Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
Long before I was born, a little town gave up its existence so the State could build a much needed water reservoir. I thank all those that once lived there just so that many of us would not only have water all year long but have a place to fish and go boating in. It’s not a true lake, but we’re happy it’s here. Most of all, I wish to thank two gentlemen that my friend, Tom Lane, and I met there one Saturday morning.
Both men looked to be in their mid-thirties. Both were dressed in ranch-hand style clothes. Tom and I figured they must be checking for any stray cattle that like to come over the hill and drink from the lake. They were friendly enough to stop and chat with us for awhile.
For the sake of conversation, Tom and I decided to ask them if they knew how the reservoir/lake got its peculiar name of Two Men Gulch. We had heard many stories while growing up around here and were curious if these two had yet another version of the story.
It seems that these two men knew more about the old town and its surroundings than what the history books had printed inside their cover. I use the word cover for a good reason. What these two men told us about what had happened over a hundred and fifty years ago, sounded as though the locals had something to cover up.
The first cowboy introduced he and his buddy. “I’m Jake. Jake Carter. This here mangy looking cowpoke is my best friend, Harry Middle. You fellows from around here? I can’t remember ever seeing either of you before today. Then again, we don’t get a chance to come down here as much as we like too.
I put my hand out and said “I’m happy to meet you two. I’m, Rocky Willows. This here goofy guy is Tom Lane. He claims to be the best Bass fisherman around, but don’t let him fool you. Bluegill are more his speed.”
Tom faked a hurt look and proceeded to shake hands with both men all the while saying. “His real name is Rochester. We only call him Rocky so we can eat at his restaurant for free.” He laughed.
Jake stood there with a quizzical look. He turned to Harry and just shook his shoulders as if to ask, “maybe we should laugh?” Not sure on how to answer Tom’s little funny business, he stood aside so that Harry could complete the meeting by shaking hands with these two strangely dressed men with their fancy looking fishing poles.
I caught the look on Harry’s face and asked him if he would like to try casting once or twice. He quickly stood back and shook his head no. I smiled and put the pole down. To unfreeze the odd moment, I asked if they would mind telling us their version of the Two Men Gulch name.
Before long all four of us were sitting on a grassy patch, relaxing, and enjoying the Summer day. Then Jake started with, “I ain’t rightly sure how many people have tol’ you what happen’ here but this I can tell you fer sure. We got good cause to know what happen’ here. Lot’sa folk in these parts were looking to get and keep as much land as they could befer the Gov’ment people showed up and started divvying up ever’thin’.
“Of course with so many people a’comin’ around, the outlaws followed right behind. As soon as the people started farmin’ or raisin’ beef, they knowed that they was gonna need a place to hold their dollars. Befer you knows it there’s a bank in town. Now, Harry here can tell you more as to why Two Men Gulch came to be. I have trouble with that part. Harry?”
Harry had been listening intently. He smiled at his friend and said with a touch of sadness in his voice, “you reckon they’ll go away thinking just like everyone we’ve tried to tell this too? Shucks, what one more time?” He turned to Tom and I and gave us a serious look as he began to tell a tale that would cause almost anyone to shrug their shoulders and just ‘kiss-it-off’ as another ol’ West story. This is what he had to tell us.
“It was 1886 and Wells Fargo just started a runnin’ stagecoaches through here. Of course they hauled ev’rythin’ from people to the US mail. The stage came through twice a week and brought most ev’rythin’ folks needed. What they didn’t carry, a wagon company did. Course, the wagon company delivered food and tin plates and all that other stuff, but they did’n deliver what the outlaws wanted. They did’n haul money. No, sir, only Wells Fargo carried that.
“One day the stage came a flyin’ into town with the driver and the shot-gunner both yellin’ that they was robbed four miles back. That would be right about where we’re a standin’” He waved his hand downward in a big circle to emphasize the area. “Well, fellas, let me tell you… ev’ryman man who could ride a horse went out after the two robbers. The onliest thin’ the posse had to go on was the bad-awful description the stage driver gave them. The two fellars was older than youngish. They each had a gun but no holster fer it.” He paused and looked at Jake and asked, “do you really want I should do more? Ya knows how I gets about all this.
Jake lowered his head and quietly told his friend, “ya can only do what ya wants to do, Harry. I just feel that ya’ll are better than me fer this telling stuff. “Yeah, try to do more. If’n ya can’t then we’ll leave them to think what they think.”
Harry agreed to go on with his story although you could see that for some reason he had the pain of bad memories in his eyes.
“Like I was sayin’, the posse of townsfolk set out after the two men who robbed the stage. After a while of sitting in a hard saddle, some of them gave up and headed back to town. The man who was elected as the Sheriff wasn’t really a bona-fide lawman. He only kept the peace on looked over any arguments between drunks and land 0wners fighting for the rights to water ways.
Anyways, like I said, he and some of the others stayed out until they found the two men they figgerd did the robbin’.
“The way of the West back then was to punish robbers and killers the onliest way they knowed. They hung em’. The two men barely looked like the two the stage driver said done it, but the Sheriff and his posse was tired of lookin’, soes they found a tree big enough to hold both men and hung em; right there.
