Western Short Story
Fire Sticks
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Matt Durgin sat with his wife Grace on the porch of their ranch house, evening taking hold for good, the heat of the day still in place, the mountains to the west of them keeping months of rain away from the grass, the eventual winter feed for their animals.

Grace Durgin, at 35 a pretty blonde with a generally good outlook on ranch life and its ups and downs, said “What’s for tomorrow, Matthew?” She lifted her eyes from knitting, saw her husband staring to see the last of the ranch in the shadows, with another deep reflection worry locking him up.

He didn’t answer.

“Is it really that serious, Matt? We’ve been through tough times before.”

“If we lose the fields,” he said, “that means we lose winter feed and that means we’d have to sell off the animals. I hate that thought.”

He put his hand out as if to measure the heat, the dryness, the near-drought, the full dangers and loss facing them.

Changing her approach to matters, she said, “”Have you seen how Timmy has grown these last few months? He’s really sprouting.”

It didn’t work as intended, as her husband replied, “I sure wish the grass would grow the same way. Granton’s sitting in town waiting for us to fold up and walk away, like he’s seen so many do.”

“Is he as bad as you say, Matt?” Her soft restraint did not work again.

“Oh, Gracie, don’t be so innocent. He feeds on our losses, anybody out here on this far side of rain. He’d scoop up land, animals, and people if he could, just to build his little empire. He wants the whole range from here to Jehrico Springs, and he’s already got Jehrico Springs.” He paused to build up a known litany. “And Harmon’s place and old George Tucker’s and even that twist of land by the old fort. It’s all his now.

He stopped talking when he heard his son Timmy singing, with a decent voice, in his room right off the porch.

His wife observed him shaking his head, making measurements, forming decisions.

“Timmy,” he yelled, “come out and say goodnight. We’ve got a big day tomorrow. C’mon now.” He slapped his hand on the rail.

The round-faced, curly-headed 7-year old still wearing his boots came out the door and said, in his high-pitched voice, singing still gripping him, “I forgot to ask you something, Pa.” He was bright as a new saddle, the boy, and his eyes set on his father’s face, then on his mother’s, but he managed to say what was working in him. In a curious, heightened voice, he said, “When I saw some men today, on the other side of the ravine, they were making things, a bunch of them, with a fire going and wrapping stuff on the end of tree branches, kind of straight ones like arrows, and then dipping them in a bucket they had sitting near the fire.”

“Who was doing that, Timmy? You know any of them?”

“No, but I seen some of them going to Granton’s spread before. The one with a stocking horse, but only three legs all white, and a big black and a gray so pretty I could kiss her.”

Durgin coughed a small attention cough, raised his eyebrows when his wife looked at him, and asked his son, “What did those men do with those sticks, Timmy? Did they see you? Did they take those sticks away with them? Did you see them leave?”

“They stuck them all in under a ledge and covered them up. The bucket too, the black bucket that they stuck the sticks into.”

“What were you doing that far away from the ranch, Timmy?”

“Oh, me and Trotter was just taking a ride and then I saw them when we was resting for a while and having a sandwich and an apple I had for him and me. We sat in the grove of trees near the ravine, ‘cause we was out of the sun and it got hot.”

“You could see all that they did right from those trees, son?”

“Yup, everything they did, like they didn’t know anybody small as me was around.”

Durgin said, “You did fine, son, but don’t go out that way again. Those men are kind of suspicious and might want to steal one of our cows or one of our horses for themselves.” He looked directly at his wife who had stopped her knitting to assimilate all that she had heard from her boy, and the interpretation given by her husband, knowing something was in the offing, something not for their best interests.

“Trotter did good, Pa. Never made a noise at all. Just stood in place like I did.”

“I think your ma will give you another apple for Trotter if you ask her.” He nodded at his wife and said, “I’ll take a few boys with me and we’ll mosey around out that way in the morning, see what’s been fashioned for a surprise. That’s what I’m guessing, it’s supposed to be a big surprise.”

His words came calmly, without any stress or conjecture to them, but his face was set for the course. She knew him so well, she could feel the urgency running through her frame, but she remained still, back to knitting, before she added, “Timmy and I will bake some of those cookies you really like, Matt. Won’t we, Timmy?”

The three of them left the porch for their promised tasks, two to the kitchen, and one to the bunkhouse.

Durgin explained the situation to three of his crew, all trusted hands, all with him through the harsh times that had descended on them, and perhaps were being escalated by other than Mother Nature. He laid out a plan of approach in case there were any of the suspected men were about or the cache of sticks was uncovered by others, accidentally. They’d leave early in the morning.

