Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The horseman drew his mount to a halt. He watched an old man step from the shadows of the canopied veranda of his house.
“Howdy,” the old man said.
The horseman thought he saw a look of recognition in the bright blue eyes of the old man. He leaned forward and scrutinised his ragged old face.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
The old man looked at him for a moment, as though searching for something. “I don’t believe so,” he replied. There seemed to be an edge of resignation in his voice.
The horseman furrowed his brow. Crazy old coot, he thought, either I know him or I don’t, there’s no half way house with that sort of thing.
“But I know you,” the old man continued gaily.
The horseman was suddenly tense. He dropped his hand to the well-oiled Colt that hung on his right hip. He scanned the neat vegetable gardens and ran his eye over the stand of maize set back from the house. But he saw no-one hiding in the long early-evening shadows. His eyes shifted back to the old man.
“I know you’re a Texas Ranger,” the old man grinned. His otherwise perfect, white teeth were punctuated with regular gaps that gave him a comical countenance.
The man on the horse relaxed and lifted his hand to touch the shiny metal star pinned to his chest. He smiled to himself. Of course he knows that, anyone would.
“You’re after someone.”
The Ranger wasn’t sure if this was a question or a statement. If it was a question, the answer was obvious, what other reason would a Texas Ranger have for being out here, so far from civilisation? Only a mad man would build a house in this God-forsaken place. He was not inclined to answer the old fool, but, in the end, he had no need to, for the old man continued to babble on.
“And …,” he paused and rubbed his chin as a mischievous smile played across his lined features, “I reckon, your name is Seb.”
The Ranger’s eyebrows shot up. He narrowed his eyes at the old man.
“How do you know that?”
The old man shrugged gleefully.
“Just a wild guess. You look like a Seb. You look like someone I know who goes by that name. My name’s Robert, Robert McGregor.”
The old man hesitated, as though waiting for something to happen – when it did not, he continued, “Come, come on inside.”
“I need to press on,” said the Ranger. “Like you said, I’m on the trail of someone.”
The old man looked at the sky behind the Ranger. The first stars were just visible in the darkening heavens.
“You’re going to have to set up camp soon. You might as well stay here for the night, as spend it out in the open. I have a comfortable bed you could use. I have two beds, so you won’t even have to share.”
The offer was very tempting. The Ranger could not remember the last time he had slept in a bed.
“And I’m a good cook,” the old man added. “Beans, eggs, corn on the cob and corned beef. And as much coffee as you can drink.”
Hmm, thought the Ranger, he did like corned beef.
“Thank you, Mister I will take you up on your offer.”
“Robert,” the old man reminded him.
“Sure, Robert,” the Ranger said as he dismounted stiffly. “Where shall I stable my horse, Robert?”
“Just go to the end of the house,” the old man pointed, “You’ll find it. Everything you need’ll be there.”
The Ranger led his horse along the length of the house. He found the stable easily enough and went in. A lantern lit the interior. It was in immaculate condition. In one stall a donkey ate fresh straw. The Ranger led his horse into the other. The hungry animal immediately started to munch on the bundle of hay that hung on the wall at the end of the enclosure. The Ranger removed his saddle and kit, and slung it over the partition. He found a brush and gave the animal a thorough rub down, brushing days-worth of dust from its hide. He checked its hooves and shoes and ran an expert hand over its withers and legs. It was in fine fettle, a little on the skinny side, perhaps, but, generally, in very good condition. He was pleased. He liked to think that being good at horsemanship was one of his favourable points, and the Lord knew he did not have many of those. He gathered his gear, extinguished the lantern and gave his horse a friendly pat. She rumbled amiably at him. He walked from the darkness of the stable into the growing gloom of the approaching night. He tramped along the veranda and entered the house. Standing in the doorway for a moment he scanned the tidy kitchen. The old man has too much time on his hands, the Ranger concluded. Then he licked his lips as a mouth-watering aroma of cooking wafted over him.
“Come in, come in, sit down,” the old man gesticulated not looking up from his cooking.
The Ranger dropped his kit by the door, stepped across the slate-floored kitchen and took a seat at the table. It was set for two people. He lifted the jug, poured himself a glass of water and took a long draft. It was deliciously cold and tasted sweet and clean.
