Western Short Story
High Country Hideout
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Crazy George Gonzo had his own ideas about the way to run a gang, and where to lay low when a job was done. Often, as he fled a posse, his father’s words came back to him: “If a posse ever gits to chase you down up here in the high country, or them Injuns, there’s only one place to hole up … Banshee Gorge. There’s one way in an’ one way out that one ain’t the way you came in. I’ll show you the whole shebang, the way out for you an’ how it’s marked, but don’t ever share it with anybody includin’ who runs with you, ‘cause they all got mouths like women at a party when the chips come down.”

He admitted one point; “I ain’t never told a single soul alive about Banshee Gorge an’ yore the first one.”

“Why’s it called Banshee Gorge?” the youngster said, having heard about the place before but had never been there.

“I heard a Irish fella broke a good bottle of whiskey in there an’ made a name for the place when a scream came off the cliffs like loud little folks was blamin’ him for breakin’ the bottle ‘cause they had planned havin’ a party with it an’ havin’ a dance up there. Some awful screamin’ an’ yellin’ it was, the kind some men never hear until they get caught up to their boot tops in the drink.”

Very early on young Gonzo had been a rider who had obviously become part of the animal under him, the upright extension of the creature sitting his saddle like a general and his father knew he’d be a great horseman, and even as he asked the question about Banshee Gorge, he practiced tricks on his horse. He bounced up and down, rolled one way into one stirrup, hid his silhouette, bounced back up, did the other side, and once came up from his twist with his rifle in one hand ready to fire it. Pleasing his father was about the only thing he liked.

He was 12 years old then, a little chubby, round of face, eyes appearing as though they had been set too close together, which set him off from other boys his age and well on his way to infamy.

At 16, holding the horses out front of a bank his father was trying to rob by blowing up the big safe,

the ensuing explosion rocked the building. Windows were blown out all over the bank and a whole chunk of one wall, convincing the youngster that his father had died in the explosion. He could see the blast going off at the face of the big vault before the right timing, probably the dynamite being in his father’s hands as he was about to place it in the selected spot.

He winced once and promptly fled out of town, the early dawn light showing little of him as he hit the road. But one man had spotted him and infamy had its start. He grew from that round face and close eyes to a porcine-looking creature whose hat did not seem to belong on his head, or that face did not appear to belong to that hat, a wide-brimmed Stetson; he had once looked into a mirror and chose the hat that did not belong.

He was, as has been said, well on his way to a life in crime. And never had he been forced to seek out the hideout in Banshee Gorge. Now, not yet 30 years old, in flight with several gang members, he knew the posse on his tail was led by a very determined sheriff he did not know, had not seen before, but was showing smarts and downhome grit in the chase. The pursuit was endless, daring, like a star across the midnight skies, there and gone like its flash, only to reappear in another place, downriver or upriver, downhill or uphill, like a boil on his backside he could not reach.

The gang on this flight did not realize they were a new collection, and the sheriff in pursuit did not know it either, for Gonzo never ran with the same gang more than two times. If the law did not get each member of the gang at the time of a crime or slightly thereafter, Gonzo made sure they were not around for a third trip. He didn’t trust anybody longer than a lasso reach. Nobody, therefore, knew the difference.

Gonzo, as a result, had an extra layer of protection around him … the wall of silence.

The sheriff in the chase was young too; 26-year old Malcolm Pickard, mustered out of the army in 1865 at 22, a veteran of the Big War. His mother had died giving birth to him, his father and older brother died in a mine explosion in Pennsylvania and he joined the army in 1860. Because of his bravery, intelligence and singular accomplishments as a lone scout and often as an infiltrator, he was appointed as lieutenant and then as captain in the cavalry, the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry of distinguished actions in Antietam, Fredericksburg, Hanover Court House, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg and finally, where he made captain, at Brandy Station— in a most illustrious cavalry charge of the war, and then, in short order, his last action at Appomattox.

When he was discharged, he rode his horse west … no place else to go, no roots grasping for attention, no single tie worth looking back.

