Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
A variety of things in a bunch were suddenly bothering rancher Todd Margin, things that he could not directly put his finger on, nor a clear piece of his mind. He was afraid that he had been too comfortable for too long and life did not move that way … not for as long as it had for him. His herds were good and fat, the periodic rustlers had been tailed almost to extinction, the stream flowed as freely as ever, but the heaviness continued to inflict itself on his psyche. He thought it to be an alert, a warning of change. Age might have entered the equation; he was not sure, nor was he sure of Luke Purdom’s part in it, Purdom who had sworn in a drunken rage one night in Lucie’s Saloon that he’d “get Todd Margin someday, one way or another.”
A few months earlier Margin had fired Purdom for playing games with cattle counts in dealing with two buyers. As information came forth from a number of ranchers, Purdom had tried to get other ranch hands into an elaborate scheme to steal by omission, by not counting all cattle delivered to buyers, money moving from pocket to pocket in the saloon after the dealings were completed. Nobody knew how long it had been going on, or how many people were involved.
The conglomeration of these thoughts had taken Margin into the hills, on a lonely ride, and it turned out to be the beginning of a terribly upsetting day. The whole feeling tore the mask off his incessant dream where the stream dried up and left his land arid and near useless.
Against the halfway mark of a sheer cliff, wet all the way through his outer clothes, Todd Margin reined in his horse as lightning danced a jig overhead. Thunder, in cannonades as wild as battle sounds, tossed and bolted its way through canyons all around him, as if each canyon fattened the roar, added to the swelling sound. Firsthand he knew the fury of driven rain, and could feel in his rump and in his knees the horse’s fears, the gathered and held breath, the muscle torque, the quick exhalations to maintain life. Reins pulled against his hand coupling their odd energies, his and the horse’s. With a free hand he tried to gentle the side of the animal’s neck, speaking to him in a calm voice beneath the full-blown glory of the storm: “Whoa, Kris. Whoa, pal. It’s okay, boy. It’s okay. It’d take a straight shot to get us, have to come straight down the chute from above.”
Regarding the possibilities roaring overhead, he drew in the span of his shoulders to lessen the target. Still, he patted the horse; the horse had got him here, the horse’d get him home.
Thoughts of water centered his attention: The Canopic Homesteader’s Stream, slightly known outside its little valley, blue and silent much of the year, begins in the mysteries of the Rocky Mountains where Pacific water less its salt content is air-lifted by clouds to unknown receptacles and courses that wait on rain. Water, as it furthers itself, changes to become another form of liquidity, and does its own thing. Henceforth it wears surfaces down, lifts particles from their ordinary, seeks its own level, makes its own way, and listens to nobody this side of dynamite or Mother Nature. Water insures greenery insuring oxygen insuring life. There is nothing like it, as all of us must attest to on this side of the grass. Elsewhere doesn’t make much difference. Water is, and we are because of it, in spite of it, in agreement with it.
He had a deep respect for water in whatever form it found itself, and how he found it. Realization told him that once in a while this water he thought about so readily made moves nobody on this green earth expected, usually with outside help, like tidal waves on the ocean and hail stones banging down inland big as apples or oranges or grapefruit. Those moves always left marks that lingered on chosen landscape like persistent sores or terminal scars, like water mark levels scored on surfaces or a landscape changed forever, but they blazed like live brands on the human target.
Such things were in Todd Margin’s view. And it must be said up-front that he was somewhat usual, decent looking in a ruggedly handsome side, committed to cattle raising, and a land-owner. He was loyal, lawful, a splendid rider and roper as were most of his working hands, and a keen shot with the rifle and the handgun on occasion. He was also stubborn, quick to form opinion, hated to let go, wanted children but hesitated at marriage, and continually watched the level of the river water like it was about to leave him high and dry on his corner of the Earth in Wyoming.
Margin, from the perch on his saddled paint on the high ridge of a Rockies foothill, the tree line well below him, held these thoughts as he looked out at the spread of the prairie below. He saw that marvelous spread in the flashes of lightning. Flowers were in riotous blood, like a quilt had been put in place by his grandmother who had come here in a wagon train more than forty years earlier. She had often told the boy Todd that the flowers were an idea of her own innermost expression. Along with the flowers, a huge herd of cattle, off in a northern corner of the prairie, had settled down for the evening, but now would be at an early unrest. He imagined he could hear a cowpoke singing a near-lullaby as he rode on the outer edge of the herd, his voice soft, crooning, the easy round vowels looping like a girl’s breath under the cover of coming darkness.
