Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Judd Handley had crawled through a cave, a mass of tumbled rocks, in between two sheer faces of stone, to come out on a ledge overlooking a large green expanse of mountain grass. He had never heard of any place like this in the range. No one he knew had ever mentioned a word about it. It was like a piece of heaven. Peaks of the Teton Range leaned against the sky as he looked up, only to have a black moving mass catch his eye down below at an edge of the green spread.
Handley wiped the sweat out of his eyes and took another look. The black mass was a magnificent black stallion pawing the ground, looking like a fighter who had just won a hard battle. A dozen or so mares were content down there on the rich grass. The great horse stood on his hind legs, raised his forelegs as if in a fight, or with a similar statement, then whirled about and left through a break in the far wall of the mountain. That chosen route had to come out in Reiser’s Valley. Handley was sure of that; he’d find the way in from that side.
The stretch through the heart of the mountain had put a strain on his body, and it was apparent to him, as if he could feel the bruises making fast on his muscles, his skin alert to inner changes, all of it the way hard work digs deep, does one well. He did not feel badly, though. It was one way of coming out a winner in a new venture … besides the excitement. The back of one hand was deeply bruised from a rock that had fallen on it in the cave, and he accepted it as a memento of what he was in the midst of, not what he had done already. That was a ways off he told himself.
The horse would be a prize in itself.
The animal bolted in his mind like a shot of energy. The privilege was coming alive, he could feel. To own such an animal, to train him, would make him the man he always wanted to be. This was his test, to end the endless dreaming of doing something big, of being somebody that Leeman’s Fork knew.
An argument leaped inside Handley. “I’ve got to set a name on him, bring it to a confirmation, make it attractive, come back and catch him, this … this …. “ He stumbled and fumbled for words and simply said, “The Black.” There, it was name enough, and he confirmed it in his mind. “The Black will be mine. The Black. The Black.” It sat on his tongue like a spark had settled in comfortable spittle.
He kept saying the name to himself as he went back through the crevices, the sheer walls, the cave, keeping in mind the way The Black had left the valley, on the far side. And his mind set that possible route, the way in.
All the way back to Leeman’s Fork, the grip of the saloon wrapping him up in its cape, he hoped he could contain himself. The Black was a superb looking animal. The mountain pasture was a prize too. He had to keep his mouth shut about the horse and the pasture. Keep all of it quiet, or else there’d be a parade of cowpokes trying to get an edge on him, a leg up.
He laughed at that last image, seeing some cowpoke get thrown by The Black as soon as he tried to sit him.
Pinky Bushwick, the bartender at The Three Rocks Saloon in Leeman’s Fork, poured a beer as soon as Handley walked in the door, the sweat pouring off him, dirt and grime on his duds as if he had been thrown from his mount and needed a drink and not a doctor.
“I don’t think you feel as bad as you look, Judd. You’re all messed up for sure, but the look in your eyes says you got the bull by the tail. Is that a fact, or am I seeing it all wrong?”
“No, it’s really nothing, Pinky. Just feel good today, not according to how I look.”
“You can’t tell lies with them eyes, Judd. Don’t try to fool an old barkeep like me. Don’t tell me you got nothing new on your mind, Judd. I’ve known you too long. Also, I know you ain’t bound to keep a secret for too long, ‘specially if it’s a good one, so I’ll just wait all day if I have to until you spring it.” He leveled a stare from the ages as he looked over the rim of his glasses. “I swear I won’t tell a soul in here.”
Handley knew, of course, that promise didn’t cover anyplace “outside” The Three Rocks Saloon. He gave Bushwick a smile, finished his beer and said, as he swung the door open, “I’m going to catch up some sleep, Pinky.”
Both of them knew it was a lie.
Bushwick, being a bartender, a dispenser of good and not so good stuff, according what kind of money was in the exchange, had a serious hold on some of the regular customers. A few of them were the best of ferrets, and were so rewarded in their turns at the bar.
Bill Ferry, by luck or providence, was the next customer, and before he got to the bar, a shot and a beer were whipped up by Bushwick, who made as if he was sweeping coins off the bar. Ferry smiled inwardly, knowing what was coming, but he hadn’t minded any “errands” to date that Bushwick had requested, with a good hand on the tap.
Bushwick’s scraper stick slid smoothly across the top the beer, sweeping excess foam from the rim. His smile was direct and forward, his eye glasses tipped like a professor’s, as he assayed his new customer.
“Judd Handley,” he said to Ferry, almost in a whisper, “just left here. Find out what he’s up to. Where he goes in town. What he buys, if he does buy anything. Check the livery too, but make like you’re just passing by. Dobrick will talk to anybody if the boss isn’t around, just to kill time. See what he says.”
“Gotcha,” Ferry said, as he downed the shot and spent not much more time on the beer. There’d be more coming, if things worked out right for him.
Toward evening, shadows already in places, mountain peaks turning the color of the sky they slipped into, the sound of moving air coming in a new tone with a cooler message, owls on the lookout as well as bats, Ferry sauntered back into The Three Rocks Saloon. He nodded at Bushwick at the far end of the bar talking to one of the ladies from upstairs.
Bushwick dismissed the woman and a shot and a beer were on the bar when Ferry settled his elbows on the rail. “What’d you see?” Bushwick said. “What’d he do? Where’d he go? What’d he take with him?”
