Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The name stuck. It was that simple.
The slim, black-clad stranger was thereafter referred to as Snake. Not a soul in town used his real name, Thomas Pitchpen, once of Tennessee, but, for all that matter, the town of Asheville, Utah was looking for a killer, a hired gun if they could get him for free, to stand up to the sly, devious, and artful gun-hand who came to town every so often and often tore it apart with death at the end of a challenge.
Mike Hankler, the swift gun hand, usually hunkered out up in the hills in an abandoned line shack. Nobody in Asheville seemed to know what else he was up to, except he killed often and in earnest, after cajoling and teasing a man into going for his gun.
And Asheville, it was apparent, didn’t really know the hired gun they were desperately looking for was in their midst.
It was one of the regulars, at the bar of the King High Saloon, actually holding court because he could present an argument as well as a lawyer, who said it first, firmly putting that moniker on the stranger in town. “It’s just the way he handles himself, moves, walks, the way he slid out of the saddle the first time I saw him like a –“ he paused in an obvious study of decision, looking around the room, finding acceptance,– “ like a snake, unwinding from sleep in the sun or from warmth of the den, uncoiling off the saddle as if he had a prey dead in his sights or was coming on-stage like Lilly slips into the act when she’s here.” He nodded that sly grin of knowledge that everybody knew and accepted, Lilly being one of their favorite visitors to town.
When Snake came into the bar just before the evening meal was to be served in the other room, all the patrons watched his every move, making judgments on their own. Those with real observation skills saw how slim he was at the hips, narrow as a boy, as if his gun belt would fall down any second, trip him up at the ankles. Or the sure and quick way his hands moved at any act, in making his way, getting comfortable, setting his own angles of measurement of the room and those abiding there. They saw his hand, in a swift move, as if it had eyes, fetch a coin from a vest pocket smooth as a pickpocket at carnie work and set it on the bar with a near silent click, but getting the barkeep’s immediate attention.
They did not really know what they were looking at.
But the talk bubbled up again all around the saloon, as conversations regained their initial motion, and, the conversations, of course, settled back on the boisterous and deadly Mike Hankler.
“You been counting the days since he was here last?” said one old-timer, leaning back on a chair not far from Snake, to a man sitting the same table. “You think he’s due for coming in? How many days now since he challenged Southard to a duel?”
“It’s been, to my mind, exactly eight days,” his table pard said, “or nine at the most considering when you begin counting the days, at the beginning or the middle or the end. But thereabouts for Southard to get lassoed into that silly argument and get called out for calling Hankler an idiot. Should have known better, he should. He saw it before, just like the rest of us. Getting hooked on words. Getting dead in a hurry. And the sheriff only sits and looks around for faces of all witnesses and we all get locked into it.” He seemed to weigh his words as he continued; “None of us was that stupid to tell him what he really is, though we all damned well feel the same way. Blowhards all come the same way, off the same trail, like they’re the center of god’s good earth and all us others are bound to take him for what he makes of himself, not how we see him.”
The leaner at the table said, “I still don’t know what set the hook into Southard, and I swear I heard every word of it. But we’ve all heard that stuff from him before, haven’t we, that slew of garbage he uses like he was sermon-reading at infernal opposites?”
Unconsciously, as though some notion had made him direct his question to one person in the room, he looked at Snake still sipping on a jigger of best stuff, his backside slim, near weightless, as if he was indeed a boy not yet out of his childhood bed. The black pant legs of his trousers were positively boy slim, the kind of pant legs a good wind could set into motion, whip off the trail without so much as a decent hello, as if they’d have all the trouble in the world hugging a horse between them. Those slim legs led down to shiny black boots small enough so that no other man in the room could get his feet into them, and no spurs set those boots, saying it was cruel to spur a horse, goad him into needed speed.
It appeared to the table talker as if he did not know his words would be accepted by any stranger, which said so much about the boy-slim customer sipping the hard whiskey at the saloon bar. Another customer might notice, if he was asked, Snake’s pink ears on which the sombrero practically sat, as if the hat could swallow that boy-man right up under its brim.
Snake, in a silent zone, did not move a muscle except for the soft way he had of sipping late whiskey. His elbows sat on the bar top thin as new saplings, the jigger glass being measured once again the way whiskey drinking sets itself as a new task.
The leaner’s pard at the table, recalling some of Hankler’s words, said, “I think it was his turd talk about Mountain John Ringer being an odd lot right from birth, because I once heard Southard say they were related, him and Mountain John.”
“Think that was enough to set him off?”
“Blood’s thicker than water, as some preacher said once on the way out here, all the way from back east and then some.”
