Western Short Story
It seems my luck is changing. With almost two months—long, cold, hard months—having passed since I last slept in a bed, I stumbled across a Harris Ranch line shack. The Harris Ranch was famous, almost legendary, for their line shacks. They always seemed to be stocked with canned goods, plenty of fresh water, firewood and even blankets. They were never locked, and it seemed that even the outlaws respected the Harris Ranch rules, which were known throughout the Montana Territory—eat what you need, replace the water and firewood you use, hang the blankets to air out (outside in the summer, inside in the winter) and leave the place clean.
And lucky me, that’s how I found it. The last man—or men—who visited even left a little kindling, so starting a fire was easy. The beans are beginning to boil, so I add in some chopped mountain lion. Some will tell you they don’t care for mountain lion, but I’m partial to it and was able to take one a couple of days ago. It promises to be quite a stew. But the best part of all is the coffee. I’d been out for at least two weeks, and I was happy like a little kid at Christmas to find coffee on one of the shelves. A man can do without a lot of things, but coffee should not be one of them, especially in the middle of a Montana Territory winter. Over the years, I’ve stayed at some of the finest hotels from Helena to San Francisco, but I have never enjoyed a night’s lodging as much as I’m starting to enjoy this one.
No sooner have I dished myself up a bowl of stew, poured a hot cup of coffee, laughing at myself for being momentarily upset there wasn’t any sugar, and just started to sit down to a great midday meal—than I hear the shots, lots of them.
I take a moment and strap on my 1851 Colt Navy Revolver, checking to be sure it’s loaded, and then grab my Sharps Carbine. By the time I get to the window, I can hear the pounding of horses running full out, along with rifle and pistol shots. As I look through the gun loop, I see two white men, racing ahead of about seven or eight Indians. Their horses seem spent, and I can hear the first man yelling to open the door. Figuring there is enough distance between the two men and the Indians that I can open the door, let them in and close it up before being shot, I open it up. The men surprise me, and save a bit of time, by ducking their heads and riding their horses straight into the line shack. I slam the door behind them, bolt it and go back to my gun loop.
A couple of well-placed shots with the Colt turn those Indians right around, one without his horse and one horse without his Indian. The Indians quickly settle in behind some rocks and trees, horses out of sight and just on the edge of what they think is effective rifle range. My guess is that these particular Indians haven’t yet seen what a “Beecher’s Bible” Sharps Carbine can do, but I aim to show them.
I turn around and see the first man through the door is off his horse, but the second man has his wrists tied together and then to his saddle, so he isn’t going anywhere until he’s turned loose.
“Not sure what’s happening here, and it’s none of my business, but I’m going to need one of you to cover that second window, preferably someone who’s not tied up. There’s no back door and no side windows, so these two front windows are it, but we’ll need both covered in case they charge.”
The first man in, without turning toward me, says, “Let me get him down off this horse, and I’ll take the other window.”
“You know who’s out there?”
The same man answers. “We ran into some Crow about three miles from here. Caught ’em by surprise, so we were able to ride away, but our horses were already tired when it started and the Crow were gaining. Didn’t have a mile left before they’d have caught us when I saw the smoke from this shack, so we headed here. There’s eight of ’em.”
Listening, but watching out the gun loop, I respond, “Seven.”
The second man, wrists still bound, takes a seat at the table, while the first man takes a rifle from his scabbard, walks up to the second window, opens the small shutter and takes a look out of the gun loop. He seems to be splitting his time between watching the man at the table, who’s yet to say a word, and the Crow.
After a couple of minutes, I introduce myself. “My name’s Dusty Stevens. I mostly ride here in Montana.”
The man at the window nods but doesn’t answer. The man at the table starts to stand, until he’s ordered to sit back down, but he does introduce himself as Matthew, “Matt,” Bridges.
“Man at the window’s not real talkative. I’ve been his prisoner since yesterday morning, and I still don’t know his name. Gave up asking. Heck, gave up talking. Don’t know anything about him, except he’s a bounty hunter. He’s got to be tired. Pretty sure he didn’t close his eyes last night. Maybe he figured I could untie myself from the tree he tied me to and ride away. Mighta tried I guess, but every time I looked at him, he looked back, and he seems pretty good with knots. Don’t know how long he’ll be any good at that window though.”
