Short Story Thursday: Nature Calls the Lookout Man

Here’s the very first story for Short Story Thursday. I started this story at the end of National Not-Novel Writing Month in November and finished it in December.

Nature Calls the Lookout Man

Sunny Jim watched enviously as his two companions worked. He had thought he could ride and rope — and he could, well enough to get by — but these two were at a different level. They had only been out here for a couple of days, rounding up yearlings on the edge of the range, but to look at them, you’d think they had worked together for years.

Blake was a tall, rangy redhead with a devil-may-care kind of grin who rode a tall, rangy horse and worked the cattle like he was born to it. Being one of the Porters, he kind of had been. This was the first time in five years that the H-Bar had run cattle this far out, but Blake had grown up roaming these canyons and buttes. He knew where the hidden folds and pockets in this rough landscape were, and how to get a horse down into the steep-sided canyons where the cattle went to water.

Once they got down there in the cottonwoods and willows and thick brush, Manuel was in his natural element. The Mexican was a runty, bowlegged figure of a man with a big, hooked nose; a real vaquero who wore a tooled leather vest, had a different embroidered shirt for every day of the week, and decorated his tack with shiny silver conchos. He stuck out like a sore thumb here on the Porter’s H-Bar ranch, where the other hands were local boys or plain-styled northern cowhands. No one knew why he had come all the way from the Texas border country to the high mountains of the Aquarius Plateau out on the fringes of the Utah Territory, but he could pop a reluctant cow out of the brush better than anyone and was a wizard with a rope, and nobody needed to know any more than that.

Jim had come to the H-Bar with his friend Blake Porter, who had assured him that the family had plenty of need for someone with his skills. His friend hadn’t lied; Jim had been plenty busy for the last few weeks. Much of it had been building around the ranch, which he found to his liking. He had spent a year as a builder’s apprentice up in Wyoming, and he was putting those skills to good use. He went to bed every night bone-tired and happy.

His current job was much less to his liking. Whenever he heard two sharp whistles from Blake, he’d head on down and help Blake and Manuel herd the cattle out of the canyons and into their temporary corral, which was plenty fine, but most of the time he just sat up on the high ground doing nothing.

Well, not exactly nothing — he was watching because they were on the southwest edge of their usual range, where plenty of cattle bore Arlo Jasper’s A.O. brand.

Jasper’s boys had accused some of the Porter cowhands of slapping their brand on calves that were with A.O. cattle, and things had gotten ugly. An intemperate series of threats had ended with Blake using his fists on the A.O. foreman over in the town of Gunshot on their last supply run, and the bloodied recipient of Blake’s handiwork had threatened that his boys would shoot the Porters’ cowhands on sight.

Sunny Jim’s job was to occupy an advantageous lookout and alert his companions if he saw anyone riding in. And to use his Sharps rifle if necessary. He could look at it like he was saving lives…but he couldn’t shake the itch to be doing something. Watching Blake and Manuel made him feel like he was shirking the real work.

A rumble in his bowels warned him that he could no longer delay the inevitable. It was time to heed nature’s call. Still, he took a few moments to think about how best to go about it.

Many of the cowhands had no sense of embarrassment at all; they’d drop their trousers and drop a deuce any old where out on the range, no matter who was standing around. Not Sunny Jim. He did his business in private. Some might call him a prude, but he preferred to think of himself as a civilized man.

He didn’t want to abandon his watch even for a couple of minutes, but there was no way he was going to do the business at hand atop the rocks he was perched on. It just felt too exposed. Even if Blake and Manuel happened to be gazing in his direction, they would never see enough detail to cause any embarrassment, but it still felt wrong somehow to hang his bare buttocks out in their direction. It also felt wrong to leave his post unmanned, but Jim told himself that there was no real choice. Nature called, and he had to obey. That was all.

Jim carefully leaned his precious 1874 Sharps Long Range rifle against a boulder and clambered down from his perch on the rock outcrop to go around behind the juniper trees where he had tethered his horse.

Three minutes later, rage and embarrassment waged a bitter war in Sunny Jim’s heart.

The A.O. bastards had been waiting for him.

They had laughed at him and hadn’t even let him pull up his trousers or wipe his bum. So here he was, squatting over a pile of fecal matter while flies buzzed his bare posterior and some cowboy he had seen several times at the Thracian Rooms in Gunshot but whose name he didn’t know sat smirking in the shade a few yards away, idly spinning a flashy nickel-plated revolver around his forefinger. And three hired guns worked their way down the canyon to spring an ambush on his friends.

Slowly the emotions ebbed, to be replaced by calculation. And discomfort. Jim’s bum itched and his feet were going numb. Very slowly, so as not to attract notice from the bored cowboy, he shifted his position to allow blood flow to return to his feet. He was going to need them. He leaned back a bit, resting his hand on a rock about twice the size of his fist. He was going to need that, too.

The cowboy’s eyes flickered toward Sunny Jim, but seeing nothing amiss in the captive shifting his feet out of discomfort, resumed gazing into the middle distance. Thinking of that dark-haired girl who worked at the Thracian, no doubt. She had haunted Jim’s own dreams more than once; a vivacious little thing, she showed no interest in any the men who crowded the saloon, which was why most of the cowhands fancied themselves in love with her.

Jim was no different in that regard, but while the rest of the boys exchanged lewd conjecture in the bunkhouse, he pictured himself treating her to a picnic on a blanket under the cottonwoods; and the romantic…er, gestures…that followed, he kept to himself because unlike his bunkmates, he was a civilized man.

