Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The times were good for just about all the people in Texas Town, though Sheriff Doug Tollivan and his deputy were constantly on their toes. Generally, there were no whispers in town. Perhaps deep and personal secrets were whispered, but everything else was said straight out and loud, like a man standing upright in his stirrups.
And the sheriff was aware that two opposing factions would be in town at the same time and knew that not one man in either the Box-Y crew or the Double Zees was apt to duck the slightest soiled word tossed about in the two saloons. The one thing Tollivan did know was they’d not start anything in the street, the store or any place of business other than one of the two saloons, The Crystal Nugget and The Twisted Saddle. The citizens, too, knew the code of the drovers; public places are out of bounds for such actions, but a saloon is often like Hell come warmed over and ready for the ultimate fire.
Texas Town, like many cow towns, came alive before a drive started as the drovers beefed themselves up for the long haul, and after a return from a successful drive to celebrate, to burn off the trail dust, to see family and old friends or new friends, or spend some money.
The last was most usual.
Tollivan also knew for a certainty that a third faction might instigate trouble for some purpose; he’d seen it before, and from usually unsuspected quarters. It was like the time that soft, mind-my-own-business Busy Boddey had fired back at tormentors, tired at last of being the dumb one in a match. He’d simply taken aim and shot brute Hardy Ackerson off his front porch as Ackerson was pounding at the door. It was one of the rare incidents as was seen in the episode now called “The Prompter’s Issue.” He was a stranger, not seen in the saloon before, never seen in the town before, and when two cowpokes were in a mild argument, the stranger kept alluding to “real Texans settle things out in the street, man to man.”
He exhorted them in his way: “Real Texans know their way around an argument; there ain’t none but face to face and out in the street. That’s Texas men’s home town, out in the street!”
His voice had gone up an octave or too, coming into the argument like a third knife, and before you knew it they were out in the street and drawing their weapons and shooting and one man dead as ever.
But it wasn’t over: when folks looked about for “The Prompter” he was nowhere in sight, and his horse was gone too. Things seemed to quiet down until a rider came into town and said he had seen an old pal riding past him in a hurry down the southern trail as he was coming up from a water hole. “Hell, I ain’t seen him in five or so years, from when we rode for Slim Callahan over at Moseby’s spread. He’s a cousin to Zaron Zount of the Double Zees.
They warmed Hell over again those next few days until Zount was knocked off his horse on his own spread by a lucky shot from who-knows-where, and everything came to a standstill when he finally stood up, still alive, but all folks aware that death could come into their ranks in seconds and had almost taken one of the top dogs.
The sheriff went to sleep thinking of the past incidents and all the possibilities, and was deep in a post-midnight and well-earned sleep, when the sound of a shot brought him straight up in the measly cot pushed against his desk. And it was definitely a rifle shot; that meant long-range, out of sight, bushwhack kind of temerity in a town generally considered as a cowboy town where nobody was ever shot in the back … supposedly.
On rising, booting up, all he said was, “I knew it was bound to start like this.”
He had no idea how accurate his assessment was, but had his rifle in hand in seconds, hat on his head, door latch in the other hand … when a second shot sounded. It was a reply shot, a defensive shot, he gauged, because it came from the opposite end of town. From near the livery came that second shot, and the first shot had come from near Betty Kline’s Dress Shop at the main trail road as it left town, heading west toward Puma Hill and the mountains.
One position was secluded, he assumed, recollecting the close quarters of the building in the immediate area, and the second shot, the defensive reply, was from more open ground, and obviously at a target with background light from the newspaper where The Texas Lookout editor, Calvin Kyle Dupont, was laying up his next issue. The newspaper’s night light was the only one that was ever lit after midnight. The big spread owners had insisted the saloons close down at midnight, agreeing that they wanted cowpokes as sober as possible saddling up for them come daybreak. They had the weight to make such a demand.
Tollivan hoped that at least one deputy heard a shot; he liked having people to talk to in the early morning, in the haze of the false dawn, in the grayness through which night stamped questions all over the day that was facing him and all folks rising to face them..
An old ache, like a twisted muscle, came anew in his neck. He had known it before, like a badge being worn, the pin sticking him, blood and consequences being drawn. “Tomorrow,” it said. “Tomorrow.”
He scrambled to get close to the livery, to find out if anyone was hurt, but there was nobody there; no dead man who fired back at a bushwhacker before he died, no shooter taking care of his side arm, no witness to an attempted bushwhack killing.
