Western Short Story
The Battle at Ford's Creek
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Many Quigley descendents still live in Nevada, and when they gather the stories abound about the old days and the Quigley place in local legends as well as across the globe.

We know this; that the Quigley history in Nevada began in 1864: Graham Quigley, Australian by birth, shanghaied aboard a clipper ship through the ruses of a siren of sorts, managed to jump ship off California and swim five miles to freedom. His sole theft once ashore was a horse, with a saddle in place, which took him away from the sea after a year of torturous work for an evil captain. His one great desire thereafter was to avoid evil men. But, as fate makes demands and presents choices, he ended up in Ford’s Creek, Nevada, a small and newer town not with a shortage of evil men pursuing mining and cattle riches, preferably by illegitimate means.

Ford’s Creek was a bare-bones town all the way. None of the buildings ever fell in the shade of another building, dawn, noon or dusk, as the town was spread wide, and plot lines, if there were such, were ragged and often unmarked. Use dominated territory, like squatters’ rights had taken place. The livery stable stood alone, at one end of the town and the saloon was the closest building to it, as though their builders were the only ones who ever thought of proximity and attraction for trade. The reason was simple, one man owned both, and his thinking must have asked why walk halfway across town for a drink or a horse or a wagon when you didn’t have to.

Quigley, in this growing town, was, by nature, alert to trouble, remembering the one time he relaxed, and ended up shanghaied for an intolerable year. From then on, his eyes were open in all situations. “Trust people for their breathing, but after that you’re on your own,” his grandfather had often said when it came to caution.

In Australia, in the Outback and other tough-to-survive situations, the Quigley clan, from its days in Ireland and its forced transport to the penal colonies whether deserved or not, ensured the family name would keep ringing in Australian history, and wherever they moved about on the globe.

So it was that Graham Quigley carried the strains of all his ancestors as proud as any standard jacking in the breeze. Those ancestors had taken no pause in rejecting overlords, thieves, terrorists, rustlers and out-and-out murderers. They did so without a second thought. Their flag was a proud banner on the wide fronts the family faced in two centuries of ceaseless struggle.

In Ford’s Creek, at length, Graham Quigley (most folks called him GQ) was looked at as a natural leader and savior of peaceful ways, or else. When he spoke most people tended to listen, even though he was often considered a new-comer, and wet behind the ears as a cattleman or a miner. But he had many elements in his character that townsfolk and ranchers and miners could depend on; he was quick to learn, handled a pair of side arms with a deft manner, rode as well as any native rider, once saved two children from the river with a swimming skill few people had ever observed, and often used the brain he was gifted with at birth.

And he accepted any and all good fortune and good chance that came his way.

When local properties suffered damaged, often by fire, once by a dam blown up and a stream diverted, all by mysterious origins but also without any loss of life, Quigley saw it as part of a constant move to reduce the calm and serenity of Ford’s Creek. Property was an asset, but life was the basic necessity for a community. A town needed good people to survive, to grow. Whoever was behind the seemingly minute disasters suffered by families was aware of the impact … the subsequent disarray in the citizens of Ford’s Creek.

The real opener of good fortune came to Quigley from a boy of about 12 years old who was making his way in the world on his own. The boy’s name was Jeffrey Brighton, once of Chicago, who had fled a wagon train under siege by renegade Indians.

Quigley came across him sleeping in a line cabin. At dawn the boy was just warming up from a cool night, and hunger seemed to own him when Quigley rode up. Plain and simple, he saw need sitting on the boy’s face.

“You hungry, son? Well, let’s eat. I’ll wrestle up some eggs and steak, and a couple of biscuits if we can find all the parts. You do some looking for me.” He waved at the rear of the cabin.

The boy ate with gusto, cleaning up all set before him, and then the two of them finished off a pot of coffee. Talk rambled back and forth without any interrogation by either side, until Quigley’s curiosity grabbed hold of him.

