Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
was a gray day in a gray town, somber, like the day after a holiday,
hangovers plentiful, the sheriff still sleeping off a bad night and
locked in one of his own cells and so far totally unaware of it, the
stagecoach from Mercyville almost a full day late and carrying a
delivery of canned peaches as a favor for Bart Hall of the general
store, and the gruesome, merciless gunfighter Boxer Agrunts was newly
arrived in Boothill Leveled, a new town barely 10 years old at the
edge of the Snake River where it makes its sharpest turn in the long
route south. The somber day sat atop him.
The sheriff, Kirby Nowell, was practically the first paper-pusher in town; most of his efforts, other than spending time in Sadie Kemps saloon, The Ladies Kettle, was arranging wanted posters on the wall of his office, making sure on every prudent occasion to hide a poster if the subject came into town. His next big arrest would be his first and he had not heard that Agrunts was visiting. Nobody in Boothill Leveled had bothered to yell the news in through the open door of the sheriff’s office and two-cell jail; why wake him up just to cover Agrunts’ poster on the board with a poster of Jack Gruden, long dead, or Wiley Lockburn, already six years in solitary in Yuma Territorial Prison, or Smooth Billy Two-guns, now probably 91 years old and known to be living in New York City on a bet that he must have won by this time?
The best business man, most lucid and cogent individual in town, the true pillar of the community, was the owner of the store. Bart Hall had built the store, the first structure when the community started, because he could see the river just below making a grand turn in the geography of its long run, and knew what it would eventually bring to any place on the site, where the dead from an older settlement had been buried without name, memorial, or precise location, except as said “on that grumpy little hill over there where the dead guys are buried.” So Hall called the place Boothill Leveled and the name stuck just as did the name of his store, Boothill Leveled Trader, which people simply called BLT, and which now was out of canned peaches.
Canned peaches, for the outlander to the western plains, without the simple knowledge of trail drives and inherent needs of drovers coming into a town, dust in their lungs and throats, mouths dry and sweetness unknown for weeks or months at a time, unless they had dared open a bees nest. Other than beer, whiskey or a friendly face, there was nothing like a can of peaches to have as one’s own, or, for the best of friends, to be shared apart from all other hungry folk, outside town, or at a campfire, or behind the livery before the horses were taken care of, like good cowboys did.
Agrunts voice was rising in its declarations. “Whadyamean, you don’t have no canned peaches?” He had come into the store smiling, the calling in his throat, that sweet taste, that overcoming pleasure, solace coming so close to the deprived.
“Of course you have some canned peaches. All stores carry canned peaches. I seen them in every store in every state and territory. Peaches. I want my peaches.”
Agrunts’ eyes were alive, lit up like a cindered orb, like the orange-red moon of October nights. “That’s all I want, a can or two of peaches. You probably got them hidden under the counter or in the back or in some secret overhead hiding place, put away for your favorite customers, like the saloon owner or the damned barber or the sheriff or the mayor or whoever runs this place these days. Favored customers, not someone like me, get the peaches.”
His body swayed in place, seeking balance and equilibrium, determining proper posture, his hands suddenly as itchy and dry as his throat. “Well, it ain’t right and I aim to get my peaches,” and with that he went for his gun to aim it at Hall behind the counter, who was a might quicker for a common dispenser of canned peaches and had a double-barreled shotgun on his hip like he had been shooting squirrels in the trees at that precise time and knocking out their eyes at fifty feet.
There was not a single token of shaking in Hall’s hands, the shotgun steady, its aim clearly mid-section of Agrunts’ wide and flabby frame with his hand hung in the air as if he was measuring death or peaches sliding their smoothness and sweet texture upon his tongue before he’d chaw a peach half into quarters, finding salvation from the trail.
Agrunt started shaking, convulsing, his eyes playing tag with each other, hiding, coming back from the top of his head, the whites of them on parade.
Hall held the shotgun steady. This man in front of him was a terror at murder and holding up banks and robbing the new trains running across the wide grass of the plains to little towns like Boothill Leveled, generally supplying BLT with all its needs. He had read the poster on Agrunts, felt like he knew the man. Now the stage was late with his special order. He’d paid extra for it. No free shipping out here in the west. No one-day specials for him.
He felt he was at a stand-off. He didn’t want to shoot a man over a can or two of peaches, but the man was shaking, the robber was shaking, the notorious bandit and killer was shaking. Hall had to protect himself if it went any further. His finger tightened on the trigger; he got himself ready for a No Sale.
Agrunts, still shaking and convulsing, nerves perhaps gone to pot, in a mood of moods that controlled his body, set his mind, began to cry like a baby. He sat down on the floor and kicked his boot heels on the floor, and pounded out his sadness and loss, and suddenly began to cry. His pistol fell noisily from his holster and skittered on the floor. He did not even look at it.
“I want my peaches,” he said. “I want my peaches.” He sobbed it out, “I want my peaches,” his voice falling away into unintelligible words, and came back to plead, “One simple can of peaches.”
Hall subsequently, a tear in his own eye, escorted Agrunts, with the bore of the shotgun at the wanted man’s back, to the jail.
As inevitably foreseen, the sheriff was still sleeping off his hangover, and still in a locked cell. The other cell was empty. Hall searched the desk and the wall and could not find the key to the other cell. He was about to give the whole thing up, let the prisoner go, apologize for being out of peaches, when Agrunts screamed the most joyous of screams, and raced to one corner of the office, and picked off a single shelf holding a shaving mug and a razor and a bar of soap, one #10 can of peach halves.
And Agrunt began crying again as Hall, retrieving a crude opener from the office desk, began to open the supposedly only available can of peaches in Boothill Leveled, on the banks of the Snake River, and the stage still late with the special delivery, the single available can clearly bearing the embolden identification of “Ogden Canning Co., Utah/Peaches.”
Agrunt, sitting at the sheriff’s desk, his mouth watering as he prepared to sink his knife into a delectable peach half sitting at the top of the opened can, did not even notice his poster prominently displayed on the sheriff’s poster board.
His gray day had gotten brighter.