Western Short Story
In the late afternoon, Lukas Williams looked into his corral and saw the bull, the cows, and the calves grazing on the hay he’d forked from the barn nearby. He looked beyond the barn and saw the horse grazing on the stubble in the field, which like the rest of his ranch and the whole of the county sure could use some rain. But his well was still filling the troughs, so things weren’t desperate yet. He looked back at the cattle. He’d sell most of the calves next week and make the payment on his mortgage. Then he’d buy some lumber and shore up the west wall of the barn.
He turned and looked at his cabin.
As soon as he could, he’d put down a wooden plank floor so that Clara Jean and the little ones wouldn’t have to stand and walk on dirt.
But even with the dirt floor, the cabin was good. Even with the drought and the mortgage, the ranch was good.
He smiled, took off his hat, and ran his hand through his hair. He put his hat back on and walked toward the cabin.
He stopped at the pump near the front door and washed his hands with just a little water.
He dried his hands on his shirt sleeves, walked into the cabin, and saw Clara Jean, his beautiful wife, who stood beside a table where Noah and Daisy, their beautiful children, sat with heads bowed, eyes closed, and hands folded.
Noah peeked at Daisy and reached for a slice of bread.
“What do we say first?” Clara Jean asked.
“Thank you,” Daisy said.
“A very lot,” Noah said, then looked up at Clara Jean and raised his eyebrows.
He grabbed the slice and took a big bite out of it.
Life is good, he thought.
He heard hooves pounding on the ground.
He stepped outside.
Three riders galloped up to the cabin and reined in their horses.
“Mr. Donahue wants to see you,” said Tommy Brannon, one of the riders. “He wants to see you now.”
“Why?” Lukas asked.
“’Cuz he wants to,” said Travis McIntire, another of the riders.
Clara Jean came out of the cabin and stopped beside Lukas.
Bert Tanner, the third rider, whistled softly at her.
Lukas looked at him.
“And what Mr. Donahue wants,” Brannon said, “he gets.”
Lukas looked back at him.
“Tell Mr. Donahue I’ll come in the morning,” Lukas said.
“That wouldn’t be a good thing to tell him,” Brannon said.
“No,” McIntire said, “it wouldn’t be.”
Tanner whistled again at Clara Jean.
Lukas looked back at him.
“Go on, Lukas,” she said.
“I ain’t getting too far away from our ranch at night,” Lukas said, staring at Tanner. “You never know who’s gonna come by and make trouble.”
“Don’t you worry, Lukas,” Clara Jean said.
He turned to her.
“The Dear Lord’s looking after us,” she said.
In the early evening, Lukas, Brannon, McIntire, and Tanner stopped their horses near an immense house with lights shining through the windows, slate tiles covering the roof, white paint glistening on the walls, and a wide porch leading to a burnished mahogany door.
Lukas dismounted, climbed the steps to the porch, moved to the door, and knocked on it.
The door opened. Jonathan Montgomery, an elderly man in a tuxedo, stood in the doorway.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Nothin’,” Lukas answered.
“Then why are you here?”
“’Cuz Mr. Donahue wants something from me.”
“What could you have that Mr. Donahue might want?”
“Who are you?” Montgomery asked.
Montgomery closed the door.
Lukas turned and looked at the garden surrounding the house, a garden full of flowers, shrubs, and trees that didn’t bear fruit, that just looked pretty. He shook his head. Mr. Donahue must have a deep well to put so much water on a garden that wasn’t even growing food for the family.
The door opened.
Lukas turned to it and saw Montgomery, who looked at Lukas’s boots.
“Clean them,” Montgomery said and pointed to a boot scraper beside the door.
“Ain’t no mud where I been,” Lukas said.
“Clean them,” Montgomery repeated.
Lukas scraped his boots.
Montgomery stepped back.
Lukas entered a long hallway with a polished oak floor, and Montgomery closed the door.
“Follow me,” he said.
Montgomery led Lukas past a doorway leading into a magnificent dining room full of polished oak furniture, then past another doorway leading into an elegant parlor where three young women in satin gowns held silver goblets and sprawled on silk brocade couches.
