Western Short Story
A trail of dust swirled out behind her as a young girl came galloping into Wells Springs on a Sunday afternoon. People on the outskirts of town heard her screams coming from the prairie before they even saw her, and she went right past all of them to the Marshal’s Office in the center of town.
“Marshal,” she screamed as she dismounted and rushed to his office door. “Marshal, they killed my mother and father. Shot them in their bed. I was in the barn when they came up and I heard them arguing about what they’d take … all the food they could get because they’d be hiding out in the hills after all their troubles. I think they killed someone before they got to our place. And they robbed a bank someplace. I heard them say that. They didn’t see me, but I heard them arguing and then shooting.”
“Did you see them, Meg? Did you get a look at any on them? How many were there?”
Meg Canbury, just 14 by a few days, and not to live a day longer if she had been discovered in the barn, said, “I didn’t see one face, but there were four of them, and one sounds tougher than all the others. Real mean, he is. Swears a lot. But I saw all their horses. A paint, two grays, and a palomino as gold as the sun. The paint had three socks, white socks. That’s all I saw.”
She began crying in the marshal’s arms.
He said, “You come to the house with me, Meg. Martha will take care of you until I finish this. Don’t go near the ranch. If they know you were there, they might come looking for you.”
“I’ll be ready the next time, Marshal. I’ll be ready.”
The marshal saw the sudden aging set in on Meg Canbury, like she was a full adult in the flash of one thought. Grown up right before his eyes. It set him back, wondering what foolish thing she’d entertain now to wreak her revenge. He’d seen it before in other youngsters brought up short in life.
“Where’s your brother?” the marshal said. An image of Meg’s brother flashed in his mind.
Jeff Canbury was a couple of months past 16, a full-fledged cowpoke for a couple of years working for his father on their ranch, a small spread about three miles from the Wyoming town of Wells Springs. He was a strapping young man gifted with a flair for treating and training animals around the ranch and the marshal knew he had a crush on his niece Betsy Cotter, always arranging his trips to town so that he’d get to see Betsy on the way in and back. They’d make a great couple someday, the marshal always said
“He’s in Tapoca, getting a couple of horses. Went two nights ago and he said he’d be back sometime today.”
“I’ll go out there and wait for him, and look around. If they took a lot of food, they’re hiding out up in the hills. We’ll find them before you know it. We’ll run a posse up there and roust them out. I better go now. Best not let Jeff see your folks this way. I’ll see them buried, Meg, unless you want to come out tomorrow and take care of it then. For now, you go over to see Martha. She’s always happy to see you.”
At the Canbury Ranch, the marshal found Jeff Canbury as silent as he had ever seen him, and the bodies of his parents were lined up under the one tree in the front of the ranch house, looking as if the burials would take place soon.
“I’m sorry you had to find them like this, Jeff. Meg came in and told me she heard four men do this, but did not see them. Saw their horses, but can’t identify the men who did it. Said they took a lot of food and were going to hide out up in the hills. She heard some talk about a killing back down the line and maybe a bank robbery they were involved in,”
“I heard about the killings at the bank in Palmeter. An old man and a woman in a buggy got in their way, so they shot them. But I know something that nobody else knows.”
Young Canbury was so quiet, so calm, that the marshal knew a plan was brewing in the youngster’s mind. “Don’t take it on yourself, Jeff. You’ll get in more trouble than you can handle. We can handle this, me and my deputies. We have a pretty good idea where to track them.”
“So will we,” Jeff Canbury said, with the tone of the avenging angel. He started digging in the shade of the tree.
The marshal said, “Hold off on that digging until tomorrow, until Meg gets here.”
“Just until tomorrow,” Canbury said, dropping his shovel.
Two days later, in a barn at the ranch of Art Tolman, Tolman’s son Art Jr., friend Jeff Canbury and twin brothers Peter and Paul Godfrey were engrossed in a deep conversation. If a person was in the loft of the barn, there’d be trouble making sense of what was being said. The voices were hushed, almost coded, as they discussed the murders of Canbury’s parents.
Jeff Canbury had said, on first getting together on this day, the four of them slipping into the back of the barn, “We haven’t been out in a few months and we have a new errand to take care of. You’ve heard about my folks being killed by four men who invaded the house. Meg heard them say they were going up in the hills. They had killed some other people and robbed a bank. She described their horses, but she didn’t see any of their faces. Do you guys want to take this on with me?”
Art Tolman, also sixteen, jumped to his feet and said, “We ride again, The Ghost Riders of Calico County. I can’t wait to get going on this, Jeff. What are your plans? Of course, all of us are going. We’re sworn to this from the first day we went looking for the Collier scum. They got what was coming to them. It’s the best thing I ever did in my whole life.” His exuberance lathered up the twins.
“It’s like it happened yesterday,” one of them said. “Member how they cried at the end, those barn rats?
Eventually, still undisturbed in the back of the barn, they listened as Jeff Canbury spelled out their mission, and they set off to do their preparations, set up their activities for the next week, the young, good looking studs of Calico County.
