Western Short Story
There was a reason why Wesley Helms had gotten into this current predicament, with the full weight of the load sitting squarely on his shoulders. It was more than his being a bright young man, but something intrinsically good about him touched those who knew him for even half a day. All the people at the settlement were depending on him. And here he was, at The Portage at the lower end of the Reece River, on the raft ready to cross the troubling waters, a gun stuck in his back, jammed in by an unknown character. Through the thin material of his shirt, he could feel the thrust of the barrel, the cold steel and the hot promise it carried. For a moment the danger caught his breath in place, though his mind worked as quickly as ever.
“Just let loose of that pack you’re acarryin’, boy, and I won’t pull this trigger and blow your gizzards all over the water.” The gun was jammed harder against his side. “You heard my order, boy. I won’t say it twicet.” The stench of the man’s breath was in Helms face. “The Colonel said not to come back if’n I don’t get it from you. He don’t like failings, and never did.”
Back home in Soderville, practically in the Valley of Heaven, as some folks called it, the mysterious fire had burned the land office, and all the local records stored there, including the records of every ranch in the valley, from the land grants to the present day. The land grant information, lost in the suspicious fire, now had only the original in existence at the territorial seat, and Wesley Helms was sent to retrieve it, all twenty pieces covering twenty large ranches and the town of Soderville itself.
The cause of the fire was most apparent to all the people in the settlement, the disputes over land rights that had risen from questions, doubts, and outright lies. Documents had been taken in thefts at ranch houses when owners were working their herds or under cover of night. Nobody was ever seen, though one rancher was killed right at his front door with a rifle in his hands. A late-comer and retired army officer, Colonel Llewellyn Somersby, much harder and cruder than his name sounded, had his hand out for anything and everything that would fall into it, be scooped up in its fingers, or fall from someone’s grasp. He had the reputation of stopping short of nothing to get what he wanted. The word surfaced that from his ignoble command on the frontier, a command fraught with intrigue, murder and annihilation, he had brought a hardcore group of subordinates. Slyly, they had let themselves be known in town, but that approach soon wore thin, as some of them were suspected to be in their own singular way nothing more than brutes, bullies and deft marauders. Word was that the Colonel had even freed and exonerated from martial punishment some of those hard cases within the ranks just to swell his coterie.
On the raft Helms wondered if he had fallen asleep on his feet. Brother Burden had selected him to do the errand, nobody else. And nobody back home could truly imagine what he had gone through to even get to this point. Everything he had gone after for the Soderville folks was in the pack, original records from the territorial seat --- safe as long as he was safe. When the gunman with the heavy voice put his hand around his waist to get his weapon, Wesley Helms made a snap decision. He snapped his arm down on the other man, locking that searching arm in place. Then he dove over the side of the raft into the cold water, taking the brigand with him … and the full weight of the load he carried. He hoped his horse did not come with them. The thrashing legs could be deadly, with shod hooves to boot.
In the water the struggle truly began, and the weights on him were enormous; his lungs told him so, as did his legs trying to kick himself right side up, his eyes open in the suddenly muddy water, the other man clutching wildly at him. He wondered, for the first time ever, if the brigand’s gun would go off under water. Was that a silly thought of a man near the end of all things? Would the bullet travel? How far? Have impact? The possibilities piled up like unneeded ballast. His breath piled on itself, like a log in his chest.
And the full importance of Brother Burden’s words was still coming upon him while he and the gunman thrashed crazily in the water. Hands clutched and grabbed at him, fingernails dragged on his skin, fists banged on his head, at his face, unknown muscles and joints locked in place by hysteria or fright.
Brother Burden and a group of Soderville people in had gathered at the livery when he had left on the errand that seemed to promise nothing but trouble for him. Those in the group were adults in town, all older than he was, who had come west in the first wave to enter the valley between the mountain ranges running parallel, nearly north and south, along the Reece River. At the moment of discovery, as they topped one hill at the lower end of the mountain chain, the evening sun as glorious as it had ever been, the valley leaped at them as the greenest they’d ever seen; its promise had halted their journey as if in mid- stride. Here they had built a life, a town, a future only whose only other requirement was full-out, seven-day labor for a long while. They had brought that part with them, to a man, as Burden had screened each one of them, man by man, before the journey had started on the far side of the Platte River.
Yet the talk from the crowd on the day he started his trip had a variety of tones: “Kid’s still wet behind the ears, ain’t he?” “Look, there’s not one person can do the things he can do. He’s shown that. Give him a chance.” “If that kid married my Sadie, I’d be the happiest gent around. He ain’t nothing but good, the way he’s done things after his miserable start in life.” “I know there’s no cry in him, but you have to be careful once in a while. Where big chances might mean a big payoff, there’s the possibility of a quick end to everything. ‘Member the Harreld kid losing it all, down there in Waco. Should have known better. Gunslingers have no pity, no sense of justice less’n it’s their own brand with the gun.”
