Western Short Story
The Horse Keeper
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Jake Caylen came into a strange town, Crossed Roads, not in a saddle, not on a horse, not walking in boots, and not wearing much of anything. He kept muttering, “I’m cold, mean, thirsty, hungry and mad as hell.”

There had been a kick and a punch and a knock on the back of his head. He remembered that much. On his forehead and down the side of his face, into three months of beard growth, he could feel how the blood had dried and hardened on his skin. At odd moments he could swear the blood had become so stiff he could peel it off but was afraid it would start flowing again. Half his face felt like it was cast in a mold.

It was 2 o’clock in the morning. A cat cried softly and an owl hooted an answer. Not a one window carried lamplight or firelight. No shadows moved or flirted with the darkness. The moon, playing peek-a-boo with the landscape, was hiding behind clouds thin as silk. Out ahead of him a dog crossed the main road through town with his nose down, tail up, marking him as being on the hunt.

That singular thought flipped through Caylen’s mind bouncing like a jack rabbit out on the grass.

“I’m not ready for hunting.” Again, and again he said it, as if answering a challenge.

“But it won’t take me long to get going,” he could have said, and he wanted to make a fist and it wouldn’t work the way he made it … half curled, near arthritic, hurting like blazes, meaning he must have hit back.

At whoever.

It dawned on him; there was no doubt he had to get off the street in his present condition, looking like a wreck of a man, a bum, a vagrant cowboy off the latest drive and already having drunk his money away. They’d lock him up for sure. He looked around the town, peered into the thickness of shadows, squinted. Which was the way out? Or under cover? Don’t let the sun and inquisitive eyes find him on the main street of the town in his present condition.

Off the main road, maybe 50 or 60 yards, loomed the outlines of a small cabin and a barn. Sleep called on him, and cover of any kind. He was afraid of yawning, of waking some sleeper at dreams. The envy rushed at him. With caution he approached and entered the barn. He found an old horse blanket on a stall rail and climbed to a half loft on a ladder built into one wall.

In a matter of minutes, wrapped in the blanket, his feet warm for the first time in hours, he was asleep. Going off to sleep, going down that dark divide, he felt like he could have been back home in Missouri, in his old bed, listening to the nighthawks and the chuck-will’s-widows and the whip-poor-wills as they stretched the night towards morning. At first, he felt his mind reach out for their endless calls coming at him as soft as lullabies. The wooded hills loomed just the way the cabin and the barn had, assuming a place, a belonging. The nighthawk’s call of “peet-peet” sat near his ear, then the whip-poor-will’s call, the forest close as ever. Maybe closer.

The well-known sounds set off other images. Some he did not know if he believed, like the kick and the punch and the knock on the back of his head, the slab of blood that formed on his face and went through his beard.

But they were real; in part abiding in memory, in part sitting on him like a stain.

The dreams coming on him, rising from a disturbed memory, kept telling him not to forget the images that the dreams brought with them. They were stark and real and found the bruises and aches in his body. He did not think that was strange. Once he thought he yelled and woke up, listening in the dark to see if he had alarmed anybody. For sure a dog would’ve heard him, or a light sleeper in the small cabin. One of the horses in the outside corral might’ve reacted to a noise, a smell, to any other living thing in or about the barn.

Around him a bat whirred through the air. Everything near him called for attention, making itself known. Moths and mosquitoes were trying to evade the bats, and many of them losing the night’s battle.

It was obvious he had lost a battle on his own, to a kick and a punch and a knock on the back of the head. Searching his mind, he tried to bring back parts of memory. Little came to him; no images, no forms, but the kick and the punch and the knock on the back of his head. On their own they were saying to him, “Remember these, bozo. You owe on them.”

In a harsh touch, he felt the noose of a rope slap down on him as he rode on a tight trail. He had seen nothing foreboding. Had no warning.

Jake Caylen was 28 years old, a drover for the last 14 or 15 years, “as good looking in the saddle as any cowboy I ever saw,” his mother used to say, never married, with blond hair thick on the back of his neck and the sides coming over his ears, blue eyes good out on the trail, and trusting of most all people he met, no matter where, or in what circumstance.

That last part, about trusting people, may have fallen into a reserve, as his body kept telling him.

Some parts of it were coming back to him as he drew the horse blanket even tighter about him, as a breath of air began to tickle him on his backside, touch at his ankles.

The swish of fabric woke him the way a dream might be re-enacted, might come back from the mythical distance where real dreams holed up. He pictured a swirl of calico, a rainbow of color. On the air he caught a scent, like honey or a candied stick, like a prairie flower blossoming close to his nose. Dreams could be so real.

