Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The young man came into the saloon at Pepper Hill and two strangers to town wondered who the kid was. The bartender told them he was Trick Chuter. They, of course, heard it as “Trick Shooter” and each one raised their eyebrows in mock appreciation. The pair wore their guns slung from their right hips, just as Chuter did.
“What’s his story?” one stranger said to the bartender.
Trick Chuter did not grow into his name: lt was given by his father who had looked down the road and had seen what was coming to his family, his wife and his newborn son. Abigail Newkirk Chuter was upset at the name but sat at the back end of the wagon as it moved westward, pushed by the sun in the early part of the day, drawn by the setting sun as it dropped over the peaks out in front of them. As she nursed her newborn, she could not call him Trick. It was as if a game had been played on her and not her son.
She had, of course, dreamed long and often about having a child, and here he was in her arms, now and forever a part of her. She turned around and looked at her husband, Douglas Chuter, formerly of a small coal town in Pennsylvania, who had his own dreams about fresh air in the western part of the country. She hoped his lungs were not yet contaminated, prayed that they were not, loved him endlessly … except for the name he had cast upon their son.
Her other dream, savored for years where for long stretches dust filled the air, was a pretty cabin on a rise looking over sweet grass and prairie flowers. Winters out beyond her, in the west, would be harsh, but spring and summer and a good chunk of fall would be worthy trade-offs.
“Let’s hope so,” she murmured under breath, “and maybe the tricks on us, Trick.”
That small address had done it. She had called him Trick, blessed the name, knew now their new home would have to be the final blessing.
Doug Chuter, at the reins of the wagon, “the birth wagon” as he now called it, could bring back in sharpest clarity his days down in the mines. The #9 mine to the Mammoth Vein in the Panther Creek Valley. It was not the near eternal closeness that carried the images, but the coughing of any man in the tunnel, from a man who had been touched by the devil they worked on day in and day out, a man who would carry topside the notice of his ailment, and the terror.
As he guided the wagon in line with a dozen other wagons, his gaze swept ahead of him as another lovely valley and sweep of grass opened before them. The site grabbed him from rim to rim and he realized it was this kind of a place that Abby dreamed of.
The wagon train was near the tri-territorial borders of Kansas, Nebraska and Colorado. As the train scout rode slowly past his wagon, he said, “Hey, Calvin, is this Colorado yet?”
The scout said, “It sure is. See what I see?” They had talked before about destinations, about dreams. He winked at him and rode on.
Chuter said, “Abby, come look at this. I’ll be looking for a place like this somewhere along the line.”
Abby Chuter, her son asleep in the back of the wagon, climbed down and went to sit with her husband and saw what showed resplendent in front of them. “What’s wrong with this?” she said, a gasp in her throat. In the distance she saw a stagecoach pounding across a trail in the grass. “Where do you think that coach is going?”
Her husband yelled and asked the scout who replied, “To Pepper Hill Station, next stop on their line. The west is growing wider by the day.” A loud laugh followed when he guided his horse off the trail.
Doug Chuter and his wife Abby knew this was the place for them.
Chuter, with a small amount of “coal mine money” still on hand, bought a piece of land that his wife could not leave. They pitched camp after the purchase from the Pepper Hill Station owner and Chuter set about building a cabin. He brought 12 weeks of stored up energy to the project, the fresh air adding tons of acceleration to it, and Abby as happy as he had ever seen her. And now and then, stopping work on a section of cabin wall, or planing a board, sometimes heard her say, “Well, Trick darling, this will be home.”
The cabin grew each day at The House on Pepper Hill, as Abby had dubbed the place, her turn at naming something. She could do wonders with peppers, from raising them to delicate savoring and stormy tastes that her husband loved in his meals. The cabin it grew as the years passed, and a barn rose behind it, and corrals and fences and a garden that practically shook alive at Abby’s touch, which included flowers as well as a host of vegetables. Porches, separate at first for views, eventually circled the house, where Abby sewed, peeled vegetables, arranged picked flowers in window boxes, and her husband apparently free from any sign of mine infection.
