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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Western · #434320
A man to ride the river with.
Please, Not Alone

I can feel the burning spread from deep inside of me. I know I am dying. I feel the blood filling up my guts.

The bullet ricocheted from a rock and hit me in the left side. It tore up my insides a lot. Even now, some of the blood is running down my side. I stuffed a piece of my torn shirt into the hole. It only slowed the bleeding, not stopped it.

I managed to kill the man who shot me. He is laying on the rock shelf a couple of hundred feet below me. I sat on top of the ridge and seen his body below me. As I stood up and moved back from the edge, I felt dizzy and almost joined him in the valley below. I crawled back into the niche I found in the mass of upturned boulders.

This place had no back way in and it has protection on all sides. If anyone wanted me, they would have to come at me head-on. I built up the fire and put the coffee pot on to boil. If I was going to die, it would be with a cup of hot coffee in my hands.

I never asked for much in this life, and sure enough, I never had much of anything, except regrets. One being, that when I passed, there would be no other to carry on my name. It is all I have---not much, but it is mine. I never had much to brag about, but when people heard my name they would always say, “Yeah, there’s a man to ride the river with.” I never backed down from any man. I forked my own broncs and stomped my own snakes and no man could say that he had to work harder because of me.

My Pa taught me that a man that is lazy was as good as a thief. If a man would take money for doing a job, he should do the best he could. Never shirk his responsibilities. If you took a man’s pay, you rode for the brand. I have always tried to do that.

I guess that is what got me killed. The man I worked for crossed one of the big ranchers. Fencing off a water hole to save it for his cattle. The rancher told my boss to back off, but, he didn't have any back up in him. I guess that's why I liked him. He'd been a decent man and fair with his hands. Now don’t get me wrong, he would jump on you with both feet if you did something stupid. He also knew that people made mistakes. If you made them twice, he would read to you from the Good Book.

Anyway, the big rancher started trouble and killed a couple of hands. That didn't set too well with John Buchanan. It didn't set well with me, either.

We retaliated and that brought the wrath of the big rancher. He hit the ranch hard. Big John had taken a dozen rifle bullets when he stepped out for his morning cup of coffee. It was a running gunfight from then on. I was on night herd duty and came a-running when the shooting started. It was a rough battle with us outnumbered from the start.

The sound of the water boiling made me sit up to drop the coffee grounds in the boiling pot. The sudden movements made me gasp. God! The pain was getting worse. Looks like I will die about the time I pour my first cup of coffee. I just wish that I had some one to share it with. I hate to waste good coffee.

I never thought I would die on some lonely mountaintop with no one to bury me. I sure hate for the varmints to get at me. Well, I will be dead so I guess it doesn't matter much. But God, please don’t let me die alone. I just want to die with my friends. I know that I’m getting long in the tooth, but I didn’t figure to go out this way. I was hoping to settle down somewhere, maybe hitch up to some woman’s wagon and settle into the bit. Wait---what’s that?

“Whoever you are, come in slow and friendly, mister,” I called as I eared back the hammer on my Colt.

A young man with a grin on his face walked around the rocks. “I guess there’s no sneaking up on you, is there, mister?” the boy asked.

I looked the boy over. He wore homespun and boots that were a little worn at the heels. He reminded me of someone, but I can’t recollect who. The odd thing was he wasn’t wearing a gun. While he was young, he was still old enough that he should be heeled.

“I don’t mean any trouble, mister. I just smelled your coffee, and it got my taste buds goin'.”

That brought a grin to my face. Here I was, just wishing there was someone to share the coffee with.

“It looks like you’re in real trouble there, mister. Is there anything I can do?”

I shook my head. “No, thanks son, I’ve bought the farm. I’m done for. Sit a spell and join me, the coffee is about done. Just needs a splash of cold water to settle the grounds.”

I reached over, went to put the water in, and almost blacked out.

The young man caught me, settled me back against the rock. “Here, why don’t you let me get that?”

I just nodded my head and he put just a splash of cold water from his canteen in the pot. He took my cup and filled it and held it out to me. I took it. It smelled wonderful. I wonder if they have coffee where I’m going. I sure hope so---I sure would hate to be without my coffee.

