Western Short Story
Hostage on Horseback 
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

In a gift from providence or, the least of chance, from someone’s carelessness, Cody Burrill had found a coiled lasso hanging on a small rock, as if it had all been planned, which he wouldn’t believe in a hundred years. He found himself in a steep canyon as narrow as a rifle bore. As a cowboy, married to the plains and herds, rope and leather were his world, and now and then a shirt of denim, or, if his luck was better, some finery of lace once touched never letting go. Fabric held sway for cowboys, getting to town or just leaving town, no matter what the situation. And his situation was, or had been, as close to final as it might get. The coil of rope gave him hope.

He reflected on his past hours. Walking into the Bitter Creek freight office at the wrong time, after a pleasant night in the town, and finding a gun was jammed into his back. “Don’t move, kid, ‘cause you’re comin’ with us.”

The voice said, loudly to the two employees standing with their hands in the air, fright alive in their faces, “We’re takin’ the kid here with us. If you start screamin’ or shootin’, we kill him right off.”

The gun was jammed tighter into his backside and a bandana was placed over his eyes from behind.

“Move, kid, and don’t mess up tomorrow for yourself.” A shove came from behind, his foot guided into a stirrup, a push up followed and he was soon riding away from town in a rush. He thought he could count four horses in the pack of riders.

Cody Burrill was 17, still pink faced, though minor hair grew on his chin, being worn proudly. One moment he had been a happy looking young man with a joyous smile, the next second a young man full of anger. He did as he was told by the deep-voiced man, after weighing all things in his situation. “Revenge gets itself out of control,” his father had often said, “though getting even is a joy perhaps not often reached but glorious when it is.” There were moments such thoughts made him warm and fuzzy during that long ride away from Bitter Creek.

Hours later, he guessed, still blindfolded by the sweaty old bandana ripe as an old outhouse, the horsemen stopped. The ride had been a tough one, especially lately with many quick turns on rocky ground after long miles and a hard ride on good grass. In time he could hear mountain air as it whistled around tight corners, blew through narrow spaces, made music atop peaks of stone.

Within a whistling wind from above, the horses were drawn to a halt. “The whistling Margarita Range I heard about,” he said to himself, figuring out where he was … the whistling peaks, the passage of time in the saddle, the sweat on the horse all making up his arithmetic.

“Off the horse, kid,” the big one said. “You try lookin’ after us, see where we go, one of us sure as hell’ll put a round in your backside. They left him afoot in a maze of canyons, some blind and all tight as old leather dried in the sun. The bandana had not been removed once since it had been tied on his head. When silence came with a whistle of wind faint as a zephyr, the hoof beats fading to no echo at all, he pulled the bandana from his head.

Shadows flashed in his eyes, and a sense of darkness still existed for him despite the daylight. Sight returned slowly and he was aware of rock walls rising up around him, cliff faces looming as high as mere sunlight and making him feel as though he had been dropped into a prison cell. He was in a tightly constricted canyon, now sure he was in the Margarita Range. For all practical purposes, he was alone in the world, without a horse, without food, without a weapon. His future seemed tenacious at the very best. But he had hope. There always was hope with a rope, no matter what brand he put on it or what knot tied. In all the air he breathed, in all this Earth and the places he had been, the things he had done, this was, without a doubt, the pinnacle for him, for in this state of lacking all needy things, hope still carried his soul. It was a fuzzy feeling in his chest.

A normal coil of rope, usually saddle-borne, told him all that was so. Plain old rope, a coil of it, making statements for him. He half laughed aloud, but didn’t, something setting in him, awareness taking hold.

And it was just then, at that moment of revelation, surely a sign from on high, that Burrill saw the body beside the trail, another cowboy lost forever. The before and after leaped into his mind, the birth and death and the short span in between came with a knock-out punch of reality.

It looked as if the man had been hit by a rock or caught in the mess of rocks that lay about him from some kind of rock slide, natural or arranged he could not tell. But something had happened to the dead man in an aperture of a canyon so tight that his escape would have been difficult. Burrill looked overhead for any tell-tale signs of further danger and saw nothing. The walls were steep but littered with cracks and crevices the way Mother Nature plays around with Mother Earth, roughing her up at times but always leaving her be. Continuation of things normal went through his mind.

