Western Short Story
Tough Joe Ruff
Tom Sheehan

Western Short Story

He was born in a wagon in 1858 on the Spanish Trail, which already had a steady run between 1830 and 1848 as a trade and immigrant route linking Santa Fe, New Mexico and Los Angeles in California. The Trail went on distinct routes leaving Santa Fe as it split two ways; The South or Main Branch headed northwest near Colorado's San Juan mountains along the Green River in Utah. A rough passage to say the least.

Meanwhile, the North Branch proceeded northerly into Colorado's San Luis Valley and crossed over Cochetepa Pass to follow the Gunnison and Colorado rivers to meet the Southern Branch near Green River. From central Utah, the trail ran southwest through Utah, Nevada and Arizona. It passed through southern Nevada and the San Gabriel Mission and on to Los Angeles.

Life there was on the move in the shadow of constant terrors and sudden deaths, the count always high, hardly bringing a day without a loss, and too, its own births along-the-way in the back-end of a wagon, often halted in its movement for the time of a new birth on the trail.

Which is where Joe Ruff took his first breath in the back of his father’s wagon in Indian country, the locals a mix of Gabrielino, Takis, Tativia and Chumash tribes. The infant, of a certainty, breathed in some of their air that first day, which his father declared made him a partial native having certain rights and inborn talents waiting to be developed and expressed in the new land; ”He will never sit down or shut up when so directed by a non-leader and will be his own man for a full life.” It was more than hopeful thinking on his father’s part;

That man, that father, continued his prayers and wishful hopes for the full day of birth, content that he had paved the way to heaven for his son, at least a special request for steady graces to be at hand when needed

That father was full of hope for his family, himself, and his new son, Joe Ruff, bound to bring glory and honor to the name that had been pared off and honed down from the original, which was buried forever at the start of their long journey across the new land of America; the new ways at work in quick fashion, the old days done and gone, family names sometimes disappearing at day’s end or being changed, often diluted..

Joe Ruff, as we now know, was well on his way, under such circumstances

By the time he was 16, he was on his own, the family passed on, and him alone, the last of them, and an expert with either pistol he wore on his belt. He felt a vast openness coming upon him. He decided the best thing he could do was to head back along the way he had come; what he had done, people he had met, the kind you don’t forget in any hurry, if ever. He started his reversal route, content that he’d recognize places, people, things that had come to him on the earlier days.

The surprises came in bundles: nothing was the same, even from the little he could really remember of his earliest days, trusting that Time had made marks that were serious, best for those involved, or those gone their own silent way, to an unmarked grave, or a stone an artist had engraved in silent memorial, to be read in silence, prayed over, walked away from on a cloudy day, a mere light breaking through.

One man was familiar looking, walking a road with an old rifle in is hands, as though he had his prey’s trail to follow with ease.

“What are you hunting, Mister? I only ask because I think I’ve met you in the past.”

“I recognize your face, or one like it, but not your name. I am looking, two years now, for the man who killed my wife and my only son, and said he’d come back some day to get me. I’m just ready, out in the open for the skunk of a back-shooter, hoping I meet him face to face. Then I can go either way in peace.” There was a distinct pause before he added, “His name is Burford Quick, and calls himself ‘Be Quicker or else be dead.’”

Joe Ruff replied, “Now, sir, because I have heard the story bound to stir me, I’m on your side until the job is done to your satisfaction. I will follow you if it’s all the way to Hell.” He put both arms overhead, his hands empty

His horse reacted to a shift in weight, a learned reaction to a taut trait, signals to obey. “Something brought me back here where I was born as Joe Ruff, and then went off with my father, heading west. I have come back reconnoitering the past to seek what I missed or must do, as something inside me has pulled me back here; something of great importance, something for the area, which I have talents for helping here, on horseback, fully armed and prepared, bound for a cause of a deserving nature. Pleased to meet you, sir, an honest man in need of help, a man that life has mistreated in the worst way.”

The lone rifleman’s reply, said, “My name is Hilman Sumerly, 52, and their names were Ida Sumerly, at 40 years of age, and his name was Harrison Sumerly, merely 13 when gunned down.” He repeated, “Merely 13 when gunned down.” There came no tears in his eyes, wide-open and clear blue, ready for anything and especially for the hated one.

Joe Ruff knew the reason for his return trip into his past. It carried a brand-new feeling through his body. And he believed his horse knew some kind of change had happened.

Joe Ruff that night bedded down in the Sumerly barn, setting up a second source of watch and alert, with his horse able to detect whisper sounds, soft boots, other slight sounds in the night, and make each one known to Joe, who slept for a solid night, not a single alarm or alert caused by any source. Joe also knew that ‘Be Quicker or else be dead.’ Would meet them in the open, right on the road where Sumerly worked his long watch in anger.

When ‘Be Quicker or else be dead.’ came along the road at high noon a few days later, he came down the middle of the rural road as free as any man without a worry, two pistols on his hips, an unknown energy working his body and mind, he saw Sumerly had a kid helper. “Two for one.” he said aloud so the two persons on the road could hear him, the old man bound for death this day, and the stupid kid, armed to the teeth, also bound for death this day. He had no idea what was there in the road ahead of him.

“Two for one!” he yelled out again, “Two for one! My day is made.” The words of the killer echoed off a wall, and fell onto the open plain

When ‘Be Quicker or else be dead.’ went for his draw, the response was quicker than he had ever seen, the first and only round coming his way with unerring accuracy as it penetrated him between his two unseeing eyes, never seeing old man Sumery about to raise his two-bits of a musket with a studied and frozen determination. The threatened man knew it was over before it had begun, that the stranger, who had come to his aid for unknown reasons, had reasons of his own.