Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Two Guns West
Prior strangers, leaving Boston on the eve of May 1st, 1867, heading west on a train, neither married, both in their early 20s and veterans of the Great War of the States where they met in the ranks of Company B, 2nd Battalion of the 4th Massachusetts Cavalry Regiment, Merlin Lockland and Pouvard BeLaire knew their friendship truly began aboard the steamer Western Metropolis. The steamer had left Boston, their whole regiment on board, bound for Hilton Head, South Carolina three years earlier in March of 1864, with a gritty piece of the war in the offing.
Lackland and BeLaire were from small towns south of Boston, loved horses and wanted to “get their way west one day,” to see the country grow, to see the Pacific, and eventually to see adventure coming at them other than, after they had seen it during the campaigns, massed infantry and cavalry on a headlong move. The latter they met in strange, once-seen locations as they earned their veteran status in such places as Gainesville, Gum Swamp, Front Creek, Boyd’s Neck, Beech Creek, Honey Hill and Smith Mills.
“No big names there,” Lockland said to his pal once, “but all damned memorable.” They had counted their blessings on a number of occasions.
“Someday,” BeLaire said as they boarded a train out of Boston, bound for any place where they might jump off for something that looked promising, “I’ll write a song about those places we’ve been to, and swiftly thereby said adieu.” Lockland had learned a lot earlier, even in some ticklish battlefield situations, that his friend’s predilection for rhyme was always alive, “Sitting on his forked tongue, so to speak,” he’d quickly qualify.
Lockland, to balance things between these pals, had his own special talent; in most usual circumstances, and with people of ordinary dialect, he could read lips as long as he had a decent view of them, not too far, not too dark, and rarely when delivered in screaming rages whereby all messages became distorted. With this talent, learned in school, perfected in hallways and then in command posts, he often knew what sergeants and lieutenants had in store for them. It had proved both valuable in an instance and treading on the dangerous in other developments.
Both men laughed religiously whenever lips or tongues or such associated figures of speech were employed by one of them or heard from a bystander. Their friendship came fast and sure, each of them aware of what the other brought to that quick alliance, including humor of any sort.
Lockland looked the part of a very young professor who had sped through classical ranks of education. He was the taller of the two, with a continual studious look on his face and about his person, though he would often prove to be the lark of the pair, full of fun and frolic as if his studies needed to be set aside for a short while. His long frame alluded to quickness and an athletic prowess he could have exhibited on most occasions. BeLaire thought him “pretty as boys go,” but didn’t hold that against him at all; the fairest blue eyes that lit up on occasions, a perfect nose that balanced out the blue flame of the eyes below a wide brow, sandy-colored hair often loose on that brow, and a skin texture and color the sun never seemed to hurt.
BeLaire, shorter by two inches, with broader shoulders and thicker arms, wrist to shoulder, was a dog for work, the broad shoulders surmounting most of his appearance except for his laughter, a constant sidekick that he brought to his work, and that sometimes infuriated others around him, generally those given to bitching and bellyaching and finding themselves matched by a laughing cohort. With one quick assessment, Lockland found him boisterous, friendly, humorous, and fervently devoted to a determined goal.
It was at an evening stop in a saloon for a drink, a few days out of Chicago, that the first encounter for them as a civilian team arose. Lockland, having watched a group of four cowpokes at the far end of the bar, said to BeLaire, his voice low, cautionary, “Pouv, we’re not getting out of here without some kind of trouble. Those fellows at the end of the bar are ready to start something about “them eastern dudes looking out of place and ought to be put where they belong.’” He paused in his warning to amend his alert; “The tall fellow in the gray vest said he bets we’re damned Yankee Blues, and his name is Big Brit.”
“Sakes alive, a way to survive,” BeLaire said, and quickly followed with, “Here’s me and you, like we’re dressed in blue.” His eyes rolled at his friend as though he expected a critique on his pitch. He laughed loud and long and Lockland knew exactly what his pal was up to, for he might have called him The Infuriator more times than he could remember. It’s how BeLaire’s hand was dealt, and how he used it.
It usually worked the way it was planned.
It was Big Brit who jumped in with his raise, saying loudly down the bar, his eyes straight on BeLaire, “You got something funny to laugh about, mister? Why not tell us about it?” The tone of his voice quickly showing his origin.