Hope, with jumpy, jittery long legs, resumed its advance, crawled up his backside, lodged in his soul.

In a minor cave a little higher on the face of the cliff he climbed to get a better view of his predicament, to peek around a corner, he found a saddle tucked in behind some rocks. It was in good shape; it had not been chewed through by some critter of the night or a carrion feeder, no colony of insects taking over its leather world. A careful rider had taken care of it, as if he was posted here as a trail guard. If there were remains of a campfire, he had not seen them or smelled their leftovers.

He had the rope and the saddle but had little else, though. No horse. No gun. No food. For a few days he could get by without them, as water was available, slightly pooled in places from a fairly recent rain. He was glad he was not in the desert. To be dropped into the hammers of hell of the desert is one thing; to be dropped into the path of renegade Apaches, or hurrying Comanches, or drunken bandit he could envision further dangers. But hope had worked its way back into his thinking. Though he had a saddle without a horse, and a rope without a target, one might gain him the other. The fuzziness returned.

Thus, Cody Burrill was nearly lost in contemplating the new day coming on him as he came over the ridge, hauling the saddle and the rope, and wondering and what was coming at him. He clearly remembered what his father had often said, “Though it may have yesterday’s brand all over it, today sure promises to be a new one, as it always is.” The sound of his father’s voice shook him out of his deep thinking, even as the old gent’s voice said, “Thinking is for the campfire and the last part of the day. That’s how you leave today’s tracks on tomorrow. While you’re high on that saddle, looking over what is around you, you have to be alert.”

“What you doing up in there, son?” said a loud voice from a big man on a bigger black stallion with hellfire still in his eyes. The man, sitting the big horse with comfort and ease, had appeared as if from nowhere and was more querulous than curious, as the wondering fit his tone of voice. “You lost? You hungry or thirsty? You need a mount to get that saddle off ‘n your back?” The humor seemed totally in control of his voice.

Cody Burrill, looking past the big man there in front of him, saw at the foot of the slope coming down off Margarita Range a crew of cowboys putting up a few hundred yards of wire, the poles already in place, breakfast still hanging on the air in a light draft coming at him. His mouth spoke before his stomach, the taste coming at him.

He didn’t know what question to answer. “Yes, to all,” he said, dropping the saddle and the rope on the ground beside him, sitting on the saddle, looking exhausted for so early in the day.

“Where’d you get that saddle, son?”

Cody Burrill, suddenly knowing what things looked like, said, “Back up there, in a tight little canyon. I think it must belong to a rider that was killed by a fall of rocks. The saddle was in a cave. It was put there or hidden, but there was no horse. The rope was around a rock.”

“What kind of clothes on that cowboy?”

“A gray vest, kind of bloody now, and a blue shirt, just as bloody. Must have bled awful bad. Looked like he might have been kind of natty once he got to town, though.”

“What did you do with him?”

“Covered him with boulders and stones so the critters won’t get him. Wouldn’t want myself to end up getting chewed all to hell and back.”

The big man yelled to another rider. “Carlos, get an easy mount up here for our new friend. He buried Dixon up in the canyon. Looks like he got caught in a fall.”

“Think he was trailing someone up in there?”

“That’s what I’m thinking. I’m also thinking that some of our cows are up in there too. Tell Cookie to scrounge up some breakfast remains. Boy’s hungry.” He turned to Burrill and said, “What’s your name, son?”

“Burrill, Cody Burrill.”

“Well, Cody Burrill, I like the way you handle things. Like your code of honor for strangers. I am Stable Martin and I run the Bella Bella Ranch with my wife back there swinging on the porch but not as happy as she could be. We have need of another hand if you’re obliging, now that Dixon left us.”

The crew of men continued their work of fencing as Burrill finished his meal and Stable Martin sat down beside him on the back of a supply wagon.

“How’d you get up in there, without a horse?”

“I didn’t do it on my own.” Then he told him the whole story.

“You remember anything?”

“Yup, one or two times I got a real happy feeling when I thought about turning the trick back onto them, especially the gent with a deep voice. Sounded like Grant or Lee must have sounded out front of the troops.”