Brother Burden noticed how relaxed Helms appeared, how stubborn his chin sat in its place, how intelligence and passion stood in the young man’s eyes like sentinels. He had seen him grow from the hard youngster he had been, losing his parents so early, scratching his way along in life, learning a whole barn-full of taking care of things. “That boy,” he had once told an old friend, “might come after my job someday. He packs a good lot of learning.”
But Burden, who had been the leader from the beginning, always adamant, had said to young Helms, “This is an important undertaking, Wesley. So much counts on your courage, your intelligence, your devotion. We could not have picked a better person for the task no matter what some people have to say. I must warn you, however, that certain forces, over which we have no control, will do their best to derail any of your success. You know how the Colonel works, the way his men work. They will stop at nothing to gain their selfish ends and ruin ours. Let’s face it, this valley, as well as this town, could be up for grabs. The adversities have already started with the fire. That’s why we sent our town council out on the stage a few hours ago. They’re on a run to throw certain folks off your trail. You’re really the one to get the stuff for us. Those three couldn’t take care of it with an army at hand. They know it and we know it. But they’re true volunteers regardless of their capabilities or lack of the same. Once we have the papers here and the marshals, we can clean up the mess and make dictates of our own.”
The first incident to stop Helms’s errand had been on the train outside the capitol, when he saw three men riding their horses hard to get aboard the train, with other riders accompanying them but not trying to climb aboard. He pictured them as a support group, a just-in-case cavalry of sorts. Some idea clicked in his head that he was the target, that these men wanted his cargo from the capitol. The warnings had been told him right up front, and now they were about to be dropped into his lap. He said to the girl sitting beside him, “I will buy your suitcase for 25 dollars if you will hide my pack under your skirts. We are soon to be held up. Don’t be nervous. They only want me. I will replenish your contents, I promise.”
She agreed. “For 25 dollars you can have everything in it, no matter what it is.” Her smile was slightly innocent, slightly naughty. Helms smiled back at her and thrust his backpack under her skirts. Swinging her suitcase onto his lap, he slipped his hand inside a belt wrapped around the suitcase, as if the case was a box of money or held some other valuables.
The suddenly intrusive voice came from the back of the car. It was heavy, crude, mean as a sick bull, and came from a short, stocky man with a heavy black mustache and a pointed beard on his chin. He looked as if he would not be comfortable in a single seat or on horseback. “The guy from Soderville better throw down his package now or I will damn well shoot the first person who moves.”
Every person in the car heard the click of the weapon as the trigger was cocked. One man gasped. One woman sighed, as if a bad dream had returned. Another man, in the middle of the car, in a fancy suit of the drummer, fainted onto the lap of a female sitting beside him. The rest of the car was silent until Helms stood up and said, “I’m from Soderville. I don’t know you.” His hand was still inside the strap of the suitcase, the way someone holds onto a possession they will never let go of. “What do you want from me? I’m just a cowpoke who doesn’t even own a horse.”
“Don’t get itchy on me now,” the crude stranger said as he stared at Helms and the case still tightly grasped in his hands, “but I want that box you’re carrying, and no funny moves, or I swear to hell I will shoot one of these people, or you. Whichever comes first to mind.” The long-barreled pistol Helms thought was a break-action Schofield, the kind he hadn’t seen in more than a year, was waving slowly in the air.
Helms set the case down on the floor, looking up at the stocky bandit.
“No, kid,” the gunman said, as if he had played in all the games and had seen all the ruses. “No stupid tricks. Just hand it to me.” The Schofield was still waving.
He took the case as Helms, standing upright, handed it to him.
“Cover me,” the stocky robber then said to his pards, “until we get out of here.” He thrust the suitcase tightly under one arm and ran to the end of the car. All three men jumped off the train as it continued down the tracks.
The girl laughed and said, “They have a big surprise coming to them, don’t they.” Her laugh was the most delightful and most secret laugh that Helms had ever heard, and he agreed he’d never know what kind of a surprise they had coming to them. He could only dare a guess.
In the water all these scenes had all been part of the whole picture coming at him, even as the water worked its dread at his mouth and the robber with the gun continued to hang onto him. If he loosed his pack now, it would be gone downstream, possibly never to be found again. He could not test that possibility.
Once again he had said to himself, “How did I get here?” He had come west with his parents, lost them in an Indian attack, escaped by using his wits, and was now sure to drown on some kind of an errand for many people he did not really know.
