Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Prairie Wells: The Lord's Protector (Part Three of Five)
The Lord's Protector
It was late of an October afternoon. From the rim of the western horizon the sun threw a tired, faded light back across the prairie. The unpainted buildings of Big Spring, and the few trees of the town, stood out in sharp relief against the darkening eastern sky.
Several miles northeast of Big Spring two riders topped the crest of the Cherokee Hills. At first they were mere dots at the top of a hill, discovered mainly by the dust thrown up by the hooves of their horses--dust swirling and sparkling in the low rays of the sun. As the riders approached and became visible as men bent in their saddles, they slanted down the slope of the hill to the wagon trail between Colorado City and Big Spring. They hesitated not at all but turned right, west on the trail toward Big Spring.
The hooves of their horses on the dusty surface of the trail beat a monotonous clip-clop, clip-clop, and the obviously tired riders slouched in their saddles, their hats pulled low over their eyes. Dusk was deepening into night as they reached the first outlying shacks of Big Spring. On Main Street they found the town's only light in the still red embers of a blacksmith's forge and in the yellow glow of the lanterns shining through the windows of Cantrell's Big Spring Saloon.
"Seems like the town's bedded down for the night, Smoke."
"Sure do, Mr. Williams."
"Well, we'll find out where we can hang our hats 'til morning. Nothing we can do tonight."
Coming up to the saloon, they hitched their horses at the railing in front and stepped up onto the boardwalk. The man called Williams, tall and powerfully built but tending toward softness, was the older and better dressed of the two. He was wearing an expensive Stetson. His shirt was white silk, buttoned at the neck, and his black string tie was carefully tied at his throat. A gold watch chain hung in an elaborate loop through a button hole on his embroidered vest. Gray striped pants reached to expose only the high heels and squared toes of his tan boots. Smoke, on the other hand, was a slim, dark-featured man, young in years, dressed in the manner of a Texas cowhand. His hat had seen better days. He had a faded blue bandanna at his neck. A black vest covered his plaid shirt and his brown canvas pants were stuffed into the tops of his boots.
Williams was carrying a Bible. Smoke had a revolver at his hip and he carried a Henry rifle in his left hand, held at the breach.
The bartender stopped mopping the bar and nodded as the two men entered the saloon. Smoke took only a few steps into the room, but Williams moved up and put a boot on the railing and placed his Bible on the bar and said, "We are not at all drinking men, sir, and usually we would be in an establishment such as this only to admonish the sinners therein. But we are in need of lodging. Can you direct us to the hotel?"
The bartender straightened and dropped his hands. Surprised, he said only, "What the hell." The several cowhands at the bar stopped talking and turned to stare.
"Is there a hotel in this town?"
The bartender cleared his throat and said, "The Plainsman burned down years ago, mister. Nowadays Cantrell's place, right here, is the only hotel in town. We got beds upstairs."
Williams quickly took his boot off the railing and raised both hands in the air. "Oh, perfidy!" he said in a loud voice, nearly shouting. He raised his eyes heavenward. "Here we see with our own eyes the rampant evil in the world!" He scooped the Bible from the bar and began waving it above his head. "I bear witness here, O Lord, to the devil of strong drink below and the bawdy house above!" He lowered the Bible and looked across at the bartender and addressed him in a meaningful, pointed voice. "Do you expect gentlemen to spend the night in the festering rooms above a saloon? A saloon? It's an insult, sir!"
"Take it or leave it, mister. An' speakin' o' insults, Cantrell runs a respectable place here. I'm jes' the night man."
The cowboys at the end of the bar were once more talking among themselves. From time to time they gave sidelong glances at the newcomers and at the bartender and laughed quiet, nervous laughs.
"Respectable? You mean there aren't any . . . er . . . uh . . ."
"Tha's what I mean, mister. "An' beds are fifty cents a night per each. In advance."
"The Lord does not give his whole approval here, sir, even so. In the Lord's eyes there remains the whiskey, the drunkenness, the shame of families, the neglect of . . ."
Unlike the cowpunchers at the end of the bar, the man who stepped out to approach Williams was burly, bare-headed and had a good growth of beard--characteristics never seen in the lean Texas riders. He was the town's blacksmith and farrier. He had a revolver stuck in the belt around his waist.
