Cold Steel by Clifton Bush Jr.
Ben Farnsworth rode through the canyon, his left arm in tatters. He held the pommel of his saddle with his right hand, and steadied himself. On either side of him the cliffs rose to tremendous heights; how he got to this place he did not know. He had lost a lot of blood and his mind was wandering. His horse kept plodding through, going forward to where he knew not. The dizziness was getting stronger with the loss of blood, and he knew he had to do something. He stopped the horse and got off, dropping to his knees on the rocky soil and grunting in pain. He got back up, and taking the leather thong that held his bedroll on the horse, untied it. He used that to tie a tourniquet on his arm, lest he bleed to death.
A slow rain started to fall, and he needed to seek shelter. Some kind of rock outcropping would work for him, for he wasn’t picky. Maybe even a shelter under some brush that had fallen down. He looked around him, and saw nothing but vertical rock. He turned to his left, and thinking he was seeing a hallucination, walked towards the black hole that showed itself. He soon came upon an overhang, where he could make a small fire and rest. Hopefully he’d ridden fast enough to elude his pursuers, although he doubted it. As soon as the rain let up they’d be on him like a hound to a scent, intent on pursuing him until they came across his body. Well, he thought, he wasn’t going to let them do that. They’d have to earn their pay this day.
He thought of his predicament. Five to one, and they all had gold fever. He had five hundred dollars worth of gold in his saddlebags, and they were itching for every last dollar of it. How the hell was he to get out of this one?
He soon gathered a small amount of firewood, and proceeded to light a fire. It was difficult with the use of his left arm limited, but soon he had a nice small blaze going. He warmed his hand on it, and thought of his next step. What would he do?
He hoped he didn’t pass out from loss of blood. He needed to sleep a bit, but with that posse on his trail he dare not. If they found him they would slice him like a side of bacon. He was amazed that he actually got away in one piece, taking back what was rightfully his in the first place.
He watched the fire burn itself into embers, and added a few more sticks. He needed to get to Tombstone, where he could heal and rest up a bit. Unfortunately, Tombstone was at least a day and a half away. With this rain, they wouldn’t be able to track him, but soon they would be back on his trail, hunting him with a vengeance.
He unwrapped the bloody mess on his arm and took stock of his wound. It wasn’t very deep, but if it wasn’t cared for properly, it would fester. He gritted his teeth and poked around it with his knife, finally feeling metal on metal. He tried to pry out the bullet, and gasping in pain, worked it out. His breath came in wracking gulps of air, and the wound started bleeding again. He dug a clean cloth out of his saddlebags and pressed it in place over the bullet hole, slowing the blood flow. He couldn’t afford to lose much more. He was already dizzy and nauseous, and that made a man careless.
He sat back and took stock of his situation. He was in a small overhang, which sheltered him from the elements. Wisps of smoke rose gently from the fire he’d built, and soon he had a pot of water boiling for coffee.
The rain started to fall heavier now, with the sound of thunder off in the distance. He slowly poured himself a cup and sat back to sip it. He needed to figure out a good plan to get out of this one. Riding out of here in this weather would probably be his best way to escape; with the rain, they wouldn’t be able to follow his tracks. His horse neighed softly, and he looked over at the buckskin. He was sniffing at the air. They were still on his trail, and he needed to move and find a safer place to heal up.
He packed his gear up, and kicked sand into the coals of his fire. He donned his slicker and mounted his horse, nudging it along with a movement of his knees. The horse took to moving and he chanced a quick look behind him. Nothing so far, but rain and rock. Maybe he could pull this off. If he got to Tombstone he stood a fair chance. But he needed to heal first, and that would take some time.
He plodded along, the hours ticking by. The rain let up a little, then finally stopped. They were in a canyon, with a rocky path. He looked around him, and saw nothing but vertical rock about fifty feet high on either side of him. Some cactus sprouted here and there, absorbing the life-giving liquid like sponges. He wiped his face off with a handkerchief and kept moving. At this pace he figured they’d be in Tombstone by mid-day tomorrow. They were making good progress.
