Published on Friday, January 1, 2013
Marshal of Highbridge, Colorado
By Tom Sheehan
He'd been pinned down for over half the day, the sun merciless, burning like a torch, his water nearly gone, when the arrow came down from who knows where and ratcheted itself, the barbs digging deep into the bushwhacker's leg, into the fat meanness of the thigh. Ransom Lehigh saw the arrow hit. Heard the bushwhacker's cry loud and clear. Anybody within a mile would have heard it. But there was no arrow shooter visible, no twang of the bowline in echo. Not a coyote, a peccary, or a wild cat made a move or a sound, though death might well have been in the air.
The day wore on, the water lasted until high noon, boiling high noon. The shooter, ominously patient, had good aim on his next shot just past noon, creasing Ransom's head, pain running like a runaway train that suddenly hit a wall of stone. Ransom passed out then, into a small piece of shade beside the rock he was hiding behind. Shortly thereafter, not knowing how long or what else had transpired around him, above him, he was oblivious to the hands that tended him, lugged him into the heart of Rosecramp Mountain, left food and water at his side in the darkness.
"I must already be two days late," Ransom said when he first woke up in the cave, his hands tucked down at his sides, empty, cool, a tingle in his right hand. That hand reached for his holster, found it empty, made him shrug, shake his head in doubt. The odor of cooked meat emanated from a leather pouch near his head, water jiggled in a small container not made of metal that joggled when he nudged it with his elbow. And a strange sound came from deeper in the cave, from deeper in the heart of the mountain. It came chant-like, in legendary notes the mountain could not hold back. He realized, because of some element of newness, he was in the arms of history as it made its way along the road of time. Since childhood he had felt, been touched, was somewhat aware of "things about him." There was a double thought hitting him: things "about" him, things "around" him. He was in the loop between a killer and a savior; each breath seemed precious.
Now, "something else" was touching him. And all of it had the marks of native culture, especially the secrecy of his rescue and the uncommon bravery where their kind had died by the hundreds on too many days. Ransom was aware of a lot of things circulating about him, about the burgeoning West, but the Indian ways remained mostly hidden, though there always was something special riding the air, asking to be touched, remembered, placed judiciously, indeed, found honored.
There it came again! In a sudden focus appeared a dear friend of such secrecy; Snake-Bites-Last never told him what his tribe was, "where on Earth he had come from," though he still believed he was from a northern clan whose skins and cured hides bore markings of the Great White Bear he had never seen except on a piece of deerskin unfolded on the ground by the wind riding a river that now had no name. A great white furry thing with huge paws and teeth like sharpened logs stood tall on that skin long as a man is measured. The fierce look, too, was enough to quake a lesser heart. Ransom, in his own way, had stood on the heart of that beast, not in derision, but in a statement of his own courage; Snake-Bites-Last had seen him in that act, and honored it. Among men there are certain standards that rise, are known, respected, come first in all measurements, in all comparisons.
He also suddenly recalled that all of Rosecramp stood around him when he had fallen. One of his last looks had picked up the snow on its peak, a glint of silver shiny as a new belt buckle, busting back at the sun with its own energy. He wondered if someone else had seen the same view, marveled at it the way he did.
It brought him abruptly back to his situation.
"They've been waiting for me for over a week at Highbridge, now this." His mind was not wandering, he knew, just measuring, taking stock, figuring odds. He wondered, half aloud, how this hand would play out... him in a cave, prone but not hurting as much as when pain took over his senses.
Who was the shooter? Sent out by the ornery ones trying to run the whole show? Who was his savior who had carried him into the safety of the cave, under the whole mountain? It was a cinch that the coward shooter would not try to come into the cave, somehow knowing Ransom Lehigh rarely missed a target he shot at.
Would Snake-Bites-Last have done it, or sent an emissary? Was he about now, hiding? If so, for what reason?
Then Ransom felt the weight on his stomach, atop his belt line. His right hand, his pistol hand, found his own pistol sitting where it had been placed, obviously placed, the handle at the right side for his initial grip, for his use, a friendly placement from an unknown friend. Just as was his being carried into the cave somehow, into a protective cover, even as he suddenly remembered the unseen arrow as it first dug into the bushwhacker's fat thigh, cut its way into flesh and muscle of that leg, how the thug almost rolled his whole body into clear sight, leaving signs for more measurement, for clearer description: "The bushwhacker wore black pants," he'd say later, "odd spurs on his boots like they had been hammered by a blacksmith, a gray shirt that carried some design in it that was not clear, and he loosed a stained and worked-at Stetson from his head that rolled to his feet when he tugged at the arrow, his rifle on the ground, his whole body a new target.
