Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Culainaith was quick but not quick enough. Sioux Indians and a mix of renegades caught him in the mountains after he shot six of them. They cut off his right hand, tied him on a horse, and slapped the horse on the rump.
So Devon Culainaith, one-time army bugler, known as Cully to one and all, came into Boyd’s Crossing, on the Snake River between Cheyenne and Casper in the Wyoming Territory, not dead, but damned near it. Through the intercession of one of the ladies of The Black Swan Saloon, Culainaith was bedded and doctored in a room of the hotel above the saloon. At length all infections cleared up, the stump healed, and a new energy slowly heated up in him. Part of that energy was hatred, though he could only identify two of the white renegades who had “done him in.” The others would someday reveal themselves; “I’ll see to that,” he vowed day in and day out.
He told the kind lady tending him, Sarah Bourbeau, a worn loneliness settling upon her, her eyes bright with hope but her face drooping, that he didn’t love her but would owe her forever. “You ever need me, Sarah, let me know some way.” He added a sudden thought: “You make me think about my mother.”
It was payment enough for the tired lady who had immediately taken a shine to the young man, liking his clear eyes of pale blue, a nose with a piece of character raised across its bridge, a complexion saying the sun was a constant visitor, and a manner of addressing people as if they counted in his life.
Word spread about the notorious quick-draw artist now out of action. Culainaith had been one of the fast gunmen of the west, stories following him from his discharge in 1865 from M Company, 4th Massachusetts Cavalry, at Readville, MA where he left the army, all the way to the Rockies … lawman, supposed fugitive, bounty hunter, whatever brought him a meal, the next drink, a dry bed for the night. He was the odd lot in the open country; now and then a drifter, now and then a stationary figure bent to work, sometimes mysterious and usually alone in any undertaking.
In a twist of events, as fate wills itself, Lucas Chambers, from the look of him wanted somewhere most likely, came into Boyd’s Crossing and left his horse for tending at the livery, smiling at the thought of Culainaith with no right hand. He had heard about the loss in a few saloons on his own route into more western territories.
Nothing pleased Chambers more, unless it was a picture of his old comrade and old enemy on his knees under a rope, still on his knees and tied to the tracks with an engine coming down the line, or the sight of that stub of an arm trying to get a revolver out of a holster. Chambers’ face wore a steady scowl, like he had just swallowed a distasteful mouthful of food.
Chamber’s enmity went directly to two incidents, one in which Culainaith plain outshot him in a shooting match, and the second, Culainaith getting an embarrassing drop on him in a supposed duel after a night of revelry, and all the ladies watching. That was back in the Oklahoma and Indian Territory, Choctaw country, as they passed through after serving in sister companies of the same regiment in the War Between the States.
Drunk, out of control, his mouth shooting off in all directions, Chambers had outright dropped his weapon and stared at Culainaith’s gun aimed at his chest. Ladies in the late-night gathering, including one of Chamber’s favorites, tittered and laughed on the edge of onlookers, most of them with drinks in their hands.
“One day, Cully,” he said in his rage and embarrassment, “I’ll be sober as judge and deacon and I’ll pay back this night.”
“Well, Lucas,” Culainaith said, “we know it won’t be tonight and it won’t be tomorrow, because before you wake up in the morning, I’ll be long gone. I’m leaving the territory and heading west. Maybe I’ll see you in California or Oregon or way up in the Montanas. Captain Rangely’s got a spread up that way.”
Chambers, stammering for words, looking for his fallen gun, his hat in the dust, tried to get in a last piece of anger. “Not up in Montana Territory, Cully. The captain told me about you. Said he’d never hire you when he got his place. He talked about that one night, Cully. I heard it myself. Said he’d never hire you.” His arms waved all over in crazy and futile gestures almost anybody could understand.
“You’re damned right on that account, Lucas,” countered Culainaith. “He said he’d only take me on as a partner. Those are his exact words, the captain’s words, the night I left him. Take me on as a partner. He’s the best man we ever knew, Lucas. You got to remember that before you remember anything else about the whole damned war.”
Chambers frantically looked again for his weapon. Someone in the crowd, aware of his state of mind, had kicked it back into the throng of watchers. Nobody offered to retrieve it.
Before sunrise, Culainaith was long gone, heading west.
The paths of the two retired comrades of the war had crossed but those two times, the lost shooting match for Chambers, and the embarrassing almost-duel.
Now, they were about to meet again, in Boyd’s Crossing, where the Snake River ran in the high territories, sending its water to the Mississippi and down through the middle of the country to the Gulf of Mexico.