The cold bore of the rifle jammed into his back like an icicle.

“What’cha doin’ here? This’s my barn,” a woman said, her voice insistent, hard, even though the sweet scent continued to ride in the air. “I don’t need no guests. No help. No saddle bums.” Anger, not curiosity, rode in her voice.

The speaker was dragging the barrel of a rifle under the blanket and pulling it off him. The air was cooler than he thought. He shivered again and wondered how she had climbed the ladder without his hearing her.

“I was beat up by a gang,” Caylen said.

“Yeh,’ she said, “and my name’s Butterfly Betty.” The rifle jabbed him again.

“I swear on my mother’s soul,” Caylen said. “And she’s the only woman in this life I ever loved. The only one.” He raised one hand in an oath. “I swear.” He saw a picture of his Aunt Bess and knew he lied.

“So, who beat you up?” There was a softening in her voice, the way belief mounts itself beside doubt. The cold bore of the rifle receded from his back side, and he rolled over to face her.

“I was in a card game, over in Bolton, in the Sawgrass Saloon.”

“I know the place. Nobody should go in there.” In the morning light she saw the way a flow of blood had formed on half his face, had thickened right in his beard, making it darker. Otherwise he was probably a good looking young man.

His voice was insistent. “I won pretty good in a card game. I wanted to leave. They said okay, three of them, so I left. I was riding beyond the town, on a narrow trail, and a rope caught me right off the saddle. Pulled me to the ground. Three of them were on me like mad bees. They knew right where my money was. Took it all. Kicked me. Punched me hard. Knocked me on the head. I saw lights. Then I passed out. When I woke up they had practically stripped me. Took everything. My clothes. My guns. My horse and saddle.”

“What’d they look like?”

“Common, I guess, but one of them wore a ring bigger than a fist almost.” He thought back. “His ears were so close to his head like he had none to begin with, and he was hard, but everybody you meet is hard when you have a few dollars in your pants.”

“He have dark hair, dark eyebrows like he had been to Hell already and had come back, a scowl on his face like his father beat him every day since he came into this world? Smell like the back end of a barn?”

“God,” Caylen said, “you know him?”

“Nobody like him around here but Hatch Turbonne, like a rat loose on the town.” The look on her face was total distain.

Close to hatred she was, he thought, but pretty as a flower despite the hate showing. He looked into her eyes and said, “Where’ll I find him?”

She measured him for activity, found him wanting and needing care.

“Not today you don’t,” she said, a softness finding way in her voice, in her face. “What’s your name? Where you from? Who knows you well enough to speak for you? We gotta get you patched up, fixed up some. Get some vittles into you. You look like you mighta been down there in Hell along with Hatch Turbonne, like he needed company.”

Caylen already had the full picture of Hatch Turbonne cemented in his mind.

“My name’s Jake Caylen. I just finished a drive Red River way when I got into a game with the bad guys I’m talking about. Sounds like you know these gents pretty well.”

“I trust you didn’t know any of them before.” It was more a question about who he hung out with.

“Never saw ‘em before.” He stopped, thought about it, and said, “And not since.”

Then he followed up to the surprise that she had hit him with; “You mean to keep me here a while, feed me? Why? I don’t even have my pants, or my guns, or my horse, and all my money’s gone. They took it all, this fellow you know and his pals. They’re as bad as you say.” He didn’t know if that was a question or a statement. But he asked a question. “So, what’s your name?”

For one moment Caylen thought he caught a blush on her face, that for a second, she might have changed or revealed something of herself. He liked that instant exposure, the serious blue suddenly sitting in her eyes. She looked like a lady, reminded him of his Aunt Bess, pretty, sassy, on her own, standing there with a rifle on him that had not yet wavered in its aim for one full second.

“Victoria Ballard’s my name. People hereabouts call me Vicky. But my father always calls me Victoria.” The rifle was still aimed dead center on him.

But Caylen thought that was another moment of true exposure, an acceptance of who and what he was and what had happened to him. That a stranger believed the words of another stranger … in the loft of a barn in the early morning and him more than half undressed. There was another thought he had to shake loose of.

He shook the other thought loose as she replied. “Yes,” she said. “I’ll give you food, get you some clothes, let you get healed before you go looking for them. You have to be ready all the way. I don’t think anybody knows you’re here. We’ll get you inside. My father is in St. Louis for a week or more, so you have no worries there. And I’ll have none, for sure.” She could have waved the rifle, he knew, but she didn’t.

