Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Up from Texas they came, a whole railroad carload of experienced deputies and posse men, with their horses, to chase down a most dangerous gang of killers in the “Four Corners” of the country where Colorado bordered the territories of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. The war was over for a dozen years, but in places like Durango and Cortez and Teec Nos Pos and Littlefield, the war had not stopped, and no signs been seen that it would end soon. It was 1877 and the day started with sunshine and ended with a raid on the train by a gang of outlaws who were banished by heavier gunfire than they had ever seen. The response was deemed by the gang leader as “military, organized, knowing what they’re up to. We got our hands full,” he might have said to his gang.
The leader of the carload posse was former Texas Ranger Homer Waldrip, a slender, bright-eyed individual, 36 years old, with 15 years law experience in his kit bag. He was born in a wagon on the plains in 1841, from what he had been told, his family on the way to Colorado, to gold, to riches, to dreams.
Waldrip, after the quick attack on the train, gathered his men and made a special pitch to them. “They are on to us. It’s obvious that someone, perhaps on the inside, told somebody about our mission. We are going to need every man on his toes all through this chase, this battle on our hands. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of them on this ride. They’ll be better prepared for us the next time, so what we have to do is offset any advantage they manage to arrange. In the meantime, I have some special instructions that will be given where particular situations are warranted, and general instructions for all the rest.”
He looked them square in the eye, saying, “I’m hoping it doesn’t happen, but chances are we’ll lose a few men in this battle. I know you’re all committed, heavily so, and I couldn’t want a better group of men to go to war with than all of you. It has been a privilege to work with you, each man. So, all men, except those that I call out at the end of this meeting, are to leave this car and get to the cattle cars, with as little commotion or notice as possible, and get saddles in place, take care of your horses as best you can, but be ready to ride at a moment’s notice. The down ramps are hung up just as we left them, so it’ll be easy enough to drop them down and hurry off.”
With honest emotion on his face, he said, “Good luck to all of you. And if we carry this off, get these thugs where they belong, Texas and the country will sing songs about you. I am positive; songs will be written about you and legends will rise across the land. It is inevitable.”
He smiled a smile of anticipation, a smile of confidence. “We are the makers of legends. Legends, I say. Hot damn, boys, I can feel it coming. All the way up from my boots. We’re going to leave some marks on these bozos, you can bet the farm on that. Now I want Chris Chambers and Carl Lockhart to stay here while the rest of you leave, heading out for destiny.”
There was noise. There was acceptance. Confidence ran through the car like a prairie fire. It shone on all the faces of the posse mission.
Two men stood and approached Waldrip as the other men began a slow withdrawal from the passenger car. Some of the men were as young as 23 or 24 and some had reached 40, and Waldrip could see the lives of just about all of them flashing in front of him. They were, he acknowledged, a conspicuous group of men, all touched with courage and fortitude in extreme situations. He wondered how they would be taxed this time out of the barn.
Waldrip and Chambers and Lockhart sat in the corner of the car for a quarter of an hour, and Waldrip did all the talking.
Twenty miles ahead of the train, after the exchange of information between two riders of the brigand’s gang, the second rider rode into a small encampment of men and horses a good mile away from the tracks and a water stop for the railroad.
One man, heavy in the chest, one eyebrow with half its growth replaced by an ugly scar half circling that eye, said, “What’d you see, Clancy?”
“I didn’t see anything, Brick, but Halverson said he thinks they’ll be stopping for water here before they get any further up the line. Said they used a bunch of it sitting there as they gathered themselves for the rest of the ride. Said there’s gotta be 25 or 30 of them. Says Silvertone’s the only one he knows. Fastest man he’s ever seen, no counting the dead. Course we know Waldrip is there, keeping hid, but he’s there.” His voice changed, sinking in curiosity. “How’d you ever get word about them, Brick? You got a rat in their pack?”
