Western Short Story
The Horse Thieves
Roy V. Gaston


Western Short Story

I’d ridden through this area before, and knew where a shaded little pool in a freshwater creek was hidden a mile or so away. The trees and shrub bushes along the river’s edge weren’t big and didn’t offer a lot of cover or shade, but it was the best I’d get out here in this barren country. The vigilant Comanche stayed away for a couple days after the stampede but had returned. I’d come within shouting distance of them and they’d still shown no outward display of hostility. Since they’d had plenty of chances to take my hair and hadn’t, I’d decided to take a bath. I watered my horses good, laid my things out right, and jumped in.

Two hours later I was stretched out on my horse blanket, sunning my nethers, dozing and daydreaming the day away. I was pondering my future when I heard the men walking toward me.

“Sorry mister, but we’re gonna have to take that fine horse of yours,” a voice said a second after I heard the bushes break. I jumped up, armed only with the muslin towel in my hands.

Two men had emerged from the dense brush and rocks fifty feet away. They were walking along the stream towards me with guns drawn. Behind them I could see four or five more coming down the high gravelly bank. Further back on the rim I saw a man holding some horses.

I recognized Ezra Smoot, and his big, lumbering swagger out here where stepping lightly prolonged life. Gid Smoot was beside him. The other five were young, nervous, wide eyed. I recognized Reuben Higbee, one of Porter’s youngest sons. I halfway recognized the others.

“We'd pay you for the hoss, but we don't have time to negotiate,” Ezra said. "Your herd will probably catch up to you by nightfall. All you gotta do is sit here in the shade and wait for them.”

“You all really need my horse that bad? Stealing horses is a hanging offense out here,” I said.

"Yes, sir, we mightily do, but that dasn't need concern you,” Ezra Smoot said.

If it had been one of the cow ponies, I might have just gone along. But it was the Arabian, and no amount of money nor amateurish bad men was going to take him while I was still kicking.


***


I made a quick survey of my situation and was glad I’d taken the time to lay my weapons out within easy reach. My saddle was on the ground about five feet away, behind some chest-high brush and rocks. Looped over the pommel was my holster holding two loaded Colts and a 14-inch Bowie knife.

I eyed my assailants as they walked toward me. There’s a difference between bullies with a gun and gun men, and it’s a difficult thing to hit a running man with a pistol even from ten feet away. From thirty paces, only the most dead-eyed gun slick could hit a moving target with any consistency. Except for Ezra and Gid, these boys didn’t impress me as gun slicks of any sort, except perhaps the sort to die young. Ezra and Gid, I took as the type gun slicks who made their reputation gunning drunk farm boys and pushing around shopkeepers. They’d have to be quick on the trigger, and steadier than I took them for. Still, it was possible. Even the worst shot gets lucky. But so was it also possible they were setting to shoot me where I stood, without me even giving them a fight. That’s what I would expect from Ezra. I wasn’t about to do that either.

“That’s about far enough,” I said. I pointed my towel covered hand at them, with my finger under it pointed out like a gun.

“What are you going to do, shoot us with that old rag?” Ezra laughed. But they had stopped. It was a good enough bluff to show me they were susceptible to feints.

“I won’t shoot you, but them up there will,” I said, nodding my head at some imaginary person behind them. They hesitated for just a beat as their eyes flashed toward the rim. I dove to my left, doing a little flip and roll over my saddle as some wild shots passed overhead. I snatched my gun belt and bullet pouch as I came to rest behind the rocks. I rolled some more, up the grade through the sharp caliche and wide patch of low growing prickly pear cactus. The horse thieves were slow, and their bullets pinged off the rocks and stitched up the ground behind me.

I was scraped raw and full of cactus spines as I scrambled through the rocks and brush. I looped my pistol belt over my shoulder and kept a Colt in my right hand as I crawled up the sloping, hundred-foot long embankment. Below me someone shouted and a flurry of bullets ripped through the brush. The shots were nowhere close, and I could tell by their cursing they had already lost track of me. The Higbees had picked a bad spot to try to ambush me, and I had a lot better idea where they were than they did of me. After a half hour of belly crawling through the sage and rock I’d flanked them and squeezed up under an overhanging ledge to wait.

I had a lot of experience lying still and quiet but it didn’t sound like the horse rustlers did. I couldn't see them, but I could hear them clearly in the jumbled boulders and thick foliage thirty feet down. They were loud and dumb, tripping, cursing, huffing, and grumbling. I had counted on them not expecting one naked man to try to maneuver around and take the fight to them, and I was correct. Huddled close together, they were bickering over who would stick their neck out to look for me.

