Thursday, April 24, 2014

Who Shot Shorty: Finale

The story so far: Shorty Colson, owner of the Cartwheel Ranch was killed by a double-barreled blast of buckshot at his kitchen door one stormy night. As the crew tries to figure out who could have done it, new and surprising facts about the Cartwheel and its denizens begin to surface. Last week’s segment ended with Bushy Bushmiller turning the tables on Pencil and questioning why the old man had put up with his shenanigans over the years. Part 3 of the story begins below.
     My ears flamed. I lurched to my feet. The old cowboy shuffled backwards. “Shorty Colson never laid a hand on me, and if he had, I’d have knocked him clear into next year. Shorty wasn’t—that way!”
     “Then how do ya account fer the kid there?” Bushy smirked and threw a thumb over his shoulder. Five pairs of eyes turned to focus on Pedro, who sat staring at the ground.
     I shook my head. “There’s a better way of going about this than tearing one another apart. Shorty took both barrels to the chest. A double blast from a twelve gauge has a hell of a recoil. Whoever did it oughta have a bruise.”
     “It might not be one of us, Pencil,” Tex pointed out. “And if it is, you sure you wanna know?”
     “Maybe not, but I sure as shooting want everybody to know it wasn’t me.” I stripped off my shirt.
     “Well, I ain’t got nothing to hide,” Tex declared. There wasn’t a mark on him either.
     After Red John followed suit, Bushy exposed his scrawny chest. No bruises on either one of them. As a man, we swung around to confront Lubell.
     “Now wait a minute! I’m a lady. You expect me to bare it all to you bozos?”
     Tex grinned. “Ain’t nothing we never seen before.”
     “You ain’t seen these particular ones,” she snapped. Nonetheless, she unbuttoned the man’s shirt stretched tight across her torso and pulled it down around her shoulders. “Satisfied, you perverts?”
     The arbor fell quiet as we turned to Pedro. Lubell stepped over and put an arm around the slender frame. “You leave her alone!”
     After a stunned silence, four masculine voices thundered, “Her?”
     Pedro peeked up from under Lubell’s protective arm. “You knew about me?”
     “Course I knew, honey. You tried to be almighty careful living with me in the bedroom back of the chow hall, but you slipped up a time or two. Besides, why else would Shorty put you up with the only other woman on the spread?”
     The girl pointed at Tex. “I afraid he figure it out. He a woman’s man.”
     Lubell sniffed. “If you mean a woman-chasing man, you’re right. But he ain’t no more sensitive than any other male around here. Why don’t you tell us what all this is about?”
     I stepped in. “Do you have a bruise, Pedro … uh, ma’am?”
     “Consuelo,” she said. “My name, Consuelo. Yes, bruise on mi espalda…my shoulder.” She began to shake. “Dios help me! I…I kill my papa.” She collapsed against Lubell and sobbed.
     As she told her story, the tears dried up and a streak of steel emerged. Her mother was a Mexican Shorty got sweet on after his wife passed. Worried about his son’s reaction to a new woman with a baby, he sent her home to Juarez. To the old man’s credit, he acknowledged paternity of their child—at least he sent money regularly.
     After her mother died, Consuelo made her way north to the ranch, arriving in the middle of the fall gathering when all of us, except for Shorty, were chasing cattle out of the bush and hazing the animals down to the loading pens.
     According to Consuelo, Shorty swore her to secrecy, dressed her up like a boy, and passed her off as a new hand until he figured out how to tell Junior he had a half-Mexican sister. When Consuelo overheard him talking about selling the ranch, she decided to press him to acknowledge her as his daughter.
     “I pick a bad time,” the girl said in her soft accent. “Like Lubell say, he drinking bad. But I go anyway. It was mistake. He drunk. Look at me with wild, crazy eyes. He grab me. I get away, but he catch me at the door. He…he say he don’t believe I his hija. Call my mama a bad name and say she swindle him.” The girl broke out crying. “He try to rape me!”
     Another thunderbolt out of a clear, blue sky. “Oh, Lord!” Lubell spoke for all of us.
     “The dirty old somabitch,” Bushy added. “Musta been drunk outa his skull.”
     “So … so,” Consuelo continued between sobs, “I grab big gun he keep in corner of kitchen and try to back out door. I think he stop then, but he grab the cañón … the barrel. Gun go off. I think you all hear and come running. I think whole world hear the big boom, but nobody come. I get up out of the mud and go clean up in my room. Then I cry me to sleep.”
     I straightened my spine. “Well, that solves the mystery of who shot Shorty. Somebody better go call the sheriff.”
     “The sheriff?” Everybody looked at me as if I were loco.
     “Or,” I backtracked, “we can let him do his own sleuthing.” Then with an eye to the future, I mused out loud. “Wonder if Junior will lease the spread to us?”
Well, that’s it. Hope you enjoyed the story. Let me know if the serial thing works. Please let me hear from you.


