Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The Great War was over for almost a dozen years, supposedly, and the mix of ranch hands on many spreads in Texas was composed of young men and war veterans, sometimes those veterans had fought on opposite sides in the war. Because of such history, a strong owner, or a strong trail boss, was needed to ramrod his outfit with a solid hand, trying to prevent personal emotions from getting the upper hand over the duties of the crew.
Largo Fremont, former Confederate cavalry officer, was one tough dude in his own right, and had come up the winner of a decent spread in Texas during a card game when a cheater, and the man who lost his ranch, was shot by another player. There was no dispute over Fremont winning the pot with his inside straight filled on the river card. Sitting quietly at the table, he was a bull of a man, slow to hate, quick to settle a loss or justify reprisal.
Fremont, with a newly purchased wagon loaded with freshly purchased supplies, rode out to his new place, deed in hand, with another player from the eventful game, an old comrade from his outfit. The unit had experienced much action in the war, as cavalry and sometimes as straight-out infantry when the demand was made. The two men were brothers of the action and had high respect for one another,
Fremont’s companion was also one tough dude, Francis Forrest Mayberry, but always called “Timber” by friends and close acquaintances, which usually were horsemen or cowmen or comrades. Mayberry, an outspoken man on many issues, did not like buffalo hunters for wasting good food the Indians needed by leaving piles of it to rot on the grass, mountain men because they did not know how to act in town or in front of women with class, card sharks who were as bad as bank robbers and other stick-up men, rustlers and horse thieves at any time, and the occasional Yankee bigmouth who hadn’t let go of the last musket or sword issued to him from army supplies. He was partial to fair play, women’s rights, open range, and Indian causes, the latter usually creating at least an odd and touchy atmosphere around him.
In action, he was quicker to react than Fremont. “I’m selfish,” he’d say when asked about it. “It’s me or them and I like me better and sooner.” Though they might have marched to different drummers, like a bass drum or a tambourine, they marched together.
In physical measurements, Mayberry was the ferret of the two, but a wily and wiry one never at a loss for quickness or decision, and almost half the size of his best friend. His size had paid him and his comrade with sharp dividends on a few tight occasions, a slimmer tree protecting him, a smaller barrier to catch minie balls coming like rain.
From the outset of their friendship, Fremont and Mayberry found a kinship that had never existed for them with other individuals. They could be arm in arm with comrades, give their lives for them when the time came, but only the pair of them was comfortable riding along together in open country, their conversations favoring the causes they favored, including spirited, bright, and talented women whose names were never used, old comrades who needed a lift of any kind, horse thieves who ought to be taught a lesson on the nearest limb when all details were known as facts, and stray children the war had offered up, or found on the treacherous plains where some of them were left on their own along the way west because of various behaviors or incidents with or without cause.
The one incident that truly grated both of these men, from the moment of discovery, was the theft of their regimental flag in the dead of night near the end of the war. It was obvious to Lt. Colonel Blake, the commanding officer of the regiment, that two guards had fallen asleep during the night, but he suspected that two women had drugged the guards with favors and hops or another herb inserted into the clothing the men were wearing while on duty. He gave the men menial punishment, letting loss of honor be their ultimate humiliation and the end of the war closing in on them. The women said they thought it was a trick played by another soldier, a sergeant, but one whom they could not identify within the regiment, swearing they had not seen him when all the sergeants were brought before them. The women volunteered to make a new flag, which they accomplished in one day.
Mayberry often said, “I swear it was some damned Yankee that pulled it off.”
“You got to admire him if it was,” Fremont offered. “He could have been shot if he’d been caught in a gray uniform.”
“Hell, Largo, you know how many of our boys were pushed into this war by family or their own neighbors, boys who might have always believed every man is born free, slaves, Indians, Eskimos, you put a name on them, they’re all free at birth, all coming from the one darkness into the one light.”
The two veterans, just after finishing off a cattle drive of considerable importance to the ranch and to prosperity, had taken a side trip to see another one of the 1st Arkansas Mounted Rifles, confined for good to the care of his daughter. Old wounds had set Zachary Flare on his back for the long count and he had sent word he would like to see his comrades one more time.
Mayberry, who always said out straight what was on his mind, took a steady look around them in all directions as they rode, before he said, “Largo, I’m not sure I’m ready to see old Zach on his death bed. I’d rather have seen him go down that time at Wilson Creek, the boy had a whole lot of courage in him that time.”
