Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“Thunder, shut the hell up!” Winston Standish shouted, but the dog continued to bark and now began jumping up and down at the front door to the Circle S ranch house. It was nine o’clock in the morning. Chores were done and he was trying to read a few pages of Daniel Defoe’s “Colonel Jack”. Thunder, a Blue Lacy, was a dog of the southwest, but at the moment, a pain in the ass. Standish put down his cup of coffee and went to the door.
As was his habit, he wrapped a leather holster around his waist and slipped the hammer thong off his Colt .45 before reaching for the door handle. Pushing Thunder away, he cautiously opened the door only to be confronted by a large contingent of the Mescalero Apache Nation, most of whom sat their horses and appeared unarmed. “Ya’ateh,” Standish spoke, looking at the old man in front of him. “Welcome, Thomas, my neighbor.”
The group of men bore expressions that varied from curious to hostile, but most showed concern. Standish recognized the other two men on the porch with Thomas as two of the three he had encountered when delivering cattle to the Mescalero reservation a few months back. The muscular man with chiseled features looked him up and down taking note of the pistol on his hip. Slowly, Standish reached down, unbuckled his holster and hung it on the door latch, making sure everyone saw. “Won’t need this,” he said for the benefit of those near him on the porch. “You like to come in?” he asked.
“Thank you, but no, neighbor Standish. We speak here. This Carlos,” he motioned toward the handsome man. “He is torn between the new and old ways, but he is an honorable man and a family man. After many talks and what you do for our people, he agree to ask for your help. He does not know your words as I do.”
The old man uttered a few words to Carlos and Standish watched the man take on an air of resignation. He guessed this was very hard for him. “How can I help?” Standish ventured.
Thomas himself was obviously concerned about some grave matter. “Children disappear from reservation. No one know how or why.”
“Maybe they ran away?”
Thomas shook his head. “They good children. Mostly girls and pretty. We talk to priest and Indian agent. No one help. Apache matter they say. You our last hope, you know ways of white man. Carlos’ daughters both gone three days. He is good father.”
“How old are they?”
“Twelve and fourteen years.”
Emotion suddenly swept over Standish and his mind wavered like he’d been caught and tumbled in a flash flood. Memories of his own daughters and wife made him grasp the door frame hard and threatened to fell him to his knees. He struggled to regain his composure but couldn’t erase the sudden moisture on his cheeks. “I’ll do anything I can. I’ll help you get them back or go down a tryin’,” he flatly stated.
The three men opposite watched him, all sensing something had happened deep inside the rancher, but they were quiet with respect and spoke among themselves. Again, Thomas related to Carlos what had been said. The man paused and looked away to the far fields and somewhere else, then turned to Thomas. Uncharacteristically, Carlos locked eyes with the rancher, nodded, then quickly looked to the ground for a few moments. Raising his head, he spoke to Thomas for the first time in unrecognizable words, but with emotion that spoke volumes.
“He says thank you. He never trust white man and has been lied to much. He thinks you too have lost ones close to you. Maybe you are much alike.” Thomas made hand gestures. “This is his brother Eduardo,” Thomas motioned to the third man. “He grieves for his nieces.”
“We ain’t ready for grievin’ just yet men,” Winston interrupted. I need to know more information. Like what time of day they were last seen, where, who they were with, and what they were a doin’. That’s where we start. Oh yeah, have there been any strangers around?”
Thomas translated and therein began a lot of conversation, arm waving, head shaking, nodding, and all speaking at once. “Whoa! Whoa!” Standish raised his arms to calm and quiet them. “Thomas, we need to get everybody dismounted. I’ll get some paper and we’ll write it all down. If they all sit, we can do this proper.”
Thomas spoke and all quieted, then dismounted and sat on the ground, holding their horse’s reins. Standish disappeared into the house and returned with materials to take notes. Together with Thomas, Carlos and Eduardo, he sat on the porch step facing the others. He asked one question at a time; Thomas translated and explained the replies. Writing furiously, Standish worked to capture what Thomas was telling him.
