Western Short Story
The sign was stuck in the ground on a stick, and read, in a rough hand not used to lettering, “Water 5 cents a canteen, or else.” What happened to look like a bullet was hair-pin drawn across the bottom of the sign. The first sight of anything civilized he had seen in weeks of trailing a murderous fugitive caught Pretend Hardy by surprise.
Still astride Paws, his sturdy trail horse, Hardy looked all around, saw nobody standing guard, nothing moving near the hole or in the steep incline leading to Lizard Mountain, laughed and yelled loudly, his voice booming off the rocks and rock faces, “What gets me the or else?”
If there was any pause in the reply, Pretend Hardy couldn’t count any seconds, as a rifle shot winged noisily over his head. He ducked as a voice answered from an unknown location on the cliff face, a woman’s voice, saying, “Is that answer enough, mister whoever you be?”
Pretend Hardy stood his ground and said, “The Good Lord let the water rest here for thirsty riders. You aiming to take his place, Ma’am?”
“I’m just renting the place from him, so I got to pay my rent. You doubting the Good Lord deserves his rent money? You’re my first customer in two days. Business ain’t so good.”
“What’d that last customer look like, Ma’am, he scrawny and dirty all over and riding a horse that don’t look like it belongs to him, a roan all pretty by hisself?”
“You a lawman, mister? You paint a picture of that man couldn’t be any better’n what you said.”
Hardy still hadn’t seen the speaker, but saw a hat move slightly on one line of the cliff. “I am, Ma’am, Sheriff Pretend Hardy from Culvern City, and that scrawny, dirty looking dude is wanted for murdering a whole family of folk just to get their horse. His name is Moss Qwick and I am going to see him hanged sooner or later. Right now, me and my horse are thirsty. I’ll pay your price and will rest here tonight if you don’t mind.”
“That’s a funny name, Mr. Hardy, how’d you come by it? Water’s free for lawmen, and you’re welcome to stay.”
Hardy still couldn’t tell where the voice was coming from, except above him, and believed he heard a bit of relief in its tone.
“Names come by accident or out of history, and us getting named don’t have much control over either one. I think my good mother wanted me to be a stage actor or the like. One thing I can say aside of thank you, Ma’am, is that Qwick feller could have, in the two days since you last saw him, worked his way around and is now sitting above you checking on the spoils he has in mind.”
“Show him, Dawg.”
A wolfish looking animal, probably a German Shepherd, thought Hardy, leaped from behind a rock and was beside him growling. The animal looked to be a solid 90 or 100 pounds of fighting measure.
Hardy held Paws in place, muttered “Whoa , boy,” to both horse and dog, and pointed up at the cliff. “He any good at climbing rock, Ma’am, that dog of yours? That’s where I think that Qwick feller will keep hisself, up there, until he thinks he’s the new renter here. I do believe he took the man’s weapons when he took his horse, that includes a Winchester. Now, I’d worry about that if I was you, looking up from the bottom of the barrel, as they might say back home.”
“You sit, Dawg,” the woman said, and stood up so Hardy could see her. She appeared young and moved briskly and started a fairly easy descent from her hidden position. In five minutes more or less she was standing across the water hole from Hardy. Her rifle was almost level, but not quite and Hardy read that appeasement in the lady. He thought she had tolerance and trust, to a point, and that spoke well of her. And he immediately liked her face and dreamy hazel green eyes even the desert couldn’t dim because they were so alive, and she appeared younger than him by a dozen years or so.
Her voice lost its earlier edge as she talked on, Hardy knowing he was on the listening side. “Decent company is a big hope here, mister. I buried my father in among the rocks about a week ago. I think he had a heart attack and went real quick. He had a claim here took up all his dreams, and was breaking them at the same time, the way it looks. Never found a nickel’s worth.” She shrugged her shoulders and Hardy believed she would have stayed with her father as long as the dream held out.
“I was not hankering to leave here in a hurry, knowing I might not get back any time soon, the way things happen to a body. I’ve got food for another week, but need a grubstake when I get to town, so I put up the sign. I got two dollars in loans and tips since I set it, most from last week when three cowboys came through, smiling and looking happy when they saw me, but no trouble. I ain’t working in any saloon when I get wherever I’m getting to.” She paused as she looked Hardy over, eyeing his guns, his horse, the three canteens looped on his pommel. “My name’s Shelby Spark, Mr. Hardy. Pleased to meet you.”
She walked around the waterhole and shook his hand.
Hardy had only heard the term “manna” but knew immediately its definition as he touched her hand. A small electric shock accompanied the touch. It must have hit her too, as her eyes lit up. ”Oh boy,” she said, “that’s something new.” Her face turned a slight pink, then went all the way red. Then, as a woman with control ultimately in her hand, she said, “You really think that’s what this Qwick will do, sneak up from behind?”