Ransom Lehigh, prone in the darkness, was as handsome as a show dog, or show horse, as some might say. "A hunk of the west as it ought to be seen," someone said, recalling one damsel saying so in Pearl Mission's Saloon. Maybe it was Pearl herself who uttered that bit of compliment. It sounded like her, blonde her, buxom her, green-eyed her, and a business woman with so much get-up-and-go it might get away from him without him knowing it until it was too late.
It was Pearl, on one of his earlier visits to Highbridge, who had also said, "We need a marshal hereabouts, Ransom, and no man's better fit for the job than you. My connections will add considerable say in the matter. The connections are territorially wide despite the size of this establishment, which is the smallest of the three I own. What I want I generally get, believe me, and it's one of the reasons they appointed you."
He had smiled that time, a wide smile that also made her smile and jab him with an elbow into his horizontal side, her eyes still wider, saying volumes, all the inside jokes and secrets up for grabs, good for laughs even the second or third time around. She didn't believe they were a couple, but she was aware of the long-range issue; it made her feel different.
A soft smile snuck across her face as she looked at him, admiring the square brow and the solid chin, noting how his eyes always carried some kind of awareness in them, about her or those around her. She trusted him more than any man she had ever known. She had never asked about the scar on the underside of his chin when all kinds of questions rose up for answers, explanations, resolutions. The mark was a hard-set remnant of a serious wound and when she didn't believe it would have been a bullet that left its mark, she had no idea otherwise what had injured him... and why. It was an ugly mark. On another man, it certainly put the man at odds with female company. A pleasant feeling hit her that she didn't, couldn't, feel that way about Ransom Lehigh no matter who and what had taken aim at him. The feeling overcame her that she could with pleasure spend a harsh winter with him in a small cabin out on the loneliest stretch of prairie.
He was most certainly a special kind of man.
His voice was deep, carried a hum in it when he turned back to her. "So what's bothering you and the others? Nobody's said a word to me. " He had gone serious in that moment, forgot his surroundings, his company, thinking back to the worst parts of his law career, the gunplay, the deaths, the side hill burials being the last evidence of a man's life.
"That's part of it," she had said. "They're afraid. A lot of guns have been hired by Roscoe Dervil. Gang guns. Single guns that shoot out of dark places or dug-in places. Crowd shooters losing themselves in gun smoke and masks. All of it for a chunk of money that'll be gone from their pockets in a week's time. None of them can count past next Thursday. I've seen the lot of them already wasting themselves by the day." She managed to shake her head as if it all was not part of her business catering to the hungers and thirsts of herdsmen, townsmen, men on the loose.
He loved the way she talked, all leveled out so there'd be no doubt about interpretation, about images being created from the words, making sure she was plain-out knowable. She wasn't afraid of anyone, but a gang of ones bothered her. None of it showed in her face; her lips like a perpetual smile lingering for the first hint of joy or excitement, the pale greenness of her eyes smothering a man as though a bed of flowers had been thought up for him, the dimples at her mouth saying the rest of her was just as warm.
It was in whole body language she spoke of Dervil. Her mouth said, "He has an extra letter in his name. He is the Devil himself." It looked as if she was about to throw up, as though an image had come into sudden control of her being.
"Dervil's piling up an army, a short-term army he'd kill off in a minute after it's over if he could line them up in a row and kill them with one shot. It wouldn't bother him a thin dime. Not even if his brother was in the line, he's that kind of a thug, senseless but smooth as axle grease. 'Member the old miner, Chad Almquist, when he went into register his claim, got killed in there, the clerk killed too and only Dervil's claim all set on the old man's strike, saying he bought it and left the two of them in the office arguing about another piece of land? He'd been watching Almquist for weeks, ever since the old prospector started spending a bit of dust money. Knew how good poor old Chad's hit was, him poor no longer."
She paused in that charge, then made another claim. "He wants the whole world around us, Dervil does."
"That includes you, doesn't it, Pearl?"
Pearl charged the topic in a flash, seeing something alarming on Ransom's face. She stayed in place and solemnly stated, "The only company I've had in over a year's been you, Ransom. That's the Holy truth." She kissed him again, easy, like a wife and the day coming upon them with its regular heart beat, the sun popping on the horizon, the flowers and birds warming up out on the wide grass, milk waiting a pair of hands in the barn, chatter hushed but audible in corner beds, spilling life from soft sleep, love moving soft as a child's shadow.
That time he'd said nothing, but held her in close trust, the way she liked it best.
