The Thirsty Man

by

Here’s a more unusual piece: one of the ‘missing’ Harry Harrison stories I discovered during my recent research for the new edition of the HH bibliography. This is one of the oldest HH short stories, I think, as it went unpublished for some time before it appeared in Tightrope magazine. Unusual too in that – as far as I know – this is Harry Harrison’s only published Western story…

The Thirsty Man
by ‘Harry Hapgood’ [Harry Harrison & Hubert Pritchard]

The second that Bard Collins saw the back door of the jail, he knew something was wrong. The toothpick that he had been using to pry some of the Smiling Kitchen beef gristle from his teeth dropped to the ground. His .44 snaked out in an easy motion. The back door of the jailhouse was never open – but it was open now. Moving up quietly and standing to one side of the light, he couldn’t hear a thing. He went in, low and fast.

Bard was a little late. Daddy Hathaway lay on the floor, his white hair soaked red and his eyes glazed with death. Daddy’s gnarled hand was still holding the open door to the cell. The Lacey Brothers were gone.

A lot of people still thought that a young man like Bard, with little or no experience, shouldn’t have had the job of sheriff. Most everyone had quieted down when he brought the Lacey Brothers in; these two had stolen horses from almost every rancher in the county. Now the brothers were gone and the jailer was dead.

Collins filled his canteen from the water barrel and dug out a box of shells for the shotgun. There was no time for a posse. Two against one – and they might be armed – the shotgun would help even the odds. He was tightening the cinches on the mare when Ed, the livery stable man, ran up in as much a lather as a day-run quarter horse.

“Sheriff – Bard – them Lacey boys! Held me down with a pitchfork on my neck and stole two of my best horses, then tore out towards the mesa; and they hamstrung the rest of my stock.”

Bard swung smoothly into the saddle, looking down at the little man’s streaming face.

“I’m going after them, Ed. Why don’t you get over and tell the mayor what happened. Tell him they killed Daddy, too.”

Ed just stood for a minute, jaw hanging loose, as Bard trotted his horse in the direction of the stable; then he ran for the mayor.

The tracks were easy to find and went dead straight toward the mesa. They’d turn before they reached there, but in which direction Bard couldn’t be sure. A gentle nudge started the roan down the trail of the killers.

About a mile short of the mesa, the tracks turned sharp right and headed for the open desert. The sun was almost to the horizon and Bard galloped on the trail while there was still light enough to see the hoofprints. He camped when it was dark and pulled the saddle off his horse. Walking her a bit, then rubbing her down after the hard gallop, he tethered her. He rested his head on the saddle and slept for the hours before moonrise.

A little after ten, he awoke instantly. The roan mare snorted when he stirred, then quieted as he rubbed her nose. By the time he saddled up, the almost-full moon washed light across the desert. The hoofprints stood out in black and silver as he started off again.

At dawn, he was still going, following the line of tracks that stretched away into the distance. When the hot sun pulled over the horizon, he halted. The mare was tired. He gave her some of the water from the canteen, then took a drink himself while she grazed. After ten minutes, he checked the girth and climbed back into the saddle.

Around noon he spotted a cloud of dust far ahead. It was moving, too big and too even for a dust devil. About ten miles on – it had to be them. From the way the dust moved they were traveling fast, easy to follow but hard to catch.

With a flip of the reins, the mare started again. He could follow and as long as the dust could be kept moving he was safe from ambush. For another hour he stayed on their trail, until he was sure where they were headed.

Acacia Well: the only water ahead for a hundred miles. They would have to double back to reach any other spring now, and they showed no signs of doing that…

Bard swung off their trail and cut into a long arroyo that went in the direction of Acacia Well. He galloped the mare for over a mile. When the arroyo wall lowered a bit, he jumped off the horse and scrambled up the bank, pulling her after him. Then he headed directly for the well.

The sun seared down all afternoon and the heat did not let up until after eight o’clock. He was no longer following a trail, but keeping direction from the landmarks, and he made good time. Around midnight, the mare was staggering. No point in pushing her, he wouldn’t get far on a dead horse. Bard bedded down and slept for about four hours, then mounted again and headed south.

By the middle of the afternoon, he reached Acacia Well. Follis and Clee Lacey had already been there and from the looks of the tracks, had remained a while. In the distance, Bard could again see their dust moving along, no more than a mile or two away. He knew he had to water up fast and get moving.

