Western Short Story
His father’s past had holes in it, questions, great open areas, but his mother had always said, “Shush now. Shush. He’ll be back soon’s the job’s done he went to do. It may be a while. We’ll keep busy doin’ what needs be done.” She had soft eyes and leathery skin that the sun no longer bothered.
With her hand shielding her eyes, she followed the slimmest shadow of her husband, Burt Steggins, going over the last rise out on the grass. Every time he went off she made the same moves, loved the shadow she saw, knowing it was part of her man.
“What’s he doin’ all the time, Ma? You never told me once what he does, never mind me askin’ him who don’t talk much.”
Young Herald Steggins was 12 years old, big for his age, good with plow, rope, a team of mules, any horse and any weapon, and a big dog he called Hardtack that he could almost make dance. He was crowding 13 like it was tomorrow, when he too saw the shadow of a man disappear out on the grass, like it wasn’t there in the first place. He remembered always wondering about the man who was his father. Beside him was his dog, black as night and big as a wolf. The dog never seemed to leave the boy’s side.
His mother said, “Thems that need him call him for the work. When he’s done there, doin’ for them, he comes home to us.”
“Allus bringin’ a present for you, Ma, and somethin’ special for me, like we was waitin’ all the time for it.”
“Yore pa’s a good man, Harry. Someday he’ll speak a whole lot about what he does a whole lot.” Her hand, hard with ranch life leaving marks on it, touched his shoulder light as a shadow.
Five weeks later, Burt Steggins had not come home. His wife Martha sat out front of the cabin every evening as the sun set down on the home range, the mountains looking like fire was on them and her trying to see a dot of a man coming across the grass with the red sun behind him.
Harry pestered her no end, saying, “I ought to go lookin’ for him, Ma. It falls on me. You can’t go. I can’t leave you, less someone’s here spendin’ time with you, helpin’, gittin’ by til I come back with Pa. So what’ll we do?” One hand dropped onto Hardtack’s scruff and lingered there. The dog wouldn’t move with Harry’s hand on him, moved only at trained commands sent by that same hand or by Harry’s voice.
“I’ve sent word to cousin Lovell Dunkirk, sayin’ we need help. He’ll be here soon’s he knows, then you can go.”
“You sure, Ma? I hope so. I can’t stand no more o’ this.”
“You go lookin’, Harry. Your pa all this time’s been a bounty hunter. They sent word they wanted him in Foster City, to track a gent raisin’ some special kinda hell out there. Sheriff knows Pa from way back in Sugarland. Name’s Luther Stemwick. Go see him when cousin Lovell shows here. Luther Stemwick, sheriff, Foster City.”
A week later, after the arrival of Lovell Dunkirk, Dunkirk smooth in the saddle and with his talk as any man ever met, better looking than the barber in town, young Steggins rode out the same way as his father had, casting a shadow the grass swallowed all too soon. Hardtack was right behind him, all the time looking back the way they had come.
In Foster City, in Luther Stemwick’s office built against the side of the Foster City Bank & Loan, Harry Steggins said to the man sitting behind a small table he thought was supposed to be a desk, “Sheriff, my name’s Harry Steggins and I’m lookin’ for my father, Bert Steggins, you asked help from, a bounty man who ain’t been home in 6 weeks or so.”
“I been wonderin’ about him too, son, since he left here more'n a month ago.”
“Who’s he chasin’ down? Who’d you send him after you couldn’t chase yourself?”
“Yore pretty crispy, ain’t you son?” the sheriff said. A tired face sat under his Stetson, one bullet hole near the crown as plain as a wart, him moving around in his chair with a sure itch working him over. When one of his hands started to shake a little as it sat on the table, the sheriff moved that shaking hand into his lap.
Finally, with a sigh limping from him soft as a curse, Stemwick stood at the table serving as his desk, lazy looking to Steggins, too round at the belt like he couldn’t go too far on his own two feet if his life depended on it. And he was wearing a sneaky look, the same kind Steggins had seen on Lovell Dunkirk’s face, as if they had all kinds of things planned to make themselves better.
“My ma sent me to look for my pa. You don’t tell me nothin’, I go lookin’ on my own. I don’t owe anythin’ to anybody ‘cept my Pa and Ma.”
“Man’s name is Hurry George. That’s all I know. Big, hulky, like a Clydesdale on a freight line. Kilt three men, one woman, a kid no more’n 10 years old, like in a few minutes of shooting not much more’n a month ago. Swore forever he’d never go to jail. Lives, far as we know, up in the Rockies deep as a man kin go. He’s kilt two deputies went lookin’ for him, far as I know. Maybe more. He’s wanted by every lawman from here to Independence City.”
