Western Short Story
Jeb lifted his wide-brimmed hat and ran his sleeve across his wet forehead. He leant forward, resting his arms on the horn of his saddle. His horse shifted in the uncomfortable heat. It snorted impatiently, keen to carry on down the slope to the farm house, where it could shelter in the shade and hopefully plunge its muzzle into a trough of cool water.
But Jeb was in no hurry – the house he was studying was not going anywhere. There were a good number of horses in the corral, good quality horses. He could see that, even from this distance. But, so far, he had not seen any people, and that always made him feel uneasy. Best to have some idea of the folk you're about to meet. This was bandit country and anyone could be hiding in the wooden shack that stood in the dry valley below him. His cold, grey eyes roamed over the scene, noting any signs of life. There was none, even the horses in the corral seemed lifeless, as though set solid by the heat. A large, black fly buzzed around his head. He brushed it away, with an irritated swish of his hand. Not even a dog skulked in the shadows and none had barked at his presence, and he was close enough to cause hounds to bark, had there been any. He ran a damp palm over the grip of his long-barrelled Colt that rested at his hip and urged his black mount forward.
Dispute its desire for water, his horse ambled down the slope with a rolling gait. Small puffs of red dust erupted from beneath each hoof as it plodded on.
Jeb swayed in his creaking saddle. His gaze flitted over the homestead, but focused mainly on the black, square holes on either side of the door of the wooden dwelling. He studied the ground and saw no fresh tracks in the dust. A fly settled near the eye of his mount. It shook its head, lifting a haze of dust from its mane.
Jeb saw the door move a fraction.
He lay his palm on the wooden grip of his Colt. It felt cool and smooth.
The door opened a little more. A ghostly face appeared at the slit of darkness.
Jeb could feel the intense scrutiny from the eyes, but nevertheless he relaxed, although he kept a grip on his pistol. The occupant had not stomped out confidently. He was being scrutinized from behind the protection of the door. He continued to ride towards the house. He suspected the occupant was a woman, if not, then the man studying him was a coward. Either situation suited him. He drew his horse to a halt and leaned his left arm casually on the horn of his saddle; his right hand, hidden from the occupant rested on his gun.
“Howdy, anyone home?”
Jeb felt a small trickle of sweat run down the nape of his neck. He tightened his grip on his Colt, tensed his shoulder to quicken his draw, should he need to.
A fly settled on his cheek. He ignored the tickle on his skin. He stared at the door, and flicked his gaze at the windows.
“Howdy, I said. I know you're in there. Best show yourself. I mean you no harm.”
“What you want?” came a strident voice, but Jeb noted the anxiety hidden behind the forced confidence.
“Just passing through ma'am. Hoped I might rest a while from the heat, water and feed my horse. I'll pay. You have any oats to spare?”
“You noticed my horses, then?”
“I did, ma'am. Fine looking beasts.”
“You looking to steal ’em?”
Jeb was thrown aback by the unexpected question. He hesitated for an instant.
“No, ma'am. I have my own horse.”
“Bit on the skinny side,” the voice observed.
“That's why I need some oats, if you have any.”
The door opened and a suspicious-eyed woman slunk out. She stole behind one of the posts supporting the porch roof, as if hiding behind it. Thin, bony hands clasped the rough wood and she glared up at Jeb.
He found it impossible to guess her age, but he suspected she looked older than she was. He sat up straight and tipped the rim of his hat.
“Howdy, ma'am. Name's Jeb. Jeb Saunders.”
“You kin of Waite Saunders.”
“Good. He's a thieving good-for-nothing. He's after my horses. You after my horses?”
She scrutinized Jeb silently. Then her gaze ran over his horse. She noted the protruding ribs.
“Your horse needs feeding,” she declared. “Take him round the back, there's a trough of water and a sack of oats. It's five cents a cup.”
She turned and stepped across the porch. Her thin white dress flapped around her skinny ankles. Jeb noted her bony bare feet. She disappeared into the gloom of the shack.
Jeb dismounted. He led his horse round the back of the house. The corralled horses greeted his own and it responded, pricking its ears and nickering. Jeb secured it near the trough and tossed two cups of oats onto a shallow stone bowl. He surveyed the homestead. The house, a large corral, a small privy nearby, a large barn and a small outhouse. Not much, but enough. He wondered why the woman was here, miles from anywhere.
“You want something to eat or drink?”
Jeb swung round.
The woman was standing in the entrance to the back door.
He smiled to himself – she had brushed her hair and was wearing boots. She had on the same white dress, but it was belted at the waist. She was tiny-waisted, but the dress was arranged to give her a womanly shape that he doubted existed under the carefully arranged material. Not that that mattered, he preferred his women on the bony side. And anyway, any woman would do after a long ride.
She allowed his eyes to roam over her before asking, with a touch of impatience, “You wanna eat?”
She turned and led the way.
The room was gloomy, cool and so tidy that Jeb almost felt inclined to remove his dusty boots. He removed his hat and hung it carefully on a peg, beside a dozen other hats. He breathed in the wonderful aroma of cooking.
“My that smells good, ma'am.”
“I pride myself in my cooking. Please sit. Whiskey?”
“Yes, please, ma'am.”
She hunted in a cupboard. Took out a bottle. It was virtually empty.
“Huh,” she grunted. “Run out.” She turned to him, frowning. “I have beer. Would you like a beer?”
He said he would.
“I'll have to fetch a bottle. Won't be a minute.”
