Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
In the heart of darkness, in the heart of night, Jehrico Taxico told his wife Lupalazo about the secret of the creek he had been swimming in for weeks and weeks, practically every time on his way home after leaving Bola City on a new search for old goods promising new values. It was said by a traveling drummer by the name of Epaminondas Anganistopolus that the Mexican junk collector had the “Midas Touch.”
Jehrico whispered beneath the blankets to his wife, “Ah, Lupalazo, la señora más querida de mi corazón, I have been keeping a secret from you that must never escape your lips once I tell it to you, and if you even think of it, think of it in the language of our other country, the language we have taught our children so they will know two ways of talking without a split tongue.”
Slightly worried about some strange encounter he might have come through, Lupalazo, hugging him, said, “Dearest heart, what makes you wait until the darkest of nights to tell me a secret that must weigh on your soul. I feel fate is come upon us.” She nestled closer to him and threw one leg over him, a move he had loved from the very beginning, in the shadows of the same creek, but under the trees.
“Oh,” he said, “la señora más querida de mi corazón, dearest lady of my heart, it does not twist the tail of fate, this secret of mine, unless we let go of its tail so bad men can twist it, make it dance for them.”
Lupalazo, the only true lady of his heart, beautiful the whole day long, nudged him with the length of her body, and said, “The husband of the house will now tell his wife the secret he has held away from her, from the mother of his children, here in the heart of darkness, here where we begin each new child of ours, where her ears are sharp as a night creature and her tongue is as silent for secrets as the day owl.”
Jehrico, knowing he could hold nothing more from her, slipped his hand under his side of the bed and took hold of a small goatskin pouch, which had rough but loose contents. Into her hands he placed it and said, “This is the first part of my secret.”
The goatskin pouch she immediately squeezed in her hands, shook at her ear, and smelled close to her nose.
“I smell the creek in it,” she said, “and feel some hard parts of earth. Do I dare think what you have thrust at me, this pouch, has something precious in it? Must it be of value comes to you and once was left to become dust, but with your hand and eye see more value in it? From where do these hard parts of earth come from if that is what they are?” She was then sitting up in bed, alert as ever, tossing the pouch from hand to hand, and Jehrico knew she was enjoying some moment of true expectation.
She could not see his broad smile, but knew it was there; his voice told her.
“You and everybody in Bola City know I swim and wash in the creek every day I can. I do that for you and for the children so they will learn by watching us, and for me and my good being. And fate it is and fate is what this is and what you cannot speak about. Cannot tell one living soul on Earth. That will bring the hounds on us, the bad men, the robbers, the thieves. They do not find things like Jehrico does, but take what is not theirs from all others.”
“Oh, my savior, dearest Jehrico, my heart pounds now, not with a new value coming, but that we will share a secret between us alone and no one else in the whole world around us. That is a grand feeling and swells my heart again.” She dropped the goatskin pouch over the edge of their bed and hugged him again and again.
Then, when her heart had been fully exposed, she said, “Now you can tell me, my Jehrico, for my ears alone.”
Joy was busting all the stretch of skin on his body. “I wash and swim in many places on the creek, but in one place, near where we met for the first time, I just put my hand down alone the bottom of the bank and squeeze some mud through my fingers until I find some of these.” With a quick hand he picked up the pouch from the floor, untied the rawhide lacing about it, and dumped, unseen but felt, a small pile of gold nuggets into Lupalazo’s lap.
“I dare not scream, Jehrico,” she said, “for that would be part of the secret. Is it really gold? Does it come to you when you don’t have to dig into a mountain of the gods, or work all day down in a hole in the ground where the gods may point fingers at you? Does it come that easy? Say it is so, my dearest one of all men. Say it comes easy to you after all the work you have done around here near Bola City.”
Jehrico Taxico, lover of the woman he had freed from slavery, finder of gold by his bare hands, smiled at Lupalazo’s excluding her children from the last comment. “It is the way a mother should love her children,” he thought, “above all else.” He was next in line for her and that was good enough for him.
“Yes, that’s the way it comes. It does not happen every time, of course, but enough times so it brings me back the way a ghost town calls me from its long, long sleep, saying I missed something special on my last trip there.”
“Who, besides the love of your life, has seen you swim and wash in the creek?” The tone of her voice was touched by anxiety.
