Western Short Story
Jed Carlin, out on the edge of the wide prairie beyond Testa Verde, rode his cow pony in short sprints, liking the wind in his face, the heave in his chest. Clear blue eyes caught all moving things around him; a prairie dog scuttling away, a hawk using an upper wave of air, a falcon taking down a dark bird in flight, a peccary sow guiding two little ones at a water hole, and the rider on the distant horizon riding towards him as though his life depended on it.
Five minutes out of town and life was being lived, threatened, lost. The same all over, Carlin thought, as he looked back at the horizon.
The rider, coming straight at him, was waving, and still in a hurry.
All he knew in a few seconds was the rider was a woman. And she rode well and fast.
Some quick thought made Carlin remember hearing about the shooting at The Lead Horse Saloon the night before. Big Jack Dunphy demanded everybody in the room agree with his version of the sudden shoot-out right in front of the bar. “Everybody here say now how they saw this. How that hombre there on the floor drew on me and I shot back. Clear case of self-defense if you ever saw it.”
Later, taking a head count before the sheriff came back into town, Dunphy realized one of the waitresses had disappeared. It was determined that a customer’s horse was gone too.
Dunphy said to the barkeep and owner, Harry Brewster, “She’s one of your girls, Brewster, so you better make sure she ain’t carrying any tales. She very friendly with the sheriff?”
Brewster, skittish at best, but often by design, shook his head and said, “Don’t blame me for what one of the ladies does. Most of the time they’re on their own. Ladies of fate you might call them.”
Dunphy had given Brewster a cold, hard stare, “Just make damned sure, whatever.”
As he walked to the saloon door, he shot back at Brewster standing yet at the bar, “I’m going looking for her. Maybe she left town and we won’t ever see her again.” At the door he added, “Yes, sir, that’s a real likely possibility.”
He disappeared into the night.
The rider and the shoot-out story meshed in Carlin’s mind. He’d bet the ranch this was the waitress in flight from someone chasing her. He waved at her as though he knew her, thinking it was Flo Marple though no names had come out of the shooting incident.
Spurring his horse, Carlin raced to close the gap between them. In the distance, another rider raced in from the horizon. It could only be Dunphy or the sheriff. He bet on Dunphy.
The woman was Flo Marple, still waving, a possible shout on the air. They closed fast. Her yells came ahead of her. “He’s after me. It’s that killer Dunphy. I saw him do it. I saw him do it.” She was screaming as if she had to leave some kind of a testament in case he caught her.
Carlin closed and grabbed the reins from her hand. The horse pulled up, jerking its head, breathing heavy.
“Easy, boy,” Carlin said. “Easy.” He patted the horse on the neck and then said to Flo, “Nobody’s going to hurt you, Flo. I’ll see to that.”
With two hands he loosened the holster thongs he had slipped over both of his pistol butts before the ride. There was no extra pounding from his heart, or any extra breaths. The old command was resurrecting itself. He moved with sureness, confident of hand and eye. The cow pony stayed close to the horse she had stolen to flee from the saloon. The tears ran on her cheeks, slipped off her chin. She was early old but still pretty. That was evident before all of this. He’d had a few drinks with her, the piano playing, a song in the air, Saturday evening in the saloon.
Looking back the way she had come, she replied, in haste again, “He had a gun already drawn and it was under the edge of the bar when he called out Dewey Pratt. He was already armed. I saw the whole thing.” She almost collapsed out of the saddle. Carlin held onto her. “He shot him just as he was drawing, right from under the counter. I saw the whole thing. He must know it. It was that monster of a man, Jack Dunphy.”
“Don’t say anything about it, if it’s him. Just say you ran because you thought the whole place was going to be shot up. Say you were scared to death.” He held her hand, knew the softness, the difference.
Big Jack Dunphy, a sneer set on his face, drew up beside them. Wide-sitting in the saddle, nervous at seeing Carlin, he looked out of place on a horse. “What are you running from, girl? I wasn’t going to hurt you none.” He looked at Carlin and said, “I’ll take her back to town, fella. She’ll be okay with me.”
Dunphy went to touch the reins and Carlin said, “I was out looking for her. We’re getting married and I heard she ran from the saloon because of a shoot-out right in the bar.”
“That was me, fella. A gent drew down on me and I had to set him right.” An insider’s smile slid off a corner of his mouth. “So you two are getting married. I hope all things go fine for you. It’ll be an adventure with her,” and as if he could not let it go, added, “and with lots of memories.” The big, ugly, lopsided grin hung at one side of his face. Carlin remembered a commanding officer suffering a stroke just before a big battle; he looked the same way that Dunphy did at the moment.
There was no way Dunphy was going to try him on; not one on one, not face to face. Flo Marple put that idea in place.
With no further words, Dunphy turned his horse loose and the pair of them fled across the prairie, but not the way he had come.
