Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
A few folks on the one wide street of Victory Falls, Colorado saw the rider coming into town, the sun at his back not allowing some of them to see him clearly, nothing but a blur to a few others, and to others a lone man lost on his own horse. Grover Parsons at his blacksmith shop, looking sideways at the rider, figured he had pegged him right away when he said to nobody, “Another saddle bum or else someone that needs fixing in his life,” then said to nobody else, “He’s here to pay amends, to raise a bit of hell, or get killed by the sheriff. Maybe to pass on like another day’s about to get over.”
Parsons stuck the horseshoe he was working on back into the fire, smelled again the high-density aromas of the job that had caressed him since he was a boy arriving in the settlement more than 20 years ago, and pumped the bellows vigorously. The blacksmith didn’t like aromas from red roses or prairie flowers, or any of the sweet stuff that the ladies of the settlement favored. But he dearly loved gun oil’s odor, the smells of burnt gunpowder, empty shell cases, old camp fires, charcoal simmering its power right there at his hands. These were the dregs of ignitions that came with burned out mines, wind-fed fires that ran rampant over dry forests and ghost towns, explosions of one sort or another - energy on the loose. The graceful but powerful animals he worked on he also loved, knowing how superb horse muscles could haul man, carriage or wagon for miles upon miles. It made him treat them with great respect. He liked the hard stuff of life that spoke of labor and sweat and a rugged day’s work.
He did not right away see any of that in the listless rider coming into town. Parsons nodded at the rider as he passed by. The rider said, “Morning, Blacksmith, it smells like work’s in the air.” He waved his hand and moved into town.
Parsons sent an acknowledging glance and wave at the rider and went back to his daily devotions, contentment in place, the mighty hammer an extension of his arm. Just before he forgot about the strange rider new to Victory Falls, even though he had hailed him at his tasks, Parsons figured the man had spent the night sleeping out on the trail. So many strangers he had seen come and go … chased out or carried out to boot hill, or in the middle of the night executing a solemn and complete disappearance, a badge or a judge looking for them, a fast gun, a cuckolded husband.
Parsons, every day since he had been here for those 20 years, was at the shop an old man who hired him had given to him on a piece of paper nobody could contest. That was only a week before the old man died; 20 years a blacksmith and loving it, his arms bulging with muscle, the skin wearing all its years near the fire, the course and residue of energy. He was a man who saw everything that happened near him, and held much of it within. He’d often been heard to say, “When the dew is done, the petal blows away.” All of Victory Falls thought he was saying, “When the due is done, the petal blows away.” He let it be; it made no difference.
During the morning of the stranger’s arrival, Parsons had fixed two wheel rims, shoed half a dozen horses, fashioned a piece of iron for a freighter’s wagon, and eventually felt the noon sun directly on his back. Thirst and hunger spoke to him and he finished off another shoeing, tied the horse to the side rail, and headed for his noon stop at The Hard Candy Saloon and Sidebar Restaurant, lunch and a daily drink waiting on him. He always ate slowly, kept his eyes and ears open.
The morning’s strange rider was standing at the Sidebar eating a plate of steak and beans, a beer at his elbow.
Parsons, with an open manner, his gaze constantly flashing back and forth across the saloon and the restaurant end, measured the new man’s manners, his leisurely way of eating that said nobody was looking for him or chasing him. He saw how the man’s pistols sat comfortable in their holsters, the shine on the back of his pants from saddle’s caress, the wear on the back of his boots as if he had stood planted in the ground with a rope in his hands holding onto some critter bound to get loose.
The blacksmith interpreted those readings as evidence of work, and agreed the man was not as he had first judged him, not a saddle tramp.
The bartender said to the stranger, “You’re new in Victory Falls, I’d say. I never saw you before. You looking for work? For someone? Just passing through on the way to anywhere? I know them all in the area.” He poured another beer and said, “What’s your handle? I’m Ben Easy, and they say I talk too much, but at the middle of a hectic and busy day at this bar, it gets lonely in here.” He offered his hand across the bar.
“I’m Jayce Hadley,” the stranger said. His voice was steady, controlled, the words pronounced clearly. “My story has a long rub to it. It gets personal, but I’ve been on the trail for a long time. How long you been in Victory Falls, Ben?” He sipped his beer, looked straight at the barkeep, and didn’t seem to mind being questioned or to ask his own questions in turn.
