Story: Hermes: “Rustler”
Michael Delaney’s story was a runner up for the “Hermes Steals Things” contest. The topic of the contest was perfectly suited to a Western theme, and Michael Delaney tapped into that so well here. I especially liked how he tapped into the other archetypes (and even included subtle references to the Artemis and Orion contest!). Thank you Michael!
by Michael Delaney
The ranch nestled in the crook of the stream, like a newborn babe cradled in the arms of its mother. Everything about the place was new and fancy, from the imported roof tiles to the carefully pruned plant life. Built in the faux Spanish style, the villa was everything the frontier stood against. It was a shrine to opulence, security and independence. It was as far removed as can be from the rowdy townhouses of timber.
Billy hated every inch of it.
Spitting in the dirt, he turned away from the garish eyesore back to the plains and the roving herd. His compadres from town rode silently amongst the throng, slowly but surely guiding the steers towards the water. The beasts snorted and mewled as they followed in file, responding demurely to the ranch-hands’ orders.
“The herd’s a little restless, Billy,” Cliff drawled, flicking up the brim of his stetson. “They don’t like being dragged from their slumber any more’n you or me. No sayin’ how quiet they’ll be.”
Cliff sat easily in his saddle, guiding his horse with subtle movements of his legs. A dark stubble shaded his square jawline, and his blue eyes were sharp and piercing. He’d ridden the trail for nigh on twenty years, and there wasn’t anything he and the old-timer, Evan, didn’t know about cattle.
“They seem quiet enough to me.” Billy shrugged. “We do the best we can before the household wakes. After that, I’ll keep ‘em busy alright.”
Cliff raised an eyebrow dubiously. “If that’s the way you wanna play it.”
The cowhand wheeled around and rode off to confer with the old man. Billy smiled to himself, trotting alongside the bulls. Cliff wasn’t the first to doubt him, but he might just be the last. Enjoying the moment, he breathed in deeply, savouring the warm sweet smell of cattle that reminded him a little of his ma’s pastry. This was living the life. Billy had always fancied himself a regular cowhand, but this wasn’t quite the way he’d imagined it. He’d expected to have a wage when he joined the cattle drive. And for the owner to know it was happening.
Smirking, he rubbed his baby-smooth chin. Not a bristle to be found, but the way Billy figured it, if he pulled off this caper, he’d need no growth to prove himself a man. Mess with the ranchers and live to tell the tale, you had your reputation made.
As the last of the cattle meandered softly away, Billy settled back into his reverie. Feathergrass brushed the tips of his outstretched fingers, and the open air ran cool through his sandy locks. He’d grown up in these parts, and knew the land like he knew his own name. Whole days he’d wasted up in those plains, watching the buzzards swoop, and playing bandits in the high noon sun. Now, all of it was owned by a stranger.
Henry Adams had rode into town like a twister in a caravan, leaving nothing but upheaval in his wake. He’d bought the land right there and then, with more money than any sane man could refuse, and started right away with laying the foundations for his new home. After that, he went hollering all around town about all his needs; a whole lot more ironmongery than the blacksmith could muster up on such short notice, a sight more grain than suppliers could rightfully stock, and a whole heap of guns and ammunition.
In a single evening, the rancher had near enough set the whole town to work. He’d even strode on into the Sheriff’s house and demanded a bunch more deputies to stave off thieves and rustlers. The way Billy heard it, Sheriff Cobb was none too pleased with that.
And he’d be no more pleased with the day’s antics, if he ever caught wind of them.
“You sure we oughtta do this, Billy? Ol’ Adams is gonna be mighty sore about it.”
Barely out of his teens, Sam was already weathered, with a deeply lined forehead and a alcoholic’s nose. He had the eyes of a bloodhound, shaggy dark hair like a buffalo, and a perpetual sour taste in his mouth. His tatty clothes were speckled with mud, and Billy had never seen them clean.
“I do believe we oughtn’t, Sam. But that ain’t never stopped me.” Billy grinned, and he fancied there was a twinkle in his eye that reassured the young cowhand a mite. “Besides, we pull this off without a hitch, Adams won’t have a leg to stand on.”
Dust kicked up ahead as the cattle moved on, slowly but surely, their hooves thudding softly on the dry mud. The herd remained oddly quiet despite the late hour, and Billy smiled at how well things were going. A little while longer and they’d be home free. Sam still looked anxious, chewing on his bottom lip as he surveyed the scene. All the windows of the villa were dark, but Sam kept twitching like he could hear the click of a hammer on some distant rifle.
