A short, violent western story
Joshua Trench hooked his Winchester repeating rifle over the pommel of his saddle, allowing the barrel to rest across his opposite knee as he surveyed the canyon below him.
His roan quarter horse whickered gently, shivering like an earth tremor.
‘Easy, girl,’ Trench said. ‘We’ll be on our way soon enough.’
Through the canyon moved a stagecoach, pulled by a team of four horses, all black. The black was travel stained with rust red dirt, matted to the lather of sweat on the horses’ flanks. The driver looked no less travel worn. As Trench looked, the grizzled old driver ran a shaking hand over his brow, beneath the rim of his floppy hat, and dashed away enough perspiration to mark the canyon wall dark. Shoved through the old man’s belt was a Remington pistol. Another man, a hired guard, crouched on top of the stagecoach, hunkering so that a pile of roped down luggage protected him. He held a rifle not unlike Trench’s. There were passengers inside the coach, but from his vantage, Trench couldn’t make them out.
From further along the canyon, Trench caught a glint. Sunlight reflected from a looking glass, perhaps, or from bared steel. His mouth made a tight slash and he nudged his roan back from the canyon edge, seeking the trail that would allow him to continue tracking the progress of the stagecoach.
He could no longer see the coach, but he could hear its progress through the snaking canyon, wheels rattling over loose stones, the snorting of labouring horses, the curses of the driver and his companion.
The canyon wasn’t a route usually employed by the stagecoach line. It had been forced into taking the alternative route, and judging by the weary team, had been pushed there at a run.
‘Fools have run right into a trap,’ Trench muttered under his breath. His roan’s ears twitched at his voice, and he again patted the horse, calmed it.
This was the Arizona badlands, north of the Gila River. White Mountain and San Carlos Apache roamed the lands to the east, and the ‘wild ones’, the Tonto Apache, a short ride to the north. On a good day, it would have been a miracle for the stagecoach to make its run to Fort McDowell unmolested. But this was not a good day.
The local tribes were dangerous enough, Trench concurred, but it weren’t roaming bands of braves that threatened the stagecoach this day. Trench had been tracking the gang that had laid their greedy sights on the coach, and whatever treasures they could steal from it. The Salt River Gang didn’t care who died so long as they got their reward. Plus, stagecoaches weren’t the only viable targets to them.
Two days ago, over near the border with New Mexico, Trench had come upon a trading post. The vultures had gathered in the sky, black dots wheeling in the smoke from the blazing cabins. Three men, two women, and a girl child had all been murdered. The owner of the trading post, a man of indeterminate age, considering his face had been peeled off by the edge of a blade, had been bound to a wagon wheel and laid out to perish in the sun. His eyes were gone, pecked from his face by crows, and they’d also started their work on the bared meat of his cheeks. Yet the man had still clung to life. Trench knew that the man counted tortuous minutes left in him, but it had been long enough to confirm his murderers. He couldn’t speak, but in him was the fortitude to nod when Trench mentioned Walt Driven and his boys. Trench had shown the dying man the ultimate kindness: he’d pulled out his Bowie from the sheath on his thigh, and inserted the tip between his ribs, then leaned his full weight against it. The man had barely shuddered as he’d died. If he’d lips, Trench thought the man would have smiled at his promise to avenge him and his family.
Trench had offered the promise easily.
He had made a similar promise to his own sister a few days earlier.
Caroline Trench had been enjoying the happiest time in her young life. In love, and anticipating her upcoming wedding to an Alamogordo shopkeeper, she’d been flushed with excitement and naivety. When passing the group of riders in the street, she’d bobbed a curtsey and made pleasant hellos. Some people blamed Caroline for bringing trouble on her, being so open and inviting, could anyone blame the gang for taking her to the stable and having their way with her? The first man to suggest such a theory had ended on his ass in the dust, cradling a busted jaw, and Trench made it known that the next man to slur his sister’s name would lose more than his teeth. The Salt River Gang had repeatedly raped his sister, while the timid towns folk had pretended not to hear her muffled screams. When she finally fell silent, they still turned their faces away. Only after the gang had ridden west had anyone plucked up the courage to go and check on Caroline. Whether through shame, or if she’d been given a helping hand, they discovered the girl hanging from the rafters by a noose roughly tied about her neck. Walt Driven’s boys hadn’t even had the decency to cover her shame, leaving her stripped down to her ripped bodice, her bruised and bleeding womanhood displayed like a trophy in a hunter’s lodge for all to see. Those that turned a blind eye to the gang’s depravity did plenty of looking then.
