Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
man leaning on the bar that Marshal Clint Cogswell was after was not
making the move with his right hand. But the second man on his right
was slowly dropping his hand toward his holster. The move was in real
slow motion, deceptive, almost hidden. Cogswell knew his badge,
shining on his chest all the way from the state capital for nearly 25
years, had cowed a number of men over the years, but the fugitive’s
pard was not of that breed. The marshal kept his eyes on his quarry.
Those eyes were hazy and burning with two months of trail dust and a
sun that often felt it was burning his face right through the brim of
his Stetson. But he was aware of the last dip of hand of the
fugitive’s apparent henchman.
There was action, a final dip of hand, a threat to life. Cogswell stepped to his left, drew with his right, and shot the man in the shoulder as his gun cleared his holster. Then, without choice, he plunked a round into the man standing next to the drawer, also making a move for leather. That man fell to his knees and said, “Momma,” in a most plaintive voice. Then he rolled over dead.
Cogswell said to his quarry, “Charlie, I haven’t heard a gunman say he’s sorry to his mother, for the life he’s lived, for a long time. He’s got this last chance thanks to you.”
“You won’t last forever, Cogswell.”
“I’ve got a pretty good start on forever, Charlie.”
“Someone’ll come along and get you good.”
“Tell him I’ll be ready, but make sure he’s better than these two dudes. They weren’t worth their pay. You did pay them, Charlie, didn’t you?”
“That’s my business.”
“You wouldn’t have made it as a banker either, Charlie. You need the vision.”
“What’s the vision, Cogswell?
“Only the goodness in man can find the vision, Charlie. You didn’t have a chance, not since the time you drew your weapon on that farmer in Maxwell Flats and him only holding a pitchfork.”
“The clod deserved it.”
“See, Charlie, you lack the vision. You don’t have the smarts. You never know what’s around you. You’re blind to most things, Charlie. And that clod, as you call him, was half blind. Half blind, Charlie, half blind and you shot him dead, only a pitchfork at hand for the man, the old man. That’s shooting a frog in a barrel, wouldn’t you say?”
“What the hell are you talking about now, Cogswell? You ain’t said a good word of sense yet.”
“That’s hardly bright of you, Charlie. I followed you through the Mazatzal Mountains, reading the arrow weed and coach whip and pigweed and tansy mustard that you couldn’t begin to appreciate or even recognize. But you left a wide trail, Charlie, and you dragged the trail along with you, whole big chunks of it, and the smallest pieces my eyes could find. It was like your name, Charlie Comfort, was all over the stuff. Sometimes it screamed out at me. Once I almost said, “Shush,” trying to keep you quiet so I could creep up on you and get you without pumping lead where it’d find you. You ride and walk like you put up signs for people to read. For me, it’s following a dumb bunny who doesn’t know the hawk sits on his shadow every daylight minute, and at night, I saw the iron pyrite shining in the light of your fires.”
Cogswell turned to the barkeep and said, “Call the doc and the undertaker. Get one fixed and put in a cell. Bury the other. Boot Hill will do. The state will pay.”
The barkeep did as bid and the dead man and the wounded man were moved out of the saloon to respective sites, one to the jail with vague tenderness and the other one to Boot Hill with a hired prayer.
“Hands behind your back,” Cogswell said to one-time fugitive Charlie Comfort, and took him in tow; one more job done by the Ranger known as The Badger.
Marshal Clint Cogswell had related the gist of the above story to his latest group of Ranger candidates, wanting to get them to key in on all their attributes, pay attention to what he had done in situations they would most likely face. They would have to do so to stay alive. Keep their eyes on the enemy, the desperate, and the deadly. Know what makes human nature tick or go off the clock. Be aware of all at hand; the slightest move, the flicker of an eyelash, like a tick at play.
At first he had some difficulty locking on to the best candidate, which he had always picked out to be the fulcrum of the class. “I’ll shoot for the damned best I can,” he had told the governor, “without any favors being given out. There will be no hanky-panky between me and any part of state government, and I want your bounden word on that or I won’t keep this job as long as your next breath. And when I need to get out on the trail after some varmint who’s gotten under my skin, I go on my own. For as long as it takes me. I won’t come back empty handed.”
In the Rangers, as it happened in occasional candidate classes, Cogswell found his point man. A young cow puncher, tired of long drives, one-way food, herd pointing and dusty trailing, and knowing that he was putting beef on tables of people he’d never know, had looked to the Rangers for other pursuits. His name was Josh Crowell and he was as handsome as he was rugged, as quick as he was tall, as smart as he was imaginative.
