Western Short Story
I have decided to leave the town of Laramie and take a ride into the surrounding countryside and now find myself riding through the rock-strewn, wooded slopes of the hills to the south east of the town. The weather is glorious and I feel myself relaxing under the comforting warmth of the sun and the gentle rolling gait of Anthracite. I could continue on to Cheyenne, but I’m happy to stay a day or two more in Laramie, even though I’ve already stayed in the town longer than I intended.
My plan had been to stop in Laramie for just one night on my way to Cheyenne, but a number of factors have kept me there a little longer. The first is that Cheyenne is in turmoil over the recent lynching of a couple of homesteaders, Ellen Watson and James Averell. The town’s newspapers have been explosive over the matter, trying to outdo each other in support of either the perpetrators or the victims. Having witnessed the lynching, I have stayed out of Cheyenne to see how the matter would resolve itself. Some very important people, people of great influence, were involved in the lynching and I have no intention of exposing myself to their type of law. So, I’ll wait in Laramie until I understand the situation and I’m confident I can deal with it and come out unscathed.
Secondly, I have taken a room in a surprisingly delightful boarding house. Surprising in that such genteel accommodation seems out of place in the rough, industrial town of Laramie. It’s owned by a dutiful woman and her husband. It’s very clean, my bed’s comfortable and the food is excellent. More importantly however, a Mrs Mary Hayes, a friend of the owners, is visiting. Mary Hayes owns the reputable boarding house called Rawlins House in the nearby town of Rawlins, and Ellen Watson, the young woman I saw being lynched, was a former employee. Mary Hayes is a very agreeable woman, who is very inclined to express her disapproval on the matter of the lynching; a point of view in which I am especially interested. As a result, we get on like long lost friends. Nevertheless, I have withheld telling her, or anyone else, of my being a witness to the lynching of Ellen and her husband. This has been an expedient move on my part.
The prosecution for the case has found it exceptionally difficult to find people willing to give evidence against the perpetrators. No-one seems willing to risk the wrath of the cattle barons who carried out the ‘barefaced outrage’ as one newspaper called it. Indeed, a key witness, a Frank Buchanan, disappeared after he came forward and claimed he had seen the lynching taking place. I’m not sure he actually did, because I was there and I never saw him. Nonetheless, he seems to know enough about what happened to have seen something.
In contrast to Buchanan’s mysterious disappearance, the cattle barons accused of the murder, indeed some have boasted about their part in it, have been given bail and now nonchalantly roam the streets of Cheyenne, apparently confident of acquittal. Hence my resolve not to get involved, for the time being at least, in a matter that is not my concern. No doubt the cattle barons are on the lookout for me. Indeed, I spied one of them, Ernest McLean, stamping around Laramie the previous night. Some may claim that might just be a coincidence, but I have learnt coincidence seldom has anything to do with events of this sort.
During yesterday’s evening meal, I declared my intention to the owner and Mrs Hayes to ride into the countryside around Laramie for the day, explaining that I needed a day away from the crowds, the noise and the smell of the town. Mrs Hayes kindly prepared a lunch bag for me and although it is not yet lunch time, I’m tempted to halt and tuck into the delicious food I’m anticipating I’ll find in the package. I’m just about to give way to temptation when I spot a man stumbling among the rocks and white-barked birch ahead of me. His behaviour is that of someone who is both disoriented and desperate. He does not seem to have any ironwork about him, but I draw my Colt anyway. He seems unaware of my presence and stumbles towards me. I wait motionless as he approaches, studying both him and the surrounding slopes around to see if anyone else is about; it might be that he is simply lost, but the manner in which he keeps looking back over his shoulder suggests he’s being pursued.
A look of utter panic contorts his face when he suddenly notices me. He seems to physically jump with fright and then dashes away into the scrub. I wait a moment to make sure he’s not being followed before I vault from Anthracite and rush after him. He’s not difficult to follow, as he’s making no attempt to be quiet. He seems to just want to get away from me as fast as possible. He darts this way and that in apparent confusion and I’m soon upon him. He looks back desperately and, on seeing how close I am, throws himself to the ground and curls up like a baby. As I approach, he holds his arms up to fend off my attack.
