A Day Out For Vern Fenner - A Western Short Story
Odell Park was sure down on his luck. He did not feel too good, he had not eaten for a couple of days and it showed in his lean narrow weather-beaten face. The skin was stretched tight across his hollowed cheeks and a dusty, grey five day stubble across his jaw ran down his throat into his frayed shirt collar. His slouch hat seemed to be battered worse that a trampled jack rabbit and his coat, two sizes too small, stretched tight across his back had split at one shoulder. He massaged the back of his neck with his hand and scowled, the hunger clenched and twisted at his empty stomach. He had the look of a man who knew that tomorrow would only be worse than today.
He walked his weary swaybacked mule off the ridge and headed down the incline, towards a plain covered in dry looking yellow grass that stretched to a line of scattered green-leaved trees and a dust blown cabin. His eyes rested thoughtfully on the building. The cabin had a small lean-to on the northern end with a mule and a big stout chestnut tethered in the shade at the side. A railed hog lot stood behind the cabin bordered with low hills and a creek lined with pine. It felt like a place shrouded in a peculiar quietness.
Odell rode over and let his mule walk across to the small pump and the stone water trough by the porch. A mangy dog ran out to meet them and stood in uncertain silence as it watched them in. While his mule drank Odell climbed out of the saddle with an effort, stretched his back and stamped his feet
‘Hello the cabin,’ he said, his voice sounded scratchy and weak, he scooped a handful of water from the trough into his mouth and worked it around with his tongue. He banged on the door ‘Anybody home?’ he waited and hammered on the door again. He heard someone cuss inside and the door creaked open on parched hinges and an old timer stood in the gloom of the doorway carrying an ancient Harpers Ferry musket that looked as old as the man holding it. The gun trembled in his hands.
‘State your business,’ said the old man, his mouth filled with black gaps and rotten crooked teeth.
‘Take it easy partner,’ Odell said, he took a step back and held out his arms
‘What you mumbling about, goddamit,’ said the old man ‘speak up’
‘I’m Odell Park, I’d like to water my mule and I could do with something to eat, I’ll do chores for a meal,’ Odell spoke in a slow loud voice.
‘I ain’t deaf son there ain’t no need to holler. My name’s Vern Fenner.’ He stepped out of the shadows into the sunlight. Vern was as bald as a skinned onion and his rheumy eyes had a milky cast to them. He wore patched baggy corduroy pants, cracked boots and a red shirt ringed with sweat under the arms and around the collar. He was all sinew and gristle.
Odell glanced over at the horse snuffling and blowing by the lean-to and said
‘That’s a fine horse. I can curry your horse and mule, chop wood and the like.’ The horse tossed his head and stamped.
‘Sure,’ said Vern ‘I ain’t against it. You ain’t doing too good are you, it looks like you was chewed up and spit out by a goddam coyote. Look, I’m fixing to eat anyways. I got pork and chicory coffee. You set to outside and I’ll holler when I’m ready.’ Odell’s smile looked as bright and glossy as new paint
An hour or so later Vern stepped out and saw the tall figure of Odell chopping firewood on a stump by the barn, standing chunks of lumber on end and splitting them in half
‘Come and set down son and wade right in to what we got.’ Odell thudded the axe into the stump and went inside to the smell of coffee boiling and pork frying. His lank hair glistened with sweat, his body looked skinny enough to be made of wire. Vern stirred strips of ham in a skillet his eyes squinting against the thick drifting smoke; they sizzled in enough fat to grease a wagon axle. Odell stood next to Vern picked up a hunk of bread mopped up some of the hot fat and crammed the bread into his mouth. Vern laid the food on tin plates on the plank table. Odell finished the meat and wiped up the thickening grease with bread, sucked his fingers and wiped them down the sides of his pants.
‘You eating that?’ said Odell staring at the untouched food on Vern’s plate, Vern pushed the plate across. Odell ate with his face close to the plate and did not straighten up until he cleared the lot.
Vern tossed a tobacco pouch at Odell and slumped down in an old sway back chair and dozed off.
Odell sat and watched him, his eyes half shut against the smoke curling up from the cigarette jammed between his thin lips. He blew smoke from the side of mouth then he laid the plates on the floor and watched the dog lick them clean. Finally he mashed out his cigarette on the table and left without waking Vern.
Two days later as Odell sat by a fire in the hills sheltering from the rain, surrounded by the smell of damp stone, pine and woodsmoke Town Marshall Art Malloch out of Belmont, Nye County Nevada rode in and arrested him for horse theft.
It was court week and the court sessions were held in the school house. The next day the court sat and Odell’s trial began.
