Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Shy, still-slim, handsome as a new coin, Davie Gantrill, just turned 16 by a week but trail-wise all the way, heard the warning while he was trying on a pair of pants behind a curtain in Slade’s General Store in the Texas town of Torn Creek. He pictured one of Clint Caswell’s crowd shooting his mouth off the way they usually did, bullies punching out demands at will, the bunch of them squeezing the town almost to its knees in little more than a year. He also pictured old man Slade taking himself across the store so as not to be in hearing range of what was being said. It was, Gantrill decided, a move to protect himself and his family. “Nothing heard, nothing to admit,” he summed up silently, as he noted the pants fitting him the way he liked. Tricia Reagan, he brought back in his mind, like a signal had been flashed, he’d caught looking at him recently with a funny look in her eyes, yet staying pretty as a prairie flower in June.
The bully continued. “Caswell wants that new guy off the K- Bar-G spread, the Gantrill kid,” the faceless man said. ‘Says he’s nothing but a snot-nosed kid who’s quick on the draw, but sure is gonna get quicker. Says he can see it in his eyes and his hands that he’s gonna get there sooner than most, so he wants to cut him down. Says it ought to be soon afore the kid catches up to him.”
The listener must have nodded his head, up and down, or sideways, and Gantrill had no way of knowing his reaction even when he heard the other man say, “They say there’s always a faster gun around the turn in the trail or coming into the saloon at dusk, way things happen out here. But how’s he gonna do it? Gotta be careful so no one knows he’s really crowdin’ him into a fight. There are “some” guts, I figure, layin’ around the town just waitin’ to get woke up, so we gotta keep awake while he’s plannin’ it.”
“Oh, I know the boss who’s got more moves than a cornered peccary, or the fox himself. That boy don’t know what’s comin’ at him, safe to say, lest he got spies all around. Might be he’s just thinkin’ of the girls like we all did back then, and will plain miss the first move the boss makes. I wouldn’t have any of that facin’ me.” He must have measured something. “”Member the way he took down Stockridge cause he was just shootin’ off his mouth. Man, I never saw anythin’ so damned quick in my whole life. I won’t cross him here to Sunday and back.”
They purchased ten cents worth of hard candy and left the store. Gantrill, still behind the curtain, pictured old man Slade sliding back across the store to his place behind the counter. When he slipped through the curtain, the two Caswell men were gone and Slade was leaning sleepily against the counter. Only when his coin hit the counter did Slade open his eyes.
“They fit okay, son?”
“They’ll do,” Gantrill said, “for the purpose.” He felt funny saying it to an older man who probably knew everything in the world there was to know about girls. He hoped it wouldn’t take him that long to know about Tricia Reagan, whose eyes were the kindest blue he had ever seen. And she had a way of smiling that almost talked to him. A flutter ran through his body. It had happened before, where flutters ran into hours, ran into whole nights.
Not ten steps along the raised walk of the general store, he spotted Tricia Reagan at the far end, as if she had plain stood there in front of the whole town just waiting on him. Redness crawled on his neck as she smiled directly at him. Then she turned and walked toward the edge of town. Her moves were like a breath of air on prairie grass. All the way to her horse, hitched near the livery, she walked, messages in her wake.
She rode slowly out of town, toward her father’s ranch, never looking back. He wondered why she had come into town in the first place, for she carried no purchases, no saddle bag, and no evidence of spending a single penny in Torn Creek.
Back at a fenced area of the K-Bar-G, foreman Ed Lunden said, “Kid, I heard some things in town that might interest you. Looks like someone’s looking at you as a feared enemy. I don’t know where that’s coming from, but you got to keep your eyes open from here on out. I suspicion that greasy Caswell is behind it. You hear anything coming down? Someone going to lean on you?”
“Nah, that stuff don’t bother me none, Boss” and he quick-drew his pistol and put two rounds in a fence post, hitting the post bare inches apart.
He smiled at his boss and said, in a very straightforward manner, as if saying “That’s the correct address, sir,” to a matter-of-fact question as to where someone lived, “’Them that comes for something gits what they come for,’ as an old mountain man once told me.”
