Western Short Story
The Torson brothers, Jack and Chad the younger, part of the original posse pursuing the Clevold gang that robbed the Great Red Bank, had been split from the main party by rifle fire from atop Mercy Canyon. They dove in under the slightest cliff overhang after hiding their mounts in a small growth of trees. They had their rifles and enough ammunition to fight a decent sized gang, but only two days of water. This was their fourth posse in a row in only two months, because their part of Kansas was on fire, with brigands and desperadoes in every corner. They carried on the way their father would want them to; for fourteen years he had been a no-holds barred sheriff with a deep secret, he had a brain as good as his brawn, and a natural quickness when in trouble. “Decisions,” he’d often said, “wait for no clock.”
Jack looked with a sidelong glance at his kid brother, eighteen years old and busting loose all over, socially, work-wise, and conscious of the family, all with the intensity that marked the family right to the roots. And to boot, he was a good-looking kid, not a handsome dog, but put together the way Jack himself was… lots of drive, lots of muscle, lots of proper spirit, a grand smile that was a heart-warmer, real sons of the old sheriff.
Jack realized there were times he had to temper Chad’s energy, his need to get some place in a hurry, to get a task done. The old gent’s story about two bulls, one old and one young, on the side of a hill and surveying the herd of cows, where the younger one said, “Let’s rush down and meet up with a few of them cows,” and the old one saying, “Let’s walk down and meet up with them all.” It was that way with Chad some days. But here, he realized, it would not do. They could be in serious trouble… downhill of a rifleman they could not see.
“Save as much water as you can, Chad,” Jack said to his kid brother, “and no wild shots. Shoot at a good target, and make sure it’s close enough to hit, like a turkey shoot if we can manage it. If we see a good shot or when we want to scare him off, or others of the gang, we’ll both fire at him. Let’s be a good team.” He patted Chad on the back. “The old gent taught us the best way.”
A sudden round of rifle fire hit slightly above their heads. Rock shards filled the air, pieces whistled around them. Chad grabbed his rifle and was about to fire back, but said, “Where’d that come from, Jack? Did you see him? I figure he’s behind that crevice up there on the left, or deep inside it.” He pointed at the opposite side of the canyon, a couple of hundred yards wide at that point. Further up the canyon it became wider. They’d been here on their first posse, a place where the old river had run free one time in the long ago past.
“I think you’re right, Chad. We’ll give him something to worry about, but only if he shows enough of himself. Let’s line up on the bottom of the crevice and only shoot when I yell it out. If we get lucky a few times, we’ll sure as hell discourage him, and the posse is probably working its way back to find us.”
For almost an hour there was no activity from the crevice. Not a shot was fired at them, not a shadow moved on the face of the canyon wall. Overhead, high overhead in the blue sky, the vultures hung like pennants. Jack wondered if they saw death or smelled the blood of death. He wouldn’t bet either way.
“That onery critter’s being patient, Chad. That’s the first thing Dad said to remember… don’t lose your patience. Outlast them. They all got some kind of clock that works them from their innards to their outers. Make sure our clocks keeps better time. He’s probably still there in that crevice. If he runs he might give himself away if the posse is around. He ought to move out of there soon, though, and he knows it. Let’s just wait him out, like the old gent said.”
They both kept their eyes keyed on the opposite crevice. An hour passed. Not a sliver of movement came from the desperado in the high place.
To release a little tension, to ease his kid brother’s energy, Jack said, “So that was the girl you told me about, the one at the store this morning. Boy, that’s sweetness itself, the way she looked down when she saw me staring at her. That’s the damnedest sweetness I ever saw. No truck with her. So she lost her parents in that big Kansas City fire and came here with her aunt to live with the Kitcheners. Hal K’s her uncle. How’d you hear all that? Who told you? Don’t tell me no bar talk, Chad. Most gents there don’t know the truth from a hog brand. Who told you?”
For more than an hour of patience, they had moved only their toes and worked a back itch once in a while, but kept their eyes on the possible target.
“Sal Kitchener told me,” Chad said, “last night at the store, because she said the girl was asking who was who in town, like she’s got the looking glass out. Sal told her about you. She always thought you were the big brother. Probably made a good impression for you ‘cause she asked back how often you dated and Sal said she never knew if you ever had a date, only saw you dance once or twice at the barn dances.”
“She say anything about the saloon?”
“What she don’t know she can’t talk about.” Chad smiled the insider’s smile and then shook himself aware when Jack suddenly jerked alert and said, almost under his breath, “When I say so, in the lower left hand corner, just under that chink in the wall. He’s moved across the bottom of the crevice. When I see any movement, I’ll tell you and we’ll both shoot. Get ready, but get ready slow. No sudden movement. No shine off the sights or off the barrel, but don’t shoot low. Put it in there right behind him. We might scatter a few ricochets right on his backside. Serve him right, the backstabber.”
Chad wanted to stretch his neck again, straighten his right shoulder, move his legs, if just a bit. At least enough to loosen the muscles starting to cramp, but he stiffened in his watch, waiting, finger on the rifle trigger, the needed stretch sending a message along his whole backside. One toe, he swore, the left big toe, was going to snap loose of his foot. His calf ached from the ankle up. He swore he could taste a beer as he leaned on the bar. He recalled how he liked standing at the end of the bar in Daisy’s Place, watching how people moved, seeing what the girls did when they wanted attention, and him trying to remember all the smooth moves some older trail hands used. He understood fully that he had watched a few stars shine at their leisure work. And he realized, suddenly, that all the girls at Daisy’s were not that old looking. Not at all. It made him smile.
Jack’s body tightened in the cramped space under the overhang. “Now,” he said.
The two rounds went off immediately. The noise rang in their ears. There came a dull echo in the canyon, but no chatter of bullets hitting rock. Up through the channel of the canyon the echoes sounded out a possible death story. Then both brothers saw a rifle fall straight down from the crevice, falling end over end in slow motion until it bounced off a prominent outcrop over two hundred feet down near the bottom of the canyon, and the rifle stock broke apart. No movement came from the crevice. No sound. No moan. Just an eerie stillness. High overhead, against a terribly blue sky marking the top wall of the canyon, a few vultures patrolled in their constant alert. A peccary snorted downwind, possibly smelling new blood.
Jack said, “That might have done it, but we’ll wait for an hour or so before we move. Patience, like Dad said, is the answer to a lot of wasted energy. Tell me about her again, this Millie Weddle, whatever Sal said, if anything else. Seems like a big mouthful already. What’s with you and Sal anyway?”
“I ain’t said anything, have I? Anyways, Sal says Millie could cook for a whole turkey shoot. Bakes pies like Ma used to set out on the porch for us to swipe. Ain’t she some lady, Jack?”
“You say all that comparison stuff in the same breath, Chad.”
“I ain’t the smartest guy in the brooder house, Jack, but I don’t miss a lot. I’m betting Millie Weddle’s the one for you. Maybe Sal’s the one for me. Dad, I know, figures it’s about time for you to branch out.” He chuckled, and Jack kneed him in the back.
A long silence came down atop them. The sun broiled away in its westward march, the vultures patrolled the blue skies, and downwind the hidden peccaries snorted anew. Jack thought he knew how important position was in life, how the odds were affected. And that life, Jack felt, swung always like the metronome on the top of the piano at the saloon. It was one thing to be in step with it. It was another thing to be out of step.
Random gunfire came to them as the rest of the posse announced themselves coming around a rocky bend. They heard their names being called out. The two brothers saw strangers in the company of the posse, riding their mounts as if restrained. They both realized the ropes of justice were tightly in place.
The two Torson brothers, each thinking about special women, stood up and waved.