Western Short Story
Willard Joseph Lord Puffington, late colonel of the 1st Regiment of Hodson's Horse, India-released, Asia-departed, separated from the British Army in 1870, reined in his horse at the head of Darby’s Creek as it flowed from the heart of earth in the Rockies foothills. His trained eye had found a minor change in the geography from the previous day; the small tree at the crest of one hummock had moved (“Been moved,” he muttered) to another hummock closer to the wagon train’s position. The year was 1873; he was working for a wagon master as the wagon train was set to renew its journey on another day, its destination a valley in far California, his new education in progress.
Puffington, astride a black stallion he had coveted from first site, a 16-hander with fire in his eyes, summoned the wagon master, Bruce Wilcox, to his place at the head of the lead wagon about to move off on a new day.
Puffington, to a casual observer, could have been a Royal Archer, a Knight at the Round Table, or Her Majesty’s Consort, he sat so noble a position on the huge stallion, as if he were in command even though he was not in command, not on this wagon train, not yet. A highly rugged and handsome man of deep-well blue eyes that never seemed to rest for long on one spot, he possessed a stern chin signifying his make-up, and premature gray hair looking as if it had never been trimmed,
“See anything out there, Bruce,” he said to Wilcox, “that is subtilely different from yesterday evening when we rolled up?” He pointed off in the general direction of the foothills and timberlines to the north.
Wilcox, himself a most rugged individual, nearly as handsome as Puffington in a distinctive western outfit, scanned the area with his experienced eye developed on six other trains he had led west. “At the outset I’d have to say the only thing that could be different is that single tree on the small rise. Nothing out there seems possible to be different, but I can’t mark it as different, Will. Can you?”
“Yes,” Puffington said. “Yesterday, or last evening, from this exact spot, I had it marked in line with that rocky peak that’s off to the left of it now. I stood exactly here, at the head of this wagon and marked it with that peak … three objects in a row … my position, the tree, and the far peak. What we called a syzygy in my astronomy courses.”
“A what? A syzygy? What the hell is a syzygy, if that’s how you say it, Will?” He shook his head in wonder and realized that Puffington had certainly been exposed to more educated matters than he himself had.
“Well, Bruce, picture this … the sun’s out there, the moon passes between it and us here on Earth and an eclipse occurs. That’s three spatial bodies in a row when the eclipse happens. Syzygy is what I first thought was a made-up word with the three Zs in it, to account for the three heavenly bodies, but it really comes from the Greek.”
“Oh,” Bruce said, “like it’s all Greek to me.”
“Anyway,” Puffington added, moved by the humor, “what that means is we are being scouted upon.”
Wilcox said, “Let’s rush out there from two directions and nab whoever, see what’s up.”
Puffington, nodding, moved back into his military experience, calling up similar situations, or seeking similar ones. That recall went back 15 years, to 1858 and a campaign against the Naserabad Brigade of rebels led by the Rajah of Gonder. The rebels used numerous single scouts, or spies, posted alone in open areas of the plains, under the meanest and simplest of cover, to report on positions and strengths of the British Colonial forces. They were to be so obviously posted that they might not be seen; in the plans of things, to be overlooked by less tested men.
In that Colonial command he too had a number of volunteer-type men of extraordinary courage and guile, and rather than send a force out to rout the spies, he sent a few of these volunteers out to obvious positions to take, kill or rout the spies located there. To a man they were successful, and two rebels were captured and one was killed in a running fight. The night went silent after the last hand-to-hand encounter. Puffington could not envision how many soldiers’ lives had been saved by the actions of a few men for good of all the force. Subsequently he had introduced commendations into the personnel records of the three men.
Now their heroics, and the inestimable results, came back full force into his planning.
Having made up his mind, the former British colonel, marker of men, measurer of talents, saw one man of the wagon train emerge as his choice for a select operation.
He asked Wilcox, “Can you spare Max Malvern for a short foray into enemy territory? It should not take too long, but that’s only a guess from my experience long ago in a similar situation.”
“He’s as good as any man you can pick, Will,” Wilcox affirmed. “Sly as a fox he is, quick as a night coyote, quiet as a spider on a single strand. He won’t say so but he’d be honored to be selected.”
He waved to a small and wiry man sitting on a big gray across the circle of wagons, and the man dismounted, tied off his horse and walked slowly toward them as if he were carrying a large burden. His face was covered with a dark beard sitting under a black hat as wide as his shoulders, with a ribbon on it lined with fish hooks caught up in the fabric. In the rifle scabbard on his horse could be seen two bamboo poles along with his long-barreled Sharps rifle. In one glance Max Malvern appeared as a survivor of both the plains and the mountain life, with a turn at water in the mix.
Malvern approached, nodded at both men and stood as quiet as a stump.
“Max,” Bruce Wilcox said, “the colonel has a small task he’d like you to do. He’ll explain it.”
Puffington pointed off at the singular small tree on the hummock. “See that slight tree on that mound out there, Max, how it seems to sit all by itself?”
Malvern looked and said, “You mean it ain’t most likely alone even as we look at it and you want to make sure of that one way or t’other?”
“Exactly, Max,” Puffington said, smiling widely, “and without them knowing they are being approached if at all possible.”
“Be glad to take a peek, Colonel. Been by there yestidy and know the ground. Take care of it rightly.” He turned around and walked back to his horse and rode to the far side of the circled wagons nearing departure. Much as a prairie phantom he disappeared into a dip in the grass.
