Western Short Story
The Gate
Michael McLean

Western Short Story

Interspersed with piñon pine and juniper, the leaves of cottonwood trees along Badger Creek were starting to turn yellow and gold. With late summer showers, the land had become a mosaic of white, yellow and purple wildflowers that would soon fade as cooler temperatures accompanied shorter days.

Most of the cattle had been rounded up and sorted. Some were headed for market, and the rest would remain to build the herd for the following year. Since morning, he had been taking stock of cattle up Badger Creek where there was still a small flow of water. Jotting down numbers in his small tally book, he had a reasonably accurate count. So far, he had come across a dozen steers, two dozen cows and a few first-calf heifers with their calves still in tow. Since fencing of the Circle S ranch was not yet complete, he had spotted nearly a dozen stray cattle with Ted Albers’ brand. They had wandered across open ground from the north, and no doubt some of his animals had strayed in the opposite direction toward Ted’s place.

Dropping down to a spot where the creek bent around an outcrop of rock, Standish suddenly pulled back on the reins. The unnerving feeling swept over him that he was being watched. Reaching down, he slipped the well-worn Winchester .45-75 from its scabbard and jacked a shell into the chamber. Sitting motionless, he scanned the countryside, moving only his eyes for any sign of a threat. A slight movement in a stand of juniper riveted his attention. At the ready, he watched as the nose of an overo paint stallion edged slowly out of the clumps of juniper. Clear of the trees, the rider sat up straight, his wide brimmed hat shading his face. “Ya’at’eeh, friend Standish!” the old man greeted.

“Hello, Thomas, my friend,” Standish replied, shoving the rifle back in the scabbard. The two men rode toward each other. “I felt a presence but couldn’t see you”.

“You look the country over like Apache. I did not want to startle you.”

“With all the trouble we have had, that is wise. Are you hunting?”

“Yes, there are more elk and deer than when we first met but perhaps not enough for a long winter.”

“Are Carlos and his family doing all right?”

Thomas nodded. “The girls speak of you often.”

Standish smiled, but then his expression changed. Concern crossed his features. He had a special relationship with these people. Thomas interrupted his thoughts.

“You have a new person to help you. I have watched him from a distance. He has an old pain but works hard. I hope he has a good heart.”

“He does. Like you, he saved my life. I think you will meet him soon.”

“How is that?” Thomas questioned.

“I would ask that you go back and talk to Carlos and the other men. The ranch has some cows that probably aren’t going to breed again. There’s also a few old steers that might not make it through a long winter. If your people agree, me and Bean would meet you and some of your men here in five days, and you could get ‘em to the reservation.”

Birds chirped in the background and a breeze moved tall stems of grass. The old man sat his paint and looked at the mane of the stallion for a long time, avoiding Standish’s eyes, as was the Apache way. Standish had never seen, or even heard of, an Apache male shedding tears, but the old man’s eyes were wet when he looked up.

The paint snorted and shook its head. Thomas finally spoke. “Why do you do this?”

“You said that there were more animals, but it sounds like you might still come up short. Your people are more than neighbors. They are friends and family.”

“You risk much to help others and watch over your land. We will meet here in five days,” said Thomas as he turned the paint back toward the juniper.

Standish watched him fade back into the landscape. He had made the right decision. There was nothing wrong with the cattle whatsoever, but he knew the Mescalero were too proud to ask for help. They would go hungry before they would steal his cattle. It was ironic. White men had instigated all his battles. None had been by the Apache. Turning the sorrel gelding, he headed back into the hills.

~ ~ ~

Deep in thought he slowly rode up a long ridge, finally pulling up and dismounting. Standish dropped the reins to ground tie the well broke gelding. For several minutes he wandered around gathering wildflowers until his hand was full.

He pushed open a greying wooden gate and entered. “It’s surely a beautiful day isn’t it?’ he said as he sat down in a patch of unkempt grass and crossed his legs. Placing the flowers on the ground, he looked around and studied the landscape below. “Sun’s headed west, so I tried to hurry along. But, I ran into Thomas, the old Mescalero. I don’t think he gets older. Maybe he was born old. He’s a good friend, and I owe him and his folks a lot. Goin’ to cut him out some cattle to help see ‘em through the winter.

