Western Short Story
Skyliner
Jack Drummond


Western Short Story

Milt Grable looked out over the vast plains and studied the terrain.

More than two hundred head of cattle had been driven over that piece of land. On the skyline of a distant plain, he could see the outline of the cattle.

His cattle.

He sat a little straighter in the saddle and tugged his Winchester from its sheath. He checked the cartridges loaded into the rifle and returned it to the sheath. He did the same with the Colt that was nestled in the holster tied down on his hip.

Somewhere in the distance, lightning flashed, and thunder rumbled.

There was going to be a storm on the plains.

He holstered the Colt and looked back out at the distant herd of cattle that had been driven from his land by a half dozen cattle rustlers. His black gelding shifted beneath him.

“I know,” he uttered under his breath. “I don’t like the looks of it either.”

Ace Graeme led the outfit that was rustling his cattle.

And Ace Graeme had killed more than his fair share of men back in Dodge City. Milt had seen him kill a man once, back in El Paso, when Milt was riding for the Triple B outfit. He wasn’t a bad man, just one who’d found himself on the wrong side of the law more times than he would’ve liked. Ace Graeme was a fast and accurate hand when it came to shooting irons, and some of the men he had riding with him were just as good and twice as bad.

Dan Hodges, for one, was someone who had no problem with robbing a man blind with a hidden exchange of fixed cards and then shooting him dead when being accused of cheating.

Bat Ralston was another one not to be taken lightly. He had two fingers missing but could shoot straighter with his rifle than Ace Graeme could with a Colt.

And there was Milt Grable, a man who just wanted to settle down with his two hundred head of cattle and live life as a family man.

The odds were against him on this one.

He had six guns standing between him and his cattle. But he had no intentions of going in there with guns blazing.

He was smarter than that.

He would have to strategize and ride the rims of the prairies and skirt their camps if he hoped to stay alive.

But he decided that he would give them a fair chance before things started to get hairy.

He spurred the gelding on and it trotted off down the trail toward the herd of cattle.

He rode up behind them and the first droplets of rain started.

The skies above the plains were dark and menacing. Bat Ralston was the first to head him off before he could make it any further. Dan Hodges rode up next, followed by Ace Graeme and the rest of his outfit.

“Evenin’, Ace,” Milt said nonchalantly.

“Evenin’, Milt,” Ace replied, touching the short brim of his hat.

“Them’s my cattle your rustlin’.”

“We know that,” Dan Hodges cut in.

Ace shot him an ugly look, and Hodges sunk a little back into his saddle. Right there Milt saw that Dan Hodges didn’t like Ace Graeme one bit. And he knew that if given half the chance, Dan Hodges would put a bullet in Graeme’s back and would take over the outfit. But Milt knew Ace to be a smart man, but he wasn’t so sure that Dan Hodges knew it, too.

“I know that, Milt,” Ace went on to say casually. “But I got a brother up north, and he’s in a bad way. I gotta drive ‘bout two hundred head up thataway or he might not come down from Idaho. You’re the only one within a hundred miles who’s got the number of cattle I need to make the drive. I’ll be more’n happy to pay you for the cattle when I get back in a few months.”

“That so?” Milt said, though he wasn’t even half-considering the offer.

Ace nodded. “Uh-huh. How much you want for ‘em?”

“Six dollars a head.”

Hodges nearly came out of his saddle, “Why that’s highway robbery! You ain’t--”

And that was when Ace Graeme hit him. He drew back and brought the backside of his hand smashing across the man’s face that Hodges was nearly knocked backward off his horse. A couple of the men in the outfit snickered. Milt watched on, unblinking.

When Dan Hodges recovered, he had a look of hatred in his eyes the likes of which Milt Grable had rarely seen before. His hand fell for the butt of his gun, but Ace Graeme’s draw was slick and smooth, and his gun cleared leather as Hodges grabbed mahogany.