“That’s beautiful water,” he commented.
“I have a deep well out back,” the old man relied absently. “I must remember to replenish your water bag, before you leave tomorrow.”
“I’ll remind you,” said the Ranger grinning to himself, thinking that the silly old fool would probably forget.
“Good, good,” said the old man.
He served the food onto two plates and brought them to the table. He sat down opposite the Ranger and started to eat.
The two men ate in comfortable silence until the Ranger pushed his bread-polished plate from himself.
“That was delicious,” he complimented the old man. “I can’t remember the last time I had such a delicious meal.”
“No I don’t suppose you can,” the old man replied as he stabbed at his last piece of bacon and popped it into his mouth.
I could, if I tried, thought the Ranger, but he had more important things on his mind other than having to remember the last delicious meal he’d eaten. He poured himself a mug of coffee and offered to pour some for the old man. The old man, his mouth full with the last remnants of his meal nodded. The Ranger poured the black, aromatic liquid. He took up his mug and leaned back into his chair. He lifted the mug and breathed in the strong aroma.
“This man you’re looking for,” the old man said around a mouthful of food, “what’s he done?”
“Murder, rape, thievery, kidnap.”
“My, he sounds like a nasty son of a gun. I guess I’m lucky to be alive.”
The Ranger looked at him quizzically.
“Oh, I think he must have passed through here,” the old man explained.
“About a week ago, exactly a week ago, I reckon.”
“What makes you think it was the man I’m after?”
The old man shrugged. “I don’t get many visitors, as you can imagine. I have a few regulars; those that supply me with the things I can’t grow. But he was in a rush, like you. He wanted to move on, not hang around. It was a shame, because I enjoyed his company. Like I’m enjoying yours.”
The Ranger nodded. He took a sip of coffee. He was enjoying the old man’s company. It seemed to be a while since he last enjoyed the companionship of a friendly man, even if he was a bit loopy.
“And I’m enjoying being here,” he said. “I guess the man I’m after must have enjoyed your company as well, otherwise, I reckon, he would have killed you and then probably have strung your body up from some tree.”
“That would have been difficult, “said the old man, “there’s no trees round here.”
The Ranger nodded. “It is pretty barren around here,” he observed.
“It gets even worse in the direction you’re going.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I know which way your man went. And it was straight into the desert. You really must have put the frighteners up him. I guess he reckons you’ll not follow him into the desert. Maybe let him be?”
The Ranger shook his head. “I always get my man. Come hell or high water, I always get my man.”
“So, you’ll carry on?”
The Ranger looked at the old man. What sort of a dumb question was that to ask of a Texas Ranger?
“Yep,” he said shortly.
“I thought so,” said the old man. There was a note of sadness in his voice.
Poor lonely old bugger, the Ranger thought.
“I’ve no choice,” he apologised. “The man has to be brought to justice.”
“I know.” The old man smiled unhappily. “In that case,” he said in a more cheerful tone, “let’s enjoy each other’s company tonight.” He stood up. “Come let’s go sit somewhere more comfortable.” He walked to a cupboard and extracted a bottle of bourbon and two glasses from it.
“That sounds like a grand idea,” said the Ranger, standing up and following the old man out of the kitchen.
The two men entered the old man’s sitting room. The lanterns hanging from the walls cast a warm, cosy glow around the orderly room.
“Sit,” said the old man, “wherever you like.”
The Ranger selected a comfortable looking bat-winged chair and settled into it. The old man placed the two glasses on a small table beside the Ranger and settled into a chair on the other side of it. He opened the bottle, poured the amber liquid and offered one glass to the Ranger.
“Your good health,” the old man said, raising his glass.
The Ranger took a sip and savoured the warming effects of the bourbon for a moment.
“You expecting a siege?” he asked drily.
The old man followed his gaze to a very large number of tins of beans and corned beef that were neatly stacked against a wall, from floor to ceiling, and some five rows deep. He chuckled.
“No, they’re for emergencies. The winters can be pretty damned hard in this neck of the woods. There have been times when I’ve been snowed in for weeks on end.”
“Looks like you could last more than a year with all those supplies.”
