Western Short Story
People were waiting for John Cartwright.
Important people. People with power. And they expected him to be in Oxdune three hours after he left Gunlake.
After all, it was a straight shot across the desert with nowhere to stop in between. There was no excuse for missing his deadline, and the powerful people would not be pleased if he slipped his appointment.
Trouble was, none of them had counted on the storm. Heck, most of them probably hadn’t seen more than a few drops of rain the whole time they’d been in Arizona. How could they have been expected to know what was coming? And, truth be told, they might still not know.
But John knew. Knew all about it.
At first, he had been grateful for the shadow that fell across the sun because it soothed his burned and cracked skin. But then, he got worried. There was nothing but hard, dry earth all around him with just a speckling of red rocky outcroppings on the horizon. What was casting the shadow?
A crack of thunder snapped his head skyward just in time for him to witness a jagged bolt of lightning slice out of the black cloud that covered half the desert sky. An instant later, rain filled his eyes and rushed down his throat, choking his airway and nearly causing him to slide out of the saddle.
The mare whinnied and picked up her pace as John leaned forward, coughing and gasping to regain his breath.
The sandy floor squirmed beneath them as it turned brown, syrupy, clawing. John knew Oxdune lay straight ahead but then, suddenly, so did a flash arroyo. The ground disappeared as a river born from the sky raged east to west, cutting off their passage south.
“Whoa! Stop!” John called through the pounding torrent, but the horse paid him no heed and charged headlong toward the rushing waters. John wrenched his spine hard, and pain shot down his legs and up the back of his neck. He flailed through the air and landed on the soggy ground, one foot in the raging stream.
The horse screamed, and then disappeared beneath the surface. John scrambled backwards, pulling desperately to free himself from certain death. He flopped onto his belly and crawled from the arroyo, watching as tail and hooves and ears and mane tumbled out of sight to the east.
John heaved deep breaths for several seconds, then stumbled to his feet and began walking north, back toward Gunlake. But the arroyo had snaked around him, blocking his way to the north, and to the west. He would have to walk east and pray for safe passage to … well, to some sort of deliverance.
The angry, powerful people in Oxdune would just have to wait.
Sheriff Sam Taylor had never seen clouds quite like these.
The lawman had taken an early lunch at Marcy’s Diner and then ridden out to Bill Masten’s ranch to help the old man fix some fencing that a steer busted through. Not much was happening in Dismal Flats, and Deputy Rollins could handle anything that might come up. Besides, Sam enjoyed talking to Bill, and he saw it as his duty to help out the citizenry where he could.
Standing out there on the hill with Bill, though, Sam wished like heck he’d never left the safety of his office.
A black mass of rolling thunder and lightning was barreling down on the Flats from the open desert to the west, and Sam was torn between running for cover to the east and heading back to town. It was times like those when the expectations of being a sheriff were almost more than they were worth.
Sam patted Bill on the shoulder and pointed to the sky. “Better head back to the house, old timer. Looks like we’re in for some rough weather.”
Bill had been lost in thought, working on tying a knot in a rope that didn’t need a knot. His disoriented eyes followed Sam’s finger to the horizon.
The old man nodded. “Good. We could use a little rain.”
Even as he spoke, wind whipped around him and knocked him on his backside. Sam mounted his steed, Dusty, and looked down on Bill.
“I think we’re in for a fair bit more than a little rain, Bill. I have to get back to town. You gonna make out OK here by yourself?”
Masten was already on his feet. “Don’t you worry ‘bout me none, Sheriff. ‘Sides, I ain’t alone. I got Satan to keep me company.” Satan was the rampaging bull who busted the fence in the first place.
“Alright, Bill, I won’t worry.”
Sam turned Dusty toward Dismal Flats and dug his spurs into the horse’s sides. He was worried.
“Come on, Ted! We’re all going to huddle up in the jail with Deputy Rollins.” Mel Franks stood in the doorway to the Dismal Flats bank and rocked from foot to foot, anxious to get moving.
“No, you go on, Mel.” Ted Simmons stood behind the teller’s counter looking out from under his visor like it was just another day in sunny Arizona. “I’m going to stay here.”
“Stop being a dang fool, Ted. Your money will be here after the storm. And if it’s not, well, there’s nothing you can do to protect it anyway.”
“It’s not the storm I’m worried about, Mel.” Ted leveled a serious look at the tavern keep.
