Western Short Story
Elias Kincaid sat in the grass, behind a small mound, in the middle of a Montana valley. The valley curled upward at its ends toward the mountains, the morning sun, and the remnant crescent moon fading in the west like a silver slipper lost from luggage. He’d promised a meal for the occupants of a wagon broken down in the middle of nowhere. It carried an older man who was an excellent shot with rifle and handgun but had bad legs, the man’s sister, and her son and daughter. The woman’s husband had been killed by a bear and she wanted to get to a decent sized town to find work and raise her children, the boy about 10 and the girl about 13.
Kincaid had seen a cattle drive that was a day away, heading for the railhead at Fenwick Stalls, the next town. There’d be parts available in the drive’s chuck wagon to fix the broken wagon. He’d told the old man, Eaton Webster, that he’d stick around and keep an eye on them, and the man asked if Kincaid would catch a rabbit for rabbit stew. With a loop of wire, Kincaid set a snare and waited for action.
The action that came was not what he wanted.
A lone rider, on a sorrel, came across the grass from the far side where the foothills tapered to their last edge. The man wore a black Stetson with a ragged rim and a drab shirt rolled up at the sleeves, as if ready for work, or had recently left work. High overhead the buzzards soared in circles, all below them kept under scrutiny. At a slow walk, as if the rider was studying the ground keen as a tracker, the horse showed the beginning of a limp in one foreleg. At one point the animal even paused, only to be urged ahead by its rider showing one brand of impatience.
Distaste for the rider began to rise in Kincaid’s throat, sour as a poor meal. Why would not a man dismount and take care of his horse, show some tenderness? The query brought Kincaid fully awake, alert to additional measures that he noticed about the man.
He found distrust quickly following distaste as he saw other signs about the stranger; his left arm had a bandage of sorts around the wrist, the rifle scabbard attached to the saddle was empty, no canteen appeared hanging from the pommel, and no portion of a saddle blanket showed up against the horse’s hide.
All of the signs, or lack of signs, said “Hurry” to Kincaid, or “Getaway” or “Vamoose.” The latter might have been said at the point of a gun. In the grass, his horse hidden, Kincaid stayed motionless and silent. He was conscious of another sign … his hoping that a rabbit would not get caught in his snare at this time; with such an event there’d be a minor but distracting commotion, which he did not want or need.
A few other alerts came to him as he stayed still in position; Eaton Webster, though a good shot, as he had stated, was unable to move quickly or well; his daughter, Laura, the children’s mother, was a very attractive woman still in bloom, her daughter was a pretty replica of her, and the boy was a bit frantic as good boys are who cannot yet do the tasks they want to do, the manhood elements.
Concern about all of them rose up in Kincaid as he saw the lone rider pull a gun from its holster and check it out. He took the move as a bugle call, a snapping to, a calling on his decision-making, readiness, his stable of smarts.
With further suspicious moves, the lone rider, seeing no one visible about the solitary wagon, dismounted, dropped the reins, and approached the rear of the wagon, which had settled on the grass like a dead mule.
With his weapon in hand, the suspicious cowpoke dipped down and slipped closer to the wagon, as alarms crested in Kincaid, who saw the mother exit the wagon at the front canvas flaps and start to descend to the ground. To Kincaid she looked like a flower of the prairie suddenly breaking through the earth. He remembered her eyes aglow, the curve of her lips as she smiled when he agreed to snare a rabbit, and he could imagine her mind scrolling through a list of ingredient needed for rabbit stew. A momentary flash showed his own mother in her kitchen in Missouri in the midst of peeled potatoes, diced onions, whole mushrooms, chunks of carrots, assorted seasonings, and a boned rabbit browning in light oil in a large skillet. He could even smell the finished meal as she set a full plate before him on the kitchen table, sisters squirming, a younger brother demanding attention with elaborate cries.
A host of images crowded his mind, fighting for placement, for selection in the order of preferences.
He shook himself away from the phantom odor as the cowpoke, the odd hombre, grabbed the woman, put his gun to her head, and yelled a few words Kincaid could not hear clearly. A rifle was thrown clear of the wagon as a feeble Eaton Webster climbed into the front seat of the wagon, and the boy, quick as a rabbit’s leap in a snare, darted from the back canvas flap and ran quickly into deep grass, apparently unseen by the newcomer, who tossed the rifle off to the side, also into deep grass.
