Western Short Story
Hanging upside down with your legs and hands tied was a bad enough experience. But to awaken from your forced unconsciousness to such a delight was double the torture. Blood rushing fiercely to your brain. Your eyes and nose heavy with the thundering pressure. Your mouth dry and sore, aching for some water to relieve the stress. Every limb in your body feeling stretched and strained. The inner workings of your stomach feeling queasy.
Even the ankles and wrists suffering the crushing pressure from the ropes that held them tight. Then your eyes look around trying to piece together the puzzling picture. But when you’re upside down, everything is distorted. Can you see clearly and what do you see? Mountains, trees, people? White men, Indians? Who do you hear speaking? What are they saying? Why the hell are you in such an awful predicament?
All of these thoughts and feelings racked through the soul and mind of Thomas Murphy. His questions were answered. Answered by the evil, cold tone of an old friend. Burt Stryker. The sombre Stryker walked over to the now fully conscious Murphy. His piercing blue eyes shot rays of light through his old pal’s head. Murphy felt as if he was face-to-face with a higher being. His maker. The giver or taker of life. Stryker slowly walked around the hanging body of his old chum. He breathed in and out with equal strength and quiet evil. Finally he stopped one foot away from Murphy’s face. He paused, and in that pause Murphy felt that his upper body was bare. No shirt, no hat, no protection.
Murphy watched the mouth slowly open. Facing him was a black cave with crushing blades. The lips and teeth moved slowly but assuredly. The sounds they made were firm and definite. His ears relaxed to take in the full meaning of the speech.
‘My dear Thomas, what have we become? In the past we were friends. Yes! Friends of genuine compassion, and trust, and even, dare I say it, honour. Now we look at the world from different viewpoints, both physically and intellectually. It is as if we had never met. And yet we had. And only because we have a past, will I give you any chance of a future. So we come to our little mise-en-scene. A most ingenious and truthful opportunity for you to live, survive, see another day when the sun shall rise.’
Stryker afforded himself a tiny smile, as if to say ‘Who is the better man, now, Thomas Murphy?’ Then he paused, leaving a morbid feeling in the air. And then his mouth spoke once again his cruel thoughts.
‘By now, you may ask yourself, what this is all about? And more importantly, what is to become of …you? Thomas Murphy? Firstly, I spotted you yesterday before the river, in the company of the delectable Miss Fields. Now I, never a fool, put one and one together. See, because there was one person and one other person, it is correct to say one and one, even though the majority of mankind would prefer the phrase “two and two together”, even if its logic is illogical. Therefore, Miss Fields, that oh-so-innocent filly of the south, hired you to help her out. To hunt me down for killing her brother. A brother who deserved it! Well, agreeing was your crime. Now punishment is veering ever closer. Ah! Punishment! That’s where I come in.’
With those words, Stryker’s teeth opened wider and he became a laughing hyena of evil torture. And the reason for this dark scenario flashed into Murphy’s mind. Four days ago, he was hired by Miss Fields to track an old family friend of his, a Mr Burt Stryker. Initially Murphy declined the offer of one thousand dollars in gold, stating that he didn’t believe his old pal could commit murder. Yet Miss Fields brought witnesses to his office to swear on their lives that they saw Stryker kill her brother in cold blood on a wet-stained, wintry night. So reluctantly, but believing that a guilty man deserved to face justice, he agreed to hunt him down. For two, long hard-worn days he worked alone, along the Missouri until yesterday he met back up with Miss Fields in the small town of Chinanowa. She had learned that Stryker was supposed to be hiding out in the forests of Alder Hills. With Miss Fields in tow and Murphy on his trusted horse; Red, they ventured into the serene setting. They set up camp during the afternoon by the tiny, trickling Vemosa river. Then Thomas Murphy searched the surrounding area to make sure all was well. That’s when the lights in his mind’s mansion were turned off. And now he knew the reason why. Stryker had spotted him with Miss Fields, and with his fellow cronies help, they had knocked Murphy unconscious and brought him back to their den. But now his little remembrance call was over as Stryker brought him back to his present setting.
