About One More In the Chamber
Almost the Fall: A Western (Working Title)
It was near two years since the War of the Rebellion. He’d managed to survive the cannons and the cold, the swamps and bayonets. Johnny Reb stole one of his fingers and gifted him a limp that festered more than it let up. No matter. He was alive. To crawl over dead limbs and dead fields, to come out breathing at all, he figured it a sign from the Maker.
He sought no recompense from the South. Recompense would require more accounting, going back over land already bled for. South was no longer a direction. The other three were more than enough—West being most important.
Like so many of the wasted might’ve wanted, he went.
It was an isolated, simple spread, but there was plenty of grass and water. Far as living alone for the sake of you and yours, theirs was a blessed spot. They had a cow and some pigs, more than a few chickens. A sturdy horse. Their crops came in weak the first year, flush the next. It was hard work like any, but the air was free from men’s meddling and the ground was mostly green. The only blood he saw came from too much time on the shovel or the plow.
Different brands of blood. Something never thought on before the War. Now he knew different.
“Strange thing, ain’t it?” he asked, looking out on the worked land and beyond. Rows and rows and then forever until the mountains. It made his contribution seem insignificant in the most beautiful of ways. The stream ran lively in the background while he held his tongue for a response.
“I’m supposing you want me chasing you down,” she said, tilting her head down at the son they’d made together, standing between them. The boy was near knee-high to his father and strangely sturdy on his little feet.
“Chase me?” he asked. He’d stay confused until she made herself clear. That was their way and always had been.
She sighed and issued a smile too small for him to find. “I never was partial to fancy talking men,” she said, “but you lay your words down like a half a hand of cards.”
He turned and used a dirty finger to push up the brim of his hat.
“What’s strange?” she asked, deciding to give in.
Their son raised up his arms like trying to steady a horse and they each grabbed a hand, swinging him just off the planks of the porch. He laughed though all points of the pendulum, back and forth, until their shoulders started to fuss.
“Living,” he said, easing the boy to a solid landing. “It’s strange.”
“I’m fairly certain that’s an observation made by many of our predecessors,” she answered. “Adam and Eve went on at length, I’d venture to guess.”
He put one hand on his son’s head, guiding his little body forward. His other hand found a home on his wife’s warm cheek. “You’re always making light of things, Nell.”
“Takes a lot of work.”
“Does it?” he asked, kissing her other cheek.
“Indeed it does.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and brought his lips down to hers. Husband and wife could smell each other’s day while their mouths lingered. It wasn’t pleasant or perfumed, but something better; earned and good. Living is strange, she thought.
He took her wrists and held her arms to his chest, strong, the way she liked. “Indeed it does, you said?”
“Indeed I did, John.” Nell gently kicked the toe of his boot. “It’s a matter of balancing the scales. Proportions and the like.”
“Oh you see,” she laughed, pushing his brim a bit higher. “You rustling around with the deep and dark—”
“Yes ma’am. You’re doing your part, providing the light.”
Her eyes opened wide as their little boy tried to push his way back between their legs. “Huh. I guess you do get it. Maybe my husband isn’t the brute I reckoned I was stuck with.”
“Well I’ll be sure to thank God while I tend to supper.”
John watched her walk inside and picked up his boy. “Your mama’s something else, son.” As he filled the swine trough with water and checked on the main barn, it came back to him. His point about the strangeness of life. He was relieved Nell had derailed his line of thinking—how obvious his mind worked compared to hers. She’d gotten a proper education while he was off fighting. His wife spent years learning to use her brain he while spent the same time trying to turn his off.
His miseries were nothing special. A twisted up thought, but true all the same. War was just another blight by man towards man. He’d contributed his portion to the foul feast. One more mountain of bodies in the range of human catastrophe. No call for complaining. No reason. A pretty wife, good land. A fine boy.
So much life. On the other side of the darkest time he could imagine, so much beauty and life. That’s all he’d meant to say back there, staring out from the porch. Strange.
John continued to hold his son while he brushed the horse. The boy was still struggling for words, face red and brimming over with things to express. The little noises he let out sounded something like Zeus without the Z.
“That’s right, Joel. You wantin’ to help me brush down the old Zeus?”
The mature horse nickered with approval as the father guided the boy’s little hand across his back. Joel’s big eyes were fixed while his papa explained the importance of taking care of a horse’s hair. “Supposing we saddle the old boy and there’s mud or a pebble of some such rubbing under all the weight—wouldn’t be proper or kind, would it Zeus?”
The lesson continued for a few minutes until John heard his wife’s voice calling out from the house.
“Yeah, we’re coming,” he said, setting the brush and his son down. “Let’s go, Joely. Sounding like we’re late for supper.”
Nell was in the barn before they could make it out. “Riders coming,” she said.
After handing off the boy, John was outside, weaving his way through the pens and toward the house. He squinted north and made out five tiny dots on the horizon. The dipping sun wasn’t much help. Damn she’s got good eyes he thought, walking into the house. As he grabbed his rifle from above the mantelpiece, Nell was behind him, fetching his pistol and two leather ammunition belts.
“You’re loaded,” she said, handing over his rig.
“What about you?” he asked.
She pulled out her own pistol and nodded. They worked in seamless concert and without wasted words. It was cooperation that had seen them through the perils of the journey. Had it not come natural, they never would’ve made it out of Pennsylvania.
Nell’s pretty pale face was showing signs of muted concern. A wrinkle or two on her forehead, but nothing overly dramatic. They’d run this drill many a time before. They were three miles south of the main trail leading into town, close enough to get an occasional stray soldier or settler looking in.
“I’ve got need of your vision,” John said, leaning against the front door frame.
She looked over his shoulder and out toward the riders. They were defined now, less than a half mile out. The cloud of dust from their horses grew thicker in their wake as they charged on.
“What do you think?” he asked. “Dang sun’s too low for me to make out much of anything.”
“They’re all liveried different,” she said. “And they’ve got their rifles out.”
That sound, like far away thunder, started to rumble and build as the horses neared the farmhouse. “Doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” he said, cocking his own rifle. “But head out the back door and get down by the river bank. Cross if you have to, get to the woods. Take Joely with you.” John handed his wife a handful of cartridges for her pistol and gave her a look that stayed her from any arguments. He was right to be cautious. They certainly weren’t soldiers or settlers—not without uniforms or wagons.
Cattle pushers, maybe, but there wasn’t a herd. Could be they had a hurt man, though unlikely; all five seemed to be riding high and hard.
Nell dropped the extra bullets into her dress pocket and picked her boy up. We can talk later, she thought, leaving her husband still leaning against the door. She cradled Joel in one arm and carried the heavy pistol in the other, thirty seconds trot to the bank. Now the quaint sound of the river was a curse. She wanted desperately to hear the interaction to come, but they were too far away. The water played over the rocks and her son smiled back at her concerned face. “We’re fine,” Nell said, squeezing the boy tight. “Your papa’s plenty tough.” As much as she knew it, a black sort of worry was choking her. What had led them here? The panic made everything they’d sacrificed and worked for a folly. The little stretch of dirt from her to the cabin was an impossible distance, infinitely farther than the country they’d managed to cross. “You papa’s plenty tough,” she said, over and over again.
They pulled up in front of the house in formation, one man out front, like birds fleeing winter’s cold. John’s struggling eyes danced left and right but he held a non-threatening stance, leaning against the frame of the door. His rifle rested diagonally against his chest, right hand near but not on the trigger. His pistol was cocked and ready just below his left hip.
As they skidded their horses to a stop, the lead rider was the first to speak. “Howdy there.” He held up his hands and smiled warmly. “Apologies for barging up so unmannered.” The rider took off his hat and rubbed a shirtsleeve across his tanned brow. John could see he was a young man with a confident face and unusually straight white teeth.
