Western Short Story
Noah Bickford was running ahead of the mad sheriff of Wilcox Springs, Gunther Ambush, and his underlings, a posse with a completely distorted badge of authority and an irrepressible need for killing quarry or hanging them as soon as caught, guilty or not. Whole towns in Arizona believed that Sheriff Ambush had grown into his family name, assuming what the name really meant in the cruel world that had sent his father to prison to die there alone … for a crime that he did not commit.
Ambush wanted nothing more than to get even with the entire west.
It was widely hoped that some singular force, like a total town, might rise up and decide about the criminally-bent sheriff and the cruel gang he led, or at least draw him and his men into the final showdown. So far in the malevolent situation, nobody, town or individual, had stepped up to settle matters. Ambush had a small army at his command, and they shared in all the stolen or manipulated riches that came into their phantom coffers.
All of that was in Bickford’s mind as he fled ahead of Ambush through foothills and a string of canyons and open valleys in the far western part of the territory, mountains rising all around him on the high horizon crisscrossed with a myriad of difficult trails. He made up his mind that he had get to the big river, set his horse off on its own, head downstream where he thought Ambush and his gang would never follow him.
There was no way around his plight: he had to get to California or Mexico, one way or the other, to sail on the free and wide seas
As a youngster Bickford had heard of other crooked or power-searching sheriffs; his father had told him, “They go with the territory, son, the territory they’re trying to control. Some want to own the territory, but not all of them. Just watch for those who want to own more than what’s theirs. Don’t get in their way.”
Now he was in the way of Ambush and his well-paid thugs, one young man out ahead of the sheriff, a chase lasting more than two weeks of a mad dash in the territory. His crime, perceived by Ambush, was that Bickford was the only rider they had seen near the site of a deadly encounter on the trail outside Albertville … driver, shotgun, and four passengers killed, horses killed in their traces, and all valuables stolen from luggage or persons.
Ambush’s words were loud and convincing, as usual, to the hardened members of the crew and some starry-eyed youngsters who had wandered into the sheriff’s clutches, often with one way out of the membership … feet first, or immediately following a bullet fired from an unseen shooter. “That one was trying to get away from the scene of his crime. He probably shot the woman last after he took all her jewelry and then hid it someplace out there on the trail that we have no chance in Hell of ever finding, so we have to settle for his life for their lives. I know you all understand what I’m saying.”
The steely eyes put an end to any doubts about their mission … or the next one most likely coming down the trail at them. “The lawman’s duty never ends,” he’d often say at day’s end.
It was therefore most judicial that he be brought to justice for that crime, the most suitable suspect; suspects, in Ambush’s mind, were guilty as perceived, on-the-spot guilty.
Bickford had not seen the crime but had seen two men ride away from the area, swing about after making a stop in the foothills, and then rejoin the posse with Sheriff Ambush. He was convinced it was like a dog chasing its own tail. There was no two ways about that, and the posse was a formidable foe, housing its own criminals in its midst.
When the posse spotted Bickford, within an hour after the crime, the whole gang of them set out after him. He knew who they were and what they would do, would have to do, as Ambush said time and again, “Out on the trail it is hard to keep a man prisoner because there are so many escape loops he can take.”
After the initial surprise of the posse getting on his trail and sticking there for close to two weeks in the range of mountains, Bickford felt the fatigue coming on him and hoped the posse knew the same exhaustion.
He could only draw on things he had heard, to guess what Ambush was saying to his minions; “Keep to it. You’re real hound dogs and when the good people hear about our capture of the road bandit, we’ll all share the reward I’m sure the West Coach Company will eventually post on it.” He laughed insidiously when he added, “You can bet the last coin on the table they’ll do just what I say or they’ll be a dozen more robberies just like this one we’re putting an end to.” His eyes vaguely shifted to the real robbers and killers, essential members of every one of his posses.
Hearing a disturbing sound closer to him than he wanted, Bickford turned a tight twist in the trail, rocky climbs on each side of him, and came face to face with a young man about his own age. The young rider on a black mare, Stetson tight on his head as though he was afraid it would fall off, had a gun in his hand. And he was as wide-eyed as Bickford; both men surprised at the meeting, both men young.
“Well,” the nervous posse member said, “looks like I caught me a criminal. Don’t move a muscle, mister, or you’re dead.”
“You mean dead without a trial for a crime I didn’t do,” Bickford said. “You don’t even know who took what from that stagecoach and where they went after doing what they did.”
