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Western Short Story
The New Hand Makes the Grade
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

In the early part of dusk, Earl Tolliver, often called Tollie by family, friends and hired hands on the LT spread in Nevada, saw the stranger coming down the draw towards the ranch house, and wondered if he wanted a meal, a job, or both; he rode tall and comfortable in the saddle on a good-looking fully black horse reacting to slight reign directions, one sign of good care. His interest deepened when he spotted two pistols on his belt and a rifle in his scabbard, recent activity in the area, indeed on some of his holdings, spiked more interest.

"Evening, son,” Tollie said, “you looking for work or a meal, or both?”

“Both sound good to me, mister, but I can do a day’s work before I get fed.”

Tollie liked him right off. “When did you eat last? That’s a long trail you’re coming off.”

He liked him more when he said, “My name is Stu Williams, from Texas way. I pitch in a day’s work at most anything before I take what ain’t mine yet, like a good meal. I ate my last meal two days ago, in the open, delivered by gunshot and a good fire and had a good sleep while I was at it. I’m ready for work, if you’ll hire me.”

Tollie yelled over his shoulder to the ranch house, “Ellie, cut up some of that turkey and fittings for a new hire. His name is Stu Williams from down Texas way, and can put away what you put in front of him. Tell Slokie to rig a sleep spot for him. Bet he’ll make good use of it tonight because he starts work tomorrow, crack of dawn.

At his own evening meal, Tollie told his wife Ellie, “This new gent looks real interesting the way he handles himself, real interesting, He nodded to his own thinking, half casting a soft smile at chief cook and clear the decks lady for close to 20 years, two boys and a girl at something of their own at the moment.

He could feel a good day closing down, sleep at the ready, a new day getting ready for him and his crew. He told Ellie, “He asked if everything was under control here, and when I told him the boys figure a dozen or so cows go lost every once in a while, he said, ’I can help you on that, sir, as I’ve handled such matters before, all over.’ “

Ellie felt a soft comfort settle on her person, didn’t bother to explain it to herself, and let it be. But it was an added comfort for a lady of the West, comforts managed to make up for odds and ends that rolled around the plains, sometimes not explained at all.

Meanwhile, the new hire was out exploring the territory for three days, on his own time, he figured, when he found a canyon hollow amongst the cliffs showing cattle marks atop each other, like in regular use. He assumed rustlers used it for secreting their cattle thefts until sales were arranged with innocent buyers.

Tollie told his crew, “Keep your eyes on herd sizes best you can, and if they get lop-sided, let me know and we’ll make amends, on our own terms, not on rustlers’ terms.

It was Stu Williams who advised Tollie, “I sort of made a count on the loose heads below the ranch. Looks slimmer than a few days ago, and I think it’s time we do something downright hearty to correct the situation.” He looked itchy to get at it, and Tollie was glad he had him on his side, and ended up saying to Stu, “Get who you need and make a visit tomorrow. Check the brands and make sure they’re ours, and if they are, get ‘em back, one way or another.”

The fire was in his eyes, too, if not in his old gun hands, too long gone for this occasion. But he had noticed his daughter Claire had also been attracted to Stu Williams, a worthy point in his daughter’s favor, always in his worries about her future, now thinking a possibility was growing in front of him. It created more good feelings, a bit of hope, for the old man, Claire able to make up her own mind, but needing good help to carry-on at the ranch, hopes piling on top of hopes, and nowhere to go but up. It settled in his mind.

The raid was a firestorm, as Stu Williams and those he picked, rugged hands, been around the Horn so to speak, knew the odds, favored the good side of justice, leaned heavily on a thin band of thieves in their deep quarry. The thieves lost three men right at the start, some fled the site, some, seeing the odds, laid down their guns, perhaps to make a deal, perhaps to live a few days longer, as things looked bad for them. No trades were engineered. Those left standing were roped and hauled off to the local sheriff, up to his armpits with prisoners before this day was over.

Stu, according to some members of his crew, had made a crucial cut in rustler ranks right from his first shot. Possession of LT spread’s herd was significant, as shown by brand marks, and all went well for the day. Perhaps the sheriff, the lone man overwhelmed with prisoners, was uncomfortable, but knew his way around.

Some prisoners in the bunch snitched on others, aided artists in drawing wanted posters for other rustlers and killers, pointed fingers at each other for other rustlings, tried to make amends any way they could. It was justice at work for all hands, especially for Tollie Oliver, who saw the return of some good numbers of his herd, saw the love affair of daughter and Stu Williams flourish in a new hurry, caused him to generate plans for his own undertakings, started to dream about grandchildren one day running about his feet, nothing like moving on.