Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Reinert put his elbows on the bar and leaned across and stared at the bartender. He said, "I got three men out there, amigo. I'm going to ask again, where's El Cerdo? I know he's somewhere here in Poco Muerte. You know where he is since you got the only saloon in town. Where is . . ."
On the street in front of the saloon the quiet of the afternoon siesta hour was abruptly shattered by a swelling riot of shouts and curses. The growing commotion was emphasized by several shotgun blasts and the crashing bang of revolver fire. At the rail along the front of the saloon horses reared, pawing and screaming in panic. All of this lasted only a minute or two and then, after two more belated revolver shots, there was silence.
Reinert never heard most of what had happened in the street. Early on the bartender had smashed a quart bottle of tequila across the back of his head. Reinert should have known better than to turn his back on someone in a situation like this--he had known better--but he had been taken by surprise by the sudden uproar. Now he lay face down in a puddle of tequila, blood beginning to seep from the crushed back of his head.
A short, thick-set Mexican looked cautiously over the top of the saloon doors, punched the doors open and came into the room. He walked with a peculiar, pigeon-toed gait, spurs a-jingle, over to where Reinert lay. He stood looking down at the fallen man.
"So this was the gringo inside," he said. "I thank you. Thank you from El Cerdo, Ramon. But only four of them? The American Rangers send only four to capture the great El Cerdo? It's an insult!" He cleared his throat and spit on the back of Reinert's shirt.
This was the bandit El Cerdo. He had a black sombrero on his head and a dirty red bandanna around his neck. His deeply pock-marked cheeks and prominent nose glistened in the dim interior light. A bandolier crossed his chest and he carried a brace of revolvers holstered on a gun belt fastened with an oversized silver buckle. His worn trousers were stuffed into the tops of boots that appeared to be far too small for a man of his size.
El Cerdo said, "My men will help. Get your wagon and burro and some shovels and take the gringos out behind a hill somewhere. Plant them deep, Ramon. No coyotes or buzzards will tell where they are. And take your time to do it. Two, three, four hours." He smiled widely, gave a wave of his hand. "El Cerdo watches the saloon today."
Ramon took off his apron and threw it on the bar. He said, "¡Caray! That was a full bottle, senor El Cerdo."
* * *
Quade took the makings out of his shirt pocket and rolled a cigarette. He pinched the two ends tight and stuck the cigarette in his mouth. He looked across the desk at Roberts and said, "You're serious, aren't you?"
"I certainly am. Our only chance of finding Reinert and his men, or of at least finding what happened to them, is to get a man into Poco Muerte. I can't send a troop in and clean out that den of snakes, even though I'd like to. Headquarters wouldn't approve in a million years. They'd say it might cause a war with Mexico. That hot-head Reinert was disobeying orders when he went after El Cerdo like that."
Captain Roberts, Company D, Third Battalion Texas Rangers, reached over and straightened slightly the nameplate on his desk. It was hot in his office and a trickle of sweat started high on his checkbone and ran down into his stubble of beard. He pushed his hat back on his head. It was a joke among the men of Company D that Roberts never took off his hat or his Ranger's badge.
"And I can't use one of my own men," he continued. "Same reason. It would never get approved by Headquarters. The other thing is, El Cerdo seems to have a finger on this El Paso region. There'd be a good chance he or someone else in his organization would recognize one of ours. I have to get an outside man into Poco Muerte. You going to light that?"
"I don't have a lucifer with me. I was hoping you'd have one."
Roberts took a match out of a side drawer and handed it across to Quade. Quade scratched the match on the sole of his boot and lit his cigarette and put the extinguished match in his shirt pocket. He said, "You don't give me much of a choice, Captain. I have the feeling that I either do what you're suggesting or it's a quick trip back to jail for me, and probably a rope after my trial. But you're putting a lot of trust in a man like me. Who says I might not agree to everything you're asking and then just light out across the country as soon as I'm out of sight? Maybe you'd never see me again."
