Western Short Story
It all really began with a kid’s game and the kid was touted long before he got out of Shadowdance on the trail to Abilene, because he came lit up like a store window dummy, all shiny and glittery and showing off his duds and guns the way a carnival rider comes into the show tent. Some old folks along that Abilene road said, “He come clear out of Shadowdance with his guns shootin’ and him hollerin’ all the time and all the way like they was no tomorrow.”
The near town used to be called Bellville. After Garth Hornung came along, it became Shadowdance.
He was from then on The Kid from Shadowdance, the kid with a history, the kid who started the whole thing about Shadowdance in the first place. Garth Hornung was named by his mother, Gertrude Sventre, a teacher from Sweden who taught her son how to read early in his life and told him the meaning of all the names in the family, of the Hornungs who were horn carvers and horn blowers from all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times in England, and Garth, which meant “the protector” in Swedish.
He could have taught school at an early age, she put so much in front of him.
His father, John Melchior Hornung, a craftsman in England, came to America late in the 1750s, before the Civil War, and ended up in the Union Army where he was awarded several medals for bravery in some major battles of the war. He met and married Gertrude Sventre in Pennsylvania after his discharge from the army and the pair headed west, “bound for open land and new opportunity.”
She had special dreams of a special family.
His mother was going to name her first-born Rolf, “wolf” in her own language, but changed her mind at the loss of some newborn cattle in a devastating week of wolfish raids on their stock, meager to begin with.
They recovered their losses in time and she continued to read to her son every pamphlet and magazine and book she could get her hands on, and made him read them too, so that Garth would really know the language of their new country. She also introduced him to the humor in British slang that she had compiled from her husband’s usage, finding it steeped in humor and knew her son, in his brightness, would make use of it. She helped Garth to understand its use, and extended his language knowledge with such examples of “bloke” for gent and “bird” for a lady and “innit?” for right or isn’t it? and “bubble and squeak” for fried leftovers for breakfast and “apple and pears” for stairs, the difference between “small fry” and “old fry” … and watched the smiles that such language twists brought up on his face. Soon she saw how he introduced the many British slang terms into his talks with ranch pals and it made him more of a leader … which is just what she envisioned for him, being a stick-out no matter where he’d be in life.
Garth’s mother had a thirst for knowledge beyond the use and arts in language and learned at the same time all she could about the ranching life, and used it well. Her husband, meanwhile, was a plain, hard-working man from pre-dawn until well after dusk in the evenings. They made a good pair in the western way; her being the boss of the house and him being the boss of all else. The ranch grew, their herds grew, the learning gained headway in each of them, and comfort came with hard work.
That comfort touched the son in several ways, being the best reader of all his chums, the most ingenious in the use of words, and also being the best dressed. His duds were not fancy, but they seemed to come out of nowhere, his mother working endlessly at the task of creating new clothes with a certain flare in them to make her son standout among his kind.
He was envied by many.
Because of Garth’s reading ability, even at 7 years of age, and his imagination and animation at games, his friends from other families sometimes called him “Magic.” He could run up a new game for them on the spur of the moment, and they continually looked to him to create some new diversions in their lives where all of them, including the very young, had chores to do on their ranch or within their own family responsibilities if they were children of ranch hands or workers, as most of them were. There was a collection of young about Garth at every spare moment in their long days.
He loved the attention he got from his friends and the clothes that his mother made for him, making him the best dressed child in any local family. His father thought him to be a bit too flashy but realized that he was a learner and was very bright, and he promised to be the most handsome boy ever to come into the Hornung family, with thick, black wavy hair that circled his head and framed his face set with deep blue eyes as alert as stars on a cloudless night. And he wore a golden tone on his skin that heightened all other gifts he’d been born with.
One late evening when Garth and his pals were mostly about 12 or 13 years old, they had gathered near the large barn John Hornung had built, all their chores done for the day. The evening was a splendid one, the sky showing off its stars with one brilliant star low on the horizon causing much talk, and a sweet breeze as if it was rolling down off the top of the far mountains for their very own pleasure.
Several of the parents were gathered on the Hornung’s porch, where Gertrude Hornung asked her husband, “John, what do you think he’s up to on this night?” She said it loud enough for all to hear.
“No idea, Gertrude,” he said, “but that’s what we come to expect of him, and I’m sure his pals feel the same way. So we’ll just sit and wait, and I don’t suppose anybody here is anxious to get going home just yet.”
There were silent nods at his declaration.
Garth, of course, had a new surprise for everybody there that night, all his pals and their parents. He had gathered a pile of wood perhaps 30 feet from the barn and when his pals were all sitting down and telling stories about the day, he started a fire. He had it going really good, orange and yellow and red flames leaping in the air. At a precise moment in his planning he stood between the fire and the barn and began moving about, as if he was dancing alone on a stage. Soon thereafter one of his friends said, “Look at that,” and he was pointing at the barn where the huge shadow of Garth Hornung was prancing on the huge side of the barn. It was a rhythmic movement all the while, his shadow cavorting about like tumbleweed one moment and like a whirling dervish the next, every move in plain sight and near 20 feet tall, tall as trees, tall as canyon walls, a shadow whose size he could alter by changing his distance from the fire, a frantic dance in its own way.
His pals loved it, boys and girls alike, and soon each one had a turn in it, doing their own creative dance, seeing their shadow dancing on the tall side of the barn, parents on the porch exclaiming about the tricks of flame and light and their own off-springs doing their special thing, first one at a time and then with a partner, and then, lastly, like a chorus of dancers in sweet unison of shadows. The memorable night had been cast into their memories forever.