“What can I do for you gentlemen?” John asked. He looked from left to right once more. The riders seemed more fatigued than dangerous, but prospecting after their intentions would be ill-advised.
“We’re needing food. Water for the horses.” The answer came from the thickly-set man to the leader’s right. He was severe in manner and odd to the eyes; hair long and blond, almost white. A beard dark as coal. “How far to the nearest town?”
John squinted as the daylight continued to wane. “Pinewood is about a half day’s ride west. That trail y’all were on will take you straight through.”
“You suggesting we get moving?” asked the blond man. It was clear he was spoiling for trouble. Only question was, how much.
The leader pointed an admonishing finger at his companion. “That ain’t the way, Clyde. Keep it under your hat.” He turned back to John, all teeth and goodwill. “I apologize, Mister—”
“Wilkins. John Wilkins. Y’all are welcome to a meal. Stream’s got plenty of water. I’d put you up for the night but there’s not much room for accommodating.”
“That’s kind of you, Mr. Wilkins,” the leader said, pulling out a gold watch from his vest pocket. My name’s Dan Clayton. I hate being a source of imposition but it’s an offer I’d be foolhardy to pass on. We’ll supper and then push to town.”
Just as they were about to dismount, the one called Clyde asked, “You have any women?”
It could’ve been asked in any tone or manner. The question issued from a pauper or the president. It made no matter. Living free meant there were things you didn’t ask another man. Everyone that got on a horse or in a carriage and ventured west knew the weight of their transgressions. Clyde was no exception, and he left John no choice. “Everyone stop,” John said. The stock of his rifle found a home against his shoulder as he pointed it stiffly at Clyde. He chambered a .44 round with smooth proficiency. “And go ahead and set those guns down.”
With spit and disdain Clyde said, “That’s gotta be one of the dumbest things I’ve ever seen.” He laughed and looked at the other members of his group. “A damn farmer raising his gun to the Clayton Gang. And all by his lonesome.”
John felt the cool dry wind against his eyes, but he didn’t blink. “The Clayton Gang—no offense, but never heard of you.”
Dan Clayton motioned for the others to drop their rifles. “No offense taken, Mr. Wilkins. We’ll be on our way. Truth is, we’re looking for someone. It’s our heavenly commission to find him.”
Clyde started to say something but Clayton held up a steady hand to signal silence. “Anyone ride past here today, maybe yesterday?”
“Haven’t seen anyone for more than a week,” John said, trying to give every man all the focus he could muster, watching for any threatening moves. “Some boys with a herd driving ‘em up north.”
“I believe you,” Clayton said, leaning back in his saddle, “because this is the sort that leaves an impression.”
“Sorry I can’t help.”
“I’m sorry too,” said Clayton, drawing his pistol with smooth, startling speed. John reacted by firing at Clyde but didn’t have time to lever another round. He had two bullets in his right shoulder in a second’s time, both from Clayton’s six-gun. Clyde was dead, slumped over in his saddle with a hole through the head.
Clayton and his three remaining men dismounted swiftly and tied their horses to the little hitching post in front of the cabin. Smoke fouled the air and the horses fretted. It was their nature, after all, when exposed to the handiwork of unnatural man.
John was bleeding something awful, forced to his backside by the wounds. His shoulders were propped up against the front of the cabin, underneath the little window. As one of the gang approached him, he commissioned enough strength in his left hand to pull his pistol and fire. It hit the man square in the chest and dropped him right there on the porch, shaking the entire structure. Clayton yelled NO! to the other two and shot a hole straight through John’s pistol hand. “I’ll be, Mr. Wilkins. You cut my crew almost by half.” The leader stood over his bleeding body and kicked away the guns. “But I’m not angry,” he said, smiling strangely. “See Clyde there had too much mouth and not enough brains. Picker’s the one bleeding out here,” he said, finishing his own man with a shot that blew skull parts across John’s pants. “Obviously, he was lacking caution when it mattered.”
John reached for one of the scattered weapons but they were all too far away. His hands ran across the wooden slats in vain, collecting splinters and drawing blood from hardened palms.
Clayton knelt down beside the wounded farmer, reloading his revolver. “I’m pretty good with this,” he said, chambers fully occupied. “But it’s an instrument, is all. An offering.”
John kept on his clawing until the shock fully set in. “Just kill me and be on your way you son of a bitch.”
The gunman looked at his two remaining men, standing behind with the horses. They were skinny and something nearing rabid. Weather and hard living had stripped their faces down to mere nubs of humanity. “That’s Russ and Cal,” he said, “they’re mighty young, wild oats still calling to be sewed.” Clayton turned back and stuck the barrel of his pistol into John’s hand wound. A ponderous expression found home on his face. “There’s a nice ring, Mr. Wilkins. Best not to wear adornments out here. Tips people to your lot…”
From John’s right, a shot rang out. Dan Clayton’s body was yanked back and he fired fast in the direction of the muzzle flash. Russ and Cal were too slow to react to the exchange. Nell cried out in pain, falling to the mud next to her severed fingers. The gunslinger lifted his now wounded left arm to stay his men from firing and surveyed the damage with a laugh. “Winged me pretty good, Mrs. Wilkins,” he said, shaking out the pain. “Me and John were just broaching the topic of you.”
Nell writhed in the dirt, searching for her pistol. Good as her eyes were, she couldn’t see through the hurt. “No!” she screamed, over and over as Clayton made his way to her with crooked steps.
“One of those things,” he said, “me noticing the ring on John’s finger. And now here you’ve lost some of yours.” She kept on screaming until he grabbed her by the throat. “Hush now, darling.” Clayton whispered. “Carrying on like you got the madness. I don’t know.” He sighed and held her firm in his leathered grip. Her tear-stained face seemed a source of intense fascination. He turned it so it caught a little piece of the moonlight. “What madness made you leave your child out there?”
John was starting to lose sense but he made one last attempt at one of the weapons scattered about. “Leave her alone you bastard! Go to hell!”
Cal and Russ rushed over and kicked the guns to a safe distance. John looked up, begging mercy for his wife.
“She’s a pretty thing, Mr. Wilkins,” Clayton said, dragging her back near the front door. “Real pretty.” The gunman gave her one last look. “And she must love you something awful, trying a rescue, leaving your little one on its lonesome.” He laughed once more and kissed her on the forehead as she wriggled against his grasp. “Indeed. Madness or love. Not too far a distance between the two.”
Clayton looked at his men and motioned for them to take Nell. “Do it here, so Mr. Wilkins can watch.”
“Please,” John said. “Please.”
The gang leader once again knelt next to John. He took off his glove and put a hand on the planter’s head. “A nasty portion, this being the last thing you see in this world.”
Clayton set his hat on the tiny wooden horse on the porch. “You should’ve hid that, John. First thing I would’ve done, if’n I was the family sort.” He was whispering now. “Your wife should’ve run. Madness.”
John tried to say something but his mouth was beginning to fill with blood.
“Just rest. Any consolation, I’ll make it quick for the little one. Not right leaving it out there for the wolves.”
Clayton picked up his hat and walked past the screams and convulsions at the foot of the porch steps. He tried to cancel out the sounds of horror by looking up, imagining all the quiet between himself and the moon. He guessed at it being quiet, anyway.
As Nell fought her last fight and John took in his last breaths, Dan Clayton dropped to his knees in front of the crop field. He made a large circle in the dirt with the butt of his revolver and drew two horizontal lines through the circle. Setting aside all his weapons, he stepped into the circle and sat down cross-legged, quietly crying and uttering words beyond the apprehension of most.
Later, he and his men would look for the child, but their search would be in vain. Little Joel was on a horse, held tight in the arm of a large, leather-skinned man. He happened along the youngster well after the shooting commenced. Two things about the hand that clutched Joel tight to his body: First, it belonged to the very man the Clayton gang were trailing. Second, the hand bore a strange tattoo from the top of the wrist to the knuckles.