News on Gonzo, a notorious robber and killer, had circulated for a number of years, and he always had eluded any posse or sheriff on the chase after him. Parts of lower Idaho and Wyoming and northern regions of Utah and Colorado often bristled with current reports of Gonzo’s latest ghoulish crimes where at least one person was killed in every instance. The word was spread by riders, coach and freight drivers, train personnel, and was bandied about in every saloon, barbershop and general store in the subject area.

One man carried on in the Wrangler Saloon in Loyalty, Idaho for so long one night that the bartender gave him extra drinks to keep it up. “That crazy Gonzo came out of the bank in Etria,” he said, “shootin’ as he ran, one bag of gold in his left hand, his gun in his right hand, and two killed as he ran past them two folks just happenin’ by. I heard they was just comin’ from a church meeting and was already dressed for proper burial by the undertaker. Tell me that ain’t the doin’s of a devil as crazy as loco can be.”

He kept drinking and kept talking and most men listened hard and checked their guns to make sure they were primed and loaded for any chance they’d meet up with Gonzo; he’d been here in town once before. He could come by again, they might argue.

One of the men in the saloon bumped into Loyalty’s sheriff, Malcolm Pickard, and told him the latest news, adding, “And you know Etria ain’t too far from here, Sheriff. Not far at all.”

Pickard was on his way with 7 men who volunteered for his posse. Four of them had been with him on other hunts. One was an Indian fighter, one an army scout, one a pardoned prisoner and the fourth was a comrade from the Sixth Pennsylvania Cavalry who had left the army 6 months after Pickard and went looking for him. “I’d serve with that man at the gates of Hell,” he had said on numerous occasions. His name was Edward Joseph and his pals called him Edjo. His father ran a store beside a river in Charlestown, New Hampshire and his mother did not want him to leave home, not for the war or anything else. “Ma,” he said when the time came, “this country almost got broke down once and it’s still growing westways and I aim to do my best to keep it going. I know one man who’s doing that now and I’m joining up with him. I was with him at Brandy Station and never saw the likes of him before or since.”

From Etria the posse picked up the trail of Gonzo and his gang from people who had seen a gang of riders on the move, from which point the Indian fighter and the army scout picked up the trail. Both of them agreed that the trail signs were so clear that they believed Gonzo did not believe anybody would try to chase them down. “No sharp turns, Mal,” they reported, “and no quick scurries through brush or using a stream to drift their trail away, and lots of open sign at waterholes and one place where they likely ran a fire to cook some grub. They don’t hardly seem to be in any hurry at all. And most likely we’ll get a gander at them tomorrow.”

It was early next day when one of the advance men came back to camp and said, “They’re just now greeting the day. I smelt their coffee a mile off and I guess they smelt me too ‘cause they saddled and ran, heading up into high country. It looks like a rugged place up there. I’m sure there are some box canyons in there and a general rocky mess that might give us a break or give them a break.”

The sheriff said, “I’m sure we’ll see them hole up somewhere, because they can’t run forever in the high country. I want you two gents to see if you can get up higher, see any way out for them, send us some signals. ‘Yes we see them holed up,’ will be three shots seconds apart. We’ll get an idea where you’ll be. I’ll keep tracking with the rest of us and try to bring them to ground. We’ll try to sneak in on them, or unarm who we can if it’s possible. They can’t be perfect. If we have to break in on them in a rush, we’ll signal we need your cover. Try to stay above them all the time if they hole up.”

The quarry was sighted entering a canyon, and it looked like a box canyon with only one way out … and that was the way in.

Sheriff Pickard called on his old comrade Edward Joseph, Edjo still to all, and the pair slipped into the canyon on foot as evening descended on them. Once inside, the pair separated and advanced into the canyon. Two situations developed; Joseph was surprised by a lookout that slammed him on the head with a rifle butt and had him on the ground and at the point of the rifle set right between his eyes.

“Who are you gents?” the lookout said, “We didn’t think nobody was trackin’ us ‘til this mornin’. Gonzo said so himself. But you’re too scared to answer me, ain’t you?” He tapped Joseph’s head with the rifle bore again.

Pickard’s voice came from a shadow. “Don’t touch him again, mister, or you’re dead.” He stepped out of the deep shadows so the lookout could see his rifle pointed right at him.