“Where’s the next water hole, Ma’am? It far?”
“None I know of ‘tween here and Ottsville, and that’s a couple good days of riding.”
“Well, Qwick ain’t heading that way. He owes people there as much as he owes me and the family he blew right off their porch.”
“When you move on, in the morning, Mr. Hardy, can I ride along with you?”
“It’d be a pleasure with me, Ma’am, if we can lasso that Qwick feller so he ain’t at our backs along the trail.”
“How do you propose doing that, if he’s two days ahead of you?”
“He was two days afore this, but I don’t figure he’s two days out there right this minute. I haven’t read him wrong yet, ‘cept I been making sure of all tracks, and I think he set eyes on you, if you know what I mean, regardless of the hellos.”
“So what happens now? You ‘re not rushing off and leaving me, to chase around the mountain for him, are you?” For the first time there was honest concern in her voice.
“”Won’t do that, Ma’am, not for a second, though I got some ideas squirming round in my head how we can corral that feller, you being up to a bit of play acting.”
Neither the concern nor the worry nor the desert itself had dimmed any of Shelby Spark’s beauty, and all kinds of ideas and choices and hopes rushed through Hardy’s mind. He never had been too smart a feller at his own thinking, he admitted to himself, but what hit him was like a loaded gun.
”Say we play act it like this, me knowing a bit about Qwick and how he takes things to mind. Say we, in play acting, play acting mind you, get ourselves kind of cozy lovey so’s he can see us, that’ll shake the hell out of him and instead of taking a chance of getting me from up there and you winging him back, he’ll sneak down and try to get me real close like, and then lock down on you. But we’ll be waiting. We got to set the bait for him, just before dark and a decent fire in the pit. You game?”
“I did say that good company was a big hope for me. It’d be my pleasure, Mr. Hardy. He really kill the whole family? How old were any kids?”
“Too young for what he did, two of them, one each younger than me when I was learning to ride.”
Hardy saw a well of tears threatening to come loose, and to his great surprise his heart took another leap on top of the last one. For the first time, the very first time on the trail of a mad killer, he felt threatened, as if he was no longer in control.
The fire was just starting to lose some of its radiant flames and Hardy said, “We best make the most of the little light we have left, Ma’am.”
“If you’re about to kiss me, Mr. Hardy, better be quick about it, and gentle and slow like he’ll believe us. And please call me Shelby, or Honey, or whatever you want, but we better not waste time atalking.”
She was in his arms, kissing him, and he felt the weeks she’d been in the desert falling away from her and a tenderness he had never known in all his years swim over him like a flash flood once in Boyd’s Canyon. It was abrupt and riotous and sweet at the same time.
“You take my breath away.” He fought to say “Ma’am” and finally “Shelby” came out and she nestled deeper in his arms.
“I got none left,” she said and one hand traced his face in the growing darkness. “I could be with no one but you, Pretend Hardy. I swear from my stirrups up.”
When the fire was just a glimmer of coals, an occasional spark flared up like a tiny loose star lost in the desert, they moved off to the base of the towering wall. They went silently, and Dawg, who had not uttered one sound the whole night, crept along with them without a single command. At the base of the wall she was in his arms again, and when she was about to speak, he placed his hand gently over her mouth and whispered, “Shhh.” She nestled in his arms. He held her tightly for the longest while, and then she felt him tighten more and then loosen his whole body as if he was about to draw his weapon .
That’s when she heard the sound, a clink and light trickle of pebbles or dirt, a heel on a rock, cloth rubbing on cloth, a man’s breath as heavy as any sound in the night. Qwick was descending the rock face. He was coming down directly on top of her cliff-side hideout. She could almost picture where he was. Then he stopped and both of them knew he was studying the whole scene.
The fire was about out. Their blanket rolls were still in place, alongside each other, his hat sat over one end of his blanket roll, hers beside his. The moon peeked from behind a cloud. In the far night a coyote crooned his awareness of life. Her heart was thumping so loud she believed Qwick might hear it. Hardy, she was sure, had stopped breathing, stopped moving. She wondered if he had stopped enjoying her.
When Qwick’s shot bored right through the center of his hat on the empty bedroll, Hardy put a round high on Quick’s gun shoulder and heard the gun fall in the darkness. He was on top of Qwick in a flash and had a pair of irons on both wrists. The outlaw was moaning, and said, in a still arrogant voice, “I’m bleeding to death. Do something.”
“Not much I can do in the dark, Qwick. Best be quiet.”
As one real falling star shot across the desert sky in a momentous arc, Shelby Spark nudged Pretend Hardy and said, “We can still play-act, can’t we?”