Western Short Story
Homer Abney had been ambushed by the Rigsby bunch. Boss Rigsby wanted Homer’s land because his own range was insufficient to graze all the cattle he owned. Rigsby was a greedy man with big plans to become the largest rancher in the area.
The Rigsby riders had shot Homer down in front of his wife and young son. Had it not been for Jack Troop who was riding by on his way farther south on a mission of his own things could have grown much worse. He jumped in when he saw the way Homer was being ramrodded. He surprised the gang, wounded one of them with a well-placed shot. The rest of the cowardly men fled. The gunshot wound suffered by Abney would lay him up for some time. After this, Troop committed himself to staying with the Abney’s until Homer was back on the job, or even more, till Rigsby gave up on running Abney off.
Troop, along with Homer’s young son, Richard, handled the haying on the first cut. The grass had grown fast again, from all the rain, they’d had earlier in the year. Troop saddled his horse to ride down and check the lower pasture to check on its progress. He informed Homer of his plans. The man wanted to go along, but he was busy at the grindstone sharpening the scythes, the axes, grub hoes, and the chore while not strenuous was burdensome. Simply sharpening the blades of the Miller mowing machine took a good amount of time. Roper waved off Homer’s offer to go along with him and left the yard. Homer’s gunshot wound was not yet healed.
The hayfield lay bathed in bright sunshine as he approached. Meadowlarks sang away in the tall grass. The wind moved it back and forth in gentle rolling waves. A pretty sight, he much admired. But as he’d first thought, grass wasn’t quite yet ready to be mowed again. Still, the day was perfect. The sky was bathed in full sunshine. Turkey vultures soared idly overhead and rode the thermals so effortlessly it looked to him like an act of magic. The cheerful sound of birdsong brightened the day even more. He couldn’t ask for better duty, and to top it all off, later that evening he had Lucy Abney’s cooking to look forward to, and this added to his delight. He felt downright pleased, and his skin rippled with satisfaction.
Then, as though he was shirking his duty, he decided to turn, ride back and help Homer sharpen the teeth of the mower. It was a boring job, and he figured Homer would welcome his assistance.
At the edge of the field, the grass changed to a heavy growth of timber just before it gradually climbed to the trail that led on up to the ridge above the ranch house, a sudden sharp sound like a brisk whistle broke the relative piece just above his head. He knew the sound well. He threw up an arm and caught the rope that now encircled his chest like the coils of a snake. He wrapped his hand and forearm around the rope, leaned forward toward the withers of his horse. He set his full weight against it and attempted to yank the man behind the rope out of his saddle.
The horse whickered nervously as the roper set it back on its haunches. Suddenly, the muscles of Troops right shoulder felt like they had been torn from the anchors of their bones. The skin of his forearm tore away in a large patch. Hot blood poured down his arm, and before he knew it, the rope snatched him from the saddle and flung him through the air. He struck the ground a tremendous blow that shook him to his core.
“Whoof!” Air from his lungs burst forth in a long, loud exhalation, which caused him to fight the panic that attempted to defeat his will.
The blue sky turned abruptly black. The birdsong faded away. He was scarcely aware of the hands that snagged him roughly, lifted him up and off the ground and held him upright. The sound of the hoof beats of his own horse as it pounded up the rise on the ridgeline trail were already receding, as he rode the stream of darkness, back to consciousness.
Later, he grew fully aware of his surroundings, of what had happened to him. The lariat artist had taken several wraps of the rope about his torso. This bound his arms down to his sides. He looked up then into the nettlesome face of Riley Rigsby, Boss Rigsby’s son.
“Well, well, well,” the youth said. “What’ve you caught, Felix?”
Felix smiled. He held tightly to the rope that bound Troop before him, helpless.
“Whatta you think, Hart?” Riley said. A proud smirk broke his face now like a possum in a tree riding down a limb heavy with persimmons. “That was a good throw and catch, wasn’t it? Didn’t know ol’ Felix could toss a loop like that, did you?”
Hart was the man Troop had shot the day he arrived at the Abney spread.
Hart stepped quickly forward then, and without single word, struck Jack squarely in the face.
His head flew back onto his shoulders and this absorbed some of the shock. It was a stiff blow. He nearly blacked out again. Hart waded in for real then. He struck him in the face again and again and Riley Rigsby sat his horse and watched on. Jack heard Rigsby calling out encouragement to Hart, who soon grew arm-weary from throwing so many punches.
“What’s the matter, Hart?” Rigsby said. “Gettin’ tired?” He tossed back his head then and laughed loudly.
Hart stood before Troop and huffed and chuffed from the exertion, but he still possessed a look of pure hatred on his life-worn face. Evidently, he’d hurt his fists on Jack’s facial bones, so he switched tactics. He then pummeled him in the midsection.
This continued so long Jack couldn’t remember the number of times he fell into blackness, risen and fallen again. He no longer felt the punches, but still he heard Hart’s harsh, labored inhalations and exhalations as if he worked at a job that required tremendous endurance of lungs and strength of arms.
The last time he opened his eyes, the blue sky appeared foreign to him, it wavered, faded away, and reappeared, faded away again and again. Feet scuffed the dirt before him. He heard someone strike the earth. Then a racket of outrageous laughter erupted. He came to himself long enough to see Hart lying at his feet. Rigsby’s gunman, he decided, had fallen on his face, likely from sheer exhaustion. Jack’s head was so heavy he couldn’t stop it from wobbling upon his shoulders like an infant’s. Then he fell out again.
By and by, he rose from the blackness inside his mind. He heard a voice call out to him, close enough that he felt brief puffs of air against his battered face with each word spoken, caught the offensive odor of the man’s chewing tobacco.
