Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Kiel McQueen, extraordinary horse rider, was in love … with the circus, with the Wild West, and mostly with Mary Maguire, the best of all equestrian riders, and the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. But he hated the constant work they had to do to keep the circus going, even though better days were ahead. Circus owner Oscar Parmenter often said, trying to raise hopes of his crew, “We’ll most likely be riding on the railroad for our next trip.” The year was 1879 and they were bound for the Valley of Ten Chiefs, and the bustling town of Caliber, in the Wyoming territory, on the same rough roads of travel. The name of the valley, though, excited McQueen and brought up all the images he had heard or read about life in the west full of robbers and road agents, and Indians in great encounters. His sack held a few copies of stories about Wild Bill Hickok and Kit Carson, each of them read nearly clean through the printer’s ink, and a hand-written copy of Ned Buntline’s play titled “Scouts of the Prairie” that a bartender in Chicago had given to him.
No circus had ever been set up in the Valley of Ten Chiefs until Parmenter had taken care of all arrangements with the town council of Caliber by telegraph. The commitment was to help celebrate the Grand Reunion of the Great Posse Chase, and the 25th year of that supposed noble undertaking. Unknown to Parmenter, an entrepreneur of the first order, some of those riders were still hanging around, though a bit long in the tooth and slow on the draw.
What Parmenter did not like were surprises that might seriously reduce circus profits. He’d be wary in a new locale.
But surprises were coming from the Great Posse Chase itself, on both sides of the memorable event.
The family of the two men hunted and hung in the chase had never agreed with the court verdict of guilty, claiming the judge was involved in a personal issue, which could have come to light on the day of his death from a self-inflicted wound. The drummer who found the body said the judge had a note grasped in his hand. The drummer hastened into town to tell authorities what he had discovered.
The note, however, was never revealed by the two deputies who brought the judge’s body back from the wide grass of the valley. Both deputies, as it turned out, were related to the judge, nephews who had grown up under his care.
The whole message of the great posse chase went legendary, carrying, of course, different tunes from the different sides. Unrest was attached inevitably to the background of the posse.
Other than that page of Caliber’s history, the first thing that went wrong for Parmenter in the whole escapade happened when a direction sign was moved on the trail to the valley. That move sent the string of circus wagons on the wrong path for a good part of a day. A mountain man, on first sight thought to be a grizzly bear, packed in heavy clothes and fur, set them straight for a small trade of furs for food and supplies.
“Do me the privilege of a trade for some food and ammunition,” he had said, “and I’ll give you these furs and set you on the right course for Caliber, ‘cause you’re a might off the way you’re headin’.”
Parmenter, without the slightest doubt, figured the mountain man, from a description provided by some of the circus riders who had seen him earlier, moved the trail marker in the first place, and ambled along, nearby but unseen, until he could benefit by a providing correct directions.
Parmenter told everybody in the troupe that he wished he could send a new posse after the mountain man, “but they‘d be out there for weeks tracking down a man who doesn’t want to be found.”
“That,” said McQueen, “sure sounds a lot like the Great Posse Chase we’re going to celebrate. Doesn’t that sound like a whole hatful of irony for you?” Prior to this discussion, McQueen had been nursing the deep thought that this show was going to be different from all the others. He did not know where that thought had originated, but it was there, moving toward the surface.
Parmenter shrugged off McQueen’s comment. He was expecting a good crowd, a good exchange of money, a bit of gold in the mix, and too, a bit of skullduggery tossed in as usual. The circus, no matter where it went, woke up people en route by setting up, providing new excitement while it ran, and nearly as much when it packed up to move on. The fancy riders, like Mary Maguire and Kiel McQueen, were his main attractions, for the whole west moved by horse, in the saddle or being hauled in a wagon or cart, though changes were fully on the way.
Parmenter looked at the resources of an area before agreeing to bring the circus to a town. A few good-sized ranches were in the area of the Valley of Ten Chiefs, and at least a dozen mines, prosperous ones, were actively worked in the hills. Also, who knew how many mountain men lived in the high areas around the valley who’d come to the circus, anxious for news and noise for as long as they could stand it? Plus, there was the whole town of Caliber ready to focus its attention on his performers and other attractions that were the backbone of any circus.
