Western Short Story
Jake could still faintly hear the wagon retreating and again he cautioned his younger brother not to move until he was sure it was gone. Yesterday morning, they had been fishing the Verde River on the northern boundary of the ranch, when the man in the wagon pulled up.
He had motioned Jake over and told him, “Your pa’s been hurt. Your ma and them sent me to fetch you boys back to the ranch house.” Worried, Jake and Sam scrambled in and found themselves staring into the stranger’s short barreled shotgun. “You boys get back in that there wagon bed and shut up. Now be quick about it.”
They had been bound hand and foot with twine, placed into burlap feed sacks and covered with a canvas tarp. “You boys make one sound and I’ll fix you good. So you’d best hush up if you know what’s good for you.”
The man drove all day and half the night. When he finally halted, he made a small fire and supper and allowed one boy at a time to get a drink and walk around a bit. “If one of you tries to run off, I’ll do for the other one and then I’ll get you too.” He kept their hands tied and when they were through, he rebound their ankles. They had nothing to eat.
Now, it was late morning of the next day and the man had abandoned them and driven off without a word.
Jake had been working on the twine binding his wrists and had succeeded in getting it looser. He listened for any sign of the wagon, and hearing nothing was satisfied that it was gone. He worked his fingers under the twine once more and tugged as hard as he could. Then rotated his right hand back and forth and pulled at the same time. The twine still held but he could definitely feel more looseness. He paused for a moment and then tried it again. His right hand came free almost immediately.
Catching his breath, he worked the twine off the other wrist and then off his ankles. “Hold on Sam,” he told his younger brother, “I’ll figure out how to get out of this sack and then I’ll get you loose.”
“Use your knife,” mumbled Sam through the burlap.
Of course. He had forgotten about his penknife. He retrieved it from his pocket and cut his way out of the feed sack. Moments later, Sam was standing beside him.
Jake Massaged his sore wrists. “We’re in a real fix Sam. We’re miles from home and I don’t even know where home is. We have no food and what’s worse, we have no water.”
“But why’d that man do that? Why’d he take us out here? We don’t even know him. And what’s wrong with Pa? How’d he get hurt?” Sam stared up at his older, wiser brother
“I don’t think pa’s hurt at all. I read about something like this once in a book about pirates. I think we were kidnapped. The thing is, some folks sometimes steal other folks and hold them for ransom. Ransom’s what they call the money they want to let folks go”
“Then why did he leave us here if he wants money to give us back?” Sam blinked back the tears that were welling up despite his determination not to cry
“I don’t think he ever had any idea of giving us back, money or no money Sam. We saw his face.”
“That’s right. That‘s why he left us here. That way he gets the money and we can’t tell on him.” Jake caught the look on his younger brother’s face and quickly added, “But we’re not to let that man win Sam. We’re going to make it and we’re going to find Pa and ma and then we’re going to see that man in jail! I promise.”
A promise from his older brother was as good as gold to Sam and he instantly turned his thoughts to the problem at hand. “We have no food or water. Let’s see what we do have.”
The boys emptied their pockets and found line, corks, and hooks for fishing, two pen knives, some hard candy, the stub of a pencil, and a piece of flint. It wasn’t much but it would have to do.
Big Jim Crawford read the note in his study and then read it again. The boys had failed to return from their fishing expedition and now he knew why. The hands had spent all night and most of the day scouting the Verde’s banks and had found the boy’s tracks and that of a strange wagon. Again, now he knew why. The wagon tracks had converged with the main road and had been lost in other tracks.
He walked into the great room and stood behind Carrie who was gazing out the widow, deep in thought. He placed his hands on her shoulders and Carrie turned to face him. “What are you going to do?” she asked quietly
“The note says to bring $20,000 in gold and drive down the road to Prescott in the morning. It says to come alone. He’ll be watching to see if I’m followed and then he’ll ride down to meet me. After he gets the money, he’ll tell me where to find the boys. That’s just what I intend to do.”
At her questioning look, Jim assured her, “No Carrie, I don’t intend to let him get away with this. I intend to get our boys back.” She nodded and turned back to the window. Somewhere out there in the vastness of the Arizona Territory were her two sons.
“Will you want me and some of the lads to trail along behind the wagon Colonel?”
Many of the hands had ridden with Colonel Crawford in the early days and when he resigned his commission and started building the S-L connected, they had just naturally drifted in one by one as their own hitches were up. Most of them still addressed Jim as “Colonel” and “sir”. After it became apparent that they preferred it, he allowed it. His natural ability to lead had made his ranch by far the largest and richest in the territory and he was a well-respected man. For all that, he was also a humble and unassuming man.
“No Red, I’m to come alone and that‘ll have to be the way of it. There’ll be time enough after I get the boys to find this man. We still have a gather to make in Bloody Basin if we’re to make the spring drive. See to it.” At the worried look on Red’s face, Jim smiled and said, “It’s just one man or maybe two, Sergeant. I have had that many for breakfast. Don’t worry, I’ve made some plans.”
“Yes sir, Colonel. Have a good trip sir.”
