Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“Pa,” came his son’s voice from the other side of the campfire when they were somewhere up Montana way, “ain’t you ever gonna show me how to shoot a gun?”
Colburn Pike looked up and across the campfire and smiled at the twinkle in his son’s eyes. “Not jus’ yet, Ty. But I will. I will.”
“Soon, son. Soon.”
Ty Pike looked mighty thoughtful for a long moment. “I hear’d some men talkin’ ‘bout guns in the last town we stopped at. They was sayin’ all you gotta do is point it an’ shoot it.”
Pike smiled at his 8-year-old son. “Well, it ain’t as simple as that. You gotta look down your sights, keep ‘em trained on your target. And you can’t pull the trigger, you gotta squeeze it real slow. An’ holdin’ your breath helps you make a better shot.”
“Pa, you sure do know a lot about shootin’ guns. Why ain’t you ever killed nobody?”
Pike sat back and stretched out his legs, pondering his son’s question for a moment. “Well, Ty, I guess it’s ‘cause there ain’t been no man who ever gave me a reason to kill ‘em.”
“Pa?” Ty said after a moment.
“You think I’ll ever kill somebody?”
“I sure hope not, son. I sure hope not.”
There was silence for a time, and then Ty crawled over to his bed and wrapped himself up in the covers. Presently, his chest began to rise and fall at an easy pace. He was asleep.
Pike remained awake, sitting against a nearby rock, staring into the flames of the campfire. He watched the flames die away and waited until the fire was nothing more than a pit of glowing coals. Then he crawled over to his own bed and crawled beneath the blanket.
After a time, he was asleep, too.
Pike blinked his eyes open.
The stars and moon were concealed behind a curtain of heavy clouds, and the only source of light came from the dying embers of the campfire.
Something had startled him awake.
He strained his ears to pick up on the slightest of sounds, but he dared not move. It could have been an animal, he thought, but just as easily it could have been a robber or an escaped prisoner.
Slowly, he moved his hand beneath the blanket to take hold of the Winchester ‘73 that lay next to him. He lay there for a time with his ears perked and his heart beating rapidly, thumping against the inside of his skull. He turned his head slowly to scan the tree line, straining his eyes to grow them accustomed to the darkness. He scanned the darkness for the slightest movement of any kind. The seconds turned to minutes, but nothing revealed itself.
He wondered if Ty was awake, and had somehow heard it, too, whatever it had been.
He thought it must’ve been a dead limb snapping under the pressure of a foot or hoof or something, but he could not identify it for sure.
Then came the sound of leaves rustling.
It had come from several feet in front of him, and Pike angled his head so that he could see the direction from which the sound had come. He stared hard through the darkness, hoping that if he stared long enough, his patience might yield an answer or two.
The area was suddenly flooded with slivery starlight as the clouds began to break apart overhead. As the moonlight fell down upon the tree line, there was a flicker of movement from behind one of the trees.
The interloper was unmistakably a man.
The figure darted from behind one tree to another. The moment Pike saw him, he came up out of his bed, rolling onto one knee. He brought the Winchester up to his shoulder and levered back the hammer. “Hold it! I’ve got you covered!”
There was a moment’s silence.
“Come on out,” Pike called, “or I’ll start shootin’!”
At that, the figure stepped out from behind the tree and into the moonlight, his hands raised.
He was one of the biggest men Colburn Pike had ever seen. He was a big, sturdy-looking black man, broad in the shoulders and lean in the hips, and his hands were massive. He looked to be somewhere in his late-twenties or early-thirties. He wore a thick, weather-beaten coat and had a pack slung onto his back. His hair was short and as black as the night itself, and a mustache encompassed the perimeter of his lips and coated his chin.
“It’s no good for a man to be slippin’ around another man’s campfire,” Pike said, keeping the sights of the Winchester trained in the square of the man’s chest. “It can get a man killed.”
“I didn’t mean no harm, mister,” the man said. “I saw an awful sight tonight.”
“Well, what’d you see?”
For a moment, the man looked as though he dreaded even thinking about the encounter, much less retell what he’d seen. “I was comin’ up thisaway from down south a ways, and down afore I got up to this here mountain I saw a family. It was awful, mister. Man, woman, and kids. They’s dead, hacked up and mutilated all somethin’ awful. I didn’t spend no time around there, I just went on my own way. And when I came across your camp here, I didn’t know if you’s the ones who did it.”