“I reckon I might,” chortled the old man. “But there’s another reason for having them. I have a friend who visits me on a regular basis. We always have beans and corned beef when he visits. It’s become a sort of habit of his. I like to think it will continue, even when I’ve passed from this world. Do you think that peculiar?”
The Ranger frowned. He did, but said, “Every man to his own.”
The two men talked in amiable companionship, like two old friends, for several hours. The bourbon slowly drained from the bottle and when the final drop was squeezed from it and had slid from his glass and down his throat, the Ranger declared it was time for him to hit the sack. He collected his kit and the old man showed him to his room.
“Would you like me to wake you in the morning?”
“No, thanks, I’ll be fine.”
“Well, good night, Seb.”
“Good night, Robert.”
The Ranger shut his door and grinned to himself. The crazy old coot was behaving like a parent. He removed his gun belt, boots and outer clothes. He took his Colt from its holster and slipped it under the soft, down pillow. He climbed into the bed and relished the comfort of the horse-hair mattress. He snuggled under the crisp, clean bedding and fell asleep the moment his eyelids closed.
The Ranger woke with a start and drew his gun quickly from under the pillow. Sunlight cut a bright line between the closed curtains. Damn, he thought, I’ve overslept. I’ve never done that before, well not for years, and certainly not since I’ve been a Texas Ranger, which had been for longer than he cared to remember. He got out of bed and drew open the curtains. The room was at the back of the house and the window looked across the vegetable gardens and the maize crop, and on up the slopes of the ragged hill down which he had ridden the previous day. The sun was well above the top of the hill. Damn he really had over slept! Irritated with himself, he dressed quickly and strode through the house towards the smell of cooking.
“Good morning,” the old man chirped, as he entered the kitchen.
“I’ve got a bath ready for you, out back, and sorted some clean clothes for you, from your kit. I’ve laid them on a chair beside the tub”
The Ranger raised his eyebrows in surprise.
“And I’ve packed your saddle bags with some supplies; beans, coffee and jerky, given you some oats for your horse and replenished your water. Oh, and I’ve tied two bundles of fire wood for you. As you can imagine, there’s none in the desert. It should last you four or five days, if you’re sparing with it; that should be enough to get you across the desert.”
“There was no …”
The old man waved a hand.
“It’s my pleasure. I always have more than I need.”
“I’ll pay for it, of course.”
The old man turned to him.
“You got any money?” he asked.
The tone of his voice suggested that he already knew the answer.
“Well, no,” replied the Ranger. Embarrassment prickled his cheeks. “But,” he continued quickly, “I’ll send it on to you once I get to a town.”
“Good idea, I’ll write you an invoice. Now go have that bath, while I finish our breakfast.”
The Ranger hesitated. He really needed to be getting going. But the trail ahead, into the desert, was going to be difficult, and dusty. He was pretty grimy as it was. He walked silently out of the door onto the veranda, and stripped.
“Your man went that way,” said the old man pointing directly ahead from his front veranda. “I reckon the desert winds will have pretty much obliterated his tracks, but if you carry straight on, I reckon you’ll come across the first camp he made after leaving me.”
The Ranger squinted into the shimmering landscape. He stepped out of the shadows of the veranda canopy and climbed onto his horse.
“Well, Thank you, Robert. I sure appreciate all your generosity.”
“It was my pleasure, Seb.”
Then the old man stepped forward, stood beside the Ranger’s horse, laid a hand on the bridle and looked up at the Ranger.
“That desert is a dangerous place, son,” he observed. “Full of mountain lions, rattlers and the like. If the desert doesn’t get you, they probably will.”
The Ranger looked down at the old man. A grin spread across his face.
“I’ll be careful old man,” he said cheerfully.
“You do that.”
The Ranger pulled his horse round and tipped the brim of his hat. “Adios!” he said as he spurred his mount into a gallop.
“Adios!” the old man called after him.
The Ranger slipped from his horse and squatted beside the cold ashes of a long-dead camp fire. That it was long-extinguished was obvious. A week, Robert had said since the man had visited him; that was probably about right.
He looked around into the growing gloom of early evening. All was quiet. A soft wind blew across the sands, as it had done virtually all day. It was obvious there was no better place to camp down. He decided he might as well stay put and set up camp right where he was. It was as good a place as any. The open landscape gave little chance for anyone to sneak up on him, but things might be different in the dark of night. He noted with interest that the grey ash of the old campfire was surrounded by a circular bank of earth. He tilted his head in appreciation. The man he was chasing obviously knew what he was doing, and did not want the flames of his fire to be too obvious in the flat landscape.
