny boy, when I was talkin’ to you? You keep ignorin’ me, sonny boy, and I’ll leave you out there for vulture meat, with no stone or cross about you.”
Before the man could move, before he even thought of protecting himself, Dodds spun about and whipped the pistol right out of the blowhard’s holster and fired a shot down between the man’s feet, like lightning had struck dead center in the room. The saloon was at a sudden standstill and an eerie silence slipped in from far corners, the way a church can sound its weight. The big man didn’t move a muscle.
Calmly, as if nothing had happened, Dodds returned the pistol to the man’s holster, and said, “Are we friendly now? I feel friendly. Do you feel friendly?” On the instant he saw Dortmond’s face the way he last saw it, surprise atop surprise.
The man walked out of the saloon, to which the bartender said to Dodds, “Don’t worry none about him, he’ll be okay tomorrow. He won’t look sideways at you then, for sure.”
So Dodds moved westerly, occasions and situations dotting the days, which sometimes required reactions similar to the above pistol exchange. And work came from different sources, but all required skills with and knowledge of horses, as in livery work, remuda forming, even blacksmithing on horseshoes and shoeing horses. Dodds was qualified in every situation, and always earned his keep, and no gunplay ever involved him.
He did not stay long in any one place, the urge pulling at him to move yonder, beyond the next river, the next expanse of grass, the sharp mountain ranges out there throwing shadows at his feet as day fell down and away. What really pushed that urge had no name for him, its handle evasive, ever present like morning mists that evaporated in minutes.
But there always lingered haunting and unfulfilled dreams in him where words and songs and hymns and interplay with good listeners carried all the weight. It might be envisioned as someone being verbal with his daily journal, or telling a story to himself as the day moved on, any part of them sounding like literary entertainment or topics discussed until revelation claimed answers.
Many times he was on the brink of an explanation coming aware in his mind. But those were the times that Fate shoved him from the backside. Twice he was shot at by drunks bent on exposing some weakness in him, but he managed to avoid any direct confrontation by his continual refusal to carry a weapon, which normally carried a code of conduct for those about him.
Too often he found his attention grabbed by images, metaphors and alliterations that created a fire in his belly and a merciful rest from other cares. But no outlet came to him, the way elusive things are … spirits, dreams, ideas, fleeting realizations that have no handles, no possibilities.
All the trails he rode, all the towns he’d been in on his way further west, brought him eventually to this picturesque community in the low foothills of Nevada, along the Humboldt River. The name had drawn him all the way, as if it were biblical from the first syllable, like a message carried in the very sense of the name, in the sound of it …” Ev-er-so. Ev-er-so.” Or it sometimes sounded like “Ev—er—so.” Or even “Ev------er-----so.”
Most likely, he thought, a preacher had named the town, or an individual who had been saved from a calamity.
From a distance, on a sharp rise in the trail, he saw the town nestled against a small range of rocks, a wide stream down one side of the town like a territorial marker, a stagecoach raising dust as it passed a freighter’s heavier wagon. Single riders marked the trail into and out of the town.
The young hero had become someone else in sudden realization of reaching a long-sought target. He had an inclination that his past, perhaps, had melted behind him, had ridden off in an unknown manner.
Dodds rode down the single street of Everso, his horse striding in a magnificent appearance. A whiskered man, long in the tooth, stepped away from a door and hailed him. “If you’re from out of town very far, do you carry any news? I run the newspaper here. The Everso Clarion.”
Whiskered, exceptionally elderly in appearance, joints visibly stiff as he moved, he still carried a smile nestled in the solid white whiskers. The eyes he talked with were heavenly blue, not a cloud in sight. With a hand stuck out he introduced himself. “I’m Garth Adams measuring my inky days and editorial ways down to my last sharp tooth. Light down and spell some time with me. I love to hear about the hinterlands, all the way back to wherever you came from.”
Adams might have made an adjustment, as he said, “Seems like I’ve been here forever.” His voice, Dodds thought, is musical. Apparently he has been satisfied with his life. Running a newspaper has been his dream and destiny all this time here.
Dodds dismounted in front of The Everso Clarion, and tied Top Knot’s reins to the rail as several wide-eyed youngsters had gathered to stare at the horse. One of them, curious, said, “I bet his name is Tony Knuckles or something like that.” He was pointing to the TK burnt on the saddle.
Adams, shaking lightly, knees somewhat wobbly, started toward the saloon across the street. “Come with me into Elvira’s Place, and I’ll buy you one drink, and one drink only, just to wash away the trail dust clouding up your throat. Elvira’s a nice gal, but she cottons to the only mean man in the town, our only sore as far as I can see. Likes things his way, like he can’t stand it otherwise. His name is Luke Furlous, mean as boars or snakes locked up in a pit. But Elvira’s been an angel to me ever since she showed up here, brought a whole package from her past with her. I could only dream about it.”
