A short story by Randy Stuart
Reuben sat still and silent on the gray mare and squinted up at the tall, rocky draw leading to the flat ridge. He reached into his vest pocket and retrieved a silver pocket watch with engraved initials. He checked the time. The stagecoach would be rounding the long bend within the hour. Time enough to stage an ambush. He craned left and right, scanning the horizon for signs of anything—or anyone—that might interfere with his plans.
Satisfied he was alone, he spurred his horse, slipping and grunting, up the crumbling, sandstone embankment. Once on top, he paused again to survey the terrain, making sure he was alone. Satisfied again, he dismounted the gray mare in his preferred theatrical manner, swinging his right leg over the horse’s head and neck and sliding down the left flank, feet together, off the burnished saddle.
The sun was high in the sky, hot and oppressive. He took a long pull from his canteen and unhitched his canvas tarp. Using some nearby stones and sticks, fashioned a low-standing shelter near the edge of the bluff, facing the bend. Barely two feet off the ground, he crawled inside the tent and spread out his bedroll, removing as many uncomfortable rocks and projections as were possible. He laid prone on the faded, gray, wool blanket, the last surviving vestige of his military service, and propped himself up on his elbows. Looking down at the tattered corner of the bedroll he could just make out the faded remnants of the CSA insignia stamp.
Reuben lay motionless for many minutes. Listening. Scanning. Listening again. Noting the stale absence of wind. And then he heard it. Faint and far off, the telltale rumblings of iron-banded wheels and the synchronized pounding of hooves tearing apart the parched desert landscape.
He shimmied backwards out of the tent and walked to the dried clump of sagebrush where he had tied his mount. He had secured the horse a good fifty feet back from the edge of the bluff, ensuring that even the driver would not be able to see the mare from such a tight angle. He patted the horse on the neck and drew his Sharps .45-70 buffalo rifle from its scabbard, and retrieved his coat, spyglass, and a box of cartridges from the saddlebags.
Back inside the makeshift snipers’ blind, he created a rifle rest with his rolled up coat. He listened again. Closer now. He opened the box of ammunition and placed five, shining brass cartridges on the blanket, then grabbed the spyglass and scanned the horizon in a slow, sweeping pass. There, about two miles out, thundering away and oblivious, was his prey.
He set down the spyglass, levered open the breech on his Sharps and inserted the finger-sized bullet. He locked the breech, shouldered the rifle, and looked down the iron sites at his ambush point, having already mentally calculated the distance and environmental factors. He preferred the ambush method of sniping, establishing an aiming point ahead of the target and pulling the trigger when the target crossed in front of it. This method allowed him to remain perfectly still. To control his breathing. To take his time.
The thundering grew louder.
Reuben cocked the hammer and slowly engaged the custom double set triggers. Gently resting his index finger on the firing trigger, he detached his focus from the gun sights, allowing his peripheral vision an added measure of breadth.
The thundering grew even louder. Close now. Very close.
There, at the edge of his vision, the lead horse rounded the rocky bend. He remained detached, years of experience and training overriding the natural inclination to turn towards the target. He allowed the stage to continue across his periphery. And then, as if on cue, his eyes returned to the iron sights with hawk-like clarity. The rear sight a blur. The front sight crystal clear, and waiting. Waiting for something to cross its cruel unforgiving bead.
The pairs of horses passed in front of the sights like a raging army processional. First pair. Second pair. Third pair. Linkage. Brake lever. He squeezed the trigger.
A cloud of red mist erupted from the driver’s chest, soaking his long beard in blood and knocking him backward. He tumbled from the stagecoach seat, landing in a crumpled heap on the parched, unyielding ground.
The report of the rifle echoed through the ravine and across the barren valley.
Reuben watched the horses, tired and now free of the compelling stings of the whip, slow to trot and then to a stop. He levered open the rifle breech, ejected the spent casing, and blew the lingering smoke from the barrel. He closed the breech, set down the rifle and stood up, throwing off the tarp like an oversized cloak. He untied the mare and rode down the embankment, scanning left to right as he descended. Once again, he was satisfied the scene had gone unobserved.
As the gray mare walked towards to stage, Reuben could hear the excited conversation taking place within the stage. He was relieved to only hear two male voices, just as his informant had promised. The more excited of the speakers let out a shrill, high-pitched lament. “Now what are we going to do?”
Carpet bagger, Reuben thought. No business being in the West. No business at all. Go back to your damn city.
Reuben stopped the gray mare twenty feet behind the stage, using the rear of the stage as a natural shield should any over-zealous occupants decide to shoot or charge. He drew his .44 Schofield revolver, a shorter-barreled Wells Fargo model, from his cross-draw holster, his preferred carry method and one more comfortable while riding. He thumbed back the hammer and cleared his throat.
“Jacob Nash,” he said in loud, succinct syllables, “this is Marshal Reuben Price. I’m here to collect the bounty on your head, dead or alive.”
