Western Short Story
He was bound hand and foot and believed he was off the ground, with the falling sensation a constant threat. It was dark, he was in the air and his bonds tied him to some kind of pole with his bare feet firmly on thin limbs. He heard the trickle of water as if it was 25 or 30 feet below him, and the awed sensation of being high in the air still working through him. A hum or dull whistle of an airy sound came around his ears like the moan in a barn with at least one door open and the wind at work on all the corners. He was convinced he was not exposed to the elements, but was undercover somehow. Whoever hung him up here and bound him had to be a strong man, for he had to be unconscious when he was bound; he had no recollection of being bound up like this. Only serious deliberations kept him lucid yet thinking of odd things and circumstances that had brought him to this. He might have been tied to the pole when it was on the ground and then the pole lifted in the air. Even that would take great energy and strength. There was no smell of hay or old leather or the after smell of barn animals; no horse or mule or cow smell or dung. Those observations said he most likely was not in a barn. But there was a rancid stink that a slight breath of air kept bringing to him in odd moments, as if a dead animal was below him. He thought of snakes and rats and mice and other carrion eaters seen and unseen. Only a sense of balance kept him sane on those counts, for some of them would necessarily feed on the others before feeding on him.
He wondered if there was any balance in his thinking, or in that of his jailer or kidnapper, or between what certainly could be various kinds of life below him. Snakes could reach him, wrapping around the pole that he thought was about 6-8 inches thick, and wind their way up and around him, or spiders by the hundreds could crawl up the pole, or drop on him, and at length wrap him in a huge cocoon, making him a feast for the ages.
He didn’t know how long he had been in this place, whatever or wherever it was. His gun belt was gone, his boots were gone, and his sombrero was gone. He felt naked and threatened and not long for this life. And a poor way to end this one, he thought. He didn’t know who to think of at last moments; no wife, no children, no close friends, only his deputies, the two of them still strangers for the most part, young, inexperienced, but caught up with a sense of righteousness in them that he had sought in aides. Then there was Millie at The Flying Horse Saloon and the talkative and happy bartender, Paul Foxx, but they were as casual as friends could be, each knowing one thing he liked at the end of the week, and neither one of those wants being monumental or significant … a good scotch whiskey alone at a corner table or fair company for an hour in a room above.
Vantek Cawblen, sheriff of Milepost City in Montana for seven years, once of Eastern Europe, once an officer in the army of his new country, had not been in his office in three days. One of his deputies, Gavin Durstin, said he was off looking for an old friend whose cabin was burned by some maniac, but the body of Cawblen’s friend was not found in the ruins.
Durstin said to one inquirer, “He was in the war with old McPherson and might spend a month out there looking if he’s not satisfied with what he finds.”
The pair of friends had been in the Massachusetts 2nd Cavalry for three long years. MacPherson had been his first sergeant; found in the ranks by Cawblen and “brought along.”
“Corporal MacPherson,” he had said early in the war, during their first campaign battle, “you are exemplary in the care of horses and I shall reward you for that gift.”
Some folks in Milepost City had not begun to worry about Cawblen. The popular word said, “He’s a most able man, a staunch man, and a highly dependable man.” They all agreed he had paid his dues a lot earlier, in the real rough days right after the war.
When a week had gone by, and no word of the sheriff and no sign of him anyplace around, the worrying began. It entered the saloon, the barbershop, the general store, and the livery, but in a strange way for a small town.
The owner of the livery said, “He’s got the best horse he’s ever rode, so don’t worry there. I sold him the horse myself.” The owner of the general store mentioned that “the sheriff loaded up with 60 rounds of ammunition in his belt and in his saddle bag, and that’ll be enough for a small war.”
Those concerns were closely aligned with personal business interests. Generally folks said, “That sheriff can take care of himself. He’s done it for 7 years. No reason to stop now.”
Stretching continually at his bonds, Cawblen heard intelligible words, he thought, from some hollow distance, then assumed it was more moaning, as he had also done. But it surely was human. The gag was still in Cawblen’s mouth and he worked his tongue to loosen it. By manipulating his chin, and stretching more, he managed to wrest free the small bind at his mouth and was able spit out the gag.
Then, in the eerie silence, in the fetid odor coming around his nose, he heard the moaning again. It surely could not be his captor, sounding as if the moans also came from a gagged mouth.
“Who’s there?” Cawblen tried to shout. The voice came abruptly from him, low and half-pitched, and scratchy and, he thought, unintelligible. He said again, “Who’s there? This is Sheriff Cawblen from Milepost. Who are you?”
The moaning came again, but there was a distinctive tone to it, a familiar tone, and a hopeful tone.
“Is that you, MacPherson? Is that you, Aiden?” The other voice was still coming muffled, coming through a gag.
“Once is a yes and twice is a no. Is that you, Aiden?”
One muffled moan came. “Uh.”
“I’ve been looking for you, Aiden. Sorry I found you like this. Do you know who did this?”
