Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Shag Howland's eyes, he firmly believed, were as good as ever. From the upper trail crossing an open ledge early in Colorado, he had seen both objects in an incredible second. The first, high on a possible crosswind, wingspan enormous against the cobalt blue sky and only the tips of feathers directing circular flight, a buzzard obviously had a target in sight, a sure meal on the thick grass off a distinctive prairie trail. The target of the flight, apparently as still as death allows, looked clothed, hatted, booted, simple discards once the buzzard landed for the last meal.
But Howland shook with surprise at the movement of one boot on the body, and then the whole leg shifted in a spasm and went still again. He spurred his horse downhill and fired his pistol skyward at the same time. The horse plunged down the trail and the buzzard veered quickly in his circular flight pattern, sweeping wider off to the west, distancing itself from the body, the motion, the gun blast.
Howland caught his breath on the ride, not knowing what he'd find, what he'd have to do; tend the man in some manner, get him to better help, or be kind and Christian in the matter and find a place under grass, say words he'd guess at, yet heard a dozen or so times down the trail. Since his departure from Furbush, Kansas he'd been alone, a vast change from the mess back there where a small war had caught him in the middle, and called for him to fight his way out of it. He felt the pull of the scar tightening its grip on the wound, a flesh wound, on his left side. Luck had been with him with that shot from long range; he'd bled like a spilled cup for a while, managed to stem the flow, kept on riding.
But now another situation waited on him, the vulture gone, its shadow tossed across a cliff face where the earth had once erupted and a victim at a critical place in his life. The boot moved again, a feeble announcement of a living soul.
All manner of things took a swing through his mind as he spurred his horse.
The small war in Kansas had started somewhat innocently; words exchanged at the end of a cattle drive, curses poured freely from several sources, guns drawn at sudden moves, shots fired, men killed, sides formed after the fact. It was a mess brought down to one man who instigated the fight and dropped right at his feet, a liar for all that trouble. A trial ensued, testimony made, verdict delivered, a man was hung in gray morning light after he begged that his sister be informed of his death for something he didn't do.
His voice came soft and pleading: "She went west a few weeks ago with friends. She's looking for God. I'm supposed to meet her in Postwick, Colorado . I don't know if God will meet her; or if he knows where Postwick, Colorado is. Her name is Amanda Lynne. She's my angel. I never believed she was my sister, but an angel, she's so beautiful." No more words passed the loop tightening around his neck and only a few tears were loosed at his doubtful story.
In a moment of decision, sense sticking him needle-sharp in the eyes like a flash of pain and quick resolution, Howland flipped the reins on his horse and headed west, alone, disillusioned, believing life was better elsewhere. Carter Lynne's last words burned in his ears. Unknown to him, at least consciously, Shag Howland had found a mission. His bee line, not seen, was conjured from ideas cutting into him about Kansas, Colorado, Utah. Maybe he'd go onto the blue and storied Pacific, catch a piece of California on the way after he delivered the message weighing on him. Only one sure thing bore any validity --- he only had so much time in the life he lived, the length of time limited or granted by friends, enemies, a loose gunshot, an arrow bowed unerringly by a brave without a village, a woman tough enough and yet tame enough to select a new path, chance at either end of choice.
For whatever Carter Lynne's mission would entail, he brought a steady gun hand, a good eye for targeting, a mind free of much "twiddle-twaddle" as his father called the hum-drum existence outside of working at honest labor. "Keep good intentions in your saddle bag, know the way the world should be run," all this after leaning on him as a boy to read "anything you can get your hands on for it might separate you from the mobs that form around us, and too often for little reason."
It was a lot to swallow for a boy, but Shag Howland managed a good deal of it.
The whole richness of his past worked on him as he rode, chunks of it came at him in cycles, loaded images: awareness, hope, the far dream, the last words of a dying man beating an echo in the back of his head gobbled up land in the last flat run to the figure on the grass, one boot at gesture.