“There’s no Jacob Nash on this coach Mr. Price,” said the shrill voice.
“And you are?” Reuben said.
“Estherton. Cedric P. Estherton, Esquire, attorney at law.”
“I see.” Damn carpetbagger.
“And I’m Orson McGill,” said the second voice.
Reuben exhaled heavily. “Of course you are. Well, let’s get this over with. Throw your guns—and anything else you might have—out the window and come out real slow. You so much as breathe hard and I’ll drill a hole in your forehead faster than you can spit. I collect double for bringing you in alive, but I got no problem with dead if you give me any trouble.”
Reuben watched as a .45 Colt revolver spun out the window and landed in the trail dust with a dull thud. A brass-framed derringer and a double-edged boot knife followed. A shaking hand emerged from the window and slowly turned the door latch. The door creaked as it swung open. “Please don’t shoot. We’re coming out,” came the shrill voice.
Reuben raised his revolver to eye level. The two men exited the coach, hands raised. Estherton was first, or so he assumed given the man’s mousy stature and ridiculous bowler hat, followed by McGill. Reuben waved his revolver and flicked his chin over his shoulder. The two men moved away from the coach and from the weapons lying in the dirt. They stood silently staring up at mounted lawman. Reuben returned their gaze, but said nothing, remaining motionless like a mountain lion waiting to pounce.
McGill’s eyes shifted ever so slightly to the .45 Colt. He thought he had been discreet. He was wrong.
A shot rang out from Reuben’s Schofield and the dirt exploded between McGill’s feet. He let out a slight yelp. “Geezus mister…”
“You’re having some unwise thoughts right now.” Reuben cocked the hammer again and stared into McGill eyes. “And watch your tongue if you want to keep it. I’ll not tolerate any blasphemy.”
“Mr. Price, if I may?” Estherton said with a squeak.
Reuben, eyes still fixed on McGill, nodded, “Go ahead.”
“I’m sure we would all prefer to resolve this scenario as quickly and amicably as possible. Perhaps if I could…”
“Counselor,” Reuben interrupted, “exactly how well do you know Mr. McGill?”
“I, uh, have known Mr. McGill for a week now. He approached me at my firm’s branch office in Denver about arranging some legal affairs for his family’s ranch down in El Paso.”
“That’s right,” McGill added, “I…”
A second shot rang out, blowing off McGill’s silver belly hat.
“Quiet you. It’s not your turn to speak. In fact, you don’t get to speak at all. Not ever. This is your last warning. Are we absolutely clear? Nod if you understand,” Reuben said.
McGill’s forehead and cheeks flushed. His raised hands clenched into fists, white with rage. Red-faced and seething, he nodded slowly.
“So as you can see Mr. Price,” Estherton said, returning to his oration.
“No Mr. Estherton, it’s your turn to see,” Reuben said, his left hand releasing the reins and retrieving the silver pocket watch from his vest pocket. He tossed the watch to Estherton.
Estherton caught the watch with both hands. He looked down and turned it over. Engraved on the watch cover were the initials OMG. A bewildered expression slowly crept over his slender face. “I don’t think I quite understand,” he said.
“Allow me to explain counselor. That watch belonged to Orson McGill, a low-down, dirty thief who was killed while robbing a cattle payroll train in Omaha, not three weeks ago.” Reuben turned and stared into McGill’s hate-filled eyes and continued. “His partners, Jacob Nash and Henry Dalton, eluded the authorities and were last seen heading west towards Colorado. My guess is when they reached Denver they fabricated that family ranch business as a ruse, and planned to use you as a guise to get them safely south to the Mexican border.”
McGill, his neck veins pulsing, stared at Reuben with a fire that could burn through cowhide. Reuben met his gaze with unflinching calm. With his revolver still aimed at McGill’s face, he untied the coil of rope near the saddle horn with his free hand and tossed it at Estherton’s feet.
“Pick it up Mr. Estherton.” The lawyer bent down and picked up the rope. “And you,” Reuben said to McGill, “lay on your stomach and put your hands behind your back.”
McGill lowered himself to the ground as instructed.
“Now counselor, if you wouldn’t mind,” Reuben said, “Please bind our good friend here—Mr. Nash judging from the description—nice and tight.”
The newly-identified Nash stared at the ground, his jaw set, grinding his teeth. His flared nostrils puffing up small clouds of dust.
Estherton paused, confused. “If this man is Jacob Nash, then where is Henry Dalton?”
“Face down in the dirt about a hundred yards back.”
Author’s notes: I wrote this story four years ago as the beginning of what I had then hoped would become a novel set in the American Old West.
Perhaps someday it will evolve into a full-fledged book, but for now the important thing is overcoming creative resistance and putting art out into the world. Because art is meant to be shared.
The main character, Reuben Price, is named after two of my grandparents, Reuben “Jim” Gifford and Verla Price. I hope you enjoy it. –R