With his left index finger, he stroked gently along Murphy’s chest until he came to the solid bone below the neck. Then he pressed firmly against it and pushed his body away, causing it to swing gently in the air. Murphy strained ferociously to keep his wits about him. He knew that he was doomed, but he had to hang in there, for his soul. No giving up, never, he swore quietly to himself.
Stryker put his index finger once more into the air. It pressed deeply into Murphy’s chest as it stopped him moving. Then his evil voice rose again from the pit of his own making.
‘Thomas, you will live or die by your decisions and your physical movements. Below you, where I stand, is a pit, six feet deep by six feet in diameter. Presently it is empty, bar the soil on the earth and the presence of me facing you. In a few moments, I will climb safely from this hole. Then I will be replaced by the more intimidating, yet possibly purer, collective body of one hundred scorpion souls. Scorpions, my friend, like many other creatures of this planet, normally only attack to defend oneself. Yet sometimes, as so often in nature and proved consistently in mankind, a living being will attack for no other reason than pure pleasure. So to put it simply, you will be lowered slowly but definitely into this pit where you will come face-to-face with the deadly tails of Satan’s precious killers. Stay still and they may never bite, and someday help may come. Or move and try somehow to wrestle yourself to safety. The choice is yours. Life or death. Pray you choose wisely. And pray God hears and answers your call.’
Then he turned and moved away. But something stopped him. Chillingly he moved around to face his old pal again. He smiled evilly as he spoke ‘Oh, I almost forgot, the gold she obviously paid you in! I gratefully took that from your pouch. Au revoir Thomas Murphy.’
Then the slim build of Stryker put his hands into the air and was raised by two men to safety. Murphy lifted his head up and saw nine men surround the perimeter of the pit. Stryker, his pal Tex Rock and seven Indians. They looked cheaply at him as if he were a mere scientific experiment. Coldly and without concern. Then Stryker, his eyes focused directly at him, nodded his head and the torture began. The largest Indian held a huge brown sack in his hands. Cautiously he moved it away from his body and over the empty pit. Then he carefully untied the knot and turned it upside down. For a second nothing happened, then Murphy’s worst fears rang true. Tumbling quickly out of the sack towards the soft ground below were Satanist after Satanist. They flowed down majestically to the ground like a cascading waterfall of precious life. Stryker had said one hundred powerful creatures would come forth. To Murphy, it seemed his nemesis had been conservative. To him, the number seemed far greater, hundreds of deadly vermin landed on the pit below. Then the Indian, seeing no more arachnids leave the sack, threw it safely into the hole.
Murphy’s heart rate galloped quicker than ever before. He could almost feel the vessel bouncing off his outer skin. He gritted and grimaced as his mind rushed with feeble feelings. We all die, he thought, but surely my life will disappear in a better way? Better than the food of a preying gang. Up above him, the rope that held his legs was starting to move in a downward pattern. He looked up and around. The long precious rope hung over a sturdy, powerful branch from a giant tree. Three Indians held the other end of the rope. Slowly but happily they let the rope come forth from their palms. With each release of their wrists Murphy was nearing his inevitable slaughter.
He tried to swing his body back and forth away from the pit below. The men watching, laughed at his every movement. All except Stryker. To him, Murphy wasn’t even worth laughing at. He was pathetic. And stupid. Survival was never really an option. Stryker’s words to him had been pure theatre, a smokescreen for his old friend, who had so quickly become his enemy. He believed wholeheartedly that his old pal was going to die. It was simply a matter of how long it would take. With that in mind, Stryker turned around and walked away from the scene below him.
Murphy used all his strength to shake his body. Tears of sweat and fear transcended down his face. Some netted in his hair while others dropped down onto the tiny bodies below. The scorpions seemed to hiss and sneer in a collective gasp up at him. He could hear them taunting his every move. Looking down, he saw the ground coming closer. Inch by inch he could feel the distance narrowing. Now his eyes could make out the intricate details on their bodies. Scampering and grabbing, they crawled viciously over one another. Battles and wars broke out between fighting parties. Their pincers locked horns and their tails swung feverishly about. Snap and crash went their poisonous arrows into fellow creatures. It was a scene of nature at its most free and deadly.
