He motioned with his head toward the dead man.
Sunday, November 4, 2012
Wanted More Dead Than Alive
For those who enjoy the gunslinging cowboys of the Old West, here's a short story I recently put together. It's an idea that's been rolling around my head for a while now and I decided to put it in writing. Enjoy.
Wanted More Dead Than Alive
The leather was wet on the outside and mostly dry underneath and smelled bad all over. He felt none of it, though. He felt nothing but tight anger and the need for revenge, hot and fast.
He was scanning the landscape behind him for the posse, or what was left of it. There shouldn’t be anyone left following him after the dust-up he gave them the night before, but the two brothers were tenacious and mad and wouldn’t be turning back anytime soon.
He shifted in the saddle and looked ahead. His horse raised its head and went back to chewing the dry grass.
The high desert was quiet but for the chewing and his thoughts.
Gonna need water soon, he thought. And a doctor.
Okay, let’s get going.
Boot heels dug into the horse’s side and he headed away with the sunrise in his eyes, away from the angry brothers and his dead friend.
The dew was gone and the sun was up.
Gonna be hot today. Damn.
A gunshot, and another. Silence.
The rifle’s report was far behind him, but not far enough.
The dried blood had caked into his leathers and it didn’t hurt. No feeling from the wounds in his side and leg.
We need water soon. This is no good.
Two more shots, fast, then another.
Not getting any closer. What’d they run into?
No sign of other riders for days. Shouldn’t be Indians – not the ones to be concerned about, anyhow.
Let’s make some time.
Up ahead he could see the smoke from a fire. Afternoon shadows coming. Too early for a campfire.
The rider thought about moving around to avoid whatever was causing the smoke. Putting space between himself and others would be best. But he rarely did what was best.
The need for water led him to urge the horse northeast, toward the smoke.
In his head, as he rode, the rider counted the rounds he carried. Six in the Colt on his hip, fourteen on his belt. There were seven in his rifle, including the chambered round, and a box containing eight more in his left saddlebag. That bag also contained a handful of loose rounds he had taken from his dead partner; six for the pistol and twelve or thirteen for the Winchester. He thought as he rode – was it twelve or thirteen?
Twelve or thirteen…
Over the next hill he would see the burning wagons and the dead horses and the dead men. And women and two children. But he wasn’t thinking about those things now. He was looking at the landscape and determining the best vantage point – where he would come onto the scene with the best chance of not being shot again.
The rider circled around the hill and the debris came into view. The tracks leading away told him that whoever or whatever did this were long gone. He walked his horse among the broken belongings and smoldering corpses until he saw the canteens. Looking behind him, he dismounted and kicked the water carrier away from an old man. The dead man looked as if he meant to take a drink as he was killed and had died with a surprised expression on his old face.
It was dead still and quiet but for the fire eating up the rest of the wagon. Turning, he saw the old banjo, still smoking; a string popped. Drinking deeply, surveying the scene, guessing at how it happened. The water in the canteen was hot and he finished it. These were not local Indians; not Mexicans, either. Who did this? Pulling a small keg of water from under the burning heap, he poured the contents into a shallow pan; his horse sniffed at the water and drank it quickly, overturning the pan. The noise of the old pan against the hot sand and the burning wood the only sounds except the movement in the brush.
The Colt was out and pushed before him as he walked toward the dying boy.
Get out here, come on.
He heard the shallow breathing and slow movement across the sand.
Come on, let’s go.
He was not more than 16, 15 maybe, and shot in two or three places. His eyes looked at the ground as he pulled himself toward the man and his pistol.
The man holstered the gun and moved closer to the boy, looking for others. His horse stood quietly and watched.
Who did this, boy?
A low groan and a gurgle of blood. Shot through a lung for sure.
Who did this?
Not looking up, the boy rested on his forearms.
Men. Four or five. White, mostly. Came out from behind the hill there. Started shooting right off. Killed my pa and sister. I was in the wagon when I got shot. Shot again running out that way.
He motioned to the brush with his head, the blood in his hair dried.
They left. I thought I was dead.
You are, boy. You are.
I know it.
Can’t give my water to a dead man. What do you want to do?
Bring me to my sister. Let me see her.
But he was already dead and they both knew it.
Another draw from the last canteen and the man climbed into the saddle. Another look around and he urged the horse on, following the tracks.
It was two hours before sundown and the desert would be hot for a while.
The rider thought of this and the men ahead of him. And the two behind him.
He made for the low brush, guiding the horse south, southeast. He’d meet up with the group tomorrow, maybe tomorrow afternoon, depending.
The wounds throbbed but were no longer bleeding. The water had cleared his thoughts and he considered his situation.
