Western Short Story
Cisco Hinojosa worked his way slowly down the creek bed. His Steeldust mare was well-rested, in large part because Cisco had been moving so slowly since leaving Denver more than two weeks ago. But a man tends to move cautiously when he’s being hunted.
Cisco’s trip had started out well. Five weeks ago, he and P’oe had left Tesuque, just outside of Santa Fe, on what seemed like an easy job.
Cisco had two best friends. One was his brother, Danny. The other was P’oe, a Tewa Indian he had known since he was five and who, at 22-years-old, was a year older than Cisco. P’oe was married to the prettiest girl in Tesuque, Maria, and they had a young son, Enyeto. Though Cisco wasn’t married himself, he hoped to be one day.
All three men worked for Francisco Chavez. Chavez, whose family had seemingly always been sheep ranchers, had recently changed the ranch over and was now raising cattle, the last of the sheep having been sold off the previous Spring. Danny, P’oe and Cisco soon discovered they preferred cattle to sheep, and though the work was hard and the hours long, they enjoyed their jobs and took pride in being vaqueros.
Like almost all ranch hands, they dreamed of buying their own land. But unlike most ranch hands, they had each been faithfully putting part of their thirty-dollar monthly pay away and had saved more than one thousand dollars, which Chavez was holding for them. They were getting close to having enough money to buy the small ranch that Chavez had promised to sell them and where they planned to work together and raise their families.
Francisco Chavez was a wealthy man, and while he was content living in Santa Fe, he looked forward to occasional trips to Denver, St. Louis and San Francisco. In addition to the great meals, exciting entertainment and meeting up with friends from around the West, he enjoyed playing poker—sometimes to his own detriment. On a recent trip to Denver, while gambling with friends, Chavez had been surprised when he lost the last hand of the night. Having been so confident that his four queens were the winning hand, he had added the promise of his prized Parkes British Brass Double Barrel Flintlock to the pot, along with seven hundred dollars in cash.
When Chavez returned home, he offered Cisco and P’oe two hundred dollars, in addition to their regular pay, to deliver the Parkes flintlock to the man who had had four kings in that last hand. They jumped on the opportunity and, after safely arriving in Denver, fulfilled Chavez’s promise and paid his debt in full.
Cisco and P’oe had taken fifty of the two hundred dollars for the trip, leaving the rest with Chavez. This gave them more than enough money to enjoy a couple of days relaxing in Denver, something they rarely did in Tesuque. Cisco had never enjoyed gambling, but on occasion P’oe did. And so, on their last night in Denver, after enjoying a fine meal, cigars and after-dinner drinks, Cisco prepared to retire for the night, looking forward to one last night in a comfortable bed before heading out the next morning for the return trip to Tesuque. P’oe, with Cisco’s blessing, took twenty dollars of their money and headed to the faro tables.
P’oe had a much better night than Chavez had had and was ecstatic when he woke Cisco up just before dawn with the news that he had won almost seven hundred dollars, which, along with what they had already saved, would allow them to finally buy their little ranch.
The men decided to leave Denver right away, knowing that the story of the seven hundred dollars cash would travel quickly and be very attractive to people who didn’t always feel compelled to earn their own money. As they walked downstairs into the hotel lobby, Cisco had a bad feeling when he saw six, well-armed men waiting there. But nothing was said and they didn’t appear interested in Cisco and P’oe, so they walked down the main street to the livery, saddled up and headed back toward home.
Cisco and P’oe talked and laughed for hours that morning, eager to share the news with Danny and Maria and excited about finally being able to own their own ranch and how they even had enough money to buy a few cows from Chavez, maybe even a steer or two. Cisco still had a bad feeling nagging at him, but had no reason to act on it until the two booming rifle shots rang out from behind them, both hitting, and instantly killing, P’oe.
While he hated to do so, there was nothing he could do for his friend, so he spurred his Steeldust, thanked God for her speed and bottom, and raced down the dry creek bed and away from whoever had killed P’oe. Cisco had no doubt they were after Poe’s faro winnings and would keep coming for him once they had gone through P’oe’s belongings and discovered he didn’t have the money, which was in Cisco’s saddlebags.
When Cisco rode into San Antonio Junction, he had covered almost three hundred miles since leaving Denver and was feeling the intense stress of being hunted. He had seen evidence of the men who were trailing him and knew from the hotel lobby there were six of them, but he had not actually seen them since leaving Denver. He was alone and, for the first time in his life, scared. And while he had somehow avoided the men so far, he didn’t know how long his luck and limited experience would hold out. Cisco had never wanted anything as much as he wanted to ride through the gates of Señor Chavez’s ranch and into the safety it promised, but he had one hundred dangerous miles left to cover before that could happen.