His head was now only three feet off the ground. Desperately he swung again and again, trying to escape his fate. But the rope kept dropping. With it, less and less chance of Murphy’s survival. His whole body felt the sickening tinge of imminent death. He closed his eyes and prayed for mercy. Prayed to whichever God that ruled the world. Prayed to his mother and father to give him strength. Prayed to the savages down below to ignore his body.
Then everything changed. The sound of gunfire filled the air. Loud and strong and booming. Then hope intervened. Before his eyes, Murphy watched the fallen body of the Indian who had held the scorpion sack. CRASH! His body hit the ground below and with it the bodies of many arachnid villains. Murphy heard the squishing, snapping and crackling sounds of the broken soldiers. With that came a horrendous scream of intense agony from the Indian. Whether the scorpion stings caused more pain than the bullet or the fall was open to interpretation. But Murphy knew which he’d prefer and it wasn’t the hundreds of bastards down below. He watched as countless killers crawled terrifyingly over the dead body. Within a matter of seconds his body was covered in the deadly warriors.
Then more gunfire filled the air and another body crashed down below. Only this man, Tex Rock, had not fallen fully into the pit. Instead his body dangled perilously close to the bottom. Desperately his hands grabbed at the earth above the hole. He screamed out in agony as his grip slowly gave way. His nails dug fiercely into the grass, trying feverishly to keep him up. The other men, who had circled the pit, quickly ran from danger. Murphy could hear more and more gunfire. It terrorised the cold sky above, made the day seem like nightfall and gave him a fighting chance.
But he wasn’t safe from trouble yet. The three men, who had held the rope, had other ideas. Why lower him slowly, they thought, when we could just let him go? So that’s what they did. They opened their palms and emptied their fingers and Murphy hurled down. Down towards hundreds of bandits and a dead body. He lifted his head and back up, to prevent him from breaking his neck. It worked. But his frame still connected with the terror below. Murphy could feel the squashed and snapped, broken vessels of the dead scorpions. He could feel the last breath of life from the injured parties. Then he entered hell. Hundreds of terrors crawled horrifyingly over his carcass. Up above him, the other man was losing his fight for survival. Lumps of grass lifted from the earth and with it, his body fell hopelessly backwards into the pit. Screams of dread rushed from his lungs. His eyes bobbled with intense pain. And his body died, not from the stings, but from an overwhelming case of supreme fear.
Murphy wasn’t giving in. Stay still, said Stryker, and they mightn’t bite. To hell with that idea, thought Murphy. If I die, then I die fighting, not lying on my back. So he fought. Fought like never before. Fought with every ounce of strength he could muster. Fought using the only means he could think of. Fought by employing the death roll. Using his body like a battering ram, he rolled angrily away from the centre. His body murdered enemy after enemy until he crashed into the wall of the pit. The soil jumped into his eyes and mouth, and his body felt desperately numb. But amazingly, he was still alive.
Or was he? Or would he be in a few seconds? Something was crawling quickly and deliberately along his leg. Murphy tried to shake it. But his senses wouldn’t work. His legs couldn’t move. He tried again. But the same result. Nothing. Loss of movement. Then the tiny legs moved onwards and upwards. Over the hip. Along the stomach. Onto the chest. Then they stopped. They were transfixed. Something was holding them there. For Christ’s sake, what, he thought? Then the answer came flooding back. The scorpion was over his heart. His beating, pumping, throbbing heart. Murphy’s eyes looked down. Into the face that could haunt a nation. Into the eyes that said nothing, and yet everything. Into the pincers that opened and closed like a mechanical arm. And worse of all, at the tail that danced in the air. Swirling, turning and twisting, up and down, back and forth. Waiting for the inevitable moment. The perfect time. The time to strike.
