Western Short Story
Bang! The dropped mug sounded like a gunshot on the bar top.
When his top wrangler, Jake Armitage, gawked at the new lady of the house when she first came down the stairs of The Bull’s Horn Saloon in Leadville, Texas, rancher Tom Wagner knew he was going to lose the best hire he’d ever selected. The mug in Jake’s hand had slipped from his grasp and banged extra loudly on the counter in the suddenly quiet saloon where beauty took quickly the upper hand. And it was, there at the outset, a statement of surprise, abrupt consideration and, most likely, a potential property claim, one of those declarations that said, “No man gets in my way.”
Jake Armitage was 30-years spry, wore a handsome face chiseled and carved by his short history, a high forehead atop sea-blue eyes, a neck sporting labor’s legends, shoulders wide as a door, all on a body still standing 6-feet upright, after 16-years in the saddle.
Wagner assumed Jake had known the lady somewhere along the line, like his 16 years of wandering job to job, ranch to ranch, until three years earlier when he appointed Jake Armitage to be chief wrangler and foreman of his Crazy Y spread, the odd “Y” a remnant of an accident when the branding iron was being shaped.
The lady, Sarah Felton, a markedly beautiful 27-year old woman, donned in a silvery half-gown, half-leg show, as it might best be described, pointed across the room at Jake at the bar, and screamed in great surprise and pleasure, “Jake, darling!” and started toward him.
At the first table in her way, five men at cards, one of them, his spread-wide mustache twirled like an actor playing Lothario, stood up to interrupt her approach, rude as can be, and Jake Armitage, put a bullet at his feet, a solid bang-whistle-thump into the wooden floor, and then declared, “She’s my friend and she don’t work here anymore.”
The owner, working behind the bar, said, “What do you mean, Jake? I just hired her yesterday.”
“And she just quit today.” He turned, looked at the owner, the pistol still in his hand, whirled around and said to the short-time lady-of-the-house, and said, “Ain’t that right, Sarah?”
“I never doubted one word you ever said to me, Jake, including the last line that you’d meet me someplace along the road. I heard you say it a hundred times a day since then, I bet, waiting until now.”
A hundred men in the one room saloon, big as a local plateau, might have gasped at her promise, the way dreams awake and officiate some men's minds.
The smile she loosed pleasured every man in the saloon and all of them knew a story had ended right in front of them and started up again, the way things often happened across Texas and its open spaces and places, a hard ride getting you to many places where you wanted to go.
She reached to hug him, the pistol still smoking in his hand, his feet screwed in place.
Tom Wagner saw the pair of them, her on his own horse, as they started out of town back to the Crazy Y to gather Jake’s gear, get Sarah fixed up by his wife so the journey could start fresh and wholly anew. He was sorry to see them go, but life was for moving any which way it came at you with its demands or it’s what-elses.
It made Tom Wagner sad to think he might never see or hear of them again; that too was part of life on the move.
Only a week later, irretrievable time passing on, Sarah came riding back to the Crazy Y, ragged, bedraggled, bruises galore, a sore-looking gash on her arm and across her throat as if she had been whipped by a madman, and an even larger and sorer gash across the back of her neck, as red and jagged as a new flame.
When Tom Wagner’s wife Ellie tried to console her, Sarah screamed at Tom Wagner, “You’ve got to help Jake, Tom, You have to, they’ll kill him. They’ve got him tied up in ropes and stuffed in a cave, and they threatened to kill him after they get through tormenting and beating him.”
“Who has him, Sarah? Where are they? Why do they have him? Who beat you?”
“That guy in the saloon who Jake put a slug into the floor near him when he tried to grab me. He has five or six guys who like to torture people, they’re really a bunch of animals, and they talk about hiding bodies so they won’t be found and they sound like it’s forever.”
“Where are they, Sarah?” Wagner, in all his years, had never come across this kind of problem, and it showed in the scowl on his face, his inability to understand the circumstances. “Can you tell us where or lead us back there? How long have you been riding? Do you know the way back there?”
He thought she was histrionic or out of her mind because of the pain or the circumstances she’d been through. Her eyes were continually glazed over, as if she had been caught in a blast of light.
“I don’t know where I was or how I got back here. I just kept riding on a horse I found when I got away from them, like through a tunnel in the back of the cave I squeezed through. Anybody bigger than me could never get through, I swear. I thought I’d get stuck there, and all of a sudden, I saw sunlight, and I was outside. I walked a long way and then found a horse and talked nice to him and climbed up on a rock to mount him and he took me right out of there, wherever I was. But it was scary and I’m afraid for Jake because they already beat the Hell out of him, all of them, like they were kids enjoying a game of getting even with him, laughing all the time, giddy and weird at the same time. I swear they’re crazy.”
