Western Short Story
There was little light left in the day when Sheriff Jack Mack, out of Polumbo Hilla, Nevada, barely saw the flickered flame in the mass of rocks, boulders and avalanche-broken cliffs above him, most likely his prey of this day, he was sure, the one and only Garrison “Gunner” Forbes, foe of all things righteous, legal, usual, getting himself set for sleep. The man had been on a tough run in this land-mass hovering with the threat of more cascades of rock, a sure place of death or deadly wounds, with clawed birds and pawed beasts at the final clean-up of clean-ups.
Sheriff Mack, himself worn to a frazzle, his horse, Dingo, on the verge of letting it all go, needed as much sleep as the Gunner did. Perhaps Jack and Gunner would each do the other a share of snores and throaty disbursements, each owing the other in this chase, now on its tenth day, both the hounding and the beleaguered being saddle-worn, battle-torn, liquid shorn.
“Not a drop in the bucket,” as could be said, “until small puddles from the last rains on flat-rock faces might provide for the thirsty,” such charity known in the rocky hills on other searches talked about at the nearest saloon, The Eagles Nest. “It sure ain’t like whiskey, but it proves wet.”
“Good Lord,” the bar chief might say, hardly having let go of Cork itself, but clasping dear the hardy lot of Irish Gods in abeyance of a sort, “T’is like old Noah, searching for a watery plight to solve, dear Dagda at work, Lugh all alone by hisself, Cu Challain at chanting, Brigid at her best, or good old Johnny Igoe himself, providing the drink in these cases, like pity on the poor, the disheveled, the drunk or the near-dead-dry wanting one last sip of the good stuff, and getting rain water instead, as directed by Providence itself from the rocky mountain on its best side.”
With such a pronouncement, Jack Mack recalled the bar chief having his own drink in salute to any kind of dryness to the lot out there in the world; “It’s all part of fair play and good deeds, the wetter, the better,” he was apt to say, his own mouth and throat near bone-dry, “Hell on Earth is near at hand,” a fair quote to subsidize for a few thirsty men sought for their crimes.
Mack saw a second flicker of light, brighter than the first flicker, and uttered, so that even Dingo could not hear him, “Ah, the Devil is going to go to sleep and a bit warmer than the night itself.”
He slipped off the saddle, tied Dingo off on a rocky point of rock, doubling up the looped reign, and set off for the source of light, wishing he could take off his bulky boots, go silently in the night like a master thief at work, instead of a sheriff at prowl and dark as an owl.
Jack Mack swore to himself that he could feel the heat of a now-secluded fire, perhaps shoved into a cave or impression in a wall, therefore somewhat hidden, and closer than he had been to Gunner than he had been in ten or so days and nights.
“I’d rather capture him than shoot him, which’d force me to haul him down the mountain. I have no idea where Gunner’s horse is, maybe shot to death in these rocks or fallen into a dark cave with no way out. But beyond me, most apparently,” His mutterings of self-talk, his old custom on the trail, was again at work, bringing his full imagination to work. Plans afoot on both sides of the track for Gunner and for Jack Mack.
Jack suddenly heard a hoarse voice say, “I hear you, Jack. I know you’re here and near, and resolution must be at hand for one or the other of us, but I’d sure love a sip of the good stuff if you’ve got any, all bets and wages and wants aside, a minor truce, a drink for the poor Devil of a man, at the hands of a kind man of the saddle and the badge.”
It was an open-air plea, not often heard, and never heard before by Jack in all his trail work.
“Gunner,” Jack said, “I hear your plea and recognize the want and need, and indeed would like it myself. As a fact, I do have a small jug of perfectly good Irish stock I could donate for the occasion, each of us getting a fair share of the lot of it, and you agreeing to go back with me, mostly with your help rather than my lugging you some part way off this mountain. I am getting too old for that sort of stuff.”
Gunner replied, “My thoughts are the same, Jack. My promises of final good conduct for a drink. I know I am not long for these mountains, nor your dogged chase, so, it’s bottoms-up for both of us, me swearing to it.”
The stillness was broken by the clatter of two pistols off a large rock directly in front of Jack Mack. “Them’s my pistols, Jack, gone now and forever from my side of the law, all for a sip of the good stuff, How long do you think we can nurse that jug?” The solemnity and promise, and a deal of truth, echoed in his words.
Jack said, “I figure, if we nurse it sort of politely, like there was a woman around to judge the case, we could get through the day tomorrow, if you’re not thirsty beyond redemption, but on the up and up with me.”
“Lordy, Lordy, Jack, no tricks here for the good stuff, and proof is my guns now doing me no good but a sip or two to kill my old soul and save it for the Hell you and your kind have set for me in jail or prison or on the gallows if I ever get there, or you, my man, get me there. It’s that simple. We’re for the real good stuff right now. There’s nothing else like it, and you can throw Mary Margaret Mahony right into the mix, both us knowing her special as she was.”
Peace and drink reigned on the mountain side between sheriff and killer, between sheriff and his prey in hand, until Jack Mack’s jug went dry, social hours never to be seen again on that hunk of mountain, or any place like it in the whole West, until old feelings gone aside and Jack Mack not able to stand the idea of a loop of rope hanging Garrison Gunner Forbes in front of complete strangers, finally shot him when he wasn’t looking and carried and lugged him halfway down the mountain until Gunner’s horse was found, and the pair set off for home.
Eleven days’ work done and gone to rest for two old soldiers of an old war.