“That’ll make three of us, whoever you are,” said the lookout, “’cause you got a rifle on you from behind right now.” There was sarcasm loaded in his voice as he said it, and added, “And he’s better at shootin’ than me.” His quick little laughter seemed to say, “Harrumph!” and he appeared ready to pull the trigger if Pickard made one move to alter the situation.

It was Pickard’s turn to level some sarcasm, no bravura, no swelling of sudden pride, as he replied, “You mean the squirmy little fellow with pimples all over his face I trussed up back there who can’t even say hello now to let you know he’s here, which he isn’t. And he’s not about to be here.” The last bit was loaded with assurance.

His rifle clicked its ominous sound at which the lookout took the rifle away from Joseph’s head and dropped it at his side, embarrassment covering him head to foot.

Joseph, leaping up, whispered, “There’s another one, Mal, over there on that side, behind a big slab that slid off the mountain. He comes out every once in a while and pokes around. Should be easy to jab him good, tie him up.”

“You take care of this one, Edjo, and I’ll go get his pard over there. And then we’ll get Crazy George Gonzo, and see that he gets to court and gets hung, him and his henchmen. All of them.”

The lookout, now with his own rifle trained on him by Joseph, said, “Gonzo said nobody’ll ever catch us in here. He said that a dozen times, like it was a promise. What a fool I was to get roped in by that. Said he had gold in here and we ain’t seen any of that either.”

Pickard, questioningly, said, “That’s Crazy George for you … this is a box canyon and no way out but the way in, and we got that covered.”

The lookout, shaking now in his boots, stammered a reply; “He said it, like I said, a dozen or so times at least, like he meant we didn’t have to go out the way we come in.”

Pickard had concern about that as he started out, and told his old pal, “Make sure he keeps quiet, Edjo, and tie him up with his pard back there where I caught him fair and square. He’s six foot of prone all this time, I’m sure.”

The shot came from the opposite side of the canyon entrance, ricocheting off the wall over Pickard’s dead, making him wince, duck, whip his rifle up onto one shoulder and fire at the source of the single round. He kept his anger as low as he could, holding off the second shot, counting to 10 all the way.

Softly he said, “I owe him for that.”

He was about to sneak his way over to the opposite side of the canyon entrance, when two distinct things happened.

The first was a sudden recall, even as he slipped his way into another mortal situation, of the actions they had accomplished at Brandy Station, him and Edjo; the wildest, maddest rush forward in all their battles or skirmishes or whatever they were termed eventually by on-site combatants and then by storytellers that always came out of such actions as if those storytellers had been there in the midst of it all. But Edjo remained mum forever on his part in it, mouth shut, harsh memories of all lost companions enough for him to contend with, to carry about like a weight in his back pocket.

The next in the order of proximate actions came two gunshots, somewhat muffled, somewhat different, and seemingly coming from deeper in the canyon, but there were no ricochets around him … not beside him, not above him on any cliff face, not off a high rock or rocky projections, and no careening slug of lead slicing through thin air swiftest of all flights.

Neither event slowed him down as he went nearer to the source of the last shot that he assumed had been taken at him … and to which he had vowed personal repayment.

As alert as he had ever been, Sheriff Pickard detected a moan of pain or surprise coming from directly in front of him, and then detected a sound as though a rifle had fallen to the rocky floor of the canyon.

A hundred possibilities could have piled up on him, but he had heard that pair of sounds before … a wounded man, a seriously wounded man, a soldier on guard, taken from his post, wounded at his post and his rifle dropping from the grip of his hands as death brought realization.

He was positive of his determination, and continued forward as another moan made itself audible, and close. Soon, in a matter of 20 or 25 steps, he found a man prostrate on the floor of the canyon, his breath garbled, liquid, sputtering in a soft cough, as blood had erupted from internal organs and found a way loose.

“The rat bastard … “ came the sputtered words accompanied by a gush of blood at his mouth … “he shot me in the back! I think he shot Herbie too! Poor Herbie. We never dreamed it would be like this. He’s my kid brother.” His hand felt for his stomach, made a fumbling search for the center of pain.

The sputtering of blood and words continued as Pickard questioned him quickly. “Who shot you, mister? Who shot you in the back? I’ll get him for you. Who was it?”