Now, in darkness, a faint light peeking around a turn in the tunneling cave, different images came at him: Pearl at condemnation and beauty, the dimples winning out; Dervil in the red suit of the devil, a rifle in his hands, the barrel exaggeratingly long as if it might poke the target before it put a bullet in it; the bushwhacker with great difficulty trying to put a tourniquet on his leg, his blood geyser-loose; and an unnamed and unknown person of strength and comfort and thoughtfulness standing unseen in his presence, hovering. The last image, imagined from nothing, still unseen, stayed with Ransom longest, perhaps little more to it than a small cloud or a gathering of mist, but he inhaled a taste he could not identify, a taste as sharp as an arrowhead that had made its target, but nameless.
He felt the eeriness of it; nearly cut down on an errand of mercy, coming as the new marshal, promising himself to take on Dervil and his whole gang however many there were now in the fold, almost killed by a bushwhacker, saved by an unknown entity, whatever he might call it.
Ransom wondered if Pearl had commissioned someone (some thing he said deliberately) to watch over him, suspecting that Dervil would try to prevent his arrival in Highbridge, prevent his pursuing the marshal's job. Opposing forces worked around him, for sure.
Days later he'd recall the strange aroma in another setting, the way a heavily scribbled letter and an undoubtedly dense signature might come to light after study, after a search of all the mind possesses, all of it a time or two down the trail behind him. But it remained a mystery, staying part of the mountain forever. Mountains and love are always mysteries, he'd agree.
For now, he recalled the strange words that his old pal Snake-Bites-Last had sworn to while the pair was sitting at a campfire in the shadow of the Rosecramp nearly a year before. They'd been talking about duties, deeds, and the place of the high spirits that could run rings around the mountain day or night. The Indian friend from a northern tribe, sitting very close to the fire, had suddenly said, as if a vision had forced words from his mouth, "Dead Snake Cry when mountain shakes."
Lehigh hadn't asked for an explanation that time, or other similar times, because he felt that Snake-Bites-Last often left the best part of his talk, the gist of things, the nugget, for chewing on at a later time, when thinking leaped up, required concentration of the deepest order, when the heeder needed his mind straightened out, when resolve was identified. At those times he felt like a stranger finding himself in the general store needing everything in sight and not sure he had the money or could carry off all the goods he wanted by himself.
Snake-Bites-Last once admitted he had a half-breed son, born of a woman he had found in the mountains near death and brought her to full health. She had come to him one night, in thanks, and their son was born. "He works in Highbridge as his other part and I see him once in a while. It is our secret, his, mine, now yours. The boy bears good will, knows the mountain and the gods and now the other side. His name is Wilyum," and he spelled it out. "She said it was her father's name. One day he might be known to you, be of assistance to you. He works at the livery and is close-mouthed." Ransom would remember those words as if the God of the Mountain himself had spoken to him.
When he fell asleep after eating the food found near him, drank the water in the leather bag, he had no idea how long he slept. But when he awoke, he was outside the cave, in a sitting position, a leather skin, cured smooth as a watered stone, draped over him. The sun was beginning to work its way across the mountains, time had passed, but he had no memory of who moved him... but he had a good idea, and it wasn't the God of the Mountain unless his selected name was Snake-Bites-Last.
And there was his horse, the huge black horse with no apparent mark from the shot that had hit him, grazed him, but caused him to toss Ransom at the impact. He called out his name and Cutlass came to him, nuzzled him, appeared ready to ride into Highbridge.
Still no sight of Snake-Bites-Last, or God of the Mountain, or any native of the area... or of the bushwhacker with the arrow wedged into his fat thigh.
Ransom found comfort as he mounted the horse. "Good boy, Cutlass. Let's go visiting. See what else is waiting is waiting on us."
Against part of the range owning the Rosecramp, Highbridge's taller silhouettes, those of two or three floors, and few of them at that, showed themselves in the sunlight, glaring dishes of reflection where the sun bounced its long reaches. He could not see any people or horses running about like ants in a colony, but they were there... and some of them awaited his arrival, and some of them were waiting for him so they could turn him away.
Pearl's words came back to him in a rush, just about all of them, and then her warmth and honesty, and then a mutual hunger and trust that seemed to come as a single feeling. He'd know a welcome that others would not know... at least, no longer. Both of them had been elsewhere in their lives and were on the way back.
Cutlass, he felt, wanted to open up, go for a run, so he let him go. They hit the grass and the great black leaped out across the flat span in a rush. Ground flew by them, now and then a prairie dog or a rabbit was a dot of movement, or the sun made a small dot of a shadow on a flat surface. Ransom loved the rush of air in his face, at his ears, and by such measurement knew how fast the horse was moving; he'd match him against any other horse in the area.