Next week: We’re back to “who knows” again.

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Who Shot Shorty: Part 2 of 3 Parts

Last week, Shorty Colson, owner of the Cartwheel Ranch was blasted into eternity by a double-barrel blast of buckshot. After the authorities leave, the crew (Pencil, Tex, Red John, Bushy, Lubell, and the new kid, Pedro) sit around trying to make sense of the murder.  Part 2 of the story begins below.
     Lubell stirred the emotional pot again as John claimed part of the bench beside Tex. “Anybody notice Shorty was drinking more’n usual lately? He was tying on a blue-ribbon lulu last night before all this happened. Wonder if it was cuz he was selling the place?”
     “Shorty wouldn’t do that.” Bushy spoke for all of us. “What the hell’d he do, he didn’t have this spread to run?”
     “Heard him talking to Shorty, Jr. on the telephone. The kid wanted his old man to sell and let him invest the money.”
     “With Shorty gone, the Cartwheel’ll get sold for sure,” Tex said.
     “Lordy, I hope not.” Bushy stroked his facial hair like it needed taming.
     Red John spoke up. “Hell, old man, you oughta have enough put away so you don’t have to worry.”
     Bushy turned the color of an overripe pumpkin. “Keep yer mouth shut, hear?”
     Lubell straightened up, jutting out her awesome bosom, her belly coming right along with it. “What was Bushy and Shorty up to up in them mountains, John? Something was going on none of us knew about. Except maybe you. You spent lotsa time up there with Bushy.”
     “Now hold on!” The old cowboy struggled to his feet. “Shorty ain’t been dead fer a whole day, and everbody cain’t wait to dump on him. Leave it be, ya hear!”
     “Leave it be?” I said. “We’re trying to figure out who pumped him full of lead pellets.”
     “It was weed.” John held up a hand to forestall Bushy’s explosion. “Cool it, old man. They got a right to know. He’s been growing it up in the high country for years. I helped harvest the stuff these past four seasons.”
     “And ya got yer share, too.” The old cowhand looked like he wanted to take John on.
     “I’ll be horse-whipped,” Tex said. “Wondered how this place kept going in the bad times. Now it makes sense.”
     So did the big crew and paying for leases he didn’t need. I shoulda known. Shorty pinched a penny until it howled out loud—except for keeping me on to help out while I went to college part time, even buying some raw horseflesh now and then to make my job of busting broncs look real. Somehow, he never got around to explaining I was an orphaned shirttail cousin a couple of branches away on the family tree.
     “Did that pot get Shorty gunned down?” Lubell asked.
     Bushy blustered a minute before coming clean. “Naw. It’s a straight up business. Not none of that Mexican cartel stuff.”
     Lubell nodded at him. “You found out he was gonna sell and didn’t want your sweet deal going south. You took Shorty out.”
     “Me! You been festering fer years over Shorty taking the Cartwheel offa yore old man in a poker game. Ya blew him away, didn’t ya? Go ahead! Own up to it!”
     The cook turned three shades darker. “You old coot! That’s a fairy tale.”
     “I ain’t so sure ‘bout that.” Bushy turned on Tex. “And yer still smarting over Shorty breaking his promise to set ya up with that art dealer over in Taos.”
     “Don’t look at me, old man. I ain’t no killer. Maybe Red John didn’t like the cut he was getting and hit Shorty up for a bigger share of the grass.”
     “Wait a minute!” I stuck my nose in before John had a chance to blow. “Let’s slow down and look at this with a level eye. It doesn’t make sense that Bushy took him out. Even if Shorty was thinking on selling the Cartwheel, shooting him makes the sale a done deal. Both of them’s got short fuses, but they always ended up just cussing each other out.
     “And if Tex got his back up over a broken promise,” I went on, “he’d pull up stakes and head back home for a job. Besides, he’s on the edge of being good enough to make a living from painting, so that doesn’t hold water.
     “As for Red John,” I eyed the Indian, “that’s not his way of handling things. He’d of done something if he figured he was getting cheated. Maybe go to the law, but he doesn’t cotton to authority. Naw, he’d have pulled all the plants up by the roots.”
     “Lubell?” Shorty asked.
     “Even if the story about Shorty and her family is true, why would she wait twenty years to take revenge? I don’t believe it.”
     “Well, what about you, Pencil?” Bushy jabbed me with a twisted, arthritic finger.
     “Me? Why would I kill him? He gave me a roof over my head.”
     “Yeah, and why’s that? The old man kept ya awful close, putting up with yore drinking and running around. I figger Shorty turned funny in his old age when he couldn’t even buy a woman no more.”
The plot thickens. But now that Pencil’s debunked theories about the rest of the crew as the killer, suspicion is centered on him. Did he do it? What do you think? Look around the site before you go…and let me hear from you.


