Western Short Story
Shorty Fights His Own War
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

He couldn’t remember how many times. since he was a kid, he had heard the comment, “He’s halfway there, and never got all the way,” always spoken as a slur on his standing height of 5’ 4” and no taller in the saddle and no matter the horse. He was sure the ranch boss often picked a big horse for him when one was needed, like a dash to get the mail in Riddlewood, or to deliver a message to the owner’s brother and sister a good forty miles away on the Bismark Trail.

Shorty Bindle was a necessary loop-hole, a last chance favor, a loss before it was declared. “Too short” meant too small, too powerless, too little to carry big guns, “the holsters’d drag him down or off his mount” or “one gun in one hand makes him lop-sided.”

They all hurt, each one. But they slowly and surely built up a reserve in that short frame most pals didn’t see in their every-day work-abouts, as if “there’s no good reason for Shorty to get caught in the mix of a gun fight lest he gets blown to smithereens,” meaning “Might as well scatter him to the winds, whatever’s left over.”

Shorty didn’t drink, mainly because a saloon brought on the harshest and cruelest jibes of all; “Where’s the rest of you, fella, still hanging out in the saddle like you can’t bring yourself together?”

Now and then, with pals around, he’d dare a walk into a saloon, ready to brace a storm in front of his pals. It usually worked, letting humor run the gauntlet from whatever said.

But a major change came when Shorty went for his gun after a stranger, jokingly went for his gun as Shorty didn’t like what was said to him, and beat the man to the punch, killing him with one shot in the heart right then and there. The local sheriff said, “Enough witnesses said he had set you up for a quick-draw, Shorty, but in a joking manner, but that makes no difference to me. You can get out of here now, son, but I wouldn’t come back this way in any hurry ‘cause he’s got a barrel of brothers and kinfolk. Keep your eyes open and don’t trust your gun too often. You ain’t that big and you ain’t that good, not from where I sit.”

He patted Shorty on the back, sure that he’d never see him again, him going back on the trail, onto the wide-open, wherever the cattle took him, gathering them into a herd or driving them to market, who knows how far away unless that trip had been made before, by some of the crew with their own tales to tell around a night fire.

When the rustlers came, trying to carve out a bunch of cows, gunshots the first alarm in the tail end of a day, Shorty went at it with both guns firing, killing his first rustler abreast of him and hundred of the herd, all in the thunder of a few moments, death on both sides, good men and bad men, the costs rising seemingly when a gun was fired, a body left a saddle in a deadly hurry, graves being dug in the morning, a few words said, a space emptied of a comrade, a space filled with him and his last of Earth, a small cross never seen again, a face forgotten, a last remark remembered, curse or cry.

At the Broken Cross Saloon at Tartar Springs, a few of the cowhands went in to have a last drink for lost pals, the jokers leaping onto Shorty’s slight frame in an indecent hurry; “Can you see what just walked in, half a cowboy on the loose.”

Still hot inside his small frame, still feeling the loss of a real good pal, Shorty came to an abrupt halt, which prompted one of the crew say, as he stepped in front of Shorty, “Friend, the little man here killed two rustlers head-on last night, shot them right out of their saddles, and then helped bury them and a few of his pals, so if you want your jokes and jibes to get full reward, I guess I’ll stand aside while he services your wishes. He’s small but he ain’t worthless, so be warned.”

Both sides of the sudden drama ended up drinking in a kind of soulful harmony, now and then a slap on the back, an arm across a shoulder, a nudge of appreciation with an elbow, or a drink set forth in tribute, each move a piece of sharing of the times to be forgotten on the morrow, to be brought back on some later date, to be shared again in yet another setting:

“I met this little feller once, short as a punch, deadly with his guns and whose friends called him Shorty right to his face like there was no joker in the deck, none at all.”

So, it went on and on, one herd driven to market, and then another herd, and more herds following all along the trails somebody else had driven first across the whole of the West where there was good grazing grass for miles and miles, and the bands of rustlers looking for the cheap way of getting things for free and the years passed by and one evening, in the never-ending bar talk at a saloon out aways, one cowpoke had the floor by himself, no drink in his voice as yet, and told his own tale, saying, “That reminds me of a story I heard in a joint along the way about a grave marker out there aways in the wide-open spaces, lost by its little self with a tiny wooden cross no taller than your knee that had “Shorty” cut into it the way someone took his sweet time carving it.”

And he added at his finish, “I bet someone somewhere remembers something special every once in a while.” He shook his head sadly, nothing else said.