Judge Meeks rested his feet on a scarred desk, his jaw packed tight with a wad of Smoky Mountain chewing tobacco. His courts were rough and ready and any motions put by dry spectators to adjourn for a wet refresher always carried. Meeks slammed his gavel onto the block and said
‘Let’s open the proceedings. Now all you mully-grubs at the back of the room keep your traps shut and give these fellers up in front a chance to talk. Neither of them can afford representation so let’s just hear them out.’
He hawked a gob of tobacco juice into a spittoon at his feet and said
‘Odell Parks you’re accused of horse theft, stealing from Vern Fenner,’ he nodded across the room where Vern sat holding his mouldy hat by the rim ‘if you’re guilty you’ll hang.’ He turned a little in his chair and looked at Vern
‘Mister Fenner please tell us what happened.’ Vern sat playing with his hat; the judge raised his voice ‘Mister Fenner tell your side of things please.’
‘Well Sir,’ said Vern ‘be two days or so ago now this man’ Vern looked around searching for Odell but finally turned back to the judge ‘this Odell came by my place and asked for food. Said he’d see to the kindling and tidy up the mule and horse. He did it right enough and I fed him like we agreed. Now I dozed off and when I woke up Odell was gone and so was my horse. He’s a seven year old chestnut with white socks. He was there when I went to sleep and gone when I woke up. So was Odell. He took him, you hear me good on that.’
‘Now hold on Mister,’ said Odell ‘that horse was there when I left and I cain’t figure why you think it was me. I saw to the mule and horse didn’t I?’
‘I chopped a whole heap of kindling didn’t I?’
Odell turned to the judge
‘I ain’t done nothing; you didn’t ought to pay him no mind. That there marshal hauled me in but all I had was my mule.’
Vern sneered and said
‘Then you done sold the horse.’
Judge Meeks straightened his vest, moved his plug of tobacco to the other cheek with his tongue and said to the Town Marshal
‘Did he have any money on him?’ Marshal Malloch shook his head, the judge turned to Odell
‘Just where have you been between leaving Mister Fenner and Town Marshall Malloch finding you, that’s Tuesday and Wednesday.’
‘I rode down the trail a piece. I ain’t been nowhere.’
‘Mister Park you must have been somewhere, we’ve all been somewhere. Where did you go?’
‘In the hills hereabouts.’
‘Where in the hills?’
‘Lookit I don’t exactly know, see I’m not heading anywhere in particular and I got a whole heap of time to get there. I don’t recall what day it is and cain’t tell one Wednesday from another. Why should I?’
The judge rested his chin on his hand and looked at Odell, he sighed and said
‘Marshall Malloch I take it you haven’t found the horse?’
‘No Sir, we ain’t. If’n he ain’t sold it already he could have stowed it in the hills but I cain’t rightly say. It rained heavy most of Wednesday and there ain’t no sign.’
Vern slapped his hat against his knee and said
‘I don’t get all of this. No-one else has called at my place since him. It had to be him. I ain’t seen or heard nobody else, ‘sides which my dog would have barked if any other strangers was about. Ain’t that right Custer?’ The dog looked up and his tail thumped on the wooden floor raising a dusty cloud.
Odell clicked his fingers and Custer strolled over and licked his hand
‘See, this dog ain’t no good,’ said Odell ‘anybody could have come by and taken the horse,’ he looked around the room ‘you know it.’
The judge looked at Vern but Vern could not meet his eyes. Odell stood and in a quiet voice said
‘How many fingers am I holding up Vern?’ He held three fingers of his left hand out.’ Silence, then one of the loungers at the back sniggered.
‘Vern,’ said Marshal Malloch, he raised his voice and repeated ‘Vern how many fingers is he holding up?’
‘I keep telling folk there ain’t no need to shout, I heared you,’ he squinted across the room, paused and looked confused ‘I cain’t see too good in this poor light.’ The sun poured in through the window. Odell laughed and said
‘See I done told you everything right. I just did what he asked. His dog didn’t bark and I had to holler to get him out of his cabin. You folks can all see he cain’t hear of see right good. That Marshall already said I ain’t got no money or his horse. What more can I tell you. I done right by him. You got a handful of nothing and you folks know it.’
The judge glanced at his watch, drummed his fingers on the desk, raised his eyebrows at the town marshal and said
‘I ain’t wasting any more time on this; the real question here is whether this whole shebang is going to hell or not. We don’t need no jury to decide this one, it’s my court and I know best. Case dismissed.’
‘What does that mean?’
The judge started to stand and collect his papers together and without looking up said
‘Not guilty, you can go.’
Odell smirked and said
‘Does that mean I get to keep his horse?’