Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
The man slouched on by his side, casting his surly, furtive glances from left to right, as if seeking to escape from these confidences. Nevertheless, the major kept on through the gully, until reaching the wagon road they crossed it, and began to ascend the opposite slope, half hidden by the underbrush and larches. Here the major paused again and faced about. The cabins of the settlement were already behind the bluff; the little stream which indicated the "bar," on which some perfunctory mining was still continued, now and then rang out quite clearly at their feet, although the bar itself had disappeared. The sounds of occupation and labor had at last died out in the distance. They were quite alone. The major sat down on a boulder, and pointed to another. The man, however, remained sullenly standing where he was, as if to accent as strongly as possible the enforced companionship. Either the major was too self-absorbed to notice it, or accepted it as a satisfactory characteristic of the half-breed's race. He continued confidently:
"Now look here, Tom! I want to leave this cursed hole, and get clear out of the State! Anywhere!—over the Oregon line into British Columbia, or to the coast, where I can get a coasting vessel down to Mexico! It will cost money, but I've got it! It will cost a lot of risks, but I'll take them! I want somebody to help me—some one to share risks with me, and some one to share my luck if I succeed. Help to put me on the other side of the border line, by sea or land, and I'll give you a thousand dollars down before we start—and a thousand dollars when I'm safe."
The half-breed had changed his slouching attitude. It seemed more indolent on account of the loosely hanging strap that had once held his haversack, which was still worn in a slovenly fashion over his shoulder, as a kind of lazy sling for his shiftless hand.
"Well, Tom, is it a go? You can trust me, for you'll have the thousand in your pocket before you start. I can trust you, for I'll kill you quicker than lightning if you say a word of this to any one before I go, or play a single trick on me afterward."
Suddenly the two men were rolling over and over in the underbrush. The half-breed had thrown himself upon the major, bearing him down to the ground. The haversack strap for an instant whirled like the loop of a lasso in the air, and descended over the major's shoulders, pinioning his arms to his side. Then the half-breed, tearing open his ragged blouse, stripped off his waist belt, and as dexterously slipped it over the ankles of the struggling man.
It was all over in a moment. Neither had spoken a word. Only their rapid panting broke the profound silence. Each probably knew that no outcry would be overheard.
For the first time the half-breed sat down. But there was no trace of triumph or satisfaction in his face, which wore the same lowering look of disgust, as he gazed upon the prostrate man.
"I want to tell you first," he said, slowly wiping his face, "that I didn't kalkilate upon doin' this in this yer kind o' way. I expected more of a stan' up fight from you—more risk in gettin' you out o' that hole—and a different kind of a man to tackle. I never expected you to play into my hand like this, and it goes against me to hev to take advantage of it."
"Who are you?" said the major, pantingly.
"I'm the new sheriff of Siskyou!" He drew from beneath his begrimed shirt a paper wrapping, from which he gingerly extracted with the ends of his dirty fingers a clean, legal-looking folded paper. "That's my warrant! I've kept it fresh for you. I reckon you don't care to read it—you've seen it afore. It's just the same as t'other sheriff had—what you shot."
"Then this was a plan of yours, and that whelp's escort?" said the major.
"Neither him nor the escort knows any more about it than you," returned the sheriff slowly. "I enlisted as Injin guide or scout ten days ago. I deserted just as reg'lar and nat'ral like when we passed that ridge yesterday. I could be took to-morrow by the sojers if they caught sight o' me and court-martialed—it's as reg'lar as that! But I timed to have my posse, under a deputy, draw you off by an attack, just as the escort reached the ridge. And here I am."
"And you're no half-breed?"
"There's nothin' Injin about me that water won't wash off. I kalkilated you wouldn't suspect anything so insignificant as an Injin when I fixed myself up. You saw Dawson didn't hanker after me much. But I didn't reckon on your tumbling to me so quick. That's what gets me! You must hev been pretty low down for kempany when you took a man like me inter your confidence. I don't see it yet."
