Western Short Story
Friends used to call Albert Bookler Smith Bookie, but changed it to Smitty when he was a herd rider for his father, whom they called Smitty One after a proper interval. Smitty rode with abandoned fury every time he chased a single loose cow headed for the wider open spaces, heading him off at the pass, ushering him with gusto back to a proper place in the herd, back home with mother or father, a kingpin a rookie couldn’t find in a month of Sundays unless he was pointed out to him. Herd cows, the veteran herders knew, tolerate veterans but only so far, as the saying goes, and are treated with respect regardless of the size of their horns.
Smitty had been around long enough to pick all this up and swing it into his saddle bag, just an old man with a bagful of tricks of the trade as the herd was headed northeasterly towards Chicago markets on the ever-wait, every cowpoke alert to dots of men on the territorial horizon, clustered in a scouted valley or rocky gorge, shoulders for hiding enemies of any size, the group strength on the up-and-up.
Smitty, on a forward search-and save mission, caught a group hidden in a low point, tough to see from most points, and sure pickings for veteran scouts out ahead of the herd. Usually, such groups are scattered out of their enclaves by a few shots from a distance, at least enough to spoil their surprise, push them from their hidden advantage.
This time out, there were too many of them, and the possibilities swam swiftly though his mind; what to do, what to do first, which way to carry or send the message of rustlers in wait, how to knock them into flight, any and all as soon as he could.
One shot from his rifle took the apparent leader right out of his saddle and prone on the ground, decidedly dead and out of the mix. Consternation and a leadership lack pushed the gang into sudden retaliation, one action Smitty didn’t expect as a dozen thieves reacted in a hurry, a sweep of thieving horsemen on the loose after him: he had to get the word back to the herd and trail boss, Marty Follger, swift decision maker, true herder, great gunhand with his pistols.
It was imperative. It was the first duty of his job if anything sprouted actions against the herd. That is what he read of the situation.
He jammed his spurs into his horse, raced down a narrow valley and came out on a side of the valley closest to the herd, some of the herders seeing Smitty coming on the fly, and they began yelling their warnings to the whole bunch of herders just rolling out of a quiet night’s sleep. Horses were practically saddled on the fly as they spurred into action, life on the swing for man and animal, man needing his horse next after his weapons, a quick management of arms and brigade strength, all serving to get the herd to market, often against such odds as these now mounted against them.
The organized scurry soon advanced to a valued group, near military strength, alert, willing, able to protect what they had promised at hiring. Smitty mixed well in that bunch, helping one hand fix a broken saddle.
The force of them all, now organized, mounted, armed, swung into the quick leadership of the herd boss, through such activity innumerable times in his career, and who now pointed out or yelled assignments, securing a group as first resistance bodies to battle the foe. The response being what he imagined, herders. plain cow folks, now an army unit marshalled and ready for a life and death struggle. Beside that “new general,” Smitty found himself, admiring the example the man gave to the rest of the crew as he headed off to battle, Smitty noting his own feelings on the upswing in spite of the odds quickly in place for all contestants, Smitty’s warning setting up the herd’s protection plan, men going into battle like it was life in the very balance for any one of them, foe or ally.
Marty Follger yelled to Smitty, “We got to break the first line of them we meet, bust it wide open, you and me, Smitty, and I’d not want another man with me. Off we go!”
The pair, ahead of the others, raced over the small rise in prairie grass and saw the first defensive line forming by the rustlers who had been completely surprised by the rush on their ranks. The intrepid pair, bullets flying, screams from a Holy Hell merged with gunfire, brought the pair clean through the rustlers, setting off crazy alarms of response.
Their gallant rush had worked its perilous attack: several rustlers down and out of it, a few on the fly to elsewhere, one man struggling under his dead horse and left for the hawks, eagles, coyotes, wolves, first on the scene after gunfire ceased and folks moved on. It was a major move conducted by two men of valor and quickness, and sure to be lost in the following days and only returning when the market was reached, a few downed at a peaceful saloon bar, attractions galore catching their eyes.
One of the rustlers was caught and hog-tied, and to be delivered to the first sheriff who would take accountability of his new prisoner, the way the West moved in those days, pride, passion and justice had to move with herds of cattle moving across the land, sometimes herds measuring in the thousands of animals being crowded to one spot, the market, knives in the hands of butchers, dealers arranging promised deliveries, customers getting the products of months of journeys at times, and sudden deaths on the routes to destinations.
Smitty, eventually, stood at a saloon bar, a drink sitting in front of him for the longest while as he felt his immediate past rush through him, faces sliding in and out of his memory, and a soft elbow nudge him on the hip, touch the bicep in his arm, his pistols back in place, the journey done, even as the new scent hovered in place..
He knew they’d be others, forming at that very moment somewhere behind him, where he had come from in his first drive: he remembered some pals, comrades, cowpokes, who did not finish the trip here. Some faces he saw. Some faces he couldn’t remember, but they’d all huddle somewhere sometime, telling stories about crossing the land to market, for nothing else like it was around on the whole earth for him and his pals.