“That still ain’t no excuse for why you was slippin’ around up here.”
“I know, mister. I’s just curious. So, was you’s the ones that did it?”
Pike shook his head. “Nosir. This is the first I’ve heard about it.”
“Pa?” came Ty’s sleepy voice from somewhere behind Pike.
The black man looked around and saw the boy the moment the boy saw him. Ty came up out of his bed, startled at the sight of Pike holding the man at gunpoint.
“You stay back there, Ty, you hear?”
Pike turned back to the black man. “Ain’t nobody up here but me and my son.”
“That’s good to hear,” the black man said. “I’m tellin’ you, mister. I don’t mean no harm. I ain’t got no guns on me. You can search me if’n you want. I ain’t gonna try and stop you.”
Pike studied the black man’s face for a long moment. He’d played cards before, and Pike knew a little about reading a man. And he could see in this man’s face, that he knew no lie in the story he’d just told.
Pike slowly stood and lowered the Winchester. “I don’t think that’s gonna be necessary. Come on in.”
The black man lowered his hands and started forward. When he came within arm’s length of Pike, he extended his arm and held out his hand. “M’name’s Marcus Brood.”
“Colburn Pike,” Pike replied, returning the gesture. “And that there’s my son, Ty.”
Brood nodded at the boy, who watched him carefully. “I tell you what,” he said, looking back at Pike, “I thought you were gonna shoot me there for a second.”
“I was thinkin’ ‘bout it,” Pike said. “So why’re you wanderin’ around all up here by your lonesome?”
“Well, I reckon I’ve been wanderin’ around all by my lonesome for a long time now. I came west lookin’ for a job. And I’m still movin’ west.”
“That makes two of us. You do a lot of work in the saddle?”
“I ain’t done much. I roped a little some time back, but I ain’t never worked for no cow outfit. You?”
“I ain’t never done any other kind of work. You goin’ any place in partic’lar?”
“Nope. Just wanderin’, that’s all. Lookin’ for any job.”
Pike looked thoughtful for a moment, and glanced over at Ty, who had crawled back into his bed but was watching Marcus Brood intently. He finally turned back to face Brood. “You know, if you’re just wanderin’, you might as well just come along with us.”
Brood inclined his head. “You mean like…partners?”
“I don’t see why not,” Pike said. “Besides, the way you talk, we ain’t alone up here. Two’s a lot better odds than one when it comes to a fight.”
“Two?” Ty chimed in.
Pike glanced back at his son and grinned. “Well, countin’ Ty, that makes three. Even better.”
“That makes some sense, I guess,” Brood said. “I’m much obliged.”
“Partners?” Pike extended his hand.
Brood returned the gesture. “Partners.”
The first arrow struck the ground an inch from Pike’s foot.
The second arrow tore through the sleeve of Brood’s coat.
Pike dived behind the large rock nearby and brought back the hammer of the Winchester for a second time. “Injuns!” he shouted.
And then all was still.
For a big man, Marcus Brood was light on his feet.
The moment the arrow tore his sleeve, he up and darted into the tree line.
Pike watched him go, only to see him disappear into the viscid darkness around the camp. Pike muttered a curse, and peered around the rock in time to see Ty cowering beneath his blanket. He wanted to shout out to his son, but didn’t want to give Ty’s position away to their assailants. If they didn’t know Ty’s position, it was best to not give them any indication of his being there.
There was no way for Pike to tell how many of them were out there in the trees, but he figured that they were now scanning the camp for any signs of life.
If they even so much as suspected Ty being there…
He had to draw their attention.
Pike came up to one knee so that he could just see over the jagged top of the rock. He brought up the Winchester and levered off three rounds into the tree line. He caught a shadow of movement the same instant an arrow struck the rock with enough force to spray grit and grime up into his face. Dropping back down behind the rock, he wiped the dirt from his stinging eyes and levered another round into the Winchester.
Now they knew where he was.
They were sure to circle about and surround him.
Where had Brood run off to?
Had he abandoned them?
Just like that, had he run off and left Colburn and Ty to their fate?
A flicker of movement in front of him.
Pike brought the Winchester up to his shoulder the moment his eye caught the gleam of an arrowhead in the silvery starlight. He fired instinctively. Once, then once more.
He half expected to feel the arrowhead penetrate him an instant later, but the pain never came.
Instead, he watched as the Indian fell away into the darkness with a pained cry, the arrowhead vanishing along with him.
For a moment a wave of guilt passed over him.
