Western Short Story
The Drifter
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Young Doug Bentley, for some reason unknown to him, had kept his eyes on the new hire who called himself Van Tessor, working for his father, George Bentley, for only the second day. Doug let his gaze follow that of the new man as it stretched past the early evening fire on the edge of the herd onto the far horizon hills as they melted into indistinct shadows.

The young man was generally alert to most things about him, but what he didn’t know was his father’s displeasure, slowly seeping from him, with his general foreman of the ranch and the herds they gathered or generated.

At this moment on the trail, Doug knew the shadows would disappear too soon, bound to sadden him, and wondered if Van Tessor, if that was his real name, felt the way he did at this campfire setting. He hadn’t seen other riders, even those who had been around for a few years, show any emotion at all, or any dreams, or even spoke of the moment the way some of them could bring up beans, cooks, or cows only for the sake of breaking silence, bitching about all kinds of conditions, or played on barely being heard, of being here, flat out on blankets spread near the flames, the chuck wagon, the others on the drive.

He had heard one of them say, “That new gent moves too quick, too smooth for me, keep your eyes on ‘im. Ever knows, do we, what’s comin’ our way, even in the ranks, do we?”

“There must be something else in there,” Doug thought, letting his gaze return to the slightly dimmer horizon, and “something more to attract him like this.”.

The intrigue caught him broadside, and made him say, “What are you looking at, Van?’ not sure if it was his first name or part of his family name.

The new hire replied, “The same thing as you, Doug. The very same thing.” It was immediate association, made the new man kindred.

Scotty Hurlburt, an old hand, said, “What the Hell are you gents talkin’ about? I don’t see nothin’ out there anymore,” and truly, as he spoke, the darkness had descended on the far hills. “Night is night,” he concluded, and went elsewhere as full darkness came upon them, bedding down, hearing sounds of unseen creatures, counting stars, wondering where day had gone, and taking a bit of its misery with it.

Van Tessor had sort of deliberately picked a spot near him, Doug discovered, as the new man asked, “You got any favorites up there, Doug? Any one of them more than any other, all of them special from where we see them, and only at night, like they’re reserved for us by a critter bigger than all of us, like he put them there and he owns the lot of them, head and tail, lock, stock and barrel, like an old teacher said once back in Pennsylvania.”

It was the first time the new man had announced any of his past, a point to be remembered, Doug thought, his eyes finding the North Star, the beacon that it was, the new man in a kind of pact with him, sharing, releasing a harmless root statement. He accepted the joint overture, “on the inside” being one of herders’ welcomes.

Van Tessor had only stated the name of the last man he had worked for; Jonas Silberts kept me until I decided to come this way. It was enough for Doug Bentley’s father, once in the war-time ranks with Jonas Silberts, “pals, buddies, comrades f’ever.”

Doug, seeking this result, said, “Not that He bears watching, but His works do, every last one of them. They circle us every night at first sight, at first saying “we’re still here, boys. Even clouds have a way of adding some more mystery to the pot.”

“Like taking away and then giving back?” Van Tessor said, as he rolled over, tired, content, bone and mind rest getting some payback.

Sleep, even uncomfortable sleep, was a gift to be accepted, enjoyed, even as the stars went their way in first sunshine, Van Tessor strapping on his gun belt before wrapping up his blanket, as if he was expecting trouble.

Then Doug, still prone on the ground, heard or felt movement or sound from the earth. “You her that, boys? We got company coming our way.”

The camp was alive in mere seconds, the cattle also stirring in the very midst of the herd, two if their own night riders driving horses near the chuckwagon. “Mount up, men, work’s acallin’ from over the hill.” One of them pointed to the east, where a hummock in the landscape offered the closest approach-cover for thieves, rustlers, the hungriest of men.

Blankets dotted the ground as the herd crew strapped on gun belts, boots, saddles onto horses. Most of them had seen, been in such situations before, time to earn their money, protect the payroll that was attached to the delivery of the herd.

The herd began its own stirring, as Doug Bentley and Van Tessor were first mounted and off to the head of the herd, where the strike would come, Van Tessor saying, “It was nice for a while, Doug, good luck and it was nice getting to know you in last night’s meeting.”

His horse bolted ahead of Doug’s mount, as though he had been in this same exact spot before, knowing where the charge was coming from, where the rustlers were headed at the start of their hit: turn the herd, run it right through the chuck wagon area, scatter horses, men, guns into the wild melee, taking advantage of surprise, herd charge, gunfire, thunder and lightning on the hoof instead of in the sky. It was old style all the way, the way it had been done hundreds of times, a quick hit, replacing honest herdsmen with gunmen on the fly.

Van Tessor fired his six gun first, straight out over the lead beeves into a quick start, turning them into a looping curve, driving them toward and into the gang of riders pounding down over the hummock, coming out of their protective approach, firing their own guns, even as the herd, turned by Van Tessor and Doug Bentley, ran at those rustlers rushing too.

It was a stroke of chaos, as the herd rushed into their ranks, the cook on his wagon dropping a steer coming at his wagon, firing again and again and turning the herd from upsetting the wagon, chuck full of goods and food, breakfast for 16 men good and true, if they all got through the ordeal.

In morning’s light, the new sun hitting the ranks of beeves, the cook saw two rustlers go down and knew that Purgatory had also come along for the ride. They’d have to bury them out on the grassy plain, a no-where-grave in a no-where-place, no mother setting down flowers, no father wondering where he himself went wrong and when the wicked twist had come upon his son. The old line cook himself could not remember how many such graves he had seen dug, words said of any manner, how men can turn away from quick=dead, quick-dug burials, and then carry on as if nothing had really happened.

Doug’s father took matters on quickly, appointing Van Tessor as trail herd chief because of his obvious qualities, and quick actions, also realizing his son had found a new friend who was a trusty one.

He saw quickly how the man made decisions, so soon after appointment, when he walked one ranch hand to his gear, told him to pick it up and put it on his horse and ushered him out of camp not more than an hour after the new sun was up and working. The new herd chief was aware of the man’s inability to do a full and proper job as a trail hand. He had spotted the laggard so quickly it amazed the senior Bentley, knowing a new hunch had been correct on the man’s ability.

“Stellar,” he said, as if he had never used the word before, and finally figured he had not, not once on any new hire, no matter how far back he could go in his hiring history.

Such observations, as if in deliberate rushes, came to Van Tessor in quick turns of actions, sparking whisper and talk and quick admiration in the ranks of workers, and every man wondering how the new trail boss would handle the off-trail hours, how close he might become to any of them, tight as boss and workers might become.

Probably not any closer than previously, but long-term came into the mix; staying on the job until there was no more job to do. That seemed to be a definite and positive outlook on good men. Yet movin’ on was that natural in these days, what with herds, rustlers, mounts, gunplay when needed, a new town with its drawing powers, its saloon, its women in-town or outside of it where a solid woman made her way in the world, and made it special.

Van Tessor, if that was his real name, would be detached from his course by one of those chance encounters, as would young Doug Bentley, older by the minute, older by any encounter.

Just the way things were those days.