Western Short Story
Friends and Enemies
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

When big, burly Jake Henry bumped into Scott Harlow’s mother coming out of the general store and spilled some of her goods without saying excuse me, ma’am, or helping her to pick things up, 12-year old Scott dove at Jake Henry’s knees and knocked him down, and the boy stood straight up from the dust with Jake’s gun in his hand.

“Hold on, kid,” Jake said, “that was an accident and surprised Hell out of me as much as it did your mom. I didn’t mean anything by it and I hope you don’t have any wicked ideas about my gun. I’d be a better friend than an enemy, if you want to look at things that way, and I’m still standing an hour from now.”

Scott didn’t take long to reply, saying, “My pa always told me making a friend is better than making an enemy any day in the week. Here’s your gun,” and he handed the big man his gun, who had a really big smile on his face.

“That’s good thinking, what your pa said, son, so you got a new friend. My name is Jake Henry. What’s your name?”

“My name is Scott Harlow and my mom’s name is Lila Lee Harlow and my pa was killed by cattle rustlers.”

“I’m damned sorry about your pa, son, but if you ever need a friend, let me know. I always remember my friends on the worst of days and the best of nights. I work at the Great Horn spread ‘bout 10 miles out of town.’ He smiled again, and added, “but I ride fast.”

On-lookers of all sorts realized that a deal had been made between man and boy and felt without a doubt that it would never be broken. A lot of heads nodded the same message.

None of them knew that a half dozen years would pass before that deal was called into play, and in a matter of a hurry, in consideration of the passage of time. Scott and his mother bred and raised a few horses at a time to bring in the groceries and supplies. The pair of them did well enough to survive until all their horses, young and older, were taken in the dead of night and run off in three directions, the trails all presented as if to throttle any type of real pursuit across the wide grass of the prairie of East Texas.

“Mom,” Scott said, “I’m going to pick one of the trails to follow and you go into town and tell the sheriff what’s going on. He lit out on one of the trails, riding low in the saddle, his eyes tracking all the time, seeing which was what and remembering little details few men would see or take note of.

Lila Lee Harlow, on the way to town, went off her course, deciding to ring in Jake Henry on his old promise. She spurred her horse left at the rail in front of the house with Scott’s horse, mare and colt in another pairing to be reckoned with.

She approached the Great Horn spread and spoke to the first ranch hand she met. “Please Tell me where I can find Jake Henry. I have need of his services.”

“My gawd, you’re the kid’s mother, the one Jake gave his promise to. He’s told that story so many times, we plumb forgot it after a while, like it was plain old talk, likely to be forgotten. But I’ll tell you, Ma’am, Jake don’t forget none of that stuff, like that kid was his own son the way he used to tell it. Jake plain ain’t none forgot it. Not a minute. How old’s that boy now?”

His interest was spurred by the looks that came across her face

“He’s 18 now,” she replied, “and is off tracking horse thieves that took most of our horses, the whole remuda. If he catches up to any of them, there’s gonna be heavy trouble and my boy’s gonna be smack in the middle of it.”

The ranch hand fired a shot into the air, and the like of a sudden a rider appeared on the near horizon and came toward them riding fast.

“Go tell Jake the mother of that Harlow kid, the one who gave him back his gun that time in town, is here and the kid needs help. Hurry, the kid’s on the trail of horse thieves and probly don’t know what he’s facing up to. Jake’s workin’ the Eagle Pass grass right ‘bout now I figure, and best place to latch onto him. Wait until he hears this.”

The excitement, like the messenger, was off and running.

The second hand rode off in a hurry, and the other ranch hand said, “When it comes to horse thieving, Ma’am, there’s nothin’ lower than those scum bags. You can bet, Jake ain’t comin’ back alone. He might have the whole ranch with him.” He slapped his horse to ride off and said to Mrs. Harlow as he rode off, “Best get to town Ma’am, and tell the sheriff we might have a small war on our hands.”

He rode off, spurring his horse in a hurry, toward the Great Horn ranch house. In a short time, he was but a black dot on the move, hightailing it for mortal combat the same way some men have it in them as a bounden duty. In a few minutes, he was out of sight down in a vale or gully, the black dot of him appearing on another hummock on the distant horizon of grass.

Meanwhile, off in a further easterly direction, Scott Harlow kept studying the ground he covered, spotting all the separate and deliberate attempts to steer followers away on false trails. For all his years, he had read the signs of horses, shod or not, and was pretty damned good at doing it. Now, at least a day and a half from the Harlow barn and corrals, he was in the midst of a series of low hills and humps in the land, and realized the thieves must be heading to higher country near Mount George, looming ever over all the nearby land this side of its peak.

Something had kicked into his mind and he thought better of a straight approach, and had begun to ride eastward instead to end up coming in from the far east of the mountain. He left the trail he had been following, sure that he’d not be seen on this other route, or suspected as being on the trail of the stolen horses.

He was dead wrong, yet better than wrong dead.

A rear scout of the horse thieves, having spotted a lone rider on their trail, rode up to the head of the gang, and said, “We got a chaser on our trail. One rider checking the ground like he’s studyin’ it, like he’s an old hand at it. Might be a sheriff or a marshal we almost met last time over in Gallows Run, but I can’t make him out that close. Want me to sit on him until I can get off a good shot?”

