Western Short Story
It was a vast sea of grass, the like of which he had never seen before in his life. Everywhere he looked it was the same, a waving green so vast and so deep a man could get lost just by waking up and rolling out bed. Getting lost was why he was out here. He wanted to forget those dark days when the war had consumed everyone and everything. He couldn’t go back, he just couldn’t.
War changes a man in ways no one could really understand or so it seemed to him. His nights were quiet for the most part, but dark dreams rattled him enough to waken him and leave him sweating and breathing hard. Those nights were why he was heading west, he figured the farther away he got the less reason there was for them to return.
He was only a hundred miles west of Hannibal, Mo. but he was feeling more relaxed than ever before. The trail ran deep here, long narrow ruts left by hundreds of Sooners heading west to the mountains and a new life. He had no wagon, nor any inclination to join anyone of the trains passing him by. They would have given anything to have a gun such as him to ride along, even for a little ways. But it was always no thank you sir just heading west is all good luck to you. And then he would turn his sorrel away from the trail and shadow the train until it was well along.
He wasn’t all that unusually dressed for a sorry old cowpoke heading west. Like so many others he sported an old army uniform, much worn at the knees and elbows, faded as much from wear as wash. A battered forage cap with a black leather brim, buckled brown leather leggings and scuffed brown army boots completed the picture of an ex-soldier seeking his fortune. What set him apart from the others was the color of his uniform, not grey or blue but green.
When the war started he rushed to volunteer. Bored and broke, he figured a good old-fashioned scrap with their southern neighbours would set things to right. The recruiting sargeant looked him up and down, shook his head, and signed him in. It wasn’t until he revealed a special talent with a rifle that anybody paid attention to him at all.
When he demonstrated an ability to hit a target five inches from center at six hundred feet he was quickly recruited into a special sharpshooter regiment. Sharpshooting took time and patience, requiring an innate skill with a rifle that he came to hate. He rarely missed, a notable achievement that left him feeling more like a murderer than a soldier. Four years of death could wear on a man some.
* * * * * *
It had been another long day in the saddle, the two of them in no particular hurry to get anywhere. He’d been told there was good grazing land out Kansas way, where a man might pick up some range work without too many questions. That would suit him just fine. As for the sorrel it was happy just to get in some good grazing, army oats weren’t the best feed.
Several trains passed by that day, long lines of Conestoga’s churning up the dry prairie into a cloud of dust so thick it blotted out the sun. Long towards the end of the day he spotted off in the distance a single wagon stopped dead in the middle of trail. Some sort of trouble he figured, most likely a broken axle or a busted wheel. No Sooner worth his salt ever strayed far from the train, there were too many wolves, two legged and four, looking to prey on a straggler.
More out of habit than curiosity he reined in and pulled out his army issue field glasses. They had low magnification but provided a wide field of view. Well worn from long use, he had a telescope for more detailed scouting but it was buried deep in the pack behind his saddle. They’d been with him through a number of scraps, Gettysburg being the one clouding his dreams.
And that was exactly what he was seeing in front of him, some kind of scrap or other involving a white-haired old man clad in baggy grey flannel pants and red shirt, and a woman in a long skirt and white blouse. The left rear wheel of their wagon was bent outwards, iron rim askew wooden spokes snapped. Their would-be rescuers were waving pistols in the old man’s face, yammering about something and being right unfriendly about it.
A shot rang out and the old man clutched his gut and collapsed on the ground. The woman threw her hands to her face and screamed, dropping to her knees beside him, fussing over him like a hen with a wounded chick. The wolves, one long and lean in a red shirt, the other shorter and heavier built in a black vest, proceeded to empty the contents of the wagon onto the ground. When they came up empty, the lean one grabbed the woman by the hair and yanked her to her feet.
The wolf shook her like a dead rat, waving his pistol in her face, presumably threatening to shoot her. He knew instinctively this wasn’t going to end well and kneed the sorrel forward. He didn’t know her from a hole in the ground but something from within was urging him on. Even as he came up on the scene the wolf mounted her in front of him, his arm wrapped tightly around her waist. The three of them turned and rode south hard and fast, leaving the old man to his fate, and the wagon to whatever other wolves might find it.
The old man lay on his back, blood trickling out of the side of his mouth, chest heaving in raspy breaths. He lifted the dying mans head up and dribbled water from his canteen onto lips already turning blue.
“Thanks stranger, much obliged,” he gasped. “Don’t worry about me, I’m done for, where’s Cora. See to her would ya, she’s gonna need help.”
“I don’t know how much help I can be mister, they took her with them. Name’s Will Carter. Who’s she to you?’
“Cora’s my granddaughter. We was headed west to Santa Fe or thereabouts. Gonna start a new life. Lost it all when the Yankees come to Virginia. Promised to get her there safe and sound. You got to find her you hear?” He groaned with the effort, the raspy breathing getting louder.
“I hear you but …” Carter wasn’t sure this was his fight, he’d had enough of somebody else’s orders, somebody else’s death. All he wanted to do was ride west and make a new life for himself, and leave the dark memories and nightmares behind.
