Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
He’d come across the horse, still saddled, in a small ravine where a blow-down had corralled the big gray. A rifle was still nestled in the scabbard, a rope looped to the pommel, and a canteen on the other side. He could imagine the rider taken off the horse’s back by an arrow, a bullet, a puma in a wild leap, and the horse racing off for its own life. He’d never know what it was, but spent three days looking for the lost rider. In the end, reality punching him in the face with larger doses each morning, he figured the body’d been torn apart by vultures or dragged off into a cave, devoured, no words said over the final resting spot.
In those three days, Trent Coyne, wanderer who had his own horse cussed by a bear and run off, figured luck, providence, fate, or whatever name he could give it, had saved him. Though he had his pistol and two dozen shells that included those in the gun as well as on his belt, they might not be enough for a long walk.
The mighty surprise was the horse, standing at attention on the other side of a tree that had come crashing down from halfway up a canyon wall. The penned in animal was looking Coyne in the eye as he peered through the branches. Coyne spilled some water in his hat and watered the horse, a gray in outstanding shape and bearing a mark he had not seen before. The saddle bore a mark too, a semi-elaborate stretch at a fancy LTW burned into place by a thin iron. The script was rough as a result of a hand raw at the task, the way a young boy might declare ownership.
That last part worried Coyne a good deal, thinking of a youngster, boy or girl, alone out here in the foothills of the Rockies on foot and with no protection. Going easy on a bit of jerky in his pocket, he gave it another day without any signs found.
The idea of the lost rider being a youngster, with folks waiting a son or daughter, now for four days at least, bothered him considerably. His brother Dirk had gone off to the war and they waited six years for him, and still no word. Coyne had spent more than a month at the last encounter of his brother’s brigade in Missouri, found nothing, and finally headed west. The wait had worn his parents right into the grave.
He put it all behind him. And here was another case of a missing person.
It was not wasted on Coyne.
And there had to be somebody looking for the rider. Perhaps, if he kept at it a few more days, he’d make a good contact, find out what was what.
Just a day later, at dusk, he caught the odor of meat over fire. Near him, in the maze of canyons and wadis and narrow crevices in the cliff faces, someone was preparing a meal, or had just eaten it. He saw a glimmer of light, was about to hail the unknown fireside folk, when a serious thought came home. He ought to have a better idea of who might be at the fire. It was best not to walk in on an unknown. He’d wait until morning.
Retracing his steps, he went back a decent way, tied the horse off and bedded down under an overhang. Sleep came in pieces, broken up by discomfort, thoughts of his brother and of the lost rider. In his mind he also counted his supplies, weapons, ammunition, checked the rifle again, after checking the horse also. Coyne counted himself ready for most anything.
Like meeting folks looking for the lost rider whose horse he was riding.
He didn’t know what was coming at him.
Back at the Thomas Woodbury ranch, the panic was heightening each hour for a son now missing for 5 days. His mother and sister were crying all the time, and the father was raising the reward for the return of his son, Larry, 12, who may have gotten lost in the foothills, or kidnapped. The town paper had printed posters advising of the reward and describing the boy and the horse he was riding, his favorite gray named Trips. The poster did set in motion the idea that the boy was more a kidnap victim than a lost person; he supposedly knew his way around. Woodbury was a big man in these parts and his son was the apple of his eye and one day would own a large piece of Texas.
The kidnap idea gained momentum each day, and set bounty hunters into the search. At least three were known to be out looking and carrying posters about the boy and the horse.
Such was Coyne’s luck, to run into two of them in cahoots for the search, but he was exercising care; he was riding someone else’s horse, a marked horse. It had saved him, obviously, but also might be his downfall.
Without being seen, he left his sleep site and crept closer, trying to hear anything the two men were saying. He did not know, as yet, that they were bounty hunters, but the evidence would come in a hurry.
They were a tough-looking pair, wide at the shoulders, the hips, and the paunch, each braced by a pair of pistols. The set on the taller man appeared almost half as long as a rifle barrel. Coyne thought the guns were special all the way, maybe custom-made. He had not seen the likes before.
The men were not arguing, but their voices were loud, as if it was their practice to keep a leg up on anyone they were talking to, dwarf them or assert command over a lesser person.
Coyne had seen characters like this pair in operation. He thought such men were either braggarts or cowards
“I’m atellin’ you, Slack, that we don’t question anybody if we find anythin’. The big clue’s the horse. I don’t give a damn about anybody’s kid, but the horse is different. We find anybody else with the horse, we shoot him and bring him to the old man across the saddle. We don’t ask questions, we don’t get stories that may throw trouble our way. Like someone saved the kid but we couldn’t find him, or somethin’ crazy like that.”
