Editor’s note — A long time ago, the local newspaper often featured fictional adventure stories next to the news of the day. These pulpy yarns were usually packed with excitement, plot holes and more than a little cliché – and we’re bringing one back. Join us the next few weeks in reading “Long Ride from Split Rock,” a dime store cowboy tale by David Wright.
A drop of sweat trickled down Jim Reed’s forehead.
The tree above his head offered little shade from the punishing heat of the Arizona sun, and he thought about how his hat was at least a day of hard riding back up the trail. Having a hat didn’t matter so much to him now, but as the sun pierced the thin layer of juniper leaves overhead and fell on his sunburnt skin, searing the back of his neck and shoulders, he felt a color of grief over losing the old Stetson. Two bullet holes marked the front and back, where the slug from a Colt .45 had ended the life of the man who owned it before him. Reed had bought the hat at a general store in Oklahoma after he’d lost his first hat in similar trouble to the kind he was in now. At the time, it was just the cheapest hat he could find in Tulsa, but as the name Jim Reed travelled through the cattle towns of the West, so did the rumor that he’d been shot through the head by an Comanche brave and lived to return the favor. So, Jim Reed was known as a man who returned favors – kindness for kindness most days of the week, but blood for blood if someone asked for it.
It was a shame, he thought, as he glanced down at his shadow dancing across the dirt, that he might not make it out from under that tree to return the favor to the men who put him there. Another bead of sweat trickled past Reed’s ear and caught itself in his beard. It was five days since his last shave, four since he’d left Tucson. He’d traded the barber for some bad tobacco, and the old man had nicked his chin hard – just returning the favor. The drop of sweat rolled down Reed’s neck on its way to mingle with the dirt and blood on his shirt, but it stopped short at the rope around his throat.
And he swung.
The old buckskin mare whinnied. She was munching on the last bit of grass in the patch where the Jethro Dance outfit’s horses had grazed a few hours before, six feet away and just beyond the shade of the juniper. That was where old Jethro Dance himself had sat on his black thoroughbred and told Reed that he was about to accept the due penalty for his actions. Above the roar of the blood in his head, Jim Reed listened to the mare’s chewing. She sounded like the barber when he’d tried Reed’s bad tobacco.
“Tarnation,” the old man had said, “where in Sam Hill did you get these leaves, boy?”
“Kentucky,” Reed had replied, distracted by the two men leaning on the hitching rail at the livery stable across the street. The window in the barber shop had been in need of a good cleaning, and if it had been clean Reed would have seen that the two men were Jeffery Morgan and Lou Barrett, two of Jethro Dance’s cattle hands. If he had known they were Jeffery Morgan and Lou Barrett, he probably would have slipped out the back door and ridden due east until he hit the tobacco fields of Kentucky again. Instead, he had cussed the barber out after the old man nicked his chin, and when he burst out the front door, wiping shave soap and blood off his face, Jeffery Morgan and Lou Barrett had spotted him.
Once they laid eyes on him, all three cow punchers knew it was the end of the line for Jim Reed. Morgan and Barrett mounted their ponies and Reed bolted for his buckskin, and after a day’s ride due west, the rest of the company caught up with him at the bluffs west of town. The Jethro Dance outfit, about a dozen hardened men, had beaten him and dragged him a mile and a half – he lost his hat at that point – then slung him unconscious over the back of his horse and walked him out to the lone juniper tree in the desert. They strung Jim Reed up as high as they could and left the buckskin beneath him, knowing she would wander once she got hungry or thirsty enough.
And here he was, hands tied, throat shut tight by the line, swinging and swinging in the middle of nowhere. The Dance outfit had taken his hat, his gun, and now his life.
But they hadn’t taken the letter. The envelope was still tucked into the lining of his vest. He knew it was there because he had caught its faint smell of lemon verbena before he was hanged. Though he hadn’t breathed in what felt like an eternity, knowing he had the letter was all the air he needed, because if he had the letter, he had a reason to get free.
The letter couldn’t cut rope, though, and as the frayed line bit into the soft flesh of Reed’s throat, he could feel his life slipping away, draining from the bottom of his boots as his toes vacantly tapped the air a few feet above the dirt. He was slipping away, and he knew it.
Suddenly, a woman appeared before him, dressed all in white with long black hair and a set of the meanest blue eyes he’d ever seen.
“Nancy,” he choked, frantic now. He began kicking as hard as he could, hoping the tree itself would come down. “Nancy… Nancy.”
She said nothing, staring silently, coldly. Then she turned, the vision collapsed on itself, and Jim Reed let go of life. It had only been a few moments since he slid off the rump of the mare, but a few moments was all it took for his mind succumb to blackness, still swirling with thoughts of the blue-eyed girl, and escape.
The mare whinnied again, this time a little louder, but by then, Jim Reed had died.
Check back next week for the thrilling second installment of “Long Ride from Split Rock.”