Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The short pock-faced bandit with brown teeth shoved a big pistol in Hutch Higgins’ face.
“One move out of you Cowboy,” he growled, “and your momma will be putting flowers on your grave tomorrow! You understand?”
Hutch gulped and nodded.
The outlaw ripped a pistol from Hutch’s holster, but overlooked a one-shot derringer inside his right boot, a whiskey flask in the other.
Hutch, a tall leathery cowboy in his late thirties, was among seven passengers stopped in a dusty stagecoach near Jacktaw, Texas, where he rode for the Double ZZ Ranch.
A second outlaw, a stoop-shouldered man with long white hair, waved a smoking double-barreled shotgun at the writhing driver atop the stagecoach, who gripped his bleeding left shoulder.
“Dammit!” groaned the wounded man. “We was stoppin’. You...You had no call to shoot us.”
“Shut up!” ordered the outlaw.
“You killed...Moody!” groaned the fat-bellied driver.
Moody, the stage’s young shotgun rider was face down on the rocky creek bottom. Blood spread from his mangled side and lifeless face. His right hand gripped a short-barreled shotgun.
“I got him before he got me with his damned scattergun,” growled the outlaw, quickly reloading his shotgun. “Another word out of you and you’ll be dead, too. Now, throw down your rifle...and that pistol you’re hidin’ under the seat. And do it nice and easy like.”
Both weapons clanked on the rocky ground.
Hutch joined the shaky passengers standing alongside the coach, their hands raised.
“Keep ‘em up,” ordered the first hold-up man. He gestured toward his white-haired companion. “Whitey, over there,” he said, “is meaner than starvin’ weasels in a chicken coop. He blew away the guard and wounded the driver, so he won’t mind shootin’ you if need be. He likes killin’ people!”
Whitey laughed, revealing several missing teeth. “The law,” he said, “can only hang ol’ Clyde and me once.”
Pockmarked Clyde shielded his eyes against the afternoon sun and yelled up at the wounded driver. “Hey, old man, what was your shotgun rider’s name?”
“Moody,” groaned the half-conscious man. “Gus...Moody.”
“Was...Was...he what?” mumbled the driver.
“Moody? Hard to get along with?”
The stagecoach man grimaced and cursed under his breath.
“Moody’s a funny name,” continued Clyde. “Don’t you think so?”
The driver slowly answered: “Good man. A wife...kids. Been...ridin’ together years.”
“Well,” chuckled Clyde, “you ain’t doin’ it no more.”
Whitey leaned against the coach and snickered.
Clyde and Whitey had stopped the stage in the bottom of a dry creek bed as its horses tried to struggle up the opposite side.
“Hold it right there!” shouted Whitey. When Moody lifted his scattergun, Whitey released both barrels of his shotgun, knocking the security guard off the coach and ripping the driver’s left shoulder.
Clyde waved his pistol and studied his nervous captives, their eyes downcast. “Might be fun shootin’ another one of you,” he said, a smile on his rough face. “Be fun droppin’ your body alongside ol’ Moody over there.”
Hutch looked up and glared at the thief.
Clyde added: “Which one of you are we gonna shoot next? Got any ideas? Well, I got one: I’m gonna let you decide who it’s gonna be. Ain’t that fair? You can be your own jury, judge, and...executioner. Vote just like in a democracy.” He did a little boot dance. “Won’t that be fun? Yeah, you people will pick who we’re gonna kill next.”
Whitey kicked some gravel and yelled: “Dammit, Clyde, stop foolin’ around. Let’s git the strongbox, and git the hell out of here!”
“I’m busy,” retorted Clyde. “You want the box down, git it down yourself! It’s what we came for ain’t it?”
Whitey climbed up on the stage and pushed the groaning driver aside. He dragged a heavy metal strongbox from under the seat, shoved it over the wagon’s edge, and let in crash in the dry creek bottom.
“Let’s git the money, and git!” repeated Whitey.
Clyde spit and said: “I’m runnin’ this outfit! I’ll say when we git. Mow open the...”
Whitey shattered the box’s big lock with one pistol shot, and lifted the heavy lid.
“...‘cuz I’m havin’ me some fun ‘for we ride out. Ain’t had no funnin’ in a long time.”
“Well, lookee here.” Whitey untied a fat canvas bag and scooped up a handful of gold coins. “We’re gonna be drinkin’ and eatin’ good tonight. Gotta be over a thousand dollars in here!”
“Two thousand,” corrected Clyde. “I told you. Told you the Jacktaw stage would be shippin’ gold. And I know a couple of good lookin’ whores I’m gonna be spendin’ some of that gold on, too.”