Poking his head in the saloon door, Chambers scanned the room for Culainaith and settled in his mind that he’d have a drink before he looked around town for his old comrade and sworn enemy. In an old army shirt with the private’s chevron pulled off, he was noted quickly as a Union army veteran of the war. A big man at the bar, drinking alone, bought him a round.
“I see from your shirt, stranger, that you’re a veteran of the war. What outfit? My name’s Kurt Longfield and I was in New Jersey’s 3rd Regiment, 39th Volunteers.”
Longfield was a big man, muscular, shoulders carrying all the share necessary, with a very honest face set with dark and daring eyes, marks of some kind of combat or struggle quite apparent in scars and an ear lobe seriously misshaped from one of his encounters along the line.
“Thanks for the drink, Kurt. I was in M Company. Massachusetts 4th Cavalry”
“Say, we’re horsemen from way back, ain’t we? Pleasure to meet you.” Longfield motioned the bartender to set up another round. “Bucky, me and my comrade here are celebrating a reunion of sorts. Old cavalry men from the war.” He slapped Chambers on the back. “What brings you to Boyd’s Crossing, my friend? I been here only a few days myself. I’m on my way to see my sister. She’s another week west of here.”
“I’m looking for an old friend. I know he’s around. I heard he lost one of his hands.”
“Was that in the war?” The interest showed heavy on Longfield’s face, in the tilt of his head as he waited an answer.
“No,” Chambers said. “It wasn’t too long ago, from what I heard.”
“Say, is he that fellow got his hand chopped off by the Indians? Damn, man, I saw him just this week around here someplace.” He looked over his shoulder as if he expected to see the one-handed man in the saloon. “It ain’t been but a couple of days.”
He motioned the bartender back. “Bucky, have you seen that fella that lost his hand to the Injuns back there a while.”
“No, not for a couple of days. That’s old Cully, ain’t it? He moved out of here more’n a couple of months ago. I think he’s holed up with old Bart MacGregor, west out of town, up against Bear Hill, kind of still gettin’ better at things with just one hand. He carries a real meanness, that Cully fella. Can’t blame him. That was rotten what they did to him. Doc said he’s about tough as they come, able to ride into town like he was, bleedin’ and hurtin’ awful bad.”
Chambers said, “Well, they didn’t kill him none. That’s good. I’ll take care of things when we meet up.”
Longfield said, “You sound mean as him. You got something to settle with him?”
“I sure do.”
“Ain’t he kind of out of it with his hand gone?” Longfield had a strange look on his face, as if such a vengeance was way out of the ordinary. “It don’t look like he hurt you none. You bounden on this?”
Anger swiftly crossed Chambers’ face. “Thanks for the drink. But I always mind my own business. Best if you do too.” He stormed out of the saloon, slamming the doors as he pushed through them.
The bartender said, “It looks like he ain’t carryin’ no presents for Cully. Cully’s one fella had enough done to him since he got out of the war ‘n’ don’t need no more.”
“What’s the quickest way to MacGregor’s place? I got to warn that fella Cully.”
“Go north right from here until you come across an old trail. Take it west and you run right into Mac’s place against the hill. He’s still lookin’ for gold out there.” Pausing, he added, “You takin’ a big interest in things, ain’t you?” His face was empty of expression, as if he wasn’t taking sides.
Longfield, nodding the way one agrees with one’s decision, said, “We were in the war, me and Cully, from the way it sounds. There’s times when you go through Hell, as some guys do, you hope to come out on the other side. That’s my piece in this.” He stood as if at attention in the ranks, finished off his drink, left the saloon, mounted his horse and raced north.
He had ridden a few miles when he saw the small cabin and heard gunshots somewhere in the area. Coming to a slow trot, he approached the cabin. The shots continued, at a measureable rate, not as if fired in haste or murderous vengeance. When he topped a small rise he spotted a lone man standing beside a tree just beyond the cabin, putting a pistol back into his holster hanging at his hip.
Then, perhaps thirty or forty yards beyond, another man stood up from behind a log, waved his hand, and set four small cans on another log near him. Then he slipped behind the first log and ducked out of sight. The man’s hand waved again for a second or two and disappeared.
At that signal, the man beside the tree swiftly drew his gun from the holster, fired four shots and knocked three of the cans off the log.
The shooter was a lefty.
Then Longfield noticed the shooter’s right arm.
It was without a hand, there being a stub at the end of his wrist.
“Cully,” he said to himself. Then, aloud, he yelled it out. “Cully! Cully! Chambers is on his way out here to settle an old score with you. Told me himself right in the saloon. Bucky told me how to find you. You better get ready. He’ll be here soon. Maybe in a few minutes.”
