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: A grizzled cowboy and a disgraced Pony Express rider meet trouble on the way to deliver a letter to San Francisco, leaving the cowboy gravely wounded. Salvation comes in the form of a wagon train headed west.
Jim Reed awakened with an angel before his eyes.
Bathed in the muted light of frontier dusk, she wore a green calico dress with yellow flowers all over, and her curly brown hair was tied loose at the back of her neck with a pink bow. She sat across from him in the back of a long Conestoga wagon, knitting and humming a hymn.
Jim Reed’s heart skipped a beat when her brown eyes caught his, and they held, and there was a steadiness to their gaze. Reed felt no need to look away. The wagon creaked and rocked gently, and their eyes kept holding, and—
Reed looked down at her hands. In place of the yarn and knitting needles was a long Colt revolver aimed straight at his belly.
“Easy,” he said, lifting his hands.
“Your friend said you get violent when you wake up,” she said. Her hand was shaking slightly. There was an ugly, mottled bruise on her wrist. Reed wondered who put it there.
“Won’t hurt you,” Reed said. “Promise.”
She let the hammer down on the Colt and set it back in the knitting basket in her lap. Some of her hair had come loose from the bow, spilling off her forehead into a ray of evening sun. Jim Reed’s face got hot.
He gingerly touched the bandage on his temple, his head beginning to pound.
“Thanks for patchin’ me up,” he said. She only nodded.
Reed looked at the bruise on the woman’s wrist again as she concealed the Colt with yarn. A hand had left that mark. A big one. A man’s hand.
“You in some trouble, ma’am?” Reed asked.
She began to answer, but quickly looked down when a stranger rode up to the back of the wagon on a tall palouse.
The stranger wore all black and rode high in the saddle, a set of steel gray eyes glinting from beneath the rim of his hat. Something about the way he held his shoulders gave him the look of a man who hadn’t seen much trail, but the shiny revolver on his hip said there were dead men behind him. He wore a greasy black ponytail and chewed tobacco in his lip.
All Reed could see was his next problem.
“Evenin’ Jenny,” the stranger said, his voice dripping with something unholy. Jenny was silent. The man curled the tobacco and spat. He looked hard at Reed. “You’re a lucky dog to have found us out here. Bill Randall’s my name.”
His eyes rolled back over to Jenny and roved up and down as she knitted. The back of Reed’s neck burned.
“Much obliged for the help,” Reed said. He looked down at the stranger’s pistol. “Nice piece you got there.”
Randall ignored him.
“This train’s headed north for greener pastures,” he said. “They’re payin’ me a high price for security, and I’m well worth it. I’ll be straight with you, cowboy: Minute we hit Bakersfield, you and your friend get on your way.” He spat again. “I do not want trouble.”
Reed wanted to laugh. The only thing men like Randall wanted was trouble, and they were always willing to make it for themselves. Reed nodded carelessly and closed his eyes.
“Be gone in the mornin’,” he said.
Randall rode off after a while, and the minute Reed heard the stranger’s spurs jingle into the distance, he opened his eyes. They caught Jenny’s again, and there was the steadiness.
At length, he asked if she had a name.
“Jenny Bishop,” she said. “You’d be Jim Reed.” Reed nodded and she touched the pistol lightly through the yarn. “Bill Randall is a dangerous man. You should be careful of what you say.”
“All right,” he said. He knew it didn’t matter what anyone said to men like Randall. Men like Randall did as they pleased.
Reed was beginning to get dizzy now, and presently he fell asleep.
His dreams were all yellow flowers on a field of green.
Dawn broke with the smell of fried eggs and bacon wafting through the wagon ring just outside Bakersfield, and Jim Reed awakened alone. He eased himself out the back of the Conestoga and found his companion, Ashley Quincannon, at the breakfast fire. The drifter now wore a leather patch over his right eye. The two men nodded at each other casually and Reed began gathering his strength with a plate of bacon and eggs.
Most of the crowd from the Conestogas had gone into town for provisions, though Jenny Bishop remained. She was posted near her wagon, hanging laundry out on a line.
“Thought you croaked,” Quincannon said after a while, picking his teeth with his buck knife.
“Ain’t my time yet,” Reed replied with a mouthful of biscuit. “Suppose the good Lord just can’t call me home with you around, greenhorn.”
“Suppose the good Lord has his reasons for keepin’ you,” he said, nodding toward Jenny Bishop. “She ain’t attached, you know… said she come out here to be a schoolmarm.”
Reed looked over at the pioneer woman and saw Randall beyond her sitting on a stump, whittling a piece of pine. He was looking at Jenny Bishop, too.
Quincannon saw a hard change in Reed’s face and he stood. This was not his fight.
“Well then, Jim, I’d best put my feet to the road,” he said, extending his hand. “Gotta deliver some mail.”
Reed’s face softened. He took Quincannon’s hand and squeezed it hard.
“S’pose you do,” Reed said.
“Any message to go with it?” Quincannon asked.
Reed glanced toward Jenny Bishop again.
“No,” he said after a long while. “Letter does it.”
Quincannon was well on his way by the time Bill Randall caught Reed’s longing gaze toward the laundry line. The man in black immediately started toward the fire. Reed didn’t look up when he approached.
“You’d best keep them eyeballs to yourself,” Randall snapped, putting his hand to the revolver. It was a finely crafted six shooter with an ornate ivory handle, and it looked like it had seen plenty of daylight. “You reek of outlaw, stranger. Well, it takes one to know one. I didn’t like your friend, and I like you even less. Now, listen here. I’ve killed plenty and ain’t afraid to do it again. Y’d best make yourself scarce. Now.”
Reed stood up slowly, coffee in hand, facing Randall eye to eye. He felt strong now.
“Don’t like the way you look at the lady,” he said quietly. “You look at her wrong.”
Bill Randall’s eyes widened.
“You’d better watch your mouth, cowboy,” he said, shaking now.
Reed knew he was beyond the point of no return. There would be a fight. The only question was when.
“Touched her wrong, too, by the look of her wrist,” Reed said. “Don’t like a man that touches a woman wrong.” He dumped his coffee, put his hands on his hips, and looked Randall straight in the eye. “I think you’re all bad, Randall. I think you need to die.”
Randall suddenly stopped shaking, and his hand left the gun and hung relaxed at his side. His face was pale.
“All right,” he said, nose to nose with Reed. “Make me dead, cowboy. Center of town. High noon.” He paused and looked at Reed’s beltless waist. “Bring a gun.”
For the thrilling conclusion of “Long Ride from Split Rock,” click here.