A few days later, individual schedules set up to cover their activities and whereabouts, the four young men of Calico County met in the lower foothills of the Carson Range, a rugged collection of mountains, trails, canyons as ugly as sin, and places where small armies of men could hide for short periods of time as long provisions were set in place beforehand or brought in with them. The terrain was as harsh as any place in the west and the remains of innumerable mountain slides and avalanches marked the area. And promise of more earthly upsets always seeped into the mind of those who moved among the debris. Once, gold had been found and many prospectors had searched for a big hit, but never found.
“What the heck can we do up in here, Jeff?” young Tolman said. In his stirrups he was standing and looking about him, at the maze of rock fall and promised caves of retreat. “How can we shake out four men if they want to hide from us. It’s crazy in here. Looks like the devil set his hand on this place.”
Canbury, scanning every inch of what was around them at the moment, said, “I think the horses will tell us something even as we look for signs. Theirs or ours. They’ll pick up a scent, a sound, and react to it. That old injun my father knew said animals always know more than we do, so we better listen to them. We spread out, go slow, don’t miss a trick, and listen to the horses. When we do each trail, we turn around and come back as noisy as we can be and wait for something to happen. Keep your masks handy, the Ghost Riders of Calico County are out on the trail.”
A cheer went up from the others, young men on the prowl for justice, to right the wrongs of the world, to avenge the deaths of Jeff and Meg Canbury’s parents.
“Hell,” said Peter Godfrey, “I’m putting mine on now. If someone gets me, my folks’ll know what I was up to those times I was away, them thinking I was slipping into town somewhere down the line. I’m a Ghost Rider and I’m going my way.” He put his gray mask over his face and replaced his sombrero, looking the part he played. His brother put his mask on too, and the others followed.
“Well, hell,” Canbury said, “Let’s go out our noisy way instead and come back quiet. Let’s see if it works that way.” His revolvers were in his hand.
And he spurred his horse and raced away down a broad trail, screaming as loud as he could, firing his weapon in the air, and the others followed, as if they were in on a cavalry raid.
“Yahoo!” they shouted. “Whoopee!” also, their voices in a mad frenzy of echoes and reverberation from the walls of stone, the faces of rock, the debris of untold centuries piled around them. The clatter of horse hoofs beat along with the wild rhythm and cadence of their headlong run.
At the end of the canyon, against a high and sheer wall of stone, they halted, spun about, and went into silence.
There was no sound at all. The echoes were gone. The horses, after a moment, snickered at their ease.
Tolman said, “Smell that. That’s fire I smell, and beef cooking. The horses smelled it too. Can you smell it? It’s in this canyon someplace.” His mask was pulled tighter in place, as if to mark him at the outset of any impending action. He was, it said, one of The Ghost Riders of Calico Country. His stature in the saddle said so with conviction.
Jeff Canbury spoke up then. “Scatter, right now. If we can smell them, they can hear us. Don’t let them get us with a couple of easy shots. Spread out. See if we can shake them out from wherever they are.”
That’s when the deep voice roared from an unknown source. “Who are you guys? You running from the law? You got no problem with us if you are. Put down your guns and let’s talk about how we can help each other out. You gents know this place?”
Jeff Canbury jumped right in with an answer. “We’re on the run. Haven’t eaten in two days and hoping some prospectors might be in here with some grub, so we tried to shake them out of their boots. I can smell your cookin’ and that shakes us up. We’re real hungry. Okay for us to come in? We still got our masks on from the bank we held up back there in Wells Springs. Nobody on our trail yet that we saw, but we ain’t taking any chances. We got no problem with you if you ain’t got any problem with us.”
A man showed himself at one side of the canyon, as if he had stepped from out of the wall itself. “Hell, no, we’re up here behind this break in the wall, a great hideout. You gents look like you might have shot up the whole town. C’mon up, but all we got for grub is beans and steak and some morning whiskey to clear your throats.”
As the masked young men from Wells Springs approached the gang’s hideout, the man who had done all the talking said, “You boys always wear them masks? I wouldn’t know you if you were my kids.”
“Well,” Jeff Canbury said, “we hate to get recognized by some poor idiot that doesn’t know what he’s talking about when he says he’s seen us before. But, heck, we’re okay here, so we’ll take them off.” He noted the horses tied to the back side of a large rock: like Meg had said; a paint, two grays, and a palomino as gold as the sun. The paint had three white socks.
The other three men of the gang came out of their hideout. “You gents look like you’re the most dangerous gents in the west when you have your masks on and just like my kid brothers when there are off. How old are you kids anyway, you robbers?” He laughed loudly, even as the obvious ringleader stepped closer to Jeff Canbury and said, “Don’t I know you from somewhere, kid?”
Canbury said, in a matter of fact voice, “Oh, people have always said I look like my pa.”
“I guess it’s okay to look like your pa, kid. But you still look familiar to me.”
Jeff Canbury could no longer resist as he said, “Maybe if you thought you might have seen me lying in bed with my wife when I got shot by one absolutely miserable coward, you might know me.”
The Ghost Riders of Calico County already had their guns drawn when the bad guys tried to go for their guns.
Without firing a shot at the desperadoes, The Ghost Riders of Calico County brought to the sheriff of Wells Springs the four killers of the Canburys, the four robbers of a bank down the line, four completely surprised bandits who had been too curious for their own good.
For years after four young men brought to justice four murderous men, The Ghost Riders of Calico County served appropriate notice to thieves, robbers, murderers and home invaders across a great part of the territory.