Western Short Story
Not one customer in Colbrook’s Saloon paid much attention to the boy with the glazed look on his face, the dumb-looking gape of his mouth, the staring eyes as if he’d just been stung by a wasp.
“Maybe the kid needs a beer,” one patron at the bar said, his guffaw running about the room, gathering up agreement. “Maybe the smell of it might wake him up.” The boy had walked into the bar and looked at every customer with the same stupid grin, as if all the while he was enjoying his way of life. “Give him a smell, Bart. Mine’s gone again.” He laughed at the man standing beside him at the bar as the boy continued his walk around the room. “Kid’s got nowhere to go, that’s for sure, and he ain’t getting’ there in any hurry.” He laughed again. Others laughed with him, some self-consciously.
None of them saw what the boy had gone through the day before, and had brought here with him, hidden from all eyes.
The wagon had burned near past recognition, the team of horses shot up, and the man prone, his arms out-flung and frozen by death. Nowhere in sight were his guns, his boots, his coat and his hat. The boy, Dilt Harmon, about 14, who came on the scene, fell to his knees beside the man, prayed resolutely for five minutes, and while kneeling, studied every mark that was visible from the attack.
He wore a wide-brimmed hat over his Danish blond hair, a denim shirt and coat and pants as if cut from one bolt. In one hand was the Springfield rifle he rarely let go of or let out of his sight. This way, he was dressed for the land, dressed for Crevasse City which had exploded with the news of a rail line aimed at its heart.
The horses must have been shot as quickly as the man. All had numerous holes in their bodies. The man had not gotten into the bed of the wagon to put up a fight, but had fallen right beside the wagon, as if his guns might not have been drawn. Bush-whacked, thought the boy, taken from behind the small cluster of rocks right there on the trail and beside the single tree rooted into the hard soil. He assumed the man was shot first and then the team so they wouldn’t run too far from the noise… they had not gotten thirty feet from the rocks and the tree. A deadly surprise it must have been, him hurt, his team down, alone.
Still kneeling, Dilt Harmon went back to the morning when his father had set out for Crevasse City to get supplies for the next month. It was a monthly run of a dozen miles, would have taken just more than half a day, loading supplies, gabbing with some old soldiers, and getting one drink at Colbrook’s Saloon to wet his whistle for the ride back.
“I’ll be back ‘fore late afternoon, Dilt. You get them poles in the ground best you can. I’ll bring you a small present. Keep a sharp eye out and your rifle handy. Your mom will sit the porch with her rifle. We had too much trouble with roustabouts and whatnots around here this month. I can picture a pair of dying rats thinking they’re getting even for their own bad times.” Cole Harmon climbed aboard the wagon after tousling his son’s head. “Be heads up all the time. Me and Mom count on you a lot, boy. Remember, smart is what is done best.”
Dilt stood and studied the scene again. When he suddenly noticed the burn marks on his father’s pants, the scene came livid for him. His father had been near the fiery wagon, possibly thrown into it while still alive, and he had managed to crawl away from the flames. He saw the hungry flames chasing his father, the blood moving faster than he did, the pains leaping. Some ignoble anger creased his soul like a shot, took over his body as he began to shake from head to foot. Scenes flashed into his mind, and not a pleasant one in the bunch.
He had set out in the late afternoon to greet his father while his mother had a visit from the Britt family who lived on the next place over on the Crevasse City road. Harland Britt was a big, rugged and tough man who was countable and Dilt had persuaded his mother that he ought to go out on the road and greet his father. He had gone about halfway when he saw the clutter on the road.
He wondered how he would tell his mother. Then he wondered what direction he should go; tell his mother, or look for his father’s coat, his guns, his gray hat with initials on the under-brim. He’d have to go back, tell his mother, let the Britts take care of her, go his way to Crevasse City. He piled rocks on top of his father’s body so the animals wouldn’t get at him, and headed home.
Early in the morning, the lines set into his face as if newly etched, more than a day older in his eyes alone, on the back of the sorrel, he headed out on his search. He played a dozen scenes of discovery in his head. He saw himself in Crevasse City, among people, his looking like a sheriff’s deputy, all eyes and nosey, and people shying away or kicking off a nosey kid. He’d have to play it different. “Smart is what is done best,” came back to him again and again as he rode along. “Smart is what is done best.” He’d carry that message right into the heart of Crevasse City. He’d carry that message as long as he lived. He swore on it.
At a small rise in the road, looking down on the square, flat package that was Crevasse City, he sat astride for the better part of an hour. “Smart is what is done best.” Then he saw himself, as others might see him if he could play it well… he’d be a dummy of sorts, a young tetched fool with a foolish face, a study of fool’s grins and caricatures, an idiot boy with no burden of promise on his soul. Practice is what he needed, and what better place than here outside the square edges of Crevasse City, alone in a high place.