Moving around in his seat, his face full of puzzle, he said. “You don’t have to tell me anything about yourself, son, if you don’t feel like it. But I’ll tell you what I’m up to. I’m up here checking on some illegal activity that’s been going on. Too much of our stock and some of our property has been damaged one way or another by a strange band of men. They have no good in mind, though they haven’t killed anybody yet. I’ll be waiting on that part, yet hope it doesn’t happen. You see anything that might arouse suspicion in a body up this way, or on your travels, which looks to me might have been fairly extensive, like a walkabout with your swag.” He explained his Aussie meaning.

The boy smiled at the explanation and told him how he had escaped the wagon train beset by renegade Indians and some white riders. “They all spoke some kind of Mex I couldn’t understand, unless they was pointing at something.” The story continued as he admitted, “Once or twice I thought it was me they was pointing at, where I was hidden, and that took my breath away, I swear. Froze me up like a winter pond and them looking mean as hell.”

Shifting in his seat, he went at something else, adding, as if all introductions had been made and taken care of, “I saw some other riders a few nights ago, when I had some rabbit snares set and had me a couple of eggs handy. They was a different group, and rode into the mountain up there. Right into it. I wouldn’t follow them, but it’s real secret. I only went up close to it after midnight, but all of them go right into the mountain like there’s a door and they have a key. It’s scary, far as I’m concerned. Real scary. I counted twelve of them once, and fifteen coming out in the morning. And another time, a bunch of nine went in and was followed by somebody hanging back on the trail, a single rider on a nice paint, and when they came out he wasn’t with them, the rider on the paint.” He shook his head, as if in sorrow, and said, “I heard one shot echoing outta there and nothing after. Just was scary where I was hidden behind some rocks. It was one time I was glad I didn’t have a horse to make noise and get me caught.”

“You suppose you could pick them out of a crowd at a saloon, or hanging around town? Any of them?”

“I don’t think I could. It was mostly dark, but two of them are riding some mighty big horses, like the pride of the corral someplace spiffy and has stable hands and such. Big as I ever saw. No pony-stuff about them. Not cow ponies for sure. Handsome as circus stock they was.” He showed wonder and appreciation of good horse stock as it glowed on his face. “Someday,” he said, “I’ll have me a horse like one of them I saw.”

Quigley put that thought in his kit bag.

He put Brighton on his own pack mount, and the young adventurer led him, on a circuitous trail, to a point where they could observe the “way into the mountain,” as he announced it. “Right there, in the sudden shade of that overhang is where they disappear, get swallered up. Fifteen of them most I saw at one time, and bang, they’re gone.” He kept pointing at the overhang on the face of the cliff in a narrow canyon. “If they was standing there just inside right now, we wouldn’t know it. That’s scary, far as I’m concerned, like they really disappear into nothing.”

The odd pair kept watch from a hidden point, with their horses tied off behind a copse of cottonwoods at the mouth of the canyon. They saw nothing for half a day and Quigley figured they better head back into town. He’d get the boy set up with a place to stay and a job of one sort or another. He was sure Elmer Schafery would hire the boy if he spoke for him.

Quiet on the way back to town, Quigley tried to pull all the known details about the incidents that had taken place, all of them at night, without any witnesses as far as he knew, with quick disappearance of the culprits a known fact.

The sheriff had said, “There has to be at least two of them, GQ, but we lose the trail out there when so many riders cross the trail and spoil our tracking.” Which Quigley now considered as done by their own band, coming on behind them in odd sets, so that it looked like general traffic has followed upon the route of the culprits. It appeared fool proof.

Quigley thought those points over anew, letting his mind intrude in little ways as to what might have happened, how something might have happened, what might not have happened at all.

It came to him, before they even reached town that at least two men would leave town, engage in the crimes and meet up with others who would swallow up their trail leading away from town.

He kept nodding as the plan evolved in his mind. “Pretty bloody slick,” he said to aloud, as Brighton stared at him. “You got something, mister?”

