Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
Available Now Site-wide ad space Top right corner, replacing the ad to the right. $25 per month. Click HERE to find out more.
Western Short Story
Ben Gammee, story teller, standing back against the saloon wall, was the point of the gathering.
Some of the cowpokes in McColley’s Saloon might not admit it, but they had come to hear Ben Gammee spin a few of his yarns. Of course, they’d have a shot or a beer, or two, in the process, all softening the end of day for most of them. The clink of glasses or mugs had lessened as attention swung to the lean but blond-bearded cowboy whose reputation as a story teller had leaped ahead of him no matter where he went west of the Mississippi. And right here, to the foot of the Rockies where I live. His eyes, I had heard, were almost as expressive as his mouth, as though they carried more of the trail in them than was allowed for one man not yet 25 years old.
That’s what reputation does for a man who moves fast on a horse, and alone. And who carries a mystery with him, in his bed roll or saddle bag, or some thing that tags along. Often rumors about some men move like a stray lost in a ravine or like a stampede going downhill. It was that way with Ben Gammee.
He wore a handgun in a holster braced tightly under one arm. I was sure that it was a new Peacemaker, a year old 1873 Colt .45 single action revolver. I surmised that fact from the grip that poked its way from the leather like a coyote sneaking a smell. The revolver rode at a slightly downward angle on his chest… as if it could be swiftly moved to use. A long-sleeved gray shirt with a couple of big pockets and wide cuffs sat on him loose as a serape out of place. His pants looked like old Blue issue that long trails had touched with too many hands.
Earlier, an older, regular customer at the store told me I ought to step over to McColley’s place and hear Ben Gammee talk his tales. “You won’t hear ‘nother like him for a spell, I can tell you that. Carries some kind of mystery with him, like he’s right out of a dark place ‘n’ draggin’ some of the furniture with him.” He made a pronouncement as an added inducement, “He’s a young un too, like yourself. I seen him once over Pomosa way, easy in the saddle, ridin’ like the river does, knowin’ its way all the time.”
I had sat out front hearing the banter and cross-talk as town gents and trail hands stepped up off the dry road bed and entered McColley’s Saloon and Eatery, right where Dingo City practically had its start, at the foot of the mountains where the roads went Atlantic or Pacific, Canada or Mexico, take your choice, name your peril, and make sure you wet your whistle before heading out on the trail. I had lived in Dingo City for more than two years after coming back from school back east aways, working in the family general store for my father who was thrown from his horse and was slowed down by a nagging injury. So I was around a lot, heard a lot more than seen a lot, but, outside of a few out-and-out liars, I took all I heard as gospel. There’s a reason for that stand: lying out this way in cow country gets a brand put down on a man long as his arm or long as his last ride, so you might say I was a real listener. It was good for our small merchandizing business too, which I learned quickly from my father.
Times said it paid to listen good and speak plain.
It was 1874 and the war, long over and not waged very much this far west, had some slack in its memories, though you might not know it at times. Blue and Gray uniform remnants mostly had fallen by the wayside or had been worn to rags and tatters. Once in a while an old remnant was seen, pride carried by a remembering man, a Blue pants or shirt, or a Gray piece, most generally faded, sometimes with stripes left for marking, needing a small study to determine their origin. I could tell, the way some of them rode their mounts, they were cavalry men from the outset, hard riders born to the saddle, not foot sloggers. What kept them on their toes were large parties of Indians, of a few tribes, that now and then roamed continually in the territory in their own wide dispute.
“Hell, man,” one young cowpoke said, as he was about to enter the saloon, “they say Gammee rants on about this Rose Bar thing. Brings it up every time he talks, every time he tells a story. I don’t care where it is… camp fire, wagon council, branding action, even in front of a church here and there, any such meeting place. And looks at any ring on any finger any man lets him, and talks about rings like they were special. Tells stories about rings, about long hands, about anything the mind treats of, like nothing was there in the beginning before he comes along. That’s dumb spooky, you ask me.”
“Where’d you hear all this stuff?” His pard stood at the door of McColley’s. “Look,” he said, “before we go in here, tell me what this’s all about.” He stepped to the side of the door to let a couple more folks go inside. “Stretches the mind, it does, rings and Rose Bar be what they call it.”
