Californian Dawn - A Western Short Story
Paul Smedley came across the empty cabin about a month ago and settled himself in. The roof held up reasonably well, he found an old tarp in the lean-to and stretched it across one side. He repaired the wall and fixed the door although the weathered timber still allowed water to thread down through the cracks when it rained.
He liked his own company and only rode into the settlement 12 miles away now and again for stores, the place was not much more than a dirt crossroads. He kept himself to himself.
He never did figure out how they found him.
He lit the fire and made coffee, dark and strong with just hint of molasses to take the edge off. He cooked in the blackened fireplace, he reckoned the smoke shelf was blocked but could not be bothered looking, if he was here and alive come winter he thought he might sort it out. A cloud of dense grey smoke blew out across his legs. The bitter smell seemed to grab his face and squeeze his nose and throat. He pushed the shutter open with the palm of his hand and fresh air and sunlight poured in through the window.
He broke four eggs into a hot skillet and fried them off with a hunk of bread. He opened the door to let the light in and sat at the old plank table; the boards were buckled with age and warm now with the heat from the sun. He ate straight from the skillet, drank a cup of coffee and put the pot on the hearth and left the fire to burn itself out.
He walked outside to the old lean-to and led out his horse, a big brownish-red sorrel Quarter horse. He started to brush him down. As he worked he glanced up across the horse’s withers at the clear blue sky behind a hill with a jagged rim of stone and shale. The hillside rose sheer in front of him and bristled with dark leaved trees.
He thought he saw the silhouette of a man etched against the skyline. He carried on brushing then guided the horse to the front veranda and hitched him to the rail. He stepped up onto the veranda, the shade bladed with golden shafts of light that fell through the gaps in the roof. He found the shadows by the wall, leaned back and rolled a cigarette.
His face and moustache flared in the cupped flame of the match, he let smoke drift through his lips and glanced at the ridge. He saw the dark outline of the man still watching him. He wondered if his imagination was playing tricks on him. The figure simply stood with his arms at his sides and studied him; well that was what it felt like anyway. Smedley put his hand to his hip and touched the gun in his rig with his fingertips for reassurance.
He went into the cabin, picked up his Spencer rifle, locked the tube magazine in the butt stock and levered a round into the chamber. He eased his way to the window and looked up. The ridge was as empty as the cloudless sky.
He shook his head and shrugged. He leaned the gun against the wall, rested his arms across the window sill and gazed out, lost in thought. He sighed and decided on another coffee.
Sure they’re out there looking for me, he thought as he stood by the fire and lifted the coffee pot, I know that and they won’t give up easy. I remember Harv saying as much the last time I saw him, so I’ve got to be careful but I can’t be jumping at every shadow. Pity about Harv, me and him got along fine I didn’t reckon much to the rest of them though; even Newt annoyed me at the end.
He stood in the doorway, the breeze rustled the long dry grass in the old empty railed pen and the rotting lean-to, strung with dead brush blown from a field of weeds, creaked with tiredness. He tried not to look over at the ridge but his eyes were drawn to it and sure enough he was back.
The shadowed figure stood further along the ridge this time, near a wide arroyo with outcrops of rocks jutting from the eroded slopes. Smedley rushed inside grabbed his rifle, moved across the cabin and fired a warning shot through the window. The bullet whanged of a rock a few feet from the dark figure and the echo rolled around the hills and faded away across the plains. The shadowed form did not move. Smedley stared at it until his eyes burned and the figure seemed to shimmer in the brightness of the day and dissolve against the dazzling sky.
Smedley rode to the settlement, he glanced up at the ridge as he left but it was clear. He had already decided it was time to move on. He went for supplies and made up his mind to leave for good at first light the next day.
He got back to the cabin after dark; the moonlight broke through the trees on the ridge and lit the empty bare ground as if it had been brushed with whitewash. He ate bread and cheese and store bought biscuits, packed his things and left them by the door with his saddle. He secured the door and the window shutter and sat in the corner by the hearth in the dark.
He dozed through the night gliding on the edge of sleep, getting enough rest so that tiredness tomorrow would not make him careless. He had learned that in the war, a soldiers sleep that meant the difference between seeing another day and getting bushwacked.
He opened his eyes to the soft blue glow of the early sunrise. He decided to have breakfast and did not care who knew it, he lit the fire and soon the room filled with the smell of bacon and coffee. He opened the door and shutter. The trees were black and stiff with the dawn, wispy strips of mist threaded between their trunks.