“The freighters and the coach drivers along the creek and a few others who waved from the saddle as they rode past. But not one soul has seen me put any of the gold in my pouch or hide it near the same place I swim. Not a single person have I seen.”
“When do you go swim again?” she asked, her head at a coy angle, images running in her head.
“You do not come with me, Lupalazo. You do not come where others may see what happens.”
“I want to see the joy on your face when you find the pebbles in your hands full of mud at first. I will love to see that.”
“No, dear wife, but you will know the joy the next time I come home. I will not hide it from you.”
“You are wiser than me,” she said, and nestled close to him again. Beneath her legs she could feel the scattered nuggets. “The little devils,” she thought, “that make men change, make women fall in love so easily. But they will not change the man of my life, the father of my children.”
A look he did not see came across her face, a preface to an idea shaping its form in her mind, and it finally came free. “Dear heart of mine, you keep on the trail, you work hard, but time will come when no people remember we live here in Bola City on the side of a hill.”
It puzzled her even as she said it, and thought it also puzzled her man, but she knew it was true. She had seen parts of life pass so quickly, lives here and gone, villages here and gone, relatives here and gone, the other place here and gone.
She could not stop talking about the idea building inside her head. “The people will not remember you and Lupalazo and our children, like I have been cut away from my village in the mountains of Mexico, I who am a Yaqui Indian, who looks ever for Yaqui leader, Ave'lino Cobayori Domingues Urquides, who came from Sonora Mexico to these plains and these mountains. If he survives, it is not him by his Yaqui name, but he has become someone else in order to survive.”
Some of her argument lit up in him, and part of it was lost. It was evident that she knew many things he did not, but he did know that gold was not that important; he had gotten this far without it, gotten this far with found junk.
For all the month of hot July and part way through hot August, Jehrico went searching the prairies, the dim canyons, the mountain trails, and paid several visits to his old mine where he had brought back dear friend Molly Yarbrough’s best gift ever, the gentleman named Ash Worthley, the pair newly married and living in a fine new house at the edge of town.
The useless mine, Jehrico had decided, could be used as a decoy of some kind, a way to throw bad men into the dead mine and off his ordinary trails. Fate said such men would find out about his secret in some odd manner.
And so it came down to Jehrico’s detecting one day, on a side trail in the mountains, two horsemen hanging back on the trail, but never leaving it. And it was him they were following. One of them sat a pinto and one rode a big gray, a proud horse that made Jehrico think his rider was the boss of the two. The men looked like drovers just off a cattle drive, clothes rough, hats beat up by trail dust and weather, but sitting their mounts as if they were born to the saddle.
With artful deliberation, leaving only slight trail signs, but always visible trail signs, Jehrico went to the mine where he and Ash Worthley found not a speck of gold and left it that way. Now, for the great junkman of Bola City, the mine that had yielded nothing had become a thing of value. The two horsemen, he was sure, would enter the mine once he left it, just as he had planned. True dust did have value, he had always believed; the mine was proof of it once more to the Mexican junk collector, Lupalazo’s husband, father of her children, one of Bola City’s leading businessmen, and dearest friend of Molly and Ash Worthley, now off on their path to happiness.
In spite of omens, life was good.
He left one of two picks stuck between two chunks of rock, as if he had just toppled them from place and was trying to break them apart. He stayed in the mine for several hours, and every so often snuck close to the entrance and looked for signs of the two men. They were not too careful and Jehrico caught sight of them just about every time he looked, where they had secreted themselves across a stretch of a rocky surface and behind a fallen chunk of rock bigger than both horses. They were, he believed, waiting his departure, waiting to see what he brought out of the mine and might add to the saddlebag on Mildred the mule standing as if at attention in front of the mine.
The two men, from what he detected in them, would not harm him, wanting to check the mine for gold before any other steps were taken. They could always come back to the mine, the way now known. And he was also sure they would not prevent him from leaving.
All his thinking told him someone knew he had come into possession of some gold nuggets. As much as he tried he could not figure out who it was; it was not Lupalazo he knew with deep faith. Somewhere there had been a break in the trail.
A quick thought said it had to begin at the creek.
