Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Miss Kathy Magnox, from her ranch house porch where she was hanging clothes to dry on a short line to a scarred tree, humming away at her favorite song to otherwise pass the time of morning and think a bit while alone about her boyfriend Dave Kressick, saw the rider coming around the bend as though he had left town behind him, and the horse begin, right out there in front of her, to limp a decided and painful limp, as if this journey was going no further, as if it was meant to stop here by an act of the Almighty or a stray stone or a monger's nail or by training.
Kathy yelled at the rider, clear across the front yard of the old ranch house, "Get down off that horse before you drive him into the grave. Poor thing's hurting bad, I can see from here." Her voice, for the moment, probably excised from her daydream about David caught in an exercise of doubt, had a sense of sweetness in it despite the source of her own discomfit. "That poor animal demands some respect and concern. If you can't do anything about it, walk him into the barn and I'll tend to him." She threw the last nightshirt over the line, her one and only white silk one and a present the year before from Dave Kressick. It fluttered as it caught an eastern breeze and a few times she had wished it had been blown away by a quick wind coming down of the mountain, "with certain aims," as her uncle had once described ''the talking wind that don't use words."
Oh, she felt good saying it, yelling it out like she had, as though she was in charge, and at the same time noticing how smooth looking the rider was, actually kind of handsome, but in a rugged sort of way. Good eyes. Good nose that appeared as if it had avoided trouble. Weathered skin that allowed thoughts of a healthy working environment or past. And he wore duds apparently lately drawn from a good washing and air-dried as were her private things when tendered by the windy air. Her keen eyes noted his hands that had known hard toil, minor scarring and probably some kind of deprivation, and probably had unloosed more than their fair share of pleasure.
Her quick blush was authentic.
With another considerably long and studied look, she spotted other discernable parts of his character on show, as though he was presenting himself for inspection or seeking a role in some kind of stage play, the kind the town hadn't seen in a dozen years, and performed with a piano backdrop and a section cleared of tables and chairs in the High Gone Saloon, the only saloon in town. The second suspicion circled around in her head before she settled on it as the most common trait or ruse of a lone rider, hungry for a meal, hungry for comfort, hungry for a friendly environment.
She could allow such fair play at the time, as Dave Kressick's lie sounded itself again. At the moment she could have thrown him over the fence in a rush, a quick energy and determination building up in her about his swearing his endless love and his riding with another girl for the better part of a whole day, the gall of him, the very nerve.
In a moment of pity or appreciation of someone else's needs, she said, "If you're up for breakfast, why I guess I can fetch that for you, if you're about to haul in some more wood from that pile over there getting smaller by the day, which tells me I ain't heard the bite of an ax in a month of washdays." Even with that delivery, she half-fluffed her posture into a suitable disposure and inhaled deeply as a sort of send-the-goodies- news to the young rider.
She guessed him to be favoring more at 25 than 35, and liked how he sat the saddle and how keen he must be to train the horse so that he could also perform as a limper ... poor horse, indeed!
Miss Kathy Magnox, 22 on the button only a pair off days ago, living alone for the better part of three months since her decent uncle, a prize of a man, had succumbed from a bullet in the back, an innocent bystander at the second robbery of the year at Kurt Walkey's Bank of Los Presto in the Arizona Territory, the killer well-known and still on the loose.
Chalkie Magnox, at 52 and a good chunk of living left in him, died in her arms right in the dry, dusty main street of Los Presto, at which she unstrapped his gun belt, told the sheriff, late to the scene as usual, "You get him down to Joe Nolan for burial readiness while I take a little ride to look around for myself." In a quick move she was on her uncle's horse and headed out of town.
Little of interest or anything seemingly related to the crime came to her during that search and subsequent searches and she was back at the ranch that now belonged to her. It was the matter of a few hours after the limping horse caught her eye, the young man attracting her attention, when she further began to study him as he ate breakfast on the porch, the warm September sun in a slant touching both of them.
In a hurry, she liked what she saw, realized her need and want, saw his potential
He ate slowly, as if gauging the taste of each morsel and each element of food, as though to pleasure her. He displayed manners of a good kind, and was not a gulper as she found most cowboys and cattle raisers she'd met over the years.
"So you're Pete Richards from Tascosa and son of a friend of my uncle who lived out that way before he came here with Aunt Bertie who's been gone since I was about 11 years old. Why'd you come by now, after all these years?"
His smile was wholly new to her, and she could feel the newness, and she hoped he was as authentic as she first judged him.
"I didn't train Calico to limp, if you really mean that. He's caught something in his hoof and I'll get it out after he rests a bit. I'm hungrier than he is 'cause I had him eating real early this morning." He'd tossed of that explanation without any sense of guilt or practice, and sensed it satisfied her.