I need a doc soon.
First he intended to find the men responsible for killing his friend.
The horse negotiated the rocks and brush as the light went away. They would be moving for a few more hours; the rider settled in and let the horse take him across the cooling high desert.
It was two hours past dark when the rider stopped.
This place is as good as any.
He surveyed the scene and threw his roll on the ground. He was asleep in a matter of moments.
The rider dreamed of a home in Wyoming. It was quiet there and the wind blew miles of tall, golden grass over the hills. His back was to a small home that he built with his brother. There was a woman and a boy there, too. Elk and sheep would drink from a creek nearby. In the dream, he could not turn to see the woman or the boy. He felt their presence — he knew that they were behind him — but could not see them.
It was dark and cold when he awoke thinking of the small home and the woman.
Time to go.
A violent day
The rider smelled the smoke before he saw it. A small campfire, carelessly left burning. He was close behind the men; he knew it, they knew it. He glanced at the smoldering fire as we went by. It smelled of sick and he knew they were dying.
The tracks led southeast, following alongside the hills. Plenty of places to hide up there. A rifle could find him at this distance but he was not worried; the men didn’t have the strength to climb those hills.
He saw them before noon. One leading a horse along the scrub brush, the other on the ground leaning against a saddle. The man walking the horse looked at the rider over his shoulder as he continued. The rider dismounted and drew the Winchester from its carrier. He walked into the shade of a mesquite and placed a bead on the walking man. The horse flinched and stopped as the man dropped to the ground. Chambering another round, the rider shot the man again, this time between the shoulder blades. The horse nudged the lifeless body and turned to eat the dried grass.
The rider loaded two rounds into the rifle, picked up the ejected shells and replaced the rifle. Leading the horse slowly toward the man on the ground, the rider thought of the two men not as human but as varmints, troublesome, undesirable animals that didn’t know any better but that needed killing all the same. The man on the ground said nothing as he glared at the approaching killer.
The rider drew his pistol and walked to the dying man.
That was my brother.
I know it.
Well, get it over with.
Where’s the gun you took in Deming?
The gun. You took it from a friend of mine in Deming. You and your brother there killed him.
Your friend. Is that why you’re here?
I’ll ask you again…
Zeke has it.
He motioned with his head toward the dead man.
The rider shot him in the chest as he walked past.
The man gurgled as his head dropped.
That was a waste of a bullet.
The rider recouped the gun— a pistol his father had given him— from the corpse. It was empty and it was clear that the two brothers had been left with no ammunition and no fight. The rider went through their clothes and saddlebags until he found the small photograph. A woman and a boy standing in front of a small frame home. Theletters were there, as well, and the rider wondered at the reason the two had taken them. He placed the tattered packet in his pocket, the last remnant of a life long gone. He surveyed the site, whistled to the horse, and rode away, back toward what was left of the pursuing posse. He’d killed two brothers and would have to face two more before dark.
He’d heard occasional gunfire throughout the day, never close enough for concern. Mostly from the west, but a spirited medley had come from the south earlier then stopped abruptly. Those were likely local Indians or the group of men who had attacked the travelers. Maybe both.
I need a doc. I need water. These horses need water.
The rider was growing weaker in the hot sun. His horse and the one following were still walking well but would not last long without water. He turned to the south to make for a patch of trees on the horizon. If there was no water, it would be cool enough to rest and wait.
As he neared the trees he could see that a small plank homestead sat in the middle of a dirt field on the edge of the trees. There was a well and a pump nearby. A mule stood among some scratch chickens and stared blankly as he approached.
Circling the home, the rider saw the three horses tied at the rear.
A woman walked slowly from the front of the home. Of course they were inside.
Please…they’ll kill my two young ones.
How many are in there?
He watched the windows as she spoke.
Two of them. They have my girl, my boy. My uncle…they hurt him bad. He’s in there with them.
Go back inside.
The rider continued riding until he reached the tree line. He dismounted and surveyed the back of the home from the shade of the trees. The horses drank deeply from a small trench, what was left of a once larger pond. His wounds burned as they pulled away from his shirt. His leg throbbed where the bullet had torn away the flesh. The leather from his chaps had fused with the healing wound and was ugly to look at.
A round fired from a rifle came from the side of the home. The rider looked up briefly, then back to the wound at his side. The gunfire was of no concern to him at this range – the injuries to his side and leg were more pressing.
He would shoot the horses if the men tried to flee and would wait until dark to go in after them.
Another shot went wild and to his left, into the trees. The horses looked up, then returned to drinking from the muddy pit.
The rider filled his canteen with murky water and drank: I guess I’ll take some of that.