“And a whole lot of lead, too, Timber. Least we can do is honor his request, pay respect to his daughter, and tell her we can help with any money she owes.” Fremont continued riding straight ahead, no pause, turn or color added to statement. The wrap around his waist, containing enough money to run the ranch for another half year, would also stop most bullets en route to his gut, being bundles of currency. His saddlebag carried a goodly sum of gold. He also was aware of the horizon in all directions, and suspicious places where road men or brigands might be waiting on their next victims.
Over the rise of a small rolling mound in the Texas grass, Fremont pointed out the beginning of a small town along the Concho River, a minor collection of cabins, barns bigger than the cabins, and a scattering of horse and cattle activity.
“Zach’s daughter and her husband own one of them small places,” Fremont said. “Must be tough on them, keeping at Zach’s speed, not being able to move around like they want to or need to, at least on some days.” He patted the bundle under his shirt, and slapped one hand on the saddle bag behind his rump.
A big smile crossed Mayberry’s face as he figured what Fremont was thinking about, laying a piece of change on the daughter. He was warm, fed, had ammunition, his horse was in good shape, so there was little else he had need of at the moment. A second smile seemed to add a confirmation to the previous images that flew across his consciousness.
“I seen that coming back a few miles, Largo. All the way.”
They both laughed. Soon, they had found the right place and introduced themselves to Zach’s daughter, hanging clothes on a line strung between a tree and a pole driven into the ground. One of the pieces of hung clothes was a Confederate shirt that once sat on Corporal Zachary Flare. It was faded seriously, had been patched many times, and wore shadows of stripes a long time lost, but said Confederate to the men’s eyes.
“I knew who you were when you came over the rise. Pa said you’d come, and here you are. I have to tell you, he’s not doing so good, but keeps mumbling a few words. Once in a while I hear him say the word ‘flag’ like he’s trying to remember how to spell it.” She finished her work by hanging a light gray nightshirt. “Come in and see him. If he’s awake all the way, he’ll be sure glad to see you. Talks about you men most of the time. Has done so since he had me send that message to you. That’s a few weeks now. You’re prompt, as the teacher says. That’s good of you. We’re alone now. My husband’s been dead over two months now, shot by accident at the saloon one night when two drunks went for their guns.”
Her hazel eyes set off the ache the two men had not seen in a long time.
Mayberry, standing closest to her, patted her on the shoulder. “We’ll help all we can. Don’t worry about anything.”
Mary Flare Horgan wiped her eyes and said, “I’m sorry. It’s been a rough stretch.” She leaned into Mayberry’s hand, as if accepting its graces and intentions. “Thank you,” she said, brightened up, flattened her apron, and led them into the small cabin of three rooms. The first was a busy kitchen, a woman’s kitchen, with a door closed to one bedroom, it appeared, and a second door open to a man on a bed, his knees drawn up, the snores sounding healthier than they really were.
“Pa,” Mary Horgan said, “Mr. Fremont and Mr. Mayberry are here to see you.” She said it a second time, and then a third time.
Zach Flare mumbled, dropped his knees, snored once more, coughed, and opened his eyes. “Boys, I’m glad to see you. I been thinkin’ too hard. My head hurts. I’m glad you come. I don’t have a lot of time. Dunlop. Remember the name. Dunlop. Don’t forget it. Up-river of here, ten miles maybe. Has a place. Mary’s husband Paul said a long time ago the man has a flag on his wall. Nothin’ ever dawned on me until I heard he was in the Union army. I didn’t even know he was in the war. Never said anything much, but some time ago Paul mentioned he had a flag on his wall in his main room. Nothing dawned on me until Paul said one other fellow said it was a Confederate flag. That’s when I got to thinking, so I asked one pal to tell me what it was like, ‘cause I been layin’ here too long and thinkin’ about our flag, and how interestin’ it would be if it was ours.”
He took a deep breath and said, “It’d be real interestin’ because the fellow got a look at it and says it’s red with a diamond shape and white and blue stars on it and … “ he paused before saying, “it says ‘Arkansas’ on it, in that diamond.”
Zach Flare took a deep breath, let a smile cross his face, and let out one long sigh. He was dead in that same minute.
Fremont and Mayberry took care of all the arrangements; the burial, the sale of the cabin pending their return from a short visit up the river, and the promise to Mary Flare Horgan there was a place for her, with her own kitchen, at their ranch down along the Colorado River.
Fremont and Mayberry, after an investigation through old veteran contacts, found out that Richard Dunlop had been a Union soldier in the war, a member of a special advance unit with no proper name and no battle history, but it seemed to wear a mantle of mystery about its activities in the war. It was known as Zero Company and was suspected of any number of unrecorded incidents, most of that knowledge being rumor and guess work. It could have carried itself forward on plain old mystery.
