Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
There was no wind. The fierce storm that raged for several hours overnight left a path of destruction and devastation in its wake. Large branches, ripped from the trees by the sheer strength of the gusts, lay across the trail that wound through the hills west of the normally arid Texas desert. Shreds of juniper bushes were scattered in all directions. Previously dry riverbeds now showed swift, flowing water as the hills drained.
Bright sunlight prevailed where thick, black clouds had dominated during the morning. No bird flew across the empty sky, and no animal showed itself. After the violence, peace and tranquility descended on the ravaged landscape, but not for long.
A lone rider astride a great, chestnut stallion picked his way through the debris at a slow pace. His rugged features, lined with age, were brown from being out in the open for so many years. Hooded, bloodshot eyes above baggy cheeks were partially hidden by the shade from his Stetson’s brim and his white, shaggy eyebrows.
The nose, flattened from the three or four times it had been broken in countless brawls, added character to the otherwise harsh features. Down turned lips over a firm jaw completed the picture.
Dressed in faded jeans and an old cavalry shirt, the bow-backed figure slumped in the worn saddle. A badly tarnished star was pinned to his left breast. He looked like a man who had seen too many years pass by. Only the low slung, colt 45 on his hip looked clean and well cared for though its walnut handles were smooth from a lot of handling.
Horse and rider were passing through a narrow arroyo, when pain suddenly struck him. His head seemed to explode, and he slid off his horse in a daze. A split second later a rifle shot sounded from on top of a ridge.
Thundering echoes followed, but he couldn’t tell if they were from the shot or the inside of his head. A minute later the tattoo of two horses galloping away from the scene in a rapidly fading beat reached his ears. Blood poured from a crease at the back of his skull as ranger Tex McShane lying on the ground, managed to slip his foot out of the stirrup.
As his head gradually cleared, he got up slowly, shook his head to clear the cobwebs, and then extracted a bottle of whiskey from a saddlebag. He pulled the cork and tilted the bottle and swallowed a large measure of the strong liquor.
“Works every time,” he told himself as he removed his bandanna from around his neck and tied it around his head. Finished with this primitive treatment, he swallowed another large mouthful of liquor and uttered, “Aaarrgh!” He stuck the bottle back in the saddlebag.
He replaced the Stetson that had fallen off when he was hit, remounted Phoebe and rode up the side of the ridge to snoop around.
Phoebe was as male as any stallion could be, but the shortsighted rancher who had sold McShane the animal had named it Phoebe. The darned animal would not respond to any other type of summons. McShane suffered many an indignity when he spoke to the horse in front of people. One of these days he’d shoot the beast, but Phoebe was too valuable right now.
Reaching the area where the shot had been fired, he looked around noting footprints in the muddy ground showing two horses had grazed for quite a spell. There were two sets of boot prints that led up to the top of the ridge and back again.
On top of the ridge he saw several cigar butts on the ground, one still smoldering. The glint from a spent cartridge case caught his eye. Tex picked it up and observed it was a common size of rifle ammunition. He slipped the cartridge into his pocket and paused for a moment as his head had started to pound when he had bent over.
“Somebody don’t like me very much,” he muttered, “I guess I made too many enemies.” Tex had served in the Texas Rangers for years and had never been bested in a shoot-out.
Mounting Phoebe, who snorted in disgust as McShane’s whiskey laden breath caught his sensitive nostrils, the ranger continued on his journey home to Hector.
The town of Hector had grown smaller since the railroad was pushed through a neighboring community. Once known as a watering hole for countless herds of longhorns, things had deteriorated when the cattle were packed into rail cars. There was no need for cattle herds to stop by now, and the once thriving township was more like a ghost town. Still, it was where Tex had been born and lived in his early years.
McShane had led a solitary existence in his occupation of lawman; a lone wolf for more years than he cared to remember; in fact he dismissed all thoughts about his age. As he rode he recalled the bullet wounds he had suffered over his career. He may have missed a couple, but ten minutes later McShane uttered aloud, “Eighteen.”
