Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The aspen leaves had just begun to turn before Snakeskin Anderson decided that he had finished enough fencing to get some cattle. The hay had long since been cut and stored in the barns and the haying crew had gone back to Nebraska and their own little farms.
It was a good time to move cattle. The rivers were low enough to make them easy to cross and the heat had left the deserts, but snow had not yet fallen in the high country. There had been many messages coming and going from Snakeskin's ranch. Finally, he announced that he was going over to Beaver in Utah to pick up a herd next week.
When Snakeskin came in from work the next day, there was a note wedged his the door that said, “Come see me.” The note was not signed, but he knew who sent it. He was bringing a bucket of water from the well when the cook came in with the stew and biscuits. “Just put it on the table, Coosie,” he said, “and thanks.”
He sat down for a quick dinner and then quickly undressed, washed up with a sponge and a basin, threw the water out, put on clean riding clothes, saddled up, and rode through the twilight toward the Salt Works Ranch. As he rode up, Annawest stepped out from behind the barn. She was wearing a yellow dress with her hair loose around her shoulders. Snakeskin rode over and tied BettyBea to a hitching post, loosened the cinch, and turned to Annawest. She stepped into his arms for a kiss and led him to a low bench she had brought out from the house. They sat down and she turned to him. “Snakeskin...” she said and hesitated.
He picked up a stick from the ground, examined it, and started whittling. After a few strokes, he looked up at her.
“Snakeskin,” she said, “There’s twice men have tried to shoot you from you bein’ a bounty hunter…”
“That’s don’t happen much…doesn’t,” said Snakeskin, “Everybody knows I always tried to make a deal. Get them a lawyer. Split the reward. Git their wife a job. Slip them a lock pick or two if they weren’t killers. There aint’t…aren’t that many looking for me. You know.”
” I know I’ve seen two people try to shoot you. Suppose…suppose we could leave here and you could find a less dangerous way making a livin’.”
Snakeskin stopped whittling. “Like what?”
“Well, if you sold your ranch, we could move back east and start a business of some kind.”
Snakeskin dropped his stick, turned and looked at her with an open mouth and an incredulous brow. “Do what now? Do what now? Sell everything I’ve worked half my life for to go east and be a counter-jumper? You’re talking wild.”
She held her hands out to him. “But it would be safer. I wouldn’t have to worry about you gettin’ killed and you wouldn’t have to worry about getting so sick when you have to shoot somebody.”
He ignored her hands. “When a counter-jumper walks down the street in the kind of clothes he’s got to wear, all the waddies call him a yellow dog. They say, ‘Here boy, Here boy, Here boy!’. And nobody listens to a thing he’s got to say.”
She leaned towards him and put one hand on the bench. He stayed sitting straight and kept frowning. “Snakeskin,” she said, “businessmen get plenty of respect.”
“From other counter-jumpers.”
Annawest sighed, “I understand about pride. But riskin' your life for pride every time you leave the house is plum de trop. It’s going too far.”
“Oh yeah?” said Snakeskin. “I can’t believe you’re talking like this. You know how I feel about this kind of life, because you feel the same way. We like horses, we like the country, we like life a little wild. We ain’t indoor people and we sure ain’t city people. Aren’t.”
Annawest sat up straight, “I know, but is it worth gittin’ shot? Why do you have to be a cowboy?”
Snakeskin jumped up and walked a step away. When Annawest started to follow him, he held up a hand to stop her. He put his knife away and clenched both his fists hard and took a deep breath. He let it out and relaxed his hands. Finally he sat back down and turned to her. “I’ve never told this to anybody,” he said. She folded her hands in her lap and assumed a listening attitude. “I never told you all about Saint Elmo,” he began.
“My uncle Crate was a mine owner and rough on the people that worked for him. And those labor troubles that got so bloody were just starting up. And that schoolteacher! She was easy on me because Crate was a mine owner but she let the other kids know they were trash as far as she was concerned. She didn’t use the word trash but she might as well have. She’d scream at them, “Bad home influence! That’s what’s the matter with you. Bad home influence!”
“There were three brothers living next door that were still in school. Miner’s sons. Soon as those three brothers left the house every morning, they were looking for somebody to pick on. Especially somebody that wasn't called trash. I remember one time, I was about six and they were eleven at least. They walked up to me and one of them punched me in the face and knocked me down. They grabbed my arms and one of them put his hands on either side of my face and slapped me back and forth a dozen times. I told my Aunt, but she didn’t believe me. She grew up in a little farming community in Nebraska where they didn’t do that kind of thing. Every time they saw me, they were after me. I tried to fight, but it wasn’t any use. They were bigger than I was and there were three of them. They’d grab me and…well you get the idea.
