Perfection short story

The following is a 2750-word Western short story that I wrote for a creative writing module at university six or seven years ago. At the time I’d just watched Lonesome Dove and a whole bunch of re-runs of Rawhide, and was quite into W. Somerset Maugham, hence the description-heavy opening and dialogue-heavy development. I tried to get this published in a number of general and Western-themed fiction magazines and e-zines, but without success. I tried to capture the language and inflection of nineteenth-century cowboys, but being a Brit, I’m not sure I managed to successfully pull it off. As always, let me know what you think in the comments.

Perfection by Gillan Drew

Colonel Horrigan reined in at the mouth of the valley, running his eyes down the gentle western slope, past the river, and up the steeper eastern rise. In the evening light, the forest lining the ridge to the left cast long shadows down a lush meadow that drank at the banks of the river. To the north, beyond where the valley curled out of sight, snow-capped mountains climbed up into the sky.

            He glanced over his shoulder to where, far across the landscape, the dark blur of the herd grazed their evening’s fill. Already a plume of smoke was rising into the sky, the wagons circling for protection and comfort, his boys climbing down wearily from their saddles to catch some precious sleep around the campfire.

A single dot broke from the blur and approached across the grassland, a dot that soon resolved into a stocky, one-armed man riding a palomino, his black hair streaked with grey. The rider pulled his horse short alongside the Colonel and whistled through his teeth.

‘That’s a sight to behold,’ he said.

The Colonel said nothing. He stared transfixed at the mountains.

‘You know, when you passed up on them other places, some of them, well, they wondered why that was, but now –’ The rider whistled again. ‘Perfection Valley.’

‘This ain’t Perfection, Captain,’ said the Colonel. ‘Bright and early, we gotta get up and get movin’. Same as every day.’

The stocky Captain licked his lips and spat into the dirt. ‘Colonel, them boys are gettin’ a might edgy, wonderin’ why we keep passin’ up such prime grazin’ land.’

‘Them boys’ll do as I tell ‘em,’ said the Colonel. ‘That’s what they get paid for. Any of ‘em wants to dispute it, he can come collect his wages. I got no truck with any man wants to leave, but he works for me then he follows my orders.’ He turned in his saddle to face the Captain. ‘Besides, Jack, you’re supposed to be keepin’ ‘em calm.’

‘I’m doin’ that, Bill,’ said Jack, shifting uncomfortably in the saddle. ‘But it ain’t easy when we been on the trail so long and ain’t showin’ no signs of stoppin’. And I ain’t got no authority with them townsfolk. Them’s the one’s kickin’ up most of the fuss.’

‘Townsfolk,’ snarled the Colonel. ‘Shouldn’t have brought ‘em along.’

Jack stood in his stirrups, eased himself back onto the hard saddle. ‘When are we goin’ to stop, Bill? To be honest, it’s gettin’ so’s I’m startin’ to agree with ‘em.’

The Colonel looked ahead again, towards the darkening sky. ‘We’ll stop when we find Perfection, Captain.’

*          *          *          *

‘I’ve seen that valley, Jack,’ said the cowboy, the light from the fire dancing in his eyes. ‘Beautiful-est lookin’ thing I’ve ever seen. Grazin’ land aplenty, wood for homes, enough water for all of us and more. Mountains nearby for miners and prospectors and whomever else. What’s his excuse this time?’

The Captain spat into the fire and took another swig of the whisky from out his tin mug. ‘Colonel don’t need to explain himself to the likes of you, Al Davies,’ he said. ‘He’s the man what owns this herd and he’s the one what decides where it’s gonna end up.’

‘You owns some of it,’ said another cowboy. ‘You could stop here.’

‘Me and the Colonel, we go way back –’

‘Yeah, we know,’ said Al. ‘Right to the Alamo.’

The cowboys laughed, and even Jack managed a smile.

‘Where he goes, I go,’ he said. ‘He’s never steered me wrong.’

‘Got half of his column tore up by them Injuns, though, didn’t he?’ said another cowboy. ‘Ain’t that how you lost your arm?’

‘You don’t talk about that what wasn’t there,’ snapped Jack. ‘Now you boys got a problem with what the Colonel’s doin’, you go talk to him about it. But I doubt he’d take too kindly to two of his hands askin’ him outright.’

‘I heard tell he shot a bunch of his own men in the war. That true?’

‘I ain’t saying as it’s true,’ said Jack. ‘I ain’t saying as it ain’t. It’s whether you wants to take the risk. But I wouldn’t. He can’t abide bad manners in nobody, specially not –’

‘– the likes of us,’ said Al.

‘Right,’ said Jack. He looked into the fire and took another large swig of the alcohol, feeling it burn down into his belly. Over at the other end of the campsite, the settlers were making one hell of a racket.

‘Way I sees it, only way we’re gonna stop is if you talk to him,’ said the other cowboy suddenly. ‘You got a right to ask, at least. He ain’t gonna shoot you for askin’, what with you goin’ way back, and all.’

Jack shook his head. ‘You boys want to be careful.’

‘He can’t shoot us,’ said Al. ‘Ain’t lawful.’