“Marshal,” Crowell said in one early class, “I know you have to learn as much as you can about the land around you for survival, like plants and animals and such, but we don’t get to learn all that here. Where do we learn it?” Crowell’s eyes were intent. He leaned forward on his chair, observant, absorbent, waiting for the answer.
“Know what a yucca lily is?”
“Sure do, Marshal. It has white flowers and though I’ve never used it that way, it’s been used by the Indians for soap, at least some part of its roots or something. Its fiber’s been used for something that wears well. They got food from its seeds, fruit and the flowers I mentioned before.”
“How’d you come by knowing all that, Crowell?”
“Why, I learned it on the trail, Marshal, or perhaps it was told me or showed to me when I was a kid and I can’t remember how at this minute.”
“Well, Crowell, and you others, I didn’t teach it to you, not in these few classes, but you brought it with you. Don’t forget for one moment what your pap or granpap or a good uncle or a big brother told you or showed you on the way getting here. One day it might save your life. All that stuff you learned on trail drives or around the campfires or slow meal times, keep it in your grasp. That’s part of your experience. You can’t buy that stuff. No how, no way, no place. Don’t toss it aside. I remember stuff my grandfather showed me when I was a kid, about how to get along on your own, or when things are in doubt or not in your favor, by using what’s at hand, what you know about your whereabouts.” He paused before he said, “By using your brain. The Good Lord gave you one of those, meaning for you to use it.”
It was Crowell that said, “Tell us about one of those things, Marshal, some kind of an idea. It’d stay with us, I’d bet.”
“One time my granpap told me he was locked into a tight canyon where he had shot a wild boar. He had fallen and lost some rounds to his rifle and had two rounds left. He was hungry, butchered a half of the boar and had a fire going and the spit set. One of the bones he had scraped clean was very springy and that was a surprise to him. He was playing with it, and eating at the same time, when a giant wolf came too close for comfort. He knew the wolf was hungry, but would want and take more than was there … meaning him eventually. He did not want to chance using one of his two bullets, or both of them. He was bound to need them before he got back to camp.”
“What did he do?” said another candidate, with Crowell smiling over the back of the candidate’s shoulder as if he knew the answer already.
“He took a chunk of uncooked meat, set that springy bone in so that it was bent tight into the meat and flung it out at the wolf. He had sharpened with his knife both ends of that bone. The wolf, as wolves do, gulped down that chunk of meat, and five minutes later went absolutely crazy as that springy bone must have snapped straight out and stabbed some place in his gut. Granpap found him down the trail next day, dead as can be dead.”
“Where the heck did he learn that, Marshal? That’s really a great trick.”
“From an Indian,” Cogswell said, “who said his people learned it from some Eskimo Indians they had met way up north, far up above the Cree nation territory in Canada. Wouldn’t you love to have a book on all that kind of stuff they learned over the years?”
“Like we already have our own book, Marshal?” Crowell had the bright smile again on his face.
“Yes, sir, Crowell. You got something else in that line of knowing what’s good for you?”
“Well, we got a lot of desert around us, Marshal, and it looks like we’ll get to go into that kind of territory every once in a while chasing down some of them critters we’re bound to follow. Survival may be more than beans and bacon and coffee in the saddlebag. One day coming it might mean really living off the land, and not shooting down meat on the hoof. I don’t know it all, but I learned some things.”
“Such as,” Cogswell said, knowing he had tapped the right man as his lead candidate.
“We can eat Indian turnip if we bake it dry or let it dry out to get rid of bad taste and poison. But don’t eat any mushrooms unless you absolutely know they’re okay. And don’t eat anything with a milky sap or pods that have beans or seeds inside or have a bitter, soapy taste, or taste like almonds.”
“What the hell is Indian turnip? one candidate said.
“Jack-in-the-pulpit,” Cogswell said. “Am I right, Crowell?”
“Yes, sir. And I learned all such stuff from one of the cooks on a trail drive up to the Maxwell railhead. That man, I swear, knew every single thing that grew on the ground like he was a growing schoolmaster himself. That means every green and yellow and red thing growing around you, every root whose color you can’t see until you dig it up, everything growing on a vine or a limb or in a bunch of brush. He just knew what he could put into a pot and what he couldn’t or shouldn’t. That man was like a book.”
“All part of your experience, gents,” Marshal Cogswell said, “your own book you brought with you this far. Keep your eyes and ears open, and when I pin that badge on you, if the governor lets me, I’ll feel pretty damned confident you’ll do your job.”
Crowell jumped in and said, “When you pin that badge on us, you The Badger, it says more than what we are or who we are, it says why we are. Ain’t that right, Marshal?”
“You got it, son, but also remember the shine is only going to take you so far. Only just so far. The rest is what you know and how you use it.”
And under his breath he muttered his everlasting prayer for their safety and good works. They’d need that too.