Snakeskin paused and half covered his face with one hand and looked away. “I…I used to run to school and hide in the boy’s outhouse until the teacher rang the bell. They used to call me…well, you don’t want to know.”
“So I swore, I swore a hundred times that when I got old enough, I was going to have respect no matter what it cost me.” Snakeskin’s hands had curled into fists. He stood, picked up a pine knot, and hurled as hard as he could at a fence post. He missed. He slumped back on the bench. “I’ve never told anybody about this because there’s nothing worse than a man that feels sorry for himself,” he said.
Annawest nodded, “I understand but there are other ways of gitting’ respect than…”
Snakeskin interrupted, finally raising his voice, “No you don’t understand. I got to have respect for being a Cowboy of the Pecos, I got to have respect for being tough.”
“Everybody knows how tough you are,” said Annawest, “you git all kinds of respect.”
“How long would I keep that respect if everybody knew that a woman pushed me into giving up a ranch I’ve worked half my life to get?”
“You men and your cultus pride.”
“So my pride means nothing to you does it?”
“I didn’t say that,” snapped Annawest. ”And what about your headaches and throwin’ up. Do you like them? And someday someone is going to shoot you when you are flat on your back bein’ sick because you killed somebody.”
Snakeskin jumped up and faced her, hands on hips, ”I’ll tell you what you said,” he snarled, “you said that what I want - what I got to have - don’t mean nothing to you compared to what you want. I can’t have a wife that’s that selfish.”
Annawest jumped up, looked down her nose at Snakeskin, and said with perfect diction, “I have not agreed to be your wife.”
“A woman like you shouldn’t be anybody’s wife. Maybe you ought to catch a boat to Egypt and get yourself elected queen of Sheba.”
“I’m going.” He stomped over to his horse, untied her, turned back to Annawest, and said with forced calm. “I’m going over to Beaver to pick up a herd of cattle. I won’t be back for three-four weeks. If ever.”
He untied BettyBea, put his foot on a boulder, leapt into the saddle, and started to gallop off. He had forgotten to tighten the cinch, however, so the saddle slipped and ended up on BettyBea’s belly. Snakeskin fell off and lost the reins. BettyBea stopped, turned around, and sniffed at him. Snakeskin jumped to his feet spouting the kind of profanity he rarely used and had never before uttered in the presence of a woman.
Annawest leaned forward with clenched fists, “Watch your ———, ———, —— language!” she shouted.
She turned to march back into the house and saw that the hullabaloo had drawn all the Salt Works cowboys out of their bunkhouse. “What are you lookin’ at?” she yelled at them. They all turned and looked away.
As they went, she heard Old Pete say, “Y’know Ah heard of this woman once that tried to train her cat not to catch mice. It didn’t work a’course and she got herself all scratched to blazes, too.”
“Ahh!” snarled Annawest, “Pete…” She stopped herself and strode into the house. Waypatoo, drawn to the door, jumped back just in time to keep from getting run over.
On the day Snakeskin left for Beaver, Annawest saddled her horse, a little buckskin she called Joann, and rode to the top of a small hill a short distance from the station and watched the train go away. She stood there for some time and then took a long ride across the park. She gave her mare her head and let her wander and was surprised when they ended up at Cottonwood Creek, near the spot where Snakeskin had first taken her fishing. The water was low and the stream was quiet. The sand and the rocks under water still had a touch of gold that was echoed in the yellow cottonwood leaves that slowly circled in the current.
She dismounted and looked at the water. Tears came to her eyes. She hugged her horse around its neck, said, "Damn," and wiped her tears away. The horse gave her a puzzled look. “I can not be weak, Joann” she told her horse, “You can not be weak out here. You got to stick to your decisions.” She mounted and rode up and out of the canyon and across the flat.
Annawest looked up at the mountains as she rode. The aspen formed a band of gold above the dark conifers. “That’s really pretty,” she thought, “Snakeskin is really missin'…damn.” She kicked BettyBea into a gallop for half a mile and then cantered the rest of the way back to the ranch. Once there, she walked her horse cool, brushed her down, and checked her hooves then went down to the house. Once there, Annawest hung her hat on a peg and stood gritting her teeth at it.
Her foster mother, Waypatoo, was sitting at her loom. “Among the Dineh,” she said in Navajo, “it is rare that a woman gets to marry a man she loves. First comes duty to families and clan.”
“Were you that fortunate?” said Annawest frowning at the mirror and fixing her hair.
“No,” said Waypatoo, turning to her weaving. “I loved a man deeply, but we never married. No, I never even got to make love with him. The defeat of our people gave me many, many regrets, but none as keen as that one.”