The man called Slack said, “I ain’t sayin’ we shouldn’t, Smitty, but we ought to know what happened just to keep us off’n any problem they might find with the situation. Just be ready, us, for questions. Hell, all I want out if this is just what you want, the damned reward. Ain’t nothin’ more valuable than that for us. I ain’t split with anybody but once before and that time was with Black Jack Skedaddle down in Waco ‘cause we both shot up Hank McHenry at the same time, ‘n’ the sheriff down there said we split or nothin’, so we split. I don’t favor it none, but this is wide searchin’ with only this piece of paper tellin’ us what’s what.” He waved a piece of paper in the air. It was the printed reward poster that Coyne had not heard about.
Smitty said, “And we’re in this together, like sharin’ what we put in and what we take out. That ain’t goin’ to change one bit, case you get any ideas.”
“You got my word on that, pard,” Slack said, as Coyne, now recognizing them as unscrupulous bounty hunters, knew he wouldn’t believe the oath of either man no matter how that man crossed his heart.
It was right then that the horse Coyne had found, perhaps frightened by a mountain cat or another animal, or a human, made a noise that echoed down the walls of the canyon and deposited alarm on the bounty hunters, and on Coyne.
“What the hell’s that,” yelled Smitty, grabbing his rifle and bending low, looking around. It was obvious he did not like being a target, rather liked being on the other end of things. He stared into the mountain’s shadows, and the depth of night beyond the fire.
“It’s a horse is what it is,” Slack said. “Somebody’s near here, or it’s loose. It might be the kid’s horse. If it is, and we get him, we’re halfway home on the reward the old man’s tossing out here. You go that side, Smitty, and stay low’s so I won’t shoot you outta your boots.” He scoffed at the idea, grabbed his rifle and slipped into the darker part of the canyon well away from the fire. His boots scraped once on the ground and were heard no more.
Coyne had to backtrack in a hurry, and must have made some noise at it. A single round came out of the darkness and splattered against the rock face and splintered rock fragments in the air. Some of those shards sang through the air, whizzing by him, some clattered on the cliff face. He knelt as low as he could, and put his hand down to steady himself, to assist in the silence. His hand touched on a flat stone, thin, near circular. It was like a skipping stone at Meader Lake when he was a kid. Seven skips was the most he ever got. The flat stones they used would whir through the air, hit, ricochet a number of times, hit and spin off again. Seven he’d hit, and seven times at that. His thinking of that at this minute made him wonder about fate and intervention. Then the idea hit him. It was crystal clear in his mind, like it was lying in top of the water on Meader Lake. Placing his rifle on the canyon floor as quietly as possible and touching his hand on the earth, he searched for any other stone and found one. Ball-like it was, but small, not much bigger than a bullet casing.
He said a prayer.
With his left hand on the blunt stone and his right hand on the skipping stone, Coyne prepared himself. The gamble assumed a bigger chance than he had supposed a bare moment earlier. The lake almost appeared out in front of him, like the surface of a mirror. There was no distance known, no measures taken, and darkness sat around him big and dense as a sack. The thought sequence came over him as if he was looking at the scene in another lifetime. He had no idea where it had come from, but with his left hand he flung the ball-like stone out against what he thought was cliff face. It clattered loudly.
The flash of light from a rifle bore leaped once in the darkness as one of the men fired at the sound. And with all his strength and learned skills from his youth at Meader Lake Coyne flung the thin scaling stone at the space and place where the flash had erupted. He thought the shooter was no more than 30-40 feet away from him. He heard someone huffing and puffing. His hearing was as keen as ever.
He did not hear the flat stone hit a cliff face or a boulder or the canyon floor. The “thud” of it hit something softer. He knew it was bone muffled by flesh. He heard a man’s voice moan for a mere second and the sound of a body hitting the ground came from the darkness.
There was no multiple skipping with that toss, he thought.
There was silence, however, absolute silence, until a voice said, “Smitty, where are you?”
No answer. A soft wind whistled lightly on a corner of stone, higher up a cave moaned its presence.
“Smitty,” the voice said again, “don’t play no games with me.”
Coyne figured he had to brazen it out. “Harkness,” he yelled from what he hoped was secure darkness, “you and Carson go down that side. Burley, you and Big Boy take the other side. I don’t know what we’re dealing with here, but these strangers shoot before they ask questions, and I don’t like that one ornery bit.” He paused, took a breath, and said, “Don’t play games with them either. Any doubts. Just shoot them.”
Sometime he would tell his friends how they had helped him out without knowing it.
“Whoa,” the voice of Slack said, weakly from the darkness, like discovery had happened, exposure on foot, balance being sought, “we’re just bounty hunters looking for the lost Thompson kid. We got a paper that says that. There’s a reward for him and his horse. We’re just bounty hunters who joined up in this. We ain’t out to hurt anybody. Believe me. Tell them, Smitty.” The entreaty in his voice was sincere, and frightened, and it was not wasted on Coyne.
