Western Short Story
The snow just kept falling. Trist Winston led his dappled roan by the reins, hardly by sight. By now her rump was no longer dappled, just a white pattern of slower and slower melting snow. The mare was having a hard time stepping over the knee deep trail, and Trist even more. He knew they were not going to tip the pass before being bogged down to their death.
They hadn’t gone fifty more steps, contemplating the worst, when another path cut in front of them. A pair of horse tracks in the snow showed their speed and drag, all many inches covered by now, led hard to their left. The prints were softened by snowfall, having none of the sharp edges, but still couldn’t have been made more than three or four hours old. Knowing their situation down to their bones, they turned and followed.
It was near to half an hour of cold, grueling steps in which they forged ahead on another creature’s track before the smell of wood burn flickered to their senses. This auxiliary news sent a new awareness to Trist’s eyes and ears, giving strength to his cold legs and encouragement to his step. Even his tired horse moved better behind him, somehow knowing the situation. Within a few moments, a shaft of light cut through what would have been a world of whiteout would night not have started to take hold.
The cabin was backed by shod earth and fronted by pine logs, with shudders closed tight to the charging night. He called out to the place, but he knew that the storm and the walls must have killed his voice to those inside. All this made him wary, but staying out in the cold meant a slow, painful demise. Finally, he approached the door to knock and announce himself at the same time.
“Hallo indoors,” he said while his frozen, gloved knuckles tried to rap the wood of the door. His middle knuckle stung with the impact. That was a good sign.
The interior stirred. Then, the door opened a crack. An eye and a wild beard bled through the slit of the door.
“You good or got evil ways?” the voice asked.
“Good enough,” Trist said with chattering teeth. “Either way, I figure we’d be dying if we don’t get warm soon.” He motioned back with his head to his snowdrift of a horse. A smile tried to crest his face but failed, the cold made it a frightful mess under a few days of whiskers colored white from his breath and collecting lines of snow and ice.
“Follow those footprints to the barn and come on back,” the man said and closed the door.
He did just that, stripping the roan down and brushing off all the snow with the warm side of the saddle blanket. It was a small barn that already held two horses in the darkness, but held less of the cold and stopped the majority of the wind from the outside. The wooden slat structure kept the blowing snow at bay except for a few holes that let in flakes like that of a perpetual salt shaker. There was no food or water within sight, and even if it was, he didn’t have permission to take any of the food, and the water would be frozen. It was the best he could do for the old girl. There was just enough rail for his saddle and tack, so he shouldered his rifle sheath. He also grabbed coffee and some food in case the occupants were short and he could contribute. He was raised to be courteous.
Wading back to the home, he knocked out of politeness as he entered. He tried his smile again as he took in the room. The moments spent out of the wind gave him back his mouth muscles and it was less a grimace this time. There were two men, both gruff but not necessarily setting him on edge out of fear for life. He was a little too cold to be that concerned, as long as they weren’t shooting at him. Until his bones warmed, he could not care much the less.
Finding the warmth seductive, even if it wasn’t a pure warmth, he took off his snow topped hat and sat it down in the corner where he had unsaddled his shoulder of things. Seeing that the other two men were unarmed, he took off his gun belt and laid it beneath his jacket, but only barely beneath anything at all, grip outward. He still had his knife, which for him, was quite a lot. But they just looked like a couple of hard working miners caught up in the weather.
“All we got to offer is water and one biscuit left in the pan. Yours if you want them,” the older of the two said. He was rough, and his clothes were that made for heavy labor and wear, anything from a railroad man, handyman, or even a pit worker. His offer was lacking in variety but full of being neighborly.
“I’ll take you up on that biscuit, and I can offer some coffee and pork belly.” He sat down a sack of dried and roasted beans and a log of meat wrapped in store bought paper, which brought both men out of their chairs.
The younger man stood and took a step towards a small grinder that seemed to shake the solemnness out of his worn face. When he did, his absence revealed a shotgun edged in the corner that was preciously hidden by his bulk. He was cut from the same cloth as the other, haggard, unwashed, sordid, and wearing clothes that expressed a life of toil. He seemed more of a taker than the other man, perhaps just quiet where the older man was the voice of the crowd.