He never knew the history, or the measurement, that sat in his words, and did not notice the slight flinch in Snake’s whole body, the way a nerve gets set in motion, the way a tremor touches all the body parts, the way a landslide or avalanche or earthquake touches all the far-away parts of the Earth, the ground moving, the sound moving, the dust moving, the wind moving, everything that gets touched gets moved, even in small packages, small corners of a man, small edges of a canyon, small turns of a river, a mountain bouncing against tons of air, all moving. Like Snake flinching at the bar, a shadow’s flinch, a shade from the unknown.
On Snake’s other side, down along the bar, another listener became another speaker. “I think old Dooley over there is right about Southard and Mountain John and that connection. I’m glad he didn’t say anything about the Wilkenses from Tennessee, else I might have tumbled for his fun and frolic. That’s what it amounts to, you know. He likes to draw down on a man, shoot him right in the heart with one swift shot, as though he has to keep believing he has this deadly power at his beck and call.” He drew in a breath and added, “He ain’t missed once with that single shot. Not a once. Ever notice that?”
Silent nods moved in agreement all around the saloon.
Snake did not nod, his silence continuing, his hands at ease on the drink the way a youngster might contemplate a first glass of whiskey in the company of men. Such moments a person might carry forever. But in cow country they might disappear in a flashflood, a stampede, a gunfight in a main street when a well-armed man draws down on a man because of a curse, a family relationship exposed, a woman friend too long stared at; readiness meant survival, an oiled and clean weapon, a horse fed and watered, an eye on horizons and dark corners, on unexplored canyons.
The talked continued: “How many times now has he come down off that roost in the hills and come here in search of an evening’s fun? It always happens at evening if you think about it. Always at evening, like just about now.”
All the heads in the bar in a single motion turned to look at the saloon doors, sitting silent, motionless, waiting a rough hand to shove them open, touch everything and everyone in the room the way a landslide would or an earthquake or a wind up out of an edge of Mexico on the Gulf they all dreaded, the wide swath of it clearing endless trails and minor towns of their existence. Most of them had seen such winds, been touched by them.
Nothing moved for the moment. No single person moved in the room, or on the other side of the doors. The doors sat motionless, shutting out night as it came down on the town, as oil lamps began to flicker, candles flicker, sleep set its pointing fingers at the end of day.
The saloon customers, almost to a man, stared at the doorway for a full minute, waiting for the rugged shove from the other side.
The only one paying attention to the task he had come in to do was Snake, still leaning on the bar top, now fifteen or more minutes sipping on the same jigger of whiskey, not letting a soul know how much it burned his throat, or how hot his feet were in the boots or how tight the belt at his waist, or, as always since he was a boy, how itchy his fingers were to feel the pistols in his hands, the smooth arc of the pearl handles that might have been grafted to his skin. In all of it, the wait was the compensation, for afterward he’d be unsure of what he had done was the best for all concerned. Life, he was sure, had to have some dignity to it, some measurement that made man different, made men different.
Despite all his slim and non-attentive appearance, he heard every word spoken, analyzed every one of those words, felt every tremor in the room, the way a congregation might be moved, in different degrees, with different interpretations, with different results, but all affected by their place in the world. His past could be an open book if he let it be, but never in his young years had he given away much of what had brought him this far in life … fast, mean and deadly, man with a mission. If he were to wear a badge, it would be the shiniest one available, a glistening star that set a shine to that mark and made that mark shine by deeds.
From another table he could hear the quick asides and the whispers that moved away from the table in varying degrees. “Said he has no nerves at all, so says the sheriff of Buckston. Stood in the middle of the road, he did, against four of them like they wasn’t even there, or didn’t matter what they could put themselves up to. Like a greased fire they said he moved, lead flying like a dozen quails out of brush and not missing a thing, not a one, but so quick there was no time to breathe for anyone, least those falling down dead right in the middle of the town road.
“You ain’t building anything up are you? That sure paints a picture of greased lightning or kinfolk to it. I tell you I never seen a fast gun, not in all my days, and if you don’t have a mind on it, I’d as soon skip what looks to be sure fire coming this way. Think I’ll ease on out of here ‘fore it gets too thick for quick moving. I ain’t got that much interest in death and dying.” He tipped the wide brim of his Stetson, nodded at his drinking pal and slipped out the door the way a mouse disappears with the cheese. The door closed behind him, and the whole saloon to a man looked to see if Hankler was at hand, the fair trade of one body leaving and one coming in.
Only darkness entered the saloon so far this night, and silence. There was a taste on the air like somebody was more lonesome than hungry. And the night, it said, was going to be interesting. Shadows changed places. Air moved as slick as a jack rabbit in the brush. Men hummed in anticipation, almost positive that they would never be goaded by Hankler … “I’m not that stupid,” they might have said to a man.