He’d killed a man.
One down, Pike thought to himself, shaking off the feeling of remorse.
Only, how many more to go?
For the next several minutes, all was still.
Finally, Ty peered out from underneath his blanket and over at his father. Pike shook his head and motioned for his son to stay put.
After a moment, there came a low thud, and then a loud shriek from somewhere within the trees on the other side of the rock. Pike glanced out from behind the rock in time to see a short man being tossed from the trees. The Indian landed hard and rolled over onto his stomach.
Marcus Brood trudged out of the tree line after the Indian, who came up on his knees and pulled a knife from the sheath on his thigh. Pike brought up the Winchester the moment the man lunged toward Brood, wildly swinging the knife. Brood sidestepped the blow and jabbed a stinging left into the man’s face. Pike held his fire, not wanting to hit Brood on accident.
The Indian came back around with the knife, only to be stopped short by Brood’s massive right hand. The Indian spun a full circle before collapsing into the dirt next to the dying embers where the fire had been the night before. Pike came up from behind the rock and rushed over to where the man had fallen, kicking the knife away into the trees and holding the Winchester just inches above the man’s chest.
“I think that’s all of ‘em,” Brood said, massaging the knuckles of his right hand.
The Indian lay unconscious, and Pike made a quick scan of the tree line. There were no other signs of movement.
All was quiet.
“Jus’ two?” Pike thought aloud.
“Might’ve been a scoutin’ party,” Brood commented.
“Maybe,” Pike said, “but if they had friends nearby, then they know where we are now.”
“We’d best get movin’.”
“Yeah,” Pike said, turning to face his son. “Ty, get our packs ready. We’re leavin’.”
Ty scrambled from underneath his blanket and set to rolling up the beds and stuffing them down in the nearby two old backpacks.
Pike knelt down and examined the unconscious Indian. “This musta been one of them who attacked that family back yonder,” he said. “They was usin’ arrows and no guns, which explains why me and Ty never heard any gunfire.”
“You think there’s more of ‘em?” Brood asked.
“I don’t plan on waitin’ around to find out.”
Ten minutes later, they were all three making their way down the other side of the frozen mountain.
They halted a ways down and took a moment to catch their breaths. As they stood there in the silence, breathing heavily, a ray of golden sunlight peaked over the distant horizon.
“Look,” Brood said, “it’s sunup.”
“Uh-huh,” Pike said. “It sure is. And it looks like it shapin’ up to be a beautiful day.
And that moment, somewhere in the distance, a whistle wailed loudly, reverberating off the mountains and resounding off the trees.
“You hear’d that?” Pike asked, looking around at Brood.
“Uh-huh. A train.”
“And it sounds like it’s headin’ thisaway.”
A minute later, the train’s whistle howled again, only this time, it was a fraction louder.
“You’s right, pa,” Ty said, looking up at Pike. “It’s comin’ this way.”
“And that’s our ticket outta here,” Pike said.
No sooner had the words left his mouth, than did an arrow come whistling through the air and smack loudly into Brood’s backpack. It was the contents of the backpack that saved his life, as the arrow penetrated a full six inches into the pack, but did not enter into his back.
“I’m alright!&rdrdquo; he shouted. “Move!”
Wheeling, Pike took his son by the shoulder and forced Ty down the mountainside. Brood fell into step behind them, and they transgressed down the mountain in leaps and great strides. Occasionally, Pike would wheel around and fire a random shot back up into the trees, just trying to buy them enough time to make it down to the train tracks.
The train’s whistle wailed again, this time much closer.
“Hurry!” Brood shouted over the loud wailing, “or we’ll miss it!”
They cleared the tree line in time to see the train coming round the bend in the mountain, but when Pike turned to lever off another shot, the hammer snapped forward, but no shot ever came.
He was out of bullets.
And the only other cartridges were in his backpack!
The train drew closer, it’s whistle wailing so loudly that the earth beneath them seemed to tremble. Smoke bellowed from the engine which was close to five hundred yards away.
At that instant, an Indian appeared at the tree line, followed closely by two others.
“Here they come!” Brood shouted, taking Ty’s arm and dragging him down behind the cover of a nearby rock protruding from the icy ground.
Pike dived behind another rock and struggled to get his backpack off. He glanced down the tracks at the train, and then looked over at Brood. “The first car looks good! Take Ty and get the door open as it passes! I’ll cover you!”