She looked around, then out the window, and said, “I have no serious interests hereabouts. We’ll not be bothered, but I have concerns.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t seem very angry. I’d be rabid, frothing at the mouth, at such treatment. Yet you seem calm about all of it.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that. I’ll get revenge, a tall order of revenge, you’ll see.”

His voice was so matter of fact it frightened her. Across his face, rising past the beard and the dried blood, had come a piece of hardness she hoped she’d not see too often. The look, she realized, did change his stunning looks. She originally had the fear of melting at a smile from him. She felt stupid. As if in rebuttal of his good looks, she squeezed hard on the grip of the rifle.

He saw it and did not flinch.

A balance of peace and trust had been reached.

“You wait here,” Victoria Ballard said. “I’ll get you some of my father’s clothes. Can’t let anyone see you prancing around in your underdrawers. What’ll they think?”

For the first time she smiled, not a coy smile and not a brazen smile, but it melded with a thought he had let go of as it came rushing back.

He smiled at her.

She turned her back and went down the ladder.

In 10 minutes she came back with an armful of clothes but had left the rifle behind. She threw them up to him in one bundle. “Get dressed up there. I’ll be in the kitchen. I’m hungry too.” She turned and left the barn for the second time. But a sweet scent hung in the air.

A sudden emptiness filled him. At an angle, from behind him someplace way off in the past, he caught a smile go across the face of his Aunt Bess. There were times he believed Aunt Bess knew more than his mother did.

In trousers that fit him pretty well, a shirt with a texture that sat well on his skin, a pair of socks without thick repairs in them, and a pair of old leather boots with some use left in them, he entered the kitchen of the Ballard house.

He smelled the bacon first, heard its morning pitch and rustle, then saw thick slabs of bread sitting right on the top of the stove. The taste of burnt edges reached his mouth. On top of the bacon she broke four eggs and let them slide from her hand into a wide-brimmed, iron skillet with a long handle. Victoria Ballard also knew her way around the kitchen.

Turning, a warm smile on her face, something different about her hair the way it sat around her face, she said, “You get mad as hornets or whatever?”

She caught him right in the middle of a returning thought. “I’m cold, mean, thirsty, hungry and mad as hell.” It had rushed out of him, and he immediately tried to pull it back. “But mostly I’m hungry. This kitchen smells like my mother’s kitchen.”

Vicky Ballard’s eyes lit up. She smiled and said, “It don’t matter how you like them, you gotta eat them. That’s the last four eggs in the house.” She turned the bread over on the top of the stove and the aroma rushed him again.

“Sit.” She pointed to one of two chairs at a small table. “I’ll take this side.”

In front of him she put a plate of eggs and bacon and toasted slabs of bread. Coffee came steaming into a thick mug. When she sat down she went right at her meal.

“Eat,” she said. “I haven’t eaten since yesterday noon. I’m hungry too. Enjoy it. No more until tonight.”

Caylen helped her clean up after the meal. He was drying the few dishes when she said, “Let’s stop this pretense. What happens next? He’s a real bad character, that Hatch Turbonne. I couldn’t say it worse, and his saddle pards are just as a bad. All of them tried to get around here at some time, but my father sent them on their way, promised the sheriff would be looking at them.”

She sat back down at the table and said, “I’d rather not see you get hurt, and that’s a big possibility. Unless you’re the new hero of the west or the best gunfighter to come into town in a long time, the deck is stacked against you.”

“Well,” Caylen replied, smiling all the way and warming Vicky up, “I may not be the best or the fastest but I can do a good job when need be. I won’t get caught again like I was out on the trail half asleep in the saddle, not paying my way any mind.” The smile came again. “I’m really happy you don’t want to see me get hurt. That’s about the nicest thing you could say. My Aunt Bess said …. “He stopped before he said anymore, and she let it go unsaid, but her face showed interest.

They were quiet for a bit, sipping on coffee, listening to the morning, seeing something in each other.

“I have some hot water on the stove. You best get that beard off and we’ll clean up those cuts or whatever we find. They may not even know who you are if that beard is gone, a change of clothes on your back, another hat.”

Caylen cut much of the beard off, shaved with gear she set at the sink. The hard blood had softened and been removed, a trickle remained and she wrapped a clean piece of cloth over it.

They talked while he had shaved, made suggestions, agreed on some things that had to be done, dismissed a few as outlandish, too dangerous. Nods and understandings and ideas of future possibilities were accompanied by silence. The room was warm. He was warm. She was warm. Aunt Bess loomed somewhere nearby, he could swear.