The family also grew with another boy and a girl, and Trick moved into his teen years, his handling of a weapon as quick as anybody about (in his father’s mind), but never taken to task, his youthful looks saying he was a mere boy to one and all the folks around Pepper Hill.
There was bound to be an exception. History tells us that such things happen often.
It came from one of the strangers introduced above. He had spoken of it a number of times at campsites, saloons, barber shops, you name it, talking about Trick Shooter over in Pepper Hill. Fast-Jack Conaughy had his own reputation to uphold and was challenged by a trail pal that said, “Sounds like you’d want that Trick Shooter right in your sites, Jack. That so?”
“Sure is,” admitted Conaughy. “The time’s coming.” He knew it was close, just about a day’s ride away.
“Is he just a shavetail, Jack? Hardly broken in? Looking for a name?”
“He’s big enough to carry that pistola on his belt, he’s got to be big enough to use it.”
Only a week later, Abby and Doug Chuter were coming back from a business trip to Pepper Hill City, which had grown up around the old coach station. The Chuters, with a saw mill in full operation and Abby’s garden now a four-acre farm, had bankrolled a few new enterprises in the settlement, including the general store, the livery and some smaller hits and misses along the way. But they contributed much to any decent idea, provided their own goods were part of the business. The saw mill was flourishing and supplying a wide area, the garden that had become a farm had four women employees that had been hand-picked by Abby. The four did none of the farm work but specialized in the fruits and vegetable sales and preparation of special foods. The foods were varied as the staff and Abby had hired an Indian maiden, a Mexican girl, a Chinese girl who had lost her way, and a girl who stepped off a wagon and told Abby, “I grew up in my mother’s kitchen.” Her name was Vera Stocker and she was 13 at the time. Vera’s eyes and Trick’s eyes often settled on each other, and Abby had seen it long before her husband did.
Their wagon, heading into town, had been full. It was empty on the return trip.
The business couple was caught up in a discussion of starting a dress shop. He had just said, “Abby, count how many women are around here who’d buy a dress or even two in a whole year,” and she had said. “I counted 40 women from the area at the last dance and half of them have daughters in or nearing their teen years. That’d do it for me.”
Suddenly, Chuter said, “Hold it, Abby. There’s somebody in those trees ahead of us. I saw a horse move. If anybody sets on us, don’t do anything. Don’t say anything.”
As he was about to whip the team of horses ahead, a horseman came into the trail, a rifle aiming at them. “Hold it there,” the horseman said, a black mask on his face, his hat drawn down over his brow. “I want to see what’s in your wagon.” Abby, with her keen eye at work, noted he was mounted on a big gray stallion with a fairly new saddle of indiscreet markings, but an old rifle sheath tied on with rawhide. Her eyes passed over his person and collected all the information she could discern. There was not much else to see, much else to note.
“Look all day,” Chuter said, “and you won’t see anything. It’s all back there in town. We dropped off all our stuff back in Pepper Hill. Some of it’s probably been sold by now.” He had a definite feeling the road agent knew who they were, but offered no insight at the moment.
The masked man rode close to Chuter’s side of the wagon, slapped him on the face, and said, “Don’t try to smart mouth me, mister. I don’t take that from a nothing body.”
But Abby marked his language again. So much had come to her from the four ladies in her employ, where she had to learn, detect, and use the differences in language to understand, to be understood by each of the women. She was proud of her ear and moved as if she was about to say something, and Chuter nudged her and repeated, “Don’t say anything.”
With the rifle still on the couple, the masked man came around to Abby’s side and said, “Do like he says and like I said, Don’t smart mouth me, you nothing.” He slapped her on the face, and immediately trained the rifle directly at Chuter and said, “Move and you get something dead at close range.” He waved the tip of the rifle, while Abby, from the first moment, kept on studying him.
“I guess you really don’t have any goodlings I want, so you can go.” He slapped one horse of their team on the rump and the team started off. It must have been a sense of bravado, Chuter decided later on, for the masked man had said, “See you around,” before he rode off, heading for the hills.