Wagner thought she was going to collapse right there and grabbed her, and yelled for his wife.
Sarah paused and looked around and said, “That was two or three days ago, I think. I found some water to drink, or the horse found it, but nothing to eat. Not a bite. I’m real hungry.”
Elie Wagner said, “You come with me, Sarah. I’ll get you cleaned up and get some food in that stomach of yours. Poor darling, you must feel horrible.” Her arms went around the young woman almost sagging in her arms.
She spun about to speak to her husband, but he was running off to the cabin where his cowpokes bunked, yelling back to his wife, “Keep questioning her, Ellie. I’ll get the boys together and we’ll figure this out. I know there are some caves over past Vernon, and that’s more like five or six days’ ride, perhaps longer Try to squeeze some more landscape info out of her if you can, but she sure as hell was on the loose for more than three days.”.
He almost said, “Jake might even be dead by now,” but decided not to say anything Sarah could hear. “Enough’s enough,” he said to himself. And whistled to a couple of his crew mounting up.
Wagner spoke to seven of his riders for ten minutes, explaining the situation. One of the men, probably the oldest man in the crew, said, “I think you’re right, Tom. Within two weeks of riding from here, I bet there’s no caves around but the ones near Vernon. A hard ride’d get us there in two days, hell-bent all the way, but it’s the only place Jake’s girl could have been. Me, I’m all for it. Like to get my hands on that bunch, that’s for sure.” He looked around at the gathered crew and said, “We got enough guns to fight an army. Let’s get goin’.”
He drove a hard fist into his other hand, and said to one of the crew, “Tell cookie we need some hunting grub, six men at least, four days the least.” He turned to Wagner and said, “Don’t tell me to stay, Boss, cause I’m goin’.”
Jake Armitage figured he was a dead man, the way he felt all the way down through his aching bones. His parched lips and mouth had known the accompanying sensations before, but not as strong as those now trying to destroy his manhood. Water, even spit, was foreign now, sweat too. And the ache in his stomach was not an aching pain, but a pain of loss, of weariness, of a hunger he had never known in all his years. But when he last saw Sarah, in the arms of two men almost in a fight for her, she had collapsed. The only hopeful sign from her, as he was hustled off by two other men, was a repeated wiggle of one of her big toes. He wondered, later on, if she had done that to signal him, or if it was a nervous twitch: he chose to believe she had sent a signal his way to try to tell him she’d get through whatever was coming at her.
He didn’t see her again.
And hours later he heard some deep and vulgar voice of authority say, “Who the hell saw her last? I want to now how the Hell she got out of here. There’s no way back there where she could get free. So, it had to be past one of you friggin’ hoboes. I want to know who saw her last.”
There was no response.
He yelled again, and this time, a voice said, “Me and Jess tossed her in that other hole. We did it together, both of us at the same time. And we didn’t touch her after that or even see her. It was too damn dark. She’s probably wanderin’ around someplace gettin’ lost. She’ll probably die out there, all alone. Let’s face it, she can’t get far out here. Somethin’ll eat her before the sun comes up again. None of us could get far on foot, why we all came here in the first place, right, and bringin’ that dude with us?”
The boss said, in his crude voice, authority coming with his words, “Toss the big mouth an’ quick gun in where she was. Nobody can squiggle outta there. Rap him a few more times so he gets the message, gets what we mean. He’s some stupid dude quick and fancy with a gun. We got some fun with him after we find her, so, let’s go lookin’ an’ whoever stays is locked up tight to him or he’s dead an’ I ain’t talkin’ ‘bout the big mouth.”
The gang of them went off looking for Sarah Felton, escapee, beauty of a lady, and much more of a heroine than any of them realized.
The tracks were crazy stain on the earth, sometimes in stupid circles or long arcs that came across each other, and finally, to their surprise, there were horse tracks.
That was the last straw for the boss. “Now we got trouble, real trouble, an’ if she runs across any help, there’s only so-help-us left.”
They were two days out from the caves when they came head to head with 8 riders armed to the teeth, rifles at the ready, side arms on open display,
Tom Wagner’s lead scout had seen them earlier from a distance and reported back to the boss. “There’s seven of them, Tom, and they’re obviously trying to track down someone and we’d all agree it’s Sarah they’re tracking and who escaped from them.”
Wagner said, “One man wide of us on each side, ready to make the difference if it happens, and be careful ‘cause Jake’s life might be at stake here.”
It was a rout from the first shot, and that came from the outlaw gang, and they were deluged from all sides by Wagner’s men with heavy gunfire, each shooter remembering what kind of pal Jake Armitage was, and each seeing, each in their own way, the reconnection of the couple after one bloody bandit agreed to lead them to the cave where the bundled, battered and bruised Jake Armitage simply said, when he was freed up, “You gents find Sarah around here anyplace?”