“You think folks around here would steal from you?”
Ted just raised his eyebrows and returned to counting his coins. He also slid one hand to the six-shooter laying on the counter. He supposed he could have offered to let folks hunker down in the vault, but he knew he’d skimped on building it to save money. It might not make it through the storm. And besides, he really didn’t trust anyone.
Mel’s face dropped into a frown, and he turned to leave. “That’s fine, Ted. That’s just fine. You can stay here and rot for all I care.”
Mel stomped off into the looming darkness, his heavy footsteps pounding on the wooden walkway in front of the bank . More footsteps followed as the rest of the town’s denizens made their way toward the jail. In the silence that followed, Ted could hear the gathering wind, and the constant roar of thunder as flashes of lightning grew more and more frequent. By the time the rain let loose like an ocean wave crashing against the bank roof, Ted was feeling spooked and decided maybe he could leave the cash behind after all.
By the time he stepped out from behind the counter and took a step toward the front door, parts of the town’s other buildings were tumbling down the street outside the door.
And by the time the wind tore the top off the bank, Ted knew he had waited too long.
John never really expected to find a town when he fled from the raging water that turned the desert into a deadly flood zone. He was just running, and praying.
He didn’t know the area well, but he knew places like it, and the chances he’d run into anyone to help him were slim. So when buildings started to take shape through the gloom of the storm, he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. Soon enough, though, a piece of tin roof just about lopped his head off, and he figured he might find shelter after all
Trouble was, all the wooden buildings in the little town were trembling like a dog in the winter, and John was none too eager to hunker down in a shack that would blow away with him inside. And it was strange that there weren’t any people in sight. Evidently, they had either abandoned the place or taken refuge someplace already. John wished he knew where, but the wind and rain were getting worse, so he had to make a decision, quick.
He was about to slip into the nearest building, which looked like it might be the tack shop, when something caught his eye off in the distance. He’d come up on the back side of the village, and about halfway down the row of businesses stood a low block structure jutting out the rear of one of the wooden buildings. It was a milk house, from the looks of it, which meant it would be partially buried. John held onto his hat with both hands and leaned into the wind.
It was a long and dangerous struggle, but he found his shelter.
Sam rode at breakneck speed toward town, right into the eye of the storm. He’d never been more grateful to have a swift and brave steed like Dusty under his haunches than he was that early evening.
They had just passed the first ramshackle building on the east end when the wooden bank sign zipped past Sam’s head. He pulled Dusty to a stop and surveyed the empty street. Most of the dwellings were dark, but weak lantern light flickered from the jail windows, and the bank was lit up like a New Orleans riverboat.
Sam figured Rollins had gathered up everyone he could at the jail, and he wasn’t surprised that Simmons was a holdout. Dang fool was so greedy he’d rather stay and die with his money than leave it unattended in the storm. Sam considered joining the rest of the town in the jail to wait out the maelstrom, but his conscience wouldn’t leave him alone, and the intensity of the glow in the bank worried him.
He had to check on Simmons first.
Hail pelted Sam’s hat and thumped against Dusty’s sides as they made their way toward the center of town, and the street ran thick with muddy water. Much more rain, and Sam wouldn’t be able to cross to the jail, but it was a chance he had to take.
When they reached the front of the bank, Sam pulled sharply on the reins, and Dusty reared to a stop. Sam climbed down and clopped up the front porch, where he found the door jammed shut. He kicked it hard with the heel of his boot, and it popped open. Flames shot through the door frame and blew his hat off his head. Once the the oxygen-fed surge died down, Sam could see clearly inside the building, where Ted Simmons lay moaning on the floor next to an overturned lantern.
Sam took a deep breath and rushed into the bank, grabbed Ted by the collar, and dragged the banker out into the storm.
“Dang it, Ted, you fool! You coulda got both you and me killed!”
The banker moaned. He had a nasty gash on his head and his clothes were baked in soot, but he didn’t appear to be burned, other than a few spots on his hands and chest.
“C’mon! Get up, Simmons! We gotta move!” The sheriff poked Simmons with his foot, but the man was incoherent and apparently incapable of standing. “Dagnabbit!”
Two-foot-deep water rushed through the street, and Taylor saw that Dusty had abandoned his post. He wasn’t too worried because the horse knew his way around town and could take care of himself. They’d reconnect in the morning. But it was going to be near impossible to get the dead-weight banker across the street without drowning him, and the bank porch was on the verge of collapse. Not to mention, the building itself was just about engulfed in flames. Taylor had to move Simmons and find shelter, quick.