Deep-scarred Brick Meggard, with a bandolier filled with long rifle shells draped over his shoulder and a deep voice coming up from his boots, said, “Never mind that stuff. Cost me enough. Tell the boys be ready to ride when I give a yell. We’ll surprise them at the water stop. They won’t think we’re coming back at them this fast. We’ll keep them off guard a few more times, wear them out.”
Out beyond them, well hidden, his horse tethered in a growth of trees, Chris Chambers held a glass on them, making count of the horses the bandits had tied to a length of rope. He did not know the heavy man who appeared to be boss of the outfit, making gestures, spinning around, being busy, and attracting attention. “That’s the big man of the outfit, I’d guess,” he said half aloud. “Bet he knows Homer, or has heard of him. About every criminal in the territories has. Well, he’s going to hear some more. Looks like they’re getting ready to surprise us at this next water stop. Homer will be glad to hear this. I’ll have to get back there now.”
He went back down into the wadi, sat up on his saddle and guided his horse into the next low spot in the terrain and was on his way back to the train in a matter of minutes. He had not gone half a mile when his path was blocked by four men. On the instant, knowing he could not turn around and go back, Chambers spurred his horse into the four men and fired away with his side arms. One arm caught the singe of a bullet, his hat flew off from another hit, and his guns ended up empty. But he had gotten beyond them. If he was lucky, they’d chase him right into Waldrip’s small army of the law. That would serve them right, those that he hadn’t killed. As he fled away from the gang members, he could hear Waldrip saying, “We are the makers of legends.” It was in the wind in his ears, his hat gone with a shot too close for thinking. He was part of Texas history forever; it was bound to come true, and he was in on the start of it all. He spurred the noble animal under him.
Waldrip heard his story and ordered the men to their horses. “We won’t ride right up to them and say ‘Let’s fight.’ We’ll do it our way. We’ll bring the army of us, this small army, right into their camp. Anybody know this area good enough to pick a trail for us toward the water stop?”
Silvertone, nodding his head, said, “I been this way before, Homer. This side there’s a break in the range and a valley skirts the track line for a mile or so, and comes out on open range and that range runs right along a good chunk of the railroad. I would guess the water stop is easy to get to.”
“We’ll go that way, the whole bunch of us,” Waldrip said. “Anybody seen Lockhart yet? Keep your eyes open for him. He’s out ahead of us someplace looking up their lookouts and other relief horses besides the ones Chambers spotted. They’ve always had a few surprises in their kit bag and one of them is enough spare mounts to help their getaway. They have cavalry tactics in hand. Somebody among them was in the army at one time.”
Ahead, waiting for reports, upset and angry that the first attack went awry, Meggard spent his time yelling at his men, while he tried to figure out what Homer Waldrip would do next. He called one of his men up to the log he was sitting on. “You tell me anything you didn’t say before, Rocco. I don’t care how unimportant you think it is. Go back over everything you heard or was told to you. Don’t let anything slip away. Waldrip will use anything he can to whip our butts. He’s all soldier at this job. We got to reckon with him. It ain’t going to be easy.”
Rocco, handsome as a new magazine cover, said, ‘I’m pretty damned sure I told you all she told me, Brick. She was crazy mad at them for what they done to her father, and finds no favors there. I’ll keep going over it in my mind what she said, but I think you got all I had. Just the train load of cowboys comin’ our way, gonna be heroes of the whole west. Sounded like Waldrip was dreamin’ about winnin’ a small war, and we’re the losers. Said the big shots from the territorial offices were behind hirin’ him and his gang of heroes. Half them just out of little pants, from what she said.”
“You believe her when she says something like that?”
“She don’t know nothin’ but the truth when she’s talkin’ to me, Brick. Nothin’ but the truth, and all the way.”
Meggard found the bit of salt in Rocco’s smile, and ignored the feelings expressed. “If you remember anything else, get it to me.”