He waited another hour, making what noise he could to keep the spying men alert, until he made his way out of the mine, put a handful of nothing into Mildred’s saddlebag, gave her a good share of water, and sat up on her backside. He touched his heel to her flank and they started back toward Bola City, at least two hours away on the trail.
Riding easily on Mildred, he had no need to look back over his shoulder at the mine. The men would soon be in there, looking for the strike: if Jehrico Taxico had found gold, it had to come from this mine, as they would most likely believe
And he’d not tell Lupalazo about the strange riders who had followed him for half a day and searched his dead mine. Some signs are too ominous to understand and he did not want to disturb her normal routines.
But he knew what the horses of these men looked like: he could pick them out of any hitching rail in Bola City any day of the week, and all the nights included too. Their colors and lines stayed in his mind.
It was new friend Ash Worthley who told Jehrico what he had heard in the saloon, from three men seated at a table in a far corner. He said he remembered every word, had not let them know he was listening to them, which was easy because they had been drinking for a good part of the afternoon, according to the barkeep.
“Them fellas came in afore noon and been at it since then, Ash. Seen one of them around, name’s Skid Polk, worked now a year or so at The Bell Bar spread down river. Never saw them other two though. Not in here.”
The sometimes hushed talk of the three men, the sometimes grunts of approval or discordant disapprovals, was reported by Worthley to Jehrico, much as repeated here:
First man: “Humph! You sure the stupid Mex junkie’s found gold, Skid? If he did, it has to be from that mine he works up near Topaz Pass. Me and Burkie went there must be five or six times and can’t find nothin’. Ain’t that right, Burkie? Huh, huh?”
Second man: “I swear that’s the truth, Skid. Not a bit of shine anyplace, like there never was any there any time ever. Whataboutthat? Whataboutthat? You sure about what your nephew said? Ah, kids play games even when they’re dreamin’.”
Third man: “Yuh! Yuh! He swore up and down about it, and the kid’s no dummy. He knew what he was hearin’ from the Mex kid, and just like I said … the Mex kid says his pa found some nugget, and then he said, ‘What’s a nugget?’ like the little dummy don’t know nothin’, and my smart nephew tells him it’s kind of a furry prairie critter so nothin’ gets spoiled ‘cause he knowed damned right well I’d be real interested and he comes onto a cut of it.”
First man (who’s probably the boss, inferred by Worthley): “I believe him, both of ‘em. We just watch the Mex some more and let him lead us to it. It sure don’t look like the mine’s the place. It’s as dead as the bank got closed down in Tremelin up the river.”
Jehrico, hearing all that Ash Worthley knew, stayed in town that night to keep his eye on things. He had seen Skid Polk before and saw him ride off, toward the Bar Bell spread down the river. He figured Polk would not go near the cabin and Lupalazo and the children; it was the other two he was concerned about. They had taken a place to sleep at the back of the barbershop, rooms at a premium in town. He didn’t know where their horses were, but they had to be close by.
For his night watch, Jehrico set up in an alley between the last two buildings in town, on the opposite end of town from the slow rise where his cabin was located. Mildred was as quiet as ever, resting from her normal rigors of carting junk.
Well before the dawn flash put a hazy light on the eastern sky, Jehrico heard two horses on the dusty road heading out of town. He and Mildred, quiet as scroungers on the hunt, followed at a safe distance, and he was glad the two men did not go near his cabin on the slope. It was the slight bit of light that showed him the two men who’d been in his mine, who had trailed him there, whom he was now trailing. He’d not get too close, not go too fast, and smiling at the last part because Mildred never once went too fast at anything at all, except for good grain or fresh water.
It was soon apparent that this type of work at this time was not for Jehrico. As he turned one sharp turn in the dusty road, he realized he had lost sight of the two riders in the growing light of dawn. Perhaps they had turned off the trail and were headed north or south … or were hidden, in an ambush set-up.
He brought Mildred to a standstill with a quiet command, but he had already been caught unawares, for the two men appeared at his side directly from clumps of brush at the side of the trail. Their guns were on him.
“Don’t move a muscle, Mex,” one of them said, “or we drop you off that critter in a hurry. Then we’ll go back to town before it really wakes up and raise a bit of hell with your woman and the kids. All that less’n you tell us where you found the gold and where you hid what you found already. It ain’t in that dried up mine that never was in the first place. We know that.”