“You tell Abney, we ain’t playin’ ‘round, mister” the voice said, and he recognized it vaguely—Riley Rigsby. “You tell him we’ll be back again and again, until he decides it’s better to strike on out of this country. You hear me talkin’? And as far as you go, I’d say you’d best light out as soon as you’re able to fork a horse again.”
Troop felt too exhausted to bother with an answer. A hand grabbed his hair, lifted his head. The voice once again high and whiny and pampered, broke through the dark veil that covered his awareness.
“If you hear me talkin’, mister, you shake your head, so I’ll know not to turn my man loose on you again. Tell Abney if he don’t want to get seriously hurt hisself he better leave. We ain’t quittin’ till he does.”
He now understood what the voice expected of him. Troop nodded in a feeble way. Rigsby exhaled in satisfaction then, freed Troop’s hair, and shoved him down. He fell hard aground. He made no move to rise, had absolutely no desire to do so. All he wanted to do right then was fall deeper and deeper into the thick, muggy darkness and forget his pain.
After an eternity, he heard the hooves of horses pounding the ground in an unrelenting tattoo. He decided the men were leaving. He followed their laughter as long as possible, and then passed out again.
After a time, he knew not how long, he realized how hot it was, how exposed to the sun he was lying here in the field under the full sun. He attempted to crawl toward the shade of a tall pine but was unable to do so. He gave in then, and just lay there, vulnerable to the sun.
“Troop? Troop? You awake?”
Jack wondered who was calling his name. He struggled to expose the mystery. He felt the voice should be familiar, but despite all, he didn’t recognize it.
Much later, he heard another voice. “Jack?”
He allowed it to be from the same caller, but it sounded different. He had no idea that what he’d taken to be a brief interlude between the first time the voice had called him, and now, had been twenty-four hours. He decided the voice was different from the first one. This voice was softer, and from younger vocal cords. He attempted to open his eyes, and then decided it was far too much trouble and relaxed. His eyes slammed shut as loud as the thick, heavy doors of a vault.
He opened his eyes. Sunshine fell over the top of the hillside with the springhouse lying at its foot. The sun was invasive and hurtful. He allowed his tortured eyelids to drop again.
“Jack?” This time the voice sounded gigantic. He found no way to ignore such a sound. It rumbled and clashed loud enough to crush stone.
He opened both eyes. The sun had fallen now. It was dark. He saw a thin slash of light that irritated him no end. He decided after much thought that he lay upon a pallet on the front porch of Homer Abney’s rough ranch house. But how had he gotten here? That swath of light from a window struck snakelike from the kitchen. Still, he wasn’t ready to talk. After a time, he heard the boy inside the kitchen reading to his mother from the bible. Richard mumbled like honeybees all a-swarm inside an empty gallon jug. The memory of what’d happened to him struck him fully now, and this fetched him all the way back.
“Jack? You wake up now.”
This voice belonged to Homer Abney. He struggled to rise to his elbows. He felt he should be on his feet. He came close to setting his elbows beneath his weight to balance his body, but his right elbow slipped on the quilt beneath him. He crashed back onto the floor.
“Just lay there. No need to get up.”
He locked his eyes onto Homer’s face and held his gaze steady, fearful if he dropped his eyes, he’d black out again. This was not a good thought. He’d groped blind, hands held before him, down through endless tunnels of that dark cavern too long for him to succumb to darkness again.
“Luce,” Homer called out in an excited voice. “Come on out. He’s done woke up.”
The screen door flapped shut. It sounded as loud as a sprung bear trap. Right away, he sensed the boy beside him. He looked and saw Richard on his knees alongside him. The boy’s eyes were wide and rounded in surprise.
“Mr. Troop? You’re alive. You’re still alive!” The boy’s voice seemed to echo there on the porch.
Lucy knelt beside the boy. She shoved Richard aside. He felt something cool on his forehead. Whatever it was had a strong odor. He felt it penetrate clear through his logy brain, and realized it was rubbing alcohol. It burned in the open wounds of his face, but he was still too dazed to flinch from the pain to protest. Later, he decided that the sensation was one of the greatest experiences he’d had in his life, for it had offered him some hope he would survive.
“The Rigsby gang, Homer,” he mumbled. His voice sounded weak, and far, far away even to himself.
“Ssshh!” Lucy scolded. “You just hold still now. You’re weak as a kitten still. No need to talk. Not just yet.”
“Mr. Troop. I worried you’d die.” It was the boy.
He tried to smile, but as he did so, he felt his skin break with his facial movement, as if made of plaster and the set of the plaster had just crumbled under the movement of his facial muscles. He figured his nose was broken, for it had assumed a different position on his face than was normal.
“Welcome back, Jack.” He heard the relief in Homer Abney’s voice, and he knew for certain he had fallen in with a righteous, decent bunch.
Lucy Abney continued to bathe his face with rubbing alcohol. “You just go on back to sleep, sir.”
He took her advice to heart and did just that.
He awoke again. The night felt chilly, so he figured it after three a. m., the chilliest part of the night, although the whippoorwills were still actively calling back and forth to one another. The slash of lamplight that’d struck him earlier had disappeared. All in the house were asleep, he figured. He struggled to his elbows. His head spun in circles that made him nauseous. The longer he remained on his elbows, the slower the spin of the earth. By and by, he sat up. He felt dizzy again but remained upright. At last, the world stabilized. Five minutes later, he fought upward to his knees, then onto his feet. He grabbed quickly for the porch rail to prevent falling onto his face. Eventually, he found himself in the center of the yard. He emptied his bladder—an epic success in itself. Done, he walked back to the porch, sat on the bottom step to wait for what he had no idea. He felt himself unfit to do anything else but wait.