The blonde of her hair came first, surfacing like the dream awakening to a mind still holding all its images. Silken and promise in its rough state, sun-catcher on its very edges, vulture-baiter at a glance from a mile up, the luxuriance of it nearly warned him off. He was conscious of sudden contrasts that included both warmth and near death.
She moved again, a slight, subtle signal.
The blonde head, tucked into a Stetson umbrella-wide, said in a voice soft as pudding, "Is that you, God?" Her eyes floated for identity, for recognition, and then she lost consciousness. Those eyes, blue as a pair of buttons he had once seen on a girl's dress, rolled into dread whiteness, her jaw went slack and her leg motionless. As though she was a museum piece, he studied the beauty of her face, not missing or losing a spot of loveliness so starkly presented in the midst of prairie grass, the hovering sky, a vulture on a high cross wind and, thankfully, a responding stranger.
Howland placed his canteen at her mouth, proffered it slowly from trail experience, knew her pulse as he cradled her in his arms and her gentle breathing, found hope sitting right beside those gentle exposures, saw the last of vulture only as a dot receding into distance, and once again heard her say, in a delicate tone, "Is that you, God?" Her lips, he thought, pursed to kiss him. His response was magnetic, instant and, he swore, almost holy.
Then, to the near unconscious beauty, he said, "Is that you, Amanda Lynne?" trying to create truth and fact out of this strange encounter. He was hoping for the completion of a promise. Of course, it couldn't be. Not so easily done. Not so close to death. Not so much beauty at once as it struck through him. Never had he breathed this way. Never had that catch immediately jumping in his chest. Had never known what he was knowing out here on the wide grass of a Colorado plain and the mountains cupping two strangers together.
Part of her blouse was torn. Her face, on the left side, was scratched on the chin, turning pale blue, but there a moan and a gasp for air and another moan. Her eyes opened at the same exact moment, seas of blue, skies of blue. She tried to focus on him, the blue floating, wonder filling her face, and she said, "Are you Him? Not that terrible man who hit me?"
Shag shook his head, "No, I'm not either one. Was it an Indian?"
"No," came a firm answer. "A hunter. Two hunters. A bear came and they shot at it and chased it."
"Are you sure it was a bear?" He made sure the rife was in its sheathe, his pistols in place,
"No, but it was huge." Then the question marked her face. "Did you call my name? Do you know me? Do I know you?"
"I knew your brother and I know he met God before you. He sent me to find you, his true angel."
Shag nodded and she closed her eyes again and the classic beauty of her face ran through him as if it was trying to stay ahead of the sadness, trying not to contaminate him, trying not to share the loss. In that sparse second he knew what love was... both ways at once. The softness of it hammered at him, shook his body with new sensations.
The pair, in a matter of hours, rode into Postwick, Colorado, a busy, bustling town with several two story buildings and lots of wagon traffic and the two streets that crossed in the middle of it were cluttered with mining types, and cowboys. At the livery, the owner, Harwood Gregory, studying the girl, nodding his head at her apparent beauty, said, "If I was you, I'd keep holt of her, there's some nasty types in town take what they want if it ain't nailed down, and if it ain't it ain't matterin' to them. She's about the prettiest thing I ever seen here like she was made up and not born."
Shag, unsure of what to say, just blurted out the truth, "She came here looking for God."
"He ain't here," the livery man said, "less'n she brung Him with her. Least He ain't said hello to me yet." His eyes swept down the street, a frown froze on his face, as though such a wonder would never take place. "But I've been livin' here for a dozen years and I'll tell you this just on account of her."
Looking around to make sure nobody else could hear him, Gregory said solemnly, and at which he nodded at Amanda,; "Hell's here, though, inside many doors and walkin' the streets on nights that get bad and ornery by their selves. And the orneriest one is Blake Rizzo who came all the way up here from Mexico the same time I came and owns just anything he sees and wants ... women, horses, cows, property, with no particular one comin' first."
Gregory looked again at Amanda who was gazing down the center of the street at the cross on top of a small building painted white all over. "That's our church and he owns that too and does the preachin', what there is of it, kind of lettin' people know what he knows about what goes on here, like drivin' folks into separate corrals where he's got high interests."