Roberts smiled--a thin, humorless smile. "We'd see you again. The Rangers would track you down if it took the next hundred years, and there'd sure enough be a rope when we found you--with no trial. But play it straight and I'll see that you're fully exonerated from whatever they're claiming you did. You'll be a free man, no strings.
Sorry I have to play it this way, Quade, but when I heard the county was holding a real honest-to-damn gunman I knew right then I had the chance I was waiting for. It's your call. What'll it be?"
Quade sucked half his cigarette into his lungs and exhaled through his nostrils. The two men sat staring into each other's eyes. Quade said, "I got a plan for getting in there."
* * *
"I've seen this done before, Doc. Just make the bullet hole right here." Quade pointed at his bare left shoulder.
R. W. Davis, M.D., stood with Quade's shirt in his hand, staring down at the man. "You sure you want to do this? What you're saying is going to hurt like hell."
"I didn't take off my shirt for nothing, friend. Just do it."
The doctor hung Quade's shirt over the office's other chair. Standing in front of Quade he put one hand on the back of Quade's shoulder and with the other took hold of as much loose skin as he could grasp and pinched and twisted as though trying to tear the skin from the muscle and bone. Quade closed his eyes and compressed his lips as the doctor repeated this several times. Davis also pinched skin between his thumb and forefinger and violently jerked the skin back and forth, up and down. Several times.
Quade raised his other arm. "Stop about here, Doc. That ought to do it for the bruise and infection. So let's get on with the fun part, the bullet hole."
The doctor sighed. "If I didn't have this in writing from Captain Roberts I wouldn't believe it. This is borderline to what a doctor should be doing, mister."
"But you do have it from Roberts, in writing and authorized fair and proper. Get on with it."
Davis went over to the table and took a vial of clear liquid and a glass rod out of his traveling case. Standing over the seated man once more he said, "I'll make this about the size of a ten dollar gold piece. This acid will feel like a branding iron on your shoulder for a minute, but I'll wash it off quick so you won't have muscle and bone damage. The trick will be to make it about a third degree skin burn, and only that."
The application of the carbolic acid did burn like a branding iron. Quade's eyes watered and he gritted his teeth as he waited for the doctor to neutralize and wash away the acid. The final act completed, Quade got up from the chair and went over and got his shirt.
"Don't you want a bandage on that before you put on your shirt?"
"Don't need one. I want this bullet hole to look roughed up. To tell the truth, the worse this little burn looks the healthier I'm going to stay."
* * *
El Cerdo peered carefully, cautiously, over the top of the bat-wing doors. Certain that there was no danger, he pushed the doors open and walked with his pigeon-toed walk over to the table where the stranger sat. The man at the table carried one arm in a makeshift sling. His overall appearance--sweaty, dusty, unkempt--said that he had spent long hours in the saddle. His derby hat was pitched slightly forward over his face. One booted leg was stretched across the seat of the other chair. A bottle of tequila and a half-full glass stood on the table in front of him.
"Ramon gave me a message. He said there's a gringo in town wants to see me. You him?"
"If you're El Cerdo, then I'm him."
"If you want to die, senor, it won't take much of that."
Quade twisted the glass in his fingers. "You're not about to shoot me until you find out who I am and what I have to say. Curiosity might have killed the cat, but it's keeping me alive." He nodded his head toward the bar. "If that's Ramon over there, get a glass from him and let's have a drink, Cerdo." Quade took his leg off the chair.
El Cerdo raised his hand for Ramon and then sat down. He said, "It's El Cerdo. El Cerdo. I don't know why I'm taking this. Your life for certain now depends on the importance of what you have to tell me."
"Then how's this, just to open our little conversation. I need to hole up over here in Mexico for a while. The Rangers want me. They want me so bad I don't think they'll hold off long enough to see me stretch a rope, once they get their hands on me. But the Rangers can't come across into Mexico. They have to stop at the Rio Grande. I want to sit over here in Poco Muerte for a while until things cool off."
"A fascinating story, gringo, but what's all that got to do with me?"
"Why, I'm willing to pay for your hospitality, of course."
