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Western Short Story
When I saw those buzzards, I reined old Red into the shade of a live oak growing along the trail. The sun was high overhead and beat on us like a hammer. I was following a horse with a broken shoe on its right hind leg. It left a distinctive track in the dusty trail that a two year old could follow. That horse left the same track in front of Arnold’s Mercantile, a small supply store near Fort Smith, Arkansas.
A customer recognized Johnny Fontaine when he robbed the store, so I had a name and good idea of a destination. If this was a hardcase outlaw, he wasn’t good at it. My thought was to catch up after he made camp for the night. Assuming he was on that horse and would be making camp. I was taking a chance on two assumptions and the fact was not lost on me. He had to know someone was following. No telling which way he would go. If I could catch him asleep, there would be no trouble.
About a half mile ahead, the trail veered to the left, going around a clump of trees. I could see a few huge boulders peeking through the underbrush. It was a good place to camp, or stage an ambush.
Taking my time, I looked at the country around me. I once had a partner who would do this and he was a good tracker. He took a lot of pride in figuring out what his quarry was doing.
His downfall was a smoking habit. When he stopped to think about the trail ahead, he would always light up one of those little thin cigars. The smell of smoke carries quite a ways. I told him stories about soldiers standing guard at night, away from the camp. If they lit up a smoke, it could lead an Indian or anyone else right to him. Some died from that mistake.
He would laugh and tell me Indians didn’t fight at night and I’d try to explain agnostic to him. There’s always a few in any bunch of people.
When he didn’t show up for supper, I trailed him the next day. All I found was his body full of holes, and a surprised look on his face. I’m glad I never picked up the habit.
My horse was my best sentinel. Old Red never forgave humanity for the cutting that made him a gelding. We’d been together a couple of years and he never missed an opportunity to stomp or bite. The hostler I use in Fort Smith won’t even feed him. But he is a good trail horse. He can eat less and go without water like one of those camels I hear about. Since he hates men in general, no one can get close without him taking notice.
I took a long pull from my canteen and watched those buzzards. They were getting lower, but looked skittish. Why they were reluctant to land was the question. Sitting in the shade wouldn’t give me an answer. It was time to earn my money. Being a deputy marshal wasn’t the best job in the world—it wasn’t even a good job. It was something I seemed suited for. I slow-walked Red around and away from the trail, hoping to come into that nest of rocks from the back. I watched for any sign left by folks I didn’t want to meet—sudden like.
Sweat trickled down my spine and pooled between my backside and the saddle. It was hot, too hot for early May. If the weather was any sign, it was going to be a dry summer. I took my time navigating around the rocks and boulders that littered this side of the trail. I had noticed the other side was flat prairie, so this offered the most cover. We walked into the shade of those trees and Red had his ears on point, looking straight ahead.
No breeze stirred and the dust we raised hung in the air like a hot fog—my eyes felt gritty and soon I would be crying mud. I stepped off Red, shucking my rifle out of its sheath. Dropping the reins, I jerked on them so he would know to stay ground hitched. When he turned to bite me, I slapped his nose. It was an old ritual.
There was a smell in the air that spoke of something dead—no surprise with the buzzards circling. I stepped careful around a boulder and saw the reason.
A man lay with his back to the rock. I could see his left leg was swollen twice its normal size. His ripped pant leg showed an open wound high on his thigh. The smell of rotted flesh made me gag. His right hand rested on a canteen and his left clutched a dusty pistol.
His voice was hoarse and strained. “You might as well come on out. I won’t shoot you.”
I was glad to hear it, but I stepped on that gun to make sure. He didn’t flinch or move while I retrieved his pistol. I walked around to face him and wished I hadn’t. He was about the most used-up man I’d ever seen this side of the grave. He looked to be on the north side of forty years and his grey pallor hid under a few days growth of beard. I leaned my rifle against the rock and squatted by his feet so he could see me better.
