Published on Monday, January 30, 2012
To A Sound in the West
By Erik Berg
The boy's horse was beaten and worn, and now took to panting beneath him. He had expected too much of the horse. It had begun to wobble and stray when they first entered the canyon, but the boy felt too much pride to quit. He gave a kick and pushed the horse further. About half way through, he gave a cry of triumph; the horse was a hero, and a warrior, and now a legend in his eyes; he felt part of this riding it. That was until the horse fell.
The horse was not dead. He whimpered still, to defeated breaths; it was not the horse's will to be a hero, it was the boy's. The boy dismounted. He circled the horse, a little disappointed, and looked around the canyon. The walls were beautiful, and the dirt crimson. He thought of his father. Back home a man was no more than the things he had seen. Now, he felt better than his father; he felt better than anyone.
The boy was a messenger, and proud of the title as much as he was the work. He ran messages for the pastor and the marshal, small routes that took him through back roads, in and out from ranch to ranch. The title made him important, though he'd never attempted anything this large. He had with him now a personal letter from the Judge to an attorney in Fielding, something very important and classified he guessed. The boy was too prideful to read it; it's what made him a good messenger. Instead, he kept the letter sealed and hidden in his breast pocket.
After a few minutes the horse's breathing calmed and he was able to stand on all fours again. The boy was smart enough to know the horse couldn't take a rider. What the horse needed was water, and the boy led him toward the canyon walls in search of it. He remembered hearing a stream in the distance as they entered the canyon. The soil had a good solid red tint that meant plenty of rain fell when it needed to. They walked for close to an hour before hearing the stream again. It spat through a brook of stones and wild sage, about ankle deep, and muddy, but satisfying. The horse fell limp at the bank; it drank for as long as it suffered, which went on for a good while. The boy drank a little too. He wiped his brow clean and looked off toward Fielding. The message could wait, but it was the boy's ambition to arrive early, and he couldn't fight the disappointment.
By the time the horse perked up, the day had begun to clear shadows, and the wind died from the west. The boy judged by the sun's position it was close to noon; maybe just a little past. From where they were, he could see clearly the route where the horse had fallen. The road wasn't well traveled, but it was quick and used by runners from county to county. It was important, and then too, the boy was important. He felt proud again.
He turned as the horse turned, to a sound in the west. From the canyon mouth came three riders, all men, from what he could see. They rode quick but methodical, and slow enough so the horses didn't turn up dirt. The boy watched curiously. It was possible they were messengers too. But in pairs of three, and riding slow? In a way, he hoped they were, for his own ego. He didn't need a group to ride out, and nobody rode faster. But the men quit riding as they approached the middle, and he knew he was wrong.
The boy crouched behind a large stone and watched on. The stream was hidden from the canyon floor by tufts of sage and stone, but he took no chances. The man who rode the center made a few gestures and the group broke. Two men rode north, and one man south. They took position among the rocks, hidden from the road, dropping their horses from sight. The boy tied off his own horse and crept down for better position. He found the lone man glaring east, from where the boy had ridden. He had a pistol in his lap, readied for quick firing, and wore a white dotted handkerchief over his mouth. The boy carried a pistol too, only for certain occasions, though he never fired it. He unbuckled it from his belt and pointed it on the man. What did they want with the road? The lone man, from what the boy could tell, was young, maybe just a little older than himself, though he looked aged by other means. He examined the east with anxiety. Then he lifted an arm over the rock. From the north, the other two followed the same motion. They were working together.
A few minutes passed and a cloud rose in the east. Whatever it was, rode fast and heavy; its echo ruptured through the canyon walls, and even the stream became silent behind. The boy moved position so he could see more clearly the canyon floor, but still kept sight on the lone man. He could see now what the men were after. A wagon drawn by four horses pummeled through the canyon. Two men rode the front coach, armed and watching the road. It was a possible deposit or transfer on its way into Fielding, and the men were well aware of it beforehand.
The boy readied his pistol on the man in the rocks. He had never aimed on a man before, but these men were bandits, and he had no respect for them. He felt lawful. It was a clear shot, and an easy shot, though he paused. He cared for the law, but the bank was not his responsibility, the letter was; a delay could ruin a prideful ego with ease.