Suddenly there was the crack of a rifle shot. He looked up, and saw two horses standing side by side atop the canyon. He looked to the other side, but saw nothing else. He needed to find a place to hide in, and quick. Another shot kicked up some dust in front of his horse, and he started to buck a little. He calmed him down by stroking his mane, but the horse was clearly spooked. Another shot, and he heard it ricochet off the canyon walls to his right. They were toying with him, baiting him. They wanted to enjoy killing him, to watch him suffer. Then the gold would be all theirs.
Getting the horse into a gallop, he spotted a small overhang ahead that he could disappear under. They wouldn’t be able to shoot him there, unless they were on the other side of the canyon itself, or in the valley with him. He reached it and got off the horse, grabbing at his rifle as he dismounted. He checked to see if there were rounds in the chamber, and slid the bolt home. He peeked around the top of the overhang, but didn’t see anything. Even the two horses he had spotted earlier were gone.
Something wasn’t right. First they shoot at him, and miss on purpose. He was confused. Now why in the hell would they do that and just up and leave? It smelled of an ambush to him, and the last thing he wanted now was to be dry-gulched and left for the buzzards. He looked around again cautiously, making sure he wasn’t going to get his head shot off. He found a stick laying in the dust and put his hat on it, holding it out from under the shelter. A rifle shot replied immediately. So, he thought, they have me covered. One move, and I’m dead. Wonderful.
Quickly he opened his saddlebags and dug out the sacks of gold. He would hide it and come back for it later, if there was a later. He dug furiously in the rocky shale, slicing his hands. If they were going to kill him, they would never know where the gold was hidden, and he would make sure of that. He tossed the bags in the hole he had made in the earth, and covered it up, dusting it lightly and putting a diamond-shaped rock on top, completing it. He figured that if he dumped it now, he’d be alive later to come back for it. Too bad for him it was a tenderfoot mistake.
They came down the canyon, rifles blazing. They saw where he was sheltered, and he took aim at the lead rider. A shot rang out, and the man dropped to the canyon floor, his horse riderless. One of the pursuers shot at him, barely missing him and chipping a chunk out of the rock behind him. He fired again, and another rider went down. His luck was holding, but against three more hardened men he would likely die.
They reined in suddenly, and stopped, looking at him. He peered at them over the sight of his rifle, and waited. They weren’t as suicidal as he thought they were. He chambered more rounds into the weapon and continued waiting, watching them. They slowly were forming a semi-circle around him, and separating themselves. That way if one was shot down, the other two would have a much better chance of surviving this day.
He was watching them, and suddenly the one in the middle appeared to draw a bead on him. He swung the barrel over and fired. He missed that time. He chambered another round, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. Then his body spun as he was hit in the shoulder. He saw when he looked up that he had gotten the third rider, but one of his partners wound up shooting him in the shoulder, and were watching like buzzards.
He needed to think fast, and to shoot even faster. He quickly chambered another round, took careful aim, and fired. He was too high, for his arm was shaking and his left arm was almost useless. He worked the bolt again, and this time shot the hat off the closer man. He must’ve spooked him, for he reined in his horse and started back the way he’d come. Okay, fellas, he thought, let’s get this over with. His shoulder was hurting, and he felt over with his other hand, and it came back wet with his blood. He needed to end this, so he could tend to his wound.
He watched with amusement as the man he’d shot at dismounted and retrieved his hat. By God, that was funny, he thought to himself. He’d have to remember that to tell his grandkids. That’s if he lived long enough. Another rifle shot came at him, again ricocheting off the wall behind him, but closer this time. It wouldn’t be long now that they’d get the range right and hit him again, permanently ending his journey. He lifted the rifle up again, sighted down the barrel, took a breath, and squeezed again. The rifle bucked in his hands, and he watched as another horse was left riderless. He quickly chambered another round and took aim at the remaining cowpuncher. The man looked around him, thought better of it, and took off down the canyon, raising dust. He just leaned back, took a deep breath, and concentrated on stopping the flow of blood before it was too late.
