Western Short Story
Enoch “Nick” Branden heard the thump of a bullet hit the tree beside him before he heard the gunshot echo from across the valley floor. He had decided he’d stay inside his small cabin a day or two, away from the rest of the world, before he went hunting for the sniper. The cabin, built by him in three months of hard labor, could take on a fusillade of gunfire if need be, especially long-range.
He could not figure out, during the long, mostly-sleepless night, who in Hell had shot at him from such a distance, or how far back in life was such vehemence encountered, for any reason. He found none but an occasional quarrel, nothing to make a man climb a mountain to shoot another man.
During that night there came countless images, occurrences, encounters of various degrees, but nothing saying murder is the only way to pay back a serious pain.
He once swept a girl away from vaguely-remembered Donnie Ryder in a night’s rush, the very night before a big dance. But it had no feelings about it less than a week later. Everything that came up, before work as a deputy on many posses and clear through some long court cases, but all the subjects were cleared of the crime, hung, shot or still serving time in a penitentiary somewhere in Idaho.
The next evening, he packed up some gear including extra ammo and a long-glass that a cousin had given him years ago but he’d never used. Just at dusk, clouds folding in atop each other, darkening half the world, he slipped out of the cabin, saddled his horse, and started down the side of the hill in the Bannock Range, Bannock County, Idaho, where his own private place in the whole world, in the silence and peace of a mountain place comforted him, gave him solace.
His horse took him safely down the mountainside in the dark, Nick having no fear of a night watch on him. At the base of the descent, a flat run lay out for a dozen miles between there and the small town of Prince Valley, with its local sheriff, Pete Chesna, being an old pal from the hunting days.
He picked his way on the straight-away between hummocks and rocky spots, holding up in several sites to slip the long-glass over the brim and scan the hills like walls beside him and behind him, all of that scanning very slow and deliberate, consuming time, intent, and little else.
On one such scanning, he saw the metallic flash of sunlight come off a moving object, he readily assumed to be a rifle barrel. Searching closer to where he had paused, he spotted a small but thick growth of trees. His muttering voice said, “Just what I need. Now we can really go to work, Butch,” and slapped his horse on the neck. The horse neighed a consent to the proposal like a grammatical punctuation.
An hour slipped by, and then, as if the subject was moving downhill, he spotted the metallic glint at a lower level, much lower. “Probably figures I’m moving out of sight, out of range and wants to get a giddy-up under way.”
Another hour went by, sky changing by the hour, a wind carrying whispers in its throat, when a rider appeared at the base of the hill just descended and started heading slowly toward his place of hiding.
In a closer look with the glass, his eruption shook Butch from his rest} “Oh.my God, it’s a girl.” A clear head-on view, as if she was heading right at him, he saw the curly traces of blonde hair, the sweetness of a lovely face, the womanly way she sat a saddle, shoulders back, chest high, thighs pushing at the leggings of dark blue jeans.
She was a knockout of a woman, in her early 20’s no doubt, with a rifle across her lap and not in its scabbard, ready for the Devil to do his due.
“Looks like she means business, Butchie boy, real business,” and the sound of the first shot from the previous sniping came again to his ears. “Well, big boy, we’re going to sit right here, not moving a spit’s worth, and try to convince this unknown shooter in a fancy blouse that we’re headed for town, but not out in front of her. We’ll play like we’re catching up to her when we meet”
He trained the long-glass on her again, a warmth and a curiosity making its way through him from tip of his head down to his toes. “She’s a beauty, Butch. A real beauty. I sure hope she’s got things messed up wrong in her mind. I never saw her before, I’m damned sure of that. Couldn’t forget that face, or how she props up all woman on that saddle of hers No, siree! Not for a minute, not on your life!””
