Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The afternoon sun was brutally hot, air difficult to breathe even on the water, and the man in the boat was a caricature at best, a full-blown western caricature, a comic piece. If he was made-up, wore a mask, was in a costume, whatever, it’d be no different. In his hands he grasped a pair of oars, yet he wore a gray Stetson that sported a sky-blue band on it, a black denim shirt gone darker already wearing his heavy and continual sweat. On his boots he wore a pair of spurs the sun would not let go of, the silver of them taking on brightness in flashes.
He felt as foolish as he looked, but he had “escaped.”
Jack “OK” Okanagan pushed and pulled on the oars in opposite directions to bring the rowboat closer to the small pier jutting out from the bank into Lake Benefice. He was not a boater. Not a rower. Not an oarsman. These beliefs were noted in his mind; yet he had escaped certain death at the hands of Braddock and his thugs in, of all things, this boat. Not on a horse. Not on a mule. Not in a wagon. But in a rowboat he had never been in before. And he had never been on a body of water other than wading in a river on a cattle drive. But he had seen an escape route and took it, odds, trickery, fate all moving their unforeseen exercises.
“For crying out loud,” he said to himself, “I still have my spurs on.” It made him smile for the first time in more than a week. “Lucky I didn’t punch a hole through the bottom of the boat.”
Lake Benefice, also, was a boon on the shore, as it allowed him to reach the small town of Bond Place on the far side of the lake, well away from Braddock and his crew. Tired, bone and muscle weary from a new kind of labor, his throat talking up its dryness; he tied the boat off onto the pier and swigged a drink from a jug sitting on the dock. Probably left by a recent fisherman, he guessed. The water in the jug was warm, so he headed for the saloon in the heart of the town. Whiskey alone might cure his thirst, or perhaps a beer or two, but cold ones would do the deed. The taste was building up in him.
The name Benefice flickered in the air, a reading of promise carried with it. Security, safety, salvage raised their flags about him, as if he were adorned, but that wearing did not last into all of reality. The door of the saloon opened on greased hinges that almost whispered “Welcome,” but the bartender in the lonely room was staring as Okanagan ordered his drinks and went at them lustily, as though an ugly, arid desert sighed behind him instead of the lake.
The bartender’s hair was swept back and looked wet, and his eyes, under a wide brow, were the dark blue of an evening overhead. In addition, he was neat as a new dollar, with a folded handkerchief in his shirt pocket and a fresh white bar cloth saddled on his left arm.
“You sure you ain’t dead of thirst already, mister? The bartender said, checking out his new customer, marking his early 30s in years, the blond hair curling under his hat brim, the cool gray-green of eyes looking back at him from an inner distance. “You tossed them down like a hollow leg’s waiting on ‘em.” He stopped speaking, looked again into Okanagan’s eyes and continued. “I’m all ears,” he said. “You also look like you got a story running your gut. I’m all ears.” He put another beer on the bar. “My name’s Happy Jack McKame and therapy’s my game.” What’s yours?” His laugh was raucous, full-bellied, reaching all corners. His hand, when he extended it, was as big as a cow flap on a used road, and warm. The handshake put Okanagan in a comfort zone.
“Have you heard about a man named Rural Braddock?” Okanagan said, as he swallowed half a glass of beer, the tightness in his throat easing, a robust breath taken that passed down through his tired body like an elixir on the move. Perhaps, he thought, the boat ride was worth it.
“Hell,” McKame offered, “every soul with good ears has heard of Braddock. A varmint of a man, I’ll grant you, right from the start. Talk is he’s meaner than a bull on the wrong side of the wire. He’s never been here and I hope you’re not introducing that possibility on us folks here in Bond Place, are you? This town ain’t ready for the likes a him. I don’t know that we have a man to stand up to him, not in a shoot-out. Talk about Braddock says he’s quicker than he’s mean.”
“Wish it was different for both of us,” Okanagan said, sipping again, “but he might take it into his mind, seeing as I stole his little boat and pushed it across the whole lake to get here. I never had such a ride in my life like that one, no rest, but damned enjoyable at the same time.” He flexed his hands to exhibit the clench still locked into his fists, the demand it had taken, the cause still secret.
“Don’t boats handle funny? I mean, you’re going backwards at it all the time you’re pushing and pulling them paddles so you can go forward. That’d be a lot funnier on the back of a horse, wouldn’t it? Just picture yourself trying to get ahead like that, the poor critter caught up in a ridiculous situation. Doesn’t know where his tail is. Or his head. Makes me scream. Yes it does, all the way to my bloody toes.” His laughter roared into all corners like a wind out on the grass having its way.
In a great mood, McKame poured another beer and slid it across to Okanagan. “What were you doing in his territory? Everybody knows he hides out there as much as anyplace, him gang. I’ll bet they’re blamed for a dozen or more murders, and who knows how many robberies of bank or stagecoaches or home invasions. What brought you to that place?”