“Perhaps, son, but I have to ‘go into the mountain,’ as you say. Most likely it’s entered and left near the ends of the day, evening or early dawn. So, I’ll have to go in there in the middle of the day or the middle of the night.”

“I’ll go with you, if you want. I can be pretty sneaky.”

“You’ve done enough, Jeff. You found the way for us to get at these boyos. I’ll take it from here. I just need you to keep it all to yourself until it’s over. Now, let’s get you a place to stay and a promise of work.”

Two nights later Quigley, on foot, “entered the mountain.” It was a cave opening that dropped off gradually to a huge, cavernous room that extended deeply into the heart of the mountain. It opened at its far end onto one of the prettiest but smallest valleys he had ever seen. Green grass. A few trees puffed with leaves. There was a little one-room cabin and several corrals under cover. But not a sign of life. No people about. No horses. No fire in the cabin. No smell of food hanging in the air. He walked freely around the area, finding nothing interesting, and then he found a supply of weapons in another hut. It was like an armory or weapons depot, filled with all kinds of rifles and ammunition, boxes and boxes of them, all with Army markings. Somewhere a military site had been robbed and the plunder cached here “inside the mountain,” as Jeff would say.

It also occurred to Quigley that the gang who used this place as a hideout or a rendezvous did not come from a distant place each time, but were locals … neighbors, townsfolk, people he knew and trusted to a certain point. In seconds most everybody came up as trusted as the siren that had claimed him as a shanghai victim, and well paid at that, he figured.

If he needed help, it would have to be as few hands as possible, sworn to secrecy and bound by civil desire. On one hand he might be able to count such help. Shorthanded, the upcoming conflict would be a battle to remember, or forget.

Instincts, he allowed in one sweeping gesture of acceptance, would have to rule the day.

Heading to Ford’s Creek after midnight, he saw the firelight in the distance, over toward the Ed Vicary spread, nestled against one bank of the river and out of town about five miles. The sky grew redder and brighter as he neared the core of brilliance amid smoke and sparks and leaping flames. Then, as he stood still, his horse stopped in a small gulley, the sound of hoof beats came pounding toward him. The music of the hoof beats brought back the rush of brumbies in The Bush of Australia, the wild horses that ran in herds in the land of his birth. That image could send his blood rushing as well. There never was a better sight for him than the round-up of a huge herd of the brumbies. Quigley yanked the reins on his horse and pulled him deeper into the gulley and behind a clutch of prairie brush. A dozen riders rode past, headed the way he had come, the beating of hoofs a music in his blood.

And he knew a frightened expectation waited him.

When he reached Vicary’s spread, the house, what there was of it, was one huge ball of flame. Nobody moved. Nobody yelled.

Quigley raced to the bunk house and started pounding on the door. A voice called from the darkness of the night. It was the voice of Ed Vicary. He had been shot in the chest and one leg and was draped over a bench. “One of my boys is in there.” He pointed at the bunk house.

Inside Quigley found Chance Vicary beaten to a pulp.

“Who was it, Chance? Who did this?”

“They wore masks, every one of them, and never said a word to me. One of them shot my pa twice. I saw him. A big fellow. Bigger than Pa. Had a black vest on. Two guns.” He nearly passed out.

Quigley shook him. “Can you handle your pa until help comes? I’d chase the bullets out of him, but I might bloody well mess up. I’ll get the doc.”

“I’ll take care of him, much as I can. Hurry, GQ. You gotta hurry.”

As Quigley raced to town, the whole scene framed itself in his mind.

In town he rousted the doctor and a few folks and sent others to get a couple of men he’d have to trust. “Tell them to meet me at the red rock out of town, and bring lots of ammunition. We’re going to catch the boyos who’ve been raising hell around here, including burning down the Vicary place and shooting old Ed this very night.” He sent two men on special errands. The ace was up his sleeve.

The summoned help gathered at the red rock and Quigley explained their mission. “I’m going in alone to burn up their arms and ammo. To set it all afire. That’ll cut down the odds against us a bit. We’ll have a fair go at them then.”

