Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Grady McGoldrick, sitting his very calm Appaloosa, Gen’ral Trend, saw the bridge from high on Malvern Hill, and was surprised at the span of it, how it snaked out from a tunnel in a section of the hill and disappeared at the other end in a thick growth of trees so tall he could not see the road coming from anywhere and everywhere else. But he had seen the whole valley on this side that attracted most of its incoming traffic. At this moment of his scouting mission, three wagons on the span and several riders, all as separate as bashful folks at a barn dance, were coming into Lomax Falls.
He had been advised the project would be a tough one, even for an expert in dynamite.
Perhaps it was the idyllic scene and not the wooden bridge that had most command for a bridge wrecker, for a demolitions man. Every now and then, history will prove, the soul of a demolitions man distorts the mission before the target. Vistas may do it, dreamt scenes carried for years may do it, and auras created within a person who has a simple niche of sensitivity at work may do it, all before any act of conscience.
He’d been paid half his contract sum for blowing up the bridge that brought a stream of squatters, settlers, farmers, dare-to-do wanderers, saddle bums, celebrated tramps and odd drummers into Lomax Falls and the graceful lands beyond in the most magnificent valley his employer had ever seen.
Job Henry could have burned the bridge down on any night, but he was the leader of the town council and did not want to sully his name. It was bad enough that he wanted to own the whole valley if he could, and most people knew it, but several others wanted it too.
He was in the best position of all of them to take what he wanted.
That brought him to Tolliver Grove and Grady McGoldrick, known expert in moving mountains of rocks, changing the course of a river, bossing the land under his feet. McGoldrick had the necessary supplies, know-how, getaway horses, the unknown face that could pass easily among the citizens as a nonentity, and he was fearless in the face of guns in the hands of The Every-day- Charlies-Named-Smith that thought they were gun slick. That kind of Charlie never once bothered him; “Their gun sights are always off by 6 feet or more … and I’m only 5’ 11,” is the way he put it more times than not, and those times were in the Chicago jail he eventually busted out of, using, of course, a smuggled source of dynamite.
He had greased the skids before that breakout by telling the dynamite-smuggling guard how he’d be on the first train back to Boston if he got away. The guard, of course, informed on him after the big boom went off, but McGoldrick was on his way west in the first five minutes of freedom. The law looked east while he went west, all the way to Nevada. It was in Tolliver Grove, Nevada that a small reputation for moving earth problems began to grow, and where Job Henry found him in the Bear Paws Saloon on a Saturday evening in June of 1871.
Henry had heard about him, sought him out, but wanted to study him for a while … get a slant on his makeup from his own observation.
He spotted McGoldrick in the saloon as soon as he entered, watching the dynamite specialist for a while as he talked to the best looking girl in the saloon. To his surprise, McGoldrick put off the girl and went back to sipping his drink as she sent off in a visible huff. To his own satisfaction, Henry studied the girl and understood McGoldrick’s action … there was something about her that he too found unlikable. It set the forthcoming pact for him.
Henry made it quick and terse; “Mr. McGoldrick, I want to hire you to blow up a bridge that’s 362 feet long, spans a creek bed that’s 63 feet deep, and it’s all made of wood. I want everything to go down on one shot so that anybody who wants to build a new bridge will take a long time to decide on how to do it. If you do it in the next month, the creek below will most likely carry away most of the debris. If you wait longer, too much debris will linger on the site. I will pay you $5,000 up front and you can take a look at the bridge to decide how you want to do it and $5,000 after you complete the destruction. If you want the job, say so now and we’ll be on our way.”
They were on their way after one more drink, with a toast to success.
From the back of Gen’ral Trend he kept studying the long span and its reinforcement points, seeing where his boom sticks should best be placed, where the ensuing blasts should do the correct harm, right to the last footing. Immersed in measurements, fuse lengths, timing cycles, he was vaguely aware of a sound behind him.
Grady McGoldrick, for ever after, knew he was in love; when he spun about he was looking on perfection, on unreal beauty, on a softness so honest his heart hung as if it was exposed, dangling on his chest, the beats coming back upon him. Blue eyes, as deep as that honest softness, stared back at him. A smile accompanied them. Rosy and golden cheeks blooming with day came too. Her red-pink lips were parted as if the breath of life had found a home passage. Hair as blonde as a flower whose name he could never recall fell in graceful tresses on her shoulders and convinced him that she should never wear a hat.
He didn’t know what to say. Glib Grady McGoldrick didn’t know what to say.
She said, “I hope you see the beauty of it all down there, how it draws people and things together. I look at it sometimes and think it’s like a funnel pouring people and material into the loveliest spot on earth. Are you seeing it that way? Like it’s a funnel? Do you ever think that way about things? I do.”
She put her hand out. “My name is Juanita Henry. What’s your name? Do you see what I’m seeing?”
He still did not answer her, afraid his voice, the tone of it, would carry his mission in it. But he knew how the softness of her hand would feel on the back of his neck the first time it would happen. He forgot fuses and foes and foot measurements that he had already determined.