The roan had drunk only a few sips from the canteen during the two days they’d been out, and Bard had to drag on the bridle to keep her from drinking too much. After draining the canteen, he dropped it in the water. The pool was almost empty, only a few inches of water above ground, and when he filled the bag it was muddy.

An hour later, Bard could make out the Laceys ahead. He tugged his hat down and kicked the mare into a run. The horse bolted away, then suddenly faltered and broke her gait, shaking her head as though something were on it.

“Let’s go, old lady,” he said. “Gitty up.”

She stopped, pawing the ground, then with a terrific heave of her rump began to buck hard. Bard was caught up short. The roan had never once bucked since he broke her. He stuck to the saddle for a half dozen jumps, but the horse was frantic, wilder than he’d ever seen her. She threw him off into the dust, stood shaking for a moment, then buckled at the knees. On the ground, she wrenched over onto her side, convulsing, her eyes rolled back with pain, her limbs twitching violently. Bard looked at the black holes of her pupils and the foam of her saliva.

She’d been poisoned. There was nothing to do. If she didn’t die in the next hour, she would by evening. He got the shotgun, aimed it at her head, then stopped short. He was in trouble – a hundred and twenty miles from any place and his mount gone bad. A shot would attract their attention. The roan was unconscious, her breath coming in gasping snorts. He finished her quietly with his short knife; a quick cut that severed her spine.

When he stood up he looked up towards the place he’d last seen Follis and Clee. There was no dust id to be seen. They had stopped. A cool wave passed over the hairs his neck when he realized they had been watching his dust, waiting for him to stop.

They had poisoned the well, knowing he’d be afoot or dead in a short time. But how? Bard looked around and suddenly knew. Milkweed right by the well … broadleaf milkweed grew all around the few wetter sections of the county. On his own spread, Bard remembered the two bays and a colt he’d lost one year – they couldn’t find enough feed and ate into some of the deadly milkweed. The two men must have ground up a mess of the pretty little plant and dosed the muddy well with it. Collins looked at his canteen. He had taken his last drink of good water out of it before he refilled it from the well. He threw it aside angrily.

The dust from the horses a few miles off started up again and Bard knew they were coming after him. He was relieved. Right here was as good a spot as any to make his stand, he could take cover behind the dead mare. Dropping onto the hot sand, he broke the shotgun and fed two shells into the chambers. Then he waited.

There was no telling what kind of guns they had. They hadn’t stolen any from the office, the gun cabinet was too hard to break into. Chances were they got a pistol and if they tried to rush him the scattergun would chop them in two.

It was a long time before they got there. It was hot on the ground and the sweat kept running into his eyes. Finally, he tied his bandana around his forehead and it helped. Then Follis appeared on a ridge about two hundred yards away, well out of range. His brother rode up a moment later. They sat there and looked at him, pointing and talking.

At first, Bard thought, they were figuring out a plan of attack and he stayed down with his gun cocked. Then, as the minutes stretched out, he was hit by a sudden suspicion. What trick had they in mind?

When over an hour passed like this, he knew what was wrong. He jumped to his feet, making a good target. Instead of firing at him in the hopes of a hit, the two men whirled their horses back behind the rise. They were wary of him.

They hadn’t stolen any guns – they didn’t have guns. There wasn’t going to be any showdown now.

They were just going to sit there and wait for him to die of thirst.

He couldn’t bring them into range of his guns – and they didn’t dare approach. But they had water and horses and it was a hundred and twenty miles back to town. He would have to walk it, while those vultures rode along at a safe distance waiting for the sun to burn him out of his mind.

Bard got up and took a few strips of jerky from behind his saddle. As he started out he looked back. They were following, walking their horses easy.

Collins walked all evening and most of the night. The pair could spell each other keeping watch on him, but if he lay down they could jump him. They probably wouldn’t though. Why should they risk getting shot when they only had to wait and see him fry in the sun? He grabbed a few hours of fitful sleep, waking every few minutes to look around.

The sun looked bigger than it ever had in Bard’s life. It climbed slowly into the blazing sky and seemed to have but one purpose – to bake and dry up Bard Collins. He was thirsty and under his thick red shirt the sweat pumped out of him. A man can walk maybe thirty, forty miles a day, depending on how strong he is. But can he do it for days – without water?