Phoebe’s ears flapped. McShane was not known as a talkative individual, and the horse was surprised. McShane continued with his thoughts. He remembered his one and only love, Linda, who had lived in Hector. Years seemed to have passed since that brief romance. “There I go again. This age business worries me. I ain’t thet old.”
The light was fading when Tex finally reached Hector. Keeping Phoebe at a slow pace he rode down the main street. A few lights showed where people were settling in for the night, and a solitary figure staggered from the saloon across Phoebe's path. The horse snorted in disgust as more whiskey fumes assailed its nostrils.
An old man sat in a rickety rocking chair on the verandah outside the saloon. He rocked the chair back and forth, slowly. He watched as Tex rode up and dismounted. “Howdy, stranger!” Pete Johnston, the town’s oldest man stared at the ranger.
Tex stopped suddenly and stared at the bent figure who seemed to live permanently in his chair. “How long have you known me, Pete?” Tex asked.
“Shucks! Must be thirty, forty years or more, Tex.” Pete leaned back in his chair, sticking his thumbs inside his belt trying to appear nonchalant.
“Then why do you always call me stranger?” Tex was curious.
Pete was almost stymied by this question. Pursing his lips he spat a stream of tobacco juice that narrowly missed a passing scorpion. “Shucks! ‘Cos that’s what ah called you the furst time ah ever saw yer.”
There was no answer to this logic.
The saloon was named the Castrated Bull after a cattle drive had passed through years before. Nobody knew why, but as it was the only bar in the town of Hector, nobody cared.
Tex dismounted and loosely wrapped Phoebe’s reins over the rail. Stepping past Pete, he passed through the batwing doors and stood there, feet spread apart, his body in a crouch, flinty eyes darting around, looking for danger. Only the bartender was in the room.
“Ouch!” The batwing doors had swung out after he entered and then swung back to catch Tex in the rear. He moved swiftly to the bar and stared at the bartender. “Beer, Larry.” he ordered.
Larry was a retired rancher who bought out the saloon just to stay occupied. He owned and operated the building without help as there were few customers. He sported a huge, gray beard with a handlebar mustache and a completely bald head. Nobody ever mentioned how funny he looked, because Larry stood six feet four and weighed nearly three hundred pounds.
He glanced at his solitary customer and said, “Hi, Tex.” and pumped a large tankard full of warm beer that had a six inch head on it when he slammed it in front of Tex.
McShane removed his Stetson and waved it in front of his face to cool himself, sat the hat down on the bar and watched as the beer froth slowly sank into the glass tankard. “You pourin’ half measures, Larry?” he asked. “Seems thar is a law about good measure in this state.”
Larry scowled and picked up the less than half full tankard and topped it up. “Sorry, Tex, fergot you wuz the law.” He smiled apologetically, “Guess you knows the law inside out after all these years, huh?”
Tex was annoyed by all references to his advancing years, but let the remark pass. He picked up the now full glass and swallowed the contents in two seconds flat. Choking and gasping he ordered a second drink. He sipped this one slowly and turned his attention to Larry as that individual asked, “What happened to you?”
“Mosquito bite.” McShane answered, shortly, “Seen any strangers around in the past coupla days?”
“Nah. Pete may have. Ask him.”
Tex smiled and said quietly, “Pete sees strangers every day of his life. Pay no never mind to what he says.” He started thinking about his past again.
McShane had never married, so he had no children to worry about. He had fallen in love once, when he was twenty. Linda was ten years older than Tex, and they dated for a few months. Expecting to get married, their plans were stalled when a huge range war erupted. Tex had joined the Texas Rangers and had left Hector to perform his duties.
Several years later he rode in and found no change in the place, except that Linda was nowhere to be found. One lady looked familiar, and Tex thought she must be Linda's mother. He passed her by without a second glance. Linda was probably married by now and had a family. Why stir up old memories?
Tex had been gone so long he'd forgotten that people grow old. Linda was surprised and upset; Tex had passed her by without saying, "Hello."
“You want another beer?” Larry broke McShane’s train of thought.