“Oh, yes,” he stuttered, thinking he was so dumb to show off his feelings so quickly. And her name did not find awareness in him … not yet. No connection came to him, not between her and his new short-term employer or the $5,000 stashed in the money belt, the bulge of it touching at his backside.
She smiled back at him, her hand still in his hand (and not at the back of his neck.) “I’d guess you’re new here and you’re checking out the sights. I hope they’ve pleased you.” There was an extra curve in her lips, a sly curve, a curve that said she knew what she was doing and didn’t care who knew it … including this stranger sitting his horse and looking at the bridge to Lomax Falls. Her head tipped slightly as she listened to see if she could hear the falls. In a month or so the sound would go nearly silent, until the spring rush came again, the high mountains with a new message, a new vitality.
“I think I ought to tell you that I come up here often, always alone, and you’re the only person I’ve ever seen here looking down at that funnel of a bridge.” Slightly she paused and continued, “Except for my father. I saw him here a couple of times. It must be in the blood.” She shrugged her shoulders as though she might be saying, “Someone else shares what we have.” Her eyes might have been saying the same thing.
“Oh, whoa,” he said to himself, making the awful connections, seeing his plight, the whole line of connections immediately visible … the beauty he knew he loved, the bulge of money now pushing at his back, her father’s words, his employer’s words, Job Henry’s words, and how every single connection could be broken in one horrible explosion.
One strike of a match would last forever. Where would that put Juanita Henry?
Feeling helpless, he looked down at the bridge and saw two more wagons starting across, coming this way into Lomax Falls, the other wagons gone past already, Another rider appeared, as if he had come out of the thick green of the trees. A lone rider. A searcher. A dreamer.
How do little things become so important?
His first thought brought him the idea that he’d have to use this beautiful girl against her father to break his agreement. It set an ugly taste in his mouth. He could choke on it. He was surprised at his thinking; I’m a munitions man, a dynamiter. I blow things up. I get paid for it. But this is absurd.
She had a new look on her face. He thought she was reading his mind, that she had this power to see into him. Would she know he loved her already? That he was planning on ruining what she loved, this funnel of a bridge, this wooden structure that a simple fire could destroy.
Why was she so beautiful? Now, this minute, her soft lips were pinker or redder. He was not sure which. That hand of hers on the back of his neck would be so grand.
He dared to look her in the eyes.
But an hour earlier, in the Wolf’s Head Saloon in Lomax Falls, the banker Thornton Estivan looked up from his table to see Job Henry enter the room. The banker smiled inwardly at the thought of spending some time with the big smoke in Lomax Falls and all the nearby areas that were dependent on his bank for most of their business. Henry would make the most profitable choice as a partner in the bank, even while other considerations about the rancher came into his mind.
And some of them were evil.
His own wife, Carolyn, for one of those considerations, would dote on Henry’s good looks any chance she could get. He knew for a fact that she thought him to be the most handsome man in the entire west … at least the Lomax Falls part of the west. Her visits to the bank always came on a Monday, which was Henry’s day for business in his office. It happened with such regularity that he was convinced it was a mutual arrangement, whether planned or not, whether alluded to or not by either party. He never pointed out any of his feelings to Carolyn, letting it fester in him until he made a great discovery … he felt the same way about Henry’s daughter Juanita. He’d bet a special mortgage rate with anybody that Henry had no idea of his daughter’s lone trips up to Malvern Hill to enjoy the splendid view from that prominence. That made the beautiful girl a different person, different from anybody else in Lomax Falls, including his own wife.
As Juanita was doing this very morning. Her hilltop visits were as regular as his wife’s pretext visits to the bank and her saying every time, “Oh, Job,” with a sly smile caught in the corners of her eyes, at her lips, “glad to see you’re at work again today. And I hope all goes well for you.”
Often he’d spend some time trying to unearth a similar greeting to Juanita whenever the day came that he’d visit her with high hopes on the high hill.
He was glad it was Tuesday, his wife’s visit concluded for another week and her idol about ready to join him for a drink.
“Morning, Job. Sit a spell, if you will. All the business touched on yesterday is safely completed as of this very morning. I had Harry right at the books as soon as you left. We’ll arrange that foreclosure on Higgins today, the papers all drawn up and legal as ever.” He smiled his small victory smile, knowing it was accepted the same way it was delivered.
For sure they were cut of the same yard of hide.
“Thornton,” Henry said, “you are specialist and the clock runs your affairs, the clock and the calendar. It is a damned pleasure to do business with you.” The “damned,” of course, was a sly jab back at the banker.
The pair was on a second drink when the banker said, “I saw Juanita going by a while ago, Job, on her way up to enjoy the view from Malvern Hill. I heard she loves the view from up there, looking down on the river and the bridge and the oncoming traffic it handles. Seems she does it every week like clockwork herself.” He let that settle in place, and then gave it another nudge, “She must be a perfect joy to you, though her beauty must come from her mother’s side of things.”