There was really only one option — the milk house behind the diner.
When John sat down on the cool dirt floor of the milk house, he had a few fleeting concerns about the water from the storm washing over him. But the ground was dry, and he was exhausted and fell asleep within a few seconds. He was in a deep snooze when scraping boots jarred him awake. There was almost no light in the stormy night, but an orange glow flickered in the doorway, just enough for him to make out the shape of two men, one dragging the other.
John considered his situation. He didn’t necessarily want to talk to anyone, and he sure didn’t want to expose his predicament, but he also didn’t want to encounter any more unpleasant surprises. He figured he’d better reveal himself before the other men got too comfortable there in the hole with him.
“Howdy, there. Can I give you a hand?” John stood in place and watched as the silhouettes stopped in the door.
“Who goes there?” growled a steady, businesslike voice. Not threatening, exactly, but not friendly, either.
“Name’s John Cartwright. Got caught out in the storm. Lucky for me I found this town, and especially this little shack.”
“Yeah, lucky,” the standing man said. He rustled a hand near his chest, then scratched something against the wall. A match flared to life under his chin. “I’m Sam Taylor, sheriff of Dismal Flats.” He held the match down low, revealing a beaten and battered man lying on the floor. “This here’s Ted Simmons, our banker.”
“Pleased to meet you, Sheriff,” John said without offering a handshake. “Can I give you a hand?” he repeated.
“I suppose you might, but you’d have to take them out from behind your back first.” Taylor let go of Simmons’ shirt collar and drew his six-shooter. He pointed it at John’s chest.
John’s face flushed. He knew that any encounter would come to this, but he wished he’d chosen his words more carefully. Why had he mentioned his hands?
In the darkness, the shackles weighed on John’s wrists like rocks tied to his soul.
John had known they were in trouble from the moment the first fat drops of rain fell. There were too many of them … they were too big … they came too fast. And the dark clouds that swallowed the skies all around them were too thick, too ominous.
When streams began to run through the desert floor, he could hold his tongue no longer.
“We have to get out of the path of that storm,” he said. “East seems like the safest route.”
“Nope. Gotta be in Oxdune by six o’clock. We’ll be fine.” Roger Corbin had been a U.S. Marshal for 40 years but had outlived his job duties. Now that he was retired, he made his living as a hired gun, transporting prisoners from town to town, even hunting down bounties. He was a tough old bird and, even though the politicians said he was a liability, real lawmen knew he was the sort who could still handle himself, and a gun. That meant he usually drew the meanest characters, including those who were set to hang.
It was hard for John to think of himself as a mean character, but there was no doubt about his fate. He was to arrive in Oxdune that night, spend the next day in the state penitentiary, and then hang for his crime the third day, Thursday.
It didn’t matter much that his transgression had been an accident. Not to the state, not to John, and … well, maybe not to God, either, though John prayed there would be a measure of mercy somewhere along the line.
In late summer, John had tackled a gunman who busted into Coal Mountain Baptist Church one Sunday morning looking for his cheating wife — who turned out to be neither a cheater nor at church that day. The man’s head crashed against the pulpit, and he was dead in an instant.
It had been an accident, but George Sheerer was a respected local from a family with deep roots in the area. John had only been in town for a few months, and no one really knew him. Even though he had helped with every barn-raising, every fence party, every roundup of rogue cattle, the townsfolk largely viewed him as an outsider.
He’d jumped too quick, they said. Hadn’t let George explain himself. Sucker-jumped George, in fact. Heck, they wouldn’t be surprised if John planted the whole idea of infidelity just to get George riled up.
It was all nonsense, of course, but it was hard to reason with an angry mob. And, it seemed, hard to reason with a judge who abided by the will of an angry mob. After several weeks in local lockdown and amid stern admonitions from the public defenders to try and work out a deal, to beg for mercy, John had faced his fate. He was dreadful sorry that a man died at his hand, and he’d have to live with that forever and maybe longer. He was confident, though, that the facts showed it was an innocent mistake.
Judge Harry Pine didn’t agree. He sentenced John to death by hanging, to be carried out in the county seed of Oxdune.
