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The Dark Wind Howls Over Mary

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excerpt Dark Wind
Short Story

Chapter Eight

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In the dark of night the outline of a string of lodgepole pines, long fingers of deepening black pointed skyward, stretched out and made a dark scallop down the middle of the road. The cupped, quarter moon slid in and out of fast moving clouds, making the way light then dark. Reminded Stringbean of back in Vernon County, Missouri. Pa took great store in telling the weather by looking at the moon among other signs. The old man would say a moon cupped up meant it was holding water. When the moon tipped down, it would let the water go. That meant a rain was coming. Dang, if thinking about Pa didn’t get him a little homesick to see his folks.

The night was still. Made every noise seem closer than it really was. A screech owl screamed high up in a tree somewhere. Sounded like a woman in pain. Sure gave Stringbean the willies. The whippoorwills kept on the move, skittering from one spot to another, calling their chirpy cries in the underbrush. A wolf sliced the night’s peacefulness with his long, eire howl at the moon. Made the sheriff’s skin crawl. As if given permission by the wolf to join in, coyotes, on the run, yipped behind the black, tree line. Any small critter or bird that was ground level had best hide out that time of night if they didn’t want to wind up a meal fought over by wolves and coyotes.

Stringbean kept his horse at a walk, thinking the throb in his ankle wouldn’t be so bad if he rode slow. All the while, he could feel his boot tightening up again. Going at that slow pace, it would take him a sight longer to get back to his office and bed. As bad as he wanted to crawl in bed, he needed the time to ponder about the women who had come at him all day from ever which direction. They sure differed in opinions about Mary Alice Strummer and her husband. Maybe if he mulled over all their talk, there had to be something in what they said that might help him figure out what happened to Doc’s wife.

As hard as he tried though he couldn’t keep his mind on Mrs. Strummer’s disappearance. He felt unsettled alone on the prairie in the desolate dark. It wasn’t the critters or the restless wind that made him try to gaze through the night on either side of him. Right after he left Rocking T ranch land, he became aware of cracking noises in the underbrush off to the side of the road. He had listened to those noises for a considerable time. The hair stood up on the back of his neck. Peering at the pitch black beside him, he tried to make out what or who might be traveling back of the trees. Thoughts came to him of that morning in Doc’s timber when he heard someone cock a gun. Maybe he was letting his imagination get the best of him. Could be a stray grazing, but then an old cow usually bawled once in a while. He hadn’t heard the bellow of cattle since he left Theo’s ranch. His uneasiness increased until it was a tingle running down his spine. No need to ignore his hunch. Most likely he was right. What he was hearing was a horse just off the trail rode by a fellow trying to keep up with him. As far as Stringbean was concerned, that fellow had been a might too curious about how he spent his time all day.

All at once, branches swished and sticks crackled underfoot. Someone was running afoot through the underbrush. A horse nickered shrilly, protesting being left behind by its rider. After that, Stringbean never could remember the exact order of events. He heard the metallic click of a cocked gun. The initial crack so close by it was deafening. The blast echoed on and on, bouncing off the mountains and disappearing across the vast plains. He jerked his head to look at where the noise came from. The bright flare of yellow and red gunfire spurted from within the grove of white pines. The air smelt of acrid smoke made by gunpowder. A smashing blow drove itself into his arm. The throb in the sheriff’s ankle was nothing now compared to the intense pain in his upper, left arm.

Grabbing for his horse’s mane, he ducked forward and tried to hang on. The fingers on his left hand went numb. His mind turned groggy. His left fingers weakened and slipped from Freckle’s coarse hair. He wavered sideways and slipped out of the saddle. As he fell, everything before his eyes blurred and blended together. His body catapulted to the packed ground head first with a teeth rattling thud. He grunted, but the sound of his voice seemed far off as if someone else uttered it. He stared up at the sky, wondering why it was that the stars had turned from yellow to red. Jarring hot pain seared through his side. He felt his strength drain away. He was as weak as a sick cat. His surroundings swirled in a foggy haze, the trees, the sky and even Freckles. He fought to stay conscious. He had to stay awake if he wanted a chance to fight back. Otherwise, if he passed out he might not wake up again. That shooter would be able to finish the job he started.

