Western Short Story
The Break in the Fence
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Bridge Harmon came over hill from a visit to Road Gap, the nearest collection of buildings in East Texas, his end of the world. He sat his saddle for a spell when he saw his two teen-age sons working on a broken-down section of the corral fence. Something had happened while he was in town for mere hours and he wondered how it got that way.

They were good workers, both of the boys, but not without a general push from him. A quick count of the animals told him only one horse was missing. He realized why they were not off searching for the horse, not wanting to lose more animals, nor to separate from each other. They were extremely close, Chance and Choice Harmon who often swapped each other, Choice becoming Chance and Chance becoming Choice, a game of game in thereabouts, East Texas.

One of them said, “We had a visitor, Pa. Said he was a Hill and Dale Inspector for the new railroad comin’ and we ain’t ever even seen a train.”

“What kind of a horse was he riding, or was he in a railroad company horse and wagon? How long has he been gone? What happened to the fence?”

“He wasn’t riding anything, Pa, just plain walking and needed water and said a sand storm was chasing him across East Texas and he was powerful thankful about the fresh water to drink and wash his face with and was so glad that he said he had plenty of influence with the railroad and that he could practically name two of the new station stops in our name, Choice, East Texas and Chance, East Texas. Ain’t that swell?”

“Where’s the black stallion, the only horse I can see that’s missing so I can’t see him? What happened to him, to Black Billy?”

“That’s the other big thing, Pa. He said the storm was kicking his heels and he bet he could get all our horses into the barn if we was to rig up a saddle for the Black Billy, and we was at our regular chores you know. So Chance saddled up Black Billy and I got the man, the Hill and Dale Route Inspector, some more water to wash up, and quick as that storm that’s acomin’ he had our horses all together and in one loud yell from the Hill and Dale Route Inspector they busted a good chunk of fence by crowdin’ it too close and the Hill and Dale Route Inspector said he’d go off and chase down any horses that got out of here, and he was done gone and out of sight quicker than that there storm comin; our way.”

“So, you two boys wouldn’t split up and you wouldn’t saddle up two more horses and go chase him down because some of the other horses would run off if the fence wasn’t fixed. That’s high- time thinking, boys. We wouldn’t want to see any more of our horses rustled in a way that never came this way before.”

“You sayin’, Pa, that there ain’t gonna be no Choice, East Texas Stop or no Chance, East Texas Stop and that we wuz rustled of one horse, Black Billy, by the Hill and Dale Route Inspector?”

“Them’s my words, boys, and soon’s you get that fence fixed and you both get saddled up, we’ll go chase down our Hill and Dale Route Inspector and horse thief before that sand storm that ain’t comin’ catches up to us or to him and Black Billy.”

“And I want to make sure you boys put new shoes on Black Billy last week, like I said.”

In unison, the boys said, “Yes, sir, Pa, we done shoed him good.” They were proud of that accomplishment because Black Billy was one mighty horse to handle, who in turn just about handled the ranch horses on his own, and the boys were well-aware of it, making broad both their smiles and allowed a little strut for this part of the day, in spite of the loss of Black Billy.

“That’s well and good, boys, for with those new shoes Billy’s wearin’ we can track that bozo all the way to the Missouri or the Mississippi if we have to. No rush about thin’s now. Finish off the job you’re at, eat s some grub, pack up some water bags and needed stuff, like a blanket for nighttime sleepin’ and we’ll be on our way in a few hours. A few hours ain’t goin’ to save this new kind of rustler or horse thief, whatever you want to call him.”

Bridge Harmon, of a certainty, knew what lay out there in East Texas, including the parts of the big Piney Woods where he had swung an ax on his way to settle in this part of East Texas to raise horses and cattle after his trip from his original hometown in Sullivan Station, Missouri, on an arm of the Big Mo Railroad Company that swung down along the river and turned west at a couple of advantageous spots.

It was 1874 on the calendar hanging up in the house, keeping him appraised of his age and that off his twin sons since their mother had died when they were but five years old. And pieces of railroads were making incursions across the land. In fact, the Getlo Railroad (Greater East Texas to Louisiana Railroad) was afoot on the land for a few years.

After the fence was fixed, they had a late supper, all the horses fed and run into the barn, and Chance and Choice were talking, one saying to the other, “Pa’s really cool about this, isn’t he? That horse thief does not have a single idea in his head of what is about to come after him no matter how long it takes, even if he goes way past the big rivers, cuz Pa’s gonna catch him ‘fore he can blow his nose clear of Texas dust.”

