Western Short Story
Clamping his hat to his head with one hand, Rideau swiveled in the saddle and looked back over his shoulder. He detected no sign of the men pursuing him in the barren stretch of sand glistening in the sun between here and the conic hills and irregular knobs on the horizon.
He nudged the horse on with his knees, mounted a rise and started down toward a brush-choked ravine. He heard water now, liquid music as it rushed over rocks and swelled the air with its sweet smell. The horse rolled its eyes and whinnied. Rideau was inclined to shout himself.
Cowbirds rose up in noisy protest as the rider broke through plum, elm and small cottonwoods snarled with grape and other vines.
A bar of sandstone raised from the muddy shore jutted out into the narrow creek, breaking its tumultuous course down between red-stone cliffs above so that it fell in a short but violent cataract before continuing its way around a bend screened by more brush.
Rideau slid from the saddle, cast aside his salt-encrusted hat and went out on rubbery legs along the bar. Then, stretching full length upon the cool surface of the rock, he plunged his face into the water. Pulling back from its cold sting, he slung water from his thick brown hair and laughed aloud as the horse, snorting and blowing, wallowed through the mud to seek its own succor.
Sitting on the rock, knees encircled by his arms, Rideau pleasured himself watching the horse. A gambler, he placed great store by fortune and was pleased his appeared to be holding. The birds settled back and their garrulous chatter relaxed him. The sun filtered through a screen of leaves overhead was less tormenting. His aching muscles uncoiled and he was overcome with a drowsy sense of well being as he sat beside the cool, refreshing waters.
As he sank into this lethargic state, the snort of another horse and the jangle of spurs aroused him. Before his hand reached the gun in his holster he knew it was too late.
“Leave it,” the raspy voice of Callaghan told him.
Rideau glanced up at the burly figure of the rancher. They were near enough that he heard the Spencer cocked even as the rifle was raised and pointed at his breast. The others came out of the brush behind their leader, leveling their own guns.
Raising both hands above his head, Rideau wondered why the birds hadn’t alerted him, then realized the men must already have been hidden here when he arrived. Slowly, he got to his feet.
“Knowed the horse would bring you here,” Callaghan said, grinning.
Unlike him, the horse, borrowed in haste from the nearest hitching rail, was familiar with this country and, without his knowing, had made way for the only available water for miles around.
“What do you want with me?” Rideau asked.
“You know damned well.”
“Told you I wasn’t with them.”
“You came into town together.”
“I only met them on the trail.”
“Don’t lie to me, boy. You was the one carryin’ the money. The money y’all got for my horses. Now get yourself over here,” Callaghan ordered, gesturing with the rifle.
“I told you, I won that money from them fair-and-square,” Rideau said, approaching slowly. “How was I to know they was horse thieves?”
“Hate liars almost as much as I do thieves,” Callaghan said. He took Rideau’s pistol and stuck it in his belt. “Truss him up, boys.”
Two of the cowhands moved up, seized Rideau and bound his hands behind his back.
“What’re you gonna do to me?”
“Same as we done to them.”
“You gotta believe me,” Rideau said. “I had nothing to do with stealing your horses.” He looked around the circle of men, finding no sympathy in their cold eyes.
“Why’d you run then?” Callaghan asked.
“You didn’t seem inclined to listen to reason.”
Callaghan laughed. “I didn’t need to hear no lies.”
“Didn’t want to hear the truth either.”
A whip-poor-will called off in the brush. Callaghan glanced at the lowering sun. Shadow crept down the cliffs. A chorus of frogs shrilled along the creek and swarms of gnats were becoming bothersome. “Make camp,” Callaghan ordered, slapping at the gnats. “And build a fire quick. Maybe the smoke will keep off these damned bugs.”
“What about him?” one of the men asked.
“We’ll tend to him in the morning,” Callaghan said. “Joe. Find some good grass for the horses and tether them, else we’ll be chasin’ them all over come daybreak.” Then he strode off into the brush.
Bound hand and foot, Rideau crouched with his back against a tree, cramped and chilled in the damp night, watching Callaghan and his men as they lounged around a smoky fire, passing a jug the rancher had brought back with him from wherever their horses were tethered. It would be a long night but he was in no hurry for it to end.
Rideau was no coward, nor was he a fool. When they’d taken the others and he’d seen they wouldn’t listen to pleas of innocence he’d fled, hoping to elude them. A gambler always sought the best odds.