A few people knew Margin best from their different angles or approach … social, business-curried, or casually on crossed trails where information moves back and forth, true or not, in the western lands. Those people included two neighbor ranchers, his foreman, and Sheriff Joe Boxler back in the town of Camp Silas. Others included one old cellmate when Margin was incarcerated for a spell of five months until the real culprit was found; the usual freighters and coach drivers with Camp Silas on their routes; and, ultimately, Lucie Dexter, the owner of Lucie’s Saloon in Camp Silas. Each of them thought the water rights from the Canopic Homesteader’s Stream were Margin’s due from Providence; that information moved as choice gossip or bar rail talk and centered on his unjust imprisonment for a crime he did not commit. Margin never talked about that part of his life. It was as though the transgression of his imprisonment had been erased, scorched from his life.
Something irrational, therefore compelling, had brought him out earlier to ride in the hills, surmount the land, view all within range. Then, with a lazy ride and nothing practical on his mind, a sudden storm had driven him in to a huge crevice and cave-like structure in the side of a mountain, from which he could see much of the land in the lightning flashes. He’d stay under cover with his horse, trying to keep him settled and quiet, patting him regularly.
At one moment he felt the ground shake, but it was an odd shaking, not like a bolt of lightning had hit a rocky tor or slashed into a valley or canyon. It felt unnatural; thus it was man-made, like an explosion in the ground and not on it. It piqued and intrigued him no end, but he dared not leave the safety of the fissured cave.
As suddenly as it had come, the storm was gone. Normal daylight staggered like an evening drunk back into the valleys and canyons as dark clouds were whisked away. The last crack of thunder seemed to be a thousand miles distant. Air came warmer on the back of his neck. The horse relaxed a bit as he rubbed its neck again, as the light overhead brightened, as violent sounds disappeared, his rider also relaxing his breath in tandem.
And yet that unnatural tremble under his feet returned, with the ominous sound bellowing from another canyon. He realized there was no lightning beforehand, no six-second delay to heavenly reverberations. A sense of foreboding returned to him. No mining interests or activities had been around for years. No construction of heavy-duty preparations was known in the vicinity. Nothing came to his mind of any plausible reason for the blast.
But it was water again that entered the argument; it stepped up the serious images capturing his mind. Though pushed by suspicions from odd sources, he thought of Purdom trying to change the course of Canopic Homesteader’s Stream, the stream being the major water source for his crops, for his herds. There had been talk saying the only surprise that’d bother the usually stoic Todd Margin would be the sudden loss of his water supply. But that, he’d argue, could be true of any rancher desperate without a normal supply of water.
The wait seemingly at odds with an intrusion of some sort, the shaking commenced again under his seat, the Earth itself shook, and a roar emanated from out in front of him, in an area difficult to see clearly. But the sounds and the shuddering all said the same thing, that there was a significant shift in the Earth itself.
There was a sudden separation on the face of one mountain wall as a massive portion of a cliff let go its hundred thousand years of grasp, daylight joined the separation and the enormous slice of granite slid thunderously down, directly into the face of Canopic Homesteader’s Stream and shoved it aside. The resultant bubble burst of water went in a different direction and sent its flow into a small valley. It soon filled that valley to become a pond and the pond sent its water spilling onto a stretch of land that had for years was ranched by Todd Margin’s neighbor, Zeke Waldron, who owned the Cross Box spread.
A supply of dynamite, with meticulous planning, had caused the schism, and Margin assumed it was Purdom’s work, studied and performed with a precision Purdom did not normally evince. He must have had help.
In due time, Margin believed, all the underlying facts would be revealed. Purdom, he knew, could not and would not hold a secret or a surprise. “The due time” would be damned soon. The surprises might be two-fold.
His visits to Lucie’s Saloon were, as most people knew, just charades to mask his visits to see Lucie. That they were sweet on each other had been a known fact for a few years, but were vaguely energized by Margin, “who could love long-distance,” as one porch-sitter said.
