Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Each day was as bleak and as lonely as the previous days to Mary Pearl Scott, rancher’s daughter and a Texas beauty of the first order. No matter where she turned a vision of her once-promised husband appeared, in a shadow, beneath a tree, at the far end of a fence line he might have been recently working on. Clyde Bennett, son of her father’s best friend, had been gut shot at a line cabin just a week before their wedding was to take place. Rio Lobo had been gearing up for the biggest event in years.
Bleeding a good twenty feet on the trail leading away from the cabin, Bennett was left alone to die. At first there was not a single clue in the killing, but one cow puncher later found the word “stranger” scratched into the bottom part of the door. It was not noticed for a few days. The trail to and from the cabin left not a track, no hoof prints, nothing to study, and Bennett had no known enemies.
It was determined that he had been hailed from outside, and when he opened the door he was shot in the doorway, right in the gut. Discussions all agreed it was obviously someone Bennett did not know.
Mary Pearl Scott, her mind up when nothing was done to find the killer, sent a message to her cousin, Matt Drummond, three days ride away in Percyville, who had already planned to come to pay his respects. He was a good hand with a gun, handsome, brave, adventurous, was her age and much of a loner if left to his choice. As directed, Matt Drummond arrived in the middle of the night at the Scott’s Circle K Ranch. None of the ranch hands saw him enter the ranch house when Mary Pearl met him at the door.
During the early morning she enticed him with her plans to solve the murder of the man who was supposed to become her husband. Not to Mary’s surprise, Drummond advised her on a few points as they tried to solidify their plans, her plans that he had somewhat augmented. All the next day he remained in the house discussing the plans and, once in a while as if to relax, their past when they were raised together on their grandfather’s ranch.
“Mary, do you remember the time when Grandpa said the new colt would go to the first one to ride up on a bright red horse, and Myra squeezed all the beets she could find and painted a horse red, including the tale and his white socks? Grandpa was laughing so hard his face was red too when she walked off with the colt?”
The two cousins laughed in recall only for a moment, when Mary said, “I’m really looking for some more good ideas, Matt. Something we can use to develop for sure-fire what we’ve come up with so far. I know I can’t get it done by myself. Let’s talk about it for awhile before we go back to the good old days. Okay?”
Her face was set by determination, and Drummond stopped laughing.
“Sure, Mary,” he said, “and here’s the next thing I’d check on if I were you. Kind of corral the strangers in town in a couple of ways; those who were here before Clyde was killed and those who showed up within a few days of his death, and then, as another group, those that have come into town after the second group, that is, if there’s any wranglers or drummers or saddle tramps in any of the groups I’ve mentioned.”
Drummond’s face moved into a quizzical set. “That scratching on the door was the only thing Clyde could leave for us. We have to think about why he wrote “stranger.” It pretty well sets things off for me. It wasn’t another cow puncher from the ranch. Not someone from town he knew. Not a casual friend. He could have written a name in those cases. But he told us he didn’t know the guy who shot him.”
“Why three groups of suspects?”
“Mary, we have to admit we ain’t the smartest critters in the barn. I think it just makes things easier for us to latch on to, do one group at a time, unless we can think of a way to flush the bushwhacker right into the open.”
“I’ve already figured that out, Matt. I got a hunch and it’s the only way to get it done that I can think of.”
Drummond saw the resolve come over his cousin, the fire in her eyes, the sadness still holding her heart. Some of her characteristics re-appeared from their younger days when he knew her as a fierce opponent in many games they played on their growing grounds in East Texas. The memories wouldn’t stop coming, huge chunks of them, and he knew he was on for the long ride, if that’s what it would take to help heal the broken heart of a sweet kid.
They talked a few more hours, covering all the ground they could.
With Matt Drummond still hid out at the Circle K, Mary rode into town and did some normal rounds … the general store, Patsy’s Lady Shop, dropped in to see three lady friends including the wife of a deputy, Marlene Hestol, a nice enough lady with gorgeous twin boys of four years, but who was as flannel-mouthed as a woman can be, talking often in streaks as if her talking and rumor-spreading was an escape from the hectic hearth. She in turn, as did a couple of other people, soon repeated about town what Mary had told them, the way a mystery’s conclusion might be pre-celebrated, the word spreading quickly to hungry ears:
“You know how sad I am about Clyde. He was my champion, but I’ve found another champion. He’s a wandering boy, just fourteen and out in the world on his own. He saw the incident close at hand, right out there at the line cabin. Says he noted a few things to tell the sheriff when he comes into town tomorrow. I can’t figure out how he can piece all that stuff together to pick out the killer, but he says it’ll be a cinch for the sheriff. I’m going down to his office later today when he gets back from his day in court over to Crater City. The boy, who’s trail-wise, found his way to me yesterday after talking to the stage driver on his way to Percyville. Said he stopped the stage and asked the driver to deliver a letter to Matt Drummond, my cousin, in Percyville. Appears he knows some of the family, but figured he had to stay hidden from anybody in town, or even out on the range for that matter. He especially didn’t want to get spotted out on the prairie or on the trail with nobody around, knowing what the bushwhacker was capable of. That says to me he’s a pretty smart kid. Wouldn’t you agree?”
She even gave him a name. “His name’s Benjamin Donovan. He’s a handsome kid. Smart as a hungry coyote.”