Not only did he have his old wound to tend to, which had started to bleed again, but now he was hit in the shoulder. The shell had went clean through, so he wouldn’t have to dig it out. He was grateful for that, at least. Trouble was, it was his left shoulder, same side as his arm that had received a bullet earlier. It just wasn’t out to be his day. Moving slowly but steadily, he ripped a piece of his shirt off, and stuffed it in the hole. That might at least slow the blood until he could reach town, and that was still several hours away. Maybe now with no pursuers after him he could reach Tombstone, get patched up, and relax some. Maybe.
He grew weak as he dug up the gold he had hurriedly buried. He put the sacks back in his saddlebags and mounted up. The horse turned back towards the mouth of the canyon, and he pointed it back in the direction he was originally headed.
He was tall and thin, but with a husky build. He needed a shave, and a new hat wouldn’t hurt either. He’d spent his life punching cows and riding the range. His dark hair clung to his scalp from sweating, and he had a fine coating of dust all over. He was a man that wasn’t weak, for he’d ridden the desert before, and knew its dangers. But he sure picked the wrong man to tangle with when it came to Bud Lamont.
Bud Lamont was a mean, ornery, rattlesnake of a man. There were rumors he had shot a man simply because he beat him in a card game. He accused the man of cheating, and it was clear he hadn’t. But because of his swollen ego, he shot the man dead, and was run out of a Colorado mining town for his trouble, with the population on his heels ready for a lynching.
Bud Lamont made his money the old-fashioned way: he stole it. When he wasn’t robbing stagecoaches and stealing their strongboxes, he was holding up banks. He had held up over five banks in the past two years, and so far had evaded the law. But when someone robbed from him, it was a different story. And the man that did that, Ben Farnsworth, knew firsthand what he would do to get his money back. Ben was the man that was now bleeding from two different bullet wounds for his trouble. Lamont had ripped him off in a card game in Denver, and he aimed to get even.
Well, now, he did get even. However, he wasn’t scot-free yet. He still had about twenty-five miles to go to reach Tombstone, and he was weak. He hadn’t eaten anything since that morning, and the shootout with Lamont’s hired hands wore him out. It was all he had to keep from falling asleep and falling out of the saddle. He glanced around him, and saw a few dunes off to his right, with some scrub brush growing up out of the hot sand. The sun was high in the sky, and the air had a dry, dusty smell to it. He would need to find somewhere to spend the night, and somewhere to water his horse. The old buckskin had made up some miles today, and needed a rest real bad. He didn’t want to abuse it, because walking was the only alternative, and a man wouldn’t survive out here walking. Especially with very little water.
He soon found the shade of a mesa to camp for the night. It was rocky, but would be easily defended. He had the mesa to his back, and many big boulders spread out, with numerous smaller ones littering the desert floor. He stopped his horse, and wearily dropped out of the saddle. Little dust puffs arose when his boots hit the sand. He needed rest, bad. He also needed to eat something to build up his strength. He dug in one saddlebag, and produced some jerky. He took a sip of water out of his canteen, and breathed deeply. He still was in a mess, but it was getting better and better with each passing hour. If only he could reach Tombstone, he thought. If only…
He awoke, and a few stars were still in the brightening early morning sky. The sun was still below the horizon, and he blinked the sand out of his eyes. He reached over and shook his boots. He didn’t need a scorpion bite in addition to being shot. He pulled them on, and slowly got to his feet. My God, he thought, my body hurts in places that I didn’t know existed. His horse turned his way when it heard him moving and snorted a little.
“Easy, boy,” he said, patting the animal on the nose. “We’ll rest once we get to Tombstone. You’ll get a good rub down then.”
He stretched out as much as his wounds would let him. They hurt like they were on fire, and he desperately needed medical attention. But he couldn’t do that until he reached town, and hopefully by mid-day he would be there. He mounted the saddle, and with a click they were off.
He wanted to get as much distance as he could while it was still cool outside. The heat just saps the strength out of man and beast, and makes it that much harder. The sun was still below the horizon, but wasn’t far off from rising. He needed to make time today, because his body was getting weaker and weaker. He held onto the pommel of his saddle and let the horse lead. He felt half-dead, and probably looked the worse for wear. He’d make it one way or another. He had to.