Annawest turned and gave her a straight look. “And I’m throwin’ my chance away. Is that what you’re sayin’?” she said in English.
“In this,” said Waypatoo, “I can give you no advices, Shiheart. There are, maybe, regrets in every choice. In one, I think you know, is some joys.”
“You’re telling me to marry him and get my heart broken when he gits killed.”
“I tell you nothings. You must decide,” said Waypatoo. She went on with her weaving for a moment; then she looked up. “I could never love a man who would not kill for me. Could you?”
Annawest fled to her room. She tripped over a fold in the rug and gave it a kick. The rug stayed put because she was standing on it. She kicked a stool that bounced off the wall with a satisfying clatter. “Mi vache, mi vache, mi vache!” she said. “Maybe poetry will calm me down. It used to.”
She dragged down her copy of the Rubiyat, flumped down, turned to a random page, and read:
Ah, my Belov'ed fill the Cup that clears
To-day Past Regrets and Future Fears:
To-morrow!--Why, To-morrow I may be
Myself with Yesterday's Sev'n Thousand Years.
“Dang it,” she said and opened another page.
Some for the Glories of This World; and some,
Sigh for the Prophet's Paradise to come;
Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go,
Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!
“Oh mi vache merde!” Annawest hissed and reached for her Shakespeare. By chance, she picked up ‘Twelfth Night’ opened it and read:
What is love? ’Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
“———, ———, ———, ———!” Annawest said. Then she jumped up and threw the book across the room. Waypatoo looked in, saw Annawest standing with her fists clenched and wisely retreated. Annawest threw her hands to heaven. “I have got to find out,” she said.
Next morning saw her wearing her best traveling outfit and supervising the loading of a trunk onto the train to Beaver. She also had a blue handbag decorated with the skins of the red pacific rattlesnake, a present from Snakeskin. She had left a note for her father. The heavens would probably not fall too far, since she took Waypatoo with her as a chaperone. When the train stopped in Leadville, she had just time enough to visit a jewelry store and a drugstore.
After Annawest got to Beaver, she rented a room at the Lowe Hotel, changed her sooty clothes, freshened up, and admired the herringbone chisel pattern on the hotel stonework. Then she set out with Waypatoo to find Snakeskin. It wasn’t hard. She found him and a few others shooting at tin cans on a distant log. As she came up, Snakeskin fired and knocked a can off the log.
“By Josh and by Joan" said one of the men, “that’s too many hits to be accidental."
She saw Snakeskin straighten up. “Anybody else want a shot?” he said.
Annawest took a deep breath, straightened her back, removed her left glove, lifted up her left hand, and twiddled her fingers. “Hello Husband,” she called out, “surprised to see your little wife? This wedding ring was jis too new. It kept pullin' me in my husband's direction and the impulse was plumb ineluctable. That means you can not git rid of it.”
“Uhh,” said Snakeskin.
“You know a funny thing that happened in Leadville? They were calling for 'Mrs. McMurtry, Mrs. McMurtry’ and I jis sat there wonderin’ what your mother was doin' in Leadville. If Waypatoo hadn’t nudged me, I wouldn’t have claimed my tickets. Isn’t that plum risible? That means funny.”
“I would imagine that being Snakeskin McMurtry’s wife would take a bit of getting used to,” said a voice she knew, “and hello Mrs. McMurtry.”
“Oh! Uhh… Good afternoon Doctor Holliday, what brings you here?”
“Your brand-new husband. Who seems to be having a bit of trouble getting over his surprise.”
“Well,” said Snakeskin," I've been seeing you in my dreams so much I thought I was still asleep. Annawest, this is ElPaso Hairyton of the Texas Rangers. He was up here on business and dropped by.”
"Mrs. McMurtry,” said Doc Holliday, “this is Kate Horony my boon companion in good times and bad. Kate, this is Snakeskin and Annawest McMurtry, old friends of mine."
"Pleased to meet you."
They heard raised voices. Men and Waypatoo. “Oh Luddy Mussy,” said Snakeskin, “we better get Waypatoo back to the hotel or there’s going to be trouble. There’s been a difficulty with the Navajo,” he said. “There’s been shooting and men killed. It looks bad. The only safe place now for Waypatoo is the reservation. We’ll get horses and go over there.”
They hurried back to the hotel. Snakeskin walked the women up to their room and excused himself. “I’ll send a kid for horses,” he said, “meantime I got to go up to my room for my guns.”
Snakeskin was in his room when there was a knock on the door. He opened it and in came Annawest and a porter with her trunk. He tipped the porter and turned to Annawest.
“I told them we were married,” she said, “any other way, it would look funny.”
"Oh" said Snakeskin. He looked at her. "You want to…share the bed.