A tattoo of a circle with two horizontal lines.
Chapter One: Thunder Hill
“There is but one thing we can seek with a mind toward what matters. One thing that can’t be moved when we strip it all away. The loves and desires of this world, enticing as they may be, are nothing compared to the Glory of God.”
Everyone in the little church was transfixed on Phillip Laird, the young man behind the pulpit. The ladies in the service tried not to be captured by his bold green eyes and precociously handsome face, but that was a battle generally surrendered before undertaken. The men, young and old, couldn’t help but admire his passion and sense for the Good Book.
Today, though, it was a whole heap more than that. As good as the Pastor was, this was no ordinary service. A body lay still in the house next to the church—the body of the man that had preceded Phillip in the running of the church. One of the founding members of the town of Thunder Hill. Man woman and child alike did their best not to stir and cry at the thought of Ben Laird, stiff and cold, spirit already ascended, body prepared for the dirt.
Between words of hope and comfort, the congregation couldn’t help but hear the sounds of the less devoted to God and their fellow man. It wasn’t Sunday; the usual din of a working town continued steady on, outside the church walls.
“Ben built this house of praise and worship with his own hands and sweat, alongside many of you, when I wasn’t even a pup.”
As old men and women nodded and grumbled their agreement, the solemnity was punctured with the tinny sound of a faraway piano and unfettered hollerin’. Many began turning toward the door to express their disdain.
“C’mon now folks,” Phillip said, bringing the attention back his way, “that don’t sound like Armageddon—more like a few wagon loads a ranch boys blowin’ steam before heading back out to it. Ben wouldn’t judge those men, but I’ll tell you what…” The young preacher set down his Bible and stepped purposefully out in front of the pulpit, standing straight and true, inflating his rugged chest and shoulders as a physical manifestation of spiritual strength. A tiny smile snuck from the side of his mouth as he sunk his hands in his pockets. “I think he’d want to be the center of attention, just this once.”
The congregation laughed, pining after a collective moment of release. Not everyone packed into the pews believed the same, but they were all there to pay some measure of homage or respect to the man. Phillip leaned slightly toward the attendees and forged ahead with his message, pressing across the battle lines and checking his emotions all the while. He wondered if they could sense the maelstrom breeding chaos in his soul. Like Mr. Caesar at Pharsalus, unsure of the outcome, but sure that ahead and head high was the only way. For now, at the least. A time for every purpose. Solomon’s inscrutable wisdom was something that needed leaning on.
They didn’t know what he knew. Or maybe some of them did. He snuck a glance at his family in the front row. His sister Elsie looked up at him with salt-burdened, loving eyes. As she cried the tears of a grieving daughter, did she know? Mabel Laird, his mother, the new widow—dignified and well-presented to the last—did she know? Of course she did. Phillip tried to imagine a scenario that ended with her innocence or ignorance on the matter, but none came to mind.
And now that he was privy, what good did it do? He looked at ruddy-cheeked Sydney, his wayward older brother, looking wrong for his surroundings as always, one of three young Thunder Hill deputies. Perhaps he’d broach the subject with Syd. Surely not today. But soon. Or not. Oh God, what to do?
“So let’s not get too caught up attaching ceremony or tradition to this day. Pa wasn’t about such things. I’m of limited years and limited wisdom, but I doubt there’s many a man of faith that put less stock in all the ‘nonsense’ surrounding faith.”
Another reference to the man they’d gathered for. It helped Phillip recapture their attention and lent him a tick to try and put his personal gripes on hold.
“Nonsense,” the young man said, making bold gestures with his hands.
It was a bad impersonation, but they got the point. Ben’d always wave his long fingers in front of his face and say, “That’s a hot pile of nonsense,” never failing to follow the gesture with a tiny wink and a country-size smile. The attendees in the church had their own memory pictures of the man, and in capturing them, they felt an impossibly pure mixture of grateful and sad; a formula rendered by looking back on a life lived right before man and God.
After a prayer and some grateful words from the family to the attendees, Phillip walked over to the Wilson family house. It wasn’t more than twenty paces from the church door. It was a sturdy affair with a little garden and yellow flowers underneath the windows. Not the biggest place in town, but it was immaculately looked after by Mabel and Elsie. It was as white as the church that it sat next to, at Mother’s insistence. She said if God got to have a white house, so should she. Like most things mentioned sideways by a woman, his father took it as a joke and a threat, in equal portions.
Old. Ben never really had the chance to be old. Phillip lamented this truth as he stepped slowly up to the open coffin sitting in the front room. A man in a fine black suit with hair gray as tinsel sat hunched on a little stool by the body. “Doc Rufus,” Phillip said. The three syllables cut through the whole house, powerful and unwavering. The young man couldn’t bear to speak softly. He feared in his guts that any cracks or delicacies might turn him to a puddle on the floor.
“You do your part, Lip?” Rufus asked.
“I sank my heels in—got through,” Phillip answered, accepting a sturdy hug as the older man rose to his feet. Doc Rufus was a man in his early 50s, near as tall and strong as Phillip. The preacher couldn’t remember an embrace from the town surgeon that didn’t require a little preparation or at least resolution. As they slapped each other’s broad shoulders Phillip said, “You might’ve come in. I know it’s not your way, but heck.”
The doctor grabbed his lapels and looked down in self-defense. He wasn’t ashamed—nothing like that—he just didn’t think a quarrel appropriate, given the setting and the circumstances. He decided a grunt followed by silence to be the best course of action. Rufus understood the boy’s perspective. They were looking down at the doctor’s closest friend: Ben Laird had struggled and bled alongside the departed. They’d cleared forests, fought off Indians, traversed a whole country together. That the doctor and the preacher agreed on very little was a hard bit of philosophy for any youth to chew—even one as sharp and clear-headed as Lip.
“Sorry, Doc,” Phillip whispered, sensing a breach of good manners. “I’m tired, I think. And it’s more than that. More than this whole deal,” he said, motioning toward the casket. The body was so strangely inert; the absense of life rendering it somehow more dead than the box that contained it. The simple casket sat there on dirty sawhorses, waiting to be observed and inspected by the interested townsfolk.
“I can see you’re full of complications,” Rufus said, almost cryptically. His eyes sharpened toward Phillip and then relaxed again. “Are the rubes coming in?”
“You can hear ‘em out there as good as I can.”
“This is one tradition I’ll never understand,” the doctor said, pulling a flask from his back pocket. He took a short pull and then let Phillip have one. “What do the rubes get out of seeing a body? I can indulge a gathering, telling tales, remembering. But the spying of a breathless being—not even a being at all—the rubes are an astonishing lot.”
The intake of liquor momentarily twisted the preacher’s face. “You’re in here, paying your respects. Judge not, if’n you please. And what do you get out of calling everyone a rube? How you come by these terms, I find quite astonishing.”
Rufus beckoned the flask back with a thick hand. “Me being here’s different. You know that.” He gave the younger man a hearty slap on the back. “I love you, Lip. But as for your astonishment—that can be traced back to an almost incalculable lack of experience.”
Before Phillip could muster a response, the door swung open and Mabel walked in, signaling the start of the procession of people, prayers and personal messages. Her eyes, now observably swollen from grief, shot holes through her son and then turned with vigorous ire toward the silver-haired doctor. “I don’t want you here, Rufus,” she said, as mannered as she could. “Please find your way out the back. I’d appreciate a quick exit.”
The doctor donned his signature low gray top hat and retreated with a bow to Mabel and Phillip. He walked past the narrow staircase then skirted through the kitchen where he’d broken bread so many times before. Of course, those were nights when Mabel’d been out with the women’s church group. A secret not so well kept—those meals were almost famous around town: everyone imagining Preach, Doc and Sheriff Cox all exchanging stories and whiskey over a warm dish. When Doctor Elias Rufus, as he liked to be called in public, was asked what they discussed, he would touch the tip of his old gray hat and say, “Some things aren’t for public consumption.”