He watched her move in the saddle, admired her riding skill, all the time somewhat comforted by her looks; Someone that beautiful couldn’t be evil, had no valid reason for shooting at him. There had to be a horrible mistake in the work. There just had to be, And he had to meet her on fair grounds, face to face, stranger to stranger. “I hope she passes by, Butch. Hope she thinks I’m dead-heading it to town. We’ll let her get ahead of us, come up on her from the back trail.”
The girl, riding a black stallion as proud as she was, as regal as she was, urged the horse into a trot, not to be left too far behind the man she thought was far out in front of her, maybe playing games in gullies, shallow places, hidden depths to a normal view out along the grassy plain. He could almost read the anxiety building up in her when no target appeared in sight.
And it was evident that she still had not spotted him behind her. He felt a stroke of luck touch him at that realization. His luck, he also knew, was still keeping him company.
Then, with a quick look behind her, she spotted him, and drew her horse to a halt, turning her mount sideways so she could keep her eyes on him, which allowed him to approach slowly, without any obvious malicious intent in mind.
“Are you following me, sir?” she said, in a soft, musical voice, not the voice of a mountaintop sniper bent on murder.
Enoch “Nick” Branden. holding empty hands away from his body, said, “No chance, Ma’am, but making damned sure nobody else bothers a lovely woman riding alone out here on the wide grass with no place to go and little change of getting there if need be.”
“Oh,” she replied, “I am Lucy Anna Hansen, and I know that the Prince Valley township is directly ahead of me and I met the sheriff last week, and we got on famously.”
“Yes,” he responded, “I’ve known Pete Chesna for years and he really is a great guy. One of the best sheriffs in the west of the country.”
“Well, that’s nice to know/ A person wouldn’t want him on heir tale, now would they/’
“I’m sure that is true. One in a million.”
“And may I ask what your name is, sir, as we stand here in the very middle of nowhere.” She tittered as if she didn’t believe what she had just said, as if casting an assertion to her statement.
On a cavalier manner Nick Branden swung his sombrero off his head and said, “I am Charley Bob Smith, at your service, Ma’am. And what are you doing out here alone in this wild west?”
“I guess I can tell you, a friend of Pete Chesna and the law. What brought me here from Ohio. I am seeking the man who murdered my brother, Charles Herman Hansen.”
“When and where did this happen, Miss Hansen”
“In Chillicothe, Ohio, two years ago this month, and I’ve wanted to see him face to face ever since, but just got up my courage to do so very recently. He’s in the area.”
“What’s the name of this scoundrel. Ma’am? The one who shot your brother Charlie? He ought to be shot.”
“You are so right, sir. His name is Enoch Branden, and people call him Nick. That somehow sickens me. I’ve hated him and his name since I first heard it.” She passed one hand through her other hand, and repeated it left to right, and looked out in front and said, “I see some outer buildings of Prince Valley township, and when we get there we can see Sheriff Chesna and get this problem right out of the way There has to be something dreadfully wrong. Dreadful,” she added a second time.
“Well, Ma’am, this all comes as a great surprise to me. Not only did I serve with this Nick fellow as a deputy, but also with Pete Chesna, and two years ago we were all in Montana after the notorious Scorby Gang who were the thievingest, rottenest, dirtiest gang we ever chased, and caught and had lynched after a fair trial. We did our duty that time, and in Montana and in this very same month as this one.”
“Oh,” she uttered. “I am positive you must be mistaken. A deputy in Ohio told me his name. Said there could be no mistake. He saw him do it. Swore it on an oath.”
“Can you remember that deputy’s name, Ma’am? I’d like to know what his name is. For a personal reason.”
“Of course, I do. Ransom Relfry. They called him Randy.” She smiled at that small bit of personal information, on the inside, so to speak.
They rode into Prince Valley, and went directly to the sheriff’s office, where Lucy Anna Hansen immediately said to Sheriff Pete Chesna, “Sheriff, I met this charming man out on the trail.”
Pete Chesna said, “Glad you come down off the mountain, Nick, to pay us a visit. We missed you.”