Big Hugh Lavery, livery owner, a noted deep sleeper, stumbled from his bed in back of the livery. He was half dressed, in one boot, holding the other boot, limping, suspenders on top of his long-john top, and sleep like pie dough hanging at his eyes. “I had a dream, Doug,” he said to the sheriff, “and I swear I heard some shots.”
“You heard ‘em, Hughie. I heard ‘em at my office. Did you see anybody? Hear anybody running down past the barn? A shot came from down this way.”
“Nothing, Doug, I swear it. When I go off, I go off.”
“Well, I’m going to the other end of town. But you look around and see if you find anything new or out of the ordinary around the livery. One shot came from up there and I have to check it out. I’ll be back later. Send for me if you find anything.” He paused and offered a suggestion to Lavery, “Put your other boot on, Hughie, before you stub your toe.”
“I already done that,” replied Lavery. “That got me awake.” And while he bent to boot his other foot, he said, “Somethin’ else I dreamed, Doug, but I can’t remember what it was.”
“You better check the stalls. You know how many times you said someone walked off with his horse in the night and didn’t pay up.”
Lavery, up for the rest of the night, slipped on his shirt, flipped red suspenders over his shoulders, and nodded at the sheriff; day had started and he might as well get going.
At the other end of town, The Texas Lookout editor, Calvin Kyle Dupont, was already questioning some folks about what and when they heard a gunshot or two gunshots. He’d gotten nothing but mumbles and figured somebody in the mix was holding back because of an allegiance one way or another. He saw the sheriff coming and figured he’d better tell him what he had garnered; not what was evidence, but a feeling still coming on him. It was evident that the sheriff couldn’t do his job on such feelings, and he couldn’t run a newspaper that way either.
“Cal,” Tollivan said, “I kind of thought you’d be up early. You must have heard the shots last night.”
“I did, Doug, but I didn’t see a thing. Came right out and only heard a horse riding off, out at the fork in the road and fast, but I couldn’t tell which way.” He looked at the gray dawn still in its approach over Texas Town. “I don’t think anybody would have seen anything, but there’s an awful odd feeling hanging in the air.”
The sheriff understood right away. “You figure like I do that we have opposing forces at work but doing it on the dirty side. This was bushwhacking all the way. Coward’s way, Cal. Name me one of the cowpokes for either spread that’d stoop to this.”
“Not one of them comes to mind,” Dupont said. “Not one man I’d pin this on with my wildest guess. They’re not the type.”
“Meaning you think it was a stranger?” Tollivan was staring at the newspaper editor with a hard eye that also was saying something else. His words hung in the air and seemed to tip themselves in one direction.
Dupont jumped at that point. “A woman, you think?” he replied, shaking his head. His gaze went looking at the far peaks the sun was bouncing off at last, and said, “Or a strange woman at that?”
His smile was a wider-than--ever smile. “I could get a serial going on something like that.” The smile came still wider. Turning saloon talk on its ear was a definite possibility.
“We could go on guessing forever,” Tollivan owned up, “unless someone breaks down on a late Saturday night in The Crystal Nugget or The Twisted Saddle, with his mouth jumping like a clothesline full of duds in the wind.”
Both the sheriff and the newspaper editor were nodding in agreement when Hugh Lavery came pounding up the street on a paint, his arms waving as he came on.
“Hey, Doug,” Lavery yelled, “I remember what I forgot.” He lumbered off his horse, a paint so pretty that Lavery undignified it and was unaware of the difference.
“Listen,” he said. “One horse was missing from the stalls. I heard two horses riding off, toward the valley. And,” he punctuated it with a full breath and a puff of his chest and a twist of his head, “I smelt perfume. A woman’s perfume. I ain’t smelt that kind of stuff in a dozen years.”
His eyes rolled in a kind of contemplation of a new measurement or an old loss, and Dupont thought Lavery was the saddest story that he’d never get to write. And the sheriff couldn’t picture Lavery behind bars, but everybody has some kind of secret he holds tight to himself … or along with a sympathetic sheriff.
Tollivan thought, “Secrets hold a town together, and sure carve out lines of division.”
“Let’s go check that out, Hughie. Show me what and where, if you can.”
The essence of perfume, of course, was long gone from the livery and the stall where the missing horse was stolen revealed nothing. But a search of tracks in the turn of the road out of town showed Tollivan that one of the horses was without a rider. “I think the missing horse was led off by the woman wearing the perfume.”
