Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The water trough had been poisoned, his son Ben’s pony the first tell-tale sign where he fell to the ground right beside the trough. Sam Tannwood saw tracks, which were not the pony’s tracks, leading away from the well and cutting into the trees behind the barn. Tannwood thought he might be able to track them later, but it was early morning and he had to get the carcass out of sight before his son Ben woke up.
He saddled the big gray wagon horse and dragged the body off into the deep grass. Waking hired hands Oleon and his brother Pedro from a deep sleep in a room attached to the back of the barn, he told them what happened and to bury the pony as soon as they could. They did as bid and quickly, both hired hands extremely fond of the youngest Tannwood.
While the pony was being buried, Tannwood woke Ben and told him his pony had died, and how that death had happened. Ben did not cry but looked straight into his father’s eyes and said, “You’ll get them, Pa, won’t you, the ones who did it?”
“If it’s the last thing I do,” his father assured him.
Later that day and not known to Tannwood, a rugged looking and crudely-mannered man was shooting off his mouth in the Eagle’s Land Saloon, the lone saloon in Little Bend, Arizona, perched below the Mogollon Rim along Spider Creek, with three heavy forests as well the Tonto Natural Bridge not far away. This big-mouth stranger to Little Bend had appeared at noon, began drinking, flashing coin and currency as though his pockets runneth over, and telling one and all that much of the local property was now owned by one man, “and what ain’t soon as Hell will be. “
When he made statements like the one just reported here, he had a habit of slamming his fist down on the top of the bar. Some folks thought he had not made the point stick out by just hollering or yelling it out, and danged if they weren’t right. Folks who had been around the mountain a few times, and then went again, knew this about the man the very minute he started shooting off his mouth instead of his gun. Most of them could recall childhood bullies who were never alone, help always at their sides from unwary accomplices who unknowingly were staff supporters of those who never faced things alone.
Rattley’s stance at the bar, as he spun about to draw more attention, was that of a victorious fighter at the end of a big match, seeking acclaim, adulation, and loud confirmation that he was indeed a victor. Such big mouths, like the bullies mentioned above, with which he was already tagged and which we all of course are familiar with, require a supporting cast, added backbone for their way in life … no matter how big and noisy and ferocious they may portray themselves.
And so it was that he leaned on his mortal crutch by saying, “Mister Cudahy, my boss, says he wants all the land from here to the Rim to be part of his Western Heritage, as he calls it, his western home away from his eastern shorefront place in Rhode Island of all places, that little bump on the Atlantic edge of America. If he don’t get it quick and easy, he’ll take it hard and dirty.”
He nodded in a definite affirmative manner and let that notion sink in before he said, “My name’s Lou Rattley, in case you’re wondering ‘bout who I am, a fallen sheriff, if you’ll have it that way. I escaped from a prison in another territory. I’m 40 years old, 7 years in prison for helping bank robbers, and was caught my one time being arrested by Sam Tannwood before he came out here to this pimple of a town on the back side of a mountain. He ain’t now and wasn’t then a sheriff or a deputy, but he was the man on the spot when robbers broke from the bank. They shot a teller on the way out and an innocent bystander before Tannwood horse-collared them robbers. And me hiding around the corner, the way I promised Cudahy I’d be during the hold-up.”
“I wasn’t no more’n a year in jail and he up and married my wife Sandra he helped get a divorce for and soon as you can find a bit of almighty dust in here she had two children by him. His youngest had a nice black pony I hear he hasn’t got any more.”
At the end of the big-mouth’s bluster, a voice carrying age in its crackly tone and halting manner managed to deliver a solemn thought. “It’s too damned bad you didn’t get to know Sam Tannwood better when you had the chance, ‘cause you ain’t making your acquaintance any better than you just did. You really only talk when you have a gun in your hand, whether you say anything or not.”
The man delivering that open observation rose from a chair and hobbled toward the door of the saloon. He turned and replied to Rattley who had yelled out, “Where he hell do you think you’re goin’, old timer?”