Flies were starting to get at his wound and I took my hat and fanned at them. “Mister, can I get you anything? Water? Food? I don’t have any whiskey or I’d give you the whole damned bottle.”
The man gave a short laugh and then gasped from the pain. “Thanks for the thought. I’ve been trying to die. Can’t seem to do it. I don’t know if water would help or hinder.”
I looked at the old Dance & Brothers pistol he’d clutched in his hand. They didn’t make many, but most Texans swore by them. After I looked at the percussion caps, I wasn’t sure it would fire—not that I wanted to test that theory.
“Is that what the gun was for?”
It seemed all he could do to answer. “I ain’t got the guts to do it—at least, not yet. I’m afraid if I wait too long, I won’t be able to pull back the hammer. That shooter has a stiff action.”
I looked around the camp, if such it was. It looked like he fell off his horse and then tried to make do, dragging himself around. It’s a wonder he had his canteen.
“What’s your name, mister?”
The man groaned as he shifted position. “I’m Ralph Compton. Got a ranch a few miles south of here.”
I shuffled forward and shook his hand, having to lift it from the ground to do it. “Gordon Frey. I wish we’d met under better circumstances.”
“You a marshal? I see some kind of badge under your vest.”
“Deputy U.S.Marshal out of Fort Smith.”
Compton chuckled and then coughed. “Hell, I thought they'd killed off most of you deputies by now.”
I couldn’t argue that point. The Going Snake Massacre took eight deputies all at once. Indian Territory was a tough place.
“They’re working on it. I’m hoping to break the string.”
“I’d appreciate it if you can do something for me. You being a marshal and all.”
“If I can.”
“Find my family. Tell them I tried to get home. Couldn’t make it.” He took a ragged breath. “I’m thinking yesterday was my wife’s birthday. I reckon she's worried.”
The exchange wore him out and he drifted off to sleep. I found it hard to believe he was still alive. Not from the infection, but from coyotes, big cats or the buzzards. If you’re helpless, buzzards aren’t too fussy about dead or alive. The thought of an ugly bird pecking me to death made me shudder. Now I knew why they were skittish—not being able to decide how helpless their victim was.
When I looked for his horse, I found it tangled by its reins in the brush. The mare had chewed off most of the tender leaves and twigs around her. It looked about ready to drop from hunger and thirst. There was a spring nearby so I took the saddle and bedroll off and led the horse to water. She didn’t lick me like a dog, but did seem grateful. I pulled her away before she could swell up and founder.
There was a hobble in Ralph’s saddlebag so I staked his horse out on a piece of grass. It gave the mare enough room to graze and get to water. Passing through the camp I saw the man was still asleep, so I went and fetched Red. He and the other horse exchanged snorts as I led him to the spring. No idea what they were hashing out. Since I put them on the same patch of grass I figured they could discuss it at length.
I’d checked the shoes on Ralph’s horse so I knew he wasn’t the one I was chasing, the timing wouldn’t be right anyway. Now I had a hard decision to make. Johnny Fontaine was heading south, and wasn’t too far ahead. From where I stood, I could see part of that crooked trail as it meandered away. I didn’t see any dust, but by now he’d be a half day ahead. Now Ralph wanted me to hunt up his kinfolk. Looked to me as if Fontaine was free as a bird.
I made a small fire and set my coffee pot in the coals. The water from the spring looked good but I’d boil it anyway. People still died from cholera and I didn’t want to be one of them. The wounded man muttered and tossed about. I didn’t think he’d last long—maybe just the night. Gazing back at the trail, I flinched when he spoke.
“You can go, Marshal. I know you got things to do besides being a nursemaid. Just leave my pistol. Maybe I can manage it.”
I think his kindness made up my mind. “Any business I have can wait. Can you stand some coffee?”
Ralph nodded and settled back against the ground. “I guess it won’t hurt none.”
I smiled at that. “You in a hurry to die?”
He gave me a funny look.
“Actually, yes I am. I’ve had about all this I can take.”
