Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
It was June of 1861, turmoil running across the land all the way from the big-citied East. Not far from Hayes Jackson’s Bar-B-Bell ranch in a northern corner of Colorado, a rider on a galloping pinto came up out of wadi and headed down the worn trail leading to the town of Broken Eye. One of Jackson’s cowpokes, 16-year old Brace Danby, saw the rider tottering in the saddle. From the same way came two other riders firing at the pinto rider. When Danby rode into their sight, the two men opened fire at him. He dropped off his horse with rifle in hand, an experienced hunter and marksman, and dropped one man right out of the saddle. When he hit the horse of the second man, the man leaped off the horse before it fell to the ground and ran into a wooden tract. The young cowpoke chased the supposed bandit with a shot at his feet before he disappeared.
Ahead of him Danby saw the pinto rider fall from the saddle. The fall was clumsy, disjointed, like a trick rider doing a strange maneuver. It carried different messages. Danby raced to him, assuring that the bandit afoot was out of sight. The fallen rider was a wiry, thin youngster no older than Danby. He was bleeding so much he was shaking, and his eyes had gone hollow with dread on his face, as if he had seen all this before he even got where he was.
Struggling to talk, a hand waving in support of that effort, he managed to say, “Pony rider. Get my package to Southby at Gilman Forks Station. It’s got to get to California.” He pointed where his horse had run off a ways. “It’s in the mochila, the pouch on my saddle. It’s important as all get-out.”
With alarm on his face, and the most beseeching look he could muster, the fallen rider said, ”Do it for me, fella. I’m sworn.”
The wounded rider passed out.
Danby chased down the loose horse, roped the young rider on it and hurried back to the ranch. “Take care of him, Harry,” he yelled to another hand, “he’s one of them mail boys and I got to get to his next stop.”
As he hopped on his own horse, with the mail pouch the boy had called a mochila, he yelled out, “There’s a dead robber out on the trail I shot, and a dead horse and another robber on foot. Tell the boss to watch out for him. He don’t have his horse anymore. I’ll be back sometime. Them’s the ones that shot this boy.” He raced off. A new sensation, he knew, was burning inside him as he lit out for the Gilman Forks Pony Station.
For about a year Danby had seen lone riders of the Pony Express, as it had been called, sprinting past the Bar-B-Bell spread, stopping for nothing or nobody, often waving when they passed by him and some of the ranch cows he was moving or checking on. The sight, coming up just about every week, from what the ranch hands were saying, created a little excitement in Danby. He wondered what it would feel like to be entrusted with getting a pack of mail as far along the journey as he could in the shortest amount of time.
Now he’d find out.
The horse under him sped fast, bringing breeze and air flow straight onto his face. The rush exhilarated him every time he closed his eyes for a second, to keep dust and debris out of them. In those moments he brought back images of things moving fast that he had seen in his short life; cattle and bison, both in huge herds, rushing across the grass in a wave of panic or hurry, driven by some inner demand of escape or salvation, perhaps wolves, Indians, or rustlers at their work, and the sound beating into his ears like drums, the land itself vibrating with the roll of sound. Lines of troops came back he had also seen rushing to the rescue of people in distress, the waving blue of their uniforms like huge needles sewing up the countryside, bending and dipping and swinging wide at certain features of the landscape.
The awe in him about the whole situation … the shooters, the deaths, the pony boy, the mochila, the messages, the destination … came up in him as an unequalled exhilaration. It puffed him, making him lean lower, reducing the resistance coming upon him the way his father had shown him years ago, and which now freed this horse to sprint faster in a race against time.
The seconds ticked away. The minutes. The breath in his lungs. A tree he had marked. A dip in the trail. The point where he had last seen an Indian only six months ago.
In one huge gulp of air he realized the clump of cottonwoods, once ahead of him a long way on the trail, perhaps ten minutes away, maybe more, was suddenly behind him; the same thing happened to a huge rock rolled into the middle of the grass by some ungodly powerful force so far back in time he could not count back to it. It too was suddenly behind him, the horse doing its job, flying across the grass, down a section of dusty trail, past a sheaf of rock where a ledge of stone had ruptured the ground in a huge thrust, only to settle back forever as an outcropping to mark the way. His way west. The pony boy’s way west. If the pony boy had been this way before, had he seen this same piece of ledge? Marked it? Thought of it later on, how it stood out at the side of the trail?
Now and then he saw a skull decorating the landscape with its signal of time. A wagon, broken by time and weather, fallen in its journey, was now returning to earth, like a man might do if not tended at death. He wondered more than once how many graves he might have galloped over in his rides out upon the Earth itself. Once at a campfire, his father had said, “We move west on the graves of those who went before us. When you pass by a marker, think of the man or woman that had come to that place, with dreams unfulfilled … then count yourself lucky that your journey is still ahead of you.”
At another release from the oncoming zephyrs, he caught hold again of a force of Indians coming down off a high rise in a flanking movement against a group of troops, saw them expert at riding. Their colors had gone awash on the plains, their feathers on parade, hawks and eagles in the wash of motion, crows filled with night, cardinal red, jay blue, owls owned by arrow or quiver. Their formations obeyed one order, their colors obviously stolen from rainbows coming after a rare rain, or even after a wind storm, beating them into hiding.
His mind filled.
Danby leaned into those remembered sights, those images, every one of them, felt their force and unity coming into one cause, felt the sense of power they must have known battling against an enemy.
The ride he was on soared above everything, made itself prime motivator and annunciator. If there was a fist, he was in it: the message, the mochila, the rider, the horse, the destination.