“I was looking for Bear Kincaid, a mountain man whose brother is dying, will be dead in a few months. Bear’s his only kin, so the brother sent me to look for him. I lost my horse up in the Rockies and walked down to Norcross ‘cause it was the only place I could see on the lake. I couldn’t walk over here the long way around. Would have taken me a month.”
“Well, three or four days anyhow, over the mountains,” was McKame qualification on travel time, and then a question. “How’d they greet you over there, you looking like a lawman or a bounty hunter?” He said this even though there were no weapons belted at his waist.
“Braddock challenged me right up front. Wanted to duel me at dawn in the street the next day. Made a big deal of it, like partying all night, the whole crew drinking, me being watched by one of his boys. I’d seen the boat on the way down and the picture of it tied up at a dock stayed with me. I couldn’t get to a horse or get out of there. There’s one road, the same one out. They weren’t concerned about the boat. Hell, I can’t even swim and I figured they might have known that. But I wasn’t going to get shot down for nothing, so I gambled on a boat ride.”
“Why’d he want to duel you?”
“Really believed I was a bounty hunter or a secret lawman. Said Kincaid’s been dead for over two months, as he killed him himself up in the hills. All over an Indian lady. She’s still over there in Norcross, pretty as a picture. I heard she loved Kincaid for saving her from something bad. The thing is, this pretty squaw made some noise at one end of town when I went for the boat. Part of getting even with Braddock, I’m sure.”
“He’s gonna come after you, for sure. You ought to light out. I’ll get you a horse. Put as much distance ‘tween the pair of you that you can grab with a good horse and an early start.”
“No. He’d chase me just for the hell of it. Most likely catch me too, so I’ll make a stand here. I don’t want to leave Braddock on top of you folks. Besides, I owe her. She’s the prettiest thing I ever saw. Name’s Dove’s Wing. You ought to see her.” Okanagan looked off, visions grasping for his attention, setting a smile on his face. “Yep, I owe her. I’ll pay off here in Bond Place.”
“You any good with those guns you’re wearing?”
“I’m not afraid of any man who stands out in front of me. Lot different than a bushwhacker in the brush or behind a rock. It counts for something.”
“Think Braddock’s not gonna take any edge, use it?” McKame tried to see hidden strengths in Okanagan, what might set him apart from any other cowpoke. Work behind the bar for many years gave him some credence in character studies, personalities. He found something he liked in Okanagan’s directness and empathy. It came up #1 with him. But it sure wouldn’t pull the trigger on a true shot in a shoot-out where time was nothing more than the barest second. No deliberation. Quick aim. Pull the trigger. Hope the shot would go the way you thought your weapon was pointed.
“Big Ifs,” McKame said to himself, remembering some truly brave men he had seen die in the street right out in front of the saloon. Some others were forgotten in the dust of days, the darkness of the same night. He had no difficulty in seeing where he fit in the world, on its outside looking in, knowing he could change very little what was happening around him, what might happen around him. To him Okanagan was an okay guy, and Braddock wasn’t, but the odds were in Braddock’s favor, and that of his gang. When Braddock came, his gang would be with him. Okanagan was practically dead already.
What could he do? In a blaze of light, in some corner of his mind where inspiration may be aroused, he saw Okanagan riding off into a glorious sunset with Dove’s Wing, the music of the spheres circulating in the whole of the universe and he, Happy Jack McKame, the sole audience.
“Listen, OK, they’re all on the house, on me, all these drinks. Have at ‘em. Tie on a good one. You got it coming to you.”
Okanagan smiled his answer first, and then said, “You sound like an undertaker getting ready for the ceremony.” He laughed. “Only kidding. I like the idea.” He pointed at the spigot and then reached for another beer. “I mean for doing it up good on such a momentous evening, the night before my forced duel with the bad guy Braddock.
McKame watched him sip, sooth, and sink into a melancholy, then fall asleep at the bar. He spent most of the night in the saloon with Okanagan, leaving a few times for short periods. Business on foot in the dark, a barkeep out and about as he might say, with a laugh in tow.
With the sun rising from down at the other end of the lake and coming straight into the door of the saloon, also came a hasty rider who jumped off his horse and ran into the saloon. “Braddock’s coming, Jack. Him and four men and he’s got an Indian squaw on a tether. I could see them all the way from Widow’s Peak. Maybe two hours ‘fore they get here.”
Gratitude on his face, in his posture, McKame slid a beer across the bar. “You got a couple coming to you, Pete.” McKame had a smile like a torch, like a campfire to a lonely, cold rider. “Enjoy, then carry on later. Looks like an interesting day.”
He shook Okanagan awake. “Bacon and eggs, rolls and coffee, coming up, OK. Coffee’s special today,” he said, as he poured a shot of whiskey into the Okanagan’s mug.