“Why ‘d you ask my pa?” Steggins, not bashful at all, stared into the sheriff’s eyes with the direct stare only the innocent can muster.
Stemwick nodded, shrugged one shoulder, and said, “Boy, your pa’s better than any my deputies. The fact is I can’t spare any more. Hurry George kilt two of them and I’ll run out of ‘em and be alone. Can’t do that.” He measured an added fact, then said, “I sent him, yore pa, out lookin’ for the Testa brothers one time an’ he brought ‘em both back, and hell, if he don’t git a hold of Luke Carbornet on the way back and bring him in too. Must’ve celebrated with yore ma over that. Brought some wine home, a new dress, I’ll bet.”
Steggins saw a sorry look go across the sheriff’s face, the way he saw a cowboy look at another cowboy once who was getting up on an unbroken stallion with a burr under his blanket, put there for real teasing.
“I’ll go lookin’ for him. See what he says about my pa.” He turned toward the door, turned back and said, “When I find what’s happening, see Hurry George, I might come lookin’ see if you need a real good deputy.”
“How old are you, boy?”
“Old enough to git kilt, sheriff.”
The sheriff thought the boy was finished talking, but he turned and looked back at him, straight in the eyes again, and said, “On’y if’n my dog lets him whoevah.”
“Well, son,” the sheriff said, “you go up in there, make sure anythin’ give you a sign, move yourself behind somethin’, ‘cause he shoots from shadows, darkness, hidden places you don’t suspect. A rat shooter, he is. A bushwhacker all the way. Man was born mad and gets madder all the time.” Then he said, having moved to a window, “Is that your dog out there, the black one? He come with you, tag along all the time? He trained like you say?”
“Can do tricks, what I tell him, knows how to round up horses, scare cattle, chase the mules all the way home. Can almost git his own supper.”
Harry Steggins, now 13, smiling at the sheriff, having an upper hand, rode out of town, his dog at his heels looking behind them every few minutes, scaring some of the people on the street going right through the center of town.
For four days Harry Steggins tied his horse off in hidden areas and went searching on foot through the mid-range of the mountains, his eye always looking for signs of Hurry George. Hardtack was a silent, stealthy companion, crawling when his master gave the word, standing still another time for 10 or 12 minutes, his nose in the air. On the fourth day Steggins, alerted by Hardtack, smelled something cooking, followed the smell coming out of a gorge entrance he had passed a couple of times. A shift of wind brought the odor of cooked meat down through the gorge and right into his nostrils. Hardtack’s tail twitched lightly.
“Supper’s on, boy,” he said, “but they’s plenty for tomorrow.” Then they faded into a rocky background.
The next two days, from higher up in the rocky tor, with a spyglass his father gave him after one trip, he watched Hurry George as he plied his way between a cave and a fire pit outside the cave. A couple of time, when Steggins really thought about what he was looking at, he realized the man was bringing food into the cave … after he had eaten his own share.
A surprising hope started to build in him that his father was a prisoner in the cave, or somebody else.
The whole scene had to be set up in his mind, right down to each detail. And most important to him was getting between Hurry George and whoever was in the cave, hoping it would be his father.
Steggins spent that night, back with his horse in a hidden area, no fire, chewing on hard biscuits and jerky, drinking water from his canteen, keeping Hardtack watered as well his horse, thinking about his father’s homecomings. The sheriff’s words came back as he remembered one return when his father came with a bottle of wine and a new hat for his mother who said she’d save it for next year. But he also brought three new dishes and a couple of sharp knives for her. He couldn’t remember what his father had brought him on that return from bounty hunting. It didn’t seem very important now, unless it was the spyglass. He touched it with his fingers.
In early light, with Hardtack hidden behind a rock, Steggins studied again the movements of Hurry George, who led his horse to a small spring of water seeping out of a mountain crack. Then the killer carried two canteens full of water back into the cave after hobbling the horse. He spent no more than 10 or 12 minutes in the cave. The fire, kept as far away as possible from the cave to prevent quick discovery, was fed from a pile of wood stashed in under one ledge. The pile was nearly depleted and Hurry George, as he had a few days earlier, would leave the gorge and come back in less than an hour with a bundle of wood tied in a blanket on the rump of his horse and another bundle in his arm.
Young Steggins and Hardtack sat still for two hours until Hurry George grabbed his blanket for toting wood and mounted his horse. On his horse, he yelled into the cave and waited. A near mute reply came out of the cave. Then he rode down the gorge and went out of sight. Steggins and Hardtack slipped down off the higher ledge and entered the cave.
