Western Short Story
Tuck Turner sat his saddle with each breath bouncing through him for long minutes at a stretch, feeling the pain go deeper, hoping it would go away, looking for someone to help him as he carried a rifle slug someplace in his body, the pain like fire in a pit, deep down, not known where or why. One of the rustlers had hit him broadside as he protected his end on the herd, now fully on the move, and his horse wandering into strange areas off the trail he’d been over a dozen times, but never off it for any distance, not able to sight a known structure, some place where he might find help, a kind hand, a knowledgeable hand, to extract the bullet, give him a chance for life, and a chance to seek the whole of the rustling pack, put them at mercy and demand.
Tuck did not know well this part of Idaho, but finally realized he was more lost than his mount was, on a slow move every which way. They came upon ridges and riffs he had never seen, not that he knew much difference between one and the other, just depending on his guideless mount to get him someplace for help.
And he had not seen the shooter’s face, not a single glimpse of it, but he knew his horse, could pick him out of a hundred in a corral, an American Paint Horse with pinto markings like a map leading him to that animal, and that map of sorts stayed in place in his mind; it was going to be the lone connection with the shooter, the rustler, and the rest of the gang, them now probably safely tucked away from John Law or the other riders in his same entourage.
All he needed now was some help and his eyes floated in the darkness, hoping for one man to be up early in the day, or going to sleep late at night, the darkness was so encompassing, so complete a part of the night, the moon elsewhere, dawn at odds with him and his mount, hope loose and scattered like wind-blown leaves at leap and loss.
At that particular moment, when hope appeared too little and too late, the pain jumping again, he saw the speck of light flicker once or twice in the blackness and then saw it waver like a candle being lit, a match struck for reason. He urged his mount to ride that way, hoping the horse could see the flickers also, feeling the mount heading in that direction.
Tuck didn’t know until morning, when he woke up in a cabin, that his horse brought him to that light unconscious in the saddle, about to fall out of it before a man whisked him off and taken him inside, found the cause of pain, extracted the slug in his side, waited for him to wake the next day and tell his side of his apparent story in hand.
Mountain man Cat Falue was as comfortable as an old uncle suddenly on the scene, knowing all the details at a glance, good at quick doctoring of bullet slugs, experienced in that exercise as though he was degreed in it, knew death or the danger of death when it was so close you could smell it without a helping wind, a gust coming down a tight valley or across a small gorge against an edge of the mountain.
And Cat Falue knew his way around, through, and over bloody matters and the causes for such straits; a man in trouble one or more ways of showing his pain, by voice, by hand-clutch at the grievous spot, or just plain ache caught up in his eyes and in his throat at the very same time; gargle, gurgle and gaze, they melded in one sort of unspoken release of a man seeking relief.
The slug came out via good hands, steady as necessary, and good, experienced sense of the task at hand, and ease sat on his face as he slipped off to sleep, his comfort and safety adjusted for the time being.
He did not know how long he slept, but it was long hours into the second day before he woke, before he could say thank for the skilled caretaking and the subsequent small meal to rouse him to lengthy talk.
“I am grateful for your saving this poor soul, for pulling me through a tough time in my life, for allowing me to recover here within your resources. My name is Tuck Turner and I have no knowledge of how I cam here for help, but my horse led the way. To whom am I speaking, sir?”
“You are the talkingest critter I’ve ever met, sir, and your horse is a good one, so you best be quiet and just plain shut your mouth and get some more sleep. You have need of it. And I have little time or patience for palaver of this sort. I did, am doing, what is damned well needed at the moment, but you can tell me who shot you so I can fend him off if he comes near for a second try after all my ministrations. I would not take to that too kindly, figuring my efforts would not be paid off one way or another.”
“I was tackling with rustlers trying to steal the herd I was watching with others for Barnabus Bisbee the rancher.”
Cat Falue replied, “Sir, you are a most honorable patient and if they come to get you, which I seriously doubt, they will catch much of my smoke by this rifle I am damned good with.”
He held the rifle with one hand over his head, and then at a level at the window as if he was aiming at a forceful entry. “Bang!” he said, as if enforcing his own demands, ready to save Tuck Turner from any further harm.
Tuck replied, “They know I got away from them as they got away with the herd, and they might come looking for me as a group or send a single rider to take my measure, assuming they have made off with all the cattle and surely killed all the hands mounting the herd control. They may be a local group, but will want to cover all traces of their activities.”
He nodded and added, “That could lead right here to your door, sir. They’d remember my horse and me, and if we are the lone escapees, they’ll come ahunting, I am sure.”
“Hell, son,” Falue retorted, “I’ve stood against a whole battalion at least once in my life and can’t swear it won’t happen again, you can count on that.”
He coughed once as if to show his age, and added, “They’ll come this way even if they have beans for brains, and won’t soon forget me. I am ready for the world. I have been ready since the great war and they’ll find that out. They’ll be talking about Cat Falue all over the West before they ever get their boots drawed back on in place or leave them loose in a hurry. I ain’t nothing to play games with. But can only play up to their level, which’ll be plain enough, you can see if need be.” He smacked of vigilance, preparedness, a kind of silent armory in place that I’d have trouble beginning to imagine in the lowest and least way, never mind over the top of all thought and planning.
Tuck’s wounds healed enough for him to float around the cabin where, under instruction and a sense of foreboding, he put his hands on no appurtenance or unfamiliar protrusion, lest he aid the enemy.
Come they did, come in waves, a huge host of riders ready to put down this singular stronghold where the lone witness against their theft of a whole herd of cows was holding out, The had no idea what was waiting on them, what had been waiting since the big war, what had been put in place by hundreds of hours of work over the long years since combat by a lone man vigilant to the end of life.
Cat Falue flipped the first trigger on a hand-fashioned implement, and the barbed wire fence, over 200 yards long, leaped up in their faces, onto their hands and arms and across their chests until they could force it down in place, escape from the digging barbs, from the wiry appurtenance.
Then, once more advancing like a wave, they met cannon shot in their very midst, a host of shells exploding with eternally bombastic reverberations full of death and incompatibility, until they fell into a solid mess of old humanity, the old man, the old Civil War veteran, pulling all the strings, never to be captured again.
Tuck Turner held secret his visions and knowledge of the events of that day, which some people merely called The Big Clash, nobody else knowing the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us, Hannah.