Western Short Story
The first ray of sunlight struck the cowbell that hung from the gaunt longhorn’s neck as she meandered through the dust, calf at her flank with Jake Moon astride a sorrel horse not far behind. Moon was a thin-made man with gunmetal eyes and a beard that rimmed his jaw like a wreath of wire. In the saloon the day before, Moon listened as a drunk rambled on about a man named Pitts and his pregnant wife. The pair had leased ten acres of land just out of town. Pitts quit his job at the bank to try his hand as a farmer. That and to get away from the endless blather about his wife, Clare and her idiot sister—a rail-thin girl of nineteen who was the butt of every joke in town. The sister had taken sick with scarlatina and after the fever broke she just walked about in circles with her palms to the sky, clicking her tongue against the roof of her mouth.
Pitts knew little about life on a farm, but promised Clare he’d learn. He’d show her he could stand on his own—prove he wasn’t weak or afraid. What he lacked in experience he’d make up with hard work while Clare looked after the sister. But the decision to move out of town weighed heavy on Clare—she’d grown up in town and had no desire to leave. All things considered, it could’ve been worse. Like her hairbrained brother’s idea to chase gold in California. As responsible as he was, sometimes Clare wished Pitts was more of a man—someone that would hold his ground and fight for her and the sister—someone that commanded respect. For the first three weeks after they’d moved, Clare sat in front of her mirror and cried.
They woke that morning to the sound of the bell, distant and faint
“Clive,” Clare whispered as she threw back the sheet. “Listen—a bell—someone’s outside.”
The melodic ting grew louder as the bearded rider approached. Pitts leapt out of bed and eased down stairs—Clare not two steps behind. At the bottom of the stairwell, just before the kitchen, Clare crept into the sister’s bedroom and jostled her awake.
“Shhhh, she said. “Come with me.”
With his lip fast in his teeth, Pitts lowered the rifle from the fireplace mantle. Floorboards creaked as he crossed the room. He flattened his ear to the wall and silenced his breath. The ding of the bell ceased. Pitts closed his eyes and waited; then he opened the door, stepped outside and leveled his gun. Behind him, Clare held the sister’s hand while she tapped her foot to the click of the idiot’s tongue.
Moon grinned at Pitts and his awkward grip on the gun.
“Morning,” he said.
“Heard you might need a cow on account of you got a young’un coming. Happens I got one,” he said with a motion of his head toward the cow. “She’s making enough milk for a family. A right bargain she is.”
Pitts untrained the gun and eased the end of barrel toward the ground—the butt of the stock camped under his armpit.
“Can’t afford a cow,” Pitts said. “But you’re welcome to rest long as you’re here.”
Pitts nodded again.
“I’m Jake,” said Moon as he stepped off the sorrel.
Moon didn’t waste a second. In short order he’d enamored Clare with his charm and Pitts with his humble manner. When Moon pulled a harmonica from his vest and played the first few bars of Amazing Grace, it was the first time Clare had smiled in weeks. And when she saw how his music warmed her sister’s eyes, Clare invited Moon to stay for supper.
After they’d eaten, Moon excused himself from the table and went outside. He returned with a fifth of whisky, two short glasses in his hand. When the bottle was empty, Pitts owned the cow and the calf at twice their worth. Short on cash, Pitts offered Clare’s shotgun to settle the deal. Clare didn’t mind the money so much as the gun. It was her only protection when Pitts was away.
“You best think on this, Clive,” she said as she ran a towel across the table where Pitts had spilled his drink.
Pitts gazed into the bottom of his glass, but he did not respond. Clare bored her eyes into the bearded man as he tipped his head and winked. She pitched her towel to the middle of the table, spun on her heel and marched up stairs without as much as a wave goodnight.
Content he’d struck a fair bargain, Pitts asked Moon to stay until morning.
Clare was staring at the ceiling when Pitts entered the bedroom. After he’d closed the door behind him, Pitts reached for the lantern that hung from a bracket nailed to the wall. He canted the lever to raise the globe, blew out the flame then sat down on his side of the bed. He stared out the window and waited for Clare to speak. After a long pause he kicked off his boots, slipped between the covers and stretched out on his back. He drew the blanket up tight to his chin as the wind whistled through the trees just outside. Rough burrs of wool bristled against his neck. A shingle clapped the roof.
“You’re a fool,” Clare whispered. “A damn ignorant fool.”
“Even I know you paid too damn much for the cow. Moon conned you and ye ain’t got the sense to know it.”
Pitts rolled up on his side and faced her.
“Clare,” he whispered. “This is our chance—our chance to build a herd—something of our own—something that’s ours.”
“You wouldn’t know what to do with a damn herd. And now we ain’t got a penny to our name. The bastard’s got every cent and my gun to boot.”
Pitts forced an exhale between his lips and swallowed again.
“I’ll renege on the trade tomorrow,” Pitts said. “First thing before he leaves—I’ll make it right.”