Two muffled sounds came back. “Uh. Uh.”
“Here’s what I did, Aiden. I wiggled my chin and got the gag bind loose and then spit out the gag. Have you tried that?”
“Keep trying. I’ll wait on you. We have to find a way out of this place.”
“I feel like I’m suspended high in the air. If I fall I think I’ll break a leg or my neck.”
“You think I’m up high”
“Keep working on that gag. Mine came loose after trying for a long time.”
The darkness was as heavy as it had been, with nothing visible, no reference for him at all.
“I am trying to figure out how high I am. If I could get on the surface, I’d try to loosen these ropes. Do you think I’m more than a foot off the ground? Are you?”
“Uh. Uh,” then a pause and, “Uh. Uh.”
“Good. I’m going to get off this limb and try to work on the ropes. Keep working on that gag, Aiden. We’ve got to get out of here.”
With some care still working on him, Cawblen managed to get one foot off the limb or cross-arm, and then, when he held his weight in place by leaning on the pole and gripping with his bound arms, he slipped the other foot off the limb and crashed down no more than a foot. It was a sudden stop that did not hurt, but he felt splinters in his arms from the slide down the pole.
But he was upright. He fidgeted and managed to slide to a sitting position, felt for the limb, found the end that had the sharpest pieces where it was broken, and began working the rope across the sharp wood. He felt strands of hemp break loose one by one.
He was hard at it when he heard a loud and victorious cry, “Ah, ha, Vanny, I spit it out. Are you okay?”
“Yes, Aiden. I’m working on the ropes. I am working through some of the hemp, strand by strand, by rubbing them on the end of the branch. Do you know who did this? Who burned down your cabin?”
“No, but I have an idea. Only an idea. I believe his voice was one I heard years ago, in the army. Do you remember that deserter you court martialed in Virginia before we got to Yellow Tavern? I can’t even remember his name. I think it’s him. Someone caught me on the side of the head with a good whack and I woke up here, but I heard a dozen times a voice saying, “I owe those two, Cawblen and MacPherson, for all my troubles, and now I got one of them.” That’s when he went after you. How’d you get caught?”
“I don’t know. I was just waylaid, hit on the head, and ended up here. Where are we?”
“I’d guess in a cave in the Juniper Hills. Said he was going in to Milepost a few times and went out and back in about six hours. That would put us in the Juniper Hills. I hunted and fished up here, but never saw a cave as big as this one must be. You sound like you’re 50 feet away.”
“I remember him now, Aiden. Private Rockland. Said his wife was sick and he had to go home. But that was a lie. He was never married. We knew that. He was just a coward that wouldn’t own up to it. We sent him off in irons and heard later he broke free. Never heard a word about him until now.”
“I’m sure it’s him, Vanny, the rotten coward, the vile sneak, the backstabber.”
“Let’s both keep at these ropes and get some kind of weapon in our hands. It looks like he’s got some serious plans for us, the kind we won’t like.”
“I’m hard at it now, Vanny. Hard at it.”
Cawblen felt the ropes at his wrists getting thinner, felt the hemp strands continue to break as he ran them over several sharp edges that dulled quickly, but did the job. With hard work, his breath getting labored, a few new pains building up in him arms, the last strands let go. He went at the ropes at his ankles and tore them loose.
“Aiden, I’m free. I’ll be right there. Talk so I can hear you because I can’t see a thing. “He stumbled as he kicked a stone and heard MacPherson say, “It’s my pleasure, Captain, to serve with you again, and with that rat we owe all this misery to. I’ll break his neck.”
In the Flying Horse Saloon in Milepost City, Deputy Durstin stood at the bar talking to Paul Foxx, the barkeep. “I’m sure he’ll turn up soon, Paul. He knows we’ll be concerned. He’ll come in and probably go right back out if he hasn’t found anything. MacPherson was one of his sergeants in the war and a hero, from what I heard. Comrades like that tend to favor each other for all their lives after going through real battles. I’ve heard they become instant friends all over again in a few seconds even if they haven’t seen each other for years and years.”
Foxx replied, “I heard that from the sheriff himself when he talked about meeting MacPherson long after the war was over, and right here in Milepost. In fact, right here in this room. I was here that night. Talk about noise and calamity and handshaking and backslapping. It was something to see.”
They both turned as a stranger at the end of the bar, a man possibly torn between mountain life and town life and not having made up his mind because of the mix of clothes he was wearing, said, “Not all comrades are like that. None that I knew. Mostly they were glory hounds looking for medals, promotions, all the extras that fools look for. I know. I was there and don’t ever want to see any of the faint of heart I served with. Too many of them were false to the service, to themselves, to their families, wanting glory above all things.”
He drank off his whiskey and pushed the glass for a refill.
Foxx said, “I wasn’t in the war, but I know nothing but heroes who came out of it and don’t say a word about what they saw, where they were. You have to admire that in them. I think our sheriff was like that, now he’s out there looking for an old comrade and he won’t quit until he finds out what happened to him.”