"Yes. I’ve got to know what it’s like to be married to you. Before I take the chance." She sighed and put both hands on his chest, half closed her eyes, tilted her head back, and turned it slightly sideways so their noses wouldn’t bump. There was a knock on the door.
Waypatoo entered. “I came to say the horses is ready."
"All right," said Snakeskin, "we better go now. I'll take Cherokee Bill and his shotgun and both of my rifles. We’ll be all right. It isn’t far. I'll be back for supper."
Annawest watched them ride away. Then she unpacked her trunk, hung up her dresses and got out a nightgown that she thought Snakeskin would like. Then she went back up, got out an iron and started in on her evening dress. It was satin dyed dusky rose. The top of the dress was tight-fitting to her hips, sleeveless, and had a deep, round décolletage with a puff of cream lace at the center, three bows in the front, two on the shoulders, and narrow lace ruffles for sleeves. The skirt measured fourteen feet around the bottom and had a train. The dress came with appropriate spars so that it could be used, in emergencies, as a boat sail. Annawest laid the spars aside and got out long cream-colored gloves with pearl buttons that matched her earrings.
She hung up her dress and went down to arrange dinner. Annawest’s ideas for a dinner were rather fancy for a place like Beaver, but accommodation was made. They had no ice, but the champagne could be cooled in the well. The management even found a tablecloth for the table.
Snakeskin came back in time to dress for dinner and they went down. The pop of the champagne cork startled some of the buscaderos into drawing their guns and the flying cork hit one in the eye. The waiter also soaked his sleeve with champagne but no serious harm was done. All the guns were quickly holstered again, the pain in the waddie’s eye assuaged with a shot of the O-be-Joyful, and the waiter's sleeve was as good as new after the cook wrung it out into a small dishpan. He then fetched a funnel from the kitchen and offered to put the wringings back into the champagne bottle, but Annawest talked him out of it.
In the middle of the soup course, Snakeskin stopped with the spoon halfway to his mouth. “Dang,” he said.
“What is it dear?” The phrase came naturally.
“Pony Dahl. In the bar.” Snakeskin casually drew one gun and held it on his left knee and calmly went on eating with his right hand.
Annawest saw a huge cowboy standing in the doorway between the bar and the restaurant. He had muscular shoulders and his neck was so short that he had trouble turning his head. His body was powerful but twisted. He had a strong chin, but it sagged and the corner of his mouth hung open revealing a big yellow dogtooth. His hat was thrown back and Annawest could see a broad, white scar starting on the left side of his forehead and running back through his reddish hair. He had tried to disguise the scar by combing his hair over it. He had tarnished silver conchos on his vest, his holster, and his hatband. His clothes were of good quality, but needed washing. A lot of washing. He spotted Snakeskin and shambled over, leading with his left shoulder and dragging his right foot a little. “Evenin’ Snakeskin,” he said.
“Evenin’ Pony,” said Snakeskin “You might take your hat off to the lady.”
“Lady? Oh sure.” Pony took off his hat with a smile that was half a leer and bowed more deeply than was necessary. “ Ma’am. ” he said. Then he straightened up and put his hat back on. “Heered you were hirin’ buscaderos. Thought I’d come an’ apply. You owe me that much for this,” he touched the scar on this forehead. “And the time I spent in jail.”
“Well Pony,” said Snakeskin, “I'm a little short right now."
"Looks like you got plenty dinero t'me," said Pony nodding sideways in Annawest's direction.
“The lady bought her own dress,” said Snakeskin. His smile was late and did not reach his eyes. Annawest moved her feet so that she could easily jump out of her chair. "I did have some money but I hadta spent most of it on land and cattle," said Snakeskin.
"Take your note," said Pony.
"Don't like doing business like that in this sorta situation. You end up settlin' accounts with lead. Look. Lemme think about it maybe I kin git some more cash. Meantime, here's a silver dollar. Have a drink or two on me."
"Well thanks," said Pony. "Don't mind if I do. But y'know I could really use the money. I don't have a tail feather left."
"Do what I can," said Snakeskin shortly. Pony started towards the bar door.
"Nice to have met you," said Annawest.
Pony turned around and said, with the same exaggerated bow and leer, "Likewise I'm sure, mam."
Pony went through into the bar. In a moment he reappeared in the open bar door carrying a shot of whisky. He raised it towards Snakeskin in a gesture that carried a slight, but unmistakable threat. Snakeskin and Annawest raised their champagne glasses in response and drank politely. Pony turned back to the bar.
"Pony Dahl. If I don't hire him on, he might shoot me and if I do hire him on, he might shoot me. Maybe I could send him on some kind of an errand out of town.” Snakeskin rubbed his chin with the handle of his fork. "Well let’s enjoy this boss supper of yours.”