The old gent’s voice had gained some strength and purpose, “I’m going to tell Sam Tannwood that a big-mouth blow-hard is looking for him in case he doesn’t know yet, but if I figure right and something dreadful awful has happened to that boy’s pony, he’s damned well on his way here right now to see you.” He turned about in a slow circle, facing most all in the saloon, not asking for affirmation or agreement on any point he’d made, but as an advisor and announcer of an omen, the way a man full of promise does it
With clarity he seemed to add a note of caution that other old timers in the saloon knew was not really a note of caution. “If I was you I’d meet Sam Tannwood right here in the saloon or out there on the street or anyplace you pick in town, but don’t dare go near the flats down there at Spider Creek. That’s what the Ndé –Coyotero Apaches call ‘The Field of Dead Men Waiting for God of the Mountains to Take Them Away.’ Many good men are still afraid to trespass there, afraid of facing real danger. It draws too much courage, if they have any at all, from all-out cowards and bigmouths.”
His summation was direct: “Don’t dare go near The Field down there, where dying waits on men.” The old man was out of the saloon in a few steps, his words hanging in the air as valid as a threat, the door slapping shut behind him. Sunlight was shut off in a hurry and a breath of outside air disappeared as quickly as it had come.
Rattley, caught up in something he was not sure of, laughed a nervous laugh, a give-away laugh, a phony cover-up laugh that the older men in the room understood at the first cackle, and then Rattley, emptying his glass in one swallow, said, “Who the Hell is that old stump?”
One of the older gents from the other end of the saloon, who had been around the mountain a few times himself, said, in a definitive question, “Don’t you know none about Mogollon Ned?” He shook his head in disbelief as he looked into the eyes of men around him, making an unsaid statement.
At that moment, everybody in the Eagle’s Land Saloon knew Mogollon Ned, including in a swift realization from recent history, Lou Rattley, big-mouth, agent of The Cudahy, pony killer, who was destined to accept the challenge Sam Tannwood’s father, Mogollon Ned, had artfully dangled in front of his manhood.
Mogollon Ned is one man who could have been another big-mouth, but of a different order. He was a man who’d have the right to say, “I’ve been a shooter, a sheriff, a trader, a miner, a hunter, a friend and a foe to the Ndé–Coyotero Apaches, the Navajo, the Hopi, the Ditzhe’e Apache and the Mojave. There weren’t many I did not know, chief or brave, who did not come to do battle or share a pipe or a tipi with me … and,” he’d add as a final salute, “be sworn to share a horse with me. The desert and the grass ain’t too friendly without a horse. ”
Most of the men in the saloon knew old escapades of Mogollon Ned when he had left in “The Field” many souls waiting the gesture of the final god of the mountains. They had heard of the strange accompaniments that were brought to bear in face-to-face duels in the field and a hundred old battles that usually got re-lived in the saloon on nights heavy with recollection. They might speak of the winds, the strange music of moans and wind whistles and the ungodly sounds in the field of the final god – as though enemies on high, mountain gods, were squaring off against each other for ownership of that place.
But nobody in the saloon had heard anything about young Tannwood’s pony. Not as yet. Some had figured out what might have happened; but they all knew to a man what was going to happen – except Lou Rattley – Cudahy agent, killer of ponies, killer of men, fallen sheriff, utmost failure cast from his own making.
Sam Tannwood in the meantime had made his son aware of the pony’s death and was on his way to Little Bend. He believed the party responsible for the pony’s death was in town and not out on the trail, was not avoiding him.
The killing of the pony, he was certain, was a message meant for him. Messages of this sort had been delivered before. Only a week earlier he’d found wire cut, a few head shot dead in a wadi and left to rot in the sun or be taken by carrion eaters of all kinds. Cattle were not killed for nothing. It was not a full alarm, but his notice had been called for, and some of his past was recalled.
The one thing he came up with as he rode toward Little Bend was Lou Rattley, his wife Sandra’s first husband, who had gone to jail screaming about getting even for his capture and conviction. And there followed a series of vowed threats coming from the penitentiary after he married Sandra. That all had been buried in the past, but the man who had made those threats was bound to carry them out … or try to. The death of the pony was a virtual sign, more so than cut fences or slaughtered cattle … it was the first reach at Tannwood’s family, the first touch.