From where Parsons sat alone at a table eating his lunch, he could see the new man in the mirror that ran about 10 feet long behind the bar, the next frame being a nude woman in the ultimate pose. He heard the name Hadley and now had at least a name to use. He saw the good looking and rugged face on Hadley, the way out-riding leaves it on a man, or long hours in a steady travel with the sun chiseling the features to a coppered weathered hue. His hair was dark except for the lighter tufts hanging about his ears, but his eyebrows were as blond as the sun could make them. Parsons attributed that difference to the hat he wore, a Stetson with a peculiar band on it, a decorated band, but one that had been hand-drawn. Parsons thought he detected night stars in the faded work of the band, night stars in a night sky and it really piqued his interest. He had not seen a hat band like this one on any cowboy; not ever.
For a short moment Parsons thought of a distant image, one locked away too deep to recover. Without getting a grip on it, he had to let it stay in its shroud. The rugged, wide-spread hand scratched the back of his head. No hat sat on his head and the full head of hair was into its trail of white now crawling at his ears. The faded band of Hadley’s hat seemed to fade some more even as Hadley sat still at the bar, his face in the mirror, the hat with the faded band tipped back on his head.
Ben Easy kept up his chatter over the bar, his face marked by his comfortable feeling with Hadley, almost saying so to Parsons, his most regular customer, with a simple nod of his head and a shrug of his shoulders.
“The MBM spread,” Easy said, “about 7-8 miles south of here, is looking for punchers if you’ve a mind. Has a good foreman, a pretty good crew. They’ve been through a few hard times and have stuck it out. Like loyalty counts most from its cow men. Boss is Merle Legget and you can tell him Easy sent you.”
He nodded at Parsons and Parsons nodded back, which Hadley saw in the mirror. It made him smile; he felt he was on the inside in Victory Falls.
It was Hadley who set off the next conversation. “I’m not looking for work,” he said, “at least not right now. I left home a long time ago looking for someone.” As if part of his statement, as if putting importance into his words, his hand touched at the edge of his shirt pocket, like a miniature salute or a part of testimony from the witness stand.
Ben Easy spoke right up, carrying his own immediate impression. “You don’t look like you’re hunting a man you want to kill, so I guess it’s not about revenge. You lose something, someone?”
Hadley answered, “That’s a good idea you’ve got, Ben. Are things that clear in your head? I wish they were in mine. I’ve been into hundreds of towns and never got close to the man I’m looking for. I don’t know how long he’s been gone, what he looks like, where he headed when he left. I’ve just been looking for him for my whole life almost. I’ll probably never find him, but somehow, somewhere, he might know I’ve been looking.”
Ben Easy was impressed. “You have to light some place and get some work, don’t you? Once in a while anyway? You have to work, get some money, spend some time, move on? That’s almost like being a saddle bum, but you got reason on your side, not excuses like a lot of them have that come in here, never knowing where they’ll light next.”
Parsons, his meal finished, took the last sip of his beer, stood up to leave, changed his mind and approached the pair at the bar. “I couldn’t help hearing what you gents were saying,” he said, “and I’ll admit that when I saw you this morning, the first thing I said was here’s another saddle bum. I kind of changed while I was sitting here, sort of measuring you and guessing what you did coming here. I want to apologize for that. I had changed my mind somewhat before I heard your story. I wish you the best of luck.”
He put his hand out to Hadley and said, “Best of luck, keep moving.”
They shook hands. Ben Easy smiled at Parsons as he left, and said to Hadley, “The blacksmith’s been here twice as long as me. He’s a real dependable and likable gent. He really meant good luck when he said it.”
Easy went off to serve a few more customers, looked back at Hadley once in a while, and finally came back. “You want another?” He held up an empty glass.
“Might as well,” Hadley said, “I’ll hang around here a few days. The reception’s been nice. Warmer than some places I’ve been in, some saloons.”
“Who’s this gent you’re looking for?” Easy said, putting down a full glass.
Hadley touched the edge of is pocket again, and Easy saw the move for the second time. He was comfortable enough to ask, “You have something in your pocket that’s part of the rub on your story? I think that’s what you said, a story with a rub on it.” He guessed when he said, “Is it a picture of the gent?”
