Western Short Story
A grand, triumphant sun burst free from the horizon’s grasp, shattering the confines of night and casting an orange, blazing hot glow over Casa Oculta. The small cluster of wooden buildings comprising the desert town were quiet and the dirt streets, still and peaceful. A far car from the blood spill of the night before.
A lawless and secluded town in the heart of the Sonoran, deep in the territory of southern California and just a half day’s ride from the Mexican border, no good came to Casa Oculta. The location was only a stop off point, a temporary hideaway for wanted men who have yet to cross over into the unknown of Old Mexico, and a haven for ruthless killers who had burnt too many bridges in their homeland to the south. Casa Oculta was home to no one and open game to all. A place where living conditions only suited the hardest, most degenerate of men. Caine Massey was neither of the two.
Squinting his eyes and pulling the brim of his hat down lower over his brow, Caine could see the shapes of the buildings across the distance in front of him, their presence a disruption, a mar on the face of the desert’s natural landscape. Pulling the labored paint beneath him to a halt, Caine dismounted, the worn heels of his boots sinking into the soft sand of the desert floor. After giving the horse a gentle pat on the neck, he untied a deerskin canteen from the saddle and had himself a short drink. He then moved to face the horse. Lifting the mare’s chin with his hand, Caine poured what remained of the water into her mouth. She lapped greedily.
“Atta girl,” Caine said in a dry, raspy whisper.
Tying the now empty canteen back in its place, he looked again toward the dark rectangles of the buildings looming in the distance. Out of habit, he lifted his long Colt .45 from its holster and opened the cylinder, running his thumb over it in a circle to count the rounds. There were five full and one empty. Having used all back up ammunition for hunting along the trail out of Colorado, and fired one round to spook a stray jaguar away from one of his day camps, what remained would be his only shots. Five would have to be enough.
There were no lawmen searching for Caine Massey. There were no reward posters bearing his name in circulation. He’d never stolen what did not rightfully belong to him and he’s never taken a man’s life outside of a fair fight. He had no desire to see the lands of Old Mexico. For Caine, if for no other, Casa Oculta was the destination. He lifted himself back astride the saddle and nudged the mare into a slow, steady gait toward the town ahead.
In less than an hour’s time, time enough for the sun’s heat to launch a blistering assault, Caine and his paint came upon what was a well-trod path in the sand that guided them into Casa Oculta. There, observing the ragtag cluster of partially dilapidated, wooden structures around him, Caine’s eyes fell upon one in particular. A building with a slanted roof and a crooked sign that read ‘Keeper’s Inn’. There were no people in sight.
After tying his horse off to the hitching post outside, Caine entered Keeper’s Inn. The air inside was heavy with humidity, a contrast to the dryness outdoors, and carried with it the stench of bodies unbathed. A man slept soundly behind the greeter’s booth, his bare feet crossed and resting on the counter. A steady snore whistled from his nostrils.
Cain approached the booth and rapped his knuckles against the counter’s surface. Startled, the desk clerk bolted upright from his slumber and eyed Caine, confusedly. The man was tall and slender, with the gray bristle of a beard spread across his chin. He cleared his throat. “Help ya?”
“I hope so,” Caine answered. “Looking to get a room for the day. Got any?”
The tall man leaned over to see the sun shining through a window. “Strange hour to be riding in,” he said. In Casa Oculta, as with in the rest of the Sonoran region, daylight hours were a time for sheltering oneself from the intense heat, and everything moved in the night.
“Yessir,” Caine agreed. “Been at it for a long while. Just looking to get some rest in a good bed.”
The man looked Caine up and down, his eyes lingering a bit longer on the pistol at his hip. “Not sure you’ll find much rest here, mister. Some real bad folks around these parts,” he warned.
Caine shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, well, folks are only bad until somebody worse comes along and stops them.”
An amused smile crept across the thin lips of the clerk as he leaned his elbows on the counter. “All by yourself?”
Caine returned the smile with one of his own. “Just looking for some rest.”