Cully Culainaith, with that one hand, loaded his gun again as he clamped it under his right arm pit, and then put the gun back in the holster with a smooth motion.
“Come on in, mister,” Culainaith said, “and have a drink. I thank you greatly for your troubles, but Luke Chambers isn’t quite ready for this.” He patted the gun at his side. “We’ll have to advise him a bit beforehand.”
A big, hearty laugh came out of Culainaith at that expression, and Longfield, pleasantly surprised, was immediately and immensely glad he had arrived before the angry Chambers.
“Is it okay to come out now?” said a voice from behind a log.
“It’s okay, Mac. Come on out. Meet my new friend whose name I don’t even know yet.” The arm with a stump on it was pointing at Longfield still sitting the saddle.
“My name’s Kurt Longfield and I was in New Jersey’s 3rd Regiment, 39th Volunteers.” It was like an echo, a tinny but foreboding echo, hearing his own voice, saying the words he had said just a short while ago in the saloon. “I’m here to warn you, a fellow comrade veteran of the war, that trouble’s on the way to visit you.” He pointed at Culainaith’s right arm and added, “I see that you’ve had enough trouble already without having to deal with a grudge that ain’t appearing to be proper to me.”
The two men shook hands left-handed, and MacGregor, dusty from head to foot, stood and came to shake Longfield’s hand. “You’re sure invited to sit a spell and enjoy with us, mister. I did my bit for Cully here and you’ve done yours, and from what I hear, there’s more of another kind coming. Look there.” He pointed down trail at a rider coming along the trail, in no great hurry, but straight at them against the side of Bear Hill.
Longfield, taking his horse by the reins, walked him behind the cabin, and then stayed put as Culainaith and MacGregor watched the rider approach.
“’S that the fella your new friend’s been talkin’ about?” MacGregor said, still brushing dust off his clothes.
“I’d know him riding like that from a mile away,” Culainaith said. “He sits a horse like he’s waiting to get ambushed or back-shot. Name’s Lucas Chambers and he hates mystery and not knowing what’s in the sack he’s about to put his hand into?”
“Ain’t most folks like that?” the old miner said, almost as if his neutrality was earmarked.
“Well, Mac, you’re always pretty close to the right call on things. Let’s see what happens.”
He looked around and did not see Longfield or his horse, but he did not believe the man had ridden off on the sly.
Up the trail, in no great rush, came Culainaith’s old friend and adversary of odd sorts, Lucas Chambers. He was riding a paint and with his checkered shirt and dark pants seemed almost camouflaged, but Culainaith knew that was not the case.
Culainaith hailed him. “Hey, Luke, you could be a sight for sore eyes if it wasn’t being said otherwise. Why don’t you light and share for a while. Mac’s got some great Kentucky stuff in the cabin.”
“You know damned well why I’ve come, Cully. I ain’t forgot nothin’.”
“You aiming to draw down on a one-handed man, Luke? I can tell you right now, that will follow you no matter where you go out in this part of the country.”
“You trying to talk your way out of this, Cully? I swore, a long time ago, we’re gonna finish what was started. You’re wearing a sidearm I see, so that make things level here.” He was off his horse in a quick move and standing as if already braced by his old comrade.
The odds shifted in a brief second.
From the rear of the cabin, silent as blown grass in a breeze, his rifle leveled at the gut of Lucas Chambers, once of M Company. Massachusetts 4th Cavalry, came Kurt Longfield, once a cavalryman in New Jersey’s 3rd Regiment, 39th Volunteers.
“Not quite, mister,” Longfield said with a hard voice he had not mustered in a long while. “I want you to watch something before you even think about drawing down on a one-handed man, which, I guarantee you, would follow you to the day you start into dust.”
He motioned to MacGregor and Culainaith and said, as if issuing a command to a line of troops, “You two do the same thing you were doing when I came along. The same exact way.”
The command was in his voice.
MacGregor, a smile as evident as if he had just had a shot of his favored Kentucky brand, went right to the log, set up the four cans, and ducked below the log as before. He waved his hand once.
With Longfield’s rifle still leveled at his gut, Lucas Chambers saw Cully Culainaith, swiftly, effortlessly, a deft smoothness of practice evident in the move, quick-draw his sidearm, and hit all four cans, knocking them off the log … left-handed.
MacGregor yelled out, as he stood tall and waved his arms, “Damn it, man, you’re gettin’ better at this every time.” A huge smile crossed his face. He started dusting his clothes, as if it made a difference.
As fate says, as fate wills it, a difference had been made and firmly established between old comrades, all three of them from the Great War.
And one man, a bystander who stood aside, was fully aware of the change in matters.