Saturday, November 3, 2012

Six-Guns and Slay Bells, story 5

By Matthew Mayo

Maple Jack’s gotta be a New Englander, just gotta be. But the man knows cows, and partner him up with Roamer and you never can tell what’ll happen.

If you know anything about line shacks, you know they can be lonely. Often, like Howey Simpson was, a line rider’s alone. But with Maple Jack and Roamer, the brand hired the two of them to help cattle on the far reaches of the ranch make it through the winter.

Maple Jack was reticent, but big ol’ Roamer was persuasive. They ended up on the line in one of the worse winters for years.

The ranch was in the lowlands of Wyoming, a place where a man can see clear into tomorrow if he can find a piece of high ground. At any rate, the winter was hard, and folks around predicted, and the two cowboys spend days keeping cows from getting buried in snowbanks and drinking hooch to keep warm at night.

The men go riding out into a snowstorm on Christmas Eve day, and as might be expected, the snow gets them turned completely around. When the flakes are falling thick and fast, not only can you not tell where you’re headed, but after a few minutes, you can’t tell where you’ve been. Your tracks are completely filled up with new snow. They rode tied together with a lariat so one wouldn’t drift away from the other. Maple Jack rode his tough old mule, and Roamer was aboard a mighty half-Percheron. The big animals could buck the drifts all right, but that didn’t help the riders keep their directions straight.

Then they find shelter. A lean-to for their mounts and a . . . a . . . house of sorts . . . for the riders.

From this point on, Christmas Eve becomes something special, something creepy, something Maple Jack and Roamer are not sure they’ll escape.

MATTHEW P. MAYO is a Spur Award- and Peacemaker Award-nominated writer whose short stories appear in a variety of anthologies (his collected “Maple Jack” tales is forthcoming from Gritty Press). Matthew’s novels include the Westerns Winters’ War; Wrong Town (Roamer, Book 1); Hot Lead, Cold Heart; Dead Man’s Ranch; and Tucker’s Reckoning. His critically acclaimed non-fiction books include Cowboys, Mountain Men & Grizzly Bears; Bootleggers, Lobstermen & Lumberjacks; Sourdoughs, Claim Jumpers & Dry Gulchers; and Haunted Old West. Matthew can frequently be found roving the highways and byways of the West with his wife, photographer Jennifer Smith-Mayo. Visit him on the Web at .