Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
For the longest time in the short history of Bullfront, Colorado, Clark Goodrich’s most prized possession was his barber chair, hauled west from St. Louis, Missouri in 1876 by his father, a barber before him. The chair, the first of its kind ever seen by his father, had been abandoned when it was found in the barn of a barber friend. But it was not a complete chair. With a bit of his own ingenuity, the elder Goodrich completed the chair so it could swing in a circle and, with use of two levers, was able to be swung back to a nearly prone position. It was the centerpiece of the barbershop in Bullfront.
When his father was killed by a stray bullet in an argument on the main street of Bullfront, Clark Goodrich became the sole owner of the small shop and the special chair. Business was good and life for the barber moved along in its casual manner in the bustling western town. Mining for gold and silver proceeded in the mountains and streams, cattle for big markets was raised out on the grass, and commerce moved placidly on the river. The railroad would come in a few years. The barber’s chair was the only one of its kind in the general area around Bullfront.
Then came the day, Friday business bristling on the first day of summer, when Widow Maggie Collins brought her son Mark in for his summer cut. Mark was four, Maggie was 25 and Goodrich was 32 by two days.
Life swung into another cycle for the three of them.
For Goodrich, it was love at first sight, his eyes setting on the beautiful blonde in a blue dress, pink cheeks and red lips that glistened with moisture. Her eyes leaped with blue abounding her. His eyes then set on a window placard announcing a dance in a few weeks; love began to work its ways into position.
For Maggie’s part in the small drama, she noted at first how carefully the barber treated Mark sitting high on the chair on an extra board, which warmed her, and how neat the barber’s hair was, making him as attractive as any man she had noticed since her husband was killed two years earlier by rustlers. As a result of her husband’s death she had sold the ranch a year earlier and moved into town, buying a small house on the edge of Bullfront where it faced the mountains. The house had a porch with two comfortable chairs, two flower boxes by the porch windows, and a small garden at one side.
Goodrich knew all about her husband’s death, as all news seemed to pass through the barbershop as much as it did the saloon or the general store or the front of the church after Sunday meeting, or in the pages of the town weekly newspaper, “The Purple Sage.” The barber often imagined himself in the place of some of the characters whose stories spun through his shop. But he had the ability to cut short any of those daydreams that might make life move in another realm.
When Maggie Collins brought Mark back for a second cut less than a month later, Goodrich knew an interest had been kindled with the young widow. He took extra good care of Mark sitting high on the chair and managed to slip him a candy near the end of the cut. The boy smiled his thanks, his mother patted the barber on the shoulder on parting, and Goodrich was deeper in love than ever.
A week later, as slow as life is in some towns, and with some people, he saw her again in the store and asked if he could call on her as they talked in the corner of the store. She said yes, and the arrangements were made.
As much as Goodrich was in love, and Maggie Collins seemed to dote on the idea of having a man around, a man who paid attention to her and her son, the affair was a slow one. Goodrich, never rushed while working the clippers or scissors, didn’t rush at romance either. Comfort set in for the two, even as Mark began to depend on the barber for small deeds reserved for fathers of boys.
As it happened in many early western towns, Bullfront received its share of men trying to get rich the easy way. But robbery, proven time and time again, is never easy, for the hounding begins for robbers, and dreams get crushed for others. When the first robbery came affecting our romantic couple, Maggie and Goodrich were gabbing away on his shop porch on a late Friday afternoon, Mark just out from school and talking to a classmate a few feet away.
Shots came from the bank only three doors from the barbershop. Goodrich had just enough time to shove Maggie inside his shop, and turned to look for Mark. The boy and his friend were open-mouthed at the shots and the horses rearing up on hind legs in front of the bank. The sheriff began firing at a man holding two horses outside the bank. The man fired back, and two men ran from the bank with bags of money in their hands. One man also carried a pistol that he began firing wildly about him.
Goodrich, in one leap, swept Mark and his friend into the alley beside the barbershop and thrust them under the building as the gunfire continued. Maggie, trying to run out of the barbershop, was met by Goodrich diving inside while bullets still traversed the whole area.
“Where’s Mark,” she screamed, grabbing Goodrich by the shoulders, as if she might try to shake the truth out of him.
“He’s okay,” Goodrich said. “He’s underneath us right now. He’s out of the way. He’s okay.” He didn’t tell her how Mark had been shoved there.
Maggie Collins dropped her head on the barber’s shoulder, a thankful gasp in her breath. Goodrich hugged her.
The robbers had made a getaway with some of the money, one of them hit by a bullet as he rode out of town. Talk was going on about the incident, when the sheriff said, “Maggie, I got to tell you that boy of yours was saved by the barber. He jumped on him and his friend and just about drove both of them under the barbershop, out of trouble’s way. Got to thank the man for that.”