I turn away from Matt. “That true, mister? You tired?”
Still looking out the gun loop, he answers, “I’ll be fine. You watch your window and your business.”
“You’re mighty unfriendly, mister, especially for a man whose hair would be hanging from a Crow horse ’bout now if I hadn’t opened that door. Don’t make me regret doing it.”
No answer from the man at the window, but I do hear a small laugh from Matt. That’s about it for conversation for almost an hour. I’ve never had a problem with quiet, so I’m in no hurry to start talking, which means the only noise is the occasional shot from the Crow, who, unless they get real lucky, don’t present an immediate problem.
Taking stock of our situation, I note that this line shack, besides being stocked for comfort, is built for defense. The back wall is built into the hillside, and the roof has at least two feet of fire-preventing sod, in addition to the winter snow. Neither of the sides has a window, and the front door and windows are so thick they could probably even stop a shot from my Sharps, which not much can. Both windows have gun loops, easily covered with shutters, and the front door is solid and thick, tough to burn. The area out front has been cleared of all trees and most of the rocks for at least fifty yards out, so it’s going to be hard—but not impossible—to sneak up on us.
We’ve got plenty of food and water, enough for at least three or four days, at least for the three of us. I’m not sure what we’ll be feeding the horses, and we’ll have to be careful about how much water we let them drink, but I think we’ll be OK.
The afternoon is starting to turn from chilly to cold and from light to dark. I turn to Matt and ask him to throw some more wood on the fire. The bounty hunter turns to look at both of us, and Matt stops where he stands.
I look at the bounty hunter. “Mister, you can get it yourself, or let him do it, but I’m not leaving this window, and I’m not freezing to death. There’s three of us here, and between these windows, heat, food and sleep, it’s going to take all three of us if we plan on making it outta here—and I do.”
The bounty hunter looks at Matt and nods, so Matt moves to get the wood. The bounty hunter moves back a bit from the window, so he can watch Matt and the window. Once Matt’s done with the fire and seated again at the table, he moves back closer to the window.
The Crow keep firing, but now I’m starting to see a little movement. Since we couldn’t see anything to shoot at, until now, and neither of us want to waste ammunition, we haven’t fired back since they first took cover. I’m not sure what they make of that, but they have to be surprised. It seems they may want to try something before dark, though, and they still have the fallen Crow out front—and Indians hate to leave their dead.
They’ve been back in the trees a ways, but it appears they are trying to move toward the edge of the trees closest to the shack, maybe thinking about rushing us, or at least getting closer and behind a couple of those rocks. The rocks don’t seem big enough to hide a full-grown man, but Indians have a way of making themselves smaller than any white man I know.
Just as I’m thinking that, four of them break from the trees, with the other three providing steady covering fire. I get off a single shot with my Sharps and hit one in the chest. Not dead center, but close enough he won't be getting up again. The bounty hunter also got off a shot and wounded one in the leg. I can’t tell how badly. One of the others made it behind a rock, and the fourth one is behind the dead horse.
We’ve now killed two and probably taken a third out of the fight. That leaves five angry Crow, with two of them close enough to do some damage. We take turns wasting ammunition, as the bounty hunter and I chip away at the rock and make sure the dead horse stays dead. They keep firing at the shack, hoping to sneak a shot in through the gun loops. Night comes with no change.
Matt, hands still bound, stands and moves toward the shelves where the food is kept. I can see the bounty hunter start to say something, but then think better of it. We stay at the windows while Matt makes a pretty good, certainly filling, dinner.
I turn away from the window and look at both men. “I’m hoping these Crow, like many Indians, don't like fighting at night, but whether they do or don’t, we have to keep up our guard. Mister, maybe it’s time for you to get some rest.”
Looking at Matt, not me, he says, “I’ll stay.”
