Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
There was something strange about the way the man lay on the sun-scorched earth, all dead and shot to doll rags.
Judging by the tracks around him and the blood splatter some ways back down the trail, I could tell just by looking that somebody had plugged him while he was passing through on horseback. He’d made it just a couple of feet, then had come out of the saddle. He’d crawled some feet, but the gunman had come up on him and had become his killer while up close and personal.
It wasn’t just a killing. It was overkill. The only bullet not with the rest of the group that formed a neat pattern across his chest was lodged in his belly, which meant he’d probably been gut-shot first, then finished off. He would’ve died just from the gut-wound. No need in putting six holes in him for no good reason.
But then, that’s exactly how Madigan worked. Wasn’t right in his head, you know. Folks who used to keep watch on him said he’d think he was seeing things and he’d just go to shooting, a real disturbed fellow. Some drunkard back in Trussels told me that when one of them deputies went up to arrest Madigan for coming out of the saloon shooting up the baker’s place, Madigan started hollering that the devil was out to get him. Said Madigan put three slugs into the deputy right there, then lit out saying that the devil was coming to get him.
That’s why they brought me in to track him down. He was unpredictable, and apparently too much so that no other bounty hunter who’d rode through Trussels had wanted to take their case. I was short on cash, needed the money, no matter how crazy the fellow might have been.
I looked down at the man’s body, saw the corner of the paper slipped just inside his shirt. I reached down and pulled it free, opened the blood-stained thing and read:
I kilt this deman cause he was guna git me. He aint no man. Hes a deman an I kilt him.
I crumpled that paper up and let the wind carry it out of my hand. Then I turned back to my horse.
I never did have a good reputation with the lawmen. They all said my methods were too harsh.
I stepped back into the saddle and glanced down at the body of the fellow in the dirt.
I chuckled as I spurred my horse forward.
If Madigan thought the devil was after him, I wondered what he’d think about me.
I camped that night in a little valley at the entrance to a canyon, next to a shallow oasis that I picketed my horse near. As usual, I slept light and woke before dawn. I took my time the next morning, ate a hearty meal of bacon and coffee, then saddled up and started for Adobe.
By the way I had it figured, Madigan was two days out of Trussels and had no supplies with him. The nearest town was Adobe, and no man could ride through Comanche territory with few rations. I figured he took that dead fellow’s horse to use to pack whatever he decided to purchase in Adobe. But no matter how crazy Madigan had been made out to be, I knew he had more sense than what people were saying. He wouldn’t pack heavy, and I was willing to bet my bottom dollar that he wouldn’t spend more’n a day in Adobe.
Word spread fast, and the minute word got to Adobe about Madigan having shot up one of Trussels’s deputies, everybody in the town would sleep with their guns by their beds. Adobe wasn’t the wealthiest place around, and if the alderman himself thought he’d make a buck or two by shooting a crazy like Madigan and got spooked, why, he’d put a bullet in his own shadow of the night if he thought Madigan was mopin’ ‘round town.
But as far as I knew, besides Madigan and myself, nobody else had left Trussels. So, for the time, we were riding against the word of mouth and making good time.
I rode into Adobe sometime in the afternoon, and I could tell by the way those folks were looking at me that they already knew. Now, being suspicious, I could bet pretty surely that they hadn’t got Madigan, so my money was still riding around somewhere out there.
But what peaked my curiosity was how they managed to find out. I could feel them watching me while I picketed my mount to the hitch-rail.
For once, I just swung down and didn’t bother with the saloon, headed straight for the general store. When I stepped inside, a thin old fellow with thin gray hair and a creased forehead looked up at me over the rim of his glasses.
“What can I do yeh fur?” the ol’ boy asked.
“About a pound of jerky, sack of coffee, mebbe a word or two ‘bout all the funny looks I’m gettin’,” I said.
The man turned and looked over the selection of items on the shelf behind him. “Feller came in here earlier today. Started ramblin’ on ‘bout the devil chasin’ ‘em. Probably some folks think your name’s Lucifer.”
I grunted. “Barnabas.”
“Barnabas. Not Lucifer, or the devil.”
“Uh-huh,” the fellow said, and took a pound of jerky from the shelf.
He took his time picking out the coffee, made me want to reach across the counter and slap him hard. But I took it, paid him, and headed back out to the street.
They were still looking at me. A few hard-noses peered at me from the roof of the boardwalk outside of the saloon.
I figured I needed to make a point.
I strapped the jerky to my saddle, stored away the coffee, and shucked my Colt. I put two bullets into the roof of the boardwalk, scattering the fellows gathered beneath it. One of ‘em jumped through the saloon’s doors, the other rolling off the boardwalk and landing in the dust on his rump. He came up cussing and reaching for his six-gun. It lay in the dirt next to him. He glared at me, and, dumb as he was, went for it.
My next round knocked his gun just out of his reach.
Stupid kid went for it again.
“Don’t do it, boy!” I hollered. “Won’t do you know good!”
He stopped cold. Turned slowly to look at me as I swung into the saddle, careful to keep my gun aimed in his direction.
I heard a clinking of spurs behind me, had a fair bet on who it was.
“You put that gun down, mister,” the sheriff said.
I’d have won the pot.
“No can do, sir,” I reply, and guide my horse to the other end of town, the only direction Madigan could have gone. “Bunch of no good superstitious dirt-eaters,” I mutter as my horse trots out of town.
It was dusk.
My horse had already started to fall out from under me by the time I heard the report of the rifle.
I fumbled for the reins as the horse’s legs came under it and it toppled over onto its side, its weight coming down on my leg, pinning it beneath the carcass. I could tell by the way the horse jerked the direction the bullet had come, and I leaned to the opposite side so that when my horse finally went down, its body covered my own.
