Western Short Story
The Strange Rider
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

He rode his horse like a man of state, high, regal, his mind geared to a duty to be done, and caught enough attention from the folks of Boxwood, Texas to set curiosity ablaze. He had already figured they’d be a herd of nose-benders from first sight of him, a stranger in their town.

Myron “Moe” Brittan carried his badge in a chest pocket, newcomer in an old town that had beat itself frontwards, backwards, and side to side in a small war of smugglers, rustlers and thieves of any and all orders which had summoned him from other duties. His Ranger Chief had simply said, “Go to Boxwood, Moe, and clean it up before it goes down a dried-up drain and has no chance of coming back. My old pal, from the early days, Greg Clifford, raised the flag for help, something not usual for him, who takes his own aim, pulls his own trigger. So, hide your badge and don’t even let him know who you are until he needs you as much as you need him. “

The important edge he offered was the name Nicholas Custard. “You might find interest in him. He gets cattle and horses from somewhere and nobody knows but are full of keen guesses.

He employed a noted pause, to catch full attention: “You get the picture, I’m sure.” He tapped his cigar on the edge of his desk like it was punctuation at work; enough said, enough done.

Moe Brittan, three days later, slipped into the Short-Horn Saloon as though he wasn’t even thirsty, looking the place over, checking how folks wore their guns, who didn’t wear a holster, saw how wear and tear showed on holsters from more than mere practice. All he saw, he noted, filed in his mind for future use, if such come be the calling. He’d been in the vise before, and in a damned good chunk of Texas.

The open end of the bar, nearest him, offered the most room and the best view of the entire saloon, and the barkeep poured a drink without a what or a who on his lips, after noting the dust still holding on to the new customer. Almost consciously, the barkeep could measure the miles travelled by the stranger in the past few days, probably in miles per day even, because it lay so thick on his duds. It made him say to himself, “This gent’s on an errand of some kind, and most likely official right from the top.”

He nodded at the conclusion.

He let those findings be known to the stranger with a smile and a nod. It was accepted as though they’d done this before, both men, but not between this pair.

When a burly gent, smelly to the high heavens, odor as thick as his gut, slipped in beside Moe, Moe stepped on his instep with spurs cactus needle sharp, rigid in place. The smelly gent went for his gun and felt Moe’s gun jam in his chest before his own gun had cleared leather.

“Who, Fella,” said Moe, “this steel ain’t in a shaky hand. It’s been there before, so back up, put that gun away and have a drink on me. I hate to drink alone, especially in a place I ain’t ever been in afore.” He looked around again, a bit slower, poking closer at earlier sights worth his attention.

The three participants, Moe, the barkeep and the smelly stranger, managed to back off into long moments of appreciation, kind of an introduction period that each one eventually understood, as though they had been invited to personal attentions of a sort; each one’s gaze shifting cagily across the 5-man Custard crew table.

“You read me that quick?” said the big fellow.

“Soon as I came in the door, and know you can tell me about those five boys sitting back there at the big table in the far corner like they ain’t ever been disturbed there, like they own that spot, like nobody in the whole town is ever going to sit there.”

“That’s Milt Custard’s boys, and I ain’t trying to sweet-talk you. Custard owns everything west and northwest from here that you can ride in two days. Don’t know how he got it all, but it’s his down to the last cow and the last blade of grass. Nobody contests that trying to get by that bunch of his.”

Moe said, “That’s an empire on its own.”

“Oh, boy,” he added, “my name is Porker Drew and you named it after hardly looking at them, from what I seen, like they was old friends but not friends of yours, if you know what I mean.”

“I got you, Porker, right to the penny. That nickel’s worth gets you another drink.”

“Hell, man, I got all day. I like your style.”

“And I got a pocketful of coin, so waste away.” They were friendly as hell for a few drinks when Moe up and grabbed a loose chair and made his way to the Custard boys’ table and muscled his way in, saying, “You gents look like poker’s your game and I got some loose money I’d like to play with.”

The gent sitting directly opposite him, said, “And you got a lot of nerve, Pal, and I don’t like it,” like he was going to do something about it.

Moe said, “And I got a gun on you under the table and if the gent on your right says to let you have it, the I’ll shoot the guy on your left, so you deal the cards and shut up,” and he dropped a wad of bills on the table, blinking all eyes. It was like he had come to Boxwood loaded for bear.

Nobody at the table said a word, and the saloon was dead quiet, waiting for the stranger to get plugged for sure. But nobody at the table moved. Talk about a sit-still, this was it.

Moe, barely moving, shoved a ten spot onto the table, saying loud enough for the whole room to hear, “Cut cards and the low card wins.” He was still staring at the gent across from him, who put out a deck of cards and cut a 4 of hearts, off went a diamond 9, with a curse, a 5 of spades, a 3 of hearts, and a queen of clubs.

Moe flipped over a deuce of spades, leaned forward and grabbed back the ten spot, and tapped on the underside of the table, to understandable silence in the room. He tapped it again and said, “Anybody for poker?”

The gent on his right gathered the cards, shuffled them, and dealt the first hand, as he said, “Mister, I like your style,” nodding his head, smiling at his buddies.

Moe said, “I heard that before.” Then he brought his hand out from under the table and placed his harmonica into a shirt pocket. The silence was broken wide open.

When Moe had wiped them out in the game, the spots Custard gang, with a new member, walked out of the saloon as a unit.

When one of the crew told Nicholas Custard about the harmonica, he roared with laughter and draped his arm around the new member of his gang with effusive comfort and welcome, shouting out, “I love your style.”

“I heard that before,” Moe said, “even from older friends.” He knew the Ranger Boss would bust another gut when he heard about the harmonica, and add it to his story about Moe Brittan, extraordinary ranger, on the job again, in the right place at the right kevel to gain all he needed on his assignment. There was no other Ranger like Moe Brittan, the Boxwood case would fix that for good when all the facts were brought home in a soon hurry.