He stood up and leg hobbled his horse and relieved it of his saddle, kit and the bundles of fire wood. He emptied two handfuls of oats into his hat and placed it on the ground in front of his horse. After gathering a few pieces of wood and pulling a few tufts of bone dry grass from the sandy desert he went back to the fire place. Not wanting to signal his presence too much, he strengthened the circular bank around the fire place by scooping more sand onto it. Although he did not believe the man he was chasing was likely to be in the area, it was best not to take any chances. He set the firewood in place, lit the fire with practised ease and stared into the flames while they caught. Once the wood was glowing with heat he gathered his cooking utensils, food and coffee and began to prepare his evening meal.
As the Ranger sipped at his post dinner coffee his mind drifted back to his recent encounter with Robert. He grinned into his coffee. The crazy old buzzard had been right, he mused, although, he had started to doubt it, started to wonder why he had taken the old fool’s word for where the camp would be. But the few wind-worn tracks he had seen had corroborated what Robert had said – ride straight on and you should some across his first camp. And so he had, and now here he was, drinking coffee brewed on a fire in the place that the old bugger had predicted it would be there. But of course, why should he have expected it to be any different. The best way to cross a desert was to go straight across it and not to waste time dilly-dallying around, zig-zagging this way and that. And this desert was as flat as a pancake. There were not even any dunes to obstruct one’s path. If it carried on like this he just needed to set a bearing on a particular peak on the horizon each day and head for it. At the current rate of progress he would be through the desert in two days, three at the most, he concluded.
After draining the last of the coffee, he dampened the fire a little by scattering sand over the flames and rolled his blanket around him. He briefly studied the ocean of stars above, and watched a few of them shooting across the sky before drifting off to sleep.
Aha! thought the Ranger, as he drew his mount to a halt. Bingo! He was in a good mood. It had been a good day’s tracking and now, just as he was thinking of stopping for the night, he found himself beside another small, sand encircled fire place. He vaulted from his saddle and squatted beside the ashes. He knew, before examining it closely, that it was old and cold – he would not have been able to make up much time in a single day. It would likely be a long process of small incremental gains on his quarry - he nevertheless took up a pinch of ash and rubbed it between his finger and thumb.
He stood up with a light heart and set about making his camp in the growing gloom. He was pleased with himself. It had been a good day of tracking. He had not been caught out by the tactics of the man he was following, not that it had been that difficult. He did, however, have to admit to himself that he had made a beginner’s mistake in assuming what the man had done on one day he would do on the next. The man had not continued on a dead straight line, as he had assumed he would. There had been no definite change in direction, but his obsession with using a particular mountain peak, on the horizon, as a guide had caused him to miss the subtle shift the man had made by veering off to the right. Really, for someone of his experience, the error was unforgivable! He had had to back track until he relocated the wind-worn trail and then follow it properly – like the expert he was. This little episode was something he would keep to himself. It would not form part of the anecdotes told when next meeting up with the other Texas Rangers as they’d rib him mercilessly for such a schoolboy error. He grinned to himself – he could just see their reaction. It was, he supposed, quite amusing – in hindsight. But he had learnt from his mistake and was now back on track, ignoring everything that went on around him. He was once again completely focussed on following the trail.
With his dinner completed, he lay on his elbow with a mug of good, strong coffee in his hand. He took a sip. It really was very good. He wondered where the old man had acquired it. What was his name? Richard, no, Robert? It did not matter, he would never see the crazy old coot again. He wished he had asked him where he had got his coffee from.
He tilted his mug up and savoured the last drop of coffee. He folded his blanket around himself and snuggled into them. A light breeze brushed over him. He looked up into the heavens. He managed to count half a dozen shooting stars before drifting off to sleep.THREE
“Hmm,” the Ranger hummed to himself.
