Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Sheila Moira May O’Hara stood in her saloon with her hands on her hips, stood there right under the painting of a very pink and voluptuous nude. Probably some people thought it was her, but it was not. It was her mother. But it was an understandable mistake since the background looked quite a bit like her saloon, which she had carefully modeled after that of her mother, who had been dead these many years. Sheila Moira May O’Hara was no spring chicken but she was in much better shape than her mother had ever been.
First of all. unlike her mother, there was no need for her to survive the potato famine or the miserable passage across the Atlantic with all the malnutrition and filth that such events impose. Second, in America she’d gone West as soon as she could escape the tenements, which was relatively soon thanks to the money from her mother’s line of work. But the other gift from her mother was a vivid description of how the landed gentry lived in the old country that included clothes, horses, and fine Scotch. In the opinion of Sheila Moira May O’Hara and her mother, these things were the point of of life, but always keeping in mind a sense of constraint, self-discipline, never letting the the means overtake the end so that they preoccupied and corroded, obscuring the goal.
Men were means, not ends. She no longer had to work on her back -- just manage the saloon and upstairs. She was briskly maternal, which worked with just about everyone. Even her horses got empathy mixed with control. But she could know what a horse was thinking without becoming a horse and likewise she could know what a person was thinking without becoming them.
This all worked fine until the boy showed up. He was very useful: got around fast, unobtrusively, saw what to do and how to do it without a lot of explanation, never balked at jobs most people found unpleasant, brought her information and knew how to get it to her without others noticing. But she was never quite entirely sure what he was thinking or how he really felt about things. Nevertheless, she let it go. He was small, handy, and even funny.
Their best moments were early in the morning, first light, when she was getting her horse ready for a ride and he was sitting on the back loading dock with a pile of things that needed cleaning, mending or sorting. If it were really summer and already hot as soon as the sun burst an edge over the mountains, he’d wear only pants worn off at the bottom until their ragged edge hit just below his knees. She’d consider his bony frame, his busy muscles, his scars of abuse, his haystack of red hair, and smile at him. He’d grin back. He was still losing baby teeth so gaps would show up and then be gradually replaced by big square teeth. The working girls, who had mostly ignored him at first, began to pay attention, but he cut them off short. They gradually understood that he belonged to Sheila Moira May O’Hara in some atypical way.
When the tooth replacement project was about complete, the red-headed man showed up. He was big, especially in the shoulders, because he was a miner, though he had also been a soldier. And he was a problem. Sheila Moira May O’Hara had one rule: no violence. Ever. But this man lived for violence. He didn’t come to the saloon for the booze or the girls -- he came to pick fights. At least he wasn’t a gunslinger, because he wanted to feel his flesh impact other flesh -- other people’s flesh to be more specific. He never mistreated his horse, which was at least a small thing in his favor. The boy was hyper-aware of him, even when he wasn’t in the saloon, not even in the town, but out somewhere looking for a new mine site. The man took no notice of him.
Sheila Moira May O’Hara watched the man closely and her bouncers did as well, sticking together just in case. But he didn’t fight anyone in the saloon -- antagonized his victims there, but then stalked out and waylaid them someplace where no one would interfere. The trouble was that they were beaten so badly that they died before they were found. The advantage -- for HIM -- was that since there was no audience, no one knew he was the killer. Except the boy.
One hot dawn Sheila Moira May O’Hara led her horse over to the loading dock where the boy, now with a full set of teeth and hairy armpits, was fiddling with an old pistol with a long barrel. This particular horse liked to blow up its belly to keep the cinch loose, so he had to be walked a bit, fooled into relaxing, and then the cinch taken up properly. She was doing this when the burly red-headed man came around the corner of the saloon.
“You ridin’ on the prairie?” he demanded.
“Every morning,” she returned.
“Women ain’t got no business at all on a horse in the first place or ridin’ alone in the second.”
“I see you ride forked like a man instead of side-saddle like a lady.”
“You need a man between your knees, not a horse.”
She stopped moving and stared at him. A quirt hung from her wrist.
“Let me help you up.” Instead of making a stirrup of his hands, he grabbed her by one arm and between her legs, high up. She slashed him across the face. This was enough of a provocation for the man to forget the boy was there. He dragged her back off the horse and threw her on the ground on her back so hard that the breath was knocked out of her and she couldn’t move for a moment. He was just dropping onto her when a small hole, accompanied by a big noise, appeared in his head. Then he was dead and she crawled out from under him.
The boy had done it, of course. She said, “Thank you.”
He shrugged. “My pleasure. He was my father.”
She gave the man a nice funeral. He was the boy’s father, after all. Sheila Moira May O’Hara thought it was the classy thing to do.