Montgomery led Lukas to a door, where they stopped.
“Mr. Donahue will see you in the library,” Montgomery said, reaching for the doorknob, then pausing and scowling. “Take off your hat.”
Lukas removed his hat, Montgomery opened the door, and Lukas entered a dimly lighted room.
Montgomery closed the door.
Lukas glanced over his shoulder, then looked around the room. Bookcases full of books lined three walls. A huge painting decorated the fourth wall. A crystal chandelier hung from the ceiling. A Persian carpet lay on the floor.
Someone struck a match in the middle of the room. Lukas saw a man holding the match and sitting behind a desk.
“Lukas Williams,” the man said, “I am Mr. Donahue.”
He lighted a candle on the desk, then blew out the match.
“They say you wanna see me,” Lucas said.
“At first, you might wonder why,” Donahue said. “My finances are secure, my women are ravishing, my liquor cabinet is full. May I offer you a drink? Whiskey, champagne?”
Lukas shook his head.
“My education is impeccable,” Donahue continued, “and my lands are vast.”
“Looks like you got everything,” Lukas said.
“Almost,” Donahue said. “I want your ranch. I’ll pay whatever you ask.”
“Why do you want it?”
“Name your price.”
“Why do you want it?”
Donahue leaned forward.
“Because I don’t have it,” he said.
“Well,” Lukas said, “I do have it. And I don’t wanna lose it.”
“You will lose it, sir, one way or another.”
“You saying if I don’t sell it to you, you’re gonna take it from me?”
“I’m saying I’ll get it . . . one way or another. And I’m also suggesting that you profit by my acquisition, which is inevitable.”
For a moment, Lukas looked at him, then put on his hat and turned to the door.
Lukas entered his cabin and saw Noah and Daisy sleeping in bedrolls near a fire in the fireplace. He saw Clara Jean sitting at the table, mending Noah’s shirt.
“Ever get tired of pushing a needle through that old cloth?” he asked.
She looked at him.
“No,” she said.
“How about we get you some new calico at Peterson’s?”
“How about you tell me what you’re thinking?”
“I’m thinking maybe you want something.”
“What could I want?”
“What would you like?” He moved to the table and sat beside her. “If you could have anything in the world, what would it be? Maybe one of them machines that does the stitching for you.”
He put his elbow on the table, which wobbled.
“Maybe a new table,” he said. “Maybe . . . something else.”
“Nothing I can think of,” she said.
“You better start thinking,” he said. “I’m gonna sell some of the calves next week. I gotta spend most of the money on the ranch, but I’ll be holding back some good heifers. That bull, he’s a worker. And next year, we’re gonna have a better calf crop. And the year after, even better. And soon I won’t have to spend so much on fixing up the ranch. And--”
“Lukas,” she said, “we got what we need.”
“I’m talking about what you might want. I already promised you a floor. It ain’t gonna be oak, but Doug fir’ll do for a while. I’ll get to it after the barn.” He paused. “Or maybe I’ll hold off on the barn for another year. Maybe I’ll get to the floor first, and then--”
She touched his hand and smiled.
“Lukas,” she said, “we got what we need. So I got what I want: you, Noah, Daisy, and the Dear Lord, who’s looking after us. And even when troubles come along . . . and you know they will . . . He’s still gonna be looking after us.”
“Lukas,” she said, “have some supper. Then let’s go to bed.”
The next morning, Lukas washed his hands at the pump, then washed his face. He crinkled his nose, tasted the water, and frowned.
He removed the cover from the well and saw three dead rats floating in the water.
He hurried into the cabin, where Clara Jean placed bowls in front of the children, who sat at the table.
“Don’t use none of the water without boiling the hell out of it!” he shouted.
Frightened, Clara Jean and the children looked at him.
An animal bellowed.
Lukas ran to the corral, where the bull lay twitching on the ground. He pulled open the gate, ran to the bull, and saw blood in the dirt under him.
The bull had been castrated.
Clara Jean screamed in the cabin.
“They come in and took Noah and Daisy,” Clara Jean sobbed while Lukas held her beside the table. “I couldn’t . . . couldn’t stop ’em!”
