Western Short Story
Portrait of a Bushwhacker
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The bullet, from unknown source and direction, had penetrated his thigh, passed through a clutch of meat and muscle, ricocheted off a piece of saddle, and killed his horse. Ben Stovall and the roan were flat on the canyon floor of the Paley Range breakout to the Cross Box spread’s home grass. Rolling under an overhang, he knew help, if it ever chanced by, was an hour away. Serious doubts existed that any Cross Box rider had heard the gunshot.

Stovall, in a quick review of his 20 years on this earth, had never been cut. He’d never lost blood. He’d never caught an arrow or a bullet or skinned his knuckles open in a fist fight. Other than a simple broken arm, set by a wagon master east of the big river a dozen years earlier, he’d never known significant pain or couldn’t recall it as real. Not until now. Stunned, remembering how he often wondered what pain would feel like, the knowledge had come to him in abrupt fashion. Pain finally said it was not a stranger, as if it had been in his general area since the day he was born. And it was no surprise that more than one part of his body hurt. So far in this life he had been lucky. Was his luck beginning to run out? That thought jumped at him, surprising him as much as the bushwhacker, as much as the shot itself.

Other thoughts, in quick order, ran the gamut of his mind: who, being first; why, a close second; and what next, a tight third. The last, with a quick thrust, said it was important enough to dwell on. Breathing lightly, cocooning his body in place under the overhang, he traced his day from the time he swung a leg over the saddle. No one had trailed him, not out on the grass and not in this constricted passage; not all the whole way from the marshal’s office in Walding. So it was someone who had been waiting for him, believing he’d take this short cut from Walding that most of the local folks knew. Up there, hidden in the rocks and rugged crests, would be remains of the wait and watch – an old fire, a sleeping place, and down here somewhere, tight in against the cliff, a horse had to be tethered at the base of the canyon waiting for the shooter to descend . That was a certainty. Nobody got anyplace without a horse west of the Mississippi. Coronado’s gift of horses had opened up the country, from west of Kentucky all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Now it had brought a bushwhacker to the feet of the high rocks.

And Stovall was afoot.

With no horse of his own, he’d have to find the shooter’s horse, get away on the animal before the shooter made the trip down. He measured the descent as taking at least the better part of an hour and the climb would have been longer.

Though he’d never bled, he’d seen enough doctors or stand-in doctors working on the injured. Creeping to his horse, he cut a length of rein and slid back under the overhang, glad his horse had died quickly. With a full sleeve torn from his shirt, he bound both bloody points on his thigh and wrapped it with rein leather, binding them as tight as he could. Walking was difficult, but he made it around the edge of the canyon, deciding to go to the left, positive that the shot had come from that side. No horse was in sight. Thinking how the shooter’s day must have gone, his horse hidden, and probably not watered for hours, he shook some water out of his canteen onto his hands and waved his hands in the air. The smell of water, that almost liquid aroma, the award of long dryness of the throat, floated outward. The snicker of a thirsty horse came to him as if from the wall of the mountain itself. Trying the ruse again, hearing the snicker again, he found the horse tied behind a cliff slide a dozen feet high. The sheaf of rock, as though it had slid like a knife off the face of the cliff, stood blocking all behind it, like a permanent dressing screen.

Out in the open he raced the sorrel back toward the Cross-Box. In the middle of the vast plain of grass, like a yellow sea around him, he caught sight of six riders coming toward him at a gallop. The lead man looked familiar, like the sheriff from another town down range. It looked like a posse.

The sheriff reined up as they came together and pointed at the horse Stovall was riding. “Where’d you pick him up, mister? That’s Marshy Berret’s horse from the Chain of Rocks ranch. We found him gut shot back there, from up close, like whoever shot him was friendly.” He paused before adding, “For a while.” He turned to the posse. “Take his guns and guide him back to town, all the way.”

“Sheriff,” Stovall said, “I was bushwhacked up there where the canyon comes out onto the grass. My horse is dead in there, not fifty yards in. This horse was tied behind a cliff-slide, hidden from view. I figure the bushwhacker had to have a horse. I don’t know if he was setting me up, or thought I was someone else, or what, but he had this horse. He must have killed the horse’s owner.”

“That’s a big crock of nothing from where I sit,” the sheriff said. He pointed at Stovall’s guns. “Take them. He’s got no more use for ‘em.”

Two riders of the posse took Stovall’s pistols.

Stovall shied back, shaking his head, disbelieving what was happening around him, to him. “Not if you go back and find my horse shot dead, Sheriff, and see where the bullet, from up in the rocks, went right through my leg here, you won’t think it’s such a crock.” He pointed at the bandaging and the tightened rein leather around his thigh. “It hurts like hell, Sheriff, but not as bad as you’ll feel if that guy gets away with killing someone you knew. And just because you won’t check out my story while things are fresh on the vine. If it was me, I wouldn’t take a chance on the killer getting away, seeing as you’re so close to him right now.”