“Nah.” Tex rubbed his chin, thoughtfully, “Yup, I’m kinda dry.” Tex didn’t need much of a push when it came to booze.
An hour later the ranger walked unsteadily out of the bar and headed for the diner. Phoebe’s head shook back and forth at the sight of his master’s gait. McShane ignored him, but promised to return soon to stable the beast and feed him.
The diner was empty and the waiter was piling the chairs on the tables in preparation for cleaning the floor before closing. His disdainful look at the inebriated ranger’s state matched Phoebe’s.
MccShane thought about ordering steak and potatoes, but out of respect for his few remaining teeth, settled for scrambled eggs and coffee.
He stayed in the diner for a brief while, finishing his repast with a rolled cigarette, but soon departed because the annoyed looks the waiter kept giving him made him feel unwelcome.
Ambling back to his horse, he loosened the reins and led Phoebe to the livery stable. He couldn’t face mounting into the saddle in case he fell off. “Time fer sleep, my old glue factory,” he muttered. “You’re gittin’ almost as old as I am.”
He spent the next half hour feeding and grooming the horse, then climbed a ladder to the loft above, carrying his saddlebags with him. Within seconds his shattered nose produced loud snores and snuffling sounds. Phoebe looked disgusted still, but eventually settled down for the night.
The sun was high in the sky when Tex emerged from the stables the next day. He was suffering from a hangover and the dull throb from his wound didn’t help one mite. He ate a late breakfast of scrambled eggs and coffee in the same diner; he was served by a young waitress this time. Having eaten, he left and slowly walked to Doc Thompson’s surgery.
Doc looked up from where he was lancing a boil on a young lad’s buttock and stared at Tex. “Wondered when you’d git around to gittin’ that thar wound dressed,” he said. “You darn fool, why didn’t you retire when I told you?”
High pitched screams from the frightened youngster compounded Tex’s headache. He covered his ears to relieve the pain. After covering the lad’s sore spot and watching the mother dress her son, Doc attended to McShane’s head wound.
“One of these days, you ain’t gonna be around for me to work on,” Doc complained, “Reckon you’re my best customer.”
McShane said nothing, allowing Doc to proceed with his stitching. Finished with cleaning the long, shallow groove, Doc applied a bandage and admired his work.
Tex stared at the physician and said, “Someone's got to keep law and order. If it ain't me, it'll be some other poor sucker. Besides I ain't thet old yet.”
Doc decided not to reply to this observation.
Tex left Doc’s and waved good-bye as he did so. “See ya.”
“Sooner than you think, you old coot,” Thompson murmured.
The elderly ranger approached the Castrated Bull, waving hello to Pete who had called out his monotonous greeting again.
There were several horses tied to the rack and McShane noted two of them had matching, fancy saddles. Both scabbards held rifles of the same caliber as the cartridge case McShane had found. The two murdering varmints might be in the saloon.
He tensed, easing his six-gun in its holster as the unmistakable odor of cigar smoke drifted over him. He opened the batwing doors and stepped inside, ensuring he had gone far enough that the doors wouldn't hit him.
His gaze took in two cowpunchers at the bar. Both were smoking huge cigars. Stupid hombres seemed careless Tex thought and crouched ready to draw. He was about to challenge the pair, when a loud voice cried, “Tex, congratulate me, Doc jest delivered Elsie with a baby boy last night.”
McShane turned to face deputy Cord Simkins who held out an open box of huge cigars.
Simkins was a youngster with flaming, red hair and a clean-shaven, handsome face. Tex knew he was over twenty, but his appearance suggested he was younger. His freckled face, parted by a toothy grin, greeted Tex, and he waved the cigar box invitingly.
Taking a cigar, Tex shook hands with the half drunk lawman, and then studied the room. Over two dozen men were sitting or standing, some playing cards and others just gabbing. Each was smoking a cigar. Oops; McShane’s adrenalin rush slowly subsided.
Tex ordered a beer for Cord and one for himself. His eyes never left the bartender’s hand as he pulled the amber fluid into two pint glasses. Conscious of the steady stare, Larry ensured the glasses were full before he carefully placed them on the bar.