Matt shakes his head, stands up and starts to walk toward the bunk. The bounty hunter starts to stand to, and Matt turns and faces him.
“Look, I’ve done what you’ve said since you picked me up. But I’m your prisoner, not your slave. I’ll stand watch, or I’ll sleep—that’s your choice. But, if I’m going to sleep, there’s no reason for me to do it sitting up at the table.”
With that, Matt turns his back on the bounty hunter, walks to the bunk, lies down and stretches out. He’s asleep before the bounty hunter has sat back down. I smile to myself and settle in. The moon is bright enough to be doing us a favor, so if the Crow try to cover the open ground behind their hiding spots and the shack, we should be able to see them.
Seems like the Crow are satisfied with things the way they are. They stop shooting, but hold their positions. We do the same. About three or four hours pass, without a word being said between me and the bounty hunter, when I notice his breathing is far too regular for a man who’s awake and alert. I understand how a warm cabin, two days and almost two nights of no sleep, and then not moving or talking for hours can lead to a man falling asleep, but I don't care. I reach behind me, pick up a decent-sized stick, break it in half and toss it at the bounty hunter.
He moves instantly, but clearly was asleep. His hand drops instinctively to his pistol before he realizes where he is and what’s happening. Neither of us say a word, and we both go back to watching. It might have been my imagination, but I thought I heard a muffled laugh from the bunk.
After a bit, I try to strike up a conversation. “What’d he do?”
Not looking away from the window, he answers, “I don't know. Poster says he killed a man in Arkansas.”
“You didn’t ask him about it?”
“Why not? I’d be curious if I was you. I’d want to know if he done it or not”
“Not my place to decide. I’ve got these wanted posters.” He points to a pocket on his shirt. “And if they’re on the poster, I bring ’em in. It’s my job to catch ’em, not judge ’em.”
“You been doing this for a while?”
“Yep. I don’t catch all of ’em, but I’ve never lost one once I catch ’em. Take some pride in that, sin or not. Prefer to bring ’em in alive, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Anyway, I just go by the posters.”
There doesn’t seem to be much to say after that, and the rest of the night passes without incident, except as it gets close to dawn, I find the bounty hunter nodding off again.
I hit him with the other half of the stick, waking him again. “Look, mister, we’ve got a problem. You’re real tired, and I’m starting to get that way. I can make it through the day, but if they’re still out there tonight, I’m going to need some sleep. And this is the second time you’ve fallen asleep, so you’re not doing any of us any good.”
“Now Matt here, he’s had a full night’s sleep and maybe even slept some the night before. I suggest you untie him and let him take a turn. You get some sleep.”
I can tell by his face he knows I’m right, but naturally hates the idea of cutting his prisoner loose and hates even more the idea of sleeping while his prisoner is a few feet away, free and armed.
I keep going. “If you’re worried about him killing you in your sleep, I’ll see that he don’t. If you’re worried about him escaping, I’m guessing he’d rather take his chances with you and wherever you’re going than walk out that front door and face six angry Crow.”
The bounty hunter looks at Matt, who’s now awake and sitting up in the bunk, and then back at me.
“Mr. Stevens, I’m going to cut him loose and do as you suggest, but if he does escape, I’m not going to look kindly on you for letting it happen.”
“Mister, I’ve been pretty patient with you so far. But I’m not in your employ, I’m not your prisoner, and most important, I’m not tied up, so if you threaten me again, for any reason, I’m going to pick you up and toss you out that door—and what happens after that is between you and the Crow.”
Without looking at me, he walks over to Matt and unties him. Matt walks to the bounty hunter’s gear, picks up a rifle and Colt that I’m guessing were his before he got caught, checks to see that they’re loaded, and moves over to the window. The bounty hunter takes his rifle with him, and without another word, crawls into the bunk.
As the sun starts to push the shadows back, I can see there are some changes. Both the dead Indians are gone, and while the dead horse remains, there are a couple of logs stacked on top of it. I can’t see any of the Crow, but if I was a betting man, I’d bet on two behind the horse, one behind each of the two rocks and the other two, including the wounded man, in the first line of trees. None of their horses are in sight, so I assume they’re far enough back to not get accidently shot. I share my thoughts with Matt, who, without turning away, grunts his agreement.