The one word answer, the final word spoken, said with a mouthful of blood, one word as if the speaker had forced himself to say it … “Gonzo!”

Pickard knew a moment later that a dead man lie at his feet, and his own words played at his mouth again … “I’ll get him for you.”

Up ahead of him, in the deepest confines of the canyon, at its darkest depths, he saw the flash of one torch lit up, waved once, and quickly distinguished, and he knew Gonzo, killer Gonzo, backstabber Gonzo, bushwhacker Gonzo, must have been looking for a known escape route out of the canyon.

He yelled for Jospeh. “Edjo, truss that fellow good you have over there and take the others to the backside of this canyon. Gonzo has a way out of here. It has to be on the backside someplace. Set up back there. Keep your eyes open. I’m going in there after him, wherever he’s gone. Get to it.”

He headed for the last place where the torch had flared for seconds … off to the right, tight against the canyon wall. He had gone about 100 feet and the smell of burnt oil filled his nostrils, and he knew he was close to where the flash of light had been. All he found was a jumble of broken stone from a rock fall, scattered piles of rock fallen from history, from a cataclysmic shaking.

No hole in the mountain was visible and he knew he’d have to wait out the night and begin his search in the morning, but he was as close to Gonzo as any sheriff had ever been. Determination and realization puffed at him, tried to make room for roosting, but he kept thinking of the dead brothers. In the morning he’d also look for Herbie’s body, the younger brother.

Morning leaped atop him with streaks of the dawn flash coming right in through the mouth of the box canyon he now knew to be Banshee Canyon, for when the wind picked up he heard the cries coming off the cliff walls, from jagged edges of rock cut by the centuries of wind, making new tones. He had heard about the place in a few watering holes in his day.

He found the kid brother Herbie, no last name available, and buried the brothers together for eternity under a pile of rocks. But he found no escape route, no secret or sly opening or fissure through which Gonzo could have escaped. But he kept looking.

Later in the morning, in his fourth or fifth search of the area, his attention each time on different appearances, strange formations, odd discoveries, he spied a piece of rope on the near-underside of a boulder against a cliff wall. The rope grabbed his attention and he concluded, after some study, that it had not fallen there or been tossed casually. It had been set there for some kind of use. Possibly for partial control of the boulder, a good-sized boulder, rounded, one that could be rolled.

He did some searching, some prying, and some pushing against the boulder.

It moved, that boulder, and it moved on the softness of the rope underneath it, which allowed it to be tipped into and out of place.

There, in front of him, appeared Gonzo’s escape route! It was a slim hole in the cliff face, a slim nearly round hole, but big enough for a man to crawl into, through, and then seek the elsewhere it promised.

Edjo had gone off with the others, to keep watch on the backside of the mountain, waiting for Gonzo to appear from his escape route, if such was the case. Pickard, in the tight squeeze of rocks, figured it had to be the route, so he pushed on, into a maze of openings, fissures inside fissures, small tunnels, wide caverns, openings of a dozen sizes. It was tiresome work, and he thought of his hours letting his horse do most of the work while traveling no matter where he went. The admiration for his horse suddenly swelled in him again, and he found succor in his beliefs that Gonzo would be caught and made to pay for his crimes. It would be full payment for this chase. And then there would be the chance to ride his great horse again across the grass, the wind in his face, free of this tight space, these tight rocky constrictions that well could be a prison of sorts.

There were moments he sat still in sections of the passage, trying to hear any sound coming from ahead of him. But he heard nothing that was a signal of Gonzo’s movements. Now and then a slight ray of light appeared from overhead, from a crack in a higher surface, a break showing that the mountain was not a solidly filled structure, that it too had come through the cataclysmic events of the centuries, that it was itself a conglomeration of stone, rock, sediment, hardened debris from some wild transfer of Earth itself when the forms of thing began, like mountains such as this one and ponds and lakes and rivers and the mighty oceans themselves. He hadn’t seen much of any of it really, but he had always listened to others’ tales of far places, far lands.

He was listening now, in the heart of this mountain, for a deadly criminal, a murderer who shot his own men in the back to preserve his way to safety, to escape the law. If this mountain, within itself, promised that freedom, he’d pursue until capture was completed.

