Western Short Story
Last Man Aboard 
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

As evening descended on Gunbarrel, Texas, smoke and steam issued in cloudy funnels from the A&P Railroad engine and was quickly absorbed by dusk. In the shadows cast by one passenger car, a man stood still, a small night bag in one hand, his other hand close to a revolver holstered on his belt. He stared up the tracks toward the engine puffing away in place, and waited in place, hidden from all eyes.

In the shadows, the man nobody had seen as yet, including the station ticket seller, grasped a handrail and stepped up to one of the three passenger cars of the train. He was still on the outside platform of the passenger car when the train whistle blew, steam puffed anew, and the wheels began their slow roll into start-up motion.

In the same car, at the far end, in window seat, a young boy, about 8 years of age, sat with his small suitcase, as if there was no way he’d put it out of his sight. Blond hair stood on end on part of his head, the way the wind would blow it unkempt and loose. The pale green shirt he wore and the dark pants were customary attire for a youngster of the area, where cows roamed on all the land, and ran loose until they met fence wire or until they stopped for water. The mystery man settled into a seat two rows behind the youngster.

Only a dozen people were in the car, seven women gabbing away at one end, and three older men, and the boy sitting alone and the strange man alone also.

The conductor walked up to the boy and said, “You enjoying the ride, son? I got word from your grandfather back there at Washaw to keep my eye on you until we got to Simpson Springs. Only two more stops and you’re home with momma’s cooking again.”

The boy looked up and said, “My mother’s sick. She don’t cook anymore. She hardly eats either.”

The conductor said, “I guess I knew some of that, but not how bad she was. Your grandfather told me she was sick, but not about not eating or cooking. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Pa sent me to visit for a while, but I’ll be glad to get back home, see my mother, my father, my horse Flash.”

“He quick, son, like his name?”

“Yup,” the boy said with a big smile.

When the conductor walked by the stranger, he shrugged his shoulders. The gesture was understood to be about the boy’s situation. The stranger nodded, got up and walked to the boy’s seat, saying, “Son, you ever see the flashing stars of Mount Kilso? They’re on our way. They are something else to see. There’s a better view from the platform. You interested?”

“Sure,” the boy said. “Can I leave my bag here?”

“Of course. Nobody’s going to steal it. There’s no place to go. I even left mine back there.” He pointed at his bag sitting on end by his seat, looked around the car at the ladies gabbing, the older men near dozing off, the conductor walking to the next car.

The two were on the platform for just about two minutes when the man said, “Get a better look over this side. You have to look up to the north side of Mount Kilso, and keep your eyes open.”

When the man jumped off the train, the boy in his arms, there was no sound. No motion. Nobody missed them for over half an hour when the conductor came back and asked the ladies and the old men where the boy was.

One woman said, “He went back there with that man who was sitting behind him. I heard him say they were going to look at the flashing stars.”

The conductor hastened to the back of the car, saw nobody and knew his first fear. The boy was the son of the biggest rancher in the area, Jesse Randolph Phillips of the JRP spread that went all the way to the mountains, and then some. They were sixty miles from the boy’s destination. At the next stop he sent a telegraph.

The telegraph was delivered to Phillips, and a few hours later one of his horses, wearing his brand, stolen weeks earlier, came back to the JRP ranch lead by a cowboy. “Found him out on the grass, Jesse, and he had this note on him, stuck to the saddle.

The note said, “I got your boy. Now it’s my turn.”

“Who’d write that, Jesse? Who’d take a kid?”

“Someone who hates me, I’d guess, and there’s been enough of them, quitters, soreheads, lousy drovers who never pulled their own weight. I can’t name one, but can name all of them if needed.”

He looked at the telegraph sent by the conductor. “Your boy disappeared off the train with a strange man, near Mount Kilso and before we got to Wilson Wells, where I sent this message. The man was in his 40s, bearded, wore a gray hat and a black band on it, black vest, and gray shirt. Wore no guns. Left a bag with nothing in it.”

Phillips did not want to tell his wife, who he thought would die before the boy got back home. Now it looked to be a correct assumption on his part. He called his one of his hands and said, “Bliss, go out there on that last round-up at Smoke Ridge and tell Charlie-Two-Horse I need him in a hurry. A real hurry.”

Well after midnight, Phillips heard the hoof beats coming down the trail. He knew it was Charlie-Two-Horse.

The two sat in the kitchen. Phillips said, “Charlie, someone grabbed Jared off the train. Must have jumped off near Mount Kilso and before Wilson Wells. One of my own horses was brought in by a drover who found him with a note on him, saying they stole the boy and ‘It was his turn now.’”

“You don’t know who?” Charlie-Two-Horse said.