There was a problem with the dessert; a dog ran off with the vanilla bean for the crème Brule and the substitution of ground chili pepper did not produce a satisfactory result. An urgent search among the local Mormon households produced a peach pie. The pie was excellent, but the delay was protracted.
In the interval Snakeskin excused himself, went over to Pony and spoke to him. Pony grinned, nodded and rode out.
After dinner was over, Annawest waved goodbye to the crowd admiring her dress outside the window and the couple went up to their hotel room. And closed the door.
The breakfast was wonderful. The eggs, the blueberry compote, and the flour used in the pancakes were all fresh from Mormon farms. The high point of the meal was the region’s famous cantaloupe.
“Luddy Mussy,” said Snakeskin, “I’ve had good times before but nothing like this. If my usual good time was a ride to the top of Mount Elbert, this one would be a flight to heaven in a chariot pulled by wild swans.”
Annawest smiled at him. “Yes, that…cantaloupe was a daisy. It’s a good thing we both have hearty appetites.”
“You know, we got to keep the waddies busy or they’ll start shooting one another.”
“Oh, dances and horse races would do.”
Annawest rounded up some women and arranged a dance. She had to use all her charm, dignity, and imperiousness to stop trouble, but she did it. She was exhausted afterwards. The horse race was easier due to the arrival of a cheerful old man called Dave Blonger who said his tired old brown gelding, Tornado, could beat any horse In Utah. On the morning of the race, Annawest looked closely at Blonger’s brown. She couldn't understand the way it was acting for a while, but then suspicion dawned.
"Oh poor Tornado,” she said, “nobody is bettin’ on you. I'm sure you feel terrible. I’ll bet on you. Who’s man enough to give me odds?" Several did.
Just before the race started Pony Dahl rode in. He dismounted and shambled over to Snakeskin and said, "Going to pan out. The cattle will be here in two-three days.”
"What's going on?" said Dahl.
"Just a horse race.”
"Yeah?" said Dahl. "Maybe I'll put a little money down." He joined the crowd. After a little palaver he came over to Annawest and insisted on betting his five-dollar gold piece on Blonger’s brown at odds of three to one.
Tornado crossed the finish line an easy three lengths ahead. Annawest and Blonger were the only ones shouting. They turned to collect their bets from a mostly dumbfounded crowd.
The buscaderos headed for the bar to console themselves with the Oh-be-Joyful. Snakeskin and Annawest went back up to their hotel room.
"Well," said Snakeskin some time later, "let’s get up and get dressed and go down to supper. Say, before we go down, how did you know that Tornado would win?"
"Well," said Annawest, ”I have never seen such a change in a horse. The old Tornado was about the laziest horse I ever saw. The horse that came up to the startin’ line looked like Tornado but didn’t act like him. He was prancin’, holdin’ his tail up, and his coat jis gleamed. There was only one possibility. It wasn't the same horse."
"Hah. No wonder Blonger left town so fast. Congratulations. Maybe you don't want to try to collect from Pony Dahl, though. He just isn't right in the head."
"Oh he won't shoot me."
"Oh let’s go down to supper. I'm hungry." On the way down the stairs she asked, “Why are you using those funny-looking bullets with the holes in the end?”
“Hollow points?” said Snakeskin. “I don’t usually use them because they make a terrible mess, but they’re better in the kind of a crowd we have here because they don’t go through the man you’re shooting at and hit somebody else.”
Annawest frowned, but said nothing.
Their evening passed pleasantly but uneventfully. They woke up early next morning and had a late breakfast. After breakfast, Snakeskin went down to the saloon to play poker and gauge the mood of the cowboys. Annawest and Kate Horony involved themselves in tea and commiseration.
Afterwards, Kate went up for a nap because Doc did not finish gambling until very late. Annawest went down to the Maw Cheryl’s saloon to look in on Snakeskin. He was playing poker with Doc Holiday, and some men she did not know. She was about to pass on, but noticed that Pony Dahl was a member of the party. Ladies did not go into saloons, but that man owed her money! She pushed aside the swinging doors and marched in. “Mr. Dahl,” she said, “you owe me fifteen dollars.”
Pony Dahl did not look up from his cards. “Now what makes you think I would give fifteen dollars to a two-bit whore?” He looked at her body. “You’d have to work for three days in a bed with silk sheets for me to give you a dime.”
Annawest was speechless with fury. The cowboys gave Dahl angry looks and looked at Snakeskin. Dahl didn’t notice. He was looking at his cards with muzzy concentration.
Snakeskin didn’t react. He looked at his cards and said, “Well I guess you got to play the hand you're dealt no matter how bad it is. Change seats with me Pony, maybe that’ll change my luck.” Pony obliviously complied. Now Pony was sitting on the right side of the table. To shoot down the long barroom toward the door, he would have to swing his pistol across his body.