When he stopped talking, he looked at them closely, one at a time, and said, “If you let them out of there, you’ll probably end up paying for it with your ranches, your property, perhaps your lives. This is the first time they’ve really hurt someone. Ed might not make it. Don’t let them out.”

“What’ll we do then, GQ?” one rider said.

“There’s no other way. We have to bottle them up. There’s only one entrance. If we hold them in there long enough, we’ll find out who’s missing from town or the ranches, see who’s in their cadre. We’ll get to the top dog one way or another, the whole crew of them, but we have to hold them up. Be ready in case I make a blathering mess of the whole thing.”

Before he set out on his one-man chore, he asked them who came to mind when they thought about a big man in the saddle. “Give me one name.”

They muttered and agreed it would be Seth Wardwick, the bank teller. One rider said, “Seth looks big and funny up there on a mount, like half a mountain, but he can ride like blazes. I saw him once at Timberfield chasing a runaway wagon”

Quigley affirmed the picture he had in his mind, then rode off in the darkness.

Nearly an hour later there was a solid explosion echoing beneath the collection of Quigley’s most-trusted pals. The ammunition and weapons depot, in the heavenly valley, had gone asunder as if Odin himself had cast a bolt at it. The tremors underground were ominous, shaking the earth, knocking thoughts astray.

But the battle at Ford’s Creek had begun, with a leg up for the good guys.

A half hour later Quigley returned from his successful mission. “I believe our prey is down to ammo on their belt. That’s a positive thing for us, for that’s exactly where we are; with what we carry. We have to make it all count, every round. I thought about blowing the well in there, but lack of water’s not going to drive them out of hiding for there’s a billabong I bet someplace near them, a watering hole … it’ll be the fear of exposure that will get them. They mix with us regularly, hiding right beside us. They may come one at a time, trying to slink away and get back home and hidden, or they may make a rush for it. We have to be ready. We’re about even in numbers and ammo, so we have to find another edge. If we get one, apples, she’ll be for us, all okay as you say.”

One man asked, the dawn flash just lighting up his face, “If they come one at a time, do you think the big honcho comes first or last?” Behind him the sky shook more light free from between clouds.

Astride his mount, Quigley replied, “If it’s a big man, bigger than most, I guess that’ll be Seth Wardwick. He’s undoubtedly the ringleader, having knowledge about all mortgages and loans at the bank. If we nab him, we might force the issue in a different manner. We sure won’t give them a fair go of it, as I’ve said.”

“You might be right on that count, GQ. Once I saw him tell the boss at the bank to keep his mouth shut if he knew what was good for him. I didn’t think it was much more than a spat between them, but I see it different now.” He checked his guns to make sure they were loaded. Others did the same.

The lines were drawn. And in a minute recall of another situation, Quigley sent two men off on a special errand. The two scurried into the darkness of the canyon that the dawn flash had not yet touched. They had not returned for more than a few minutes when a single horse’s hoof beats came at them from the canyon.

Then a loud sound and a cry of utter surprise and the thud of something or someone hitting the ground.

Seth Wardwick, riding hard and fast, hit the rope strung across the mouth of the canyon, knocking him from his saddle, taking his breath away, leaving him, for bare moments, subject to immediate bonds about his wrists and legs. He was helpless. Quigley had remembered his grandfather’s story of a brumby round-up that was eventually thwarted by a band of rustlers who hid out in a small canyon. His grandfather had set a series of rope lines in the dark across their escape path and flushed the rustlers from behind. It was hysterical to see the brumby rustlers knocked from their horses, lose their weapons and their sense of accomplishment in one ludicrous turn-around.

At Quigley’s insistence, they stood the trussed –up Wardwick and forced him to call out the names of his cohorts, one by one, saying, “It’s all over, jackaroos. Come out one at a time. They got us.”

The battle at Ford’s Creek had gone off without a single shot being fired, and the Aussie called GQ was acknowledged as one hell of a cowboy after all, a “corker” as he might have said.