I stand over him. Silent terror radiates from him.
“Is someone following you?”
He stares at me in bewilderment for a moment and then blurts out, “Yes, … yes, Henderson. George Henderson.”
I rotate quickly, scanning the steep valley sides, gun at the ready, but see no-one.
“You seem to have lost him.”
He looks around urgently and relaxes a little. “Thank the Lord,” he murmurs.
“What’ve you done to make this Henderson chase you?”
“He tried to kill me,” the man answers almost incoherently. “Shot my horse from under me. He’s a good shot, but I must have been too far away, even for him.”
“Why’s he want you dead?”
He looks at me as though that was the dumbest question he’s ever heard. “He's Clay’s man. A hired gun.”
That doesn’t answer my question. “Who’s Clay?”
“John Clay. He’s a head honcho in the cattlemen’s association. One of the biggest landowners in the territory.”
“I saw what they did at Sweetwater.”
The man nods his head.
“There was a John at the lynching,” I muse.
“That was John Durbin. John Clay wouldn’t get involved in such a sordid murder.”
“But his man would?”
“He’ll do anything for money. And now he wants me dead.”
At last the penny drops.
“You’re Frank Buchanan.”
He just stares at me.
“You’re the other witness to the lynching.”
He misses my confession, instead he seems to push himself further into the ground.
“You here to kill me as well?”
I holster my Colt and offer him my hand. He hesitates, then grasps it and I haul him to his feet. While he dusts himself down, I carefully scan our surroundings, but see no-one.
“What happened to your guns?” I ask, noting his empty holsters.
“Lost them when I was thrown from my horse.”
“You should invest in some hammer loops,” I suggest dryly.
He looks at me dumbly.
It’s too late now, anyway, I think.
“So,” I say, “are you just going to scramble around in this wilderness until this Henderson finds you?”
“No, I'm heading for Healy’s place,” he points behind me.
It’s my turn to look at him dumbly.
He studies my face. Seems to relax a little more.
“I suppose if you were going to kill me you would have done it already.”
“I don’t shoot unarmed men.”
He frowns. “That’s a relief. I doubt Henderson will be as honourable.” He points again. “Healy’s place is yonder, over the next ridge.”
“Want a ride?” I ask, as I turn to walk back to Anthracite.
“Sure, why not.”
I have him ride in the saddle. I sit behind him. I have learnt the hard way that any act of kindness can and will be turned against you, so I ride pillion. That way he does not have access to my Colts and I can keep an eye on him.
Buchanan rides in silence. The fact that he is more than a little anxious is obvious by the tension in his back and the way he keeps looking around. I suspect he does not appreciate having me sat behind him.
Despite his anxious demeanour, he rides Anthracite with care and I’m impressed with his horsemanship over the rough terrain. He’s a thoughtful rider, and I can see that Anthracite appreciates the way he is being treated by the strange man on his back.
The only comment Buchanan makes during the entire journey is to complain that I ride with my stirrup leathers too short. But then he’s a cowboy used to spending whole days in the saddle. His saddle is his easy chair, sometimes even his bed. Comfort is his main concern. In contrast, as a gunslinger, I often need to ride at speed, and often at very short notice. I don’t bother to explain; his comment is more a grumble to himself than anything requiring a response.
Another advantage of me being pillion is that I’m able to keep checking behind us to see if we’re being followed. I have not seen anyone by the time we reach a remote log cabin that turns out to be our destination.
Our final approach to the cabin is tortuous. Buchanan circles it cautiously before we are even in sight of it. He gets off Anthracite a number of times to check tracks and other signs he has spotted. It becomes apparent to me that he’s making sure that whoever tried to kill him is not already in or near the cabin. I watch curiously, but do not help; tracking is not one of my strengths. Eventually, we approach the cabin and enter.
