Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Legends begin in strange settings with strange characters in strange times. This was such a story, in the shadows of The Davidos, where it began and where it ended on a very mysterious note.
And it was a time when the west was wild and wooly; sheep wars raged, stagecoaches and banks in small towns were objects of quick riches in the minds of scattered gangs, murder became commonplace in saloons at the drop of an ace of spades not fitting the deck, and out of the Davidos Mountain Range, in the Utah shadows, a black clad horseman, a single horseman, came off the rocky skyline and thwarted a series of holdups, robberies and thefts of all magnitudes. In a short time, the way legends move at breakneck speed, he became the dream of maids and maidens, the envy of sheriffs and marshals of the territory, and the figure young boys imagined when they looked down-range on their future.
A hero had arrived in the wild and wooly times and became known far and wide as The Horseman of The Davidos, a special man from a special place. The Davidos, for those who had not set eyes on the area, sat as pretty as any range of mountains, not at all as huge and terrifying as the Rockies, but a minor edition of a lovely but rugged setting on the edge of a most pleasant run of rich grassland for a hundred miles or so, between two grand rivers that more northern ranges had birthed.
The single horseman, riding a huge black stallion he called “Beau,” wearing black garb head to foot including the mask hiding just enough of his face to deter recognition, firing two black-handled pistols unerring in accuracy, always appeared on the scene as if he had been created on the spot for the purpose of rescue and salvation for young maidens, old men and much money.
His sense of timing was so provident that he was said to have the ear of the Almighty One looking down from the Mountain of Creation, a name given by local Indians. Men of deep imagination said the Indians in time would come up with a better name, once the word spread among them that the horseman favored no man, no tribe and no nation except those subject to unlawful alarm, trepidation, outright danger and, on certain occasions where plans went awry, death and mayhem.
At the ninth or tenth rescue of coach passengers on the Bellville-Campasa Road alone, brigands scattered to the winds or slain by the single horseman heedless of his own person, the word about the new hero leaped from town to town, ranch to ranch. In turn, the entire Davidos Range was invigorated by the claims of witnesses about the mysterious horseman, regardless of several claims appearing to be inflated, as timing said they happened on opposite ends of the road at the same hour of the same day.
He could not be in both places at one time … it was said … unless there was more than one of him.
In Campasa, at the council meeting of elders, the meeting held in the rear section of the saloon with the bar closed temporarily, the talk kept coming back to the horseman clad in black garb who had thwarted the known hold-up attempts and more as the whispers and rumors spread and fed on themselves.
Rex Morgan, the blind rancher who had lost his eyesight to such a group of roadmen five years earlier, led the conversation back to the strange savior each time the topic seemed to switch around.
“Whoa, here. Dammit, whoa,” Morgan would say, in his demanding voice, an operatic tenor at command. “What’s going on here? I thought we were talking about this unknown hero, this gent in black, and suddenly, like dinner came on the table, someone wants to talk about the price of cow meat. Money won’t mean a damned thing if the robbers keep hitting the stages, the banks, the mine deliveries. One man can’t be everyplace at once. We got to set some rules here. If we find out who he is, do we make him marshal of the territory? “
His eyeless gaze went around the room, face to face, eye to eye, in a display of mysterious intensity, as if he was actually seeing each face and peering into each mind, the way it was said he declared his intentions to the soldiers under his command in the war.
“Do we give this gent a posse to run the bad guys aground? A big posse? An army of a posse? I say ‘Whoa, robbers’ when I think of him in command of a militia. We have problems in our lap that one man is facing down. I want answers plain and simple. For all we know them gents doing these deeds, or trying to, have set their eyes on our bank as a new target just as we sit here and talk about it. Wouldn’t surprise me one tail feather. They’re human like us, and they grow and get better at what they do, or they fall back and finally disappear. I’m not waiting for them to disappear, and I want to know who is or who ain’t. Looks like they got trouble with this strange gent, but not from us, least the last time I looked. Let’s get together on it for once and for all.”
Morgan’s story was known, if only transparent a bit, by all the council and those citizens who sat on the side. The upshot of it all, behind his bravado, was that Morgan kept hidden some element of the accident that caused his blindness, which he had never revealed to any other person, as if he alone on this good earth was to make amends, even in his blind state: he would see justice done, reparations made, vengeance accounted. The secret would stay with him until resolution.
He was a man of his word, just as the horseman from The Davidos was to his mission. Any new man in town, looking on Morgan, would find certain parts of the man coming back at him in a strong manner. They would be his sense of directness, his perseverance of task, an innate muscular power that remained about his person in spite of blindness, and the ready grin or grimace called up from down around his toes by which he was able to diffuse people when he wanted a discussion turned his way, diverted or changed.