Like the two boys were seers at a mystery, it was only a matter of three days (two nights under blankets beside a fire) with the elder Harmon telling tales as he had for them in the early years after they mother died, Chance Harmon pointed out a horseshoe print on a patch of ground. “Look at that, Choice, fresh as mornin’s bacon, like Billy knows we’re comin’ to get him. Wait until Pa sees this one.”

He made no noise, the sign was so fresh, but waved to his father and pointed at his own feet where Black Billy had left his name like he had written it on the ground.

The thief was under the point of Bridge Harmon’s pistol as he reclined against a log and Black Billy announced himself.

“Ho, there, Hill and Dale Railroad Inspector, horse thief, liar, bamboozler, crooked as a small stream in the rocky hills, you are now my prisoner. You, my man, are goin’ to hang from the gallows for stealin‘ that there big black who knows me already and has probably smelled me and my boys for the last couple of days. He give you any trouble?”

“Come to think of it, mister, he sure did, like he wanted to tell me somethin’ I should have heard better. I guess I’d better give you my name. I am Breighton Arthur Garniss, better know as Bags, story teller, entertainer, mysterizer galore from the word go. You ever hear about me?”

“Of course, I did,” replied Harmon. Everybody, ‘cept my sons, I suppose, out this way, knows about you. Every rancher, cowhand, miner, explorer, land grabber, railroader, knows about you, and they all know that you’re gonna hang for stealin’ my horse. No two ways about it in spite of my twin sons, if you get my meanin’.”

Bags started his old routine, telling stories, entertaining, getting laughs and some mighty roars out of his three-person audience.

It all made Harmon say, in one break of Bags’s delivery, “You’re still gonna hang, Bags, no matter how funny you get out here under the stars and the Almighty his-self,” and even as he said that, his sons were still caught up in hysterical exclamations, jabbing each other with obvious shoves and light punches and attention grabbers of the humorous kind, like a kind of shadow boxing without proper lighting of any sort, and no judgments from any direction..

“No way I can get out of this?” said Bags. “I didn’t want to steal from your boys, but I was gut dry and thirsty and two days with only a few drops of water in my canteen, barely enough to wet my lips and the tongue of my horse whose name was Sugar Pete that I raised since he was my very first mount when I turned sixteen and started to ride on my own cause. And on top of all that I had to leave that great horse for the buzzards out there to eat, only a couple of days ago. I tell you, Mr. Harmon,” he added so fervently, “it was one of the toughest things I ever had to do in my lowly life if I do say so myself, bein; at the heart of truth in all these actions goin’ on around me, like life finally gets down to the measurin’ point. though I knew it was comin’ all the time, I swear on my mother’s heart.”

He was apathetic, in a sudden way, in his delivery, and silence fell over the quartet in the midst of East Texas, until Harmon repeated his warning; “There’s nothin’ you can do, Bags, to change your future, once a horse thief, always a horse thief. Every single jury ever assembled out here in horse and cow country will come up with the same verdict. It’s their life blood that’s on trial too.” It was as if he had washed his hands of a man’s life, so final sounded his words.

Silence, and reality, a whole ton of it, came atop the group as though an overhead decree had been dropped onto their small and insignificant gathering. The twin Harmon sons showed instant dejection, life in the quick balance of judgment and not reality.

It reigned, that silence, until Bags said, “What if I can show you the richest cave in all the west. Lay it right in your laps for you and your sons, can I avoid the terrible fate that awaits me? I swear that I have never seen anythin’ like it, not anyplace or anywhere. I crawled into a small openin’ one night to get away from a storm and wild animals howlin’ for my skin. It mushroomed, like a funnel, ablaze with all the glory of gold and silver you can imagine, I swear two hundred feet into a mountain. Gold! Gold! Gold! Every damned piece made of gold or silver or both. A fortune of fortunes. Would that get an offer from you, Harmon, as you think about your boys without a mother?”

Bridge Harmon sat still awhile, looked at Choice and Chance, measuring his own being, resolved his bearing, and said, “I’d make that trade, Bags, and promise to shoot you if you’re lyin’ again.”

“It’s a deal,” said Bags, the story teller, the entertainer, the formidable liar and thief, who breathed a sigh of relief.

So, we must say here say that Bridge Harmon came to be the president of the Getlo Railroad, Bags his vice president. Choice and Chance on the president’s board of chairmen (with two rail stops stablished in their honor at Chance Getlo Station Stop and Choice Getlo Station Stop, and a nice present for their stepmother whom their father married after his appointment as railroad president and she was accidentally shot by a stray bullet while on her horse from a shooting exhibit of a circus brought to the town of Road Gap by the president of Getlo Rails.