Was he imagining it or were these ashes a little fresher than those of the previous two camps? It was difficult to tell, even for an experienced tracker such as himself. He had started very early that morning, maybe the man he was chasing had remained in the previous camp a little longer, started off a little later. It was encouraging, but the gain he had made on the man was probably nothing dramatic. He could carry on, take advantage of the small gain he might have made, but the gain probably was not substantial enough, and although he had had another good day of tracking the past three long days in the saddle had made him a little stiff. Since the fireplace, with its surrounding circle of sand, was all prepared he decided to camp there for the night. He stood up from his examination of the fire and set about making camp.
Rummaging through his saddle bag for his beans and jerky, his fingers brushed against something hard at the bottom of the bag. He took hold of the square object and withdrew it from the depths of his bag. It was a tin. He took it over to the light of the fire. It was a tin of corned beef. How on earth …? Of course, the old man, Greggor, or whatever his name was, must have hidden it inside his bag as a special treat. He did like corned beef very much. He licked his lips in anticipation and strode back to his saddle bag to find something to open the tin with.
The Ranger sat back with a contented sigh. This was the life! The freedom of camping wherever you wanted, the sounds of the night, a cool refreshing breeze against his face, blowing away the heat and sweat of the day, and good, strong coffee. There was of course the serious side of why he was where he was. The pursuit of the murderous, soulless killer he was after. He shook his head. How could anyone be so gutless? The cowardice of the man was exemplified in his flight across the desert. He was determined to avoid being brought to justice. A smile crept across the Ranger’s face. Well, Sonny Jim, I’m afraid you’re out of luck, because I’m not going to stop until I see you hanging from the end of a rope.
He took the last mouthful of coffee, wrapped his blanket around himself and, with an image of the captured murderer hanging from some scaffold swirling around his mind, he drifted off to sleep.FOUR
The Ranger stood up from examining the fire place. For some reason this one seemed older than any that he had recently examined. He looked around. The scrubby vegetation glowed in the rays of the low sun. It could be that the fire place had been disturbed by animals. The landscape had become more scrubby, less desert like and he had noticed low stunted woodland ahead clothing a low ridge of hills. With all this vegetation, there would be more wildlife around and their scurrying about and curiosity might explain the poor condition of the circle of sand around the fire. He frowned. He hoped he had not lost the gain he had made on the man the previous day. No use pining over it, he thought, as he walked to his horse to get his fire lighting kit. And the last few pieces of fire wood.
He sat cross legged, watching his food cook. He wondered about the animals that were skulking around in the dark. They did not worry him. What was it the old man had said? Something along the lines that the desert was full of dangerous things, like cougars and rattlers. The Ranger grunted. The silly old bugger. He had forgotten to mention the main danger he was facing – the man he was chasing. In his experience cougars and rattlers avoided people – they did not come looking for trouble, but murderous sons-of-bitches, like Garrett, were different. He was the personification of trouble. Everywhere he went he caused death and destruction and it was a well-known fact that trouble spawned trouble.
When the Ranger had first come across him, Garret had already gathered a gang of murderous outlaws around him, killing and raping, almost, it seemed, at will. Well they had been made to pay for their crimes. All except Garret, that was. The cowardly bastard had made good his escape while all the others had fought like men, if you could call that kind of person a man. The Ranger scowled in disgust at the thought of them. But at least they were more men than Garret would ever be. That man was as likely as not to shoot you in the back. The Ranger felt a little sensation creep up his back. He turned to stare into the darkness. Of course, Garret was not there, but the Ranger dampened the fire nonetheless by tossing a little sand over it.
He finished his coffee, snuggled into his blanket and making sure his Colt was firmly gripped in his fist; he closed his eyes and slept.FIVE
The Ranger pulled on his reins, perplexed. He scanned the tall mesquite scrubland that surrounded him. Garrett seemed to have taken advantage of the fact that he had left the desert and entered a more densely vegetated landscape. The Ranger had expected the tracking to become more difficult, but not so quickly. He was now having to concentrate a whole lot more. He had managed to keep track of the trail Garret had left for a while, but now it seemed to have completely disappeared. He scoured the ground for any signs. He needed to find the trail quickly, as the light was fading fast. The trail definitely came to this point before it petered out. There were no signs on the ground, so he guided his horse to turn in a series of slow circles. With each rotation, he raised his examination of the greenery of the shrubs a foot higher. Once round. Twice. Thrice. There! He stopped his horse and guided it to a shrub. He bent down to the height of his knee and studied the snapped twigs. He sat up and twisted each way throwing quick glances at the vegetation. No, this had to be it. He heeled his mount and forced it on through the stand of mesquite. And there it was – the anticipated camp fire.
