Western Short Story
Midnight had crawled on slowly as Danny Defoe tried to sleep in frequent attempts, getting more restless, when he was suddenly sure he heard hoofbeats fading in the distance. He sat up, saw the red glare, and woke up the rest of the family and the whole ranch house. “The barn’s on fire! The barn’s on fire!” His 14-year-old voice has a nasal strain to it, as if he was being squeezed at his throat, but it carried the alarm to all the ranch folks, family and ranch-hands, all leaping from sleep.
He pulled his pants on as he heard others break out of sleep, and someone yell, “Get the buckets! Get the buckets!” Ranch hands scattered to help.
But it was too late. The fire was working all through the barn, the hay piled in various spots in the barn had become an inferno, the flames reaching to the roof, flames leaping out of two upper windows and through areas already gutted by the flames. For long rushing minutes, he forgot about the hoofbeats, and then they came back to him. He didn’t tell his father, who might not believe him, often calling him the steady dreamer in the family, but he told Butch Torrance, the foreman of the crew, saying, “Butch, I didn’t tell my father, but I heard hoofbeats going off in the distance, and heading northwest. It’s what made me turn around and I saw the flames.”
“Are you sure of the direction they were going?” Butch was already waving at two of his men, the fire way ahead of them all. “Saddle up, boys, and get my rig ready. We’re going after a live torch.” They were out of sight in minutes, heading north-west, as Danny had indicated.
Danny’s father, Albert Defoe, asked Danny, “Where’s Butch and his boys off to. They seemed in a mighty hurry.”
“I told Butch I heard hoofbeats heading off to the north-west. I think they’re going after the guy who lit the barn up,”
“Is this another dream of yours, Danny? Who the hell wants to burn down a barn, a perfectly good barn? We’ll have to start rebuilding right away,” He was shaking his head in doubt about his son, the steady dreamer of sorts.
Two days later, Butch and his pals came back. He spoke to Mr. Defoe; “We found a trail. Danny was right, Al, someone beat it out of here the other night. We lost him in the mountains. It’s obvious he knows his way around, like he was leading us around by the nose, in one place and out another way. And I can’t think of anybody who’s mad at you. The last man you fired is back in Oklahoma, got his father’s place. I can’t think of anybody else.”
He had a serious scowl on his face, perhaps done in by the quick hunt. The whole crew went at clearing debris, moving it out of sight, planning the rebuild task.
Two weeks later, still restless in his bed, Danny saw new flames coming from the next ranch, the Kiley spread, The K-Bar-K, a couple of miles away, and he heard more hoofbeats, but this time they were incoming, and a rider screaming, “He struck again. Out barn is going up in smoke and flames, and some rider went off easterly, some of our crew after him. No word yet, but Mr. K is coming to see the boss here, wrap their heads around this, find out what’s going on. Said to tell the boss here that he’ll be over here today.”
Danny’s father said, “You tell Mr. K to bring the ranchers from the east loop and we’ll get the ones out this way. We got to put of some restraints on the torch man, some sentinels on night alert all along the area. We’ll have to pool all our help to get new barns built. Can’t be without them. We’re going to start our own group of night riders until we catch this torch man, find out who’s behind it. Someone’s looking for something and we gotta smoke him out, too.”
Danny, the dream kid, on his own, went looking, especially around the mountains where mines and old cabin sites had crumbled into decay. He tied his horse off and picked a good look-out spot to be comfortable in, and out of sight to anyone in the area. For much of the day, he saw little next to nothing, when he spotted a man getting water from an old well and bring it into a dimly lit and shaded area and disappear from sight. It had to be a cave site or an old mine that had given up little.
He scratched a piece of paper with locating points where he could find the spot or direct someone else there, with guns in hand, perhaps the whole brigade of Butch’s men, or the K-Bar-K-crowd could do the honors and string up the “living torch,” as his father called the burner of barns, only after they got all the information necessary to clean up the matter.
Apparently, someone someplace was willing to take chances to get something out of it, and it didn’t seem to be barns, Not at all! He tried to figure out that end of things as he stayed put in his position, and got himself nowhere in the long afternoon,
For half of a day, he lay completely still, becoming just another piece if the mountain, as it came to him, a chunk of rock all the way, but a chunk of rock with eyes. It made him feel important. He was doing some work detail that nobody was doing, nor had even suggested it. It made him hungry, but he refrained from even eating his lunch that he had grabbed on the run. It lay in the sun beside him, likely getting baked anew, he thought.
Then, as he was about to start back to home, shadows limping across the mountain base, he saw a rider come from nowhere and go directly into the shaded area, and out o sight. But he got a good look at how he rode, what he was wearing, how he rode his mount, a solid black charger big enough to hold two or three men at one time, for half a day at least. And he knew he’d seen him before. It would come to him later on, he was sure,
So, he froze flat as the rider looked around, saw nothing to disturb him, apparently, and he dipped into the shady hole in the mountain face, He went out of sight.
Danny the dreamy kid started thinking about where he had seen this new rider before, scratching his mind from every angle, his mind racing all the while as he lay still, motionless against the mountain. When it came to him. He knew he had to get home to tell his father and the other men or they might never know. He decided to wait until the new rider left the area, or if he would not. It all depended on the new rider, the man he had seen before, somewhere along the line, some neighbor’s hire, some visitor, he was not sure.
Then it came to him, the trick shooter he had seen at the carnival, no doubt about it. Trick shooter, indeed, and torch man’s boss. Somebody local had rented their souls. He could not wait to tell Butch Torrance, before he even told his father, “Dream kid at it again.”
His father and Kiley and others could find out more in their own ways; he’d done his share.