As the wagon neared, a shot rang the canyon walls, and the two men north broke in. The lone man kept steady at his post. It was clear the others were in lead. The wagon kicked forward with a crash on the horses, doubling speed. A few return shots fired clear of the riders. Another shot hollowed the clearing. The scene grew rhythmic. The men weren't shooting for the gunmen on the wagon; they were after the horses. The canyon filled with a rampant echo, coupled and growing stronger by a warm wind in the west, like the cadence of a very good play, or like the growth of music. Then a bullet connected in the lead horses breast. The animal crashed into the soil, followed by a deep thunder throughout the canyon walls. The wagon stalled, kicked and tossed into the air, throwing the men a few feet in the distance. It rolled once, over the horses; the ones not shot were killed quickly. But the men fared better than the horses. They were seasoned guards, and fired a few return volleys, which held off the bandits while they took a firm position behind the toppled wagon.
All the while, the boy kept steady on the lone man. The man moved little; he watched with eagerness, the way a child would.
Down below, the fight picked up. The bandits were without cover on their horses, as the canyon was flat all the way to the sage line. So they did what they could. They charged the wagon. One man fired volleys to hold the others down. The echoed rallied along, more thorough than thunder, more like a rumble, the rage of a storm. One of the guards returned fire to distract the men; the other crawled to the dead horses for coverage. When they reached the wagon, the bandits dropped. One man fired at the dead horses, the other gave a kick to the guard, but his pistol slipped and flew a few yards down field. Then the two fought like men, without arms and without respect. The bandit with the pistol fired his last bullet and dropped to the floor. The guards were in control shortly. They gave a fierce punch, drawing blood. In a short minute, the two bandits were contained beside the wagon, backs facing north.
The boy was mesmerized. You didn't see things like this by farming the land. You saw it by running the land. He watched it the way he would a dance, every step planned, executed, and admired all the same. But he was still nervous.
This was when the lone man began to move. The guards were unaware but the boy had known all along; it was to be expected, the way the audience knows more than the stage. The man crept along the sage line, slow but steady with his pistol forward. The guards never considered a third man. One man kept watch on the bandits, while the other examined the wagon for repairs; the damage was extensive. The boy moved into better position. He followed the lone man with his pistol, looking for a good shot. His head was beginning to sweat, and he could feel a warm anxiety fill his chest. He had many shots on the man, and each time he gripped the trigger, contemplated firing, and then quit out of panic. But it wasn't his business about the bank anyway. He was paid to be a messenger, not a lawman. It would have been different that way. The boy couldn't do it; he was too good a messenger. The guards could be hostages and the men could be rich, and he could finish the job he started. Nobody lost but a few men far away, and that seemed better. Things would go well from there. But just as the boy slipped away, another shot was fired.
The guard in charge of the bandits fell dead and limp into the soil. The bullet killed him instantly. The bandits were up and onto the other before the man could consider firing his own pistol. Instead, he threw it off into the distance and held his hands high in mercy. The boy took a deep breath, expecting another shot, but it never came. They beat the guard with hands and feet, until the man was bloodied and looked nothing like a man, but a skinned animal. He fell to the soil when he could take no more, and only after a while then, did the men leave him be and move on to the wagon.
The boy didn't care to watch the men raid the wagon. He was sick and frightened, and clung to the rock, listening to the men load their horses below. The dance had broken step, and he didn't feel safe. He looked up toward the stream and could see a faint outline of his own horse through the brush. He was thankful the horse had nearly died; if not, it would have yelped and given itself away in the ambush. But where they were, the boy was safe, and the letter was safe. That was all that mattered at the moment.
He waited till the men had finished, and till the echo of their horses grew distant in the canyon. They had gone off toward Fielding. Then he returned to the stream, mounted his horse and galloped to the canyon floor. It was curiosity that led him to look at the men. It was easy to see dead men, but not killed men, not murdered men. The boy stepped in a pool of blood, moved aside, and vomited. He found the beaten man huddled among the horses. He wasn't dead yet. His face was worn and bloodied too badly to speak; it was hard to make out where his mouth began and quit. When he saw the boy, he made a painful gesture to the pistol thrown downfield. The boy was young, but he was smart and knew more than most. He knew exactly what the man wanted, though he wasn't the person to do it. He couldn't do it. It wasn't his trade.
He stepped away from the scene and looked west toward Fielding. There was a chance he could ride into town and report what he'd seen, but it would have to be different. There may be too much trouble in the truth, because the truth would be a lie. He couldn't say he had watched the men die. He couldn't say he didn't help. People had a large sum of responsibility they placed on men, regardless if they were of the law, or just messengers.
