Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The crude cross was driven into the ground midway between two trees still wearing remnants of rusted barbed wire. The lone man had thrown the last shovelful of dirt on top on the mound before he set up the cross that he made from two branches broken off the trees. There’d been a swing hanging from one branch for the early years, and he recalled how the remnant barbed wire whistled when the wind was strong. In a last look around, he studied the location of the marker between the two trees and lined up two other sites perpendicular to the tree line, a large rock most likely never to be moved and another rock across the grass only Mother Nature herself would ever dislodge, and which would be calamitous. He muttered a few solemn words, followed them with an epithet not repeated here, and then jammed his hat tightly in place.
He mounted his horse, a big gray stallion, checked the rifle in the scabbard, and two pistols on his belt, and rode off. Northwest he headed, far peaks catching sunlight in blue-white brilliance. Once more he framed the epithet with his lips as he spurred the gray, the August sun setting on his back a thick mantel of warmth.
He had come on this land as a new husband and was leaving it as a widower 26 years later. Margaret Mary, the best thing ever in his life, rested behind him, a stray bullet taking her life on her own porch.
The gunfight had been spurious; bandits in flight looking for horses, her exclamations from the porch that the horses were not for sale or for the taking, that her husband was due any minute and would settle the issue.
He had come in the middle of the theft, hearing her yelling at three men to leave at once. He galloped into the midst of them, killing one man, wounding another, and the third fleeing north on a tired horse.
Harland Yeats learned how to curse the moment Margaret Mary uttered her last breath, in his arms, and saying as she had said on hundreds of occasions, “Oh, Hal. Oh, Hal.” His hand, under her, began to collect the flow of blood.
He’d trail that third man to the end of the world, wanting to get him before his sons did the chasing. The wounded man, not Margaret Mary’s killer, was soon in jail.
On the table in Margaret Mary’s kitchen, he left a note for his sons, making the message as short as he could but with purpose and intention in his words:
“Matthew, Mark, You’ve probably heard before you read this, but I buried your mother where she said was her favorite place outside of this room. Three men tried to steal some of our horses. One is dead. One is wounded and in jail. The one who shot your mother rode off before I could get him. I am going after him. Take care of things until I get back. Dad”
He worried about how much attention they’d pay to his last sentence. And his thoughts roamed off with her always saying she had wanted Luke and John to be part of her family.
Yeats was long on the trail before his sons came back from the drive they worked on. He had seen the man who had fled, remembered his clothes, his hair when his hat fell away, that he was a clumsy lefthander. He could describe him, knew what his horse was like, could see him going for his gun and firing off that crooked shot, almost aimless, useless, until Margaret Mary collapsed on the porch.
Yeats, as time would prove, learned new curses with the continuing sights in his mind.
A full day’s ride brought him to a clump of trees and brush about a half mile from a ranch house he had visited in the past with a previous owner. In the trees he spotted the killer’s horse hobbled by a short rope on his forelegs, and the saddle and saddle blanket gone off the animal’s back.
He found where the killer had walked off a way, found where he thought the saddle had been set on some brush, and a new set of tracks where he must have put the saddle on another horse, stolen from the nearby ranch.
Yeats approached the ranch until he realized he was facing a man with a rifle pointed at him. The rifle was as thin as the man holding it, but he had a quizzical and broad look on his face that was not entirely ferocious. He had apparently seen Yeats as harmless, At least Yeats thought so.
“Hold there,” the man said, shouldering the rifle, “who are you and what do you want.” There was no fear on his face.
“I am Harland Yeats from Hatfield, back a day’s ride. I’m chasing the man who killed my wife when he and his friends tried to steal some of my horses. I knew Purnell who used to live here. Who are you? Have you had a horse stolen from you?”
“I bought this place from Purnell. I’m sorry about your loss. I had a horse stolen sometime during the day when I was looking for strays up in the hills. But only one horse. His friends have horses?”
“They didn’t get this far.”
“You get them? I’m Jeff Salisbury.” He put out his hand to shake, hiss early assessment of Yeats confirmed.
“I got one and one in jail and still hurting I hope.”
“Good man. I was going after him but my wife was too upset and worried, so I was letting her settle down before I lit out after him.”
Yeats said, “I have two sons who most likely will be after me. I’d appreciate a quick meal and a promise that you’ll hold them back as long as you can. Try any kind of a story you want, but I want that man to myself. Tell me what kind of a horse he stole. I’ll appreciate all the help you can give me, Mr. Salisbury.”
“My wife Winifred will get you a quick meal and I’ll hold up your boys long as I can. I suspect that’s going to take some doing on my part, considering their purpose and intentions.” He was measuring Yeats again and what Yeats’ sons most likely would bring to bear on their mission. “The stolen horse was a rugged paint, three white socks and one black sock and his left neck near spotted with black on white. He was getting a day’s rest as I rode him all day yesterday. Your killer knows a good animal ‘cause he picked my best.”
Salisbury waved to a woman on the front stoop of the ranch house. She was almost as tall as her husband, and just as thin as a crane sitting a rock in a creek. “There’s Winifred now. She’ll have something on the table real quick. Lady’s like greased lightning when she’s ginning about the kitchen.”
