Western Short Story
Silent as an Indian, Tilghman crept up and studied the two men from behind a screen of brush. Years of living in the desert had honed his senses and he’d heard them before he saw them. He didn’t recognize the strangers who’d invaded his camp, but he knew what they were.
They were predators like the coyotes skulking in the hills around his camp and Tilghman knew they planned to kill him.
It was his own damned fault. The last time he’d gone to town he’d been too thirsty to think about using common sense. In his cups, he’d blathered about finding gold out here. The old man vowed next time he’d stay away from the whiskey. Too late to think about that now. He didn’t remember these two, but they must have been there. Anyway, if it wasn’t them, it’d be others of their kind.
The old man was afraid, yet that fear gave him a strength they wouldn’t suspect. He wouldn’t go down easy. Chiding himself for his stupidity, Tilghman crawled down the draw and took the first step toward survival. Then he returned to camp.
The younger of the two relieved him of his shotgun as soon as he stepped into the clearing. They’d already rummaged through his belongings. His personals lay scattered all around.
"Got any food, old man?" the other asked.
"Reckon you already know what I have," Tilghman told him.
"Don’t be smart. I’m hungry and I tend to rile quick when I’m denied rations."
"Eli don’t mean nothin’," the younger one said. "We was lookin’ for food and didn’t find none. We was buffalo huntin’ and lost all our gear."
Tilghman turned on him, shaking his head. "No need to lie, boy. Haint no buffalo round
here for a long time. Besides, you'da found the food with the packsaddles if that was what you was looking for."
Eli laughed then, a mean hacking laugh that made Tilghman’s flesh crawl. He seized the old man’s arm. "You’re a feisty bugger, I’ll give you that. You’re right.
We haint hunters and we weren’t lookin’ for food. But I am hungry and you better fix me some grub while I’m still in a good mood." He released Tilghman and gave him a shove.
Tilghman built a fire, set the coffee pot to boiling and started some frijoles, venison steaks and biscuits. While he worked, he studied the two.
Eli smelled like he should have been a hide hunter but Tilghman suspected he was an
Army deserter. He wore a kepi so old and battered you couldn’t tell if he’d served on the Confederate or Yankee side and his frayed and patched shirt and pants gave no further clue. In his mid-thirties, he was short and stocky but capable of faster movement than might be expected. He was obviously the more dangerous of the pair and the one to be taken out first if opportunity arose.
The kid still had the look of the farm about him. Probably fresh down from Kansas, looking for an easier life than the one he’d known and fallen in with bad company. A derby a size or two too big sat precariously on a mop of dark curls and kept sliding down over his jug ears. Unaccustomed to its behavior and apparently unwilling to replace it, the boy had developed a habit of pushing it back where he wanted with the index finger of one hand. A dumb greenhorn, but not to be ignored when trouble came.
"So, where is it?" Eli asked, mopping his plate with the last of the biscuit.
"Where’s what?" Tilghman replied, pouring coffee.
Eli slapped the cup from his hand and grabbed him by the collar. His breath smelled as bad as the rest of him. "Don’t play dumb with me! You know damned well what I’m talkin’ about. Where’s your gold?"
Tilghman caught his breath, put a restraining hand on Eli’s arm. "Who says I got gold?"
"We heared ya talkin’ about it in town," the boy said.
So, they had been there. "Spent it," Tilghman rasped as Eli twisted a big fist tight against his throat.
"All of it?"
"There wasn’t that much. It was the whiskey. Brag talk, that’s all."
Eli’s eyes bugged out as he scowled. "You lyin’ to me again, old man?"
"No. I swear it. I found a pocket, cleaned it out and went to town to celebrate."
"And you haint got more?"
"No. I been lookin’, but I didn’t find no more. It was placer gold, probably washed down from up in the Guadalupes."
"So why didn’t you go up there and look for the source?"
"That’s Mescalero country. Me and Apaches don’t see eye to eye."
Eli laughed that cruel laugh again, released him, leaned back and got himself a cup of coffee. Sipping, he glared at Tilghman over the rim of the cup. "You’re still lyin’ to me," he said.
"No I haint," Tilghman said, rubbing at his throat.
"We seed you up there in the hills, peckin’ away," the boy said. "You was puttin’ something in a sack and we know it wasn’t no stones."
Tilghman trembled, his eyes going from one to the other. They’d been watching him and he hadn’t even known. Maybe he’d grown too old to outwit them.
"I want it, old man," Eli said. "I want all of it." He sat down his cup, raised a stubby finger and pointed it like a gun at Tilghman. "But I’m gonna be patient with you for now. It’s been a long day and I’m tired. Sleep on it and then you better be ready to tell me where your poke is come morning."
Tilghman started to get up.
"Where the hell you think you’re going?" Eli growled.
"Gotta tend my mule."
"Uh-uh. I haint takin’ no chance of you runnin’ away. Ben’ll take care of your animal and our horses," Eli said, indicating the boy. "I’m tyin’ you up so’s you stay put."
