Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
For anyone’s money’s worth that summer in Shiloh Two, the summer of 1872 in Nevada, the pair of them was the strangest sight seen in a long while. At first people became gawkers, then studied the pair for a while, and found resolve or resistance in their feelings. That was when the two pals were perhaps arm in arm having a drink at The Lost Mine Saloon or when Good-shot Charlie Magnum sat out front of Shen Tu’s tent like he was on a veranda back east. But Good-shot Charlie Magnum and the Chinese cleaner, Shen Tu, were buddies from the first day and Magnum let it be known from the first sense of conflict: “This here is Shen Tu, my good buddy, and nobody plays games with him, games of any kind.”
He stuck his rifle in the air at the statement as though a flag had been posted on hallowed ground.
Shen Tu smiled. That’s all he ever did was smile, except provide good service with his laundry and cleaning efforts … and share a few drinks with his pal and, on a rare occasion, say, with brief acknowledgment when introduced, “Zhè shì wǒ de péngyǒu, wǒ de hǎo péngyǒu.” “This is my friend, my good friend.” And he’d manage a weak “Scharie,” at which point Charlie Magnum would drop a commending hand on Shen Tu’s shoulder and issue a smile that was, in this instance, as broad as a shield.
Magnum was cast with a devil’s smile that might play tricks, but he set solid as a man at introduction. His hair curled over his head and atop his ears the way picked cotton plays games in the breeze, and with the smile he disarmed women, who looked on him as part boy and part man, both parts needing their care and devotion. He smiled endlessly at any task, could shoot a can of peaches at a hundred yards so only the syrup would drip, and liked being what he believed he was, an upright western man who rode well, shot well, stood by his friends, or endangered folk, the way a man should.
The word on the pair spread, of course, and bound it was to bring on a few loudmouths and flannel mouths and plain old racists.
One evening, sun setting, prairie whispers on the rise, a lone horseman rode by Shen Tu’s tent as the friendly pals were having a drink to celebrate the end of the day. It had been a warm day, Shen Tu’s business heavy, Magnum back from work on a hurry-up posse for the sheriff. The rider, having heard some tid-bits about the duo, looked down at them and said, with a twisted smile on his face as if he had eaten a rotten apple, “Do you do harmony, you two, Shen Tu and you, or is it you and Shen Tu?”
Good-shot Charlie Magnum knocked the man off his saddle with a slash of his rifle, stood over the bigmouth and said, “You got anything else to say, save it for now, get on your horse, get out of here, and meet me in front of the saloon at seven o’clock. Bring a good weapon with you. You’re going to need it.” The laugh leaped from him as he pointed down and said, “Don’t bring that piece of junk you’re wearing on your belt. It won’t do the job.”
Before he helped the man get back on his horse, and just as he recognized the brand on the horse, he said, “Tell me what your name is and who you work for.”
Groggily the loudmouth answered. “My name’s Jack Toland. I work for Chaz Henry.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Jack, so you can tell Chaz himself; anyone comes chasing me or my pal here, he’s going to get shorthanded in a hurry.” He waited a second or two, long enough for Toland to catch what came fully at him. “You can also tell him that he owes me, too, for something private.”
Word spread through Shiloh Two like a windswept blaze on dry grass. A crowd gathered, both the really interested, and the not so interested, it appeared, because Shiloh Two had been quiet for much too long.
Well before seven o’clock, Chaz Henry, not Jack Toland, sat his horse in front of the Lost Mine Saloon.
The sun was good for at least another hour. The breeze had settled down. A ghost of a moon began its early-phase entry on the horizon, above a dark mountain top. In windows, doorways, along a stretch of the two-foot high boardwalk in front of almost all buildings on one side of the street, required to fight winter snow and spring thaw, the folks of Shiloh Two gathered. There had not been a duel in town since Rufus Clayborne and Shawn Gregory had caught each other cheating on a big pot at The Lost Mine. Each one was permanently damaged by the other, but neither was killed. A pair of aces, both spades, were stuck into the big mirror behind the bar, a bullet hole in each one. When the cheaters left town, in different directions some weeks later, they were never heard of again.