“Promise me,” the old man gasped. “Promise me you’ll get her back, she’s too innocent to be out here all alone. Don’t know nuthin’ about the west.” He clutched at the arm holding the canteen, a fiery light in his eyes until that moment when death put out the fire and relaxed his grip.
There it was again, a word he hadn’t heard since Gettysburg and that fight at Pitzer’s Wood. It had been a hell of time, bullets flying in all directions. His regiment, Second United States Sharpshooters, had stood their ground against a large number of Confederates intent on taking the woods from them. During the fight his tent mate Charlie Anderson had taken a rebel round in the lungs.
He cradled Charlie’s head in his arms, trying to be of some comfort as his life slowly ebbed away. It didn’t seem altogether fair, they’d been together through every scrap since Manassas and not a mark on either. Now this.
“Promise me,” Charlie choked out the words. “Promise me you’ll see to Cassie, see that she gets told how I died. Wasn’t no coward like her old man said, not afraid to pull the trigger when it needed pulling. Got me enough of them Rebs to show him up some, let him know I was more of a man then he ever will be. Made her proud of me.”
Then he was gone and the war returned, General Wilcox and his rebel infantry pressing hard but making no gain against the storm of lead that hit them. After the battle was over Carter went into a blind rage, going on a three day drunk. He barely remembered being hauled up before the provost marshal for striking a superior officer, several of them in fact, and serving thirty days before being returned to his regiment.
By that time they had moved on and Charlie’s gear had been forwarded to Cassie or so he was told. Most likely it had been sold to the highest bidder or thrown out and no word ever to Cassie. That regret hung like a millstone around his neck until he was mustered out at the war’s end.
He sighed. “I’ll do what I can mister, promise.” He laid the old sooner down gently on the dusty prairie and looked to the south where the riders had gone. His field glasses revealed nothing, so he unwrapped his long rifle and pulled a telescopic sight from its wrappings. He soon caught sight of them, making tracks south to who knows where. He could see her long brown hair streaming in the wind, a marker he was unlikely to forget. He mounted up and rode after them stopping every so often to take a sighting.
The three rode at a good clip until they were several miles south of the trail. He watched as Cassie was tossed from the saddle, landing in a heap at the feet of the big bay mare the lean wolf was riding. He admired her spunk, the way she picked herself up and dusted herself off despite the hard ride. In his mind a lesser woman would have fallen into a crying fit and gotten worse for her trouble than just angry words and hard slaps.
A fire soon blazed to life, and Cassie could clearly be seen adding the fixings for something into a large pot hung on a triangle. Will and the sorrel edged around the camp south and east until he was directly in line with the campfire and the setting sun. It was the sun he wanted, that great glowing ball of light that brought them all into sharp focus while making him nigh on invisible.
A worn waterproof cover was spread out on the ground, the sorrel left to graze on its own a short distance away. On the cover he laid his bundle, which when carefully opened, revealed the tools necessary to his old trade as a Green Coat sharpshooter. Once assembled, his tools became a Whitworth rifle, slow to load and hard to aim true, but capable of hitting just about anything he aimed for. It was a light rifle and had one hell of kick, but it had yet to fail him.
He couldn’t have been more than three hundred yards away but he couldn’t afford to get any closer lest he be seen. It would take time to reload and reset his aim if he was going to make this work, easier if he wasn’t under fire. He sat cross-legged on the ground, sideways to his target. His right elbow rested on his right knee, eye placed tight against the scope while left elbow rested on his left knee, serving to steady the weapon and tighten his aim.
The plan was to wait until the sun was almost set before opening fire, giving the wolves less of a chance to return fire. While the lean wolf bent to eat out of the pot, the heavier one grabbed Cassie by the arm and dragged her away from the camp. She struggled mightily, desperate to escape his clutches the further they moved into the gloom.
His chance came when he stopped dragging her and threw her to the ground. She lay there, unmoving, more from exhaustion than fear. Her tormentor made to set aside his gun belt and prepare for worse things to come. Will took a deep breath, held it, and slowly squeezed the trigger.
The hexagonal shaped Whitworth bullet, when fired down the hexagonal barrel of the rifle, produced a distinctive whistling noise. A sound that came to be feared by rebel soldiers everywhere. The heavier wolf had no idea what the whistling meant nor where the shot came from. One moment he was standing in the middle of the lone prairie with his hands on his gun belt, the next he was lying flat on his back, gut shot and dying.
The lean wolf leaped to his feet and drew his pistols, spinning around to see where the shot had come from. Will had to hurry, the sun was setting rapidly and the lean wolf was now racing towards Cassie as she staggered to her feet. Once again she found herself being dragged across the prairie, this time being used as a human shield. The surviving wolf was taking no chances, if he was going she was going to go with him.
Will could see clearly the look of desperation on her face but until her captor stepped away or dropped her he couldn’t take a second shot. There was a brief flurry and she broke free, falling to a heap at his feet. He stood over her, threatening to shoot on the spot while she shrank back.