Smitty, of course, didn’t answer.
Coyne said, “Let me hear your guns hit the ground.”
The sound of two guns hitting sounded on a stone surface. The sound was believable.
“Step back,” Coyne said.
Slack’s boots let off their touching. His breathing was audible, measurable, and localized. And behind him, over him, the false dawn slowly began to assert itself as a shaft of bare light settled down upon the two temporary adversaries, a straw of bare brightness coming down through dark clouds. The bounty hunter Slack appeared as one shadow against morning’s light. Then, in a new flash, he appeared for real, a big man, broad all over, a beard heavy as a muffler, and without guns at his belt he immediately began to decrease in size.
Coyne played his trump cards a bit more. “Harkness,” he said, to his invisible cohort, “you keep your guns on this big feller and I’ll collect their guns until we get this situation squared away. Keep watch on that other feller down there wondering what’s happened to him.”
Coyne gathered their guns and put them behind him where shadows still played.
“What’s your name?” he said to Slack.
“Togger Slack, and I’m just a bounty hunter. My pal is Bert Smith. I call him Smitty and he calls me Slack and we just rolled our dice together to find the missing kid.”
What kid is that?”
“A kid named Woodbury, a big rancher’s son, been missing for near a week now. Big reward for him. He was riding a big gray.”
“His saddle marked LTW?”
“That’s his. You got him?”
“I found his horse penned up at the back end of a canyon by a blow-down,” Coyne said, “and hunted the rider for three or so days, but no sign of him. Are there a lot of bounty hunters out searching for him?”
“I’d guess there is, ‘cause there’s a big hunk of cheese for who finds him.” He looked around the area, saw nobody else and said, “You got somebody along with you? I don’t see no one.” He didn’t see his own weapons anyplace either.
Coyne, not quite able to discard his invisible help, said, “They’re around. Looking at things. They want the reward too.”
The light blossomed some more around them, rays of it falling into place, whole pieces of light like tapestry hitting a section of cliff wall, reflecting in turn as a mirror casts light.
“So where’d they go? Whatcha goin’ to do now?” Slack kept sweeping his gaze about, and saw his pal beginning move where he was crumpled on the ground. “What happened on Smitty? I know he ain’t shot.”
“He’s okay, I’d guess, from the looks of him. Must have caught a loose rock when he fired a shot. He must have thought we were looking for him for some reason. He wanted any place?”
“Hell, no,” Slack replied, “we’re bounty hunters, both us.” His empty hands twitched into and out of fists and open hands.
Coyne had to keep some advantage, some edge on his side, and said, “Bounty hunters who shoot at people without asking questions? That’s how we read it.” He was very comfortable as if speaking for a whole passel of men. The situation sat clear for him, him and the horse, the two bounty hunters, any other searchers in the area.
He thought carefully as a ray of light surprised him, flashing off the opposite cliff face, morning stretching its arms. Welcome to the wake-up world, it said. A horse snickered close by. To balance sound, mark the scale from a distance, as if ringed and echoed off a prominent rock face, a solitary coyote greeted the morning and a bird called out its lonesomeness. The whole trail’s edge, history working itself, nostalgia rolling into the same edge, caught up to Coyne, came down atop him.
Decisions called for a voice, for practical things.
Keeping his gun on the bounty hunter, Coyne backed off and said, “We’ll leave your horses and guns down the trail. You can find them after a little walk. We’re going after the lost boy again, all of us. This time we’re heading east along the trail.” He felt really comfortable keeping the lie in action. Any help would aid him. He didn’t want to be caught on the boy’s horse for fear of what would happen if found by a group of under-controlled searchers. And he couldn’t steal a horse from the bounty hunters, which would put a rope around his neck, quick as these two would look at him. That was his impasse.
He left the bounty hunters’ horses and guns down the trail a short ways, far enough so that he could get away from an immediate pursuit.
A short few hours later, ascending a ledge rising to a crowned hill well to the east of his recent search, he heard the whisper of a voice calling for help. The call came from down in behind a small freshet of a spring oozing from the rock face of the hill. Lawrence Thomas Woodbury, both ankles bruised and swollen, one arm hung up on his belt, asked for food. “I’m starving, mister. I had water, but no food for I don’t know how long.”
“I have some tough jerky, son,” Coyne said, but it’s kept me alive while looking for you. I have your horse.”
“Oh, God, I worried about him. You can’t know how much. He’s such a good horse. Do you know how my folks are? I think I’ve slept half the days away. I couldn’t walk and figured it best to stay put, but you’re the first one I’ve seen or heard. I don’t know how long it’s been.” He chewed on the jerky like it was a medium rare steak without the aroma. “Oh, that’s good enough for me any day of the week,” he said, holding a piece of jerky up.
