Western Short Story
The Death Race
Mickey Bellman

Seth stared nervously at the boiling cloudbank marching toward him across the western horizon. Living beneath open skies for 38 years had taught the wrangler to predict what was coming. He spurred Dramm into a trot as he hurried across the high desert. A rider sitting on his horse was the tallest thing on the flat range, just inviting a lightening bolt from any passing storm.

Seth was looking for stray cattle. The Herefords had been allowed to roam freely over Mr. Candle’s 200,000-acre ranch until roundup each year. After the roundup was over, there were always a few strays left behind in the meandering coulees that dissected the high desert ranch. Each stray was worth $50 to Mr. Candle, and an extra $5 to the wrangler who brought it to the corral.

It wasn’t so much the extra money that Seth wanted. He was away from the people and the noisy bunkhouse—away from the confinement that four walls and a roof offered him. Although nearly thirty years had passed since his months in prison, he never forgot those long days of confinement. Seth learned his lesson, paid his dues for one tavern brawl,

and vowed never to return to the jailhouse. It was the prairie he loved, the open spaces that gave him life and a reason for living.

A mile north Seth spied a line of scrub junipers. The brushy trees meant a draw was nearby where he and Dramm might find refuge. He reined his horse toward the scrub as a low rumble of thunder tumbled out of the darkening sky. With the first heavy raindrops, he spurred his horse into a full gallop. The heavy overcast dimmed the afternoon twilight—poor light to race across ground speckled with badger burrows. But he had no choice: Seth had once watched a bolt of lightning fry a man black in an instant.

A quarter mile away a white flash was followed instantly by a sizzle and a clap of thunder. A clump of sagebrush exploded in a ball of fire. Seth clung low to Dramm’s neck as they raced for the shelter of the trees. Another bolt speared the ground a hundred yards ahead. Seth saw the cloud of dirt erupt into the air and he reined Dramm directly toward the spot--lightning never strikes twice....

A salvo of bolts stabbed into the ground as horse and rider approached the tree-line. The sky was split with white-hot arcs and the air smelled of a sharp, burnt odor. Thunder exploded in the cowboy’s ears, so loud and close that one of Seth’s eardrums burst. It seemed as though God was really mad at Seth but his aim was bad.

Dramm was terrified by the assault of the storm and tried to veer away, but only for a moment. Seth jerked hard on the reins and raked the

sides of the horse with steel spurs. The horse responded and resumed his race for the trees.

Horse and rider never slowed as they lunged through the screen of low-hanging branches. Beyond the trees the ground dropped away into a steep-sided coulee. When the soft dirt began to slip away, Dramm tried to stop, but gravity was not to be denied. The horse lost its balance and began to tumble into the ravine. Instinctively, Seth kicked free of the saddle to take his own chances, falling free of the horse as another bolt of lightning skewered a juniper.

Horse and cowboy plummeted down the near-vertical slope and thudded to the bottom of the draw. Seth lay face down in the dirt trying to catch his breath while Dramm lay nearby—his chest heaving deeply from exertion and fear.

It was Seth who regained his senses first and sat up. He scooped up his muddy Stetson and plopped it atop his gray-flecked hair while the rain poured down. After a moment Seth rose to his feet and walked unsteadily toward the still-prone horse.

“C’mon, git up you sorry cuss” and Seth gathered the reins in his hand. Whether it was the simple command or the tone of the familiar voice, Dramm scrambled to his feet. With his head hanging low, the dazed horse shook violently to throw off some of the thick mud and water.

The wrangler stepped alongside the horse, unmindful of the heavy rain. He rolled the saddle back into place and tightened the cinch. A

small grove of junipers was ahead and he led the horse into the center of the gnarled trees. It wasn’t much but the trees offered some shelter from the wind and rain.

Seth stripped a well-used slicker from the saddle and tied Dramm to a low branch. Although he was already soaked, the cowboy settled into the heavy canvas coat and sat beneath a tree waiting for the storm to pass. There was nothing to do except watch the rain drip from the brim of his muddy Stetson.

After six decades the cowboy was still alone. Seth sat there glumly as he remembered other times, family and friends and sons who wanted to be like their dad the cowboy. After the barroom brawl and the jail time, though, things spiraled from bad to worse. Money got tight, jobs were scarce, and Betty took sick. Once the cancer had exacted its toll on his cowgirl wife, Seth signed over his two sons to his brother and left for the open range. At times around a lonesome campfire late at night, he often regretted his decision.

The deluge continued to fall around Seth’s pitiful refuge. The rain was beginning to puddle in the parched dirt of the desert; the soil was fast becoming a slippery gumbo that clung to feet and hooves like stink to a skunk. Every hillside would be slick as greased glass for days. The ground could not absorb so much water from a single storm. If it continued, there could be a flash flood….