The older man stood up straight and gave it some thought for a moment. Then, he nodded and said, “Room five’s open. There’s a bed in there. Wouldn’t say it’s a good one like you asked for, but it’s a bed. Water out back’s good for cleaning but not for drinking. Alejandro, down the way, he can help you with fresh if you want it. Name’s Jack Keeper, I own the place.” He extended his hand.
“Caine Massey,” Caine introduced himself, shaking the man’s hand, “and I’ll take it.”
“Sounds good,” Jack said. Hesitantly, he continued, “Hate to trouble ya, but I gotta charge something.”
“Wouldn’t expect it any other way. One mark enough?”
“That’ll do ‘er.”
Caine paid for the boarding, accepted the key to his room, and turned to leave the Inn in search of water. Keeper was sat back with his feet up again and sound asleep before Caine reached the exit.
Outside was like the inside of a hearth, and the inferno was only beginning to preheat. Caine scanned the faces of the buildings around him. There was a single-story shack of a shop a short way down the dirt road from the Inn that had a sign with the word ‘Agua’ stenciled into it above the door. Caine walked toward the shop.
Finding the door to be locked tightly, Caine knocked hard on the wood, hoping for service. After some time, just as Caine was raising his fist to try again, the door unlatched and swung inward. A short, round faced and dark-skinned man with a thin, black mustache and tussled hair of the same color looked up at him. “Que?”
There was annoyance in the little man’s voice and Caine could see that he had clearly awaken him. “I’m, looking for Alejandro. Jack Keeper sent me,” Caine explained.
“Si?” The Mexican opened the door further. “What you need?”
“Fresh water for me and my horse. Mainly for my horse.”
“No. American,” Caine answered.
There was a light that flickered in the eyes of Alejandro. Then, he closed the door. Caine stood, waiting. He could hear the sound of rustling around from inside. After a minute or so, the door was opened again. Alejandro bent over and set a covered pail on the ground next to Caine’s feet. Standing straight, he motioned toward the pail and then held his hand out toward Caine, palm up in expectation.
Caine looked down at the pail and then back up at the Mexican. “This is good?” He asked, doubtfully.
Alejandro kept his hand out to accept payment. “Si. Is good.”
Caine pulled some coins from an inside pocket of his tanned vest. “If my horse gets sick, I’ll be back,” he warned. Taking the money, Alejandro said no more as he closed the door. Caine could hear the lock being reset.
Crouching down, Caine removed the lid of the pail at his feet. He could not discern if the brownish color inside was that of the water or the corrosion of the pail itself. He cupped his hand and scooped some of the water up. It trickled clearly between his fingers as he raised it to his face. First, he sniffed and caught nothing other than a faint, metallic scent. He tasted it and it tasted pure. Replacing the lid, he stood, lifted the pail and walked away.
By the time Caine finished the short march back to where he had tied the mare he rode in on, he could feel the sweat dripping down his face. He glanced up at the sun, which was now a gigantic and menacing, white globe above. He found the horse with her head low, looking dragged down and exhausted. Around the right, front corner of the Inn, there was a narrow shadow cast by the eve of the building’s roof. Caine unraveled the horse’s reins and walked her closer to the corner, carrying the pail of water in his other hand. She quickly positioned herself within the shade of the building.
“It’s the best I can do, girl,” Caine whispered near her ear.
Caine dunked the deerskin canteen into the pail and allowed it to fill, clear bubbles rising to the water’s surface as the thirsty canteen replenished itself. Then, he left the pail there for his horse to drink at will. After watching her drink for a moment, he turned to head into the Inn for some much-needed sleep, taking the canteen with him.
Caine was awakened from a dreamless sleep by the nearby crack of gunfire, a succession of three shots being fired followed by shouts of “vida loca” and “nuestra gente”. Having laid down fully clothed, including boots and holster, he instantly leapt to his feet and drew his sidearm.