BeLaire, suddenly wobbly on his legs the way a drunk might assemble himself, his left hand holding onto the rim of the bar, said, “You bet, Big Brit, and this is it: laughing’s great except at Hell’s gate.”
Big Brit reacted. “What the hell are you talking about, mister, and how do you know my name? Have you been poking around my business, my concerns?” He stepped casually away from the bar, a well-known move by a challenger, separating himself from his pals, standing tall, hands loose at his sides the way he might wish to be remembered. And ready to toss out the next barb, or the next challenge.
BeLaire came right back at him. “That’s it, Big Brit. That’s all of it. You have something to prove, make your move.”
“You calling me out with some brand of silly talk?” and he turned to his pals and Lockland saw him whisper, “Watch me drag this Blue dogie down.”
In his own whisper, Lockland advised BeLaire of Big Brit’s message.
Big Brit yelled out loud and clear to everybody in the saloon, “He called me out,” and his hand slipped haphazardly toward his holster.
The entire room, all its occupants, went into a stunned silence. Outside a horse rode past the door, hoofs at rhythm; a wagon followed, then a child rolling a hoop threw a quick shadow into the room. Death and punishment seemed in the offing. A mother’s voice, anxious, demanding, called a child from somewhere out of sight.
The stunning continued when Big Brit raised his pistol to see BeLaire’s pistol, only 20 feet away, pointed right at his heart. He made no further move. His pals made no move. Lockland watched for lips to reveal some intent, some piece of a concentrated reaction, and saw none.
“Hold it there,” a voice from a corner of the saloon said. “I’m the U.S. Marshal hereabouts, and all this stops here.”
He looked at Big Brit and said, “Go back with your pals, Clifton, and be quiet. Next time ask me politely if you feel like calling someone out. I’m always ready for you.”
He turned to BeLaire and Lockland and said, “I know you gents are passing through. Which way you headed?”
Lockland stepped right in and said, “We’re heading back east, getting away from all the dos and don’ts you folks have rigged up. We’re heading back to peace and quiet where a man can have a quiet drink and not worry about a known big mouth tossing out a chance for personal heroics.”
Big Brit yelled, “Pay him heed, Sheriff? He’s mocking me.”
The sheriff came right back at the loudmouth. “Sure I can see it and I can also see if you tried him on a hundred times, you’d be a hundred times dead. Consider yourself lucky one more time, Clifford.” The two pals understood the sheriff’s taunting use of Big Brit’s given name.
The sheriff turned back to our adventurous pair and said, “Well, get on your way right now. These gents will stay here until I leave. I guarantee you that much,” and he leaned in close and whispered, “Don’t close your eyes or ears for a few days. That’s my best piece of advice. The Brit’s a dangerous phony.”
The pair started out and BeLaire, over his shoulder, said his goodbye; “Adios, amigos”
There was no answer. None that BeLaire heard or Lockland saw.
They rode east out of town, turned north immediately when they were out of town and swung west again.
Riding into the setting sun, BeLaire said, “That was keen. We’re looking clean.” But Lockland kept looking back over his shoulder, the sheriff’s words coming along with them.
In one moment of revelation, Lackland said, “Pouv, do you understand what we’re doing? What’s ahead of us? Do you really know what I’m thinking about all this that’s around us, looking us in the face, or creeping up behind us? Do you have it locked up the way I have? Do you really know where we’re going?”
BeLaire, comfortable in the saddle, caught in the music of the gait, swung easily in the saddle as he twisted sideways to look at his pal, said in his best western diction, “Merlin, I’ve known it from the shipboard cell: we un’s are headin’ straight for Hell.”
They laughed again, their gusto being laughter’s companion’s, pleased with each other, the stars showing early statements no lip reader or rhymer could miss. They tried to sleep under those stars after a small fire set a pot of coffee for them, the horses cared for and tied off, the wide skies coming full of greater demands, the stars appearing by a seeming thousand-fold, and finally putting sleep in order.
A few hours later they were awakened by gunfire from a nearby canyon, the sounds of shots arriving like brittle pieces of rock whizzing into their hearing.
“What do you think that is, Pouv?”
“Might as well be the start of Hell,” and they were up and saddled and racing toward the continuous rounds of rifle shots, those sounds so familiar to each of them.
In the dying flames of a late fire they saw a wagon under attack, rifle fire coming from higher on the canyon wall, return fire now and then coming from darkness under the wagon. The shooting was spasmodic both ways, as if each party knew they were shooting blind and wasting ammunition.