Seth jerked out of his melancholy and was suddenly very wide-awake. While more thunder boomed above and lightning danced from cloud to ground, there was also a dull roar to be heard—so distant that it was felt more than heard. Seth jerked his head around to stare up the canyon through the gray sheets of rain. He realized he was in exactly the wrong place during a cloudburst like this one.

Just a few feet away he could see small puddles joining together to become small rivulets. Seth leaped to his feet and was instantly in the saddle. He spurred Dramm through the trees and down the coulee searching for a breach in the canyon wall. Something was behind them. Something terrible and unstoppable was coming.

As the horse galloped between the trees, the stiff branches cruelly raked the horse and rider. One limb ripped the Stetson from Seth’s head, but there was no time to pause and retrieve his most prized possession. More branches tore the canvas slicker to tatters and left angry red welts on the flesh of man and horse.

And still the rain poured down—thick, heavy drops that formed a solid vertical wall of water. Dramm could see just a few feet ahead, but he responded to the steel spurs that raked his ribs. Seth lashed the horse with the reins demanding every ounce of speed.

Behind, a wall of brown water boiled with all it touched—dirt, rocks, brush, entire trees. Nothing could withstand the torrent, and there was no escaping its path in the steep-walled canyon. Seth’s only chance was to

outrun the dirty rush until the coulee widened out. The low rumble that Seth had felt became a loud roar as the waters rampaged behind him.

Seth reined Dramm to the left as the canyon walls receded. He glanced behind and saw a juniper tree ripped from the ground by the thick, swirling waters. The flood was just a few yards behind. Unless they were out of the canyon in the next seconds, the cowboy and his horse were doomed.

Another bolt arced across the sky, and the momentary flash showed Seth an escape route. There was a gap in the coulee wall and the cowboy reined Dramm for the low breach at a full gallop. The horse never slowed as it leaped for the slippery notch, but the gumbo mud offered no traction to the horse hooves. While Seth frantically spurred the horse, the floodwaters reached them and swirled about Dramm’s hind legs. The horse scrambled and clawed at the steep slope, but still it could not gain the high ground.

Another lightning bolt flashed, revealing a coulee filled with angry, brown water, uprooted trees, logs and brush all rushing past. Seth clung to the saddle and spurred the horse again and again.

“Git up there! Git up or we’re both dead.” Seth’s words were shouted, but were drowned out by the sheets of rain, the booming thunder, and the roaring melee in the draw.

A surge of debris stabbed Dramm in the flank. The unexpected pain was the final incentive the terrified horse needed. Dramm made another

desperate lunge at the bank and this time the steel horseshoes bit deep into the slippery earth, holding just long enough for the horse to get its hind legs up on the bank. Two more wild lunges took both horse and rider to the top of the bank. The exhausted horse slowed and walked unsteadily away from the draw. Seth slouched wearily on the saddle horn.

They were caked with mud as Seth reined Dramm to a halt and slipped from the saddle. Water sloshed inside his boots, slowly draining out several small wear holes. His heavy slicker had been shredded. Blood trickled down his face from a gash on his forehead. He slowly stroked his horse affectionately as he began inspecting the hard-breathing animal. There were two gashes on the withers and another long gash across the chest. All the wounds were bleeding freely, but did not seem especially deep or serious.

Fifty feet away Seth watched the debris-filled waters churning by. A fence post trailing strands of barbed wire bobbed to the surface and disappeared. Something red and white appeared as a leg and hoof shown above the surface—a Hereford stray had been trapped in the coulee and became part of the carnage.

Within half an hour the storm passed to the east and the sun had burned through the overcast. There was still enough heat in the afternoon sun to drive clouds of steam from both horse and rider. While Dramm nibbled on the sparse bunch grasses, Seth sat on a low rock and emptied his boots, staring vacantly at the brown death that flowed in the draw.

The wrangler mourned the loss of his prized cowboy hat—something given to him by a long dead wife. He dabbed at the gash on his forehead with a soggy rag of a handkerchief. Reaching into a shirt pocket, Seth found a plug of chewing tobacco and bit off a sizeable piece. Slowly, he worked the piece around inside his mouth, enjoying the pungent, amber liquid. As Seth chewed, he remembered. Perhaps it was time for a change.

“Time to go, old boy. That’s enough excitement for one day.” Still in his stocking feet, Seth packed his worn boots into the saddlebags and stepped into the stirrups.

“Ya know, I’ve been thinking. How’d you like to have a nice stall and a green pasture and a bunch of fillies to chase around?” Dramm nickered as though he understood.

“Maybe I can find them two sons of mine. I heard they were over around Port Land some place raising some sissified llamas or some such thing.

“There’s just one thing I haven’t quite got figured out, Dramm. Just how in the hell do you cook a llama?” With that Seth gently nudged the horse in the ribs and pointed him north toward the Columbia River.

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