There wasn't much else he could do. The letter had to go on. He mounted the horse and kicked off slowly toward Fielding. The letter was due to arrive the next day anyway. Then the boy could report finding the scene, the bloodied men. He could salvage much of his pride.
The evening became red and late, and the boy made camp. Fielding was just over the hills and could be reached by morning. The boy kept a close watch on the distance, for the riders. He wasn't sure where they had gone, but he wanted to be positive they had cleared away. He tried hard to remember faces, to distinguish little features but he was too far, and the lone man had the handkerchief. At first, he thought of making a fire, but that would be too dangerous. If he was riding from the east, chances were he had stumbled onto the mess in the canyon. He didn't want to be known. Instead, he laid the horse in a clearing and huddled beside it for warmth. He kept his pistol ready to fire at all times.
Despite the long day, the boy couldn't sleep, and didn't want too. The evening was filled with silence, and that silence noise, and each noise something mistaken for a trespasser. As night came, the coyotes could be heard in the hills, and the stars were bright. Then came real noise in the brush and the boy jumped. He listened for a while and the noise grew stronger and constant, from the east coming towards him. He sat up, readied his pistol.
From the shadows came a horse and a rider into the clearing. The man startled a little at seeing the boy, as there were no signs of the camp at a distance. He looked down at the pistol, and then off toward Fielding. The coyotes cackled to the bright moon.
"You look frightened," he said. "Gets scary out here alone. You should have a fire. And then maybe company."
The boy said nothing, and the man dismounted. Still, the boy didn't relax his pistol, but the man didn't take notice. He began to rummage the clearing for scraps of wood. When he had enough, he made a bundle, and lit it with a pocket flint. The clearing warmed and became bright. The man laid his horse opposite the boy, around the fire, and sat.
"You can relax now," he said, looking at the pistol. "Only thing out here are the coyotes you have to watch out for. Don't need a pistol for them. A good fist will take care of them."
Reluctant, the boy dropped the pistol, but held it firm in his right hand. He didn't trust the stranger. He studied the man for any similarities. He could have been any one of them. He wore a leather jacket and a black hat, and didn't one of them have a black hat? The boy felt nervous again. There were those handkerchiefs too.
"What's a boy doing out here?" the man said.
"What's a man doing out here?"
"Fair enough," he said. "I'm coming east to Fielding. I'd keep going but it would do no good. Everybody's asleep now. Being I stumbled on you, it seemed right to stop and help you out."
"I don't need help."
"Either way, it's good to have company."
East? The man had said east. How could a man come east with ease and a straight face? The boy had come east too.
"Did you go through the canyon?" the boy asked.
"No. I rode over the canyon. That place scares me. Too many bad things happen that way. Hey, would you relax a little bit. There's nothing out here. You look bad."
"Where are you heading?"
The boy thought quick. Maybe the riders had seen the horse by the stream, or maybe the lone man was wary to a watcher beside him. They could have waited for him. How would this man stumble on him anyway. He hadn't made a fire.
"I'm heading toward Jerome," the boy lied. "I have family there."
"Did you go through the canyon?"
"No. I came from north of here."
"Say, you need to relax a little. You look like you've stumbled on a dead man or something."
The boy drew his pistol again on the man. It was a stark reflex, and the boy couldn't fight it. He was sure the man knew. He could tell by his eyes. He was sweating, his hands shaking. The word dead had come from the man's lips, hadn't it? The man knew something, he was positive of that. The man startled a little this time, jumping back from the fire. He wasn't expecting it.
"Hey!" he shouted. "Take it easy!"
"What are you doing here?" the boy asked. "Why are you following me?"
"Following? I told you I'm heading into Fielding."
"On what account?"
"What's that any of your business?"
The man stood, brushed himself and began to wake his horse.
"It's my business because I'm holding the gun," the boy said. "On what account or I shoot?"
The man brought his horse to a stand. He looked at the boy, confused and angry at once. The boy studied his face for signs of bruises or blood. The man could have cleaned up. Bandits were good at what they did; he knew because he had seen them.
"My son is sick," he said. "Has been for three weeks now. Doctors sent me to McClarty for medicine because they had none here. My wife is waiting for me at home. I didn't want to startle her while she slept; she hasn't been getting a whole lot of it. But I'll be on my way anyway. I see your not one for company."