Thoughts of Dove’s Wing swinging around in his mind, flopping behind his eyes in rapid-fire shots, Okanagan thoroughly enjoyed his coffee. It had a pleasant taste, made him seriously reflective, and ran down through his muscles like settling down in front of a campfire. Languor spread its comfort in soft waves, the patchwork of silent nerves at their ease. Thoughts of Braddock did not find sway in his mind. Again, clear as ever, he saw Dove’s Wing’s hair, black as the back end of a cave, swirl in the air as she ran down the road out of Norcross, a rider chasing her, one of Braddock’s gang. He kept firing his pistol in the air, letting the boss know something was happening at the end of town, laughing as she tripped and fell to her knees, the cries coming loudly from her, not discernable as false by the rider, but false nonetheless, her acting out her part.
The idea of time had long since escaped him, but there’s Happy Jack McKame shaking him. “He’s here, Ok. Braddock’s here and he wants you outside. He’s waiting in the street. How’re you feeling? You ready for him?” His voice was softer than it had been all the night before, as if he was getting ready for an event, a decision, a ceremony. “You up for this?”
Okanagan fumbled for his guns. They weren’t where they were supposed to be. Then he found them, on his hips, in their holsters. He shrugged. “Ready as ever,” he said, looking McKame directly in the eyes.
McKame saw the redness, the weariness, the frailty. He identified all the losing elements of Ok Okanagan. They were building on themselves.
“Let’s go, OK.” It was almost a question, seeking permission. A hand touched Okanagan’s shoulder.
Okanagan stumbled to his feet. “Ready,” he said, although that was hardly the case as he tottered on his feet out the door, the deck of the boardwalk
The sun burned into Okanagan stepped outside. Slashes of light shot into his eyes and lit up the back of his head. The guns on his belt had moved again, weight had shifted strangely, his body felt misshapen, separate, balancing at a toe, a heel out of order. Hell, he’d have trouble finding the revolvers, never mind shooting them at Braddock. He was here, wasn’t here, somewhere out here in the sunlight.
From the right side, near the door of the saloon, Dove’s Wing said, “Don’t draw your weapons. Do not go for your guns, I ask you. He will kill you. His men will kill you. He is angered. You tricked him. I tricked him. He knows it all. He just wants to kill you.” The sunlight came down on her, he thought, mightily different than it did on him. The black hair deepened in its mass, her eyes leaped brighter, the skin on her cheeks shining like new flowers in a garden.
Okanagan was in love.
But where was he? What was he supposed to be doing out here in the street with his head buzzing all around him as though it was loose from his neck? People were lined up on both sides of the street, silent, their mouths tight, their eyes looking, not at him, but down the street, at a figure of a man with the sun streaming behind him right off the lake.
The figure was waving a hand at him and a voice said, loudly and full of derision, and questions that were not questions but hard demands, “Is it okay with you, OK? You finally up to it? I’m going to enjoy this. The squaw will see what pain is. I’ll teach her the final lesson. Is that okay with you, OK? You ready to draw? Okay if I will let you go first? Go do it, OK.”
All things began to exert themselves for Okanagan as he recognized the man down the street, taunting him, drawing him on in a duel for his life. Hah, what a foolish duel. Here he was, in love with an Indian maiden, in love for the first time in his life, and being taunted in to a death match. His death. It was worse than unfair. It was unreal. He didn’t belong here. He was no gunman. The odds against him escalated as he thought about it.
Braddock was yelling again. “You got the first shot, OK. That okay with you, OK?” He was standing in the streaming sunshine, the rays slanting around him, throwing his shadow ten feet long out in front of him.
“Go for your gun, OK. You for starters, okay, OK?”
From behind him, Dove’s Wing pleaded with Okanagan. “Do not draw your weapons. He will kill you.”
“I’m going to count to five, OK, and you better draw or I’ll kill you. Okay, OK?” Deep laughter floated down the length of the street, a mangy, tawdry laugh full of hate and the awful twists of fate.
Okanagan looked around, at the town, at the people gathered in two lines down the sides of the street. Looking for the most pleasant vision he could carry off with him, he found Dove’s Wing’s face, more beautiful than he thought it was the first time he saw her. She was as shapely as any girl he had noticed in all his years. Her warmth came at him, as he heard Braddock say, “Five,” and went for his gun.
A shot went off behind him, and then a second shot. Braddock fell to the ground. One of his men fell. The other three dropped their gun belts right in the middle of the street, their arms in the air.
Okanagan still couldn’t draw his weapons. Then he found the straps were tied over them in a knot. A simple but tight rawhide knot. The guns could never come free until the knots were cut away.
For a few months, Jack OK Okanagan and Dove’s Wing stayed in Bond Place after they were married, and then they moved on. Nobody in the town ever heard from them again, except for Happy Jack McKame. He never told anybody else and never said who had fired the shots in the most one-sided duel ever proposed in Bond Place. He was especially quiet about how he let a stranger tie one on in his saloon the night before the big duel.