This time there was no ring of sand, there was no need; the camp site was well hidden by the low branches of the scrub. He slipped from his horse, with a sense of exhilaration. There were signs that Garret had been here for a while, evidence that he had spent more than one night here. He squatted beside the smear of ash. Hmm? It still looked as though the fire was a good few days old, but if Garret had stayed awhile he might have gained a day or two on the man. That was encouraging, very encouraging.
He gathered some wood from the surrounding area, built a frame for his fire and went to his horse and collected his gear. He weighted the bag of coffee in his hand and decided to have two mugs of coffee, in celebration.
The Ranger lay with his shoulders resting on his saddle and a warm mug of coffee resting on his chest, held comfortably in one hand. He watched the leaves above shift gently across the star-spangled sky as a breeze brushed softly over them. He was satisfied. His was a good life. It had been a long, hard chase, but now he could see the end of it in sight. In a few days from now he would have Garrett in his hands. The job would be over and then he could, at last, return home. How he looked forward to that. And he would go home, because, he did not expect the coward, Garret, to put up a fight. Once Garret saw him, he would toss his gun to the ground and it would be all over; weeks, months, of tracking the villain would be over.
He relished the last mouthful of coffee and wriggled down his saddle, drawing his blanket up over his chest.
“William Garrett,” he muttered to himself, “your days are numbered.”
He shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep, a smile etched on his lips.SIX
The Ranger dragged himself off his horse. He did not even bother to examine the ashes. He was too dog tried. He immediately started making camp.
The Ranger sat staring into the flames of the fire. He held his mug of coffee against his upper lip and savoured the aromas that rose from it. He had only allowed himself one mug of coffee tonight. He shook his head slowly in acknowledgement of the skills that William Garret had displayed that day. The man had led him a right merry dance; using all sorts of trickery to hide his tracks; sudden changes in direction, riding across rocky areas and then doubling back. The terrain had also become difficult – it was now hilly and craggy. And William Garret seemed to have taken full advantage of it. He had left trails all over the place. It was like the entire area was filled with hoof prints. And so the Ranger had lost the trail on a number of occasions and had had to retrace his steps on each occasion. All in all, it had been an exhausting and frustrating day’s riding.
Had William Garrett realised how close he was to being captured? The Ranger frowned as he considered the question.
“Not likely,” he said to himself.
William Garret was just being sensible. He would have done the same if he was being trailed. This had been the first real opportunity for William Garret to make it difficult for anyone trailing him. It was the obvious thing to for him to do.
“You might be a coward, William Garret, but you’re no fool.”
He took a deep inhalation of the coffee aroma and drained the mug. He lay down and pulled the blanket over him. He drifted asleep to a distant, melancholic, yapping howl of a coyote.SEVEN/ZERO
The Ranger scanned the golden gilded landscape at a complete loss. He had spent hours looking for the trail, but the ground on this ridge was nothing more than rafts of solid rock interspersed with hard-baked, rock-strewn earth. He knew William Garret had come this way. The question was which way had he gone? Holding a hand up to protect his eyes from the low sun, he let his gaze roam over the wider landscape, hoping for some inspiration. None came. He urged his horse further up the slope so that he could look in that direction. He crested the ridge and jolted in surprise.
Below him, at the base of the small hill, was a house – quite a substantial house. What mad man would build a house in this God-forsaken place? And why? He shrugged. Every man to his own, he thought. He guided his horse down a trail towards the house. Beyond it the landscape stretched to the horizon, flat as a pancake. He rode past a stand of corn and a vegetable garden. He continued across the yard and drew his horse to a halt in front of the house. He watched an old man step out from under the shadows of the canopied veranda of the house.
“Howdy,” the old man said.
There seemed to be a look of recognition in his bright blue eyes. The Ranger leaned forward in his saddle and scrutinised his ragged, old face.
“Do I know you?” he asked.
The old man looked at him for a moment, as though searching for something.
“I don’t believe so,” he replied, with an edge of resignation to his voice.
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