Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
He was standing at the edge of the ravine on the great river, the late morning sun beating at him stiff as arrows. The strange call had come out of the ravine, the way panic might sound with a voice. Austin “Boots” Mallory, a mountain man by choice, had never heard the sound before. In his kidskin outfit, rabbit fur hat, and his hand-tooled kidskin boots that spawned his nickname, he thought he had heard all that nature could offer.
Locked in that thought, he came aware of another sound, from his backside. When he spun around, alarmed, the sun catching his eyes, the force of an object hit him in the chest. In one move, he fell and rolled over the edge.
A voice yelled, “I got him, Dickie. I got him.” There was a scrambling noise.
When the owner of the voice, on his stomach because he was afraid of falling into the ravine, stuck his head out to see where “Boots” Mallory ended up, the lasso caught him about the neck and yanked him closer to the edge. He was perilously close to being pulled over that edge by Mallory who tugged on the rope.
“Throw your knife down, pardner, down here, and your weapon. You’ll have to make two passes to cut the line and I’ll have you swimming before you finish the second one.” He yanked on the rawhide line. “Tell your friend he better throw his tools down or you’re gone forever.” He yanked harder.
“Do what he says, Dickie, or I’m gone.”
A second knife came down, then a rifle falling onto the ledge where Mallory had fallen. The ledge was wider than he thought when he first looked over the edge, probably an Indian trail up the steep wall of the ravine. He could imagine them fishing down there for days at a time, sending their catch back up every day to get salted, preserved in some unknown manner, or served as the last meal of the day. He had some Hopi and Navajo friends, had heard talk about the Anasazi. They all lived the life he had chosen for himself, that they all celebrated one way or another. “Boots” Mallory could walk into most any Indian village north of the Rio Grande. With some of his friends he’d call it the river Rio Bravo del Norte and they’d know what he meant.
“Now hear me,” Mallory said. “I’m climbing back up using the rope. You best make damned sure you hold tight or we’ll both end up on the rocks down there. We’d never make it to the water. Hear me?”
“Yuh,” the man said, “I hear you.” There was a refreshing dose of honesty in the tone of his voice
Mallory, fur hat still in place, came up over the edge with a pistol in one hand. “You,” he said to the man with the noose on his neck, “send your pal over the edge to get the weapons down there and bring them back up. You mess it up and I shoot you and both of you become cat meat or buzzard meat before you know the time of day. Try me any time you want, less you had enough by now.”
“By god,” the noosed man said, “Crumley said you was a tough old bird.”
“What’s Crumley got to do with this, and who is he?”
“He’s the one who wants you dead. Paid us half up front and the rest when done. Hate to face him now, we ain’t got the job done.”
“You do this stuff for a living?”
“No, we was drunk and owed a lot and he settled it on us if we came up here and got you dead”
“You know why?”
“Said you was the gent soon to own a good piece of his town, Tempus City. Was left to you almost a year ago by some banker named Richmond. The marshal at Fisk Willow, across the river from Tempus City, is holding all of it for you until you show up. If you don’t show, it gets sold off. “
“So Crumley wants to buy the share of this Tempus City that belongs to me now, and a place I never been to? Well, we all got surprises coming, don’t we?
“Crumley don’t get to buy what’s mine. But he gets paid back what he gave you up front. You lose out on the deal and don’t get the finish payoff. I got a chunk of a city for my own I never saw before. And I might find out from the marshal why this banker Richmond left it to me. I don’t even know the man. Never heard of him. Now that’s what I call surprises all around the whirly gig. Don’t you agree?”
“I do agree, but don’t like it much, if I get my say.”
“It’s like this, whoever you are, you got no say. What’s your name? I’ll let you say that.”
“I’m Lou Brockman. My pard’s Dickie Sturbrick. We drive cows until we get paid and get drunk.”
“Don’t you want something else on the vine?”
“Nothing for the likes of us but cows and booze and a lady once in a while. Ain’t you got about the same thing until this all happened?”
“I don’t get too close to cows but when they’re fried with eggs and go with coffee. I have a squaw up in the hills that’s gonna have a house of her own, it appears.”
“Not down there, are you? Bringin’ an injun woman to town. That won’t go good for her, or you.”
“You know anybody down there’s gonna beat me out of something?”
Dickie Sturbrick jumped in. “Not if you was to ask me, they won’t. None a them I know. Not that marshal either. He’s so slow he gets laughed at before his back is turned.”
“Why didn’t Crumley have you shoot him? “
“You kill a lawman out here, they don’t stop until you’re hung, the crowd dancin’ in the street all day on a Saturday waitin’ to see you kick your own heels the way rope does it. Crumley knows that like we do. He ain’t no real gambler. Send a hundred after you if they had to, and a couple of sheriffs in the mix makin’ sure things go right for law.”
“Well, boys, I guess we have some kind of agreement to set in place. You best agree to it, or I’ll leave you out here and whatever made that gawd-awful noise I heard earlier will be getting right down to your bones, and you without any weapons at all.”
