Western Short Story
Hubey Danforth, a kid wrangler for the Jay-Bar-Jay, bloody as all hell, fell off his horse right in front of the bunkhouse, the August moon rays folding over him gentle as a blanket. It was three in the morning, a southwest breeze coming off the grass smoother than chewed leather. Hurt ran through him with abandon, touching every which way, perfecting the art of pain, triggering him aware of body parts he often paid little heed to … the back of his legs, the back of his shoulders, the hip line on his left side, his left elbow feeling yet the blows that had rained down on him.
He could have cried, but called, meekly, for help. “Amos,” he cried. “Amos.”
Ranch foreman and trail drive boss Amos Tarbox was used to late arrivals after a night in town at the end of a long branding session. Already two of his boys rolled up in a wagon louder than they ever were, drunk as two pups in a barrel of wine. He rolled over in his bunk just as he heard his name called out. His survey of the bunkhouse showed all but one bunk lumpy with dark forms. “Danforth,” he half muttered aloud, “he’s the last of ‘em. Kid probably come of age tonight.”
With a hypnotic maneuver he rolled over on his bunk and slipped his feet into his boots. Sleep dust fell from his eyes. He had gone to bed with his pants on, knowing what the night in town would bring to his wranglers after a long session of branding.
His own history of bruises and years of work issued only a series of small complaints to his mind. Instant recall of some of them came to him; the bull that had gored his upper right thigh, the persistent arthritic ache in one elbow where a rope had yanked him off his saddle in a corral accident, a fall on the same elbow from a wild mustang when much of his remuda had been stampeded.
He swung the lantern out over Danforth moaning on the ground. “God, boy, who did this to you?” Blood had mostly dried on the boy’s face though a trickle here and there, beside one ear and on the lower jaw, gave mute evidence that Danforth had had the hell beat out of him. He hoped it was not the Nolan boys from town. There’d be a war over this if the old man up at the ranch house let him have his way. This was his bunkhouse, these were his boys, and he had paid his dues.
“Gostogne. Cutter,” he called. “Give me a hand out here. Someone’s kicked the hell out of Danforth.”
They hauled the young man inside and placed him on his bunk. “Cutter,” Tarbox said to a big wrangler, “get some rags, clean ones, and a bucket of water. I got to clean this boy up.” A lantern’s light settled on Danforth’s face. A slight flow of blood moved down his neck from a wound near his ear. He opened and closed his eyes a few times, as if trying to believe he was safely away from those who had beaten on him. Then, realizing where he was, in the only haven he knew at the time, he stared at Tarbox with eyes that sent messages. Rules and laws were being established for the Jay-Bar-Jay. It was understood.
All the hands-on doctoring he had done out on the grass showed as he cleaned the boys wounds, exercising care, being gentle. Calming him down, he gave him a drink of cider to clear his throat. There’d be answers somewhere he wanted. “Who did this, Hubey? Did you start anything?”
“It was them Nolan guys, at the dance at the barn. I was just looking at one of them girls they were dancing with and they just jumped the hell out of me. Rolled me out into the alley and did it again, Jake Pellty’s the worst of the lot, kicked me a half dozen times. I didn’t do anything. I couldn’t get up to get at him. When I got to my knees once, he kicked me down again. All the time they kept cursing us out here, calling us a bunch of saddle bums drifting around the world doing nothing at all.”
Tarbox, looking squarely at Cutter, said, “You’re now herding Danforth until this gets cleared away.” His voice had hardened with authority tested on the long trail. “He doesn’t go into town until I say he can go, and not until then.” Looking down on Danforth just closing his eyes, he added, “When the sun hits, I’m talking to the boss up at the house, seeing if he’ll let us handle this or get in the way of it. And no matter what he says, this is how we’ll do it.”
Every man in the bunkhouse, on for the long ride with a square trail boss on a half dozen long runs, listened to every word Tarbox said. Then, Danforth sleeping, each man wrapped in his own silence, they rolled over and slept.
At the first shake of dawn, his mind playing an endless game of piling up debts and payments in life, Tarbox caught the coffee aroma on the air. It was surer than a cock crow from the ranch house, the women of the house up and at duties. He washed outside the bunkhouse, put his gun belt on, and slung his Colts into place. A soft, grass-filled southwest breeze shook the old aches out of his bones as he knocked on the ranch house door.
“Come in, Amos. Coffee’s all set. Myra and the girls will have breakfast in half an hour. I’ll ask what’s on your mind ‘cause you’re wearing your best hard face right now and I wouldn’t like to meet you in an alley this way.” He laughed to cover up both a lot of respect and a bit of fear of his top hand who rarely came out second in anything he was at. He’d seen Tarbox on a few occasions come in first in tough situations.
Tarbox, from his point of view, also had a healthy respect for the rancher for whom he had led half a dozen herds to market, finding him fair on most dealings if a little short on push when push was needed. The man, he knew, had his eyes on a political appointment, with the promise of more range under his rule. Tarbox didn’t find fault with any man’s hunger until it touched his pockets or those of his crew. Some men let their pockets get picked; he was not one of them. There, he had serious thoughts of setting things fair and square, and the sooner, the better.
