Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The clouds parted, the sun broke through, and a single shot rang out from a high point in Eagle Pass.
Mounted on a big red stallion he called Firedog, Flint Chambers ducked as the bullet whistled past his head, spurred the animal, and clawed for his revolver to throw random shots above him, trying to scatter or force the shooter, the bushwhacker, under cover.
The gun jumped in his hand, the bullets sprayed and played their exercise in the confines of the pass, the last difficult passage on his way home to Murphy’s Corner on Rita Blanca Creek, about as far up as you can go in the north of Texas, plumb against New Mexico, not far from Colorado, and almost 6000 feet nearer the clouds that now and then passed overhead.
Anger jumped up in him, with an insurmountable burst of its own energy. He fired again, high, against the flat and sheer face of the high places. “Damn him! Damn him! Damn him!” he muttered in a growling voice. Firedog held his ground as Chambers reloaded, shot one round from the new load, and nudged the horse closer to the cliff face.
It was the 3rd week out of 10 that the bushwhacker took aim at a rider in the bowels of Eagle Pass, missing the mark once, hitting twice, one of those dead, his boyhood friend, Chuck Nault.
“Now,” Chambers said grumpily, “I’m in the count.” Many ideas flashed behind his eyes.
The elements of the day did not rush him, but sifted into his kenning like a lazy trout nudging a worm in a pool of Rita Blanca Creek, a pool he had fished a hundred or more times with Nault, and alone once in a while, accompanied by a lazy sky, a floating hawk high overhead, and the chuck of an animal someplace upstream saying his name. A few times in the past year he’d been in tight situations and found some natural instincts coming to his rescue.
Perhaps those instincts had come from his father and his uncle, both with meritorious service in the Great War as officers in cavalry commands, and later as reputable lawmen. He tried to calculate the shooter’s rhythm of firing, counting it, seeing the shooter nuzzle his chin, eye the gun sight, squeeze the trigger, barely flinch, being used to this kind of work … bushwhacking. Chambers swore he’d recognize the rhythm again, lock the man in place, kill him when the time came, when it was proper for death. Again he counted four seconds, almost saw the man in his mind as he exhaled, took in a new breath, squeezed the trigger again … random, yet calculable, memorable; not seen but remembered, stuffed away in his mind as good as a note in his shirt pocket.
As he leaned in against the cliff face, Chambers ran through a few mental measures, each one ending with his roping or shooting the bushwhacker from a novel approach: Why not have a shooting match in Murphy’s Corner? The entire image of the shooter at work, in a continuous motion, flew through his thought structure, pieces of it staying in place, some parts drifting away, the way one memorizes the parts of a lesson, some parts more difficult than others, some easier.
All of this had kicked off with a telegraph message from his father, saying odd circumstances surrounded the family in Murphy’s Corner and other people he’d known for most of his life. Over a year earlier, Chambers had left for “new grass,” to see the other half, if such a place existed.
Now, his friend’s face refused to go away, as if hanging around to elicit a promise of revenge, but it demanded Nault’s oft-repeated request that if he ever died, Chambers should put a hawk’s feather on his grave marker to signify the flight the two had dreamed about, “to tromp other grass.”
With the sun going down and shadows sliding up the walls of Eagle Pass, to finally reach the top of one cliff face, Chambers left his haven of safety, walking beside Firedog, holding the reins in one hand, his pistol in the other hand. A pistol was a trade-off with a more accurate rifle because it only required one hand; he dared not let loose of the reins.
Ahead, he knew the pass narrowed again. Pausing, holding Firedog tightly against him, he let his brain scuttle for ideas. One of those instinctive impulses crowded him and he let his feet search for a few stones and found them. Three fit his hand comfortably and, with a concentrated effort, threw the handful ahead of him into the tightest point of the pass. The clattering sound rolled up the walls and several shots poured down into that stricture. Chambers smiled at that, realizing he knew the shooter better than the shooter suspected.
When the shadows came like a cape over the pass, Chambers walked the horse clear of the pass and rode into town an hour or so later.
He went directly to the Gray Wolf Saloon, saw the sheriff, and started telling him of his experience in the pass, all the while watching the door for customers coming in after he did. A few men came in, went to the bar or sat at tables with acquaintances. He remembered each face, their clothes, and the type of weapons they carried. Some of them he’d recognize in shadows.
Max Gordon, the sheriff, said, “He didn’t hit you, did he, Flint?” There was an honest concern in his voice. An older man, Gordon had been on the job for six years, and was anxious to stop the Eagle Pass gunner.
“No, Max, but he came close at that last narrow spot in the pass. Tossed a few down at me when I tripped on some loose rock.” He had long ago learned not to give too much away of what separated him from his adversaries. The conversation was heard in all parts of the saloon.