The final word was the final threat. “You ain’t got a lot of time to do what I say, Mex.”
Jehrico was filled with a real fear, imagining the men loose in his home, anger making decisions for them, and greed, getting something for less than honest work. There had to be a way, and the most apparent one was to give them at least a clue to finding some gold. He might get a chance to escape.
“It’s down near the creek, off to the southwest there, past that hill you can see in the distance. It’s down there.”
The rifle barrel was jammed into his stomach. “Listen, Mex, you tell us any lies and we start breaking fingers, busting hands and leg bones, croaking you piece by piece so you can’t ever crawl home to that woman of yours, that squaw woman. We know all about her, Injun come over the big river.”
The rifle thrust came again, and harder than the first time. “I ain’t kiddin’ none, Mex. You remember that. And remember the squaw and the kids playin’ at her skirts. We ain’t afraid of doin’ things up the old fashioned way.” He jabbed Jehrico again and toppled him from Mildred’s back.
“If I don’t get there to show you, you won’t find the gold, and there’s no digging with it.”
The last part caused a change. “Okay, get back up there on that damned critter and we’ll go look.”
In an hour they were moving along the bank of the creek where Jehrico and Lupalazo had found their first joys and where he had found his gold strike. He searched out for some excuse, some way that he could get out of this problem, get free of these bandits, thieves, kidnappers, and once more enjoy a swim here with Lupalazo.
He made up his mind he’d delay as long as he could, perhaps time and fate to bring a stage or a freighter along the road, drivers recognize him, determine there was a problem to be solved.
“It all looks the same to me. I was only here once and it is hard to remember where I was.”
The rifle found his gut again, a thrust like the thrust of a bighorn bull. Pain shot down his legs, leaped onto his back, made him dizzy. “I have trouble remembering. There should be trees near here. He had seen a clump of trees down the creek a hundred or so yards. The trees presented only a short time of delay, Jehrico realized. Mildred would make it in little time, mere minutes.
on the big gray said, “Down there! See those trees? Is that it?”
“I think so,” Jehrico said, ”but I get dizzy when you pound my belly with your rifle.” Each complaint might add but a few seconds or long minutes, but he’d keep trying. With no weapon he was at their mercy.
When they reached the clump of trees, the boss said, “Is this it? I’m getting damned tired of you playin’ them games on me. Is this it?” He knocked Jehrico off Mildred’s back once again, and yelled, “Show me where you found the damned gold. Now!”
They now were opposite the turn of the creek, and a growth of trees that formed like an umbrella over one spot, where he and Lupalazo were first wholly introduced. The scene came back to him in one image and one emotion and he saw Lupalazo as he first saw her. If he was to die, the time was full of her.
Jehrico, be delaying, got the rifle barrel right in the middle of his back again. Pain shot through him and he promised he’d never yield, then thought it was useless. He didn’t want the gold. He wanted Lupalazo and the children. How could he trade them for gold, and then, when he was jabbed once more by the rifle, again in the back, he believed they’d never let him go. They’d shoot him and toss him into the creek, right where the gold was.
He spun on his heel and said, “Why should I tell you and know you will kill me when you find the gold hidden in the trees.” It was his last ruse and last comment on the matter.
But concurrent with his kidnapping, his intuitive Yaqui wife had had not stood still in her home, wrapt up in her children. She had gone into town and called Ash Worthley from his work. There was a flurry of activity soon thereafter in Bola City, in the saloon, at the livery, at the general store.
As Jehrico Taxico was jabbed one more time by the rifle barrel, a shot came from the other side of the creek, a shot that knocked the bandit boss unconscious, and froze his partner upright in the saddle.
Jehrico saw Ash Worthley and the sheriff and a more men from Bola City with their guns trained on the second kidnapper.
And beautiful Lupalazo was shouting out at him, “Marido, querido corazón, estamos aquí. Estoy aquí. Estaremos en nuestra casa pronto.” And she said it in English so all could understand what was important in life: “Husband, dear heart, we are here. I am here. We will be in our home soon. I knew you would end up here, if you could help it.”
For closers, the Yaqui maiden, freed from slavery by her own junk collector, said it in her Yaqui language, knowing none of them understood it, including her husband. But she’d tell him in the night, under the cover of darkness and a blanket, in the secret confine of their home.