Western Short Story
The Price of a Meal
J. R. Lindermuth


Western Short Story

Flynn drew back on the reins and surveyed the sod hut tucked neatly into the coulee below him. Between the stream below the house and the blessing of a few summer showers, the grass seemed in better shape than the drought-stricken sections he'd left behind him that morning. A wisp of smoke drifted up from the chimney of the lean-to kitchen.

A garden plot next to the kitchen displayed a few withered rows of corn and some hills of beans. Beyond it Flynn saw a corral with a single mule, an aging, maltreated beast by its slow, erratic movements.

Flynn's horse shook its head and nickered. He patted the animal's neck. "Might as well mosey down and see if we can't get some breakfast, eh?"

Sod Hut

A knock at the door brought no immediate response. Flynn swept off his battered Stetson and wiped a hand across his moist forehead. "Yo! Anybody to home?" he called. The door creaked open and a slatternly-looking woman with a snuff-stick in her mouth peered out. "Who be yer?" she inquired.

"A stranger hopin' to buy some breakfast," he told her. "I mean you no harm, ma'am.

"Haint got a lot to spare. You willin' to pay?"

"Within reason. Yes."

She pushed the door open wider and allowed him entrance after he'd tethered his horse.

It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloom within. Once they had, he discerned a table surrounded by several high-backed rawhide-seat chairs, a couple straw mattress bunks against the far wall and, across from him, staring back with unabated curiosity, a skinny bare-footed girl at the wood stove. The closed-up room held a foul mingled odor of burnt food, grease and unwashed bodies, making Flynn wrinkle his nose in distaste. Still, he reckoned he didn't smell so good himself considering the time he'd been on the trail.

The door clicked shut behind him. He turned to see the older woman with one hand outstretched toward him. "You got cash-money?" she asked.

"Some. How much is this meal gonna cost me? I'd like some grain for my horse, too--if you can spare it."

Her wide lips spread in a grin, displaying missing teeth. "Reckon we can tally up after," she said. "Bess, dish out some porridge for our guest. Take a load off'n your bones, mister," she added, gesturing at the table.

He did as she bade, discovering the seat of the chair was so low it brought his knees nearly to shoulder height. The woman seated herself across from him and scrutinized him as she chomped on her snuff stick. "Who be ya, mister, and watcha doin' in these parts?" she asked.

"Name's Flynn. Got a little spread north of here where it appears we've been hit worse by the drought than you have. I've been on the trail of some of my stock wandered off in search of better forage."

She nodded and extended a hand. "I'm Missus Springer. That there's my chile, Bess." They shook. "Haint seen no strange stock round here," she added.

"Not sure they even come this way. Ground's so dry back there, it's hard to pick up a track. I was about to turn around when I spied your smoke and realized how hungry I am."

"Lucky for both of us then," she said, giving him another of those grins. "Bess, how's that food comin'?"

Bare feet slithering across the boards of the floor, the girl approached and plunked down two bowls of gruel. "Haint much," the woman said, "but, like I tol' you, we haint got much."

The girl procured another bowl for herself, filled their coffee cups and flopped down in a chair next to Flynn.

"I'm obliged to be sharin' what you have."

"Why'nt you give the blessin', Mister Flynn?"

"I-uh-I'm not much for bible-talkin', but I'll bow my head if you'll do it, ma'am."

Mrs. Springer bowed her head, clasped her hands before her and lit into a lengthy mumbled spiel. Flynn bowed his head and tried to pay attention even as his stomach rumbled with desire for the simple fare before him. Midway through the woman's sermon he became conscious of the girl hitching her chair closer to his. He opened his eyes to find her gaze fixed upon him, a smile on her lips and a slim hand reaching for his. Flynn was not a lecherous man and even had he been the girl offered little to attract him. Plain-faced, skin and bone and flat-chested, though he had to admit, her blue eyes were as beautiful as a summer sky.

"Bess," her mother croaked. "Mind yer manners and let the man eat."

Flynn spooned up porridge. It could have done with some sugar but it was hot and filling and he was famished. He emptied the bowl in record time.

"Yer want a refill?" Mrs. Springer asked.

He was tempted, but declined. If these weren't the ones he sought, they were needy and he shouldn't deprive them of valued food. "Is there a Mister Springer?" he asked as Bess refilled coffee cups.

"Gone to his reward last winter," the woman told him. "Just me and the daughter now. Hard-times, but we'll survive."

"I'm sure it's difficult and lonely for a couple women way out here," Flynn said. "Don't suppose many people pass by in a month's time."

Mrs. Springer snorted. "Count 'em on the fingers o' one hand."

Flynn nodded and emptied his cup. "Is there any more coffee?"

"Bess?"

"I'll get it," Flynn offered, rising. He filled his cup and poured some for the woman as well. It was as he returned the pot to the stove he spied it, leaning in a dark corner. Tom's rifle. The Ballard single-shot, the one he'd been so proud to carry.

Flynn returned to the table. "I'll pay for the food and fodder for my horse," he said. "Any chores I can help with before I take my leave?"

"Why that's right kindly of you, Mister Flynn," the woman said, slurping coffee. "Maybe you could chop some kindling for Bess. Wielding the ax is a hard job for us women and sometimes it seems we burn it up faster than we can chop more."

Finishing his coffee, Flynn followed Bess outside. The roof of the lean-to extended out to form an alcove where the kindling was stored. An ax stood in a stump next to a stack of wood ready for splitting. Bess ducked under the roof and began undoing the buttons of her blouse. She grinned. "You and me could have us some fun while the old lady haint lookin'," she said.

Flynn went red. Even had he found this girl desirable he was more than twice her age. "Miss, I didn't come out here for no..."

The click of pebbles underfoot and he spun around, drawing his Remington in one smooth move, and confronting the woman as she attempted to free the ax from the stump. "Leave it," he commanded, thumbing back the hammer on his revolver. "I don't want to shoot you, but I will if you make me."

The girl jumped on his back, digging sharp fingernails into his neck. Flynn flung her off. She howled in pain as she crashed into the pile of cordwood. The old woman took a step toward him, then stopped as he turned the gun back in her direction. She glared at him. "Who in hell are you?"

"My name is Flynn. But I'm not a stockman. I'm sheriff over at Bartonville. That rifle inside belongs to my brother."

Mrs. Springer shook her head. "Not so. That there gun belonged to my husband."

"Tom was proud of that rifle. He worked hard to earn the money to buy it and he bragged it was the only one of its kind in this part of Texas."

"Well, he must have been wrong. Cause my ol' man had one, too."

"Don't lie to me, woman. Tom isn't the only person to have disappeared into thin air after coming out this way and accepting your hospitality. I been following clues for more than a month and everything led me to this here homestead. What did you do to Tom and the others?"

Bess picked herself up, brushed off her clothing and flopped down on the woodpile. Those beautiful blue eyes flicked guiltily in the direction of the garden. Mrs. Springer gazed at the ground. "Women alone got to do what they must to survive," she said.

Flynn sighed. Confirming what he'd already guessed didn't make it easier to bear.

Ballard rifle, patented in 1861

(Author's note: The Ballard rifle, patented in 1861 by Charles H. Ballard and "improved" by the Marlin Firearms Company between the years 1875 and 1891, became one of the finest single shot actions ever made in the U.S. Noted for accuracy and reliability, many were custom made, thus explaining why it was so easy for my character to recognize his brother's rifle.)



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