“The stranger said, “Is that the fellow who might have died in the cabin fire over near the ridge?”
Durstin responded happily, “Oh, his body wasn’t in the ashes. We know that. He might be hurt someplace or had gone off to hunt some game, but he didn’t die in the fire. We think someone set fire to the cabin. Looks like revenge or an old feud come back on the surface. MacPherson did not have one enemy in this area that we know of. A good man that the sheriff really admired, a great man with horses, and that counts with all of us.”
“Only it doesn’t if you feel horses were just put here to take us places. They’re not friends, you see, just like servants to us. My horse is just a carrier for me. I don’t put any more than that on him.”
“What kind of a horse do you have, stranger, and what’s your handle?”
“Oh,” the man said, “he’s just like a mongrel dog, made up of many parts. My name is Jeremiah Rockland. I was in the army all through the war. Never met any heroes. Not real ones. I don’t think they exist.” He drank off a quick shot and sent the glass back to Foxx. “Do it again. I’m celebrating.”
“What are you celebrating,” Durstin said, “an anniversary, a wedding, the birth of a child?”
“I’m celebrating a personal victory I’ve been pursuing for years. But it’s too personal to talk about.” He drank off the next shot, put his money on the bar, and started to leave.
Durstin said, “Where do you live, Jeremiah? Are you from the area?”
“Oh, I’m from all over, but if the rights to that burned down cabin come up for sale, I’d like to buy the place. That’s a nice piece of property. I saw it on the way in here. Has a great view, doesn’t it? I’ll be back in a few days to check on it. Did the owner have any relatives who might claim it?”
“Oh,” Durstin said, “it’s like I said before, we don’t know if he’s dead or not. Maybe just missing.”
“Yah, that’s what they said in the army, when they knew someone was dead … that he’s just missing, and after a long time the whole thing fades away.” He spun around said, “We’ll see.” He left the saloon without another word.
Foxx said, “That’s a mean man, Gavin. Don’t run afoul of him. I never saw him before. Have you? And don’t hurry if you haven’t. He doesn’t look like good news to anybody.”
Durstin said, “He’s got some funny answers to questions, don’t you think? I’ll be checking out a few things on that gent. Sheriff would be all over him, I’m sure. Probably keep an eye on him as long as he could, which is just what I’m going to do.”
Giving Jeremiah Rockland a good start, because he knew the road he’d travel on, Durstin watched from just over the crest of each hill or hummock in the road. He kept Rockland in sight, but always at a distance. When Rockland was about two hours out from Milepost City, he turned off the trail and went into a series of canyons and finally disappeared.
Durstin, now more curious than ever about the man with the strange answers and elusive actions, found three horses in a tight little natural corral at the deep end of a canyon. His heart leaped up when one of the horses was Sheriff Cawblen’s bay. A second horse belonged to Aiden MacPherson.
He was into the heart of the mysteries, and had a damned good idea of who had burned down MacPherson’s cabin … and where Sheriff Cawblen had been for nearly a week. The life of a deputy was going to be a good one and he was feeling it in his bones.
In the cave, a large cave with a small entrance, Jeremiah Rockland, deserter, arsonist, kidnapper, was lighting a torch to see his way to his prisoners. Now came the time to get even with all of the army through the two men who had set his conviction as a deserter in place … and ruined his life, but only up to this moment. The torch flared in his hand and threw shadows into a flash of light, dark corners coming visible, and a stern and vile look on his face. He was ready to exact all demands upon his two sworn enemies. His lips curled in a snarl, a near exultation came from his lips and then, when he raised the torch and looked ahead of him, he saw a slim pole wedged between floor and roof of the cave and it was bare of his prisoner.
At that same moment a number of things happened: Deputy Durstin had drawn his revolver in deep expectation of using it and was entering the cave, his heart fluttering for his first gun fight; Aiden MacPherson uttered the ugliest of cries in the depth of the cave; and a thrown stone bounced against a far wall of the large cave attracting Rockland’s most immediate attention, just as a second stone, in a raised arm, came hard against the side of his head.
He went down like the first rock thrown against the far wall.
Most all of the expectations fell away in subsequent reality: Deputy Durstin did not get to fire his revolver in a gunfight; Aiden MacPherson didn’t get to strangle Jeremiah Rockland; Jeremiah Rockland did not get to exact his revenge on old comrades or buy the selected property he had his eye on; but former Captain of the Union Army, in the Massachusetts 2nd Cavalry, Vantek Cawblen, was able to exact the military penalty against a deserter and send him off to do his sentence at the federal penitentiary.
That very evening, in the Flying Horse Saloon, the favorite customer of Paul Foxx settled into a corner table with a bottle of scotch and overhead, in a corner room, Millie Courtney heard that Sheriff Vantek Cawblen had been rescued and Deputy Gavin Durstin had a hand in the rescue.
She was as happy as the sheriff.