Mabel gave Phillip one more look of admonishment and nestled her petite frame between his body and the body of her late husband. She starting waving people in with the smallest little dutiful smile on her lips. “You shouldn’t talk to that old heathen,” she whispered between handshakes. The line was awkward, as people had to go out the way they came.
Between God bless you’s and thanks for coming’s, Phillip whispered back, “I’m sorry, Ma. He was here paying his respects, just like everyone else.”
“I know you’re partial to him,” Mabel said. “Heaven help me, your father was. Despite me. Maybe to spite me.”
They kept coming, one handshake after the next. Otto Buchholz, the blacksmith, with his entire brood. The town surveyor and his wife. Lindy Samuels, with her new fiancé. Phillip was wondering if she’d show. He lowered his emerald eyes as he took her delicate little hand. She did a little curtsy that gave off a hint of flirtation. Or maybe not. The gesture riled Elsie; she was standing next to him now. Sydney sat on a windowsill in the corner, chewing on a toothpick and looking out the window with a hangdog expression.
More and more piled in. Scuffing up his mother’s rug and filling the house with whatever smell they couldn’t get off their clothes that morning.
Lip was reeling from the consistent sorrow that hung over everything. It was inescapable. The little draft that always managed to find a path through the house was stunted by all the bodies. A coat of sweat began to form on his usually pacific face. There was still the burial. God help me.
Three gunshots sliced their way through his thoughts. Everyone turned toward the noise instinctively. Sydney pushed his way out the door and started running in the direction of the gunfire. “Syd!” Phillip yelled, pulling his mother and sister close. “Keep ‘em all here if you can. I’m going to see what that’s all about.”
He didn’t wait for a response. Quickly he was out the backdoor and around the front of the house, running heavy through thick mud of the town’s main thoroughfare.
It didn’t take long to see. Two men were down in the street, not moving. Phillip recognized them—the Collier brothers, sons of one of the county’s prominent ranchers. Another man he didn’t recognize was leaning against the hitching post in front of the saloon, bleeding from a wound in the right leg. Sheriff Cox, Syd, and three others were training their pistols at the hobbled man, yelling in agitation. Phillip skidded to a stop on the periphery of the fracas. “Everybody calm down,” he said, raising his arms. “He’s shot.”
“Stay out of this, Lip,” Cox said, walking slowly toward the man. “Back away! All of you!”
Phillip did what he was told, confused and angry. Selfish thoughts flooded his mind. His father still needed burying. He still needed answers. There hadn’t been a shooting in Thunder Hill in ten years. Now this. Today, of all the damn days.
Chapter Two: The Man Against the Mountain
He was set up in the hills behind three granite boulders that tended toward pink in the sun. A small hole afforded enough space for him to point the barrel of his rifle down the slope. Someone was riding slow up the trail to his cabin, and he wasn’t much partial to hosting.
He had his repeater aimed at a point that anyone sticking to the trail would have to cross. His calloused trigger-finger was at the ready when he heard a weary voice call out, “Loot! You up there!?”
His finger relaxed and body unstiffened as a familiar face passed by the hole in the rocks. He got to his feet and dusted off his heavy wool pants, walking around the boulders toward the trail. The familiar face was close now, attached to a leathery neck, sitting atop a horse that looked as worn down as the rider. “When you going to learn to make yourself known farther down the hill?”
“You wouldn’t shoot down your old friend Jasper Bedford.”
“The point is, I don’t know it’s my friend. My blood doesn’t give me magical powers, you old gimp.”
Jasper rocked back and forth awkwardly in his saddle as he neared Loot. “I can’t ever remember when I’m supposed to call out. Sorry. I get confused with all the rocks and the trees. Everything out here tends to blend. It’s not my usual locale, as you well know.”
Loot took his visitor’s reins and ushered the horse up a widening trail carpeted with pine needles to his home; a little cabin, fashioned out from the mossy cliff-side. “If you’re feeling unsure, it’s best to make your introductions on the before side of things.”
“Your logic is unimpeachable as always, my friend.”
“Get on down now. Come inside and I’ll get you some coffee. Look like you might freeze to death.”
“Thank you. I think my horse might be getting old. It took a ghastly spell to get up here. More importantly, my procreative elements suffered greatly from this unforgiving saddle. The leather is harder than diamonds.”
Loot patted the old mare on the gray hairs just above her droopy brown eyes and smirked. “I think your horse might be getting ready to fall down dead.”
“Oh,” Bedford said, looking like Loot’s leap in logic was revolutionary, scratching his chin. “That would be dreadful. I really enjoy this horse, despite the deleterious effect riding has on my balls.”
“You’re strange. Even for a white man, Jasper. What brings you?” Loot asked, opening the door to his little hideaway. It was tidier than one might expect from the outside. A dry, single room affair, heated by a cast-iron pot-belly stove. Transporting it up the steep hill had most likely whittled years from Loot’s life.
“Yes,” Jasper said, removing a tan duster that appeared to be borrowed. He placed it on one of two chairs in the cabin and took to his seat like he had just endured the whole forty years of wilderness. “I know you value your privacy.”
Loot looked around as he pulled the other chair close to Jasper. “Value might not be the right word, newspaperman. People don’t hole up like this without necessity hammering in some of the nails.”
“Of course,” Jasper said, patting the top of his glistening head. He was about the only “European” Loot had ever known that refused to wear a hat. It didn’t make much sense to him or anyone else, considering the dearth of hair. Still, Bedford had soft brown eyes and a permanent slumping of the shoulders. It was as if the words I’m at your service dictated his posture. Most people that met the old writer gave right in to his winning ways. In that regard, Loot, as much as he’d deny it, was like most people. “Solitude sometimes is best society,” Jasper said, all thumbs, trying to find the old feeling of familiarity with his host. It had been months since their last encounter.
“Who said that?”
“It’s Milton—Paradise Lost—forget it. Foolish.”
“Paradise Lost, huh? Well, that’s a title I can get my head around.”
“I’ve said it before, but a woman or two could really make time go faster. Isolation is fine, but life needs punctuation marks.”
“You’re saying what you always saying? Using different words?”
“Copulation, my good man. I can always hire a few beauties to make you forget about things.”
“What things in particular?”
“Anything in particular. Or anything in general. I find that in general, a little action can cover a multitude of particulars.”
“You’re a lecherous son of a bitch, Jasper. Harmless on the whole, but I don’t know how you get through a day without paying for affection.”
“I usually don’t,” returned the writer, playfully hitting Loot on the arm. “But,” Jasper started, now all of a sudden embarrassed. His sunken pale cheeks turned red, regretting the frivolous nature of what he’d said. There was hard truth on the docket and a swift tonal change wasn’t the best way to go about things. Still. “I came to tell you—word from Thunder Hill came through on the telegraph. That’s the machine—we’ve had one for a spell—”
“I know all about it. Ain’t been a time I’ve seen you when you don’t go on and on over the dang thing.”
“Of course. Anyways, word is that Ben Laird’s dead. Happened yesterday.”
Loot turned his head as he heard the news, like dodging a punch. “How?”