But Ace didn’t shoot him. He just kept his Colt trained on the square of Hodges’ chest.

Tension hung in the air, and thunder rumbled somewhere nearby.

There was silence for a moment, and finally Dan Hodges let go of the grip of his gun and let his hand hang off to the side. Ace returned his own Colt to its holster and turned back to Milt.

“You know,” Ace said, “he’s right. That’s a whole lot for a head.”

“That’s my price, Ace,” Milt said. “You either take it or hand my cattle back over.”

Ace thought for a moment, his strong jaw line locked in deep thought. Milt watched him carefully.

“Sorry, Milt,” he said finally, “but I gotta take these up north, and I ain’t got that kind of money.”

“Then I want my cattle back,” Milt said firmly.

“Now look, Milt, I don’t want no problems. I know you’re a good man and I hate that it has to be your cattle, but I’ll pay you what I got when I get back. That’s all I can do.”

After a moment, Milt nodded. He tugged at the reins and the gelding turned. He spurred the horse on and started back across the plain as the rain started to pour down harder.

Ace Graeme watched him go, then turned his horse and started back toward the herd.

Bat Ralston glanced over at Dan Hodges and shook his head when Ace was out of earshot. “If you’re gonna take care of him, Dan, you’d best be a gittin’ to it. He’s makin’ you look like a sissy.”

“Shut it, Bat,” Dan said, turning his own horse and spurring it on toward the herd.

At that moment, a rifle shot resonated off the air.

Ace wheeled his horse around in time to see one of his outfit fall from his mount, a trickle of blood dripping from a bullet hole in his forehead. He looked up and out across the plain as the others scrambled to see what had happened.

Milt Grable was silhouetted against the skyline on a distant knob.

Milt levered another round into his rifle chamber and turned his horse around.

Ace watched as he disappeared down the other side of the knob.

The tall grass began to dance with the wind as more clouds blew in from the south and the coming storm grew darker.

That night, the storm had yet to unleash its full potential.

A steady rain drizzled down from a starless sky, and Milt had holed up in a patch of trees about a mile outside where Ace’s outfit and picketed their horses for the night. It was probably a bit too close, he thought, but by morning he wanted an early start and hoped to be riding the outfit the entire way.

He’d built himself a small fire and picketed his horse to a nearby tree branch. He’d rolled himself out a blanket and climbed under it, bedded down on the soft prairie grass. His Winchester lay underneath the blanket to keep from getting wet from the morning dew, and his Colt was lying next to the blanket within his reach.

With the fire burning and a quick meal of beans he’d brought along with him, Milt drifted off to sleep.

He was a light sleeper, and sometime later he was awakened when his horse blew sharply. The gelding was a smart horse, and Milt had taught it to be so. As slowly as he could, he angled his head so that he could see the gelding through the darkness. He watched as the horse’s head came up sharply and turned to face the trees off to his right.

Milt moved his hand underneath the blanket to take hold of the Winchester. He counted silently to himself, and at the count of three, he came up out of the blankets and levered off four quick rounds into the tree line.

One man screamed and fell out of the trees, while the other managed to get off one shot before turning and fleeing. Milt shot off two more rounds after the man, but there came no reply.

He’d managed to get one of them, but the other had slipped away. He started over to where the man had fallen and he turned the man over onto his back. It was one of Ace’s outfit, but it wasn’t Ace Graeme, Dan Hodges, or Bat Ralston.

He fed fresh rounds into the Winchester and went back to his bed.

He crawled back under the blankets and went fast to sleep.

Davis rode back into camp alone.

He’d been shot through the arm, and Ace was suddenly worried. He watched as Bat Ralston helped the man out of the saddle and he chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully. He was fast running out of men thanks to Milt Grable, and Dan Hodges and Bat Ralston were plotting against him.

They thought him a man of little sense, but he knew they were planning to dry-gulch him somewhere along the trail and take the cattle for themselves. He’d known that the moment he’d hired them. But he needed good and strong men to help him drive those cattle north.

