Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
"You have any family, Hook, if that's what they call you." The heavy set man asking questions had been around for at least half a century, carried serious eyes, some obvious facial scars marking the years, but those remnants didn't appear to be from life-threatening situations. Warmth, in no certain terms or applications, issued from his person as well as from his voice, a long-time cowboy tone carrying his words with a semi-hoarse baritone as though it came from deep in his chest and not through regular vocal channels. A cough would not have been so deeply issued.
"Ears were hearing the toss and pitch of offer and opportunity for one man at a new job, if it was offered and was taken. Of a certainty, the completion had to be made away from the ranch and in the best office away from home, the local saloon, the saloon having the most desperate name, a name that climbed out of another chance; in this case, at The Last Draw, the only saloon in the only town in the valley of Big Bears and Bull Moose, and split by Hell itself.
Even the idling barkeep had tuned in on the give-and-go, rancher and cowhand cutting a deal, often for "life" under any other possible contractual situation. Standards of such deals often meant life be damned or eternity with it too, for those swearing allegiance, regardless what came with the job..
Hook, as we now know him, replied with similar trappings; "That's what they call me, in other words, too, as they might say. I had a girl once who wanted more than I promised, so she looked elsewhere and found a gent who now looks out at the world through iron bars some place back east of here." His pause marked another declaration: "A long ways back."
"Serves them both right," said Russ Charles, interviewing Hook Holbrook, 36, rugged- looking, possibly his new foreman, his most recent foreman buried out on the wide grass, a small marker in place until weather and time made their own demands, never to be knelt over again, only a few prayers once in a while cast onto new spreads of grass, northward, westward, a cattle drive's ritual of memory.
Momentary silence was understood by both parties of the discussion; the way of the west, it was often said, had its own unwritten rules. Nothing posted. Nothing shouted. Nothing worn like a badge or a button of color. Silence, it is learned in a hurry on horseback, has its own voice, its own dialect, its own arsenals of sounds a newcomer never catches the first time around the edges..
"You have family. Mister Charles?" Hook's interest was quick, seeing the lay of the land, the possibilities. He might have said, in his own husky tone, "I've been at this talk before, in a similar place, with the same kind of man."
"Yes, I do. A grand wife and mother. Four boys ages 10, 12, 14, 16. No girl yet to balance the lot wearin' the AreC brand."
Hook laughed, in tune with the man. "The 16 year older, he like you?"
"The image, if I do say so. Name's Paulie."
"Paulie want to be boss as soon as he can back it up?"
"How do you see that situation, Hook? That bother you at all?" He was halfway into his first nod of appreciation
"I'd be foreman until you died or gave the place to him and he wanted the change. My word's my sole bond. It's all I own except my horse, my saddle, my guns, and, like I say, my word."
"That's good enough for me. You got the job."
They shook hands, each knowing the other's strength.
Russ Charles saw his current herd, trail-wise, crowding the back of his mind, the way he had last seen it, 20 miles off on the wide grass, controlled by a group of good hands, capable, worthy, but not a leader, the kind he wanted and needed, in the bunch. Every cowman needed a man like he pictured himself, quick, worth every pound, willing to pay or be paid later if needed.
Hook Holbrook, trail veteran, might have seen something of the same image, but realized they'd be some changes once he got to know the crew ... and the 16-year old son of the owner.
Certain attributes of strong personalities don't lay around for pick-up horseshoe games.
The year was 1861, the owner's son, Paul Charles, was almost through his 16th year, with a new foreman on the job only a few months.
Times were changing; for the Charleses, for the West, even for Hook Holbrook; Time sure as Hell rode its own saddle, used the spurs with straight authority, like a posse on the hoof.
The herd was heading north, no longer aiming at the West Coast market war, the rustlers at times as large as cavalry battalions it seemed, plenty of bodies, guns, horses, and somewhere at the moment one of the gangs' own chuck wagons had slipped into a small valley, visible only from a high hill looking down on it.
No serious changes had been implemented by Hook Holbrook and a drive to newer northern markets was underway. They had no news about trouble ahead of them; there were many campfires at days' ends, many dawns en route, lots of darkness in between.
When decisions had to be made, Hook Holbrook was a man of his word, or his words: he was the boss on the trail.
A few weeks later the outrider for the drive, a veteran hand at the task, came in from a night on his rounds, his specialty being an early observation of the general area. He wanted to get a quick meal, get some sleep in the chuck wagon when the drive started up again. He'd planned go to Hook with his report, but Paul Charles intercepted him and heard the report first hand..