‘What agreement is that, Boots?” I ain’t said anything yet.”
“You’re now working for me. I pay you. I feed you. You swear as real man you’re each mine to boss until I let you go. That ain’t no bad deal from where I sit in the dealer’s chair.”
Brockman and Sturbrick looked at each other, shook hands with each other and then with Mallory.
“Thing I got to tell you, boys, is that we’re a team, a three-man team and we need another mule, like the slow marshal you talked about. From where I sit in the dealer’s chair, we can’t be beat with a team like that. Should be clear as spring water to you.”
He pointed at their weapons on the ground. “Get your tools. We go back to camp and have a meal, then we head for a meeting with the marshal at Fisk Willow.”
Mallory, looking back over his shoulder at the ravine, said as they walked away, “Can’t imagine for the life of me what made all that noise, less’n it was an old injun come back on the haunt. It wasn’t any animal I know. Glad I’m not down there in the ravine. Ain’t you boys?”
He could almost see the shivers moving on the backs of their necks.
After the meal, Sturbrick said, “Where’d you get them duds? I ain’t seen anything like that out this way. What are they?”
“These, my man,” Mallory said, “are goatskin, or kidskin, if you want to know. Injuns taught me how to do it, how to cure the skins, change colors, how to sew them. Best thing I ever had on no matter the weather. They breathe on you like they was still the living thing. Mine’s all mountain goat. They live all year mostly up there in the far hills.” He pointed north to a high range. “I get the full benefit of them. I got blankets made from them that keep me warm on the coldest night.”
“You ever afraid of smellin’ like a goat? That bother you any?”
“Ain’t yet, as you can see. Thing is I don’t get to town too much. Ain’t been in town for near a year. Out here there’s no complaints, so makes no difference.”
“How about women? You never see one beside the injun?”
“My woman’s up there,” Mallory said, pointing to the mountains, “keeping the fire burning. Don’t need nothing past her. We’re also a team. She chews the goatskin better than me. I sew better than her.”
The three of them, on the trail, laughed loudly; the team in first unison.
In Fisk Willow they caused a stir as they approached on horseback, two regular cowpokes and Mallory, pushing them home it appeared, looking as much like an Indian as possible in his kidskin outfit, in his magnificent boots, in a rabbit fur hat.
A boy yelled to the marshal from outside his office, “Hey, Marshal, a mountain man’s here. Look at the skins he’s wearing. Looks like Injun Joe the Navajo.”
Marshal Lloyd Wescott looked at the three riders and knew one of them was now part owner of Tempus City. The story, right down to the clear description of the mountain man, was told to him by the banker Richmond. Boots Mallory had saved his only son from certain death a few years before. Killed a rattler with his knife when the Tempus City stagecoach broke down coming from Craw Hill and the boy, only about ten years old, was on the loose on the side of the mountain. Mallory, letting his horse have a drink at a spring, had spotted the rattler before the boy did. The boy said, “The man in the funny clothes caught the snake in the air with his bare hands and cut his head off. He’s a real killer.”
At twelve the boy died along with his mother when a runaway wagon struck them down; Fate had held its breath for a few years for the banker who figured Mallory had given him two years of happiness before his world crushed down on him. Mallory was the one man the banker trusted, and admired. He made him heir to all his holdings, the marshal his witness. That decision was made just in time, as a robber shot him dead at the bank only a few months later.
The marshal looked at Mallory and said, “I guess you’d be Boots Mallory, would you? I been waiting for you for some time. Who’s your riding pards?”
“Said a gent named Crumley sent them to get me dead. But they changed their minds and now we’re a team. You know Crumley, Marshal?”
“A real snake in the rocks you ask me. We’ll deal with him. These boys swear that front of a judge?”
Mallory looked at his new pards and said, “What say, boys, you up for that?”
Both of them nodded.
“Well, that’s taken care of,” the marshal said, “now let’s go inside and do the rest. I don’t like holding on waiting for something to happen.” He pointed to the saloon and said to Brockman and Sturbrick, “You boys go get yourself a few drinks. Tell the barkeep I sent you in. I got the tab. Me and Boots got business to tend.”
Marshal Lloyd Wescott ushered Boots Mallory into his office, in front of a goodly number of people that had gathered to view the mountain man who it was said owned half of Tempus City, across the river and just down the road.
At Tempus City a week later the judge sent Crumley to Yuma Territorial Prison for five years, exonerated Brockman and Sturbrick from any misdeeds, and passed final judgment on the will of banker Richmond.
Boots Mallory gave his new holdings to current renters or leasers on the provision that he get anything he wanted from them in the way of supplies or goods when he came to town once or twice a year. The judge wrote up the details and Boots Mallory made his X. The marshal was a witness.
Austin “Boots” Mallory was never seen again in Tempus City, though stories circulated for years about him, high in the mountains with a tribe of his own.