Lackland said, “We’ll be taking sides here, Pouv, and I’m all for giving the folks in the wagon all the help we can.”
“Let’s fire away,” BeLaire said, and when the couplet was not finished, Lackland knew fate was afoot.
The two pals let loose with repeating salvos at the upper reaches of the canyon wall. The return fire from that target was hesitant, and then it all stopped.
The sound of hoof beats on the run came dimly from an upper level of the canyon, then that too disappeared completely.
A woman called out from the wagon. “Hello out there. Thanks for the help. I need some help down over here right away. My husband has been seriously wounded.”
Even in despair, under great duress, not knowing who her saviors were, her voice came to them as sweet, melodic, Lackland thinking it was operatic, BeLaire as if a poetess was reading only to him.
And it was the romantic BeLaire who made the first announcement for the rest of their lives. “That’s it. That’s her. I’m in love.” For the second time in as many opportunities, there was no couplet from BeLaire.
Lackland said, “You beating me to the prize, Pouv?” His voice too had become new.
They laughed together, but it came weaker than usual.
Fate had moved in on the pair.
The woman, in the flash of dawn, shone her beauty right from the first glance despite her predicament. She was kneeling beside the lone wagon, leaning against one wheel and a wounded man was in her arms, his leaking blood evident.
“He’s badly hurt,” she said. “My husband, Earl Dumas. He has two bullets in him and he’s losing a lot of blood. I stuffed much of my petticoat in there, but it’s not enough. Do either of you have any medical experience?” Her voice was still full of a quality timbre, though dawn was shredding some of her appearance.
Lackland was about to step forward, but BeLaire said, “Yes, Ma’am. Let me help. You let me look to him and let my pal do what he can to help you.” He lifted Dumas from her grasp and Lackland held her hand and walked away to the fire. He placed a blanket tenderly around her shoulders. He saw, reflected in her eyes, some of the flames and some of the starry sky not yet letting go its handsome grip.
There was no doubt in his mind that she was an unnatural beauty of a woman. And Pouv had spoken his mind.
She said to Lackland, “I’m so glad you two came along. I hope your friend can help my husband, but he’s been hurt terribly bad. I don’t know how much he can do for him.”
She had not yet shed a tear, holding herself together.
“Do you know who those bushwhackers were, Ma’am? Any idea at all?”
“My name is Tricia Dumas. I used to be Tricia Walker, from Maine. We’ve only been married for less than a year and he had a big dream about a ranch out west and lots of cattle and lots of kids and the whole new dream that’s working on people back east.” She paused and said, “Who are you folks and where did you come from?’ She looked back at BeLaire still working on her husband. Once or twice she saw his shoulders slump, but kept it to herself.
“Oh,” Lackland said, “we’re Merlin Lockland and that’s Pouvard BeLaire trying to help your husband. We’re both from little towns near Boston, and just out of the same cavalry outfit in the army after the Big War, and trying our hand at that western dream you just spoke about. We’re in it for the long haul, whatever it brings, adventure, excitement, riches or a life of labor. We’ll take what we can earn.”
This time he saw BeLaire’s shoulders slump and knew the reason immediately. Each of them had read that sign before in their campaigns, death marking the living as well as the dead. BeLaire stood up, turned around slowly and shook his head. He walked to the back of the wagon, found a shovel and said, “Ma’am, he’s gone on you, Ma’am, and we have to bury him now. You take care of the lady, Merlin, while I get things ready.”
Tricia Dumas looked at Lackland and said, Bury him way out here? Where are we? I don’t even know where this place is.” Her shell was in danger of collapsing, Lackland noted.
“It’s best to get them in the ground, Ma’am. We’ll mark it real properly, and make it deep so the carrion eaters won’t get at him. It’s best, believe me.” Softly he draped a comforting arm over her shoulder. “We’re in Nebraska, fairly close to both Colorado and Wyoming. I’d say a half day’s ride would get us to either one of them. There are some towns on the way, too, from what I’ve heard.”
His tone changed, even as he heard BeLaire working away with the shovel, a rock sounding out once in a while. “You didn’t say if you knew who those bushwhackers were, Ma’am.”