“Fever grabbed him up and didn’t let go. Only took a week. Said the last few days it was like he was breathing underwater.” Jasper looked down and clasped his hands, realizing the air had all but left the cabin. He raised his head for a mere second to observe the figure before him: Loot Moreno was as formidable in appearance as any person he’d ever set eyes on. Hair blacker than the blackest midnight ran down just south of his shoulders—not a hint of gray, despite a run of years now stretching into middle-age. Moreno’s thin blue eyes didn’t seem to belong on a face with such uniformly olive skin, but that could traced back to his unique extraction. Loot’s mother was a white settler who’d come over with her family from somewhere in the high climes of Europe. Jasper’d heard rumors of a scandal—some sort of affair with one of society’s “undesirables.” A young rider that caught her eye, apparently named Moreno. He was hanged shortly after Loot’s birth. He was Mexican and part Indian—no notion of what tribe. The one time Bedford spoke with Moreno about his past, the man acted like it made no difference. No allegiance to any people or group had ever rendered him a damn thing, he said. It’s something Jasper found endlessly fascinating. In a wide open country where the individual was a castle, Loot was a fortress on a hill so high, the clouds obscured his very existence.
“That’s a damn shame,” Moreno said, setting down a shaky tin cup of coffee in front of his guest. “Preach should’ve had some more years left in him.”
“I thought you’d want to know. And you don’t have to tell me what it was… the connection and the like.”
Loot finally took a seat, wind out of his sails. He was somewhere else, even in the close confines of the little cabin.
Bedford took a sip of coffee and coughed, saying, “Also wanted to tell you I was gonna head to the funeral.”
“Well, I knew the man. And there’s more than a few folks from Durington that are heading down.”
Loot wasn’t mad at the newsman. Just mad in general. People had every right to pay their respects to Ben Laird. And Jasper—he was the type of person that earned his keep and helped more than most would ever try. Still. “Sounds like bullshit.”
“What do you mean?” Jasper asked. He rubbed at his thin salt and pepper mustache as it quivered from nerves. Moreno’s voice could be low and forceful, sounding like it was powered by a locomotive engine.
“Thunder Hill’s a long ride. A day past Fort Callaway, if you’re really about your business.”
“We’ve got three days until the service. They’re holding off on account of all the people coming in to say goodbyes.”
“Best be on your way then,” Loot said. His delivery was too flat and cold to be believable; from years of asking people questions, Jasper could discern that much.
“I’m sorry,” Bedford said, standing up. “I really am.”
“It’s not your fault, Jasper.”
“I know. But I can tell you’re itchin’ to go to Thunder Hill.”
“Sounds like they’ll be too many gawkers. I can’t risk it.”
“And I’m sorry about your friend.”
Loot stood up and held out a hand thick with muscles. “I appreciate you coming up here and conveying the news.”
Jasper took his hand and had one last look around the cabin. Orderly as it might be, he felt for his friend. The thing Milton said about isolation—at the moment it felt like manure steeped in lofty rhetoric. As publisher of the Durington Daily, he was well-versed on the subject. “Be seeing you, Loot.”
Moreno watched Bedford down the trail, one old horse on top of another. He’d kept his calm through the visit as best he could, but now he suffered from turmoil and violence rising against the sinews of his chest. He walked in circles over the flat ground in front of the cabin, shoving his hands into his denim jacket pockets. It was an exercise in resistance, trying to fight off good and bad urges in equal portion. In a life full of gunpowder and darkened decisions, Loot Moreno had only made a few friends that were worth a handshake. One was heading down the mountain, on his way to stand over the grave of another.
“No,” he said, over and over, walking the same circle until his boots had cleared the pine needles from his path. A taste like iron and ash filled his mouth and nose. The past and all its detritus was pressing on his brain, coming to the fore, dashing the little peace he had like breakers against rock.
Finally he stopped retracing steps and repeating words. Jasper Bedford was out of sight now, probably nearing the flats leading into Durington. The walk back to his cabin was labored and panicky. Despite the brisk air swirling against the mountain, little circles of sweat were collecting underneath his rugged arms. I’m just worried for the boy, he thought, looking down at his hand. He wanted the mark gone—more than that, he wanted to forget the time when he looked at it with pride. You’re just guilty, he thought, arguing with himself. It wasn’t an uncommon thing for Moreno, considering the isolated nature of his existence. This was different, though. This argument was going somewhere. It was about going somewhere. It won’t hurt to go check on him. Ben’s not around anymore. You can talk to Doc Rufus, make sure he’s okay. Phillip and the rest of the townsfolk of Thunder Hill will never know you were there. Just like always.
This was the logic that led Loot into his saddle and down the mountain. After packing enough provisions to quickly get there and back, he took the western hill trails that skirted Durington Valley and gave Fort Callaway an extra wide berth. It was a heap of strain to put on Pecos, but Moreno knew how far and long to push the muscular quarter horse. Despite the roundabout route, Loot made it in the Thunder Hill’s vicinity ahead of the party that set off from Durington. No surprise. He’d spent most of his life in a saddle, chasing or being chased. Putting himself out to pasture—that was a fairly recent development—two or three years. Not enough time to unlearn the ways of getting around fast and quiet over difficult terrain.
After sighting the town, he stopped just above the tree line on the mountains to the south. Thunder Hill was plumb center in a valley flat as a table, surrounded by cliffs and mountains on all but one side. There was no way to approach without being seen for miles. “We’ll wait till dark,” he told Pecos, patting his deep brown coat just above the shoulder. Loot could hear the sound of water nearby; either a little mountain stream or waterfall. “Let’s get you a drink, brother,” he said, walking along the uneven slope, taking his time. It was no use lunging about and turning an ankle. Although the two-day trip had been steady as she goes, he had a sense that getting hobbled could mean the end. Maybe it was the feeling that his sand was on the wane; he’d never speak it out loud, but his legs and back were giving him fits. Loot held the reigns and watched each step carefully as the sound grew in intensity. “Not much fun off the beaten path, brother,” he whispered, guiding Pecos gently along. “Just a little farther and we’ll take rest till it’s dark as coal. Then we’ll go see Doc.”
Chapter Three: Visitors
Phillip sat against the wall in his room above the Grimes General Store, heavy-eyed but unable to catch a wink. After the excitement of the shootout and the enervating pain of returning his father to the dust, he’d had more whisky in the last twelve hours than the whole of his life. Ambrose, his three-year-old Golden Retriever, made a whimper and set his pointy nose across Phillip’s legs. The dog lifted his head and brought it down again and again.
“You understand me, don’t you boy?”
For a moment Ambrose stopped and looked at his master. Then he yawned and licked his lips. “Or you need to eat and do your business.” Magic words. The dog’s tail began wagging furiously, thudding against the uneven floorboards every three or four cycles. “Fine,” Phillip said, peeling himself slowly from the floor. The movement set off little demons of pain throughout his body until they all seemed to gather in his head. “Mother of mercy,” he groaned, afraid to even rub his temples. Despite his condition, Ambrose was encouraged by the human’s progress and started scratching at the door. “Let me get the leash, Ambs.” Phillip tied the rope off short and tight; no choice, living on main street. Too much length and his dog could wind up underneath somebody’s horse or carriage. “Hold on, now,” he said, finishing up, fighting off the throbbing above his eyes. He held the dog collar with one hand and pulled hard on the rope so Ambrose wouldn’t choke. It seemed in good order. “Try not to explode on the front walk, will ya?” More scratching and wagging.
Before he could reach the knob, two gentle knocks were followed by a familiar voice. “Lip? It’s Lindy. You around, hun?”
Ambrose looked up at Phillip, who was suddenly paralyzed. A few whimpers from the dog helped him regain a portion of his senses. He opened the door and secured his pet. “Hey there, Miss Lindy.”
“How you faring, handsome?”
“I’m—okay. Maybe didn’t acquit myself too heroically in the wee hours last night—but okay.” He barely lifted his head as he spoke, letting his bangs fall over his eyes like a wave.
Without a lick of time or added ceremony, Lindy Samuels was across the threshold, kissing him square on the mouth. Her gloved hands wrapped tight around the back of his head as she pulled him down to stay the embrace. With his free hand, Phillip placed a hand on the small of her back. There was familiarity to the exercise. And shame.
“C’mon now, Lindy,” Lip said, gently pulling away.
