One Good Turn - A Western Short Story
He finished loading the buckboard and knew that he had just enough money left for some tobacco. It was two days since his last smoke and he looked forward to riding the wagon back and enjoying a cigarette on the easy run past Oakworth Woods before he reached home.
He saw the ribbon when he went back inside the dry goods store, it was shiny blue and he could imagine his little daughter and his wife using it on their dresses for Quincy Rowder’s wedding the following week. Now that would be a sight, their eyes shining with pleasure just like the satin ribbon. He could not afford the ribbon and the tobacco, he knew that but he did not hesitate, he bought the ribbon. He would have to wait another week for a cigarette, maybe they would hand some out at the wedding, he sure would enjoy it all the more for waiting, he guessed. He put the ribbon on the counter with the money
‘No tobacco?’ said Baxter Sugg the store owner.
Albert kept his eyes fixed on the ribbon and said
‘Not this time Baxter, I’m thinking of cutting back.’
‘I hear you Albert that ain’t a bad idea, don’t you let my wife hear or she’ll have me doing the same.’ Baxter Sugg had known Albert a long time, way before Albert’s daughter Milly was born five years ago. In fact when he thought about it Albert’s son Jep was born the first summer they arrived, that must be ten years ago now. He knew Albert could not afford the ribbon and tobacco, that much was obvious, Baxter would give him credit but Arthur was a proud man and Baxter would have to work his way round to offering it.
‘No credit neither,’ said Albert ‘I can tell by those creases in your forehead you’re planning how to get to it. I won’t have no credit, not ever.’ They both smiled and Baxter held up a hand palm out in surrender
‘I know when I’m beat,’ he said ‘Maybe I could offer you the makings for one smoke, as a friend?’ he could see Albert hesitate even then so he added ‘I’ll wrap the ribbon in the fancy paper but only on condition you make yourself a cigarette out of my pouch,’ he dropped the pouch on the counter and raised his eyebrows.
An hour later as Albert rode across the prairie under a vast bright sky he slowed the horse as a flock of birds rose, like ashes from a fire, out of the trees. Something was wrong, a peculiar quiet hung in the air. The trail ran next to a trough of land the sides thick with pine and aspen that thinned as the land levelled off at the bottom.
Albert heard a low growl down the grade in the trees, a big cat no doubt about it. The growl rose in volume and he heard a horse whinny in terror. He picked up the Winchester from the wagon box levered a round in, ran and slithered down the grade on a path through the marbled shadows in the trees, grit sliding under his boots and dust rising into his face.
The mountain lion screeched as Albert made the clearing where a horse, a big stout appaloosa with a spotted rump, rolled in a cloud of dust his hoofs lashing out at the air in panic. Albert glimpsed flashes of tawny fur in the dust cloud and heard a snarl as the lion mauled a man on the ground. It had its full weight on his back as it tried to bite him at the base of the skull. Albert raised the rifle to his shoulder and sighted down the barrel waiting for his shot. He squeezed the trigger and heard the bullet thud home, the crack of the gun raced into the trees as the kickback lifted the barrel, gun smoke wreathed his face and the bitter smell filled his nose and mouth. He worked the lever ejected the casing, reloaded another cartridge into the chamber and closed the breech before he moved forward, he blinked the sweat from his eyes. The silent lion lay dead in front of him the impact of the bullet threw it sideways and as the swirling sand settled on the lion’s fur it glittered like gold in the hot dry sunny air.
A man lay beneath the lion carcass; he cursed and kicked his way out from under it. He scrambled backwards and sat in a daze with his chest heaving, the breath shuddering out of his open mouth. He was little more than a kid, seventeen maybe, his dirty blond hair matted to his forehead with sweat and dirt. The sunlight through the leaves made a shifting pattern on his face, he had scratches down his left cheek and his plaid blue shirt was torn across one shoulder and the lacerations shone redly in the glare.
‘You alright son?’ said Albert
‘I reckon,’ said the boy. Albert looked down at the cougar and said
‘Unusual for them cats to attack like that, she must be protecting her young, I don’t know what you done wrong here to make her jump you.’ The boy ignored him, he stood and booted the big cat in the side. He picked his hat from the floor slapped the dust off against his leg and jammed it down on his head, rolling his shoulder he winced at the pain that lanced up his back and felt like a burning cord tightening around his arm.