“I hope it’s worth it, Billy,” Sam muttered, rubbing at his nose with a grubby knuckle.
Billy winked back at him with his usual self-assurance.
“Someone’s gotta learn this outsider some manners.”
The whole town had been riled up by Hank’s arrival, and most folks had been rubbed the wrong way by his brisk talking, and his cold demeanor. Aloof as the heavens are high, Hank Adams had wasted no time making enemies, and spared none to make friends. But for the coin in his purse, he’d have been run out of town that first night.
Of course, Billy had missed the most of the commotion that day. He was where he always was as the sun hit the hay; in the saloon, jawing over a deck of cards. The young gambler had just won his second hand of the night, when Adams came strolling through the batwings, thirsting for the very best whiskey money could buy in a small town like Flywood. He spoke to the barkeep with the same disdain as he spoke to everybody else in town, and glared at the joint like it was the dirt under his fingernails.
Billy had a bad feeling about him from the get-go, but he’d offered to deal the man into their game just the same. Only to be snubbed in the worst possible way.
“I’d rather hold onto my money, if it’s all the same to you. Stick to cheating the locals, boy.”
There was no need to go and say a thing like that. Sure enough, Billy had been hiding a Queen of Hearts up his sleeve, but that didn’t make a jot of difference. Men had been gunned down in the street for less, and Billy was loathe to let the matter lie.
Now, he’d set things right.
“Alright boys,” Billy said as loud as he dared. “Let’s get, already. Time’s a wastin’.”
About three miles East of the ranch, the stream ran smooth and still over the speckled pebbles, bubbling softly in the pale glow of the moon. The cowboys pushed the herd forward, caring less now for the quiet. Only a deaf man could miss the sound of a hundred head of cattle wading into the waters.
“The dusk looked mighty red tonight as we was startin’,” Sam muttered. “It ain’t a good omen.”
The stream frothed and splashed as the herd of beasts stomped deep into the muddy waters, and now the snorting and bellowing began to rise as their bulky bodies jostled together on the banks. The spray was a refreshing change to the hot dry dust that had blown through town the last week, and Billy almost wished he could spend some time cooling off.
“Superstition don’t hold much water with me,” he said lightly, wiping his brow.
Sam chewed his lip some more, his expression dark beneath the shape of his wide-brimmed hat. Slouching in his saddle, he scowled at the rolling plains leading back to the villa, waiting for the inevitable sign of stirring as the occupants discovered their missing property. Dressed all in grey, except for his hat, he looked like a storm cloud fit to burst.
“I still don’t like it,” he grumbled. “Adams will be out for blood when he finds out.”
“What do you care? He’s laying you off, ain’t he? Besides, it’s my neck on the line. You boys just do your part, and I’ll take care of the rest. Henry won’t cause you no trouble.”
Sam didn’t look at all convinced, but he nodded once and turned his horse back to the herd.
“Just try not to get yourself killed,” he said.
Billy dusted off his hat as the ranch-hand led the last of the cattle into the water. Back at the villa, there were cries in the night, and oil lamps sparked to life, glowing bright at the windows. It wouldn’t take long for them to find the open gates, and the trail of hoof marks leading to the stream.
Billy dug in his heels, and the chestnut mare set off toward the glow.
Approaching the villa, Billy slowed his horse to a canter as the firelight flickered on the white stone walls. The tomato red roof tiles shimmered like freshly spilled blood, and the night winds kicked up dust all around the ranch. Billy could hear the frustrated shouts of the ranch hands as they frantically rushed to and fro.
“Don, get the horses!”
Henry’s voice echoed in the still of the night, and his green eyes flashed with rage. He had blond hair oiled back, and bushy eyebrows that seemed to amplify his expressions. Especially his anger. Twin colts hung at his belt.
Behind him, more footsteps clattered over the wooden boards of the porch. Henry’s sister, Anna, emerged first, robed in the Mexican senorita style. Billy could barely help himself from gawping, the way she sashayed out in that swishing dress. But make no mistake, she was a mean lady, with a killer’s eyes and a quick draw. Billy stared as much to see if she was heeled as anything else, though he had to admit his gaze lingered a little longer than it would on any man, and he would have checked twice if not for the circumstances.