I had plenty of bullets, but I was no great pistol shot either. I was buck naked, and they had my horse. I couldn’t retreat, but I wasn’t really in position to charge. I could hide out and wait for the herd to pass by, though they could be miles away. There might or might not be a slew of Comanche raiding parties and bandits between me and them dumb cows.

“Go around there and get him,” I heard one say.

“You go around there and get him. This was all your brilliant idea,” said another.

The squabbling continued as they walked further downstream, beating the brush looking for me. I made my way upstream, staying near the rim of the bank until the horse thieves’ own mounts were between me and them. The man guarding the horses was seated on a rock, out in the open with his eyes fixed on his companions. He would be easy to overpower. The only bad thing was that they did have possession of my Arabian. I Indian-slithered across the ground until I was right behind the horse tender.

***


“Say a word and I’ll slit you,” I said, after I came up behind the man quiet as a cat and brought my big knife around his throat. I poked the point of my blade under his chin. “Comprende?”

He nodded so vigorously he jabbed himself and let out a little scream. I gave him a smart cuff with the pistol and told him to shut up and not move. He didn’t, and the slothful Higbees hadn’t even noticed his kidnapping. I stuffed a hankie in his mouth and tied his hands behind his back with a pigging string from my bullet bag.

I slipped among their horses and pulled two Henry rifles from their scabbards as the horse thieves continued beating the brush for me, cussing, and almost shooting each other more than once.

Time passed, at least an hour, and then I heard the Higbees coming back my way. Their guns were holstered and they were walking carelessly about a hundred yards away, paying no heed to anything around them. Some were cursing me, saying they’d fill me full of holes for tricking them with my towel. Others were laughing that they got my horse anyway. When I was ready, I sat the horse tender on top of the boulder and tickled my knife under his jaw again. Then I yanked the gag out and kicked him in the back.

“Now, holler!” I shouted.

He hollered plenty as he flew off the rock with his hands still tied behind his back. His legs flailed as he cussed and plummeted ten feet, crashing down in a mixed bed of horse crippler and cat claw cactus. He screamed and thrashed and raised to a knee. He stood up, then tripped down the slope and knocked himself out on a rock.

His screams had alerted the others and they shot wildly, the bullets cracking off rocks and zipping through the tree branches above me. I slid between two rocks and emptied the rifle into the rattling brush hiding the Higbees. While they ducked and dodged and tumbled down the slope I scrambled further up the bank until I was hidden by shrubs and the shade of the ledge. I laid there for a while, listening to the moaning and cussing. I’d hit at least one of them.

I was planning my next move when I heard the pounding of hooves coming fast. Two, maybe three, horses were galloping my way. I squeezed tighter under the bank as two big shadows soared over me.

I watched, gape-jawed, as about twenty feet down the bank, two horses landed in a violent explosion of dust and gravel, skidding almost sideways down the loose caliche embankment. In the roiling cloud Bass Reeves held the reins to his big white horse in his mouth and rapid fired two pistols into the bushes. Right behind Bass Reeves, Britt Johnson’s big bay swerved and careened down the slope as Britt fired his pistol into the brush.

Bass sprang off his horse as it slid, landing light on his feet and still blasting into the bushes. Britt kept firing and I jumped up and emptied the second Henry into the tangle of brush where I’d last seen the Higbees. They may have shot back, but in the furious barrage we had unleashed, it was hard to tell. The shooting stopped, and it was silent except for the loud moaning and cussing of the wounded Higbees.



***


“You boys throw out your pistols and come out with your hands up. Otherwise I’m going to head shoot these blubbering sons-a-bitches,” shouted Bass, looming over two Higbees sprawled at his feet. There was blood on their shirts and their hands were empty and raised. “Be quick about it, or you’ll find what you just got was only one small piece of the hell we’ll unleash on you.”

“I can’t,” choked out one voice. “You got me in the leg.”

“Well, get to crawling then, all the way out where I can see you,” Bass shouted. “Throw your pistol out here.”

“Give it up fellers. I’m bleeding to death,” said a quivering voice in the brush. A pistol came arching out of the bushes and landed in the dust. After a good deal more cussing than I’d expect of a Mormon another pistol landed in the dust. A man stood, supporting himself by leaning against a stone.

The others, looking halfway dazed, came out with their hands held high. Gid Smoot’s left sleeve was wet with blood from the top of the shoulder down. A bullet had taken a chunk out of the tip of his shoulder. He pressed a hankie to the wound.

“Howdy, Bass. Britt. I sure am pleased to see you fellows,” I said. The Higbees continued their chorus of cussing, generally emphasizing each other’s stupidity. Most of them had suffered some sort of wound. The horse watcher was awake now, and cussing too.