“No,” Hadley said, “not as clear as that. It’s a picture of my mother. That’s all I got.”
From his pocket, as though retracting a bit of treasure, he withdrew a small gold locket. The cover came open easily in Hadley’s hand, saying it was for the thousandth time.
The picture was of a beautiful woman, dark hair, wide eyes, and high cheekbones. She was wearing a white dress.
Ben Easy was impressed. “She’s a real beauty, Jayce.” He nodded his agreement several times and said again, “She’s a real beauty.”
Hadley said, “She’s been gone a long time. Her husband was run off by Indians when he thought she was dead, but she didn’t die until after she had me. Don’t know where he went. I could have done a hundred things with my life, but why not look for my father.”
It was not a question.
Ben Easy studied the picture further, his eye drawn to something in the picture. “Say,” he said, “looks like she’s wearing this same locket in her picture. Is it the same one?” His interest was legitimate.
Hadley smiled his answer. “You sure are keen on things for a barkeep, Ben. You always like that?”
“No, else I’d be doing something else. Your story just draws me in. That’s plain and simple. I wonder how I’d be on your end of it?” He laughed his own answer. Then he said, “What’s that thing on her arm?”
The not-so drifter, not-so saddle bum, not-so saddle-tramp, said, as though all enlightenment was in his words, “A thing from her own past. I don’t really know what it is.” He was as honest as a man can be when he’s mystified; no other look makes that command on a listener, a reader.
The pathos drew heavily on Ben Easy, comfortable bartender, good listener.
At noon the next day, Parsons walked in from his hard-labored morning and the harsh, hot sun, as though the heavy heat followed him into The Hard Candy Saloon by holding onto the back of his belt, came with him.
Ben Easy smiled, poured a beer, signaled to the cook in the far corner who nodded back and fixed the regular Thursday plate for regular Grover Parsons, blacksmith of Victory Falls.
Parsons sat at his regular table, and Ben Easy brought him his beer and went to pick up the Thursday special. It was the same as Monday’s and Friday’s, a thick steak, a spread of beans, a chopped potato, but the biscuits were different, all three of them. They were for the blacksmith’s plate clean-up.
Parsons hailed Ben Easy as
he set the plate down and asked, “What happened to that Hadley kid,
Ben? He move on? Seems like a journey that’ll never get to the
other shore. Something awful sad about that boy.” He sipped at his
beer, raised the glass in salute, looked at the cook in the corner
and offered the same gesture. It came back to him from both
Ben Easy, always ready to talk, his mouth forever anxious, said. “Something about that boy grabs me like a heifer needing help, Grover. He’s been carrying a picture of his mother in a locket in his shirt pocket. Never lost it in all his travels, in all the towns he’s been in.”
Parsons smiled his years of knowledge, said, “Mothers’ pictures can do that to anybody, Ben, anybody at all.”
“Well.” Easy said, taking a swig of his own beer as he brought the meal to Parsons’ table, “his mother was real beautiful. Been gone a long time. She’s wearing the same kind of locket the kid’s been carrying, like it’s the same one. Wore it on a thin chain on her neck, her in a nice white gown. Everything looks so beautiful for her, but Hell,” he blurted out, “she’s dead and gone now. Kid says she lived through a kind of Hell before he was born. Hid in a hole in the ground and took her more than half a day to dig her way out after the place was raided by a bunch of wild renegades.”
Parsons thought for a while, and said, “Well, Ben, we all go sometime, the beautiful and the ugly, the wise and the stupid, the good and the bad. It keeps coming around. You know that.” He sipped his beer as Easy did the same.
Then Easy said, “In the picture in the locket his mother has some kind of cloth hanging on her arm, kind of faded like, perhaps a faded blue or black.” He shook his head lightly, quizzically, and carried on; “I swear it reminds me of the band on the kid’s hat.”
It all came apart for the blacksmith then, every last bit of it. The loss, the beautiful wife expecting her child, the renegade party setting fire to the small cabin while he was checking his traps, his inability to find any remains, his flight to the high country assured that his wife and child had died, his return at night to find nothing, the cabin in ashes that still smoldered.
He had set his mind further west, and so he went.