Western Short Story
“I shoulda been dead a hundred times, all them minie balls and slugs plowin’ through the air from them damned Yankee Blue-bellies, them wild horses that threw me off like I was a cow fly, them rustlers runnin’ them cows through our camp a lot of times out on the grass. I tell ya, a hundred times I shoulda been dead.”
Charlie Kellbren knew he was getting seriously drunk in a Kansas saloon; his eyes told him, his legs, something in one ear and not in the other, and the bar of the saloon tipping one way and then the other way. He had come away from the Great War in his ragged gray outfit, without a weapon, a saddle or a horse.
In the morning he realized he should have kept his mouth shut. He had nothing but memories, and they’d best be served by keeping them for his own.
In the morning he remembered the parts of his journey after the war:
He had walked westward until he found a job to get enough money for a second or third hand outfit of clothes, a horse, a saddle and an old gun belt, which he admitted at first felt as clumsy on his waist as the wrap of a trick rope. When all debts for these new possessions were paid, Kellbren headed west out of Virginia, bound for more work, better chances, and a grasp on his personal destiny. Travel didn’t take days to accomplish, it took a couple of seasons and their abundant changes. He went through the Blue Ridge Mountains and a piece of the Allegheny Mountains, through towns and cities en route like Palmer and Kitchener Grove and Tucker’s Mound and Fredericksburg and Waynesboro and Roanoke and finally crossed the Powell River into Kentucky.
“West-borne,” he might have said. “West-borne.”
As he progressed across the country, sometimes in the fold of odd companionship of other veterans of the war, now and then as a trail worker on a wagon train, as a shotgun rider on several stagecoach runs or as a railroad train guard, he learned what had to be learned to stay alive in the dynamic alterations that were evident to some men as the country spread westward.
Not everybody learned the way Kellbren did.
The views expressed about those “westward” shifts in the character of the land and the people could be summed up in different ways by those people who took a special look around them. It was as one station manager said when the horses on a stagecoach were being changed and a hardy meal was tendered to crew and passengers, “It might take more than two saddle bums to do the work of one man,” or, as was heard in a similar conversation, “That tramp’s only as good as the meal he next gets fed so he can get on to wherever his dream lies.” One man offered another view of the argument, “I offered one saddle bum six days of work and was lucky to get two out of him, which was partly my fault ‘cause them two days was the first one and the last one and I can’t remember where I was in between them days.” And he laughed and added, “Or him either.”
These castigations were prevalent from men who had already made their way to some kind of success in the hard life of heading westward, all of which came as boasts in Kellbren’s mind. He’d say nothing about anybody to anyone, no matter where he was … making conversation, with too many hits on the bottle in a bar, beside a trail campfire before sleep came and tales were the medicine for dozing off. There was a line he couldn’t and wouldn’t cross concerning matters that were private, that counted when loyalty counted. There were recurring times he remembered, with stunning clarity, comrades who died near him, beside him, in a hole or trench with him. The bear trap came down on his tongue whenever a tale or two only he knew would truly clarify a discussion, or move the discussion into oblivion. He’d never use anybody’s woes or wiles to bring color or gravity to a discussion. There was nothing in his saddle bags or in his heart that he’d use for that intention.
Thus it was, nearly two years of travel since he’d been discharged from the army and set out for new promise, he came to a grass town called Nestling in the Wyoming Territory. The name Wyoming had already grasped at him with a kind of built-up reverence, for he heard it came from a Delaware Indian word meaning large plains, “Maughwauwama,” and he had also learned to admire the Indians he met or was engaged with in the contest of life.
Into Nestling he rode, comfortable on a big red stallion he simply called McCaffery, the name of a comrade who had died on a hill with no name because it was not a mountain, but no story ever followed any question about the horse’s name. His saddle was won in a poker game when he tossed in another horse. And he was fairly well-dressed with a new shirt and vest, second hand pants, and a rugged pair of boots made by a man in Kansas who had fought in his Confederate outfit and who declared, “These boots will last for many years on your feet providin’ you take care of the rest of yourself.”
The words of the friendly boot maker, of course, stuck in Kellbren’s mind as he tied McCaffery to a saloon hitch rail and noted the name on a sign that said, “The Grassy Knoll.”
From long habit, Kellbren went to the far end of a long bar and stood at a corner of the bar facing most of the room. He noted several tables where about a dozen men were spread out, some at cards, some at talking, all at drinking as the serving girls, two of them, kept up a good run. One gent in a half-destroyed Stetson, including a prominent bullet hole near the top, kept looking up at him, marking him up and down, speaking some finding to table partners, and generally being a nosy pest to a man wanting only a quiet drink.
The type was known by Kellbren, and from his manners and body language told Kellbren he was going to make a move on the new arrival in the saloon. The move would be more to maintain some influence over his table companions than to satisfy his own curiosity.
The move was a direct one, up from his seat at the table, setting his body in a mode, and striding to the bar like he was the commander of present forces, and was due particular attention. It couldn’t be any clearer if he was wearing a smash of gold braid.
“Say, fella,” he said, his voice thick and demonstrative, “I think I remember you from the war. Were you in the war?”
Kellbren said a simple, “Yup,” and took another sip of his drink.
“Did you wear Blue or Gray?”
“It don’t matter none now,” Kellbren said, and took another sip.
“Well, I think it does. How does that sound to you?”
“That don’t matter none neither.”
“I like to know what kind of man I’m talking to,” the man with a bullet hole in his hat said, his weight being shifted on his feet.
Kellbren offered a simple piece of advice, “It don’t matter ‘cause I ain’t telling you. I come in here for a drink and that’s all I’m at.”
