“Ride a Dead Horse”
©Ride a Dead Horse
A novel by James Gilbreath
Jeff Lange was heading northeast away from the dust cloud between himself and the setting sun. He had been running his horse for too many miles. He had to slow the animal down before he killed it, but his pursuers were too close. If he could just make it to the broken, tree covered hills, he could make a stand. Out here on the treeless flatland he would be an easy target for a halfway decent shooter, and the men after him were experts.
He heard a familiar whistling hiss that ended with a sound like a fist hitting a side of beef. The Appaloosa shuddered between Lange’s knees as the horse whipped its head around slinging a bloody froth into the hot, summer air.
As his six foot frame went airborne, Lange heard the shot that had downed his horse and sent him crashing onto the hard and rocky terrain.
Lange tried to get his bearings as he looked back at his dead horse some thirty feet away. The shot couldn’t have come from the riders behind him. They were still too far away. Besides, the shot had come from the side. There must be a new player in this game of kill or be killed. The shooter must have been on top of a rocky outcropping at least a half mile away, and had to have had a scope for that kind of accuracy at that distance. Or perhaps he just got lucky, but Lange didn’t have time to think about that. He had to be moving. And now he was afoot.
His rifle and saddle bags were under the dead animal and, as he stood in a momentary trance, another bullet whistled by, seemingly, only inches from his head. By the time the sound of the shot rolled past him on its way across the barren land, he was already running. His only hope was still in reaching the trees on that hill, still a long way off.
He didn’t hear the whistle of the next bullet, only the sound of the shot, as Lange put distance behind him. With a glance over his shoulder he could see the wavy dust of the men chasing him. They were close enough he could make out the riders through the dust and brilliant sunset.
Could he make it to the trees before they ran him down? His lungs were heaving as he sucked in the hot, stifling air. His hair was soaked with sweat under the old hat he had pushed tightly on his head. He didn’t even think about the fact that he hadn’t lost the hat in the fall. The sweat on his body was evaporating almost as quickly as it formed.
Lange looked back at the outcropping of boulders that looked like a Biblical behemoth on the flat, ancient seabed. Who was shooting at him? He thought the only people wanting him dead were in the group very close behind him, now. Somebody had to have been up there waiting, but who knew he was coming this way? He didn’t even know before he took off on the run.
His breathing sounded like a locomotive. His chest felt like it was on fire. The muscles of his legs were throbbing with each push forward.
He could hear the thundering hoof beats of the riders, now, as they closed the gap between themselves and their prey. Jeff Lange’s eyes remained fixed on the trees about four hundred yards away. If his lungs didn’t burst or his legs collapse, he just might make it.
With the last hundred yards to go, Lange began to hear his heart pound in his ears, or was it the riders. He turned his head enough to see a lone rider, far ahead of the others, coming in fast.
Lange knew he wasn’t going to outrun the man, so he did something that took the man totally by surprise. Lange stopped dead in his tracks and with one fluid motion, drew his gun, turned and fired. The bullet struck the startled man in the center of his chest and ruined his plan to ride this scared jackrabbit down and kill him, slowly. The man fell backward off his horse and died with that thought.
Lange tried to catch the charging horse, but failed to even slow the frightened animal down as it ran wildly toward the north, stirrups bouncing off its sides.
The other riders began to shoot at him even though they were still some four hundred yards away. Keeping his gun in hand, Lange continued to push his weary body toward a place of refuge from the bullets that would soon be within range.
Out of reflex he thumbed the empty shell casing from the chamber with his right hand as his left reached around and produced a cartridge, which he pushed into the empty hole. It was a difficult task while running, but he had seen too may men die with an empty gun. “Reload at every opportunity,” One of those dying men once told him and he never forgot it.
As Lange reached the first scattering of scrubby cedar and mesquite he heard a bullet whine past his head. He jumped a wide crack in the hill and zigzagged deeper into the thick overgrowth.
The riders had just ridden past their fallen comrade without anyone stopping to see if he was alive. Their first concern was the man they were chasing. These were cold-blooded, single-minded men, and they weren’t going to stop until he was dead.
Will Palmer had stood on the rocky outcropping and watched the man run into the trees and move up the hillside. Looking through his scope he would get a glimpse of him running from one cover of trees to another. He had watched as the man disappeared into the impending darkness.
He was paid to make sure Jefferson Ray Lange was dead and Will Palmer had done his part. He would never admit he had meant for his bullet to at least cripple the man if not wound him. And he would certainly never mention the two bullets that missed altogether.
His intent would be what happened, not what he had meant to happen. He had put Jeff Lange on foot and a dozen men on horses could surely take care of the job from here. He put the rifle in it special holster behind his saddle, mounted and headed for the Double Loop.
Lange jumped into a wide crevice and continued to run uphill as the men on horseback began to spread out as they moved into the trees and brush. Moving uphill on the rocky terrain was close to unbearable after the long run. He was totally exhausted. He had to stop and rest.
He looked over the edge of the crevice through a scrub cedar and carefully scanned the hillside below. The men were scouring the area trying to find him and he knew it was only a matter of time. There was nowhere to go but up. Then what, down the other side? And what was on the other side?
He continued to push upward until he reached the top of the hill. There was a cool breeze and he was captured momentarily by the vivid colors of the setting sun at the very back of the panoramic view. The sky and distant mountains were glowing with pink rays.
His rapture was short lived as a gunshot rang out and a bullet struck wood near by. Now that they knew where he was they would waste no time joining him at the top.
He had no choices. There was only one place to run. Not pushing his tired, worn out body any harder than necessary, Lange trotted across the flat hill top. As he reached the edge of the span, ready for decent, he stopped short. It would be a rapid decent, down a sheer cliff wall into a river of unknown depth.
