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Western Short Story
Empty Saddle at Dawn
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Some days, Sally Purcell knew, the sun wouldn’t come up. This was one of those days. Her husband Clint was a week overdue, more or less, and she could hardly stand the worry. The small amount of money he was carrying did not seem to be an attractive gain for robbers in her mind, but how would they know the difference. Word across the range said that at least three small gangs were responsible for many thefts and robberies. And Clint Purcell, man of men, would protect all his goods, small or large, against any foe or thief. Since the first day she met him, at the dance in Jeff and Wilma Calgary’s new barn, she knew what he was made of. Five years of marriage, hard work, cutting a home and a ranch into the wide open spaces of the Shag River Range, had not changed her first impressions of him or her knowledge of him.

The loan from his cousin would take care of the ranch mortgage for the foreseeable future, but any dent in it would hurt them.

The weight of this thought would fill her mind as she tried to work her way through the day: watching little Greg, baking, sewing, feeding the animals, brushing down the horses, being her ranch-wife best. Just as she had done through the past six days of worry. The pain of worry was genuine; the expectations almost as real.

Six days, she felt, was forever.

When little Greg yelled from the top of his lungs that a horse without a rider was coming across the wide grass, her heart froze in place. Breath balled up in her throat, or was it her chest? It did not seem fair that she should have to suffer like this, when she had news to tell Clint.

It was early, and Greg had been awake for over an hour, looking out across the corral and the fence lines to the wide spread of grass, the tree line of the river bank that hid the Shag River, and the mountains on the far side. His pony Almond was in the corral fidgety as usual, the way he saw him each day, knowing the pony was waiting on him. Just like he’d been intent on being the first one to see his father coming home.

But his father’s horse was coming across the grass, and he wasn’t riding that horse.

“That’s Papa’s horse, but he isn’t on it.” He was scrambling down from the loft where he had been sleeping for almost a year after his father had cut a window into the peak so he could look out over the corral and the range beyond. His blond hair curled over his brows and his ears, and hung thick on his neck. His mother was not in any hurry to cut those locks, wanting a child at her apron strings for as long as possible. Now she’d be able to tell her husband that another child was on the way, and little Greg could really start to grow up. He came down the small ladder with definite ease.

But what if something dreadful happened to Clint out there? What would she do with two children? She couldn’t afford to even think about that dreadful problem. “I’ve got to keep my wits about me, and my hopes,” she said to herself as she saw how well Greg handled himself on the ladder. “So much like his father,” she said, hugging the boy as close as she could.

Trying not to show any alarm, she said, “Let’s go rub down that horse of his and give him some water. We can do Almond too. Two horses with one turn,” she added, trying to cover her fears, trying not to think about the possibilities. Unhorsed for whatever reason? On the ground somewhere out of sight of the trail? Shot by a bandit and dead on the trail? Perhaps a rattler had startled his horse and threw him and ran off, all the way home, and Clint was out there, walking home? But how could that explain six days late?

She sent word by a passing drummer to the next ranch. An hour later, Craig Mitchell rode up to the ranch house. A big, pleasant man, he moved slowly and surely at all things he did, but she knew he was as dependable as denim.

“You need some help on a problem, Sally? That Thorgren drummer told my wife you needed help. What’s going on? What can I do?”

“Clint’s late coming back from Foster’s Creek. He’s carrying a bit of money. He said he’d be gone a few days, more or less, depending on how things went with his cousin in Foster’s Creek. Hasn’t seen him in a few years.”

“Well, how long’s he been gone now?”

“I really expected him about a week ago, but his horse came in alone this morning, after sun up.”

Mitchell was surprised and said, “Oh, it’s time for a little worrying then, I’d guess. Foster’s Creek, you say? Well, me and my boys have been going since real early and his horse didn’t come past us on the road. We’d have seen him, for sure.”

“What’s that mean to you, Craig?”