Snakeskin sat down, looked at Doc Holiday, and nodded sideways at Annawest who had not moved. Holiday put his cards down on the table and waited. The other card players, except Dahl, slid their feet back under their chairs.
Then Snakeskin said. “Ahh there’s only one way to play this.” He threw in his cards, unfastened the thongs on his pistols said, “Excuse me, gents,” and walked toward the door, carefully watching Dahl in the mirror behind the bar. He took ten steps and turned around. Holliday took Annawest firmly by the arm and drew her to one side. The other card players put their cards in their vest pockets and backed away from the table. The young bartender finally noticed something was happening, but did nothing except goggle, his huge Adam’s apple moving up and down.
Pony Dahl raised his eyes from his cards and looked around in a puzzled way. His eye lit on Snakeskin. “Wha...?” he said.
“I tried to tell you that was a lady, Pony,” said Snakeskin, “but you wouldn’t listen. Am I going to have to count three? One…”
Pony dropped his cards and jerked his gun out of its holster. As he tried to swing it across his body, the barrel hit the table. Then it was too late. One of Snakeskin’s bullets hit him above the eye and one just below his breastbone. They threw him back up against the wall and he landed limp on the floor. One booted foot landed on his chair.
Maw Cheryl stuck her head out of the back room. “No other way he was going to end up,” she said. “What a mess. Wall too. Wolfgang!” The bartender jumped and came out of his frozen state. “Run down to where they’re building that shed and borrow a plank so we can get him laid out.” She stepped back into the back room and came out with a mop and a pail. “Better get it cleaned up when it’s fresh,” she said.
“Ahh, Ahh!” said Annawest. “Oh! Oh!”
Maw Cheryl dropped the pail, “Oh you poor child. Don’t stand there looking at it. Come into the back room and sit down. Tea might help.” Still Annawest stood there. Maw took her arm and drew her away. Annawest moved stiffly as if she had forgotten how to walk.
Later, Snakeskin took Annawest up to their hotel room. She stood facing the wall and refused to look at him. “I can not stand this,” she said. “I can not this. You said it almost never happened and this is three times. I can not stand this.”
“It was my fault he thought I was a prostitute. I was dressed too fancy. And he was drunk and crazy and had no idea what was goin’ on and you killed him anyway.”
“I know, but those cowboys really like you and respect you and half of them are half in love with you,” said Snakeskin.
Snakeskin spread his arms, palms out. “So Pony was dead just as soon as he called you a whore. If I hadn’t shot him somebody else would of.”
“Well you didn’t have to do it.”
“If I hadn’t, they would of figured I was a coward.”
“You men and your cultus pride,” snapped Annawest.
“An' then,” Snakeskin went on, “they’d of tried to take you away from me. Men would of died then. Me for one. Me for almost sure. Look Annawest, the West is calming down. Few years, your waddies probably won’t even be wearing six-guns. All you got to be is patient.”
“Patient!” She made fists of her hands and pressed them to her forehead. She gulped and ground her teeth. She set her jaw and turned around. She did not sob, but the tears were pouring down her cheeks.
“IF I married you,” she said. “I don’t think I can now. I want to, but I don’t think I can. Bein’ married to you would be wonderful but I jis can not stand… Oh it was awful seein’ that.”
“Acgh,” said Snakeskin, hooked the chamber pot out from under the bed and vomited into it. “Oh Gawd,” said Snakeskin who never swore in the presence of women. “Drunk and crazy. And it was me that creased his head like that in the first place. Acgh.” He vomited again.
Annawest turned back as Snakeskin got the dry heaves, “Oh! It’s happenin’ again isn’t it?”
Snakeskin was kneeling on the floor facing the chamber pot. He clutched the right side of his head. “Oh Luddy,” he said, “Oh Luddy. Here comes the headache. This is going to be a bad one. Worse than being shot. AAAch.” He heaved again.
“Oh dear,” said Annawest, “here, drink some water.”
“I…I can’t see it very well. My vision is fading out. It starts from the middle and spreads.” Annawest caught his hand and put the glass into it. Snakeskin drank it, but it came right back up again. “Oh Luddy,” he said. “Close the drapes and talk quiet. This is going to be a bad one. Drunk and crazy.”
“Oh no,” said Annawest, “I made it worse, didn’t I.”
“Oh Luddy,” said Snakeskin. “The world has started spinning on me. Help me to the bed. Bring the chamber pot. You might have to help me throw up.” Pain’s worst when I throw up. It’s never been so bad. Ah, give me my pistol, please, please.”