Now him, it was. Now him. Not the pony boy, but him. Brace Danby. Motherless. Fatherless. Brotherless. Sisterless. Alone on the trail.
It all leaped again. The force of it. The long ride. The horse whose heart might burst. The unknown scene ahead of him at arrival at Gilman Forks Station. How would he handle that? How would they handle him, new to it all?
At odd times he heard the pony boy’s words coming back to him, saying again, “Hurry,” and “I’m sworn.” At such repeated sounds, Danby spurred the horse again, time standing in his face, time pushing him from behind, trying to catch up to him. Then came the pony boy’s words like a Gattling gun cutting loose. “Hurry, I’m sworn.” Again and again, “Hurry, I’m sworn.” “Hurry, I’m sworn.”
A sense of awe hit Danby as he wondered about the pony boy. It made him say aloud, into the teeth of the wind, “How does his mind keep him company on such long rides, such long hours? Does he have the thoughts I have? Or see the visions I see? What keeps him going? I hope he’s all right, that the cook did his best for him with the little doctoring he’s had.”
His mind flew back to the Jackson ranch. Had he left a good thing too far behind? For what purpose? How would he justify his quick move to take over another man’s job, another boy’s job? How would the boss take it?
Over the top of a slow rise, as the horse labored nearing the end of his run, he saw the station ahead. A man stood out front, waving him on, the reins of a horse in his hands. The man waved again, drawing him on, spurring him, in fact.
Danby pulled the horse to a stop right where the man stood beside a small corral.
“You’ve fallen behind. You’re late.” His stare fell on Danby’s face. “Ya new, ain’t ya? I was looking for Kid Hoskins this trip. Where’s he at? What’s ya name?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, but whipped the mochila off the horse and slapped it onto the horse whose reins he was holding. “Mount up,” he said. They’ll be waitin’ ya. Here’s a bag of grub for the fly and a full canteen. They be waiting at Mercy Creek Station, ‘nother dozen miles or more. Straight as an arrow from here, between them two passes up there on both sides of ya. Good luck. They’ll tell ya about the next leg.”
He slapped the horse on the rump when Danby mounted. The new horse leaped ahead like a race starter had set him off, his head down, pulling the new weight slight as it was. The burst of energy from the new horse moved right into Danby’s bloodstream. It pounded in him. With it, with this new partnership, he leaned lower in the saddle, decreased the resistance, seemed to allow the horse to move a step faster. Hell, another dozen miles was a cinch. A snap cinch.
Only three miles out from Gilman Forks Station, coming off another rise, even as he leaned as low in the saddle as he could, he spotted a tree down on the narrow trail, and a shadow moving out of sight like rabbit ducking from a hawk.
“Oh, boy,” he said to his horse, if nobody else. “I wonder what I’m carrying, looks like someone else wants it. I might not be so lucky this time.” The boy’s contorted face came back to him, and his words … “Hurry, I’m sworn.” “Hurry, I’m sworn.”
Danby looked to his left and saw no way out. On his right he saw a break in some low climbing hills. Marking the sign, a distant peak he seemed to be aiming at for the last few miles, and the sun as it hung in its path, he swung his horse into that climb and left the trail that promised to be accompanied by no-good-at-all. It was a moment of doubt until he heard the sound of several shots and bullets hitting near him. In good fortune for him, the horse was an excellent climber, and powered his body up and over the first rise, and then another, until a level run for a hundred yards or so lay out in front of him. Spurred, the horse leaped at that easy run and put much space between him and the who-evers back there.
When horse and rider broke free of a stretch of trees after the open run, Danby saw more grass and trail ahead of him. And the peak in the distance and the hanging sun told him he was right on the mark.
After ten miles of hard riding, he saw Mercy Creek Station ahead of him, and the scene back at Gilman Forks Station seemed to be repeating itself … a man stood waving him on and a horse was standing beside him.
“Where you been, son? I’ve been waitin’ on you. You must be new, as I don’t reckon I’ve seen you before.”
“You ain’t seen me before. One rider was shot by robbers lookin’ for this. I just took his place. I’m off the Hayes Jackson ranch, just a cowpoke pickin’ up and sittin’ in for the fella got shot.” Danby put his hand on the mochila. “What’s in this thing anyway? Gold? Or what? “Sides, there was somebody else back of me a ways who were goin’ to have a go at me. Had a tree down on the trail. Just a few miles back.”
“Well,” the man said, “we have some soldiers in the area and I’ll tell them about them varmints. They’ll check them out and straighten things out.” He stopped talking for a minute, slapped the mochila on the new horse and continued. “The boy goin’ to be okay? We ain’t lost one that I know of in a whole year. Know his name?”
“The fella at the last station said he expected Kid Hoskins, but I don’t know if that’s his name. He’ll be okay the cook does what he can. I left him at the ranch with the cook. Only one at doctorin’ I know.”
“Well, son, I’ll send word with the next riders both ways, about how you stepped in to help a pony boy. They ought to catch up to you somehow, the folks from Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company, which all other folk around here and elsewhere on the trail call the Pony Express. They owe you.”
He slung the mochila onto the new horse and said, “Best be on your way, son. This’ll be your last leg. The home station’s up there. I know Junior Beckman’s waiting ahead to carry on to the next section. Whatever you got in that sack’s got to be damned important, for the troops were up to something. So giddy up.”
The slap came down on the horse’s rump and sit-in pony rider Brace Danby set off on the last leg of his only time of employment by the Pony Express, and official words carried in the mochila on his saddle that served to square California onto the Union for the next tumultuous years of war.