Western Short Story
The Stranger
Scott Harris

Western Short Story

The stranger rode easily into Dry Springs. A couple of people looked up as he did, and one even waved a quick hello, but no one really paid any attention to the man. There was no reason to. Other than the fact that Dry Springs didn’t get a lot of visitors, the stranger didn’t stand out at all. And he didn’t want to. He rode an average-sized buckskin gelding, and his clothes wouldn’t stick in your head for ten minutes after having seen him. He wore a gun, like most who rode the trails did, but his wasn’t tied down in the way many gunfighters wore theirs.

When he stopped in front of Hinton’s General Store and stepped off his horse, there was still nothing that stood out about the stranger. He was a couple of inches under six feet tall, weighed closer to 160 pounds than he did 200 and moved in the way almost every rider did after spending a long day in the saddle. He was lean with a sunbaked face, and his dark hair stuck out just a little from under his hat. He walked into the store, mouthed a hello to the couple working behind the counter and started moving around the store, looking at the various goods offered for sale. If anyone noticed him, he appeared to be just another customer getting ready to stock up supplies for his next time down the trail.

Ray and Ellen Hinton had owned and worked the general store for about twenty years, as long as Dry Springs had been a town. They were among the founding couples of the town and the only ones who had made it past the first winter. They enjoyed living in Dry Springs and were comfortable running the town’s only general store. The stranger listened as they discussed their daughter—a girl named Sophie—what they planned to have for dinner after they closed up, which they would do when the stranger was done, and how the day had been a slow one for business. Ray looked up and offered his assistance, but the stranger politely declined and kept looking, occasionally taking something from a shelf—a new shirt, coffee, beans, some ammunition—and setting it on the counter.

What the couple behind the counter didn’t know was that the man intended to rob them. For the past couple of years, he had traveled throughout the Southwest, purposely doing nothing to stand out or to make his visits memorable, except for the occasional robbery. He usually would rob a general store, like Hinton’s, or if it was later in the evening, maybe a small saloon. The cost to whoever he robbed was generally fairly small, a day’s receipts at most, and he figured it was only going to be enough money to ruin their day and not their lives—or his.

When he’d been younger—and bolder—he’d helped rob a few banks. The payout was much greater, but so was the risk. He’d watched as a couple of men he rode with were gunned down, heard that a couple of others had been sentenced to long spells in prison in the Arizona desert, and learned that when you rob a bank, which means you’ve robbed almost everyone in town, posses form quickly and keep riding after you for days. After a while, the stranger just sort of figured it certainly wasn’t worth dying, or even spending years rotting away in prison, for his share of whatever they were able to steal.

So, deciding to give up bank robbing, he slipped quietly away from the last gang he rode with, not bothering with goodbyes or explanations. At the same time, he had no interest in, or intention of, taking a town job or working a ranch. He’d never grown fond of being told what to do or when to do it, and so he came up with a plan that worked for him and minimized his risks.

He robbed small.

He’d ride into towns, always small ones, never doing anything to stand out. At first, it took some effort, but after a year or so, blending in came naturally. He rarely gave a name, and when he did, it was never the same one twice and never his actual name. He rode slow and easy, dressed like a ranch hand on the trail, was always polite, tipped his hat to the ladies, and when he was forced into a conversation, listened far more than he talked.

And it was one of those ladies, Ellen Hinton, who kept him from robbing the general store. He didn’t like to rob women. Part of it was practical. A man tends to act differently if he feels he’s protecting a woman than if he’s by himself, which increased the stranger’s danger. It was his experience that a man protecting a woman is more likely to go for his gun than his money, and that wasn’t a good thing. Part of it was he had listened too long to their conversation, and in the odd way people can do, he’d grown a little fond of the old couple. He didn’t figure they had much money anyway, so in a strange twist, he paid for his goods, including some hard candies, and walked slowly back out the front door.

He heard them call out goodnight as they locked up, never knowing how close they had come to being robbed.

He took his time packing his rig. In his line of work, it was important to be able to leave quickly, so having everything properly packed, balanced and tightened made it much easier to simply hop on and ride off. He’d noticed a small saloon, the Dusty Rose, when he rode in. Dry Springs was too small of a town to have two saloons, so he decided to walk his horse over there, have a drink, rob the saloon and head out in the opposite direction he rode in from.