On the spot, still warm with other feelings for the barber, Maggie Collins kissed Goodrich in front of half the town, even as her son hugged them both.
Goodrich, seizing the moment, said, “Will you go to the dance with me?”
She hugged him back, “Of course I will,” she said.
A good part of Bullfront saw or heard about the romance between the barber and the widow Collins, and the romance really blossomed the night of the dance in Tomshek’s barn. It all went well, the couple dancing with each other all the time until a drunken cowpoke tried to get too close to Maggie. That’s when Goodrich, the quiet barber known only for one distinguished act in his life, whispered into the drunk’s ear, “The next time you get a shave in my shop, watch out for the razor.”
The threat was delivered in a whisper and with a smile as wide as he could make it.
Some folks said the drunken cowpoke backed all the way across the barn and out the door, his hands at his neckline, and his eyes on Goodrich the barber all the time. He never told anybody what the barber had said to him and neither did the barber.
It was by this time that there had been a growing acclamation about the barber’s courage and the tools that he could wield. Of course, there was to start with the saving of Mark and his mother during the bank robbery. One other story making the rounds of Bullfront said Goodrich had been practicing with both pistol and rifle out on the grass and up in one of the nearby canyons. The word grew that he was getting pretty good at shooting. Along with his supposed expertise with the weapons, a growing collection of admonishments on his part, all in whispers to minor and significant threats to either Maggie or himself, began to surface in Bullfront, making him in a puzzling way a feared man no one should antagonize or mess with.
And the word was “Stay away from the widow Collins. She’s spoke for.” Or, “He’s the only barber in Bullfront.”
The wedding was planned and was only a week away, when the second robbery took place at the Bullfront Bank, with hostages taken, the town grabbing up arms, and the sheriff and deputies out on a posse chase. One robber, his horse shot out from under him as he tried to escape from town, barreled into the small house of Maggie Collins, Maggie alone in the house making her gown, Mark being taken care of by an older woman.
The robber brought her to the porch and yelled out to a gathering crowd, “Get a couple of horses up here for me, all saddled, or I kill her.” His pistol was set against Maggie’s head. “We’re going in to get something to eat now. When I come out and you ain’t got two horses here, I’ll kill the lady. And you better bring me some ammunition for my Colts.” He held his hand guns in the air. “Make it two boxes full.”
He jammed the gun against her jaw. “She won’t be pretty much longer.”
“Clark,” Maggie screamed. It was the only thing she said.
Clark Goodrich, barber of Bullfront, at the edge of the crowd, heard the scream.
His time, he knew, had come. All the dreams came upon him in an instant, all the dreams of becoming what he was not … a hero despite his saving Mark and his friend on one odd chance event. He remembered how she felt in his arms at the dance. It was Elysian. Utopian. Heaven itself. Losing such a gift would be the greatest loss he’d ever know. Life would be meaningless if he lost her.
He did not know what to do, but there came a surge up through his body that he had never felt before. No idle threats, whispered in someone’s ear, could save him now. No sworn use of a sharp razor could swing its edge for him now. No neckline could be threatened in this instance.
He realized one thing; Maggie was worth his life no matter what was left of his time, no matter how he might leave this new paradise; she was worth it all.
He didn’t measure any actions or subsequent pains. He just moved into action.
With a quick move, he snatched a pistol from the holster of a man standing beside him. In hurried steps he was at the rail of the saloon where horses were tied to the rail. Loosening the reins of one horse, he leaped into the saddle. He spun the horse around and headed right at the crowd, which scrambled to get out of his way. And the barber of Bullfront raced the horse, a big black stallion, directly at Maggie Collins’ little house at the edge of town.
The horse, driven hard by Goodrich, pounded toward the house and only drew up short as his hoofs pounded on the wooden porch. With that sudden stop the barber was tossed directly over the stallion’s head and went right through the window. He landed on the floor of the front room, conscious but groggy, the pistol still in his hand, looking wildly about for Maggie.
The robber jumped into the room, saw Goodrich on the floor taking aim at him. The robber aimed his own weapon as the barber’s shot went wild, hitting the wall harmlessly beside him. But a shot from behind, from a smoking pistol in Maggie’s hand, killed the robber on the spot before he could pull the trigger.
“I love you, Clark,” she said as she hugged him, “and, please,” she added, “never tell anybody I killed a man. That’s for the man of the house.”
Widow Maggie Collins was kissing the barber Clark Goodrich, her hands empty, when three townsmen burst in the front door, afraid of finding the worst of the situation.