The false dawn found them in the cluster of trees where Timmy Durgin had observed the suspicious group of men. Durgin directed two of his men toward each end of the ravine to watch for activity, such as riders, or anything that might disturb his intention of finding more about the situation.

“Duke and I will stay here for a while, keeping watch in case someone’s around or keeping watch. Then we’ll get over there directly. You two hightail it to each end of the ravine and watch the approach. Come back this way quick as you can. If you can’t, and someone’s bounden you shan’t, fire two shots. That clear?”

The two men agreed and slipped off to do as bidden.

Durgin and his man Duke Prescott waited a while, saw no activity, rode down into the ravine and staked their horses. With little difficulty even while carrying their rifles, they climbed the other side of the ravine and came out directly in front of the overhanging ledge, a pile of brush under it, which Timmy had spoken about.

They pulled away the brush, saw the black bucket and a dozen sticks stacked in under the ledge, one end of each stick wrapped in rags and dipped in oil and tar, perfect tools for torches that would burn for a good while.

Prescott said as he looked at a pile of ashes, “There’s been a fire here, Matt; I’d guess they had heated up some of the tar to dip the sticks in after being soaked in oil. If there was any oil left, they dumped it, but hid the tar bucket. Couldn’t throw that down the ravine. What cha think?” He was nodding before Durgin answered.

“They were gonna burn our grass, Duke. That’s what they were up to. We only have Timmy’s word on this, and what’s here that could have been left by anybody. We got to get them in the loop of things. We damned well know Granton’s behind this. I’d just love to catch him at it. Pin his ass to the wall one last time.”

He looked back over his shoulder, to the spread of dry grass, all the way to the ranch proper. “If a fire got going good, it could get to the house and the barn with any wind in the kick of it.” He kicked the ground, “Damned idiots.”

A soft whistle came on a breath of air. Prescott said, “That’s Ben Paulie, Matt. He’s come back from the west end of the ravine, and look,” he pointed to the clutch of trees, “he’s back in there and pointing the way he was watching. Someone’s coming. We’d best hide in the rocks here. Hope they don’t see our horses.”

The two men hid in amongst a tumble of rocks a long-time in place from a rock eruption in the heart of the earth. It provided good protection for them.

Shortly, six riders came along the top of the ravine from the direction of town, and Granton’s spread, Granton in the lead on his big gray. He was delivering orders before he even was dismounted, “Get that brush out of there and get a fire going so we can light them torches. We’ll burn Durgin’s fields so he has to pull out of here. He ain’t gonna stand in my way. Get that fire goin’, now.” His voice was loud and nasty.

Prescott’s hands were both on his rifle, as if he was about to shoot. Durgin touched him on the shoulder, put his finger to his lips to get both his silence and no action, and then slowly held his hand up to give the same kind of order to Ben Paulie across the ravine and in the clutch of trees.

Granton, still giving harsh orders, yelled, “Get that fire goin’ good so’s we can light these torches and burn Durgin right out of his holdin’s.”

The brush was out from under the overhang, the sticks dipped in oil and tar retrieved, the fire beginning to flame higher, when Durgin, rifle in hand, stepped up from behind a rock and said, “You ain’t burning anybody out today, Granton. We got you covered. Drop your guns. You boys are on your way to jail.”

Granton did not move, instead sat his horse cool and deliberate and said, “One man ain’t gonna take us to jail, Durgin, and that’s a promise.”

He was surprised when Prescott stood up a dozen feet away from Durgin, from behind another huge boulder, and said, “He ain’t alone, Granton, ‘cause I’m here and I’m the best shot in this here whole possible shootin’ match, of which you are the first target.”

And from across the ravine, hearing all of it, Ben Paulie fired two shots in the air, yelled out, “We’re over here, Boss, and they ain’t gonna hurt us or burn us out today or any day. We got that all covered.”

From the south end of the ravine came two more shots as the other Durgin man fired his rifle in answer.

Ben Paulie said, “The others are comin’, Boss, all of them, and these fire starters are goin’ to jail for sure.”

In the middle of full realization of where he was at, seeing what was coming down on him, his big dreams at the very edge of a steep ravine, Granton went for his gun. Two of his men, in the flurry of that sudden action, did the same.

Prescott, with one round, took Granton right off his saddle, Durgin knocked off another man whose revolver was taking aim at him, and leveled him across his saddle with a dead-on shot. Ben Paulie fired into the rest of the men, his shots bouncing off the rocks near them, so that all available guns were rendered useless for the matter of a gun fight. The weapons of four men hit the ground.

Durgin yelled to Paulie, “Ben, you better go in to town and bring the sheriff out here. He’s got to see all this stuff just waiting for him.”

He’d have to be careful with young Timmy, he realized, lest the boy go running around looking for more adventures, playing crooks and sheriffs.