Western Short Story
The Hitch-Rail Argument
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

“Dutch” Harland, in a most capricious manner, mounted his horse tied to the hitch rail and jabbed the animal with his spurs, tearing the hitch rail off its posts, at the Double MM ranch, meaning My Myrna to the owner. The whole crew saw the new man do it, and the owner’s daughter, Myrna, yelled, “Hey, you, fix that tie rail you broke.”

Harland, across the ranch frontage, replied, “I run cattle, so I don’t fix no tie rails. Get somebody else.”

The whole crew, some of them getting ready to go into town for a few drinks and some fun, were dumbfounded at his reply, a couple of them almost ready to draw guns to enforce Myrna’s command.

Harland rode off alone as Stan Lermond spoke up, saying, “No worry to it, Myrna, I’ll take care of it. That new guy probably can’t hold a hammer but the one on his gun.” He walked toward the barn as the crew watched Harland now riding almost out of sight, a shadow on the open landscape, a mystery on horseback to every one of them, which had been for ages a good bunch.

One of them said to the ranch hand beside him, “Don’t meet up with him tonight. He’s the sourest hire I ever saw. Probably as mean, too.”

There followed much nodding and assent from the entire crew of ranch hands, the usual tightness of such crews very evident.

Meanwhile, Myrna, prettier than a sunrise in June, stood amidst her anger at the doorstep, and then felt thanks for Stan Lermond’s work fixing the mess, which didn’t take him long, muscles and know-how showing familiarity on his long frame, in his grasp of hand tools. With a look full of sighs, she watched him walk across the yard, her mind searching for answers, the stretch of possibilities, ranch life often locked in continual labor, or hope, one kind or the other.

It didn’t take much time for the rest of the ranch hands, led by Dutch Harland of course, to start calling him names such as call-boy, owner daughters favored one, in an entirely different selection of words and enough made-up pseudonyms to start old-time schoolyard fights. But the steady Lermond’s nerves withstood the slight onslaughts, fully understanding the situation, all the while his impressions on Myrna getting deeper, more serious.

It soon came obvious to all working men of the ranch that anytime Myrna wanted something done, she favored, and asked for Lermond, for his quick responses, his general attitude, his trustworthiness in all efforts, and his quick clean-ups after every task; he was out to please the boss in no uncertain degrees.

It brought disgust from Dutch Harland, winks from many of the crew, a smile every now and then, as if it was wistful, and the seam between Lermond and Harland getting wider and wider with every day.

When Harland said one day to the crew. “I’m getting’ the hell out of here. I’m quittin’ this place,” one gent said, “Better go tell the boss. She gave you a job in the first place.

“The hell with her and her boyfriend. I’m not talkin’ to either one of ‘em.” Abruptly, as announced, he rode off the ranch and out of sight. Neither Myrna nor Lermond mentioned him again in normal conversation.

Myrna, in a decisive moment, eventually announced Lermond to be the new foreman, as expected by all hands. Harland, apparently, was out of mind as well as out of sight, but Lermond pulled aside one of the crew and said, “Harry, I don’t think we’ve seen the last of him. For sure he’ll think of some way of getting back at Myrna. You and me are going to do some night watching until this feeling in me goes away. I’ll think of some way to get you rest in the day, and we as a pair will have to support each other on our night watches. I don’t trust that man as far as I can throw him and that ain’t a longways at all. Not from me to you, that’s how much.”

He let the ideas sink into Harry Quincy whom he trusted more than any of the crew.

It didn’t take long for their private safeguards to reveal several sly visits at night as Harland looked over the ranch from certain vantage points, probably at a study of lay-out, opportunities to inflict a bit of the hatred still burning inside him at being fired, prompting his nastiness into actions, laying the blame elsewhere besides his own shoulders; some critters, each of the watchers believed, come into this life mean all the way through, Dutch Harland being the prime example.

When the night visitor stood looking at the back end of the main barn, they figured he had found his tool for misery’s infliction, and Lermond said to Quincy, “I think he’s thought of something to really mess things up for Myrna, and for the rest of us, too. This will have to be our main target, each of us from different angles to get a clear warning of what he’s up to.

It was Quincy who spotted a warning of sorts and came to Lermond. “You know that dinky little cave in the gully we never went into ‘cuz we figured snakes was holed up in there, well, Dutch has got a fire goin’ in there, alongside him and those other snakes. I think in the dark of night he’s goin’ to set a torch to the back end of the barn. We ought to shoot the son of a bitch now before he does anything. Would serve him right.”

Lermond’s hand laid on Quincy’s shoulder, “Naw, we won’t get that nasty, Quince, but we’ll sure put a stop to him if he comes out of there with a torch of any size,” He said, “Any size,” twice, to thrust his decision.

That’s how the story goes at the Double MM Ranch, where the meanest man any of them ever met was about to do his meanest, and deadliest, trick of all, set the back end of the big barn afire in the dead of night. He had mounted his horse when he came out of the cave with a torch in his hand, and set off at a run toward the Double MM’s barn.

Foreman Stan Lermond just knew he was headed for the biggest of two barns and shot him off his horse, at which the torch came loose on the ground right beside Harland, groveling on the ground, the ban not twenty feet away.

The whole ranch came to life, owner and daughter leaping from the main house, the crew pouring half-dressed out of their sacks with guns in hand, all to see Dutch Harland, not too far from the back of the big barn, tossing around in pain on the ground, a few feet away from his outstretched hand the torch still aflame beside him.

None of them could prove to the sheriff, finally on the scene, that Harland was going to burn down the barn, but, when the bullet was extracted from him, he rode off again, never seen anymore in that part of Texas, the ranch eventually celebrating the marriage of Myrna and Stan Lermond who moved into the big ranch house quick as a wink.