Freckles sidestepped and moved within two inches of tromping Stringbean. In a panic, the horse pranced in place and let out a loud, nervous whinny. The shooter’s horse answered him back. The sheriff hissed whoa in a loud whisper, hopefully low enough that only Freckles heard. Flinching and snorting a nervous complaint, the horse stood still, making a cover between the sheriff and the ambusher.

Blood wet his left shirt sleeve. A sticky warmth trickled from his numb arm and down his side. He knew better than to move. Lying out in the open, he was a sitting duck for sure. That fellow in the brush had the advantage over him. The man just might decide to do some more target practicing on Stringbean if the guy thought he wasn’t dead. Best stay still as he could and fake the ambusher out.

The next few moments turned into an eon of forevers until the ambusher finally gave up. As with all the run of the mill back shooters, this one didn’t have the guts to come out into the open to make sure Stringbean died. Then again, maybe he had complete confident in his aim. From behind the tree line, the drumming, gallop of horse hooves made by a rider leaving in a hurry came to Stringbean’s ears.

He gritted his teeth and let a growl seep out of his mouth as he struggled to his knees then staggered to his feet, feeling a combination of pain in his arm and numbness in his fingers. He leaned against Freckles and hung onto the saddle horn. Talking low, Stringbean tried to soothe the upset animal that had decided he wanted no part of whoever was hanging on to him. The sheriff held his hand out to let the horse scent him. When his mount calmed down enough to quit flinching, he hopped a few times on his good leg, bellied over the saddle and swung his bad leg over. That took every ounce of strength he had left. Feeling as though he’d pass out any minute from all the effort mounting took, he leaned forward in the saddle. Freckles headed toward Sully Town at a trot. Not much need to baby his ankle now. The painful waves in his arm made the dark tree shadows blur and swim before his eyes. Bleeding profusely and feeling weak, he knew he needed to find help fast.

Stringbean hated to let that ambusher get away, but it wouldn’t do any good to try to follow the shooter tonight in the dark. Besides with the amount of blood seeping out of his wound, he figured he best save his looking for daylight when he was in better shape to follow tracks. Right then, he needed all the strength he could muster to hang onto the saddle until he made it back to Sully Town. He had to find someone to send for Doc to get the bullet out.

He revived enough to know Freckles slowed down when the horse reached the edge of town. The glint of a light flickered from a window at Ginny Holstead’s house. He’d be safe at Ginny’s until he could defend himself again. She would take real good care of him. At the moment, he didn’t know anyone else close by that he trusted with helping him when he was in no shape to fight back.

His horse spooked at the white images fluttering in Ginny’s yard. A few not quite dry bloomers and slips, hanging on the clothes lines, waved in the late night’s rising breeze. Reckon Ginny hung them out after dark to keep some woman’s unmentionables from being seen by passerbys. Since the pain and weakness made his eyesight blurry, Stringbean got a might shook at Freckle’s shuddering reaction. In his feverish condition, thoughts flashed through his mind of Matilda Vinci conjuring up spirits. He shook his head to clear his foggy vision. Feeling foolish, he realized it was only clothes and not spirits floating across the yard. Rallying some, he softly chided the horse for being skittish. Sliding to the ground none too easy, he yanked his coffee stained shirt out of the saddle bag and limped up to Ginny’s front door.

After he knocked, it didn’t take long for Ginny to call, "Who’s there?"

"Stringbean." The door came ajar. "I want to leave my dirty shirt while I’m passin’ by. I’ll be needin’ it back as soon as possible so you can wash and mend the one I’m wearin’." He wavered and braced himself against the door facing.

One of Ginny’s brown eyes peeked out the crack. She widened the door, flooding him in a puddle of light from behind her. "I’ve about had all the washing I want for one night. I’ll be glad to wash your shirt tomorrow." Her face paled when she saw his bloody, shirt sleeve and the way his arm dangled. "You’ve been shot! What happened?"

He leaned against the doorway and made the effort to find the energy to explain. His voice came out a weak rasp. "Bushwhacked out on the trail."

"Who you reckon did that?" Ginny gasped.

"Maybe someone who don’t want me to come up with what happened to Doc’s wife," Stringbean guessed. "Shouldn’t have been so dad burn careless. That skunk has been following me all day just waitin’ for a chance to kill me."

