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.

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