“I’m shot in the head,” sobbed Titus Cluff, staggering out of the brush with his hands pressed to his brow. Blood from his wound had gushed down his hands to his elbows.

“No, you ain’t, you big baby, you’re barely hit, if at all,” I said as I took Titus’s shirt off him and tied it tight around his bloody head. There was a deep slice across his forehead, but most of the bleeding had stopped. “And you definitely ain’t shot in the head. You cracked it open on a rock, most likely.”

“He ain’t dying, I am,” said the dust caked, leg-wounded Furman Haight who had dragged himself through the bushes. He was bleeding bad, from a wound just above the knee. I made a quick tourniquet out of his shirt and twisted it tight with a stick. The blond-haired boy beside him didn’t look shot, but was covered in blood and had a badly busted nose. Bass had booted him a good one in his dismount. He hadn’t been cussing like the others and looked pretty shook up.

“What’s your name kid?” I said, as more moans came from around me. Britt and Bass kept pistols on the gang while I finished inspecting their wounds.

“Zach Petty,” he said.

“All right, Zach,” I said. “Hold this tourniquet stick tight for a few minutes while I try to make a bandage. Loosen it every little bit to see if it’s still gushing.”

“Help me, somebody help me,” said one Higbee crumpled against a rock.

“It’s Eldon,” said Gid Smoot, sitting down in the dirt. “I reckon he’s done for. He took a slug right in the belly.”

“It hurts,” groaned Eldon Jukes as I bent to check on him.

“Gut shot is a rough way to go, but you brung it upon yourself,” I said. “Here, let me see.”

Eldon took his hands away from the wound. The shot had barely nicked his side, just deep enough to skip off a rib bone before going out his back skin. Painful, but not fatal. Not unless infection set in. Riding a horse was going to be mighty unpleasant. I lifted the horse watcher to his feet and led him down with the others.

They cursed us blue for a solid three minutes after we made them hobble themselves by pulling their trousers down over their boots and lying face down on the bristly creek bank. I suppose it made them especially leery since I was still running around naked in a two-gun holster.

“Who’s the boss of this inept outfit?” said Bass.

“Ezra, that’s him down there,” Zach said. “Dead as a wagon wheel.”

Ezra Smoot was lying on his side, indeed dead as a wagon wheel. He’d taken one right through the chin. A few feet away was another dead man, face down with another bullet hole just beneath his left shoulder blade.

“You shot him in the back,” said Gid, as I rolled the dead man over. It was Reuben Higbee.

“Well, this ain’t good,” said Britt.

“Why are you boys doing this? What are you doing out here stealing horses?” I asked, looking at the dead men on the ground.

“We needed one in a hurry. Ezra’s horse stepped in a gopher hole,” Furman Haight said. “We’re after Wildcat Bob Ketchum. There’s a $1,000 reward on his head for killing three people in a stage robbery. We aimed to collect it.”

“Based on what I saw here, you all really ain’t cut out for that kind of work,” Bass said. “School girl dilettantes like you all shouldn’t be waving pistols at no one, especially not bands of killers like Wildcat Bob has. If you ain’t no better at ambushing people than what you just now exhibited, your bones are gonna be bleaching out there on the prairie. Stealing horses is even above your abilities, apparently.”

“It was more like borrowing,” Gid said. “We really didn’t mean no harm. You’re with that trail herd a couple miles back, ain’t you? That herd will be along soon. You coulda just took you a siesta and waited for them. We know’d that herd would catch up to you afore sundown. It’s Charlie Goodnight’s outfit, ain’t it?”

“No, it was flat out robbin’. That’s a blooded horse you were trying to steal, worth all the horses you got there and twenty more,” I said. “They’ll be no argument on that point, or I might start contemplating some real gut shooting.”

“I expect ya’ll be best served taking that advice,” drawled Bass after another round of insults from the horse thieves.

“You going to behave yourself?” I said to Zach. He wasn’t running his mouth like the others. In fact, he’d barely uttered a word since the shooting stopped.

“Yes, sir,” he said, looking down, thoroughly beaten.

“Alrighty then. It looks like your compadres there are sufficiently subdued enough we can let them up. Long enough to tie them up anyway,” I said. “Get the ropes off them saddles.”

After we had the bandits roped securely to the trees I threw their saddles and guns into the deepest part of the pool. After that, I pulled my drawers over my thorn-riddled legs and dug some bacon and biscuits out of my saddlebags.

“You no good dry gulchers is just going to sit there and eat while we’re bleeding to death over here?” shouted Gid Smoot.

“I don’t see the point in us standing,” I said as Britt piled kindling for a fire. “Shootouts is hungry work.”

“Exhausting,” Bass said. “Just ask Ezra there. He ain’t moved since we got here.”