Cisco slept that night on the floor of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, praying to a God he was beginning to, for the first time in his life, doubt, as he continued to mourn the loss of his friend.
He had ridden for about three hours, having left the church well before dawn, when he came across multiple horse tracks. He was confused because they seemed to come and go from all directions, most shod, one not. And because he lacked the experience that would have allowed him to read the tracks properly, all he knew was that he would be safer if he avoided all of the riders. So Cisco left Coyote Creek and worked his way through the scrub brush, without the benefit of a trail but continuing toward Tesuque, toward Chavez’s ranch, toward Danny and Maria, toward safety.
Depending on how fast Horse and I want to travel, we are about three or four days out of Santa Fe. I feel a little safer having Chief Dientecito’s blessing, but the Utes are not the only tribe in the Colorado and New Mexico Territories. I don’t think Chief Dientecito’s promise of safety and help will do me much good at all with the Apache or the Navajo. I doubt very much the name Brock Clemons means anything to them. There are also the unanswered questions of where the person, or people, who shot Severo are, why they ambushed him and why they then just left him in the creek bed to die.
As I’m wrestling with these thoughts and approaching the creek bed, reminding myself this could be a tough few days, I see another single track, riding parallel to, but not in, the creek. The horse is shod, which means the rider is probably not an Indian. Riding in the scrub is hard work and slow going. Since the creek bed is so much easier to ride in, there are two reasons to be pushing through the scrub. The man is either hunting someone and doesn’t want to be seen, or he’s being hunted and still doesn’t want to be seen. Either way, he’s someone else I need to watch out for.
Horse steps down the small embankment into the creek, and we are back to about the same spot we were at this time yesterday. I turn south toward Santa Fe, and while thoughts of Dry Springs, the Muache are floating around my head, waiting for me to chew on them for a bit, my attention has to be focused on what lies in front of me.
It doesn’t take long to find my rhythm, and both my leg and my ribs feel good. A bit sore, but not too bad. The lotion used by the medicine man’s daughter worked wonders, and I’m happy to have a small sack of whatever it is that Chipeta gave me as I was leaving. I should be pretty sore by the time I make camp tonight and the lotion will provide some relief, so I’m grateful to have it.
The hours slip by with no signs of anyone having been in the creek in the past few days. There is a nagging thought that I’m being followed, but no evidence. I don’t hear anything or see any dust trails, and Horse doesn’t seem concerned or wary. Of course, it’s always when there is no evidence of Indians that one has to most fear they are there.
Staying alert, I use the time to sort out my thoughts. Since I left St. Louis a couple of years ago, the trail has become the best place for me to think. The quiet and the beauty, whether it’s the mountains or the plains, seems to just make thinking easier, and it’s certainly good for perspective. It’s hard to remember how or where I used to sort things out in my mind back in St. Louis, or London.
The Muache village was a completely new experience to me. Outside of the occasional Indian scout at a fort, my experience with Indians has all been violent. Generally, if I see an Indian, or Indians, I’m either hiding, running or shooting. And if I don’t do them well, I’m dead.
But watching the Indians with each other, with their kids, I start to look at them differently and realize they are really no different than we are, than I am. Chipeta is beautiful, smart and wise beyond her years. When Coniachi, Cuema and Delgadito attacked me, would it have been much different if the roles were reversed, and I thought one of them had dry-gulched someone I cared about? I didn’t like the idea of being tortured, but that is their culture, one they have had for time beyond memory. I wonder what they think when we hang someone from a tree or tie a man to a post, with his hands bound behind his back and a black sack over his head, in front of a firing squad.
And in thinking about Severo, and the time we did get to talk, I realize that under different circumstances, we would be friends. I start to think that when I’m riding back this way, maybe I’ll be able to stop for a day or two, see how he is feeling and learn more.
But those thoughts are going to have to wait, as gunfire, and lots of it, breaks out not far in front of me.
As I spur Horse and head toward the sound of the gunfire, I briefly wonder about some of my life choices. It crosses my mind that I’m only a couple of days removed from having rescued someone in this creek bed, which resulted in my being nearly beaten to death and then held captive for a day with the very real threat of being slowly tortured to death.
