Story: Colum Twyne’s Last Leg Up

By: Tom Sheehan

Coloured morning light

Not everything is as it seems. Sheriff Colum Twyne had heard that phrase said a number of times, and here he was being the proof of the saying. He was hoping it was a true observation in this case.

This was it, he figured as part of his reasoning; “I’m 49 years old and I feel like I’ve been out here chasing this dude for my whole life as sheriff. Now he’s shot my horse out from under me in the last bit of daylight. He’ll be waiting for me at dawn, that rifle waiting to smoke again. It’s damned sure he don’t want to go back with me, not to Treasure Hills, not to that mob again, the one I kept off his neck a few nights ago. I can’t rightly remember if it was a week ago or a hundred years ago, I’m getting plain tired.”

He had extricated his leg from under the horse with some hard work, found it not broken, and knew he was lucky.

“I have to move and I can’t move the horse, so I’ll have to cut the saddle loose and hide it someplace in the dark. Can’t stay here. This hombre Crostley said he’d do me in, even after I kept the mob off him. He was hard as ever saying, ‘I swear, Twyne, I’ll get you before they hang me.’ Can’t let him do that. Lucky I didn’t break my leg when my horse went down. Maybe he meant to shoot the horse and not me. Make it real tough for the old man. We’ll see.”

He thought over his whole situation; what he’d done, where he’d been, the troubles that came to him on the job and somehow went away as he continued his work, drawing on a reserve that had not yet failed him. A sudden thought emerged, and he whispered the condemnation onto the ground beneath his mouth: “Maybe it is time to quit.”

He didn’t believe what he had just said; it sounded as if somebody else was speaking for him.

His rifle was intact, he had a canteen half full of water, one piece of dried meat left, a chunk of hardtack, but no coffee pot, and no coffee anyway. But he was alive; he had a chance. The old squaw woman who had brought him back from a bad wound way in the past, sounded her voice again: “Don’t hide where him hunting you think you hide. Hide where Indian hide – in the open. Hide in the open, not behind tree or rock, not in bushes, in the open.” She walked away as he turned his head and when he looked back again she was gone. For 10 minutes he couldn’t see her from where he lay in front of the cave. She had gone. Disappeared. He saw nothing and heard nothing even listening with an acute ear near the ground. Ten minutes later, like a spirit, she rose from behind a log mere feet from him, a smile on her face covered with dirt where she had nestled it on the ground, motionless for those 10 minutes.

She exhibited a sly smile and said, “Where I hide Lakota call me Winuȟčala ekta ahaŋȟi. You call me Old Woman-in-Shadow.”

In the darkness so that Crostley couldn’t see him, couldn’t see how tiredness showed in his face, in his eyes and the drop of his chin, in the constant way he lightly shook his head in disbelief that he had walked into a trap, letting the bad guy get off a single shot in the last bit of daylight.

“I made a mistake,” he muttered. “I should have waited a couple of minutes more before I moved out of that gully. Well, too late now, horse out of the barn and dead as a door knocker waiting for company.”

With a gentle hand he patted the dead horse and said, “You’ve been a good mount, boy. A good mount.” It was the best testament he could give to the animal at the time.
He lugged the saddle for 30 or 40 feet, dropped it down, and dragged it another 50 feet toward the small copse of trees around a few boulders, thinking the boulders way in the past had rolled downhill from the higher level to get stopped here by trees so many generations ago. It would be very difficult for him to leave or discard his Cheyenne Rig saddle that Collins Brothers made for him. It would be as hard as losing his horse, but if he could barter or trade it for his life, it would be worth it; the horse had been so taken. He recalled the first time he rode on it, up on a horse with green-yellow fire in his eyes, and was called Tabasco.

At least another 100 feet from that cover of sorts he let go of the saddle and it sank to find its best resting position in a proper riding position, horn upright, fenders spread, as if on the back of a horse. The voice of Woman-in-Shadow returned, in a whisper, “Remember what squaw say. Hide where Indian hide.”

Colum Twyne was a good listener; had always been a good listener. His grandfather’s stories hung in his mind as if they had been spoken at the back end of a wagon only the day before, heading out of Winslow’s Barn and crossing later that day the first railroad tracks he had ever seen, the rails running into a single point way up the line, the sun flashing on the rails until they became, in his eyes, a single arrow of light. The old gent, sitting with him at the back end of the wagon, noting the wonder in his grandson’s eyes, he said, “They aren’t that close the way they look way up there, Sonny. They just look that way. Same distance apart up there as they are right here, almost the width of the back end of a pair of oxen. It’s all in how you look at things, know what they’re supposed to be even so far off. You best remember what I say about how things supposed to look even if they don’t.”

Twyne heard the voice of Woman-in-Shadow as a quick add-on to his grandfather’s advice.

Leaving his saddle in the tall grass, he dragged himself through the grass toward the trees, now and then rolling on the ground, flattening the grass. When he reached the tree-line, he went on through the site, veered off to his right and went back out on the grass; he did not walk upright the whole way.

He felt luck hanging around his person, standing by. The moon was still hidden behind a mass of clouds and off to the east he could see that moon penetrating small breaks in the clouds. Then he saw a vast break in the clouds and he lay down on the grass.