“Where’d you suppose it’s been heard? At a branding fire, at a saloon like this one, some place where he just left like a shadow on a horse, anyplace. He’s spread far as buffalo turd or cow flap, been all over. I must have heard it a hundred times… Ben Gammee tells a tale like no one else out here, but he always gets back to The Rose Bar, like it’s stuck in his craw. Like he can’t just spit it out. One ramrodder says he’s got an itch he can’t let go of, perhaps a saddle burr’s sticking it to him. ”
“What the hell’s this Rose Bar? Is it a brand?” He swung his Stetson off his almost bald head as if to say, “I’m all ears. Fill me in.”
“One old digger I met, talking about him, said he thinks it’s sure a bar of gold, a solid bar of gold stole from his pa was going to buy a spread for hisself, the family. ‘Nother old ‘spector says it’s a stole family thing he’s looking for. Like a ring maybe his mother lost, or his sweetheart.”
His pal said with some kind of assurance, “None of them knows from the sound of things. Maybe just a mystery thing to get his reputation an extra shot of juice. Tryin’ to spread the good word, howsoever you’ll have it.”
“I guess you’re right on that.” They went inside, the doors closing behind them.
I could hear the rustle of chairs, gabby talk, a couple of trail hands coughing up the trail they were trying to drown deep down where it wouldn’t hurt. I slipped inside when I heard McColley himself speak out loud and clear as though he was minding some noisy kids in a schoolroom, getting them in line, getting them ready to listen.
“Ease up, gents,” McColley said in a trail boss voice, “we got a special treat coming our way. Know you’ve heard about Ben here, Ben Gammee, story teller of some real special brand. He’s owned the rights, I hear, to a hundred camp fires, wagon meetings, branding pits, in his time. Spins a mean yarn, he does, and I brought him here today just so’s you gents could hear some of what he has to tell.”
With a bit of feigned exercise, he bent low, swung his right arm in a wide arc and said, “Here’s the Talkin’ Man. You best listen to what he has to say, what he’s been sayin’ all along a long trail from his home near a town east of us that some of you most likely been to in your herdin’ days.”
He stepped aside.
Ben Gammee, with neither flair nor phony maneuvering, stepped to the back wall of the saloon and turned around slowly to look at the gathering. His moves were subtle and slight, and for the moment he appeared affable, calm, friendly. His youth showed, or was allowed to show. His smooth cheeks showed, freshly scrubbed, almost pink. His bright eyes showed, but a few older folks, a few older cow hands who had seen more trail work than half the gathering, saw a touch of distance in Ben Gammee’s eyes, as if they were being warned off a special territory. A few of them looked at each other in the audience, made eye contact, nodded, made silent declarations on the spot.
Ben Gammee saw it all as he leaned against the back wall of the saloon. He had changed clothes. Light from a few oil lamps fell on him. He was a black apparition; his shirt as black as a stallion, his pants coal-colored, his hat a piece of deep night itself. All in all, he was a contradiction; dark as the devil, but younger than sin.
“I tell you at the outset that I come with ghosts in my baggage. They ride behind me wherever I go.” He looked over his shoulder. “Don’t you all know when something, someone, is behind you; on the trail, filling in your steps, stepping into your shadows at evening when darkness comes behind like a great curtain is falling right after you and even your mount knows something’s going on? I could draw cards on all that and never come up a loser; we all know something’s back there, in the brush, in the shadows, behind that last big rock you just went past and didn’t bother to look behind, because if you admit to it, it owns you all night long from then on. Do you remember all those nights, bone-tired, back in spasms, rump almost dead from sitting a hard ride, that you couldn’t sleep? The ghosts of your time do that, won’t let you get away with a damned thing.”
He let each section of his talk sink into the listening men; the others wouldn’t count.
”I been on the trail, them chasing me, them ghosts, for almost three years now. Some nights they scream at me like a puma on a high rock, tasting his meal before he has at it, or the wolves know the blood that might flow from me yet, or the ghosts of my sins ride in my saddle bag, wait in my bed roll to get loose, hustle on my trail to keep up with me.”
H e paused again.