He turned and looked at Albert and Albert took an instant dislike to him, he had a mean looking mountain boy face, pinched and hollow cheeked with resentful narrow eyes. He scowled at Albert, strode to his horse grabbed the reins and hauled him to his feet. The horse came up, his head high and nervous; he struggled to stand favouring its right foreleg.
‘I can see that Goddamit,’ said the boy. Albert sighed; he’d had enough of the ungrateful young fool. He kept his rifle levelled and backed away, he said
‘Settlements maybes ten miles that way,’ he nodded to the south ‘seems like you’ll be leading the lame horse a piece don’t it. Looks like the cat’s claws caught your face,’ the boy put his hand to his cheek ‘get them scratches cleaned right quick, the bleeding will wash them out for now. Best watch out, a scratch like that can turn bad on you.’
The youngster grunted and turned from him, his hand went to his rig and rested on his gun butt, he hesitated and looked over his shoulder. Albert watched him and decided not to trust him. He would have taken the lion meat but he decided to just get away from the sullen boy, something about him made the air taste sour and the light dull. He could not shake the feeling that he was trouble. Albert moved into the shade of the trees and ran up the incline anxious to leave. Back at the wagon he looked down and watched the boy lead his limping horse towards the settlement. Albert snapped the reins and let the horse take him home, he watched his back trail until he saw his cabin below and he trundled into the yard.
‘Ma’s dead Pa,’ shouted Jep his son. Jep stepped out into the bright sunlight holding his sister’s hand. Milly stood next to him, her skin as white as a sheet of paper, her cheeks streaked with tears. Albert jammed the brake on and ran across to his children, he knelt on one knee and took them in his arms looking over their shoulders into the shadows running down the front of the cabin
‘A rider came in an hour or so ago; he was young and looked wrung out. Ma had the gun on him all the way in and we hid in the cabin like you told us to.’ Jep looked at his Pa and Albert said
‘You done right, son.’ Jep carried on
‘Well he rode up to the front, slumped in the saddle and sort of rolled off onto the ground like he was proper licked. Ma put the gun against the wall and ran over to him but he was playing possum, see he jumped up and started wrestling with her. He shook her and ripped her dress but Ma lumped him one on the ear and sent his hat flying, then she caught him a good one, scratched down his cheek with her hand and he howled good. Ma ran for the gun but he got there right behind her pulled the gun away and hit her on the head with the stock, more than once. He shouted and cussed, when he saw the blood he backed off, got on his horse and rode out at a good clip.’
‘Which way did he go Jep.’
‘South Pa, heading the way you just came in, a youngster with a scratched face riding an appaloosa.’
Albert sat his children on the buckboard and went to his wife, he lifted her gently and carried her into the cabin and laid her in a blanket on the cabin floor. He brushed her hair off her face with his fingers and stood.
He crossed to the shelf and took down a box of cartridges and pushed a handful into his coat pocket. He turned and Jep stood behind him holding the Winchester out to him.
‘You going after him Pa.’ Albert nodded.
They rode out, Albert, Jep and Milly with their Ma shrouded in the blanket on the back buckboard floor. Jep said
‘I feel all torn up inside about Ma and real mad at that stranger.’
‘I will too Jep when we get to the settlement but right now I cain’t afford to feel nothing. I don’t even feel angry at the feller who did this. See you got to have control when a gun’s involved - no anger, no fear, no excitement, no nothing. I aim to find him that did it and make him pay, but that killer don’t amount to no more than a knot in a piece timber right now. I keep my breathing even, everything in check and just get the job done. I know who he is and I know where he’s at.’
Later he pulled the wagon to a halt and fixed the brake, he pointed.
‘He’s down over that ridge walking to the settlement. You two keep your Ma company until I get back. Jep if I don’t come back take the wagon in and find Mr Sugg at the store. Tell him what happened.’ He climbed down held the rifle single handed down the side of his leg and sauntered over the ridge like he was out for a Sunday stroll.
A couple of minutes later a shot rang out and echoed across the hills. Jep and Milly looked at each other and waited; they heard the crunch of boots on gravel over the other side of the ridge and looked anxiously on.
Albert reappeared; he walked across to them his eyes brimming with tears
‘Now we can think about your Ma.’
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© 2018 John M McNally