Looking at the cocked, quizzical heads of a couple of the posse, the sheriff relented. “All right, we’ll take a look. You show us where.” He pointed with his thumb back over his shoulder, toward the Paley Range sitting off to the north like a bank of clouds beyond the sweep of the open grass. The sun glinted and shone reflections on odd places up high in the rocks. In contrast to the high stillness, a half a dozen buzzards, floating on wings wide as spread arms, seemed to be marking a target.

The carrion-eating birds added credibility to Stovall’s argument.

“Who do you work for?” the sheriff said. “What were you doing out here? Where were you coming from? Why would a bushwhacker pick you as a target?” Full of questions, he stayed beside Stovall as they rode toward the canyon maze at the foot of the Paley Range. He measured some of Stovall’s answers, once with a squint locked in his eyes, once with the smirk and accompanying open mouth of surprise, and once with a vigorous shake of his head as though he couldn’t believe a word he was hearing.

“Say that part again, son. I didn’t catch all that crawled into it, the part about the girl and the marshal at Walding. We rode a few trails together. Name’s Chuck Olney. He’s as upright as any man I know west of the river, meaning all over this end of the country.”

“Well, Sheriff, a girl, whose father works at Cross Box, was bothered by a strange cowpoke when she was berry picking. A line rider found her out on the grass wandering around, almost crazy like. But she was awful smart. Said she got away on his horse, but fell off the critter and the dude came looking for her. Said she found a rock out on the grass on a downhill slope and rolled it toward a dry wadi when she was hiding from him. The bad guy followed that rock trail and the girl said she was only feet from him in the grass when he went after the rock trail. But the girl also has a talent with crayons and charcoal the way she can draw stuff. She drew a picture of the bad guy and the Cross Box boss gave it to me to take to the marshal in Walding, ‘cause none of us could identify him. But with one look the marshal knew the man. Like that.” He snapped his fingers. “Said his name’s Big Pearl Beatty. Knows him from Farmington way, a real nasty poke of a man, but never had any witnesses to swear a word against him. The minute he saw the picture he started jumping around and giving orders to his boys, like he had him in the hoosegow already.”

“Well,” the sheriff replied, “if this is all true, Beatty’s good as hung right now with the Chucker after him.”

“He ain’t quite dead yet, Sheriff,” Stovall said, pointing to his bandaged thigh. “I figure he saw me on my way over to Walding by the canyon route, thinking maybe I saw the girl out there on the grass. Maybe he thinks I saw her or found her. Thing is he needed a horse when his run off after the girl was thrown or fell and looks like he found one when he killed that rider. Then I found the one he stole from the gent he killed and here I am.”

Stovall picked his next words with care. “He’s got to be down off the rocks by now, Sheriff. He’s got a rifle, but he ain’t got a horse anymore.” Stovall patted the neck of the horse under him.

The sheriff said, “I know we have all kinds of posters on killers and bank robbers, but I never heard of a witness able to draw a poster. That’s a good trick if you can do it. She must be pretty good at it.”

“Like I said, Sheriff, like that the marshal recognized Beatty.” Stovall snapped his fingers again. “And the quicker we get this done, the better I’ll be. This thing is really starting to hurt. I didn’t know it would be like this, getting shot and not dying.”

“Well,” the sheriff said, “I can send you back with a man right away if you want.”

“Not a chance, Sheriff. We get him first and then I’m on my way to see the doc. That horse of mine was a good ride.”

The posse, riding in single file, approached the canyon entrance. A shot rang out and a bullet went over their heads or between the riders. They scattered, some on horseback and some on foot. The sheriff yelled out orders. Another shot rang out.

Stovall yelled, “He’s behind the slide, Sheriff, where he hid the horse. He can’t get out of there. We can wait him out, but I won’t last that long. Let’s rush him.”

“No, son, we’re going to fox him out, get him to relax. Play our own trick.”

He yelled out, “We know you’re in there, Beatty. We got a warrant on you, for that bank robbery way back in Gourdville. Might as well give up. Don’t go messing up a few years in jail by shooting at a posse.”

Stovall looked at the sheriff and said, “You’re pretty damned smooth, Sheriff. I never would have thought of that. That’s a nibble of cheese for the rat.”

“Sure is, son, said the sheriff as Beatty, raising his hands, yelled out, “Don’t shoot. I threw my guns down.”

He appeared on the horizon, his arms raised, but in a manner that might have said he had just come out a winner in a lottery drawing. He was much smaller than Stovall had imagined, a rather diminutive cowpoke for general purposes, narrow in the shoulders and chest, thin as a rail tie, a rat-like quality coming off him even from a distance.

Stovall said, “He doesn’t have the slightest idea, Sheriff.”

“Nope,” the sheriff said, ‘not until I tell him why we really want him. Then he’ll know he should have tried to shoot it out. Would have been a lot quicker, take it from me.” His wink gave matter to new thought as Stovall wondered what the rope would feel like around Beatty’s neck.

Neither one of them had the slightest idea.