Western Short Story
Night Fires Near Waco
Tom Sheehan


Western Short Story

From the door of his cabin in a slow roll of hills in Texas, Jugs Hanlon saw the night fires near Waco for the third night in a row. It was a 6 to 7 hour’s jaunt to get there, and he had resisted the trip so far. He had no relatives in that mix, but a few old friends had settled down near Waco and he paused to bring back a few of the grand ones, like Studs Kelly and Burke Whiting and Lone Mo, no last name ever revealed, not once, not ever.

That very morning, feelings from a distant path began to well-up in him, secrets and incidents, long-forgotten, came back as clear as high noon, a splendor of tours and yore coming back to life as if from the deserted returned to the living, shaking hands with him anew. His welcome matt was spread before him, and a trip on his favorite horse, Black Joe, came with its promises, a reach into the past included

He was aware that danger of any sort was sure to beset him and Black Joe, for his money the horse of all horses, recently presenting rescues from intolerable situations, like getting away with his own hair intact, and in place, miracles among miracles; all the incidents piled up and coming in one surge.

Jug’s mind began its search for incidents loosed from their quick imprisonments in his past; they came with a certain ease as well as a certain uneasiness, if one really thinks about past perils in a life fraught with dangers of all kinds, meek to massive, shocking to frightful, on the very edge of life itself; how he rode, how he danced when the chance came his way, how he drew his weapon in a flash or too late to complain about the clumsiness. Life, he found, often reflects itself in awed situations, sometimes bringing an answer with it, or them, but not always clear, clouds coming along with them., the very last escapade inserting itself in the mix of thoughts, laying itself open for re-examination, for incredible testimony.

Life, too, has its own pages, he knew, as each page opens on demand, on searches of the past, where he was at that time, whom he faced, or who was a secret sniper in life, the last pull of a trigger, life so quickly caught and lost. Fright, if it tackles you, he believed, is often too real, insurmountable, the frail reality of death becoming, in itself, the final gesture of chance.

Suddenly, in his mind, there came Studs Kelly to his rescue, a wildly, quick as a wink, and unstoppable Studs Kelly charging uphill behind him, firing away with his two pistols, screaming threats all over the hillside, full of curses and grunts galore, loaded with enmity and the mystical sounds of fear, reaching out to the Crows nearly at his backside, swearing to bring down Heaven itself atop them and himself but not on his pal, Jugs Hanlon, as near to death’s door as he‘d ever been in his lifetime but not willing to let loose what he had gained of life in his 40 years of joy and work and plain old adventure.

There came, too, was his mind reading the mind of the attacking Crows, in a language he did not know but understood as if it came to him in plain English; who is this devil coming to the rescue of one man alone on a hillside, soon to be dead, scalped, and hung out to dry up as the wolves would have to chew on?

He could hear again the full tirade of Stud’s screams and promises of death to all Crows in the engagement, their owning all the hill except the single spot where Jugs himself stood and a whirlwind of a friend releasing all the curses ever let go beneath a good heaven and bringing the very Devil himself down upon them, all of them, seeking control of s single hillside in a wild and wooly West, ownership being such a random possession it could not be counted as determined for a minute of this life of his or any of theirs.

Studs never missed a shot unloading both pistols at the Crows, demolishing their attack, their ranks, their tribal belief that a great war leader stood behind their aims, not on the side of this stalwart man under attack and the wild invasion by a friend or companion from almost out of nowhere, like he was a god or great chief in his own right.

The whole scene there on the hillside disappeared from his mind as if had never happened, yet Jugs was still alive, the result of Stud’s solitary attack, his absolute destruction of an enemy’s

ranks, their sudden acceptance of another great chief’s participation in the battle. Jugs saw again their quitting the scene of a battle, as if Stud stood alone in the glory of victory.

Then, memory’s sudden move came anew as it shifted from Studs Kelly to Burke Whiting as he, too, appeared from nowhere also, from another scene of another battle with an unknown tribe besetting him on a lone trail through the mountains in Idaho territory. Burke never cursed, not a single curse of any magnitude uttered from his mouth, like a holy man rode in his saddle. But he came with guns ablaze as a group of Indians, resenting his appearance on their long-owned trail, daring to trespass on their holy trail through the holy mountains as claimed by their own great chief, Blue Rider. This chief, himself a god in his own right, appeared whenever threats came upon his people from any direction and with any intent to make use of their trail on mountain passes.

Blue Rider had seen the lone man, Jugs Hanlon, make use of their trail among rocky places all along its length of difficult passage on the mountain. He swore he could smell the man from afar, the unclean bounty he bore on his self, an odor to the high heavens that disturbed their buried dead in hundreds of places along the trail, in and among rocky places that had forbidden entrance by white trespassers since the beginning of Time itself. The fact that there was very little water on the trail made no difference in their argument; he swore to keep the trail clean of white enemies, and he wagered his life to keep holy their places of anointment.

In keeping his pledge, Blue Rider had killed a number of trespassers of the trail in his efforts of leadership, swearing that such odors would not be allowed to disturb sleeping spirits, those gallant warriors laid down among the rocks and falls along the trail. Their very cleanliness depended on his life-long efforts, so far acceptable, making him the holiest of men.

None of this bore down on Jugs Hanlon as he moved along the difficult passage in the mountain trail, his mind often elsewhere when he plodded his way among the avalanched paths he trod, especially this one, latest of his invasions of others’ rights of passage, unknown to him at the outset, but a weird feeling coming home in him that he was being watched, trailed, put to test by an unknown force.

Once this power slipped into his senses, he knew he had to avoid any confrontation, so in that night’s darkness, he reversed his way and sought the trail he had traveled getting to this point, It was not much more in darkness, he figured, than daylight’s prior approach. Thus, he made his way back to the starting point of the trail, the first climb on the rocky trail. Reaching that point brought an instant release of his worries It brought Lone Mo back from his last appearance in this life, his spotting a backside sniper taking rifle aim at Jugs Hanlon, and drilled him in the back, deserving what he was attempting to do and falling down on himself with a shot in his own backside, dead as a duck under shotgun death, an almost-escape from the grip of this world.

Lone Mo said nothing of his protective maneuver, not ever saying much, pleased at his own contribution at saving a friend’s life, that was pay enough for the quiet man, who spoke little, kept himself alert to dangers on his self and on his friends and oft-companions of the saddle for any purpose in keeping a day in safer terms.

Friends, Jugs Hanlon believed, were the lone possessions in life worth their value. “Just ask me,” Jugs could have said, “cause I been there.”