Western Short Story
The Trail on Broken Ridge
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

Gus Gannon had been on the trail of a murder suspect for more than two weeks, and found himself on a ledge of a cliff-face near tall as the heavens, swearing to himself that the sun never found some parts of the cliff which rose on the steepest rise he had ever ascended. At least he found himself in a steady sense of shadow if anything else, and the sad monotony of silence.

Somewhere ahead of him, smart enough, or dumb enough, to have taken this strange and dangerous route of continual escape. Bunco Judson, guilty twice already of major crimes against the people, loomed on a tight ledge some miners must have cut half a century earlier when the great Gold Splash broke loose on this mountain with one side as steep as it could be, as if vertically cemented in place by a gang of master mixers who could have worked half a lifetime at it. The tenuous ridge path went some place beyond the promised riches they’d loosed in chipping away at a mountain.

They called it Broken Ridge, and there was np telling how many hearts and lives had been chipped unto Kingdom Come.

There were no handrails to latch onto if a rider’s mount stumbled, went into a deep dive without a sound at the end of the fall, nothing but silence. If he had to slip off the saddle, he’d bump against the straight-up cliff that’d throw him as far as he could think, and most likely be dead before he hit bottom.

But by revaluating this slippery criminal somewhere along this trail ahead of him, he found him at last also on one of his last days. That thought must have come to the man in flight, as it would to any man hanging onto the side of the mountain with his teeth, if need be. He’d probably wished a dozen or more times he had taken a different route, but there was no changing his mind now, no way to turn around and head back, even if he wanted to.

He and his quarry were locked into a no-return trip only the mighty heavens might smile at in a passing minute.

It came to Gus Gannon that Bunko knew he had chosen his own path to death. And every once in a while, Gus would lay his hand on the side of the cliff to touch the warmth, the surety of it being there, and its positive shot at death for those daring this oddest of trails. At those instances, he’d pause to listen, to catch a sound of Bunko ahead of him, the clatter of slow hooves, a sudden curse, an odor not caught by senses since the ascent started. The switch-backs and curls in the trail, the maize of turns, crushed all action to a soundless aura, silence before the fall, and none surely after one hoof missed its slow and plodding beat.

Gus, of course, keeping a hold on his sanity, kept making small talk to his horse, holding him steady, patting his neck, letting him know the two of them depended on each other, if such could be the case. Some horses know their trail better than their riders, though they never had a voice in the matter. “Easy, Lefty, easy boy. Nice and slow, Lefty, slow as you ever wanted, Lefty. Catch and hold on some laziness. Be cool, be quiet as you usually are, stay with me forever, good old boy. Good old Lefty.”

For the life of him, he couldn’t remember where the name had come from; a bit, a dare, an instinctive twist to be different in the wide-open western world somewhere behind him, or ahead of him.

He had to trust the horse as much as he ever trusted any man, any deputy, hoping Bunko would also know enough that he couldn’t afford a shot back at him for fear of driving his own horse over the edge. One slip, one edge charred by a thousand years of baking sunlight, and it was all over. Poof! Gone over the edge. Once, on the trail upward, with foresight, Gus had secured his guns in their holsters; understanding they’d be of no use up here, and noting the danger they proposed from their loose holsters.

Ahead of him, at a tight curve on the thin ledge, he saw the minute flip of a horse’s tail as his eye caught the only motion that could be seen. Two men, two mounts, were still mounted and still on the thin and barest edge of life.

And no place to go otherwise, then straight down into Hell before it came to meet you, the hurry-up on the way up.

Gus wanted to spend a little time thinking about the crimes Bunko had committed, but had trouble bringing them back in one clean sweep. They might really be not so serious, and could be served out in a decidedly small time in a decidedly small jail, with company on hand; perhaps an old girlfriend, even a wife if he was married, but he didn’t know that either about the man he was chasing at a chase slower than a leak in a corner of a roof newly built by a handy man..

The sky started to darken and Gus began to worry about thunder and lightning. Either one of those elements, or in concert, could clear the thin edge of its traffic, him and Lefty included in the take.

The first rumbles were distant, mere warnings not yet touching the cliff, but full of more than mere disturbance. Whatever happened to his quarry, Gus would have to carry on his ride to the pleasant or bitter end, come what may.

At one turn in the cliff, he saw ahead of him, a cave mouth, black as his boots, as it yawned against the edge of the cliff. It had to be the cave where early miners had found gold, and mayhap, a way off the side of the cliff. Bunko must have ridden right into the cave with a sigh in his throat, the cave tall enough for a rider on horseback, those old miners ever striking for the good stuff along the way

If it was, it’d be the end of the trail ledge

Gus held back a wave of rapture he felt building up in his guts. He had such a short way to go to get to the cave and Bunko must surely be at least halfway off the mountain by now. Incidental route change was monumental.

The “Giddy-up, Lefty,” came to a halt in his throat and he began counting Lefty’s able strokes on the last of the ridge line that diminished entirely the other side of the cave.

His first great inhalation of breath rushed into his lungs as he entered the cave, mere inches clear of his head, his hat still tied to his saddle where chance and choice could not cause a sudden movement, a quick grasp at a mere sombrero caught by a breath of air.

When he got to the end of the tunnel, bright sunshine splattering just ahead of him, Bunko was lying on a flat place on the mountain, a clear trail ahead of him, his horse simply dead from the continual threat of terror his rider had induced.

Gus the sheriff bound his prisoner across Lefty’s saddle and took the long way home.