The tall shadows lived long after that spectacular night, the way they heightened all the children to undreamed of statures and livened the parents on the Hornung’s porch, all enjoying the gifts and privileges of the young at that special time.
So the legend grew all around the territory about the flashy Garth Hornung, “the young whippersnapper with a whole lot of tools in his favor.”
The times also saw cattle wars and rustling and men trying to get rich the easy way, by reaping someone else’s profits from hard work. A feud or a battle might begin because of a trail, open or closed range and the use of barbed wire, or rights to a supply of water and restrictions imposed thereon.
Thus it was that the rifle and the six gun came to be permanent tools at the hands of Garth Hornung in his place of the ranch’s hierarchy … the next male in the family’s line of responsibility, with guns always in his hands once he was 13 years old, becoming a dead shot with each weapon, the legend continuing in the territory.
The young gunsmith won each shooting match he entered, hardly ever missing target, and bolstered his reputation to a faretheewell as it ran around the territory like it was on its own errands. The flashy kid with the flashy clothes and boots that had sparkles from reflected sunlight coming off the heels and the toes. He was seen far and wide before he came into a gathering, a reflection coming off the prairie grass or from a mountain pass, all giving warning that he was on his way.
And it was the notorious Batch Podder that brought all the elements together in a vicious outburst of gunfire as he and his gang tried to rustle the whole herd of Hornung cattle being readied for a drive to a new railhead. The dozen men came roaring along the backside of the herd, shooting down several men, including John Hornung, and driving the few survivors away from the herd. One of the Hornung cowpokes managed to get back to the ranch and advise Gertrude Hornung that the herd had been rustled and some men had been killed.
“I don’t know what happened to the boss, Ma’am,” he said, “’cause I didn’t see him after the shooting started.”
“Well, you go tell the sheriff and others in town and have them send word to Garth who is at the shooting contest over in Avery.”
The cowpoke left on his errand and Gertrude Hornung went out and found her husband dead in the grass, shot three times in the back. She buried him near the ranch without anyone knowing about the burial, and she left no marker.
When the sheriff and help arrived, they buried the dead drovers, three of them, back at the ranch, where Gertrude Hornung said, “My husband must be trailing them. I don’t know where he is. I will tell Garth when he comes back from Avery. He will go after them. It is Batch Podder and his gang. I want Garth to get him. To bring him back here for a trial. He killed some of our men.”
The sheriff thought it odd that she did not say that Garth should go find his father, but said nothing about his thought on the matter.
Not more than 30 miles away a few days later, Garth Hornung saw the trail of the herd as it wound its way into a canyon along the river. The sun was shining on him and of course the gang lookout spotted him a long way off and alerted Podder.
Alone, aware of the Hornung kid’s reputation with the gun in shooting matches, Podder went out alone to meet him.
“Hey, Kid,” he said, “I heard your father was killed while his herd was being rustled. I’m sorry to have to tell you that, I heard he was shot a couple of times. Fell off his horse, I heard, right then.”
“Oh, you’re wrong there, mister. He’s not dead in any fashion. Just got up and got another horse, from what I have determined, and most likely has found you already, just as easily as I did. He, most likely at this time, has his rifle trained on you, but he will not shoot because he wants to bring you to trial, have you convicted and then watch you hang.”
“You didn’t find his body back there? You sure, kid?”
“I just affirmed that for you,” Garth Hornung said. “You’ll have to be going back with me, and I’m sure my father will have his rifle trained on you all the way.”
Podder looked around again and saw nothing dangerous. “I ain’t goin’ anywhere with you, kid. And I’m sure your father’s been killed and is out there on the grass someplace and the vultures are probably checkin’ him out right now.”
“What makes you so certain that he’s dead?” The young Hornung had no more smile on his face.
“That’s easy, kid, ‘cause I shot him. I shot him three times.”
The Kid from Shadowdance, the kid who never lost a shooting match, with the sun shining on his boots and on some of his clothes and on the band of his hat like it was a kind of halo, went for his guns with all the sparklers shining all around his body. He was a parade in himself, the kid who had never shot at a man in his life, or had not even drawn on a man. ‘After all,” he muttered softly,” this is the small fry going after the old fry, and the small fry will always win.”
He was convinced of it, heard his mother saying it again.
Podder’s single shot took the kid right out of his saddle, all that shininess and glitter fell to the ground, and he was dead before he hit the solid earth.
The gang leader had other ideas sprouting in him. With some idea working about in his devilish head, he wrapped Garth Hornung in a sheet of wagon canvas, slung him over the saddle of his horse, tied him in place and set out for the Hornung ranch.
“Hallo the house,” he yelled as he came close to the Hornung ranch house. “Hallo the house.”
Gertrude Hornung, looking out an open window in her kitchen, saw the man and the extra horse withna bundle thrown over the saddle. “What do you want?” she said as she stayed in the kitchen at the open window.
“I found something out there on the grass and I figure it belongs here. I brought it in for you. He tried to bushwhack me but I shot him down first.” He pointed at the arched canvas on the second horse.
Gertrude Hornung, still as at the widow, saw in the glistening sun the sparkles coming off one exposed boot and knew her life was crumpling around her in a final turn.
With a quick move she brought a rifle to her shoulder, fired one round, and took Batch Podder right out of the saddle.
She buried her son out on the grass beside his father, dropped the body of Batch Podder between some rocks out on a small hill, piled on a few more rocks, and went back to her ranch.
She told the sheriff she believed that Garth and his father were out there looking for Batch Podder. “They won’t come back until they find him.” Her voice was full of conviction.
“Someday, soon as possible,” she thought in her saddened mind, “I’ll go back to Sweden.” Somehow she knew she’d not be teaching again. “I can’t bring any of the glitter back with me,” she advised herself.