Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
My grandfather Johnny Igoe said it was so. On many occasions, as we sat side by side listening to “The Lone Ranger” on the radio long before there was television, he told me about “The Gambler from Norcross,” out there in Wyoming, his perky pipe throwing off its Edgeworth aroma or, in darkness only lit by the radio dial, a single and momentary glow from that small briar as he puffed at it, a faint star pointing its location on the far horizon. Oh, how that little old man loved the Lone Ranger and the cowboy west of his youth. Those hours, on a dark porch or a dim room by firelight, were magic and mythic, framing so much around the two of us.
Believe me, I can see it all now, smell it all now, hear his voice at the edge of my soul, if there is such a place that harkens to me. Perhaps on that far and dim horizon.
Grandfather said, and more than once as if he was reading from a kept script, “This man believed in odds and gods, perseverance and, most of all, human frailty. All this made him legendary in the old west, the Gambler from Norcross, Wyoming, William Lear Blacklin. He was buried in Lizard Creek, Wyoming beneath an especially big tree on the side of a hill, by an appointed town lackey, on April 29, 1882. There were no mourners, no friends, no respects paid. He was 37 years old, if that was to be believed. Always, without fail, when sitting down to a poker game, he’d say, ‘When you rub two tricks together you get smoke and then you get fire, so beware, gentlemen, that I trust nobody this side of tomorrow.’”
Two shiny Colt revolvers, with life and death evidence marked into polished handles clearly exposed, helped stress the fact of his statement.
My grandfather, a small Irish man who had come to America as a young boy, found Blacklin’s grave by found clues and intensive search, and later headed back east out of Wyoming with a piece of the trove that had been buried near Blacklin. He had, of course, satisfied a huge curiosity and greater love for the “new American west” and the promise it held out for young immigrants, which had made him dig for more detailed information about the gambler from Norcross.
Norcross, as he found out, was a small town at the end of the Shagatuck Valley in the foothills of Wyoming mountains. Its location he had heard, from the center of town up through the valley, was as true north as could be predicted. The Snake River was up there, and Canada, the North Pole, gold and card players of all ranks. Norcross, it has also been said, disappeared in an avalanche and was not heard from again. Nor has William Lear Blacklin been the subject of talk until now.
“The day I heard his middle name,” my grandfather said, “I had this improbable feeling of connection come over me, as if we were destined. Shakespeare’s work had continually roused the magic in me, the music and the myth. Out there I read some of his plays in treasured books I had come across or small pamphlets that traveling bards read from or memorized their lines from. Sometimes there was a single page or a loose pamphlet found behind a saloon bar where I was pouring, as if a troubadour had traded a secret passion for a last-call pint. Once, working in a livery in another lost town in Wyoming, I found a small bundle of pamphlets obviously lost by a traveling bard. It was like finding gold without looking for it. The music of Shakespeare’s language always called up something in me from my youngest days around a night fire in the old sod hut back home, much as we are gathered now.”
He’d tap his pipe, nod, loose that far look in his eyes as he sought Clooniquin or fair Ross or dear Elphin itself. “There were teachers in our family in the old country, to which I was aimed, until the failures came acropping and I had to leave. But, me wee bucko, back to Blacklin we go.”
“I first looked at W. Lear Blacklin as an actor. He was a polished stage hand dredged up by William Shakespeare himself. His introduction at each table, at each game, was legendary. Oftentimes words would fly, guns drawn, shots fired, and Blacklin, standing alone, would say, ‘Of course, all you sirs saw that neat dead man there on the floor draw his weapon first as if I had insulted him, whereas I was only making waves in the world of card playing, in this small ocean of chance where we expose our deep failings and frailties, where cheats come to their calling.’”
“He’d draw that gaze of his, that hard-eyed look, and let it fall into the eyes of all onlookers. Oh, I saw him twice in that same scene, almost identical in each instance, delicately scripted right down the slight thrust of deadly promise in his chin and that cold stare he could manufacture on the spot. A London or a New York or a Chicago stage would have welcomed him, tossed his name up there on sidewalk marquees, and headlined him. Imagine him grander than Wild Bill or Custer himself or the fiercest Indian chief, on stage an unforgettable presence. “
“But frailties exist even for the doughtiest, and in Lizard Creek one day of doom, with no eye witnesses, he shot another card player when the barkeep was out of sight. The sheriff locked him up pending a trial, and Blacklin told the sheriff he had a bad feeling, as if a curtain were being drawn. ‘If I die,’ he said, ‘have me buried up there on the hill outside of town where the huge tree sits alone by that small cave.’ As projected by the gambler himself, knowing about all the odds, stacked or otherwise, he was shot through an open window in the middle of the night when the sheriff was off chasing some fool errand, which may have been a framed distraction. Blacklin was buried the following day, as detailed above.
And so it was that the little Irish man, jiggered by too many pints, yelling at a man yelling about “furriners all over the country,” awoke in the morning in the same cell where William Lear Blacklin had been shot. In his morning misery, still collapsed on the hard bunk, his eye fell on a few arrows scratched into adobe bricks as if they were trail markers. His innate curiosity forced him from the bunk to search the cell. In an adobe crevice, stuffed deeply, was a piece of paper with the following note: “The deal is not mine this turn. I will be buried under the big tree on the north hill. Near is what I buried before I came into town. Who finds this, if ever, is my inheritor and I bequeath all unto him. Wm. L. B.”