The sheriff said, “We could go up there and start a real search, but there’s so many places he could be hiding. We’d be up there a month, maybe more.” He shrugged his shoulders a couple of times.
Chambers heard the click inside his head, thought for a moment, and said, “The marshal from Westport told me he was going up there from the other end with a whole passel of men. One of his deputies was hit coming through the pass just a few days ago. They’ll find him.”
He hoped his facial expression would not give things away: what he said was a lie, of course. He had to keep the shooter from going back up there and see if he could rope him in within the town limits, if he was from the town. The lie would spread if the shooter didn’t know it now. He looked for suspicious movement or departure in the saloon. Nothing moved, except elbows, dealing hands, a waitress making early points with one cowboy just off a drive. No one scurried off hearing the lie, perhaps concerned about a giving away a quick tell-tale departure from high over Eagle Pass.
A big, burly man, about Chambers’ age, with a round, red face and a huge smile, came in the door just then and rushed at Chambers, his arms opened wide, and a deep and happy yell coming all the way up from his diaphragm. “Flint, buddy, Flint, how the hell are you? You home for good? It’s great to see you.” His arms wrapped Chambers up as though he was a child getting put to bed.
“Oh, I’ve been practicing shooting the rifle, Mal, and I heard there was going to be shooting match here in town with a big winner’s prize. I sure could use it, but I haven’t heard a single word about any shooting contest. Have you?”
Mal Bisbee looked at the bartender and said, “Harry, you heard anything about a rifle shooting contest here in town with a big prize for the winner?”
The bartender, a surprised look on his face, said, “I ain’t heard a word, Mal, but I’d say it was a great idea. Who’d set up a thing like that though? We ain’t had a shooting match long as I can remember. We sure could use some friendly fun in town. Been needing it for a while since that rat’s been shooting at folks for no reason up there at Eagle Pass. Ought to hang that man soon as look at him.” His gaze swept the room full of locals, looking into the faces of each and every one of them, men who had been two-year acquaintances of his since he had started working at the saloon. He shook his head at the questions floating in the air.
“Beats me,” Bisbee said, “but if we need one man to start it off, I’ll get right on it.”
He turned to his old pal and said, “You any good with the rifle now, Flint, after all your practice?”
“Oh, maybe I am, but if we’re going to do a shoot, make it interesting so nobody can refuse.” Chambers was smiling during the whole exchange because another instinctive thought commenced working all the way through his brain.
“How the hell do we do that, Flint?”
“If you’re asking me, I’d go see Maggie upstairs and while you’re there, ask her if she’d donate a pair of her fancy drawers to pin on the target. We’ll call it “Maggie’s Drawers Shooting Contest.” See who can get closest, most often, or who misses the whole package, like some are bound to do, too excited to do otherwise.”
Chambers and Bisbee were laughing all over each other, and soon the whole saloon was in on the act.
“Hey, Ralphie, what the heck you think about that?” one gent said to the man sitting across from him at the poker table, “Maggie’s drawers! Oh, my. Oh, my. Oh, my.” He tossed in his hand. “Maybe this town’s got something going for it after all.”
Smiling broadly as if he was in possession of a deep secret, waving one arm overhead that presumed victory, then setting off the slyest grin of all, Bisbee started up the stairs to the group of rooms on the second floor. The “Halloos” followed him all the way up the stairs, “Maggie’s drawers,” holding its place in the clamor.
Maggie DeBesquire exited the door of her room, wondering what was going on downstairs, what all the noise was about, and stared at Bisbee heading straight toward her, a silly grin on his face.
In the shortest while possible, the whole town of Murphy’s Corner was abuzz with the excitement. Some of the town’s leading ladies voiced a sense of outrage over the doings, but were sorely in the minority. The story raced from door to door in town and was on its way to the surrounding ranches before breakfast was cold in the morning.
Maggie, a beautiful lady in her own right, started things off at noon, coming down the stairs like she was making her entrance at a big-time shindig, wearing her best red dress, swinging its hems saucily as she descended the stairs, some men in the saloon holding their breaths. In her hand she held a pair of “Maggie’s drawers,” flame-red as Bisbee had requested the night before. “And hip hangers, my girl,” he had said. “Hip hangers. Make sure they are attractive ones, Maggie, colorful, red as camp fire flames. This is going to be one helluva time in town. I can’t believe things got going so quick on this. It’s like I just opened my mouth, and we’re in it all the way. Marvelous. Marvelous.” Bisbee had trouble keeping his composure.