He checked to see if Howland knew what he meant, that he was getting inside information first-hand, and that both of them understood each other and also knew that Amanda did not have an inkling of what had been said about the preacher big shot and town big shot rolled into one ornery critter, who was preacher and prayer in his own saddle.
Amanda, on her own exploration, was mere minutes in the church when she was approached by Rizzo. "Sister," he said, his eyes lit with anticipation and knowing this beautiful creature was kneeling in his church, "can I help you through a hard time? Do you seek the hand of the Almighty here in our church?"
She looked up at the soft voice coming from a kind face flooded with warmth and comfort and said, "Is God here? Is He really here?" She threw her head back and Rizzo saw the full ampleness of her, and knew the wave of beauty that rushed at him.
"This is His house," he said. "Be here beside me when the storm comes down out of the mountains like Hell is riding on a runaway or it leaps off the grass with lightning and the awful winds and when I open the windows you'll know He wraps Himself around you one arm at a time."
"I've already had some of that Hell," she said, and was saved by my new friend, Mr. Howland, that I just left down at the livery."
"He can't offer you much here in town 'cause I know everybody who owns the little I don't own. I can give you this town and lay it right at your feet, one foot at a time." He added a deliberate enticement, "Out of the goodness of my heart."
No bells had rung for Amanda, so she replied, "I'm still looking for God." Slowly she rose and gracefully walked out of the church, as though she had measured the man Rizzo and found him wanting.
Rizzo, watching her walk away, noticing all the movements, said half aloud, "It won't be long, young lady. It won't be long." He knew his next sermon had a new start ... and a new target right there on his shiny gun sight. He was beside himself with anticipation, and Postwick had never looked so good to him despite all his holdings.
Harwood 'Harry' Gregory had let it all go until Howland said, "Is he all that bad? You saying he'd target Amanda?"
"From the first gander at her, mark my words," at which he held up his swearing hand and offered, "It ain't on account of his church either, this swearin' of mine, but the matter of fact ugliness of one man in the wrong place. He's more Hell than ever thought of in Heaven. One gal workin' the saloon said those exact words 'fore she lit out of here in the middle of the night and nobody's ever heard word 'bout her landin' any place safe and we don't know yet he didn't follow her either."
Both men looked down the street of Postwick and saw Amanda walking toward them and Rizzo at the door of the church staring after her despite half the town noticing Rizzo's rigid attention and the beauty of a young lady the town had not seen before.
Shag Howland thought vultures had not moved far enough away for her safety, and understood he was still accountable for her. He might not have known, but could have guessed, that Rizzo, not wanting to be visible in any dealings with Amanda, requested a special task of one of his trusted man, one of the ruthless lot on his payroll but possessed of special talents, including a couple he wanted put to use.
"Pay heed to me, Saxon," Rizzo ordered, "because this will be tricky business where my face can't be seen. I'd hire an unknown for it, but couldn't trust him like I trust you." He saw the soft brush work successfully on the hard man as a smile near a sneer curved his lips, made his mouth look most threatening to any lesser soul.
"Anything's okay by me, Boss. You name it, I'll do it. Never been a question yet." He was young, nervous, sneering, yet the new task tugged at his energy. The sly curve had not left his lips as though he already had a decent idea of who and what would be a new target ...and the pretty young thing he'd seen the boss staring at was worth any risk, any spillover.
Within the hour of evening's crawl across the prairie, Saxon had set up his vigil on Amanda Lynne from an alley across from the small rooming house, Mrs. Fletcher's Home-away-from-Home that held only six people including Mrs. Fletcher, a bit deaf to small talk, rumors, and poisoned bits about people who took rooms with her. She was a widow, the comeliest 40-year-old in town and highly favored by the sheriff, telling Saxon he ought to exercise at least some care for her when the time came to do his deed.
