Western Short Story
Kidnapped Along the Way
Tracker Bailey, 13 in a few weeks, woke from an insistent nightmare that he was tied on his horse and couldn’t shake loose. The images bugged him right to a cup of hot coffee, the bucket sitting on the stove of sorts, a chunk of iron on four lags atop the open fire. The fire kept everything warm in the cabin, until he was ripped out of bed by a rugged and strong pair of hands, and announced with a burst of curses by the clutcher.
“I got you now. kid, so tell me where your father’s gone, when he left here, where he’s gone to, and who’s with him. I want all of it or your little ass is in a ton of trouble the longer you hold out from telling me what I want to know.” I think he was exercising some of his muscles, which he had in multiples.
The voice of the big, muscled man was harsh, deep, rugged, and frightening, a whole load of threat in each word, if nothing else. “I can’t hear you, kid. Better speak up loud and clear. Don’t try to play me like a damned donkey. I don’t have ears like wings, do I? Take a look at me. See the real me, one raggy gent who’ll kick your ass across the room in a minute if you ain’t about to answer me. Hear that? Every word I said? I mean them all! Where’d he go? Who’s with him?”
He kept coming back to the questions, harder and more insistent each time, like he was a storehouse of intentions,
Tracker, for the first time in ages, wished he had his rifle in his hands. One shot would be enough. He’d blow this guy across the room, tea cup to tea kettle and nothing in the way of his flight, short as it would be, a lesson from a teacher of manners.
He let sweep over himself, images of those first days with a rifle, his father beside him, always holding the rifle so it pointed down range and away from himself and his son, an elder’s careful example. “Never play games with any kind of weapon, son. I’ve seen men who fired accidentally, killing a man and getting hung for it, his responsibility, you know. Accident or no accident, you’re responsible for the weapon in your hands. No two ways about it, so mind your manners and your weapons. It might save your life sometime.”
The words stayed in his mind, much like an echo long after it’s gone its way, getting sucked up by broad plains, quick mountains, the river, too, or like a snake at its work of days, curling with means and intentions.
His father, a good man, a good teacher, had never joked much with him, teaching as much as he could, preparing his son for the life coming at him on the open plains, the unknown strangers, the new towns, the people by the bunches when gathered by an incident, normal or not normal, but curiosity and interest on the upside of their minds; anybody out there who would listen to or watch a different presentation, no matter who would offer it up; hungry for news good or bad, and sometimes it didn’t make a bit of difference, not a hill of beans..
“Men have, you’ll see, more curiosity than brains. They want to know everything, and everything is what they cannot hold or believe, in spite of what they see or hear or know, when a weapon is pointed at them. Nobody should play around with guns, or when they do, it gets spoiled in a second if you’re not alert. Life is going to demand it of you, as long as life is yours to control, react to, express a difference. I can’t say any more than that, believe me.”
So, here is Tracker, at 13, the life nearly being squeezed out of him, when his hand feels the big man’s pistol handle, sort of loose in its holster. He slips it free, fires a round into the near chest of the squeezer, who has his mouth suddenly open but cannot let loose any cry, and falls dead on the floor: he simply did not take care of his weapons, and got what was coming to him, burial on the open plain, in an unmarked grave, by a 13-year-old boy, not born quick to kill, but had to do so; and digging his first grave, possibly the first of many, life jumping like a jack rabbit around him, surprises coming galore.
A companion of the big man, from outside, excitedly calls out his name, “Steele, you okay?”
When he receives no answer, he bolts across the wide grass a minute later, nothing thereabouts able to catch him, even if they wanted to catch him, the odds being on his side this time, the whole of the territory open to run to, to avoid search.
Tracker has his own comrade, pal, companion, simply called “Beans” and not minding any sorry intent carried by the somewhat demeaning name, free and easy all the way, has a solidly good outlook, is a dependable pal when mortal shots fill the air, or a secret sniper begins his haunt.
Tracker hails Beans from outside his cabin, never walking too close, daylight or dark, as both understand what is what around them.
“Ho, Beans,” he yells, “Tracker here, with a story to tell you.”
“Come on in, Tracker. Like any news, especially the good stuff. You sound like you been bugged or shot at. Any truth to that?”
