Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Grant Reed, the sheriff in Quipilanta, stood out among the territorial lawmen like an iron fist, of which he boasted two. And one night when noted bad-boy Marcus Loften started a ruckus at a corner table of Reed’s favorite saloon, the sheriff smashed the chair he was using onto the top of the table where Loften was screaming about a cheating waitress. The waitress was being accused of stealing a bill from Loften’s money pile with a tray wet on the bottom, so that the bill stuck to the underside.
The chair came crashing down atop cards, money, glasses and two bottles, everything hitting the floor with various sounds and clatter and the resultant uproar. And then Reed knocked Loften to the floor with a single punch as Loften reached for his pistol. Reed, always vigilant, had seen Bad-boy Loften palm the bill up under the tray.
“He never even pulled his gun,” one bar patron said to another. “I ain’t seen him draw his gun ever, and he’s been sheriff here for 5 or 6 years now.”
The other stool partner asked, “He always use his fists like that, just quick, first, take care of the matter and yell about it later? It does clear the air though, don’t it?” There was a pause in his queries and he said, “Does it call any kind of attention he might not be able to use a gun, at least not as good as his fists? Any people hereabouts think about that, you think?”
“Nobody wants to try, I guess, but that gent he just knocked down, who’s gonna wake up in jail, is the kind who might take that question kind of serious. He’s about as bad as you can get, from all I hear. Shot his own stepfather over a damned little pony about a dozen years ago and been raisin’ the wrong kind of dust ever since that shot. Said he was whipped bad as a boy, but that don’t call for murder from where I sit.”
Loften, during the night, woke up in Reed’s jail, his jaw hurting, anger sitting all over him like a pile of ripe dung. He hated the memory of the earlier part of night and his own slowness in the face of trouble. His anger grew the more he thought about it.
With the slanting sun finally reaching him, Loften yelled to wake the jailer. “Hey, you out there with your feet on the desk, where the hell’s the sheriff who put me in here? I got a spur to ride on him.”
He ain’t about to be here this time of morning, son. He’s sound asleep at the hotel where he stays of nights. Not that much bothers the man, for sure.”
“He make that much money he can stay at the hotel?”
The night jailer, pouring two cups of coffee, brought one to Loften and slid it close to the cell door. He sipped on his own cup. “Sheriff’s cousin owns the hotel,” he said as he entered the cell section, then added, “Drink up, son. Greet the day. It comes along in a hurry and ain’t much we can do to change the way it comes, only the way it ends. My pappy always told me that, said it was better than keeping a clock or hooking a watch on your belt. You’re gonna find shadow or shade no matter how you look or where you hide. Ghosts, old shamans, dead ladies you dishonored way back when all hang out in the dark places.”
“What’s the sheriff do with all his time?”
“He plays a guitar, practices throwing the rope at the Clocker ranch beyond the east end of town, goes off once every few weeks or so for one or two days in the hills. Some say he’s married to an Injun girl so beautiful he won’t let anybody see her.”
“Hell, man,” Loften said, “that sounds like nothin’ but stirrin’ the puddin’.
“Some other folk, like Lyle Abbidon down the general store, think he’s just plain fishin’ all the time. I say he’s fit with a free spirit. He likes the guitar strings aplayin’ on his fingers and them mountain trout comin’ back on his line like they was ashiverin’ all over. Way of life can be smooth if you give it good ground.”
Loften said, “That still sounds like stirrin’ the puddin’. I’ll burn that first chance I get.”
The jailer said, “Our old sheriff Cal Gentry was like him a bit.”
“Where’s Gentry now?”
“Planted up on the hill, outside town. They’re all there never mind what they did, puddin’ stirrin’ or puddin’ shakin’. Both kinds get together and they better become friends. It’s a long ride to the next stop.”
In the morning sheriff Reed released Loften from his cell and told him to get out of town. “Don’t come back while I’m still sheriff.”
Loften smiled at some thought and left, his gun and ammo belt empty of bullets. He rode straight out of town. Reed watched him disappear over a rise in the road.
He put Loften out of his mind.
Two months later, at a side stream about 5 miles from Quipilanta, Reed sat on the bank with his line shaking with the flow of water heading for the river, a cigar in his mouth, and the blue sky decorated with two hawks searching both ends of the grass, where it ran up into foothills of the mountains and ran the other way to the river. It was late August with a minor breeze carrying afternoon warmth. Comfort oozed along his frame. The smell of the cigar rode gently on the air.
That aroma, it seemed, brought a man up out of the river’s edge at least a half mile downstream. His head was in the air, as if his nose was following the scent. He was without a horse and he wore no hat, both signs of down-and-out, or flight.
Reed mounted his horse, leaving his bamboo pole dangling over a forked branch stuck in the banking. He’d been working a light striker, taking worms by nibbles, as if morning meal was fairly healthy.
“Hello there,” Reed said from horseback, his eyes studying the man without a horse and without a hat of any kind. The man looked as if he was in flight from something or someone. “Where you headed? Where you from? Where’s your horse? I’m sheriff from back there in Quipilanta. You in trouble, Mister?”