She strode towards the back door and pulled it open. As she left, she seemed to pause for a moment and Jeb got the full benefit of the strong sunlight streaming through her dress. She sure was slim, and what long legs she had. He felt a murmur in his groin. And then she was gone.
Jeb cast his eyes around the room. It made up most of the building and served as both the kitchen and eating area. At one end was a closed door, behind which he assumed was the bedroom. He wondered if it was as pristine as the room he was in. He was tempted to look, but contained the urge. For one thing he did not know how long ... damn … she had not even told him her name. He frowned, wondering what it might be; Abigail, no, she didn't look like an Abigail. But then she didn't really seem to fit any name he knew. His gaze lingered on the bedroom door. He wondered how big the bed was. There was no evidence of a man in her life, except the row of hats hanging on the wall. He glanced at them. She must have had a husband at some point, otherwise why would she be out here? Surely no woman would move out here on her own volition. There must have been a man once, and that would suggest a nice, good-sized bed. He looked back at the closed door. And maybe even a bath. There was no unpleasant smell from her, so she must bath regularly. He wondered where she did it. She could do it out in the open without anyone seeing her. He imagined her slim naked body – he really had been without a woman for too long. He ran the tip of his tongue over his lips. She had been pretty much naked just a minute ago. He drew his eyes from the bedroom door to the one through which she had left. It was still open. The landscape was harshly bright, framed by the dark walls and door frame. Suddenly she was there, cutting out the bright light and increasing the gloom within the room. This time she did not pause, but shut the door quickly behind her. In her hand she carried a bottle, which she placed on the table with a flourish.
“Feel that,” she said, proudly.
Jeb wrapped his huge paw around the bottle.
“You saw the outhouse?”
“Well, I have a cold store below it. My husband dug it.”
“Your husband?” Jeb asked, suddenly wary.
A strange expression passed over her chiseled features. Sadness? Remorse? Jeb could not decide.
“Just before ... he died.”
“A horse threw him,” she said, quickly. “He's buried behind the barn.” Tears welled in her eyes.
She shook her head, which seemed to shake away her melancholy. “It was a long time ago.” She took a small bottle opener from a pocket and popped the cap of his beer and handed it to him. “Would you like a glass?”
“No this’ll fine, thanks,” he said and raised the bottle in silent salute to her. He took a drag. It was the most delicious drink he could remember tasting, but anything cold and liquid always tasted wonderful after a long ride. “Ahh,” he sighed, “this is delicious. Where’d you get it?”
“From Town. Bradley delivers ’em for me. In fact, he delivered a crate only yesterday. Haven't got ‘round to putting ’em in the cold store yet. Maybe you could do that for me after we've eaten?”
“Of course.” He smiled at her, happy to be able to of help. He hoped that it might endear him to her and he might get some coital benefit from it.
She was scooping stew out of a large pot.
“Were you expecting me?” he joked.
She missed the humor in his voice.
“No, I always cook in big batches. Saves time.”
Leaning across the table, she placed a bowl in front of him. The front of her dress fell forward, exposing her womanly curves to him. He looked away, embarrassed.
She sat down opposite him, clasped her hands and bowed her head.
He followed suite, his eyes tilted up, watching her. She was quite beautiful, in a bony sort of way.
She looked up and smiled at him.
“I hope you like it.”
And he did. The vegetables were cooked to perfection and the meat, of which there was a generous amount, was pale and succulent. It reminded him of pork, but with a more subtle taste. He did not recall seeing any hogs out back. He ate the last mouthful with a contented sigh. “Ma'am, that was the most delicious meal I have ever had.”
She smiled at him shyly. “The important thing is to cook the meat as slowly as possible.”
“The meat’s delicious. Is it pork?”
“Most folk think so. The sun will have come ’round by now.” She stood up. “Best get those beers into the cold room.” She walked to the door.
The bottles of beer were in a wooden crate. They were under the shade of the rear lean-to, and Jeb could see why she would be concerned for them; the sun would be on them before long. He lifted the crate and turned to follow her. She was already on her way to the small outbuilding.
He followed her.
After the gloom of the house, the white sun seemed to seer itself on the backs of his eyes. Heat waves distorted the scene and the white form of the woman seemed to float like a ghostly apparition above the scorched ground. A large, black fly landed on his forearm. The tickle as it explored his skin was unbearable, but the weight of the crate prevented him from slapping it away.
The woman was holding the door open. He quickened his step.
He smiled at her as he squeezed passed her.
She looked passed him.
The fly left his arm to join the others that buzzed around the room.
An unpleasant smell invaded his nostrils.
She shut the door, shutting out the bright light, except that entering through a small, square window.
He saw a trap door in the floor.
She went to open it, but hesitated.
“Let me do that,” he said, placing the crate on the floor.
He knelt on one knee and took hold of the iron ring. He could sense her standing over him. The smell of coal-tar soap mingled with a different sweeter odour. He pulled the trap door up and swung it to his right. He felt something brush his hip. The smell was overpowering. Flies swarmed around him. He stood and turned to look at the woman. She was aiming his pistol at his head. She pulled the trigger. His head erupted in a bloody mess. She pushed his still standing cadaver. It tumbled down the flight of steps into the darkness. She tucked the smoking gun into her belt, bent down and dropped the trap door closed. She opened the door. The flies swarmed out into the hot light. She picked up the crate and walked back to the house. She placed the crate back into its place. She walked over to the horse tied near the trough, stroked it and examined it with an expert eye. She was delighted. The man's arrival had been timely. She now had both a new horse and a new supply of meat.