Western Short Story - A Man Never Knows
A Man Never Knows
I was on my way to Ike Victor’s blacksmith shop to check on the shoeing of my roan when I passed by Ma Taylor’s Café and the warm, homey smell of fresh baked bread wafted through the screen door and changed my life forever.
Suddenly, my stomach made all new plans and next thing I knew I was standing in Ma’s Café, staring at the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I guess my jaw must have dropped open because Hyram Bickford snickered from a rear table. I shot him a dirty look and he must have remembered the thrashing I gave him last Saturday night because he shut up and I stumbled over to an empty table, my neck red and my big homely face on fire.
Her hair was the prettiest red-gold I’d ever seen and it fell over her shoulders in long, silky coils, framing a face so ivory white that her lips looked like they’d been kissing raspberries all morning. A few light freckles were scattered across her pert little nose, apparently put there just to prove she was real. Her eyebrows had been blessed with the same color as her hair and they twin-arched over her perfectly matched pair of Irish green eyes. Right then and there I fell in love forever.
She was standing next to Jake Barrow and it took me a minute to realize that she was taking his breakfast order, so I guessed that Ma Taylor had hired herself a new waitress. I grabbed up a menu and tried to concentrate on what I wanted for breakfast, as if I didn’t already know. I was still looking when I caught the faint scent of cologne and the small, shy voice of an angel saying something to me.
“What was that miss? I reckon I missed it. Sorry.” My face and neck reddened up again, much to my disgust.
“I said good morning.”
“Oh yeah! It sure enough is. Yes ma’am. Yeah, that’s just fine.”
Cursing myself for an ignorant fool, I turned back to the menu and mumbled out some sort of order. If you’d asked what it was a minute later, I’d have had no idea. She nodded, gave me a little shy smile, and walked over to the order window.
I glanced back over my shoulder at Hyram Bickford, but he’d developed a sudden interest in a fly crawling on the wall so I paid him no further mind. The screen door slammed, and a stranger came in. He was tall, handsome, and well dressed in a fine black broadcloth suit, but there was something in his manner that I instantly disliked. The small smile on his lips was more of a smirk, and there was no humor at all in his eyes. He looked like a rattler who had just spotted his prey.
That little slip of a red-headed girl gasped at the sound of his voice and whirled around, her already pale face going two shades whiter.
“What are you doing here, James?”
“Why, I’ve come to fetch you home, Julianne.” His lip curled further into a knowing smirk, and he stepped forward.
She retreated two steps but was halted by the counter, and a shadow of fear crossed her face. She glanced quickly around, and her eyes found mine.
“Let her be mister.” I stood up and my chair toppled over behind me with a crash. He spun around, and his hand clawed for the gun by his side.
Behind me, I heard the double click of a hammer being drawn back. That would be Hyram. We’d been fighting since we were small boys, taking turns whipping each other, but we were old friends, and he knew I wasn’t armed.
“Stay out of this mister. It’s none of your business.” The stranger glared at Hyram, but just the same, he slowly lifted his hand away from his sidearm.
“Oh I’d say it’s very much my business, mister. You see, I’m the law around here, and we don’t much take to people shooting unarmed men. In fact, we hung a feller for that just a month ago. Now you take off that there gun belt, and put it on that empty table behind you. And be real cautious how you go about it. You don’t want me to misunderstand your intentions.”
For Hyram, who seldom strung together more than two words and a grunt, that was a long-winded speech.
James, as we now knew him, slowly unbuckled his gun belt and placed it on the table.
“Ben? I believe you had business with this here James feller, so git to it.’
I looked to Julianne.
“Beggin’ your pardon Ma’am, but it seemed to me that you didn’t want any part of this James feller. Was I mistaken?
“No, you were quite correct.” She lifted her small jaw defiantly. “I came here to be rid of him. We were to be married, but he proved to be a tyrant who struck me and knocked me down, and I want nothing more to do with him.”
“Thank you Ma’am. Much obliged.”
I touched the brim of my hat and turned to face James.
‘I hear you’re quite the woman fighter, especially the small, helpless kind.”
He flushed angrily, but didn’t move, so I upped the ante.
“My guess is you’re a coward who fights females, but runs from men your own size.”
His jaw muscles clenched, and I have never seen such venom showing in a face.
I pushed again.
“Let’s step outside and see, woman fighter.”
I followed him into the street, where he turned suddenly before I was set and delivered a haymaker all the way from the ground. He may have been gun-handy, but he was no fist fighter. I ducked the awkward blow easily and delivered my own work-hardened knuckles square to the tip of his jaw. He went down hard and didn’t move.
Hyram spat over his shoulder. “You’d best start wearing a gun, Ben. I don’t think that jasper is going to let this ride.” He turned and strode back to his breakfast.
I bent down and picked up James, throwing him over my shoulder. I walked over to the hotel and showed the clerk my burden. He nodded down the hall.
“Second door on the right.”
James was still unconscious when I dumped him on the bed and went back to the café. Julianne and Hyram were seated at his table talking quietly, and neither noticed my entry, so I just turned around and left. Hyram was a handsome man himself and he had an easy way around women, while I was a big, rawboned and homely man who was more suited to running my ranch than courting women.
For the next week, I stayed on the ranch mending fence, checking on calves, and cleaning out waterholes. I guess if I had to admit it, I was smarting some over Hyram and Julianne, so I waited until I was out of supplies before I went back. As an afterthought, I strapped on my Russian .44. I know I’m no gun hand, being so big and slow, but I can hit what I’m shooting at, given time to line up my sights.
I rode into town leading my pack horses, and the first person I saw was Julianne. She was hurrying across the street, holding her petticoats up out of the dirt and dust, when she looked up and saw me. She dropped her skirts and waved at me, and for a moment, I thought I spotted some rosy color on her pale cheeks. It looked like the town was starting to agree with her. That and Hyram Bickford. I nodded at her, tipped my hat, and rode on down to the mercantile to pick up my goods.