Two men, who appeared vaguely familiar, conversed in low tones at a table in the corner. They cast furtive glances at the lawman. McShane noted their footwear and saw they looked like they could have been the boots that had left the prints at the site of the ambush.
His first thought was to confront the pair and accuse them of attempted murder. He hesitated, swallowed his beer and turned around and left the saloon. He had thought of a way to settle with these two later. His sneaky plan would depend on his acting ability.
Tex lounged around and ate an early supper. This time he asked for poached eggs for a change. He watched the entrance to the Castrated Bull and checked the people entering and leaving. The two suspects were still in there, and Tex figured they would be half drunk by this time.
Tex was unaware that he was being spied on as he watched the saloon. Across the street an elderly spinster, small and neatly dressed in a long, black dress kept vigil behind lace curtains. What did the old fool think he was doing? A worried look adorned her face as she wrung a lace handkerchief in her two small hands.
A feeling of imminent disaster came over her. Something bad would soon occur. Linda Shaw knew that Tex was unaware of her presence in town. He had ignored her the last time they passed several years ago. He had surmised she was her own mother, by his casual glance.
Figuring it was time to brace the two varmints, Tex prepared himself for another shoot-out. Consequently he answered Pete’s, “Howdy, stranger,” with a terse “Shut up!” as he strode across the verandah.
He passed swiftly into the saloon and saw the two men standing at the bar. He put his scheme into immediate action. Approaching the bar he ordered a whiskey and a beer. As Larry turned to set up the drinks, Tex spoke to the two nearby, “Reckon it's time I retired, how about a drink on me to celebrate, boys?”
The two men were confused. Their plan to kill the ranger had misfired. After drinking all afternoon, summoning up the courage to face the man, he had turned up, cheerful as all get out and had offered them a drink.
“Sure,” one replied. “Name is Bill Sims and my partner is Dan Williams.”
Tex offered his hand in friendship. “Guess I’m buying now that I’ve decided to quit. You boys mind sharing my decision?”
“Thet’s fine with us, Ranger,” Williams grinned in a lopsided fashion. They would let the stupid old man get drunk then gun him down in the street.
McShane studied the two men as they stood at the bar. Both were around thirty, six feet tall and lean from hard days on the range. He noted twin, pearl-handled six-guns around their waists. One man was dark and the other fair. They wore flat-crowned hats and soiled bandannas and looked like typical range hands. Their shifty eyes belied this fact; hard cases for sure Tex opined. What was it about them that seemed so familiar?
For the next hour the trio drank, steadily. Whiskey with a beer chaser soon addles the senses, and none of them were feeling any pain when the situation came to a head.
McShane eased into his scheme by remarking, “Someone tried to bushwhack me yesterday. Filthy, yellar, back shootin’ saddle tramps didn’t have the guts to brace me head on. Poor shootin’ if you ask me. Effen I come up with ‘em they’ll die for sure. Mothers were Mexican putas and their fathers they never knew.”
These remarks inflamed the brooding men’s anger to a high pitch.
“You shot my pa at Black Crick,” Williams screamed at Tex. That explained why Tex thought he knew them. He remembered Red Williams. So this was his son and the other was his cousin, son of Bart Sims who also died in the same battle.
Williams roared a long string of epithets and added, “You’re gonna die fer that, you two bit cripple.”
Tex recalled the battle at Black Crick. The Smith gang had robbed a train and had been trapped in a blind canyon surrounded by a company of rangers. He personally had killed Bart Sims, Red Williams and two other outlaws before the fight was over. So this is what their feud was about.
They wanted revenge. Right, boys, revenge is what it is and you ain’t gonna live another day. Calmly, he backed away and said, “If you boys want a piece of me, I’ll be outside. Come a-shootin’ and be ready to die.”
Slowly, he backed out of the saloon, into the street. He saw that the saloon’s customers had all moved off to the sides to get out of the line of fire, except for deputy Simkins. Cord was passed out, head down on a table. He could not back up the ranger. McShane totally ignored Pete’s usual greeting, as he waited for the action to begin.