“Who?” he asked.
“The men that was here yesterday.”
“Where’d they go?”
“Toward the hills.”
Lukas galloped past hills and into a gully. He jumped from his horse and ran to Noah and Daisy, who lay beside some rocks. They were dead.
“I’m gonna see the sheriff,” Lukas said, grabbing a rifle and stuffing shells into his pockets.
Clara Jean sat at the table, her head bowed.
“You stay here,” he said.
He moved over to her and touched her shoulder.
“And take this.”
She raised her head and saw the pistol he held.
“I ain’t gonna shoot them men,” she said.
He handed her the pistol.
“And use it if you have to,” he said.
She looked at the pistol.
“Well, now, Lukas,” Sheriff Martin Crowell said, leaning back in his chair, “I sure am sorry to hear that.”
“Whatcha gonna do about it?” Lukas shouted.
“Not much I can do,” the sheriff said. “You didn’t see them men, did you?”
“My wife saw ’em.”
“But you didn’t.”
“I know who they are. They come by my place yesterday. They ride for Donahue.”
“Mr. Donahue is a big man in this county,” the sheriff said. “I just can’t see him hiring men to do something like what you told me about.”
“And maybe you seen some men yesterday,” the sheriff continued, “but you didn’t see ’em today.”
“But my wife--”
“You know how women are, Lukas,” the sheriff said. “They’re hy-sterical most of the time.”
“Her children . . . our children have been killed!”
“Like I say,” the sheriff said, “I sure am sorry to hear that.” He nodded, then shook his head. “I sure am.”
In the evening, Lukas rode to his cabin. He dismounted, dropped the reins of his horse beside the pump, trudged to the front door, and opened it.
The cabin was empty.
Near a campfire, Brannon, McIntire, and Tanner stood, leering at Clara Jean, who lay on the ground.
“Just a few more chores to take care of for Mr. Donahue,” Brannon said.
“Then we’ll take care of us,” McIntire said.
“But now,” Tanner said, “we’ll take care of this woman.”
He removed his gun belt and dropped it on the ground.
Clara Jean sat up and took a pistol from her blouse.
“There’s three of us and one of you,” he said.
“And you ain’t gonna shoot anyway,” McIntire said.
“’Cuz it’s a sin to kill somebody,” Brannon said.
“How do you know?” McIntire asked.
“I heared it in church.”
“When was you last in church?” Tanner asked.
“Cain’t quite remember,” Brannon said. “But I heared it there. My pappy was a minister.”
“What does he think of his son now?” McIntire asked.
“Don’t know,” Brannon said. “I killed the son of a bitch a while back.”
He, McIntire, and Tanner laughed. Then they separated and moved in a circle around Clara Jean, who watched them.
“You might as well give in now, little lady,” Tanner said. “We’s gonna get you.”
“One of us, anyway,” McIntire said.
“Maybe Tanner,” Brannon said.
“Maybe McIntire,” Tanner said.
“Maybe me,” Brannon said.
“Ain’t nothing you can do to stop all of us,” McIntire said.
“Ain’t nothing you can say, neither,” Tanner said.
“God bless you,” she said.
She raised the pistol, pointed it at her chest, and fired.
The three men stopped and stared at her.
“I’ll be damned!” Tanner said.
He looked at Brannon and McIntire, then grabbed his gun belt. The three men ran to their horses, mounted them, and rode away.
The campfire had almost burned out when Lukas rode up to it and saw Clara Jean lying on the ground.
“Oh, my God,” he said.
“Lukas,” she whispered.
He jumped from his horse and fell to his knees beside her.
“I’ll kill them men, Clara Jean!” he cried. “I’ll kill ’em, and I’ll kill Donahue!”
She raised her hand and touched his face.
“They took my life away!” he cried again.
“It ain’t gonna last,” she whispered.
“Don’t say nothing. I’ll get you into town and--”
“What ain’t?” he asked, looking at her wound, then moaning softly.
“This life,” she whispered. “You gotta remember what we’re here for.”
“What . . . what are we here for?” he asked.