In seeing no immediate threat about the rented room, he moved to the single, tiny window and peered out into the dirt road below. There, he saw a group of three men in sombreros, laughing and shouting in Spanish, each with a pistol in his hand and a bottle being passed amongst them. One of them lifted his arm and fired another shot into the sky, followed by more laughter. It was dark outside. Caine opened the cylinder and ran his thumb over the backs of his five loaded shells before putting the Colt away. He had himself a drink of water, reached his arms out for a good stretch, and left the room.
The Inn’s lobby was empty save for a duster covered man laying asleep on the floor in a corner and Jack Keeper standing behind the check in counter. As Caine walked toward the exit, the Innkeeper called out to him in a cheerful manner. “Mister Massey, come, drink with me!”
Caine stopped and turned on his heel to head over to the counter. There, he watched as Keeper poured amber liquid into a tumbler he’d just emptied and did the same to another beside it. There was a flush to the man’s cheeks, suggesting that he’d been at it for some time already.
“Whiskey around here’s so bad you feel like you have to chew it before you swallow it, but it does the job.” Jack winked as he handed a tumbler to Caine.
“Thank you kindly,” Caine said. He poured the drink down his throat in a single gulp. It tasted like he’d think driftwood would taste, but it burned going down just as whiskey should.
Jack wasted no time in offering a refill. “Better have another, they’re small,” he said, with a short laugh. This one, Caine sipped at as he glanced over to the man sleeping on the floor.
“Ain’t that something?” Jack said. “Man has enough money to drink himself silly, but can’t afford to pay for a room.” He gave another laugh. Then, he asked, “Sleep well?”
“I’ve slept worse,” Caine replied.
“Heading out of town?” Jack inquired.
“Not quite yet,” Caine answered. “A little business to take care of first.”
“Business, hey?” Jack said. “Now, I been here long enough to know that there’s two kinds of business anyone ever comes to Casa Oculta to take care of. Either they’re trying to get away from someone or they’re trying to find someone. My instinct tells me you ain’t running.”
“No, sir,” Caine acknowledged.
Jack nodded. “Well, let me tell ya, Mister Massey, the only people you’ll find here are the no-good ones. This here’s the place where the men who jails can’t hold come. Nothing but the nasty. When hell spits men out for being too darn evil, those men come to Casa Oculta.”
Caine took another sip. “Tell me, then, what brings a man like yourself here? If you don’t mind me saying so, you don’t come off as the nasty type.”
“Murder,” Jack said, plainly. “Shot a man up in Pennsylvania, many years ago. Had it comin’. I’d do it all over again if I had the chance too.”
Caine knew that the man told no lie by the straightforward way in which he spoke. Caine decided that it would be discourteous for him to push further into the subject. “Know of a place where I can get some .45s?”
“Mister, the only bullets you can get in Casa Oculta are the ones you brought with you, or the ones that someone puts in you. You can cross the border and get some there. Only other option’s at least a two-day ride.” Jack filled his own tumbler and held the bottle out to Caine in offering to do the same for his. Caine accepted.
“You got enough?” Jack asked, gesturing toward Caine’s gun.
“You never can tell,” Caine replied. “Looking for a man called Rubio. Heard of him?”
“Rubio? Sure, I heard of him. Real mean fella, he is. Word has it, he killed a woman and her child up north some place. Colorado, I think it was.” At mention of this, Jack did not fail to notice the flame ignited behind Caine Massey’s eyes and the tightening of his jaw. “Something that never did sit well with me,” he said. “Some men are better dead, that’s a fact. But killin’ innocent women and children, you got to be a real son of a devil to go in for that sort of thing.”
Caine polished off the whiskey he’d been sipping on. It calmed him. It fed his determination. It made him feel empowered. It made him ready. “Any idea where a man might find this son of a devil?”
The half-drunk grin was gone from Jack Keeper’s face and he now spoke in a lower, more serious tone. “Can’t say I know where he’s staying. I hear he’s a hell of a Faro player, though. The Empty Barrel might be a good place to start. Billy and Moose Henning run with him, couple of Texas bank robbers quick on the trigger. Asesino, he’ll be with him too. Mexican outlaw, sixteen bodies under his belt. ‘Course, could be just rumor.”