In the meantime, he fell in love. It was a silent affirmation that pierced his thinking. In one moment in his life, in a strange kitchen with a strange girl, the wounded, beset cowboy had fallen in love. Shaking that thought for a short time, he nodded and said, “The best way is to get them one at a time. Catch them and teach them one on one. I’d like to get my horse and my guns back. They’re real important to me. What do you know about these gents?”

“Turbonne’s mother lives in Calvin’ Valley,” Vicky said, “up the road toward Meriden. Chances are that he gets up there once in a while. She’s been living alone for a long while. I’ve heard people say he does drop in now and then. Probably not like a good son, but now and then. Maybe when he’s hungry or needs a stake from her.”

“That’s where I’ll start,” Caylen said. He smiled again and the flutters came back to Vicky Ballard. “I’ll need a gun and holster and time to get used to it … about a day. Can you handle that?”

She blurted out her reply. “I’d rather not, but I know I have to or nothing good will ever happen.” Her eyes closed for a second. “I have some guns my father used a long time ago. I’ll get them for you.”

From a trunk in her room she brought a revolver and holster on a gun belt. The leather was smooth and worn, though it felt a little stiff. The gun was clean and had a smooth feeling. It was a Colt Walker revolver with walnut grips, felt comfortable in his hand and was marked in three places as ‘A-Company 49.’

Vicky Ballard, not drawn back any longer, also dropped a box of ammunition onto the kitchen table. “It’s full,” she said. “My father didn’t fire that gun at all during the last few years. He has trouble with his eyes. Do you have good eyes? Much practice?”

Caylen hoped she was really saying he had to take care of himself. That warmed him.

When he said, “I’ll get by,” she nodded as if she had known the answer. “Don’t get too cocky around Turbonne and his pals,” she said. “They’re considered dangerous company. They have a past, as they say. Of course, you already know that, don’t you?”

“Vicky, if you’re trying to put me off, please don’t. The whole thing was as much my fault as theirs, but I came out second, and hurting, and I can’t carry that an hour longer than I have to.”

It was her turn to smile. It was almost radiant. Only a small amount of doubt gave rise in it.

“I’ll need a horse and a morning come soon,” Caylen said, “and a sombrero.”

“I have them,” Vicky Ballard said. Her hand touched him on the cheek.

He had never felt that fire, as though he had waited his whole life for it. The way Aunt Bess had promised.

Three days later, three nights sleeping in the barn in case her father came home, or a visitor, his wound now a small scab at his forehead, he rode away from her on one of her horses, the Colt Walker at his side. He dared not look back fearing he would not leave. But he had dues to exact, a mission to complete.

For four days he watched the Turbonne home set in against a small canyon, the ground was nothing but hardscrabble, little grass around in the mix, but a natural spigot of water came off a hidden spot on the canyon wall. Occasional riders arrived, stopped at the house and filled their canteens. Caylen supposed a few pennies changed hands, what the woman must have lived on, those few pennies. For the four days he did not see a sign of Hatch Turbonne. At night he slept on a high ridge and the first thing each morning he checked to see if any horses were at the little house, if any visitor or guest had come by, if a son had stopped by.

On that last morning his heart jumped as he saw his horse standing at the front of the house, drinking from a small trough. The horse, a palomino, stood like a golden statue. Then another rider came along, called at the house, looked like he paid his water fee and filled a canteen. Caylen was on his way down when another man came along; just what Caylen was waiting for, a witness.

“Hi,” he said to the latest water customer, “you stopping for water?”

“Yep, come by every time I pass. Pay a few pennies and help out the old lady who lives there. Keeps her fed.”

“She have any family?” Caylen said, as he rode in beside the man. “My names Jake Caylen and I’m stopping too. How much?” He held up his empty canteen, which he had emptied on the way down from the ridge.

“Oh, name’s Woody Gregson here,” the man said. “Just pennies. She’s got a son who’s off all the time rousting and stuff. Don’t keep a job long. Gets into small feuds and gets to walk away. His name’s Hatch Turbonne and it looks like he’s home. That’s his new horse up there at the house. I saw it week past in Meriden. Don’t know where he got it ‘cause he don’t work much for his way. Sneaks by, plays cards, tries to beat all the odds. Makes me wonder if he snaps up any of the old lady’s pennies.”

“I take it you don’t favor him much.”

“Ain’t that the truth of the way. He always gets a little hard about the penny costs when I come along and he’s here. The old lady has to quiet him down so he don’t spoil all the time he ain’t here.”

It was at that statement that Hatch Turbonne stepped out of the door and into the sunlight. One hand served as a visor as he looked at the two riders coming to the house. One man he recognized right off as having been in Meriden a week or so earlier. The second man he didn’t recognize. But both looking for water, he assumed.