Once he thought that he should have brought the segment of rope with him from under the boulder blocking the entrance to the depths of the mountain. It could bind the killer for trial. It made him smile, that thought, like a trick turned on itself.

He’d been more than an hour in alternating darkness and slight fissures of light sliding down inside the mountain, or really, the pile of rocks it was. At one turn, his mind wandering on a hundred subjects, as many visions and images as he could muster, or those that came to him in a rush, he heard the distinct sound of a rock hitting a rock floor. It was behind him where he had just previously chosen one path from a junction of two ways. Then he heard the grunting of a man as if he was squeezing himself through a tight spot; his breath heavy and disturbed, his curses at the mountain coming alive and vicious, and he knew it was the one and only Crazy George Gonzo who had chosen the wrong path and was coming back to where he had made the wrong choice.

Pickard just waited until Gonzo’s head disturbed the air as it came through the tight spot, his breath heavy as it could be. When Gonzo started to stand upright, one hand touching the rock wall right beside Pickard, the sheriff rapped him on the head, felt him fall, and heard him hit the ground. He took Gonzo’s gun belt off and used it to tie one hand to the back of his pants belt, and waited for him to wake.

In several minutes, Gonzo coughed and grunted and came to, to hear the sheriff’s words in the confines of the escape route his father had shown him so long ago: “George Gonzo, you are now captured by an officer of the law and will be brought to trial for murder done time and again, and that includes the murder of two of your own gang. Any attempt at escape and I will shoot you in one leg and then the other if your attempts persist. That means I’ll keep you prisoner no matter what shape you’re in, which doesn’t matter to me one bit.”

Pickard heard nothing from Gonzo who might well have been thinking of the high noose on the gallows, or planning an escape from the sheriff. The sheriff said, “You go ahead of me best you can, or you get left in here with both legs bleeding, maybe broken, or you can try to go on ahead and escape,

But you will run into my posse out there waiting on you. You have your choice.”

He nudged his prisoner forward.

It took another hour and each of the men saw the splatter of light ahead of them, as if a lamp was lighting the way. As they moved toward the light, Gonzo heard his father speaking from deep in the past; “When you are comin’ out to the end, you can find a loaded pistol on a ledge just over your shoulder high on the right side. You might have use for it.”

He pretended to stumble, leaned to the right, his hand as though fishing for support … and found the pistol. He grabbed it in his left hand, his right hand still trussed behind him at his pant belt, and spun about to face the unseen sheriff who had captured him.

“Gotcha now, big shot. You guys are all the same, think you’re the king of the hills. But you're all dumber than an outhouse with no holes in the seat. And I’m goin’ to shoot you in both legs at the same time, ‘cause now you’re under my arrest.”

Pickard saw, as a silhouette against the splatter of light, the gun in Gonzo’s hand as it swung around and leveled at him. He dove down to the rocky floor, pulling his own revolver, and heard the first

dead “click” and then other dead “clicks” as the gun in Gonzo’s hand kept misfiring, a collection of rust in the way, a deadened hammer, any of several reasons a gun would not fire after sitting for years in a cave of sorts: justice being served with its long-time purpose.

“You were saying, Gonzo,” Pickard said, as he put his gun back in the holster and as his prisoner broke for the splatter of light, trying once more to escape from arrest. He leaped out into broad daylight that flooded and blinded his eyes for several moments, then clearly saw the open range down below and a ranch where he could get a horse, just as the old gent had said years ago.

He stumbled towards it, feeling he could get away again, only to hear the rifle shot and the slug land almost at his feet.

Edjo Joseph, from Gonzo’s right and up on the side of the rock wall, waved his rifle and said, “If you’re Crazy George Gonzo, you’re under arrest. I guess from seeing your hand trussed behind your back that you already met the sheriff. We’re here to back his play.”

Three men appeared above Gonzo, and then a fourth man appeared behind him, Sheriff Malcolm Pickard, stepping from the cave and into the splatter of light that had been signaling escape or continuous arrest for Gonzo.

The result was Crazy George Gonzo, killer, being brought back as a prisoner, one hand tied behind his back, his legs tied under his mount, a sight for the ages as the posse rode down the main street of Loyalty.