Jake and Sam followed the wagon tracks back, keeping well to one side and always near cover in case the man decided to return, although Jake was sure he would not. As they topped out a rise, Jake stopped for a breather and to scout the area. They had come nearly six miles and they were already thirsty. Jake knew that they must find water but he realized that they had been brought here precisely because there was no water or at least none of which the kidnapper was aware. The area was high desert and the trail was on a mesa. The route they had taken was not too hilly because the horses had taken infrequent blows.
The mesa sloped steeply off to the west and far below Jake spotted a green, twisting line that indicated a stream that might contain water. He looked back at the trail with a longing eye but their need for water would soon be desperate. “We have to make a decision Sam. We have no water and we can’t make it without. Down there is a stream that may or may not have water in it. We didn’t cross any water on the trail or we would have heard the splashing and we would have smelled it too. I’m for going down there. What do you think?”
Pleased that his older brother had asked his opinion about something so important, Sam sat down on a small boulder and gave it all the thought that it deserved. “It looks like we have no choice. We have to go to the stream. But what if Pa comes looking for us? Should we leave a sign?”
Colonel Crawford had taught the boys the ways of the woodsman. They had often pointed the way to their whereabouts on the ranch by breaking a stick and placing it so the point of the vee indicated the way. To the casual observer, it looked like a broken stick. To the knowing eye of their father, it was as good as a map.
Jake broke a branch off a mesquite and had Sam climb on his back so there would be only one set of tracks to worry about. Then he walked backwards across the wagon trail using the mesquite branch to brush out his footprints. It wouldn’t fool a tracker, but someone in a wagon might not notice. Then he broke the branch and pointed it to the west. He had no real hope that their father would happen to come this way but it would be foolish not to try.
It was still morning but it was already hot as the boys started down the long, steep slope. They quickly found a game trail and began to follow it. Animals like the easiest path just like humans and a game trail might also lead to water. It also might not. Jake was worried but he knew this was their only chance. They must find water.
It was almost noon and Jim was beginning to wonder if the note might be a hoax when a man with a bandanna mask and a short-barreled shotgun stepped out into the road near the brow of a hill. “Hold up there Colonel. Keep your hands where I can see them.” The voice was vaguely familiar. “Let’s see the gold.”
Jim picked up a heavy canvas valise and tossed it down. The man watched him for a moment and then turned his attention to the valise. Keeping one eye on Jim, he dragged the heavy bag to the edge of the road and then carefully propped his gun against a rock. He gave him one last wary look and then eagerly opened the valise and stared at the collection of rusty nuts, bolts, and washers inside. When he finally turned his astonished and angry eyes towards Jim, he found himself staring into the black, steady eye of a Winchester rifle.
“You shoot me and you’ll never see those boys again!”
“You mean if I kill you. I have no intention of killing you. If I shoot you, you’ll wish that I had killed you. Let’s not waste time. Tell me where my sons are.”
“Like hell! If you want those boys back you’ll pay me.”
“This here is Dog Who Runs,” said Jim tilting his head toward the side of the road. “He was an Apache scout for me in the old days and he sets real store by those two boys. In less than an hour, you’ll be telling me anything I want to know.”
An Apache with a massive chest wearing nothing but a breechcloth appeared from the brush at the side of the road. He stared intently at the man who was now nervously licking his lips. “Where’d he come from?”
“He came ahead of me. He’s probably been watching you for some time.
“Now see here, you harm me and my partner will do for those boys. If I don’t show up with the money, he’ll kill them sure.”
“We’ll soon know if you have a partner and anything else we want to know.”
Jim reached behind him and dug out a set of shackles and handcuffs, tossing them to the startled kidnapper. “Put these on.”
“I will not!”
Jim casually fired a shot that took the man’s hat off. “I said put them on.”
Jake and Sam worked their way down the slope, pausing now and then to scout the area. Off to the west Jake thought he recognized the massive east flank of the Bradshaw range. The stream below then might be Turkey Creek or maybe the Agua Fria. Both had been known to sometimes run at this time of the year. At least it was a hope. He glanced at his brother and was pleased to note that he was holding up well. They had less than a mile to go but it was very hot and they were both thirsty. They had not had water since yesterday. High above the mountain range thunderclouds were building but they too far off to hope for rain. They pushed on.
Suddenly they were standing on the bank and Jake’s heart sank. The streambed was dry. There was no hint of moisture anywhere, not even dampness when he dug down a foot or two with his bare hands. Fighting back tears, he carefully kept his face turned away from Sam until he regained his composure. “We’ll just wait here for Pa. He’ll find us. I know he will.” He knew that there was no chance they could climb back up to the trail without water. He had failed.
The man’s name was Roy Stiles, a deserter that Jim had imprisoned years before and he told them all they wanted to know.
Dog Who Runs had pulled a branding iron out of the back of the wagon bed and then busily laid a fire and soon had a bed of glowing mesquite coals. Stiles was securely shackled to a Palo Verde nearby. Jim climbed up on the wagon and turned the team around. Stiles looked frantically around and called out to Jim, “Hold up there! You can’t leave me here with him!”
“He likes to work alone. I’ll be back in the morning.”
“Now see here,” Stiles began and Jim flicked the reins and started to move off.