From another friend she got the descriptions of three strangers who had come to town before Clyde was killed, with two names. The wife of the general store keeper pointed out two other riders who rode away from the saloon that afternoon in the same direction but an hour apart. “They’re both strangers to town in the last week, Mary. Came in a few days apart. Heard they play cards until all hours, the way some cowpokes do coming off a trail drive somewhere, wetting the whistle too. Seem ordinary enough, but you never know.” She raised her eyebrows as if she had drawn a question mark in the air above her head. “Some we know are winners and some are losers when you get right down to it. I’m lucky with Pete and you would have been lucky with Clyde, that’s as easy to see as a palomino dressed up for a parade.”
At the house of her best friend, Molly Brittan, a visit saved for last, Molly appraised her visit as if she had been pitched a question. “Mary, you got sweet frosting on some idea in your head, I can tell. I’ve known you too long to miss a certain beat in you. What’s happening?”
“It’s awfully important to me, Molly.”
“Mary, I wouldn’t breathe a word of what you got going, but you and Clyde are very special to me.” Her arms went about her dearest friend in the world. “How can I help?”
Mary explained the whole situation to Molly who sat back, smiled, and finally said, “Well, dear girl, I could tell the way you came up the steps that you were on to something. For me, I will become Marlene Hestol’s best aide and accomplice in the matter, but with a bit more subtlety.”
The two friends collapsed in laughter, hugging each other, realizing what they had been through, and what was at hand.
“But Marlene’s kids are so damned cute, you have to love her all over again,” Molly said in merriment and final acceptance. “I’ll saunter out on my own errands later, but you be careful, dear girl, and say hello to Matt for me. I haven’t seen him in a few years. Not since my own wedding.” They each nodded, remembering a special day in their lives.
Like a fire fed with dry kindling the word spread about town, setting in place the steps that Mary Pearl and cousin Matt Drummond had let be aired out. That talk, of course, made its way into the Dusty Trail Saloon before evening had set its course.
Rugged, one-legged Harold Carstairs, barman, put the word in motion a number of times during the day and evening, advising each known customer with the highlights of the witness’s appearance and statements. With his wide face, expressive eyes and the body language of a keen bartender, he seemed to be an actor on stage, making every gesture and grimace count, and his voice carrying like a veteran actor to all parts of the room.
“Kid says he got info the sheriff can use to nail the bushwhacker in a few minutes. ‘Can’t miss,’ he says, as if the arrest, conviction and hanging of the bushwhacker is a sure thing. Sheriff’s due in any time from his ride to Craterville. Ought to be interesting, especially to Mary Pearl and the killer. Awful interesting.” He’d lean over and add, “Kid says his own name is Ben Donovan. Might be from the Donovan spread over near Springer’s Wells, I’d bet.”
It was as official as he could make it.
When the sheriff came into the room and wet his whistle, many of the customers who were friends of Clyde, or had known him from a trail drive, clustered around him.
“What are you gonna do, Hal?” one gent said, his chin stuck out in a dare. “The kid’s coming here in the morning. That’s what I heard. Mary told Hestol’s wife Marlene, and she don’t miss a trick going on in this town. Kid must be out there at the Circle K. So I guess we’re having a hanging tomorrow or the next day? Ought to be done real quick from where I sit.”
“Harry,” the sheriff laughed, “you ain’t even sitting down now. How do I take that?” He laughed again and said, “Don’t worry. It was on my mind, that bushwhacking of Clyde, all the way to Craterville and back. If the information fits someone, you can bet he’ll hang. Judge Harvin comes here in two days. Perfect timing on his part. He won’t waste much time to square the patch for Clyde and Mary. Poor kid must be torn all to pieces. That promised to be one great wedding. Don’t know what she’ll do now.”
“She’ll be okay,” another said. “Hundred guys’d stand in line to marry her. Pretty as a sunset down the valley. Sure is.” Heads nodded in agreement.
At a dim corner of The Dusty Trail Saloon, no more than one hour after the sheriff’s arrival, and a new moon crawling from its bed, a lone man slipped out of his chair and into the night. Nobody noticed his departure.
In the darkness floating around the Circle K, the bunkhouse quiet, the horses in the barn finding their own rest, the cattle in a near pasture settled down for the night, a shadowy figure approached the backside of the ranch house. In his right hand he carried a six gun, holding it close to his side at a point where he might have drawn it from his holster. The rear door opened easily at his touch, its hinges oiled only hours earlier by Matt Drummond. His spurs were hooked on his saddle a quarter of a mile away off the road from town. His steps were muted. His mind intent, looking for a boy.
It was a cinch for Matt Drummond who clobbered him on the back of the head from his sentinel space against the wall.
Lights went on. Turmoil and noise arose. The bunkhouse awoke and ranch hands ran to the house. The Scotts had surrounded the killer and tied him up. Mary Pearl Scott, yet seeing her once-promised husband in another working scene remembered from better days, leaned over and said into the killer’s ear, “We got you now, mister. The sheriff will find out why you did it, and who set you onto Clyde. You won’t be going alone. I’ll see to that.”
Matt Drummond, not as calm, not as subtle, rubbed a foot of rope against the man’s neck. “Get used to it, mister, the rest of it’s coming your way.”
He rubbed it on the killer’s neck one more time for luck.
Then rubbed his neck again.