Too lazy for ordinary work, Rideau had early learned skill at cards offered an easier means of earning a living. True, it was a precarious living, turn of the pasteboards determining how well he ate; yet it was no less precarious than that of the farmers and cowhands against whom he played.
But he was not a thief, had never resorted to shaving or other forms of cheating to put the odds in his favor. There was little chance of convincing these men of that, though. They had already judged him guilty and determined his fate.
It was looking like he had played his last hand.
One of the men, an older fellow called Charley, had brought beans and fed him earlier. “You tellin’ the truth? You wasn’t one of them?” he’d asked, holding the cup so Rideau could sip coffee.
“I swear it. I never even saw them before. Why won’t Callaghan believe me?”
“He’s a good man, but he haint a patient one.”
“If he had all the facts, why didn’t we get a trial?”
“Told you he’s short on patience. Circuit judge won’t be through for another month. Haint much law out here. We gotta do what we can.”
“Even if it means hanging the wrong man?”
“Happens,” the old man said with a shrug.
“No, but it happens. Tell you what, though. I don’t believe you’re no rustler.”
“Nah. Your hands is too soft and pretty for you to be a wrangler. I’d say toughest thing you ever handle is a deck of cards.”
“Then you believe me? You’ll help me?”
Charley winked. “I don’t know if it’ll do any good. But I’ll try.”
That had buoyed him for a time but as the evening lengthened Rideau’s optimism sank. Callaghan stayed by the fire, giving him only an occasional glance. It wasn’t until the others were spreading their bedrolls that the rancher came over and squatted down beside him. “Charley tells me you’re a gambler,” he said.
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
“Well, I still don’t believe it but I’m gonna give you a chance to prove it.”
“Come mornin’, I’ll give you the choice of two cards. One will be marked ‘live’ and the other ‘die.’ Your luck will decide your fate, gambler.”
Rideau swallowed hard. “And you’ll abide by it?”
Callaghan slapped his knee and stood up. “Yup.”
Sleep didn’t come easy that night but weariness and hope eventually combined to allow Rideau a restless slumber. It was near dawn when Charley nudged him awake.
“He’s trickin’ you, boy,” the old man whispered.
“Keep your voice down,” Charley said with a finger to his lips. “He’s trickin’ you and it haint right. I wasn’t gonna say anything, but I couldn’t sleep thinkin’ on it. Both of them cards is gonna be marked ‘die.’ I don’t know what else I can do, but I had to tell you.” Then he was gone.
“Make your pick,” Callaghan said, “We haint got all day.
Rideau stared from one to the other of the cards laid face down on a rock by the water’s edge, knowing which ever he picked up he was doomed. The men formed a half circle behind him, one of them already holding a coiled rope with a noose at its end. The water glistened in the sunlight as he knelt. Rubbing his unloosed wrists, Rideau listened to the creek’s music knowing it might be the last sound of life he would hear. Slowly an idea formed in his mind, like water wearing away obstinate rock. He glanced up at the men. They were stern but, like Charley, most of them were simple and fair. He was counting on that.
Taking a deep breath, Rideau plucked up a card, glanced at it and flung it into the rushing stream. Caught up in the current, the card swirled out of sight around the bend.
“Hey! What the hell you doin’?” Callaghan bellowed, aiming a kick at him.
Rideau rolled away from the kick and came up on his knees. “That card was mine and it said ‘life,’” he spat out, glaring up at his persecutor.
“Should I get it, Mr. Callaghan?” one of the men asked.
“What’re you talkin’ about? You know the crick goes underground over yonder. You’ll never get it. Besides, it don’t matter.” He started for his pistol.
Before he reached it, Charley had the muzzle of his own pressed against Callaghan’s cheek. “Forget it,” he said. “I might be out of a job, but I gotta do this. Seems like the boy beat you. If he says the one he threw in the crick said ‘live’ then the other must read ‘die.’ Right?”
“Right. We all know you to be a man of your word. If the kid beat you, then you gotta let him go.”
Callaghan looked from Charley to Rideau and then around the circle of men watching. “All right,” he said, finally, nodding his head. “You win, gambler. Get on out of here. But don’t ever let me catch you in my territory again.”
Rideau got up and moved through the ring of men. “I’ll leave the horse at the next town I come to,” he said.
“You do that,” Callaghan told him.
“Reckon I’d best go with him,” Charley said
“Yeah,” Callaghan said. “I guess neither of us can abide a man what cheats.”