I gave him a tin cup of coffee and he could hardly hold it in his weak hands. After he finished and handed me the cup, I had to ask.
“How’d you get shot? Somebody would have to be in a tree to give you that wound. I noticed blood on your saddle skirt and a gouge in the seat. Did you get ambushed?”
He shook his head in disgust. “Damned fool thing. I got a bad habit. When I’m sitting in the saddle, or even in a chair someplace, I got this habit of playing with the hammer of my pistol. It’s usually sitting on an empty chamber so it don’t matter. I thought it would loosen up the action.”
I raised my eyebrows at that.
“I didn’t say it was a good habit. Anyway, I was fiddling with that pistol when the damned horse jumped. The gun went off and I shot myself. I think my leg’s broke at the hip. If you look close, the bullet came out of my knee.”
He’d set his holster for a right-handed cross draw. Most riders carried them that way. I could picture it happening.
He looked at me with the saddest eyes I’d ever seen. “There wouldn’t be much chance for me if there was a sawbones standing right there.”
I looked at that festering wound and thought if I touched it—the leg would split right down the middle. I may have seen worse wounds in the war, but couldn’t remember any.
“I figure you’re right. I’ve never seen anything like this. How long have you been here?”
“I can’t remember… three days, maybe longer. It all seems to run together.” He wiped his sweaty forehead with the back of his hand. “I’m feeling cold. Can you fetch my blanket?”
I looked and found another blanket with his saddle. It wasn’t clean, but I didn’t think it would make much difference.
His voice was faint. “How’d you happen to stop here?”
“I’m following a man. When I saw buzzards wheeling overhead, I thought I’d better check it out.” I looked at him and shook my head. “I ain’t sure it was a good thing.”
“Aw hell, marshal. At least I’m not alone. Having someone to talk with helps. Although that’s the worst coffee I ever had.”
We had a good laugh at that. This was one tough man.
“So, tell me. This man you’re chasing. He kill someone?”
I figured it wouldn’t hurt anything to keep him occupied.
“He robbed a store. Shot at some people—not sure if he hit any. It doesn’t matter. The judge hands me a warrant and says bring him in. I do the best I can.”
“This miscreant have a name?”
The wounded man gasped for breath and shivered, but seemed determined to keep talking.
“Heard of him. I think he lives around here… maybe to the north.”
The click of a horseshoe on stone brought me around with gun in hand. I cursed at myself for not keeping better watch. I could hear a horse coming, but its sound was softer than the rasping breaths behind me.
A woman rode into the small clearing on a big Appaloosa that had to be eighteen hands high. I wondered if she used a mounting block to get on the damned thing. That horse looked like it should be wearing armor like the chargers of old, complete with a knight on top.
I heard a rustling sound. Turning, I saw Red and the other horse moving to the far side of the patch of grass. They had their tails tucked between their legs. I didn’t blame them.
The woman was pretty in a weathered, range-girl look. Laugh lines crinkled at her bright blue eyes and she'd stuffed her dark hair under a wide hat. I was getting set to introduce myself when she stepped off her horse and walked right by me. Ralph was asleep again, so after a quick look at him she blew by me again and went to the saddlebags on her horse.
I stood with my pistol in one hand and a bunch of questions in the other.
She looked at my pistol a moment and then held out her hand. “If you’d put that gun away we could shake hands. I’m Betty Compton.”
I’m not stupid—well, most of the time so I followed orders. “Gordon Frey, ma’am. You have the same last name as the wounded man. Are you his wife?”
She gave me an appraising glance. “Sister. How bad is he?”
“How’d you happen to come out here?”
“I wish I could tell you. Let’s say I felt a call and leave it at that.”
I pondered that a moment and then addressed her question. There was no easy way. I walked over and lifted the blanket from his leg. The smell curdled my stomach.
She gasped once and then her shoulders slumped. Standing by him, she looked to be praying. After a moment, she motioned for me to put the blanket back.
“We need to take him home. He has a wife and couple of kids. They’ll want to see him.”