“Could be one of many, Charlie. But he’ll come looking for something. You had as much to do with bringing Jared up as anybody, with Mabel sick for these past few years. The boy’s smart enough to keep his wits about him. You agree?”

“The boy listened all the time. He knows many ways including the way of the Apache in trouble. He knows how to track almost as good as me.” He laughed, and said, “Jared not helpless as man who took him thinks. He has Apache on his hands. I go now, take two horse. Will look for trail. Do not send army until I look.”

Phillips patted him on the back. “Charlie, you’ve been a great friend, but I need all you have now.”

“Charlie know. Jared know Charlie come. Jared smart as Apache.”

Three miles before Wilson Wells on the railroad, Charlie-Two-Horse found where the two had come off the train and rolled down a grassy embankment, some brush broken, trampling in the ground. A mile away, in a grove of trees, he found where two horses had been tied. Tracks lead away in two directions and he knew the first track was riderless or carried the boy, but the boy had not turned up, so the horse was riderless and must have carried the note. The other trail hit rocks and water, and Charlie went all the way back to the jump spot and began to search the ground.

He smiled brightly when he found the first bead in the ground, not in grass but on gravel, the sun touching it lightly. It was a prayer bead from Jared’s holy necklace or string of beads.

Jared, part Apache, had started marking his trail. Walking slowly, leading his horse, Charlie-Two-Horse kept finding the trail of beads. He could picture Jared snapping them loose one at a time in his pocket, even as he rode doubled-up with his kidnapper.

At one point he found two beads fairly close together and knew the course had been changed. Due north had become due east. More beads showed up. Then two more and another change in direction.

Charlie-Two-Horse’s grin became wider and brighter. The holy beads he did not understand were now telling him what he needed to know.

He travelled all that day, in twists and turns and changes in direction, and finally, as he crested a hill through a scrub growth, he saw the old miner’s cabin set against the cliff with a red stone face. He went back a half mile, tied off one horse, and went back to his lookout spot in deep brush. He sat and waited and watched. He smelled the fire in the early morning and the aroma of coffee. One horse was tied off at the side of the cabin, the saddle sitting on a bench. For two hours nothing moved, and then the man came out, placed the saddle on the horse and rode away.

Charlie waited, still as a cactus in the brush. The man, in a short ride, came back in sight, looked over everything, and made off again, apparently satisfied that there was no problem at hand.

Charlie waited one hour, slipped down to the cabin, slipped inside, and called Jared’s name. The rustling came from under the floor. He pulled up a few loose boards and saw Jared bound and gagged in a hole in the ground.

“Charlie, I knew you’d find my beads. I knew it. He’s gone to see a friend someplace. There was another man here sometime yesterday. They talked long and he left. He’s gone to meet him again.”

Charlie said, “Go back that way, in the trees is another horse. Go home tell your father where I am. I will watch for the man. I will leave a trail of this …” and he held out a long yellow ribbon. I will leave pieces of this. Show piece to your father. He will want this man. I will stay with him until you father finds us. Tell him now is time to brig army of men.”

Jared was three hours gone when the kidnapper came back, entered the cabin, started a fire, started to cook, and as Charlie might imagined the sight, pulled back the boards in the floor to see the hole empty, the boy gone.

The man rushed outside, looked around, and saw nothing, the Apache well hidden from sight. He desperately looked for signs in the ground, and found none. Charlie-Two-Horse had erased all signs.

The man, in further haste, grabbed what gear he had, re-saddled his horse again and took off in a northerly direction. It was not the direction he had gone before.

Charlie-Two-Horse, reader of all signs, marker of trails, laid out the route of the man. Now and then, at a great distance, he caught sight of him cresting a hill, disappearing into a wadi, entering a canyon, crossing a stream.

There was no way he could lose the man who was following him.

After a night in the foothills of a mountain range, a fire for coffee and bacon in progress, Charlie sat on a far place and kept watch. Two days later, in Timberville, in the saloon not far from the sawmill in full swing, Jesse Randolph Phillips and a small army of JRP ranch hands, along with a sheriff and two deputies, slipped into the Sawmill Saloon in a moist casual fashion, some claiming they were glad the damned drive was over and it was time to wet their throats.

There was a lot of noise, a lot of shouting, and on the floor leading up to the bar, a minimal trail of pieces of yellow tattered yellow ribbon ended at the backside of a man leaning over the bar, talking to a second man, the bartender.

He was heard to say, “I don’t know where the hell he went, Buck, but he disappeared and I wasn’t going to hang around.

A hand closed on his holster, another hand closed on his wrist, and a third had spun him around as Jess Randolph Phillips and his son Jared Phillips walked in the door following the trail of yellow ribbons.

Charlie-Two-Horse, first to get there, was sitting in one corner of the room, smiling at the boy who was more Apache than any other person in the room.