The two veteran Mounted Rifles were first spotted by a Dunlop man as they sat their saddles on a hill looking down on the Dunlop spread, the DOZ Ranch, called ‘Sleepyhead’ by some locals, but which Mayberry thought looked to be a short approach to Dunlop of Zero Company. “I’d swear it on a stack of bibles, Largo. The man wears the whole thing on his pride. And I’ll bet that’s our flag in there.
The Dunlop man watched them check a map a few times as one of them pointed out certain landmarks in the distance. He finally approached them and asked if he could be of any assistance or if they were lost.
“Hell, son,” Fremont said, “There ain’t any place in all of Texas we could get ourselves lost.” Then, pointing out again the land they had been looking at, he said, “This is mighty pretty country, son. Who owns that place down there? Is that the Dunlop spread?” He pointed down at the ranch.
“That’s my boss’s place, The DOZ Spread., Some folks call it ‘Sleepyhead’ but he don’t he don’t let us sleep none at all, I can tell you that.”
“He ever mention selling the place, son?” Mayberry said. “Sure is pretty down there, and that grass looks awful good too.”
“C’mon, I’ll take you down to meet him and you can ask him yourself.” He put out his hand. “I’m Charlie Bakersfield. Been workin’ here ‘bout three years now.”
The three shook hands and Bakersfield led them downhill and into the Dunlop property, Oscar Dunlop standing up from his porch chair as they approached his ranch house, a good-sized building, roomy looking, in excellent shape, with shiny windows all around and flowers in porch flower boxes.
Bakersfield said, “These gents, boss, was wonderin’ if you got any ideas about selling the place. Say it’s right pretty from up there on the hill. Even had a map of the area. Names they can give you ‘cause I forgot already.” He smiled in apology, and rode off, out of the discussion.
“Come and sit, gents. Have some lemonade. It’s fine and dandy after a long ride,” Dunlop said. “Where you men from?”
Fremont was studying Dunlop. “We’re from down along the Concho River and been on a drive for a spell. It’s nice country up this way. You been here long?”
Dunlop, offering both men a tall glass of lemonade, said, “I came here after the war. Been here ever since.” He looked at them, as if checking their ages, and said, “You men in the war?”
Mayberry jumped right in. “Not our luck, as one might say. Never did get shot at except by a few rustlers once down on the Concho.”
“Well, it was a great experience for me. I was in the Union army from nearly the first day. I’m 50 now and can feel all those hard days.” He shook his head as though conveying the idea that it really was worth it in spite of the outcome.
“You must have seen a lot of action,” Fremont said. “That leave you with any souvenirs on the body? You look pretty fit for 50 and being a veteran of the war.”
“No scars on the body, if that’s what you’re asking. Never got wounded, though I was in a few scrapes. When it comes to mementos, I have a special one. Brought it all the way out here with me after the war. Finally put it up so I could see it. Took something special to get it.”
His gaze, as if into the past and all it represented, turned into a smile. He brightened with some favored memory, as he said, “Come on inside. I’ll show you, but I want to say that the place is not for sale before we go any further. I would not part with it for anything you can name or show me.”
Dunlop took off his Stetson, opened the door and ushered them into his home.
There, spread across one wall of the room, at the far end, was the diamond field with the four blue stars and the name ‘Arkansas’ bright as ever, and the white stars clustered in a blue border on the diamond of the Regimental Flag of 1st Arkansas Mounted Rifles.
Mayberry, the hottest of the two old Confederate veterans, acted first, quickly, with abruptness that shook Dunlop, as he pulled down the flag, started to fold it with his pistol in one hand, and said, “Sir, I claim what is ours, our Regimental Colors, stolen in the dark near the end of the war by a sneak thief, who, if he has any druthers on us taking back what is ours, better speak now or never say another word.”
Dunlop, mouth ajar, said nothing as Mayberry completed the proper folding of the flag, the pistol still in his hand.
Fremont had not moved, but had the vision of the flag being stolen in the night, seeing the shadowy remnant of the man standing open-mouthed in front of him flitting across a piece of that remembered darkness.
Fremont and Mayberry rode away from the DOZ spread of Oscar Dunlop, with the flag folded most properly in a saddlebag, and not a worry on their minds in the heart of Texas, except arranging the final sale of the Flare homestead and getting Mary Flare Horgan into new living quarters, down along the Concho River.