The sun rose steadily higher and it started to get hot. Dust devils whirled their dance in the distance, and some tumbleweeds bounced along uneven paths. Their course was set by the dry, dusty winds that blew through this area. Sand was also blown along with the loose scrub, and if one wasn’t careful, it would get into every bodily opening that existed.
One hour passed, then two, then three. Soon in the distance he could see some white shapes dancing in the heat waves of the desert air. He started to hope that he was closer to Tombstone. He was wide awake now. His body hurt, and as weak as he was, he was surprised that he didn’t fall out of the saddle. He urged the buckskin on with his spurs, and the horse started to trot, smelling the finish line. Soon they pulled up on the main street, and he headed straight to the livery to get his horse taken care of.
The hostler took one look at him, and figured he’d need to call the coroner. This man looked half dead, with a bloody shirt and a face that was long ago tanned by the desert sun. He grabbed the horse’s reins, and squinted his eyes.
“Stranger, you look mighty bad. The doc’s office is just up the street, on the right,” he offered in assistance. The man just looked at him, mumbled a thanks, and dropped out of the saddle. He reached in the saddlebags, and grabbed the sacks of gold. He reached into one of them and withdrew a coin. “Here’s for the horse. Make sure he’s taken care of,” he said, flipping the man the coin. The hostler caught it, took a bite, and pocketed his earnings. “Yes, sir,” he said. “Yes, sir.”
Ben looked around town, and stepped onto the boardwalk, his boots echoing on the wooden planks. He didn’t go far, and found the doctor’s office. He opened the door, and the woman behind the counter looked at him in disdain.
“Can I help you?” she asked, eyeing him up and down.
“Need to see the doc,” he answered, and took slight amusement in the way her nose turned up at him.
“The doctor’s busy, you’ll have to come back later,” she said very rudely. He just looked at her, reached into a pocket, and pulled out another gold coin. He looked at her politely and smiled. “Is he busy now?”
She just eyeballed that gold coin, and hurried to the back room. Soon a middle-aged man, slightly balding, appeared at the desk. He eyed the man who had just walked into his office, and urged him to follow him into his exam room.
The doctor was quick and thorough. He removed the old bandages, cleaned the wounds with antiseptic, and re-bandaged them, taping them onto his skin to keep them from falling off. He took a bit more time with Ben’s arm wound, seeing as infection had started to set in. He scraped off the scab, making Ben wince, and proceeded to clean the wound to prevent gangrene. Ben gasped when he poured the antiseptic on it.
The doctor finally finished, and stepped back. “Put your shirt back on,” he said, and proceeded to put his instruments in a soak of alcohol. “That’s about all I can do for you, son,” he added.
Ben did as he was told, and got up off the exam table. He walked to the front of the office to pay the man what he owed him for fixing him up. “How much?” he asked.
“Well,” said the doctor, “judging by how you were banged up, I want five dollars.”
“Five dollars!” he stammered. He couldn’t believe it, that was a lot of money. Finally he just grinned, reached into his pocket, and took out several coins. “There you are, doc,” he said.
He turned around to walk out of the office. The door opened, and there stood Bud Lamont. An evil grin was on his face, and Ben knew he’d been had.
“Hello, Ben,” he said, savoring the moment. If his eyes could get any more evil-looking, he would’ve bet against it. “I’ve been waiting for you. You have something of mine.”
“I don’t think so, Bud,” said Ben, favoring his shoulder.
“Yeah, I think you do,” said Bud with a leer. He looked at the bandages the doctor had put on. “Looks like my boys got to you.”
“Yeah, they did, and only one of ‘em lived to tell about it,” said Ben, feeling his adrenaline kick in. With that, Bud gave off an even more evil look about him. “Tomorrow at noon, pardner,” he said. “Tomorrow at noon, in the street.”
Ben just looked at him. He knew he was in trouble now. There was no way he could outdraw Lamont, not all banged up as he was. Lamont stalked out, and slammed the door.
“You alright, son?” asked the doctor. He was eyeing his handiwork.
“Yessir,” he said. “That man stole what was mine, and I’m not about to back down from him, winged or not.”