The man was not smiling, as were the others in the group, and he walked a little unsteadily. Halting a few feet from Williams he said, "You 'fraid of wimmin, preacher? An' this here's a drinkin' place, dammit. Come on. I'm gonna buy you a drink, an' then you'n me are goin' over to Melba's." He started forward again, staggering slightly.
"Now look here, brother, I . . ."
By this time the man was reaching out to take hold of Williams' arm.
"Hey, Beard Man!"
The shout bounced off the walls of the room. The man stopped.
Smoke was standing with the Henry butt down on the floor. He held his right arm a little stiffly, out free of his hip. "Make another move" he said, smiling, "an' the Lord will look upon this scene in his usual mysterious way."
"Who be you?" The man turned an unfocused gaze on Smoke. "We got us 'nother preacher, I guess, from them fine words." He bent forward a little, peering. "Kind'a young, though."
"He is the Lord's Protector," Williams said, hastily. "I would certainly do as he says."
"Looks like a kid to me. Well, this here Cantrell's is a man's place. A place fer men. Beat it, kid." They stood facing each other. A few seconds passed and suddenly, abruptly, the bearded man made a move of his hand toward the gun at his waist. He got as far as his hand on the gun butt before he was thrown backward onto the floor by a shot from Smoke's revolver.
"Once again the Lord's terrible justice falls upon the sinful." Williams raised both arms over his head, as he had done before, and his eyes went heavenward. For a moment or two this was the only reaction in the room.
The night man came around the end of the bar at a dead run. His face, which had been a sickly white for most of the last few minutes, was rapidly turning red. "Gawdamighty!" he breathed, pulling up at the side of the fallen man and staring down at the spreading stain on his shirt, "you shot ol' Kenratty. You shot ol' Kenratty," he repeated. "Gawdamighty!"
"Somebody get the marshal!" one of the cowboy's shouted. The doors of the saloon swung violently as boots receded down the boardwalk in the direction of the marshal's office.
"You saw it, sir," Williams said, addressing the night man. "It was clearly a case of self defense. Your Mr. Kenratty made the first move. Indeed he did."
"Well, I . . ."
Smoke ejected the spent cartridge from his revolver and reloaded. He left the weapon hanging carelessly in his hand. "O'course he saw it. That's a certainty." He turned toward the cowboys at the end of the bar. "An' o'course you boys saw it, too. Right?"
Two hotel guests, wakened by the gunshot, had come out of their upstairs rooms into the overhanging hall. They stood now leaning against the hall railing, looking down on the scene. Both men were in their underwear. One of them had put on his boots. Smoke looked up and saw them.
"Come on down, boys," he said. "We need witnesses when the marshal gits here."
The two turned to go back to their rooms. One of them said, over his shoulder, "I didn't see nuthin."
"I said git down here!" Smoke yelled, "Or I'm comin' up to git you. We need witnesses."
The men hesitated. Finally the man who had spoken said, "I need my boots." He turned and went back into one of the rooms. The door slammed and there was the loud "click!" of a lock. The other man came down the stairs, slowly, holding the railing as he came, and stood at the bottom by the newel post.
"I didn't see nuthin' either," he said.
Smoke said, "Maybe not, but you surely heard the man threaten me. That counts fer somethin' in this here land. Backs me up."
"I didn't hear any threats. Only a gun goin' off."
"I think you did, mister. He was talkin' loud, wasn't he? You heard that, didn't you?"
"Well, I . . ."
"Tha's better. Remember that when the marshal gits here."
In due time the marshal arrived. Nickerson. He entered the saloon with his slow, heavy walk, the boards creaking. He was a large man, slightly stooped, with a dark, expressionless face and and a stubble of beard. He walked up to where the dead man was lying on the floor.
"I knew Kenratty was gonna get it someday," he said. "He drank too much an' he was fool enough to carry iron." He sighed. "Who did the shootin'?"
Smoke said, "I did." The marshal turned to look at him.
"We have witnesses, sir. All of these gentlemen here." Williams waved his hand to include everyone in the room. "The man you call Kenratty reached for his gun and this man had no choice. It was the Lord's will."
"That so, Jess?"
The bartender said, "Well, yes, but . . ."
"Kenratty was drunk."