As he rode along the road to town, his horse in a slow lope, his mind setting itself for confrontation, Sam Tannwood brought back aspects of Lou Rattley that had stuck in his mind, the ones that sometimes came to him when he was off alone on the grass, seeing Sandra once at the mercy of a cruel man. Odd parts came and went in flashes, and all came distastefully.
As he pondered his thoughts of one man, he saw a another man riding hard toward him and waving. The hat waving in the air was a familiar gesture, the pinto under him was familiar, and he knew it was his father, Ned Tannwood, Mogollon Ned, full-blown hero in his time.
He rushed toward his father, hoping that nothing else had happened, that nobody had been hurt. The old man was riding as hard as he’d seen him ride in a long time.
They met beside a rise in the road, the older man still waving his hat and yelling, “Rattley’s in town. Anything happen out there?” He pointed back toward the ranch. “Anything happen to the Ben’s pony?” His face was lit with expectation.
“Someone killed him, Pa. Poisoned him. Poisoned the water trough. I had the boys bury his body before Ben woke up. Buried him out on the grass.”
Mogollon Ned said, “It was Rattley done it and I challenged him for you, Sam. I would have taken him on myself if I was only a few years younger. I know he won’t let go his hate about Sandra and jail and all that, but all of it’s got to be faced, and better now than later on when you might never know where he’s coming from.”
“How’d you challenge him, Pa?” He’d always listened to his father, the man who had been around the mountain so many times it made his son dizzy and full of pride.
“I just about named him for the coward he is if he didn’t meet you face to face out there in ‘The Field,’ instead of in town on the street.” This time Mogollon Ned looked to his left, off toward the mountains sitting closer to the clouds than he’d ever seen them. “The music is still up there, son, and still coming down for us who know it, who call on it.”
Sam Tannwood saw the age in his father’s face, saw the telltale twist in his body that told old stories flashing into his mind quicker and clearer than any of Rattley’s, saw that he was not eternal as he had so often thought about the man over the long years. Then he saw his son Ben looking at him, as he might look at him someday. He was, at that exact moment, sharing the other times on both ends of his life.
Sam Tannwood loosened the reins in his hand, gently spurred his mount and said, “I’ll take care of it, Pa. You go see Ben and Sandra and tell them I’ll be home directly.”
He rode off toward The Field beside the mountain, his mind full of Sandra and Ben and the image of the dead pony beside the water trough. He should have been thinking of Rattley, he admitted, but that would come soon enough.
Lou Rattley, in the saloon, realizing what had been thrown in his lap, seeing other men looking at him and waiting for his reactions, strode with firm steps toward the door of the saloon. “We’ll see all about this hogwash in one damned quick hurry.”
He rode out of Little Bend in a hurry, spurs digging angrily into the flanks of his horse. Behind him some of the younger men of the saloon crowd had gathered on the boardwalk outside the Eagle’s Land and were staring down the road out of town where Rattley was rushing away, curiosity filling them up, but also the sense that private matters were best done privately.
The older gents of the saloon crowd sat where they were, nodding, affirming, agreeing in one thought – justice was near at hand – but down the road a bit in ‘The Field of Dead Men Waiting for God of the Mountains to Take Them Away.’
Rattley, in his hurry to “fix things,” saw ‘The Field’ ahead of him, the mountains stark against the sky, with the sun heavy as a hammer on the back of his neck. He heard a whisper beginning the breath of a breeze, thin as an old echo as it came across the wide prairie beside the notorious mountain. He didn’t see for one minute what a man like him would never see, but heard again the whisper of the breeze as it came and went. He didn’t hear any words with the faint approach, no refrain, no melody, just a vague “something” he could not put his finger on, or his ear, or his close attention.
He had never really listened to any of the stories about this place, though those stories had moved continuously among trail camps and stop-overs and saloons from here to the length of the Mississippi. Most of the stories were made-up stories, he believed, coming from drunks, tired cowpokes wanting some acceptance from a new source, or just plain lies told to be accepted as lies. He thought them to be “campfire stories” all the way, the kind entertainers told when they held the stage in the bigger saloons.