At the previous location where the show had drawn a sizeable throng, Parmenter kept up his tirade on moving day to get all the equipment broken down and onto the wagons for the next push. “Get it all packed up, boys, for we have a great site this time out, in the Valley of Ten Chiefs in Wyoming where we’ll be part of a great celebration, the 25th anniversary of the Great Posse Ride.”
He realized he’d have to put some butter on the other side of the bread for the crew, and laid it on. “It promises to be an eye-opening and memorable event. The people will be coming from all over the territory to join the celebration and see us perform. I can’t wait for all of us to get there and make a good show for them.”
Kiel McQueen, said, “ Hey, Oscar, I hope none of those chiefs are still hanging around looking for scalps, and The Great Posse Ride has got hung the bad dudes they were after.” The words were part of the feeling growing inside him, the edginess coming nearer to light.
He forced a chuckle as he looked around at the other riders and handlers and exhibitionists of various disciplines. “Along with itinerant help, we’re working at what we pulled down only two weeks ago and set out for this place. Now, we’re ready to leave again. The cycle’s endless and monotonous. It requires too much work for skilled people. I know we receive lots of fanfare from every audience that watches our fancy riding acts, but the roads we travel and the trails we fight with nothing but plain labor don’t get matched by the receptions we get. We ought to get a bigger piece of the pie, is all I’m saying while I have the chance.”
He dropped the roll of canvas he was hoisting to the back of a wagon. “You know, Oscar,” he continued, “there are places back east that bring better crowds. We ought to think about heading back there sometime. You have to admit the routes out here go practically from nowhere to nowhere.”
He was looking at the heart of the circus, his fellow fancy riders; they were the best around, artists of equestrian entertainment the west was starved for. There were also trapeze acts and acrobats with beautiful women, gangs of clowns, tightrope walkers, and the brass band with horn and drum tooters. He could hear the wild animals of the circus menagerie, some roaring at continued confinement or discomfort in their cages, but they were unique attractions for youngsters who’d otherwise never see African lions or tigers from India or huge elephants standing on their hind legs at the mere sound of a whistle.
had been in a couple of troupes before this one, always looking for
the permanent place where he could rest on his laurels and not have
to fight the hard ways of traveling the west. “I keep hearing you
say the railroad will be the new route for us on the next trip, all
comfy and easy aboard a train. We’d even have a special car for
meals and not be slowed to 10 or 15 miles a day on the worst roads
that can be found. That does sound pretty good.”
McQueen’s eyes spotted Mary Maguire in the midst of listeners. She was the best female equestrian artist he had ever seen and he was totally in love with her. It was the reason he hung around this circus, but she was the niece of Parmenter, which put a hitch in his hopes. She was a special lady who could ride like the wind while standing on her horse, and with her outfit helped catch the eye of every man watching the show. When she did her pyramid act, up on the shoulders of two men on paired horses, the applause was uproariously loud. At every skilled spot she drew a huge ovation, clapping and whistling abounding the whole time. And young men hung around at all hours to get extra looks at her, see her off the horse, to see how she shaped up otherwise.
He’d have to keep his eye on her all the time they were in the Valley of Ten Chiefs, and in Caliber itself.
That afternoon, from an opening in the foothills, they finally saw the rooftops of Caliber sitting on the edge of the grass a few miles off and a clear road for the rest of the way.
Caliber sat up and paid attention as the circus came to town.
As the displays and booths were being set up out in the valley, a short walk from town, McQueen became aware of the first physical concern about the show this time around. At the edge of the small crowd watching the crew go about their tasks, he noticed an old timer, the kind he’d seen before with the hard eyes calling down the years, looking at him, as though he was being sized up.
McQueen thought, “He’s not looking at me because he’s trying to see what a good rider does in his spare time. This dude doesn’t even know me, or what I do. Why not check him instead, hail him out?”
As though he was just passing by, he neared the old man, and their eyes locked.
