Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Red Cornell came up out of Grace Canyon into bright sunlight, a small breeze under his hat brim and across his face, and a spread of yellow flowers out on the grass as far as he could see. Not a living thing brought any movement to his eyes, except for a large-winged bird sitting on a shelf of air high over his head. “Stillness can be smothering, Chaps,” he said to his horse riding under him smooth as ever. “We’ve been sitting still too long, old boy, waiting for those rustlers to make a move.”
In that stillness he saw a momentary reflection, looked again, and could not find it. “An empty bottle,” he said to Chaps, “or a piece of a busted bottle some cowpoke tossed aside, the sun working on it now.”
Cornell, ramrod straight in the saddle, was almost as broad across the shoulders as his favored mount, and a barrel chest aside a rugged pair of arms. On his head, trailing a drawstring under his chin, the once-white Stetson had changed color, advancing into a faded yellow with one bullet hole in the brim and months of trail dust settled into the fabric. The faded blue shirt and vest, as well as the dark denim pants, showed off his past week’s work alone at the foothills of Waller’s Mountain and the endless chain of caves, canyons, wallows, and deep recesses leading in places toward the heart of the mountain itself. He’d been over more than three quarters of Waller’s Mountain and the rest of the nearby chain where he could ride without so much as a scent of rustled beeves. Some days, like today he could have said, lie as still as the hour just before dawn when it begins to shake the world awake.
Cornell had been through a tough stretch in a week’s time; his boss’s herd hit by rustlers, three or four hundred head run off, one wrangler shot in the shoulder, the trail of the rustled cows disappeared at the river’s edge, and Cornell ordered to go out alone to see what he could find, “No matter how long it takes, Red,” the boss, Colonel Slats Merrison said, blessing the commission. “I want those rustlers more than I want those cows back. It might save us some work down the trail.” He added, with a smile, “Course, I’d like to see us get those cows back too.”
Cornell, coming out of the canyon, showed much of his wild red hair, nearly a bushel of it. It sat down on the back of his neck like a flag, crowded out of his hat atop his ears, and most likely filled the peak of his hat. The dense redness found a matching acceptance in the intense, deep blue of his eyes that had few parallels in sighting a target. It was the first thing the Colonel looked for in a new hand, a steady hand with a steady and unblinking eye when trouble came, as it usually did in any part of any month, and any place cows where were gathered or pushed apart.
“I tell you this, men,” he’d say to new hires, “there are men out there who want to reap the profits on your hard work. They want to take your share out of your hands in one sneaky maneuver and run off with all they can. Don’t let them take your share, or, by God, my share.” It drew in the ranks for the old Shilo legend, the straightest man Cornell ever met. And the colonel, long in cavalry command, found Cornell to be a man exceeding his demand for trust, good sense and old-style cavalry skills. What he guessed stood out as another quality was an instinct that Cornell himself felt controlled his actions at certain times.
That instinct called a halt to his movements in the foothills of Waller’s Mountain, when for the third time he saw the reflection coming at him off the grass, though he was now in an entirely different position. The singular reflection came again from out there on the wide prairie, amid the flowers going crazy and the sun slanting onto a special surface. He almost heard it say, “Whoa,” much as he would say to Chaps on the move.
The third time he saw the reflection made his second sense work for the first time in the new day. The reins flipped over in his hand and Chaps headed downhill, straight for the spot that Cornell had marked by crossed lines in two directions, on two peaks and a lone tree and a significant outcrop on a slow rise. As he rode, intent on keeping true his sighting line, he thought of some fabulous find coming his way, a key to the mystery of the stolen cows and their current location.
The reflections turned out to be from a broken spur, with a bit of silver on it, sitting face up on a bare piece of ground. Cornell stared down at it, was about to ride away, and heard the voice say again, “Whoa, Cornell. Whoa.” He dismounted, picked up the spur and stuck it in his saddle bag. This he did because he believed something in the day would tell him why he had picked up a broken spur.
For the moment he rode on, oblivious of the impact that spur would have, and what the colonel would have to say later.
Back up into the foothills he guided Chaps as his search went on and yielded nothing for hours. If despair had its way with him, he would have chucked it on one harsh climb, but Chaps was also equal to the task, though the search continued fruitless, the climbs at times rugged and awkward.
On one sharp turn in the trail, the tree line behind him, a hawk careening across the skies and letting go a shriek, Chaps reacted to the sound and Cornell felt a pinch of sense, like that belonging to the everlasting partnership of horse and rider. And at that precise moment, as if through an open window, he saw himself checking out a source back in town, looking for an answer to a question that came on him with a subtle intrusion.
The whole town scene shaped up in his mind; no names, no faces, but as actual as it could be.
“C’mon, Chaps,” he said, “let’s go back to town and look for a few answers. We got nothing out here.”
Late in the day, the sun an orange blob getting cut in half by a distant mountain plateau, Cornell left his horse at the livery and walked the boardwalk toward the Fremont City Saloon. Late afternoon dropped its veil atop the saloon, and cards sent out their slap and shuffle sounds, glasses tinkled and tinkered with day’s end, and a cloud of cigar smoke slipped out the door to lose itself in evening’s grasp.
Reasons for all his actions mounted in summary for Cornell; the sun had reflected off the broken spur not once, not twice, but three times, for a reason. He had picked up the spur, for a reason. He had come back into town, for a reason. And he kept trying to find his way through those essential arguments.
In the saloon, standing at the bar having a beer, an old image came back to him; he had seen spurs like the broken one before … and in this room. He looked around the whole saloon, at the spread of boots on a host of cowpokes and did not find any resolution for his search. There were no exact matches to his find out on the prairie. The fact bothered him, for there were many kinds of spurs on the boots of cowpokes in the mix of jobs, errands, and come-and-go visits.