The merchant of the group, Toll Brandon, with heavy investment in inventory for the territory, averse to any and all challenges except those he could read all the way from the start, like sure things, stepped into the argument, standing for attention the way an orator sets his stance or the Sunday preacher making the point of his sermon.
“Rex,” he said, “I go along with what you say, but don’t you think we should expend some effort in finding out who this gent is? Put a bird dog on the job? I’ll put in some of the money. Have the bird dog start searching The Davidos for the man’s place of operation? He has to hide out up there in the rocks. He found it, why can’t others? A hideout is just that, a place to rest between operations. If it’s not a cave or an old mine, it’s visible from someplace else, from higher ground, from an old trail. Mountain men been traipsing up in there for more than 50 years I reckon. To a trained eye there shouldn’t be any surprises.”
He had made his entry and passed through. His gaze also went around the room, seeking acceptance, acknowledgment, never knowing the blind man in front of him could see every move he made, every change in stance, his total presentation.
Morgan, keen as ever, understood the merchant, and did not like him for a variety of reasons. But this revelation came strongest knowing that the merchant had made a verbal stance, had made himself “active” in the barest sense, reading it in the man’s voice. Morgan had been able to do that since his first day of command in the army of the Potomac; it had become habit with him. He had a keen ear that had gotten keener at all levels since his loss of sight re-established the old saying that the blind get keener with other senses. He trusted his readings, swore he could smell cowardice or duplicity.
Two days later, with services ongoing in the Campasa Church of the Favored God, an excited rider dismounted at the church and hustled to Sheriff Bean Calder who sat right inside the door of the church. “He did it again, Sheriff, drove off some masked men trying to take the stage due here this morning. Two folks are being tended outside town at the B-Box-B Ranch, two robbers are dead, and three others broke off and ran. The Horseman from The Davidos did it again. Then headed up into the mountains like he was following the runaways. Ain’t he the wonder?” He looked around at the congregation, as if he wore a deputy’s badge, and said, “Want me to round up a posse, Sheriff? We can chase them gents to ground if we get hot on their trail. Maybe this Davidos gent leaves us some markers on the trail. Wouldn’t surprise me one bit.”
Calder said, “Hold on, Baker. I’m waiting on the council to make up its mind.”
“Hell, said the young man, they been sitting on it for weeks. You don’t expect them old bucks to do anything that gets them too excited do you?” He looked around at the congregation as he understood what he had just said in front of all those in the church. He saw a few red faces, a few hidden faces. He saw a smile fly across the face of Rex Morgan, the blind rancher. Morgan’s thunderous “Amen,” echoed in the corners of the church.
Calder, in his quick survey, saw that most town men and ranchers were at the services. He tried to remember later who did not fit into his picture. Who he remembered at first call were Toll Brandon, the merchant, an odd sort to begin with, one deputy who had a new girlfriend out on an outlying ranch, and two men from the stage line that had an office and a livery in town. Most other respectable men of town and local ranches came to services on a regular basis.
When services ended in a matter of minutes, all men including most of the town council gathered around Calder as he stood off to the side.
“Give me the word right now, gents, and I’ll organize a 10-man posse and commission it for a week if need be. We hope the Davidos Horseman will leave some kind of trail as he follows those gang members who got away. The trail is barely a few hours old. We have a good shot this time.” He seemed anxious and nervous, like a racer getting ready to compete.
There was murmuring, a bit of noise among the gathering, and then Morgan said, “You got ‘em, Sheriff. We’re all volunteers now, on town payroll if needed. It’s been set by the quorum in attendance at this moment. You pick the ten men. You’re the boss on this. Those who stay will make sure the necessary work is done for the men you pick for the posse, ranch-wise, cow-wise, whatever.”
He shook Calder’s hand as the sheriff began calling out names. There was no further discussion, and an hour later the posse headed out of town, bound for the trail up into The Davidos foothills, on the trail of The Horseman of The Davidos on the trail of desperadoes on the run.
Morgan and a few men headed from the church to the saloon, the minister with them. It was a Sunday ritual, right after the other ritual, offering thanks from one and all.
In his fashion, in his way, Morgan knew who was with them and who was not without asking a single question. He knew every voice, and could bring back a five-year old image of the man’s face, provided he was not a newcomer to town. Satisfied with some things in his mind, and quizzical about others, Morgan departed the saloon and proceeded to the telegraph office. It was an easy walk for him, knowing the layout of the town.
“Hey, Jess,” he said to the man operating the telegraph key and sending out a message. “You on all week again?”
“Rex, you amaze me the way you can read who’s sending on the key. I saw your head cocked as you came around the corner. You knew it was me and not Desmond soon as you turned the corner, didn’t you?” He put out the non-working hand and tapped Morgan on the wrist. “You found out early on that it was all on the wrist, from what I figure. And I also figure, it being Sunday and some of the boys washing the whole week out of their souls, that you have something else on your mind. But for the life of me, I can’t figure that part. I guess I’m blind to that part.” He chuckled a low laugh that Morgan counted on. “So what’s on your mind, Rex?”