Next week:Who Shot Shorty: Finale.

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Who Shot Shorty: Part 1 of 3 Parts

I’m tired of the short-short stuff, so thought I’d try something else. I wrote “Who Shot Shorty” some time back, but have never really put it out there for publication. 
     “So why not serialize the story,” you ask.
     "Well, why not,” I reply.
Ergo, Part 1 of the story begins below.
     Shorty Colson, longtime owner of the Cartwheel spread, opened the back door of the ranch house and took a double-barreled shotgun blast to the chest on a November night heavy with rain and thunder and the smell of ozone. Bored through with double-aught lead pellets and shreds of flannel from his long johns, the old rancher flew back against the dinner table like a scarecrow losing his stuffing.
     Nobody heard the shotgun blast that blew Shorty away—or else they took it for thunder. The whole countryside heard the cook bellow when she went to fix breakfast the next morning and found him splattered all over the kitchen.
     My name’s Pencil Martinez Gold, and I’ve ridden for Shorty since I was a skinny kid built like…well, like a pencil. Even though I’ve filled out pretty decent, the nickname stuck.
     About two hours after the cook woke the countryside, the County Sheriff and Medical Investigator showed up, scratched their heads, and eventually left toting the corpse and the outfit’s two twelve-gauge shotguns. Shorty, an ornery old cuss, had made plenty of enemies over his seventy-odd years, and some woulda been happy to squeeze that double trigger. Trouble was—he’d outlived them all.
     After tending a few chores, all the ranch hands settled down in the brush arbor beside the bunkhouse to commiserate and cogitate. Eyeballing the spooky crime scene tape stretched around the old adobe ranch house gave a man a snaky ripple down his back.
     It struck me—not for the first time—that Shorty had a heap of help for a ranch this size, even if you included the twenty leased sections that sprawled across the nearby mountains. Paying an animal unit rental for vertical ground never made much sense, although high meadows carry heavier animal loads than desert range. Even that didn’t add up. Shorty never stocked his ranch to capacity.
     “Where’s Red John?” Tex asked. Our top hand was tall and good-looking and talked with a drawl. The stereotype ended right there. He didn’t cuss or drink, and he painted pictures of flowers and mountains on his own time. Tex was a hell of a line dancer who, as the old saw goes, rode Ensolado’s women hard and put them away wet. He worked the lower pastures.
     “You think he coulda done it?” Lubell asked of our missing cowboy. Lubell was short for Lula Belle, and folks still whispered about Shorty cheating her family out of the Cartwheel years back. But people are always claiming a muskrat hide is a beaver pelt, and I never gave that rumor much weight. Why would she stay on the place if that was true? A hard fifty, Lubell was dumpy and lumpy, but she set the best table in northern New Mexico. She was the reason we all put up with Shorty’s venomous temper. During the spring calf crop, she cowboyed like everybody else, tossing a noose that rarely missed horn or heel.