Flint Chambers, in a very open move of approval, met her at the foot of the stair, an elusive thought suddenly coming over him, and he said, with all promise in his tone, “Maggie, we’re going to make you famous, real famous. Maggie’s drawers, yessiree! Maggie’s drawers.”
He held his hands over his head and yelled, “Three cheers for Maggie’s drawers.” His animation was contagious.
He was joined by the every person in the saloon, which included cowpokes and gamblers and bartenders and the piano player and a host of serving ladies, and their cheering clamored out the door and brought in passersby.
The party at Murphy’s Corner was underway, the party and the shooting match that would ensue … and whatever else sitting on the tip of a whip at the back of Flint Chambers’ imagination. The joy and gaiety assumed control of most of the populace as the good feelings spread through the town. People greeted each other across the main street, from open doorways, from second floor porches of the two hotels, and within the bank and the livery and the general store.
At the general store, at the counter when the tab was being calculated for her purchased goods, one rancher’s wife turned to husband and said, “Don’t think for one minute you’re going to send me back to the ranch and leave you here, in the middle of all this. I won’t see you for a week.”
Turning to the clerk, she said, “Mr. Grimsby, you just put these things aside for us and we’ll pick them up when we finally head home.”
With a whirl, she placed her arm under her husband’s and the pair walked out the door.
In the middle of the excitement and good humor, the town-wide exuberance, Flint Chambers rode out to the Murphy’s Corner cemetery snug in a broad space between two lines of trees and the Rita Blanca Creek making a sharp turn in the geography of north Texas.
He had little trouble finding the grave of Chuck Nault, his boyhood friend. It sat at the end of the newest row of gravesites, and was marked with a small, flat stone with a crude inscription that simply said, “Chuck.”
Chambers was swept with misgivings, loss, guilt, remorse, a host of feelings that struck him in place as he looked down at the crude stone, the final marker of his friend. It was too final for him, too restricting, and, as promised long ago, he reached back into his saddle bag and retrieved a single hawk feather he had been saving for the very moment. With a bold stroke, into the ground beside the stone, he stuck the quill of the feather. The feather, he realized, might soon be blown away, but would only add to the flight intention each of the boys once had grasped.
He was made to look upward, and overhead, in a vaunted display of grace and augury, a hawk soared on the up-thrust of a thermal. Chambers settled into a new feeling, and he said, as deep as a vow can be delivered, “I’ll get him, Chuck. You can bet on it.”
His horse, Firedog, nickered, as if in assent, and the two headed back to town.
The owner of the Gray Wolf Saloon, putting up most of the prize money, requested in his offer that the shoot begin at 3 o’clock and go to about 5 o’clock so that contestants and the audience might immediately retire to the saloon and continue the day.
We have about 25 shooters, serious shooters,” he said, “and that’d be time enough to get all the shooting done.” “And start some serious drinking,” he should have said.
At 3 o’clock, with sun still bright over the mountains, the first of the shooters in the contest stepped up to the firing line. He was young and eager, wearing heavily-worn work clothes, and the hurry did not help him at all. Not one of his rounds landed in Maggie’s drawers, taut against some limbs at about 200 yards. There was tittering but no outright laughter at his efforts from standing and kneeling positions. He left the firing line when the target marker, behind a pile of logs, signaled he was done. The young man went straight to the saloon.
Watching intently, Chambers discounted the young man as fast as the youngster left the competition area.
The next shooter, a bit older, stepped up to the line, and Chambers heard one gent say to another, “It’ll be an older fellow, a more experienced man, who shoots the hell out of them drawers of Maggie's. You know what I’m thinking, one good crack shot could shoot the hell out of them drawers and the match would be all over, or Maggie’d have to get up another pair.” The chuckles ran around people within hearing distance.
That shooter registered one hit, high in the left corner of the drawers, as marked by the target marker.
A cheer went up from the crowd.
Eleven shooters went into the mix, Chambers studying each one, and each time saying under his breath, “Not this time, Chuck, but we’ll keep waiting.”
The 12th contestant, close to 40, with a heavy beard, a sorry looking Stetson on his head, and bearing a rifle that Chambers did not recognize, stepped to the line. Something almost irritable clutched at Chambers as he saw the man kneel at the line, settle into a practiced routine, swing the rifle up slowly, click an element of the rifle, eye the sight, perhaps count off a few seconds, and shoot.
Chambers felt the sense of timing take over his consciousness, made him count the seconds as the shooter swung the rifle up, stood up in a shooting position, leaned forward, took another look, put his eye on the rifle sight, counted the seconds, and squeezed off a shot.
The target marker, up and yelling, cried out, “Right where it hurts.”
The crowd screamed in delight, and laughter ran right through them the way a ripple spreads in a body of water, rolling all along the throng.