Also unlike the rest of his bunkmates, he hadn’t managed to nerve himself up to speak a single word to the Thracian brunette. His throat went dry and his tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth whenever she came near. He could face death with less trepidation. Thinking of which, it was time to do just that. Any second now he might hear gunshots echoing up the canyon. If Blake and Manuel got killed, he’d never forgive himself. He moistened his lips and gripped the rock in his right hand.

The nameless cowboy had a disappointingly quick reaction. He flinched and threw his arm up, and the rock that had been meant to crack his skull smacked his arm instead. But he dropped his gun, and that would have to do.

Sunny Jim threw himself sideways, rolling downhill behind a thick, multiple-trunked juniper tree. The cowboy barked a vile oath. Jim struggled to stand and pull up his trousers, but somehow his feet had become entangled in them, and he fell over backward instead.

The cowboy careened around the juniper. Reflexively, Jim grabbed the nearest object and threw it. It hit home, but the weathered, brittle branch broke into pieces and did no real damage. The cowboy swore again and leveled his flashy revolver at Jim’s chest. Throat dry as dust and his flesh crawling at the anticipated impact of a bullet, Sunny Jim quickly revised his previous opinion; he would really rather talk to that terrifyingly pretty brunette after all. He could almost have cried right then, not out of fear, but at the thought of that missed opportunity.

But the man made no move to fire. Suddenly Jim realized: the cowboy couldn’t shoot, because to do so would give away the ambush. He stood up slowly, pulled up his trousers…and turned his back and ran. Back around the juniper he went, the cowboy cursing as he followed.

Sunny Jim’s plan had been to put enough distance between himself and the cowboy to get either to his horse, where a battered old Spiller & Burr revolver sat right beneath the flap of his saddlebag, or to his rifle up on the rocks. If he couldn’t shoot before the cowboy shot him, well, at least it would warn Blake and Manuel down in the canyon.

Instead, a weight hit him in the lower back and something entangled his knees. The cowboy had taken a page from Sunny Jim’s book and improved it, throwing a fallen branch like a spear. Jim’s knees buckled and he hit the dirt only a few steps short of where the A.O. boys had ambushed him on the squat. Then, as he scrambled forward on his hands and knees, an even heavier weight drove him face-down and knocked all the breath out of him.

Jim was something less than medium height and slight of build, but stronger than he looked. The cowboy was bigger and every bit as strong as he looked, and he had got a strong hold before Jim got his breath back. Jim thrashed and heaved and fought like a wildcat, but couldn’t break loose. The cowboy’s arm tightened inexorably around his throat, cutting off his air.

Stars burst in his darkening vision. His slowing heartbeat roaring in his ears, Jim scrabbled desperately for something — anything — to save him. Finally, mercifully, something filled his hand. With one last desperate heave, he struggled to snake his arm free. The cowboy’s hold on Jim’s windpipe only tightened, the pressure on his larynx making him retch ineffectively. But the arm finally came free, and he smashed his hand into his enemy’s face.

Then it was the cowboy’s turn to gag and retch. His hold slackened, and Jim struggled free. His now strangely slippery hand formed a fist and punched the cowboy once, hard enough to ring his bell, before both of them separated and fell back to gasp for air. Jim recovered first and took off running again.

Sunny Jim scrambled up the rocks to where he had left his rifle, the cowboy following right on his heels. He dove toward the Sharps rifle, scooped it up, rolled over, brought the hammer back from half-cock, and pulled the trigger all in the same motion. The hefty lead bullet plucked at the cowboy’s sleeve, leaving a hole with ragged, powder-burned edges, and sped out above the juniper trees to bury itself in an adjacent hillside. The cowboy jerked away from the blast, falling onto his backside. The boom-crack! of the Sharps rolled across the countryside and echoed back from the canyons and hills.

Jim rolled behind an adjacent boulder for cover, frantically loading another cartridge into the action. A gunshot sounded from the cowboy’s pistol, then another. Fragments of lead and sandstone stung Jim’s face. Gunsmoke drifted in the light breeze, telling Jim where the cowboy was–or had been. If the man was smart, he’d be shifting position right now. And that meant Jim couldn’t afford to stay put.

Steeling himself for the gunshot that could come if his adversary spotted him, he scrambled backward to a little dip in the rock that had collected a low ridge of soil and grown some stunted sagebrush. It was just barely enough cover if he stayed flat to the ground. When he pushed his rifle forward to take aim, he saw the cowboy scrambling down around the shoulder of the hill. He put an unaimed shot vaguely in the cowboy’s direction and was gratified by a panicked scramble out of sight. The A.O. cowboys had signed up to spring an ambush, not get shot at.

But had he warned Blake and Manuel in time? Heartbeat thumping in his ears, hands shaking, he scanned the canyon for signs of life or a fight, seeing none.

Finally, three sharp whistles echoed up to him–Blake’s come-and-get-em signal. Jim whistled back, then sat down and heaved a sigh of relief. His friends were okay.

Then suddenly he saw…and smelled…what was smeared all over his left hand, which he had mashed into the cowboy’s face. It was smeared all over the forend of his rifle, too. Sunny Jim held out his hand and leaned back, recoiling from the stench. It was all he could do to keep from laughing.

Yep, he was civilized, all right.

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