He tied off his horse, loosely, and checked to make sure his gun was loaded, though it had been a while since he’d even had to pull it, much less use it. Most men aren’t willing to risk dying for a day’s receipts, and usually showing the gun and slowly dropping his right hand toward it was all it took. He walked in and took a quick look around. Nobody at the bar but the bartender and only two other men in the place, sitting together at a table talking, though they looked like they were getting ready to leave.

The bartender held up a glass. The stranger ordered whiskey and took a seat at one of the open tables. He nodded to the two men in a way that was just friendly enough, but not so friendly as to invite conversation. The bartender brought over a glass and received four bits in exchange. He quickly wiped off the table, which was already clean, checked on his other two customers, and worked his way back behind the bar.

The stranger took his time with the drink, trying to time finishing it with the two men leaving. He timed it pretty well, finishing up as they stood up. He tipped his hat when they said goodnight and was about to stand up, walk to the bar and rob the bartender, when he turned and saw him walking toward the table with a pot of coffee and two mugs in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other.

“Slow night. Mind if I sit for a bit?”

Not really having a choice, he replied, “Not at all.”

With a friendly smile, the bartender asked, “Which one can I pour you? Either way, it’s on me.”

The stranger pointed to the coffee mug. The bartender took a seat across from him, set both mugs on the table, filled them and handed one over. The coffee tasted good, and the stranger relaxed and sat back comfortably in his seat.

The bartender reached an open hand across the table. “My name’s Will.”

Without thinking, the stranger shook his hand and offered his real name in return. It’d been three years, maybe four, since he’d said his real name out loud, and he had no idea why he did it, but it sounded pretty good.

Will started talking about how he’d come to own the bar and told a few stories about Dry Springs, though there weren’t many to tell. The stranger had always been a good listener and learned a bit about Will’s family and where he was from, how he spent his time during the war, and what it was like to be a bartender. Men didn’t often talk this much and the stranger even less, so it surprised him when he joined in.

He found himself telling Will about growing up in Florida and how he missed the ocean. He also told him how he lost his dad and two brothers in the war and his mom to a broken heart. He skipped the part about robbing banks, but talked about making cattle drives from Texas to Nebraska and how he missed that. The coffee grew cold, so they each had a glass of whiskey. When they finished, Will said that as much as he’d enjoyed the conversation, it was time to clean up. The stranger offered to pay, but Will declined.

As the stranger slipped on his coat, he realized it had been a while since he had thought about robbing Will, and he knew right away he wasn’t going to. He also knew he didn’t feel like riding out into the cold this late and asked about a place to stay.

“The Soft Beds hotel is right across the street. You’ll have to wake the owner, Ansel, but tell him I sent you and he won’t get too sore.”

The stranger did just that, and he was glad Will had said something, because Ansel wasn’t too happy about being woken, even for a night’s lodging. The bed was comfortable, and the room was warm, but he had trouble falling asleep. He couldn’t figure out why he’d passed up two easy robbery opportunities, then talked all night like an old lady and, except for leaving out his history of robbing, told the truth about his life.

At last he fell asleep and, for the first time in years, did so while thinking about Florida and his mom.

As was his habit, he was up before dawn—and before Ansel. Not wanting to risk angering him again, he left the payment on the counter, saddled up and rode out of town, heading south toward Santa Fe.

He rode most of the day and put close to thirty miles between himself and Dry Springs, which when he’d robbed someone, was normally important. This afternoon it didn’t matter, so he stopped as soon as he found a nice place to water and feed the horse and bed down for the night. He made himself a nice dinner of bacon and beans with a little bread, all of which he’d picked up and paid for at the general store. As the fire slowly died, he was still rolling last night around in his mind and was no closer to figuring out what happened than he had been then.

If the sun had been paying attention as it crept over the mountains the next morning, it would have seen the stranger already on the trail, following a dry creek bed toward Santa Fe. He was in no hurry, so his pace was slow, and both he and the horse were enjoying the morning.

There were also six Indians moving in the opposite direction, toward the stranger, parallel to, but not in, the creek bed. Until the arrow hit the stranger in the thigh, he had no idea they were there. He pulled his pistol and spurred his horse at the same time, racing out of the creek and away from whoever fired the arrow. He didn’t have to ride more than a mile, which he covered very quickly, before he saw a small hill with some decent-sized rocks. He pushed the horse even faster and made it to the rocks, but the horse took a bullet and was killed.