“To be tested by the Dear Lord. He wants to give us the chance to do good.”
“Don’t He already know what we’re gonna do--good or bad?
“Yes,” she said, “but we don’t. He’s testing us so we’ll find out.”
She smiled and closed her eyes.
In the early morning, Lukas rode toward his ranch, his head down.
He raised his head and saw that the cattle were gone, the barn had been torn down, and the cabin had been burned nearly to the ground.
He saw Sheriff Crowell standing beside the pump, shaking his head.
He rode up to the sheriff.
“I sure am sorry to see this, Lukas,” the sheriff said. “I sure am.”
In Donahue’s library, Brannon, McIntire, and Tanner stood on the Persian carpet in front of the desk, behind which Donahue sat.
“That rancher ain’t gonna be able to pay his mortgage now,” Brannon said.
“We done all the chores you hired us to do,” McIntire said.
“So we ain’t working for you no more,” Tanner said.
“And you want me to compensate you for your labors,” Donahue said.
He opened a drawer in the desk and reached into it.
“Well, now, Mr. Donahue,” Brannon said, “we got our own ideas about how you can compensate us.”
“Yeah,” McIntire said, “we’ll start with your house.”
“Then go on with your cattle,” Tanner said, “and your money and your whiskey.”
“And we’ll end up with your women,” Brannon said.
“And don’t go thinking the old guy that wears the fancy clothes is gonna help you any,” McIntire said. “He ain’t never gonna help nobody again.”
“So you best come outside,” Tanner said. “We don’t wanna mess up your house.”
“Our house,” Brannon said.
“Your desires are far too modest,” Donahue said. “Let me offer you what you truly deserve: mansions in a city whose streets are paved with gold, whose residents are clothed in garments of dazzling white linen, and whose never-ending feasts comprise aged wines--which unlike even our finest alcohol invigorate but never inebriate--and, of course, fat things full of marrow.”
“Where the hell is this city?” Tanner asked.
“Yeah,” McIntire said. “Where?”
“Wait,” Brannon said, raising his head and squinting at the chandelier. “I remember something my pappy said.”
“What?” McIntire and Tanner asked.
“Streets of gold,” Brannon said, then frowned. “St. Peter . . . ?”
He looked at Donahue, who nodded.
“Beyond the Pearly Gates,” Brannon shouted, quickly reaching for his pistol.
Donahue raised his own pistol.
In the evening, Lukas rode to Donahue’s immense house.
Donahue stood on the porch, his hands behind his back.
“You should have sold me your ranch,” Donahue said. “You had a wife and children. You would have had more money than you’d ever had in your life. And what do you have now?”
“Nothin’,” Lukas said. “So I got nothin’ to lose.”
“But you, Mr. Donahue,” he continued, “you have everything.”
For a moment, Lukas looked at Donahue, then rode away.
Donahue watched him, then brought his hands forward and looked at the pistol he held.
“And I’ll keep everything,” he said.
He thought of his possessions: his money, his land, his cattle, his house, his books, his paintings, his Persian carpets, his whiskey and champagne, his women.
Yvette, he thought, so submissive; Chantelle, so aggressive; Adriana, so . . . so hard to describe.
“But I shall continue to try to,” he said, anticipating the next time he would lie with her.
He entered the house and moved to the doorway leading into the parlor, where the three women sprawled on the couches. He gazed at Adriana. Her hair was blonde, her eyes were blue, her lips were red, her breasts were voluptuous--firm, he knew, but also supple.
She closed her eyes, raised her head, and parted her lips.
He frowned, then went into the library.
He looked at the carpet, which was stained.
“My Kashan,” he said and sighed, then shrugged. “I have a Tabriz in storage.”
He moved to the desk and put the pistol on it, then moved to a liquor cabinet beside the huge painting. He reached for a bottle, winced, and flexed his thumb.
He turned to the painting.
“My Tintoretto,” he said and smiled, then noticed that paint had peeled from a corner of the canvas.
What will Lukas Williams do now? he wondered. Make his way toward the Pearly Gates?
Donahue laughed at all the fools who believed in such ludicrous fantasies, then winced and flexed his thumb again.