“Must have come across the Tinsley spread, or down through Maddox Pass. I’ll get some of my boys, see Tinsley and get a few of his and we’ll ride that way back toward Foster’s Creek. The ride to Foster’s Creek is two days straight through, any way you look at it.”

He dropped his hand on Greg’s head and rubbed some assurance into the boy. “You and your mom rest easy, Greg. If your daddy’s out there on foot for some reason, we’ll find him.” He patted Sally Purcell on the shoulder, and said, “We’ll be back, Sally, soon’s we can. Hang in there, girl.”

Sally Purcell noticed that when Mitchell must have figured he was out of sight of the ranch, he set off on a gallop. She wondered about that for the rest of the day.

Mitchell and three of his hands rode up to Dell Tinsley, working with two of his sons in the corral between the house and the barn. Tinsley’s wife waved from the front door as they rode in.

Tinsley looked up and said, “What brings you and your boys out here, Craig? You got that funny look on your face.”

“Clint ain’t come home, maybe a week late, as Sally counts it, but his horse rode in this morning all by itself.”

“You checked it for sign?” Tinsley said, sure of the reply.

“No blood. No gun sign. Horse looks like it’s okay. No hoof problem either.”

Tinsley nodded, knowing Mitchell would have not missed a bit of sign, and said, “What trail was he on?”

“That’s a question, Dell. His horse didn’t come by my place, so I figured we best track back through your spread and up through Maddox Pass. Then on back to Foster’s Creek, where he was visiting his cousin.”

Tinsley said to his two sons, “Saddle up, boys, and look out there past the cottonwoods for any sign. We’ll meet you in Maddox Pass if you don’t find anything. Clint’s too good a horseman to fall off his horse and he don’t drink much to begin with. I’m suspecting somebody had an eye on him.”

As an added caution, he said to his sons, “Send one of the other boys to tell the sheriff in town we’re out looking for Clint. Tell him about his horse coming home alone, but carrying no signs of trouble. Tell him what trail we’ll be on, where we’re headed.”

Five men left the Tinsley ranch headed for Maddox Pass, and two Tinsley sons went off on their range, a hundred yards apart. The sun was high over head by that time, breaking through a drift of gray clouds.

The Tinsley boys saw nothing beyond the cottonwoods that would alert them to trouble, and were sure that Purcell’s riderless horse had not been on that ground. They hastened to catch up with the rest of the party. On the rise to Maddox Pass, the mountain leaping up beside them, one of them spotted two riders coming from back toward town. One brother said, “Has to be the sheriff coming to catch up to us and the others. Didn’t take much to get him moving, being so friendly with Clint.”

“Heck,” the other said, “He’s another Blue Army Boy like Pa and Clint and the others. They find Clint okay somewhere they’ll have another reunion like that time at Charity Hill we always hear about, all of them meeting after the war was over and all on the way home. Sounded like some wing ding they had that time. It makes me think they won’t sit still for much if they find something wrong, if something happened to Clint.”

“Yuh,” said the other, “and we might be out here for a while.”

The other said, “Makes me think the only thing up Maddox Pass way where Clint might be laid low is that cabin old man Sweetser had way back. That’s the only cover up there I ever saw. Ain’t seen it in a few years, so I don’t know what it looks like now. I don’t know of one cave up there deep enough to crawl into to get away from trouble or whatever.”

“Have to tell Pa and them about it.”

All the party, without finding much in their searching after spreading out and going in many directions, had gathered at the high point of Maddox Pass, where they had a view of the river on one side and a good 50 miles of grass on the other side. All the men had come together except the sheriff.

Tinsley said, “Where’d Mark go, Craig? He’s always a late arrival. Be late for his funeral if he had his way.”

“Wouldn’t we all?” Mitchell said, then added, “He’s about the most studious man I ever saw when he’s tracking. He caught up with that hombre who robbed the bank at Bristol Bend way last year because he saw one damned scratch on a chunk of rock. Man has eyes like an eagle.”

The searchers stood around, gabbing, holding the reins of their mounts. The wind whistled off the top of the palisade and echoed in the depths of small canyons that were formed in another time and by other forces they did not know existed.