“I have to dig for some information, Jess, but I don’t really know what I’m looking for. Maybe something out of the ordinary, like information on stage shipments, stage passengers, mine shipment deliveries, and who has been privy to that stuff, or, more important, who’s been asking the same kind of questions that I am.”
“Got to do with the masked horseman and the way he knows where the boogie men are? I have to think about that. Sometimes it’s like an offhand question from somebody, and I just pump out the works. Yet, wait a minute. Hey,” he said, “if he needed it, the gang needed it just as much.”
“So, something working in that noggin of yours?”
“I’ll tell you something, Rex. It concerns a couple of people that downright ain’t on my favorite’s list.”
“That being Toll Brandon for one, Jess, and I’ll let you have the other one as a surprise for me.”
“Brandon’s right. Seems to sneak information out of me without trying, but he has a lot of business by stage and wagon, so I never questioned that.”
“Sheriff Calder, for one, and that guy who packs iron for the freight agency, Burl Smithers. Calder’s doing his job, I figure. Maybe the other guy, but he comes around regular, gabs a bit, spends an hour like he has a whole day to do nothing, and then he’s out of here like he got hit in the ass, like he’s been shot.”
“Any of them make notes?” Morgan said.
“Just Brandon. Carries that work pad everywhere with him like his life depended on it. That enough for you, Rex?”
Morgan nodded, put one hand out that the telegrapher touched, and they parted without any more word exchange. And Morgan had more questions in his mind than when he entered the telegrapher’s office.
Three days later, in the heat of evening, the posse came back to town, and every man headed straight for the saloon, but Calder and his deputy were not with them.
One posse member yelled out to the saloon owner, “The sheriff and his deputy will be in later, Harry. They’re doing something at Morgan’s place they said. He let us go after the fight up in the hills, after we got all the gang and brought three of them back. They’re in the jail now, locked up tight.”
The saloon owner said, “The Horseman of The Davidos lead the posse to them?”
“Damned right he did,” the posse member said. Last I saw of him he was pointing down into a box canyon. They were hiding behind a rock fall, with their horses. That guy in black sat his big horse uphill of us, on the other side of the canyon. The bad boys were shooting at him. He might have been hit, but I’m not sure. Sheriff just said for us to hightail it back here and get wet on the town fathers.
There, an hour after arrival, Calder filled in Morgan with all the missing information, and in a backroom. He insisted on privacy.
“Hear me out, Rex. This is pretty hard to swallow, and it sure is a mixed up story, but I have to tell it my way. Please hold off until I’m done. Like I say, it’s damned involved.”
He paused, took a swig of beer, and then went right into it. He drew a piece of paper from his vest. “This is a bill of sale, with the owner’s name signed and my signature as witness. All you have to do is sign it where I tell you. It’s the bill of sale for all Toll Brandon’s property. It’s yours to do as you wish. Secondly, Toll Brandon is now buried on your ranch, in a far corner. His horse is corralled in that L-shaped canyon off the hills. The horse, too, now belongs to you, in a manner of speaking.”
He took another swig of beer. “It’s a big black. The black clothes that the horseman wore are now in safekeeping with your wife. We spent an hour with her today. She knows everything and it’s all legit.”
Morgan, catching an edge in the sheriff’s voice, said, “There’s a whopper here, Bean, that you’re not telling me, like maybe Toll Brandon was the ringleader of the whole bunch.”
“That ain’t quite right, Rex. He was The Horseman of The Davidos, lock, stock and barrel, and he swore us to secrecy, you and me, as he lay dying in my arms. He knew he wasn’t one of your favorites and he kept it that way. ‘We’ve come a long ways,’ he said, ‘and we can’t stop now. Have someone put on my clothes and become me. Pick a good and trusty man. Promise me. Get to Rex Morgan and tell him the same thing. Rex is a good man, even if he can’t see it all.’ He laughed his last laugh at that. ‘Let The Horseman of the Davidos keep riding, keep after the bad guys. Let him ride forever. We need someone like him. If he gets killed, dies like what’s about to happen to me, get someone to take his place. We’ll all be better for it, especially me if I’m lucky enough to be looking down on you from the Mountain of Creation.’ He closed his eyes then and was gone.”
And so it was, thirty years later, when Rex Morgan was sick abed, Sheriff Calder long since dead, that Morgan told his wife, “Don’t let any of our boys wear those clothes anymore, Ethel. Tell everybody that The Horseman of the Davidos died in the waters of one of the two rivers, his clothes beside the stream, his latest horse tethered nearby, and his body not to be found anywhere.”
But The Horseman of The Davidos patrolled the road for all those thirty years along the Davidos range, like the legend he had become.