The sun was low, and the shadows lengthened swiftly as McShane maneuvered himself into a position with his back to the sun and waited. He knew that both of them would soon burst out of the saloon bent on his destruction. Within seconds they emerged at a run, and split up, searching the street to find where he waited.
People were scrambling to get out of the way. It took less than thirty seconds before only the three participants were left standing in the middle of the street, yet there were plenty of eyes watching from cover to see what transpired.
Most shoot-outs take place in seconds. This fight seemed to be performed in slow motion. Three individuals reached for their weapons at the same instant. Tex cleared leather swiftly, but his arthritic fingers failed to get a good grip and his pistol dropped to the street.
Knowing his life depended on quick action, he bent down to retrieve his weapon and fell flat on his face. Four bullets fanned the air where his torso had been. Tex grabbed his gun by the trigger, and it fired. Sims fell with a hole above his right eye. A surprised look showed for a brief instant, and then he collapsed in an untidy heap.
Williams, disconcerted by McShane’s move, fired several shots that missed their mark. McShane centered his aim on his head and fired. A stain appeared in the middle of William's shirt, and he was blown back by the force of the bullet. He died before he hit the ground.
Men spilled out of the Castrated Bull and women and children suddenly appeared as if by magic, all of them gawking at the two blood-soaked bodies face down in the dust.
Tex staggered and dropped to his knees. His eyes misted over, and his jaw sagged. He pulled a small flask of whiskey from his hip pocket and swallowed heartily. He had bested the two bushwhackers, and they had missed with their shots, but Tex felt like death.
What was wrong with him? He had dropped his gun, and his shots were well wide of the marks he had aimed at. The day seemed to fade, and darkness surrounded him. With a shudder he let go of his six-gun and fell flat on his face.
“What's the matter with the stranger,” asked Pete querulously, “He done died or sumthin'?”
Doc Saunders ambled over from his office and examined Tex and shook his head. “Take him to my office.”
Half a dozen stalwart men hoisted Tex’s limp form and carried it into the doctor’s small surgery. They placed the body on the table and Doc said, “Git outa heah. I work better alone.” He pushed everyone out of his office and went to work.
Hector remained quiet that evening. Clusters of townsfolk and cowhands stood around casting glances at the light in the window. Their hero might be dead. The survivor of innumerable gunfights who had taken so many bullets over the years was a mere shadow of his former self.
“See the way he ducked those bullets. And what a coupla shots he fired.”
“Guy’s got nerves of steel.”
The events that had transpired were elevated to heroic proportions as men vied to spill their eye-witness accounts.
Finally, just before nine, Doc's door opened, and two figures emerged.
“What happened, Doc?”
“Wuz he shot?”
“Doc! Is Tex OK?”
The questions flew thick and fast as the crowd jostled to hear Doc’s verdict.
“Nope! But he’s dying from what I suspected; finally caught up with him,” Doc wiped his soiled hands on a towel after rinsing them in the horse trough. “Tex has advanced cirrhosis of the liver. I warned him not to gulp whiskey each time he got shot. Should have retired twenty years ago when he was sixty.” Doc disappeared back into his office.
The little, old lady heard the Doc's comments and turned away. Still clutching her handkerchief, Linda shed a single tear. The ninety year old spinster walked back to her little cottage.
McShane staggered to the livery stable and saddled Phoebe, collected his gear, then mounted and rode out of town just as dusk descended. He knew he had only a few hours left to live, and he wanted to be far away from Hector when he finally cashed in his chips.
People stood in knots to watch the slowly moving horse carry its burden towards the last glow of the setting sun. As if to emphasize the finality of his departure, a single bolt of lightning from a new storm lit up the scene.
The flash died, and a low rumble of thunder echoed across the open land. Gentle rain began to fall, casting a thin veil that soon obscured sight of the departing horseman.
Eighty year old Tex McShane rode on, not noticing nature’s salute as he began his last ride.