When a western wind, a prairie wind, becomes a sneak thief or an outright brigand with guns leveled at the waist, every cow puncher knows the difference. Just about every man in the King High Saloon that night was a cow man, except for the piano player, the sheriff and the barkeep. And so it was, as evening advanced to deeper darkness and all hands at the King High Saloon waited for the dice to roll, the wind blew into town. Mike Hankler, off his hideout in the hills, craving another derring-do duel or a crushing stand-off with some unwary character that the entire west was full of, had set out to change the night.
At the edge of Asheville, riding a mean –looking red stallion, Hankler felt the wind bunch up behind him in the hills. “It always starts up there,” he said to himself, as dust flew up beside him, “like something’s been let loose of its cage. I felt it this morning. I felt it all day. I feel it now, like a push in the back, like a shove, like the old man used to kick me awake in the morning to go get his booze with the sun barely scratching us, steal it if I had to, so he could get by the day. Only way I could really sleep was to get him drunk. Hah! I was so good at that I put him in his grave earlier than he ever planned, if we had such planning left to us. Must have slept a whole year after he died, then I felt that wind, bunching up behind me just like today. Only now I don’t have to steal booze for him. I get to have my own brand of excitement. Do my own planning. Stay on this side of such planning about the end. Which sucker, I wonder, will it be tonight.”
The wind blew again, the dust flew again and the red stallion could feel the brace that accompanied him on the lonely road. Hankler’s spurs came home on his girth, a sharp inclination set him running, and the wind and the red stallion with the mean critter aboard blew into Asheville.
And so they came, the wind, the dust, the red stallion with the hard eye, and Mike Hankler right at the beginning of another ending. Hankler could feel all of it right down to his toes, a statement to be made, a security to be gained, another sleep of his own calling and at his own means, in the hills, alone, safe, with the slow ebb that came with solitude.
Life has its differences … in emotions, geography, weather, and Asheville had a share in of all of it.
Nothing was announced at the King High Saloon, but everybody knew. The chill came in the air, the silence boomed its challenge to noise, suspense draped itself on top of the room wide as a rooftop, and Mike Hankler, mean as a twister, stormed through the door. He was, for that moment, the absolute center of creation, of reality, of death, demise, and departure, all which sat in a corner waiting to be untied.
The barkeep froze first, about to pour a couple of beers. He suspended his arm in the air. Every man in the saloon flinched, felt the chill, the ordinary moment going unordinary, going odd, going to measurement of one kind or another. Like statues they sat tables or stood at the bar or leaned on the bar. No boots sounded their tread on the floor. No chairs creaked with weights shifting because of the moment. Not a card was dealt from the hands of two dealers, not a drink lifted from a table top. It was a still-life painting of immobility, passive, quiet, suspended, breathless.
Then, as the hard-eyed Hankler looked around the room, as if the stallion’s red eye had been loaned to him, Snake, also known as Thomas Pitchpen, once of Tennessee, turned slowly at the bar and stared with unhidden contempt at the new comer, the big Stetson sitting right oh his ears, the hips as narrow as boy’s even with a gun belt slung across them, looking nothing more than a boy in a man’s world.
Obvious of the situation, the one man turning slowly to look at him with a funny look on his face, Hankler roared out his own disdain, and said in an almost incredulous voice, “Who’s the little guy with the big hat that looks like it’s going to fall down round his ears and swallow him up? What’s your name, sonny boy? You the new dancer we get to see? You a real dancer, sonny boy? Can you do something fancy for us?”
And Hankler, aware of a difference, a diminutive difference, drew his gun and waved it at the other person looking straight at him. “I ought to see if you can do a few steps for us.”
The little man in the big hat said, in a voice barely heard in the far corners of the saloon, “Is that how you do it, draw down on men when they least expect it? Catch them with their under draws around their knees? That the way you do it, draw on a man who doesn’t have a gun in his hand?” He had not moved his hands, both hanging at his slim sides like young vines on a hanging plant, thin, weak-looking.
The barkeep immediately knew something was different, that the taunts had started from the other direction and were now coming at Hankler. He lowered his arm and poured the beer from the raised pitcher.
Clearly, though, Hankler’s irritation was showing in his face. At first his hand twitched and then replaced the gun its holster with a slow and deliberate move, his eyes never leaving those of the slim man who had called him down.
“You’re really something, sonny boy, talking like you’re a peaceable man in an odd situation. What’s your name, sonny boy, does that really suit you? I asked it once and I’m not asking again.” His jaw stuck out the way semaphore flags send signals.
“I am the Peacemaker,” Thomas Pitchpen said, the voice thin, squeaky, youthful, “but folks hereabouts have been calling me Snake since I came into this stinky little town that gets run down anytime one man feels like it.” There was nothing harsh in his voice, though the words carried full intent that everyone in the saloon, including Hankler, understood.