“I’m one a them,” the old man said. “One of the posse riders you folks are all celebratin’. I guess you knowed that way you was lookin’ at me.”
“How many of you are left?” McQueen said. “But I saw you looking at me.”
“You get right to it, don't cha? Almost like you know what I’m gonna say. I like that in a young feller. And it sure is a mystery to me.” His eyes blinked like he was sifting through the years looking for a specific image. “You know one of us dies every five years.”
He paused, rolled his eyes again in his count, and added, “And on this same day, like it was writ on the calendar. This same day every five years, like we was all to fault for doin’ what we were told to do, go get the killers. But they’re gettin’ us, only slower at it. Don’t cha call that a mystery, Mr. Circus Man?”
“I’m Kiel McQueen; I’m a fancy rider in the show. What’s your name?”
The old man with the hard eyes put out his hand and said, “I’m Luke Kingsbury and I ain’t throwed a leg up on a horse in a year or more. Gets me right back here,” and his right hand passed around his waist and clamped on his near backside. “Right about there, like maybe where the bullet that’s comin’ to me in my turn might find itself, causin’ the same kinda pain.”
He paused again in his counting and said, “Today bein’ the day.” Over his shoulder he looked. “Don’t nobody ever see anybody, though, except the dead one is one of the riders in the posse. Every last one a them killed on this day, the same day it all ended for them two fellers on the only tree you could see in them rocks up there.” He nodded off to the great mountain to the west, a mean looking mountain that McQueen hoped he’d never have to pass through or over.
“Do you know who’s doing the killing? Have any ideas?” McQueen could not take his eyes off the old man’s face, where he could nearly count the years by the wrinkles.
“I’m thinkin’ they’re relatives of those two that got killed after two weeks of chasin’ through the mountains, them like the ghosts they was.” And he stopped, thought it over, and spoke again, in the same tone of voice, “Real ghosts. We’d see ‘em and then they was gone. For two weeks it was, like us bein’ pulled into a pit fight with a mad pit dog who wasn’t showin’ himself until dark when it wouldn’t count no how.”
“You saw both of them die up there?” He tossed his head toward the mountains.
McQueen’s question seemed too cautious for Kingsbury. “Son,” he said, “I seen dyin’ and I seen killin’ and that was killin’ all the way. We knowed that, most of us. Too much fuzzy stuff goin’ on at the trial and that damn fool of a judge killin’ hisself and his note never bein’ showed not for one minute.”
He was measuring again. “Course, all that came after them boys was killed, that bein’ the day that comes back in its haunt every year.” Over his shoulder he looked one more time, as though the move was set by a pocket watch. “He’s probably in that crowd now, maybe lookin’ right at me, who does it. I don’t see no others from the ride, but there’s only three of us left anyways. Tim Chambers, Miles MacDougall and me.”
A change came over him; the wrinkles and lines deepened on his face, the way the chisel wielder of history makes his marks to last until the final breath. There’d be no mistaking him anywhere for anybody else in the world; he could have said, “Luke Kingsbury, killer, about to be kilt.”
It was that kind of a day.
McQueen wondered if such thoughts would hang on during his act; the awed feeling, the expectations affecting his performance. He didn’t dare say, “The certainty.” But it certainly ran through his mind.
The show went on in the afternoon, with plans to go until darkness cut the trick rides down, freed the tight rope walkers and the acrobats and the trapeze aerialists, and lamps and candles carried the gambling and the multiple booth games to conclusion. When McQueen made his first loop of the day around the large ring laid out on the grass, he looked for Kingsbury and did not see the old man who was marking his time. He did not see two other curious faces, also marked by age, he had lit on when talking to Kingsbury, and he did not see the sheriff or his deputy.
That revelation surprised him; sheriffs and deputies always made a point of keeping a sharp eye out for thieves, cheats, and circus hustlers working the crowd. In all towns where they had set up and run the enterprise, the local sheriff or marshal was a presence one could count on, making circuits the whole day through the crowd the way one would patrol for votes in a new election.