Henry laughed at the slick remark, both of them in the contest with each other.
But it was a sure edge earned by the banker who had one-upped the rancher on his daughter’s activity. And it was quickly obvious to Estivan, when Henry practically raced out of the saloon, that the rancher suspected his daughter was meeting a man on top of Malvern Hill, with a clear view of the bridge into Lomax Falls … contracted to have blown to smithereens.
Rushing, galloping where he could, climbing slowly in tough places in the trail, he reached the summit of Malvern Hill … and saw his daughter in the company of a familiar looking man. At first, as he neared them, he could not place him, but knew he had seen that silhouette in the recent past. In a flash, a flash that might be as bright as the bridge gone incendiary, he recognized Grady McGoldrick, the dynamite man, the specialist at munitions and moving the earth underfoot.
The destroyer of things was talking to his only daughter, his only child.
It was unthinkable. My god, what would Thornton Estivan have to say about this?
Juanita whirled around as she heard a horse approaching the summit, and saw her father staring at her new friend, Grady McGoldrick, who she was positive loved the same things she did.
“Oh, Pa, I want you to meet Grady McGoldrick. He loves to look at the same things we love to look at, like the bridge and all the opportunities it brings right into our middle, into this place I call our piece of heaven on Earth.”
Her father saw how she sparkled when she talked, how her eyes went blazing with light and hope and ultimate conviction of her thoughts. “Grady,” she continued, “says the same thing. I saw him counting the traffic on the bridge even before he saw me coming. That’s just like I do, and I know you’ve done the same thing. Oh, it’s so exciting to meet someone who’s just like I am, just like we are.”
McGoldrick did not say a word; did not throw her off, did not deny what Juanita had said, did not pretend anything to her father.
Henry was dumbfounded at several things: McGoldrick’s silence, Juanita’s assumption about the family likes, Estivan’s knowing about her penchant for coming up here; again, at Juanita’s clear-cut expression of what the bridge meant not only to her and him, but to those who were coming to and those already in “her piece of heaven on Earth.”
Juanita practically stood in the stirrups as she exclaimed, “Oh, look, Grady. Look, Pa, there are three more wagons coming onto the bridge now. Isn’t it beautiful, all these dreamers and searchers coming to share what we have? Isn’t it?” She twisted in the saddle and placed a hand on McGoldrick’s hand gripping the pommel of his saddle, and Henry felt that touch as much as McGoldrick did. He might have said, “What an unholy triangle this is, and I am the unholiest part of it.”
It was not the first such feeling he had, for his “Monday ritual of seeing the banker’s wife also intruded in his thinking, in his “complications.” Vengeance, he felt, made odd souls equal, but only after it had run its way into the battle of sins.
The internal battles roared inside Henry, buffeting, tossing and heaving their combats about his own small battleground. What was he to do? How could he get out of this road he had set himself on, to destroy what his only child loved? It was incredulous that he’d get out of it with his skin still on his back, his place in the order of things maintained, his daughter loving him endlessly as she always had.
The forces about in the world, the forces other than plain sticks of dynamite made their will and powers known as he heard again the words he had memorized to present to the dynamite specialist who now sat his horse beside his only child, a child he might lose in all of it: “Mr. McGoldrick,’ he had said in practice a hundred times before he had formally delivered it, “I want to hire you to blow up a bridge that’s 362 feet long, spans a creek bed that’s 63 feet deep, and it’s all made of wood. I want everything to go down on one shot so that anybody who wants to build a new bridge will take a long time to decide on how to do it. If you do it in the next month, the creek below will most likely carry away most of the debris. If you wait longer, too much debris will linger on the site. I will pay you $5,000 up front and you can take a look at the bridge to decide how you want to do it and $5,000 after you complete the destruction. If you want the job, say so now and we’ll be on our way.”
He had memorized it so good that he could say it again, right now as he sat his saddle and looked down at the bridge alongside his daughter and the munitions man. What if it just blurted from his lips? Could he prevent that from happening? It was right there in his mouth like a bad taste. Would it blurt out by itself?
Of course, often in life, after bad thoughts make their ways into a person’s life, some grace abides in the soul of that man, sits about the soul of that man, like a life preserver saves some men from their own sins of greed.
That grace arose on Malvern Hill that same day, that next moment, changing the fortunes of hundreds and hundreds of people in the territory, in a little place one girl called “our piece of Heaven on Earth,” as she said the magic words:
“Oh, Pa, I forgot to tell you that Grady was going across the north side of our ranch and found $5,000 in a money belt that maybe one of our people lost, or someone on his way through. He gave it to me to give it to you, being the owner of that ranch.”
She handed the money belt to her father, and added, “I’m sure you can find out who it belongs to. Isn’t that the most thoughtful thing you can think of, what Grady did for someone he does not even know?”
Grady McGoldrick, munitions expert, had not yet said a word, even as Juanita’s hand touched his hand again.