He was there of course, on the ridge, the shape of a man wrapped in the hazy softness of first light. Smedley snatched up his Spencer and decided today there was no warning shot; if he was real he was going to die. He lingered in the shade by the open window, letting his feelings sort themselves out, waiting for the familiar hunter’s calmness to seep through his body. Time passed. Out of the corner of his eye he saw movement to his right next to a clump of trees in a fold in the land. He noticed someone run in a crouch over and down the side of the cabin with the lean-to. He heard gravel crunch under boots and his horse stir against the boards. He looked up, the shadowy figure still waited on the ridge.
Smedley took his boots off, moved out of the door into the broken shade of the veranda and slid to the opposite corner away from the lean-to, with his back to the wall and out of sight of the ridge.
Down the deserted side of the cabin he lowered himself into the waist high grass and rolled into a long, weed choked ditch that ran along the back of the buildings. The dew had not burned off yet and he smelt the wet grass and weeds as he crawled his way along the gully, his knees and elbows cold and soggy as the dampness worked its way through his clothes.
He stood and saw a man he did not know hunkered down by the lean-to. He wore dark clothes and a dented bowler hat; he was a chubby looking youngster with a pale rectangular face. Smedley put the rifle to his shoulder and whistled through his teeth quietly. He watched the man jerk, turn his way and tug his gun from his rig. Smedley squeezed the trigger and shot him, he saw his jacket puff with dust as the bullet hit him in the chest. The man fell to his knees and toppled forward, he hit the floor face first.
Smedley padded over to the dead man and turned him over with his foot. The shot had flicked a thread of blood across his cheek and Smedley watched it dribble redly down his soft face.
A voice that Smedley recognized, a hoarse voice that sounded like his windpipe had been half severed with a rusty saw said
‘Is he dead?’
‘He is,’ said Smedley, he looked up ‘how are you Harv?’
Harv Tubbs stepped out of the lean-to; he was a lanky man with a square chin and big bones in his cheeks, the skin stretched tight across them. He had a dark horseshoe moustache that ran across his lip and down to his jaw line.
‘I’m doing good, Smeds,’ he said ‘Better than him I reckon,’ he nodded at the body on the floor ‘I told him to come in at night but he always figured he knew best, the damn fool kid.’ Tubbs lifted his rifle barrel a little and pointed at Smedley’s stomach
‘Drop the gun, Smeds,’ he said. Smedley did not argue he knew Tubbs would not ask again and he let the rifle fall onto the grass. The unblemished sunlight had already started to heat up the ground and the sun’s glare leached the colour from the sky, Smedley could taste the hot dry air.
‘I’m going to have to kill you Smeds, you know that don’t you?’ Smedley nodded and Tubbs shrugged his shoulders and said ‘I always liked you; we made pretty good partners didn’t we?’ He did not wait for an answer ’The others are looking for you down in Sacramento but I knew you’d head up north.’
‘I guess I didn’t put enough gone between us Harv,’ said Smedley, he pointed with his chin at the gun ’leastways I’m glad it’s you.’
On the ridge the man watched them talk, he picked up a single shot long bore Sharps 50 buffalo rifle. He thumbed a big three inch cartridge into the chamber and closed the lever. He raised the walnut stock to his shoulder and felt the smooth warm wood against his cheek. He sighted down the barrel until he had the man dead centre and he squeezed the trigger. The bullet tore down off the hill sped across the open ground and thumped Harv Tubbs in the centre of the back.
Smedley saw Tubbs go down as he heard the boom of the gun off the hill. He looked up and saw the man on the ridge raise his arm and wave
‘Who the hell are you?’ Smedley shouted but if the man heard him he ignored him, he turned and disappeared down the far side of the rise.
Smedley collected his belongings saddled up and cantered across the open ground until the land sloped upwards into thick strands of pine. He rode up the slope through the deep shade of the trees. He worked the horse up the incline with his knees and looked down the other side. He saw the gunman in the distance riding south, pulling up a screen of dust from the trail until finally he disappeared in the heat haze on the far horizon.
Smedley shook his head in confusion, he glanced over his shoulder but the ridge gave nothing away. The hell with it thought Smedley; he shrugged and put it all behind him. He rode down off the ridge and headed north without looking back, it was time to move on, it was a big country.
© 2018 John M McNally