Western Short Story
Kit Varsons was 11 years old when he found his father behind the barn on a heavy winter evening. His great winter coat of bearskin was gone, stripped off his body after he had been shot in the back, a strange lame horse with no brand or saddle left in place of his father’s horse, and not a single local sight reported from any neighbor about who rode away wearing his father’s heavy coat and wearing his father’s gun belt, the prominent “V” burned into the face of the holster.
The boy was crushed with sadness and rigid anger and hate, all of it growing within him on succeeding days, weeks, months, years.
Now, matured, healthy, bull-strong, he was 18 and working across Texas for a few years, always on the look for any clue to a death that would not leave him without all kinds of imaginative looks of that ignoble event, that unseen murder, that mark as if the Devil himself had so set it in place.
Every new job he started, he scouted all other hands for leads, went into every saloon he came across also looking for leads, a word introduced coyly to every conversation about V-marked holsters, hoping to land some point of reference, some starting spot seeking an exclamation, “Oh, I’ve seen such a holster..” demanding a follow-up explanation, the full story.
Young Varsons never tired of such inquiries, such ruses to get at the truth, failed to find his anger become diminished, fading, even in the face of frequent embarrassments.
Once only a rider at an open trail fire, a herd being moved to market, one trail hand said, “I saw such a holster one time, but I sure can’t remember where or when. It was a long time ago. Could have been in Texas or Montana. I’ve been everywhere and don’t remember much except the cows and the ladies along the way. Nothing else. Nothing about that holster passing by me, but it was the only time I ever saw a holster with that mark.” And he finished off by saying, in a proud manner, “And I’ve been around you know, to all over the place. Ain’t much slipped past me. And not such a holster saying, under one’s breath, ‘This gun’s been drawn a lot of times.’”
Such bombast never bothered Kit Varsons; he had heard it all and he also knew many people around him realized he was on some kind of mission, a duty calling for payment long overdue. Some of them knew, but most of them didn’t, thinking he was a plain chatterbox needing to hear his own voice speaking.
If they sought reasons, they would have easily recognized another Crusade on another road.
As it was, he swung into Boxwood, Arizona to spend some time to heal a leg wounded in a fall during a minor stampede of cattle, an ugly horn catching him in the thigh, grounding him with pain and an inability to get saddled in a hurry, if at all. He contemplated a week’s rest, let it settle on him, managed a small sigh, an en route sigh, a sigh of other sorts. Knowing his eyes would stay alert, his hearing waiting important words, trail secrets always broken open with a few mugs of beer, even the darkest of tales, his venture found a minor manipulation in its path.
But there was surcease, a point of reference, a first bit of knowledge coming his way, now in his hand.
“Hell, yes,” said one cowhand at a small saloon, the kind that dot the western territories in every place called a town, a city, even a burg, with two swinging doors, a long, long bar to handle all the drivers of a herd en route, sometimes a piano silent while waiting a player, bombast and dry throats often filled with the dust of the Earth itself but marking its way among ways, and now and then a bit of BINGO.
It was there he heard the first word he’d been seeking for a dozen years on end, a cowpoke blurting out the first positive clue; “I saw such a holster back yonder in Palmetto, sitting in a general store window like it might finally have been shot off a big mouth of a kind, if you know what I mean. Bet it hurt like Hell, losing the big sign that way, talk about advertising your aim. That takes the cake, you ask me, but appears it also got his mouth shut while he was at good sportin’.”
Kit Varsons did not even hear the meaning of the man being cursed; he had heard the first word!
Palmetto, as it was, was two days ride back down another trail which he was on in a hurry; leads like this one had never crawled to him from the midst of an apparent Nowhere in the middle of the West he had travelled for what seemed ions full of saddle sores, slow trotters when he was in a hurry, stone walls where there were no stones at all..
Of course, his horse went lame, slowed him until he could make a swap with an earth farmer for a rugged horse and the promise to return at the completion of a dread mystery that might soon end. The rugged horse, keeping him off his feet, did not add any speed at all to the ride, going at it as if the earth was still being plowed, slower than spit from a cracked lip.
Time leaped at Kit Varson with its own vengeance, its own matter of events, even as the low-slung outline of Palmetto peaked through the far horizon like a pommel on a saddle, no citadels of buildings, no ungainly emporiums of civic status, merely the next possible clue in his endless search maybe now closing to a possible end, a conclusion where his own drive, hope, anger, livid hatred had driven him for these long years.
The storekeeper said, “I bought it off a young cowpoke some months ago, on his way out of town, his name was Vogler and his pals called him Steady Eddie.
“He say where he got it?”
“Said he took it from a drunk a dozen or so years ago.”
“When he left town, what way did he go?”
“He went East.”
“How far” Where to? I got to find him.”
“He came back already. Saw him in the saloon just yesterday. He’s getting’ cranky in these late years of his, like he’s married but won’t own up to it.”
“What’s he look like?”
“Like Hell has ridden down the trail with him. Skittish, if you know what I mean, but he always wears a bright white sombrero like he’s ever seeking pardon for his ways. You can’t miss him. He’ll be at the end of the bar in a white Stetson and lookin’ like death warmed over as the boys always say, with droopy-kind of eyes and a look on his face like he knows even the Devil himself ain’t too far away.”
The storekeeper gave the holster, belt and gun back to its rightful owner, saying as he did so, “I believe somewhere in this world there’s got to be a place where the skinned gets the chance to skin the skinner.” He understood fully what he said, and promised himself to see it all play itself out.
It was over in minutes, the back-stabbin’ shooter in the white Stetson drawing his gun when challenged about an old murder and was outshot by the quickest gun drawn from a holster once worn by the newly dead man, lying at the end of the trail, with a gun drawn from a holster with a ‘V’ burned on the face of it.
Life manages, some of the time, to even the odds.