The Road to Cheyenne
The road to Cheyenne was known for its inescapable loneliness. Hundreds of miles of weather-beaten trail in the shadow of the austere peaks of the western range. From the passes the wind blew hard down into the chaparral, laying siege to the shrub brush and sending travelers the way of the tumbleweeds.
There was only one road to Cheyenne. For a long time, trails cut across the West like so many cracks in the hard desert soil, but those days were gone now. What remained were the railroads and the graves of the buffalo. And twelve hundred miles of single solitary track, winding its way west along the Rio Grande, then north through the badlands and the shrublands and the high passes before breaking free from the mountains and descending along foothills and plains to its destination.
Sammy Wilson was tired. He’d been on the road for almost two months, and his weariness clung to him like a blanket. Since leaving Del Rio, he’d travelled almost a thousand miles. Now the worst was over. His face was weather-beaten and his back was taut from looking over his shoulder. The stress of the trail, the fear of being followed or set upon by bandits, had sapped his will. He spoke little when he came to towns, reserving his words for his horse and the cold silence of the desert night. His horse, too, had grown lean and strong over their months of travel. Descending into Pueblo, they could feel their excitement echoed in each other’s movements.
As the trail curved down toward the town, Sammy thought back on their journey. He’d left Del Rio in a hurry. One morning, awoken by the dry heat of the day and the noise of the saloon the flow below, he’d taken stock of his surroundings for the first time in years. Looking in the mirror at the gauntness of his face, he’d been overcome by the sudden awareness that if he didn’t leave Del Rio soon, he’d die there. He’d packed what little belongings he’d had left into two saddlebags and set out for the trail that same evening. He found his horse on the same farm he’d sold him to, now ten years older and under the watch of the farmer’s nephew. He purchased him back with the last of his savings, taken the saddlebags, a bedroll, and his grandfather’s Winchester and set off into the desert dusk.
That first night on the trail, he’d been stung by a scorpion. After several hours of riding, he’d sat down on a rock and as he’d bent to untie his boots, one of the small brown insects had crawled up his back and stung him right in the shoulder blade. That night, unable to sleep due to the pain, he resolved to return to town in the morning. But seeing his horse’s eyes in the morning dewy in the desert air, he couldn’t bring himself to return the horse to the corral once again. He deserved to run the trails of the West once more in his life, and to graze the green pastures of Cheyenne. Sammy could convince himself he was happy in Del Rio, but he couldn’t force others to make the same choice. So he’d ridden on.
Presently, a passing cart pulled him out of his reflection. A middle-aged man rode in front driving two able-bodied but defeated-looking horses. The man and the horses stared ahead, wearing the same blank expression. Beside him sat a large jar. As Sammy watched, the man took a swig. He grimaced for a moment, then his face fell back into a look of stark ambivalence. Sitting in the back were two children: a boy of about five, and a girl of thirteen. Across from them rode several more of the jars and a dark brown casket. Sammy watched them go. He wasn’t sure if he hoped they’d make it to Del Rio or died before they got there. The road was just as lonely going south.
Sammy reached Pueblo without seeing any other travelers. There was much less traffic on the road this far north. He hitched his horse and made his way into a small inn. He was alone in the dining room save for an old man wrapped in a blanket by the fire. As he entered, the man looked up with interest, took him in, the returned his gaze to the flames. He sat at a table near the back, facing the door, and reflected on the inn’s emptiness.
In the first weeks after leaving Del Rio, the road had been a torrent of travelers going back and forth, rushing frantically up and down the track like so many ants in an orchard. There was an energy in the air that Sammy couldn’t quite describe. It was like that feeling when you know you’re forgetting something but aren’t quite sure what. Or maybe the loneliness tinged with apprehension that comes with laying alone in the wilderness and watching the stars. So people kept moving, always with somewhere to be. They’d come from all around to the city, plagued by the specters of highwaymen and bandits who roamed the open roads and plains. They’d shelter in the inns and saloons for a day or two, planning to get underway again once they’d resupplied and regained their bearings. And some did, ill-at-ease with the squalor and the easy nature of Del Rio, they’d continue on to California or New Orleans or wherever they’d planned to go.