It lost its chance. The battered body of Murphy was swiftly pulled into the air. Feet first he rose once more into the sky. Higher and higher he flew. And his lifting motion toppled the torturer off his body and towards the soft earth below. The arachnid landed on his back and before he could rise again, a fellow scorpion punched ferociously into his underbelly. He screamed out, and then his soul escaped from the torturous pit.
Murphy, meanwhile, was dragged up and out onto the land above. He looked up dreamily into the sun, wondering if it was all real. Then she appeared, like an angel, from the heavens above. Her smile calmed his beating heart and her eyes filled his soul with hope. She lifted him up quickly and passionately kissed his brow. Then she pulled, tugged and opened the ropes around his wrists and ankles. Like a present from our Holy Father, unbelievably he was free. Free of a nightmare that seemed so real. Free of a torture that wouldn’t end. Free from a Pit of Hell. Yet still she fought. With his rifle, in her hands, she shot out round after round of screaming bullets. Then she hauled him to his feet and looked into his eyes.
‘God bless you, Sarah Fields,’ he cried to her truly.
She thanked him with her smile and then unleashed a pack of bullets. Behind her, Murphy could see the image of Red, his horse. She had used his strength to haul him to safety. The rope was tied to the back off the saddle. Murphy could’ve cried in thanks, but knew that the timing wasn’t right.
He turned quickly to see the dead bodies of four more Indians. Sarah was firing wildly and with great precision. The two remaining Indians were hiding behind trees for cover. Murphy’s body started to awaken as the circulation sprang to life. Every nerve, sinew of muscle, and bone that held his frame was injected with adrenaline. An arrow flashed by. Then another. Then the three heroes were rained upon with a rapid succession of deadly sticks.
‘Quick! Let’s run for it,’ he shouted.
They turned away from the oncoming threat and sped into the forest of trees nearby. Murphy wanted to jump on Red but the tightly knit succession of vegetation would’ve made it difficult to ride him. Instead the trio galloped through the forest. As they ran wildly, arrow after deadly arrow splattered the trunks of trees around them. The forest was starting to decline. Lower and lower it went. Until the trio were being chased down a hill. As they ran, they crashed into branches and bark. Their souls were scratched and prodded by nettles and thorns. Clothes on their bodies were tugged and ripped from the speed of the chase. They grunted and moaned as their vessels took the blows. Murphy’s bare chest reeked with blood. Sarah turned quickly and released a round of fire. Behind them they heard a scream of a man. Then more screams. And then the air was filled with the angry taunts of a hunting pack. A war cry.
The taunts got closer. And closer still. So close that the hairs on Murphy’s back pricked up with fear. But the trio kept on running. Until they came to a clearing down below. Facing them was a riverbank. And three canoes. To their right, was a pathway that ran along the bank for half a mile. Red started to move along the pathway. Murphy and Sarah were about to follow when a barrage of arrows rained around them. For a split second Murphy hesitated. There was too big a gap between Miss Fields, Red and him. The chance to board him was gone.
So as the arrows snowed all round, he shouted out to his horse ‘Go, Red, Go!’
His precious friend did as he was told and galloped away. Murphy grabbed Sarah and pushed her into a canoe. An arrow crashed into the boat near his hands. She lifted the shotgun and blasted out again. Another scream followed. Yet the threat kept coming. Pushing the canoe free from the bank, Murphy could see the Indians now in the clearing. But the pack had leapt from two to three because Stryker was back for his old friend’s blood.
Murphy hopped into the canoe and took an oar in his hands. Banging it fiercely into the river, he pushed water behind him. With each stroke, his movements became stronger and clearer. The canoe took up speed. Behind them, the villains were now boarding the two remaining boats. Sarah locked and loaded the shotgun, brought it angrily into the air, took aim and fired. But her aim was interrupted by the rocking motion of the boat. And so her shots went astray. Away from their precious target; her brother’s killer and the Pawnee soldiers.