“I’m glad you saw me, Sheriff. I was waving at you earlier. I smelt your cigar. That’s sure a pleasant smell. I’m on the run, not from the law but from some crazy killer up there in the hills. Saw him shoot a guy ‘cause he just plain sassed him about killing some people in that town of yours. He’s planning to hit the town early in the morning someday and killing anyone who stops them and then getting the sheriff, so I guess that’s you.”
“That gent go by the name of Loften? Mean as all get-out?”
“That’s him, Sheriff. I didn’t want any part of something like that. I guess I’d rob a bank or two in my time, but not kill plain folks ‘cause they were in the way of some mad man. I had to skip out without a horse two nights ago. They’ll sure miss me by now, but nobody runs out on Loften. Keeps horses under guard all the time up there in his hideout.”
“When’s he planning this big raid of his and how many men does he have riding with him? Oh, and what’s your name?”
“I’m Dick Whitney.” He put his hand out to shake. “He calls them his soldiers, about 20 of them and some of them are just like him; mean as all hell. I was afraid of my life up there and knew I’d have to walk out with no chance of taking a horse, never mind saddling one. He keeps guards out like they’re all just guarding themselves. It’s a strange group of men he’s gathered around him.”
Reed accepted the handshake, his voice going soft, a slice or irony in it though, as he said, “When does he plan to visit Quipilanta?” He loosed a smile just as soft. “You want a smoke, a bite to eat, Dick?”
“Oh, sure, Sheriff. I’m starving. It’s next week from what I could see of things, not being told directly, but they just had a load of ammo brought in. A lot of stuff. I heard some of them talking about getting a Gattling gun that was stolen somewhere.”
“Loften sounds real serious, doesn’t he?”
‘Don’t joke with me, Sheriff. He’s a maniac. I’m still scared of what’s going to happen and getting myself locked right into it.”
“No joke, son. Sorry about that, but we’ll be ready for him and that means you. That’s how you’ll get past the future that was coming to you. How you’ll pay for your early part in things.”
Reed handed Whitney cigarette makings, which the man made up and lit. Then Whitney accepted a sandwich Reed handed him in a paper wrap, and a full canteen. The man went at all of them with slow reverence as Reed talked about getting ready for Loften and “his soldiers.”
“Surprise goes two ways,” Reed said as they rode two-up back to Quipilanta.
In Quipilanta, Reed talked with a few people, a few deputies newly appointed, the town council, and held close discussions with bartenders in two saloons, the man in the livery stable, and the owner of the general store. Reports came back to him of two strange men, each riding in from the east, two days apart, having a few drinks, getting their horses checked, listening to and engaging in small talk at the saloon and at the livery. The two were watched until they ambled out of town, neither man getting an earful of what was really happening in Quipilanta.
Reed, following instincts, had marked the two strangers as scouts for Loften’s outfit. They were tendered accordingly by those came in contact with who knew of the impending raid. Others had nothing else to say but routine small talk, which was all they knew.
Two days later, before dawn, as they had for the past three days, all citizens of Quipilanta moved out of town and were sequestered by the banks of the river just outside of town, rifles and hand guns at the ready, men on alert, children and women under cover of the banking.
Quipilanta was a deserted town for three days until 10 o’clock each morning, at which hour the citizens slowly in small numbers ambled back into town, started their day late, and forgot what was impending.
On the fourth day, as the sun peeked over the eastern hills and the vast plains, a small army of riders came out of the hills and started toward Quipilanta. There were 26 riders in the group. Loften, on a great black stallion, rode at the head of the group. As they came up to the edge of Quipilanta, they began a wild ride into the heart of town attended by ungodly screams and repeated gunshots.
Nobody was home in Quipilanta; the bank was closed, the store was closed, only a few horses were in the livery.
The sheriff’s office was unattended, the door was wide open, and the cells were empty. Not a single weapon was in the racks on the walls.
Loften, in a quandary, realizing they had been squeezed into a bind of some sort, but not yet revealed, screamed to get his men out of town. They were met by a steady hail of gunfire, coming from the riverbank, none of them had ever seen or ever imagined. The rapid gunfire continued even as a wagon drove up, the canvas cover thrown down, the Gattling gun visible, and the three men aboard the wagon who were quickly driven from the wagon by a group of deputies coming on them from behind. Not one round was fired from the Gattling gun.
Rushing to get out of town, the withering fire of the Quipilanta militia, as Reed had dubbed them, knocked many of the raiders out of their saddles, forced others to dive to cover, and took Loften into the water trough in front of the livery, his wounds clouding the water red as a sunset. Others, with the leader down, overwhelmed by the surprise resistance, raised their arms in surrender.
The great raid on Quipilanta went into the history books, and Dick Whitney, dedicated now to one side of the law only, became a deputy to Sheriff Reed, who began fishing just about every good day that came along … if it was a quiet day.