But Pitts rose the next morning to find Moon’s bedroom empty. He stepped outside and shouted his name but Moon was gone. Pitts walked toward the barn and opened the gate where he found the idiot sister—standing in her half-torn nightclothes, clicking her tongue and looking at the sky.
A moment later Clare burst through the gate. She glanced at her sister then turned to Pitts—cradling her belly in her arms.
“Clive Pitts don’t you take after him. You hear me? Don’t you leave.”
If Pitts heard a word he didn’t let it show. He slid his rifle in its scabbard, swung up on his horse and trotted to the edge of the barnyard. At the end of the lane, just before the gate, he found his new calf tangled in a heap. Behind its ravished belly, an elongated shadow stretched out low and dark. In the reach of the shadow a wolf lay cowering with its chin flat to the ground. Its eyes glared at Pitts through hair matted with clots. Buzzards watched overhead as Pitts pulled the trigger. But the awful blast did nothing but scatter the birds. The wolf, unscathed, disappeared like windswept smoke in the coming light.
Pitt’s followed Moon’s trail to the mountains three miles south. The wolf’s prints lay just beside those of Moon’s horse. He followed their path to the foothills where the tracks went separate ways. Moon stayed the course toward the upland peaks, while the wolf veered off to the valley below.
Pitts stared at the mountains long and hard. But he reasoned Clare and the sister were safe now Moon was gone. He figured the wolf posed the greater threat. He’d heard how after a kill, they’d return with the pack time and again. This was a decision Pitts had to get right—there was stock to protect, and he couldn’t afford to lose the old cow. So he studied the tracks one last time—unaware Moon watched from above.
The wolf zigzagged his way through a mile-long gully then zigzagged back before it dawned on Pitts that he’d crossed his own tracks. Had he watched his flank there’d of been a clean shot—a foolish mistake—one that wouldn’t happen again. As the evening light grew dim, Pitts gathered what wood he could find, built a fire and bedded down beneath a barren sky.
That night a storm brought wind and sleet but it was the howling that wouldn’t let him sleep. The ashes were cold when he rose to find the wolf upright on the far side of the fire. Pitts reached for his scabbard but the wolf vanished before he’d readied his gun. He followed its tracks, losing them on and off for the rest of the day. But just before dusk he picked them up beside a trail of blood that led to the mouth of a cave.
Not two steps into the cave he was pelted by the hail of fleeting bats. He couldn’t see or hear above the sound of their wings as they swarmed like locusts from the cavern’s mouth. He shut his eyes and leaned against the wall as the wolf slipped by like a naked breeze.
The second night Pitts slept better without the wind and there was no howling except that of a lone coyote. Again, Pitts rose to the remnants of fire—ashes rank and cold. The wolf sat on its haunches on the far side of the pit—legs angled so its inner most hairs touched at its feet. The seething killer stared through cold yellow eyes that slanted up like a reptile sentinel—a feral dog with a curled upper lip. Again, the wolf disappeared before he squeezed the trigger. Pitts leapt to his feet, saddled his horse and took chase—up in his stirrups at a trot.
But the wolf would outwit him again. The gray dawn light cast shadows like stripes of a zebra across its silvered flank as it bounded over moss and leaves. No matter how well he masked his presence, no matter how Pitts quieted his breathe, the wolf slinked by invisible—as if one with the brambles and rocks. And when the wolf dashed silent through the creek, its coat flashed in the water like scales giving way to the upturned belly of a fish. So mercurial was its liquid shape, the wolf would remain unseen for the rest of the day.
By late afternoon Pitts stopped to rest beneath a mesquite tree on the bank of a creek—a plain of silt and sand through which sawgrass sprung knee high. He squatted on his heel, cupped a handful of water and wet his lips. A waft of acrid saline filled his nostrils. The hair on his neck bristled. His eyes fixed on the opposite bank where a mule deer lay wrapped in her entrails—alive not an hour before. The wolf had drunk its fill—and filled its belly too….
Pitts jammed his boot in the stirrup, rein-slapped the bay and galloped six-miles to the barnyard gate to find Clare crouched in the doorway. He called her name above the pound of the horse’s hooves but she did not turn her head. Just stared at the sky and cradled her belly—head bobbing to the hum of Amazing Grace. The idiot sister, blade in hand, clicked away at the stars—Jake Moon dead at her feet.
In the mercantile three days later a man rambled on about a farmer that slit a man’s throat with a knife.
“Sodbuster killed an innocent man over a cow is what he did,” the man said to the woman beside him. “They’re fixing to hang him tomorrow.”
The woman slid a sack of flour on the counter and turned to the man.
“That so,” she said.
Unable to hold her gaze, the man lowered his eyes to the floor.
“Yes, ma’am—don’t that beat all? Over a damn sorry-ass cow.”
The woman turned to face the window. She glanced at her sister waiting outside—her only protection when Pitts was away.