Western Short Story
Contraband at all Costs
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Deek Willows came off the mountain in a slow ride, his eyes paying attention to the area out in front of him, all the way down to the Red River, itself glistening on the far horizon, and his ears attending to all sounds out behind him, like the simple and sudden click of a horseshoe on a loose rock often sounding like a gunshot in the day, or like the manner of his prey. Somewhere, he was thinking, more than one man waited for him, gun drawn in one hand, or rifle in two hands. It was bound to come out that way. It had been that way from the start of duties as an official out and about the harsh world around him.

The evening sun glanced off his badge, as much a warning as a giveaway. That, too, had always been the same, his way in the West, only seeking cover when he had to, mostly liking the straight-on duel with a wild criminal, each man in a place of cover or courage, take your pick.

Deek was, easy to say, happiest in pursuit, chasing the single track of a criminal or the pack most big gunners amassed about themselves, the likes of Deek Willows being the threat he was to their liberties and their hungers, much the same in deed or daring, badged men keeping balance in place, and now and then having no idea what the elusive bandit really looked like, and that from sketchy contributions from folks along the chase, like barkeeps, herders, coach drivers and their partners, random rovers, wayside abutters, and the like. All saying how another person or another face stayed in their memories to the point of description and recognition.

None of it was ever easy when on the run, a lawman at the mercy of personal sights: no two people saw one man the same exact way.

In such thought, he caught sight of movement on the level grounds below, a simple movement or blur of life on the Cardiff Plains that hugged the river on both sides. For more than a week, he had been chasing Lucky Lou Pronger, mostly by horseshoe tracks in scattered places up and down the mountain, through densities of gorges and cramped little valleys and stone hideaways that seemed to flourish for men on the loose from the law. Pronger was such a man, killer, thief, rustler, bank robber, kidnapper of fair captives for swapping of favors or the promise of threats flung with ease at any target, or any threat to his personal safety.

Even though he could not count up all Pronger’s crimes, the tally was immense, the injuries and killings near insurmountable for one man. Life in a penitentiary the true penance for a killer of his scale, or a hanging on a ready branch.

The sudden shot, from behind him, whistling in the mountain air much like a mountain bird of song, missed him by the merest of inches, his life hanging on for his mission, Deek diving alongside a huge boulder, the small shadow down below showing activity, as though the shot heard signified the shooter was deadly accurate, the target at last down and out of it; Deek the target.

Duped, he was! The idea rushed through his mind. Set up by Pronger and associate or associates most probable! The whole passage on the mountain put in place to get him in the sights of a shooter, probably Pronger himself or one of his more-abler men at one or more killing assignments; Death itself in the saddle, on the hoof.

The second shot rang out! And it came from somewhere behind him, as he nestled in place, his horse on its own, finding a way to get out of the threat area. Deek’s pistol was in one hand, his rifle in the other hand, freed of its scabbard on the horse in Deek’s leap for cover and safety.

He waited for the next shot. Heard the ominous echo coming off stone faces, out of the gullies around him, from a higher advantage, as though hanging on to extend the threat. The elusive shooter was at hand. The shot that missed him was an opener in the chase; the ready thought came to Deek that he had Pronger now surrounded, a true-blue lawman’s way of thinking to keep himself alive.

He studied the terrain behind him from the angles allowed, saw where most hidden spots were established, promised the most cover, the least angle of penetration, yet giving him the advantage of approach.

The study of the mountain’s nooks and crannies, its bits of thrown shadows in the midst of day, came as hard fact in what he could measure of daylight shadows, what deep hole or dark place let a man hie to shoot another man, a lawman.

Two lethal sites touched his eyes as he searched the mountain’s breadth, both with his own shooting range. He decided to pepper one site with steady rounds from his pistols while his eyes were locked on the second site.

He caught the movement of a shadow in broad daylight in the second site and had his madman located. It had been as easy as pie.

He set himself for the final frame, a shot to end all shots at the moment, narrowing down a small sense of darkness in the day, and waited.

Pronger, settled by the spray of shots at where he had been hiding, took the opportunity to get ready for a finishing blow.

Deek caught Pronger’s silent move, his mere shadow, and squeezed off a single round from his rifle, didn’t hear it hit rock, heard a gasp, and knew his single slug had gone home in Pronger’s body, as he cried out in the sudden silence, the echoes of the shot cut down to minor sound.

He disarmed Pronger, let him lie in place, in pain, and went looking for the man’s horse, and found the animal in another cave-like niche in the mountain’s face. He stationed the horse as near as possible, dragged Pronger, in his pain, to the point where he placed him on the saddle, strapped him in place for the ride back to a doctor and a jail cell, didn’t say a word to the man, let him feel the same pain he had inflicted in some of his innocent victims of the past.

There were no measurements, no comparisons, pain holding reign over the wounded, as the pair, the lawman and the bank robber and escapee, rode slowly off the mountain range, across a harsh openness and directly into town two hours later to a near-celebration as both men were recognized for what they were, where they were, at the end of a long trail, and a bag of stolen bank contraband` strapped across the sheriff’s saddle.