The old editor held the door for the younger man, as if he was a hired man. “After you, son,” he said as he stepped aside. When the old and the young of the time were about to walk into a crowded Elvira’s Place, the editor managed a last word on the outside, “Seems like here in Everso one gets squeezed through a keyhole and the door knows everything about a person there is to be had.”
Dodds nodded with full appreciation.
Elvira glowed behind the bar, lights shining on her from half a dozen mirrors in the room, the way some magician might have set them up for best effect. Her blonde tresses caught the tossed light. Blue eyes of a full life shone too. But it was an aura about her that set her apart from most of the patrons in the room.
At their entrance Elvira looked up and loudly addressed the room, “Here’s our Clarion editor and a stranger. Let’s all welcome them. C’mon, folks, let loose. Let’s have some cheer and happiness for the editor and a new visitor.” Up and down behind the bar she went, clapping her hands, pointing at patrons, convincing them it was time to celebrate, to welcome the old and the young, the strange pair approaching the bar. Some men in the saloon even stood to signal their welcomes, some hurrahed, some whistled.
Dodds knew he was in the company of an endeared old man who must have paid some dues to gain this amount of respect. He was convinced he had come to the right place and met a special man.
In fair notice, it must be said the pair attracted the attention of everyone in the saloon. And one of those attracted was none other than Luke Furlous, sitting against one side wall with two companions as dark in appearance as he was. They did not stand with others who stood for the celebration. Mutters of discontent surfaced instead, a gritty undertone from one table among many, from one group amid the whole. Furlous led the way in the discontent
It was apparent to some folks in the room.
Especially to Adam Garth and Elvira, and one other person among the many; a lone man at the far corner of the saloon, on his second drink, on his third visit to Elvira’s Place, as if on a mission of search and find.
Furlous made his way from the side of the room to the bar where Adam Garth and Dodds were having the lone drink as promised by Garth.
As usual, Furlous spoke loudly so that everybody in the room would hear what he had to say, what had to be said to someone not wearing a gun on his belt. “Hey, there, young fella, you’re in the west now. Out here men wear guns on their gun belts, but I don’t see any gun on your belt. Does that make you not a man in my eyes, in any of our eyes? It sure looks that way to me, that you ain’t man enough to wear a gun, to take on a body that says cruel things to you, that drops a challenge at your tiny feet like they’re nothing but the ends of chicken’s legs.”
Dodds at Odds did not reply, instead slowly turned back to Adams, standing right beside him, and shook his head and shrugged his shoulders the way some people might shoo off the devil himself. “What do you think of that, Mr. Garth?” saying it loud enough for all to hear.
Garth responded directly. “The man is not anything until he draws a weapon. Otherwise, he’s just a big loud mouth performing his daily exercise at being obnoxious.”
Shamed, his comment countermanded by an old man, Furlous drew his weapon and shoved it with unusual force into the mid-section of Dodds, now at extreme odds.
“Now, my chicken-footed friend, what do you say to this? I think you’re nothing but a coward right through your bones. There’s not an ounce of guts in your whole body. And I want you to admit that in the company of all my friends here.”
Dodds immediate response was, “You are far short of the truth in this matter. I do not react to blunderbuss, loud noises, or bodily threats. I don’t have time for anger or hate, and certainly I have no time for guns or gunplay. At least not any more. I’m well done with that edge of life.”
“When the hell did you ever carry a gun, never mind using it to protect your scrawny self?”
In the middle of Elvira’s Place, at a small table with no other person sharing his company, a man stood up, in a bright blue shirt and dark blue pants, and a pistol in his hands. His voice, when it came, had a distinct edge to it, a wariness that Furlous and anybody else ought to attend.
“Mr. Blowhard,” he said, “you have your pistol in the stomach of my commander in the Great War, the most decorated cavalry rider in many of the worst engagements of that war, a hero, a man now sworn not to carry a weapon, and if you don’t put your pistol away this very moment, I will dispatch you to the far grounds of infamy.”
Dodds was excited, and exclaimed, “Oh, Corporal Lawman, I am glad to see you made it this far, to Everso.” He extended his hand and the most sincere smile on his face. “You look well, Corporal. Well, indeed.” They shook hands heartily, while Furlous walked away, his tail between his legs, his gun holstered, his senses blunted by the newest challenge to come his way.
“It’s good to see you again, Sir. I often wondered about you after I was wounded. That was a hell of a war we were in. A holy hell of a war.”
The corporal looked around the room, looked at Adams, back at Dodds, and said, “What are you doing here, Sir? What’s happening?”
Dodds put his hand out toward Adams and said, “I think he wants me to take over his newspaper, ‘The Everso Clarion.’ I think he was waiting for me to come along. He says it feels like he’s been here forever.”
Now it is can be told that McKenzie Dodds, once a gallant soldier, decorated at every battle of his combat experience, edited and published “The Everso Clarion” for more than 60 productive and memorable years, never knowing all the time that he had passed over, that he was dead long before he arrived at Everso.