Right behind her was her beau, Ryan O’Rourke, still fastening his gunbelt around his waist. Wearing a billowy Spanish shirt and a black sombrero, his complexion was dark but not that of a Mexican. He had broad shoulders and a jaw like a slab of granite, and small beady brown eyes.
“What’s going on?”
“The herd,” Henry bellowed, gesturing. “They’re gone!”
“Look,” Ryan said, pointing. “A rider.”
Billy stayed where he was, as the top of gentle slope to the East of the ranch. From Henry’s perspective, Billy imagined he looked like a spectre, dressed in white up to his Montana hat, shrouded in the cover of darkness and the fog-like swirling of dust. Just like the dime-novels he read as a child, except for the chestnut hue of his horse.
“Who are you, stranger?” Henry called, his voice fierce.
“You’re the stranger in these parts, Mr. Adams. And I dare say you’ve outstayed your welcome.”
Henry shielded his eyes with one hand, his brows knitting together. The trimmed moustache followed the curvature of his top lip into an unpleasant snarl, and he lifted one arm. At his gesture, Anna ran inside to fetch a pair of rifles.
“Is that you, Billy?” Adams called. His voice boomed in the silence. “What have you done with my cattle, boy?”
“I shouldn’t worry none. They’ll be right where they’re meant to be, come morning.”
Even as Anna returned with the rifles, Don rounded the corner, leading three horses from the rear stables. He slowed as he surveyed the stand-off, his gaze flittering between Adams and Billy. Even with the distance between them, Billy could see he was worried. His eyes grew large and his face paled to the shade of the moon as Amy threw the rifle into Henry’s waiting grasp. Don didn’t have the stomach for a gunfight. But that still left three against one.
“Bring my cattle back, son, and nobody needs to get hurt.”
“How about you mosey on out of town back to those Mexicans you love so much, and take your stinking villa with you?”
Billy kept his hand close to the butt of his gun, watching the ranchers like a hawk for any movement. Tugging gently on the reins, he turned the mare around, and started to move away from the ranch, headed for safety. The wind ceased to blow, and the moon hid behind the dark clouds.
“You won’t get away.”
“I reckon I will,” Billy countered. “I got wings on my spurs.”
All at once the violence erupted. With a snap, the hammer of the rifle was cocked, and Henry let loose, with Anna soon following suit. O’Rourke, meanwhile, rushed to the horses and slung himself into the saddle, while Don cowered below, barely retaining the presence of mind to keep hold of the other horses.
Billy reacted just as quickly, drawing the Remington revolver from his holster even as he kicked the mare into a sprint toward town. He fired twice at Henry, then over the other shoulder, fired back at the now mounted O’Rourke, even as Anna emptied her rifle at him. The bullets whizzed over his shoulders, peppering the dirt just yards beyond him.
His own shots had sailed far wide of Henry, but his third had been much more accurate. The bullet struck the reins of O’Rourke’s horse, snapping the leather. Taken by surprise, the rider fell from the horse and the spooked stallion reared and fled. O’Rourke hit the ground hard.
“Ryan!” Anna cried, tossing the Winchester aside.
Billy kicked the horse’s flank as he watched the girl run to her fallen beau. Billy only hoped he wasn’t hurt too bad. Henry was still firing, sidestepping towards the other horse as he did so. Billy faintly heard him shout to Don to get moving, before the drumming sound of hooves filled his ears.
The ground between the ranch and the town sped by, with the mare running at full pelt, but Henry and Don were hot on their tail. Billy urged the horse on in every way he could, but the Adams ranch was stocked with fine thoroughbreds, and it was soon clear that the rancher would catch up long before Billy reached the town.
Swerving left, Billy headed for the old rock formation. It’d been a favourite hideout when they’d played bandits as kids, shooting down from the rocks as if it were a fort. If he was lucky, he’d make it there before Henry caught up. And stay there long enough for the cowboys to finish the job.
Even in the dead of the night, the rocks still looked magnificent. Red as the dusk, they reached for the heavens with crooked fingers, scraping the black clouds like dead men clawing at their coffins. The clatter of hooves echoed endlessly through the maze of rocks, through a prehistoric city of towers and bridges, archways and tunnels, all built haphazardly by the broken stone.
As the mare cantered through a narrow section, Billy leaped from the saddle, clutching onto a platform of rock above. Cold stone scraped at his fingertips, and his knees knocked painfully against the cavern walls. Quickly, agonisingly, he pulled himself up and rolled out of sight, just as Henry and Don came thundering through. The chestnut horse would carry on through and return to town, and when Sheriff Cobb saw the horse without a rider, he’d be sure to investigate. At least, that was Billy’s hope. Otherwise, it might just be his dead hands clawing up at a blackened sky.