Murphy’s canoe was now in the middle of the river, flowing rapidly down it. Water was cascading over the sides. It enwrapped their feet and splashed wildly into their faces. They gulped and spat out, trying to keep their focus. Murphy swung the oar powerfully time and again. But the chasing hunters were closing fast. Too fast for his liking.
They rode in two canoes, two in one, and one in the other. The canoe that held two, was leading the way. The Indian rowed while Stryker held a bow and arrow in the air. Then he pulled. From it sprang forth a speeding jagged stick. It was on its way. And the aim was good. Closer and closer it came to Murphy’s head. It was nearing the bullseye when Sarah noticed its danger.
‘Duck Murphy! Duck!’ she roared.
Instinctively he lowered his head and the arrow torpedoed by, almost scraping the top of his back. Instead it crashed into the water. Stryker screamed out angrily. The river was becoming choppier now. The canoeists tried desperately to keep their homes afloat. Water was banging wildly now against the wooden frames. Below the water, boulders were starting to surface. Now the gap between the enemies was only fifty feet. Sarah was firing wildly, while Stryker sprayed his arrows. The second canoe was also making good ground now. The warrior inside crashed and splashed his oar into the cascading river.
The two chasing canoes were almost side-by-side. They could almost touch their prey with their hands. But Murphy had other ideas. Get away from danger. Miss Fields kept firing. One bullet tore a chunk of wood from the solitary Indian’s canoe. Another connected with the Indian who rowed the two-man boat. It embedded in his chest sending him crashing back. He thumped into Stryker and the canoe veered wildly. With no one to steer it, the canoe jumped out of the water. It flew through the air and smacked back down again. Stryker flew forward with the force. He smacked his head powerfully into the bottom of the boat. A scream of pain flew from his lungs. Then he pulled himself up and controlled the canoe. Blood smeared down his furious face from a gash above his forehead.
The hunted were now only a few feet ahead of the chasing pack. It was like a three horse race. Murphy was in the middle and the two canoes were either side. They banged and crashed savagely into one another, rocking madly from side to side in the process. Up ahead, large boulders now surfaced greatly. They broke up the free flow of the river. Murphy could see the danger that awaited them. Desperately he tried to turn his canoe on another path. But the water held firm. It had no intention of letting the boats pass. Impact was imminent. Certain.
But Murphy used all the strength that remained in his fragile body. He tried to push the two-man canoe on his right, towards a boulder. Stryker realised his plan. Taking a hatchet in his right hand he leapt wildly from his boat. The deadly blade of his weapon connected with Murphy’s canoe, grabbing hold firmly. His upper body trailed over the boat while his legs dangled feverishly in the water. The canoe he exited smacked thunderously into a solid rock, breaking wildly into countless pieces. A large section of it flew into the air and smacked into the water near Murphy’s vessel.
The second Indian canoeist was still in chase. He was trying to bang Murphy’s canoe into another oncoming boulder. Sarah, meanwhile, looked desperately for more bullets as Stryker was dragging himself up. Murphy punched out. Blow after blow he struck at his enemy’s face but with little effect. His vile opponent was crazed with anger. Pain didn’t register. Stryker was now fully inside the boat. Murphy kicked out and connected with his stomach. Sending him crashing against the back of the canoe. As he landed, the hatchet came into view. It was resting near his right hand. He pulled it wildly from the wood. Then he lifted it into the air, holding his arms apart like a hunting hawk. Out from his body came a cry of deafening anger. But it was muted out by a sound that Murphy loved.
So he turned quickly towards it and looked straight ahead. There was a wooden bridge, eight feet above the river, only yards away. On it, standing tall and hollering at him was his trusted horse, Red. Jump, for Christ’s sake, jump, shouted his horse! One hundred feet beyond the bridge there was a collection of boulders that would easily sink a ship.
Murphy screamed to Sarah ‘Jump for the bridge! Do it! Now!’ as Stryker came towards him.