“You in the army, son, or got attachments?”

“No and yes. I heard about it all from my father, who’s gone now, killed in a bank robbery just putting in his few dollars a month for me. All that time at Gettysburg and other places, guys shot to hell around him all those years, and some bad-ass robber shoots him because he moved to step in front of a lady. Don’t ever seem right, this world, and it’s often that way, as he warned me, but there comes a time, he always said, and I could see the joy in his eyes about something done to him a long time ago and him catching up to whoever done it.”

“You come over to the wagon son. I want to get that shirt off your back. I saw you a mile away in it. We ought to fix that. Anyone know you before will know you again, that shirt’s so bright green. And we get another sombrero for you, or get that purple sage band off’n the one you’re wearing.”

“You sound like you got some suspicions, Mr. Martin.” It was as much a question as a statement.

“You got a good head on those shoulders, son. You see things that ain’t there yet, and hear things not said yet. I like that in a young man. My boy’d be just your age now, and like that, keen as a whistle. Was killed by a stampede by some rustlers we never caught up with. I know the fuzzy feelings you get, about making do on what was done wrong. I never did explain it to myself that way, but it says it all.”

“Those suspicions of yours?” Now it was a question.

“Someone said once, beats me who, you can’t see the trees because of the forest, or something like that.”

“Meaning nearer than you’d think?” Burrill was trying to put things together, his brain working all the time. Martin had already opened up a whole passel of curiosity about “nearness.” His suspicions were out in the open with a newcomer. The young man wondered who shared in those suspicions and who did not. The sheriff? His foreman? His hands? And why him? If Martin was seeing his son in him, or something like that, was he creating the same relationship, like Martin might be, on the other hand, standing in for his long-gone father? Had each of them made quick assumptions? He admitted to himself that his unusually bright green shirt and purple band on his hat were statements in their own, a young man’s branding of sorts, a sticking out. This older man knew his ways.

Then Martin gave him some answers. “Lots of our cows get stole, but not many at a clip. It’s why we’re fencing this section, trying to slow things down. I knew you’d pick up on things soon as you opened your mouth. You hear things not said, see things not in sight. Not enough of that kind of business around here these days. Doesn’t come with every saddle. Like I should have said a bit ago, my Maybelle is sure going to enjoy your company, Cody Burrill. She sure will, and it’s about time for her to do so.”

Cody Burrill sidled close to Stable Martin. “It’ll be a pleasure to meet her, but I’m wondering if you have suspicions about your own people. There any truth in that? Like I’m wondering about changing this stick-out shirt for some dark, somber denim makes me look like a shadow, like low man on the totem.” He crossed his arms over his chest like a teacher looking for an answer of sorts.

“I got to ask you, son,” Stable Martin said, as if he was releasing any and all holds, “do you remember anything when you were blindfolded, other than the man having a deep voice. That could be anybody riding the range for a few days.”

Burrill thought back to the freight office, the sudden gun sticking in his back, the bandana over his eyes, the ride away from Bitter Creek. He tried to compress details that rushed at him like a piece of a face from the past and him never being sure of the whole face, never saw it in his mind in one complete frame.

Details, he knew, mostly held their being in hard form; the shape of a knot in a rope, the tooling on a saddle, the color band on a hat that lasted for perhaps one cow drive or one sand storm, three white socks on a black horse, a rock in the trail you know has been trouble since it was left there by tumultuous Mother Nature a thousand years ago. Then the personal stuff came at him: a scar forever red and marking the face of a man as mean as the crime that produced the scar, the back of a man’s hands that might tell a life story, the color of his shirt or vest like the wild green he had sported, when and why a man wore chaps out of the saddle, how pistols or revolvers were carried on a belt, the buckle on that belt, how a man looked at his cards in a game as if someone was looking over his shoulder all the time. Details were endless, and were difficult to call back unless something kicked them loose.

Going through all the options, he fished around for remnants of that experience at and coming away from the freight office, the sudden release in the canyon, the departure of the deep voiced rider and his two cohorts.