Much later, a light glowed bright inside the kitchen. He guessed Lucy had arisen to start her day. He remained where he sat. He smelled biscuits in the oven, then ham in the skillet. He hadn’t known he was hungry, but the odor of food, caused a heavy flow of juices to accumulate in his mouth, and he realized he might starve if he didn’t eat soon.
“Well, hell now, maybe I’m really gonna survive,” he mumbled.
The door behind him slapped shut, loud, but much softer than it’d been the last time he had heard it. He turned. Lucy stepped toward him timidly as if afraid she might disturb his privacy.
“Jack?” Her voice sounded fearful to him, as if he might just have died sitting upright.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and turned his body to her. He looked up into her face, sharp and etched clearly now in the slash-light of the kitchen lamp. “I’m hungry. Must’ve been out sometime.”
“You don’t know how long?”
“Today’s the second day since Homer and Richard fetched you home from the field. Your creature pounded into the yard. It had sweat foamed up from beneath every piece of leather that touched its body. Homer and Richard lit out then and fetched you back in the wagon.”
“Two days? How could I be out that long?”
“You were beaten up pretty savage. It was Rigsby, wasn’t it?”
“Yes. Rigsby’s bunch. They’re the proud gang did this to me. A man named Felix roped me, and yanked me off my horse, and when I got to my feet, he’d already taken several loops around my chest. Couldn’t move my arms. The man I shot, Hart, beat me so long that he wore hisself out.” He chuckled slightly from the memory.
He saw her pale eyes grow round.
“He must’ve figured he owed me a good beatin’ account of me shootin’ him. If he ever called for any of the others to give him a breather, I sure didn’t hear it.”
She sighed loudly in the early morning silence on the front porch. After a time, she stood up, swiped a strand of hair from her forehead, and said, “I’ll go on in and set the table … wake Richard for breakfast. Homer’s dressing now.”
She turned away, and the screen door flapped behind her. This left him alone on the porch.
He knew in his heart he couldn’t leave the Abney’s now. Not until there was a clear end to this tight fix, he and they found themselves in. He felt if he left now, the Rigsby gang would overrun the family. Abney was back on his feet, more or less, but there was no way the man could conquer the Rocking-R thugs by himself. Hell, he wondered if even his help would be enough to swing events in Homer’s favor.
The chickens had left their roosts in the barn. They entered the yard and scratched industriously about on the ground for any goodies they might’ve missed from the previous night’s feeding. He struggled to his feet, walked over toward the barn, but stopped three times to rest before he at last reached it. Inside, he took up the grain scoop, filled it with corn and walked out into the barnyard. The chickens saw him and scampered his way in a wild half-run half-flight. He flung the scoop-full of corn out to them, turned back to the barn, put away the scoop, and then stepped to the stall where his gelding’s head loomed huge over the half-wall. He spoke softly to the animal, turned then, and headed back toward the house. He stepped up on the porch where the aroma of bacon and eggs, biscuits and gravy, and what was even better the robust scent of coffee, struck him full in the face.
Abney sat on the porch with his pipe when Jack returned. “Breakfast’s ‘bout ready,” he said. “I ‘spect you’re plenty ready for it, ain’t you?”
Troop smiled, and the skin of his battered face stretched so much it seemed ready to rip apart.
“You ain’t got no idea just how hungry I am, Mr. Abney” he replied. “Until I smelled that coffee, I wasn’t fully aware of it my own self.”
By the time both men washed up, Richard joined them. The boy splashed in the wash pan like a duck in the creek and talked excitedly as only a boy his age can do, coming awake with no downtime between his sleep and the wide and complete alertness that now surrounded him. He continued to talk all through breakfast, so much so, that Roper allowed only half of what he said to soak through to his awareness. His mind was still much too weary to give it his full attention.
Two days later, he was back for good. He went about his business as well as possible after suffering through such a terrific ordeal, but his face felt like a boil about to burst, especially his nose.
He stood in the breezeway of the barn and curried the burrs out of the gelding’s mane. Nothing disturbed his sense of decency concerning the care of a horse-creature like burrs cluttering its mane, good horse or bad. As he turned it back into its stall, he heard voices outside. He stepped to the entrance and looked out into the yard. A man with a wide military mustache, below a long, straight nose, one he saw instantly had never been broken, stood beside a stallion. The man wore a pair of dark canvas trousers, the legs of which he’d stuffed inside the boot tops. The boots were brown. Bright yellow flowers in tight and tiny stitches embellished the boots. The man wore a black gun belt that gleamed in the sun from what he decided had to be the good work of boot polish and a shoe brush.
Abney stood face-to-face with the man, or as much so as was possible. The man was several inches taller.
“What can I do for you, Sheriff Sped?”
Jack watched and listened intently.
“So, this is the sheriff,” he mumbled. He caught a glimpse of the flat shield pinned on the outside of his vest. “He’s a dandy, from his looks.” He wondered how a man of his nature of dress and manners could have ever managed to be elected county sheriff.
“Came to you on the business of some missing cows, Abney.”
Homer Abney raised a hand to his jaw. He scratched, paused a bit, and then said, “Ain’t missin’ none I’m aware of, Sheriff.”
“They ain’t yours, Abney,” the sheriff said in a sarcastic voice. “They belong to Rigsby’s Rocking-R. He says someone here, stole ‘em.”
Troop watched Abney’s face screw up in a tight scowl. The man said, “That there’s a damned lie, Sheriff Sped.”
Sped’s head fell backward then as if he’d just been struck.
“You callin’ me a liar, Abney? I’ll remind you I’m a man of the law. Sheriff of this county.”