In Caliber it was different, with no lawmen around, and was that way until darkness descended and the lamps went out at the circus booths. The stars, dim at first, came loose from their hideaways. The caged animals, under that starry clock, made different sounds in the nocturnal rhythm, and McQueen kept watch on the Maguire wagon until he fell asleep under his own wagon, Mary on his mind until there came no more thought.
In the morning, after a decent sleep, wondering why he thought of Mary and Kingsbury at the same time, the crew already mixing odd tasks with morning duties, he heard about the death of Miles MacDougall. “A rider of the old posse,” said one of the crew, repeating what he had heard from a town person looking for a day’s work. “They found him in the back of the livery, hanging by his neck from a beam. He was cold when they found him. Must have been hanging there all night. Even the horses was still.”
“Who found him?” McQueen said as he looked around the morning gang, still looking for Kingsbury.
“The sheriff was going on an early ride and found him. Cut him down and called the coffin maker and put him to work right away. They want to put him down kind of quiet, so the whole circus won’t get spoiled by a new murder on an old score.”
Parmenter, on the prowl, yelled out, “You going to jaw all day or do some work? We got a bigger crowd coming today. Lots of money. Get at it.”
Mary Maguire, shining like dawn worked on her complexion, sauntered by. “Good morning, Kiel. Thank you for the nightly vigil. Is it uncomfortable down there? Bad as it looks?” Her gaze drifted to the ground beneath his wagon.
“No, Mary. It was a little warm last night. Anyway, I crave the stars, the lot of them. Gives night the best look of all.”
Her response kept him right on his own track. ”I know exactly what you mean.” Her gaze swept down the valley, past the layout of the circus, and a querulous look sat on her face. “Do you know why they call this place The Valley of Ten Chiefs? That’s a strange name, and I’ve heard Indians, at least the ones around here, don’t bury their dead but tend to burn them, like cremation.”
McQueen said, “I only know what I’ve heard about the name from an old timer. Once there was a huge Indian powwow here and the chiefs had retired to a lodge to discuss waging war on some other tribes. There was a landslide and they were buried under tons of rock.”
“I’ll wager there was no war after that.”
“I’d never bet against you, Mary,” he replied, “no matter what was at stake.”
Parmenter wasted no time in his rounds. “Come on, Mary, leave the boys alone. We’ve got too much to do. Big crowd coming today. I hope you slept well.”
McQueen jumped in. “Hey, Oscar, did you hear about the murder last night? One of the remaining posse from the great chase was hung in the livery.”
“I heard all about that nonsense. Don’t pay any attention to it. Besides, Injuns aren’t any of our worry.” Drawing his pocket watch from his trouser pocket, he stared at it, looked at the sun, shook his head and started to walk off.
“You better hope so,” Mary said, “because I do.”
The circus started humming, Parmenter continued his rounds, and before long McQueen was on his last loop around the ring, his last ride of the evening, when he spotted Kingsbury in the crowd.
They met after the performances ended for the day and the lamps were lit in the booths, the crowd almost doing an about face to change their pleasures.
“Luke,” McQueen said, “I looked for you all day. I thought you were gone. One of the posse killers catching hold of you. Where’ve you been?”
“I was hidin’,” he said, “where they wouldn’t find me; in the loft of the livery.”
“You saw it all, didn’t you? Who was it?”
“The sheriff and his deputy. Quick, no noise, rapped him one and hung him unconscious. He never knew what hit him or who.”
“What are you going to do? I know the marshal over at Micah’s Hat. He’s straight as they come.”
“I won’t need him. Me and Tim Chambers got it all fixed. Them two ain’t goin’ to get us. There’s goin’ to be another landslide in the Valley of Ten Chiefs, and it ain’t goin’ to take another five years to get done.”
“The sooner the better,” McQueen said, just as Mary Maguire appeared out of the darkness.
“I hope you were talking about me,” she said.
Before McQueen could answer, the old posse rider said, “We sure were, Miss. This Valley won’t be the same once you two leave here. Trust me on that.”
“I do,” Mary Maguire said. “I can’t wait forever. I watch him watching me every night. It’s not all fair.”
“Not much is these days,” Kingsbury offered, “except when things get took care of.”
Darkness swallowed them up forever.