Western Short Story
Michael McLean

In one sweeping glance, he took in the scene as he spurred the sorrel gelding over the juniper- and acacia-covered ridge at a gallop. There were no questions to be asked. Four men on horseback were running some three-dozen head of fattened cattle down the south side of Badger Creek . . . his cattle. On his right, Emilio Salinas, the young hired hand kept up with reins in one hand and Colt revolver in the other.

Charging down off the ridge toward the creek, they still had the advantage of surprise, but that quickly faded. Squeezing the sorrel forward with his legs, Winston Standish whipped the reins around the saddle horn and slid a Winchester .45-75 carbine out of its scabbard. Raising it, he fired at the rustler riding drag behind the animals and watched the man fall from his horse. He heard Emilio firing his pistol and saw the nearest outlaw lurch but stay in the saddle, leaning over the saddle horn. Working the lever of the carbine he swung it in the direction of the lead outlaw. At that moment, he felt a massive blow, then nothing.

~ ~ ~

His first sensation was smell. The aroma of wood smoke surrounded him. Cautiously, he opened his eyes slightly to take in his surroundings. He lay on the ground, a rough blanket covering him. The night was dark and his head and left shoulder hurt like hell. Flames from a small fire danced, offering a bit of light and warmth. Standish felt the presence of another person. “Emilio, is that you?”

“You have returned. That is good,” an old yet strong voice replied.

Standish watched as the old man moved into the light. He recognized at once that the stranger was Indian, probably Apache off the reservation not too far distant. A black, wide-brimmed hat crowned braided silver hair. The man cradled a well-worn Model 1873 Winchester rifle. “Hello, Grandfather,” he said softly, avoiding direct eye contact that he knew the Apache considered disrespectful.

“I feared you would not return. Your head lost much blood while you slept.”

Gingerly, Standish felt his head. There was a cloth bandage wrapped around it. “Do you know what happened? Have you seen Emilio?”

“I am sorry for the young man. He was very brave. He has gone to Jesus,” the old man lowered his head.

Silence fell between the two. More than a little mystified, Standish finally asked. “Jesus? But, you’re Indian. Apache, right?”

“That is so. My name is Thomas. I am Mescalero Apache. I was baptized by the priest and learned your words on the reservation.”

“You’ve tended to me. I thank you for that. My name is Winston Standish. This here is part of my ranch, the Circle S.”

“I know the new way. Your laws make this your land, but before—” the old man stopped. Both knew the land’s history.

Thomas added a few more sticks of wood to the hungry fire then bent over and picked up a small bowl from next to it. “Drink this. It will help you heal.”

Standish rolled onto his right side wincing at the pain in his left shoulder as he accepted the offering. The hot liquid tasted terrible.

“I was hunting for deer in the hills above. Five men chased the cattle along the creek. One was behind the others. When you started down the hill, he stopped and got off a black horse with a rifle. You shot one of the men and the young man wounded one, but he stayed on his horse. The man with the black horse shot your friend and fired at you, but hit your rifle and you fell from your horse hurting head. He rode away from the creek,” Thomas indicated, pointing with his chin to the south. “The others keep chasing cows.”

As Standish mentally sorted through the events described by Thomas, he heard a horse snort nearby and tensed.

“Horses, yours and mine. Yours ran but came back to you, the other horse ran away.”

“Thank you for all you have done. How can I repay you?”

“No need for that. You need help. I help,” the old man said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Did you see any sign of other riders? The sheriff and his posse were headed this way.”

“No, no others. Perhaps he found the bad men,” Thomas offered.

“Maybe, but . . .”

Winston recalled the visit from Bart Wilkes, a trapper who worked the mountains. He had stopped by the ranch and reported the suspicious activity up Badger Creek to Standish. He had promised to get the sheriff as soon as he reached town.

Thomas interrupted his thoughts. “I have dried venison. Can you eat?”

Standish nodded as the old man turned away toward the horses returning with dried meat and a canteen he recognized.

The broth Thomas had given him combined with the bit of food made him drowsy, but the pain had subsided considerably. “Why were you hunting here? You’re several miles from the reservation.”

“Hard times on reservation. Many new people come and meat is not plentiful, so I hunt where there are more deer, maybe elk.”

Nodding, Standish laid back and looked up at the bright stars as silence fell around the fire.

~ ~ ~

Warm, too warm. Standish opened his eyes and blinked. Bathed in morning sunlight, he sat up and looked around. The old man was gone. The gelding was ground tied and munching contentedly on grass. His canteen, hat, holster, and pistol were placed near the remains of the fire. The pain in his shoulder and head was still present but tolerable.

Slowly he stood, fighting off a few moments of dizziness. Finally, he took a long drink from the canteen, gathered his things and went to the horse. Cinch tightened, he mounted. He would not soon forget the kindness of Thomas.