There it was! That little fact! Illumination! A boot in the stirrup of a saddle that leaped at him; the boot of the deep voice as it peeked up under the blindfold, the iron ring holding three straps and three rivets in each of the straps that crossed the instep, circled around from the backside, clutched at the sole of the boot. A leather boot man must have made them special for the man with the deep voice. Charged him a couple of months pay for those boots: brown, warm as wood, worth a couple of months riding the range, while keeping place and count for someone else.

“Yup,” Burrill said in a sudden burst, “I remember his boots, like they was real special, got by a special order.”

“Whose boots?” Martin said.

“The deep voice. He had boots must have cost him two-three months wages, boots I couldn’t buy.” He described them so carefully that Martin stopped nodding his head, as if saying we have him now. Instead he said, “My stupid ideas ain’t always so stupid. Let’s go see Maybelle and spread some cheer for a change.”

In the course of one meal at the kitchen in the ranch house, in the course of history as one man might tell it, Maybelle Martin bloomed again right there in front of her husband, saw what her lost son might have become, found a dear heart In her chest she thought she’d lost forever. Cody Burrill could have moved into that heart and that house in a matter of one meal, but all knew it should take longer.

Eventually, over apple pie she said, “What’s been going on, Stable? You look like you’ve been into town and gotten the latest rumors. Am I going to be left out again?” Her hands were on her hips, but a smile was on her face.

“Well, Maybelle, the freight office was robbed, Cody here was there by accident, like at the wrong time, and they blindfolded him and took him along as insurance for their getaway, else they were going to kill him, like they threatened. They dumped him up in the canyons of The Margaritas and he found Dixon dead up in there and buried him under rocks. I think that’s where some of our cows were being taken, into some place up in that mess of canyons. Got to be some place up in there none of us ever knew about. That’s why we never did find any of our lost cows.”

“Must be the same pokes robbed the freight office, wouldn’t you say, Stable?”

“You’re as smart as ever, Maybelle, and today a mite prettier. Don’t you think so, Cody?”

They were laughing as a knock came at the door. Martin opened the door and a big man was standing there who said, “Boss, I think we got a few more cows that got run off somehow on the west pasture. Can’t find head or tails of them.”

Cody Burrill turned around at the table very slowly and looked at the man in the doorway.

Martin said, “Jake, I want you to meet my nephew hails from Texas and just up for a visit. Did you come across him at all on the trail? Said he rode in through the west pasture and saw nobody out that way. Whoever run off them cows must have already lit out with them. Know how many?”

“I’d guess a couple of dozen by the looks. Pleased to meet you.” He held his hand out to Cody Burrill who had risen slowly out of his chair, and was still carrying a bit of laughter in his smile. “Me too,” he said, and shook the hand offered by the big man.

Then Martin said to the big man first, “Jake, I want to show you something we found that may throw some light on this cow stealing business.” He then said to Cody Burrill, still with a big smile on his face, “Cody, boy, would you do me a favor and go in my room over there and get those things on my bed. I’d like to see them just the way they were when I found them.”

The young man from Texas, alert as ever, cleverly checking out details found in his mind, went into the room, and closed the door behind him. Chatter continued in the kitchen, and was going on when he stepped out of the room wearing the green shirt and the sombrero with the purple band on it. He was still smiling, feeling the fuzzy eternal goodness all the way down to his gut, and when Jake the inside thief went to go for his gun, he saw the rifle in Stable Martin’s hands trained right on his chest.

Once trussed up, Jake coughed up everything about an inside gang that had been running off cattle and keeping them in a secret meadow way up in The Margaritas and taking them out another way. And let them know they had committed a few other deeds to get quick money, like robbing a bank here and there and a freight office when they heard money might be on the move. He gave names, each one of them men he had brought into the Martin bunkhouse under one pretense or the other, all ending up on the payroll, and all thieves.

The bunk house clean-out came in a hurry, right to the Bitter Creek jail, the guilty parties hog-tied and saddle-strapped the whole way.

In a matter of a few years the smiles were still on Maybelle Martin’s face every morning, noon and night as she moved around her happy home, whole once more, gifted by a new son, and more and more every day Stable Martin sat with her on the porch during the long working hours of making a ranch move on into its destiny, in the hands of a promising son.