Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
At first sight, he didn’t believe what he could see, looking directly over the edge of the rim. “Colorado and then some,” the lone cowpoke said aloud to no one but himself. “Must be a whole corral of mysteries out there.” For a second and third time he looked over the edge of the rim and down on the spread of the foothills leading up to where he had found himself … surveyor of all the lands, the trails, the merging of two rivers, the passes up into the mountains as if they passed through the core of rock itself. In the far distance, like a thin flag, smoke rose from the town of Schoville, which he thought might be coming from the blacksmith’s fire. The blacksmith was about the biggest man he had ever seen.
This place was perfect, he thought, thinking of the layouts and hideouts where he had hidden from the law in the past, in other mountain ranges, in other states and territories. They had been good, but nothing like this place. He shook his head in partial disbelief: he had hid out with the Wayborne Kid in highest Utah and Lusty Jim Gregson down in Texas and even Kid Parmenter, in lower Colorado, who had escaped from the special school in Chicago, a school for thieves. “They’re too young to hang at the moment,” the headman would say if asked about the futures of his wards, and adding, “Too young to hang, but give them time. They know the way.”
In practically the same voice echo, he heard the words of the old man who worked the farm near his boyhood home. “Know your tools, son. Know what you got, how far they’ll go for you, what you can and can’t do without. That’ll tell you what it’s like down the road a ways.”
Claudon “Butch” Markov tested the weight of his two canteens, counted shells for his hand guns and his Sharps rifle, the one he had stolen from a ranch daughter’s father in the middle of the night, more than 100 miles behind him, more than three days ride, the father chasing him for the better part of two days before his horse went lame. The biscuits and the jerky and the chunk of bacon fat seemed attractive, but the bacon was already beginning to smell, as if it wanted to put his whereabouts on the air itself. He’d light a fire and cook it good enough to eat. “No sense wasting any possibles,” he uttered aloud, not waiting for any reply.
Markov, flat on the rim ledge, decided on this spot for setting up his first business venture. He envisioned a poster that would never be read but would be understood all across the territories with those that passed the news on the trail, in saloons, at lonely campfires: “Safe hideout for gents on the run, perfect location, long-range view (see the devils coming after you) and only two dollars a week; grub provided for a first day welcome meal. No lawmen allowed.”
It made him giggle. His father had said he’d never amount to much of anything, “and little of that because you’re nothin’ but your mother’s boy.” His father’s face did not come back in a hurried search; nothing but the fire in his eyes, and there’d been too much of that too long ago. He let the partial vision go its way. A song took its place, the rhythm coming back from wherever it had gone for three days in flight. “Better be gone than hangin’ on,” he sang. “The grass is greener on Jessie’s lawn.” The words came smooth in his throat, on his tongue.
Suddenly, out on the prairie, in the mix of sunlight slanting down and the glitter of waving grass, he saw a rider in a hurry, no dust, but a path in the high grass that parted as he passed through and then closed behind him, like the wind was chasing him and closing the ranks to anyone following. No doubt this rider was on the run.
“Fellow free-booter,” Markov said as more than a hunch, not knowing what it really meant, except he was watching a cowpoke in flight. The rider was pummeling his mount with his spurs; that much Markov could figure. “First customer,” he whispered over the ledge. “Hope he finds the way up here.”
In the morning, sunlight like a fire over the prairie, mountain birds full of music that really caught his ear like harmony is the purest of sounds, shadows finding ways to let go of the long night’s grasp, Markov heard the slow clatter of hooves hitting against one of the mountain’s high ledges, like an intelligent horse pawing its way, testing the ground. Instantly he came fully alert, the Sharps rifle in his hands, his eyes on the trail. Behind him, tied off on a wide part of the ledge, his horse held his head in the air, nostrils reaching, aware of something new.
The rider he had seen the night before appeared less than fifty feet away, walking his horse, holding the reins close at hand. The horse was a distinguished paint, looking like an odd map, and the cowboy was wearing his chaps as if he had fled a drive on the move. He wore a battered Stetson, a blue shirt under a black vest, trousers barely visible but looking like worm denim, and tall Texan boots with spurs in place. Occasionally he looked over his shoulder, as if he disbelieved anyone had followed him to this point, but wary enough to check.
Markov figured the strange rider would be hungry as a ghost.
“Hold there, friend,” he yelled, leveling his rifle across the crook of his arm. “Are you the law? We don’t allow any lawmen up here in Smoky Mountain Hideout. This is private property. I’m the proprietor of this hideout.” He noted the man’s outfit was raggy and worn; the shirt discolored from stains all along the arms, his hat wearing three bullet holes in it. But he was as pretty as a new colt.
“Hell, no,” came the answer. “My name’s Eddie Brickman, from Oklahoma way back. Some sweet thing’s daddy’s been chasin’ me for a couple of days and I’m plumb tuckered out and hungry as a stray doggie. What’s this Smoky Mountain Hideout all about? Is this it, here on the edge of the mountain? I’m tired. I need some rest, some good sleep, a meal under my belt. You provide any of that?”
“Two dollars a night and you got all of it. I’m standin’ guard for four hours. You want a job, like a lookout for Smoky Mountain Hideout, you got a job. Be the first one hired. But you work the second shift.”
“I’m your man. Where do we eat and bed down?”