It was dark. Young Steggins was right behind Hardtack who had only gone a few yards and the dog almost hummed a growl.
“Pa, you here?” he said. Hardtack let out a soft yelp.
“Be still, Harry. No talkin’ but cut me loose quick. My hands and feet are tied real tight. “You got your rifle?”
“Hurry, boy. Git that knife out. There’s a girl in there deeper. We’ll cut her loose later. I owe this critter.”
His voice was hard as beat tin. “I don’t care if you break skin, Harry, but cut these ropes. Do it quick. He don’t take long to git wood. Just picks it up, what he can handle. Hurry.”
The knife was quick. Hardtack paying attention to the deeper part of the cave, the darker part, a continual sound in his throat.
“He won’t come real close less’n I answer the right way. You gotta be out of here and away when he gits back. Might have dynamite here. He’s awful tricky. When he calls, don’t let him shoot into the cave. Don’t give him a clear shot. I swear he’s got somethin’ gonna break loose somehow or other.”
He thought for a second. “Put some little thing out of place out there, draw his eye, make him slow down.”
Standing, one hug for his son, he said, “Take yore rifle, give me your pistol. Make the shot count. Git him in the left shoulder. Hurry.”
“Git now,” his father said, and Harry Steggins ran with Hardtack at his heels. He looked around outside and set Hardtack up on a ledge nearer the entrance to the gorge, patting him down in a prone position, whispering to him, touching him again. Then he climbed back out of sight, but over the cave, not away from it. He wanted to place himself between Hurry George and his father … and the girl he had not seen, deeper in the cave. He remembered what his father said about grabbing the killer’s attention and threw a bone Hardtack had been chewing on out onto the rocky floor of the gorge. It hit with a cracking sound.
Less than 15 minutes later Hurry George, loaded down with scrub wood in his arms, rode back into the gorge. He stopped in place, cocked his head, listened, put his nose in the air as if a new aroma had been discovered. Two or three times he looked around, as if trying to see what had changed. He was half conscious of the chewed bone on the rocky floor.
Hurry George’s voice rang out in the gorge. “Burt, you wantta eat?” He still sat his horse, still had his head cocked to one side, trying to settle something in his mind.
“”Same as ever, Hurry, stuff it. I don’t eat no more off’n no animal what tortures a girl, beats a man who’s tied up ‘n’ can’t fight back.”
That’s when Harry Steggins, hearing those words, anger and frustration coming like a flood over him, stood up, aimed his rifle and whistled. Off the cliff ledge came the black cloud of Hardtack fully airborne, a growl coming from his throat deep as a canyon sound, but more frightening.
Hurry George’s horse reared on his hind legs, tossing rider and armful of wood and blanket full of wood to the ground in a wild scramble.
Leaping up from the ground, his horse struggling to gain control of four legs, Hurry George saw the youngster on the ledge, heard a growl from behind him, heard his horse’s hoofs striking the rocky floor of the gorge, and tried to draw a side arm. A bullet slammed into his left shoulder. When he fell to the ground, his pistol loose, the open jaws of a black dog were almost at his throat.
Hurry George screamed. The black dog did not move. The shooter on the ledge stood still, a smoking rifle in his hands, and Burt Steggins, bounty hunter, stood over Hurry George with a pistol aimed right between his eyes.
The pair of Stegginses had him hog-tied in a hurry, stuck a clean cloth against the wound, and promised him a doctor, “If we git time to do it.”
“Harry,” said his father, “watch him. If he moves shoot him in his other shoulder, close up. Make it hurt. I gotta check the girl. She been cryin' for a week near. Think she goes hungry.”
He went into the cave, stayed less than five minutes and came out with a girl with dark hair, pale skin, bruises on her face and arms, but a light in her eyes. Sobbing, she hugged the elder Steggins as he carried her from darkness. Her dress was in tatters but she didn’t seem to notice it.
“This here’s Alma Coombs, Harry. This crazy feller kilt her folks, all o’ them. She’s comin’ home with us, after we take him to the sheriff in Foster City, tell her story, git us a payday, git this gent hung proper, sure as breathin’ free ag’in.”
He put Hurry George over the saddle of his horse and tied him underneath, a rope cinching hands to feet. Alma Coombs he sat on the saddle of Harry’s horse, sitting tight against the son, her arms around him. She was a fourteen-year-old girl who was now a woman.
With Harry’s rifle in hand, Burt Steggins led the two horses out of the gorge, setting off on a slow walk back to Foster City.
He was wondering how his wife was, when Harry said, “Pa, what you bringin’ Mom this time, ‘sides a new daughter?”