With obvious intent for the whole trip back to town, Carlin led Flo Marple’s horse down into each swale and wadi and dip in the land they came across, constantly moving back to the rim of each depression to look for Dunphy. “We’ll treat that gent the way he ought to be treated,” Carlin said, “with great caution. I don’t trust him far as I could ride in a week.”
Flo nodded and said, “What you said back there, about getting married … that was quick thinking. It sure threw him off, didn’t it?” She waited a bit and added, “You always so fast?” There was a sense of frailty about her. Her question hung in the open, as if searching for an answer.
It did not come up fast.
He realized he’d studied her face as they rode, noticing the good remnants of beauty, especially a bit of softness where her soul showed through. That made him think of their stations in this life, the ways they had come, where they were in the everyday passage. The pause was significant, but the measurement was not. A hard knot in him had softened considerably.
Caught in the depths of certain facts, equality making its good points, Carlin found a fondness coming over him for Flo Marple. It made him possessive in a sudden manner. She had a sense of fair play, knew right from wrong, saw injustice and knew it, and knew what an enemy was.
In addition, in the possible crosshairs of Jack Dunphy, they were partners at least until a resolution came about … and perhaps longer, he thought, in a quick survey of their immediate relationship.
He was in the center of this thought, at the rim of a deep wadi, and peering over the rim line, when a round so close to him it tossed off the thought. In a few seconds, Flo was at his side. “Are you all right?” she said, her breath hurried, the fright once again sitting in her face, as if she saw herself facing Dunphy again and all alone.
“Don’t worry, Flo. He’s not driving me off. And he’s got to be too far away to get a real good shot at me.”
“What do you call that one, Jed? It was almost on top of you.”
“Oh, Flo, that was more luck than you can imagine. But not the next one. We’ll give him something to think about.”
They crawled a ways then ran to their mounts and continued down the wadi until it swerved off to the right in another landscape change. A cluster of rocks and small trees divided the trail into a fork. With instructions from Carlin for her to stay hidden in the rocks, Carlin walked the two horses down the left side trail and walked back on the other side.
“I’ve tied them off on the far end. If this doesn’t work, we’ll have to walk back to town after dark. We won’t give him a clear shot.”
They nestled into a tight spot, his arm around her, half in protection, half to keep her warm. Despite her late flight actions, her fear and panic at times, he knew the traces of her perfume. Deeply, perhaps slyly, he inhaled the essence. He found it crossing many boundaries as the day deepened into evening, clutched at darkness.
As darkness descended, Carlin shushed her at talking. “Listen,” he said. “Something’s out there on that side.” He pointed where he had led the horses away. “I’m not sure if it’s an animal or what. But it doesn’t sound all too friendly. You take one of my guns and sit tight. I’m going to take a look. If it’s him, I think he’s trying to make us move. That’s okay with me … he’s got to move too.”
He stood to move out, thought of his return, and said, “When I come back, I’ll cough lightly two times. Don’t shoot me.”
“Don’t you dare scare me,” Flo said. “I couldn’t stand that.” Her hand touched lightly at his chest.
As quiet as a mole, Carlin moved into the side trail. Flo heard no sound after his first few steps. Only a few stars showed in the sky beyond some light clouds. She listened intently, fearful of making a mistake with the gun in her hand. It felt too loose in her hand, too bulky. Shivers ran on her body again. A cloud darkened the sky. A coyote called from afar. A winged thing moved in the air above her. Breath stayed too long in her chest.
Minutes passed by, then a shot rang out, and a second and a third. She huddled tighter into the rocks, afraid to breathe at all. A disgusting cry of alarm rang out, but the voice was not distinguishable to her.
More minutes passed. No sounds came to her. The animals were quiet too.
Then, out in front of her, thinking it was mere feet away, someone sneezed. A loud sneeze. Who was it? The gun, so bulky before, seemed to sit tightly into her hand, her finger on the trigger. Came a second sneeze, and she fired directly in front of her, at hip level.
The cry of pain came to her. A curse followed. “Damned witch, I’ll kill you.”
She fired again, heard a body fall. Heard silence. A horse snickered from a far.
From way off Carlin said, “You get him, Flo?”
“I think so,” she replied. “I heard a body fall down.”
“You got guts, girl. Better come out here and help get the horses. I got his horse. He killed one of ours.”
“Are you hurt?” she said as she ran to his voice. “Are you all right?”
“He got me in the bad leg, but I’m okay. We have to get him in to town. Square things away. Have to get him up on his horse, and you ride double with me. You handle all that?”
“I guess so.”
“You did great so far, Flo. I’m damned proud of you. Proud as all heck.”
“Enough to carry out that idea of marriage?”
“I’ve been thinking of it, Flo, long before I got hit. Dunphy made up my mind for me.”