Only he hadn’t counted on Milt Grable getting in the way.

Someone had told him that Milt had taken up quiet life.

That someone was dead wrong.

Milt awoke before dawn.

He saddled up his horse and rode up to the skyline. He could see what was left of Ace’s outfit mobilizing to get the cattle moving as the sun came up over to the east.

The rain had lightened up somewhat, but the dark clouds were still visible overhead.

One of the members of the outfit rode like he was lame in one arm, and Milt decided that that man must have been the other one who had tried to put a bullet in him the night before.

Dan Hodges and Bat Ralston were still moving just fine, and Milt realized right there that Ace Graeme was a fairly smart being. He hadn’t sent Hodges or Ralston the night before. No, those two men posed a threat to him, and he kept them close so he could keep an eye on them.

Milt was lost in thought when he felt something hit him hard in the side. The rifle report came a moment later as Milt tumbled from his saddle and landed on the grass. He rolled over onto his back, his side howling in pain. He looked down at his gunbelt and saw where the bullet had struck two cartridges on his gunbelt and had meshed them together as one.

He’d evaded the bullet that time.

He’d gotten lucky.

The rifle report had sounded too much like a Spencer for Milt to be mistaken, and he knew that only Bat Ralston could’ve made a shot like that. He had lost focus for a single instant, and it had cost him. The soreness would pass, but next time, Milt knew that it could mean his life.

Rolling to his knees, he tugged the Winchester from the scabbard of his horse and stood, using his saddle for a rest. He could see the riders of the outfit looking up at his position, trying to determine if he was dead or not.

He trained the sights on the lame rider and pulled the hair trigger a moment later. The Winchester bellowed, and an instant later the rider emptied the saddle and lay sprawled on the grass. He could hear loud shouts and curses coming from the remaining three men.

He fired off another shot that plugged into the horse without a rider. The horse went down with a squeal, and he shot into the two remaining horses that were tied to Dan Hodges’ saddle.

There were only the three of them left now, and they were without their pack horses.

Milt swung into his own saddle, wincing in pain as he threw his leg over and into the stirrup. He spurred his horse down the way with intentions to circle around by noon and check on the progress of the remaining three men.

Noon came and went, and Milt was surprised at the amount of progress the three men had made on their own.

They’d left a trail of dead cowhands and horses behind them, but they were pushing forward now, more than doubling the progress they’d made the previous day. He determined that they must have been on edge. He could sense the tension and frustration between the three of them from his position almost a mile away.

He smiled to himself at the thought of the frustration and confusion he was causing.

Then he checked the rounds in his Winchester and Colt.

The rain was moving in, and the storm was growing more intense in the distance.

Milt knew that by nightfall the worse part of it would reach the grassland.

When making his final ride through around sundown, Bat Ralston rode up to Dan Hodges.

“Well?” Bat said.

“What?” Hodges spat.

“You still gonna git rid of Ace?”

“Yeah, I’m gonna.”

“What about that Milt Grable? He’s ridin’ our tails off and I ain’t about to git rid of Ace and still have him ridin’ us. He knows Ace, and he ain’t about to come down here a-shootin’ with Ace in camp.”

“I know. I’m workin’ on it. But he can still think that Ace is in camp, even if he ain’t.”

“What’re you sayin’?”

“I’m sayin’ that tonight, I’m gonna take care of Ace. And tomorrow, we’ll just go about like we always do, just without Ace.”

“But Milt’s gonna notice that Ace is gone afore too long.”

“And when he comes down here with his guns out, we’ll be ready for him.”

Ace Graeme was counting on Milt Grable to do what he knew Bat Ralston and Dan Hodges thought he wouldn’t do.

He figured that since they were getting so uptight, Hodges would move to dry-gulch him sometime soon, probably that night. Only he was hoping that Milt Grable would come into their camp that night and take them all by surprise.