‘Way out here, he is the law,’ said Jack. ‘You’d best not be forgettin’ that.’

‘Oh, I ain’t forgettin’ it,’ said Al. ‘I just ain’t likin’ it, is all. And I’m not the only one.’

‘Is that a threat, Al Davies?’ asked Jack.

‘S’not a threat,’ said Al, holding Jack’s stare. ‘It’s a warning, is all. He’s gonna drive that herd till it’s just skeletons, and all of us dead with it. Only way he’s ever gonna stop is with a bullet. Now you’d best not be forgettin’ that.’ He looked around at the other cowboys. ‘We boys had better be gettin’ some sleep. Sounds like it’s another long day tomorrow.’

Together, the cowboys walked into the surrounding darkness, leaving Jack alone with his thoughts.

*          *          *          *

Lifting himself stiffly up from his chair, Dr. Waterstone raised his hands for silence. Seeing it was not working, the doctor loudly cleared his throat and the hubbub fell and then rose again like a wave on the shore. ‘People, people, please,’ he said in a clear baritone, his voice rising above the clamour. He studied their faces in the glow, the anger, the fear and frustration. ‘I must urge you to remain calm. I assure you that the Colonel knows what he is doing.’

The population of Perfection, or rather, the people that would comprise the population of Perfection when it was built, were gathered around a fire that spat into the night like an animal. They were a rag-tag bunch, some dressed in dirty smocks and tatty dresses while others were bedecked in smarter clothes, albeit dusty and starting to wear thin. In the darkness they were barely distinguishable, a writhing mass of shadowy figures tinged with the touch of the flames. Many were on their feet, standing in clumps; some were pacing endlessly back and forth, kicking at the ground, while others simply stared despondently out into the night.

To one side of the fire, John Anderson thrust a finger in the doctor’s direction. ‘We don’t start building, ground is gonna be too hard to dig and we’re gonna be spendin’ the winter in our wagons. And winter comes awful quick in these parts. How you gonna reassure us about that, doc?’

‘Yeah,’ said a woman standing close by. ‘We got three little ‘uns, you know that, and Alice ain’t gonna survive the winter if we don’t start gettin’ firewood together.’

The voices of the townsfolk rose once more and the doctor again lifted his hands. ‘The Colonel is aware of our concerns,’ he said.

‘Yeah, sure he’s aware,’ said Anderson. ‘But he ain’t doin’ nothin’ about it, is he?’

‘What would you have us do, John?’ asked the doctor, his manner bred from years of experience at the bedside. ‘Where would you have us go?’

‘We don’t need to go nowhere,’ said another man. ‘We build our town here.’

‘And I suppose we don’t need the Colonel’s herd,’ said the doctor, using the rhetorical devices he had practised at school back East. ‘I’m sure we can gather together enough food to see us through this late in the year.’

‘Of course we can’t,’ said Anderson.

‘Then I ask the question again. What would you have us do?’

The company fell silent a moment, before a woman called out, ‘I say we build our town and to hell with the Colonel. He knows we need his beef, he wouldn’t leave us here to die.’

There was a general murmur of agreement, an eruption of ‘yeah’ and ‘to hell with the Colonel’. They fell silent as a voice called out of the night.

‘You’re wrong if you think the Colonel won’t leave you here,’ said the one-armed Captain, striding into the dim circle of light. The settlers backed away from him as though he were a snake. He gazed around at the people, daring them to meet his eyes. ‘You people remember, you asked to come with us, not th’other way ‘round. And if the Colonel says we ain’t stoppin’ here, then we ain’t stoppin’ here. No arguments.’

‘We’ll starve if he leaves us,’ said Anderson.

‘Then you’ll starve,’ said Jack.

There was total silence around the fire. And then a woman said, ‘Your Colonel’s a bloody tyrant, Captain.’

Jack turned on her, a woman in a pretty blue dress and wrapped in a blanket against the cold. She stood nobly erect, held his eyes by the fire. A child clutched at her legs, looking up at her with tears on its cheeks.

‘That he is,’ the Captain replied. ‘So he wouldn’t think twice ‘bout leavin’ you behind.’

‘With his one-armed lapdog riding shotgun in his saddlebag,’ the woman spat. ‘You ain’t a man. You’re as bad as he is.’

Clearing his throat once more, Dr. Waterstone took a step closer to the fire so that they could all see him. ‘Captain, I think we would all feel a little happier if you explained to us why Colonel Horrigan finds this valley unsuitable for his purposes?’

‘Colonel don’t need to explain things,’ said Jack.

‘He needs to explain to me,’ cried John Anderson, and the Captain spun to face him. The settler lifted a young boy in his arms. ‘He needs to explain to me why he’s riskin’ my son, my wife. Yes, we agreed to come with him. We didn’t agree to riskin’ our families.’

‘There ain’t no guarantees in this life.’

‘Then be it on your head if anythin’ happens to my family,’ said Anderson, lowering the boy to the ground and advancing on the Captain. ‘And be it on your damned Colonel’s head.’