The sun crests the hill in front of us, and as it does, since we’re facing east, it makes it that much more difficult to see what’s happening in front of us. The Crow must have been waiting for that, because at virtually the same time, they all start shooting. The only thing they can aim for is the gun loops, and their only hope is a lucky shot, but they keep firing away. Matt and I fire just often enough to let them know we’re here and to keep them pinned down. At least for the two hiding behind the horse, they are as pinned down as we are. If they move in any direction, we’ll have them. I wonder if they thought of that before they set up during the night.
The shooting starts to slow down and then trickles down to nothing. There’s no change from when we started, and unless we got lucky, no one’s been hit. After about a half hour without shooting or movement, Matt asks, “Any idea what they’re going to do?”
“I’ve been thinking about that, and I can’t see what their options are. They can’t rush us without crossing that open ground, and they know now we’ll cut them down if they do. Same thing if they try to steal my horse. They could try to burn us out, but with this thick roof and door, plus all the snow, not much chance of that. I guess they don’t know how we’re set for food and water, so maybe they plan to wait us out, but it’s cold out there and they didn’t seem prepared for a long wait.”
No response from Matt, so maybe he’s thinking about what I said, or trying to figure out what he’d do if he were out there. I continue to be impressed and thankful for the well-thought-out and well-stocked Harris Ranch line shack. It’s what stands between us and what would probably be a very painful death.
Another hour or so goes by without conversation or gunfire. I notice Matt keeps looking back at the bounty hunter. Without looking away from my window, I say, “Please don’t. I gave my word ’bout him being able to sleep without you bothering him, and as long as those Crow are out there, you wouldn’t live along enough to close the door if you tried walking or riding away.”
“They’re gonna hang me if he gets me back to Arkansas.”
“Did you do what the poster says you did?”
He hesitates and lowers his voice. “I did.”
I notice the light snoring from the bunk has stopped, but I don't turn, and I don't say anything.
Not much time passes before Matt speaks up. “You wanna know what happened?”
“Only if you want to tell me,” I say, though I am curious and certainly have the time.
“About four months ago, Tony Barr raped my sister. Our folks died last winter, and it was just the two of us. He’d always wanted her, but she had no interest. I came home from work one day—I rode for the Circle Bar B—and found her on her bed, bleeding. I got her fixed up, but it wasn’t until the next day she could tell me what happened.
“I rode into town and went straight to the sheriff’s office. The sheriff is Barr’s cousin, so I didn’t think it would do much good, but I didn’t know what else to do. They arrested him and put him in jail for the night, with the trial the next day. I went home and told my sister, but she said she couldn’t come to town to testify. She didn’t know if she could ever come back to town, after what happened.
“I rode back the next day. Half the men on the jury rode for Barr’s daddy, and he and the judge went way back. Judge swore in the jury and Barr took an oath. He sat in that chair, looked right at me and swore he didn’t do it. Judge asked for any witnesses. I stood, but before I could even go forward, he asked if I was there when the alleged incident took place. When I said no, he told me to sit down.”
Matt goes quiet for a bit, and since the Crow aren’t firing and the bounty hunter isn’t snoring, it’s deep quiet. After a minute, he starts again. “Judge asked if there was anybody else who might be a witness, and when no one came forward, he dismissed the case.
“I watched half the jury congratulate Barr for getting off and watched his daddy shake the judge’s hand. I walked out the front door and rode home. She must have known what was going to happen, and I guess she couldn’t live with it. I found her in the barn, her little single shot derringer lying in the hay next to her. It took me the rest of the day to dig her a proper grave, right next to our parents.
“When I was done, I saddled up and rode back into town. Maybe I shouldn’t have, but I didn’t know what else to do. Without even thinking about it, I found myself walking into the 12 Gauge, which was his daddy’s saloon and where I knew I’d find him. And I did. He’d been drinking, celebrating I guess, and when he turned and saw me, he laughed. I lost it. Told him he could draw first, or not, but when I got to five, I was going to kill him.