All was frenzy around him, yet he could tell the brigand was not a good swimmer the way the panic was taking over him. If he held his own breath a mere minute longer, the struggler would let go, try to break free, to rush for air. So he contended mightily until, at last, weakness and fear almost visible in his foe, the other man let go in a sudden move and released his weapon to the deep water, even as bubbles gurgled at his mouth.
It was not the backpack swept downstream in the troubled waters of the Reece River, but the single gunman and potential thief who floated away in the swift current, face down, lifeless.
Helms shot to the surface as if he was a log, and realized his backpack continued to hold air in it. Miraculously, his horse was still on the large portage raft and the portage owner was standing, fully alert, with a rifle in his hand. The stream was exerting strong pressure on the raft, but the large hawsers holding it in place had not released their grips.
The portage owner pulled Helms aboard. “That fella was likely waitin’ on you, son. Been sittin’ here for hours, like he knew you was comin’ along. His watchin’s all done now. Good riddance to the lonely bushwhacker. Nobody’s grievin’ on him, far as I can see. Them big turtles gonna feed on him now, and the snakes and the fish. They’re always hungry way I see it. Kinda like justice with a big mouth.” He laughed and giggled and thoroughly enjoyed the moment of true justice. “Damned if you didn’t do him up proper, son. Damned if you didn’t.” He laughed loudly again, and the water ran past them and under them down through the canyon walls beyond.
After the river crossing, drying his clothes at a small fire in a small canyon, taking care of his horse, Helms thought about his route back to Soderville. Surely he couldn’t take the usual road through Hickory and Placertown and smaller outposts or gatherings of people along the route west. Carefully he plotted his way, keeping all the deterrent activities in his mind, knowing the Colonel would not yield an inch of opportunity to further his grip on the valley. Finally he firmed up his mind that he would come down to Soderville from due north, from out of nowhere like a ghost rider, only approaching town at night, from a way nobody would expect him to come from. There was one major problem in his way, the mountain; and surely a few others set up by the Colonel.
The mountain route was a tough stretch for him and his horse. He kept looking behind him, trying to see if someone was following, and realized that as much danger could be ahead of him as well as behind. On his third night in the range, catching a whiff of smoke coming through the passage of a narrow place in the canyon, he knew someone was ahead of him, sitting guard, waiting on him. Whoever it was, most likely ordered by the Colonel, it probably was one man sent to prevent passage this way. He pondered his place and his options, and backtracked. In the early morning on a high edge of the cliff he gathered and set up a pile of rocks, with a kingpin stone supporting a much heavier rock balanced on the very edge of the cliff. He stood the smaller stone on end, point to point with the bigger rock and the edge of a rocky slope. He leaned a collection of rocks against the big rock. It was a tricky maneuver for him, not wanting a rock slide to start because of a stupid move or a careless mistake.
He made sure that a line of sight, from anyplace in the canyon, gave him a clear view of the kingpin stone. All this ruse was planned in his mind to the last detail, realizing that he might be without a horse if it worked as planned. But he’d take the chance that the guard would have a mount near his post.
In the darkness of early morning he lit a small fire and laid enough wood so that the fire would catch and spread to a bigger pile. Then stealthily he moved down the canyon floor until the canyon widened out and he could hear the prairie wind at work. Someplace in the darkness the guard was sleeping yet. Behind Helms the fire he had lit brightened and he knew the larger pile had ignited. Before long he smelled the smoke in a sudden downdraft. The guard, too, must have smelled the smoke because Helms saw the shadow of a man rise, with a rifle in hand, and start toward the fire, fully expecting Helms to be getting his breakfast. Helms suspected that the guard would fire at anything that moved. The false dawn was in the canyon, on the upper reaches, and the shadowed man moved deeper into the canyon.
When Helms’s horse heard something approaching, he bolted. The reigns pulled at a bush and Helms’s shirt hanging on the bush began to shake. There was a shot fired. The horse clattered back up the canyon, and Helms, with brighter light on the higher level, put one round of lead against the kingpin stone. The rock pile started downhill, like a minor avalanche loosing and gathering more rocks as it rolled downward in one huge movement, and the roar of the slide grew louder and louder.
Helms heard one cry as the rocks came crashing to the floor of the canyon.
A pinto was tethered near a cold fire. Helms made coffee, fed the horse, made his way toward Soderville as dawn came fully on top of the northern mountains. He had a day’s ride ahead of him and night would cover his entrance into town.
If there were any more troubles on the paper trail, he was sure he could handle them. Brother Burden would agree to that. He wondered again and again about the naughty laugh of the girl on the train. He hoped that he might meet her again. He seemed sure he would.