"Well, come on in here where I can take a good look at your arm. You’re bleeding bad. I need to get the bullet out." She gripped his good arm and tugged him into the house.

"Much obliged. No need to bother you none about that, Ginny. I thought maybe I could trouble you to send for Doc Strummer to fix me up."

Ginny shrugged her shoulders. "Suit yerself, but take it from me, you’d be a sight better off if you let me work on that arm right away from the look of all the blood you’ve lost. Besides I’m right here handy."

"You ever dug out a bullet before?" Stringbean wanted to know.

"Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing." In an off handed manner, she added, "Besides Doc has enough on his mind lately."

"You could be right. The way I’m bleeding, this arm needs tendin’ to quick like. Got to admit I’m as wobbly in the knees as a newborn calf." If that wasn’t enough said, the sheriff weaved back and forth.

Ginny grabbed him by the good arm. With her other arm around his waist, she led him over to the table. She turned loose of him long enough to brighten the flame in the kerosene lamp. "Sit down here and get out of that shirt." She headed for the cookstove and poured hot water from the teakettle into a wash pan.

Fire snapped under a steaming, wash kettle full of clothes. He had to admire Ginny. That time of night when it was most folks bedtime, she still had wash to do for someone. No wonder she didn’t want to wash his shirt tonight.

Stringbean unbuttoned the shirt and tried to wiggle free, groaning at the effort. Ginny set a wash pan on the table. "Let me help you with that." She gently pulled the shirt around his back and plucked at the bloody, fragments of material to untack them from the wound before she pulled the sleeve free.

Ginny scooted the lamp closer. She swabbed the dried and congealed blood away from the angry, red hole in his arm. Fresh blood seep down his arm as fast as Ginny washed. "I have to get that bullet out of there so the wound will stop bleeding. Must have nicked a vein. You need to lie down on the bed while I work on you."

"Don’t hardly think that’s necessary. I can take whatever you do without being flat on my back," he blustered, trying to sound tough.

"Don’t know what you can take, but I’ve never known you to refuse crawling into my bed before," she said with a slight smile.

"That’s different. Didn’t have you doctoring me in mind," Stringbean excused.

"Well, let me tell you, you’ll hold still a sight easier if you’re lying down. Make it easier for me to work on you. Besides if you pass out on me here at the table, I won’t be able to pick you up off the floor to put you on the bed. A lot harder on my back bending down to the floor that way to probe for the bullet. I won’t be near as easy on you," Ginny told him bluntly.

"All right. Whatever you say." Stringbean was in no shape to argue. He gripped the table and stood up real slow. With an unsteady gait, he took off in the direction of the bedroom. She helped keep him tracking across the floor until he flopped down on the bed. Feeling weak kneed and light headed, he closed his eyes to fight back a wave of pain and his turning upside down, queasy stomach.

Ginny felt around the wound with the tips of her fingers for a small, hard spot. "Stringbean, the bullet, is just to the side of the bone. I’m going in after it."

"Do what you have to do," Stringbean gritted through his teeth just before she gave him a piece of cloth to bite.

Pouring whiskey over the wound to disinfect it, she gave the sheriff the impression she did have practice at this sort of thing. Made him have a little more confidence in her doctoring abilities until he lost his train of thought, eyeing Ginny. She cauterized the thin blade of the paring knife in the flame from the lamp. As he watched Ginny turn that knife blade over and over, he didn’t know which was worse, the pain in his arm or the fearful knot in his stomach. The minute the hot, knife blade probed the wound, searing his flesh, the pain was unbearable. The awful stink of scorched flesh was the last thing he remembered. It passed through his fading consciousness that he knew how a freshly branded steer felt now.

"Welcome back to the living, Sheriff," Ginny said softly, smiling down at Stringbean.

"How long was I out?" He mumbled.

Ginny scrunched her mouth to the side while she thought. "Not long. An hour maybe. Maybe a little more."

"I got to get going." He started to sit up quickly. The room swirled due to the unaccustomed lightness in his head. He plopped back on the bed, breathing hard. Making the effort again, he moved a lot slower the next time to come up to a sitting position. A second more and he swiveled around to place his feet on the floor. With the pressure of his left hand against the bed and his swelled, right foot hitting the floor, throbbing pain started mercilessly in his upper arm and his right ankle and seared through him ever which way.