“Wait!” Stiles screamed, his eyes darting from one to the other, “I’ll tell you whatever you want! Just don’t leave!”
Jim and Dog Who Runs placed a still shackled Stiles in the wagon bed and headed for the ranch. Stiles told them what had taken place, helped along with an occasional dark glance from the Indian as he lifted a glowing iron from the fire and studied it. By the time they reached the ranch, Jim’s plans were made. They would head out immediately because the boys had been left bound up in sacks and helpless. The party would consist of Jim, Dog Who Runs, Red, and Stiles. Red would handle the wagon and Stiles and the rest would be mounted. They also took two spare mounts for the boys. Carrie watched them ride off into the night and then, as she had done so many times before as a colonel’s wife, she turned it all over to God and started a stew for the following day’s noon meal. The ranch hands would still need to be fed.
Jake made beds in the soft sand in the stream bank. He pointed out a rocky outcropping just above them and instructed Sam to run up there and hide if there was any sort of trouble during the night. It was a bad place to sleep but it was safer than being in the open and was somewhat defensible.
Their campsite had been used before and they found three discarded whisky bottles. Sam picked up a rock and was ready to throw it at the nearest bottle when Jake stopped him. “Don’t break anything. We don’t know when Pa will show up and we might use those for something.” He took them up to the rocks and carefully stashed them.
They used their flint to start a small fire. They had nothing to cook but the fire was familiar and comforting. Miles to the west, lightning flashed silently as the storm built in the mountains. In the fading light, Jake could see dark sheets of rain, illuminated by the lightning. Somehow, it made him thirstier. At last, he drifted off to a fitful sleep.
Jake dreamed of riding with Sam and his father down a dry creek on the ranch, their horses’ shod hooves clattering and clashing on the rocks as they raced down the dry bed. Gradually he awakened but the clattering and crashing continued and grew louder and louder until it was a continuous, solid roar.
“Sam! Wake up! Run to the rocks! Run!”
He grabbed his brother’s arm and dragged him bodily up the hill until Sam gained his own footing. Behind them, the roar became deafening and a bolt of fear shot through both boys. Sam gained the rocks first and Jake pushed him over the top. Just then, the flash flood swept his legs from under him and for a moment, he thought he might lose his grip. Sam reached over, grabbed his brother’s arms, and pulled as hard as he could. Suddenly a wave lifted him and he pulled himself over the top. Gasping, both boys lay for a moment to catch their breath. Finally, Jake led his brother somewhat higher and flopped down, exhausted. “Well,” said Sam, “We wanted water and now we have it!” At that, they both started giggling. Things were starting to look a little better.
Jake felt around in the dark and located the whiskey bottles. He carefully dipped each into the rushing water and filled them. They each drank and then drank again. They agreed that the warm, muddy water was the best that they had ever tasted. He refilled them and then used their fishing corks as stoppers. They found a couple of relatively comfortable spots and drifted off to sleep to the sound of rushing water.
Sam awoke to the smell of food cooking. He scrambled to his feet and climbed down from the outcropping. Jake had a fire built and was roasting something on a stick.
“A rabbit. I set some snares last night up there on the hill.”
“Where did you get snares?”
“I made some out of fishing line like Dog Who Runs showed me. Have some water. The
rabbit is just about ready.”
Something was nagging at Colonel Crawford. He was relieved to find the slit open sacks and small pieces of the twine that had bound the boys. He was also pleased to note that they had kept the usable part of the twine. They were thinking and they were taking action. However, Sam was sure he had missed something. Something that he had noted with a distracted mind that should had gotten his full attention. Something they had passed on the road.
They were following the boys’ trail when the small prints suddenly milled about and then disappeared. Dog Who Runs examined the area and then pointed at the road, smiling. “They crossed here. Jake carried Sam so they only left one set of footprints. They brushed out the trail like I taught them.”
Jim looked off to the west and down the long slope. Far below was the green snaking of Turkey Creek and areas that glinted in the sun.
“Must have flooded down there Colonel, from that storm last night up in the Bradshaw.”
He instantly regretted his words. If the boys had camped out down there…..
Suddenly Jim stiffened. There! A mesquite branch lying far away from any tree and recently broken, the point of the vee pointing down the long slope. That’s what Jim had seen on the way in and had unconsciously catalogued in the back of his mind. The boys had left him a sign. They were down there!
Red stayed behind to guard Stiles and the wagon while Jim and the Apache started down the slope.
The closer they got to the stream, the more Jim’s heart sank. It was obvious from puddles of water far above the low lying streambed that there had been a major flashflood. He could see bundles of trash caught in tree limbs high above the normal banks. Then they were at the stream itself and the small prints abruptly disappeared, washed out by an enormous flow of water.
Dreading what they would find, Jim and Dog Who Runs separated. Dog Who Runs headed north and Jim turned downstream. Everywhere there was flood debris but no sign of the boys at all.
With a heavy heart, he had nudged his horse uphill toward an outcropping to avoid a stand of cholla when a small noise made him glance farther up the bank. “Hi Pa,” said Jake standing next to a grinning Sam, “Want a piece of rabbit?”