His partner laughed. “Hell, Clyde, you’ll be lucky if you can handle one down at Madam L’Amour’s in--”
“Shut up!” snarled Clyde. “These people is hearin’ more than they need to be hearin’.”
Whitey began stuffing the gold into their horses’ saddlebags.
“Half that’s mine!” shouted Clyde.
Among the passengers was a well-dressed Texas cattleman in his mid-sixties, and his beautiful young wife. A fourth traveler was an anemic looking young man with a bad cough who said he was seeking a dry climate to fight his consumption. A fifth rider was a cigar-puffing, half-drunk traveling salesman of ranch equipment. An elderly thin woman trying to hide her age under a wig, glasses, and layers of thick makeup completed the seven.
The outlaw held out his hat. “Drop your valuables in here. Don’t hold nothin’ back.”
He moved along the line collecting rings, watches, wallets, gold, and cash money.
The cattleman’s young wife emptied her purse in the dirty hat and reluctantly added her wedding ring, bracelet, and necklace. Shaking, and near collapse, she gripped her husband’s arm.
“What about them earrings?” snapped Clyde. “Take ‘em off!”
“They’re a wedding gift from Harold,” she pleaded.
“Take ‘em off!” snarled Clyde.
“Rose, give them to him,” urged Harold. “They’re not worth getting killed over. I’ll get you some more.”
“No!” She was emphatic. “They’re diamonds from New York.”
Clyde yanked off the pierced earrings. Rose screamed.
“I was gonna give them to you,” she cried. Blood dripped from her earlobes.
“You had no call to do that,” said her husband.
Clyde shoved his pistol barrel under the man’s double chins. “Are you stupid Mister or lookin’ to die?”
Hutch remained statue still, his mind on the derringer in his boot.
Clyde lowered his weapon and began searching the passengers. He found a $20 gold piece in the skinny man’s pocket, a silver case in the old lady’s clutch purse, and a gold chain and pocket watch on the cattleman.
“It was my daddy’s,” said the rancher. “Gave it to me just before he passed on.”
“Then I’ll be sure and take real good care of it,” mocked Clyde.
Hutch glared again at the outlaw.
“What you lookin’ at, Cowboy?” growled Clyde.
“You. Ain’t nothin’ else around here.”
The gunman started to hit Hutch with his pistol, then stopped: “Cowboy, I ain’t gonna spoil your pretty face right now, ‘cuz I’m hopin’ you’ll be the one I’ll be shootin’ after we play...Clyde Poker...a special kind of card playin’ you ain’t never seen before. Even you ladies can play. It’s somethin’ you ain’t never gonna forgit.”
“Dammit, Clyde!” yelled Whitey. He had finished filling their saddlebags. “Let’s go! We got the gold. Ain’t that what we came for?”
“This won’t take long.”
Clyde did another little dance before he put his hat with the stolen items on the ground and replaced it with Hutch’s hat.
He handed Hutch a deck of cards. “Cowboy,” he said, “find the Ace of Spades and six other cards.”
Clyde took the seven cards and dumped them in Hutch’s hat. “This is gonna be the most fun I’ve had,” he chuckled, “since shootin’ that lawman in the back in Tulsa.”
He turned to Whitey: “Get that stage driver down.”
“What the hell for?”
“I want him to see this. Don’t want him to miss nothin’.”
“Hell, Clyde, he ain’t moving no more. He’s unconscious or dead.”
Whitey yanked the driver off the stagecoach. The man screamed as he landed in the rocky creek, his eyes flames of pain. “What’d...you do...that for?” he groaned.
“Don’t want you to miss the fun,” continued Clyde, who turned back to his prisoners. ”Pick a card,” he ordered, “but be careful when you do. Take your time...but not too much, ‘cuz I’m gonna shoot the one who gets...the Ace of Spades.”
He placed the cards face down in Hutch’s hat, mixed them around with his greasy glove, and paraded in front of his hostages like an arrogant king. “Now, don’t you worry none,” he said. “Everyone’ll get a chance to play.” He stopped by the consumptive man. “You feelin’ lucky today, Mister?”
The man coughed, his thin face paler. “I don’t play poker,” he choked. “Never have.”
“You will today.”
The traveler hesitated.
“Take a card!” ordered Clyde. “Any card.”
Prodded by Clyde’s pistol, the man’s long shaky fingers slowly sorted through the pasteboard and lifted one. He refused to look at the card.
“Turn it over!” growled Clyde.
The traveler’s hand shook.
“Turn it over!” repeated the bandit.