“Mana from heaven,” the older man said, passing the sack of coffee to the other to grind. He grabbed the iron skillet with the biscuit and dropped it in front while Trist opened the package of frozen meat, careful to keep the wrappings intact. Before laying anything all the way open, he took a healthy bite of the cold bread, then continued on working free the pork. The old man’s weathered hands took a pot and poured out a good deal of water from a bucket only feet from the stove to keep it liquid. Then dumped the boxy tins of coffee in as fast as the other man could grind them through.
Trist kept an eye on the sack of coffee, willing to share but not willing just to hand it over. He figured on having a long trip ahead of him and wanted it to last best it could. “You fellas sure are kind to share with me, figure I could do the same.”
“Yeah, we came up here thinking we could get in a bit of hunting before the snows flew, but that didn’t seem to be the case,” offered the older man. When he said this, the other man gave his partner a low browed stare. That was the most he’d said since jumping at the grinder. The older man must have caught Trist recognizing this and redirected the conversation. “Ulysses Lincoln,” he thrust out his hand before Trist could pull his knife to use on the pork, “and that there is Abraham Grant.”
“Trist Winston,” he said shaking hands with Ulysses, the older man, Abraham was busy tying off the sack of coffee beans. Those names sounded familiar, but he couldn’t place them, not in this moment of everything going on. Perhaps his fingers were starting to thaw but his brains still held one too many icicles for quick, rational thinking. Still, he kept his face in control as if it were a game of poker. Even with icy wits, an internal alarm was warming up.
As he moved his hand to his knife for working the meat, it brushed his vest pocket, which kept his badge and a paper copied from a telegraph giving the description of two men that had robbed a stage of less than five hundred dollars, counting the strong box and passenger’s purses and wallets. It was a lesser offense, but Trist was currently a lesser deputy. He couldn’t remember much of those descriptions, but the ages were close and he could recall that the older man had been identified as one James Tanner or Tinnman or T-something of the likes.
The larger man scooted the coffee bag aside for a trio of dirty, tin plates for the table while Trist cut through the second of three fat selects to sit in the heavy skillet. Ulysses looked at the coffee beans and pork. “That’s a good amount of travelling food you got there. And I should say, kind of you to share.”
“Well,” Trist began, “I was making for the pass but this storm cut me right out. If I hadn’t caught your tracks and the smell of smoke, I might have froze to death. I’ll call this paying off good fortune.”
“Funny, you just missed topping out by less than an hour’s ride, without the snow of course. With better weather, you would have made it over and then some before dark,” there was a masked kindness of conversation in the old man’s words. Seemed he was the only one that talked, and very much liked to do it.
“Yeah, funny how that worked out,” Trist said, leaving it at that. He watched from his peripheral as the larger, Abraham, his eyes moved like beams of light again to the old man. He never talked but whispered much with his sterile eyes. They were jumpy eyes, where the rest of him was calculated and moved through routines with ease.
While shaving through the last cut, he noticed the larger man had caught the old man’s attention, threw his eyes at the knife in Trist’s hand, then returned to the old man in a plead of questions that started with ‘What do we do about that?’
Trist stayed cool, finished the last slice through a spot of fat with the knife. He placed it amongst the others and looked at the older man. “Here you go Jimmy.”
“Thanks, those will cook up well on, the, stove…” The whole room might as well have had the roof blown off, for a layer of hoarfrost formed on everything right after the older man answered. Even as he spoke, the larger man’s eyes grew wide as saucers well before James knew what he had just done. Then, everyone was just staring at each other, waiting for anyone to move so they could react. Each was frozen though the cold was held at bay by the door.
The larger man lost all his calm demeanor and his actions seemed to catch up to the wildness of his eyes. His shoulder leaned over the set of his toes in slow motion, towards the shotgun lined upward in the corner. Trist raised the knife, as if it could cover the both of them, but it was no real threat to either man with a heavy wooden table between. The man’s lean became more and more apparent, until it became a full lunge at the corner.