Caine reached inside his vest to produce two marks, which he slid across the counter in the Innkeeper’s direction. “I thank you for your hospitality. You’re a good man, Jack,” he said. “I don’t expect I’ll be back. If I don’t make it out of Casa Oculta, the horse tied around the corner is yours. She’s a good horse. I never even named her.” He tipped his hat to the man and without another word, he turned and walked out of Keeper’s Inn. Jack poured himself another drink as he watched Caine Massey go.
Outside, Caine paused to give the mare a scratch beneath the chin before making his way down the road. He had seen what appeared to be a closed down saloon during his early morning ride into town and the steady commotion coming from the same building left no doubt that it would be the Empty Barrel. While making the short walk, he reached down to pull the Colt. He popped the cylinder open and ran his thumb over the five shells.
As he drew near, the hoots and hollers from within the saloon grew louder. It sounded like a packed house. Just outside the door, Caine was greeted by a tall and well built, olive skinned woman in a revealing dress and long, black hair cascading over her shoulders. She stepped toward him and pursed her red lips. “Hola, gringo. Looking for something special?” She asked, pulling down the front of her dress to reveal a swollen breast. She spoke in a heavy, Spanish accent. She had the voice of a man and there was a distinctive lump at the front of her throat. Caine ignored her and entered the swinging, creaking doors of the Empty Barrel.
None seemed to pay any notice to him, aside from the gorgeous, red haired barmaid, who gazed in his direction with striking, green eyes. The expression on her pale face was welcoming and Caine moved up to the bar. Before he could get there, a man crashed into him, having been given a bust in the mouth for pushing the buttons of the wrong person. Caine caught the man beneath the arms before he could crumble to the wooden floor and shoved him back at the one who had hit him. A second punch landed flush and the man was laid out. His limp form was quickly dragged toward the door by a couple of bystanders.
“You need something?” The pretty barmaid asked with a wide, white smile and in a voice to be heard above the crowd.
Keeping her smile in place, she blinked long lashes and looked toward the far end of the room. Caine’s eyes followed hers and he spotted a round table surrounded by seated card players and onlookers. There was a heaping pot at the center of the table and a spectacled dealer looked about nervously as he expertly shuffled the deck. Cigarette smoke wafted thickly over them all.
“Anything else I can do for you?” The barmaid asked.
“Yeah,” Caine said, “you can stay low.” His warning erased the smile from her face.
Caine weaved and pushed his way through the Faro game’s spectators until he found a spot just beside and behind the dealer. Across the table, there sat Rubio, clad in black with a wide brimmed hat of the same. His eyes were dark and intense as he watched every move of the dealer’s hands. His mouth was hidden behind a thick mustache with a brown papered cigarette protruding from it. His hands stayed beneath the table as he waited for the cards to be dealt.
Just as the dealer went to slide a card to the player at his left, Caine reached out and grabbed him by the wrist. Confused, the dealer looked up at Caine. “That won’t be necessary,” Caine said.
All around the table went silent and all eyes observed the intruder. Recognizing the scenario for what it was, the card dealer squeezed the deck to his chest and timidly backed away from the table.
Rubio snubbed his cigarette out on the surface of the table between them. “You got something to say, or just a death wish?” He stared Caine down.
Caine noticed that the two rough and burly men seated on each side of Rubio lowered a hand to their laps, out of view under the table’s edge. These would be the Henning brothers, Billy and Moose. From the gathering beyond, a hatless, scar faced man with Mexican features stepped forward, an ivory handled pistol at each hip. Asesino, Caine presumed.
Feigning not to note the other three’s presence, Caine held his attention on Rubio. “My name is Caine Massey. Because of you, I have no wife, no son to carry on my name. I’ve come to make you pay for what you’ve done.”
There was a moment of tense, pin drop silence. Rubio’s expression went from anger to one of amusement. Finally, he tipped his head back and let out a long, bellowing laugh. His cronies laughed with him, along with a few others. Smarter patrons of the Empty Barrel saloon slowly stepped away from the confrontation and the barmaid ducked herself down behind the safety barricade of the bar. Some came around to join her.