A few hours later, the wagon train on its way finally, the circle of wagons nearly in a long line on the grassy trail, Malvern slipped up behind a man, a white man, dressed clumsily as a redskin. The knife was at the man’s throat when he woke up from a sound clubbing on the head. He was tied across the rump of Malvern’s horse.
The wily scout tickled in a decidedly devilish manner the throat of the fake Indian, drawing the keen blade in a slow sweep across the man’s neck.
Malvern said, “I tell you, son, you got some hurtin’ comin’ your way from the Colonel who’s almost right outta Inja where they was inventin’ punishment afore we was even here. Heard him talkin’ one night back at the big river about how they put a leaky water tin near a man in irons and don’t give him a sip for more days that the trouble’s worth. The colonel, once’t we get back to the wagons, is some set in his ways. He’s got some steep talkin’ to do and you got yourself some steep thinkin’ on how you’re gonna keep breathin’. These things ain’t really gonna sit like puddin’ with him ‘cause he’s all soljer.”
The return to the wagon was completed without incident for Malvern and his prisoner.
Puffington was quite pleased at the sight of Malvern riding in with a prisoner, the prisoner slumped over and obviously beaten into submission. He was impressed with Malvern’s foray amongst the enemy, or at their fringes.
“You’ve done a unique job, Max. My compliments to you. I assume there was not much resistance offered.”
“Oh,” replied Malvern, “he didn’t waste none of my time. And we didn’t waste no time comin’ back here, as I figure he’s got a pile of stuff to unload on you. I brung his own horse too.”
The prisoner talked. “My name’s Oliver Gordsen. They broke me out of jail back in Ashburn more’n a year ago. Just took me into the gang long as I did what they wanted. I was just a drunk caught in the mix, and them, those fellers, are all murderers. They don’t care who they kill. I swear to God I ain’t kilt any man yet.”
“Be easy, son,” Puffington said. “How many are there, what armaments do the have, who’s the leader, and is he a military man?” He patted Gordsen on the back.
“How’d you know all that?” the prisoner said. “We got about 35-40 men, one Gattling gun stole from the army back before Trumont Fort was finished being built, and the boss, Luther Buckston, used to be a colonel in the Confederate Army and still hates anything blue. He swears to God the South is coming back someday. ”
“What are they planning, Oliver? Puffington said, his voice light and casual and somewhat friendly, his hand sitting lightly on Gordsen’s shoulder. “You must consider luckily that you are no longer a part of that organization, you’re no longer one of those murderers. Your part in the coming hostilities is, by my estimation, now ceased.” He paused, and then said, “But you can be somewhat accountable if certain things are not accomplished beforehand.”
It was as veiled a threat as ever uttered.
Gordsen, uneasy in a sudden turn, said, “What do I gotta do?”
“Tell us where and when they propose to attack us. With what size force at first. The placement of the Gattling gun at the chosen site. The second effort of the attack. And a third, if there is one.”
Puffington tapped him lightly again on the shoulder. “It’s as easy as eating porridge pie, Oliver. Just as easy.”
Gordsen, as if he were reading from a battle plan, laid everything out for them; it was crystal clear to both Puffington and Wilcox.
“They’d have us in the cross hairs,” Wilcox chirped, “but can we trust what he’s telling us?”
“Oh, it had better be the truth, Bruce. We better come out ahead in this. I am leaving all these details on paper so that if we do lose, that one-time Confederate colonel will know who set him up, one way or the other.”
He turned to Gordsen and said, “Of course, Oliver, you understand my position, don’t you?”
Gordsen, a minor man to begin with, but with a sudden weight taken off him by his delivery of information, said, “I do. I do. They are plain all-out murderers. I’m glad I’m on your side.”
Puffington looked him in the eye and said, “It’s not just that easy, Oliver. I’m going to let you go tonight. We are going to have a sudden halt with some obvious mechanical problems with a two of our wagons. We will re-circle them this evening just this side of the entrance to the gorge where they plan to hit us. We are going to wait there for two days for federal troops to arrive in two days. They will clear the way for us through the gorge. There will be no killing of the lead animals and the rear animals hauling the wagons to lock us completely within the gorge, subject at length to careful and methodical killing, stealing, raping and ravaging the people of this wagon train.”
The suave retired Colonial colonel patted Gordsen again on the shoulder, like a father to whom an adolescent son had admitted a minor mischief. “I know you can carry it off, Oliver. I have utmost faith in you.”
“You got my word, Colonel.”
Before Gordsen was let go that night in darkness, well after two wagons had called a halt with obvious mechanical problems having developed, he was allowed to hear Puffington say, as carefully planned as could be arranged without alerting the prisoner of the ruse, that the troops were really due that very night, a full force of a command that would hit the gorge with all their might, and it would be of no avail to let the enemy know that fact.
“The vise is in place,” Puffington was heard to say by Gordsen, who was being let go on his own horse, with his own guns, but with no ammunition, no water in his canteen, no way to go but ahead to the gorge and the brigand force, the way slyly shown to him by Max Malvern who had captured him in the first place.
In a few hours, at the ready for an hour or more, under dark skies and a wind whipping out of the southwest, the wagon train fled through the gorge led by the retired colonel of the 1st Regiment of Hodson's Horse, a most gallant troop of Colonial Cavalry, as fast as gloried Cossacks, as quick as the swift Gurkhas in a downhill attack, and as steadfast as drovers of the new west bringing the herd home.