She wouldn’t let go. Never did, really, once she got her hands moving. She loved to play with his hair while she talked and kissed. Lip didn’t understand what was so great about his hair or the great need to favor it over looking at him proper in the face. “Don’t push me away, Phillip Laird,” she said. So dramatic. Still uses both my names, for some dang reason. Her fingers were unrelenting, turning his already disheveled mane into something even worse. “You need me right now.”
“I need you to go,” guiltily looking right and left like his home was a train station platform. “Somebody could’ve seen you come up here.”
“This ain’t Chicago, Lindy. It’s a small town and people are gonna talk. You’re getting married—dammit if he finds out, I’m likely to take a bullet in the back.”
Her face was no more than an inch away and all parts of their hips and legs were still tangled up. Lip felt shame and a hundred other things; every time they kissed it was like being pulled down to Hell and sent up to Heaven at the exact same time. He understood that at its core his dalliance with Lindy was a simple sin of the flesh, base and low. But he did feel for her. He wanted to close the door behind and spend the day in her embrace, laughing and carrying on like consequences were nothing but myths. But not today. God help me not ever again.
And so, after a few more minutes of deflection and obfuscation, he was able to steer her back and out the door. She said something about it not being over while he repeated fine fine fine, all the time trying to keep her hands off his britches.
He slid down the door and listened to Lindy descending the steps. Ambrose sat in front of him, mouth closed and completely still. The animal looked disappointed. Lip almost laughed at the anthropomorphizing, but it wasn’t that funny. What did he know, anyway? Maybe Ben and Jesus and all the saints and angels were behind those messy dog eyes, using Ambrose as a vessel to witness the complete and utter destruction of a young soul. Or maybe the dog was just giving him a second. “Come here, boy,” Lip said, holding his hand out while Ambrose lowered his ears and gave over for a good hearty petting. “Just a few seconds more, pal. Got to space it out, in case anybody out there’s by the door.”
The dog wagged his tail and plopped his rear back down, craning his head forward make sure the petting kept on without interruption. Boy and dog enjoyed a moment or two of peace before Lip started to will himself back to his feet.
As he reached for the knob, three sharp knocks sent him reeling backwards. “You in there, Lip?” Another female voice, but not Lindy.
The remnant pain and agitation gave Phillip notions of playing silent, but Ambrose was reaching a breaking point and had played the good soldier long enough. “Yeah, Elsie. Coming out.” He opened the door and saw his sister standing on the landing, looking fit and proper in her black dress and hat. Twisting rivulets of blond fell down in faux chaos over her forehead.
“Aren’t you gonna put something on?” she asked, holding a purse Lip couldn’t stuff half a hand in.
“I’m wearing things. C’mon, my boy needs his time in the sun.”
“Alrighty. Usually some type of shirt is placed underneath the suspenders, though.”
“Sis,” he said, irritation in his voice, trying to control Ambrose down the steep, narrow staircase. His place had its own door, right next to the store entrance. That was the good news. Bad news was the stairs; a foot wrong and it’d be curtains.
“I’m sorry,” Elsie said, daintily following him down. If he was holding on for dear life she was floating like a feather—and making a show of it. “I’d be happy to walk with you and Ambrose, even though he’s dressed better.”
Once outside, Lip struggled to find a point ahead and stick to it, still doing battle with the headache. He was experiencing a good old-fashioned hangover. The prospect of ever drinking again seemed worse than death, but he had a feeling a lot of full-time drunks had fostered similar thoughts after their first hard stint with the bottle. “I think I’m dying.”
Elsie put a hand on his back and took the rope as they nodded past Mr. Haines the butcher and Mrs. McCarthy, the recently widowed schoolteacher. “We’re heading out back, Ambrose,” she said, moving the party along, “but you hold steady until we’ve got some privacy. Can’t have you adopting your master’s manners.”
She didn’t respond. Just walked into the tall grass behind the store with Ambrose while Lip leaned against the back wall of the building. A hazy minute or two went by and Elsie handed back control of the dog. “I understand the impulse to tear yourself asunder, but it’s past midday.” She made one more inspection, shaking her head. “Unfettered and unseemly isn’t your style, Phillip.”
“It’s past midday,” he said, kneeling down to pet his dog. Ambrose was calmer now, but still hungry. “Not two years from now. A little repose is all I’m asking for.”
“Alright,” Elsie said, realizing Lip wasn’t in fighting shape. She leaned up and whiffed his breath. “But what you need is a repast—anything to combat that presence. I’ll go back up and grab a shirt, feed the dog.”
“Stop. Go place yourself out front. My guess is you’ll put the other town beggars out of business by the time I get back.”
“Wherever more than one is gathered, somebody has to be wittier.”
“It never stops.”
“Never will,” she said, finally showing a smile of understanding. “Meet you out front.”
Five minutes later, Elsie emerged on the orderly little boardwalk outside Lip’s apartment. He was sitting with his long legs dangling over the side, still nursing his noggin. She threw a black shirt over his back along with a gray bandana. It crushed his heart all over. Making a show of mourning seemed an extra dose of cruelty to the ones needing comfort and the ones doing the comforting. No matter. Conventions.
After getting up and tucking in, Elsie asked if he was ready.
“Yeah. Probably need to change spots. Three little kids started poking me with a stick before you got out here.”
“You possess an undeniable gravitas,” she said, holding her head up and arm out for him to escort her. “Even partially adorned.”
They walked slowly, in and out of the overhang’s shade. Crossing two streets of hardened clay, they arrived at the French Café. Only the people that made Thunder Hill home used this appellation. To those passing through, it was simply The Café. Understandable. They served absolutely no French cuisine. An old fella named Beckett French owned the place, is all, and despite the lack of international cuisine, it was the best place (out of three) in town.
Despite being swollen with customers, several parties stood up and offered their tables as soon as the Lairds entered. Conversations about crops and cows and yesterday’s shooting skidded to a stop in every corner of the joint.
“Oh no, fellas. We couldn’t,” Lip said. Simple deferential instinct.
“Thanks George. Wilson, thanks so much,” Elsie said, taking the first seat offered. Before he could object, the young preacher could see a chair and a clear place set in front of him. He began to mumble something like an argument but was cut off. “Just pipe down and accept some courtesy. Let other people take care of you, stuff your intransigence.”
“Nope,” Elsie said, holding up the little menu in front of her face. Phillip looked around and realized that elbow-to-elbow in the busiest spot in town was no place for a row. He took his medicine and began to brood in silence. Little Cara, French’s youngest daughter, came by with water. The young preacher came close to swallowing the glass whole. How can drinking the wrong thing make you so thirsty the next day? He thought there might be a sermon in there somewhere. The girl immediately came back and refilled his glass, big honest eyes and honest innocence. Probably best not to do a sermon on the after’s of my debauchery.
“Thank you, Cara,” Elsie said, rolling her eyes at Phillip.
“You’re handling this like a Spartan, aren’t you?” he asked.
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Dad’s dead, is what I mean. We’re sitting here wearing black and people are looking at us queer. Not a lick of it seems to stick to you, though. Just chin up and cracking wise—like always.” Due to the close quarters, Lip’s analysis was hardly above a whisper. Still, Elsie felt the bite.
“I’m away from Mama for twenty minutes and—is this going to be our lunch? If so, I’ll go invite myself to sit with the boys from the Thompson spread.”
Phillip turned around. Elsie wasn’t threatening idle. Thompson’s cowpunchers were indeed seated in the corner. “You’re not going over there.”
“Why not? I bet they’d enjoy my company.”
“I reckon they’d do more than that, if you open the barn door.”