“No, I ain’t callin’ you no liar, Sheriff. I’m callin’ them who accused me of rustlin’ stock from another man’s range a liar though, and I won’t mince my words.”
“This dandified sheriff’s been bought off,” Troop said softly. “Boss Rigsby’s hired him on, same as he would a ranch hand.”
“Well, then, what I’d like to know is how is it Rigsby’s ranch hands found his missin’ cattle on your land? His son, his hands, Hart and Felix Sands are prepared to swear someone here stole them creatures off Rigsby’s range.”
“Nobody spoke to me ‘bout it,” Abney said. His face fell even darker. “If his hands found any cattle of theirs on my grass, they should’ve just pushed them back onto their own range. “Cows wander at will. They ain’t got no sense of what man’s land they find themselves on, nor where the boundary line between ranges is located, sir.”
Sheriff Sped sighed loud enough that Troop heard it plainly from where he stood in the barn.
“He’s already made a complaint again’ you, concernin’ the shootin’ of one of his men. Judge Land done talked him outta filing charges on you for the wages he’s out for needin’ to pay his man Hart while he was laid up and recoverin’ from his gunshot wound. So, you’re walkin’ a thin string here. Seems you could get yourself hurt or else you just might wake up in my jail some fine mornin’
The kitchen screen door slammed. Troop saw Lucy Abney step out on the porch. Her face was white from fear. Richard stood behind her. The barrel of the lad’s twenty-two rifle poked out from behind his mother’s back. Things were about to grow ugly, he saw, and he felt unsure of exactly what to do.
Sheriff Sped spotted the boy’s rifle. He pointed a stiff finger toward the porch, and said, “That there a gun you got in your hand, boy? If so, you better be puttin’ it back inside the house.” Sped’s already reddened face grew much redder. He turned back to Homer Abney. “This how you raise your sprouts, Abney? Disrespectful of a man of the law? And me tryin’ to keep the peace of the land.”
Homer turned to the porch. “Set the gun back inside, Richard. Leave it there, until you see me shot down and murdered. Then if you do, you’ve got my permission to use it, and if you’re forced to do so, make your shots count.”
“That a threat you just made, Abney?”
“No. Wasn’t no threat. Just advisin’ my boy on how to defend hisself and his mother.”
Troop heard the sudden rattle of bridle hardware, and the steady pound of many hooves. He looked up and watched as Riley Rigsby along with the man called Felix, as well as a man he wasn’t familiar with, along with Hart, rode up. They pulled to a halt alongside the sheriff. It all looked too perfect to suit Jack.
“They decided on this afore-hand,” he mumbled. “Sure’s hell.”
Abney turned his face toward the porch. “Lucy, get yourself and Richard inside,” he said. “This don’t look good to me. These men have come for more’n strayed cows if you ask me.”
Riley Rigsby moved his animal directly in front of Abney. He peered down at him for a bit, while behind him, Hart sat his saddle building a smoke. The other two men held themselves slack in their saddles.
“Found some of our beeves on your range, Abney,” Rigsby said. “Have any explanation of why we found them there?”
Troop watched Lucy shove the boy inside ahead of her.
“What is this, Rigsby?” Abney said. “Why is it you wanta come ‘round hoorahin’ a man this way? You know damned well I didn’t rustle your cattle. If they roamed onto my land, why hell, why didn’t you just go on and drive them back where they belong?”
Rigsby laughed at this, and said, “Yeah? Go ahead and act innocent. But this time things have turned on you. I’m damned tired of your impertinence. I tried to do you a good turn the other day, and you treated my efforts with threats and gunshots. Shot my man, Hart there.” He swung an arm toward Hart, who by now sat his saddle straight up, peering from hooded eyes, smoking his cigarette.
“That’s a lie, Rigsby. Why don’t you go get your old man, and I’ll tell him straight off how crooked and underhanded you folks are. You shot and killed a few of my beeves. Then when you shot me, I was so laid up I wasn’t even able to save the meat. Had to have ‘em drug off.
“I’m tellin’ you right now to take this scurrilous bunch with you and get off my property. I’m conductin’ business with Sped, here.”
“My business is Rigsby’s business, Abney,” Sped said. He placed his hand on the grip of his revolver, as if he might just use it at any moment. “I told you so when I rode up.”
Abney threw up his hands, and then allowed them to fall slowly in exasperation, started to speak, but whirled and struck out for the door as fast as he could.
He took six or seven strides, then a skillfully tossed rope dropped over his head, his shoulders, around his middle, and drew him up short. Felix Sands again, Troop saw.
Abney lifted his hands to the rope to free himself of the noose that held his arms to his sides. He was unable to lift them high enough to toss off the rope and so, let them fall slack. Sands backed his horse slowly off. Abney lost his footing and struck the ground on his back. The animal dragged him across the yard.
Troop stepped outside the barn. He lifted his revolver from its holster as he walked. He fired once in the air over Felix Sands’ head. Sands threw him a swift surprised look. Gun smoke hovered in a miniature cloud over Troop’s head. He walked deeper into the yard and passed beneath the smoke. He saw then these men thought for sure he’d left the country after Hart had beaten him to a nub. They couldn’t have been more surprised.
“Looks like you’re gettin’ right bold with that rope, Sands.” He lowered his revolver level on him. “This old business has grown old if you ask me. Give Homer slack enough he can fight free of your loop.”
The entire crew looked wide-eyed at him. Their mouths hung open like flytraps. Sands sat his saddle, eyes bugged out, completely perplexed.
“Goddam,” Rigsby swore. “Didn’t you learn a damned thing the other day, mister?”
“If you don’t slack that rope in five seconds, Sands, I aim to blow you outta the saddle.”
Sands flipped the rope in a high arc. It bowed neatly at the apex of the toss. and right away, Abney flung the loop over his head and dropped it on the ground.