“That sure ain’t friendly.”
“I came in for a drink, not for a friend.”
The mouthy man said, as his weight shifted again and his right hand showed a change, “I sure don’t like your attitude.”
“If you’re plannin’ to go for that gun,” Kellbren offered, “then I’ll be bound to shoot you near the crotch of your pants, and that’s sure shootin’ from a man who’s real thirsty and wants to finish this drink.”
The Grassy Knoll Saloon was really at command attention and the bartender said, “I got two more drinks comin’ to you gents and I’d like to see you drink ‘em and not shoot up my place.” He picked up two glasses and put them on the bar.
The mouthy one, seeing the light in two directions, said, “Hell, yes, Jesse, that’s a damned good idea.”
When Kellbren finished his second drink, asked the barkeep where he could find a place for the night and walked out, he heard the mouthy gent say to his pals, “He don’t seem like a real bad fella, just kind of private I guess.”
Two days later Kellbren had a job with a ranch owner he met at the Grassy Knoll, Parkie Daniels of the Broken Arrow spread. When the ranch owner asked him what kind of work he’d done, Kellbren said, “All of it. You name it and I done it and I don’t owe anybody nothin’ and they don’t owe me nothin’ neither.”
No more than two weeks later, on night watch of the owner’s herd of cattle soon ready for a drive, he spotted a thin, tiny flare of light in the far darkness. Already familiar with the terrain, and figuring where the flare had originated, he adapted his old military habits; they had gotten him through the rough times and might well do it again. He had estimated that his line of sight on the flare was to the southwest, down in a gully only visible elsewhere from a look coming back to the northeast.
He got McCaffery close to the area, tied him off, grabbed his rifle, and set out on foot. After a cautious approach, he was able to see six men sitting about a small fire, as though they were sure nobody in the whole world could see them down in the gully.
He crept close enough to hear them talking and one man saying, “We hit them just before dawn. Scatter the crew and the herd. Packy and Jonesie are back on the trail, heading back to the Broken Arrow so’s nobody from the herd watch can get back there to warn folks. We can move them cows from here to tomorrow and be clear onto the tracks. They’ll be waiting on us.”
Another voice said, “Who done all this plannin’, Chris? Looks like everythin’s locked up nice, with a train and all. Might be like eatin’ piece of apple pie for us.”
“Carter ain’t no dummy. I’ve been tellin’ you that for weeks. He’s just been waitin’ for the herd to get built up, and that don’t cost us nothin’.”
Kellbren marked his situation, knew roughly the time it would take to get help, and decided he had to make a move.
He crept closer, found a small rise that offered protection, leveled his rifle, and said loudly and with great conviction, ”Don’t move, none of you, or you’re dead. Carter’s already in jail from shootin’ off his mouth last night when he got drunk, and he ain’t goin’ to bring you gents any help at all. We got you covered from all over. I want Chris and another gent to stay and you others can walk away if you want, or get dead otherwise.”
He slammed a round into the midst of the group. “Drop your weapons or we all fire.”
He raised his voice loudly and yelled, “Put them rifle shots right down where it’s gonna hurt ‘em, Bucko.” Bucko was the ramrod of the herd, a well-known figure in the area.
Two men dropped their weapons.
Kellbren said, “Go git your horses and get outta here.”
The men moved off, and Kellbren added, “Them’s the smart ones so far. Any more, not includin’ Chris and one other?”
Two more men moved to their horses and rode off in the darkness.
“Chris,” Kellbren said, “you can scramble or drop your guns now. You ain’t done no rustlin’ yet, so it’ll be easier on you, but scramble and one of you gets killed and the other we save for court, ‘cause them fellas that’ve gone sure won’t want to be around for court.”
He paused in his threat, then said, “Bucko, you and the boys shoot at Chris’s legs. Don’t kill him, just hurt him so he ain’t goin’ anyplace on us.”
A pair of gun belts dropped to the ground. A few sparks flew up from the small fire. A shooting star flew across the dark sky. The dawn flash promised to arrive in minutes.
Kellbren made another demand. “That other fella who’s not named Chris, take off your pants belt and tie Chris’s hands behind him and tie ‘em good.
When that was done and Chris was immobile, Kellbren said, “Back away from the fire toward your horses. I’ll send down one man to tie you up, fella. Chris, you just stay where you are or we shoot you in the legs.”
He paused again, and said, “Hear me, Bucko? Get him in the legs. We don’t care ‘bout that other gent.”
Kellbren walked down, rifle in hand, and roped the other gent onto his horse, and then assisted Chris onto his horse. Walking both prisoners to his own horse, he headed back to the herd and then to the ranch.
The false dawn flash came with a brittle gray sense settling on the land, and then, in a few minutes, a slice of red-orange came over the eastern hills back in the eastern part of the Wyoming territory.
In that new light, the new hand at the Broken Arrow Ranch rode into the ranch yard with two visitors.
When Kellbren told Parkie Daniels about Carter, Daniels flew into a rage. “That rotten bastard is sleeping now in my guest room. MaryBeth’s making him breakfast right now. I’ll shoot him soon as he wakes up.”
“We got witnesses, boss, both these two, and me who heard the whole thing bein’ planned as Chris hear told it, and four others you can catch if you send some boys after them, headin’ south I’ll bet, but I gave ‘em my word on no court for them if they bailed out right away. They walked off and it was easy for me to corral these two.
Kellbren, of course, was made top hand of the Broken Arrow right there, even as Carter, roused from sleep by the commotion, busted out the door of the ranch house demanding to know, “What’s going on out here?”
He found out in a hurry.