Western Short Story
On the peak of a grassy brow, his body stiffened as he waited a shot. It didn’t come, didn’t tear the night apart, or him. “We’ll never know, Torby,” he said, the silence measuring miles as well as, catastrophes, luck also figuring its way into realization. It summed up the argument for him that Mud Harris would do anything to stay alive; Mud Harris on the loose was a terror to any other living thing.
Special Sheriff Micah Thorsen, a searcher extreme, pulled back the reins on his mount, “Whoa, Torby,” he said, as the horizon blended into the starry night, sleep calling him, the long day of search behind him, Mud Harris most likely hunkered down ahead of him, maybe asleep already under a single star. He did his quick figuring, two weeks of steady searching on top of six years of wanted posters across the heart of Texas, notorious target for seekers, hunters of cash goods
Micah Thorsen was a man who never cared about feathers in his cap or reward money in his hand, and everybody knew it, except those who kept looking over their shoulders, back down the trail for that familiar figure bent on capture. He would admit his one savage joy was putting a bad ass in jail for keeps, or so long as his crime was legally covered by the court. A judge of concern, a town someplace feeling better all the way round, those towns that Mud Harris had paid repeated visits in the darkness under stars.
Mud’s history said every time out he had killed or wounded a man, a citizen, a fellow officer, anybody who stepped in his way, man or woman, no children yet, but free time still on hand. The whole life of the fleet criminal was built on speedy exits, at the finish of a crime, or in the dead middle of one, the alarm raised, a shot fired, a quick gallop into the night, and eventual disappearance from a posse no matter how quickly it was firmed, set out in chase.
Ahead of him, the huge black face of a cliff merging in the Montana darkness, which somewhere, at this minute provided cover and protection for Mud Harris, caught little of the stars, its face a sheer presentation to an observer, darkness or otherwise.
“He’s up there, Torby,” he muttered to his horse, “but his horse ain’t. So, we’ll spend some time come daylight looking for his horse. That’ll be our first lead.” He stopped speaking to his horse, almost stopped thinking aloud, fearing to give his location away. Daylight would be soon enough, and sleep was needed.
He tethered Torby behind a copse of trees, put his blanket on the ground 20 feet away, slept peacefully until the dawn break, and, when it came, he studied the face of the cliff, foot to top for an hour, not stirring so much as an inch. Good at this was he, with long practice on the trail of 50 or more criminals in his career who were bound to move sooner than later, anxious to put some territory between himself and the star on horseback somewhere behind him.
Near the base of the cliff, off to the right, was a copse of trees presenting a thicker darkness in its mass, the only coverage for a horse that close to the cliff. With that decided, Micah drank cold coffee, munched on a hardened biscuit, got himself ready for a long day. But occasionally, without a target in mind, he fired a shot that ricocheted off the cliff face, scattering slight residues of stone dust and particles into the air. Shots at will came back from the cliff.
In those cases, the silence was broken by the short explosions. Even Micah’s nerves got edgy,
So advanced the day, until Micah, in a new darkness, found Mud Harris’s mount in the cover of trees and moved him into Torby’s company. His eyes kept returning to two obvious cave openings at the base of the cliff, the ground around clear of any cover, of any kind of approach in daylight,
Micah, in his hidden position, lit a small fire, heated his stale pot of coffee, smelled the scent of it as a slight breath of air carried it aloft. A shot came from the cliff and roared over Micah’s head. Then a second shit, and a third. When the sounds subsided, Micah yelled out, “I git your horse, Mud. There’s no way you’ll get to him, not past me, and you know that. I can sit out here another couple of days, gonna have bacon and biscuits in a bit, another good sleep tonight, the horses off aways.”
Then Micah counted the pebbles he had arranged in a row: 13 of them. “Hey. Mud,” he yelled out again, “I know you fired 13 shots this way and I don’t know what you got left in your belt or your bag, but I can sit here for four more days as I figure, nice and comfortable. Don’t worry about your mount. I’ll take good care of him, keeping my Torby company.”
A voice echoed off the cliff face; “Why’d you name him Torby?”
“For my woman’s son.”
“You ain’t his father?”
“No, I ain’t, but he’s just like he was.”
“Someone beat you to it, huh?”
“Sure did, and he’s in jail now and the boy don’t know it yet.”
Mud replied, “That’s gonna be damned uncomfortable for you, Micah.”
“No other way, Mud. I’ll tell him his pa was just like you, all the way, tracked down judged and jailed, facing his maker.”
Mud said, “I oughtta take a run at you.”
“If you do. Mud, I’ll leave you for the birds, the coyotes, the wolves, and that’d be the end of it. I get to go home with your mount What’s his name?”
“Oh. he’s a good old horse, name’s Blueboy. Same name of my Pa’s horse in the Big War, Blueboy.”
Micah picked up the quick change in Mud Harris’s voice, like a whole meltdown of a person al at once, quicker than Hell can come, as Mud said, “Okay, I’m tossing my gun. I got a few rounds left, no water. You got any of thet coffee left?”
“Mud,” Micah Thorsen said, “I’ll make a whole new pot for you.”