“What happened?” Coyne said, looking back over his shoulder, leery of the bounty hunters or anybody of the like who’d “arrange” discoveries so they could get the reward.
“It was a bear that almost pulled me off the saddle. I hurt my legs awful bad when I fell on a rock and was awful dizzy for a long time. I crawled into a small cave for protection and piled some rocks up in front of me. My horse had bolted with my rifle, my rope, my canteen. I knew I had to stay put, not that I could walk, but I know I slept a lot. I just waited for my pa to come find me.”
“Well, Larry,” Coyne said, “if that’s what they call you, there are a couple of bounty hunters that may try to make their way to get the reward. We have to stay clear of them until we get you home. I don’t care about any reward but another mount ‘cause mine’s gone too. Critters up here are pretty dangerous, so we have to watch for them too.” He looked again over his shoulder, “But mostly them back there, they’re so bent on getting the reward.”
“We can ride double,” young Thompson said. That’ll help me ‘cause I can’t walk anyway.”
Coyne thought the boy to be in good spirits despite his situation. He noted his bright blue eyes and the smile that began to linger longer on his face the more he talked about his folks, the more he thought about them. “We’ll fill the canteen and head out for home best way we can.”
Coyne helped Larry Woodbury up on the saddle, grabbed the reins and started walking the boy home.
“You going to ride?” the boy said. “There’s room.”
“I will after a while, after we get you down off this ledge, out of this canyon.” Coyne was chipper and full of hope. At least, that’s the impression he gave to young Woodbury.
The pair of them, Coyne still on foot, were a couple of hours on the way out of the mountains, when a shot rang out against the rocks ahead of them. Coyne had a good idea who was shooting. E pulled Larry Woodbury off the saddle and sat him behind a rock. “You sit still, Larry. Don’t give these boys any reason to shoot you. All they’re interested in is the reward and they’ll set it up for them to get it the easiest and surest way.
“They wouldn’t hurt us, would they?” Larry Woodbury said, his face showing his ender age, his disbelief that something bad was going to come after being found and on his way home.
“I’ll try not to let that happen, Larry. I’ll do my best.”
Slack and Smitty came into view from behind a large rock slab. Smitty was showing blood on a large section of his shirt, and looking crazy mad at the same time. The two were carrying rifles leveled at Coyne and young Woodbury.
Smitty, anger already built into his voice, said, “I don’t what you hit me with, but I’m goin’ to get even damned quick, see if’n I don’t.”
“Before you say any more,” said Coyne, “if all you’re interested in is the reward, you’ll have to produce the boy to his father. That cuts the odds for you, because I found him and he’ll tell his father.”
Slack laughed at that point. “We already talked that over, pal. We say you had kidnapped the boy and we rescued him. That’s all there is to it. We get the whole package.”
“He’ll tell his father.”
“Hell, we’ll take care of it all. Fix it so you get blamed and he don’t get to tell his old man anythin’. That’s all there is.”
Coyne, suddenly seeing the route they’d go, said, “You’re going to have to put me down in that case, but I guarantee you one of you goes with me. Which one is it going to be, you Slack or you Smitty?”
“Well, hell,” Smitty said, “we’re pards in this.” He looked at Slack and the two laughed.
“Which one of you will shoot the other to get all the reward money? Neither one of you think about that, or have you both thought of it? I’m willing to bet both of you have made that trip in your mind long before this.”
Slack jumped right back. “Nothin’ of the sort, mister. We split it and go our separate ways. Easy as aces.”
For the first time the youngster spoke up. “We left a note back there where I was found that Trent Coyne found me and saved me. My father will find it. You men could go to the moon but he’d get you back, bet on that.”
“Shut up, Kid. We’ll get all of the reward. All we gotta do is knock off the both of you.” He smiled a terrible smile full of hatred.
BANG! Came a shot right above Smitty’s head. BANG! Came a second right over Slack’s head.
Three men appeared at a turn in the trail, right behind Slack and Smitty. Two rifles were smoking.
“Drop ‘em or you’re dead,” a thick, heavy voice said. “You okay, son?”
“Yeh, Pa. This gent here, Mr. Coyne, saved me and was walking me all the way home. Those two were going to mess it up just to get the reward.”
“It’ll all level out, son,” the elder Woodbury said as he hugged his son. “You get to go home and see Mom and your sister, Mr. Coyne gets the reward, and these two gents are going to jail on my say so.”
Young Larry Woodbury said, “All he wants is another good horse, Pa. His got run off too, but he found mine.”
Woodbury squeezed his son again and said, “Larry, he can have the whole remuda if he wants it, and saddles to go with it.” He slapped his thigh as he said to his two companions, still with rifles in their hands leveled at the bounty hunters. “Ain’t that the pure truth of it boys. Ain’t I been saying that for near a week now?”
He let out a fierce yell that young Woodbury figured his mother could hear all the way home.