The man mounted his horse. The boy tightened on the trigger.
"I don't believe you," he said. "You're not going anywhere. You're off to tell the others you found me."
"I'll go as I choose," the man said. "And I don't care if you believe me. Good night, and get some rest. It'll ease you."
"Show me the medicine or I'll shoot!"
The man kicked off, readying his horse for a gallop if needed. But the boy was on him. He jumped to his feet and took aim on the man's silhouette in the moonlight. The wilds became livid; they'd be on him soon; the letter wouldn't make it on time.
"Show me the medicine or I'll shoot!"
The man turned on the horse and made an attempt for his breast pocket. The boy fired. For a brief moment the road west, and the road east were lit and bright, and then they were quiet. The man fell awkward from the horse to the cold soil, creating a stir in the brush. The boy felt triumphant, the way he had before his horse toppled in the canyon. It would take a moment for the others to respond, and by that time he would be gone. By that time he would be in Fielding.
He readied his horse for a run, but first he examined the dead man. He found him face up in the sage, the light of the moon pale and vibrant in his eyes. It was not like the other dead men. He felt different for this man. Maybe because he had killed him? Or maybe because the moonlight? Then he noted the man's hand falling from his breast pocket. There was sure to be a pistol there, maybe the pistol that killed the guards. Instead it was small, held tight within the man's fingers. It was a vile, a vile of medicine.
The boy looked west toward Fielding. He felt sick again. He wasn't tired anymore. He had to move. As he rode west the coyotes grew louder. The hillsides spurred forward, and filled with monsters and beasts in every row, in every thistle and heather. He rode into Fielding just as morning came into the valley.
His entrance lacked the triumph he had imagined. Instead, the boy rode slumped and pale into the city. He found the sheriff outside the town center, at the stable with the horses. The man had instincts to know the boy was coming, as he stood and saluted.
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"I'm carrying a message for the attorney from Judge McCaffe. It's private."
"You've had trouble?"
"I have the letter," the boy said, regaining some of his old pride. "But I encountered a few dead men in the canyon east. I thought you should know about it. Looked they had been there for a while. They were dead when I found them."
"Bandits?" the sheriff said.
"Looked like it."
"There was a carriage due in yesterday. I suppose the delay is explained then isn't it? I'll be on my way out there."
Just then a woman came running through the hall. Her eyes scanned the eastern horizon with anxiety, and she looked on to the sheriff full of angst.
"He was supposed to be here in the night," she said to the sheriff. "I waited for him but he never showed. He's never late."
The sheriff looked to the boy, but the boy was well aware.
"Her husband," he said.
"There was another man too," the boy said. "Shot just outside of town."
The woman began to cry hysterically, still searching east. She cried without reason, but from tenured emotion. She came forward and grabbed the boy.
"Dead!" she shouted. "What did he look like?"
The boy did not have the wind for enthusiasm. What pride he had was exhausted and diminished to nothing. The sheriff stepped between them, but the boy did not resist. He reached into his breast pocket, not for the letter, but for something other. He handed the woman the small vile he'd mistaken on the man.
"I found him with this," he said. "He was shot with it in his hand."
The woman took it reluctantly, and the sheriff led her off down the hall. Her cries became slowly distant in the wind, and when they diminished to nothing, the sheriff returned.
"It's a shame," he said. "He was a very good man. They must have stumbled on him by mistake. Did they shoot him to his face, or behind like cowards?"
"That must have been a long morning. It's too much to see sometimes, dead men. When you're used to it, it means nothing, like me. But when you're not, it has its toll. Sometimes it too much for the soul."
The boy thought once more of the man in the canyon. He could do the job now, he was sure of it. The trade was his. He reached into his pocket and handed the folded letter to the sheriff. It meant little to him now.
"Take this," he said. "Just make sure it gets to the right man."
"But if you want to take it yourself, he's just right down the way."
"No," the boy said. "I don't think I have the heart for it anymore."
The boy kicked off before the sheriff could respond. He pushed the horse east, toward a home where men were no more than the things they had seen, and the things they wish they hadn't. He rode against the wind; and he did so sullenly.
Erik Berg is an author of short fiction and poetry. His works can be seen in Southpaw Literary Journal, Badlands, Black Magnolias, Blue Lotus Review, Quail Bell Magazine, and The Stray Branch. He is currently at work on the novel "A Place in the Shade" which will be up for publication in the fall of 2011.