"Hospitality. How much?"
"Five thousand American dollars, gold. For reasons of safety I'm carrying only half of that. Some here," Quade patted the money belt at his waist, "and the rest on my horse outside."
"How'd you come by all that money?"
"About a week ago six of us tipped over the Santa Fe and Western. We hit the train at the water stop forty miles out of Pecos. Didn't work out too well. We got the money all right--that is, I got the money--but three of the boys were dropped right there by the Pinkerton guards. We others scattered, me carrying the three sacks of gold and notes from the baggage car and the other two carrying their hind ends as fast as they could travel. When I found I was riding alone I thought to myself, friend, here's your chance and I took off through the high mesquite pulling all the Indian tricks I knew to hide my trail. So I've got some money with me, but I cached the rest in the desert where it won't be found. And here I am. I think my horse has a thrown shoe."
"How much money is in the sacks?"
"Never had the time to count it careful like, but it's reasonable to say maybe twenty-five, thirty thousand."
El Cerdo's eyes widened, just imperceptibly. He reached for the tequila bottle and poured a double shot into the glass Ramon had brought. Greed told him that this was a wonderful opportunity. Cunning told him that this might be a trap. He tossed off half the glass and looked across at Quade.
"Yes. So here you are. What's wrong with your arm?"
"My arm's okay. It's my shoulder. I caught some Pinkerton lead at the water stop and I've been stove up most of the week. I had to find a man to dig out my shoulder and then rest up a bit."
El Cerdo got to his feet. He stood with his arms slightly out from his sides, prepared for any action Quade might take. He said, "The sling's impressive gringo, but I've seen slings like that holding up real good arms. Maybe yours is one of them. Take off the sling and unbutton your shirt. Let's see that bullet hole."
Quade, grimacing with pain, slowly maneuvered the sling up over his head. He unbuttoned his shirt and pulled the shirt away from his shoulder. He said, "Here it is, Cerdo. Want to see the bullet the doc dug out? I got it out in my saddlebag."
El Cerdo looked at the bruised shoulder and the ugly circle of black flesh with its red inflammation. He gave a dismissive wave of his hand and sat down. He said, "In my business you can't be too careful." He tossed off the remainder of his drink.
"And now, amigo, let us get down to cases. I could have some of my muchachos bury you up to your neck in an ant hill until you told us where you put the money. You would scream and talk and I would have to split the money with all of them. Or--a much better plan--you and I can go to the money ourselves, just the two of us. We split the money and we come back and I let you stay here in Poco Muerte. For you, this is better than keeping only the one-third you would have gotten from sharing with your friends." El Cerdo's eyes were black slits above his pock-marked, crinkled cheeks.
Quade said, "I'll tell you straight, Cerdo, I didn't think for a minute you would be satisfied with five thousand dollars once you knew how much I had. And I was pretty sure you have ways of getting information out of people. I'd end up begging you to take every penny of the money. So I said to myself, Quade, just tell the man where it is and we'll split it, under the table, just the two of us. Better that than to have him take it all. I knew it would come to this, so don't think it's just your idea.
"Want to leave in the morning? I have to put new shoes on my horse today. Just tell Ramon we're going into Juarez for a day, maybe two days, and tell him to pass the word to your troops. They won't have any idea what we're really doing."
* * *
Before dawn the next day the two riders spurred their horses up the north bank of the Rio Grande and set off through the West Texas desert, heading for a black line of hills to the north. They traveled for an hour before they stopped to drink from their canteens and briefly rest their horses.
Preparing to remount and with one foot in a stirrup, Quade pointed to the hills now fully visible on the horizon. "That's where it is, Cerdo. Just the other side of that saddle-back to the right. It'll be late afternoon when we get there." He threw his leg over his horse and waited for El Cerdo, then the two of them moved off into the desert.
Several hours later found them standing beside their horses on the crest of the hill Quade had pointed out. Down the north slope, Quade said, was a large boulder that marked the cache. El Cerdo stooped, straining his eyes to see, imagining which boulder it might be.