But many stayed, enticed by the city’s pulsating power and constant movement. The bars closed at four in the morning and opened again at six, people slept, ate, and kissed in the streets, and there was a certain tension in the air that enlivened the sense and brought feeling back to even the most languid of hearts. Life was easy in Del Rio, and that was dangerous. Easy has a dark side, and that was what finally made him leave. Rent was cheap and liquor cheaper because Del Rio had a unique form of government. A council governed the city and the surrounding area closely and with impunity—rendering Del Rio an almost sovereign state. The council was responsible for subsidizing almost everything in Del Rio—building tenement halls and great bunkhouses to accommodate the city’s ever-growing population, buying grain by the boatload and constructing great stills to liquify it, and improving the road leading into the city.
The council’s member’s lived in great ranches in the nearby foothills, and employed many smaller ranchers—like the one Sammy had sold his horse to – to work their lands. In doing so, they enriched themselves, and did well for the town. But their main source of wealth, and the reason for Del Rio’s expansion so rapidly, was far less reputable. Before its growth, Del Rio was a cutthroat frontier town on the verge of extinction. The land was as barren and hard as the people, and the undertaker came through town more often than the sheriff. Highwaymen plagued the many trails that cut the region, and the few remaining townsfolk lived in constant fear.
One day, the last of Del Rio’s residents got together and made one last effort to save their lives and their town. They met with the leader of the bandits and made a deal: the outlaws would be welcome in town and sheltered from the law, and in return all the townsfolk asked was their safety and that a portion of the gold the bandits took be given to the town. The bandits agreed, and those townsfolk organized themselves into a formal counsel. Almost immediately, Del Rio exploded in size and prosperity. The highwaymen roamed with abandon, enriching the town with their plundered wealth and forcing those they robbed into the city in search of safety and a fresh start. Over the years, Del Rio became known for its cheap living and thrilling atmosphere, and its outlaw origins faded to the background. Many moved there, and many stayed even after they realized what lay behind the façade. Such was Del Rio when Sammy arrived, and so it was when he left.
Sammy finished his meal. He looked to the bar, hoping to even his spirits, but the bartender was gone. He was about to rise when the door opened and a man walked in. He was tall and old, but with the thick black hair and beard of a much younger man, finely combed and oiled back. He wore a suit of dark grey under a red riding duster. Sammy watched him curiously for a moment. The man nodded to Sammy with a knowing smile, then turned to look at the fireplace. Sammy followed his eyes, and where he looked he saw the old man by the fire staring intently at him. The old man spoke as if with great effort, his voice full of passion but tempered by age.
“Do not stop. Not ever.”
“What?” He maintained eye contact, afraid to look away.
“You cannot stop. You must keep going.”
The old man rose from his chair. Sammy rose as well, fearful, and backed towards the door. The old man kept approaching. Finally breaking, Sammy turned and ran outside. He stood in the street, panicked, but the inn’s door remained shut. It was then he realized his path to the door had been unimpeded and looked around for the man in the dark suit. After a moment, he saw him, standing at the end of Pueblo’s single sandy street. Sammy couldn’t make out his expression, but the red tip of a lit cigar pulsed between his lips. Still gripped by the receding waves of adrenaline, Sammy untied and mounted his horse. When he turned the horse to ride from town, the man in the dark suit was gone.
It was several hours later when Sammy neared the top of the pass. He’d ridden hard for an hour or two until he was sure he’d put enough distance between himself and the old man’s cryptic threats. He’d slowed his horse to a canter, and they’d passed several more hours in this way, winding slowly up through the foothills and into the first mountains of Sammy’s journey. Presently, they neared the top of the pass. Sammy was tired, hungry, and in foul spirits, having counted on a night’s sleep in the inn and unsettled by his encounter by the fire. The wind picked up as the crest approached, making him shiver. He looked longingly at the shelter of some nearby rocks, and, making up his mind that he was safe for the time being, he reigned in his horse. The animal whinnied his protest, eager to be down the other side of the pass and out of the wind.
“It’s alright. We’ll only stop for a few minutes.”
He dismounted and sheltered behind the outcropping. As he sat, he enjoyed the fact that there were no scorpions at this altitude. In fact, he felt, for the first time on his journey, like he’d escaped the road – that he was no longer in transit, no longer fleeing Del Rio or riding for Cheyenne. He was nowhere, and that was strangely calming. He laid down on the rocks, glanced again at his horse, and closed his eyes.