Tex Healy, Buchanan explains briefly, is a hermit trapper who does not like crowds. Fortunately, for him, and probably for us, he’s not in. That being the case, Buchanan is of the opinion that he’s likely to be away for a while collecting pelts.
Being so remote, I’d expected the cabin to be as Spartan as a monk's cell. However, it’s anything but Spartan. Every wall is covered with pelts, furs and traps of all shapes and sizes. The floor is spread with the skins of bears, wolves, elk and a number of other types of animal, as are the two chairs; one positioned at a small table and the other by the fireplace. A bed is set against the wall near the fire. It too is smothered in furs. Beside it is a small chest of drawers, the surface of which is polished to a sparkle and on top of which is a meticulously arranged collection of a dozen or so photographs – portraits.
Intrigued I go over to look at them.
“Don’t touch them!” Buchanan orders. “Tex doesn’t like people touching his pictures.”
“I won’t,” I reply. “Do you know who they’re of?”
That was not as productive a way to get Buchanan talking as I'd hoped.
Buchanan remains as jumpy as a jack rabbit, but busies himself with making coffee and heating some beans for the two of us. His only comment is to complain that my watching him is making him nervous. So, I stare out of the window instead. I have been looking for a few minutes when I see the flick of a horse ear and before me, in the growing gloom where I had seen nothing previously, a man astride a horse materialises before my eyes.
“We’ve got a visitor,” I announce.
Buchanan drops the pot of beans in shock. It hits the floor with a bang.
Damn, I think. I was looking forward to those. Fortunately, very few spill from the pot.
Buchanan rushes to where I’m standing.
I don’t think the stranger can see into the darkness of the cabin, so I allow Buchanan to look outside.
“Where?” he demands.
“He’s tucked back into the scrub under that large pine tree.”
Buchanan cannot make him out, so I give a few more directions.
“It’s him! It’s George. The son of a bitch! He's here to kill me. I wish I had my rifle with me. I'd put a bullet right through his skull.”
“At that range and in this gloom, I doubt it.”
“I’d give it my damnedest shot,” Buchanan counters.
“I'll get rid of him.”
“I’ll hide out back in case you don’t succeed," he says urgently.
“If you wish.”
I stride to the door, swing it open and step out.
“You’re not Tex,” the visitor calls out.
“You’re not Buchanan either.”
“Buchanan in there with you?”
“You know any other words?”
“Guess that makes two.”
“You know your math, Mister Henderson.”
That gives him pause for thought. No gunman appreciates a potential adversary knowing more about him than he does about his opponent. I know his name. He has no idea who I am.
“You here for any particular reason?” I ask into his uncertain pause.
“I'm looking for a man, goes by the name of Frank Buchanan. I'm deputy ...”
“Buchanan?” I interrupt. “He's the missing witness to the lynching of that young couple.”
“He is. A key witness, yes. And I've been deputised to find him. To take him back to court. To give evidence at the trial.”
“Sounds pretty official. “
“Yep, it’s all official.”
“Then why’re you skulking in the undergrowth like someone not really wanting to be seen?”
I notice his hand take more control of his rifle. I lift one of my Colts from its holster and hold it across my belly. I can feel its deadly chill cooling my skin through my shirt.
“You want to come out from that scrub so we can talk civilly and you can show me your star or whatever official papers you might have?”
“I’m happy where I am."
“Well, I'm not.” I draw back the hammer. It clicks into place with that ominous metallic sound that can send a shiver down a man’s spine. “So, your choices are to come out of the scrub or go back to where you came from.”
It’s a long shot. Even if I hit him, he’ll probably live, but it would hurt like the devil. He seems to consider the alternatives for a moment and then swings his horse around and rides his horse slowly down the trail.