How should I break it to her? Just looking at him should tell the story.
“Ma’am, I’m afraid his next move will be to the burying. He can’t last much longer. I don’t think a doctor could save him. It would cause more pain to move him and he wouldn’t make it anyway. It’s too late.”
I kept a wet cloth laying on his chest. To put it anywhere else would have gotten it dirty. She grabbed it and began wiping the sweat from his brow. When she bent over, a large silver chain fell out of her blouse. It held a big, heavy cross and looked to be inlaid with jewels.
“Oh, you’re that kind of sister? Like, a nun?”
She shook her head, still watching Ralph. “Used to be. Not anymore.”
That stumped me. “How do you get to be a used-to-be nun?”
This time those blue eyes centered right on me. I felt like Red when that appaloosa arrived and backed up a step.
“I had to leave the convent. Certain aspects of Sisterhood didn’t appeal to me. Besides, my family needs me.” She grinned at me—more like a quick grimace. “Even angels fall from grace once in a while.”
We watched Ralph as he stirred under the blanket and groaned.
“Well, in my line of work I’ve never been close to angels or grace. It doesn’t seem likely I’ll see either when I die.”
She gave me a look like I was a kindergartner playing with crayons.
“It doesn’t work that way. Even though you’ve done a kindness taking care of Ralph—and that’s a good thing. You can’t barter for grace by doing good deeds. And you never know when an angel is near.”
I was glad Ralph started moaning and thrashing because I felt more tongue-tied by the minute. This woman was easy to talk to, but disconcerting at the same time. My mind felt like a definition of confusion I’d once heard. Wanting to jump my horse and ride away in all directions seemed a good idea.
“He’s in a lot of pain, and that fever’s about to burn him up. When I come up on him, he had his gun in his hand wanting to kill himself. I think he waited too long and was so weak he couldn’t hold the gun.”
When she looked at me, there were tears in her eyes. “I brought a medical kit. There’s laudanum in it. We can ease the pain if we can get him to drink it.”
Well, that wasn’t a normal thing to have in your saddlebag. Most folks carry whiskey—for medicinal purposes, of course.
“Are you a doctor? A nurse?”
“They trained me in the convent. I don’t have any kind of paper that says so, but I’m a fair country nurse and midwife. We cared for a lot of people.”
Her smile was fleeting, and then sadness returned. “Maybe that’s why I fell from grace. I saw a lot more anatomy than most of the women living there.”
I could see how that could happen, especially for a curious young girl. “Well, I learned a long time ago nobody’s perfect. How about we put some of that painkiller in his coffee and see if it will help him through this.”
She went to her saddlebags and pulled out a small, blue bottle. With a spoon, she put a dose in the coffee pot.
I put my hand on her arm. “You know what he needs. He’ll never recover. All he has to look forward to is a lot of pain before he dies.”
She wouldn’t look at me. “Are you suggesting…?”
“I’m suggesting you don’t skimp on how much you put in there.”
“A kindness, in his condition.”
“You don’t believe in miracles?”
When I looked up to answer, Johnny Fontaine was standing there with his pistol staring me in the face.
“I do,” he said. “I believe in miracles. This is a fine setup. I got me a marshal that’s been dogging my trail. Looks like there's some hot coffee in that pot. I see a fine looking woman for pleasant conversation. Looks like a miracle to me.”
I cursed myself for a fool. Snuck up on twice in one day. If I lived through this, I was going to hang up my hat and retire. But living isn’t a sure thing—never is. I watched him and that pistol. If it wavered one bit, I was going to take my chance.
Betty seemed to read the situation and stepped between Fontaine and me. “You’re a fine looking man. Have some coffee. There’s no hurry here.” She poured him a cup and stepped back.
We watched as he sipped the drink. “That’s the worst coffee I ever tasted.”
“Why’d you come back, Fontaine? I figured you’d be gone to Texas by now.”
He grimaced but finished the coffee. “I’ve heard of you. What I heard is you never give up. I couldn’t picture a life of looking over my shoulder.”