When Sammy awoke, it was still dark. He went to rise and found with alarm his hands and feet were bound. Immobilized, he listened. First, the wind. It whistled mournfully. Then, a deep voice with an implacable drawl.
“You’re far from home.”
He was about to respond when another voice cut the darkness. Slow and gravelly, like an old steam engine.
“These mountains are the boundary line. In case you’ve forgotten.”
“I ain’t forgotten, but I’m still surprised to see you this far south.”
“I’m here for the same reason you are.”
“And what’s that?”
A pause, then the gravelly voice spoke replied.
“I’m here for him.”
“Don’t play games with me.”
Sammy heard a rustling, then felt the distinct prickliness of being watched. He struggled against the ropes. The darkness began to resolve itself, but the voices’ owners remained out of view. He could see only a large dark lump near the trail. It seemed to be growing.
The drawl spoke again.
“A shame he stopped—and so close to making it over the pass, no less.”
“You had no right to interfere.”
“I wasn’t the first one. He encountered a friend of yours interested in hastening his journey.”
“Be that as it may, this seems excessive.”
Sammy suddenly realized with a shock the identity of the dark lump, and the growing pool surrounding it. The road is less forgiving than the ranch. Still, he felt sad that he was now alone. He fought the urge to cry out, still struggling against his bonds.
“And to think I stumbled upon him quite by accident. I was just enjoying a change of scenery from the desert and those stuffy meeting-halls. How was it you happen to be here as well, just in time to interrupt my work?”
“I make a point to know who rides the road to Cheyenne. I’d have reckoned you’d have done the same.”
“Seems I was mistaken.”
“Ah yes, always the sentinel. There was a time when I concerned myself with the comings and goings of the passes and the plains. A time I solicited the people travelling the roads.”
“By ‘solicit,’ you mean ‘rob blind.’”
“I assumed that was implied.”
“Penniless and destitute, you’d make them walk back to Del Rio and work for the very people who robbed them.”
“You twist my words. They were free to do as they wished—be it try again to cross the mountains, await help, or, yes, seek solace in Del Rio.”
"How generous of you.”
“It worked out for this one.”
“That remains to be seen.”
“In any case, allow me to explain my reticence, lest you consider me reduced in some capacity.”
Sammy sensed the man with the gravelly voice had gestured his assent, for the other man continued.
“The road to Cheyenne is a lot less travelled than it once was. The frontier’s closing fast, and the people are following.
“Now, that’s not to say Del Rio has fallen on hard times. Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s become a rather nice place – gentrified, if you will. We’ve even got a few churches now.
“It’s just not worth the effort to be a highwayman these days. I’d much rather build a new tavern every once in a while, sit back and watch the travelers come in.”
The other man finally spoke again.
“Well, that settles it. I’m taking him.”
“Now that’s hardly fair. Just because I spent my time better doesn’t mean I’m undeserving of those on the road.”
“He was headed for Cheyenne. That makes him my charge.”
“He was headed for the top of a mountain pass. That makes him cold, but nothing else.”
“So you’d rather just leave him here than that I take him.”
“All I’m saying is, Cheyenne’s not all it’s said to be, or all it once was.”
“If he really wanted to get there, he wouldn’t have stopped. Or at least gotten a better horse. And if he wanted to stay in Del Rio, he wouldn’t have left at all.”
“I don’t believe this.”
“Some people’d rather live their lives on the range. Who are we to stop them? This world’s got plenty of empty rock for those who want it.”
Another pause. Then the gravelly voice spoke one last time.
“I reckon you’re right. Leaves more room for those who made the journey.”
“That’s that, then.”
The voices walked into view for the first time. It was too dark to make out anything more than shapes. One receded down the far side of the pass. The other paused. Suddenly, the swish-SNAP of a match being lit. A bright spot of light flickered in the wind and was raised to its target. As the watch was snuffed out by the wind, it was replaced by a dim glow. The red circle of a cigar bloomed pulsed in the night. The glow turned to face Sammy for a moment, then proceeded down the hill and out of view.
The darkness was complete again. Sammy shivered. The wind whistled.
The road to Cheyenne said nothing.