Western Short Story
The Drifting
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

“No way,” Jed Lawson screamed, his voice full of hate and anger not heard in Tally’s Pass all summer. He swung around at the bar and looked directly into the eyes of River Rowan as if either pair of eyes would ignite. “He ain’t ours. He’s mine. I raised him from the runty colt you wouldn’t look at a second time. No way you claimin’ him back from me.”

He patted the gun at his hip. “Try it an’ I’ll kill you.” The blue in his eyes was bright as a morning sky and they sat under shaggy brows in a sun-browned face the way most drovers looked after a drive.

“Hell, Jed, you ain’t goin’ to shoot me,” Rowan said, “‘cause my father’d chase you across Texas to kick your ass before he shot you good, and you know that.”

Lawson stormed back at him. “You still ain’t getting’ my colt. He’s the only thing I own right now since my pa died. I got nothin’ to ride for ‘cept that horse. I got nothin’ else, no place to go, nothin’ to grab, and you want to take my colt. It’s been that way since you got the first choice at saddles your pa stuck in the barn. All them saddles was my father’s. Every one of them, just like our place was until your pa stole it plain and simple.”

“You keep sayin’ that, Jed, an’ I’ll be the one doin’ the killin’, see if I don’t.” Rowan carried the same drover’s looks that Lawson showed, like there were no other features acceptable in Tally’s Pass or any Texas town.

At the end of the bar, Old Jack Scarborough, mountain denizen in town for another visit for good health, tired of the continuing threats at other’s good health, popped up out of his seat and said, “That’s not the colt we left with you boys! You boys was runnin’ around shoutin’ hell at each other all the time and none of you saw we had swapped one of our colts for yours. Him we got up in the hills, Lucifer’s colt’s now full growed and king of the hills.”

Old Jack Scarborough said to Lawson, “Don’t worry none, son. I pulled a switch on you. That’s your colt we raised in the hills. We knowed you was runnin’ against a stacked deck, losin’ the ranch and all the gear and your daddy dyin’ on top of it all, like goin’ downhill he was for pretty near six months and had no fight left in him. That colt we consider yours, Jed, and his mommy, is still with us, with me and Trighorn up there in the Skipper’s End and he’s got a whole herd of mares all to hisself right about now. And I can prove all this stuff I’m spittin’ out.”

“How?” Jed Lawson was so confused he didn’t know what was going on. “How could I love my colt that ain’t my colt and now’s king of a herd of wild mares? How can I not know what’s mine?”

Perplexity crossed Lawson’s face that Scarborough could almost scrape off with his mountain knife. So much the young did not know, including these two young ones.

“Let the horses say so themselves,” Scarborough said, “but let me tell you, we done a powerful good job raisin’ him. Until he got loose with a filly one time but we had them locked into Skipper’s End with no way out of that valley, and Lucifer Deuce, that’s what we call him, kilt a cat up in there and stomped the hell out of him and we’d no idea there was dozens a horses locked in all the time just like they was corralled up regular like.”

Scarborough swigged off the last of his drink and pointed at both Lawson and Rowan, winked at both of them in turn, turned a smile loose that was as mysterious coming from him like a big laugh in the middle of a stampede, and said, “You boys don’t know nothin’ like what me and Trighorn knows, about them horses and you boys. They been that way for months while you boys near a year been swappin’ killin’ talk and we know what you don’t know … that you’re damned brothers, the pair of you. What say to that, huh?”

He waited for response and got none. “That get you kind of greasy in the saddle talkin’ the way you do at each other? Like some chicken fat’s been tossed up there on your saddle? Brothers, huh? Snake eyes, huh? Yoked, huh? An’ how come? ‘Cause you got the same momma, that’s how come, but with different fathers and them boys as dumb as you two approachin’ the same. Dang fools, whyn’t you ever look in the mirror at the same time at each other? I thought all the time you was scairt to take that look, but now I see you’re too dumb to. Whose eyes ain’t your eyes but is? Can’t you see your momma on the other side, kind of lookin’ back at you? You’re as smart about horses as about daddies, an’ that ain’t a helluva lot from where me and Trighorn been sittin’ all this time.”

Scarborough stepped away from the bar and said, “Course, you boys could come up into Skipper’s End part of our world and pay a visit, but don’t come alone by yourself or we won’t let you in and won’t let you see Lucifer Deuce roamin’ his own kingdom like he ought to cause me and Trighorn made him what he was born to be, like you boys should do your own same thing ‘fore it’s too late for either one of you, bein’ brothers to start with.”