The barkeep said, later on, that he noticed, right then, that Hankler had avoided Snake’s statement when Hankler said, “Those are not Peacemakers you’re wearing, sonny boy, those are Schofields. You don’t know much about guns, do you? And you still didn’t tell me your real name. You’re not the Peacemaker, not carrying Schofields you’re not. What’s your name, sonny boy? “
Thomas Pitchpen, Snake to everybody else in the saloon, said, “Indeed, I am the Peacemaker. That’s what you can call me, The Peacemaker, if you will. I have come to bring eternal peace unto you.” His voice was so soft, so peaceful, he could have been wearing a minister’s suit, the collar on his neck, the good book in his hand. “Now that your gun is back in its holster, and my guns are where they’ve been since you bounced in here out of the darkness, I will tell you not just what my name is, but how we are connected.”
There was no animosity in his voice, no challenge or dare that Hankler often used to rile people, but a voice so soft that some in the room could almost detect the snake in it, the slither, the slyness, the coiling, the readiness for striking.
Hankler, completely unmindful of the situation and how it began to stack up, jumped in with his quick answer. “I don’t know you from any trail hand out on the plains, and I sure wouldn’t expect a runt like you to be chasing cows around the country. Why, that big hat of yours would get blown clear across the prairie and you’d get sunburned to death or blown off like loco weed on the loose.” He laughed and looked around the room for agreement. None came, and that nothing was also measurable.
The little man, or boy-looking man, still had not moved, his big hat still at rest atop his ears. He had stood his ground longer than any man in Hankler’s experience. It was unnerving to every person in the saloon, and the barkeep had again passed into stiffness.
For the first time that evening all the patrons noticed that Hankler had become deadly serious in his stance, his hands at rest but poised at instant action. His body seemed to be priming itself for quick movement. They had seen and heard it all before, but now the big man seemed to be on the wrong end of the challenge with the little man still standing at the bar.
Snake, Thomas Pitchman, the little boy-man spoke softly and surely again, and put the proper spin on all that he had said so far. “Mountain John Ringer is my grandfather, Bill Southard is my half brother, and I am their eternal redeemer.”
The chill came on the air and the King High Saloon went completely still, the way it is when bodies hold their breaths, when muscles bulge with immobile energy, when nerves threaten boundless release.
The barkeep, at full alert, looked down to see how far he was from his shotgun under the bar top. It was a few feet away and he found himself unable to move, though he realized how unfair it would be to see Hankler catch this boy in his aim. But something else moved in him, another alert that told him there was more going on in that room than he realized, and he said later, in retelling of the incident, that he had caught on the air a sudden message that he dare not misunderstand.
He was holding court at the bar a few nights later, when everybody had come back to the King High Saloon, and a good 30 or 40 other riders had come in for news of the event now making the rounds of all the ranches and the line shacks in the hills. Curiosity craved satisfaction, even after the fact.
“The kid, this Snake as we called him, stood like a rock. Nothing moved. Hankler, the loudmouth of all loudmouths, was full up with him, you could tell. I think every damned man in the room knew something was happening and none of us dared to believe what we were seeing or hearing. It was eerie, I tell you, like he definitely was the Eternal Peacemaker, this little shaver of a man.”
He had poured a beer for himself as his court continued, and many folks noticed the relaxation. Some of them realized it was part of his presence behind the bar. All barkeeps had some piece of stage-presence, and he was no exception.
“Snake stood there, him slim as a beanpole, him with the big hat, and not moving a muscle. Not even flinching. And Hankler, getting red in the face, in front of what was his biggest crowd ever, just plain reached the last stand it seems. The little guy’s just staring at him, and suddenly in his eyes is the dare, the dare that Hankler used to rile and taunt people to get the result he wanted.”
The barkeep took a long swig of his beer, wiped his chin with his sleeve, smiled at the crowd, and carried on. “The two of them stood beside the bar, just them, and nobody behind either one, the way clear in case of stray or missed shots. And Hankler’s face is getting redder and redder, and his muscles beginning to tighten up and it was like we heard him say that in a couple of more seconds he’d be so tight he’d not be able to draw a weapon.”
The barkeep snapped his fingers. “Just like that, Hankler drew his weapon, and was raising it to shoot to kill like he’d done so many times before and the gun goes off in Snake’s hand, like it had been there since Creation itself, made for the moment. Nobody saw him move. I think they all must have been looking at Hankler. But Snake truly was The Peacemaker and he turned and walked out of here with his twin Schofields back in their holsters and nobody’s seen him since.”
He nodded, finished his beer and added, “We might have seen a ghost, or an agent of the Redeemer. I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure.”
Outside the King High Saloon the wind coming in off the prairie had a final say. But it said nothing different than it ever said. But cowpunchers always listen to the wind.