She stood up quickly, trying desperately to keep her balance and looked up at the bottom frames of the wooden bridge. It would be touch and go. She needed all her strength. And all her bravery. So she closed her eyes and jumped up. Up towards salvation.
She felt her body floating through the air. The river was quiet. Stryker was quiet. Even her own body and mind was quiet. Then thud! Her hands connected with the wooden frame. And with it, all the noises of the world came flooding back. She opened her eyes and looked up. She was hanging from the bridge. Then she looked down just in time to see the two canoes sweeping by, but with only the bloodied Indian still intact. So where is Murphy and Stryker, she thought?
The roars answered her question. To her right were the two warriors. All three hung on for dear life. All heard and saw the two canoes crash savagely into the boulders and the battered Indian dive hopelessly into the water. Then the river turned red and his body floated up as the sky was lit up with a shower of wooden pieces. Broken explosively from the boats. The wood rained down onto the body in the water, covering him in an open coffin. Then he disappeared once more, never to return.
Sarah tried desperately to pull herself up. Her slender muscles could hardly take the weight of her own body. But she still kept on trying. With all her soul. Stryker was swinging furiously from beam to beam now. He had Murphy in his sights, who would pay the price. Stretching down to his waist, he pulled a hunting knife from his trouser belt. Then he waved it furiously in the air. He swung out at Murphy, grazing her near the ribs. An awful, eerie scream escaped from his muscular build. With his body broken but his guts still alive, he pulled himself away from Stryker and towards Sarah. Up above on the bridge, Red was paying attention. The rope was still tied to the back of his saddle.
Using the cunning that God gave him and Murphy taught him, he grabbed the end of the rope in his jaws. Then he swung his head powerfully and opened his mouth. The rope flew from his jaws, down over the bridge. In the direction of his pal. Stryker saw what was happening and swung eagerly towards them. Yet for once, his grip was weak. His knife missed its target and his body fell forward. Leaving him hanging on desperately with one hand. He watched as the shiny blade flew from his grasp towards the river below. Murphy saw their chance as the rope was swinging by.
‘Grab the rope! Grab it!’ he shouted.
Sarah listened to his call and looked out. She could see the twisted knots on the cotton texture. Her hand could almost touch its surface. She grabbed it fiercely with both limbs and held on. Feeling the extra weight on the rope, Red meanwhile took some steps back. From each movement, the rope that held Sarah was lifted higher. And higher still. Passing the men by, she watched as they fought with all their might. Kicking and punching. Doing whatever it took.
She was now above the warriors. The handrail of the bridge was within her grasp. She heaved her arms over it. Then her body quickly followed. And finally her legs. She crawled onto her back and looked up. A golden eagle flew majestically above her head. Nature was alive. And so was she. Then a horrible scream filled the air. It was the scream of a man facing definite death. Her heart beat rapidly. No! Murphy! No! She cried out tormentingly. She rolled hopelessly to her side and looked down.
And what she saw sent a spindle of fear ravishing through her veins. Stryker was hanging desperately from Murphy’s legs and looking evilly up at him. Determined to bring him down to a liquid grave. It looked like he was victorious in his quest when to the horror of both men’s eyes a tiny, delicate creature ventured forth from Murphy’s hair and transcended rapidly down his face, neck, body and legs until it rampaged along Stryker’s nose and dived furiously into the villain’s mouth. He shook his head wildly and with frantic desperation until a scream and gulp signified that the tiny, little devil had unleashed its powers. Stryker loosened his grip and with a demonic Scorpion in his throat, rocketed down to the foaming, demolishing river below. His shocked carcass flushed by to the lake of lost desires. Then an exhausted but relieved Murphy turned his head around and hauled himself to safety. And a passionate woman’s touch.
As they held each other dearly now, Murphy couldn’t care less about the fee that he’d been paid in gold, which now fed his old pal’s watery pockets. For Sarah, Red and he were still alive in the game of life. So to mark this blessed occasion, Murphy turned to the beautiful lady in his arms and kissed her so passionately that the flirtatious nervousness of the past few days quickly melted into a ravishing lust.