"Tell me why you high-tailed it out of town again looking for the gent who shot your uncle. people all over the territory know all about you. The last gent on the trail I talked to, when he saw I was heading in this direction, told me all about you and your uncle. That's dangerous out there whether you know it or not. I'm glad you didn't meet me out there heading away from town 'stead of comin into town. Would you have shot me without questions if you caught me riding away from town after all this time?"
"Oh, I'm not that quick," she said, "but I'd have asked a lot of questions at gun point."
"Or answered mine," he said, as he quickly drew his pistol and had it aimed at her breast, not four feet from the tip of the muzzle.
Amazement showed all over her face as she marveled at his speed. "You're faster than anyone I've ever seen, of which I haven't seen a lot but can guess at some of it. I saw Preston Guthrie shoot Dog Turner when he was holding the teacher, Miss Bartolo, too close and she was crying. He fast drew and shot Dog and the bullet was no more than two inches from the teacher's head."
Pete Richards laughed a hearty laugh, and said, "I heard about that over in Simple Hill, from the sheriff. I won't ever be that fast, like Preston Guthrie was, but I won't die too easy either," and it sounded as good as a promise to her when he added, "at least, not out there." The flutter in her chest was an almost visible flutter, temporarily unnerving her, bringing a readable blush to her face, which both of them were aware of.
"I'd be careful if I was you, living alone out here. I'm not pushing for anything and figure you have more than one man interested in you, maybe more than that now that you own this spread. Is there someone who was special before this happened? Do you search out there often, alone, and no sign of the sheriff around any place? Is your life all caught up in the loss of your uncle? What happened to your folks?"
He stopped talking on that last word, shrugged his shoulders, said, "I know I talk too much, ask too many questions, and wonder about your own sheriff. Where's he been in all of this?"
"Oh, he's useless. Always has been, ever since he came by accident on top of a killer and beat him down with his gun butt. He was a useless deputy and then a useless sheriff. And I go out there every few days just to let the killer now I'm looking for him. A dozen people have described him and one drew a picture that must be the image of him, 'cause he was looking right at him when he pulled the trigger that got my uncle. Drew up a picture right away. I'd know him in a minute."
"Would you gun him down without knowing it really was him, have the sheriff ask him, or have the judge pull him into the court? I can't see you doing what he did, or something plain damned just like it."
She flared, "You sound like the sheriff, just like him."
"Show me the picture," Richards said, a smile coming with the request, his eyes looking into her eyes, his head lowered to see her better, and edging himself closer to her.
An alertness fluttered through her as they stood at the entrance to the barn
She reached into her shirt pocket and withdrew a folded piece of paper. "All right, I will she said," and spread the sheet right in front of him, almost sticking it in his face. "That's him. That's who killed my uncle."
The redness filed her face, her breath came heavy and spurting, as though her lungs had worked into a frenzy, when Richards said, "Hell, if it ain't Shug Turnbow. Anybody from the Territorial Prison and points north all the way to Montana'd know him in a minute, at least on the Agersea Trail. He's been up and down it a dozen times and ain't been caught since he broke out of the prison over six years ago. Hell, half the country north of here is looking for him."
"Want to track him with me?"she said, returning his searching stare of a few minutes past.
"Kathy," he said, "you're the best looking woman I've ever seen and I don't know what would happen if we were out there alone all the time, burrowed down at night, hanging tight for warmth on cold nights, the wind wicked sometimes even when the moon watches." His eyes were hard on her, waiting for the answer.
But she replied, "You didn't answer me ... you want to track him with me?" The demand was in her tone of voice, the determination, the whole of her energy was being questioned and she did not like it. "You should have known my uncle. He was a better man than my father was, and that's hard for some folks to say."
"Oh, I heard that too, about how he made your mother take that ride to Pillar's spread when she didn't want to go." He shrugged his shoulders as if to say that her plights and situation were common knowledge, which he rapidly leaped to explain. "Folks been talking about you since they died, and then your uncle, and it ain't all pity, if you know what I mean."
Her interest was on alert. "What do you mean?"
"Well, for openers, you're a beautiful girl I'm trying not to make blush, and you own this whole spread now, and no doubts there's gents with eyes on you and the spread. How many horses and cattle do you have?"
Kathy shook her head, smiled a token smile and said, "You sound like you're talking about yourself. Are you that plain?"
"You better get your mind set on this, Kathy. Guys'll be coming at you, after you, after the ranch, and you have to know the difference between those who want you more than the ranch or the other way around."
She managed to shuffle out of that by saying, "Let's get your horse fixed so we can go look for this Shug Turnbow. Rachel Hurd and her husband at the paper have put the picture of him on the front page of the new issue, so I suppose he's hunkered down someplace out of sight, and not running back up the trail to Montana."