“I know you can hear me, boy. Give it up.” Henry’s voice reverberated around the formation, so that the rocks themselves seem to shout his missive. “Tell me where to find my cattle, and we can all go home.”
“Mighty kind of you, Mister,” Billy hollered into the crevasses, hoping the echoes would keep his location hidden. “But I reckon I’ll stay a while longer. It’s shaping up to be a wonderful night.”
“I’m going to make you regret this. You have my word.”
“Means nothing to me,” Billy snarled.
Henry and Don would soon finish covering the immediate vicinity, and it’d only be so long before they turned their attention to the higher levels. Dusting off his jacket, Billy decided to keep moving. He knew every nook and cranny of the stones, and if he could just stay one step ahead of them for an hour or so more…
Billy jumped down low, pressing his belly to the cold stone of a natural bridge, as Don’s black mariachi hat bobbed around the corner. The rancher had his gun drawn, but his eyes were cast down at the ground, as if he thought Billy would come slithering up like a snake in the grass. The young man’s hand shook, and his body was tense. He was lucky Billy was in no mood for killing; he made for an easy target.
Once the vaquero had passed, Billy slipped down from the bridge, and headed for a crevice he knew well. Like a crow’s nest in Blackbeard’s frigate from the dime novels, the hollow could provide a perfect place to hold off the ranchers until his rescue; or else a perfect deathtrap if he was spotted.
Somewhere in the distance, a coyote cried out at the stars. The sound was mournful, and Sam’s words about bad omens came back to haunt him. Underfoot, the rocks crumbled and crunched, sifting dust down onto the passages below. From time to time, Billy would halt, and listen, keeping an eye out for a shadow of his pursuers, or a tumbling stone to alert him of danger. But the warning never came.
Only the click of the hammer.
Henry sat against a rock, one pistol raised and cocked, smiling arrogantly. With one foot up against the boulder, he reclined against a pillar of red rocks and boulders, a cigarette wedged firmly in the corner of his mouth. Billy watched the mocking sprite of smoke curl up and away into the night air.
“Jig’s up. Now tell me what you did with my cattle, or so help me, I’ll bury you right here and now.”
“I done told you once,” Billy said softly, licking his lips. “They’re right where they’re meant to be.”
“Don’t play games with me.”
He pushed the gun forward, his head cocked, and Billy raised his hands a little higher. The coffin-lid sky bled through with red dawn, and Billy wondered if this would be the last he’d see. And then, he saw the silhouette. And he would have recognised that drooping hat anywhere.
Sam’s gun shattered the silence, cracking against the rockpile over Henry’s head. With a low rumble, the boulders started to shake, and the dust fell like a split bag full of flour. Henry cursed and ducked as rocks clattered to the floor, and jagged stone crashed heavily into his shoulder. As Henry baulked, Billy raced off into the twisting labyrinth of mounds and valleys, laughing as Henry’s curses echoed on.
But the time for mirth was short lived. Sam was perched on a high ledge, visible from just about anywhere around the formation. Billy knew Don would be headed there now, and he didn’t get there quick, Sam might not make the same astute observations as he had. Billy had to get there first, before Sam let loose with both barrels of his scattergun.
Heartbeat pounding in his ears, Billy raced through the twists and turns, scrabbling over the uneven ground and squeezing through the rough-hewn paths. His elbow and knuckles were cut to shreds by the coarse stone, and his lips were dry and chapped. Rounding the final corner, he heard the shotgun blast twice.
“Now throw it down,” Don commanded, his voice uneven.
Somehow, the young rancher had got the drop on poor Sam, who squatted on the edge with his high-crown hat looking like a deflated souffle. With a long deep sigh, Sam placed the scattergun on the ground. Don’s gun pressed tight into the nape of Sam’s neck, but both men had their backs to Billy. He just had to hope Don wouldn’t pay much attention to the shadows.
“I don’t know who you are, but you and your partner are gonna lead me to Mr. Adams’ herd,” Don said in his soft dulcet tones. “Now, where is that Billy?”
Billy, by now, had crept softly up so that the toes of his boot almost kissed his spurs. Smiling broadly, he tugged twice on the man’s poncho, causing him to spin around widely, his mouth agape. His androgynous features were so fine and unblemished, Billy almost felt bad for what he was about to do.