“Oh, I have a pretty good idea. We stopped only a few miles back at a small camp and Earl swapped some things for food. Some men were two damned interested in us for what I could tell. Three of them, and the scroungiest lot they were, cussing and swearing and making noise like they owned the place and could have anything they wanted, anything in sight. Earl didn’t see it, but I did. A woman knows such things.”
“You think they were after you, Ma’am?”
“Yes, I do. Earl had us sleeping over there,” and she pointed to where a blanket still lie crumpled on the ground. “The second time he got up to put some wood on the fire, two shots rang out. I think those are the ones that hit him, and he was standing right in the light of the fire. He went down right away and I dragged him near the wagon and started shooting back. Then you came.” She placed a hand on Lackland’s wrist. It was like a lilac bloom had graced him. And there floated an essence in the air that was new to him.
They buried Earl Dumas in a deep hole, put some rocks in the hole to thwart the carrion diggers, covered it all over and marked it with a cross. Each one said their impromptu words over the grave of Earl Dumas. The words of his widow were not audible to either man, and Lackland saw nothing from her immobile lips.
Lackland told BeLaire her whole story, and Tricia Dumas kept nodding at each point of information, acknowledging its veracity.
It was Pouvard BeLaire who said, his chin firm as a rifle butt, his voice hard as the barrel of the rifle barrel, “And the first order of business is to go back to that camp and finish this up. They’ll only be setting on others who pass through. This is part of our destiny.” He looked at Lackland and added, “Among other revelations this day that is a prime order of business. The west has to be safe for grand ladies.”
Tricia Dumas blushed for but a second, and rushed to agree with him. “Let’s do it now. I can point them out for you, all three of them.”
BeLaire slapped his pal on the back, nodding in quick agreement. When she lets us know who these bushwhackers are, and you can find out from their own lips that they’re really the ones, we’ll wrap it up in a hurry.” In a hesitant side note, he said, “And make them scurry,” but it was, as of late, a rather indecisive note.
The hand-painted sign above the door of the clumsy-looking cabin on the edge of a fordable stream said in clumsy black paint, “Burke’s Sidewinders Stoar.” A few barely readable corrections had been added by odd hands, none of which were incorporated onto the sign. At the water’s edge a raft sat idly on the edge of the banking, its stream-wide rope hanging down into the soft flow of the ripples, the raft a mess of ropes, planks and logs in a twisted but floatable condition. The whole arrangement said it could be swept away in the first cloud burst rushing out of the mountains; such events were historical in the confines of the mountain stream; Teton waters had already swept away a few towns in the foothills, along the streams unloading high waters rushing out of the mountains, taking the easiest route.
The two men and Tricia Dumas sat their horses in a copse of young trees a bit upstream from Burke’s Sidewinder Stoar, their mounts quiet and feeding on clutches of grass. Lackland noticed again, for the tenth time, that his pal Pouv was not able to take his eyes off Tricia Dumas.
It was settled.
One man came downstream on his horse, entered the store, and left shortly thereafter. Then a pair of riders, on big grays and both wearing old Confederate military pants, came down along the stream. Tricia Dumas stiffened up in the saddle. Her horse made notice of her change. The two cavalrymen saw it and took additional note.
“That two of them, Ma’am?” Lackland said. “Do you recognize them?”
"They’re the ones, I’d swear on it,” she said. Her hand was on her heart. And Lackland saw a grimace crossing her face that was as deadly as a knife or a bullet. “The third man did not have the same outfit. He had a funny hat on his head, like an opera hat, tall, black, like Mr. Lincoln wore to Washington.”
Lackland and BeLaire reined up in front of Burke’s Sidewinders Stoar and tied their horses to the tie rail, Lackland stretching like he just got out of bed as he dismounted his horse, flinging his arms in the air and loudly saying, “I am tired of running all day and all night and now I need some rest.” He was loud and boisterous, his voice carrying the words all around him, like a bell sounding its knell. “Liquor,” he proclaimed to the heavens, “You got any liquor in there?”
Inside, at the simple and crude plank bar that Ordinary and Legal Judge Jud Burke had set up to dispense drinks and local law, they demanded whiskey and “the best you got and no rotgut. We got some gold wrapped up out there and we plan to drink our way for a week of Sundays, if no preachers mind us saying so.” He let out a Dixie yell he had heard a thousand times, and he delivered the oft-sensed fervor in that most generally came with the cry.