There are more of Ted Albers’ cattle down by Badger Creek than I expected. We’ll get together and sort ‘em all out once Bean and I get the rest of our part of the fencing done. Might not be till spring now. Depends on what kind of winter we have, I expect,” he said pausing to take a deep breath of the rich fragrance of fall. It was more pungent at this higher elevation and mixed with the aroma of piñon pine.

“Speaking of Bean, I have a story to tell you. A few weeks ago, Bean went into town to have a couple of beers and kick back for a bit. He’s been working harder than I thought possible of a man, so I encouraged him. He deserved a break.” Standish took another deep breath of the autumn air. “He was apparently minding his own business when a cowboy from one of the spreads out east of town started taunting him about his limp. Most of this the sheriff told me later after talking to the bartender and other regulars of the saloon.

As usually happens, unkind words led to a push and shove. Then, the cowboy throws a punch. Bean deflects it and launches one of his own that connects with the cowboy’s head. Bean stands back as the younger man charges like a bull. Bean tries to back up but catches his heel on a piece of uneven floor. He falls flat onto his back out the saloon’s front door and looks straight up unto the scowling face of Judith van Beek, daughter of the general store’s owner, Bram. She’s a very pretty and smart young woman, and to make matters worse, she was walking and talking with Reverend Throckmorton.

Sheriff Hewitt shows up at that point and looks down at Bean. Says Bean’s face was nearly purple, not from the fight but with embarrassment. The sheriff tells the cowboy to go home or jail, his choice, then helps Bean up. All Bean can do is look in the direction of the retreating Judith, who just happens to be looking back at him. Sheriff said her scowl was gone, replaced by a look of whimsical curiosity. . . his words.”

“Bean comes home like a dog with his tail ‘tween his legs. I could tell something had gone wrong in town and figured he’d tell me if he wanted me to know. Then a couple of days later, the sheriff stops by while Bean’s up Badger Creek to check and see if he’s doing okay. My look of curiosity told him I didn’t know what he was referring to, so Sheriff Hewitt relates the whole story to me, chuckling all the while. He finishes by mentioning that Judith van Beek had been to his office twice asking about Bean. The sheriff has a lot of respect for him, so he told her straight up on her first visit what kind of a man he had proven himself to be. He hoped she left with a different picture of the man, not the one of him sticking out of the saloon on his back looking up at her. The second visit, she asked how often Bean came to town, and he had to tell her rarely. She seemed genuinely disappointed.

Anyhow, that’s why he had ridden out to see me. The sheriff and I discussed the situation over another cup coffee and agreed that the Circle S was sorely in need of supplies from the general store, and I really needed to drop in on Ted Albers to discuss stray cattle. Bean would have to go to town on his own.

I tell you that it is absolutely amazing the number of excuses a grown man can come up with to not do something. In the end he gave in, hitched up the buckboard and headed to the store, but not before taking a bath, shaving and dousing himself in bay rum aftershave.

Late that afternoon, he returned to the ranch a far different fellow than I had seen drive away. There was a twinkle in his eyes, but I have to say it was the constant smile that was out of place. Miss Judith van Beek asked him to have dinner with her and her father after church the following Sunday.

Since then, been pretty much me and Thunder keepin’ each other company on Sunday afternoons. And, he likes to sleep a lot. I’ll let you know how the romance is going next time.”

~ ~ ~

Pushing himself up, Winston Standish stood and brushed bits of dead grass and leaves from his pants. He once again opened the greying wooden gate, stepped through, and secured it behind him. He gathered up the reins, crossed them over the gelding’s neck and lifted his left foot into the stirrup. Grabbing a handful of the horse’s long mane, he swung effortlessly into the saddle. For what seemed like a long time, he braced himself against the saddle horn staring at the gate and into the fenced off enclosure. He missed them more than anything in the world. His wife and daughter reached out to him daily. There had to be justice, one way or another. The two graves and their wooden markers seemed small in the enormity of the mountainside, but not in his heart. Turning the horse toward the plains below, Standish started home, tears flowing freely down his face.