     “Truck’s coming,” Pedro piped in a thin voice. The kid was our misfit. On the Cartwheel for only a couple of months, he was likely a wetback, but nobody ever asked or wanted to know. Minding your own business was pretty much the law around here. Shy to the point of painful, the kid kept his mouth shut, answering questions in a voice constantly on the edge of breaking. He handled the domestic animals and kept the buildings and grounds cleaned out.
     We all turned and watched the vehicle splashing through mud and water from last night’s storm turn into Red John’s ’77 Dodge pickup.
     I answered Lubell’s question. “John didn’t have any reason to shoot Shorty.”
     “Mebbe not, but he cleared out the back way soon’s the law crossed the cattle guard,” she said.
     “A man crazy on drink don’t need no reason.” Bushy Bushmiller was crippled up and pretty near the end of his run. He toted around the smell of chewing tobacco and mangled the King’s English something terrible. Strange, because he’d surprised me more than once by his knowledge of Shakespeare back when I was wrestling with literature classes over at Ensolado Community College. Bushy worked the high pastures from spring thaw until the fall gathering.
     “That’s baloney!” Tex said. “Don’t you go painting him with that brush. John’s a stand up Indian. I had to guess, I’d say he don’t drink as much as you do.”
     “Don’t hold it as good as me, neither.”
     Nobody said another word until John strode over to join us. Tall for an Apache and on the skinny side, he was the most efficient-moving man I’d ever seen. He covered ground like he was storing up energy for hard times. He’d married a gal from nearby San Miguel Pueblo and made the trip back and forth most days except when the War Chief threw everyone not on the tribal rolls off the reservation during religious festivals. He’d got “Red” tacked onto his name back when we had two Johns on the crew. He divided his time between Tex in the lower pastures and Bushy in the high country.
     “They find out who done it?” he asked by way of greeting.
     “Naw.” Bushy’s grizzled beard quivered, a sure sign he was up to mischief. “Ya vamoosed so quick thought mebbe it was you.”
     “Went and told the wife about the shooting so she wouldn’t worry over it.”
     “Likely seen one of them medicine men, too.”
     “Yeah. He warned me clear of stove-up old cowpokes chewing tobacco and quoting Shakespeare.”
I hope that piqued your interest enough to bring you back next week. Thanks for reading. Take a look around the site before you go.


Next week:Who Shot Shorty: Part 2.

New posts are published at 6:00 a.m. each Thursday.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Case of the Vanishing Penny

Well, my umpy-umph wedding anniversary is next Tuesday, so a kiss to my late wife and a sigh that my blue period is coming to an end … for this year, at least.

Enough of that. Let’s get on to another short story.