“You should have thought of that before you robbed that store.”
“You’re right, I shouldn’t have robbed it, and I do regret it. I got a hardscrabble place a few miles from here. All I have are some scrawny longhorns, and a corn patch the raccoons are lining up to harvest. My wife and three kids are hungry and I couldn’t stand it. We thought to farm, but I just ain’t any good at it. We can butcher one of those longhorns, but we don’t have so much as an extra chili pepper hanging from the porch. There's no fixing’s to do with. We were out of salt and sugar.”
Betty spoke up. “How much money did you steal, Mr. Fontaine?”
He looked insulted. “Why, no money at all. I got the salt and flour, beans, sugar and some air-tights of peaches for the little ones. Their gums are starting to bleed.”
She looked at me with big, soft eyes—guessing what I was going to try. “I’d say that’s not worth a killing, wouldn’t you marshal?”
We stood watching, her fingering that cross and me resting my hand on my pistol. He started to waver. It took him two tries to holster his gun and I was afraid he would drop it.
“What…? I… I think… I….”
He collapsed in slow motion where he stood. With a sigh, he toppled over on his side. I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or dead.
“How much did you put in that pot?”
“I figured the coffee would dilute it, so it was extra strong. I hope it doesn’t kill him.”
I grabbed Fontaine by his collar and dragged him over by a rock. When I fetched his horse, I checked the pack tied to it and found he’d told the truth. Nothing but food.
“You were right, Betty. We’d have fought this out, maybe killed each other. And all for something most people would give him if he’d told about his problem.”
“A little kindness never hurts.”
Something made us turn and look at Ralph—whether it was a small sound or lack of sound, we never knew. Ralph Compton was dead and I thought of a word Betty used. He’d done us a kindness. Because, God help us, we were both thinking of taking his life—just to ease his pain.
I stood holding my hat while Betty knelt praying by her brother. A few minutes later she held her hand out to me and I helped her stand.
She wiped away tears and smiled. “He’s at peace, and so am I. We need to take him home.”
“Do you think that’s wise? If we bury him here, his folks will always have a memory of him in the good times. He looks bad. I wouldn’t want them to carry how he looks now as a last memory.”
“No, he needs to go home. For closure. We’ll keep him wrapped and all they need to see is his face.”
I was surprised we were still holding hands and shrugged. It wasn’t my decision to make. “As you wish.”
“You’ll come with me? To help? It would be a kindness.”
Her hand held mine as I looked around the clearing. One dead and another sleeping. A de-frocked nun and broken down marshal. We all found something we didn't expect.
“I’ll see you to your home. Can’t promise much past that.” Her hand felt natural in mine. “I’ve never been much, Betty. Never married, something of a fiddle-foot. All I do well is track down men and bring them in. I’ve done some bad things in that process.”
“Everything changes. Including people.” She gave me a crooked smile. “Even fallen angels.”
Nodding, I gave her hand a squeeze. “I reckon so.”
We packed everything and rolled Ralph in his groundsheet. He was a heavy man but we got him tied across his saddle.
Red and the giant appaloosa were in some kind of conversation when I broke them up and Red tried to stomp my foot. Deep down I think he likes me.
I glanced at Fontaine to see if he was breathing. “How long will he sleep?”
“I don’t know. I guess it depends on how sensitive he is to the laudanum. If you’re used to the medicine, it takes a lot to put you down.” She gestured at him. “For a first-timer, it drops them like a rock. Don’t forget to wash out that coffee pot.”
“Wash it out? Hell, I threw it away.”
“I’d take it as a kindness if you’d let me make coffee from now on.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
We got ready to leave and I pinned a note on Fontaine’s vest.
“Take the food to your family. We left some more—all we had. If you need something, come to the Compton place. I’ll send a letter to Fort Smith and tell them you died on the trail. Change your family name to something else, so I’m not called a liar. Fix that shoe on your horse. I’d take it as a kindness.”