Yeats smiled as he saw a flash of Margaret Mary handling a pot and two plates and a loaf of warm bread in one dash from stove to table top. He almost found another curse framed on the instance, but shook his head.
“If I can talk her into it, I’d go along with you,” Salisbury said, the chances showing nil on his face. “When she hears about your wife, she’ll close down like a winter bear.”
“You do me the best favor by sitting on my boys as long as you can. Give them an extra meal, a place to sleep, tell them I went right past here last night, say you don’t know where.”
“I’ll do what I can.” There was promise in his voice.
Winifred Salisbury didn’t fold into a ball of sympathy, as Yeats thought she might, rather she moved into a stony and distant composure. She spun about the kitchen in her manner and had a plate set down in front of Yeats as fast as promised by her husband. She spoke once, saying, “I’m sorry for your loss. Such things worry me every day.” She never said another word to Yeats, who left saying only, “Thank you for your gesture and your concern and I wish good things for you.”
Winifred Salisbury was out of her mind as soon as Margaret Mary made another appearance in one of her favorite poses. Yeats heard her voice again, coming from another darkness.
Interrupted, but adamant, he rode off still on the trail, the description of Salisbury’s horse locked in his mind, and the images of the killer tucked away just as clear as the moment he first saw them. The white socks of the paint floated in his mind, the spots on the neck, trying to affirm what side they were on, for he was suddenly unsure.
But the trail of the paint, with two new front shoes according to Salisbury, was easy to follow on the way off the rancher’s property. It lead north as before, due north, the sun a simmering orange-redness on his left shoulder, and Yeats knew the two towns to the north, hugging the river, Litchfield and Carver. He was not sure which one he’d end up in because the regular trail would lead, in part, to each town.
And he had old friends there.
In both towns.
He’d hopefully use those friends before his sons could get there, before Salisbury wilted in front of their resolve, and perhaps joined them to the disappointment of his wife. He could hear Matthew saying, “Salisbury, you best own up to our questions with some straight talk or we’ll drag you along with us to get your horse back, see our pa is safe, and get the rat who caused all this, and we beg the forgiveness of your wife. We ain’t here to hurt her or you or anybody ‘cept those who delay us, like you’re doing.”
He could hear Matthew’s words as clear as he could hear Margaret Mary say, “Oh, Hal. Oh, Hal.”
The new shoes of the paint came to a decision point, Yeats figured, for they appeared to have danced around in some indecision, here and there, and finally, probably after some resolve or reason came to the rider, the trail headed off to Carver where the road broke in two parts.
One of his old hands, Jethro Kohlrausch, at last report, had become sheriff of Carver. If Yeats had a need to talk when the trail failed, Kohlrausch would be a good ear, would lend a hand.
Kohlrausch, though, had been injured in a fall, a bad fall, and was stuck to a bed in a boarding house, and had little to offer Yeats in the way of help.
So, after wishing his old hand the best of luck, Yeats headed for the livery, checked the horses, walked around town, spotted a few paints that did not fit Salisbury’s description, and went off to the saloon to get rid of trail dust.
With a sense of ease, not expecting to see the pursued killer in the saloon, Yeats stopped in his tracks as he had taken only two steps into the room. There, at the bar, just spinning around to leave, was Margaret Mary’s killer, who looked up, saw the look on Yeats’ face, drew his weapon, and shot Yeats in the left shoulder. Yeats went down, hurting like hell, hit his head, and went unconscious.
In the turmoil, the desperado fled the saloon, saying, “That man has been trailing me for weeks and weeks, saying I killed his son. I have to get away from him.”
When Yeats regained consciousness, after a fitful sleep and the pain finally subsiding after the bullet was extracted by a handy bartender because the town had no doctor, sons Matthew and Mark and Jeff Salisbury were standing over him, their faces after several moments breaking into great grins that could have been approaching significant accomplishments.
Salisbury said, with a sense of glee that he found hard to hide or disguise, “It was a great pleasure to meet your sons, Mr. Yeats. Winifred took to them right off because they were very persuasive about revenge for their mother. They convinced her to let me come with them. You ought to be proud of them.”
He stepped back from the bed Yeats was settled into.
Matthew stepped up, put his hand on Yeats’ hand sitting on his chest, and said, “We got him, Pa, in a ravine just up north of here, before you get to Litchfield. The paint he stole threw one of his new shoes and we walked right in on him as he was commiserating about his luck. We didn’t even have to take a shot, which really hurt us, but Mr. Salisbury squashed that real quick ‘cause we had that rat dead to rights and he was scared hell of us screaming at him to stand still or die on the spot. He’s in jail right now and the sheriff here says we can bring him back home for a trial.”
Yeats looked at Jeff Salisbury and said, “You found it hard to persuade them not to come, didn’t you, just like I said?”
Salisbury looked at Yeats’ sons, turned back to Yeats and said, “Yes, I did, but my Winifred didn’t have any trouble with her way, did she?”