Annawest started to give him the pistol. Then she jerked it back, “NO!” she said. She opened the loading gate and took all the bullets out, dropping half of them on the floor. Then she did the other pistol.
“It…it would just be for comfort,” said Snakeskin.
Just then there was a knock on the door. “Oh no,” said Annawest. “Who is it?”
“Doc and Kate. How’s Snakeskin?”
“Well I...Could you come back later?” said Annawest.
“It’s bad, isn’t it,” said Doc.
“It’s awful,” replied Annawest.
“Well,” said Doc, “if it’s that bad, you’re going to need help. Begging your pardon, but we’re coming in.” There wasn’t much that they could do. Snakeskin lay on the bed half comatose with his hand pressed to his head, sweating, vomiting, and snarling at anybody who made a noise.
After the second day, Annawest found it difficult to keep calm. She said to a gathering in their hotel room, “Jis listen. He was raised with the Navajo. On a tradin’ post. He got their religion enough so that an Enemy Way Dance will bring him out of it. That’s the only thing that will. We have got to take him into the Navajo reservation.”
“Do whut now?” said ElPaso. “Yore talking wild. You cain’t do that. The Navajo is on the warpath. They’d chop you up inta little pieces and make you eat ‘em.”
“What he says is true,” said Doc Holliday. “The Navajo are in a blind fury over a killing and…other violence. Snakeskin told me that he came close to being shot himself when he took Waypatoo to the reservation.”
Annawest put her hands on her hips and gave the gathering a hard stare. “Well I don’t care. I’m goin' anyway. I can not stand to see him sufferin’. He tried to kill himself, it was so bad.”
“Annawest,” said Kate, “the Navajo are very angry over the…mistreatment of some of their women. They want to pay the white man back in his own coin.”
“You mean rape. I’m still goin',” said Annawest.
“You try, we’re liable to hog-tie ye,” said ElPaso.
Annawest opened her eyes wide and eyebrows came together and down. She thrust her chin out, her lips became thin, and a line of teeth showed between them. Her hands doubled into fists at her waist and she took a step toward ElPaso. ElPaso stepped back.
Snakeskin lifted his head and one shoulder from the bed. “Don’t…don’t…Annawest don’t go,” he croaked and fell back. “Oh Luddy…” he said.
Annawest closed her mouth firmly and left the room. Ten minutes later she was renting a buckboard and team from the livery stable. Fifteen minutes after that, she was in the general store. Her purchases included brown shoe polish, two narrow Navajo blankets, two ordinary blankets, hair dye, a wide leather belt, silver conchos, three bolts of cloth, a wash basin, and a big canteen.
She was introducing herself to the horses, blowing into their noses, when she noticed a small crowd coming. It included ElPaso, Doc Holiday, Kate, and the sheriff. In the lead was Maw Cheryl with her sleeves rolled up over her powerful arms. She was wearing her business face. Fifteen minutes later Annawest was inside a jail cell protesting at the top of her voice. All except Annawest expressed their thanks to Maw Cheryl who refused payment but accepted Kate's offer to treat the bruises on her shins.
"By Dang!" said Maw Cheryl, walking out, "I've had less trouble with two-hundred pound drunks."
"You can not keep me in here without charges!" shouted Annawest.
"Suspicion of cattle rustlin’," said the sheriff, sitting down at his desk.
It was some time before Annawest quieted down, but the sheriff might have been deaf for all the effect it had on him. Annawest sat down on the bunk with a thump. She folded her arms and stared at the floor.
After a good while she looked up. "Sheriff," she said in her sweetest and most ladylike voice, "it is so dull in here with nothin’ to do. Could you please bring me my handbag? It has my sewin’ things in it. You may remove the revolver, if you wish. Also, could you bring me the Navajo blankets from the buckboard? I wish to make myself a raincoat."
"Yes, Navajo blankets shed water you know. And they are très stainchable. That means plum durable."
"You can buy a raincoat."
"I know, but a woman doesn't want to look like every other woman, does she? It jis isn’t chic."
"Well, you got a point there, I guess. OK, I'll send somebody."
"By the way," said Annawest, "what did you do with my goods?"
"They're in the livery stable. I can have them run up to your room if you want."
"No thank you," she said. “Jis leave them there."
Anna spent the afternoon sewing the blankets together. She sewed the bottom sides of the blankets together to make a skirt. Next she sewed the top corners of the blankets together so that the top center of the blankets was open. She tried it on. She put her head through the top of the blankets and her arms out the sides. The fit was reasonable. She put the blankets aside and sewed the silver conchos to the belt. When she put on the blankets and the belt, she would be wearing a Navajo woman's dress. She took it off and laid it aside.