The boy sort of smiled. “I bet they have coffee in heaven, ‘cause it sure wouldn’t be heaven without it.”

I sipped at my coffee. The boy took a cup out of his satchel and filled it. He took a sip and a smile of pure contentment came over his face. We both sat there, enjoying our coffee.
When we were done, the boy put his cup in his satchel and looked over at me. “Well Jed, it’s about time we headed out don’t you think.”

That brought my head up. I never told this boy my name. I inched my hand towards my Colt.

The boy just grinned and said, “You won’t need that. Jed. You won’t need that any more. Come on, we have a bit to go before we get where we are going.”

“I’m dying, son. There’s no place left for me to go. I can’t even feel the pain anymore.”

The boy grinned and said, “Then if it doesn’t hurt, don’t you think it’s time to get back to work?”

I shrugged---why not? I got to my feet and headed to where I had tied my horse. I had hidden him in an arroyo to keep him out of harm's way when the shooting started. The boy jumped astraddle a sorrel and looked for me to mount my horse. I climbed into the saddle. There was no pain at all. Even my knees didn’t hurt anymore. At least I would die in the saddle.

We rode away, and I looked back to make sure I remembered everything. In the shadows of the rocks, I thought I saw a dark bundle. It was nothing of mine, and there was work to do. It would be good to get back to work. I mean a cowboy’s work---not the gun fighting that had been the job of late. I loved to sit in my saddle and feel the sun warm my back. I loved the way a good mount felt beneath me. Yep, it would be good to get back to work. All thoughts of the day’s battle flew from my mind, I turned around looking forward to the job ahead.--------

A couple of hours later the sheriff and some of the town’s people that formed the make-shift posse came to the site of the battle. They found the spot because of the buzzards flying overhead. They found the first body a couple of miles back. The sheriff shook his head. That old cowboy sure made a battle of it.

He found out what the big rancher was up to only late this morning. One of the rancher’s cowhands, who wanted nothing to do with the bushwhacking, came and told him. He put a posse together as quickly as possible, but he was too late. When he reached the Buchanan spread, he found the slaughter. He also found that some of the hands escaped the initial volley and made a fight of it. It was a losing battle, but the hands were game and went down with their guns blazing. It saddened the sheriff to see such good men go out this way.

The rancher who started this whole thing would get his. The sheriff locked him up in a cell, to await his trial. There wouldn’t be much of one, though. Out here, justice was often swift and usually final. From the evidence at the ranch, the sheriff could tell one of the hands had come in after the fighting started.

The sheriff suspected the man was riding night herd, heard the first shot and came running. This hand had taken a heavy toll when he hit the ambushers from behind. He was too late to help most of the people at the ranch but by God, he'd have his revenge.

After finishing off the hands inside the ranch, they'd come after the lone hand that was attacking their rear. They'd paid for that mistake. Their bodies lay scattered from the ranch to where they were now. The sheriff saw the last of them lying on the rocks below the cliff.

He sure wanted to meet the man who had taken vengeance on the cowards that attacked him and the ranch he worked for. This was a man to ride the river with, a man who rode for the brand.

One of the men from his posse called out. He stood near an outcropping of rocks, looking down at something. The sheriff walked over, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
Sure enough, the body of the cowhand laid propped up against the rock a cup of cold coffee still in his hand. A pot stood at the edge of the dying fire, still warm. The man’s tanned face still held a contented smile.

“I know how you feel, cowboy. I enjoy a good cup of coffee too,” the sheriff said. “Well, let’s take him home, boys.”

“Why don’t we just bury him here?” asked the man who found him.

The sheriff looked up, a cold, hard look in his eyes. The man stepped back.

“This man died riding for the brand. He deserves to be buried on the land he died defending."
This was done in silence in respect of the dead man. "Let’s go home, boys---there’s nothing left for us to do here.”

Somewhere there’s a cowboy sitting astride a strong horse with a cup of good hot coffee warming his hands thinking, “ Yep, this is probably as close to heaven as I’ll get. “
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