With a drop of some two hundred feet staring up at him, Lange made a quick decision. He had to climb down, at least far enough to lessen his chances of dying when he hit the water below. He doubted he could make the climb all the way to the bottom.
He heard a horse’s hoof against rock as he found a narrow shelf and began, what might be, the last leg of the chase.
Clinging tenaciously to a surface that defied anyone to climb it either up or down, Lange was finding the slightest depressions for foot and hand holds. His body was beginning to tremble from being pushed beyond its limits.
Several times he slipped, sending bits of broken rock plummeting into the dark ribbon of water in the deep shadows of the east facing cliff wall. With darkness engulfing the sky, he realized he was lowering himself into a blackness that was like the throat of a medieval monster.
The darkness proved to be a mixed blessing as the men who wanted him dead reached the cliff’s edge, now some forty feet above his head. Several shots were fired in his general direction, but none came close as Lange pressed himself against the cool sandstone.
He could hear voices above him as the leader was trying to prod unwilling men down the precipice into a dark unknown. The hunted will always take chances the hunter is not willing to take. Desperation is an incentive that desire can’t compete with.
Something brushed his leg and he almost lost his grip as he recoiled, expecting a snake or worse, although he wasn’t sure what would be worse. It was only a small cedar with the audacity to grow out of a rock. A seed blown into a small crack, a little water from a rare rain and there you go, life where it shouldn’t be, just like Lange.
What gave that scrubby bush or that dowdy man the right to be alone on the side of that cliff, when all odds were against them? Stubbornness? Perhaps. Fate? Maybe. Or just the mere will to live? Whatever it was, there they were. Alive when they should both be dead.
Lange used the obstinate little cedar as a hand hold to maneuver himself another eight or nine feet away from his enemies, who were still up there firing random shots at any noise they heard. Some came too close as they ricocheted off rock and whined savagely past his ear.
Apparently the bush wasn’t as steadfast as it had seemed. The roots pulled loose leaving Lange with the sudden realization of gravitational pull. He released the freed cedar and began to grab at nothing but night air.
He knew he couldn’t stop the inevitable fall, but he had to get away from the rock wall. So, before his feet left their thin shelf, he pushed outward into the dark abyss. He figured hitting the water would probably kill him, but he didn’t want to die on the way down by hitting jutting rocks before he had a chance to find out if the fall would indeed kill him. His only hope was to land in the river and that hope was dependent on two things: the depth of the water and what was in that water.
As he felt the freedom of space he suddenly had no sense of up or down. All that occupied his mind was how he came to this point in his life, which could turn out to be the final point.
Just two days ago he was living the life he was accustomed to, the life of a cowpuncher on the Crossbar Ranch. The owner was B.W. Cross, a very wealthy, very important man who had one of the two biggest ranches in the territory. If you rode for B.W. Cross you rode for the brand. One small sign of disloyalty and a man was gone, no questions asked or answered. However unfair that may seem, the men who worked for Cross considered him an honorable and fair boss. Compared to the other big rancher in the area, William Lucky Mossright, B.W. Cross was a saint.
If anyone, working for the Double Loop, was ever slightly suspect of anything against Lucky Mossright, that man was never seen again, dead or alive.
Most of the smaller ranches in the area had sold out to Mossright. One of those small ranch owners and his wife had just disappeared. Some said they moved back east. Others whispered, “murder.” This was a big, wild and sparsely populated land with lots of places a person could disappear into and never be found.
Mossright had three times as many men working for him as Cross, and each was three times as bad. Cross had been losing cattle and he knew Mossright was the culprit, but he couldn’t prove it. Besides, there was no real law to speak of, so Cross knew he would have to handle the situation or Mossright’s outfit would take over the Crossbar and B.W. Cross and his employees might find out where people went when they disappeared.
months earlier, Lange had ridden out of the
Under the circumstances, B.W. Cross was reluctant to let his guard down on any strangers. Even with the letter, Lange still had to prove himself and it took over two months of scrutiny by every man in the Cross employ.
Cross had a plan to stop the cattle rustling and now, probably murder as two of Cross’ men had disappeared. For the plan to work, though, Cross needed a man on the Double Loop. Lange was the only one stupid enough to volunteer. Besides, he was good with a handgun and was probably the only Cross man who wasn’t known by the Double Loop outfit.
The first two weeks went by without incident, except he was watched by Mossright’s men like a hawk watches a wounded field mouse. Somehow, he made his contacts with the Crossbar without being seen. At least, that’s what he thought. When he reached his contact that very afternoon, the man was dead. His throat had been cut.
The Double Loop men almost had Lange bottled up, but somehow he managed to elude them and the chase was on. The way it had happened, Lange realized Mossright must have an inside man, too, because Jeff Lange hadn’t been followed from the Double Loop. His contact man had been followed from the Crossbar.
Another thing Jeff was sure of, Crossbar brands had been altered. Lange never could get any information from the tightlipped men about night rides, but he did slip away long enough to kill a steer and skin its branded hide. You can alter the brand on the outside of the cow, but not on the inside.
He had that piece of evidence hidden away not too far from where he had buried the carcass, but first he had to live long enough to get the proof back to the Crossbar.
His freefall ended suddenly as his body came to a bone crunching stop. His chin jammed into his chest as his legs came down over his head, stretching the long muscles from his heels to his neck. He was engulfed in a rush of cold wetness as a dead silence crept over him.
He could feel his body moving, but he had no control over it. His limbs hung loose, being slapped and pushed about. Something struck his head leaving a dull ring in his ears. He had to have air. He couldn’t breathe. His lungs were on fire. Was he running? No. He was drowning. He had to suck something into his lungs. He opened his mouth hoping it would be air. There was a white flash of light and pain behind his eyes. Then all was dark and peaceful. His body was fluid and calm.