Lucie Boatwright had purchased the saloon for the sum of one dollar from her uncle, Charlie Boatwright, as he lay on his death bed, shot earlier in the day by a cornered escaped prisoner. He had named the place for Lucie the day it opened and loved her dearly.
The same night that the stream had been diverted by the dynamite blast, Margin walked into Lucie’s Saloon. As usual, Lucie was ravishing in Margin’s eyes, dressed to glory for a Saturday night. She’d sing a song or two and keep things moving as well as she could, always hoping the rough stuff stayed in the background of the evening.
She rushed over to see Margin when he walked in, her eyes saying that she had already heard about the water change on the land. “Oh, Todd,” she said, “I just heard that there was a problem out your way earlier today, that the water from the stream has been diverted. Is that true? What will you do now?” She was loaded with concern and Margin knew it was real.
“As sure as you’re asking, Lucie. As sure as you’re asking,” he replied, his voice extra calm, the soft smile for her spreading on his face. “Right now its snaking its way into Albert’s Canyon and coming out the other side right onto Box Bar L’s lower meadows and looking like it’s going to make its way from there right to the Snake River. Truth is, it’s got some new scenery, sure enough.”
Lucie was surprised. “You don’t seem upset at all, Todd. That’d be a bad break for anybody else in here, losing their water supply like that. Do you know what happened?”
“Hell,” said a voice from the other end of the room, “some damned fool was probably getting even with Margin there for some old reason we might never really know. Least ways, we can guess that, not knowing nothing else. Looks as though he has to buy his water now. Tough luck, Pal.” The sneaky smile crossed his face like a chameleon at work.
“Well, things happen to a man that might have no reason at all,” Margin countered, his manner still subdued, casual as any normal day. “Not much we can do about what happens to us sometimes; the will of the Lord or the will of the devil. Whatever.” He took Lucie by the arm and led her to an empty table.
She was so beautiful that Margin was happy all over just to see her. A glow was in her eyes, her cheeks wearing a soft hue that made him warm through and through. But she said again, the wonder in her voice, “What will you do now, Todd? You need that water. Everybody in here knows that. I don’t know how you can be so calm. I’d be devastated, I know I would.” Her hand touched his hand.
“Ain’t that pretty, boys,” Purdom said from his corner of the room. “Man loses his water right out from under his nose and he don’t get a bit flustered, like everything with him is like play-acting, making believe what is ain’t what it is. Just like his holding hands with Miss Lucie ain’t what it really looks like.” Purdom stood beside his padres at the table. His actions were sly, secretive, mean, and getting louder and louder.
Margin stood also, his voice still calm, and said, “Do yourself a big favor, Purdom … keep Lucie’s name out of this. This, like most folks here may be aware of, is strictly between me and you. If you got any more to say about my situation, say so out loud, right now, or keep your mouth shut.”
Purdom came right back. “Things have changed for you, big rancher man. In a short while you won’t be the big shot rancher you pretend to be. Losing that water is going to be the end of you. We can all see that.”
He spun around and yelled louder so that everybody in the room could hear him. “Man pretends nothing’s wrong, so here’s a man who can’t be believed, 'cause every one of us would be mad as hell about losing water.” He pointed at Margin and said, “You heard me, this man can’t be believed, no matter what he says.” He pointed at the stoic Todd Margin and said, “Tell us now, big rancher, what the real truth is. How you really going to handle this new change, this rotten luck of yours?”
Lucie was the first to note a flicker of a smile on Margin’s face, and she admired the tough spirit of the man who could handle these things so clearly. None of it was the end of life. And this man would somehow be her man before it was all over.
“Funny thing about that, Purdom. Zeke Waldron was saying the same thing last week when we sat down to discuss such things before he went off to see his daughter in Independence. She’s expecting her third child and all those little things have begun to bother Zeke these days.” He stopped his delivery as he looked around the room at a lot of friends. “Most of us know Zeke’s been hurting the last year or so and was worried about his daughter.”
Purdom was pushing the whole situation to some kind of a conclusion. He blurted out, “Some more of your pretty words, Margin. What’s that got to do with your water problem?”
“Just about everything, Purdom,” Margin replied. “I bought the Cross Box spread last week before Zeke went off to see his daughter. My water supply is working fine now.”
An honest laughter began in one corner of the room and ended up at Margin’s table as Lucie Boatwright threw her head back and joined in, her hand still in Margin’s hand.