Editor’s note — Over the past few weeks, we’ve been bringing back traditional newspaper fiction with “Long Ride from Split Rock,” a dime store cowboy yarn by David Wright. Previously: An aimless drifter saves the life of a cowboy hanging by the neck from a tree in the desert. As they set off together to deliver a letter to the West Coast, the cowboy dreams of the woman he hopes to find there.
She hit Jim Reed like a bolt of lightning standing in the doorway.
Her eyes, cold and striking, seemed to fit all the blue of big sky country as they tracked across the room. Long spools of black hair fell about her pearl-white neck, and her burgundy dress blew in the autumn breeze. She looked around the barroom slowly as a conversation between two cowboys opened up into a drunken fight.
Jim Reed was paralyzed, and, though he didn’t know it yet, hopelessly in love. He felt suddenly exposed, like he was alone in the middle of the room. He wanted to bolt for the back door or pull his gun, but he couldn’t move, so he did neither. All he could do was look at her. And look at her he did, closely, cautiously. When she’d taken full stock of the room, she looked at him, too – right through him, like he wasn’t even there.
Reed was accustomed to second and third looks from women, but this one didn’t seem to see him at all. Women out here were attracted to Jim Reed because he was a big man and looked like he could take care of himself. In a cowboy town on the Wyoming border, filled with outlaws, scum of the earth and Pony Express boys, that was a valuable attribute. This kind of woman was different — and trouble. She was different because she didn’t need him, not any part of him, not one bit. She was trouble because he needed her.
Jim Reed had seen trouble before, trouble of all kind, and he’d been in his fair share of predicaments. These he’d come through with a keen eye and a quick hand at the belt, but his instinct – honed by trouble and predicaments – told him this was the worst he’d seen so far.
She walked into the saloon with impossible confidence, stepped behind the long oak bar, and began tending it, clearing the broken glass where one of the rowdy cowboys’ drunken punches had landed on a whiskey tumbler instead of the other’s face. Reed sat at the end of the bar and watched her. The way she moved, the way she glanced at the brawlers without a shade of fear or weakness – it was enough to make a man weak himself.
Reed came back to the old saloon every chance he got that winter, some nights working up enough guts to strike up a conversation, most nights just looking at her. Once, he bought her a bottle of lemon verbena perfume at the mercantile, and she told him she didn’t like the way it smelled, so he kept it. He didn’t understand any of the feelings he felt, and he knew he had no business trying. But he knew he felt something strong — stronger than the whiskey he never drank, and worth more than all the dimes he spent paying for it.
Reed was barely 19 then, hardened already by a stint of cattle punching in the badlands, but still fresh enough to keep out of the brothels. He’d never been with a woman, and he liked it that way. Women made men’s legs weak, and he couldn’t afford to have weak legs. He was two weeks into his first honest job breaking broncs for a stage line at Split Rock. It was good money, and he enjoyed it. Nancy Taylor was all that was missing.
But she left for San Francisco in April of 1861. He caught sight of her boarding a stagecoach bound west, and he asked her just what in the hell she thought she was doing. She told him she was leaving for ‘Frisco, and that there was not a thing he could do to stop her. He spoke roughly with her and said he would find a way to keep her, but he knew he couldn’t. There were not a great many things Jim Reed couldn’t do, and everyone in town knew it; Nancy Taylor made him and everyone else believe there was at least one thing he would never be capable of – keeping her from doing as she pleased. Nancy never told him why she was leaving, or what she would do once she arrived. She only said not to follow her.
After Reed had quit crying, he bought himself the nicest stationery money could buy in Split Rock, wrote her a letter, doused it in the lemon verbena, and stuffed it in his pocket. There it stayed. Frustrated and lonely, Reed rode out of town a month later, bound for no good and the range. Business was drying up due to contract problems and the war back east, and something in Reed’s bones itched for the open trail. He’d intended to find her immediately, but a deadly encounter with an outlaw gang turned into a six-month jail sentence in Reno, which turned into a long cattle drive to Abilene, and Reed developed a taste and talent for cattle punching that he just couldn’t shake. The trail dragged him along for all of 15 years before winding its rambling way toward San Francisco. But through all the years of hard riding and fast living from the blue hills of Kentucky to the blazing Texas border, Jim Reed never forgot about the letter, or the woman for him, or the way she looked right through him like he wasn’t even there.
As the old buckskin plodded along beneath him, leaving behind the rock and sand of Arizona for the golden bluffs of California, Reed thumbed the ridge of the letter in his vest and wondered if he’d ever find her. It had been a long time since they’d left Split Rock. Long enough, Reed worried, for fever or gunslingers to end her life. But the letter had to be delivered, no matter the circumstances. The miles of trail between here and there were full of bad Indians and even badder cowboys, but Jim Reed had killed enough of both to know most went down easy.
Reed’s thoughts turned suddenly and violently to Johnny Dance. None went down so easy as him. Johnny had looked at Reed wrong from the moment they met. Reed had joined the Dance outfit a month prior to his hanging, and when old Jethro Dance brought him on, Johnny had protested. Johnny was a weak man. His father knew it, and he knew it. Jim Reed was strong. So, from the moment Reed strolled into the bunkhouse on a sweltering night in July, the only thing Johnny Dance wanted was Jim Reed’s blood. But Johnny wasn’t as quick with an iron as he liked to think. When he drew on Reed in El Paso, he found out in two shots to the gut that Reed was even quicker than they said he was. Jethro Dance never mourned his son, but the whole outfit knew Reed had to die for what he’d done. So they strung him up and left him for dead. Reed would have done it twice over. Johnny Dance had looked at him wrong from the start.
Reed was scratching at the ring of raw flesh around his throat when he caught movement on the horizon. He looked over his shoulder at the drifter Ashley Quincannon, who was guzzling water from his canteen a few yards back, and drew the reins.
“Say, greenhorn,” Reed rasped, “you see dust up ahead?”
Quincannon capped the bottle, shielded his eyes from the noonday sun and squinted toward the horizon. There in the distance, amid the shimmering haze where desert met sky, was a plume of dust — enough for a dozen men riding hard their way. Quincannon nodded.
“Ever killed a man before?” Reed asked.
“Momma always told me not to play with guns,” Quincannon said. He checked his pistol and handed Reed his long rifle.
“Sounds like Ma never met an Apache,” Reed said. “Looks like there’s a few up ahead that might ask for it.”
For the thrilling fourth installment of “Long Ride from Split Rock,” click here.