Instead of riding to the rendezvous, Magnum walked down the center of the road, fully exposed, not approaching so as to be thought possibly obscured on the boardwalk or in shadows.
He called out to Henry sitting on a black stallion looking as big as a Clydesdale, with the pale moon rising ghost-like in the sky. “Chaz, it looks like you had the better sense than let your man come along by himself. I appreciate that. I bet he does too.”
Magnum was as loose as the riverbank in spring.
“Best for him and me too, Charlie. But I’m most concerned how you think I owe you a damned dime. We never had no business together that I know of. I ain’t seen you since we chased that Sherwood hombre off the Porterfield spread with the sheriff. We should have caught that skunk.”
“That’s four months ago, Chaz. Oh, that skunk got caught, only after he caught me in a tight squeeze.”
“He get away again?”
“Well, he did for a bit, but there’s a whole big story that goes with all that. By the way, I guess you haven’t heard from your cousin Victor over in Chalmers, or his daughter Vicky.”
“What’ve they got to do with this, Charlie?”
“You ought to be interested in it enough to get down of that big mount and go inside and have a drink with me, and,” he added with a spread of his arms, “spoiling the fun of all these nice folks just out for an evening stroll.”
Henry got caught up in interest, humor, irony, and the personality of Good-shot Charlie Magnum standing in the middle of Shiloh Two as though he could take on the whole world, not just the little town.
Magnum said, “I’m bringing company with me, Chaz. My friend Shen Tu.”
“Don’t bother me none, Charlie, that China boy. That’s your business. I want to know about Vic and Vicky.”
Magnum nonchalantly waved over his shoulder and yelled out, “C’mon, Shen. Drinks are on me.”
After the three men entered The Lost Mine Saloon, nearly half the town managed to get inside too, stragglers squeezing in through others to find a place against a wall, to watch, to listen, to be part of it all.
In a rush the bartender had poured a pitcher of beer and set it up three glasses on the table closest to the bar. He scrambled to get back behind the bar.
Magnum poured, first a beer for Shen Tu and then one for Chaz Henry and then filled his own glass, all the time being very slow and deliberate, as though he was enjoying the limelight.
Shen Tu smiled, tipped his glass, said, in his manner, “Yuàn nǐ de mèngxiǎng bǎituō dìqiú.” “May your dreams escape the earth.”
Chaz Henry tipped his glasss when Magnum whispered, “You think they’re all listening, Chaz?” He was looking around the crowded room.
“Yeh,” Henry said, taking his first swig after lifting his glass in a mock salute to something or someone. “Now how do Vic and Vicky get into this?”
“How long since you’ve seen Vicky, Chaz?”
“Five or six months anyway.”
“You know what she likes to do, don’t you?”
“Sure. She collects them pieces of bone and stuff off the mountainsides. Those little chunks that are like part of the rock walls. She’d done that for years, since she was a kid. I think she calls them fossils. Old-time animal stuff.”
“She’s got plenty of them too, hasn’t she?”
Henry said, “Practically one whole shed full, as I remember. Vic built it for her special.”
“Do you know how she gets them, Chaz?”
“I suppose she finds them all over.”
“Maybe, and sometimes she follows things into canyons, maybe a line of something in a cliff wall, a trail marker of sorts, and chinks them out of the walls with a hammer and a small pointed bar. Sometimes she goes alone, even though her father doesn’t like it. That’s where I last met her.”
Magnum let that set into place, and continued after another swig of beer, “She was riding up along an old Indian trail on Turtle Mountain and her horse was skittered by a cat or something and she went down in a tough fall. I heard her crying and went to help. That’s when old Sherwood we had chased into hiding that time got the drop on me. He lives in a cave up that way. Been hiding for all this time. Had me on the point of his gun all the way until I got her loose and back up to the trail. I had no idea what he had in mind and I’m willing to bet she never thought about any of the consequences, but none of it was any good, as you can imagine.”
Magnum took a new swig of beer, finished his glass off, poured another and topped of both men’s glasses, still slow and deliberate as all Hell. The whole room was on its toes, leaning forward, scratching to catch every word from Good-shot Charlie Magnum.