In the early evening, the sheriff went out for supper and old an swamper came in. She introduced herself and after some very cordial conversation she said, "I wonder if you could do me a favor," she said. "I don't have my Butterick sewin’ patterns with me. I left them in Snakeskin's Gladstone bag. Things are so dull in here. Could you please get that bag for me? Here's the room key."
The swamper scratched his hairy ear. "Well, Uhh..."
"I give you my word, there aren’t any weapons in there," she said, giving him here sweetest smile.
"I'll give you a dollar for a few drinks.”
When the swamper came back Annawest turned her back to him and put the bag on the bunk. She bent over from the waist so that her skirt lifted to expose her ankles. As the only part of a Victorian woman not swathed in layers of cloth, a woman's ankles had become of great interest to Victorian men. She thought the swamper would be sufficiently distracted to not see what she was taking out of the Gladstone bag and hiding under the mattress.
"Oh dear," she said, "they're not in here. Where could I have put them?"
"Well," said the swamper, “you could look in your handbag, there."
"Oh of course," she said and found them there. “How silly. Sorry to have troubled you."
"Pshaw, ‘tain’t no trouble at all."
Annawest was diligently sewing when the sheriff came in. "Well Ma’am. is there anythin’ you want before I go home?"
"No thank you."
As soon as the door closed, Annawest pulled Snakeskin's locksmithing book from under her mattress and opened the book to the chapter on lock picking. She had found the description of the jailhouse lock, selected the proper picks
She soon got the lock open, wedged the door with a knitting needle, then lay down and slept. Three hours before dawn she got up, put her revolver and her bag in Snakeskin’s valise, opened the door, and ran down to the livery stable. In half an hour she had the horses harnessed and all her goods loaded.
She led the horses to the back of the hotel. She unlocked the back door with a simple skeleton key and went up the stairs as quietly as she could. She drew her pistol and entered her room.
Snakeskin lay muttering and twitching on the bed. Kate sat dozing in a chair. As Annawest came in, Kate roused, looked at Annawest, down at her revolver, and up at her face again. Annawest lowered her pistol.
“You have to help me git him downstairs," she said, "Please.”
Kate looked at Snakeskin, bit her lips, and arose. The two of them got Snakeskin down to the buckboard without making too much noise. He hardly seemed to know what was happening. She covered Snakeskin with the blankets and drove away as quietly as she could. Once out of town, she whipped the horses to a trot.
The eastern horizon was turning white and making silhouettes of the mountains as she drove up to the borders of the reservation. She pulled up, set the brake, and tied the reins to a piñon tree. She removed her traveling dress, folded it, and carefully put it in the valise. She tied a short white cape around her shoulders, poured water into a basin she had taken from the hotel, and quickly washed her hair. After she threw out the soapy water, she poured the pungent contents of a bottle into the basin. She took a comb, dipped it into the basin and drew it through her hair starting at the roots. As she combed, her hair turned darker and darker until it was black. When her mirror told her that her hair was dark enough, she removed her cape and her chemise, dug out the brown shoe polish, and applied it to her face, arms, and shoulders. She put on the blanket dress that she had made, being careful not to smear the dress with shoe polish. Finally, she put on the belt with the silver conchos, put her hair into a bun, and climbed into the seat of the buckboard. She snapped the reins down and said "Giddyap!”
As she drove towards the reservation the horse's bodies tensed up so that they were rounded rather than a relaxed oval in outline. They tossed their heads with wide-open eyes and flipped their tails back and forth. Annawest finally took notice and pulled up. She took a several deep breaths, set the brake, and went forward and talked to the horses in a voice she managed to make calm. After a while the horses relaxed and stopped twitching and the worry-wrinkles above their eyes disappeared.
Annawest got back in the buckboard and started forward again. This time, she was careful to keep her voice calm and her hands steady on the reins. She sang to the horses as she drove. Every few minutes, she looked back at Snakeskin. He was much the same, sweating, muttering, and half-conscious. She resisted the urge to hurry. She did not know how far she had to go and did not want to tire the horses.
She topped a rise and saw a dead cottonwood tree with a sign on it. The sign was white with black lettering, but the light of dawn made it look blood-red. She noticed several objects fastened to the sign that looked like small swatches of cloth.
Flies rose up and swarmed around her when she reached the sign. "Navajo Reservation," the sign said. "The territory beyond this sign is not within federal or state jurisdiction. Any entering here are not protected by either federal or state authority. Pass at your own risk." She looked and saw that the swatches of cloth were not cloth at all, but scalps. The red hair on one was long and whipped back and forth in the wind. It could have been a woman's scalp. She hesitated. Snakeskin gave a gasp and a groan. She looked back, set her jaw, and snapped the reins, "Giddyap," she said.