Now, you’re wisin’ up, Sands,” said Jack Troop. He strode closer to the men in the yard. Abney stepped up alongside him. “You got a gun on you, Homer?”
“In the house.”
“Then make haste and fetch it. I figure these boys are partial to the odor of gun smoke.”
“Now wait a damned minute, mister,” Sheriff Sped said. “In case you don’t know who I am, I’ll have you know you’re interfering with a man of the law. I’m Sped, sheriff of this county.”
Homer Abney ran for the house. Lucy met him at the kitchen door with a Winchester rifle in her hands. Richard hung from the doorframe and looked on from behind his mother. Abney snatched the rifle from Lucy’s hands, whirled again, then hotfooted it back toward the men in the yard.
“I know damned well who you are, Sped,” Jack said. “But you ain’t no kind of honest lawman. You dirty the profession by the claim you just made. You should turn in that shield you got pinned on your shirt. You ain’t fit to wear it.”
Homer Abney ran up with his rifle in his hands, held across his chest.
Troop peered at Homer. He saw the man would stand steady alongside him if any shooting started. This felt good to him.
“Guard these boys, Homer.”
He stepped toward Hart, who still sat astride his animal. His cigarette dangled from his slack lips. Close enough as he needed to be, he stopped.
“Get your sorry ass down outta that saddle, Hart,” he commanded. “I have a score to settle with you.”
Hart spit the cigarette stub from his lips, placed the heel of a hand upon the saddle horn, and prepared to dismount.
“Don’t get down off that horse, Hart,” Rigsby ordered.
“I ain’t feared of this sonsabitch,” Hart mumbled. He was half-on and half-off his roan gelding.
“Abney is fixin’ to hold his gun on you while this man beats you dumb. Better just let your ass grow firm to that saddle for the time being. You’ll likely cross paths with him again.”
“Step on down, Hart,” Troop goaded the man. His jaw muscles below his ears worked as fast as the wing beat of a hummingbird. “I ain’t askin’, mister. I’m tellin’.”
“Stay put, Hart. That’s an order.”
Hart must have seen something in Troop’s face that warned him off. He relaxed and dropped back onto his saddle.
Troop cast an eye to Homer Abney to make sure the man was vigilant. Satisfied with what he saw, he flipped his revolver in the air in a neat twirl and caught it by the barrel. With no delay, he struck Hart across his kneecap with the butt. The impact of steel on bone sounded like a heavy crockery platter that had shattered upon a floor.
Hart’s eyes widened. Troop saw that the entire message from the bad man’s injured knee hadn’t yet reached Hart’s brain. But then it did. He screamed, as if he’d just burst into flames. He leaped completely out of the saddle and struck the ground hard, facedown.
Sheriff Sped stepped forward to assist the fallen man. His eyes rolled as wild as a trapped horse in a barn fire.
“I told you, mister, you’re interferrin’ with a peace officer.
Troop said, “Peace officer? Don’t make me puke, Sped.”
Abney stepped in front of Sheriff Sped. He shoved him backward with the barrel of his rifle. This stopped his forward progress.
“I’ll arrest you, Abney. You’re goin’ to jail with your friend, so help me. See if I’m lyin’.”
Hart bowed his back as he rolled around on the ground, as if he couldn’t bear to take his knee in his hand, although he tried in desperation to do that very thing. Sweat in rivulets ran off his forehead, into his eyes, and down onto his face. It fell eventually like a minor waterfall upon his shirt. Moments later, he regained a tiny part of his composure, but his face held steady to a grimace of pain. If his face were a hand, Troop figured, it would now be clenched in a hard, tight fist.
“I owe you a round too, Sands, for ropin’ me,” Jack Troop said. “Step down.”
Sands’ horse shied to the left, but he steadied it with a firm hand on the reins. The horse had shied completely sideways by this time, and Sands looked at Jack over his right shoulder.
“I’m warnin’ you, mister,” Sped said, “this here’s gonna go bad with you.” His face was so red it looked as if he might be about to have a stroke.
“Come on off that creature, Sands. Let’s see just how bad you are goin’ face-to-face with a man.”
“I’ll arrest you, mister,” Sped said. “I’ll get you if I have to wire for help to bring you in.”
“Hit your saddle, Sped,” Jack told him. “If you ain’t man enough, I don’t mind a damned bit to boost you up.”
Sped tried again to push his way past Homer Abney to get at Jack, but Abney’s rifle was too much a barrier. The sheriff stopped and stared at the stranger with anger, and hatred etched deeply on his face.
Jack sensed it was over—for now. But he remained as vigilant as he’d been at the height of the melee.
“Well, Sands, if you ain’t gonna step down for a go-round, I ‘spose you might as well hit the road. Get on outta this good man’s yard.”
Riley Rigsby said, “I’m the ol’ boy Sands looks to for his orders, mister. I’ll tell him when it’s time for him to rattle his spurs.”
Troop swung his revolver on Rigsby. He stepped closer.
“See this pistol, Rigsby?” he said. “This is the ol’ boy givin’ the orders. Right now, it’s orderin’ him and you too outta this yard, and take this bastard with you.” He kicked Hart hard in the side. Hart whimpered pup-like and rolled away to avoid another blow.
“I know your game, Rigsby,” he told him. “I’ve seen other men play it before and do it much better than your puny attempt. You’ll not run Homer off his land so your old man can lay stake to it. You’ll do well to forget it and run your own layout. If not, I’ll send for help myself, and use the same telegraph wire Sped threatened to use. Then won’t that be a dainty dish to see, federal officers carryin’ you and your old man off to the federal pen?”