The fat, lazy sheriff almost invited a bullet when he argued that Alamogordo was his responsibility, and that no way could he go off gallivanting around the west in search of men they’d no hope of finding, not when he’d a town to protect. Trench had spat on the bastard’s tin star, and at the feet of the men that refused to form a posse. He’d fetched his horse, his guns, and his Bowie. A posse of one had followed the Salt River Gang’s trail.
He’d been a day behind them at Silver City, where the town morgue boasted a new resident: a man shot down in a ‘fair fight’, after he accused Driven of holding an ace in his sleeve at the poker table. At the trading post, he’d found the slaughtered Virden family, and by then he was only hours behind.
Now, a few miles north of Swift Trail Junction, he’d found the gang, who were heading one of two ways, either to Tucson or to Phoenix. Though he pitied the stagecoach riders, he was glad that the Salt River Gang couldn’t pass up such an easy target.
He gigged his steed on.
The coach was being pushed forward again, the driver hollering and thrashing the reins. Trench stood in his stirrups, peering over the rocky rim and saw two riders following the stagecoach down the canyon, just out of rifle range. He swivelled left, squinting his eyes at the afternoon sun’s rays and again caught the glint of reflected steel. The stagecoach was being pushed inexorably to its doom.
Trench found a trail off the canyon wall, taking him away from the scene of the ambush, but also allowing him a route to come in behind the men lying in wait. Out of sight and hearing, he spurred his roan, giving the horse its head. All morning the roan had been anticipating this wild run, and it took the bit between its teeth and gave everything it had.
Trench entered the canyon at its western end, a couple of hundred yards behind the men swarming from among the boulders. There were eight of them in all, including the two horsemen that rode in faster to block any retreat of the stagecoach team. Men aimed rifles and six guns at the driver and guard, two others grabbed at the traces of the team, holding them secure.
Trench dismounted, tying off his reins to a clump of sagebrush, and left his roan out of harm’s way. He began a slow walk towards where the Salt River Gang was unaware of his coming. The two on horseback arrived at the scene and dismounted, adding strength to the ambush.
Trench could see Walt Driven, a tall man, square about the shoulders, rangy and tough. Scum.
Driven was holding his six-shooter loose in his grip as he ordered the driver and guard to drop their weapons. When they did, and held up their empty hands, he shot them both in the gut and laughed as they fell to the stark earth moaning in agony. He stood over the men, then took out his dick and pissed on them. It seemed that Driven was all about bringing ultimate shame to his victims. It made more sense now why he’d string up a virgin girl like that, leaving her violation exposed for all to see.
After the men had done enough groaning and crying to suit him, Driven buttoned up and then shot them again: this time in the skull while his men whooped and hollered rebel yells.
Trench would have preferred to save the stagecoach men, but what was done was done. He’d just have to avenge them.
One of the gang was up on the coach, throwing down the luggage. Trunks burst open, spilling clothing and trinkets on the canyon floor. Men kicked through them. Driven approached the left side door and yanked it open. He jerked his head, ordering those inside to get out. Generally it was rich people who could afford to journey by carriage, and Trench was unsurprised to see a fat easterner stumble out, his bowler falling off, even as he went to his knees beside Driven. The rangy gang leader kicked the man in the ass, sending him face first into the dirt. Two of his boys grabbed the easterner, dragged him away then tossed him over on his back. They snatched his gold watch and chain, a silver drinking flask, a pouch of coins from inside the man’s coat. One of the robbers tried to take a ring from the man’s pudgy fingers, and when the easterner tried to withdraw his hand, he made the ultimate mistake. One of the gang stamped on his throat, while the other pulled out a blade and cut both ring and finger from the man’s hand.
Driven ignored the tableau played out behind him.
He was grinning at someone else inside the coach.
He tucked his gun into his waistband, held out a hand.
