Western Short Story
Bart Mastiff lowered his rifle off the top of the stone rim and sat back on the rocky ground. Sweat poured off his brow, his back ached, and the sun seemed to reach its fingers into each extremity of his body. Trying to continually advise himself to accept the pain, he was twisted in position, the one wound having seeped two days of redness at his side where the dry remnant toasted in the sun. Two days without water and he knew they were near the end of the trail, both him and his nephew Mark, also wounded, lying a dozen yards away. They had been delivering the deed to his niece’s little ranch to the district land office when they had been jumped.
The tongue in his mouth felt like an old sponge long from water. He could count the cracks in the roof of his mouth, his swollen tongue doing the arithmetic. Not a shot had been fired at them in over four hours in the canyon siege and he could not figure out why the bushwhackers’ tactics had changed. They easily had the upper hand, and canyon shadows shifted with unseen ease around them, providing an assortment of cover.
He thought of the young Indian he had found a few years earlier in one of these canyons, a small group of peccaries snorting too close, the smell of blood in the air, the Indian boy alone and in pain. Bart wasn’t sure if this was the same canyon, but assented that they all looked alike; dead ends often holding darkness or mystery, sheer walls touching the sky, ground unbearably dry and hard, creatures that moved as sly as shadows against dark backgrounds. Even at high noon there could be dark shadows on one side of the canyon or the other, depending on how enormous heat or ice sleds had been at work in their early formation. Out here it was easy for a man to get lost. He had been lost when he found the young brave unarmed, dry as tinder, blood clotted on his backside, lying against the canyon wall. He had tended him for three days, feeding him, tending the wound, being generally alert in such a predicament. When he woke on the third bright morning he found himself in the midst of a party of tribesmen. After talking with the young one, they had carried the boy off with them, but had left Bart a pouch of water, a slice of dry meat, and his weapons put down on the ground about a hundred yards away, allowing him notice of their act, full payment for his deed.
Silence reigned out and beyond, the high canyon and the silence both lounging about like a blanket much too big for its task. The outlaws, whoever they were but obviously from town and in someone’s pay, had changed their scheme of attack. Two days earlier they had surprised him and his nephew Mark on the trail, four shouting, shooting, desperate men, jumping at them and almost getting them in their clutches. But Big Red, Bart’s horse, had barreled through their minute blockade, with Mark’s roan in close pursuit. There was no doubt that Big Red was the best horse west of the Mississippi, and Mark’s mount, Shady Pal, was not far behind. They had got to a defilade position among the rocks of the canyon wall after a desperate run to safety. One canteen had been punctured by a round, the second one out there somewhere, dropped on the ride to partial safety.
Bart counted the rounds in his belt. He had seven left, and a full clip in his revolver. Mark had not as yet fired off one shot.
Bart looked over at Mark, behind another boulder, his shirt deeply stained, blood most likely dried up at a shoulder wound. Bart knew he’d be little help to him now, physically or mentally. Even without his wound, Mark provided too much slack with his mousy voice, his outlook on life in general, and his place in it in particular, as though he was forever lost in all that was around him. There were times, even as kids, that Mark had lost a fight before it had started.
“We’ll never get out of here, Bart,” he said again, the near-whimper prevalent in his words. “They have us cornered. It’s best we do what they’ll ask, I can feel it. They’ll let us go, once they got the deed in their hands. It’s what they came after. You and I both know that.” Bart knew Mark’d never have a second thought if he lost his sister’s spread. That’s why the deed, yet to be registered at Bola City, was in his shirt pocket, the blood perhaps already atop the signature.
Bart could see his niece Sally on the porch of the small house, the two children at her side, their anxious eyes often out on the trail for their father, gone six months now on the drive with the herd, and the only message had been the delivery of the deed to the small spread, won somewhere north of them in a poker game. They’d been a short time on the ranch when the rider who had left the herd to deliver the precious piece of paper, had shot off his mouth about his part in the small drama. Like all small talk in all small towns, stories and assumptions grew about true ownership of the spread, a possible crooked game, an improbable draw to an inside straight, and questions about what else was in the kitty to match the deed. Sally was only too aware of how her husband could be overcome when cards were in his hands. If he bet the herd and won the deed, chances are that he’d bet it again. Each dawn the silence, the questions and the doubts pounced on her. “Bart,” she had said one evening, “the kids and me count on you a lot more than you realize.” Bart knew she had said a whole mouthful, and more, in those few words.
As in a true difference, Mark called out again from his spot in the shadow of a huge chunk of stone fallen from the rim of the canyon. “Bart, ought we throw up a white flag, let them know we’re willing to talk? There might just be some worth to all the chatter we heard back there, about ownership and cheating. Why should we have to pay for it like this?”
Bart Mastiff wondered about genes in the family, how Mark must have been cheated on his supply. He wanted to scream out at his nephew, but it would add nothing to their comfort or safety and might easily excite the four bushwhackers. Once more he heard little but silence, saw minor shadows move on the ground and against the canyon wall, counted his bullets one more time. The sun was higher, it seemed, and hotter, and his mouth began another slow torture as he tried to swallow a bit of spittle; he could not find a spot of it.
None of the bushwhackers was known by him. He was sure of that, and yet wondered who might have hired them to collect the deed. Mark whined again, sounding like an animal in a trap. Bart, on the spot, further discounted him as any possible help. He snuck a look out across the canyon, and then up and down the fissure that it was. Nothing moved. There was total silence. He did not even hear a bird call, or any cry or sound from an animal of the area. He felt like he was alone in the world. But that was not so. They were probably waiting for him to dry into tinder, die in the sun. And they might even be drinking out of Mark’s canteen at the very moment. He peeked again, over the edge of the rock. Again he saw stillness, if you can see it; heard silence if you can hear it; felt life on the edge, if you can feel it. He was only aware of some transition at hand, some mystery beyond his knowledge.
Even to those who listened to him later, he swore he heard the arrow on the air. He didn’t see it; he heard it, a whistle in it, a simple whoosh of parting air the way lips purse up at a good whistle. The arrow struck the ground about ten feet from him. Then one landed directly between Mark and him. Still, he had seen nothing, no one, no bowman of any description. Moments later, a third arrow, in a more direct flight, hit the rock face ten or twelve feet directly above him and clattered to the ground exactly behind him. It was two feet away, the arrow head broken off, the shaft yet smooth and almost polished.
He saw, again, nothing. No one. No shadow. No silhouette. No sprung bow.
And then the reality of it all hit him, as he realized the four desperadoes most likely had not seen any shadow at all, but had felt some scourge come among them, come over them, right from the heart of canyon silence.