He trudged through the sand, kicking up little puffs of dust, over cholla hills and through leatherweed, into arroyos, past Spanish daggers and a thousand weird cactus pants. By the end of the day, he couldn’t feel his tongue in his mouth. The cool of night finally relieved the spinning in his head, and he pushed on by moonlight, the shapes of the day now mocking him grotesquely. And all the time the two shadowy figures on horseback kept pace with him, like the memory of death itself.

The morning of the third day he’d been walking, he found his feet not going down right, one in front of the other. They half-floated sometimes, then plunged crazily to one side. The sky was all orange and he could feel the blood pounding in his head with every step. He no longer ached for water; he was a husk of dry pain. Strange visions wandered through his mind, Follis laughing as he splashed blood at him from a trough. He didn’t know how far he’d come. But he knew in a few miles he would drop, crawl a ways, and move no more.

The two figures on horseback doggedly followed at a distance, painted into the desert. Two murderers. They had murdered Daddy, an old man they knew was only a jailkeep. Bard’s mind cleared a little as waves of hate came over him. Hate and desperation. He had to get a horse or die.

An hour later, he started making the sounds. Low crusty whoops grated in his pain-filled throat. He danced up into the air, his strength failing, then veered off the trail. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the two men sit up a little straighter in the saddle. He staggered on a ways, then squatted down. For a few moments he would be concealed behind a clump of huajillo. His cracked fingers found the shoe string tie he had stuffed in his pocket days before, but his eyes wouldn’t focus on anything close; he had to work by feel. He jammed the barrels of the shotgun into the sand twice, packing it in hard, then dusted off the outside of the gun. He laced the thin tie through the triggers and tied the ends to a knotty root of huajillo, covering the black tie strings with sand. Then he crawled away from it, babbling senselessly. He stood up, fell, crawled some more with his pistol in his hand. Then he dropped it and kept on moving. They could see he no longer had either gun.

The two men rode up warily.

“Find the shotgun, Clee,” Follis said, resting an arm on the pommel. “Mister Sheriff don’t need it any more.”

Clee circled between the shrubs a few minutes, then vaulted out of the saddle.

“It’s down here, Fol,” he shouted. “I’ll–”

The hot desert air was split open the thunder of both shotgun barrels exploding at once. Collins turned and saw the plugged barrels twist as the breech blew up and Clee’s face vanished into a bloody pulp.That instant Bard got to his feet and ran, half falling, to Clee’s horse. The animal shied, but he had ahold of the hackamore, and he bounced and dragged himself to where he could grab the pommel. The horse was already running and it took Bard’s last strength to swing into the saddle.

There was a hammer of hooves and even before he could turn Follis’s horse crashed into him. Bard almost stayed in his saddle but Follis’s hard fist crashed into his head and he reeled back, falling into a clump of sage. Before he could roll free, Follis charged him, digging his Mexican spurs into the horse’s side.

“Here’s for you,” he screamed. “Here’s for you!”

The horse reared up, then crashed down on Bard. One steel-shod hoof tore a ribbon of pain down his side, then the horse sprang away. The animal was trying to pull free, Follis jerked its head down cruelly and rode down Bard who was struggling to his feet.
Hooves hit all around him, then he was under the horse’s belly. For one long instant, before the animal reared again, it was close enough to touch. Bard lashed his hand out and jerked hard on the cinch strap. It came free just as the horse sunfished away.
With the cinch strap loose, the saddle tilted, then swung around under the stallion. Follis stayed with the saddle and the cruel rowel of his spur raked a bloody track across the horse’s back. The animal screamed and bolted away. Follis tried to throw himself free but one foot caught in the rigging. The pain-maddened animal galloped across the desert, dragging the man through the barbed spines of a hundred cacti.

Follis’s screams were cut short suddenly, as his head smashed against an outcropping of rock.

Bard poured almost half of Clee’s canteen down his throat before he could force himself to stop drinking Then he limped painfully over to where the spent horse stood, the dead thing hanging limp from the saddle. Bard cut him down and draped him across the horse’s back, then tied his brother next to him.

Sitting, limp and tired in the saddle, he led the other horse by the bridles. With each step the men’s arms and legs swayed gently as they began the long ride back to town – where he was sheriff.

THE END

First published in Tightrope!, vol.1 no.2, May 1960, pgs. 75-79.

Note: Written in collaboration with Hubert Pritchard. The ‘Harry Hapgood’ name seems to have been used as Harry Harrison had another story in the magazine, under his own name, ‘Case of the Comic Killer.’

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