The interior of the store was cool and dark, and as I gathered my needs, the clerk eyed the gun on my hip.
“Don’t remember you ever carrying a sidearm, Ben.”
“And I don’t remember you being so nosy Charley.”
“James Dory is still in town, Ben, and he wants his revenge. You watch your step.”
I had just finished tying my goods on the packhorses when I heard a cold voice call my name. I stepped away from my horses and there was James Dory with a revolver in his hand. I drew my .44 and waited. He stood about fifteen feet away and eyed me, his gun hanging at his side.
“I’ve come to kill you, Ben Davis. You put hands on me. No man does that and lives.”
So he’d asked after my name. That made him a serious man. I said nothing. I watched him silently for a long moment, and I could see his growing impatience. Somewhere, a door slammed, and a dog barked.
Suddenly, and with incredible swiftness, his arm came up and he fired. I felt something slam into my upper chest and I took one step to my right and brought my own revolver to bear. Over my sights, I could see his eyes grow large and in desperation, he quickly snapped off another round. I could hear the whine of the bullet pass close by my left ear, and then I shot him.
He went to his knees, and his gun dropped from suddenly lifeless fingers. He stared up at me in disbelief.
“They told me you weren’t a gun hand.”
“I’m not, so I take my time and I hit what I’m aiming at. You had me dead to rights, but you shot too fast. You hit me sure enough, but you should have killed me.”
But I was talking to a dead man.
I was turning back to my horses when everything started going black and the street was rising up to meet me.
Doc McDonald was peering at me with interest when I next opened my eyes. My head was aching and my mouth tasted vile. I licked my lips and made a face.
“That nasty taste is from the ether, Ben. Had to put you way under while I probed for that bullet. It went in just under your clavicle…collar bone to you…and lodged against your scapula…shoulder blade to you. I got it out, cauterized the bleeding, and cleaned out the wound. Nasty piece of business, but it looks like you’ll recover soon enough so you can go out and do the same damn thing all over again.”
Doc McDonald was an educated man and a gentleman from Baltimore. He didn’t approve of the violent ways on the frontier and wasn’t shy about saying so.
‘How long have I been here Doc?”
“Two days, more or less. Hyram and Julianne Pearson were in to see you earlier. I told them that you’d probably live, more’s the pity, and then they left. Hyram said they were taking a buggy out to your ranch to talk to the foreman.” He glanced at me. “Seems they want to have the wedding at your ranch.”
So her last name was Pearson. I realized that I actually knew almost nothing about her, and now she and Hyram were to be married. Seemed to me, however, that they should have asked me first about using my ranch for their wedding! I cursed myself for a fool and asked the doctor when I could get back on my feet.
“Stand up now if you have a mind to, and we’ll see how you make out.”
I got to my shaky feet and waited for my head to stop spinning before I ventured a cautious step or two. I was weak, but all in all, I felt pretty good for a man shot in the chest two days past.
“You’ll do. Get dressed and grab your hat off the rack. I’ll need the bed for the next damn fool who gets himself shot.” Doc sat at his desk and began reading some papers, my presence already forgotten.
The ride out to the ranch was slow and painful, but I was glad to be alive, and that made it a good day. When I crested the ridge overlooking the main house, I saw Hyram’s buggy under the big cottonwood. I sighed and nudged my roan down the slope.
“Well now, look what happens when you forget to close a gate.” Hyram was sitting in the porch swing eying me with a big grin plastered on his face.
“Least thing you could have done was ask me before you plan a wedding at my ranch,” I grumbled. “I oughta thump your skull, just on general principles.”
“Well, you’ll have to take that up with the bride. Wasn’t my idea.” He was still grinning.
The screen door slammed and Julianne was standing there staring at me, both hands on her hips.
“What on earth is wrong with having the wedding here? I can’t imagine a more appropriate place.”
Bewildered, I looked at Hyram, whose grin was now even larger.
“ Why do you two want to get married on my ranch? I don’t mind so much, but I don’t understand. Why here?”
Juliann’s shook her head in disgust. ‘I’m not marrying Hyram, you big bonehead! I’m marrying you! Hyram is my first cousin!”
I stared from one to the other and Hyram laughed.
“How do you think she found her way to Chino, Ben? She wrote me about James Dory and I told her to come here. My mother and her late mother were sisters.”
“Now don’t think you can get out of this wedding Ben Davis.”
Juliann moved closer and her normally pale complexion had taken on a decidedly rosy color. She looked up at me.
“I saw the way you got all flustered and bashful the first time you spoke to me, and I was immediately attracted to you. But when you calmly stood up to defend me against an armed man, I fell in love with you for good. Now that was as good a proposal as I’m ever likely to get out of tongue-tied man like you, but I’ll take it! Yes Ben, I will marry you and it will be right out there under that big cottonwood with the whole town watching. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a house to clean with a wedding coming up in two days.”
She turned and started to open the door, and then came back and threw her arms around my neck, pulling my lips down to hers.
“There, that seals it. I won’t have a man kissing me unless his intentions are honorable.”
“Why, sure they’re honorable…I mean I never…I mean to say I always did think you…I mean, of course I’ll marry you!”
“Then it’s settled. Now I have cleaning and planning to do. I also need to unpack that wedding dress I never used.”
The door slammed and she was gone. Bewildered, I turned to Hyram who was no longer seated in the porch swing. Then I heard the rattle of his buggy, and he waved at me as pulled out of the yard, that big grin still firmly planted on his face.
And that’s when I remembered the good smell of Ma Taylor’s fresh baked bread which had started all this. I never did get any!