Done seeing the humor in it all, Rubio stopped laughing and the others followed suit. After another stare down with Caine, he said, “Be on your way.” Caine did not move, not even the slightest twitch.
“Get it, boys!” An excited voice shouted through the collective anticipation of the saloon.
Rubio sprang to his feet and went for his gun. A ready Caine drew down and fired, instantly ending the murderer’s life before his own pistol even had time enough to clear leather.
With his left hand, Caine flipped the table up on its side between himself and Rubio’s men, sending the pot money scattering across the floor. One foolishly brave card player who had been having an unsuccessful night flung himself onto the floor, using his arms to sweep the loot into a pile beneath him. Moose Henning put a bullet into the back of the man’s skull. The greedy move allowed Caine an opportunity to get a shot off on Moose, hitting his target in the center of his chest. The floor shook when the big man fell dead. Caine crouched down behind the barrier of the table.
A hail of violent gunfire erupted with fury; bullets shot from close distance screaming past Caine. One well-placed slug ripped its way through the heavy table, sending splinters of wood soaring through the air and a searing heat into Caine’s shoulder. He clenched his teeth and touched the wound with the back of his gun hand, recognizing it as only a graze that missed any bone.
There came a split-second lull in the assault and Caine used the moment to return fire around the table. The shot missed Billy Henning by mere inches and sailed through the saloon to catch the one who had exposed her breast to Caine at the door of the Empty Barrel in the leg. Her scream was not manly. Caine hunkered down as more bullets began to fly. He knew it wouldn’t be long until he became a sitting duck in his current position. He searched for an escape route.
Discovering what appeared to be his only option, Caine took a deep breath and then ran, head low, toward the wall behind him. As he ran, a whistling bullet barely spared his life, coming close enough to knock his hat from his head. Then, he leapt through an open window, tumbling to the ground outside. Immediately bouncing back to his feet, he leveled the Colt .45 toward the window he had thrown himself out of.
Billy Henning appeared in the window’s opening, aiming and preparing to shoot. Both of their guns went off simultaneously, Billy’s missing his mark with another close call and Caine’s tearing into Billy’s guts. Billy pressed his hand to his stomach, a shocked look on his face. He raised his pistol intending to fire again but was stopped by a bullet between the eyes, courtesy of Caine Massey. Billy’s body slumped over the sill of the window. Caine opened the hot cylinder of his Colt and ran his thumb over the five, now hollow shells.
Having exited the Empty Barrel, Asesino stepped forward, both chrome and ivory pistols at the ready. His eyes were yellow and there was a wicked grin on his scarred face as he looked down at Caine’s weapon. Asesino knew he had him. Caine knew it too.
There was no trace of any fear present within Caine. To the contrary, he felt a sense of peace, almost an exalted feeling of content. He thought of his wife and son, he pictured their image in his mind, as clear as if they were standing before him in person. He saw their every detail, and a powerful pride consumed him.
Caine had come to this cursed place, this sanctuary for the evil, this Casa Oculta with a single purpose. To bring death to the one who had taken his world from him. He’d had his vengeance, honored his duty to his family. Now, his destiny fulfilled, he welcomed his fate. Caine tossed his useless pistol to the dirt and faced his adversary with his chin high. Asesino’s grin vanished and he nodded his head to Caine. It was a nod of respect. Caine closed his eyes and waited for his final breath. A thundering blast rang out into the Sonoran night.
After a few heartbeats, Caine opened his eyes to find the Mexican assassin sprawled out on the ground, his blackened blood pouring into the soft, dry dirt. From the shadows around the saloon’s corner, Jack Keeper came forth, a smoking Winchester lever action rifle cradled in the crook of his arm. Caine gave him a questioning look. Jack shrugged his shoulders and smiled.
“Hell, I don’t have much use for a good horse anyway. You really should get around to naming her.”
Copyright © 2020 Jason Crager All rights reserved.