Trist turned to his tack at the door while shifting his knife to his left. Doing so, he ducked to a knee to slide his hand beneath his coat to wrap firmly about the grip of his gun. As he felt the confidence of the wood and metal, the air behind his back moved, and the door behind became peppered with holes and lead. The resounding blast from the shotgun was lost to excitement but the results were not. A cold breeze started making its way through the cracks and fissures that now pitted the door.
It was a race between munitions as Trist cocked the hammer while he wheeled and the larger man had already lowered the shotgun to eject. Trist was easily in the lead and fired as the man fumbled in his shirt pocket for another shell. The man’s face was that of apprehension and concentration with his tongue stamping out the side of his mouth. When the bullet punched though his ribs, he bit deep into his tongue. Blood spouted below his right shirt pocket and from between his teeth. Both wounds caused him to crumple to both knees, the shotgun falling in a clatter to the floor.
When Trist turned back to James, the older man had moved away, showing his back as he hunched over his own pack on a cot in the corner. He would never shoot a man in the back but he knew what was coming. A glance at the large man showed him down, which doesn’t always mean he won’t get a second wind and put a pattern of his own on Trist. Can’t call him out yet. Can’t go over and get that shotgun away just yet either. It was a waiting game of split attention that lasted only seconds.
The old man turned quick as a snake. Trist was already cocked and fired first, but jerked just high and left of the man’s arm. The old man fired second, an instant behind Trist. He too shot just a breadth early with the excitement of death screaming in his face. This gave Trist the next roll of the dice.
He squeezed off the trigger, edging the nose ever so slight to the center of body. It was just the right nudge. The older man doubled over, shooting a constrictive round wide and into the floor. Trist stepped up to press himself to the table, giving himself a clear view of both downed men. Each stayed in their own world of painful sentiment. Neither had an ounce of fight for the moment. Trist took three big steps and put his boot on the barrel of the shotgun to pin it on the floor. His other attention and gun stayed on the older man. There was no sympathy when he blubbered and asked for help for the pain that began to assault within.
It was in that moment of recess that some of his other senses, those unneeded and unwanted in a fight, came back to him. It was his shoulder. It started to throb. He peeked over and saw that there were little bloody holes scattered over the area, and his ear began to sting. He lifted his knife hand and pulled back a small smear of blood. He must have caught some of that shot from the door after all. A woozy feeling started to overcome him, but he willed it down for the need to keep alert, to ensure he stayed alive.
During Trist’s time of momentary internal scrutiny, the man on the floor had stirred, pulled a knife of his own, and quick as a diving hawk, stabbed it at the boot which stood in his face. The blade cut through the toe edge of the boot and dug deep into the old wood of the floor. Trist looked down at the blade cleaved boot. He waited for the pain, the blood, but felt nothing. What he could feel was the blade perfectly speared between two of his toes. Sliding his boot free, the blade remained, and with only the slightest insinuation of blood. His toes wiggled and felt fine, if not with a little too much freedom and a slight breeze. The fleeting thought went through his mind that his only pair of good socks now had a hole.
Abruptly, the man managed to pull the knife free of the floor. He raised it high, and Trist shot him a second time through his muscular torso before he could bring it down hard and square into his foot. His strong body rolled over onto his back and one hand pressed in towards the wound, the knife rattling to the floor. Many a man had lived through worse, and Trist was not letting down his guard. He kicked the shotgun and knife towards the door. If this man pulled anything else, he would send the remaining two into his head. After a moment, this did not seem necessary, as the man’s arms went slack and weak, his eyes released their grimace, and the rise in his chest went from a torrent to a puddle.
The older man groaned from across the floor, under Trist’s now furious gaze. With the closer man’s weapons well out of reach, he carefully approached the other with the same intent of disarming. Two steps closer and he was able to kick the gun towards the other weapons near the cold, seeping door. The man finally managed to push up onto one arm. Now the wound could be seen midway up his left side, likely shot through the lungs. He wheezed and by now, his chest was filling with blood with every breath. His time remaining was limited. The slack in his face, the pale skin, and crimson flecked lips told the story. It took only a moment before he too showed the signs of giving up the ghost, falling forward to the floor without even trying to catch himself.
Trist looked around. It was going to be a cold, eerie night and that storm didn’t look like breaking anytime soon. That tempest had a will stronger than the two on the floor.