“Cost just went up, gents. Nickel a canteen. Dime a water bag.” The smile on Turbonne’s face was a kind of pained glee, the kind jailer’s wear all the time. He nodded at the known arrival, studied the other man as though he might have seen him somewhere.

The idea made him ask, “I know you from someplace?” He was looking at the eyes under an ugly old Stetson that had outlived its day. Something in them scratched at him. He could not figure it out.

Woody Gregson said, “Cost went up and down the last time we met here too. Your mum home?”

“Don’t make no difference. Cost has risen,” Turbonne muttered, not too loudly.

Jake Caylen muttered under his breath, “I’m cold, mean, thirsty, hungry and mad as hell.”

From the doorway Turbonne’s mother yelled, “Two cents for you Woody and three for your partner. I ain’t got an egg left in the house. And he ain’t buyin’ any.” She came out the door and pointed at her son. The woman looked as if she was starving, her cheeks thin, her arms thin, her breath halting at her own words.

Turbonne, turning away from his mother, hearing Caylen mumble under his breath, said, “You got somethin’ to say, mister? Spit it out.” Utter derision sparked into his voice, hatred came right along with it, and then the attempt to run fear on top of it all. He made a hard, sour face and said, “I said spit it out. I don’t got all day for dummies.” He was standing stiffly in place, the sun at his back.

Caylen felt the noose falling on him again, the punch, the bang on the head, saw himself walking down the main street of Crossed Roads in his underdrawers. He mumbled again, “I’m cold, mean, thirsty, hungry and mad as hell.”

“It’s a dime for you,” Turbonne said to Caylen, “so spit it out. You ain’t special here. No saddle bum gets special prices.”

Caylen dismounted lightly, his feet touching the ground the way a dancer might alight from a horse. The old sombrero flopped on his head. A small bandage showed on his forehead. A piece of a pale green shirttail hung out on one hip, but not on the gun side, not on the Colt Walker side. His hands, free of the reins, were like feathers, but the words coming from him had an edge to them, a promise. “I’ll pay your dime if you tell me where you got that good-looking palomino over there.” He nodded at his horse.

Woody Gregson, still in the saddle, sat back and said, “Uh oh.” He looked at the horse shimmering with the sunshine falling on its mane.

Time, and all of the west around Crossed Roads, stood still. Morning froze right where it was, on an edge sharp enough for cutting.

Turbonne stared again, as if he was fighting for some small point of recollection, not knowing if it was the voice that triggered him, or the sombrero not belonging on the man’s head, or the way his hands melted into the air. A breath of air caught itself in his throat and balled up in one place.

“I bought him,” stammered Turbonne, “from a cowpoke on the trail. I got a bill of sale inside somewhere. I can’t remember his name, the cowpoke.”

“Was it Caylen?” Jake Caylen said, “Jake Caylen? You buy it from him?”

“Oh, yeah,” Turbonne said. “That’s him. You know Jake? I bought it from him. Some palomino, huh? You recognized him? You know Jake Caylen?”

Woody Gregson, still in the saddle, frozen there, not sure if he should move at that moment, said again, barely audible, “Uh oh.”

The sun had dawned over the scene, and a new dawning came upon Hatch Turbonne as he stared into the eyes staring back at him from under the old beaten-up sombrero. The small bandage under the visor seemed to make a statement for him. He saw a man sitting across from him at the card table in The Sawgrass Saloon in faraway Bolten. The man won. Left. Lost it all. Must have died out there. But … there was no other chance. This man in front of him was his victim.

Hatch Turbonne, loser many times over, lost again as he went for his gun. He’d be sure to kill this crazy intruder. He’d kill Woody Gregson too if he had to. Behind him his mother screamed his name as he started to draw his weapon.

As Jake Caylen, anger boiling over in him, waiting for love to come all the way home, could not fail at this mission, and fired as Turbonne fired at him, but wide, wild, wherever.

Reaching one hand toward his mother, Hatch Turbonne coughed a ball of sound in his throat, fell to the ground as Caylen’s single shot came home in his heart.

Later, after dark and after silence had descended, Woody Gregson told the sheriff, “Turbonne drew on him, Sheriff. Tried to jump him first. Fired and missed him a mile. This other guy stood there, took aim, gave him his due.”

Victoria Ballard, all those days sitting on her porch from dawn to nightfall, her heart pounding at every new hoof beat, saw the rider on a gold palomino coming across the grass.

She recognized the hat, the pale green shirt, the lift in her heart as if she was airborne.