Saxon's first look at Amanda told him that if he was ever to slip one over on his boss, this would be the best time. She made his toes tingle, a feat had not before been encountered, especially not in this cow town, in the leavings of the prairie, or in the half dozen villages within a day's ride of Postwick.
The double-draw was cast upon the girl who had lost her brother, her only relative, to a lynching in a quick and hideous undertaking by ravenous men.
The next day evil-looking Saxon saw Shag Howland twice deliver the girl Amanda to Mrs. Fletcher's. Late that night, in the first moonlight of the month, he was a dozen miles away in a cabin in a little-traveled canyon ... making arrangements for his own pleasures, the boss be damned.
Amanda, with best intentions, made several trips to the church in the next few days, finding not so much comfort in Rizzo's words but in the very confines of the church itself. She didn't believe in spirits and ghosts that terrified people, but in a significant presence, an unseen but significant presence that could allay fears and torments if only for a few moments at a time. She had heard and believed that the great and growing west needed God and He must have heard the call for help. Her moments in such contemplation became so precious to her, after the death of her brother, that people of Postwick believed her to be the first acolyte in Rizzo's church ... but those who held this belief did not include the outwardly spoken or the fore-spoken, such as Saxon, Howland, Gregory and people who'd not say a word against Rizzo in order to save their lives and property.
Evil of any sort forces issues in the commonplace at any hour. And so it was, with marks on her face, her dress torn, calling for the sheriff in a near hysterical tone, Mrs. Fletcher the next morning awoke most all of Postwick, including the sheriff in his little cottage behind the jail, as she came scrambling down the middle of the street in her night dress. She screamed wildly, fright and terror in her voice, blood running bright red from her lips and chin onto the nightdress, "Someone took Amanda last night! They stole her! They stole her!"
She half cried and half screamed as she straggled and limped on the dusty road. "Wrapped her in a blanket, they did," she yelled, "and took her right out of my house and rode off with her on his horse. He knocked me silly with one punch when I discovered him. He thinks I'm half deaf like this whole town does, but I heard him. Heard Amanda scream too. I think she knew him. I heard her say, 'What are you doing here?' Said it just like that ... 'What are you doing here?'" At that declaration, Mrs. Fletcher was back in control of her senses, spinning about, looking for the sheriff, looking for some vestige of authority, looking for reclamation.
It would not be the sheriff, he admitted to himself. Tired of fruitless posse rides with half-hearted cohorts, long by the tooth and still snug in his bed, he readily said aloud, "Hell, I wouldn't know her if I fell on top of her, this Amanda. Heard she's a beauty, but she's no kin to me, no sweat to me. I ain't ridin' around no wide grass for someone I don't know no matter how pretty she is. Let her friend go lookin', him who hangs around all time. 'Sides, the good deacon probably got somethin' to do with it an' I ain't about to mix in that. I'll sit awhile and see what he's up to."
He rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.
Of course, it was Shag Howland that gave Gregory the word on the abduction, and it was Howland who knocked on the sheriff's door and said, "Give me a deputy's badge and I'll go look for her by myself. No one to mess me up."
He paused, shook his head either in disgust or full wonderment and looked into the sheriff's eyes and asked, "If you can spare me a few minutes, tell me what's north and west of here. I've been back east a ways, the river's south of us, so just tell me what's north and west, generally speaking." The hard edge came in his voice, the edge the trail cuts, sharpens.
After giving Howland a cook's tour of the questioned areas, the sheriff deputized him and gave him a badge. "Where you goin' now?" he said. "Where'll you start?"
"That's easy, Sheriff," Howland countered, "I'm going back to see Mrs. Fletcher. She's about the only one that knows anything at all right now." Mounting his horse, he left the sheriff standing still on the little porch of his little house.
After Mrs. Fletcher answered all his questions, Howland mounted his horse, looked down at the older woman and asked, "Have you noticed anything missing from Amanda's room, Mrs. Fletcher? Anything at all? Even a small or insignificant item that comes to mind by chance."