He stood up and yelled out, “All right, boys. Double and triple on the ammo. We’re gonna give them hell as long as we can. No tin horn Ranger’s going to catch us short again. We’ll ride right over them. They won’t believe we’re coming at them again so soon. Double and triple ammo. Load up and get ready to move out. This war ain’t over yet.”
The gang of them, all forty men, was saddled up, armed, and ready to move in a short time.
Meggard picked Rocco and another man and said, “You two slip out ahead of us and check on the lookouts up in the hills. See if they’ve seen any movement of a lot of riders. You know about where they are, the two of them. They’re well hid up there, so shake them loose. We’ll be moving down on the water stop due up next for Waldrip and his boys. We’ll have to rush them because it’s open ground there, but we can pour enough lead in there to sink a boat.”
The broad evil smile ran across his face. “We got a few other surprises for Waldrip. He’ll find out he can’t go back and he can’t go ahead. I’ve got a couple of other boys ready to burn down the bridges ahead and behind them. They’ll be locked in with us. Before you know it, boys, we’ll own this territory outright. It’ll all be ours. How’s that sound to you?”
There was a loud mix of hurrahs and hoorays.
Rocco and his companion could not find the lookouts. They scoured the area around where they were supposed to be on the lookout. No signs showed up. Rocco was, for the first time, suspicious of what he was into. “Think somebody found them out?” he said to his companion.
Neither one of them had any idea of what had occurred at both lookout sites, where Carl Lockhart, part Apache, part Kiowa, had spent the whole previous day, on the slow prowl searching for lookouts, testing smells in the air, watching for solitary smoke signals rising from small campfires, seeking men searching for firewood, finding horse tracks leading uphill to possible observation posts that had excellent views over the general area. He’d found both men, binding one, having to shoot another. But both observation posts were disabled; the two sites took in a view of perhaps five miles square miles.
Lockhart reported his activity to Waldrip.
“They’ll sing your praises someday, Gray Fox,” Waldrip told Lockhart, addressing him with his given Indian name. “In the tents of the fathers and the stations of the wagons, in the saloons where thirsts are treated, the whole west will sing of your exploits; how you took away the eyes of the eagle. It is all happening the way I said it would. Songs will be written and sung across the Nations.”
Lockhart knew Waldrip was telling him his future, as the shaman had the day he left the village: “You will catch the bird sleeping,” the shaman had said. “The gray fox catches the sleeping bird.” It was enough truth for him.
Meggard, disgusted that his lookouts had either deserted their posts, or had hidden themselves to get sleep, ordered his men to attack the train as it sat at the water stop.
They rode against the train in a wide sweep, like a cavalry charge at Shiloh or his own Fort Madison only a few people knew about, the survivors. He was one of only three survivors that he knew about.
“Fire at will,” he screamed as they rode against the idle train. “Fire at will, Kill them all. Remember the war is not over. Fire at will.”
The resulting fusillade of bullets danced all across the train, a withering, endless firepower unleashed on the passenger cars.
“Watch the far side of the cattle cars. They may send out the riders. Fire on the cattle cars. Fire away.”
There was no movement from the cattle cars or the passenger cars. No shooting. No rushing about. His men were unleashing fusillade after fusillade against all sections of the train.
For a bare moment, Meggard thought that all Waldrip’s men might have been killed. And in an instant knew he was wrong. He was all wrong. Waldrip had fooled him. Waldrip and his men were not on the train. He felt the first shudders of realization hit him. Then the charge of Waldrip’s small army came out of a low spot behind him.
Waldrip’s men came in a true cavalry charge, the arrow at the heart of Meggard’s gang, the firepower relentless and hitting the ranks of his men with unerring accuracy, men falling from or being knocked out of their saddles in a huge reversal of fortunes.
Meggard wondered where he would end up in Waldrip songs, if he would be painted as the man he thought he was, who wanted a new nation in part of another nation.
The last question in his mind ran its course with a single round that carried no pain but sudden reality.
Music came from somewhere around Meggard. It was church-like and solemn.