He walked across the dusty street to the saloon, and ordered a drink. “I need a room for the night,” he said to the bartender. The man just motioned with his hands. Upstairs, and pointed his index and middle fingers up. Two dollars. Okay, Ben thought. I can handle that. He gave the man his money, and was given a room key in return. He walked up the steps and found his room. He opened the door, walked in, and looked around.
It was a small room, complete with a well-worn bed, dresser with a bowl of water on it, and a window facing the street. He walked over, looked out the window, and took his hat off, wiping his brow. He sat heavily on the bed. He was dead-tired, and needed his rest. Especially for tomorrow, he thought. Soon the whiskey worked on his brain, and he dozed off, tossing fitfully, with dreams of bullets flying in his mind.
The next day dawned bright and hot. Ben got up, pulled his boots on, and grabbed his gunbelt. He didn’t want to be ambushed. He walked down the stairs, and ordered some grub. He didn’t want to die hungry, either. The cook hurried back to make up his food.
He sat in a chair by the window, watching the townspeople walk by, minding their own business. He noticed the town clock, which read 10:45, and realized that he’d slept way too much. Soon he would be either alive or dead. He might as well enjoy this meal, for it may be his last.
The cook came out with a plate of eggs, bacon, and toast, along with a steaming cup of coffee. He ate hungrily, and savored the taste of real coffee, not that trail chuckwagon stuff. He finished his breakfast, and sat back in his chair and enjoyed the moment. He rolled himself a smoke, and sat back contentedly watching the smoke curl up towards the ceiling. His arm and shoulder still hurt, but he wasn’t concerned about that at the moment. It was 11:30, and he had maybe half an hour to live. Would he be able to outdraw Lamont? He wasn’t sure, especially with the shape he was in. He untied the thong around his revolver, adjusted his belt, and walked out of the saloon. His boots echoed on the boardwalk, and already a crowd had gathered to watch, perhaps his final moments as a person. He looked around, and saw perhaps three dozen people there watching, waiting like hungry lions for the meat to be tossed to them. That made him angry, and he stalked out into the dusty street like he owned it.
There were a few catcalls and whoops from the crowd, but he ignored them. He was focused on one thing: killing Bud Lamont, or at least winging him. The clock edged closer towards noon, and he licked his lips, his mouth dry, his stomach full of butterflies. He walked to the center of the street, awaiting his destiny.
He didn’t have to wait too long. Soon Bud Lamont showed up, dressed in his usual black outfit, and swaggering like he owned the town. Overconfident, Ben thought, because he’s fighting a wounded man. Well, he thought, he was going to give him the best he could do.
Both men stood facing each other, and the crowd grew anxious. A few souls yelled encouragement to Ben, but most of them were on the gunfighter’s side. He licked his lips again, and his tongue felt thick in his mouth. With the strike of noon, he’d either be dead or alive. No maybes, just here or not.
The clock ticked closer to noon. Bud Lamont stopped in the middle of the street, about twenty yards away. He had a smirk on his face, and Ben vowed to do everything he could. The clock ticked away, and soon noon struck. Both men went for their weapons.
Ben felt a hot flash on his right side, and fired his weapon. Everything happened in slow motion. The bullet he fired entered Bud Lamont’s throat, and exited out his neck. Blood spurted everywhere, and he dropped to his knees. He had been shot again, but not accurately. He was still alive, and Lamont’s lifeblood was draining out onto the dusty street. He stood up, and waited.
Several people broke from the crowd to check on the downed gunfighter. The doctor hurried over, and looked at the body. He was on one knee in the dust, and turned his head to look at Ben. He just shook his head.
At that, Ben just fell to his knees, totally exhausted and worn out. He had won, and had been shot again. He collapsed into the street, and soon the doctor and several townspeople clustered around him, trying to get him to his feet. He was vaguely aware of what was going on, and soon found himself in the doctor’s office again. He was given a stern look by the doctor.
“Yer damn lucky, ya know that?” he asked him, shaking his head. He staunched the flow of blood on Ben’s new wound with a clean cloth. “I don’t know how you did it, but you beat one of the better gunfighters in this part of the west.”
Ben just lay down, and closed his eyes. His revenge was complete, and Bud Lamont had paid for his misdeeds. Unfortunately, he had to die for it, but that was the way of the West. Guns talked, and people listened.