Riley Rigsby scoffed at this. But Troop saw his claim had taken root in the man’s mind. This would give him something to chew on.
A few tense moments passed. Nothing stirred in the yard or in the barn lot. But over on the hillside, above the springhouse, birds sang happily, undisturbed by the noisy quarrelsome men.
Eventually, Rigsby stepped to the ground, and walked toward Hart who still writhed on the ground in pain. “Get on down here, Felix,” he said. “Help me get him up on his horse.”
Felix Sands dropped from his saddle. He kept his eye on Troop all the time.
Later, upright in his saddle, but bowed in the middle, chest in a droop, tears streamed down Hart’s face with a grievous pain much too great for him to endure. He lifted his head to the man who’d struck him down, tried to speak but stopped and gulped down his pain. In time, he mustered enough freedom from pain to say, “You got it comin’, mister. I’ll kill you … if it’s the last thing I do.”
“Nope, Hart, you’ve already done me the worst you’re capable of. Better set your mind to it. If anyone gets killed ‘round here, I figure I’ll not be the ol’ boy who wings off first.”
Hart attempted again to speak, but clutched his knee instead, and moaned loudly.
“Let’s go, boys,” Rigsby said. “Our day’s comin’, mister.” He stared hard at Troop. He took hold of the reins of Hart’s horse since he was not in shape to guide his own animal. “You ain’t heard the last of this.”
Troop leveled down on him with his revolver again.
“Get!” he shouted and flung an arm upward. Jack Troop saw for the first time that Riley Rigsby, while still young and green, was one to watch out for in the future.
Rigsby attempted to stare him down but failed. He dropped his head just slightly, enough to avoid eye contact. He turned his own mount, touched spurs gently against its sides, and rode off at a trot, as if to act as though he really hadn’t been faced down and run off.
“I meant what I said, mister,” Sheriff Sped warned. “We’ll have the last say in this matter. You can count on that.”
He jerked hard on the reins, and the tetchy horse leaped ahead fifteen feet in a bound. Sped cut his switch keenly across the poorly trained stud’s ears when it landed. He grabbed his saddle horn barely in time to prevent a spill, and the tormented horse lined out in a gallop, as if to catch up with the others.
All was quiet for several days. Homer took Richard to town to catch the train to ride to Lucy’s parents for a visit, which was the usual summer routine for the boy. He was still gone.
Rigsby picked this time to return with a fresh attempt to run off the Abney’s.
Jack Troop finished bathing in the creek. From his spot behind a baby’s breath bush, he watched them in the yard.
Boss Rigsby sat his saddle in the center of the riders. His son, Riley, at his right side, Hart on his left and Felix Sands next. All four riders had their weapons in hand. He watched as Boss Rigsby ordered Sands down.
“Check the barn loft, Felix.” Rigsby said.
“Must’ve wised to my hiding spot,” Troop mumbled.
After Sands searched all through the barn, he stood in the barn door, and yelled out, “Ain’t in here, Boss.”
“Climb up in the loft,” Boss Rigsby commanded. “Check up there.”
Sands scurried up the ladder. A few moments later, he scurried back down.
“Ain’t up there either, Boss,” Sands said. He stepped quickly back to his horse and mounted.
The horses all skated about on their feet, nervous, still in the mood to run and snorted dust into the air.
Jack was unable to see the porch from where he stood, but he soon learned that Lucy had fetched a rifle.
“Missus Abney,” Rigsby declared in his pushy, all-important voice, “don’t you dare come charging out onto your porch with a gun in your hands unless you mean to use it.”
“I will use it, Rigsby. Why are you here?”
“I’ve come to offer you a good price for your land.”
“This land isn’t for sale, Rigsby.”
“Call Homer out. I’ll talk with him.”
Jack continued to watch on with Lucy Abney defiant on the porch, the rifle in her hands. He heard her say, “He’s busy on the ridge right now, but he’ll come in a rush soon.”
Rigsby tossed back his head at her words, and blurted out, “Felix, step down and take that woman’s rifle from her hands. It could go off and harm someone.”
As Felix Sands attempted to dismount, Jack stepped out from behind the baby’s breath bush. He said, “Don’t step down off your horse, Sands, if you do, I’ll shoot you through and through.” Jack trained his pistol sights dead-on the man’s chest.
Rigsby said, “You must be Abney’s new hire. If you have listened carefully, stranger, I came to make an honest offer for this land.” He walked his animal slowly up toward Jack Troop.
Jack knew a lie when he heard one.
Rigsby’s horse approached to within a few yards. Troop raised his left hand to halt Rigsby’s approach. The rancher failed to heed his warning. The black horse switched its tail, and shied to the left, but Rigsby gained control of it with a firm fist. Twenty feet from Troop, Rigsby raised his own .44 Colt. This was a mistake.
Troop cut down on him. His pistol boomed in a flat report but was exaggerated as the sound caromed off the side of the barn. Gun smoke lifted above Troop’s head and remained there in a cloud with little wind to disperse it.
Rigsby’s animal humped its back and bucked an instant before Troop squeezed the trigger. The slug clipped Rigsby on the forehead, a grazing blow. Rigsby’s hat flew in a high arch and landed flat, right side up in the deep dust.
Bright blood flowed down Rigsby’s face. Rigsby dropped his weapon, flung his head violently to shed his eyes of blood.
Troop snorted his disapproval at Boss Rigsby’s good fortune.
“You better feed that animal an extra bait of grain this evening, Rigsby. You owe your life to that creature.” He saw Rigsby’s gun in the dust beneath the feet of the energetic and nervous black horse. He swung his weapon on the other men. “Anyone else like to have a go-‘round?” he challenged. “I have a few rounds left.”