But, out on the trail when you hear this much gunfire, it means someone is in trouble. These things are almost never mutual, and in the simplest of terms, there are almost always bad people trying to do bad things to good people—and when there is gunfire involved, they are willing to kill for it. And it’s not in me to ride away. Horse has never shied away from gunfire, and as much as she loves to run, it is only a couple of minutes before we come up behind the battle.
It takes almost no time to assess what is happening. At the edge of the creek, there is a single horse down with a small Mexican man lying behind it, holding, and occasionally firing, a revolver. Down the creek on the opposite side of the Mex, about a hundred yards away, are multiple men with rifles, all shooting at this one man. Since the Mex has only the revolver, at this distance there is almost no chance of him hitting anyone.
It’s easy to see this man has very little time to live, and without knowing any of the people involved, it’s equally easy to see which side I’ll be jumping into.
Not wanting Horse’s fate to be the same as that of the one lying dead in the creek, I pull out of the creek, same side as the pinned man, and jump off. As always, I don’t tie Horse off, trusting her to stay close and stay out of trouble. There’s no water, but if there’s any grass, she’ll find it.
Except for Horse, no one knows I’m here, which will give me an advantage, at least for a little bit. The other advantage I have is my rifle, a Winchester 1866 repeater. I don’t know what they’re shooting, but I can tell by the sound they’re all single shot rifles, probably left over from the Civil War, so they’ll be surprised when I open up with this.
I grab plenty of .44 ammo and work my way up behind the Mex, hoping no one else is doing the same thing. Knowing he won’t last long lying behind the horse and without a rifle, I find a spot close with a couple of decent sized boulders, at least large enough to offer us both some protection, if I can get him here safely.
The first shot is going to be the toughest. Not only will it end the element of surprise, I’m also afraid the man I’m trying to save will turn and fire at me—since he believes he’s alone, he’ll also believe anyone firing must be trying to kill him. And while he can’t hit much at a hundred yards, if he’s any good at all, he’ll certainly be able to hit me at this distance.
Instead of firing, I pick up a decent sized rock and throw it, hitting him in the back and at the same time yelling, hopefully loud enough for him to hear but not so loud as it carries down creek.
He turns quickly, gun pointed, and I, trusting that somehow he’ll know, raise both hands slightly, no weapon showing, and signal him to come join me. At the same time, I pick up the Winchester and point it down creek toward whoever is there. He must figure that if I had intended to kill him, I could have just as easily hit him with a bullet as with a rock, so he drops the gun to his side and nods.
Again trusting he’ll know what to do, I start shooting down creek. I’m not really trying to hit anyone, yet, but figure there will be a moment of surprise as they hear a new sound, a rifle. In that moment, the man can move from the horse to the rocks. He understands immediately and, crouching low, runs the longest, but probably fastest, ten yards of his life. He dives behind the boulder next to me, safe for a moment.
I keep my eyes focused down creek, though I do see him reloading and notice a little blood on his left arm. I also see an all gray horse take off from where the men down creek are hidden. The speed and direction of the horse let me know he’s no longer part of this fight. Maybe the 1866 scared him off, but for whatever reason, there is one fewer attacker we have to worry about.
I’m curious why a virtually unarmed man alone in this creek would attract so much attention. I think back quickly to Severo and know that somehow these events are tied together, but if I don’t focus on getting us out of here, the story won’t matter. And if I do get us out of here, there will be plenty of time to hear everything.
So, I quickly offer him my hand and my name, Brock Clemons. He shakes my hand and says, “Cisco.”
“Well, Cisco, we’re in a tight spot. Now that they can’t just take their time and pick you off, they’ll be changing tactics. It won’t be long before they circle around and come up behind us, or from the side, or both. Do you know how many there are?”
“I do not,” he answers. He is obviously scared, but trying to hold it together, so to keep him focused and to try and get any information that will help, I ask him what he does know about the men who are trying to kill him, and now both of us. He looks around and takes a deep breath before answering.
“These men killed my friend and are trying to rob me. P’oe and I had only one rifle, and when he was killed, he had the rifle on his horse and I was unable to stop and take it back. They have been trailing me for a while, but I didn’t know they had ridden around and ahead of me. Thank you for stopping to help. I would be dead if you had not. But I am afraid I do not see how we can get out of this.”
We have one horse, one rifle, two men—one wounded—and are facing what sounds like about a half dozen men. They probably shot Severo, maybe thinking he was Cisco, and they are certainly trying to kill Cisco now. And I have no doubt they will now try to kill me too. We can’t outrun them, but maybe I can discourage them enough so they’ll pull away and leave us.