“Don’t be stupid, Curly. Stealin’ horses is bad enough but murder shakes up the whole territory if he’s wearin’ a badge or a star. Just keep tabs on him, and from long distance. We’ll swing toward high ground at Bulger’s Pass. There’s three or four ways of movin’ in there where the ground’s real rocky and we might throw him off the scent. We done it afore and might do it again. Git goin’ now, and watch him close, but no damned shootin’.”

Elsewhere, things were also moving/ “Ma’am,” the sheriff said to Lila Lee Harlow, “I want you to stay in town, over at my house with my wife, and I’ll get a posse saddled up pronto. We’ll get them bozos soon’s we can, and get your stock back in your barn. And let’s hope your boy don’t bite off’n more’n he can chew.”

“He’s so determined, Sheriff,” she said, “like he’s my savior every time out. Been that way since I lost my husband. Rock-hard he is and quick to prove it, but a mind at studying what he’s bent on.”

“Let’s hope he uses his head this time,” replied the sheriff. This might be the same gang we chased a couple of times already and they like disappear up on the mountain, like they got a damned cave up there or a tunnel to freedom the Injuns might have made a hundred years ago.

OH, Hell, it could have been a thousand years ago the way they lose any trackers the few times we got up there on old George hisself.”

Meanwhile, Jake Henry, with the old promise digging at him, had marshalled about a half dozen men from the ranch. “You boys know the story. How I promised the kid anytime he needed my help, I’d do my damnedest for him, so I’m countin’ on you gents to help me keep my promise. Simple as that.”

One of the hands said, like he was speaking for the bunch of them, “That kid had a lot of guts and a lot of good sense and has took care of his mom for as long as you’ve told the story, Jake, so it’s time we push our way into it and get you shut up f’ever ‘bout it.”

The laughter spread through the whole group, all of them saddled and ready for small war or long search.

There was indeed a hue and a cry about a small war coming their way, and they meant every note of the dare. Guns were oiled, saddles checked, saddle bags loaded with any needs for a week on the trail. In a week they could be out of the territory and no half-brained horse thief would dare move their theft into another territory or another state. Hanging was in the bargain and they knew the threat was on their side to keep things Texas well inside Texas.

They lit out across the grass, Jake Henry leading them, on the way to keep his promise.

In time, a host of markers left by Scott for followers to follow him tracking the thieves, they tried to catch up to him ass he sat his saddle in a small gully and stared up at the most easterly part of Mount George, which in that mostly flat country looked like the Rockies had made an end run.

Quizzically going over every fact and every half-ass clue in his mind, even retracing every one of his own steps, he had somehow decided to go around the good old Mountain and look at it from its most northern side. That side trip put another full day onto his time in the saddle, being enough to wear down another man, young as him, suddenly old as him.

Before he knew it, his mind in a kind of frizzle, he was looking up at old George, like he was on the ground floor of a huge building, musing about this and that of his trip, when his horse snickered, like he usually did when a fair mare was about. He was on one side of a grove/e of trees thick with shade and cover, when his horse snickered again, its intent as old as the ages

“Well, old stubborn, you still got your vitals like I ain’t never had none.”

He tied off that sudden robust animal, grabbed his Springfield rifle and a passel of ammunition he donned like a back-pack, and moved through the grove of trees, picking his way through like a sneak thief.

Astonishment grabbed him right by the collar, right by the throat, as he caught the sight of a wide cave mouth right in the side of old George himself. The cave was half as wide as a decent corral back behind him on any spread. He even heard sounds bouncing like crazy with a tinny and rocky tone with them, and right from the cave opening.

His mind opened like a corral gate, the limbs let down, nothing but space and far-reaching grass out in front of it.

Instantly, Scott Harlow sought his best vantage point, both defensive and offensve, a huge cracked boulder as if Mother Time herself had placed it there for him.

When the first horseman came slowly to the cave opening, Scott put a round from the Springfield directly over his head, like a warning was being issued, as indeed it was, leaded, racing, deadly in its accuracy. There was no question about intent.

It was plain to see, if it could be seen; plain, old-fashioned, old Texas style, survival in its voice.

The rider whipped his mount around and went back into the cave, in a damned hurry at that.

The echo of the shot ran up the side of the mountain as if it was a bugle call.

Another rider tried the exit routine, at whom Scott delivered another closer and deadlier message in its delivery. He, too, disappeared back into the cave.

Scott Harlow, knowing he had his quarry bottled-up in narrow confinement, rocky confinement, a prison in and of itself instead of a tricky escape, counted, at leisure, his supply of ammunition. He figured, even with a few random shots in the darkness, he could keep them at bay until the sheriff and a posse came to assist him.

Even miles away, the echoes of random gunfire reached one of Jake Henry’s scouts on Scott Harlow’s trail, who reported the situation to Jake Henry, who might have said, Damned kid did it without me,” but instead roused his group of volunteers of the promise and lit out for the conclusion.

Jake Henry came to the rescue, as he had promised years earlier. They relieved Scott Harlow of his hidden prisoners-in-a-sense, retrieved the stolen horses, captured the horse thieves, turned them over to the sheriff.

In after days, time-on-hand reduced, Jake Henry, alive to many things, married Lila Lee Harlow, and became father, if you will, of a youngster who once held a loaded gun on him, his own gun, in front of a whole town.