He looked inquiringly at his captive, with the same wondering surliness. Nor could he understand another thing which was evident. After the first shock of resistance the major had exhibited none of the indignation of a betrayed man, but actually seemed to accept the situation with a calmness that his captor lacked. His voice was quite unemotional as he said:
"And how are you going to get me away from here?"
"That's my look-out, and needn't trouble you, Major; but, seeing as how confidential you've been to me, I don't mind tellin' you. Last night that posse of mine that you 'skunked,' you know, halted at the cross-roads till them sojers went by. They has only to see them to know that I had got away. They'll hang round the cross-roads till they see my signal on top of the ridge, and then they'll make another show agen that pass. Your men will have their hands full, I reckon, without huntin' for you, or noticin' the three men o' mine that will come along this ridge where the sojers come yesterday—to help me get you down in the same way. You see, Major, your little trap in that gully ain't in this fight; we're on the other side of it. I ain't much of a soldier, but I reckon I've got you there; and it's all owing to you. I ain't," he added gloomily, "takin' much pride in it myself."
"I shouldn't think you would," said the major, "and look here! I'll double that offer I made you just now. Set me down just as I am on the deck of some coasting vessel, and I'll pay you four thousand dollars. You may have all the glory of having captured me here, and of making your word good before your posse. But you can arrange afterward on the way to let me give you the slip somewhere near Sacramento."
The sheriff's face actually brightened. "Thanks for that, Major. I was gettin' a little sick of my share in this job, but, by God, you've put some sand in me. Well, then, there ain't gold enough in all Californy to make me let you go! You hear me? So drop that. I've took you, and took ye'll remain until I land you in Sacramento jail. I don't want to kill you, though your life's forfeit a dozen times over, and I reckon you don't care for it either way, but if you try any tricks on me I may have to maim ye to make you come along comf'able and easy. I ain't hankerin' arter that either, but come you shall."
"Give your signal and have an end of this," said the major curtly.
The sheriff looked at him again curiously. "I never had my hands in another man's pockets before, Major, but I reckon I'll have to take your derringers from yours." He slipped his hand into the major's waistcoat and secured the weapons. "I'll have to trouble you for your sash, too," he said, unwinding the knitted silken girdle from the captive's waist. "You won't want it, for you ain't walking, and it'll come in handy to me just now."
He bent over, and, passing it across the major's breast with more gentleness and solicitude than he had yet shown, secured him in an easy sitting posture against the tree. Then, after carefully trying the knots and straps that held his prisoner, he turned and lightly bounded up the hill.
He was absent scarcely ten minutes, yet when he returned the major's eyes were half closed. But not his lips. "If you expect to hold me until your posse comes, you had better take me to some less exposed position," he said dryly. "There's a man just crossed the gully, coming into the brush below in the wood."
"None of your tricks, Major!"
"Look for yourself!"
The sheriff glanced quickly below him. A man with an axe on his shoulder could be seen plainly making his way through the underbrush not a hundred yards away. The sheriff instantly clapped his hand upon his captive's mouth, but at a look from his eyes took it away again.
"I see," he said grimly, "you don't want to lure that man within reach of my revolver by calling to him."
"I could have called him while you were away," returned the major quietly.
The sheriff with a darkened face loosened the sash that bound his prisoner to the tree, and then, lifting him in his arms, began to ascend the hill cautiously, dipping into the heavier shadows. But the ascent was difficult, the load a heavy one, and the sheriff was agile rather than muscular. After a few minutes' climbing he was forced to pause and rest his burden at the foot of a tree. But the valley and the man in the underbrush were no longer in view.
"Come," said the major quietly, "unstrap my ankles and I'll walk up. We'll never get there at this rate."
The sheriff paused, wiped his grimy face with his grimier blouse, and stood looking at his prisoner. Then he said slowly:
"Look yer! Wot's your little game? Blessed if I kin follow suit."