The pause in his words was relevant. “Whoever she is, she wanted to dump suspicion on somebody else.” He turned to Lavery and asked, “Whose horse was it that she took, Hughie?”
“I haven’t seen him in three days. Paid for a week’s rent and good care. Name’s Oscar Greglin. Said he’d been working out of Puma Hill for almost a year. For Worries Williams and that neat wife of his who’s a real beauty and half his age.”
The Sheriff of Texas Town reached into his pocket and pinned a badge on Hughie Lavery, owner of the livery. “Hughie, you’re now on the payroll and we’re going to Puma Hill. Just you and me.”
“We gonna see her, Doug? Ask questions?” Lavery was beaming with anticipation.
“We’re gonna see him, Hughie, her husband, if we don’t get to her.” His voice was slightly exaggerated, but convincing.
Puma Hill sat on a slight mound at the edge of a long-running foothill in the Llano Basin. It was familiar country to Tollivan, having been in Puma Hill on several posses in his early days. He didn’t expect much of a change in it.
Worries Williams was a good looking gent of about 60 years, with deep eyes and a full head of hair that must have gone white before its time, for it was snow-white and had settled on him as part of his character. He wore it long, over the ears and down the back of his neck where it nestled on his shirt collar. The picture on his mantle was a starling beauty of a woman, around 30 or so years.
Williams had invited them in when Tollivan said he had some questions about one of his ranch hands.
“C’mon in, Sheriff, but I can guess it’s about Oscar Greglin. He’s been trouble the last month or so after a pretty good start here. I think he’s finally gone off. I haven’t seen him in a close to a week.”
He took a deep breath and said, “You got some questions on him? Am I right about this?”
He looked at Tollivan who nodded at him and looked again at the picture of the woman on the mantle.
Williams said, “That’s my wife Charity who’s not here right now. She goes off every once in a while to see her sister at Gloucester Ridge. I don’t get up there very often by choice, but send one of the boys with her for company coming and going. She’s due in today. Greglin made the trip once. She’s never had trouble at all up and back. I try to give each hand a trip. Her sister has three kids and we don’t have any, so it’s a real party for her when she visits. Me and her sister’s husband don’t see much to agree on.”
Tollivan, almost locked into the beauty of the woman, managed to say, “Any recent troubles with Greglin?”
“Not really,” Williams said. “One of the hands told me he said if anything ever happened to me he’d up and marry my wife and run the ranch. Can’t blame a man for saying that, long as he doesn’t do anything about it. Oh, I know it’s been said before or thought of, but that’s something comes of long drives with the cows or lonely night watching. Makes a man dream a lot. Keeps some of them going.”
“You owe him any wages?”
Williams said, “I figure about a week, but he’s got to show to get it, and a man that’s jumped the job don’t deserve full pay, I don’t care what anyone says.”
Hoof beats broke up the discussion as Williams said, “That’s probably her now.”
Charity Williams walked into the house and her beauty stunned Tollivan; he looked at the picture on the mantle and then back at her, and she was more beautiful than her picture. He turned red as Worries Williams said, “Sheriff Tollivan has been asking some questions of Oscar Greglin.”
His wife turned red, the blush filling her cheeks. She hugged her husband and said, “Well, I didn’t want to tell you, but he’s been acting up. Said half a dozen times he’d marry me in a hurry if anything happened to you. I couldn’t stand that, but he kept saying it every time I turned around.”
She looked redder, then looked away before she said, “I took some matters into my own hands.”
It all hit Tollivan in a hurry: the scent of perfume, the missing horse, the first shot in the night, the second shot, the disappearance of Greglin.
He simply said to Charity Williams, “You manage to scare him off, Ma’am?”
“Yes, I did. I scared him off and ran his horse off so he couldn’t rush out of Texas Town unless he stole a horse.”
Before Williams could say anything, Tollivan said, “I appreciate that, Ma’am. I know he left town by some other means. I don’t have a single idea of when he’ll come back … if he ever does.”
Her smile was as good as a posse running a wanted man to ground, and Worries Williams did not have as many worries as he might have imagined.
Tollivan knew how lucky Williams was. And Texas Town was probably rid of another headache of the very private kind, the whispered kind that causes worries, random gun shots without murderous intent, and character revelation, including his own.