As I set up to start firing for more just than providing coverage, it crosses my mind that maybe this isn’t a good creek bed for me to be riding in anymore. If I survive the next half hour or so, I’m going to think about taking another trail.
But for now, I just need to find a way out of this. I open up with the 1866. I’m a pretty good shot, they’re fairly close, and this .44 repeater is deadly.
I don’t think I hit anyone, but I certainly have them thinking. I tell Cisco not to waste his ammunition, since he couldn’t hit anything at this distance anyway. He needs to save it in case they get in closer. I do ask him to watch for any movement from their direction and to keep a lookout at both sides and behind us. At some point, they’re going to figure that surrounding us is their best chance.
That time appears to be coming sooner than I’d hoped. The shooting in front of us slows down, and it’s not too hard to tell that some of the men are no longer shooting—which means I got lucky with a couple of shots, or they’ve begun to circle around us. I’m afraid it’s the latter. Unfortunately, the rocks we’re hiding behind only offer protection to the front and one side. If they get to the back and/or the open side, we’re both sitting ducks.
As I continue to fire, hoping Cisco spots those circling before they can get a shot off, it hits me. There’s really no way for both of us to get out of this. Even if Cisco does spot the men, his revolver is still useless against their rifles, and it would be impossible for me to protect us from all four directions at once.
It doesn’t take me long to decide. Without saying a word to Cisco, I whistle for Horse. She comes quickly, stopping short of the rocks where she can hear the rifle shots ricocheting, but close enough. I turn to Cisco.
“We’re not both getting out of here, and Horse can’t carry both of us and outrun these outlaws. You take your money and your gun, leave everything else, and ride Horse out of here. They haven’t had time to get behind us yet, so ride straight back as fast as Horse can take you, until she can’t take you anymore. I’ll keep them pinned down as long as possible and that, along with Horse’s speed, should put you safely away.”
I reach into my pocket and start to hand him the letter I wrote for my mother. He reaches out and, instead of taking the letter, pushes it back toward me, looking up at me.
“No. It is enough that these men killed my friend, leaving his wife and baby son. It is enough that they then tried to kill me. And now, because you have tried to help, they intend to kill you too. I have never considered myself a brave man, but I could not live with myself as a coward. If I left now and did survive, it is what I would be.
“You can leave if you like. It is your horse, and it’s not your fight. You have done what you can, and I can see, as you do, that we are not likely to make it out of this. But if I am to leave this place, it will be with you and after this is over. I have been running for a week from these men, these cowards. I am done running.”
I have met enough men to know when I can’t change their minds, and it is clear Cisco is not leaving. It is equally clear that Cisco is braver than he thinks he is, but we’re going to be extremely lucky to ever have a chance to discuss that.
Without another word, I reach out, shake Cisco’s hand and begin to prepare for what I know is coming. The first step is by far the hardest. I work my way to Horse and strip her of my rig: saddle, bridle, everything. I look at her and see the horse I first saw almost two years ago, the horse that has carried me thousands of miles, through the worst storms imaginable, up and over mountains, in and out of battles. She has never wavered, never quit.
I love Horse.
And it is among the hardest things I’ve ever done when I slap her on her rump and send her away. She takes a few strides and turns back, not sure of what to do. Risking providing a target, I stand up and run toward her, firing my revolver repeatedly. She gets the message, turns and is gone. As I watch for a moment, I see her running at full speed, free and safe, as she was meant to be.
I turn back to Cisco, wipe away some tears and wonder about my life, a life where for the second time in two days, I have to prepare to die. At least this time, I’ll be able to go out fighting, not staked to an anthill or hung upside down over a fire.
I go through my saddlebags and take out all my ammunition. I pull out both my 1858s, giving one to Cisco so we each have two weapons. I set up facing toward the back. I tell Cisco to take the front and keep up a steady fire, giving him enough ammunition so he can keep shooting for a while. I set my 1858 on the ground, line up my own ammunition, pick up the Winchester and settle in for what I know is coming.
Cisco is doing a good job of keeping up a steady fire. It would be a miracle if he hit anyone, but at least he’s keeping the men in front of us from getting any closer. The first movement I detect is, fortunately, on the side where the rocks still provide us some cover and protection. I can tell the man is trying to be quiet and remain unseen, but he’s an outlaw, not an Apache, and he’s not very good at it.
Not wanting him to know he’s been spotted, I trust my peripheral vision and don’t look directly at him. I’m guessing he’s waiting for two others to get set up on the far side and the back, and they’ll all open up at once. The man continues forward, pressing his luck, mistaking my not looking directly at him for his being good at sneaking up on someone.