The man was unknown to Chambers, who asked in jest around the crowd, “What’s that danged shooter’s name?” One of Maggie’s ladies, an attractive young redhead, rolled her eyes in a mock comment, and said, “His name is Claude Jackson. He’s been a cowhand at a couple of ranches, but not too steady, from what I hear.” She offered no further information.
When Chambers’ turn came to shoot, near the end of the competition, Maggie’s drawers were still recognizable but not intact. Not one of his shots hit the target and the target marker yelled out, “You missed Maggie’s drawers, Flint. Not a mark.”
And Mal Bisbee, from the edge of the crowd, yelled out, “Hey, Flint, you don’t have the touch anymore.”
His words brought another rush of laughter, but Chambers only nodded, turned and walked toward the Gray Wolf Saloon. Not a soul in the world heard him say in a guttural exhalation, his vow carried in the deep tone, “I bet we got him, Chuck. I bet we got him.”
Claude Jackson, the winner of the shoot, on his fourth or fifth drink sometime later, still being back-slapped, two more untouched rounds sitting on the bar in front of him, was enjoying his new venture into notoriety. One of the ladies stayed at his elbow and he ordered “another special for the lady.” She patted him on the elbow.
From the corner of the saloon where he had been watching, Chambers walked toward Jackson, weaving among the tables and the moving crowd continually locked in the harmony of their “beau geste” tempo.
On the other side of the Gray Wolf, Mal Bisbee had been watching, not the winner Jackson, but his old pal, Chambers, whom he knew had more interests than expressed in current matters. His pal’s great interest for the past few hours had been set on Jackson, and this shoved a few ideas into Bisbee’s mind, one of them being the incidents at Eagle Pass. He had heard that Chambers visited the gravesite of Chuck Nault, old friend to both men and a victim at Eagle Pass. The connections began to form a chain of thought.
Suddenly adopting an open and joyous manner, Chambers patted Jackson on the shoulder, and introduced himself, along with a specific directness in his words.
Say, Jackson, my name’s Flint Chambers and I saw you do your bit today to win the big prize. That sure was some shooting. Boy oh boy, it was smooth as I’ve ever seen, the way you set yourself up for aiming and shooting. It was like a perfect scene, like something you do by rote, I guess that’s what they call it, by rote, by constant practice, all the moves exact. Boy, oh boy, that makes pretty near perfect, doesn’t it?”
Jackson, partly pleased and partly offended, said, “Thanks, and what do you mean by ‘pretty near perfect?’ It was as perfect as anybody could get.”
Chambers had his plan right in place. “Yeh, I guess you’re right. I can see it now, how you pause between all the actions, making the timing perfect, taking a breath or breaths like you did in your practices, how you paused, set your eye, aimed just so, shot.”
He paused himself, and then continued, “Just like I see it in my mind, maybe just like you did. Maybe just exactly as we’d both remember it.”
Chambers stepped back, went through the motions, and then held his hands the way he would if a real rifle was in those hands, leaned over and aimed down at the floor, like he was going to shoot off someone’s toes.
Across the room, dawn’s light of intentions shot up in Mal Bisbee’s mind and he started toward his old pal, a cautionary alarm in action, an alert taking hold of him.
“Why the hell are you leaning over like that?” Jackson said, standing straight up from the bar, the lady’s hand falling away from him. “That ain’t how I shot them drawers to hell. Whatcha doing that for?”
“Oh, that’s just like that bushwhacker would do out there in Eagle Pass, just like he did to me, and just like he did to Chuck Nault, and killed him.”
At that moment, in the Gray Wolf Saloon, atop everybody in the room came a silence like a sudden breeze from out of nowhere, but carrying elsewhere and what-else with it.
Flint Chambers and Mal Bisbee understood what was happening.
So did Claude Jackson. He went for his sidearm. Bisbee had his hand wrapped around Jackson’s wrist before his hand reached the holster.
Jackson screamed, “I hate all you guys.” He came apart as if he’d been shot. “All you damned cowboys think you’re better than everybody else. But I’m the best shot any of you ever saw. The best shot in the whole country west of the Mississippi. I practice all the time. I’m perfect at it. You all know it now.”
“Yeh,” Chambers said, “but not as good as you think ‘cause there’s some fellows here that you missed out there in the pass. You missed them and they’re still alive. That makes you second to anybody as far as I go, and I knew it soon as you were shooting at Maggie’s drawers. Gave yourself away, you did, dead giveaway, and that did take practice. Chuck Nault was a bad mistake out there, Mr. Goodshot.”
Standing beside an old pal and a killer, he whispered so that only Bisbee and Jackson could hear him, and he hoped Chuck Nault did, “We got him, Chuck. Got him good.”