Western Short Story
When young Peter Prentice looked down from the cliff-top above the winding road to Hawthorne, Nevada, he saw the stagecoach at a standstill, the driver and his up-top companion with their hands raised in abject surrender to three rifle-bearing, masked-men on horseback, one of the robbers wearing a vest he was sure he’d seen before.
But it was just as if he was locked in vapor-lock, he could hardly breathe, panic in the saddle with him, lots of it.
He’d never fired his weapon at a person before, nor a healthy horse. The perplexities of the situation ran roughshod on him.
He didn’t know who to shoot at first, what man or horse, until he saw the young lady step down from the stagecoach like a beauty directly from a dream, the kind he had had numbers of times under an open sky loaded with stars, still in their glory or shooting across that same sky swift as tracer shots.
Quickly he realized that in his young years he had never seen anyone so beautiful, so presentable, as this young woman, and it made him react more quickly than he could have imagined.
Almost in a sleepy condition, unaware of any control working in him, his first shot landed between the first and second thief and the second shot between the second and third rider. They scattered and fled down the trail without even shooting back at him.
The upper-hand glee suddenly filled his frame as he saw them rush down the trail
The young girl, meanwhile, had dove under the stagecoach and the driver was holding back on the reins trying to keep the team from bolting down the trail.
“Hold on!” Prentice yelled, “I’ll be right down, soon as I mount my horse. Keep ’em steady. That girl is under the coach. Tell her to crawl out through the back end of the coach. Them horses could drag her to Hell and back.”
The young panic was in his voice, his words blurted, hurried, a few of them undiscernible.
Then, as if he did not trust his own warning, he yelled again, this time directly to her. “Ma’am, you best crawl from under that coach by the back way or them horses is going to drag you down the trail and I sure don’t want to see that happen, no, sir, not in a million and some years,”
He mounted his horse, disappeared from sight, and came down off the high rise about 59 yards along the trail, and in front of the stagecoach, He approached the lead horses of the coach, shushing them to continued quiet, patting the apparent lead horse on the neck, almost hugging the huge animal in place.
The coach driver, in great relief, said, “Glad as hell you came by when you did, son, or we could now be in some serious trouble. Yes sir, sure glad you came along. I’m Curly Watson and my pard here is Teacher McGraw, that’s what folks call him cuzz he reads real good.”
The young rescuer rode directly to the rear of the coach, alit from his mount, and spoke to the young lady still lying in the dust of the trail. “Best come out of there this way, Ma’am, less’n them horses run off and drag you with them.” He added an unknown kind of mumbled expression that she might have pretended to understand, as she crawled out from under the coach and looked up into his deep blue eyes.
His hand was extended under the back of the coach and when she grasped his hand he knew life for him had suddenly changed. He thought he might have squeezed her too hard but was afraid she would let go of him.
“They wouldn’t have done that, would they?” Her voice, loaded with eastern innocence, and was softer than he had imagined.
“Yes, Ma’am, they would have, off to a kind of Hell and then you’d get your own turn at heaven that’s waiting on you sometime down a long road.”
Her responsive smile went all the way to his heart, the rest of his voice being slammed into silence for an understandable pause.
She stood up, looked into his blue eyes again with another never-before-seen stare and said, “My name is Kimberly Hatch of the Hatches from the Cozy Saddle Ranch, but they all call me Kim, like my Uncle Roscoe does, so I guess you can call me Kim too. Oh, that’s Kim also, not Kim Two or Kim II, if you know what I mean.”
“Yes, Ma’am, Yes, Kim, I gotcha, I read pretty good, and know the differences in Toos or twos or IIs.”
She laughed with a joyous outburst, and he said, “My name is Peter Prentice, no ones or twos with it, just plain Peter Prentice with …”
She held up her hand as if to stifle any more talk, and said, “With a great sense of charm and daring and a superior sense of saving souls at peril. I am officially asking you to dinner at the Cozy Ranch this very night, which Uncle Roscoe will accede to most immediately. I promise to have my self-cleaned up by then,” to which she added a charming giggle Peter Prentice did not understand.
“Did you recognize any of those robbers or thieves, Peter Prentice?”
He did not say one word about the vest one man wore and which he thought sure, for the second time, that he had seen before. He was trying to remember what salient point had stuck in his mind but could not currently bring it back with this beauty of a girl just having invited him to the magnificent Cozy Saddle Ranch.
He didn’t speak out, what ran through his mind, “Wait’ll Pa hears about this.” Behind his eyes he could see the wide expression of his father.
Peter helped Kim back into the coach and they headed into town, about ten miles away.
She was picked up by a husky man in a carriage as Peter stood across the street, directly in front of the Greenhorn Saloon. Slipping just inside the door, his eyes ran the course of the room and the men there and he did not see any sign of the vest he swore to himself again that he had recognized at the robbery attempt.
He knew he’d be back again, to take other looks, and headed home to tell his father about some of his day, but not all of it.
When he rode up to the main house of the Cozy Saddle Ranch, Kim’s Uncle Roscoe Hatch, the owner of the whole shebang came out the front door to personally greet him.
“I’ve seen you around town, son, and respect you and your pa, and damned glad you happened along to take care of Kim. You best keep your spurs sharp, if you know what I mean. That girl is pure business. But, tell me, did you recognize any of that trio that tried to rob the stage? Ever see them before?”
“No, sir, don’t think I’ve ever seen them afore. At least, not around here.”
“Well, I put a few of my hands out on the look-see. If they’re strangers, we might never get to see them again, which is just as well, considering, and if they’re local in any sense of the word, they’ll pop up sooner or later looking for a quick prize.”
He looked around as if he was looking for his niece, shook his head, and warned Peter Prentice, “Better get ready, son, she’s probably going to blow your mind sideways to next Wednesday.”
She did, and he rode home knowing he was in love forever, but as he passed the saloon, he took another look and was satisfied the vest-wearer was not there,
Two days later, one of the Cozy Ranch hands rode up to Peter and handed him a note. The lady says to read it now and give me an answer.
Peter read the note, said “Yes” to the rider who rode off with the response to another dinner invitation.
That same evening, Peter Prentice slipped into the saloon, recognized the vest on one man at the bar, saw that the sheriff was not there, and walked over to the sheriff’s office. A ten-minute discussion took place, then the sheriff sauntered into the Greenhorn Saloon and stood at the end of the bar after ordering a beer, his eyes partly on the beer and partly on the mirror behind the bar. He kept much of the room in his view.
When Peter Prentice walked into the saloon, two deputies had gone in ahead of him, and were situated around the room, rifles at their sides in half-hidden attempts at mild subterfuge.
The young man with the good eyes walked up to a man at the bar, and said, “Do you recognize me, mister? I saw you and your honchos trying to hold up the stage the other day. I recognize your vest with the lightning strike on it. And I know your sidekicks are here too, but they don’t count now ‘cause they’re covered by two deputies, and me and the sheriff have got you right where we want you, at the points of a couple of guns.”
There was little joy or pleasure in his voice, like a job did and done.
Two other men in the room tried to move but rifles were suddenly right under their chins.
The man in the lightning twist vest didn’t bother to reach for his guns. The sheriff and two deputies marched off with the three failed robbers, and Peter Prentice couldn’t wait to tell someone wholly special about the end of a story.