Western Short Story
Oswald Ozzie O’Rourke fell off his saddle just a mile away from Reno, where the widow, Theresa Grimes, found him near death. She moved that man into her wagon with the help of a passing horseman who rode off into the future and his darkness forever, never seen again, men of the West often on the eternal move to someplace else, a new brand, a saloon never visited, a woman barely known in one stop-over.
She got Ozzie home, nursed and nurtured him for a few months until he was able to sit outside and watch the rest of the world pass by, that rest of the world was all Reno, Nevada, in 1878, where its only public hanging occurred that year and Chinatown, a dark and dismal place on its own edge of town, was mysteriously burned to the ground by unknown sources, most likely more than one fire-starter in the mix.
Reno’s history was off and running into Ozzie’s Place when it was erected, and murder grew out of its bursting sides, a place for taunt, daring, challenge at any and all levels, meaning all hands join in the fun, the gun wavers, the sour off-the-herd-herder, the thirsty rider wearing weapons quiet for too long, a lone cattle-driver remembering a soft hand at the back of his neck who might have admitted her name was Mollie or Mary in the second-floor of semi-darkness.
It’s where Pete Dawson challenged Kid Kelly to a duel outside, and shot him in the back as he was leaving, the sheriff subsequently finding 23 bullet holes in Pete Dawson’s body and threw his hands up in the air, knowing he’d never pin that murder on anybody in the room at the time, crowded as it was to the very till, with each man carrying a weapon, only maker-brands being the difference, and murder’s capability on full display to the wary. weary and the worn.
The town officials had Pete Dawson buried just outside of town, in a memorial cemetery of sorts, at least twelve known killers put to final rest there, often their locations disturbed by animals of people seeking souvenirs to hang in place at their firesides, to fit stories told by supposed heroes at a trail-side campfire, or lawful killers sitting on a make-shift stand, open for memories of any kind, but a known death coming back as the eventual result, his last word of truth on the matter.
The sheriff, in concert with an undertaker and maker of caskets, usually shared the meagre benefits, an odd but infrequent donation, sometimes from a killer, all victims’ pockets emptied of any money or valuables to be sold, and his horse and saddle auctioned for states’ rights in the face of no family claims, such victims on the lonely trails from their early years, good riders, good shooters, good men at small wars between ranches or her owners.
Such summaries came up in night trail fires, speakers revealing what they knew about a recent buried companion: “Dutch came off a small farm back in Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh, I think, when his father said he either worked harder or took to the trail, as there was not enough to feed younger children, his brothers and sisters, so he lit out, learned about cattle and companions, came further west, said or did the wrong thing in an argument, ended up in a pine box or under a pile of stones to keep the buzzards off his body, the ravenous eagles, or the hungry coyotes having just a taste for flesh, moving yet or just gone still on the trail.
It’s where most all of us will go, with no other fanfare than what we’re doing right now, remembering before it’s said what will be said of us, tipping our caps in a last hurrah. “Here’s to ‘em,” and raising a toast, the end of a life on the move into sudden stillness, darkness covering up all time for all time.
The sad ceremony happened all over the west, from Missouri to Idaho, from the Tex-Mex line north to California-Oregon line, catching cowmen, gamblers, killers, cooks, trail hands no better than any of the listeners, no more, no less.
The celebrations of a life and a death was sad but quick, the next move to come up with the sun, the next task to make its demands on the men who made the West what it has become, a final resting place no matter where you end up.
They all knew it, these men of a different breed, yet all the same with a wide hat against the sun, a pistol or two at the waist, a saddle and a horse, a best friend, under him as a package, his final resting place, if he was lucky enough to endure it all until he could no longer make the moves, finding a small cabin on a small mountain where his remains are sometimes found by another lonely friend who might come by one day to say hello, and bury a friend who died alone in the night, perhaps his last image being one of his mother or father, or even his favorite horse, in a hello to Forever, whatever it came to be.
It was said that Jimbo Coxcomb, eighty-years old if a day, was found by a one-time riding pal, Chauncy Chuck Gabbler, inside his cabin on Mount Cochran in Montana, dead as he’d ever be and buried him without saying a single word other than “Pard,” as he was put under ground and a pile of stones. That’s about as quick and as clean as it can be done, especially the “Pard” part.
“Here’s to ‘im!” is offered here in a salute over the top of the ages and a thousand stories heard at campfires or saloons, or written by some long-time cowboy who found his way out of a small schoolroom and brought with him everything he was taught: “Listen, Write it down. Keep it forever in a book or a story. Be happy to get that done, if nothing else, at the end of the road.
This came from loose notes found in a drawer in Ozzie’s Place in Reno, just before it came down to make room for a motel 100-yards long beside the highway out of town, the far western end of town, and heading somewhere more westerly. That’s about as far as you can go.