Lunden shook at the speed of the maneuver, the hummingbird touch to it, and the near childish confidence of the kid wrangler, finally saying, “If it’s face up, kid, they got a surprise coming.” He nodded his approval, and then said, “But if it’s from off the side, hidden, from a place you don’t expect, from a snuck-open window or from behind a narrow window opening, it might prove troublesome.”
“I got three eyes, Boss, and the third one’s for crooks, cheats, card sharks and bushwhackers. I‘ve been gifted that way.” His voice was as cold as Lunden had ever heard a cowpoke speak of an opponent, no matter the level of threat, and no matter the age of the kid making the statement.
“Beware the gifted, is that it?”
“You got it, Boss.”
On Sunday the seemingly fearless young cowpoke entered church at the last minute and knew Tricia Reagan was there on the instant. The nerves in the back of his neck almost jingled out loud, and he lapsed into a state of contentment and pure pleasure, hardly hearing what was being said from the pulpit.
After church was over she eyed him to a place away from the crowd.
“I have something important to tell you, Davie. Now you hear me out, all the way.” Her hand was like a stick of dynamite on his chest, the way it might go off. “One of my father’s wranglers heard a Caswell man shooting his mouth off. Seems Caswell wants to get you into a duel at sunset, with him at the open end of the street and the sun behind him, and in your eyes. That tells me he’s really afraid of you and is trying to get things in his favor right from the git-go. Does that scare you?”
“Naw, Tricia, that don’t bother me. I’m quicker than him any day of the week, including today if he chooses.” He was thinking that Caswell never realized he had a private newspaper-in-the-raw that headlined and aired out his whole operation. If he knew half of what was said around town, he’d most likely put some of the big mouths out of commission. Good luck to big mouths, he said to himself, a half smile growing on his face.
“It’s Sunday, Davie. Don’t do it on Sunday. Even so, the Good Lord won’t take that man upstairs in any hurry, I’m sure of that. He’s a real bully, a cheat, a killer. I am very afraid for you.”
Her words sank right down to his boot tops. “Those are the nicest words I ever heard, Tricia. They make me sing inside, but don’t tell anybody that.”
“Oh, Davie,” she said, with her hand again on his chest, “I’d never tell anybody anything about you, not anything at all,” and her eyes came bluer and truer than ever. The tremors came again to him, as joyful as ever.
“I’ll take care of it special, Tricia, and I promise it won’t be on Sunday. It won’t be today, but I’ve got some settling to do. Caswell was behind my grandfather’s fall off the cliff up there.” He nodded toward the nearest mountain sitting like a diamond in the tall air. “The old gent and his mule could do the great canyon if they wanted, and without a fall.”
They parted and young Gantrill, still caught up in a bit of awe from different directions, different angles and approaches, headed back to the ranch. On the way a few details came into his mind, a plan made its way into his consciousness, and a series of images came his way. Without his bringing it about, one of them was Tricia Reagan sitting her horse out there among the wild flowers, the silver moon, and the breath of a warm breeze coming across the river from the mountains. It was perfection amongst the common edges of life.
Mid-week, branding done in preparation for a drive to the railhead, Gantrill headed into town. Ed Lunden had gone on ahead, secretly bringing a few of his trusted hands that Gantrill did not know about. He’d not let the kid down if he could help it.
One of the riders sidled up to him and said, “What’s the kid up to, Ed? You got any idea? What do we have to do to help? We’re all ready, as you ought to know.” He checked the two side arms riding on his hips and the rifle tucked into the saddle. “Full load and full bore, Ed.”
“The kid is slick, I’ll tell you. Thinks of things I’d never think of, and I’m the boss. Just keep your eyes open, don’t let any outsiders, meaning anyone besides Caswell, be a hand in the situation. That’s all I ask.”
“Done,” the rider said, dropping off to join the others.
Lunden figured he had been the spokesman for the other riders with him. He’d go to hell with them, he admitted to himself.