And as he neared the outskirts of the town, he had two thoughts, of Pearl and of Wilyum, the son of Snake-Bites-Last and a white woman rescued in the mountains. Anxious he was to hold Pearl and to question the Wilyum. Pearl came in a rush of spirit, but from Wilyum he hoped for information, for which Pearl would benefit, as he would.
From the back edge of the livery, in a lean-to cover against a second smaller barn, he observed the boy Wilyum at chores. The boy appeared to be about 12 or 13 years old, perhaps a might hard of hearing, for the owner both waved and banged a shovel against a large cornerstone to get the boy's attention. It took a few yells and bangs with the shovel and the boy turned around and sprinted to the owner who appeared to give him a set of orders, pointing to several spots about the livery. The boy went off to one of those points and went to work, where Ransom approached him.
"Wilyum," Ransom said lightly, and the boy spun about. He was a handsome young man, firm chin, high cheekbones the early sun lit up, pale green eyes full of questions, a shock of dark hair curling down his forehead and thick locks hanging onto the back of his neck. His figure was about to show its muscles, arms showing his early labors, and his neck the same display. Worn denim pants and a thin shirt with no sleeves completed his garb, and his boots were worn near to shreds. He looked like a farm boy to Ransom, as he remembered his own brother back in Peoria,
"Your father sent me," Ransom said. "He and I are friends. I am Ransom Lehigh, the new marshal of the territory. I know about your mother and I need your help. Your father said you would be able to help me."
"I knew you were coming, Marshal. All the people know and some of them don't want you here. They were planning to surprise you the very first night if you got here, in the saloon when you walk in. They had a man out there in the mountain pass waiting to kill you. His name is Gil Crockerbury and he's too big to ride a horse. He should ride in a two-mule buggy. He rode in here this morning. His leg was wounded. He was taken to the doctor and has not come out of the doctor's place. That's it over there, that gray place." He pointed down the road to a small gray house with a red door and a sign painted on the door that said "Dr. James Rutherford" in large white letters.
Ransom said, a huge smile on his face, "I'll share a secret with you only your father and you will
ever know. Your father put an arrow in his leg from high on the mountain. Best shot I ever saw. Absolutely the best ever, and I was being shot at by that fat, slimy bushwhacker hiding in the rocks, that Crockerbury. I swear, Wilyum, that arrow came right down from the top of the mountain and dug near a holy grave in that man's leg, deserving all the pain it brought with it."
Wilyum creased his face with a wide smile also. "My father's truly the only man could ever shoot an arrow that way. The mountain is his. My mother said that, and he believes it like I do. Now I think you do too. But watch out for that Dervil man. He's the one planning to kill you. He sits in the corner by the end of the bar like he owns it and lots of the men who hang around with him and none of them know they're waiting on the end of the world." The coming successes of the new marshal blossomed on his face.
"Dervil sips on the same drink for hours, tries to get Miss Pearl to go off somewhere with him, but she won't leave. I heard she hates the ground he walks on and he just laughs at her like he thinks she does not mean what she says." He smiled again, an insider's sly smile.
"How's he going to start things on me? You hear any of that?" Ransom was not going to miss any information that Wilyum had picked up.
"Nothing except it'll be about Miss Pearl, I know that much. Every time he whispers to one of his hired hands, and there are lots of them, he looks toward Miss Pearl. But she stays at a distance, usually behind the bar with Sam the regular bartender. He doesn't say much either, except I can see he favors her highly, like he's her father or her uncle. I did hear him say you were appointed marshal in the territory."
Ransom warned Wilyum away from the saloon. "You stay away from there tonight, Wilyum. No fetching drinks for the livery or any new riders who come in. I will see Dervil before he knows it.
Will you put my horse away and do you have a place where I can sleep today, keep hidden?"
"Yes," Wilyum said, the smile bigger than ever on his face for this new connection with his father. "Good as done, sir. Good as done."
Well after the hour of the late meal, the sun gone its way to the Pacific, Ransom Lehigh came to the rear of the saloon from behind a few buildings and outhouses, climbed up on an overhang onto a small porch and slipped into Pearl's room through a window while she was still at the bar. He slid a piece of white paper over the top of her door and left it there, a small edge of it showing against the dark woodwork of the doorframe, a signal of occupancy known but to Pearl and him.
Dervil was working on Pearl every chance he had, and this time he managed to get her to sit at his table while he advised two pals to leave. "That trip to Frisco could be any day Pearl. All you have to do is say the word."