Nearly an hour later, a clearer picture emerged. The girls had been at the missionary school and left together as usual to walk home while they talked about the day’s lessons. The weather was beautiful, a welcome departure from the normal rain and occasional snow of the season. The son of one of the seated men volunteered that he had seen a man approach the two and talk to them. He didn’t know what was said, but the girls followed him. He had seen the man before. He traded cloth and beads with the women for things they made and paid well for anything additional . . . unlike the typical trader.
“Does anyone know this man?” Standish asked after listening to the description.
A young man in the front of the assembly stood and answered. “He is called The Trader. He tells the young to follow him to a secret place where the “cha-ja-la” spirit dance is done to heal the world and make the old ways return. He say they pray to Usen for this so Apache can go to a new place where the young will be strong.”
“Do you know where this secret place is?” Standish asked, surprised by the young man’s English.
“No,” he bowed his head. “I was afraid to follow. My father says the old ways are like the old ones. We must honor and remember them, but change is now way of life and we must face it. I have told all what this man say,” he swept his arm to indicate the group of men.
“Your father is wise and so are you. We can’t go back, but sure as hell we can go forward,” Standish said, with strength in his voice that made everyone sit up. “We know that this man has a wagon and a wagon leaves tracks. We can follow tracks and make things right. I’ll saddle up and go with you.”
Thomas recounted his words to the group as Standish turned back into the house, picking his holster from the door and grabbing his Winchester .45-75 from behind the door. From a concealed spot, he removed a small bag of coins and shoved them into his trousers. Thirty minutes later, the unlikely band was making its way back toward the reservation. Winston Standish hoped for only one thing . . . that they weren’t too late.
~ ~ ~
The riders entered the small reservation settlement in silence. Hooves striking hard-packed dirt and the occasional snort from a horse made the only sounds. Concerned and curious faces watched the men pass led by Thomas, Standish and Carlos. The people all knew what had happened. If there was an answer to the mystery, these men would find it.
Approaching a structure that priests used when visiting the reservation, a man approached, a priest by his habit. The group halted and he spoke. “You must be Standish. These people are grateful for your past kindness and seek your help.”
“I’m their neighbor,” Standish replied.
The Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions sends us here to help these people. I myself baptized Thomas. He has a good soul.”
“Indeed he does,” Standish agreed.
“You look troubled. Perhaps I could be of help to you, my son?”
“Not now, Father, but you could be of help by telling us what you know of the man called The Trader.”
Darkness crossed the priest’s face. “He trades with the people. But in my heart, I believe he does the devil’s work.”
“Does he come and go from here by the same route when he visits?” Standish asked, trying to get back on track with the matter at hand.
“He goes west toward the desert.”
Standish thought the information gathering was over. The trail west was steep and led down into a huge area of snow white sands and further south to El Paso and Juarez, Mexico. His heart experienced a sinking feeling. The railroads had arrived in the town in 1881. Now, there were unsavory types causing plenty of demand for pretty young girls of any race. He shuddered to think about what could happen to them in a short amount of time. He also had a pretty good idea where The Trader’s secret place might be.
“Thank you, Father, you have been very helpful. Perhaps someday we will talk.”
Thomas and Carlos looked to him. “Thomas, tell the men that if they want to go with us it may be dangerous. I’m sorry to say, they won’t be welcome where we’re going. For those who choose to come, tell them to take time to visit with their families and round up some food. Their company will be good, but in the end, it must just be the two of us and perhaps not even you. Ask Carlos and Eduardo to trust me.”
Thomas explained to the men who discussed things among themselves. Carlos and Eduardo looked hard at him, and then Carlos said something which Thomas translated. “He say he and Eduardo ride with you to end.”
Winston Standish regarded each man and nodded to them. “Expected as much . . . from good men.”
~ ~ ~
They were six in total, Standish, Thomas and the two brothers as well as the young man who could speak English and his friend who was apparently fond of the older missing girl. They followed Apache trails out of the mountains into the valley below avoiding the old settlement of La Luz and then rode south by rugged peaks that looked like fingers thrust into the sky and through areas of hummocky red sands.