Corbin was standing by in the courtroom when that sentence came down, and the judge remanded John directly to the bounty hunter’s custody around two o’clock in the afternoon. By three, all the necessary papers had been signed and John was on the back of Corbin’s horse, hands chained together through a thick loop built into saddle especially for transporting prisoners. John marveled at the ingenuity even as he bemoaned the discomfort.
They were two hours into the trip by the time John found himself butting heads with Corbin’s iron will.
“There’s too much rain, Roger.” The two men had talked all along the way and struck up the sort of sorrowful friendship that often develops between the condemned and his executioner. “Rivers will flash up from nowhere before you know it, and then we’ll be in trouble.”
“It hasn’t rained out here in years. It’ll soak right in before it has the chance to flood. You’re just trying to fool me, but it’s not going to work. Besides, we’re less than an hour away.”
“Look, maybe you’re right, but we’ve made good time. Maybe we can just stop for a bit and …”
Roger drew his sidearm and held it in the air. “That’s enough, Cartwright. Shut up before I …”
All of a sudden the horse pitched forward as her front foot sunk deep into liquid sand. She stumbled to catch herself, tossing Corbin into the rushing stream that appeared from nothing in front of them. His gun fired into the air, and the horse reared back in a panic.
John tried to steady the beast, but she screamed and twisted violently. The saddle loop holding John in place ripped like a bodice as pain shot through his body.
The horse was gone, and John was alone.
“He’s a criminal!” Ted Simmons edged toward the door of the milk house. The first rays of morning light bounced off the dirt floor, still dry despite the torrents from the night before.
“Not as far as we know,” Sheriff Taylor said. “You ever seen this man before, Ted?”
“Well … no. But how do you explain those shackles on his wrists?” The banker’s eyes were wide and he pointed at John, who sat in one corner, hands in his lap.
“Way I see it, we all got shackles of one sort or another, Ted. Or have you forgotten how I had to save your sorry behind last night because you were trying to guard your precious money?”
“That money belongs … belonged … to all of us. And now it’s gone!”
The sheriff turned his back on the other two men and walked out of the milk house. He took in the scene for a few seconds then turned his head back toward his companions. “Why don’t you two come on out here?”
Ted and John made their way outside and flanked Taylor. The town was in shambles, with most of the buildings either completely leveled or missing a big chunk of their real estate — top, back, front, one side or the other. Across the street, the jail was mostly intact, down a few hunks of roof and the sign that hung outside but otherwise still in one piece. Dazed townspeople were starting to filter out of the front door. A couple of them lifted timid hands in greeting.
Taylor waved back, then nodded toward the bank. The building was a mixed pile of splintered wood and ashes, but a smaller cube — an inner room, apparently — stood unperturbed near the rear of the structure.
“Looks like you should have had a little more faith in your vault, Simmons,” Taylor said.
“My vault?” the banker was confused, but after staring at the rubble for a few moments, his face lit up. “My vault! The money!”
“Guess the rain eventually put out the fire.”
The other folks were streaming across the road toward the trio now, and Taylor waved again.
“Tell you what, Ted,” the sheriff said. “Before that mob gets here, why don’t you take John over to Joe Watson’s shop. There should be a hammer and chisel you can use to knock those irons off him.”
“Why would I do that? He’s a criminal!” Ted complained.
“Well, there’s gonna be a lot of work to do around here, cleaning things up and rebuilding as best we can. I’ll take all the help we can get, and Cartwright seems able-bodied enough to me.”
“Besides, if you’re right about those folks there, they’ll be eager to rob you blind now that your money is sort of sitting out in the open like that. Maybe the reverend here can appeal to their conscience. You know, help them find the righteous path.”
John was confused. He hadn’t said anything to Taylor about being a preacher. In fact, they hadn’t said much to each other at all. After the sheriff drew his gun on John the night before, the lawman had stared him down for several seconds, then sat down and mumbled something about getting some sleep.
Then John remembered his collar. Despite all the trouble in Gunlake, the warden had allowed him to hold Sunday services in the jail, and he only had the one suit of clothes. He had taken to wearing his clergy collar all the time, so much so that he didn’t even notice it any more. Simmons was staring at his neck now, and when John made eye contact, the banker dropped his eyes.
“Yeah. Yeah, I suppose you’re right, sheriff. It’ll be good to have some help around here.”
Simmons turned and walked toward the demolished blacksmith shop. John followed behind.
The angry folks in Oxdune would just have to wait.