He walked to the door and left and they could hear him as he mounted his horse and saying, “Best come like brothers, two at a time or don’t come at all. I been too long at secrets I promised to keep in my shirt pocket long as I have and that lady of your mother was my sister and that makes me an uncle twice over. How’s them for keepin’ secrets f’ever almost.”

The stunned silence in the room, the look in the mirror, the reflecting on the past rushed over them. The found brothers had a few drinks, made a pact, and went to visit their mother.

When the two of them walked into her kitchen, she was at the sink washing fruit, an apron in place, cleaned dinner dishes stacked up on a strainer at one end of the sink, the table cleared, and a look on her face that said she knew this day was coming.

She pointed at the table and bench and said, “Sit down. I knew this day would come and I always hoped it would be the two of you together and not one at a time. Thank you for that.” A wisp of hair floated over one eye, which she brushed away with the back of her hand, and sat down at the table. She was a spry-looking woman in her early late thirties, mostly black hair with now-and-then gray flirting for entry, terribly blue eyes, a tanned face saying she did not spend her life in the kitchen, and a sense of command in her voice, as if she was used to difficult situations, or could see them coming from a distance, as though she had been there already, been there and come back.

Both sons thought it strange that she was showing some happiness at the moment there lives were in mass of chaos, duplicity, disbelief.

“This is how it happened,” she said. “I was in love with your father, Jed, and we’d been fishing at the falls upriver and we made love on the most perfect of days in a joyous breeze. And I got pregnant. I was 16, but hid it pretty well. When my time came, he took me on a fishing trip and I had the baby in the hills and stayed with some of his friends and came back, but he kept you with him, Jed, and seemed to drift away right after that. I thought he was gone forever, and I went out with your father, River, and we got married and we had you, and I looked up one day when you were about two and I saw your brother in Haggerty’s Store for the first time.”

She released a smile as broad as dawn. “The minute I saw you, Jed, I knew who you were, and then I saw your father, and he put a shushing finger to his lips and we had our secret and he never said a word about it to me or anybody else for all these years because he knew what it would be like for me, living here. Tally’s Pass is a lot different from what you think. It has some deepness that’s hard to understand at times, like a balky horse you’re not sure what’s going on with it, or what it’s going to do. I was never in a position to change that. I’m still not, but now I know I’ll fight it and your father, River, will never be mad at me, thank goodness for that. He is a fine man and I love him.”

Her smile was radiant as she said, “Both of them were grand to me, and grand to you if you think about it. You grew so well, both of you. I saw a lot of you, Jed, because your father bought the small spread to be near, but the trouble started back a few years. I don’t know how it started, but land grabs some men like they’re grabbing their women from trouble, trying to protect, cover over, thinking they own it outright.”

Once, in the midst of some thought, she looked out the window at the grass running for miles, in the distance the mountains touching the sky. Each of her sons saw memories moving in the stillness of that look.

“They were both good men,” she vouched. “One never told and one never suspected what I had done. It doesn’t get any better than that for a young girl who grows up with two children, one she hugs all the time and one she misses hugging all the time. It was not easy, but I could never cry or scream or let go, because it would all be over in a flash of something I dared not bring about. It was living two lives at once, one here with you, River, and one there where you were, Jed, so near and so far. And two men to keep comfortable. Being as hard as anything you can imagine, one here with me and one not, just like the two of you. Just think about how much you have shared without knowing a word about it.”

The look of being chewed up by memories, or finding some solace in them, came back on her. “When I heard about the trouble with the colt, Lucifer’s colt, I told Jack Scarborough about it and he and his pard Trighorn planned the whole thing. That was another secret weighing on me, but tolerable as long as there were no fisticuffs. I swear I’d come apart at that, you boys fighting. Your fathers had arguments, plenty of them at the end, Jed, when he was trying to save something for you, and he knew he couldn’t do it. We talked once at the river, the first time in years, and he swore he’d never tell on me, even knowing it would hurt you, Jed, and you too, River.”

She looked away again and said, “So I was lucky and unlucky at the same time, Happy and unhappy, as you can imagine. Loved two ways by two men. A whole mess of a life in two parts, as if I had been set apart by a butcher with a keen knife. But I’d do it all again for the two of you.” Her hands stretched across the kitchen table and the grasp she had dreamed about came to her, and the two brothers silently shook hands under the table.

She only sensed it happening at first, but knew it did.

“Tomorrow, if you’ve a mind,” she said, “and River’s father is okay with it, which I am sure he will be, we can all take a ride up there at Skipper’s End to see Lucifer Deuce. Jack told me he is one magnificent animal.”

What her face was saying to the two of them was that which had drifted apart had drifted back together again.