Studying her face, Howland noticed a slight grin turn up the corners of her lips. "I know she was working on a new blanket for me," she replied, breaking into a big smile, the idea seeming to please her, "and it's gone. Let me go check on anything else." In five minutes she was back and as he studied her face, Howland noticed a grin turning up the corners of her lips, pleased with herself.
She said, "The only thing I can't find that I know she was working with is a pair of scissors I let her take. I don't see them anyplace in her room or near the back door, which is the way he must have taken her. Maybe she grabbed them for protection. Might have them hidden in the blanket."
Her smile grew and she gasped, "Oh, I hope so. None of the other boarders heard a sound or saw anything whatsoever. Of course, they sleep like winter bears."
Off Howland went on his spirited horse, out of Postwick and starting on a large circular track to the north and northwest, not knowing what else he was looking for but a fresher set of horseshoe tracks. He wished he had a dog that held a memory of Amanda's odor or at least the blanket she was shrouded in. Locked in his mind was the scent of Amanda's loveliness when he had first cradled her in his arms, how it remained in a cell of its own, with nothing new to amend it, not even the few walks with her in town.
"Oh," he thought aloud, "how great it'd be if the scent ran across the prairie to me, drawing me on, leading me right to her."
He was locked into this quandary when he spotted a spot of bright blue on the grass. Almost square, man-made, 'woman-made,' he quickly asserted to himself.
Pulling his horse to a halt, he leaped off the saddle, stood over the bright blue piece. It was a piece of fabric. He bent to retrieve it, held it to his nose and caught a whiff of Amanda, a sure whiff of Amanda. His heart leaped in his chest! Leaped again!
Had this fallen from her person? From part of her clothing? Or was it from an entirely different source? Thoughts went wildly about his mind striking for possibilities. Came quickly the blanket Mrs. Fletcher said she'd been working on. The brightness, even the small patch of it, leaped into his eyes because it was clean-edged, trim, not a rough, naturally figured piece of a material common to the prairie grass. The edges were trim, even, planned. No, he thought again; they were woman-made! Woman-made. Made by Amanda. Left by Amanda. Strewn by Amanda. Amanda marking the way. Not only was she beautiful, she was smart, resourceful, had a full brain to go with her beauty in moments of terror.
He could not imagine how she had called upon, in those moments of terror, all the resources available to her. If he could hold her in his arms at this minute, he'd never let her go.
"Where will this lead me?" he said aloud. He looked ahead of him. His mind began working as he knew Amanda's mind had gone to work ... in an instant.
Instead of going on ahead, he marked the spot with a twist of grass, a knotted twist of grass, then he went back the way he had come, only this time he knew what he was looking for. His eyes went eagle-sharp, and in less than an hour he found three more trimly cut pieces of the blue blanket Amanda had been working on. They were spaced out and he could almost see her counting horse strides on where to drop the succeeding piece of fabric. If she was terrified in her ordeal, she would not let go of her mind, her senses, her mission at hand ... to leave a trail, mark her misery, trace the path of her kidnapper.
So, the man who was looking for the girl who was looking for God in the west, plaited grass uprights at the exact spots where other pieces of the marked trail were found; anybody, even including the old and weary sheriff who couldn't or wouldn't get off his duff, could follow this trail.
Overhead the sun was noon-bright, and hot, so he drank a few sips from his canteen, watered his horse from his hat, spotted another piece of the blue blanket, saw how the trail had zigzagged behind him, but seemed to be aimed, even if adolescently in its attempt to misguide any trailing, toward one of the canyons cut into the face of the mountain ahead of him.
Determined to find one more piece of the blanket, of the marked trail, he practically raced to its location, found it, looked back over his shoulder, knew where to go next. He plaited more grass, three bunches of it, and laid them on flattened grass: the arrow pointed to one canyon in particular. Hurry came into his movements.
Sunlight shifted in the canyon as shadows moved west to east ahead of him, at the base of the most eastern wall ... and where the trail headed, the hoof tracks plain to the reading. In a moment of seeming unconsciousness, Howland checked ammunition in his pistol, in his rifle, the way a lawman would do it ... or a wanted man in flight.