For the first time the major burst into a rage. "Blast it all! Don't you see that if I'm discovered here—in this way—there's not a man on the Bar who would believe that I walked into your trap—not a man, by God! who wouldn't think it was a trick of yours and mine together."
"Or," interrupted the sheriff, slowly fixing his eyes on his prisoner, "not a man who would ever trust Major Overstone for a leader again."
"Perhaps," said the major, unmovedly again, "I don't think either of us would ever get a chance of being trusted again by any one."
The sheriff still kept his eyes fixed on his prisoner, his gloomy face growing darker under its grime. "That ain't the reason, Major. Life and death mean much more to you than they do to me in this yer game. I know that you'd kill me quicker nor lightning if you got the chance; you know that I'm takin' you to the gallows."
"The reason is that I want to leave Wynyard's Bar," said the major coolly. "And even this way out of it will suit me."
The sheriff took his revolver from his pocket and deliberately cocked it. Then leaning down, he unbuckled the strap from the major's ankles. A wild hope that his incomprehensible captive might seize that moment to develop his real intent; that he might fly, fight, or in some way act up to his reckless reputation, sustained him for a moment, but in the next proved futile. The major only said: "Thank you, Tom," and stretched his cramped legs.
"Get up and go on," said the sheriff roughly.
The major began to slowly ascend the hill, the sheriff close on his heels, alert, tingling, and watchful of every movement. For a few moments this strain upon his faculties seemed to invigorate him, and his gloom relaxed; but presently it became too evident that the prisoner's pinioned arms made it impossible for him to balance or help himself on that steep trail, and once or twice he stumbled and reeled dangerously to one side. With an oath the sheriff caught him, and tore from his arms the only remaining bonds that fettered him. "There!" he said savagely; "go on—we're equal."
Without replying, the major continued his ascent; it became steeper as they neared the crest, and at last they were both obliged to drag themselves up by clutching the vines and underbrush. Suddenly the major stopped with a listening gesture. A strange roaring—as of wind or water—was distinctly audible.
"How did you signal?" asked the major abruptly.
"Made a smoke," said the sheriff as abruptly.
"I thought so. Well, you've set the woods on fire."
They both plunged upwards again, now quite abreast, vying with each other to reach the summit as if with the one thought only. Already the sting and smart of acrid fumes were in their eyes and nostrils. When they at last stood on level ground again it was hidden by a thin film of grayish-blue haze that seemed to be creeping along it. But above was the clear sky, seen through the interlacing boughs, and to their surprise, they who had just come from the breathless, stagnant hillside, a fierce wind was blowing! But the roaring was louder than before.
"Unless your three men are already here, your game is up," said the major calmly. "The wind blows dead along the ridge where they should come, and they can't get through the smoke and fire."
It was indeed true! In the scarce twenty minutes that had elapsed since the sheriff's return the dry and brittle underbrush for half a mile on either side had been converted into a sheet of flame, which at times rose to a furnace blast through the tall chimney-like conductors of tree shafts, from whose shrivelled sides bark was crackling, and lighted dead limbs falling in all directions. The whole valley, the gully, the Bar, the very hillside they had just left, were blotted out by a creeping, stifling smoke-fog that scarcely rose breast high, but was beaten down or cut off cleanly by the violent wind that swept the higher level of the forest. At times this gale became a sirocco in temperature, concentrating its heat in withering blasts which they could not face, or focusing its intensity upon some mass of foliage that seemed to shrink at its touch and open a scathed and quivering aisle to its approach. The enormous skeleton of a dead and rotten redwood, not a hundred yards to their right, broke suddenly like a gigantic firework into sparks and flame.
The sheriff had grasped the full meaning of their situation. In spite of his first error—the very carelessness of familiarity—his knowledge of woodcraft was greater than his companion's, and he saw their danger.
"Come," he said quickly, "we must make for an opening or we shall be caught."
The major smiled in misapprehension.
"Who could catch us here?"
The sheriff pointed to the blazing tree. "That," he said. "In five minutes it will have a posse that will wipe us both out."