Now, lying opposite them by the dying fire, trussed hand and foot with rawhide throngs, uncomfortable but worn out, Tilghman fought sleep and weighed his chances.
The chomping and stamping of their animals down by the seep was punctuated by the chirk of quail rustling in the brush, the harsh cry of poor-will already beginning their foray in search of insects and the lonely reply of a coyote off in the hills. The lowering sun sent waves of shadow cascading down from the rimrock above them and, as it came, it slowly squeezed the warmth from the land.
Tilghman shivered, wiggled his hips to find a more giving place in the sand and tried to pull the blanket closer around him with his bound hands. Eli had been right. Foolish as it might have been, he would have tried running away. Now he could only wait.
Breathing in the sweet scent of the fire mingled with the harsher odor of alkali and pinon borne in on the cooling air, he knew he had but one chance. A varmint could only be caught with the right bait. They would not kill him tonight but they surely would after they made him give up his gold. He hoped their greed for it would make them careless. He would need his strength and his guile. He slept.
Eli insisted on eating again in the morning. Ben was impatient and argued with him.
Their annoyance with one another pleased Tilghman. It gave him time to work the stiffness out of his joints and he saw their dispute increasing distrust that might work to his advantage.
"A man should never work on an empty stomach. Haint that right, old man?" Eli said, grinning at him.
"We coulda et later," the boy groused, shoveling up beans with a slab of biscuit.
Tilghman rubbed his sore wrists, grateful they’d removed the thongs. Bleary-eyed and short-tempered, didn’t appear either of them had slept.
"Haint you gonna eat?" Eli was asking him.
"Might be your last meal."
"Then I’d want somethin’ more than beans."
Eli laughed and shook his head. "You sure are something. What makes you think we’re gonna kill you?"
Eli got up and went to the fire. He knelt down, poking at the embers with a stick. "Only if you don’t cooperate," he said, glancing up.
"Yeah. I figure soon as I tell you where my poke is, that’s the end of me."
"We don’t want to kill you," Ben said. "We just want the gold."
"Right," Eli said, pulling the stick out of the fire and blowing on its tip which now glowed red hot.
"You won’t get the gold if you kill me."
"Oh, there’s lots of ways to make a man talk," Eli said, sidling up to him and brandishing the stick.
Tilghman pulled his eyes away from the steaming branch and glowered at Eli. "I’m an old man. I could die before I talk if you hurt me."
"I seed the Apache do this to a man once," Eli said, throwing an arm around his shoulders. "Figure you’ll talk pretty quick if I put the heat on your flesh."
"There haint that much gold in the poke," Tilghman said. He was perspiring and his lips quivered as he spoke. "It won’t last forever."
"What are you sayin’, old man?"
"Maybe we can work ourselves a deal."
Eli’s eyes sparkled with curiosity. "What sort of deal?"
"There’s lots more gold around here. If you promise not to kill me, we could be partners. I’d work it and we could have a two-way split."
"They’s three of us," the boy put in.
Eli patted his shoulder and tossed aside the stick. "That’s a right friendly offer. Whatdya think, Ben?"
"Sounds pretty good to me."
"And you’d give us the poke as sort of a down payment?" Eli asked, his eyes glittering with greed.
"Well now, sounds like we jest cut ourselves a deal, partner." And he took Tilghman’s hand and shook it. "Besides, I’d hate to have to kill a good cook like you when there’s a way around it. Where’s the poke?"
Tilghman breathed a sigh of relief. "It haint far," he said.
Nervously, he led them up the draw knowing the hardest part still lay ahead.
Heat shimmered off yellow and red rock as a lizard scurried across the sand to safety and swallows darted up the canyon ahead of them.
At length, Tilghman halted.
"Well," Eli asked, "where is it?"
Tilghman pointed to his left. "There. I stuck it in a hole at the base of that stump."
The two hurried forward, racing to be first. Eli shoved Ben away and dropped to his knees in front of the stump. He thrust a hand into the hole and plucked out the poke.
"What the..." he muttered as yellow jackets cascaded from their nest in the hole.
Stinging swarms enveloped Eli and Ben as Tilghman retrieved his pistol from the clump of rabbit bush where he’d left it wrapped in his kerchief the previous afternoon. He unwrapped the Colt, cocked it and turned to face his enemies.
Ben ran, screaming and swatting, pursued by a moaning, seething cloud of wasps, down the canyon.
Writhing in pain, Eli rolled across the ground, got to his knees and struggled to rise.
Despite his hurt and the sun in his face, he saw the old man coming toward him. He groped for the gun in his belt.
Tilghman was at almost point blank range when he raised his own pistol and fired.
Eli fell back, twitched once and went still.
Ben was out of sight and Tilghman figured he probably wouldn’t stop running until he was back in Kansas.
The old man stood there, wasps swirling around him in the warm air. He remained still, not swatting at them, and soon the insects calmed and flew off. Then he stepped up and took back his poke from Eli’s cold hand.