It was a Four of Clubs.
The man almost fainted.
“See,” chuckled Clyde. “It’s easy like I told you.”
The second player was the drummer, now sober.
“Let’s see if you’re lucky, too,” chuckled Clyde.
The salesman picked the card in the very bottom of the hat, but also hesitated to show its face.
“Either turn that damned card over,” challenged Clyde, “or I’m callin’ you the winner and shootin’ you. That’d be a real pity, ‘cuz then the game would be over.”
The drummer turned the card: a Seven of Clubs. His knees sagged, but he caught himself and didn’t fall.
Clyde again shoved his pistol in Hutch’s face.
“You feeling lucky, Cowboy? Hope not. You’re the one I really wanna see pull out the death card. I’m saving the Ace of Spades just for you.”
Hutch took a deep breath, fingered the cards, and lifted one: a Three of Diamonds.
“Oh, you are lucky ain’t you Cowboy?”
“Runs in the family,” replied Hutch. “Clyde, why not get out of here with all that gold before a posse comes lookin’ for it? You got a fortune in your saddlebags. Enjoy it while you can.”
“He’s right,” yelled Whitey. “Let’s go.”
“I told you we’re playin’ Clyde Poker. And when playin’ Clyde Poker you don’t rush things. Them’s the rules.”
Whitey shook his head and nudged the sprawled driver with his boot. “He’s dead!”
“So?” Clyde moved to the cattleman. “You’re number four.” He shoved the card hat in Harold’s stomach. “Take one.”
The young wife clung to the cattleman’s arm. He gently kissed her cheek. “Whatever happens, Rose,” he said, “remember I love you with all my heart. Don’t ever forget that.”
His big fingers nervously moved over the three remaining cards. He hesitated, picked one, closed his eyes, and turned it over: a Six of Diamonds. Eyes open, sweat on his blanched face, he gasped, clutched his chest, and caught himself before collapsing. He patted Rose’s arm. “I’m all right, dear,” he said. “I’m all right.”
Two cards were left.
“We’ll save your cute little wife, and the other lady for last,” chuckled Clyde. Then he turned back to Hutch: “Cowboy, you don’t look scared like this old man. Why’s that?”
“I know your kind.” Hutch’s voice was steady and low. “Been around ‘em all my life. When this is over...you better find a good place to hide...’cuz I’m gonna be lookin’ for you.”
Clyde shook his head. “You feeling lucky again, Cowboy?” he asked. “You been so nice about playin’ Clyde Poker I’m gonna let you pick another card just to make it fair.”
The robber added a third card and mixed it with the others.
Hutch would go for his boot gun if he drew the Ace of Spades. Maybe he could wing Clyde before the outlaw killed him.
Hutch looked at the cards in the hat. He never played poker because it was an easy way to lose his Double ZZ pay, money he was saving, hoping to someday buy a small ranch.
“Do it!” ordered Clyde.
Hutch eyed the backs of the trio of worn cards. He started to pick one, changed his mind, selected another, and turned it over: a Three of Diamonds.
“Well, ain’t you the lucky one again?” reflected Clyde.
Hutch swallowed hard, but didn’t say a word.
Two cards remained.
The two women began to whimper.
Clyde waved the hat under the painted lady’s nose. “Honey,” he said, “I bet you’ve played a lot of poker, haven’t you? I think I remember seein’ you years back in some back alley saloons around Tulsa. Or was it upstairs?”
“Maybe,” she said, “but that was a long time ago. I don’t do that no more. I’m retired.”
He again shook the cards. “Take one!”
The old lady hesitated, then extended a thin gloved hand into the hat, but couldn’t choose.
“Hurry up!” ordered Clyde. “Pick one. Ain’t got all day. Whitey and me got drinkin’ and whorin’ to do.”
Then she picked the bottom pasteboard: the Jack of Clubs. She too almost fainted.
One card remained.
The cattleman’s wife began to loudly cry. “Oh, no!” she gasped and gripped her husband’s arm tighter. “Oh, no!”
“Oh, yes,” gleefully replied Clyde. “Oh, yes. You’re next and there’s only one card left.”
“You can’t be doing this,” challenged her husband.
“This pistol says I can,” growled Clyde. “Take a card, pretty lady! Take the last card!”
“No...” she blubbered.
“Then I’ll do it.” Clyde gleefully revealed the Ace of Spades. “The death card,” he said, acting surprised. He waved it in Rose’s face. “Lady, you won the game fair and square.”
“You’re insane,” challenged Hutch.
“One more word out of you Cowboy and I’m puttin’ a big hole in your skull, too!”