The gunman, the impatient hombre, tied the old man and the woman with a length of rope he found hanging at the side of the wagon and went to the rear, peering inside. The 13-year old daughter then descended to the ground, the gunman holding her tight at the waist. With another length of rope he tied the child to the back end, knotting the rope tightly about her body, prodding her continually even as she screamed.
Kincaid dared not retreat to his horse to get his rifle, but began to slither through the grass to get closer with his pistol in hand. He had to get off the closest shot he could before any damage was done by the cruel cowpoke out to no good at all.
He hoped there’d be no rabbit, no commotion, hoped that the boy would keep still and not be found for the time being. Closer he crept, all images gone from his mind, all memories curtailed for the moment, some of his senses suspended; he saw no kitchen, smelled no aromas, and virtually released all those quick associations.
The cowpoke, still holding his weapon, reached into the back of the wagon and put his hand to his mouth, eating voraciously. He retrieved a whiskey jug from behind the rear flaps, holstered his gun, and drank heavily as he walked to the side of the wagon and checked the bonds with which he had trussed the man and woman. When he was satisfied with the knots he had tied, he sauntered to the rear where the girl still struggled and screamed. He slapped her face to silence her screams.
The old man and his daughter struggled with their bindings, and Kincaid crept closer with each second, getting to within 50 feet of the hombre who had grabbed the girl and hit her again. That’s when a rabbit, caught in the snare, did a loop into the air far out on the grass, like a bird had flapped its wings into sudden flight.
The hombre twisted about, looking where the commotion suddenly stopped, let go of the girl, drew his weapon, and aimed it out at the grass.
That’s when the boy leaped from the ground directly opposite the snare location, perhaps 80 or 100 away, waved his arms in the air, and screamed, “Over here. I’m over here.” He dove back out of sight as the hombre, leaping away from the girl, crouching in alarm and reducing his frame, fired a shot toward the boy, and felt Kincaid’s single round knock the gun from his hand.
He tried to retrieve the gun with his other hand and Kincaid, now but 30 feet away, slammed another round into the ground at his feet. Both arms went over his head as Kincaid pointed again, and the boy, from the deep grass, yelled, “You got him. You got him.”
The boy’s voice was sheer falsetto, the girl whimpered, the mother screamed joyously, and Eaton Webster settled back in wonder of their bad and good fortune happening in such quick order.
Kincaid tied the intruder tightly to one of the wheels, untied the mother, who rushed to her daughter, and then Kincaid untied the old man.
The boy rushed from the grass and his mother hugged him even as she untied her daughter.
Kincaid, standing over the wounded cowpoke, said, “If there was a tree handy, I’d hang you right now.”
Eaton Webster said, “If you won’t, I will, but I don’t see any tree either.”
The boy yelled, “There’s one down the trail a ways. We can do it there.” He hugged his mother back and received a great clap on the back and a hug from his grandfather. “Good boy. Good boy,” the old man said a number of times. He hugged his grandson again when the boy found his rifle in the grass and handed it back to him.
Kincaid, satisfied the way things had turned out, went off into the grass, found the rabbit for the stew, untethered his horse and rode him back to the wagon.
The woman said to Kincaid, “My name is Laura Thurston, my daughter’s name is Mary, and my son’s name is William. If you are not married and want to get married someday, I’m the best woman in the world for the best man I have met in this western part of the country.”
Turning away without any reaction from an otherwise stunned Kincaid, she had a knife in hand and was preparing the rabbit for the stew.
Kincaid, his mother’s kitchen coming back in full force, only said, “What else do you have to put into the stew?”
“Oh,” Laura Thurston said, “I have potatoes, onions, a few carrots, but I don’t have any mushrooms.”
This prairie kitchen, Kincaid thought, just about matched his mother’s, as Eaton Webster offered his standing on the situation, “And you have enough seasoning and garnishes in the wagon to outfit any restaurant in St. Louis.”
The laughter was hearty, though the bad hombre made no sound at all.