And there on the ground in plain view sat another neat piece of the blue blanket.
He was elated ... again. He was in love with the smartest, most beautiful girl in all the west, in the whole world ... and she was in deep trouble. If she was in this canyon, and he guessed most likely she was, he'd have to make his way as quick and as stealthily as possible. He had no idea of the talents, or the dangers, of the man who had taken Amanda, and a man who had no idea she was using the pair of scissors to mark their trail.
Off the saddle he slid in order to soften his approach to whatever waited him besides Amanda. Taking his horse's reins in one hand, he held his pistol in the other hand and proceeded into the depth of the canyon, keeping in the shaded portion as much as possible. The escarpment loomed over his right shoulder, the shadow of it extending beyond the reach of his left arm where the reins hung loosely as he moved along the face off the cliff.
Every once in a while, the hardened image of Rizzo darkened his mind as all connections and clues meshed in his concentration. And Gregory's words, the words of a livery man acquainted with much more than the eye could see, kept coming back to him: "Hell's here, though, inside many doors and walkin' the streets on nights that get bad and ornery by their selves. And the orneriest one is Blake Rizzo who came all the way up here from Mexico the same time I came and owns just anything he sees and wants ... women, horses, cows, property, with no particular one comin' first."
It echoed on itself ... " ... women, horses, cows, property, with no particular one comin' first." Again, a shorter version ... " ...women, with no particular one comin' first." ... until now.
The small cabin sat against the western wall of the canyon, where the sun fell on it with a lonely radiance, and two dozen feet from the wall, as if to preclude sizeable boulders falling into the middle of it. At the hitch rail in front of the cabin, two horses were tied. Smoke issued from a small metal chimney poked through the roof and the aroma of rare steak, almost bloody red, tainted the air at Howland's nose as a breeze shifted places with another breath of air from somewhere else deeper in the canyon. Loneliness in the canyon was like a bridge to cross, not seen but there, making other connections.
And out of that wonderment and seeing nobody around and sensing true loneliness, he heard a scream coming from the cabin. To save Amanda, he could not rush the cabin and get shot on the way in; he had to sneak up on whoever made her scream, and there came another cry, one of terror, loss, pain, all sense of evil flying through the air.
In a blur of motion, in a flash of beauty, the door of the cabin swung open and Amanda rushed out and raced to one of the tied horses. The reins came loose into her hands, she mounted the horse, and Howland saw that the horse's forelegs were hobbled as a big man, laughing loudly, cruelly, came out of the door. "I told you, sweetheart, you ain't goin' no place on my horse or Herky's either. You get back in here and finish that damned cookin' or I'll knock you on the head again like I did last night. You're mine now and we don't care what no lyin' damned fool minister of God says otherwise. You're mine now. You'll be mine whenever I want you or you'll never git another drink from me or a bite of food. Nothin'! Hear me, sister? Nothin'! Nothin'! Nothin'! I'm the only one who's gettin' what he wants now, 'less you wanta give Herky a turn."
He laughed loud and cruelly again until he heard Amanda scream, "Shoot him, Shag. Shoot him."
She dipped down behind one of the hobbled horses. The man looked around, saw Howland stand up beside a fence pole, his hands empty. A cruel smile crossed his face as he yelled for his pal and as he reached for his pistol.
He never got off a shot.
Shag Howland, faster than a swarm of bees at an invasion, drew his pistol and shot him dead.
Amanda shouted, "I saw you coming, Shag, but there's another one in there. You don't have to kill him, though. He can tell the sheriff everything, about Saxon there," at whom she pointed where he lay dead on the ground, "and the Reverend Rizzo who wanted him to abduct me. He can tell everything. We need him."
Howland had Herky dig a grave for Saxon. Then the three of them mounted up and started for Postwick.
They had not ridden a half mile in silence, when Amanda reached over and touched Shag Howland on the arm and said, faintly, only audible to him, "I found you at last, didn't I?"
The sinner felt saintly, at least for a short while.