Both his table partners enjoyed his moment in the sun as the moon dipped in through the saloon windows and over the door. The room itself sat still as midnight.
“I knew he must have been hiding out in a cave and wasn’t about to show us where because he started to scoot us down into the canyon floor, me carrying Vicky most of the way. I figured he’d knock me on the head once I got her down to the canyon floor. Also figured he didn’t want either one of us connected to his cave in any way.”
Chaz Henry drank off his glass, set it up for another pour, gathered himself, and said, loudly, nervously, “What the hell happened, Charlie? Get on with it, will you. You’re giving me a pain in the gut.”
“Aye, yeh,” said the saloon congregation in one exhausted voice. “Aye, yeh. Aye, yeh.”
Magnum put his arm around Shen Tu, the Chinese cleaner still smiling broadly. “That’s where my buddy here, Shen Tu, from the heart of China, who loves rocks and fossils and all that kind of stuff, got into the act. He was out there looking for the same kind of stuff that Vicky was after. He saw the whole thing from wherever he was, and when I finally got to level ground where I could put her down, a rock came tumbling off the canyon wall and when Ben Sherwood jumped and turned to look I swung Vicky’s whole body at him and down he went, and afore you know it, I was standing over him with his rifle bore stuck right in his mouth. Vicky, of course, started crying again. I think that’s when she got her leg broken, but it was a good swap.”
Magnum rubbed Shen Tu’s hair, the pony tail tightly in place as though it had grown on him that way. “My buddy here saved the day for Vicky and me, ‘cause when he climbed down from what he was looking for, we tried to tend to Vicky in turns, and Sherwood, of course, tried to make a move and that’s when the posse’s job got finished off, right there in a canyon of Turtle Mountain. One shot with his own rifle that we can believe must have been the same rifle killed the Porterfield folks that time we were after him.”
A hum began to run through the whole saloon, an understanding hum, and then a barrage of hurrahs erupted and back-slapping and outright cheering followed until it was like a thunder in the saloon. People from outside were still squirming and trying to get in and the sound came bouncing out of The Lost Mine Saloon as if there had been a cave-in. The bartender began pouring pitchers of beer on his own, not caring where the boss was or what was being tabbed for business.
At the table, Shen Tu smiled, fully satisfied with things as far as they had come. But he had no idea how good they were. He said, in his way once more, “Wǒ zhǐshì tuī shítou, zhènhàn dàdì.” “I just push the rock that shook the earth.”
A commotion started outside, the outside crowd now in on their own show. Lots of shouting came and also a separate round of applause that continued to grow so that the people on the inside show wondered what was going on outside.
One burly man, pushing himself through the throng at the door, yelled out, “Hey, Chaz, here comes your brother and his daughter with the broke leg.”
There was a parting of the sea of people at the door of The Lost Mine Saloon and Vicky Henry, with assistance from her father, skipped into the room.
She was a beautiful girl of about 21, with dazzling black hair flowing down over her shoulders, eyes with the blue skies sealed up in them, an elegant frame in plain clothing, and one leg wearing a kind of protective device wrapped around it. With amazing lightness she moved toward the table where her uncle sat with Good-shot Charlie Magnum and Shen Tu, the Chinaman. Her first hug was for the Chinaman, almost demure in his posture, slowly realizing what was happening to him.
Then she hugged her uncle, Chaz Henry, a deep and solid hug, but a hug between relatives, as one would expect. Finally, the whole place on its veritable edge, she wrapped her arms around Good-shot Charlie Magnum and kissed him long, and longer, until the whole of Shiloh Two must have been in on it by that time.
That, some people will swear, was the one time the inner soul and the outer soul of Shiloh Two managed to celebrate at the same time, with a glorious silence at first, and then with an avalanche of good feelings that stayed on as if the town was hung up in a timeless zone.
Shen Tu, his mind leaping for a comparison, found it quickly coming out of his past, and said, heard only by Magnum, “Yīzhǒng kuàilè qūsàn le yī bǎi bēitòng.” “One joy scatters a hundred griefs.” Magnum did not understand the words, but had a good feeling about them, as Shen Tu smiled again at all of Shiloh Two and his place in it.