Mitchell wanted to go off looking for the sheriff, when he appeared from one of the smaller box canyons, a look of surprise set on his face.

“Something happened back in there a ways, gents. Some rousting around, with horse tracks, some boot tracks, but disappearing on the rocks. I don’t know what it was but I’ll guarantee you it had something to do with Clint.”

“You saying you’re sharp as you ever were, Mark?” Tinsley said, nodding his head in agreement with himself.

“Not a bit, Dell. It was Clint did it, him scratching on a rock with something sharp. His initials. CP as plain as day to me. So I think he was on the ground, probably knocked down, that means there’s more than one other man. Clint did not have his gun in hand, else he’d have used it. Took advantage of them, though, when they were probably talking things over, and scratched his initials so we could have a starter on tracking. Plain as day it is.”

The youngest Tinsley boy said, “Me and my brother had talked about something like that, Sheriff. Do you know that little cabin old man Sweetser had way back when? It’s up in one of them box canyons, right near the end, up against the cliff. Couple of trees hiding it the last time I saw it, like a few years back when Pa didn’t know we hung around up here.”

Tinsley shook his head as if he had been caught being a bad father.

“Well,” the sheriff said, “I never saw the place, but if you can tell us the lay of the land, what kind of cover we might have, I’d suggest we go in there and take a look. I sure can’t think of a better place to start, but we know now that something started right near here, and Clint was giving us a good lead with his initials. The man was always a thinker. We knew that way back when war was all around us.”

The Tinsley boys described the Sweetser layout as best they could from younger memories, a plan was discussed, and as evening settled in on them they were about to slip inside the canyon.

It was the sheriff who first noticed the smell. “Catch that on the air, gents? That’s somebody running a fire and cooking something on it. They may be settling in for the night, so we might have a little bit of edge on them, if that’s them.” For a moment, the way someone measures what he has just said, he added, “We have another thing on our side; Clint’s in the mix and if someone’s coming at them from out here, he’ll sure figures it’s us. That’s something on our side. Now let’s do it like we discussed, and no heroes. We had enough of heroes in the old days.”

Three old hands at war went at their task as quiet as ghosts, approaching the cabin where a light burned in a single window. Not a horse neighed or snorted, and when one man came out of the cabin to investigate a stone tossed lightly against the cliff, he had the snout of a Smith & Wesson stuffed in his mouth, and a whisper said in his ear, “How many more of you are in there? ” A jab came on the gun barrel as the man held up one finger. “Is our pard in there too?”

He nodded his head as the jab was repeated, almost at the back of his throat.

“Nice and calmly,” came a whisper. “Call your pal out proper for us.” The jab came again, just as deep, and then the gun barrel was withdrawn, and placed against his ear.

“Harry, come look at this,” he said in what was his most normal voice.

Harry had two guns on him without a tussle, one at his ear, another at his back. “Don’t do anything silly, Harry. It’ll only hurry you off to the Gates of Hell.”

Purcell said, “Glad to see you again, boys. These skunks didn’t believe I had no money on me. Kept asking me where it was and I wouldn’t tell them because I stuffed it in my bedroll on the horse, but I couldn’t tell them that because I could see them going to the ranch looking for it, and I didn’t want that.”

“You were too slick with them, Clint,” the sheriff said, “including marking your initials on the rock. That steered us here.”

“Yeh,” Purcell said, “slick enough to let them get the drop on me, even when I spotted them earlier and knew I had to hide the money. My horse bolted on them and kept going downhill. They knocked me around a bit after that, but didn’t get a penny of it.”

“Mom,” little Greg Purcell said from his morning watch at the loft window, “there’s some horses running across the grass and they’re coming our way.”

He scrambled down the ladder faster than he ever had.

She wondered how she would tell him he was going to be a big brother sometime in the winter.

How would she tell Clint he’d be a father, if he was the next man to come through the door? She’d wait for that problem to develop, and sat in her chair the way a woman might wait for things to happen.


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