“What are you talking about? The sheriff says you’re guilty as sin, and we caught you in the act.” He paused and seemed to qualify his conviction, “Well, almost.”
“The Hell you did. Two men in your own posse did it and hid some stuff in the hills and went back and rejoined the posse. Didn’t you or anybody else see two men come back and mix in the posse?“ He leveled his eyes at the young posse member as though he was wielding a spade to dig out the truth.
“Sure I did. Moss and Darwin came back from an assignment the sheriff sent them on.” His innocence, and ignorance of what the two men did, was easily noted.
“Ever see them go off before and come back after a spell?”
“Yup, once or twice, but they’re trusted deputies of the sheriff. Been old hands with him for a long time.”
Bickford’s questions were delivered as rapid as gunshots. “So they’re special? They do special jobs? You think they’re scouts for the posse? You think that’s what they are? ”
“Sure, why not?” Ringer asked.
Bickford felt he had made a cut in the armor of belief, so he explained further, “A posse is like an arrow. It gets on its mark and stays there. It doesn’t swing wide, look for things, rush back to tell the sheriff they’ve found the ones they’re looking for? You think it’s so simple that they come back and just say, ‘Let’s go get them. We know where they are.’ Think that’s how it goes?”
“Why couldn’t it be like that? Like I said, they’ve been with him a long time.”
Bickford said, “They hid something up in one of the canyons. One of them had to scale the side of a cliff to hide it in a small cave. I marked the place on the trail. I can find it again.”
“Why couldn’t you have hid it?”
“Sure, me spend an hour or so on the side of a cliff like one of them did, no horse under me, and your whole crooked crew chasing me and ready to hang me without a trial because it’d be easier for Ambush to present it that way. Do you really think I’d take time while being chased to climb up and down a stupid cliff for a couple of hours and not worry a bit about getting a rope too tight on my neck? Really think so? Does Ambush keep mentioning the rewards that come along afterwards?”
“All the time he does, like it’s a song.” The youngster’s tone revealed he was bending to rational thinking.
“See,” Bickford said, “you’re even smarter than I thought you were. What’s your name? Mine’s Noah Bickford.” He stuck out his hand.
“I’m Josh Ringer,” came the reply, and the young and suddenly innocent smile crossed his face as they shook hands. “It’s a lousy way he does business. It had me thinking a few times and I guess I didn’t think hard enough, not even about the things I was seeing with Eric Moss and his pal Darwin and how they seemed out of place. What a fool I’ve been.”
“Lots of fools out this way, Josh. They know about Ambush, but too many of them are afraid of speaking up. He has a lot of power to call on. It scares me to think what they’d do if they catch me.”
“I only saw one hanging,” Ringer replied. “It was terrible. The man’s boots were still shaking even when we rode off. But I saw two others shot down at their campfire, just like they were animals. I got sick thinking about it.”
“What happens if you wanted to leave them and they knew it? Would they let you? Ever think Ambush would say, ‘See you later. Thanks for the company?”
“I don’t want to wait for that chance. Let’s do it now.”
Bickford said, with confidence in his voice, “The best thing is to get out of here and get to the river. Go to California or Mexico, just get away. They’ll never let us go if they catch us. Court and trial and jury and sentence would all happen out here, surrounded by no place and no thing, no witnesses, no noise.”
Ringer swung his horse around and said, “Let’s go.”
The new pair of compadres headed toward the river, which Bickford thought was about 20 miles away. He made sure his weapons were loaded, and Ringer followed suit, nodding at his new friend with warm acknowledgment, as though he was saying, “Good advice is welcome anytime.” He also could be saying, “I trust this fellow more than I could ever trust Ambush.”
They had gone about five miles when Ringer, looking back down the trail, said, “We have company, and it looks like the whole posse coming in a bunch.”
Bickford said, “Think those two gents, Moss and Darwin, are with them? We have to keep them in mind if they’re not.”
“I’d guess there are more than a dozen in the pack, so might mean they’re with them, but I can’t be sure.”
Bickford said, “That might be a lot easier to swallow than not knowing where they are.” He tapped his spurs into the flank of the horse and said, “Let’s hightail it to the river, and hope we have enough of a lead on them to get downstream. Far ain’t far enough for me. It’s got to be like that for you.”
Their horses were at a good run when a bullet hit just over Bickford’s head, and he yelled out, “I’d say your old pals are still out here. Hightail it!” he yelled, and spurred his horse. “We got to get to the river, leave the horses. They’d chase us if we stay in the saddle.”