Markov showed all to him, with meal thrown in, the bacon stretched one more time for a hungry meal. At finish he found a spot for sleep, pointing out a corner of a cave, with a promise to wake him for his shift as look-out. “If we keep our eyes open up here, Eddie, keep lawmen out of here, we might make somethin’ out of this place in the middle of nowhere. We could make it pay off and not even think about robbin’ any banks. Back yonder I got a small cabin a prospector left or run out on, with some promise for adding a few rooms. You can sleep there tomorrow night. If it works out for us, we’ll take turns until customers come calling. All we got to do is spread the word. That’s all.”
It really didn’t take that long to get the hideout enterprise off and running. The word, of course, moved out from Schoville, the nearest town to the Smoky Mountain Hideout, and a town on the edge of two states and two forces of the law.
Downriver in Somersby a chunk of that law enforcement rested with a wily veteran, Sheriff Lester Byrnes, who heard about the Smoky Mountain Hideout one night in Somersby’s lone saloon, The Trail’s End.
Byrnes lounged at the end of bar. His badge of a habit on such nights was tucked into his shirt pocket. He usually drank alone and always kept his ears open when drinking a few toppers at the end of a busy day. On this late Saturday night, two drunks already locked in his jail, the town itself drawing in to a close, he listened to a table of cowboys at the near end of the room, their talk consuming one pronounced subject, a hideout for outlaws.
A short but wiry fellow, his small face sitting under a huge Stetson brim, was doing most of the talking, filling up each pause with a shake of his hand, a fling of his arm, and nods that seemed to draw belief for each statement he was making about a hideout in the mountains. He carried himself and proposed himself as if he knew everything about everything.
On top of that, he was loud. His name was Squeeze Maxim.
“I heard two bucks a night, dirt cheap to begin with if you were to ask me, a safe place to sleep, no law allowed anyplace in the area, and lookouts posted to make sure it stays that way. They got a real organization up there. I heard Shamus Diglin is hiding out up there, too, him wanted all the way back to Oklahoma and every place in between. You all know what kind of booty follows him around like it was in his saddle bag, but nobody knows where he’s hid things, all that stuff he robbed over the years.”
He followed that pronouncement with, “We can guess all day what he’s made off with and might never come close enough to make it tickle.”
“No law ever been up there?” a table pard asked, shaking his head, not yet believing the description he had heard. “C’mon, Squeeze, that ain’t at all likely, is it? If you know, and now I know, the law must know too.”
Maxim said, “I don’t doubt it, but it’s like the law is saying we’ll keep hands off and won’t bother you or your territory, and you do the same. Like a bargain for the day. They say it’s been real quiet around here, and all the way up to Schoville, and that’s some kind of proof. I ain’t been in this town but today and I heard that already at the livery when I was getting my horse took care of. Two drovers talked about it waiting on their mounts.”
“What’s the weight on Diglin’s head? Maybe that’d be a better job to take on.”
“Oh, it’s heavy,” Maxim said, “probably as high as 10 grand or so, but that ain’t even so easy to think about. And ‘specially up there in that hideout country, living like Injuns in the wild, with the law keeping its distance.”
The bartender leveled his stare into Byrnes’ eyes as if a challenge was tossed into the air. No words passed between them. No nods either. Byrnes finished his drink and walked out into the night, his mind already kicked up a notch.
The next day, at the livery, Byrnes saw Squeeze Maxim ready to mount his horse.
“Say, Squeeze, I heard you talking in the saloon last night, about that hideout up there in Smoky Mountain. Well, I’m Sheriff Byrnes of Somersby here and you best make it your business to tell Shamus Diglin he better not come into my town even to see his momma, if she was to live here, else I’ll knock him down and put him in a cell for good.”
“That ain’t none of my business, Sheriff. I don’t gotta do that.”
“You made it your business last night in the saloon like you were advertising rooms up there on Smoky. That to me is breaking the law, Squeeze, so you got a choice … go up and tell him or get locked up for resisting the law. There’s no other way.” His eyes burned right under the brim of Maxim’s Stetson and made contact.
Maxim said, “What’ll Diglin do when I tell him?”
“Oh,” Byrnes said, “he’ll keep the deal he thinks is made with the law, but he won’t come in here, he’ll go to Schoville, do his thing, and run back into hiding like he’s doing forever. I can read crooks like him like I read the newspaper when it comes out, page 1 to page 4. Like eating pie right off the windowsill. Crooks like Diglin only have one way of thinking. He won’t miss the chance to make some noise so loud it’ll be heard on the other side of the mountains.”
“How’ll I get up there, Sheriff?”
“That’s easy, Squeeze, make like you’re on the run from the law … and you know what? … you are in a way.”
Squeeze Maxim rode out of Somersby, heading for Smoky Mountain. He thought about going right on past Smoky Mountain, forgetting the whole thing. It promised not to end if he did. It made him think about who might cause him more concern, Diglin or Sheriff Byrnes? The sheriff’s eyes won out.
Byrnes, in the saloon that afternoon, told the bartender about what he had done.
“So what are you going to do, Les?” the bartender said.
“Oh, like I told Squeeze Maxim. I’m going to Schoville and help the sheriff up there when Diglin tries to knock the town down a peg.” He nodded at the bartender when he left, and said, “You’re right on that challenge, Smitty, and you’re right on Diglin. He can’t resist it. But this is a hell of a lot easier than me going up there and walking in like a big target for the first shot. I’d be out of business in a hurry, that’s for damned sure.”
He left town at high noon and started up river to Schoville.
Two days later, when Diglin came out of the Smoky Mountain hideout, laughing most of the way into Somersby where he’d rob the bank without any law around, he never saw the horseman hidden in the grass outside town. His ego overshadowed his eyesight; his ego was bigger than his brain.