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Western Short Story
Two Fingers in the Stew
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Doug Flankers was the trail cook for the whole crew of the drive to market, to where he had no clue nor care. His new job was to keep the crew, the whole lot of them, happy in the saddle, happy on their patch of ground in their single wrap-arounds during the night, working on a decent sleep.

It was his first job off the saddle, and he wanted to be good at it. The boss had said, “Out of the whole lot, Doug, you show the most promise. There might be a chance, a good chance, to come out of this at something besides chasing doggies all the way to infinity. I know you’re one of them hungry sorts who’ll want more than that. I was there in my own time when Mr. Draggler tapped me on the shoulder and said, “I’ve got a special task for you. Someone’s here among us to help plan to rustle as many of the herd as can be driven off at the best time.”

He added a kind of warning: “All this is twixt you and me.”

“How would he figure that out?”

“By knowing which watch was the weakest, who was the weakest, who’d quit first and bail out. If he gets a couple of ideas in that way, he can let someone else know, like where and when is the best time to make a run at us, make it pay off for them best as can be.”

“Did you dream this up, boss, or did you hear someone talking in his sleep?”

“We got a pretty good gang here, Doug, but there’s gotta be a few slackers and you and I know there’s a couple already made their place in that slot. They have little loyalty to me, will run at the first sign of real trouble. You can depend on them of doin’ just that.”

“You mean, jump onto the other side any minute the action starts?”

“I mean just that, Doug. They got hired by the other side before they signed up to work for me. They know where their bread’s buttered.” He coughed up a teacher’s laugh, the way some teachers make a point of a whole lot of discussion.

“I’d shoot off their asses the first minute, Boss. You know I’d empty both barrels at’ em. Both barrels.” He quick-drew an imaginary pistol.

“I suspected that the first thing about you, Doug. A man’s got to know who his friends are, and who he can trust. I picked you out early. A man has to find out early, in the job and in life. My dad took care of that right from the beginning.”

“How can I find out if I don’t see any give-a-ways, or don’t hear any one of them at loose talk, like shootin’ off his mouth at sleep?”

“It’d be easy for you, Doug; when your making stew, and just before it’s done, why you just stick two fingers into the mix, and then taste your fingers, but do it twice. You’ll find out from some kind of reactions. Someone will give himself away at the habit, make a fuss about your fingers in the stew and in your mouth. Gotta admit, it can turn some stomachs. But I don’t get itchy even thunkin’ about it.”

“That wouldn’t bother you, Boss, me doin’ that?”

“Hell, no. I’ve seen worse than that on a trail drive. And none of them see how you wash your hands so often. I saw that early. That’s one of the reasons I picked you for cook. My Mom showed me that a long time ago and I ain’t ever forgot it.” He paused and added, “Clean hands don’t slow you down none.”

The first time around a pot of stew, like the next day as a matter of fact, Doug Flankers started up his first stew on the job like he’d been cooking his whole life here in the open west, and on the job as a new hire. He’d never made stew in his life, and he poured everything in it he could, making a show of his new deed, stew on the trail for all hands.

And for fingers, as it turned out; his fingers.

He got some quick results to his initial test run; one rugged rider, Bud Furbush, leaped up when he saw the cook stick his fingers in his mouth and sucked the stew remnants off his two fingers without a pause or a thought about what he had done, was about to do again, as he put two fingers back in his mouth making sure he had cleaned off the stew residue.

Furbush, with a tin plate of stew in his hands, fired the contents and the tin plate onto the ground and yelled, “I ain’t eatin’ any of that crap you put your dirty fingers in. I ain’t ever seen a camp cook or a trail cook do somethin’ like that. No, sir, not a one. Never happened afore. Not ever. Ain’t gonna happen on my watch!” With a long-lasting, sliding-forever cry of lamentation to the night site, he added, “Hoo=hoo a woo hoo,” to his overhand delivery

Doug Flankers said, in quick response, “You ain’t been watchin’ me, Bud. I’ve been doin’ that every meal on the job. Growed up that way, checkin’ on what was comin’ my way for eats.” He coughed once and added, “Kinda sets you up for gettin’ some desert later on. Nothin’ like it, so help me.”

He hacked a cough, like it was pure unadulterated punctuation of the first order. And he knew that rugged, boisterous Bud Furbush practically gagged in response. “Ain’t meanin’ to bring it on too quick for you, Bud, but if my Momma told me it was okay her way, it’s sure good enough for me, unless you’re wantin’ to make somethin’ else out of it.” His oft-practiced quick-draw was lightning quick, as if this ordinary cook was a fiery quick killer of men

The silence thereafter was enough to close the all mouths like unsaid profanities were the new rage.

When the boss came through the chow line, Doug whispered, “We got him, Mr. Draggler, and now we keep our eyes on him just to make sure. I’ll keep my eyes open and you do the same and we got ‘em caught up in the game.”

Soon thereafter he saw the boss start off on his mount in a sort of circuitous and indirect route, and knew the pair of them. him and the boss, would meet out where the rustlers were obviously making plans. He made sure his pistols were loaded to their prime, and would be cocked and ready for any initial activity. There was no tellin’ about rustlers, unless they did it themselves, and they sure did this time. Loud and clear.

On his end of things, they were ready for ‘em, a dozen hard-looking characters lounging around a hollow spot between two abrupt mounds of the mostly open plains less than a mile from the herd. They each counted and marked the group of proposed rustlers, each saying, almost in unison, “Hell, they all even look like Bud Furbush in the flesh and he ain’t here yet to join up the fun like he was meanin’ to do. Hell, he missed all this here fun we been havin’ at their expense

“Them’s the ones we been expectin’, Doug, a mean-as-ever bunch I ever did see. They’re all loaded to the hilt with sidearms and rifles and shotguns, like they’re loaded for bears, a whole clan of ‘em, as my Pa used to say.”

Doug, the old gunfighter come back again, said, “It’s kinda like your Pa spoke their language all on his own, Boss, not that I mean anythin’ by it directly, kind a sayin’.”

The new cook, again becoming a gunfighter, took down the lone lookout with one direct shot before he put a couple of rounds right at the feet of the obvious leader standing there doing his talking like all was right with the world and he was ready to make a new strike for their on-going comfort, him and his crew of desperadoes.

It was all over in a matter of a few minutes, some of the drive’s crew showing up with gun-help in the matter of the summonses of gunshots fired off by the new cook, and probably not long for that job either, things twisted as they were twixt right and wrong at the same time in the Old West of things.


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