Against Dan Hodges, Ace stood somewhat of a chance.

But alone against Dan Hodges and Bat Ralston, Ace Graeme knew himself to be a dead man.

That night, Milt walked the mile to where Ace’s remaining outfit had set up camp.

A horse was too much of a risk, and something that those three wouldn’t expect. Only now Milt wasn’t so sure that Ace Graeme was a foe. He’d pitted Graeme against the two men who stood a threat to him. By the way Hodges and Ralston rode the trail almost side-by-side, it was evident that they were in talks about something that they didn’t want any of the rest of the outfit to pick up on.

Hodges didn’t like Ace, and Ralston rode with Hodges.

Milt also knew that they were expecting him to keep riding them. They wouldn’t expect him at night, especially during a storm like the one brewing over the prairie as Milt slithered through the tall grass toward their camp.

He held up just outside of the camp and waited.

Thunder rumbled somewhere overhead.

The rain began to fall.

And Milt kept waiting.

Suddenly, there came several gunshots from within the camp.

Milt kept a firm grip on the Winchester and remained crouched low and unmoving in the tall grass.

He could see Dan Hodges and Bat Ralston skirting around the firelight. They were shooting into Ace Graeme’s bed. They each emptied three rounds from their guns, and the Bat Ralston walked over and jerked back the blanket. He threw the blanket aside and wheeled around to face Hodges.

“He ain’t here!” Ralston shouted over the howl of the wind and the beating of the heavy rain.

“Right here!” Milt heard Ace Graeme call from the darkness.

He watched as Ace stepped into the firelight, his Colt trained on the square of Bat Ralston’s chest. Hodges started to lift his own Colt, and that was when Milt stood up and lifted his Winchester.

“I’ve got Hodges covered, Ace!” he called.

Hodges and Ralston wheeled around, and Ace looked over at him.

Lightning flashed overhead.

“That’s it, Hodges!” Milt shouted. “Drop it!”

“I ain’t gonna!” Hodges called back.

“Then you’re a dead man!”

There came a look of sheer hatred in Dan Hodges’ eyes, and Milt Grable knew what the man was going to do the moment before he did it.

Thunder clapped loudly.

Hodges wheeled around and that was when Milt fired.

Hodges fired at the same instant, and his bullet caught Ace Graeme square in the chest. Milt’s round plugged Hodges in the leg, and the man went down to one knee.

Ralston started to fire into Ace as he fell backward, but Ace shot first. Ralston’s head snapped backward with the bullet’s impact, and he teetered on his tiptoes for a moment before tumbling over backward.

Dan Hodges turned and lifted the Colt to fire at Milt. Milt levered a round into the Winchester and fired a split second before Hodges did. His round kicked up dirt and Hodges feet, but the round from Hodges’ gun ricocheted off the frame of Milt’s Winchester, knocking the rifle from his grip.

That was twice that Milt had gotten lucky.

A third time, he would not.

Hodges cocked the hammer of his gun back and Milt drew iron. The Colt cleared the holster in a blur of motion, and he fired the same time as Hodges. The round from Hodges’ gun tugged at his shirtsleeve, but his hit home in the square of Hodges’ chest. The man went down hard, but Milt shot into him again before he could recover.

Then all was still on the grassland.

The rain came down in sheets, and Milt holstered his Colt. He picked up his Winchester and walked over to where Ace Graeme lay. There was a bullet hole in his chest, and he was bleeding badly.

“I was hopin’ you’d come,” Ace said.

“I fig’red you was,” Milt replied.

Then he watched as the life light faded from the man’s eyes, and then Ace Graeme died there on the prairie.

The rain started to slacken off a bit, but Milt was chilled to the bone.

He turned and started over to Ace’s bed. He climbed beneath into the makeshift bed and pulled the bullet-riddled blanket up over his head.

He decided that he would give the three men a proper burial in the morning, and then he would start driving his cattle back home.

And then, he slept.


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