The moon broke loose in the first big break in the clouds and yellow moonlight shot down on the grass as if a torch had been thrown into the darkness. Twyne kept as motionless as possible, and began his patient wait by counting his breaths. It put him to sleep for a few hours, aware at times that the moonlight lit up much of the landscape, including where he was. Did only upright figures throw shadows, have shade at their feet, and become part of something else? Night sounds from the prairie, which he had long treated as a kind of personal music, pleasant company for the most part, came from the copse of trees, from the high tree line off to the west, and from a canyon down the line where life echoed in the night as though it was coming through a funnel … the echoed signals of birds, coyote calls, grunts of a sow, and an unknown wild critter making a demand on territory.

A lone thick and dark cloud, black as a bundle, had drifted in from somewhere in a wind and from good providence at the moment. The yellow torch went out as if a generous hand had closed down on it.

Twyne almost let out a sigh of relief, but managed to hold it back. Silence was precious in so many ways. Woman-in-Shadow could be listening, and an echo of her words came on a slight lift of air, his education never complete: “Man talk with his feet. How he push horse under him. How he answer crow on a dead branch he cannot reach or a hawk on a soft wind he cannot feel. How he hears magic in water that touch all things living.”

At that exact moment he heard at one ear, the one stuffed against the warm earth and grass and which he had not moved for what seemed hours, the single tromp of a boot. One foot came down on the earth. One boot! It could only be Crostley on the move, on foot as he now was, and aware that his pursuer had taken this new tact in the search. And he was being hesitant in his turn at searching, stealthy as an Indian.

Twyne held his breath, the rifle gripped in his right hand, trigger tight against his finger, the barrel of the weapon pointing back toward the way he had come … and to where he had trampled the grass with the saddle, the saddle still sitting there but perhaps not visible to Crostley.

An abrupt, harsh curse, with an attempted mute pressed upon it, lifted on the darkness and was only feet from him. Twyne did not move his head. He did not look up. He did not breathe but slightly through his nose, holding to as much silence as he possibly could. Crostley must have stubbed his toe on the saddle, or a rock, or found an insect in his eye or in his ear. Twyne thought about his own ears … one accessible to a flying insect, one totally available to a whole ant colony. He had been bitten several times in the last hour, prone on the ground, the grass and earth in his face. Time moving on as slow as the seasons, or a drive on the Red River route.

A foul odor came on the air and Crostley, he remembered, had not been near any free flowing water in the time he had been pursuing him.
If he could smell him, from feet away, on the gentle drift of warm air, a dozen animals must know he was out here on the grass … and him too.
Animals could run away from an odor … or rush to it.
Crostley’s next trod down on the earth was taken … and the sound of it advanced into Twyne’s ear, the one on the ground. The air caught up in his lungs was building its pressure, and Twyne feared to let it go and feared to hold it back. Any sudden move on his part, voluntarily or involuntary, could get him dead in a hurry.
From far off in his senses Woman-in-Shadow spoke one more time: “He not see you lose a step. If he turn around he might catch up two step. Scare him quick. Take next step away.“
It was done that quickly.
From his position, sensing where Crostley was standing near him in darkness, Twyne fired a round from his rifle, rolled quickly to his left, heard and saw the flash of Crostley’s rifle only 10 feet away and fired three fast rounds, rolled again, and came to a kneeling position, the rifle at his shoulder, his finger compressed on the trigger, his eyes seeking any silhouette, any sign, of Crostley.
The cry of pain came first, a scream that set off across the grass, with a curse following it as Crostley’s rifle hit the ground with a soft thud and then a heavier thud as Crostley also hit the ground; “Damn you, Twyne! Damn you!”
At that moment Sheriff Colum Twyne suddenly realized that he’d been hit in the leg. He couldn’t let Crostley know he had been wounded also.
“I’m hit real bad, Twyne. You got to help me.”
“Where’s your horse?”
“At the edge of those trees. I tied him off there.”
Twyne said, “I’ll go get him after I take your rifle and side arms. Then I’ll get you back to a doctor.” He paused and offered his last promise, “And back to jail, too.”
With a bit of pain from his own wound, he retrieved his prisoner’s rifle, took his side arms, and hid them near the trees when he untied the horse and brought him back to Crostley still hurting on the grass. He brought the horse close to Crostley, placed a rope about the horse’s front legs to hobble him for a short time. Thinking about his situation, and not wanting to give Crostley another chance, he walked off a short way into the darkness and put his own weapons down on the grass.
With some difficulty Twyne managed to get Crostley across the back of the horse, looped his hands and feet to a length of rope passed under the horse, retrieved his own weapons, and mounted the horse in front of his prisoner.
Only when he was mounted did he say to Crostley, “You got me, too, in the leg, bad enough to make me think on it, not so bad that I can’t do my job.”
He gave no more explanation.
The two of them, both in pain, rode into Treasure Hills later in the day, and Crostley, and the sheriff, were both treated by the doctor … in the jail they had so recently left, Sheriff Colum Twyne thinking it seemed like yesterday when he started his pursuit, and knowing that he had come close to losing his leg, and perhaps his life, somehow promising himself that he had thrown his last leg up on a sheriff’s work.

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