Only a few dozen yards from the camp, Standish saw the glint of sunlight off metal and rode to it. It was his Winchester lying next to a thicket of acacia. Retrieving the carbine, he saw that the weapon was damaged. There was a large dent in the metal receiver from the outlaw’s bullet that had been meant for him. Working the lever action, he satisfied himself that the carbine still worked.

Emilio’s body was three hundred feet further up the hill. He had been hit in the belly by a large caliber slug that had exited his back leaving a gaping wound. Buzzards circling above meant the body had to be protected.

A while later, Standish stood in his stirrups and looked with great sadness at the mound of rocks covering the remains of the young man. He would get help and come back later for the body and make sure there was a proper burial. But now he had a mission. The young man had ridden for the Circle S brand to the end. Bowing his head, Standish made a solemn vow. He would see justice done.

Sheriff Rance Hewitt was a tall drink of a man with a reputation for honesty and an opportunity for improvement in the area of ambition. The sheriff looked up from a scarred oak desk as Winston Standish pushed through the door of the office. “Was wonderin’ when you’d show up,” Sherriff Hewitt said with a slight Texas drawl. “You hurt?”

“Not bad, long way from my heart.”

“We went out there as soon as we could get a posse rounded up, but the trapper said you and your man were headed out.”

“Figured you’d catch up quicker.”

“Where’s your man, Emilio?”

“Dead. They shot him in the gut.”

“I’m truly sorry. He was a good hand. His family will be deeply grieved.”

“Already told ‘em on my way here. Was my obligation and I’ll try to square up with ‘em somehow.” Standish frowned, not knowing exactly how to do that except to see justice served.

“If it helps Mr. Standish, we got ‘em. All three are locked up in the back,” he jerked his thumb to the door that led to the jail. “One’s wounded real bad. Doc says he may not make it to the hangin’.”
“Pity. That’s the one Emilio shot. I killed a fourth man, but Sheriff, there were five of ‘em. It was the fifth one that killed Emilio and knocked me off my horse. Slug hit my carbine or I’d be dead too. Smacked my head on a rock when I fell, didn’t see the action.”

Rance Hewitt gave him a quizzical look. “How’d you know all this if you was out cold?”

“An old Mescalero Apache saw it all. He tended to me and told me what happened.”

“You trust this Apache?”

“Count on it. He saved my life. He was hunting meat for his people back on the reservation. I’d ride the river with that old man anytime,” Standish looked the sheriff straight in the eye as he said the words.

“Good enough for me, Mr. Standish. Now, what about this fifth rustler?”

“Don’t know for sure yet, but I’m headin’ back up Badger Creek to look for sign. I’m betting he’s the ringleader,” he stated as the sheriff nodded. “But, most outlaws make mistakes. Maybe he made one too.”

“Can’t send anybody with you.”

“Don’t expect such. He made it personal. Just keep these hombres locked up.

“Bet on it. The circuit judge will be here in a week or two. You watch your back.”

Standish locked eyes with the sheriff again. “Bet on it.”

~ ~ ~

A stiff breeze from the east blew as Winston Standish rode up the south side of Badger Creek following the path the rustlers had driven the cattle down. The decision to follow up immediately was a good one, clouds were starting to appear over the mountains to the west heralding an approaching storm that might wash away any sign. He had stopped briefly at the ranch house on the return from town to put together enough provisions for a day or two. Emilio’s horse had returned to the barn strengthening his resolve.

Ahead, he could see a pair of buzzards working at something on the ground. Riding closer, he saw it was the body of the outlaw he had shot. Coyotes and other predators had already been at the fresh meat. Urging the gelding a bit farther, he saw the mound of rocks protecting Emilio’s body and the spot where he’d been knocked from the horse on the other side of Badger Creek. Maneuvering back and forth, Standish lined up the possible paths taken by the bullets and where they were fired from to keep the shooter hidden.

Twenty minutes later, he dismounted in an area of heavy juniper. There were piles of horse dung where the animal had been tied. The ground was hard to track in and the wind was no help. Most of what might have been boot tracks were filled in by blowing dirt, but he was close.

Moving in and through the juniper he looked for a clear line of sight to the targets across the creek. Suddenly he stopped. There, lying amidst dirt and dead juniper needles, were two shiny brass shell casings. Carefully he picked them up and examined one. He had owned many guns over the years and recognized the large caliber, rim-fire casings that were uncommonly used in those parts. They were from a Spencer .56-56, a rifle widely used by the Union cavalry during the Civil War. So, the outlaw had made a mistake. Maybe he’d make more.