Quade said. "Doesn't do us any good up here. Let's get down to the money."
El Cerdo turned back to his horse and as he started to mount looked off to the south. He saw a cloud of dust hanging not quite on the horizon. There were specks in the dust, specks that no doubt were men and the horses they were riding.
"Hey, gringo! Look!"
Quade followed El Cerdo's pointing finger. After a silence he said, "Those won't be Rangers, Cerdo. They're coming from the south--Mexico. I'm saying they're your boys. Ramon must have overheard our talk and stabbed you in the back by telling your boys what we really had in mind."
"Never! El Cerdo's muchachos are loyal to El Cerdo. Those we see are Rangers. I have seen Rangers before in Mexico. Four of them were foolish enough to come into Poco Muerte to try to kill the great El Cerdo." He ran his finger across his throat. "They are no more."
Quade pushed the derby back on his head and smiled. He said, "Well, well. But what difference does it make. We're in trouble either way--probably you are more than I am. If those are your boys they know you double-crossed them and you'll be the one in the ant hill, Cerdo." He looked back around at the distant riders, possibly two hours away thanks to a desert slashed by deep arroyos and dotted with dense mesquite thickets.
Quade saw the movement from the corner of his eye, and like the experienced gunman that he was he jerked instinctively to one side. The heavy explosion set the
horses rearing and Quade felt quick pain in his shoulder. He drew and fired as he turned, aiming at the middle of the body, at the outsized silver buckle.
El Cerdo fell back with his arms outstretched. He tried to turn and sit up but managed only to roll down the slope a few feet. He lay twisted and groaning in obvious pain as Quade came down to stand over him.
"Finish it, gringo. You have done this to me, now make an end of it." His face was no longer brown but was instead a dirty putty color. His face was covered with sweat. He moved a hand feebly in the direction of his belt buckle. "You gave me a gut shot."
"That I did. I'll do you the favor, Cerdo. Between the gut shot and your unhappy buddies you'd have a rough time of it. Even I hate to think about it. So here's for everything." He fired point blank into the upturned face.
Quade got the bandanna from around El Cerdo's neck and used it to mop the bleeding from the bullet wound in his shoulder. He realized that the wound would cause him real trouble unless he got back to El Paso quickly, so he wasted little time in relieving El Cerdo of his gun belt and guns, tying them to the saddle on the other horse. He moved with both horses down the north slope of the hill and struck off at a trot west across the desert. He would travel all night.
* * *
Captain Roberts said, "You going to light that?" For several minutes he had watched nervously as Quade, grimacing, squinting, and blowing tobacco crumbs, inexpertly rolled a cigarette with one hand. Now the misshapen cigarette, still dribbling tobacco, projected from the corner of Quade's mouth. Quade said, "It's almost a shame to set fire to this beauty, but yes, that's what I thought I'd do." He waited.
Roberts found a match in one of the drawers. When Quade put the lighted match to the cigarette the dry tobacco, loosely wrapped, mostly went up in flame. Quade managed one long drag on the cigarette before he ground out the miniscule butt under his heel.
"Well, Captain," he said, pushing back in his chair, "El Cerdo admitted that they killed Reinert and his men, killed all four of them. That's certainly not the news you wanted to hear but that's what I found out. I would have brought El Cerdo in for you but he drew on me and I had to kill him. Even so, I would have brought his body back but I couldn't lift it onto his horse. Didn't even try. I've got his horse and his guns and gun belt out there. That's the best I can do for proof. I suppose I could have brought in his scalp."
Captain Roberts smiled, the corners of his mouth barely moving. "How would I know it was El Cerdo's scalp? You could show me anybody's scalp, and how would I know? But it doesn't matter. You brought in a horse and guns and a gun belt and you've got the story to go with it--I'll give you the benefit of the doubt. You're a free man, Quade. I'll see to it. And, of course, there's the reward, payable on my authorization." He coughed. "But just so nothing's left out of my report, just for the record, you understand, I'd like to see that bullet hole in your shoulder."