The second shot exited the barrel as the last rays of the sun dipped below the horizon and turned the prairie as dark as midnight. His last sight of them before it grew dark was a look of surprise on both their faces. Then in the growing darkness the crack of a pistol.
He approached the guttering fire slowly, leading the sorrel by the reins, rifle in hand. She was sitting just outside the circle of light cast by the fire, pistol in hand, head down and sobbing.
“Hello to the fire,” he called out. “Coming in, don’t shoot. Friend.”
She sat up, startled by the sound of his voice, the pistol in her hands coming up to point right at him. It shook wildly, meaning it could go off in a heartbeat, with less than no chance of hitting him.
“Evening ma’am, you Cora by any chance?” he asked politely, taking off his forage cap.
“How? Who?” was all she could spit out. There was a look of complete surprise on her grimy tear-stained face.
“Your friend sent me, the one by the wagon. Said you might need a little help.” He let go the reins, set down the rifle, and walked slowly over to the fire. He held his hands over it to warm them up.
“Granddad?” she asked.” He sent you?”
“Yes ma’am, I saw what was going on but I came too late to help any. I’m afraid your Grandfather is dead. Those two did for him and then they took you away. He asked me, made me promise, to come look for you.”
“Oh, thank you…I guess…” the pistol dropped to the ground and then the tears began to flow again. He crouched down beside her and gently removed the pistol from her shaking hands.
“It’s alright ma’am, carpe noctem.” The words slipped out unintentionally, a habit he had developed when under duress.
She looked up at him in complete surprise, big brown eyes wide open. “What did you say?” she gasped.
“Nothing ma’am, just words is all, just words.”
“No, those weren’t just words I heard, those were … in Latin. I’m sure of it. Who did you say you were?”
“Didn’t say ma’am, just a friend is all. You okay ma’am, I heard a gunshot. He hurt you?” He looked her over anxiously, trying not to pry.
“I shot him, actus reus, a guilty act for which I am guilty.” She smiled in guilty pleasure.
“That was Latin now, wasn’t it?” He smiled in return, for he knew those words himself.
“Guilty as charged,” she said. “I’m a school teacher, elocution, languages, deportment. I’m sorry I must look an awful fright.” Barely out of the clutches of two desperadoes and all she could think of was how she looked. Women!
“Your grandfather mentioned you were heading west, to start a new life?” he asked gently.
“Yes, we lost everything when the Yankees came through. We were going to Santa Fe, look a for place where I could maybe teach at a school, private lessons maybe, wait on tables, something, anything, but I guess that’s all over with now.” She looked him over quizzically. “I know my people wore gray, and those damn Yankees wore blue, but what colour is green. I’ve never seen that colour before. What side were you on?”
“Blue. The uniform was from my old regiment, the Green Coats. Don’t let this fool you,” he said. “I’m a teacher myself, from Delaware, history and geography, although I did the odd class in mathematics. Name’s Will Carter.”
“But you spoke in Latin, I know you did, I heard it.” She said defiantly.
“Yes ma’am, I suppose you did. Just something I picked up in my spare time. While away the hours so to speak. I write a little and translate but mostly it’s just spoken.” Will moved back over to the fire and began adding some sticks. There was a definite chill to the night air and she with only a shirt to keep her warm. Well, there was that blanket across his saddle bow.
“So what are you doing way out here, may I ask.” Now she sounded more like herself he reasoned, bright-eyed and sassy. “Man like you should be a professor somewhere, teaching all this to a bunch of illiterate northerners.”
“I suppose so, but I decided to go west. I’ve seen enough death to last a lifetime, thought I might try again elsewhere.” He pulled at the blanket and carried it over to her.
“You shot these men, didn’t you,” she said quietly. “You followed us and you shot them dead. I’m a lucky woman, Fortes fortuna adiuvat.”
He smiled at that. “Yes ma’am, suppose it does at that. Tell the truth I pledged myself a long time ago not to take any more lives, but…under the circumstances, it seemed like the right thing to do. I hope you can forgive me, ma’am, it’s not something I enjoy doing, its’ just that I’m good at it.” He threw the heavy wool across her shoulders, taking care to see she was well wrapped up. “That’s why I’m headed west, I want to put all that behind and start over fresh somewhere.” He stood up straight, letting out a long sigh as if he had finally unburdened his soul.
She rose and slid into his arms, neither of them speaking. She did not ask why he had come for her, she just knew that whatever ghosts from his past that were still haunting him were now fled. All this time he had let his anger use him, drive him, dominate him, instead of forcing it into channels that would make him steadier and stronger. Twice now his anger had gotten the better of him, and twice he had taken it into his two hands and turned it to his own uses. Maybe now, with her at his side, he could let go the past, still the dreams that haunted his sleep, and move onto something better, with someone better. That someone now tucked securely under his right arm, the rifle lying on the prairie where he had left it behind.
Fortune did indeed favour the bold.