Rose clung and sobbed on her husband’s arm and almost fell. Harold held her close and kissed her teary cheek. Then she slowly straightened up, freed herself from Harold’s arms, and turned to Clyde: “Take him!” she said. “Take my husband. Shoot him instead of me. I don’t want to die. I’ve never loved him anyway.”
“What...?” gasped Harold. “Rose, what are you saying?”
“You’re old, Harold,” she continued. “I’m young. You’ve lived long enough.” Then, mopping her gushing eyes with her sleeve, she smiled at Clyde, and added: “And I’ll do anything for you, anything you want me to do. Anything.”
“Rose!” exclaimed her husband. “What are you saying?”
“Shut up, Harold! I’ll be damned if I’m gonna die if I can help it.”
Back to Clyde: “I’ll do anything. I mean anything. And that goes for Whitey over there. Shoot my husband instead of me. He’s got lots of money. I’ll get it all when he’s dead. You can have whatever you want if you don’t kill me.”
“Rose!” shouted her husband. “I took you out of that dance hall, made you respectable.”
“Shut up, Harold!” said Rose.
“Well, ain’t this one hell of a twist,” laughed Clyde, considering Rose’s offer.
Rose looked into Clyde’s eyes and slowly repeated, “I’ll do anything you two men want me to do, now...or later. And as often as you want.”
“Well, now,” smiled Clyde. “Oh, I like this. Anything, huh? Whitey, git over here and guard these people, while I take this little lady out behind the stagecoach. Got some business to do. Won’t be long.” He shoved Rose forward.
“Why, you aren’t nothing but a gold-digging tramp!” screamed her husband. “My family warned me about you.” Tears filled Harold’s eyes. “You’re nothing but a damned tramp!”
Whitey turned his back on the hostages and watched Clyde gleefully drag Rose behind the stagecoach.
Hutch quickly grabbed his derringer from his right boot, and, as Whitey turned back, shoved the man’s shotgun barrel down, and fired his one bullet into the outlaw’s stomach. Whitey collapsed as Hutch ripped away his shotgun.
The passengers scattered.
Clyde hurried from behind the coach, Rose held in front. She screamed.
Whitey cried and twisted on the ground.
Hutch and Clyde raised their weapons toward each other.
“Drop your shotgun Cowboy or I’ll kill her,” yelled Clyde, his pistol at Rose’s head.
“Then you won’t have a shield,” yelled Hutch.
“Shoot them!” shouted Harold, cheeks streaked with tears.
The armed men didn’t move, their eyes locked on each other.
Whitey sprawled on the ground, hands on his bleeding stomach.
“Let her go!” growled Hutch, “and you can ride out of here.”
“You’d kill me before I got twenty feet.”
“Let her go!” repeated Hutch.
“She goes with me and the gold.”
“You’re forgettin’, Whitey,” reminded Hutch. “He’s still alive.”
“What do I care?”
With Rose gripped in front, Clyde carefully moved toward the backside of Whitey’s horse.
“Don’t let them go,” yelled the cattleman. “Shoot them! Kill the bitch.”
Clyde led the horse up the rocky incline, using the animal as cover. Then he lifted Rose onto the back of the saddle, climbed up, and booted the horse hard. It bolted up the bank.
Suddenly Harold ripped the shotgun from Hutch’s hand, raced forward, and released both barrels at the fleeing riders.
They briefly rode on, and then both fell from the horse.
Harold threw the shotgun on the ground and collapsed. “She never loved me,” he blubbered. “Just wanted my money. Wanted my money.”
* * *
It was near sunset when Hutch flipped the reins over the stagecoach’s four horses and pushed the animals up the bank and headed for Jacktaw. A teary Harold slumped beside him.
Hutch sipped whiskey from the half pint retrieved from his left boot, almost forgotten until he climbed onto the coach’s driver’s seat. He shared the bottle with the white-faced Harold who needed more than a drink to settle his nerves.
Tied on top were the bodies of Rose, Whitey, Moody, Clyde, and the stagecoach driver.
The remaining passengers sat quietly inside, all with their own thoughts.
“What do you think the law will do to me?” asked Harold.
“Nothin’,” replied Hutch.
“All I saw was a lovin’ husband tryin’ to save a killer outlaw from kidnappin’ his lovely young wife. Unfortunately, Rose got in the way, a terrible accident. That’s the way I saw it. That’s the way I’ll be tellin’ it to a judge. And so will all the other passengers.”
The cattleman put a shaky hand on Hutch’s shoulder. “Thanks, son,” he said. “Thanks.”