Riding and walking to save the horses they made good time. Four days later with the sunset, they viewed the lights of El Paso an hour in the distance. With only a small fire and sharing a meager meal, they formulated a plan. Standish would ride into town and start asking questions. He was going to take on the persona of a free-wheeling rancher who wanted to ship cattle on one of the new railroads. He would also let it be known that he liked to socialize with pretty young girls, especially Indians. They all questioned him and at the end understood and agreed on his strategy. They would wait at this spot and if no word came by the next afternoon, Thomas would go to town and listen to the white voices and local news. Along the way, Standish would make discreet inquiries about The Trader. He had a bad feeling about the man.
~ ~ ~
El Paso was not new, an extension of Ciudad Juarez on the other side of the Rio Grande River, it was and always had been a wild frontier town. After the war that made Texas independent, it flourished. A place of business, churches and saloons, it offered just about anything a man could want . . . some things a good man would stay away from.
A man of the West, Standish was at ease riding into the town. No one noticed, he looked like just another drifter, but his mind raced and his senses were on high alert. At a mercantile offering smoking materials, he bought tobacco and rolling papers and made a discreet inquiry that brought a look of disgust from the owner, but he had his answer.
The Jupiter Saloon was in the seediest part of town. As Standish tied his sorrel gelding to a battered hitching rail he studied the street, the saloon and adjacent structures. Three smaller flat-roofed buildings that butted up to the saloon caught his eye. Two rough looking Mexicans lounged in front. The front guard he guessed.
Pushing through batwing doors he entered the Jupiter. Although it was before noon, it appeared that its patrons didn’t care much about the position of the sun. The place had a fetid smell of stale beer and tobacco smoke. He studied everything as he made his way to the bar. There were two more tough guys at the back wasting time, not drinking, but watching the saloon’s activity and a doorway that led to the back of the building. “Whiskey,” he said to the barkeep as he placed a sliver dollar on the counter.
Taking a small sip, Standish turned back to the room, resting one elbow on the counter. As he watched, a burly, well-dressed man with a handlebar moustache came through the doorway. His face was flushed and his shirt disheveled. The two toughs watched him pass. A few minutes later, a mouthy cowboy emerged, obviously intoxicated and obnoxious. He made his way to the bar and ordered. Tossing down a whiskey, he told the bartender in a loud voice, “Pretty fresh merchandise back there, but ya haf’ta teach ‘em!” Then he hee-hawed.
Taking another small sip, Standish spilled the rest of the glass. The barkeep asked, “Ya want another?”
Standish declined but said, “I hav’ta tend to some business first. I’ll be back in a while.”
Mounting his horse, he rode to the first side street and turned. He was looking for an alley that would go behind the saloon. A hundred feet and he was rewarded. An alley provided rear access to all the businesses that fronted the main street. Behind the smaller buildings adjacent to the Jupiter Saloon was an unhitched wagon that looked like it would suit a trader just fine. Walking the horse by the wagon, he observed the three buildings were windowless, but each had a rear door. Only the one closest to the wagon looked like it was used on a regular basis.
For the next hour, he spent his time figuring out the best escape route to get away from the saloon, the town and anybody who might be chasing him, and get back to the Apaches who were to be ready to ride at the first sight of him. If the children were there and he got to them, there would no doubt be a chase. This was where his military experience would come in handy.
Back at the bar, Standish feigned a somewhat intoxicated posture, “I’ll have ‘nother whiskey.” That hand said earlier y’all might have some fresh goods,” he winked at the bar keep. “Maybe Injun?”
“Got a couple new ones, but the boss says they’re expensive. Double eagle a go.”
“Got more’n one?” he asked, weaving a bit for effect.
“Y’all must be some kinda man, mister. But the boss says long as the money’s there,” he shrugged his shoulders.
“I’ll try one fer now,” Standish said, slapping a twenty dollar gold piece on the bar.
“Through that doorway, turn right down the hall, third door on the right.”
