Western Short Story
The Mysterious Passenger
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

The four road agents had come out of the trees at a bend in the road, rifles aimed at the driver and shotgun rider of the stagecoach. The driver pulled the coach to a halt, and then put his arms in the air. The other man in the driver’s box, the shotgun rider, put his rifle down and also raised his arms. None of the passengers offered any resistance, as they climbed down the carriage steps.

“Throw off the luggage, all of it,” one masked man said. The shotgun rider threw down all the luggage and parcels from the top of the coach. There was no strong box.

“What’s in here?” the masked man said, pointing at a piece of black luggage.

“That’s mine,” said an older woman. “If you want my personals, take them and wear them well.” She snickered.

“What about this one?” the masked man said, pointing at another.

“Mine,” said a businessman. “Has no great value. Only a couple of changes of clothes and my bible.”

The road agent leader went through each piece of luggage and each parcel, determined what belonged to each passenger, and found nothing of interest. He said to Appling, “You got no baggage, mister? Where you bound so empty?”

“I’m just going to my sister’s wedding and coming right back. I don’t carry much for such a trip. Even my wallet is light.” Appling maintained a matter-of-fact status standing at the side of the road, his hands up like the other passengers and the coachmen.

The bandits turned their horses about and raced off the way they had come. A mix of prairie grass, a declining wadi, and somber western range in the background swallowed them up. The sound of their horses’ hooves diminished in a hurry.

A hawk, with a grand wingspan, glided overhead as silent as a cloud. Nothing else seemed to move in the universe, not even a jackrabbit or a prairie dog.

“Well, I’ll be a son of a gun,” the driver said, as he watched the masked men ride off and as his passengers, all six of them, re-entered the coach. The man in all gray entered last, still looking over the terrain where the bandits had gone. He, too, shook his head.

In the beginning, he had been the talk of the coach as it had set out from Winslow River Station, a definite person of interest.

He was dressed in a very somber gray. Everything he wore was the same gray color, right down to the watchband on his right wrist. Boarding the stagecoach at Winslow River, the man said little, offered no excuses for saying little, and kept staring out at the passing landscape as the stage headed west on the Tonticon Road out of Winslow River. Five other passengers, one elderly woman going to visit her son, a young lady of perhaps 21 or 22, pretty as some of the passing scenery, and two middle-aged men who were officials of some company looking to expand into the west from Chicago, all had their eyes on the quiet man in gray as the stage bounced and rollicked on its way. Dust clouds followed the Tonticon Road Stagecoach in collapsing spirals as the six horses of the team drummed their way to Ridgefield Station, 52 miles further on the road.

One of the middle-aged men whispered to his counterpart, “If you get the chance, don’t get in a poker game with him. He looks like he could steal the teeth out of your mouth, and reshuffle the deck without you knowing it.”

“Amen,” said the other man, his eyes resting for a fraction of a second on the pretty young maiden sitting across from him who half-smiled back at him.

No one else in the coach spoke.

Up top, at the helm of the stage, sat crusty Hank Manger with the reins in his hands, his eyes on the road ahead and the hills beyond, and his mind on the man in gray. “Sure is a classy looking gent, Luke,” he said to his shotgun rider, Luke Hardaway, who was half his age, had half his experience on the road, and had an eye twice as good. They both had agreed much earlier on that quality in their partnership of two years.

“I don’t think he’s a gambler,” Luke said. “The other passengers say he stares at the land too much. A card shark’s always making good moves with the cards in his head, or remembering favorite moves of some of those he’s played against. Real poker players always spend their off hours at the heart of the game, figuring out opponents, the way the cards are falling, who’s on a good run. They remember pairs coupled and inside straights made long after the cards have been stashed away. Watch their hands, like they’re itching to have an old favorite hand to play.”

“You’re right as usual, Luke. And he don’t look like he was born mean neither.”

Ken Appling’s assignment right from the start was to find the best way to plot a train route across Wyoming. “Do it with finances controlling your views, Ken,” was one of the parting comments from his boss back in Chicago. “Look for and plot the most productive route down the line someday. It doesn’t have to be immediate, but it has to pay off in the longer run, meaning in your time and in our time. You have a good eye for the engineering needed and a good hand with a gun if someone gets in your way. We all know it’s rough country out there. There will be some kind of pressure applied to any railroad scout from different sources. A lot of people have interest, so make no notes or lists, and draw no maps. Just remember the lay of the land. Leave nothing hanging around wherever you bed down or find lodging. When you get back, we’ll let you have your way with maps and whatnot to paint the pictures you come away with in your mind.”

The Chicago boss was well aware of Appling’s special qualification about the land and his knowledge of western plants; he knew them all and at what levels they were apt to grow at and how they could be used. Douglas fir and Ponderosa pine for lumber and wood use, Pinon pine that yielded edible nuts, and agave plants that Indians made liquor from. Many plants told him how high he could measure their growth above ground or sea level, like pigweed, mesquite and ocotillo or coach whip and manzanita and the yucca lily. Such unmeasured heights warned him that the ascending level of these growths would make difficult the construction of a railroad line.