“I’d never shot another man, and I’m sure he knew that. But I’d worked on drawing a bit, and I guess he didn’t know that, or maybe he thought his daddy’s protection would extend right down into his holster. Anyway, he went for his gun, and I killed him. That saloon went stone quiet. I was the only one with a drawn gun, so I suggested to everyone it stay that way, and I backed out of that saloon, jumped on my horse and started riding. I didn’t stop until I got to Montana, but I guess it wasn’t far enough.
“And now, when he brings me back, the same man will be judge and the same men will be on the jury. I’ll hang the day after I get back.”
I’ve never liked being shot at and certainly not by angry Crow, but about now they open up again, and I have to admit, I’m grateful. I have no idea what to say to Matt. We’re both quiet as we focus on keeping them pinned down and not letting them get any closer to the shack. As long as we do that and their patience runs out before our food and water, we should be OK. I still don't know what they intend to do, but it’s getting late in the afternoon again and nothing’s changed since morning.
The gunfire seems to have woken the bounty hunter, or maybe he’s just had his fill of sleep, but he’s up. Without a word, he starts stoking the fire, and suddenly I remember that I’m hungry. I’m also tired, having been up now since yesterday morning and pretty much stuck sitting at this window, staring outside.
The bounty hunter makes food for all of us, and while it’s not as good as what Matt made, it is filling. When we’re done, I turn to both of them.
“My turn at that bunk. We’ve still got a good moon, so you oughta be able to see if they try anything. I can’t figure out what they’re waiting for, or what they think is going to happen, but this shack’s getting a little small. When I wake up in the morning, we’re going to have to start thinking about some ways of getting out of here.”
Neither respond, probably both thinking about how they’ll do without me in the middle. Matt stays at his window, and the bounty hunter takes my seat. I bring my rifle with me, make sure my Colt is loose and fall asleep about the same time my head hits the blankets.
I guess I was more tired than I thought, or I’m a sounder sleeper than I always imagined myself to be, but when I wake up, about the same time as the sun, I can see there are some changes that should have woken me.
The first thing I notice is the bounty hunter is asleep, again. Next, I notice that one of the horses—and Matt—are missing. The door’s closed, but not latched, so I wonder how long it’s been like that. I get up, latch the front door and wake the bounty hunter, expecting him to be furious.
He looks around and doesn’t seem nearly as surprised as I thought he would be. I thought about what he said yesterday, how if they’re on a poster, he catches ’em, and if he catches ’em, they don't get away.
While I wait to see what happens, I open and look out the gun loop, which Matt had closed up. I half feared I’d see Matt and his horse, both dead, somewhere between the shack and the trees. But nothing. Matt wasn’t the only one who pulled out sometime last night—the Crow are gone too.
The bounty hunter looks out and sees the same thing. He turns, none too fast, and walks over to his gear, starting to pack it up. I don’t see much reason to stay here any longer, so I do the same thing. When we’ve packed our gear, I walk out to the tiny barn on the side of the shack and bring in some firewood to replace what we used. While I’m doing that, the bounty hunter straightens up a little and hangs the blankets on a peg set in the back wall. I notice a piece of paper on the table that hadn’t been there before and pick it up as I grab the last couple of dishes.
After a few more minutes—and no conversation—we’re done cleaning up and both saddled up. We head across the clearing and through the trees and find the trail. It’s easy to see the Crow just kept going across the trail, heading east. It is equally easy to see that Matt reached the trail and turned south.
We both sit for a minute, while I light up a cigar. I offer one to the bounty hunter, but he declines. After a bit, knowing he knows, I say, “Looks like your man went south.”
He looks down at the tracks and back up at me and simply says, “Yep.” And without another word, he turns and starts riding north.
I sit there for a bit, thinking about this last surprise in a couple of days filled with surprises. As I do, I remember how the snoring stopped as Matt told his story, and then I remember the crumpled paper I picked up off the table. I pull it out of my pocket, smooth it out and see it’s the wanted poster for Matt Bridges.