The couple headed for home rather than head back to see the Pepper Hill sheriff. Abby wanted to see her family after the scare. They simply told the children that a masked man had stopped them on the road, saw that they had nothing but their empty wagon, and rode off. Chute said he’d go into town to tell the sheriff later in the day. Abby told only Vera Stocker what she had seen, what she had noted. The information widened Vera’s eyes, and she remembered every detail, which she shared with Trick before evening slid across Pepper Hill.
“Your mother has the eyes of an eagle, Trick. The eyes of an eagle and a mind with a crystal ball. She thinks he may have spotted the details that she did, but she’s not sure, and would not share anything with him. But I share them with you, thinking of your father, who is not a gunman in the least, but a hardworking businessman. I am fearful of what he might do if he ever caught up with the man who slapped your mother.”
He kissed her on the cheek. She wanted to clutch him in her arms, but she held back. Wheels were turning that she had not seen yet.
As supper was finishing, Trick said, “I’ll go out and check the stock, Pa, and you and Mom rest awhile. I’ll be in the back quarter with the horses before I bring them in. Maybe an hour or two.”
Once outside, Trick saw his father, as he had expected him, saddle his horse and set off for town. Trick did the same, but galloped on a different trail to town. Before his father got to town, Trick had checked all the horses at the saloon rack and at the store. He saw no gray stallion to catch his eye. He went behind a few stores to look.
Leaving his horse in an alley beside the general store, he sauntered to the saloon. The evening crowd was growing, and a dozen people were inside, and three more followed him in. Scanning the bar he saw one man look at him and look away. Another man, nodding to a friend via the bar mirror, ignored Trick and also looked away.
A third man was very interesting as he leaned his thin frame into the bar. He was thirtyish, weather-burnt across his face, wore an old Stetson handed down from long travels, and a pistol hand-ready in the holster. He looked like he was a snake all coiled for action, at the edge of nerves. His eyes found Trick in the mirror, but did not acknowledge him. Instead, he said to the bartender, “The last time in here we were talking about nobodies wearing their guns for display and not ready for any work. Don’t you think that’s a kind of pussy willow stuff, like knitting and sewing and really belonging in a somehow ladies chair somewhere.” He still leaned forward.
With his left hip against the bar, Trick was facing the side of the man doing the prompting. “All that pussy willow stuff really belongs to a coward who slaps women and older men while he has a gun on them. That’s the lowest rat in the pile, don’t you think, Barkeep? Him and his likely brothers who come from ambush are not even as good as the most frightened woman of all. Afraid of facing a gun so much faster than theirs, that they wet their pants through and through.”
“You talking to me, kid?” The lean, mean gent had turned to face Trick. The man on the other side of him also turned in Trick’s direction, stepping off to the side, one step away from the lean one, one step back, in the alley for shooting, pushing the odds.
“Yup,” Trick said, “if that’s your big gray tied off in the back of the barbershop, and you’re carrying a black mask in your pocket, and one of those heels on your boots is practically brand new compared to the other one. That’s the coward I’m talking to,” He shifted his weight, was on his toes.
“You’re a real shavetail, ain’t you, kid? We all decided that when we here some other time. But you can’t remember. We figured then, like we do now, that damned gun you got on your belt is a might too heavy to pick up when you need it.”
“Like now?” Trick asked.
Nobody in the saloon moved or looked as another man walked into the saloon, recognized the situation for what it was, and slipped along one wall but toward the bar. He carried a rifle unseen on one side of his body.
Doug Chuter quickly had the rifle aimed at the second man near the bar. “Don’t move. If you move, you’re in it. If you don’t move, you’re out of it. Take your pick.”
The teaser, the tormentor, the big mouth blowhard, looking at Trick, said, “Like right now,” and went for gun. It never cleared the holsters, caught there by a dead hand that no longer had power to pull it out of place.
Fast-Jack Conaughy had caught up with a faster opponent, the real Trick Shooter.