He looked around, like a scout on the prowl, and I noticed something else from where I stood all the way across the room, near the doorway. Ben Gammee, cowboy and all, was really an actor, and was using the lights and the shadows where the oil lamps didn’t throw themselves. The shadows he used, the dips of head he used, his arms he used to deflect the meager light. And he was becoming something else! Someone else! The dark outfit carried lots of imagination in it. Perhaps the ghost that he carried with him, or the one that followed him, right into this room. The sudden silence on his part gave heed to something. And the resulting silence from the audience added its own piece to the evening.
All kinds of cowpokes and saddle riders and stage hands and regular saloon types, and a card man or two for sure, were in the audience, and they all were attentive, down to the last man. And they stayed quiet, the kind of quiet that’s needed when a herd is edgy and leaning toward a run. I hadn’t heard the tinkle of a glass in more than five minutes, and still Ben Gammee held their absolute attention.
Now and then the lights flickered and shadows, of course, flickered as well, and Ben Gammee wore all of it with the grace of a spirit coming off a mountain top or from across a river in the misty morning or one sitting on the prairie horizon when the sun is taking day to sleep, like ghost riders making their mark.
“One of the things that I get from all this chasing of me, is an idea of a ring that my grandfather talked about years ago, that has a secret message about a gold mine in it. It’s a piece of an old puzzle that I heard about, know something about, and the man who wears that ring, and me, will become partners in that secret mine.”
Now there was a stir in the long room. Chairs creaked and moved. Bodies leaned. Men looked at their hands, though not many, and they all looked at the hands of others near them, trying to see if there were any rings being worn in the room.
Ben Gammee did not miss a bit of movement within the audience, and still he maneuvered his body in the light and shadows to keep his spirit at command. He saw each and every movement, and I figured he knew, right from where he was standing, where any rings were worn. Body language and motion told him all that, because even I could see it from where I stood by the door.
Then, with the same spirit moves, he walked among the audience, looking down at hands that wore rings. A number of times he pushed a man’s sleeves back up on his arms. Several rings were looked at, with no reaction on Gammee’s part.
And then, down along the bar, a reflection flashed like it was lit up, and Ben Gammee made his way to the end of the bar, to stare at a tall, mean-faced cowpoke, life sitting its pain square on his face, who held his hands up, with no rings visible and a sneer on his face.
The man said, “You’re one plumb loco dude, young man. Loco as the weed. “
Ben Gammee pointed at the reflection that shifted now and then off the man’s wrist the way mirrors work. “Where’d you get that bracelet? You make it? It looks kind of Indian-made, Hopi or Yatzi, secret made. You make stuff like that? That’s pretty damn good. Looks real special.”
“Naw,” said the mean-looking hombre, just then beginning to show a little bit of discomfort. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, leaned on the bar, and then quickly stood tall. “My paw made it years ago, back in Kenrock, that’s in Tennessee. Give it to me he did when I left home for the war.”
I tell you, at that moment there came a flash of Ben Gammee’s hand and that practically brand-new Peacemaker came out of its holster and was jammed right at the chest of the man wearing the bracelet.
I knew something then, I think, and I was sure the mean-looking hombre knew something maybe he ought not to know.
“Somebody get the sheriff,” Ben Gammee said, “and in a damn hurry before I shoot this bushwhacker who stole this bracelet from my paw back in Purvisville. Shot him in the back, took everything from his pack, and took the bracelet right off his wrist. Right there on the back side is the Rose Bar. Was the brand he was going to use whenever he got a spread of his own. Dreamed about it for years until this hombre ended that.”
The young man suddenly looked tired from the long run. “Two shots, right up close, in the back. I been looking for you, mister, and I ain’t letting go.”
“You’re crazy, dude. You was talking about a secret ring, not about a bracelet. Not about this piece of junk.”
“All part of the act, mister. I been leading a double life looking for the man who killed my paw and I been all over, playing games, trying to find this bracelet. If you had said you bought it, we’d work on that, but you lied and that’s going to fix it for you.” He looked up as the door swung open and the sheriff stepped into the room, his gun drawn.
“We talkin’ or shootin’, son?” the sheriff said.
“I never shot a gun in my life, sheriff,” Ben Gammee said, “but we got lots of talking to do.”
The whole crowd in the saloon was still in place, still silent, but amazement was popping around in their eyes, and I heard one young gent say, “Hell, man, for a while I thought this ring was something special.” He held his hand up, with a ring prominent on one finger, and shook his head in disbelief. His pard nodded in agreement.