Minutes later, Standish was riding in an ever-widening pattern, hoping for a trace of the outlaw’s passing. A quarter of a mile from the creek, his persistence was rewarded. A small seep was mostly dry, but the ground was soft around it. Hoofprints cut through the softer ground, their spacing indicating a moderate trot. A second clue and confirmation that the man was moving south, parallel to the mountains. Looking back, he established a line, projected it forward and followed.

Another three miles and he saw where the horse had stopped and shuffled around a bit. The short stub of a thin cigar had been carelessly dropped next to a gray rock. Mistake number three. Cigars were rare in that area. Most men smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. Circling the spot, he saw where a horseshoe had clipped one of the soft gray rocks and some broken leaves through a group of yucca. The man was obviously not concerned about being followed and had changed direction. The rustler must have figured him for dead, he was headed to town.

Riding down a low hill, Standish came to a thicket of tall mesquite trees with a spring in a hollow a few feet away. Remains of a small fire, two more cigar butts and ample horse sign indicated that as Thomas was tending to him, the outlaw camped, leaving the rest of the band of rustlers to fend for themselves. He was in for a surprise when he got to town which was most likely abuzz with news the sheriff no doubt made public.

Standish entered town just as the wind blew dust down the street in advance of the impending storm. He searched for a black horse as Thomas had described. In front of the Sunset Saloon, a midnight-black stood tied to a hitching rail along with several other horses. The door to the saloon was propped open, so he pulled up short and tied up in front of the general store a few dozen yards away. Smooth and quick, he dismounted, walked around the sorrel and slid the Winchester from its scabbard. As he walked by the black he saw the big Spencer remained with the horse, which meant the outlaw had a pistol.

Standish slipped the hammer thong off his own pistol. Stepping through the open door with hat pulled down, he took a few steps and announced in a big voice, “That black horse outside is a goin’ colicky.”

An ugly brute of a man with a scar down his right cheek and a thin cigar protruding from the corner of his mouth turned from the bar and made for the door. Standish turned and jammed the butt of the carbine hard into the man’s gut then slammed it against the side of his head as the rest of the saloon’s patrons watched in shocked silence. The big man grunted but didn’t go down. He reached for his pistol as Standish tossed the Winchester away and plowed into him knocking him over a hastily deserted poker table.

The outlaw pushed up from the floor and charged, letting fly a wicked punch that caught Standish in his damaged left shoulder. The pain was excruciating and he stepped back. Another punch glanced off the side of his head. Immediately, he could feel blood flowing from the day-old wound. The thug rushed at him roaring, but Standish stepped aside a half step and let go with a roundhouse that caught the outlaw on his temple. Dazed, the brute wobbled as Standish stepped back with his right foot, planted it and followed up with a vicious right hook that snapped the big man’s head back and sent him crashing to the floor in a heap.

“That’s enough!” The voice of Sheriff Rance Hewitt boomed over the cacophony of voices that had just witnessed the smaller man’s victory. “Stand back Mr. Standish. We’ll take it from here,” he said, motioning a deputy to disarm the unconscious man. “Why the hell didn’t you just shoot him? You had every right.”

“I know I did, but I think Emilio’s family has every right to see a hangin’ that includes the ringleader, don’t you?”

~ ~ ~

A worried look crossed Ted Albers face as he watched three riders rapidly approach on horseback. They were clearly Apache and they were clearly not happy. “Win, what now?” he shouted as he worked to slow the dozen head of cattle between them.

“Keep the cattle here. Calm ‘em down and I’ll parlay with ‘em,” replied Standish as he spurred the gelding forward to meet the trio.

“What you want here?” the older of the group asked. “Your law say this Apache home now.”

“We don’t want any trouble. I want to talk to the old man, Thomas. Do you know him?”

The leader looked at Standish with a hint of curiosity crossing his chiseled features. “All know Thomas. He is great man. Why you want him.”

“It’s personal . . . ‘tween him and me.”

The Apache studied him, glanced at the cattle, then motioned with his head to the youngest of the three who spun his horse and galloped off. “Wait here. Maybe Thomas come.”

Standish nodded and turned back to his neighbor and the cattle that were peacefully grazing. “Guess we wait a while.”

An hour later, they watched as the young man rejoined the others and a newcomer trotted toward them, the other three trailing.

Reining in a sturdy, overo-paint stallion, the old man nodded at Standish. “You look much better now.”

“Thanks to you, Thomas. I’d have been buzzard bait if you hadn’t been there.”

“You need help. I help. You want to talk with me?” Thomas queried.

“You said you were hunting to help feed those on the reservation,” he motioned toward the other three. “We are neighbors, just like me and Ted over there. Now I help. These cattle are for your people.”

Thomas sat back on the stallion without speaking and regarded him for what seemed like a long time. Finally, the old man nodded. “The Mescalero people are grateful . . . neighbor.”