Hart stepped from the saddle and walked to his boss. He placed a hand on the man’s knee.
“You all right, Boss?” he said.
Rigsby continued to slash at the blood in his eyes with a hand. But Troop figured Hart must’ve seen plainly enough to know the wound wasn’t much.
“I’m blind,” Rigsby called out. “I can’t see a damned thing. Help me, boys.”
“Get back on your horse, Hart,” Troop commanded. “Lead the man off, if he can’t see to do it hisself. This family don’t want him ‘round here—none of y’all boys are welcome here.”
Hart passed a handkerchief to Boss Rigsby. “Clean them eyes, Boss. It’s likely you ain’t hurt none.”
Lucy Abney held her rifle on the men in her yard. Her face was set solid, brows furrowed in full determination. “Mister Troop said it, and I’m saying it as well. You men are not welcome here. You already created more than enough skullduggery and hatefulness than I like. So, get on.”
She set her sights on Hart, Roper noted in a brief glance. She was a savvy, gutsy woman. Hart was the most dangerous man in that group.
Sheriff Sped had received a message from Boss Rigsby to meet with him at the Abney ranch. He was in the lane that led to the ranch, riding the nervous, green-broke stallion. The sheriff detested the stranger Troop with a deep passion for his arrogance.
Sped felt fully determined not to be made the ass of today, as he’d been the last time, he’d ridden to the Abney spread. They’d not run him off again like a whipped dog. He felt sure of himself, and his keen sense of self-importance stretched the fabric of his bright blue silk shirt to the breaking point.
Just before he rounded the bend in the lane that hid the ranch house from view, a shot boomed loud up ahead. The sheriff’s stud leapt to the left like a jackrabbit and fought him for possession of the reins. The animal wanted to turn and flee so bad he felt its skin quiver beneath the hand he’d placed on its withers in an attempt to soothe it. He now wished he had left the animal in the stable today for it was still green. He should have taken a gentler creature, but he hadn’t and that was that.
The stud lunged again in an excess of nerves. Sped’s blood veins bulged prominently on his right wrist, him with a tight hold on the reins. He felt compelled to discover what that shot meant before he ran into another jackpot as he had done the last time.
He released pressure on the reins and his stud walked off as if it actually had good sense. He pushed the animal into the brush with the intention of entering the yard from behind the barn.
He crossed the twenty-foot span of the stream that looped around the ranch house, and crossed the lower pasture, where Homer Abney often held his young calves to await branding day. He rode on. Hidden from the yard by a thick growth of scrub oak and a growth of cedars, he approached the barn with care. He followed the stream until it cut back again toward the east hillside at the bottom of which the spring gushed heavily into the snake-like stream he’d just crossed. He rode up a draw that he figured would carry him directly behind the barn.
He chuckled to himself as he saw the back door of the barn standing open. He pushed on through the heavy brush with the stud going at it with dainty steps and a finicky nature. He entered the barn with lowered head, to avoid the rafters, and stepped inside and crossed over the straw covered runway. He stopped at the front door to study the situation so as to see what he might be about to step his foot into. He leaned close to the wall and peered through a knothole.
“I knew it,” he chuckled. He guessed that one of the Abney bunch must’ve heard Rigsby riding up. Look what’s happened to the chucklehead. That’s what happened to men who used no caution.”
He didn’t see Homer Abney anywhere in the yard. But Homer’s woman stood there with a rifle in hand. She aimed it directly at one of the riders, a man he knew as Felix Sands. The tall man—Abney’s hand—who’d driven them off before held the rest of the group stymied, gun held directly on Boss Rigsby. Rigsby held a blood-soaked handkerchief to his forehead as if he had just taken a glancing slug, which might have been the source of the gunshot that Sped heard in the lane. Sped chuckled again, and said to himself, “Looks like Rigsby’s goin’ to owe me for savin’ his bacon.”
He heeled his horse. The surprised stud leapt ahead with the exceptional strength of its powerfully muscled frame. Sped swung his revolver on the stranger and tried his best to control the petulant studhorse. The creature had ideas to run, but he guided it straight into the stranger.
The animal clipped Troop’s shoulder as it passed him by. The shock and full surprise knocked Troop off his feet. His revolver fell to the ground. Sped yanked his horse’s head around to face the group. He swung his Colt .45 on Lucy Abney upon the porch and let one off. His slug knocked chips of wood from one of the posts that held up the roof. Chips of wood flew off like shrapnel and struck her in the face. She leapt back, dropped her rifle, and grasped desperately at her face.
Hart ran forward and scooped up Troop’s fallen weapon. He raised his head. His face broadened in a wide smile. Lucy Abney stood with her back against the wall just outside her kitchen. Her hands covered her eyes and Sped figured she might’ve been blinded by the flying woodchips. He laughed loud then, as he realized how simple it had been for him to control of the situation.
He took advantage of the confusion and pressed his horse straight up to where Troop sitting upright, staring around as if in a daze.
Sped said, in a loud brag, “Looks like I’ve now got me a certain amount of retribution for the other day. Get on your feet, mister.”
Sped turned to Felix Sands. “Toss a loop on this man, Felix,” he said. “We’ll give him a taste of how foolish it is for a man to defy the law, and Sheriff Sped’s law in particular.”
Sands tossed his loop. It took Roper about the waist and penned his arms to his sides. Sands then flicked his wrist expertly and sent the rope in a quick snake-like dance that ended up further entangling Troop even tighter in its coils.
Sped said. “Follow me, Sands.” He tossed him his own rope.
Sands, with Troop in tow, followed Sped in a trot toward a large cottonwood tree that grew near the creek at the edge of the yard.
Troop grew wise to the sheriff’s intentions, or so Sped decided, as he watched the man’s eyes widen and grow larger.