It was a clear bright Wednesday of the week as Gantrill headed toward town. Prairie winds were almost silent, and whole realms of flowers tossed huge spreads and clutches of color along the trail, the way a child might play with paint, or a master of the art. The sky, clear of clouds all the way to the mountains, soared blue and crystal, and with a promise of a resplendent sunset in the evening. Beneath him the horse’s hoofs beat a music he found rhythmic and hypnotizing at the same time. The rhythm brought Tricia to his mind every so often, and other images galloped along beside her. Slade, in the general store, was in the mix, as was the sheriff, harmless as he had been for a year in the face of Caswell’s reign of insidious actions of gain.
In all the mix in his mind, it kept coming clear to Gantrill that even though he was still the youngest player in the drama, he was not the weakest. He had a brain, he had quickness, and he had a dream. All the others would have to react to him and his plans for the evening coming up.
Out beyond town, as he crossed onto the main road through Torn Creek, the sun began its final move of the day, but as slow as a newborn calf at rising. The first stop he made was to visit Slade at the store. After a bit of discussion, he made his purchase and took it outside and set it against the store with a “sold” sign stuck on the visible back side.
Then he headed for the Torn Creek Saloon, but entered the saloon through a side door. He was standing behind Caswell before the man knew he was there. One of his men almost dropped his beer when he looked up, and Caswell spun about on his heel.
“Evening, Caswell,” Gantrill said through the smile on his youthful face. He looked more like a boy than he had in a year or two, with his blond hair falling out on his forehead under the Stetson, his eyes like a child’s eyes at Christmas time, his cheeks as clean as spring blossoms.
Some people in the room, ready to move out of the way if something promised to happen, nervous and skittish as thirsty cattle, their feet already making noise on the gritty floor, thought Gantrill looked like a new colt just standing for the first time, and proud of the achievement. To a man they knew it was the old arguments taking place right in front of them … good against evil, young against old, innocence against experience. The two elements stood face to face in the saloon, not three feet apart, both smiling, both confident.
Gantrill, with exuberance, spoke first. “I understand from some of your men that you think you can beat me in a duel, that all you need is your favorite spot at the open, west end of town. Seems pretty easy to arrange, as far as I’m concerned. I’m going to have my first beer of the day right now, and then you can go out there and take your favorite spot and see if you can beat a 16 year old kid at your game with his speed. I doubt like hell that you got that much speed in you. Course, if you want to forget the whole thing, and let the kid off the hook, you can say so right now, and let yourself off the hook at the same time. Big man getting away with it again. Fine by me. I have other plans for the day if you’re curious.”
Blustered, red-faced, Caswell said, “Finish your last beer, Kid.” He looked at the clock up over the bar, nodded at Gantrill, and finished off his dare by adding, “I’ll see you out there in ten minutes, Kid. And it might be better of you cancel your plans.” He went back to his spot at the bar, smiling at a few henchmen.
Ten minutes later, when Caswell walked out of the Torn Creek Saloon, the sun about blood red as it can get, the whole west end of the valley like it was on fire, young Gantrill walked out of Slade’s general store with a large, flat piece of wood in his hands. It was about four foot wide and six foot high. It had a leg on the back upon which it could lean at a set angle. He set it up, put his back to it, and turned to face Caswell standing in the fiery sunset.
“Anytime you’re ready, Caswell,” he said.
“You hiding a rifle behind that thing? In the hands of one of your boys?”
“No rifle behind it,” Gantrill replied, “and nobody else.” He let the words flow out on the air through all of Torn Creek. “Are you going to keep talking or are you going to back up your big mouth that says you can beat a kid shooter? I think you’re going to lose at your own game. I think you’re going to be second on the draw with a squirt of a kid like me.”
“Like hell,” said Caswell, as he set himself. At the same moment young Gantrill stepped aside and the whole town saw the sun flare back at Caswell from the dressing mirror that Gantrill had purchased from Slade’s General Store, the sun now on a two-way street cutting Torn Creek right up the middle.
The duel was over in two shots, as Caswell shattered the mirror with his shot and Gantrill’s single shot caught the bully Caswell where it was fatally received.
Tricia Reagan, watching from a corner of the livery stable with her younger sister, made plans for the rest of her life.