Western Short Story
Wrigley Welles was law’s name, the very last word on law, in The Pecos Wilderness, the southernmost extension of the Rocky Mountains in the range of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of north central New Mexico. He was, more than a sheriff or marshal, but a mountain climber, a cliff-scaler, a rider of horses on an uphill rise until sense told him it was about to become a foot-chase for a killer, a thief, a kidnapper, or a gunman of notorious deeds.
Wrig, as he was called, before it became the simpler version of Rig, found excitement and deep satisfaction on an open-plains chase or the one that led him into the higher reaches where eluders, losers, murderers, fast gunman, and all their ilk, sought escape in places where the law might never chase them; except for Wrig or Rig Welles, who’d go anyplace to catch anyone who’s face was shown on a wanted circular.
Rig’s last look at such a posted circular was a sketch of one outlaw, Pix Dagger, who robbed a branch of The New Mexico Bank in Cleverley, riding off with more money he’d ever handled in his life along with the young son of a bank teller, Richie Carver, Jr., there to deposit his latest dollar earned. Richie was 11 years old and was carried off by Pix Dagger to throw off any shooters taking aim at him and afraid of hitting the boy screaming for help all the while.
Their ride away from the bank, and out of Cleverly, was as smooth as a prairie stroll with a young lady; uninterrupted, not a single bullet slicing through the air around the duo on horseback. Richie did not stop screaming until they were on the first rise outside of town, the mountains stretching down their reach directly in front of them, the rise to formidable heights promising some escape route or hideout, if so chosen, for Pix Dagger and his loot and his prisoner, his new ward, his escape means: he realized he might have been shot to death if not for the kid on the horse with him.
“I don’t want to know your name, kid, ‘cause I’m gonna call you ‘Smokie.’ So, don’t say anything else to me or I’ll stick this gun down your throat or toss you off the side of a cliff. Makes no difference to me, so, be wise about your mouth.”
Richie Carver, Jr., practically went silent for the first time in his life, knowing the fix he was in, what the man, who had his hands on his life, might do on the spur of any moment. He remembered his mother saying, “Sing when you feel like singing, but keep quiet when you have nothing worthwhile saying; people understand the singing but not all the other stuff kids carry around with them.”
The horse exhibited the first of the difficulties, the climb getting steeper, and Pix Dagger, talking aloud to himself, said, “I got to find a place to hide the horse, if I can, for a few days; see if anybody chases us way up here. Nobody knows it, but me and my horse, and now you, kid, but I got grub hidden all over this mountain, lots of it, enough to go a couple of weeks so we can slip away with all the goodies.” He laughed a victorious laugh, like a job-well-done laugh. He let it go a second time, loud, so the whole world could hear it.
Pix Dagger had no idea that Wrigley Welles was on his trail already, surmised that the robber, the kidnapper, and the teller’s son were using the Pecos as an escape route and a temporary hideout, that they’d hideout for a while, then dump the boy in some weird ending he dared not think about.
Neither did he know the boy was dropping small pieces of his red handkerchief every time he could manage to tear a piece loose; Richie lost count of how many pieces he had ripped off his handkerchief but it was getting smaller with each tear, all the pieces coming in different sizes, different shapes.
In truth, Dagger had no idea that two ends of the deal were working against him, one with him and the one behind him already on the trail. He might have thought, if he had known, that none of it was going in his favor, that things were piling up all around him, including the Pecos too in their silent rising to near the top of this known world in all of New Mexico, him this night coming to be closer to the stars than he had ever been, damned near the top of the world.
Dagger had put his horse in a cave, hoping it would protect him as much as possible from mountain lions, any flesh-eating animals born to the Pecos. He and the boy, trussed with a chunk of lariat so that he wouldn’t run off, had climbed high and higher for he length of day, the sun gone past the low horizon, the two of them secluded in a cave for the night, the entrance secured, food taken from a hiding place, the kidnapper and the kidnapped having heir first meal of the night.
Richie Carver heard the true silence of the night, of the earth, of the mountain itself, as he tried to sleep, picturing the torn pieces of his red handkerchief being collected by an eagle-eyed trailer on his own way up the mountain, the pleasant feeling of such discoveries drawing him into a deep sleep, the Pecos his bed for the whole of this night.
Rig, in his own cave for the night, a small fire casting its light so he could count the pieces of the red handkerchief he had collected, and had laid out on the floor of the cave, trying to find its measurements, how much more he might find on the way up the mountain, the boy filling his mind with admiration, hoping the kidnapper might be feeling some sympathy for the boy. Every bit of help that was mounting for the boy, no matter the source of help, would all add up to a rescue of the boy. The return of the stolen money was no longer on his mind, him imagining, a hundred years from now, some mountain climber would stumble on the riches and find his life suddenly changed because of his love of climbing such as The Pecos.
His own horse was also penned in a cave; he feared for him, too, like he did for young Carver, both creatures drawn into the drama by a thoughtless, careless human being wanting the good stuff of life regardless of its cost, of who and what was hurt to satisfy his own hunger.
Rig Welles fell asleep with the good thoughts chasing him into the mountain darkness, into the forever of things.
Early morning, before the sun broke free, the sheriff, the pursuer, was afoot on the high Pecos. He wondered how much handkerchief was left, if he had found the last piece available for dropping on the wayside, sight-unseen by the kidnapper, the robber, Pix Dagger, whose mind was most likely on a new day on the mountain, possibly seeing a way out down the other side of the mountain, perhaps already in his plans having made that trip.
The sheriff had been here before, the challenge of such a climb having hit him a few years before, his own demand of “know the country you’re responsible for, ever foot of the way that you can imagine.
Then, in the midst of morning silence, he heard a soft whistle, heard it repeated, heard a husky voice say, “You tryin’ to signal someone, kid? No one way up here. You ain’t got a chance in hell of anybody hearin’ you, don’t you know that?”
Welles wanted, desperately, to answer back, to hear the ruckus in response, but kept a whistle to himself, catching sight of the kidnapper and the kidnapped close beside each other in front of a cave opening, the deep darkness like an evil blackness at the cave mouth. If the riches were in there, he cared less, but he had to let the boy know he was there, close enough to hear him on top of the wind, blowing over his back toward the pair on the run.
Rig Welles, in a moment of deep thought, the fingers of one hand twisting around the red remnants in one pocket, selected one piece from his pocket, let it free from his hand, saw it fly directly toward the others as it was caught by the wind, saw the boy spot it as it landed close to them, and then continue on an errant flight out and beyond from the near top of The Pecos.
“What the hell was that?” said Pix Dagger.
“Go see for yourself,” said young John Carver. “It’s right over there.” He pointed to the sole rock near the peak, might have sat there from Infinity. Dagger moved
toward the sole round boulder, away from young Carver.
When Dagger picked up the piece of red handkerchief, he had a sudden realization of the worst kind, and a single shot struck off stone right at his feet, and Rig Welles said, as John Carver, Jr. rushed to his side, “Make another move, Dagger, go for that gun of yours, and I’ll drop you right where you stand, and there’s no way I’m packing your body down this mountain.”
That’s how they came back to the town of Cleverly, the kidnapped kid leading the kidnapper and the local sheriff, and a satchel over the boy’s shoulder just waiting to show it to his father.