Western Short Story - Rye Whitaker
He heard the thumping and whimpering again, and buried his head in his arms, in a vain attempt to drown out the sounds. It would be another long night, and the bitter taste of anger rose again in his young throat.
His pa had disappeared two years before the railroad came through, and now, five years later, Jimmy Dundee was twelve years old, and couldn’t quite remember what his Pa looked like. His pa was a good man and would never have deserted them willingly, but he no longer held out any hope of his return, and so he would have to deal with Rye Whitaker on his own.
The railroad had gone through less than a mile north of their lonely ranch, and his ma had been approached by the foreman to provide hot meals for the crew. With no cash money for months and none likely soon, ma jumped at the chance, and her son, Jimmy, delivered the hot food three times a day on Sally. One of the men on the crew was Rye Whitaker.
The railroad gang took turns returning Ma’s empty pots and pans, and most of the men were respectful and grateful for the home cooking. Rye Whitaker however, had a knowing look about him, and neither Ma nor Jimmy felt comfortable until he left.
Then the rails, windmill, and water tower were completed, and the foreman paid Mrs. Dundee, plus a collection the grateful crew took up by passing the hat. It was more money than they had seen in years, and life took on some needed cheer. The crew left, and Rye Whitaker with them.
But less than a month later, there was a knock on the door, and Rye Whitaker was back. The first thing he did was beat young Jimmy black and blue, right in front of his mother.
“That’s what will happen any time you dare cross me, woman. If you sass me, that boy will pay the price. If you push me away, I’ll take it out on him. Now fetch me some supper, and we’ll start being a family.”
His frightened ma nodded, and put a plate in front of a grinning Whitaker. Later, she wiped away the dried blood from Jimmy’s lips and nose with a wet cloth, while silent, terrified tears rolled down her cheeks.
Later that night, Jimmy crept out to the barn and frantically felt for his Pa’s rifle up on the beams. Then a voice came from the darkness of the barn door.
“It ain’t there boy. I found it and took it when I first come in. Now if you don’t want another beating, don’t you ever think about trying me again. I’m here now, and here’s where I’ll stay.”
The worst part was the night sounds. He was only twelve, but he understood the ways of men, and he knew what was happening on the other side of the thin cloth that served as a wall. He could hear his mother’s whimpers, and the disgusting noises coming from Whitaker, and his stomach turned. He drowned it out by scheming and plotting. Somehow, he must find a way to rid the ranch of Rye Whitaker.
“Where the hell did you get these?”
Whitaker was sitting on Jimmy’s bed. In his hand were two gold nuggets his pa had given him. He had left them out the night before. Angrily, Jimmy confronted Whitaker.
“My pa gave me those! Give them back.”
Whitaker backhanded him across the mouth, almost absentmindedly.
“What did I tell you about sassing me boy? Now answer me…where did your pa get these?”
“I ain’t tellin’!”
Whitaker stood and gripped the front of Jimmy’s shirt with a big left hand and methodically began to slap him, back and forth. His mother ran to help her son and Whitaker hit her square on the jaw. She went down in a heap and did not move. Rye Whitaker shook Jimmy hard.
“Now you tell me where your pa got these or I’ll beat your mother half to death. It will be your fault if you make me do that!”
Tears flowed from Jimmy’s eyes.
“Don’t hit her no more. I’ll tell. Pa gave those to me. He found them in the creek up yonder before the rails went through. They was stuck in the cracks of some rocks.”
Whitaker was visibly excited.
“Can you show me where?”
“Yeah, I can show you, but don’t hit Ma no more.”
“I won’t hit her unless she has it coming. Now you show me where your pa found these.”
They gathered tools and ropes from the barn, and packed them on Sally. Then Jimmy pumped a bucket of water from the well.
“What’s that for?”
“For Ma. She’ll need it for supper and I want to check on her before we leave.”
“Leave the bucket there. She can fetch it herself.”
“No. If I can’t check on her, I ain’t goin’.”
For once, Rye Whitaker relented.
“Be quick about it.”