A slim girl of 14 or 15 brought coffee to them. Tarbox said, “Thank you, Melba, and say hi to your mom and the girls for me.”
The rancher, Max Beglin, sipped his coffee and said, “What is it, Amos? You’re getting more serious by the moment. Enjoy your coffee for a bit, and then let it go. It will hold, won’t it?” He only smiled half way.
“Won’t hold, Max. One of our boys, Hubey Danforth, the real kid in the bunkhouse got his ass whipped bad last night in town by some of Nolan’s crowd, mostly that Pellty gent who’s been a pest from the first around here. I mean, they beat the hell out of one of my boys and I am going in there today to square things away. I need to bring some of the boys with me. If you say no, I go alone and those who want to go with me will quit you on the spot. It’s up to you, but I’m not standing around while that bunch picks on our guys one at a time.”
Beglin was in a quandary as he thought of repercussions all the way to the capitol. “Can we go slow on this, Amos? Get to Nolan and call it off, or find the reasons behind this? They’re not cutting out any of your stock, Amos. It’s all mine.” With that remark, his chest puffed too much for Amos Tarbox.
“You’re right and wrong there, Max. It’s my crew their picking on. I’m the lead dog and they all know it. You and them. It’s the way it goes out here. This is the second or third time in a month that I know of but they’re not aiming at me, they’re aiming at you.”
He let that statement sink into the man’s thinking. Give the man time to grasp the whole hog. It was like saying all this is bigger than it appears. Sun rays lit on his hands and spilled on the table as they fell in the big window. Tarbox could see the bunkhouse from where he sat. Two of the boys, stripped to the waist, young horses horsing around, were washing up out front, tossing waters, enjoying the sun and the early breeze. Beglin’s daughter Melba was standing at the edge of the porch watching them. Tarbox saw a hand grasp her arm and pull her inside. He smiled and knew it was her mother, without a doubt. It was the way time falls down on people all the time out here. And justice. It was all inevitable.
“I think it’s got a lot to do with those hopes you have for state office. Nolan doesn’t like the prospects, I’m guessing, and he wants to screw it up before it gets real headway. That man wants more range than you have, but he doesn’t want to work for it. If he worked a whole year of Sundays he couldn’t make things work anyplace on his own. He’d have to buy it big or steal it big or have someone give it to him, and on a big plate to boot, all toasted and buttered for him like it was on the menu.”
Beglin was tempered. “Think it’s that big? Nolan’s a sprout yet, a nothing.” Only a half smile sat on his face, and Tarbox knew he had gotten inside the man.
“His boys are beating up our boys,” Tarbox said. “That ought to set you thinking real hard about the future. See what might be coming down the trail. I bet it’s a whole lot of nothing that you want.”
“I don’t want a war. That’s not in my best interests or yours or any of the boys. They are just pups, most of them.”
“Which is why I am going to do what I have to do.”
“No war,” Tarbox replied. “We’ll keep it at a brief, positive episode, polite as can be. A chapter. A skirmish. Call it want you want, but we’ll get it done. My word on it.”
Later that afternoon, the nine wranglers, owing much to Tarbox and to each other, and little to the big boss up in the big house, saddled up and set out for Circle Creek. The corps of it was on them as if it was a cape. Warmth spread in the ranks, knowing trust, ability, and having Amos Tarbox as their field general. Out on the drives they had depended on each other at crucial times. Rustlers and stampedes and hungry Indians and an odd sort of other problems had been in their way. Now, in the evening gray, the sun at last headed for the unknown, they faced another problem of survival. An hour later the troop of them reigned up in front of Jethro Letter’s house on the edge of town, Letter a long-time pal of Tarbox.
Letter hailed Tarbox from the porch. “Something sure special on your mind, Amos, bringing the crew to my shed. What can I do for you?” He looked as if he had sat a hard saddle for half a century or more. But a closer look would have revealed some sort of pleasurable thought moving through him.
“You getting even with someone, Amos? Don’t tell me who, just let me know how it went later on. I’ll spill a pint on it. I ‘member that night in Kilbairn when lessons were taught and learned. Shore do.” He smacked his hands together. “Need something sour or sweet? I got ‘em both.”
Amos Tarbox, old hand, trail sage, crew boss, said as if directing his words to a clerk at the general store, “All we need is a place to hang up our weapons for a spell, hidden from sight but easy to get back at, if you know what I mean.”
Letter rubbed his hands together, then clapped them and with his legs in better shape would have done a jig. “Howza, Amos! Howza!” he yelled. “We going to have a set-to, a shape-up, a fracas for the ages. Oh, My, Amos, I heard about your man. I knew it was short time ‘til you showed here in Circle Creek. Place needs some lessoning. Sure does.” He slapped his hands again, his feet moving in place, his eyes as wide and bright as new coins.
Tarbox, a full smile on his face, said, “Easy, Jethro. Don’t let the whole town know we’re here. We aim to Indian up on them, do it man to man, and no guns.”