A scowl like he’d never seen came across Elsie’s pretty face. Her dimpled chin was protruding as she bit down on what she wanted to say. Her eyebrows, darker than her golden hair, were crooked and bent in more than one direction. “I’m sorry,” Phillip said. He was. It was nice of her to check in on him. Nice to take him out to lunch. Heaven knew she had the same heap piled on her shoulders, the same list of what-to-do’s and wonderings. He stopped thinking of his damned head and put his hands together, like offering a prayer. “I shouldn’t be acting like this.”
His gesture seemed to have a disarming effect. Elsie rolled her shoulders rolled back and let the seat catch her frame. “You’ve got a lot on your mind,” she said, “more than just Pa.”
“That’s right,” Lip said, fiddling with a fork that looked like it was made before they started using the word antique. “But how’d you know, Seesee?”
“You were on about something the other day. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it…”
Phillip thought back through the last week. Was it possible that he’d blabbed his secret to someone who could understand? Was Elsie playing coy, just pretending that she didn’t know? Had the haze and crushing confusion caused some sort of fevered state of forgetfulness? Surely not. Even she wouldn’t be able to crack wise under the weight of what he was tottering under. Then again—she was a rare bird, his sister. “So we haven’t talked about it…”
“Not in any good order. But whatever it is, I can handle the reins. God, give me something else to think about.” She almost laughed then caught herself. Pining for diversions wasn’t proper public form. Elsie knew it, yet somehow she knew the desire to be inevitable. At least for her.
“I’m not your brother.”
She was still as stone. “I know that. We’ve talked about this—I mean—well, you know what I mean.”
“I’m not hitting the target.”
“Before Pop passed, he told me some things. Who my real parents were. How I ended up here at all.”
Elsie leaned forward and said, “Mama and Pa always said you were left on the steps of the church.” She took the fork from his hand and gripped his thick fingers lightly. “So this is what you were getting your mettle up to talk about the other day. Then you just faded off.”
“S’pose I did.”
“Well go on and finish, because I didn’t get the whole of it—whatever it is.”
“My parents were killed when I wasn’t much but a baby. Pa knew the man who brought me. They knew each other. Said it was Loot Moreno.”
The din of dishes and conversation went away as Elsie’s eyes went narrow.
“I know what you’re gonna say,” Lip said, “but this came out a Pa’s mouth straight as Gospel.”
“But c’mon, Phillip. He was jabbering all manner of nonsenses in those last few days. Loot Moreno? He’s a make-believe monster. Heaven’s sake, they still tell stories about him around campfires to scare kids.”
Elise wasn’t saying anything he hadn’t already run through, but he trusted her enough to go with the rest. “I might’ve just let it be.”
“But then I see the man yesterday—the one in the shootout. Call me crazy, but I think that’s Loot Moreno.”
“I’m calling you crazy,” Elsie said, “and how’d you come to this conclusion?”
“A couple things Pa said about him. His guns. And you didn’t see him. Unique, to say the least. Then his hand when they were dragging him away. It had a strange mark. A circle with two lines. I’ve heard about that mark.”
“Let me guess. From Pa.”
Phillip couldn’t help but smart from the incredulity. “No. But a few other places.”
Elsie had every reason to throw water on whatever his brain was cooking up. He was talking about myths and legends and the fevered last words of a dying man.
And his head was killing him.
And the man who raised him was gone forever. “Hey, Preach,” said Andy, Beckett French’s son, coming by in his trademark grease-stained apron to get their order. It was a strange thing to hear. That title was Ben Laird’s since the founding days of Thunder Hill. Someone had to be the first to say it. A rather inglorious passing of the torch. Elsie could see the awkwardness bubbling underneath Lip’s skin.
“Hi there, Andy,” Elsie said, smiling up at the waiter with her straight little teeth.
“That was a nice service yesterday. I’m sure gonna miss Ben. No finer fella around. Anything we can do, don’t hesitate. People are polite sometimes, but I really mean it. Glad you came in today.”
“Thanks, Andy,” Lip managed to say, “kind of you.”
“Y’all want to order?”
Yes, the young preacher thought. I want to eat and quit all the talking. There’d been enough back and forth for a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches. He nodded for Elsie to go ahead with her order when Sydney barged in the café, ungraceful as ever. His backside and belly seemed to knick or downright slam into everything in its path. When he arrived at their table, Elsie stood up gasping. “Syd! What happened to your face?”
The clumsy deputy asked Andy if he could get him a chair and stood while his little sister looked him over and examined his wounds with her hands. Phillip was concerned as well, but he couldn’t help but think there goes lunch for another twenty minutes.
“What happened?” Lip asked, patting his unwieldy older sibling on the arm.
“That damn crossbreed but the boots to me is what happened. Took four of us to get him in the cell yesterday, even with the bullet wound in his leg.”
“But I saw you yesterday,” Elsie said, thinking he might need sewing up, “and you were fine.”
“This was from today. He near escaped on the way back from seeing the judge, clattering all of us with his irons. I’m telling you—that mutt bastard is a ruffian of the highest order. Devil’s spawn, I’m thinking. He’s a scary sumbitch is what I’m saying.”
Everyone in French’s was looking at their table now. Elsie and Lip might’ve been the elephant in the room, but now, with Sydney there, the Lairds were center stage with a spotlight beaming down.
Andy came back with a chair and Syd collapsed into it. He took a drink of Phillip’s water and left blood on the rim from his mouth. “What’s this fella’s name?” Elsie asked.
“Calhoun. Brandon Calhoun. Son of a damn gun, I think he broke something in my chest. I better get on and see Doc Rufus.”
Syd looked first at Lip and then to Elsie. It was an expectant face, that said help me up here, dammit.
Lip did the lifting and told his older brother to ask if he needed anything later on.
“Always with the courtesies,” Syd said, rubbing Phillip’s hair with a mixture of condescension and acceptance. “I’m off then.”
“Why didn’t you go straight through to Doc’s?” Lip asked, still lending a steadying hand.
“I was walking by and saw you through the window. Can’t a man talk to his family? Just wanted to check in’s all I’m saying.”
“You wanted to let Betsy Taylor see you all rough and lawman’d up, didn’t you?” Elsie asked.
“Ain’t she working?” Sydney asked, suddenly a little more spry on his feet.
“Afraid we haven’t seen her,” Lip said. “Just little Cara and Andy working the tables.”
“Damn shame. She’s developing into quite a sight.”
“You’re incorrigible,” Elsie said.
“Pretty girl, all’s I’m trying to tell you. No sense hiding intentions under my hat.”
“Suppose there’s some wisdom in that,” Lip said, sitting back down. His stomach felt like it had turned on itself. “Before you leave—that prisoner—you sure he’s giving you the right name?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t presume to do you fellas’ jobs, but that didn’t look like any Brandon Calhoun I’ve ever slapped eyes on. Assumed it was something a little more mysterious.”
“Nothing mysterious, Lip. Don’t go making it a big something. I know you’re mad that the peace was interrupted, but it won’t matter come four days from now.”
“I mean Brandon Calhoun’s gonna hang. Judge sentenced him this morning. That’s why I got this face. Figured on you doing the math.”
Elsie gave her goodbye as Sydney lumbered out of the café. Phillip wore a pensive look that his sister could see right through and said, “It’s strange to agree with Sydney, but he’s right.”
“I don’t know, Seesee. The whole thing is wrong. Hanging…”
“You’ve got your principles. And I admire that,” Elsie said, again gripping Lip’s hand. “He did shoot down those Collier boys, though. There’s got to be justice in the world, hard as it is.”
The crushing headache was starting to dissipate, leaving space for confusion, doubt, and shame. Though Lip opposed the barbaric practice to its core, he wasn’t upset about hanging in general, as was most likely Elsie’s point. His apoplexy was specific. He needed some answers. Answers beyond the words of a dying man.
The young preacher raised his hand to flag down a server. He needed to see about finally getting some lunch.
Then, he needed to go to jail.