Ferry was full of smiles as he drank off the shot and offered a great big smile over the top of the beer mug. “You’re damned right about him, Pinky. How’d you know all that? He’s up to something. Loaded up at the store with vittles and such, got a new canteen, and then hired a pack mule from the livery. I followed him as far as the entrance to Reiser’s Valley. I wouldn’t go in there ‘cause he’d see me for sure. I knowed you wouldn’t want that.”
“What the hell does that look like?” Bushwick said, and slipped another beer on to the counter. Again he faked the coin collection from the bar top, his eye looking for his boss sitting at a table with a few friends, in deep conversation. He wondered what that was about also, his every day waiting for answers to riddles, questions, guesses, waiting for the real wonder to happen, shake him loose from someone else’s bar.
“I’m taking a day off this week. Want to go with me and have a peek when I pick a day?”
“Wouldn’t miss it on a bet, Pinky,” Ferry said, as he pushed his glass across the counter for a refill, trying to hide his smile.
The pair of rumor sleuths, wonderers, short-change specialists on life in general, were more than half a day in Reiser’s Valley, when Bushwick said, “Where the hell has he gone to, Bill? You see any tracks?”
“There’s lots of tracks, Pinky, a whole mess of them like wild horses been up in here. I can’t follow Handley’s tracks any more. They just get lost in the mix. Only thing I’m sure of is they all seem to end up at that side of the valley, over there where the wall’s more than 300 feet straight up. I can’t figure that out.”
“Let’s take a closer look over there,” Bushwick said. “He’s got to go someplace in here.”
Judd Handley, meanwhile, had blocked up the way in and out of the secret valley by setting up limbs and brush and a few logs he had pulled in place. He was not about to let The Black get out behind him. The Black, at that time, was across the prim valley with his harem of mares, the sun coming straight down into the valley as they frolicked in the shade of a few trees.
Standing on a small ledge he had climbed from a rocky backside, he kept his eye on the stallion, thinking all the while about riding that great animal right down through Leeman’s Fork main street. It would be the show of shows.
Already that morning, after setting up the blockade and setting up camp the night before, he had tried three times to throw a rope over The Black, who was an elusive target, but could not get out of the haven valley. The closest Handley got to the stallion was in a mix with a palomino mare who seemed to be the golden lass of the harem.
Handley, after several attempts, drove the palomino in behind a blow-down in a far corner of the valley and managed to erect another barrier. The Black nosed around the barrier a lot and Handley thought that would prove to be his best chance to rope him.
He was hoping he could corner The Black, whose attention might be elsewhere, with one good swing of his lasso.
While he was busily trying to make things happen, Bill Ferry, on the other side of the blocked entrance, announced his discovery to Bushwick, “Hey, Pinky, look what I found over here. I guess this means I’ll be drinking free forever, huh?”
He pointed in between two huge slabs of stone that had slid saucer-like off a cliff face and had formed an archway of sorts in behind another great slab of stone. “I’ll bet Handley’s got this place blocked off so no one will follow him in there. Let’s get at it and get the way clear.” He was off his mount and pulling at the pile of brush and limbs.
Bushwick, looking at the piled material, the logs on the ground, and the limbs set like rails of a fence, said, “Or he doesn’t want anything to get out of there. And I bet it’s wild horses or a whole herd of cows. Can’t be anything else. We better not break it all down. Tie off our horses here, bring the rifles, and we’ll take a peek from the other side.”
He slid easily off his saddle, but with a bit of excitement showing in his face. “I knew that boy was up to something. I sure did.” He swung his rifle out of the scabbard on his saddle.
Down from the ledge where he had been studying the stallion, Handley mounted his horse, swung his lasso into its working loop and started swing it as his horse made for The Black still cavorting around the palomino mare behind the brush barrier. When The Black spun about, the lasso’s whir in the air alarming him as much as the tromp of hooves, he stood defiantly on his hind legs, and the loop of the lasso settled over his neck. Handley ran his horse around a tree and the rope was secured quickly. The Black was caught, made weird noises, and reared in the air a dozen times, but the rope, choking him as he fought it, finally brought him to a standstill.
Bushwick and Ferry were yelling at that moment, saying they had a part in it all. “We want that horse, Judd,” Bushwick yelled out. “You can have them other horses.”
“You got it the wrong way, Pinky,” Handley said, “The Black is mine. I named him before this. I tracked him in here. You can have the horses. All I want is him.”
Bushwick, with the rifle in his hand, fired a shot at Handley, who returned fire immediately, a round coming very close to Ferry, who threw his rifle on the ground and said, “I don’t care how many free drinks you give me, Pinky, I ain’t fighting him for no horse that’s his to begin with.” He put his hands in the air.
Thinking better of fighting, Bushwick said, “Can we have them horses?”
“They’re all yours, Pinky. I want The Black and he stays here with me until I break him or he breaks me.” He finished off by saying, “And you boys better keep quiet about this place or the sheriff and the owner of the saloon ain’t going to like what I tell them.”
Bushwick and Ferry planned how they’d drive the mares back to town, and set about getting it done. In a matter of hours they were out of the valley and headed back to town, after rebuilding the barrier at Handley’s direction.
“Just in case,” as Handley explained it.
Four days after he left town, Judd Handley rode into town sitting one of the finest looking stallions anybody in town had ever seen, including the livery men and all the old timers living in Leeman’s Fork.
Bushwick and Ferry has already spread the word about how they had helped young Judd Handley catch the great stallion in a daring escapade in a secret valley they were sworn not to talk about.