     The usual gang was hanging on the street corner—Squiggly and Wiggly, also known as the Hoffman brothers, Maxine, and me—doing what ten-year-old kids do at high summer. Killing time. Actually, I was showing off one of my magician’s tricks when Ryan walked up. He was another kid from this neighborhood just south of the tracks not quite in the dumps but not uptown either. Ryan’s bigger’n we are and a bully, but he gets by ‘cause all the girls says he’s “sooo good looking.” Couldn’t see it.
     Anyway, I was bamboozling them with this penny—my entire bankroll at the moment. I’m pretty fast, so I was doing a fair job of keeping them guessing which hand it was in until Randy Ryan showed up. Then all my fingers turned into thumbs.
     He gave a horse laugh. “You ain’t very good.”
     I don’t know if it was because Maxine went all twitter-twitter-and-chirp when he was around or because he’d given me a bloody nose last summer, but I didn’t like Ryan very much. My mouth went motor on me.
     “Yeah, well I can make this disappear. Completely.” I was holding up the penny and smirking at him when it hit me that was as likely to happen as me breaking the four-minute mile. Cripes. He hopped right on it.
     “You do that, Colin, and I’ll buy ever body a RC Cola down at the corner store.”
     “Rather have a Dr. Pepper, Wiggly said.
     “Strawberry,” his brother piped up.
     A Nehi orange was Maxine’s choice.
     “Whatever,” Ryan dismissed them. He could afford to. His dad was the only one on the block had a job except for some CCC work. Those three Cs stood for Civilian Conservation Corps, but us kids mostly called it Civil Constipation Cramps. People kept talking about the Great Depression, but we didn’t know what that was. We just knew everybody was poor. Raggedly-assed underwear poor. Hell, I wasn’t even wearing any beneath my bib overalls. Saved the only patched pair I had for church on Sunday. Frankly, all I had on was the overalls and my brother’s hand-me-down shoes…about a size and a half too big.
     Naturally, my pals were salivating for a treat like a nickel soda pop. We likely couldn’t put together enough among us to buy one of them, and that included my penny. But I didn’t trust Ryan. He probably had the twenty-cents all right, but he wasn’t dangling the coins in front of us for free.
     “What happens if I can’t do it?” I asked.
     The bully gave a real mean smile. “Then I get to whomp on you without nobody telling.”
     Made giddy by shouts of “You can do it” and “Show the bum,” I heard the part of me that’s always getting me in trouble accept the bet. Dumb-ass. Nothing but a dumb-ass.
     With no idea of how I was going to come out of this without a beating, I started my routine under the sharp, beady-eyed stare of Ryan Dilfigger. Fear made me fumble-fingered at first, but desperation soon restored some agility as I flipped the penny between my fingers and started moving it from hand to hand and pocket to pocket. It went on so long my digits started to cramp, and Ryan got tired of waiting. I couldn’t stall any longer.
     I switched from the right hand to the left, and dropped the penny into my overall pocket while pretending to palm it. After supposedly switching it from hand to hand again, I turned my palms up and unclenched my fingers. Everyone went “Awww!” at the sight of my empty hands.
     Except for Ryan. Declaring it was in my pocket, he started pawing around with both hands without any regard for my personal dignity. Then he felt all up and down my legs. “Crap! Where is it. Pull your pockets out.”
     “You can’t pull overall pockets out,” Squiggly said. “They’re sewed to the legs.”
     So Ryan shoved his hands down in both of them. “A hole! He’s got a hole in his pocket. Without another word, he shoved me aside and started grubbing in the dirt. I figured that was the end of me, but he came up empty.
     Then he got another bright idea. “Your underpants! You stowed it there.”
     “Not wearing none.” I got kinda red-faced admitting that in front of Maxine. I couldn’t imagine her telling me she wasn’t wearing panties. But Ryan didn’t leave anything to chance. He tugged at my waistband and peeked down inside. I jerked away, but he’d seen enough to know I wasn’t lying.
     It took another five minutes of pawing, but after that, even Ryan had to give up. Muttering dire threats, he led us down the street to the grocery store. Before trailing along behind, I paused to sweep the ground with my gaze. Where was that danged penny? Maybe it had disappeared. Be great if I really did have powers like Mandrake the Magician.
     Halfway down the street, I felt something flopping in my left shoe. That danged penny didn’t bother me until it got stuck under my heel. Then I started limping.
     I’d have a blister tomorrow, but a blister was better than a beating.


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