He stared at the small home and assessed the situation. He considered the children and woman inside and expected them to get caught up in the killing.
He drank more of the tepid water and contemplated his options. It would be dark in two hours. He would rest for a moment and go in after them.
He awoke to the sound of horses nearby. Two men were talking quietly. The Colt was drawn and pointed into the darkness as he listened. The voices continued quietly as they moved away from his position. He watched as two men moved toward the horses at the rear of the home.
He watched as gunfire from the home dropped one of the men. The other ran back as gunfire was returned from the side of the tree line. That would be three, maybe four others. Two figures ran from the side of the home and were unhitching the horses when fire erupted from the men in the tree line. One man running from the home fell to the side as the other rode into the night.
I’m shot. You hit me. Stop shooting now.
Who are you?
Who are you?
You ain’t in a position to be asking. Who are you?
Tommy Denton. That was my brother, Tim. You shot him, too.
What are you doing here?
What’s left of a posse out of Albuquerque. Looking for a killer.
Well, you found some.
Who are you?
Throw your pistol over here. We’ll come out.
The rider watched as two men joined the first man as they walked to the man lying on the ground.
You shot our friend.
I didn’t know who he was. He just came at us. We were looking for…
Two of the men shot him as he spoke.
Go on inside. See who else is here. Get some food.
The rider pulled the Winchester from its sleeve and prepared to confront the four killers. He walked past the men’s horses, left in the trees earlier, as he made his way to the front of the home.
Open the door. Whoever’s inside, open up.
The killers’ demands went unanswered.
I think we got someone else in there, Red.
Yeah? Burn ‘em out.
Last chance. Open up or we’re burning you out.
The rider watched as the woman opened the door and stood with her two children behind her.
That’s more like it. Hey, Red, look what we got.
I see ‘em. Get the kids outside.
The rider dropped Red first, then fired three more times quickly as he walked toward the other two. Neither was able to draw a pistol and they slumped to the dirt, dying.
Get inside. Shut the door.
The woman slammed the door as the last man ran around from the rear of the home pistol at his side. Banging on the door as he looked at his dead partners scattered on the ground, he turned looking for the cause. The Colt barked loudly and the man dropped to the ground, a quizzed expression on his dead face, never seeing the rider in the shadows.
The rider stood in the quiet dark and listened. He smelled gunpowder and heard the ringing in his ears from the large cartridges. Nothing moved. He walked to each body and nudged it with a boot. Too much blood for more of a fight.
Open the door. Hurry it up.
The door opened and the woman stood in the doorway, her children behind her gazing at the rider.
Boy, there are some horses in the trees there. Go bring them back here. Don’t touch anything else, understand?
The woman started to speak, then pushed the boy away.
Go on, do as he says.
Is your uncle alive?
Yes, they tied him up. We’re just scared. Who are you?
Ain’t important. The other one will be back. Get your uncle and get me some clean water.
Water. And I need you to do some doctoring. Let’s go.
The rider whistled for his horse and reloaded his rifle as the young girl stood by herself and looked at the scene. Her eyes went from the rider to the dead men and back to the rider. He looked back at her as he slid the shells into the side of the Winchester.
Go on, help your mother.
The older man staggered outside and looked stunned at the sight all around him.
Thank you, sir.
The rider stared past him and into the home where the woman was lighting a lamp.
You got that water?
What are you looking for? We got nothing. We’re just farmers…my niece and her kids. Her husband…
Ignoring the man, the rider walked into the home.
We don’t have a lot of time and I need you to help me with a few things.
The boy came around the side of the home with three horses in tow.
There are a couple more back there.
Good. Bring them all over here. Water them, too. Get them some feed if you have it.
Motioning to the older man, the rider pointed to the dead men.
Gather up the guns and bring them inside. Don’t do anything stupid.
Taking a final look outside, the rider walked inside and sat on a chair. Removing his shirt, he drank deeply from a pitcher on the small table.
I’m going to need you to take care of some bullet holes. I need you to do it right now.
I don’t know how. I ain’t no doctor.
Once they get done outside, I want you to lock that door. I’ll tell you what you need to do. Get a fire going.
The rider drank the rest of the water, laid back on the old bed and looked at the low ceiling.
Well, that went better than expected.
He pulled the worn photograph from his pocket and drifted off as the three occupants stared at him.
When the rider awoke, the boy was looking at him, his eyes less than a foot away. The woman and the old man were sitting at the table and the girl was sleeping on the floor. The old man sat with a gun in his left hand. The rider’s boots were next to a pile of his clothes. His Colt was nowhere to be seen; it was the farthest he’d been from the pistol in almost 12 years.