He yanked the arrow from his thigh, letting out a primal scream as he did. He tossed the arrow aside, not even having time to wrap the wound, and pulled his rifle, second pistol and all his ammo off of the dead horse. Then he set up to defend himself as well and as long as he could. A quick glance revealed six Indians, and none of them showed any inclination to call this a draw. They may not have known he had a rifle, or they underestimated either his skill or the rifle’s range, but a single, well-placed shot reduced their number to five. The remaining five pulled back, certain to come for their friend at some point, and talked among themselves. It didn’t take them long to figure out a plan, and it didn’t take much longer for the stranger to know what it was. Two of the Indians rode to his left, staying out of range, and another rode around his right side, also circling wide. The last two stayed in front of him, but it was clear they were planning to surround him, and there was nothing he could do about it.

The rocks offered excellent protection to his front and his right and decent protection on the back side, but almost none to his left. Unfortunately, there were trees to his left, enough to offer protection for the attackers and close enough that their shorter-range guns could reach him. Having prided himself on being a realist, he knew that short of a miracle, the end was very near. Since it was impossible to shoot in four directions at once, he decided to focus his efforts on keeping the Indians out of the trees with some shots toward the back and, if he could, an occasional shot to the right and front. He actually used both hands, snapping shots off with his left hand more for effect than really expecting to hit anything, but hopefully also keeping them from getting too close.

For the first few minutes, it was working. But the Indians had time on their side, and he was always one mistake away from death. His leg was bleeding, but there was nothing he could do about it. He’d kept the one Indian on his left out of the trees but hadn’t paid much attention to the front side, and when he did take a quick glance, he saw that one of the two who had stayed out front was trusting that his attention would be diverted just a little bit longer and had worked his way close, but without the benefit of cover. The first shot wounded him and the second finished him. The stranger was now left with four Indians, one directly in front, one directly behind and one each on his left and right.

The ones in the front and back, with the bows and arrows, were going to have trouble getting close enough to make anything other than a lucky shot matter. But the one on the right had a rifle, and the one on the left, working his way closer to the trees, had a pistol. Quick shots front and back worked to keep the bows and arrows away, and focusing most of his attention on the left kept the Indian with the pistol from reaching the cover of the trees and getting close enough for the pistol to be effective. But something had to give, and it was the rifle from his original right side. The bullet entered his back, high up on the left shoulder, shattering the shoulder and not coming out the other side. The pain was immediate and the blood loss dramatic, and he was now down to being able to shoot with only one hand.

He went down for a moment, and the Indian in the back must have thought he was done, because when he forced himself back up he saw that the one Indian had reached the trees, the Indian up front was staying out of range and the one who shot him hadn't moved. But the one in the back was racing toward the rocks, maybe eager to claim his scalp. He paid for his eagerness with his life, as the stranger, unable to hold the rifle with only one arm, shot him in the chest with his pistol.

There were only three Indians left, but he was losing blood faster than he could kill Indians. The first pistol was empty, with no way to reload it. The rifle was useless, so he was down to his second pistol and his last six shots. It was getting harder to focus, and he knew he didn’t have much time left. In desperation, he faked as if he had collapsed, hoping to draw them all in and somehow get in three lucky shots before they got him. He popped back up as quickly as he could and found his plan had worked, but only with the Indian up front. He fired off three rounds and knew he was lucky that even one struck the Indian, hitting him in the leg and at least taking him out of the fight.

He turned to see what the other two were doing, and this time, his tripping to the ground was not part of his plan. His gun slipped out of his hand, and he simply didn’t have the strength to crawl to it. He reached his good hand down his right calf and pulled his Bowie knife, unwilling to quit and out of options. The two remaining uninjured Indians reached his rocks at almost the same time. The first one leapt at the stranger and didn’t notice the knife until he landed on it, a wound he wouldn't survive, though he did live long enough to finish off the stranger with his own knife.

The stranger’s last conscious thought struck him as funny. The bartender from that little town, the only person in the world who knew anything about him, would never know, or care, that he died. And yet, somehow, it was comforting that at least one person knew his name.