In a distant reach of his mind he saw again a little boy he had seen long ago, at a railroad station back east, a small boy whose mother held him close to her skirt as people looked down at a boy making funny but unintelligible sounds. Aloud, Dilt said, in what he thought was perfect mimicry, “Huh, duh. Huh, duh.” He said it a hundred times, changing his tone, the inflections of the simple words, stressed the statement in them or the dumb questions seemingly posed, or the plain fact of nothingness. He saw the boy’s face in an image, felt the lines of it working on his own face; the frown above the eyes like a live thing in itself, the nearly dead stare set within his eyes as little impressed him, the hangdog mouth open, trying to say at least one intelligible word, the slight bobbing of his head like a doll being played with.
The sorrows stung Dilt in memory; he had felt so bad for the boy who was now going to serve a high purpose, make a point for his life. “Huh, duh. Huh, duh.” Before long he believed he had become a poor young idiot sort of boy, without any aim in life but the mild curiosity or affirmation in his few words, his tone of voice, the look of vagueness locked into his eyes. “Huh, duh. Huh, duh,” carried it off for him.
He tied the sorrel off on the first open rail, set his mind in place, his eyes, froze the strange look on his face, saw the boy squeezed against his mother’s skirts in that rail station way back down the line. He became that boy, promising that his play-acting would not be in vain.
The saloon would be the best place to look. He’d implant himself if he had to. The look came on his face stranger than before. He hung his jaw loose, set his eyes to a slow empty wandering, walked into the saloon. Soon, every coat was checked out, every hat was observed by leaning under the brim with a stupid look on his face, each holstered gun checked. The customers tolerated him, some outright, some uncomfortably so, looking around and not wanting to be compared in any way with the boy. A few found themselves nervous because of the vacant stare. But nobody bothered him.
Twice he left the saloon and each time came back and made the same rounds, the laughs continuing but the toleration also. Evening started to descend, the stars came up across the slow hills, the night noises started. He was back a third time, looking over new faces, new coats that were old coats, new patrons. His jaw hung loose and began to pain him, the way it hung loosely, as if the rest of his head did not own up to it. The look he had set into his eyes had also given him a headache, but he could feel, deep down, the pains his father had felt as he crawled away from the fiery wagon. He set his jaw again, his eyes, the tone in his voice. Then, in the doorway, the stars beyond brighter in the dark sky, he saw his father’s coat coming into the bar. He saw the gray hat. He saw the Colt pistol in the old holster they’d found on the trail one morning and had fixed up with new thongs. The leap came right up out of his heart. It bounced across his face.
Colbrook, behind the bar, saw the change, looked at the stranger who walked in with a second man, also a stranger in Crevasse City. A small spark set off in Colbrook’s mind as he saw the look on the boy’s face. He couldn’t fathom it, but knew he was witness to something different.
The boy said, perhaps for the hundredth time that day, “Huh, duh. Huh, duh.” As he looked up at the two strangers. “Huh, duh. Huh, duh.”
“Get the hell out of here kid. You get nothin’ from me.” He shoved the boy away.
Colbrook would talk about it later, slowly letting himself into the whole situation. “This dumb kid, this kid with nothing in his eyes, suddenly was alert as you or me. As you or me, I swear it. It was like he was cured right on the damn spot. He pulled the pistol right from the stranger’s holster, set it against his back of his head, and said, “Everybody here look at this man wearing my father’s coat, his hat, and wearing this here gun. My father was killed on the road yesterday, bush-whacked, his team of horses killed, the wagon set on fire, and my father thrown into the burning wagon.”
The stranger wanted to move. The gun was jammed harder into the back of his head. The cold steel penetrated his senses.
“You left my father on the road. You bush-whacked him. You tried to burn him up.”
“You’re damned crazy as a loony, kid. I ain’t burned up no one, less’n killed them either.
You look like a fool when I walked in here. Most folk here must say that you’re a fool. Someone go get the sheriff and get this kid off’n my backside.’
“Yeh,” Dilt Harmon said, “someone go get the sheriff and someone look under the hat this one’s wearing and see if it ain’t got CH burned into the under-brim, the place my father did it, Cole Harmon. They shot him and his team and left them on the road after they took his coat and his hat and his gun, this Colt with his initials also on the handle.”
Dilt jabbed the Colt tighter against the man’s head. The other man, about to run out of the saloon, felt the shotgun in his back as Colbrook jabbed it home as hard as he had ever threatened a man in his place of business. “You got some explainin’ to do also, my friend. Tell it all to the sheriff.”
He turned to the once-stupid looking boy holding the Colt steady as a limb against the man’s head. “Rest easy, son. We got a dozen guns on them now.” He looked around the room as the dozen guns showed themselves, just as the sheriff walked in the door.
“I see the light go on in the kid’s eyes, I swear it,” Colbrook would say for years after in telling the story of The Kid from Crevasse City.