BeLaire dropped a small sack of coin on the bar top and said, “When that’s done gone and drunk up, let us know where we’re at in accountability. We ain’t any too particular about small change, if you’ve a mind of skimpin’ off the top or neither the bottom.” Their laughter was loud, boisterous and entirely too damned amusing for the fellows that Tricia Durham had identified without doubt as “most possible bushwhackers in the canyon.”
She had fervently declared again, “They watched us like hawks and we saw them cross our trail, behind us, several times. I know they saw Adam set up an empty tin and we went on a decent way and he took his rifle and with one shot sent that tin flying into the air. It was his warning to anybody who might be looking on and contemplating an evil of any kind. That empty tin bounced around behind us more than 100 yards away, he was that good a shot.”
Lackland said in a whisper the devil couldn’t hear even if he had a mind to, “You keep making noise of any sort, Pouv, and I’ll keep my eye on them. They have to tell us straight out if they’re the ones, and if I catch it from them, we’ll keep our promise to the lady and her husband we buried out there.”
In his own too-busy and slowed-down rhythm of language, BeLaire, into main-stream action again, loudly said, “Dog gone you, Merl, that’s about the funniest thing you ever said. You keep that up and my britches will be outgoin’ on their own. Yore damned right about gettin’ back at our strike, damned if you ain’t. I swear on a stack of ‘em books, it’s the most pleasurable work I ever done in my whole life, diggin’ that pretty stuff near right off the top of the ground. Yessiree!” He slapped the bar top again, the plank rattling all the way down its length to where the suspected fellows stood muttering among themselves.
Leaning over the crude bar, his elbows supporting his chin and his hands over his face, Lackland peered through slightly parted fingers and saw one of the suspected bushwhackers whisper, “Think them’s the ones shootin’ at us out there in the canyon?”
A second seedy looking character, his sidearm sitting knobby in a belt holster and a strap barely visible under an open-collared shirt, telling Lackland he was wearing a hidden chest holster, said with a quiet voice but loud lips that Lackland read with ease, “Nah, that noisy one said they got a strike somewhere. We gotta track them to it, only don’t get caught like that woman’s gent caught onto us last night. Shore missed her. Hope we run across he ag’in.”
He got his wish quicker than imaginable, for a horse pulled up in front of Burke’s Sidewinders Stoar, the door opened, Tricia Dumas walked into the room, pointed at the suspects gathered at one end of the bar, and said to Lackland and BeLaire, “That’s them, Sheriff. Those bushwhackers killed my husband last night. Shot him while he was unarmed and putting wood on our campfire.”
Lackland and BeLaire, with suddenly new titles conferred upon them by a lovely lady, and new widow, were as surprised as the bad guys, as well as self-proclaimed Judge of the Territory, Jud Burke.
There was, of course, a scramble at both ends of the bar. The suspects had forgotten in a hurry the two men who talked freely about the big strike at their mine, who now had four guns drawn and pointed at them. They scrambled again, going for their guns, the shots ensued, and the three bushwhackers who probably had more in mind than robbery on the Dumas wagon, went down in a heap, smoke pouring from their useless weapons.
Tricia Dumas, still in the doorway, her shoulders slumped in release, revenge caught up in place, turned and walked out the door.
They found her crying as she leaned over the tie rack, all the emotions, however many there had been, draining away from her, her horse nuzzling her shoulder, the sun sitting on the white of her neck.
She eventually married Pouvard BeLaire, on the ranch the two men tore right out of the heart of the earth, right out of the heart of the earth. They built two cabins, one in which a daughter Amie was born to the BeLaires of the lower Tetons. A few years later, rustlers working to gain a portion of their herd, Pouvard BeLaire was killed in a running battle with the last of the rustlers, the other gang members killed by him and Lackland, and it was Lackland, many hours later tracking through the lower Tetons, who killed the man who killed his pal and best friend.
His own love for the woman they had rescued from who-knows-what in a dark canyon came his way when Tricia Walker Dumas BeLaire married him, Merlin Lackland. Tricia gave birth to two boys, Pouvard Lackland and Earl Lackland, the two boys fiercely loving their older sister Amie. Their parents had more than 60 years of a happy and truly blessed marriage at the foot of the Tetons, at the end of a long journey that had begun outbound from Boston aboard the steamer Western Metropolis as it left Boston for Hilton Head, South Carolina, a gritty piece of the Civil War sitting in the offing, in early March, 1864.
Everything about the Lacklands moved right on past the first quarter of the following century.