His ma was conscious and sitting in a chair when he entered the house. He told her they were going up to the creek, hugged her, and left.
The outcropping of rock was scarcely one hundred feet north of the railroad bridge that crossed the small creek. There was barely three inches of water in it this time of year, and the cracked rocks were two feet higher than the creek bed. A quarter mile away, the squeaking windmill pumped water endlessly into the tank of the railroad’s water tower, where it spilled over the top and ran down the mossy sides. By the sun's position high overhead, Jimmie knew the noon train would be along soon and stop for water. In fact, he thought he could see the telltale trail of smoke far to the east.
“Pa found them nuggets in those rocks. They were stuck in the cracks.”
Whitaker got on his knees and peered intently.
“I don’t see nothin'.”
“They’re hard to see, what with all the dirt and sand and such. Pa spotted several and then lost them again while looking away.”
Jimmy was a few feet away, peering intently into the cracks himself. Suddenly he called out excitedly.
“Hey, here’s one now!”
Whitaker followed Jimmy’s pointing finger, and there it was, a gleaming nugget of yellow gold, stuck deep in the weather cracked rock, almost covered with sand.
“We'll need the pry bar off Sally’s pack, but don’t never take your eye off it even for a second. That’s how Pa lost several.”
“Just fetch the pry bar, damn you! I’ll watch it.”
He heard the crunch of Jimmy’s returning feet in the sandy creek bed and reached behind him for the pry bar, all the while keeping his excited eyes on the prize. His only warning was the brief flash of reflected light from the wear-polished metal of the pry bar. Then his brain exploded and he knew nothing more.
Using a piece of wire with a hook bent into it, Jimmy fished his nugget back out of the crack where he had placed it the day before. He glanced down the track at the caboose of the waiting train. It had been there for some forty five minutes, chuffing steam quietly, and filling up on water from the tower. He took Sally’s rope and disappeared into the brush. He was headed for home, but he surely didn’t want to be seen; not after what he had done to Rye Whitaker
Rye Whitaker was confused. His head throbbed mightily, and a cloth was wrapped tight over his mouth, forcing him to breathe through his nose. He was looking up at the flat bottom of something, and he was lying on some sort of hard and sharp objects. His arms were stretched out to each side, and he was in great pain. There was something rough and scratchy around his neck, as he slowly turned his bewildered head from one side to the other.
He stared stupidly at the sets of wheels and trucks on either side for several minutes before it dawned on his addled brain that he was under a train, and tied to the framework on each side by the ropes around his wrists. He also dimly realized that the roughness around his neck was yet another rope. Then he heard the long blast of the steam whistle, warning that the train was ready to move.
Full realization came to him, and he tried to scream for help, but the gag across his mouth stifled it. He yanked at his bindings in desperation, but they were secure and unmoving. He was just trying to scream again when he heard the chug of the engine and the metallic rumble of the couplers taking up their slack. Then the rope around his neck tightened. Slowly at first, his body began to bounce on the railroad ties and sharp cinders. Then the real pain and terror began.
Jimmy put Sally up in the barn and rubbed her down. In the distance, he could still faintly hear the departing sounds of the westward bound noon train.
Then he put the tools away, keeping Rye’s handgun and his Pa’s rifle. He headed for the house, and placed the guns on his bed, while his ma watched in astonishment.
“Rye wanted me to tell him where Pa found them nuggets.”
His mother's face was puzzled.
“But your Pa found them in Arizona, before he ever knew me.”
"Yes, ma’am, and that’s where Rye Whitaker is headed.”
Her mouth dropped open and she stared at him.
“You mean he’s gone? He just left everything and he’s gone?”
“Yes ma’am. He’s gone.”
Then Jimmy smiled for the first time since Rye Whitaker came to their ranch
“He took the train.”
“Would you look at that Joe?”
The brakeman and the conductor were peering at three ropes hanging under the caboose. All three were barely touching the ground, worn off by the miles, until the short, frayed ends were all that remained.
“Now what the hell do you think that was for, Joe?”
The conductor shrugged.
“Some damn fool kid trick, I reckon.”