I watch him go until he’s out of sight and I’m more or less convinced he’s not doubled back. Then I return to the cabin. Of course, Buchanan’s not inside, but I do not go out to find him. I’ll leave him to fester in his cowardice for a while and then let him know that Henderson has left. He’ll probably come into the cabin anyway once he realises I’m back inside. But he does not. In the end, when the beans, gathered from the floor, are reheated, and a fresh pot of coffee has brewed, I go out to find him, but he’s nowhere to be found. I conclude that he did not have faith that I’d drive Henderson off and he’s skedaddled. I stare into the darkness. It’s too late to follow him now. I’m not a good tracker at the best of times and would easily lose his trail in this light. More importantly there’s a hot meal and excellent coffee waiting for me in the cabin, and Buchanan and I cannot be described as close friends. So, I return to the cabin and settle down to the meal.
I rise early the next morning, finish the cold beans and treat myself to a hot mug of Tex’s excellent coffee. After clearing away the dishes and dropping coins on the table by way of payment, I leave the cabin and saddle Anthracite. I lead him round the back of the cabin and hunt for Buchanan’s trail. It’s easy to find, even for me. For someone in fear of his life, he sure is making it easy to find him. But what is more intriguing is that his trail is quickly joined by another, this time in the form of shod horse prints. They are very fresh. In my limited experience I’d say they were made this morning. Henderson was obviously up earlier than me and has been nosing around.
Sound can travel quite a distance in these rocky valleys and before long I hear voices echoing around the valley.
“Now listen, George,” I hear a man call. “I promise to leave the territory. I will. Soon as I can get a horse.”
“You had your chance, Buchanan,” a voice calls back.
From the way they’re hollering at each other, they must be some distance apart.
“Please, George. You know this isn’t justice.”
“That’s not my problem, Buchanan. You should’ve taken the money and quit.”
Their voices bounce against the rocky slopes.
“I can see that now, but I thought Ellen and James would get justice, some sort of justice. But I see that’s unlikely and I can see you’re right, I should have taken the money. And I will. I’ll take it and quit, just like Bothwell asked. I’m sure the offer still stands.”
“I doubt it very much.”
“You could ask, George. I’ll go back to the cabin and wait, while you go and ask.”
“No. The offer doesn’t stand anymore. They gave the money to me instead, to see you off.”
“And you have, George, you have. They’ll never see me again.”
I had expected the two of them to come into view by now, but they haven’t.
“How can I be sure you won’t just reappear?”
“Oh, I can assure you of that, George. I understand the seriousness of their position now. You’ve convinced me of that, George. They’ll never see me again. You’ll never see me again.”
“That’s not what they meant.”
I hear the threat in Henderson's voice. I need to find them quickly if I’m going to save Buchanan, but their voices are echoing so much I’m not even sure I’m heading in the right direction.
“They paid me to see you off permanently, Buchanan. And I always finish the job.”
“No! Wait, George, let’s ...”
The echo of the rifle shot reverberates around the rocky valley. It is only a single shot, but I know it’s enough. The silence that settles over the valley seems to confirm my belief. Even the birds fall silent. I urge Anthracite on and he complies as best he can, given the difficult terrain.
As soon as I see the body, I draw Anthracite to a halt. I vault from him and carefully examine the surrounding slopes. There’s no sign of Buchanan’s assassin. I scramble quickly to Buchanan’s side. He’s already dead.
I bury him where he fell.
It’s a lonesome place and I’m not sure it’s what he would have wanted as his final resting place, but he’s dead, so has no choice in the matter.
Then I head back to Laramie. My trip into the countryside for peace and quiet has been ruined.
It’s late when I arrive back at the boarding house. Mrs Hayes must have been keeping an eye out for me, because as soon as I enter, she approaches with an urgent stride.
“Mr Cotton, you’re okay, not hurt I mean?”
I frown at her. “Should I be?” I quip with her.
“Why, no, of course you shouldn’t. It’s just that Ernie McLean was here, not long ago, asking after you.” She looks around as if checking no one is listening. “He’s a nasty piece of work that man. Likes to move in circles way above his station. Ambitious. If he’s looking for you, it’s probably not a good thing. You need to look out for yourself.”