“Looking for me?” he asked sweetly, then smashed a right hook into the rancher’s nose.
Don went down like a sack of spuds, his poncho flapping in the breeze, and blood gushed from his nose for a minute or two after. Sam, meanwhile, retrieved his gun and shook his head glumly. High praise for saving a man’s life.
“What are doing here, Sam?”
“We grew up together, you and I, and I wasn’t about to let you go get yourself killed without my being there. I knew this half-cocked plan of yours would go belly up.”
“I had it under control,” Billy said with a wink.
“Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we got riders coming in from the South.”
Billy frowned, following his finger to the small dust cloud drawing closer by the second.
“That’ll be O’Rourke and Anna, I expect,” Billy said, shrugging. “Least I didn’t hurt him none.”
Sam stared at him like he’d lost his mind, but then again, that was nothing all that new. Every idea Billy had ever had caused Sam a toothache, and he’d be damned if this was any different. And just like always, his plans were about to pay off, although Sam couldn’t see it yet. At his quizzical look, Billy nodded towards the rising dust cloud just North of the rock formation.
“We best be heading out, if we don’t want to catch our deaths of cold.”
Sam had his share of complaints to share, but Billy didn’t stick around to hear them. Like a bull at a gate, he was off, leading the way down the steep embankments and crumbling trails, with freedom just beyond the last column. They were almost out, when the shot struck the ground just a pace ahead of Billy’s toe.
“I’m done playing, boy,” Henry growled, his colts trained on Billy’s chest.
Behind him, Anna emerged with a rifle raised, and on her right was O’Rourke, looking like he’d chewed a thistle. There were no bandages in sight, and no splint to be seen, so Billy knew he hadn’t hurt him too bad in the fall. Now, he almost wished he had.
For the second time that night, Billy reached for the sky, with Sam quivering fearfully at his back. The cowhand stood so close, Billy could all but feel the vibrations, and he could hear the soft whisperings of a prayer passing over the man’s lips.
Henry pulled back the hammer, and spoke through gritted teeth.
“You have five seconds to talk.”
“Or what, Mr. Adams?” Sheriff Cobb demanded. “I do hope you don’t plan to gun men down in my jurisdiction.”
The Sheriff was a weighty man, with hands to fat and clumsy for the draw, but just then he looked like a paragon of human potential, with the rising dawn glowing golden at his back and a tin star shimmering on his breast. Hands on his hips, Cobb looked down from the red ridge and cast a shadow larger than life.
Henry’s mouth twisted into a rictus snarl, knowing his own kind of retribution was no longer on the table.
“These men are rustlers, Sheriff. They stole my herd. I’ll see them hanged for it.”
Cobb frowned. “I’ve known these men their entire lives, Adams. Accusations like that…well, they just don’t ring true. Billy’s a handful, no doubt about that… but thieves? You have proof.”
“That Billy done confessed!” Anna shouted. O’Rourke nodded vigorously.
“You heard my daughter.”
“Well, now, that ain’t exactly the case,” Billy said, spreading his hands wide. “What I said was that the cattle were right where they were supposed to be. Ol’ Adams here seemed to take offense to that. Damned if I know the cause of it.”
Cobb walked slowly down from the ledge, losing much of the stature it afforded him to the shade of the rock column. He stepped close to Billy and stared him right in the eye.
“They’re meant to be in the cattle-pen on Mr. Adams’ ranch, Billy.”
“Then that’s where they are,” Billy said grinning. “Honest. Cross my heart.”
Cobb looked at the now fuming Henry Adams, back at Billy, and then to his deputies. For a long while he thumbed at his moustache, considering. Billy guessed he had some suspicion as to what was going on, and he reckoned Adams was smart enough to cotton on too, but he wasn’t thinking clearly on account of being so angry. At last, Cobb whistled through his teeth.
“Alright. We all go down to the ranch,” he said flatly, and glared sideways at Billy. “And if those cattle ain’t there, we’ll talk about a hanging.”
Billy could hardly wait to see Henry’s face when they got back to the ranch. The boys had taken the cattle upstream, following the bend of the river, and moseyed on back to the West of the ranch and marched those cattle right back into their pen where they belonged.
Adams would sure have a hard time explaining that to Sheriff Cobb.
© 2017 Michael Delaney. The content of this article, except for quoted or linked source materials, is protected by copyright. Please contact me to get in touch with the author.SUBSCRIBE