"Reckon he was," Nickerson said, "the ol' trouble-maker always was, anywhere after five o'clock o' the day. It's a pity, but that 'scuse don't help him none. If he went fer his gun, he brought it on hisself, an' he had to live er die by whatever came off next. With all the witnesses here, I got no call to hold you, Mr. . . .Mr. . . . What's your name, again?"
Smoke said, "You didn't ask, but the name's Smoke. Both o' us are from Abilene, 'bout a month back. We're headin' fer El Paso."
"To there spread the word of the Almighty and in so doing save the sinners of that Gomorrah from the foulness of the unrightous path," Williams thumped his hand down on the Bible.
Nickerson stared first at Williams and then at Smoke. "You're Jesus men," he said.
"Crudely put, sir, but yes. Yes, we are. This Bible here, it's mine. It's the Lord's word, sir, probably desecrated by being in this place and on this bar."
Nickerson didn't look at the Bible. Speaking to the bartender he said, "I'll roust out the coroner an' he'll be over to take keer o' the remains, Jess. No law an' order problem here. Too bad you got this mess all over yer floor, an' I'll say--if ol' Kenratty will forgive me--tha's jes about the worst part o' this whole thing. He was sech a damn fool."
The floor creaked a few times under Nickerson's heavy steps and then he was gone.
Williams took off his Stetson. Holding it upside down in both hands, he approached the cowhands at the bar. He said, "Brethren, ye have witnessed the triumph of the Lord, the smiting of the sinful, the destruction of evil, the glad fulfillness of the sacred Word. Now we say unto you: Be generous with alms for the Righteous and the Suffering! May the giving in your hearts be manifested in the coin of the realm." He pushed the hat forward.
Smoke, standing behind Williams and a little to one side, had the butt of the Henry on the floor and his thumb hooked in his gun belt. He said, "Mr. Williams speaks the truth, friends. What he didn't tell you is that the Lord looks with disfavor on the man who shows the miser's hand, and the man who giveth not. We wouldn't want the Lord's disfavor in this room, would we?"
Williams pushed the hat toward the nearest cowboy, touching him lightly on the stomach. The man hesitated, then fumbled in the pocket of his trousers and produced a bill which he dropped into the hat. Williams bent over and looked at it and took the hat to the next man. He repeated this action with each of the cowhands. With two of them he looked and waited for a second donation. Only one of the two responded. Standing in front of the man who did not respond, Williams shook his head and wagged his finger. He said, "Ephesians twelve, verse seven, tells us that 'he who giveth naught shall burn in hell, and he who giveth but little, even he shall be numbered in the flames.' Bear that in mind, friend." Arriving finally at the hotel guest standing in his underwear and boots, Williams looked at him and said, "Maybe later. The Lord's love and mercy be with you nonetheless."
The round of the men completed, Williams said, "The Lord thanks all of you, sirs. May righteousness and prosperity follow you all the days of your lives." Over by the bar, he took the money out of his hat and stuffed it into his left trouser pocket. From his right pocket he took a silver dollar and dropped it with a noisy ring on the counter.
"And now, my good man, which of the above rooms is ours? It seems we have little choice tonight."
The night man was still standing by the fallen Kenratty. He looked over at Williams.
"I can't give you a room. You shoot a man in here an' now you want a room in the same place. No."
"But there's no other place in town. You said so yourself."
"Tha's your bad luck."
"The marshal says the shooting wasn't a law and order matter, so we can forget about the incident with Mr. Kenratty. This is a public establishment. Are you saying, sir, that you are denying us service? Turning us out into the night with the nearest town many hours away? I think even the marshal might be interested in this."
Smoke took a few steps over to where Kenratty lay. He stood, looking down. "Had to be done," he said, "but we have to do what we have to do." Almost as an afterthought he added, "I'm thinkin' you should give us the room, Jess."
Williams pushed the dollar farther across the counter. "I'm leaving the money right here. I suppose the key is in the door of one of the rooms upstairs? Which one?"
The night man threw up his hands. "Awright, awright! I'm sick o' all o' this. Number three." He stomped back to the end of the bar and looked around at the body and the mess on the floor. "Where's the coroner, anyhow. He shoulda' been here twenny minutes ago."
Upstairs, as Williams turned the key in the lock he said, "The Lord collected quite a bit of money this evening, Smoke."
Smoke said, "Fer sure. An' usually we don't even work at night."