“I had to kill a man and then bury him and I know he’s got a pal what run off, but might come back. Need someone like you at my tail, or up in front parting the ways.”
“I’m game for that, Tracker. Know who or what we be looking for, who might shoot us along the way? I heard some rider raising the dust last night, right near my place. Wonder if he’s got me pegged already in your camp?”
“Like Daddy always said, ‘better by the two’s than the one’s.’.”
They both hit the dirt as a rifle bullet ricocheted off the ground and hit the cabin.
“Damn it to Hell, Tracker, he’s put me on your side half trying. That came from the mountain, like he’s out fishing and got no catch yet. He don’t know it yet, but he’s got me chasing up his butt from now on.” He fired six stray and sporadic rounds from his pistol, a mere signal to a long-shooter.
“Better come inside, Tracker, and get some coffee for the long ride and the high hunt.” At his first cup, Beans said, “I hate to tell you this, Tracker, but I saw your daddy and a couple of gun hands going off yesterday, likely up that same mountain where some miner’s hit a gold field, way they talk, Like it’s all in the same soup pot, then and now. But they had a kid with them, like to be someplace else it looked to me. Had him tied up like tomorrow ain’t ever coming to him loose, free and easy. Didn’t know your daddy was in that business, not with kids in the mix.”
Tracker, coughed, gagged, said, “Crap galore, Beans. I killed a man yesterday, and buried him. Probably in the same pot.” He told Beans the whole story, right to sticking a cross in the ground on top of the grave.
“Sounds like a good man gone loco about his kid. Could have killed you instead. Glad you got his gun free and easy. Dead and gone takes care of him. Now we got a sniper trying to separate our bones. Ain’t any reason to think otherwise, so we switch tails on him, push into open ground, make the odds come over to our side.”
The pair of them rode two days, in early morning, again early evening as the sun sank, night reasserted itself, Coffee and food bits came and went, hot from a chance and small fire, smoke lost in the wind or trees. Life on the move was usual for both of them.
Then, Beans said he had an idea: “Why don’t I go and sneak a few peeks here and there.\\? Could get us a real lead on what’s going on.” What he really wanted to find out, was how deep Tracker’s father was into things too deep for his own good, and, of course, too deep for Tracker.
“You be careful, Beans. The world is getting screwy on us, on me, my father, and that little caught in the middle of it all. I can’t stop worrying about him.”
“Hell, Tracker, he ain’t much younger than you, a little squirt of a boy that his mother’s real upset about him gone so long.”
“Alright,” Tracker said, “but you be damned careful every step of the way.” He was thankful he himself would not catch his father doing something wrong, give him a chance to get away from it all.
Beans found them, a bunch of them, the kid still tied up but sitting on a log, the others eating, not even looking at the kid. He got close enough to hear them talking, and it was Tracker’s father running the whole show, telling each man in the group what they had to do in raiding he rich mine. “If one of them sees you, shoot him, or we split your chunk of the pot. That’s not only a promise, it’s an order. Shoot to kill. Won’t hurt us none one way of the other by the time we get done. We can live high on the hog, if it all goes our way.”
“Whst about the kid?’ one of them said. “What’ll we do about him after?”
“You already got my answer,” said Tracker’s father like he was an old hand at killing, robbing, running a gang.
Beans thought it all over. He couldn’t let Tracker in on this. It’d kill him. Had to tell him his father got caught in a crossfire when they spotted Beans sneaking around.
Once his mind was made up, Beans took aim, shot Tracker’s father off a log, dead center in his heart, lead filling the air, the boy rolling off his log and scrambling while the gunfire came Beans’ way. and him on the move. He dropped another member of the gang, then a third one, as the rest broke and ran.
Silence came in darkness.
Beans got the boy onto his horse in a matter of minutes, got him squared away and what was what, who was what, and that his mother was waiting for him. He’d take him there as directly as he could, all the short cuts he knew, as if they were sure to be chased by the gang.
“All you got to do, boy, is stay to home until you get a little older. Things’ll come around to you by then. The world’s a funny place to grow up in.”
Tracker, meanwhile, would never know the difference.