That boss had been amazed at what Appling brought to an assignment across the spread of the land. The offer he made him, to be received at a successful conclusion of his mission, was very practical and very easy for him to promise, for he owned considerable land in the west. The discovery of Appling’s talents had come about as each man had gone to the back platform of a west-bound train to smoke cigars of the same brand. Smoking lead to talking to discovery to the assignment then underway, and Appling’s hope for a ranch of his own.

The first odd contact had come in Winslow River, in The Hatchery, when he was having dinner the night before. A well-dressed man sat opposite him at another table. “Morning, sir,” he had said. “You off on the stage in the morning? I was going to take it too, but my company has changed my plans. Have to sit tight a while. You out on business?” As if to be cavalier in his talk he added almost immediately, “It’s a big country out here, isn’t it? Sometimes overwhelms me with its beauty. Yes, sir, overwhelms me.”

He ate his meal like a trail hand, and Appling noted the boots did not match the man’s clothes for one second.

Appling, not looking for obstacles of any sort, simply said, “I’m a long-time traveler and I like scenery.” He finished his meal and left the hotel restaurant and strolled around town, waiting for the stage to be run up. Twice he saw the same fellow while waiting for the stage.

The road agents stopping the coach did not surprise Appling, and he moved with that problem as if he was Casper Milquetoast.

At Ridgefield Station, after a meal and a change of horses, all the passengers but Appling boarded the stage again. The man in gray, renting a horse from the station manager, slipped out the back of the station and set down into a ravine as the stagecoach left on its next leg of the journey. With extreme caution he rode, eyeing the trail behind him from every point of vantage, squeezing himself into the background as innocuously as possible, a gray shadow in the shade.

In his mind he carried photographs of all the pertinent locations and sites he had measured and valued, and he was only part way through his scouting mission. Twice he saw a lone rider well behind him, but not necessarily on his trail. Cattle signs were everywhere and he marked such riders as looking for strays or line riders doing their jobs at out-riding or head-counting.

His mind was also full of the wonders he had encountered on the good side of things on the prairie. The life of a cowboy filled him with wonder and pride, for he had come the same hard way, from the time he was barely 13 years of age. Now, he realized, all he had learned in his younger years kept coming to use and rescue in his middle years. Closing on 45 years of age, wanting to get his own ranch after all these years of working for somebody else, he knew the possibility was in his hands with the payoff from the current task. The prospects excited him, even as a third rider, way off to his left, almost buried in the drabness of a hummock of a hill, appeared for one more instant.

It was the second sighting of the same rider. Other interests abounded, he knew, and he was being trailed with resolve.

Appling, somewhat at ease even if he was being followed by those “other interests,” loved the land about him, the skies above him, and the features that would leap up into his eyes from the next valley, the next hill, the next bend in the road or on a river. His current boss had no idea of the favors he had granted in this latest assignment, for there, overhead like a continual sign, was the grand hawk sitting on the edge of a thermal and scouting his next prey, the vagrant wind carrying the cry of a coyote from hill or plain, the essence of cattle on the move that could stir him with memories of campfires, rustlers, stampedes, and saddle pards hanging on the edges of his life forever. A soft song, a reverie of gentle sorts, came back to him, soothing as a night rider keeping cattle quiet after a long day or a mother putting a baby to sleep. These things he put his mind on he could not touch, but he was a man who could count all his intangible riches.

The lingering cry of the coyote reminded him of the mournful loons he had heard once calling from a great inland lake in his past. A message of loneliness came on the air, and Appling took it deeply to his soul.

Meanwhile he did not rest any of his senses, keeping them focused where potential targets might appear.

In the shadowed area against a quick rise in the far landscape he caught sight of the same kind of movement he had seen earlier. The unknown rider, he knew, was keeping pace with him, a dogged pursuer yet maintaining his distance. In another situation he might consider the man a good soldier, a welcome comrade, for he was persistent. Fate often gathered strange comrades or drifted them into opposite camps. Even those road agents who had sought out the luggage of the stagecoach might have been reduced to their activity to support a family or an elderly parent. He could doubt the odds, but never the possibilities. He pondered again the sight of himself, as a 12 year old boy, playing with an antique and useless revolver, walking into a bank robbery and the two robbers dropping their guns, thinking he had the draw on them. It made him want to be a sheriff for a long time. He doubted now that he’d ever get there.

With clarity he suddenly realized his association with the distant rider could be reversed; where that rider might want to steal notes that he did not keep, he wondered if he might steal notes and plot plans that the distant rider most likely carried; notes and comments on Appling’s own route right to this spot where he was walking his horse, a wide piece of the prairie that swept away from a mountain range.

“Aha,” he thought, “that’d be a trick on the trickster.” Appling shuddered with a warm glow. He’d make it do.

When he closed his eyes, Appling could recall miles of yet-to-be-built tracks and station compounds, and imagined engines puffing columns of black smoke across wide spans of grass, and hundreds of unnamed people on the move. Innovative names of railroads came to him bringing romance of the land and its people; The Hiawatha Route, The Mohican Long Line, The Paints Brown Express, The Lakota Dakota Railroad. The names leaped at him from the landscape as well as from history.