"I keep telling you," she said, "you could write it out on the best contract paper and I still won't leave this place. I have too much invested here." And even as she said that, she swung an innocent glance around the saloon as if she was surveying the whole place, marking and defining any and all things in her view. That's when she noticed the slice of white paper over the top of her door on the second floor, a thin slice of white, but gloriously white, notable white, Lehigh white.
A very conscious feeling swept through her that she hoped was buried in her shaking head. Standing suddenly, her hands on her hips, she said, "Things here are too busy for me. For the thousandth time, I don't have any yearning to go to San Francisco at the present time." It did not seem as affirmative as earlier.
The men around the saloon, for the most part, had heard the same thing before, and they knew she'd be up and off in a second's time. But this time some of them, including Dervil, thought it sounded like an excuse, a barrier beginning to break down. Dervil nodded to no one in particular and to the whole saloon in general, and felt like cinching up his belt.
Pearl, with some zest and a big wave, said to Sam at the bar on her way past him, "Give that gentleman another drink on the house, Sam. He deserves it for his persistence." She pointed back at Dervil and walked haughtily away, toward the stairs, her heart finding a sudden new rhythm, while a special and welcome warmth began to flood her whole body.
The air carried freshness and excitement for her. The stars had begun their high journey toward another day, toward a new promise. She snapped her fingers at the man sitting at the piano and he swung into an old ballad that carried feelings in it immediately. The saloon seemed festive as she walked between tables, headed for the stairs. It was almost as though she'd looked back over her shoulder and sent a different message to Dervil.
He sat expectant, suddenly finished the drink he'd been sipping, and pushed his glass toward Sam who was walking towards him with a new drink.
With a hurry in her climb, Pearl hastened up the steps, the slip of white paper still visible over the top of the door of her room. The evening was young and the new marshal was in town.
Pearl and Ransom quickly talked after her welcome kiss and he told her what needed to be done.
Opening the door, Pearl looked down at Dervil, nodded her head with an inviting nod that many in the saloon understood and had expected. Dervil made a show of the new development, pushed his glass away further from his place at the table, drew himself to his full height and proceeded to walk along the bar to the steps leading up to Pearl' room, the door still open.
Nobody saw him for two days.
When he walked into the room, Ransom slapped him on the side of the head with his gun, tied him up, gagged him, slipped a rope around him and lowered him to the ground. The sheriff was surprised when he walked in with Dervil over his shoulder.
"Lock him up, Sheriff. The charge is attempted murder of a marshal of the territory. I will bring the shooting bushwhacker to you shortly, the hired gun."
Ransom saw Dervil settled down on a bunk in a cell, still unconscious. "Keep him quiet, Sheriff. I'll have more business with him in a short while. Don't mess things up for me, or for him." His voice had changed, deepened.
He left the jail, and proceeded to Doc Rutherford's house down the street. He'd make sure of the odd spurs on his boots like they had been hammered by a blacksmith, a gray shirt that carried some design in it that was not clear, and a stained and worked-at Stetson.
He'd have the bushwhacker in a cell in a hurry too. Let them talk to each other after he had brought them face to face. They'd have all kinds of options: Affirm or deny the attempt of his murder, cry out their innocence, make a plea, point the absolute finger at the other; and see, with an artful presentation, that they'd have little future in Highbridge.
After all, his chief witness to the attempted murder was his good friend, the God of the Mountains, on his side always, and lately at his side more times than he knew.
The new marshal and the saloon owner had a quiet but special night of it until the news began to spread through town in the morning that Dervil and Crockerbury were in jail, and with Dervil, the paymaster for a lot of hired hands, as of the moment unemployed, scattered to the western winds.
Ransom Lehigh had a lot of explaining for his chosen lady, about Snake-Bites-Last and Wilyum, and the way he'd do things as marshal. He was sure she'd understand.
Sheehan served in the 31st Infantry Regiment, Korea, 1951, and graduated from Boston College in 1956. His print/eBooks are Epic Cures; Brief Cases, Short Spans; A Collection of Friends; From the Quickening; and This Rare Earth & Other Flights (poetry). He has 24 Pushcart nominations and 360 stories on Rope and Wire Magazine. Recent eBooks from Milspeak Publishers include Korean Echoes, nominated for a Distinguished Military Award and The Westering, nominated for a National Book Award. New eBooks from Danse Macabre are Murder at the Forum, Death of a Lottery Foe, Death by Punishment and An Accountable Death. Work is in/coming in Provo Canyon Review, Rosebud, The Linnetís Wings, Ocean Magazine, and many national/global internet sites and anthologies.