But now, he’s gotten too close. I slowly swing the Winchester toward the man without moving my head or body. Once again risking providing a target, I wait until he’s looking around for the other men, stand, turn and snap off a shot. I hit him, but don’t have time to see if it was fatal or not as shooting breaks out, seemingly all around us. I dive for whatever cover we have, hoping to get off a few more shots.
But, as suddenly as the shooting started, it stops.
There are sounds, but they’re indistinguishable, and wary of a trap, I stay put and indicate to Cisco to do the same. Neither of us are firing, though we both have our weapons out and ready. No one else is firing either, which I don’t understand. Not wanting to risk providing any more of a target than we already have, neither of us speaks, leaving us with our own thoughts.
Minutes pass, feeling like hours, and still no shooting, no movement. It doesn’t make any sense. They have us outgunned, outmanned and surrounded, and even if I did kill the one, their advantage is almost insurmountable.
And then, shattering the silence, its intensity no doubt magnified by the tension, a single word rings out.
Cisco starts to raise his gun, and I reach across and grab his arm, letting him know not to fire. At the same time, as if smoke from an unseen fire, Delgadito and four braves emerge from the scrub, each riding their own horse, each with a second horse in tow and each with a fresh scalp hanging from the lance.
It is obvious now why the shooting stopped, and believing that if Delgadito had wanted us dead, we would already be dead, I lay my Winchester down, stand up, holster my 1858, look up at him and say, “Thank you.”
I think back to my feeling earlier that I was being followed and, knowing Cisco and I could have been killed just as easily as the five gunmen were, wonder again how Indians can move so silently. Delgadito, looks at me and speaks in Ute. I am relieved when one of the braves speaks in English—not as clearly as Chipeta, but I can understand it.
“Delgadito wants you to know that Severo’s debt to you has now been paid. All the men are dead, except we see tracks from one who ran away before the fight. We must return to our village today, so the one will not be pursued.”
I tell him thank you and take a step toward Delgadito. He slips off his horse in one fluid movement and stands before me, hands at his sides, eyes unwavering. Without moving my eyes from Delgadito, I ask if, the next time I see him, it will be in friendship or in battle.
The young brave repeats my question and Delgadito answers.
Without taking my eyes off of Delgadito, I hear the brave say, “Delgadito and Cougar are friends.”
As Delgadito turns to mount up, another brave rides in from the scrub with another horse in tow. But it’s not just any horse, it’s my Horse. I am nearly as relieved to see Horse as I am to be alive. He rides up to me and hands me the rope, which I quickly remove as I nuzzle her.
I hear Delgadito speak and again the brave translates.
“The horse is yours, as is another for your companion.”
At this, another brave rides forward and hands Cisco a lead rope. The rig has been removed from the horse, but it doesn’t matter because Cisco has his waiting for him in the creek bed.
Without so much as a look back, the six Muache warriors turn their horses, and those they captured, back into the scrub brush. Sooner than seems humanly possible, they have disappeared and are gone, leaving Cisco and I to collapse to the ground in sheer relief.
I reach into my saddlebag and pull out two cigars, pleased to see that my new friend is happy to join me. We sit in silence for a long time, enjoying the cigars and just being alive.
We saddle up and continue down the creek bed. We ride in silence for a while, then Cisco starts talking. He tells me everything that has happened since P’oe won the money in Denver. He is convinced the same men Delgadito killed were the ones who killed P’oe and shot Severo, and I agree with him.
Cisco turns and looks at me, the first time in a while. “I do not know how I will tell Maria. It should have been me that was killed. I was the one carrying the money, and P’oe is the one who has a family. Maria needs a husband and Enyeto needs a father. He will never know his father except through stories. I will tell him the stories, but it will not be the same.”
There is nothing I can say that will make things better, or easier for Cisco, Danny and Maria. I think about how hard it will be for him when we get to the ranch, how hard it will be for Maria.
We slip back into an easy silence, both with our own thoughts, both with life changes coming up and decisions to make. The time passes quickly, and the first sign that we’re getting close to the ranch is a small herd of cattle off to our right. Cisco points out the brand and, with some pride, how big and strong they all look. We go another couple of miles, and I can see the outline of the ranch. So does Cisco. He picks up the pace a bit, and in just a few minutes, we ride into the main courtyard of Rancho del Cielo.
~~~~~ The End ~~~~~