“Well, you rotten…” screamed Furman, with the tourniquet.

“You’ll bleed out at the same rate, us standing or setting, eating or having hunger pains,” said Britt. “More you talk, though, faster you bleed. Something to consider.”

“Hunger makes a man cranky, too,” I said. “Probably something you’d best avoid.”

“I’d offer to share mine with you boys, but why waste it on someone we’re likely gonna hang,” said Bass.

“Hang?” said Eldon.

“On an empty stomach, that would be my vote,” said Britt. “Leave us be, if you know what’s best.”

“It hurts,” said Eldon.

“I reckon it does. That’s generally the point of shooting someone,” Britt said. They were a bickering bunch, and I couldn’t tell if they were more upset about their dead kin, being forced to surrender, or facing the wrath of Porter Higbee.

“I’m bleeding to death,” said Furman.

“And ain’t nobody bleeding to death with that nice tourniquet on. Now we just need to remember to loosen it so he don’t lose that leg,” said Britt. “Going hungry don’t help a man’s memory about such trivial matters. Just let us eat in peace, before we faint away from hunger and forget all about you.”

“These ropes are digging into us. This is might uncomfortable,” said Tobias Hoagland, one of the younger bandits.

“You keep running your yap I’ll make you as comfortable as old Ezra there,” said Bass. “He ain’t complained a bit and that’s how I like it.”

“When my pa finds out about this, he’s gonna hang you on a meat hook,” said Areli Higbee, another of Porter’s sons. He was the other Bass had kicked in the jaw when he’d vaulted off his horse.

“You and all them pistols,” snarled Gid. “You all gonna need a bunch more guns than what you got now. You may have got the drop on us this time, but you can’t whip all of us.”

“Got the drop on you?” I said.

“Son, you’re a real idgit, you know that?” said Bass. “I reckon I won’t be taking advice from no shot up Higbee, especially no gunfighting advice. I can’t move without tripping over some dang leaking Higbee or another.”

“I’m tired of this ear-beatin’,” Britt said. “Them trees ain’t stout enough to hang all these fools. You wanna shoot ‘em?”

“I could go either way,” Bass said. “I don’t really want to waste bullets on ‘em. If we’d thought to replenish our ammunition before throwing their guns in the water I’d go along with it. But punishment is due. It’s too hot to get wore out giving them a thrashing. Want to drag them from horses?”

“Could do that, as long as we use their own horses,” I said. “Powerful hot for thrashing.”

“Drownin’ would be cool on a hot day,” said Bass. “We could drown ‘em.”

“We could do that. How’s that sound, fellers?” I said to our grumbling captives. “You want drug or shot? Relish a dip? Thrashing is an option, but as mouthy as you all are, I’d probably get irritated and shoot you anyway.”

“You know, taking a dip does sound inviting,” said Bass.

“You’re all going swimming while we’re tied up and suffering this way?” said Eldon.

“Why not? Can you think of a better way to pass time?” said Bass. “It’s a hot one out, but you boys got it cool there in the shade.”

“We could just leave them tied up there, leave them to the fates of the prairie, like they was set to do to you,” said Britt. ‘Someone will show up, two legged, four legged, or feathered. But someone will.”

“You gonna leave us out here bleeding and all?” Gid said. “Comanches might show up.”

“You’re fretting over nothing, thinking way too far ahead,” said Bass. “It’ll be dark soon and the wolves will come. Could be a panther around. Thought I saw a track. The Comanche’s a good two day’s ride off. I suggest you stay real quiet.”

“Panthers?” gulped a young bandit. “You got no right to tie us up and leave us out here.”

“Banditry was always a gamble. That’s a chance you took when you decided to rob me. This is a mess of your own making,” I said, which only prompted a round of cussing.

“Where you figure those church boys learned all that bad talk?” Britt said.

“A mess like this, I probably should check with Charlie before we make any drastic decisions on the fate of these boys. I am in his employ, and his crew will be facing the ramifications here. I best not be making any ex parte rulings,” I said. “He plans to make this a regular trail and he’ll not want to be worried about a horde of vengeful Higbees each trip.”

“I’m agreeable,” said Britt. “You figure the herd’s seven days or so from the fort?”

“About that, I calculate,” I said.

“If you don’t mind, maybe we’ll ride along with you for a few days,” said Britt. “We need some time to ponder these new developments. Mutual defense is probably a good idea.”

“Sound reasoning,” I said.

“Our horses is played out, too,” said Bass. “You reckon Charlie can find us a couple cow ponies to ride for a few days, give ours a little respite?”

“He’d be happy to,” I said. “We lost a cowboy aways back. We got spare horses.”



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