Quickly sober, extremely apologetic to the sheriff, he went digging, found the cache, one magnificent bar of gold. Thereafter, through all the territories, the new states, the old states, he escorted that bar of gold on the back of a mule named Maude. Though he mentally travelled alone, he always tied himself to some traveling group, counting on them for safety. He brought that bar of gold into Malden, Massachusetts, became the dump master of the city dump, and for years shaved, sawed, broke off or melted portions of that bar of gold into handy currency. He married a girl he had known in Ireland whom he met on a corner market in Chicago on the way east, eventually had nine children, told stories for the next 63 years, leaving a mark on all of his grandchildren. The bar of gold was his retirement fund.
Grandpa continued: “Oh, fault me for having misgivings about its attainment, in what manner he did get his hands on it, the questions banging on my conscience. I wondered about its acquisition early, but there were no markings on the bar at all. I determined it was not government formed or molded. In fact, it was a bit rugged in shape, like homemade bread, the kind that grandma pops up with about every day, as opposed to bakery-bought bread, like the Cushman’s delivers off the truck doing the neighborhood rounds.”
I could not let it all go so easily, curiosity gnawing at me. “But what made Blacklin so special, other than he had a saying for all games, like it was a warning? Don’t you really think he stole it somehow, or won it in a game and who knows how that loser had come by it?” My mind was open to all the possibilities.
“Well, Bucko,” he said, “the west in those days was like a day camp. There was a counselor, like a sheriff or a mayor, or sometimes a town council. There was a mess hall, like at the hotel or at a corner of a saloon, where things were said or voted on and carried out from, and often where justice sat without its robes. A general store had whatever provisions could come by wagon or by train, not expensive, sometimes rare but always necessary. Meat was made handy by the regional herds. Wheat and grains were raised and treated, baked and fried. Coffee and salt were necessities, almost like water. For information, we knew mostly what we saw or heard, whether actual or created. We were limited. But we had our places in the scheme of things.”
“William Lear Blacklin had his place too. He lightened some dark days. He darkened some otherwise happy days. Stage-wise, often the center of attention, things turned on him, whether hero or anti-hero. He was like a hero-villain on the stage, a Robin Hood, a William Tell, a Jimmy Cagney or Errol Flynn in the celluloid. We might hate what he was doing or had done, but we enjoyed the hours in which he captivated us.”
Grandpa, this one particular day on his summer porch on Main Street, leaned over and gave me that be-alert look, the one that said I’m letting you in on some grown-up stuff, so listen and remember. “There was a woman who kept company with the gambler.” He smiled again, that adult smile at child education. “A beautiful lady I saw on a few occasions. She was called Cat-tail Sally and she seemed to be around every game that Blacklin played in, saloon or not. They called her Cat-tail Sally because she sashayed about like a kitten on the loose, her in red finery that few woman out that way had in their possession. But I learned from some observant gents, who’d been around longer than I had, that she could spot a cheat all the way across a smoky saloon.”
“One night Cat-tail Sally was in a saloon with Big Nose Anna. That was a pair of opposites, I’ll tell you,” and added, raising his eyebrows, “like night and day, summer and winter, foul and fair, as the Good Bard has said on the occasion of the Three Wicked Sisters. It was about that time I heard from a couple of barkeeps that Alice had previously spoken funny words, had an odd usage of words, such as “The sow is on the loose, or the “Cow is in the room. They said she might sing it from across the room after a sashay or two around the card table. Some folks that day thought she was talking about Big Nose Anna who was no beauty to say the least. But each time such words were used, a cheat was challenged, drew his gun, was shot by Blacklin without a tear in his eye. Then, in each instance, an ace was pulled from the dead cheat’s sleeve, or from his beltline. No cheater himself, Blacklin often spit on the man as he lay on the floor, his blood free as a river.
“I eventually figured it was some kind of code through which Cat-tail Sally let Blacklin know someone had an ace up his sleeve or on his person somewhere. Like SOW meant something like sign of white or slip of white, or COW meant card on wrist. Simple, sort of crazy, but easily a clue for Blacklin to look closer at the players.
“But that’s the part that hurts, really. I let the cat out of the bag, so to speak. In my cups a bit before the wagon took me on as a customer, I told a gent what I had figured out. The next night, Blacklin ended up in jail, like it had been set up. I haven’t gotten over it yet. I rode the wagon until it got back under my skin. That’s the main reason I only have one bourbon a day with a boiled potato, for my lunch, thinking about my slip of the lip as the placards say about the war now.”
I remember how his gaze would look elsewhere; out the window at the First Iron Works in America, down the twist of the river, down the coastline, onto a hard, long, dry road heading west, a card table in a small saloon, and Lear on stage, every minute on stage, the way the Old Bard set him up.
“Norcross,” he said once near his end at 95, “was an invisible town.”
I’m still trying to figure that out.