Sands tossed the end of Sped’s rope over a limb and set his animal to backing. Jack Troop stood up straight below the limb that from the looks of it would soon be the death of him.
Lucy Abney screamed. She set air toward the men, eyes wild with rage, not at all blind as Sped had first thought. Riley Rigsby stepped down from his saddle, lunged quickly as Lucy attempted to evade him. He caught her, held her close, and chuckled low in his chest.
“I reckon you’ll likely regret your brash decision to tie in with these folks, mister. Haul him up, Sands.”
Boss Rigsby stood nearby. He still held his handkerchief in a dab at his forehead. He said, “Yes. Hang the sonofabitch. Then we’ll deal with Abney. He’s hiding on this ranch somewhere and I mean to find out where.”
Troop stood on tiptoes. This allowed him to breathe. The rope dug into the skin of his neck like a tight band of iron. He realized that soon his days would end. He had little fear of death for himself, but the sense of the loss of for the revenge he was on the search for crushed his heart. He found no way to protest and not make it sound like begging. He wouldn’t beg.
His air was cut off. He felt his feet leave the ground and knew that his worst fears were fixing to come true. He shut his eyes, but then opened them, deciding to meet death with both open. His arms were still tangled in Sand’s rope.
He figured he’d soon see his family again. He felt good with this thought. He had missed his murdered wife, his son, a boy who had not been allowed to taste what little sweetness life has to offer a man in his earthly struggles. He had gone out to find the killer and revenge his family. It would be wonderful to carry the promise of reunion with his family until the very end.
He attempted to hold his legs steady. But it would take a much better man than he was to waylay his core instincts. He hated himself for his weakness. He felt consciousness dimming. Blackness stood all around him as if it were dark, even in the afternoon of the day.
A shot rang out. “CRAACK!” This was a sound louder than any he had ever heard in his lifetime. He wondered now where it had come from.
But long before he had the chance to learn, the ground raced up and struck him a mean lick, but the blow felt good against his shoulder, for he realized he had just struck the ground and that he was no longer hanging by the neck. He felt a wonderful gush of air in his starved lungs. Another shot boomed loud in the yard, and he knew for sure he still lived. In a blur he watched Homer Abney skid his animal to a halt in the center of the battle. He fired again and Felix Sands dropped from his horse. He struck the ground in a sorry mess.
Air filled Roper’s lungs. His senses slowly cleared. He freed himself of both ropes. He clutched a fallen weapon.
In the confusion, Lucy Abney broke free of Riley Rigsby. She stood now with her rifle in hand and squeezed off a round. Troop saw the rancher’s pampered son Riley Rigsby fall. She took flight then back toward the porch where she’d have the advantage of the high ground.
Sped’s shocked face, loomed big in Troop’s eyes. The man raised his own pistol. He watched and saw a large puff of smoke burst from his weapon. The slug missed Lucy. She raised the rifle. Homer by now stood on the ground. He took aim again. This time at Sheriff Sped. He missed.
Sped kneed his stud. It lunged toward Lucy for a clear shot. For some reason, the sheriff’s eyes remained on Lucy. Troop lunged toward the horse. He crashed against its side. Sped swung his pistol downward and knocked Troop off his feet with a stout blow from the barrel and took aim at him. He’d forgotten everything except killing Troop.
“I’ll learn you not to shove your nose in where it’s not wanted,” the sheriff muttered through clenched teeth. His eyes bugged out and filled with rank hatred.
Troop heard the sheriff’s teeth grind loudly in determination. He rolled over onto his back, forced his eyes open. Sped’s finger tightened on the trigger. The nervous studhorse had seen far too much activity, smelled too much blood. He leaped sky high and bowed his back like a fish.
Sped lost his saddle then and landed on his back. The stud lunged upward again, hovered above Sped for a second and then dropped from the sky. He landed directly on the sheriff’s chest. Jack heard an awful rush of air rip from the man’s lungs. The final time this action would occur for Sped. The frightened animal ran off to the side and stood beneath the tall cottonwood tree, shaking uncontrollably.
Boss Rigsby swung his animal about to escape the yard of the mad woman on the porch. Homer Abney fired then and knocked him from the saddle. He rolled over. Blood seeped from a high chest wound. He sat up on the ground and threw his hands high above his head. The wounded Riley Rigsby flung his hands skyward as well, ready to give in.
Jack Troop got to his feet, took up the fallen pistol. He moved to assist the Abney’s.
Hart stood with a resigned smile on his face, ready to take what came next. He faced Troop. “I reckon it’s time now to settle our little differences, mister,” he said.
“Anytime you’re ready, Hart. But you don’t have to do this you know. A few years in the pen will be better than in the grave forever.”
Hart laughed. “Turned coward, have you? I figured you’d be all for takin’ a chance to kill me.”
Jack Troop said, “Tryin’ to make it easy on you, Hart.”
He watched Hart’s eyes. They jerked once and before they jerked again, Jack raised his gun. He fired as Hart’s gun cleared the holster.
Jack shot him through the brisket with one clear shot.
Hart said no more. He dropped his gun and fell on his face.
It was all over. Two weeks later Judge Land sentenced Boss Rigsby to thirty years, Riley to ten.
Jack’s stopover was finished now. He was ready to move on. He had another chore to do, and that was to locate the devil who murdered his family. How long it might take he had no idea. He set this as his goal in life.
The Abney’s tried to turn him from seeking revenge, but they had not seen his wife and son in the sorry state he’d found them in. No way could he stay with them.
It was time. He left their yard with both man and wife watching his back. He felt their eyes on him all the way to the road that led west. The Abney’s were able to take care of themselves, he now saw.