Standish preformed a slight wobble as he followed the barkeep’s instructions. Turning right, a hall connected the other three smaller buildings. There were doors on both sides. The first door on the left was open just enough so that he could see into an office where a sleek man sat at a desk working numbers, probably the boss, and maybe The Trader. Third door on the right he turned the knob and pushed into a room dimly lit by a lantern with only a small dresser and a bed. The small figure in the bed had only a thin cotton slip to cover her modesty. She looked at him with fear, a purple bruise on her cheek overcoming the pecan color of her skin.
As he approached, she cowered, as if expecting a blow. “Ya’ateh, little one. Do not be afraid. I will not hurt you, but be silent. Are you Mescalero Apache? Do you have a sister here?”
Her dark eyes studied him intently. “Yes, we followed The Trader. We did not know. My older sister is here. I am Mary.” Her small body heaved with emotion. “Who are you?”
“I am Standish, friend of the Apache.”
“The Standish? Who brought cattle to the reservation and our people?”
“Yep. That’s me. Your father, uncle and Thomas are near. But we have to find your sister and get you out of here.”
“But, there are others,” the small girl pleaded.”
“Others? From the reservation?”
“Yes, a boy and another girl.”
Standish closed his eyes and thought frantically. He figured the sorrel could handle the slight weight of the two girls, but not two more. “How old are they?” he asked.
“Both are my age,” she replied.
“Who’s the best rider?”
“My older sister, Theresa. She can ride like the wind.”
“Where is she?”
“In the last room. That is where they keep us if it is not our turn,” she looked up with dark eyes and a glimmer of hope that made his stomach churn.
“Okay, I’m going to have to arrange things, but I’ll be back. Be quiet and brave,” he gripped her small arm with a touch of reassurance.
Wobbling back to the bar he approached the bartender and drew close to him. “She’s just right. Here’s another double eagle to keep her for me and an extra one for you. I’ll be right back,” he set two gold pieces on the bar and wobbled a bit.
“Yes sir, she’s all yours.”
Walking into the bright afternoon light, he made for the horse and was surprised when an old Indian with a flat brimmed black hat bumped into him. He saw the two Mexicans watching and stepped back for show, putting on an act, he spoke harshly to the man. “Watch it you old fool.”
As the two Mexicans laughed and turned away he followed up. “Thomas, follow me.” Thomas walked a bit farther, then moved across the street to his overo-paint as Standish, several yards ahead, followed his previous route. Out of sight of the main street, the two men met. “I have no idea how you found me, but I’m much obliged. They’re here, but there are two others.” They walked their horses to the alley and Standish pointed at the door behind the wagon. That’s the place, but we need another horse. The older girl can ride. If you can take one, I’ll take the other two, but there’ll be a chase. Hang around here and I’ll buy a horse. I hope the others are ready.”
“They move closer to town and wait. They trust you.”
“Ain’t over yet.”
Standish returned a half hour later leading a short-backed grey mare that looked like she could run. The livery stable owner wanted too much, but there was no time to negotiate. Waiting in the alley, Thomas held the mare, the sorrel, and Standish’s Winchester .45-75 carbine as Standish returned to the Jupiter saloon. The bartender shoved a drink at him. “On the house.”
Picking up the drink, he tossed it down and headed toward the back. One of the saloon toughs leered at him as he walked through the doorway toward the rooms. Passing the door that had been open, he saw it was now closed. A pang of anxiety went through him but it was too late for that. He opened the door to Mary’s room and told her to get something on her feet and be ready to run. She looked scared, but nodded in understanding. A few feet beyond her room a short hallway led to a back door barred from the inside. He removed the bar and set it on the floor. At the last room, he opened a door into heartbreak. Eight children shared two filthy beds. God help me, I can’t take them all! Seeing the terror on their faces, all he could do was say in a loud voice, “Theresa and Mescalero children come now. I am Standish. Follow me!”
Three children rushed at him as he turned to the open door, slipping the leather thong from his holster. Mary was ready as he opened her door and ran to the other three that he herded down the hallway to the back door. “Through the door and mount up,” he barked.
“What the hell is goin’ on here?” a gruff voice rolled down the hall.