After counting all the animals on the spread, at his insistence. "Always know what you leave behind so you can figure out how you stand when you get back... even if you only go to town and nobody's here. Nobody else will do it for you, and you'll never know where you stand. It's part of being an owner."
She fed him a leftover meal and they left on their ride, his horse's hoof fixed, the afternoon warm with a mountain breeze carrying a threat of change. They saw nothing in their first turn of the search and returned late at night, a half moon teasing the late hour. He bunked in the barn with o other discussion, but he woke to the odor of breakfast coming from the ranch house and her announcement to "come and get it."
He was prompt, she was courteous at the table until he said, "I'll go out this morning by myself, see if I can shake him loose from hiding, and while I'm gone, keep your eyes open."
"Not on your life," she said."I'm not sticking around here alone if you think he's in the area." She wondered if he thought she was more willing to be with him than anything else ... and she was finally firm in her mind that Dave Kressick was a man of the past. It was three whole days since she had seen him. The count, she realized, would only get longer because of his lying about another girl from town. Measurements had already been established in her mind, and were working their way to the other side of things abideable.
On the fifth day of search, late in the day, tiredness riding her more than she rode her horse, she voluntarily agreed to stay home the next day and let him venture on his own.
It came as no surprise to Kathy, when she called him for breakfast, that he had gone off much earlier, quietly, not a sound made, and she noted his tracks had lead around the herd of cattle and the pen of horses where she assumed, fully well, that he had taken count the way a good rancher kept a count of his resources. The sudden warmth rushed through her in an old glow of comfort she had not known in long while. Pete Richards, she realized quite seriously, and with a notable warmth rushing through her body, was someone she could count on.
What in life could go wrong now? snapped at her as though it was a warning.
The shadow she did not see, nor the body that was casting it onto the ground from the far corner of the barn. She did not hear a sound until the unmistakable click of a cocked pistol trigger sounded as loud as a rifle trigger guard being snapped home, loaded for bear.
The answer came sooner than she might have imagined.
Burly, dirty as sin, a scowl on his face dark as the devil's face, Shug Turnbow loosed a coward's smile at her as he pointed his pistol her way and walked slowly, cocksuredly from the side of the barn."I been watchin' you and your boyfriend for a few days and figure he's gone alone now just lookin' for me, and I've been here all along, just waitin' for him to go off alone 'fore I was to snaggle you just for myself. I'm goin' to treat you to a whole lot of wrong less'n you sign over to me the whole of your herd and remuda. I aim to have 'em sold 'fore the day's out and 'fore your boyfriend finds out I ain't out there but been here all along, right under your cup of tea, little miss pretty bunch. "
That lascivious tone, suddenly disinterred from his deep-seated regular hate, leaped at her swift as a snake. The terror of it, and him, managed to get some headway, and she began to wonder where he had been hiding, where she had hidden her uncle's rifle and where she had put her father's pistols where she could get her hands on them in a hurry. She struggled to remember the hiding places, but one of them was in the barn; she'd have to count on finding a weapon there.
He marched her to the barn, fully intending she thought to tie her up before anything else. The thought rushed her for a moment and she knew a struggle, as little as she might manage, had to take place.
Just inside the barn, smell claiming its own territory, he grabbed her with one strong hand and held his pistol at the back of her neck. It unnerved her to think that if she jumped now she could be dead in seconds.
But she was going to take any gamble to escape his clutch.
That's when she heard the click of another pistol, and Shug Turnbow spun around to face the sound, his cold pistol still pinned at the back of her neck.
Pete Richards never looked so good, so handsome, as he stood at the door of the barn, the sun flashing behind him, his voice calm as an engine without steam."You hurt her, Turnbow," he said, "and I'll hurt you more ways than you can imagine." The pistol in his hand did not waver.
Turnbow, not to be misunderstood, and not cowering in the face of another's gun, said, "You ain't about to shoot me, kid, or she's rat dead in two seconds."
Kathy suddenly knew she would be the chance taker, at least for the first go-around, and wondered if she should crumple, jump, or try to shake loose from his one hand; but her mind went on beyond those choices.
Her own words from a recent talk with Pete came quickly to mind, and she said, "I don't know which of you men can win this, but all I can say is I dearly hope it goes the way Preston Guthrie took care of Miss Bartolo, the teacher. The same exact way."
She was able to hug and kiss Pete Richards, quick shot specialist, who dropped Shug Turnbow with a direct shot through his head, a shot that narrowly missed hitting her by a mere inch or so.
He hugged her back and said, "You took an awful chance, Kathy. An awful chance."
"Not as chancy as asking you right now, right where you stand, Mr. Peter Richards, if there's any way you want to marry me and make up for scaring the daylights out of me."