Only I hadn’t counted on my leg getting pinned, and my head hit something hard.
I reached for my six-gun, still strapped in its holster.
Only from the light, came darkness.
My fingers went limp.
When I finally blinked my eyes open and the dusty world around me came spiraling into focus, something hot clung to the side of my face.
I tasted blood on my bottom lip.
My horse laid motionless, dead, my leg pinned beneath it.
I dared not do anything more than blink. I knew not where the shooter may have been, and the last thing I wanted to do was give him something to shoot at. The fingers of my right hand were lying numbly against the grip of my Colt, but the thong still kept it restrained in the holster. I couldn’t risk trying to loosen it.
So I lay there, motionless, trying to figure if my leg was broken. I doubted it, but it was sure pinched up tight.
I saw a flicker of movement from the corner of my eye. As numbly and as slowly as I could, I turned my head to see behind the rocks some ways up the trail.
“You awake down there?” a voice called from behind the rocks.
I didn’t answer.
“You ain’t takin’ me, devil!”
It was Madigan.
“I’m comin’ for you!”
Now, they’d said back in Trussels that arguing with him would only send him into a fit of rage the likes of which nobody’d ever seen before. So I just kept lying there, squinting past the sunlight to see if he’d show himself behind the rocks.
Now that I knew he wasn’t watching, I eased the thong off the hammer and took hold the grip of my Colt. Just as I started it out of the holster, I saw the brim of a hat appear over one of the rocks. I froze, the thumping of my heart increasing the throbbing in my head.
I knew a six-gun couldn’t make the range to where Madigan was holed up, but there was no way I was going to move, and I was too far out from Adobe for anyone to have heard the shot.
Not that I’d have counted on anyone from that rat hole to come running with a mind to help.
Madigan disappeared behind the rocks again, and I eased the Colt out of the holster. He was circling around. Why he didn’t just up and shoot me right then I’ll never know. Maybe he wanted to see this devil’s face. Maybe he wanted to know he wasn’t crazy.
I don’t know.
Don’t care, neither.
That’s why I brought the hammer of my six-gun back and waited. He needed to be closer. A lot closer. I’d have bet that he didn’t know whether or not the fall had killed me.
But then how had he known I was coming?
Surely he’d have known someone was on his trail, but he’d played me for the possum I was.
And things were shaping up to look like I was about to get killed for it, too.
Right then was when it happened.
I heared the awful’st lot of hoopin’ and hollerin’, and the next thing I knew the ground was shaking and thunder started to rumble. I wouldn’t sure what to make of it at first, but when I saw them Comanches coming over the knoll to my left, I knew what was happening.
And the chances of me getting out of that patch with my scalp just hit rock bottom.
Madigan came out from behind them rocks working the lever of his rifle just as quickly as he could.
I could’ve cut loose with my Colt, but that would have only attracted the Comanches. All I could do was watch as Madigan cleared two saddles before the first arrow caught him in the leg.
“Get back you devils!” he screamed, as the whole lot of Comanches rode into him.
There was nothing but a dust cloud in their wake. When it cleared, I could see a dark form sprawled out on the ground.
And the Comanches were circling around the rocks to me.
My heart nearly stopped when I slammed my eyes.
I’d counted four of them, but I wasn’t sure. Madigan had cleared two saddles, but the horses had kept up with the others. I was sure of four, maybe a fifth.
They came up on the carcass of my horse, and I heard them talking in their own language.
And this devil sent up a silent prayer. Asked the Good Lord to spare me just one more time.
I felt the sandy earth next to me mound up as a Comanche approached. He took me by the hair, and I knew he was fixing to scalp me.
My eyes flew open, and that Comanche knew his mistake right then.
He drew back that hatchet of his, but my Colt went off just a few inches from his face. Before he’d even hit the dirt, I was cocking the hammer again. I trained my sights on one of the other Comanches as he fought for the reins of his mount and I squeezed.
He jolted off his mount as the other three, still mounted, wheeled their horses about in confusion. One of them packed a rifle, and he was just bringing it up as I snapped back the hammer and let him have one to the gut. He doubled over with a shout and his gun went off into the dirt.
Before the other two could mobilize, I fired my remaining three shots at them. One of them came off his mount and rolled in the dirt and then stopped moving altogether. The other looked like he got away clean, but he was squalling like crazy and riding that pinto of his as hard as it would go in the other direction.
The Comanche I’d gut-shot was wrestling to get his rifle up again, and I was out of shots. My rifle was still sheathed on my saddle, and there was no way I could get it out before he had done killed me. My eyes darted all around me, and I saw my only chance out of it. I dropped my Colt and reached for the first Comanche’s hatchet. I gripped it hard, propped myself onto my other elbow.
The wounded Comanche was trying to sight me when the hatchet left my hand and embedded itself into his left shoulder. With the impact, he spun off his horse and thudded hard against the ground. He lay there, unmoving.
Breathing hard, I turned to look at the last Comanche, the one I’d missed. He was still riding hard, away from all the carnage.
I picked up my Colt, took the time to reload all six chambers, and then wiggled my leg out from under my horse. I checked each Comanche body to make sure they were dead, and put a final round into the Comanche I’d gut shot. He was bleeding bad, and wouldn’t have made it anyway.
I snatched up one of their horses and limped back over to my own fallen mount. I stripped my saddle off and tossed it onto the brown and white pinto I’d taken, mounted up, and rode over to where Madigan had fallen.
Two bullets had plugged him in the chest, and no less’n six arrows were sticking out of him. His eyes were open wide, glazed over, crazied.
I lifted his carcass onto the back of the pinto, mounted up, and turned back in the direction of Adobe.
Just as the last sliver of desert sun disappeared beneath the horizon.