He caught the major by the arm and rushed him into the smoke, and apparently in the direction of the greatest mass of flame. The heat was suffocating, but it struck the major that the more they approached the actual scene of conflagration the heat and smoke became less, until he saw that the fire was retreating before them and the following wind. In a few moments their haven of safety—the expanse already burned over—came in sight. Here and there, seen dimly through the drifting smoke, the scattered embers that still strewed the forest floor glowed in weird nebulous spots like will-o'-the-wisps. For an instant the major hesitated; the sheriff cast a significant glance behind them.
"Go on; it's our only chance," he said imperatively.
They darted on, skimming the blackened or smouldering surface, which at times struck out spark and flame from their heavier footprints as they passed. Their boots crackled and scorched beneath them; their shreds of clothing were on fire; their breathing became more difficult, until, providentially, they fell upon an abrupt, fissure-like depression of the soil, which the fire had leaped, and into which they blindly plunged and rolled together. A moment of relief and coolness followed, as they crept along the fissure, filled with damp and rotting leaves.
"Why not stay here?" said the exhausted prisoner.
"And be roasted like sweet potatoes when these trees catch?" returned the sheriff grimly. "No." Even as he spoke, a dropping rain of fire spattered through the leaves from a splintered redwood, before overlooked, that was now blazing fiercely in the upper wind. A vague and indefinable terror was in the air. The conflagration no longer seemed to obey any rule of direction. They scrambled out of the hollow, and again dashed desperately forward.
Beaten, bruised, blackened, and smoke-grimed, looking less human than the animals who had long since deserted the crest, they at last limped into a "wind opening" in the woods that the fire had skirted. The major sank exhaustedly to the ground; the sheriff threw himself beside him. Their strange relations to each other seemed to have been forgotten; they looked and acted as if they no longer thought of anything beyond the present. And when the sheriff finally arose, and, disappearing for several minutes, brought his hat full of water for his prisoner from a distant spring that they had passed in their flight, he found him where he had left him, unchanged and unmoved.
He took the water gratefully, and after a pause fixed his eyes earnestly upon his captor. "I want you to do a favor to me," he said slowly. "I'm not going to offer you a bribe to do it, either, nor ask you anything that isn't in a line with your duty. I think I understand you now, if I didn't before. Do you know Briggs's restaurant in Sacramento?"
The sheriff nodded.
"Well, over the restaurant are my private rooms—the finest in Sacramento. Nobody knows it but Briggs, and he has never told. They've been locked ever since I left; I've got the key still in my pocket. Now, when we get to Sacramento, instead of taking me straight to jail, I want you to hold me there as your prisoner for a day and a night. I don't want to get away; you can take what precautions you like—surround the house with policemen, and sleep yourself in the anteroom. I don't want to destroy any papers or evidence; you can go through the rooms and examine everything before and after. I only want to stay there a day and a night; I want to be in my old rooms, have my meals from the restaurant as I used to, and sleep in my own bed once more. I want to live for one day like a gentleman, as I used to live before I came here. That's all. It isn't much, Tom; you can do it and say you require to do it to get evidence against me, or that you want to search the rooms."
The expression of wonder which had come into the sheriff's face at the beginning of this speech deepened into his old look of surly dissatisfaction. "And that's all ye want?" he said gloomily. "Ye don't want no friends—no lawyer? For I tell you, straight out, Major, there ain't no hope for ye when the law once gets hold of ye in Sacramento."
"That's all. Will you do it?"
The sheriff's face grew still darker. After a pause he said: "I don't say 'no,' and I don't say 'yes.' But," he added grimly, "it strikes me we'd better wait till we get clear o' these woods before you think o' your Sacramento lodgings."
The major did not reply. The day had worn on, but the fire, now completely encircling them, opposed any passage in or out of that fateful barrier. The smoke of the burning underbrush hung low around them in a bank equally impenetrable to vision. They were as alone as shipwrecked sailors on an island, girded by a horizon of clouds.
"I'm going to try to sleep," said the major; "if your men come you can waken me."
