Western Short Story
“Out of the way old man. You insulted me one time too many with your last issue and I’m tired of it.” He throws copies of my one-page newspaper in the street at my feet. “We’re gonna fix your press so you kain’t do that anymore. You know nothing of ranching so stop giving me advice where none is asked. Get out of the way,” commands the older man at the center a semi-circle of riders at my front door. “Your old dove duster of a scattergun ain’t gonna stop any of my boys.”
I stand on the boardwalk in front of my printshop, with my ancient percussion shotgun, facing ten riders. “Mr. Reynolds, I print the truth about the changing times and you get your bloomers in a bunch. I musta hit a sore spot in that pompous old hide of yours,” I reply scornfully. “I told you ten years ago, over our last cup of coffee that you needed to keep up with the changes coming to ranchin’.”
“I told you then and I printed it last week, that ranching is changing from the open range to fenced range, to developed water, with better breeding, and hay pastures. I wrote; you can’t be running off people you don’t like. I get a pile of newspapers, and magazines, and bulletins every month. I may not know much about ranchin’ but I can read about it.”
“You make a big brag how you came in here as a young man with a small herd and set up. You brag of fighting off the Indians. You know, those Indians did not like the changes you wuz bringing to their way of life. You would sneer at them because they would not accept change.”
“Now, you are the one fighting against change. Fighting against the farmers comin’ to settle in our valley. You, like the Indians, want to smash and burn those that threaten your way of living. You claim to be just defending what you have. But you are fighting the inevitable change happening in the bigger world.”
“Barbed wire fencing has been coming for a while now. Better control of breeding for meatier beeves is the way to better profits. Cutting hay for winter feeding is getting cows and calves thru the winter with more weight and better numbers. You, old open range ranchers, are being passed up,” I threw into the stony faces before me.
“Consider me, an old printer with an old press, I ken get a thousand pages printed in a day on my old Washington press. There are foot presses that will do that in two hours. Big city newspaper presses are now run by steam engines. I’d hardly recognize a modern newspaper shop. I ken only hope to live long enough to go see one.”
Taking a deep breath and blowing it out, “Jake, old friend, I told you then, and I’ll tell you now. You should buy up your water and your hay lands. You have wasted the last ten years in high living and running rough shod over people. You and Miss Jenny used to care for people. You were known to send a quarter beef and a cowboy to split a week’s worth of firewood for some family with a sickness. Your Miss Jenny visited all the new babies and widows,” I shake my head sadly.
“Now you order people around. They say ‘Yes Sir Mr. Reynolds’ and step aside because they fear you. They don’t respect you. You built a big empty mansion and buy high-bred horses and take fancy big-spender trips back east or out to San Francisco.”
With a shrug and a long sigh, I raise my shotgun towards the sky and uncock the hammers. “I see your sledge hammers and axes and kerosene cans. Go ahead, smash and burn an old man out. It’s all you know since your Miss Jenny died.” I step out of the doorway and move to the right down the board walk. “You could have offered to buy me out so I could retire to a bigger burg. But you ain’t got that much kindness left in that old hide,” I challenge him.
“Pa, enough yammering. Give the order. Let’s get this done.”
“Patience! Peter. I got some thinking to do,” the old rancher orders his youngest son.
“Andrew?” he turns to his oldest son. “What do you think?”
“I think the boys and I should go get a drink before heading home,” he says quiet enough for all the riders to hear.
After a long silent moment, “I reckon you do. Only two drinks though, I kain’t abide drunk cowboys bothering my cows. The first drink is on me.” He waved them towards the saloon.
“Come on boys, you heard the Boss.” And with a ‘Whoop’ they break rank and race to the saloon. Leaving two old men glaring at each other.
“Damn you Benjamin. You are right as always,” he finally growls. “You could out think me any day. You talk too much and I don’t listen enough. Now, I gotta go see the Banker about building up a modern ranch fer my boys,” as the old rancher straightens up in his saddle. After a long sour look, he salutes the old printer with two fingers to his hat brim and reins his horse around.
I’m tipped back in my old wooden office chair trying to read, but my mind won’t focus on the words. I hold my breath as I hear the cowboys cantering up the street with their rowdy insults and ribald jokes. They pass by without a pause. One horse does slow and stop before my door. Boots stomp across the boardwalk and the bell above the door jangles.
“Uncle Ben?” I turn to look at the young man. “Thanks fer talking sense into dad. Only you and Mom ever could. Tell Aunt Margret, up in heaven, that Dad gonna need lots of help changing himself.
He clinks a small stack of silver dollars on the counter, “You gonna need more coffee grounds come Friday. Old Jake still likes two cups of cowboy-campfire coffee while he’s listening and swapping windies.”
The bell above the door jangles. Boots sound on hollow boards. A saddle creaks. A horse walks off down the dirt street of our dusty little village.
“Thanks Andy. Thanks fer stopping by,” I whisper at the empty space before my counter.