They were all to be discounted from the outset, but now, in the midst of an eerie feeling, a certain validity about them crept into his thinking, made way for doubt about his earlier determinations. As he looked around the field about him, he didn’t see anything unusual, and nothing to be termed new to him. The grass waved in a slight breeze, a cloud moving across the sun sent a floating shadow onto the grass and the green in it was darkened for a short time, and the sun took turns in finding glaring surfaces to show off its power of reflection. Of course, he’d seen it all a thousand times; nothing here.
But there was.
A new sound moved off the mountain like a slow landslide, a rumble in it, though the ground beneath him did not shake. He looked quickly for the source and saw nothing …but back there, toward Little Bend, he spied a rider coming down the broad trail in the grass, a rider coming slow and easy, as though he was only going to check on some of his stock for the evening coming on.
The rider was not recognizable at first; just a cowpoke.
Then he thought about what Mogollon Ned had said: “ … don’t dare go near the flats down there at Spider Creek. That’s what the Ndé –Coyotero Apaches call ‘The Field of Dead Men Waiting for God of the Mountains to Take Them Away.’”
“Perhaps,” thought Rattley almost aloud, “I shouldn’t have poisoned that water trough. What if the kid wanted to wash his face in it, or just wash his hands?” He shivered at the thought; a pony was one thing, a small boy was another.
He looked at the oncoming rider again. It wasn’t recognition that named him; it was the damned old man back there in the saloon: this was vengeance coming on horseback, and at slow deliberation. Not even seeing his face, Rattley knew it was Tannwood. And then he saw Sandra’s face the way he usually saw it in jail for seven long years, the broad smile, the golden hair framing the smile and the gray-blue eyes that had a voice of their own, who could say things without talking. And suddenly he saw her face one time when he had beat her again with his fists for something she had or hadn’t done and what he could not even recall now, a face full of pain, of disgrace, of terror, of loneliness.
“The Field” grabbed him! This truly was the place of final vengeance. This was the beginning and the end of all the stories he had not believed, that were not possible, that came from the mouths of liars and cheats and plain old heathens that proclaimed a god they did not and could not appreciate, the story that came from Mogollon Ned, more prophet than any Indian shaman he had sat with.
It suddenly hit him that part of him was elsewhere … on a hill, in a high limb of a tree, and looking back at himself. For those rarest of moments he was outside of his own body and looking back down at it, looking back down at the man called Lou Rattley, at himself, and that view was from an unknown height and coming whole and truthful. It frightened him at first, an approach of fear he had never known … not this way, not this real and yet with undeniable substance.
Life, he knew, was about to change; this was his last prairie, his last mount under him, his last sight of another human being, though he carried other guises about him. He hoped the boy was not hurt, had not been poisoned. He hoped he could, in some way, make up for all that he had done in his life that hurt others.
The rumble came again, down from the very side of the mountain, but there was no movement under hooves or foot; just the rumble, as though the world was ending with a final word. A heavy cloud loomed over the mountain, a thick cloud, like wet wood and green leaves burning in a signal fire.
And Tannwood was still coming on.
The rumble touched Rattley again – and the answer came with it. He’d be in control. He’d do it his way. He’d always been the boss; even Cudahy knew that and used it. Now it was his turn again, to control all of it at once, in one move, in one move that would set Tannwood loose, free him forever from the hatred on both ends of three lives.
Falsely, as Tannwood neared him, as he came closer so that the look in his eyes carried the last message Rattley would ever receive, the fallen sheriff and wife beater dipped his gun hand in a quick move.
Tannwood, seeing the move, went for his own gun, brought it up swiftly, fired it directly, and knew just as soon as the bullet hit the target that Rattley had feigned a quick draw, that he left himself open to be carried off by the Gods of the Mountain from the Field of the Gods, that amends had been made, that Tannwood could tell Sandra how it had all gone down … and up, with the last of his hopes.