"And if your men come?" said the sheriff dryly.
He lay down, closed his eyes, and to the sheriff's astonishment presently fell asleep. The sheriff, with his chin in his grimy hands, sat and watched him as the day slowly darkened around them and the distant fires came out in more lurid intensity. The face of the captive and outlawed murderer was singularly peaceful; that of the captor and man of duty was haggard, wild, and perplexed.
But even this changed soon. The sleeping man stirred restlessly and uneasily, his face began to work, his lips to move. "Tom!" he gasped suddenly, "Tom!"
The sheriff bent over him eagerly. The sleeping man's eyes were still closed; beads of sweat stood upon his forehead. He was dreaming.
"Tom," he whispered, "take me out of this place—take me out from these dogs and pimps and beggars! Listen, Tom—they're Sydney Ducks, ticket-of-leave men, short card sharps, and sneak thieves! There isn't a gentleman among 'em. There isn't one I don't loathe and hate—and would grind under my heel elsewhere. I'm a gentleman, Tom—yes, by God—an officer and a gentleman! I've served my country in the Ninth Cavalry. That cub of West Point knows it and despises me, seeing me here in such company. That sergeant knows it—I recommended him for his first stripes—for all he taunts me, d——n him!"
"Come! Wake up!" said the sheriff harshly.
The prisoner did not heed him; the sheriff shook him roughly, so roughly that the major's waistcoat and shirt dragged open, disclosing his fine silk undershirt, delicately worked and embroidered with golden thread. At the sight of this abased and faded magnificence the sheriff's hand was stayed; his eye wandered over the sleeping form before him. Yes, the hair was dyed too; near the roots it was quite white and grizzled; the pomatum was coming off the pointed mustache and imperial; the face in the light was very haggard; the lines from the angles of the nostril and mouth were like deep, half-healed gashes. The major was, without doubt, prematurely worn and played out.
The sheriff's persistent eyes, however, seemed to effect what his ruder hand could not. The sleeping man stirred, awoke to full consciousness, and sat up.
"Are they here? I'm ready," he said calmly.
"No," said the sheriff deliberately. "I only woke ye to say that I've been thinkin' over what ye asked of me, and if we get to Sacramento all right, why I'll do it and give ye that day and night at your old lodgings."
The major reached out his hand; the sheriff hesitated, and then extended his own. The hands of the two men clasped for the first, and, it would seem, the last time.
. . . .
For the "cub of West Point" was, like most cubs, irritable when thwarted. And having been balked of his prey, the deserter, and possibly chaffed by his comrades for his profitless invasion of Wynyard's Bar, he had persuaded his commanding officer to give him permission to effect a recapture. Thus it came about that at dawn, filing along the ridge, on the outskirts of the fire, his heart was gladdened by the sight of the half-breed, with his hanging hammock belt and tattered army tunic, evidently still a fugitive, not a hundred yards away on the other side of the belt of fire, running down the hill with another ragged figure at his side. The command to "halt" was enforced by a single rifle shot over the fugitives' heads—but they still kept on their flight. Then the boy officer snatched a carbine from one of his men, a volley rang out from the little troop—the shots of the privates mercifully high, those of the officer and sergeant levelled with wounded pride and full of deliberate purpose. The half-breed fell, so did his companion, and, rolling over together, both lay still.
But between the hunters and their fallen quarry reared a cheval-de-frise of flame and fallen timber impossible to cross. The young officer hesitated, shrugged his shoulders, wheeled his men, and left the fire to correct any irregularity in his action.
It did not, however, change contemporaneous history. For, a week later, when Wynyard's Bar discovered Major Overstone lying beside the man now recognized by them as the disguised sheriff of Siskyou, they rejoiced at this unfailing evidence of their lost leader's unequalled prowess. That he had again killed a sheriff and fought a whole posse, yielding only with his life, was never once doubted, and kept his memory green in Sierran chronicles long after Wynyard's Bar had itself become a memory.