Editor’s note — A long time ago, the local newspaper often featured fictional adventure stories next to the news of the day. We’re bringing the tradition back with “Long Ride from Split Rock,” a dime store cowboy tale by David Wright. In the previous installment, a cowboy hangs by the neck from a tree in the middle of the desert, determined to deliver a letter to its final destination. As the vision of a woman from days past fades from his eyes, the cowboy breathes his last.
When Ashley Quincannon saw the dead man hanging from the juniper tree up the rise, he clicked his tongue to speed up his pony a little, but he didn’t figure he’d arrived in time to do the fellow any good.
In fact, his first thought was that the buckskin mare grazing nearby might sell for a fair price in Tucson after he’d given the dead man a dignified burial.
If there was anything Ashley Quincannon believed in, it was a man’s dignity – a value he’d almost lost in the Sierra Nevada before spring broke in ‘61. He had been one of two boys who crossed the range for the Pony Express in wintertime, and along the way he’d stumbled across a lone dead man wearing a buffalo coat.
Quincannon, frozen to the bone and weak from exposure, almost took the coat, but thought better of it. Instead, he just rode harder due West. While he saw taking a dead man’s coat as a violation of dignity, taking a dead man’s horse was another matter — and the Sierra Nevada was 20 years hard riding behind him.
Quincannon was surveying the buckskin when he saw, out of the corner of his eye, the dead cowboy’s foot move. He was only a few yards away now, close enough to see the veins bulging on the cowboy’s neck above where the lariat was cinched tight, and the purple-blue hue of the poor man’s skin. Quincannon squinted at the foot. It tapped again.
The man was dead alright, but hadn’t been for long.
Quincannon gunned his pony over to the hanging man, drew the buck knife from his boot and slashed the rope above, sending the dead weight of the body to the ground with a meaty thud. Quincannon leapt from his horse, put his boot on the man’s chest, and shoved down hard five times. It was a long-shot lifesaving method he’d read about in a newspaper once, and as soon as he finished stomping the cowboy’s lifeless corpse, he wondered for a moment if he should have tried it – a man’s dignity and all that.
But the cowboy suddenly lurched forward with a gasp and kicked Quincannon’s legs right out from underneath him.
In the blink of an eye, the man who was dead was on top of him, his big brown hands clenched around Quincannon’s throat, squeezing the life right out of him. Quincannon could not reach his gunbelt, and the buck knife had fallen near the base of the tree during the scuffle. He slapped the ground blindly behind him, groping for the blade as stars exploded before his eyes.
Quincannon landed a few good punches with his free hand square against the big man’s jaw, but they seemed to have no effect. Just before Quincannon lost himself in the abyss, a small envelope, still crisp and clean though yellowed by time, fell from the dead man’s vest. It smelled like lemon verbena.
The cowboy came to himself when he saw the letter fall to the ground, and loosened his grip. He took a few heavy, painful breaths, and coughed.
“You wouldn’t be one of the Dance outfit, would you,” he rasped, his hands still clenched around Quincannon’s neck. Quincannon blinked hard, gasping for air and wriggling beneath the big man’s weight.
“No,” he choked. “Let me loose. I just saved your life, you darned fool.”
The dead man obliged, but kept his knee on Quincannon’s chest, pinning him to the ground. He stared vacantly at the tree for a moment, trying to collect his thoughts, then picked up the letter and carefully replaced it in his vest.
“Many thanks,” he said. “Jim Reed.” The cowboy held out a brown hand. Quincannon nodded uncomfortably and took it.
“Woulda done the same for anybody,” he said, dragging himself to his feet. “Ashley Quincannon. Howdy do.”
Reed wobbled toward the mare and snagged the reins, then painfully swung himself into the saddle.
“I’m headed for ‘Frisco,” he said. “Never been out this way. You know the territory ‘tween here and there?”
“Come from up north,” Quincannon said, dusting himself off before mounting his pony. “Headed Tucson way. Don’t know much about this patch of hell but I’d say there’s enough Apache to cause some trouble. Unfinished business?” He gestured toward Reed’s neck.
The cowboy shook his head.
“Just have to see an old friend,” he said. Reed sat in the saddle for a long time, looking at Quincannon.
“Lookin’ for some help?” Quincannon finally asked.
“Reckon we could all use a hand now and then,” Reed replied, gingerly touching the raw skin of his throat. He nodded east. “Anything in Tucson for you?”
“Nothin’ good, probably,” Quincannon said, thinking of saloons and women. He took a longing look toward Tucson, then clicked his tongue and drew up alongside Reed. The two men began a slow walk due west.
There was silence between them for a long time, and Quincannon thought about how long it might be before he saw the lights of a town again. He’d been on the trail for a while now, but he could go a little longer.
Jim Reed had the look of a man who could stay out here forever if that’s what he wanted. In fact, he had the look of a man who could do pretty well anything he wanted, if it needed doing. These men were dangerous whether they were good or bad.
Quincannon looked at the bruises on Reed’s neck and face, and how he hung in the saddle like a man defeated. Yet, there was a cold intensity to his eyes that said otherwise. It wasn’t vengeance or bloodlust, Quincannon decided. It was simple determination. They were in for a long ride.
Quincannon shook his head.
“What happened to you?” he asked.
Jim Reed kept slowly on. Quincannon could tell he was in pain. The cowboy spoke barely above a whisper, more to himself than anyone.
“They hanged me.”
For the thrilling third installment of “Long Ride from Split Rock,” click here.