“Stay back, mister!” Standish returned, but the man was going for his gun. Standish had his Colt out and he shot the man square in the chest. So much for a quiet getaway. Running out the door, he could see the children were mostly mounted. Only Mary and another little girl waited for him. Swinging into the saddle, he hoisted the two up one in front and one on the back. He recognized the roar of his Winchester and it made him look to the doorway. A crumpled form lay where Thomas had fired.
“Follow me!” he shouted, putting his heels into the gelding as the trio of horses raced down the streets of El Paso. A few minutes later he could hear shouts and looked back to see a half dozen riders chasing them. Suddenly a bullet whined by his head like an angry hornet. Fortunately, both Thomas and Theresa were good riders. But the band following them apparently didn’t care if they hit the children or not.
Ahead, structures all but disappeared as they galloped through the outskirts of town. Standish let Thomas catch up and shouted. “Where are they?”
“There! Top of hill,” Thomas pointed with the carbine toward a small knoll a half mile ahead.
Standish looked back. They weren’t going to make it. “Stop!” he yelled at Thomas.
Thomas stopped as Standish slid from between the two girls. Hitting the ground he motioned for Thomas to throw him the Winchester. Theresa’s mare never slowed down, so he slapped the gelding on the butt, grabbed the carbine in mid-air, shouted, “Go!”
Kneeling, he raised the carbine and waited, he had been in this position before. Taking a deep breath he exhaled and squeezed the trigger. The lead rider lifted out of his saddle hit by the heavy .45-75 slug. The next rider took two rounds until he was off his horse. They were firing and closing in on him. He missed twice and then felt a bullet strike him in the side, knocking him to the ground. Pushing up he worked the action again and fired. Another man slumped but stayed on his horse. They were closing on him. Ejecting another casing he pulled the trigger of the carbine and nothing. He was out. Pulling his Colt, he fired three times, the first shot hit one of the riders, but he missed with the next two. The man from the office in the Jupiter Saloon was almost on top of him, his face a mask of hate. Not chancing his last two shots he dropped the pistol and grabbed up the carbine. Still hot, its barrel burned his hands as he swung it up with all the fading strength that he had. The blow knocked the man from his horse.
Abruptly, it was just the two of them. He thought he heard shouting and Indian war whoops, but the man in front of him had the look of the devil incarnate. Sizing up Standish, he charged, a large knife suddenly appearing in his left hand. Standish twisted while clutching his bloody left side and the man slipped by. Crouching, he made to come at Standish again this time tossing the knife from hand to hand. Standish watched as the man rushed and felt the blade slash him across the chest in the process. The pain brought tears to his eyes, blurring his vision. He was about done, but the Colt was only a few feet away on the ground. As the raging man readied for another attack, Standish dove for the Colt, rolled and shot him twice in the chest.
Pushing himself up on his elbow, Standish felt blood soaking his trousers. He looked at the shocked expression on the dying man’s face. “Old saying in the West you bastard, never bring a knife to a gunfight,” and with that he collapsed into the grass and sand.
~ ~ ~
Winston Standish awoke to the sounds of drums that seemed to engulf him. His side hurt from where he had been shot and his chest burned from the knife wound. He was in an enclosure of some kind with a fire burning. As his eyes adjusted, he recognized Thomas sitting, watching him, like the night on Badger Creek he recalled. That seemed so long ago.
“Again, you help the Mescalero Apache, neighbor Standish. Many wish to see you now that you return. You strong with spirit world.”
“And you are a good neighbor, Thomas, who helps me return to this world.”
The old man nodded his head and rose to leave. “Carlos want to talk now.”
Two girls entered followed by their father. The youngest, Mary spoke with a soft voice. “Father ask me to thank you. Theresa and I were wrong to follow The Trader and his lies. He was the man who hurt you, but you won. You are very brave friend of the Mescalero Apache.”
“Your father was very brave to trust and go with me. He loves his daughters.
Mary translated the words. Standish studied the expression on the other man’s face and understood at once that he and Carlos were now more than neighbors. They were brothers.