Around the fire, the settlers roared their approval. The one-armed Captain, glaring around into their angered faces, pointedly rested his hand on the butt of his pistol. The meaning was not lost on the settlers, but it was several moments before they were ready to listen once again.

‘You people had courage comin’ out here,’ he said. ‘All I ask is you keep that courage just a bit longer. Now go to bed, all of you. We got an early start in the mornin’. Go on, be off with you. You ain’t got no choice in this.’

As they grudgingly spilled back to their wagons, the doctor looked at him. ‘They have no choice,’ he said. ‘But you do, Captain.’

*          *          *          *

Colonel Horrigan spun as he heard the footsteps rustling through the grass behind him, whipped out his gun and clicked back the hammer before he saw that it was Jack. ‘You know better than to sneak up on a man, Captain,’ he said.

‘Weren’t sneakin’,’ replied the Captain, holding his arm out to the side to show his hand was empty. He stared at the Colonel’s weapon, still aimed at his chest. ‘What, Bill, you don’t trust me no more?’

‘Should I trust you?’

Jack smiled on one side of his face. ‘Surprised you even have to ask that.’

‘Ask myself all the time,’ said the Colonel, re-holstering the pistol. He slid back around on the rock he had taken for a perch, raised his pipe and placed it between his teeth.

Slowly, deliberately, the Captain eased himself onto the rock alongside him. He took out his tobacco and pipe, stared out into the dark as he tamped it down into the bowl. Overhead there was a break in the clouds, and a vast array of stars pierced the gloom like pinpicks in a sheet of satin. Out in the valley he could just make out the river, a shade of deeper darkness flowing into the night.

Lighting his pipe, he shook out the match and flicked it into the long grass. They smoked in amiable silence, the only sounds the wind soughing through the grass and the gentle fizz of the smouldering tobacco.

The Captain sighed out a mouthful of smoke. ‘Why ain’t we stoppin’ here, Bill?’ he eventually asked. ‘It’s everythin’ you said you wanted. Makes no sense to keep goin’.’

The Colonel sucked on his pipe. ‘It ain’t Perfection.’

‘We got to stop, Bill. People gonna start dyin’ if we don’t.’

‘Not my problem.’

‘They got kids, Bill.’

The Colonel looked at him. ‘You turnin’ on me too, Jack?’

‘I ain’t turnin’ on you,’ said Jack. ‘But I ridden with you through thick and thin. I think I deserve to know why this ain’t Perfection.’

It seemed the Colonel would not answer, but looking out at the distant valley, he said suddenly, ‘You ‘member back before the war, Jack, when we was garrisoned in that town in Iowa? That little farm with the pastureland, where Jenny lived?’

Jack frowned a moment before he recalled. ‘Jenny Ramsdale’s place? Jeez, I ain’t thought of there in years.’

‘You ‘member the way the grass smelled in the mornin’? Way the sky looked, so big you could get lost in it?’

‘I ‘member the way Jenny looked,’ Jack chuckled nervously. ‘‘Member the way you looked at her, too. She was a fine woman.’

‘She was.’

‘Shame them days are gone.’

The Colonel continued to stare out into the night, as still as a statue. ‘I loved them days, Jack. Best time of my life. You still had your arm. I was young and Jenny was the sweetest kisser in the world.’

The Captain smirked. ‘‘Memberin’ how you was with the ladies, you would know.’

‘I hadn’t yet seen the things I’ve seen, or done the things I’ve done. I loved them days, Jack.’

‘They was good days.’

‘They was perfection.’

Something sank in Jack’s belly as he sat on the rock beside his friend, puffed silently on his pipe as the truth washed over him. He finally understood what the Colonel was looking for.

‘Bill,’ he said cautiously. ‘You know them days are gone, right? You know we can’t never get ‘em back?’

‘Perfection is out there, Jack,’ said the Colonel, his eyes on the dark stain of the mountains jutting up into the night. ‘We just need to find it.’

‘We can’t never wash our hands clean of what we’ve done.’

‘We go on in the morning.’

‘Even if all them people die?’

‘I don’t care about them people,’ the Colonel snapped. ‘They can go to hell. I don’t care how long it takes, we’re gonna find Perfection.’

‘You ain’t never gonna stop, are you?’ said Jack.

‘Not till I find it,’ said the Colonel, putting his hand to his pistol and staring into Jack’s face. ‘And I’ll shoot down any man tries to stop me. Even you.’

Taking a deep breath, the Captain slowly stood up beside his friend. ‘There ain’t no such thing as perfection,’ he said.

*          *          *          *

The horses whinnied and tugged at their reins when the gunshot rang out in the darkness.

Slowly at first, and then more quickly, like a stream suddenly bursting its banks, the travellers emerged from their many wagons. Here and there, men clutched rifles and pointed them about with worried eyes; women clutched their children to their breasts, and somewhere a baby whimpered in fright. But there was only one shot.

The Captain told them it was self-inflicted, though few believed that. For the first time since losing his arm, Jack wept, screamed out his rage into the night sky.

In the morning, the settlers buried the Colonel, and in the afternoon they began to build Perfection around his bones.

The End

Copyright, Gillan Drew, 2018

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