You okay? You been out for hours.
Is it light?
Yeah. And that other one is back. He’s been outside since dawn.
Yeah, I thought he’d come back for his brother. Get me some water. And my Colt.
The woman looked at the old man.
I ain’t asking. Get me my pistol right now.
The boy brought it from under the low bed and handed it to the wounded man, transferring the cold steel from his small hands to that of the figure on the bed.
Everything changed as he wrapped his hand around the Colt’s grip. He checked that all six rounds were loaded.
The woman brought a cup of water to the man bleeding on the bed, a candle in her other hand.
That man outside, is he really from a posse?
I’m going to have to go out there and kill him. Then I’ll be leaving.
He and his brother were waiting here for you. They said you killed a bunch of men back west. That true?
They all needed it.
His wounds had been cleaned and covered by old cloth but still burned.
Couldn’t get the bullets out of your side. Got one of ‘em. And the one in your leg.
Yeah, that’s good.
It bled a lot. Still bleeding. You need a doctor.
I need lots of things.
We did the best we could. We don’t do much doctoring out here.
You did good enough.
He pushed himself up on his elbows, his Colt still in his hand.
What are you planning to do with that pistol, old man?
The old man placed the pistol on the table and said nothing.
You may have to use it soon enough. Just don’t go pointing it at me. These folks need you alive.
The rider put his dirty clothes back on and ate the cold chicken, bread and vegetables offered him. The family watched as he ate, the silence inside and out an omen of what the morning would bring.
I’m going outside and talk to him. If I can talk some sense into him, I’ll be heading north tomorrow. If not, I’ll be leaving before noon.
The rider nodded to the old man, picked up his rifle and walked to the door. He heard the bolt slide shut. The morning was cool and quiet and the day would be hot soon.
I know you’re out there. Come on out where I can see you. Let’s get this over with.
You come out here, you sum’bitch. You left my brother laying there like a dog.
That wasn’t me that did that and you know it. Now come on out where we can talk.
What’s there to talk about? I ain’t leaving ‘til you’re dead. You kilt my little brother in New Mexico, you sum’bitch. Both of ‘em are dead now.
We can both walk out of here without any more bullets in us. I know you’re shot, too. Come on over here and we can work this out.
The rider looked at the horses standing in the sun. The mule had joined them and all of them stood observing the conversation. What was this boy going to do?
Don’t be stupid, boy. Get on back to your family. Nothing you can do here. You’ll just end up like the rest of these dead men.
The young man said nothing as he watched the rider from the tree line.
The rider went back inside and sat on the low bed. Taking the packet from his shirt, he leaned back against the wall and stared at the faded photograph. In the cool of the dark cabin the rider closed his eyes and thought of a small frame home on the plains. Of a woman and a boy. Of his brother and a good friend back west.
The old man opened the door, stepped outside, and looked at the young man in silence.
The young man from New Mexico walked over and stood near the horses. He ran his gloved hand over the mule’s nose as we walked by his brother’s body. Standing in the dirt off of the porch, he stood and watched the door, listening to the voices from within.
Come on in, boy.
The boy stood to the side of the door, pistol holstered. He had no more bullets, anyhow.
Where is he?
Inside. On the bed. Dead.
I want to see him.
Go on in.
The young man hesitated for a moment, looking into the old man’s eyes.
He’s dead. Died just now.
The young man walked to the door, keeping his eyes on the old man.
Go on in.
As his eyes adjusted to the dim light inside the cabin he could see the woman, the two children and a figure prone on the low bed, a dark pool of blood already drying. A gun belt hung from a chair to the side of the bed.
That his Colt?
The boy pulled the weapon from its holster and eyed it.
I’m taking his horse. Putting my brother on it.
No one spoke as the boy looked around the dark room.
Where’s his Winchester?
The old man nodded toward the corner were the rifle was propped against the wall.
The young man walked slowly to the corner and retrieved the rifle, his boots on the wooden floor the only sound in the room.
He kilt my brothers. Shot ‘em in Albuquerque.
He won’t be killing anyone else now.
Naw, I guess not.
The cabin’s occupants watched as the boy inspected the rifle. Taking a last look around the inside of the old home, he slowly walked out the door and into the dirt lot.
The old man watched as the young man tied his brother’s body to the horse’s back. Mounting a second horse, the boy moved away, not looking at the homestead or the old man or the bodies lying in the dirt as he rode away.
The old man walked back into the cabin.
Gonna be dark soon, boy. Let’s get to putting these men in the ground. Start with this one.
The three occupants looked at the dead man lying on the bed.
I told him I wasn’t no doctor.