The west, indeed, was still his to explore, to enjoy. It was a simple rule … behind every turn in the trail was an unknown sight, situation, character. Surprises, if you were ready, could make your day. “One way or another,” said a slight caution.

A few hours later, abreast of a steep incline and a covey of caves and tumbled debris, he backed his horse into a deep crevice, patted him for comfort, gave him a decent drink of water from his canteen, and waited.

The pursuer’s hoof beats came like tinny sounds off rock surfaces and were muffled quick as rabbits. Appling’s guns were drawn down on the stranger who showed his own disgust at being caught so easily, and who said, “I’m willing to bet you knew I was out here all along. Am I right about that?”

“Saw you two, three days ago, my friend,” Appling said, “slow but persistent, like a good soldier at his work. But I figure I’ll have to take that notebook or commentary you might have wrapped up in your saddle blanket, partner, if you’ve been part of a bigger plot. And I have to tell you that I never had any notes you could steal from me, in case that’s what you came after.”

“I wouldn’t kill you for them, but I’d have sure stolen them if given the chance. That’s all I was looking for, just a chance. Like if you were in a hotel room somewhere and were sound asleep, or sleeping by a campfire, or even taking a wash in a river. I’d have stolen them and run back to the man who paid me to do so.”

“Who’s the man who paid you? You’re in no bargaining position now. Might as well let me know.”

“What if I don’t?”

“You sit here, hog-tied, for as long as your swollen tongue takes to answer. That’s a promise. It’s real as I can make it. I’m not paid to kill either, but I’ll get you awful close to doing it yourself. You and I have just been aligned in this job of mine whether you realize it or not. I figure it’s my job to find out who doesn’t want me to do mine, and why. I owe it to my employer, at least that much.”

“You preach high and mighty for a lone man out here. You’re just working for someone else’s benefit. You don’t get any more than wages, like me, so why do you come off so high and mighty?”

“I think you brought it out of me, son, the way you were hanging on my trail, just being on the edge all the time. I figured you were pretty good at what you were doing. You look too young to have been in the war.”

“I had a war of my own,” the young man said. “My mother was a Sioux and my father was a white outlaw. That’s war enough for a kid to find out when he’s about 9 years old and takes to bed with him every night. First came the name-calling, and then the crazy demands and I was having none of it. Been fighting and on my own since I was 11 and moved on.”

Appling had already measured the younger man. “You came up hard and you work hard. All you need is a goal of your own to set you on to a proper end. It’s the only one that pays off.”

“You mean, if I give up what I said I’d do for who sent me out here after you?” The look on his face said he not going to be any fool.

“Look, son,” Appling countered, “the man who sent you also sent four road agents to rob a stagecoach with six passengers on board. One wild shot fired in that situation and someone would have been killed. That’s more than likely. But your boss would have been the real cause. My boss only sent me to find a decent way to run a railroad line. Just mark the best route across the territory with the least natural obstacles. That’s all. But your boss wanted to steal my ideas and my plans. So you haven’t bettered yourself at all. I’m going to get my own place out of this. A small spread where I can be buried under my own tree on my own place. Plenty of times out here I could have been buried under a pile of rocks. That’s the end of a man. The end of eternity for him. A man should at least have a place to be remembered at, even if it’s just a wooden cross or his name on a stone. Think how many folks have been buried out on the plains in the high grass. That’s about all they’re growing now, just high grass for all their promise. “

“I never thought of any of that stuff,” the young man said.

“Know where your mother and father are buried?”

“Couldn’t find those places in a hundred years. “

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Appling tossed in, “pure and simple. There should be a place where a man can be remembered. Not just a clump of grass a cow can chew on, tromp on, dump on. All that’s too inglorious for my taste. Best to leave a man with his own piece of earth no matter how small it is.”

“I wish it was that easy. Doesn’t look like it for me.” He shook his head in a mark of measurement.

“It could be, young man, it could be. I should be calling you by your name. What’s your name?”

“Stuart Coburn. Folks usually call me Stu. I guess it would do for you.” A smile was suggesting itself at his mouth, the start of acceptance of reality.

At least Appling thought so, so he said, “Pitch in with me, Stu. Get on the right side of this whole thing and when the payoff comes for me, we can look forward to that piece of ground to call my own, our own, if you can make it so. I don’t have anybody left in my family. I just want that space at the end.”

Appling saw a part of Stu Coburn crumbling right before his eyes, and the young man nodded and said, “It looks like the best deal for me, and the only deal.” He gathered himself up to speak. “I was sent by Henry Almond of the Great Western Railroad to see what you’re up to, get what I could of any papers or plans you had. Sort of derail what you had going.”

The information was put into Appling’s boss’s hands, who shook Appling’s hand with firmness. “The deed for that spot in Arizona is all drawn up. It’s yours. I don’t know a man who will make better use of it.”

Appling said, “You wouldn’t believe how far I’ll take that place. Me and my new friend here.” He patted Stu Coburn on the shoulder.