But he was not bewildered. The vision he had seen out there while he was on the hillside came back to him in a flash and he left his beer on the saloon bar and went straight to the general store.
Dace Harkins, the storekeeper, sat on his stool in the store, chewing the remains of an apple. The odor, fresh as morning dew, cut through the atmosphere of the store as Cornell pulled the broken spur from his vest pocket and placed it on the counter.
“Dace,” he said, asserting a bit of secrecy in his approach, his voice just above a whisper, a wary look back over his shoulder, “do you carry this kind of spur in the store? Just like this one? I’d like to know for a personal reason.” Harkins had been around in the business a long time and Cornell figured he’d never let a customer’s secret out of the bag, if he could help it.
“Sure do, Red. I’ve had that brand here for a while. In fact I sold a set to a gent just a few days ago. Said he broke his in a rockslide in the hills. Sounded lucky to me, just losing a spur.”
“Are they really special, Dace? Nobody out our way uses them. They fairly new, are they?”
“Far as I know, they are, Red. That fella, Winchell, started working the Box Bar spread a while back, and said he favored them since his brother bought him his first pair over in California last year, with some silver inlaid on them. They’re called the Sonora-style. Winchell, he’s the fella broke one and then lost it, is a big guy with a white beard about a foot long I’d bet.” He set his hand across the middle of his chest. “All the way down to here. Now and then wears some of his dinner in it.” He laughed a half laugh and looked around to make sure nobody else was in hearing distance. “I wouldn’t lie, no way.”
Twisting his head to an inquisitive angle, lowering his voice, Harkins said, “Where’d you come across this one, Red? You been up there in the rocks? Or are you onto something maybe I might guess at?” Now he had a half smile, like he was saying, “It’s all safe with me.”
Cornell did not like the look, or the half smile, so he laid things on the line for the storekeeper. “You say one word to anybody, even your wife, about this little talk we’re having, and you’ll find yourself a hell of a lot sorrier than you are now, if I make myself clear.” He put a hard finger onto Harkins’ chest, and tapped him a couple of times. “Real sorry, just about as sorry as I can make it.”
Red Cornell, big and mean all over, walked out of the store, looked back in and pointed one more time at Harkins, who was still holding his breath, and headed for the saloon.
As the evening closed down in the saloon, a few stray customers in and out at the late hours, Cornell spotted the long white beard on a big man coming in and stepping to the bar. Dropping a coin on the bar, the bearded cowpoke said, “Whiskey, Slate,” to the bartender, “I have to get back to the spread.”
The bartender said, “You’ll get there in time for breakfast, big boy.”
Cornell, leaving without much notice at all, sat on his horse a few minutes later outside town. Shortly he heard the hoof beats of a horse and saw the shadow of the big man riding out, not toward the Box Bar spread, but toward Waller’s Mountain and its looming darkness out on the horizon.
His instincts, he believed, had kicked in on a decent start.
Cornell set himself well back of Winchell who rode straight toward the hills, paying little attention to the trail behind him. And Cornell knew he could always follow Winchell’s tracks, if need be, come daylight, for his direction was dead straight to one point in Waller’s Mountain, as far away from Grace Canyon as could be. Cornell, wishing he knew the area better, rode Chaps at a slow pace, trying to keep his own shadow off the skyline, favoring lower tracks in the landscape whenever possible. He felt as if he was on a scouting mission back in the war.
Winchell, heedless of the man tracking him, headed right to a certain spot of the mountain face and disappeared as if swallowed up, a shadow going into shadows as far as Cornell was concerned. The slim entrance, on foot exploration by the big redhead, led into a canyon that spread-eagled once inside that slight passage. Cornell agreed that it looked like a holding pen. On foot, still on a mission as commanded, Cornell explored the whole layout of the little valley hideaway after he placed his spurs in his saddlebag; there was grass, there was water, there was a cave where the embers of a late fire glowed in the darkness. The rustled cattle, content with grass and water, idled quietly and at ease, as one man on guard made a leisurely ride back and forth across the slim entrance.
In the morning, with the sun behind him, Cornell rode up to the colonel at the ranch house.
“How’d it go, Red? You see anything out there?” Merrison, the good judge of men, sat on his porch smoking a pipe, expectancy sitting in his face.
“I found the cows, Colonel. There’s about 400 of them in a small canyon way at the other end of the mountain, and well across the river.”
“How many men?”
“Only five of them, Colonel. And they’re getting some more cows from up that end of the range. I heard them talking last night. They’re pretty jittery, if I’m a judge of things. They want to get it done and get out from under.”
“How shall we handle it, Red? I’m taking your play on it.”
“I thought about that all during my ride back here, Colonel. We got them penned up right now, like they were in prison already. We can bring judge and jury with us and hold the trial right on the spot. The cattle in there are yours, every last one of them as far as I’m concerned. We could get in and get behind them, scatter the herd. Those boys would be all over themselves trying to get out of the way, but they’d only get crimped up by that narrow passage.” He added, after further thought, “I can get us in, all of us. Then we sit them down and hold court and all the evidence would be right in front of us. That’d wrap things up, Colonel.”
“Be damned if that ain’t a good idea,” Merrison exclaimed, a full smile crowding his face, with the promise of justice looming as a positive outcome. He kept nodding, kept finding affirmation in his judgment of men, even as he had questions that piqued his curiosity. “How’d you find them, Red? “
The bushy-haired red head, smiling all the while as if a secret would never be revealed, said, “I just kind of reflected on things, Colonel, and after that it was a piece of cake, as they say.”