"I caught some fire and food smells from down in a draw ahead of us, off to the east, a mile thin they were, like first meal of the day on the coals. It don't smell like no loner sayin' g'mornin' to someone, at leastwise not to me."
Holbrook, on his horse, asked for a report, got it, put it into place, and then said, "No mess of tracks on the trail?"
"Nothin' of any size I could see. Might be comin' this way, or they's lonesome company." He looked dead sure of his information as well as his declarations.
Young Paul said, "Let's run the herd right down their throats. Never know what hit' em that way. Break 'em up for good. "He larruped and waved his hand over his head, yelling out, "What about it, gang, ain't we runnin' the trail here, law of the land, keep goin' no matter what? Ain't that right, boys? Ain't that right? Ain't we a force and a half in our own way? By, Gawd, I can see us now scatterin' them and their breed halfway across the grass."
Some of those cowmen, caught up in the moment of Paulie's outburst, his immediate scramble for the upper hand before it was really needed, seeing what wasn't about to be seen by any imagination other than a hot voice speaking and an unsound mind, a kid's approach to a grown-up issue, couldn't begin to catch sight of the real issue ... who was the real boss here out on the trail where life was different or could be different in a matter of minutes, seconds, what each one of them was sworn to do. Hell, Paulie was one of them, happened to be the owner's son, happened to be the next owner of the herd and its liabilities in a matter of minutes, a single stray bullet, a random aim, a quick trigger.
Hook had enough of the young outburst, the loss of good sense, the trick of histrionics over calm decision. He heard his own words as they were spoken to Russ Charles at the outset, the bind he was bound to observe.
The herd, by trick or chance, could be lost here in a moment of stupidity. The thought was real, and went deeply into his soul. It came upon him like being knocked or thrown from his own horse even a the herd broke from hand and ran loose on miles of grass.
He could have cursed, screamed at the thought, saw everything going down hill right into his back pocket. Nothing else mattered at the moment.
Paulie, high in his saddle, an argument before it caught a second breath, "You boys better think of what's comin' down the line at us. I'm goin' to own the spread, and you all know that. I'll be the big boss and his nibs here will be long gone down the trail from here. Think what it means to you and your families about where next meals come from or a warm bed that's off the cold ground, or where you can throw your hat comes real darkness."
Hook Holbrook said, "I ain't shoutin' at none of you, but sayin' something from where I've never been. I've been all the places Paulie here ain't even got to yet. He's had no runaway herd on the loose, no gang of riders wantin' what he owns, and don't care what a wild chance gone loose can mean to a herd; like no pay at all, or no new job for months, or eatin' mule meat supposed to be packin' goods. Who does what is the big question? Been there and done it, or never been leader of a group of cowmen? Speak up, boys, whoever got all the answers."
"Well, what the hell you gonna do, Hook? Play patsy nice guy to them and go on past and let 'em be like they ain't nothin' to begin with and them ready or gettin' ready to jump the next herd?"
He was up straight in his saddle, like a new boss thought he ought to be, riding over the stubborn voice in the pack of men waiting on his command. He was blond and broad in the shoulders, had arms any one of them'd be glad to wear. "I'd squeeze the life outta them, I had a chance," and showed with a huge ball of a fists how hard he could be.
"I may be a kid to all of you, but I've seen a turn or two on my own." This mouthful came from not even a full grown teener shooting his mouth off before his big birthday. "Whatcha gonna do, Hook?"
His arms spread out in doubt, rejection, and total dismay of the foreman as if it was the final disregard for the foreman his father had hired, and on the spot from what he had heard,
Cool, age and demeanor measuring him as it always does for those who been there and done it all, or at least most of "it," Hook said, "I ain't doin' anythin' but drive this herd to the next valley before any local yokels try it on for size, but one of you right here in the pack of listeners is gonna go down there and burn them outta a wagonload of goods and stuff that keep 'em going out here on the big grass like we 're kept goin' by our own cook, cuz you know what he'd be like if his wagon was to burn down to the grass itself."
The thought, the image of the fire, the sense of hunger spreading upwards through their souls like a curse was let loose at their feet, all came at them as Hook spoke, as he let it sit on them with their own thoughts fueling a mysterious fire.
The whole idea, the realness of all the possible outcomes, settled on them like a soft prayer, and one of them leaped up to say, "I'll do it, Hook. By Gawd, I'll do it."
"Naw, he ain't, Hook! I'm gonna go down in there and do it myself/ Yes siree, all by myself, and burn them local yokels outta breakfast, lunch and dinner tonight and tomorrer night."
In a flash, unseen in the darkness, the next foreman of the AreC brand was off into the widest night he'd ever known. Some things begin with dreams, some with invention, some with a driven spur.