Chapter 4: Fallstead
“You boys get down off the wagon now.” The man serving instructions was calm, hunched casually on his mount. His gray-bearded face was barely visible to the two men driving the stage. “Anyone inside, come out showing hands.”
“Who the hell are you supposed to be?” asked the fella riding shotgun. He was ill-groomed and short on teeth, as was the driver.
“I’m Fallstead. United States Marshal Fallstead, if you’re demanding credentials.”
“Seems to be a steep demand for someone all by his lonesome,” said the driver, spitting tobacco juice down his scraggly chin. “Why don’t you just get on out the way before we get angry.”
The wind kicked up some dust from the narrow road. The marshal shielded his eyes by turning away from the stage. They couldn’t wrap their head around the lawman; out on his own, showing his back without any degree of caution. As they scratched at their spotty beards and tensed their muscles, he finally turned back and said, “How ‘bout you tell your boss to come on out that wagon. I need to wrap this up and get back to town.”
The driver and his companion exchanged bewildered looks and started in on busting their guts. The door to the wagon opened and a man in a three-piece suit stepped out. He was trimmed and tailored from head to toe. The tips of fingers glinted in the sun as he extended his hands outward. “What can I do for you, Marshal?”
“Needing to bring you in to town. Got a warrant signed by the judge in Boyd City.”
“You didn’t even ask who I was.”
“Don’t need to ask. Seen you before, Mr. Trill. You know—‘round.”
“I don’t recall meeting.”
“Never said we’d met.” Marshal Fallstead slowly lifted the brim of his hat and looked hard at all three men before him. “Y’all put down any weapons, and I’ll ride you into town. If there’s been a mistake, sure it’ll get worked out.”
“What’s the charge?”
“No charge. Suspicion of murder. Couple of folks that worked your ranch haven’t been heard from. Two negroes and a half-breed.”
“Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Don’t much care. Clear it up with the judge.” The marshal sighed audibly and said guns.
“You’ve got a hell of a lot of nerve coming out here. Don’t you have any cohorts?”
“I’ve got cohorts. Didn’t need ‘em for you, though. One more time—guns. That goes for the slinger that’s still holed up in that wagon too. So we’re clear.”
“You must be about the most impetuous son of a bitch I’ve ever had the bad luck to meet,” Trill said, putting his hands on his hips. Fallstead looked at the ranch owner’s rig. Polished like new. Probably never been fired but to show off to some purchased piece of ass.
“OK then.” Fallstead showed no tells. Most men would tighten up or, at the very least, change their expression. Not so with the marshal. He reached across his body and pulled his pistol, killing the dirty man with the shotgun before he even knew the fight had begun. The driver was dead before his pal hit the dirt. Both headshots. Fancy Mr. Trill was struggling to pull, but he was pulling. Idiot. Fallstead winged him in both arms and once more in the shoulder. Trill looked like a puppet on a string, gyrating back and forth before falling to the road in shock and agony. He’d live. Maybe.
“You wanting me to let you reload?” The question came from inside the wagon.
“Nope,” Fallstead answered, holstering his pistol and finally getting down from his mount. “I saved the one.”
“You gonna shoot me before I get the chance to set my feet?”
“If you make me.”
“OK then.” The man inside came out the same door as Trill. He stepped over the moaning cattleman with his head held high, sporting a look of confidence.
The two had about fifteen yards between them, staring holes at each other through the smoke of the marshal’s spent cartridges.
“I see the resemblance,” Fallstead said.”
“I met your brother in Boyd City, Mr. Cade. That’s how I knew you were coming this way.”
The gunman’s face went crooked. “Not possible.”
“Picker’d never sell me out to a tin star.”
“He didn’t want to.” Through all the talking and shooting, the marshal’s face still hadn’t changed. Cade the gunman was put off—the “tin star” seemed lifeless. Plain old-fashioned bored.
“You trying to say you beat it out of him?”
Fallstead didn’t answer, but he took note of Cade, lowering his arms little by little.
“You trying to say he’s dead?”
Again, no answer.
Time and silence were enough for the gunslinger. He went for his right hip and came near to clearing the pistol from his holster before Fallstead’s final bullet blew a hole through the back of his brain.
“Let’s get you up,” he said, walking calmly over and kicking Trill in his boot.
“You’re some kinda lunatic,” the ranch owner cried. He didn’t look so polished anymore. The only parts of him not covered with dirt were soaked through with blood. “You can’t just kill everyone.”
“You’re still alive,” the marshal said, stolid to the bone. “C’mon. I didn’t shoot you in the legs.”
Fallstead had a quick look at the scene and started shaking out his gun hand. Trill was still jabbering, but at this point the marshal had tuned him out. Despite a thousand cries and protestations, the wounded ranch owner found himself tied from his wrists to Fallstead’s saddle horn, running alongside the lawman’s horse as they made their way back to town. Every so often Trill would lose his footing and he’d find himself getting dragged and stomped by the horse’s hind legs. Mr. Trill’s piteous five miles back to Boyd City was as bad a journey as one would dare consider. By the time they arrived, he was parched all the way through. One of his shoulders had gone wayward and an ankle’d gotten broke. Not to mention the exhaustion. Not to mention the three bullet wounds.
Brad Utterly, Boyd City’s town sheriff, was sleeping in the jailhouse when Fallstead burst through the door. Trill was unconscious, slung over his shoulder. “Sheriff, get yourself roused,” the marshal said. Utterly was unmoved. Grumbling, the marshal set the prisoner down on the floor and kicked the sheriff’s chair hard enough to tip it over. The town’s leading arbiter of justice found himself waking up next to the dirt-ridden, bleeding body of Mr. Trill.
“Jesus Jupiter!” the sheriff said, popping to his feet, reaching for his gun out of instinct.
“Nope,” Fallstead said, flat and hard as a mesa top.
“Oh—hey there, Holt.”
“No need for weapons.”
“Course not. I—I didn’t even know you were there.”
“Normally you sleep on the job?”
“It’s been a long couple days, you know—with Trill and everything.”
Fallstead looked right through the poor excuse for a man. No wonder he’d been called in to apprehend Trill. Utterly was wholly unsuited for sentry duty, let alone rounding up wanted villains. “Well, there he is.”
Sheriff Utterly looked down at his feet. “Is he dead?”
“I reckon no, but if you don’t send for the sawbones, he’s gonna end up that way eventually.”
“Right,” Utterly whispered, running a hand through his tousled blond hair. “I’ll go get the doc.”
“First I get the money.”
“Oh yeah. S-sure. The money.”
Utterly went behind his desk and pulled an envelope from one of the top drawers, handing it to Fallstead like he was feeding a hungry lion.
“Obliged,” the marshal said, turning to leave.
“What about the rest of his people?” the sheriff asked. Trent and Saul, they weren’t angels, but them boys weren’t all bad.”
Fallstead turned back but said nothing.
“So they didn’t make it?”
The marshal waited a spell before answering. “No. Trent and Saul didn’t make it. They threatened an officer of the peace. Made their intentions clear.”
“Made their intentions… ok then. Just—” As that last searching word escaped his quivering lips, Utterly was cursing himself inside and out.
“Oh nuh-nuthing at all. Everything’s great. Really appreciate you coming and helping out the county.”
“If you’re thinking this might’n a been some sort of overreaching justice—”
“I didn’t say that!” Utterly whined. “I did not say that. At all, Marshal. You’ve done a fine job here. Above reproach. Beyond reproach. Irreproachable, as they say.”
“Good luck to you then,” Fallstead said, eager free himself from the town lawman’s presence. It’d been a long ride to Boyd City and he’d had to kick up a good bit of dust in the matters relating to Mr. Trill and his gun thugs. Stepping out of the jail, he looked up and down the town’s main thoroughfare. Not much of a vista; Boyd City had but one passable hotel and a few other fledgling businesses. The lone cantina was in a sorry state, but Fallstead found himself headed there.