“What ‘bout you?” Brood called back as Pike fumbled to load fresh cartridges into the Winchester. “We partners, ‘member?”
“I know! Jus’ get Ty outta here an’ keep ‘em safe!”
Ty looked over at his father, “Pa!”
The train was now at about three hundred yards, and Pike levered a round into the chamber. “I’m tellin’ you to go, son!” he called back as he fired off a shot that kicked up frozen dirt at the feet of one of the attacking Indians.
“But pa, I ain’t leavin’ without you!”
Ty tried to stand, but Brood held him back. “I’ll get ‘em outta here, Mr. Pike!”
“You do that, Marcus!” Pike called back, firing off two more shots.
Arrows danced through the air around them.
The train drew closer with every passing second.
Pike had enough time to fire off two more shots before the train neared just a hundred yards away. “Get ready! I’ll cover you!”
“Pa!” Ty screamed. “No!”
Brood held the boy close, waiting for Pike’s cue.
“Now!” Pike shouted, coming up from behind the rock with the Winchester bellowing just as quick as he could work the lever.
Brood stood at the same instant, picking Ty up off the ground and sprinting down the tracks for the first car.
Arrows struck the ground behind him.
One of them cut so close he felt the feathers at the end of the shaft graze the back of his head.
The first car slipped past, as did the second one.
Brood lifted his foot and managed to get a foothold on the steps to the third car. He yanked the door to the car open, and hurled himself and the boy inside as an arrow struck the side of the car just next to where he’d stood. He recovered in time to turn and look back out the car’s open door in time to see Colburn Pike rush past in a blur of motion.
He staggered to his feet and rushed over to the door. He looked back, and watched as Pike and Indians disappeared around the next bend in the mountainside.
Pike hadn’t made it onto the train.
Brood turned and looked at the boy, who sat wide-eyed on the dirty floor of the car. His eyes met Brood’s, but then Ty looked away.
His father was gone.
Just like that.
What was Brood to do with the boy?
He knew nothing on how to raise a child!
He couldn’t do it himself!
He walked over and sat down beside the boy. He put his big, thick arm around the boy and they sat there in silence for a long time.
“What’re we gonna do now?” Ty asked finally, looking over into the big black man’s kind face.
“Well…” Brood thought for a moment, and then looked down at the boy and gave him a small smile. “We’ll jus’ have to move on. I tol’ your pa I’d keep you safe. An’ that’s jus’ what I’m a-gonna do.”
Time passed for a while, and presently the air in the car grew cold. Brood stood and started over to the door with the intentions of closing it.
Suddenly he froze.
He glanced back at Ty, who was looking up at the roof of the car.
Brood strained his ears, and after a moment he heard the sound again.
On the roof of the train car!
The footfalls progressed the length of the car, and a moment later Colburn Pike’s upside-down face appeared in the doorway. He offered them a small grin. “You boys mind if I drop in?”
“Pa!” Ty shouted, jumping to his feet.
Pike’s face disappeared for a moment, back onto the roof of the car. First, he lowered the Winchester into the car, along with his backpack. Then his leg’s appeared, dangling from the roof, and then the rest of him as he swung himself into the car’s interior.
When he landed, he crumpled to one knee. The cloth of his coat was torn at the right shoulder, and blood was visible from an open wound where an arrow had struck him.
Ty gasped as he rushed to wrap his arms around his father’s neck. “They gotcha, didn’t they, pa?”
“It ain’t bad,” Pike said, pulling his son into a weak embrace. “They just got me when I jumped to get on a car back there.”
He stood, turned to Brood, and extended his hand. “You saved my boy’s life. I owe you.”
“It ain’t nothin’,” Brood said, returning the gesture before adding, “partner.”
Turning, Pike walked over and stood in the doorway of the car as the train rounded another bend, and a massive scale of Montana scenery became visible from the car.
The sun was up, welcoming the new day with an appropriate warmth to a cold area.
It was a beautiful sight to behold.
“Where we headed?” Brood asked, walking up to stand beside him.
“My guess is this train’s headed to Milestown,” Pike replied after a moment. “We’ll get off somewhere around there, partner.”
“Pa,” Pike heard Ty say from somewhere behind him.
“You killed them Injuns back there.”
“I know, son, I know.”
“Well, Ty, they were shootin’ at you. They was gonna hurt you, and that was reason enough for me to kill ‘em.”
Somewhere on up the tracks, the train’s whistle wailed, and the train rolled on.