Bickford spurred the horse again. “Go!” he yelled and yelled it a second time, “Go!” The anxiety was firm in his voice. “Go down that pass over to the left.”
Suddenly, in their mad dash, ahead of them in the tight confines of the canyon pass, sat a man high in the saddle, his horse at a standstill, a rifle at his shoulder, ready to shoot.
Ringer yelled, “It’s Moss, Noah. He’s a good shot. You better duck! Duck!”
Bickford knew he had but seconds to make some kind of move, a feint, a self-preservation move, a life-saving gesture. A bubble started in his throat. It jumped up and down and it disappeared in his chest. A small pain started at his temples, his mind trying to work, trying to shake loose a good idea. He flashed back over all the things his father had told him. Why hadn’t he paid more attention? He needed something now, something new, something he had never done. What had the old gent said one time; “Do the unsuspected. Be different. Make them worry instead of you. Throw them off their stride. Knock their legs out from under them.”
Bickford knew it was all in his hands now. Ringer was frozen in his tracks, the reins taut in his hands, his horse at a standstill.
He spurred his horse, then jabbed him harder. The animal was off and running, his mane flying, and his rider was standing in the stirrups, and his hands, empty of weapons, were raised over his head.
“Duck, Noah!” Ringer yelled as loud as he could.
In the narrow stricture of the canyon pass, perhaps only 20 feet wide where his horse stood, Moss had a rifle to his shoulder, his eye on the sight at the end of the barrel, and he was standing in the stirrups the same way as Bickford who was now coming closer to him, his horse’s hoof clattering loud and clear coming off the cliff faces on either side.
Not sure of what was cooking in his mind, seeing an image pass in swift flight behind his eyeballs, Bickford finally ducked as he saw the flash of light at the bore of Moss’s rifle. He heard the bullet slam by him just over his head and ricochet off the rock wall.
Coming up from his crouch, his horse now in full flight, Bickford had two guns in hand. Knowing he had little chance of hitting Moss, he’d try to use Moss’s horse to his own advantage; make the horse shy, jump start, step falsely some way, toss Moss for a loop, or at least make Moss lose the grip on the rifle, take away a second close aim.
He fired off three shots from the pistol in his right hand, and two from the left hand pistol.
Flecks of light flashed up as sparks off the floor of the canyon.
Moss’s horse bolted sideways. The rifle went flying, and then the horse skittered on the slick rock floor of the canyon. As the horse started to tumble, Moss jumped free.
He came up off the ground to stare at Bickford’s drawn pistols aimed right at him.
Bickford said, “Toss your gun belt off to the side and back away … away from the rifle too.”
He nodded at Ringer who understood the instruction and retrieved the gun belt and the rifle and took them to his own horse.
“You get ahead of me on that side,” Bickford said to Ringer. “I’ll settle up with this gent.”
With all of Moss’s weapons across his pommel, Ringer started to head down the canyon trail without saying a word to Moss, whose horse had hurt one leg and was swaying side to side.
Bickford asked for Moss’s pistol, took it from Ringer and pulled all the bullets from it. He tossed one bullet as far as he could back along the canyon, put the other five in his pocket, and then dropped the pistol on the canyon floor. His final words to Moss were, “If you ever had a touch of goodness in your whole body, you’d go find that bullet and kill your horse. His leg is broken.”
The two new pards fled down the trail. After many minutes they heard a single shot, dull but echoing, rise from the canyon walls behind them. Ringer felt a special feeling come over him.
They finally reached the river and went downriver a mile or so until they reached a small cabin on the banking and a small boat pulled up in a breach of rocks. They swapped the two horses for the boat, but took their saddles. They headed downstream after Noah Bickford advised the former boat owner, “If I was you, I’d avoid any men in a posse. They might not look kindly on you if they find out we have your boat. You might hide someplace around here until they’re gone.”
The man nodded his understanding and saw the two young men turn the river bend down below. He took the horses and hid in a special place known only to him. All he remembered was what the one called Noah said to his saddle pard, “You might as well come to sea with me, Josh, if we can get there. It’s probably better than any of this.” He looked downriver, at the massive cliffs rising above the river, nodded and took his argument a little further; “Just look at those cliffs, Josh, how they leap up. I just know we got a new adventure coming our way.”
Ringer was mighty glad he was in good company … with a man who looked out for another man’s horse, who saw things quicker than he did, and who obviously picked the best paths to travel. The sea might be truly inviting. It’d be worth a try.