“The posse stayed until they saw the men stop movin’ and twitchin’ and rode off, leaving the hanged men for would be outlaws to see that bad folk wasn’t wanted around these parts. The posse was happy with themselves for doin’ what they figgerd was right. They rode off as proud as can be.
“When they got back to town, each man went his own way. The almost Sheriff was lookin’ fer a drink soes he went into the Gulch Tavern. That was the name of the saloon because the whole town was set here in this what used to be a gulch. It was there that he found out the bad news. They hung the wrong men.
“He no sooner walked into the Gulch the bartender gots all excited and told him what happened earlier. It seems that a Marshall from another town stopped by to let everyone know he caught the stage robbers as they was headin’ for the badlands. They didn’t know that the man they stopped to rob was a Marshall. While they held a gun on him, they bragged about gittin’ two jobs done in one day. They said the stage was easy to rob because the shot-gunner couldn’ shoot too good. When one of the outlaws stepped up to take the Marshall’s gun, he tripped, giving the lawman a chance to draw his six-shooter and get both of em’.
“When the Sheriff heard the bartender’s story, he grabbed a couple of the men who was with him at the neck-tie party and they rode out to the hangin’ spot. They figgerd they should at least give the two wrongly hung men a decent burial. They had good ideas, but they was too late.
“When they topped the hill,” he stopped and pointed to his left, “that one over there, they seed that the bodies was gone. The ropes was still a’hangin’ but no bodies. They looked around for them until it got to dark to see anythin’, soes they went back to town.
“No one ever said another word about what happened. Then one day… alla sudden like… the whole place was covered with water. Before everyone left they gave this spot a new name. They calls it Two men Gulch. That’s about it. They never found the two men they hanged. Some say the sheriff went crazy one day and rode out here and killed himself. Course we never seed any proof of it, but then agin, we don’t go around lookin’ at too much of what people does out here.”
Jake sat, listening to Harry give all the details about the hangings and decided to say something so Harry could catch his breath and relax a little.
“You fellers seem like nice enough folks. I guess that’s why ol’ Harry and I came down from the hill to talk with ya’. Ya’ see we don’t talk too awful much to people. We kinda like being by ourselves. The only one we ever see here all the time is that feller over there. Here looks like a Sheriff soes we kinda stay hidden, ifn’ ya’ know what I mean.”
When Jake mentioned someone else I turned to see the Game Warden standing over where we had built up a little bit of a camp-site. He waved for us to come over to him. I turned to say good-bye to Jake and Harry. Tom and I thanked them for telling us how the name Two men Gulch got it name. We shook hands and we headed to see what the Warden wanted.
“Gentlemen. I need to see your fishing licenses and your permit for the fire.” He politely said.
Tom reached for the tackle box and said as he took out the paperwork. “No problem, sir. Here you are. You know those guys we were talking to, sure seem to know lot about this reservoir. Its almost as if they lived here back when there was a town. I think they work at the ranch on the other side of the hill.”
The Warden looked at us and then asked, “you fellows aren’t smoking any funny tobacco are you? No. I don’t think so. I didn’t see you talking to anyone, but you were sort of standing on top of the knoll. I guess your friends were probably on the lower end. Your licenses are okay so I’ll be leaving. Please make sure to put the fire out before you leave. Good fishing.” He turned and walked off.
Tom looked up at the clouds starting to roll in and suggested that we call it a day. “We seem to have lost track of time listening to Harry tell us that old wild-west story. I swear that I’ve seen Jake before, but I can’t place him. Anyway, let’s pack up and call it a day. We’ll stop at the Gulch Inn and have a beer.”
I shook my head and said, “haven’t you had enough cowboy stories for today? That place is almost like an old-west museum. What the heck I could use a cold beer myself.” With everything packed, we drove up to the oldest bar in the area. Until today I never thought to ask the bartender if knew the story about the gulch’s name. Now, I won’t have to wonder anymore.
I ordered two beers while Tom was looking over some of the photos and drawing of the old town hanging on the walls. As I got closer to him, I heard him give out a low whistle. He turned to me with a pale look on his face. I stepped up to hand him his beer and he pointed to a poster of a drawing.
I almost dropped my beer when I saw what he was pointing to. The two men we were talking to at the lake, were in the drawing on the wall. I whistled louder than Tom did and that caught the bartender’s attention.
The bartender laughed and said, “you look like you seen a ghost. You guys alright?”
After I regained my senses, I walked back to the bar and asked, “those two guys in the drawing, did they pose for someone here?”
Of course the bartender immediately thought that I was joking and chastised me for making fun at two men who were hung by mistake. I felt sick. I turned to Tom, and by the expression on his face, I could see that he heard the bartender too.
I asked if he knew anymore about the story and he answered with, “the only thing I know is that after these two men were murdered by the so-called law back then. A couple of the posse riders tried to remember what the poor souls looked like. That poster is as close as they could come. So, the only thing they could do was put up the poster with a note at the bottom explaining that they died innocently. To ease their guilt even further, the town re-named itself Two Men Gulch. Now all that remains of the past is this picture and the reservoir.
Tom and I thanked the man, and drank our beers and drove home in silence. Very rarely do we go back to Two Men Gulch Lake without wondering if we’ll ever see Jake and Harry again.