A hundred yards out, Trench’s gut clenched when he saw Driven lead a young woman from the stagecoach by her hand. He was feigning civility and manners, and it could only last so long. The young woman wasn’t much older than Caroline, as pretty in her way, and was destined to meet a similar end. Trench, even this far out could see the lascivious sheen on the faces of all eight men who began to move in on her, the other trinkets forgotten now.
Trench began jogging, his long coat flaring out on the wind of his passage. He swooped towards the gang like one of the vultures that had circled the trading post yesterday. Pinions spread, weapons primed to rend and tear.
At a run he levered his repeating rifle, fired.
The bullet took the back of the head off the ring stealer.
He levered, fired.
Another man fell, clutching at his chest.
Fifty yards out, and only then did the Salt River Gang understand that they hadn’t been the only ones laying an ambush.
Driven grabbed the girl, pulled her into his arms and rammed his pistol under her chin. He backed away, trying to find cover among the boulders. His remaining five pals scattered, two seeking concealment behind the stagecoach. The other three crouched where they could, lifting guns.
Trench came to a halt, his Winchester at his shoulder. Lead scorched the air around him, cut dirt from the trail at his feet. He didn’t flinch. He fired. Once, twice, three times, and each time a man fell. They didn’t die quietly, or quickly, but in tremendous pain.
Driven cursed loudly as his men dropped squirming in the dust.
‘Another shot, mister, and this whore dies!’ he yelled, pulling back the hammer on his pistol with an audible click.
Trench continued forward, his rifle wedged tightly to his shoulder.
Near the front of the stagecoach two men crouched in the gap between the wheels. One of them had a bead on him. Trench squeezed the trigger and shot a bloody hole through the man’s shin. The robber fell, screaming, clutching at his leg.
‘What did I warn you?’ Driven hollered, his voice high-pitched.
‘Kill the girl and who will you hide behind then?’ Trench growled.
The other man behind the stagecoach fired, and his round plucked at the tail of Trench’s coat. Trench didn’t have to fire back: panicked by the gunfire, the whinnying team reared, then rushed headlong from danger. The able man was quick enough to throw himself from harm’s way, but the wounded man fared worse. He was churned beneath the wheels, his chest crushed, his head spilling brains as the metal rims rode over him.
Distracted a moment by his latest pal’s death, Driven didn’t see Trench move. Trench, took a couple of loping steps to the side, bringing up his Winchester, and cracking off a round that took the last of the gang in the face, even as he was scrambling up from his close call with the coach wheels. The man fell back, splayed out, frothy blood popping in his mouth. Driven yanked the girl around, trying to place her between him and the stranger. Over the crying girl’s shoulder he fired. Trench twisted, a palm going to his left ear. When he plucked his palm away it was bloody, and his earlobe was missing. He took a firmer grip on his repeating-rifle, his teeth flashing as he grimaced at his sister’s ravager.
‘It’s only you an’ me now, Driven. Let the girl go and we can do this man to man. Hurt her, I’ll do to you what you did to Mister Virden back at the trading post your gang hit.’
‘Is that what this is about?’ Driven hollered. ‘Some greedy moneygrubber who’d the temerity to serve up watered down liquor?’
‘No, Driven, it’s more personal than that…’
Out of ammunition, Trench dropped his rifle and kicked it away.
He flicked back the tail of his coat, showing the butt of a Colt pushed into his pants.
‘Let the girl go,’ he said again. ‘Do this like men, it’s your last chance.’
‘Nope,’ Driven said, ‘this is your last chance. Drop that hawgleg and kick it away, or I blow this pretty young thing’s head all over Arizona.’
Trench peered at the girl, who stared back at him with terror in her gaze. Chasing Driven and the Salt River Gang was all about avenging Caroline, and Trench had given up the other people on the stagecoach in order to do so. But, now, returning her gaze, he understood that there could be no others sacrificed for his vengeance. This girl was someone’s daughter, sister, perhaps wife to be.
‘You win, Driven. But you let the girl go.’
‘You’re in no position to make demands, now drop the goddamn gun and kick it over here.’
Trench hooked his thumb through the trigger guard, plucked the Colt out of his waistband and then tossed it aside.
Driven grinned, showing rotting teeth.
He levelled the pistol over the girl’s shoulder once more.