“Thank you, Mrs Hayes, I will. “
“Oh, and that vile man, George Henderson was with him.”
I frown. “Now that’s more concerning. That man’s a cold-blooded murderer.”
“You’ve heard the stories, then.”
I look at her, wonder if I should confide in her, but confiding is not my style. In my experience when you confide in a person one of two things happen, either the story gets around like a wild fire and you end up with a gun pointing in your direction or your confidant get killed for keeping your confidence. I decide not to tell her about seeing Henderson murder Frank Buchanan.
“Yes, Mrs Hayes, I have heard the stories. Thank you for the warning.”
As I walk up the stairs to my room, I feel a prickle creep down my spine. I drop my hands to my Colts, but keep walking. The sensation of a rifle aiming at my back is so strong I can almost believe it’s happening. As I turn the corner on the landing, I cast my gaze down the stairs. There’s no-one there, of course, but my mind’s made up.
I go to my room, leave the light off, cross to the window and study the shadowy street below me.
It takes a little patience, but eventually I see the movement in the shadows I’m looking for. It’s on the opposite side of the street. I go back to the door, switch on the light and being careful not to offer myself as a target draw the curtains closed. Then I swap my riding boots for a pair of soft moccasins. I switch off the light and leave my room. At the bottom of the stairs, I don’t continue into the lobby and to the main entrance, instead I turn to go down a corridor leading to the kitchen.
The cook is hard at work preparing the evening meal. She looks daggers at me for invading her domain.
“Sorry, for the intrusion, ma’am,” I tip my hat at her. “I’m trying to avoid getting killed. My that smells good.” I give her my most charming smile. “I'm sure looking forward to tonight’s meal.” I stop and look into the huge pot she’s stirring. She steps aside a little to allow me a better look. “Hmm-huh, that loooks delicious. Any chance of double helpings tonight?”
She gives me a crafty grin. “I’ll see what I can do.”
I give her a lop-sided smile. “It’d make my day,” I say as I make for the back door.
I slink along the back of the building and then down the side, keeping to the shadows. My behaviour feels alien. I’m not prone to skulking around in the shadows. I'm a gunman not an assassin. My modus operandi is to face danger, not to hide in the shadows like a coward. But I’ve seen Henderson at work. He’s an assassin; an executioner of the lowest form. I've seen him kill an unarmed man at a distance, not even confronting his victim, avoiding any danger to himself.
I use a gaggle of drunken cowboys to screen me as I scurry across the street and duck into the shadows again. I stride down the side alley, round the back of the building and check down the other side alley. And there he is, sitting on a small box behind the protection of some large barrels. His back is to me, his attention on the boarding house. His hands rest on his rifle lying across his lap. I creep silently down the sandy alley, my Colt at the ready. He does not turn to check the alley, not once. He nearly leaps out of his skin when he hears that deadly metallic clicking of me drawing the hammer back right beside his ear. As he turns and leaps to his feet, I grab his rifle, wrench it from his grasp and toss it behind me. I step back out of his reach and stand in front of him, feet planted on the ground, an immovable object.
“You waiting for me?”
“How …?” he exclaims.
His eyes flick from side to side, then to my gun levelled at his stomach. There’s no escape.
We stand staring at each other for a moment. He’s unarmed. The idea of killing an unarmed man rankles me. I’ve never done it before. I even consider giving him his rifle. Then I recall Buchanan and his cold-blooded murder. I raise my Colt and point it at Henderson’s forehead. He flinches at my movement, his eyes plead for second and then my bullet explodes from my barrel. Quick and clean. No messing about. No having a conversation justifying my actions. No playing with my victim like a cat with a mouse. I holster my pistol, step over the body and stride back to the boarding house. I go straight to the dining room, sit and order a bourbon. The smoky vapours seem to burn my nostrils. I sit waiting for my food, knowing it will taste delicious. It did before. But when it comes, I get no pleasure from it. It tastes bland and unsatisfying. I decide I’ll move on in the morning.