“Don’t know as I’d trust any of them Nolan bullies not to use his gun no matter how you’re dressed, Amos. Takes some considering going this way.”
“Nolan doesn’t want any of that kind of stuff no matter what he’d gain. That’d be just too damned nasty for the whole state.”
Letter nodded. “Do ‘em up good, boys. They got it coming.” He pointed to a small shed at the side of the house. “Put them irons in there, boys. I’ll keep my eye on ‘em ‘til you get back after the whipping. I wish I could be of some help besides plain cheering from way out here on the edge of things.” He clapped his hands again as the crew took turns hanging their gun belts inside the shed.
The old man at the edge of town, the old trail rider, accepted the silence sitting in the air and the promise that hung with it. Odd parts of limitless experiences shifted through his imagination as fast as a steam locomotive on prairie-wide rails. For the briefest moment, with a shudder going down through him, he felt Amos Tarbox’s hard back against his own back in an old-fashioned whoop-de-do. The past fight, the new fight, it made no difference; he could smell it in the air. The sense of energy was wild for that moment, and as memorable as any old thought he’d ever had. A whole lot of time, he realized, had been measured and found good. …
He’d sit and wait out the results, a promise he made anew. Within a small shift of an evening breeze, he heard music coming from the saloon in the center of Circle Creek. And from some distant place, in a town long forgotten, he saw a young girl, pretty as a prairie flower, in a bright red dress. Her smile was a dawn smile as Amos Tarbox had put himself between her and a bully so much like Nolan’s minions. Some things, he said to himself, never change, on either side of the coin.
Nolan, Robber Baron before the name was popular and placed on crusty characters, sat at a table, Colt Peacemakers sitting in his holsters. The heaviest man in town, rarely on a horse, looked too slow to make use of the weapons he wore at his side. The huge Stetson pushed a shadow across half his face and a scraggly, dark beard filled the other half. A few men, appearing friendly, played at a game of poker as if real interest was elsewhere.
The piano player at the other end of the room, who could have been a third the size of Nolan, a black cap sitting on his head like a plate, his eyes always searching the room for messages of any sort, switched tunes randomly without drawing much attention. But he was, shown evident in a hundred evenings, Nolan’s eyes, Nolan’s barometer. The scars and bruise marks he carried, seen or unseen, limped into his playmaking at odd moments. So it was, in retribution, that Nolan did not know, without the piano’s announcement, that the Jay-Bar-Jay boys and that tough old foreman, Amos Tarbox, were standing in the room.
Nolan still sat looking at a pair of aces he had tossed down on the table, the laugh in his throat halfway out before he caught it back. He might have pulled his gun if he had a chance or the willingness, but he didn’t. Instead, trying to mask his surprise before leveling his eyes at the piano player, said, “What brings you here tonight, Amos? Not much doing at the ranch?”
Tarbox said, “A few things on our minds, Nolan. First, I’ll tell my man Gostogne over there to drop the money he’s got onto the bar.” He motioned for Gostogne to do so, and then he said to the barkeep and the owner, “Billy, that money’s for the damages we aim to cause here. Put it in the till because there’s a small fracas about to happen here, for what happened to the Danforth kid last night, especially by Pellty there, and to a few other of my boys backing up a few weeks.”
At the bar, Billy Cinbar leveled a rifle at Nolan whose hand had dropped to his holster. Nobody else had moved, waiting for Nolan to make his move. “Don’t do it, Nolan,” he said, “they ain’t wearing and weapons. I’ll shoot the first man who draws. So will a few others here.” Pointed to two older men who slipped up beside the bar, both men carrying Colts in each hand. “Now,” Cinbar added, “all you Nolan men drop your weapons.”
The clatter of gun handles on the floor, the slough of leather thudding at the same time, signaled the onset for Tarbox. His voice was the voice of doomsday as he said, “Boys, you know who they are. You each get one for yourselves. I got the fat boy here after I take care of Pellty there. Both of them’s mine.”
When Amos Tarbox yelled, “Go!” the saloon went into a human stampede as Jay-Bar-Jay boys, bent on justice of every rank, at the basest level of all, attacked the bullies of Nolan’s brand.
Chairs went. Tables went. Bodies went. Some folks of Circle Creek saw the likes of a fight they’d never forget, but all would admit later on that each encounter, between Jay-Bar-Jay boys and Nolan’s boys, was over too damned fast. Punishment was thorough, like a one-sided fight in the ring. Welterweight or lightweight or middleweight made no difference. They were good fights, each one, but too quickly buried under the punishing drive of men seeking retribution for fellow wranglers, bunkhouse buddies, trail companions on herd drives that seemed to last forever.
At the end of the night, all dues exacted, after old man Amos Tarbox beat the bully of all bullies, Jake Pellty, into a blubbering mass of humanity, and Nolan was discarded as a noisy piece of worthless scrub, they gathered on the porch of Jethro Letter, sharing his sweet and sour, their weapons back in place, each man telling his story, as Amos Tarbox’s old saddle pard felt all the old days descending on his soul with eternal joy.