‘Fuckin’ fool,’ he crowed at Trench. ‘Now you die, mister, and I get to keep the girl. Small reward for everything I’ve lost today, but I’ll make sure I get my money’s worth.’
He thumbed back the hammer, and Trench faced him unflinching.
Driven sneered. ‘What, you ain’t afraid to die, mister? You should be, because I’m gonna send you screaming to hell.’
‘Shoot me, and I’ll be waiting at the gates of hell for you, Driven.’
‘Ha! Well you’re gonna have a long wait, mister, ‘cause I won’t be there for a very long time.’
‘Think again, you murderous bastard,’ Trench snarled and the crack of a gun punctuated his sentence.
His right knee buckled and he stumbled, and the girl tore free and fled him.
Driven took one glance at the blood pumping from his right butt cheek, mouth open in shock. Then his mind was yanked back to the present by the thunderous slap of Trench’s boots along the canyon floor. He twisted, bringing up his gun. Fired.
But his shot was wild.
Trench was feet away, face dark with rage, eyes searing him with vengeful fury. His Bowie knife was a ribbon of fire as it caught light from the sun in its arch towards Driven’s chest.
Driven fell back, yelling, thumbing back the hammer of his gun.
He squeezed the trigger.
The hammer fell on an empty chamber.
Trench’s huge knife fell on a chamber filled with ribs and organs.
Bones broke as the vengeance-driven brother jammed the blade in and out, puncturing both lungs, but missing the heart.
Driven felt the strength fleeing him.
Beneath the hammering blows of the big knife he felt as helpless as a virginal girl brutalised by eight brutish men.
Trench stood up, the dripping blade in his fist. More blood streaked from his wounded ear, down the side of his neck, but Trench paid it no mind.
Beneath him, Driven shuddered. Blood frothed between his lips, and from the puncture wounds in his chest. He coughed, spluttered, wheezed, ‘Who…are…you…mister?’
‘The name’s Joshua Trench. You don’t know me but you already met my sister,’ he said. ‘Remember Alamogordo?’
Driven coughed, tried to grin in a final show of bravado, but his mouth was stretched out in a rictus grimace. ‘Must admit. It was…uh…’ he coughed. ‘It…was…more…fun…meeting…her…’
Trench kneeled beside his sister’s rapist.
‘Caroline sends her regards,’ he said and rammed the Bowie to the hilt between Driven’s legs. He twisted the knife, coring Driven like an apple.
A soft clatter of rocks brought Trench up, and he turned to see the young woman crouching a few yards away.
‘You needn’t fear me, miss,’ he said, hiding the dripping blade from view behind his leg. ‘Or my friend over there.’
Walking along the canyon came a young man. He was cradling a rifle. He eyed each of the dead men as he came, his face solid, as he fought to contain his emotions.
He came to a stand just above where Driven lay dead in the dust. The corners of his mouth twitched in a satisfied smile, but it was short lived. He turned wet eyes up to Trench. Trench placed a hand on the young man’s shoulder and squeezed.
‘That was some fancy shooting, shopkeeper. What were you… two hundred yards out?’
‘I was aiming at Driven’s heart, not his ass,’ the young man said.
‘Well, good job you missed. Your poor aim saved me and the girl.’ Trench thumbed a hand towards where the young woman was watching them both, with a mix of fear and relief now on her pretty face. ‘And gave me the opportunity to pay back some of the hurt Driven caused us all. I’m pleased you followed me, Robert, even though I asked you not to.’
‘I’m not like those other cowards in Alamogordo,’ the young man said.
‘That’s a given. You also happy you came after me?’
The young man looked down at Driven’s waxy face. It was caught in a grimace of agony.
‘His pain doesn’t bring back Caroline,’ he said.
‘No but it gives another young woman a chance at life.’
Trench gripped the young man’s shoulder once more, steering him away from the scene of bloodletting, the girl following.
‘Because of Driven and his gang, we never got the opportunity to call each other brother’s-in-law,’ Trench said. ‘But, if you’d do me the honour of calling me brother, I just bet it would make Caroline as happy as it would me.’
This story first appeared in the eBook collection “Action: Pulse Pounding Tales Vol 1” (Sempre Vigile Press)