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Western Short Story
Con Sunderland was sitting in the rocker within the shade of his front porch when he first saw the dust cloud in the distance. He rose slowly, squinting past the mirage reflecting off the surface of the sun-blasted sand dunes. For a moment he stood there on his porch, staring out beyond the dunes at the dust cloud growing closer to his homestead. When the four riders topped the dune nearest his home, he turned and went inside.
Alice looked up from the bread she was making as he came through the open doorway. He glanced at her, but said nothing. She caught the look in his eye, and as he moved to the opposite wall, she looked through the doorway at the riders coming down the dune toward their home.
“Con,” he heard her say sharply from somewhere behind him as he took up the Spencer rifle resting against the wall.
“I know,” he said softly, cocking the Spencer. He turned and started past her. “It’s Latham’s boys.”
She caught him by the arm as he passed. “What’re you gonna do?” she asked.
“Their not gonna run us off our land, Alice. I’m takin’ a stand.”
Before she could protest, Con disappeared through the doorway and stood on the top step of his front porch just as the riders drew rein outside of his home. He held the Spencer in both of his hands, keeping its muzzle pointed non-threateningly in a direction to the East, while still keeping it shoot-ready so that all he had to do was swing it around and cut loose.
They were all four big men with cold, hard faces and rigid stares that pierced Con while he did so little as just stand there before them. He knew what they were there for, but there was no way they were going to get it. Not so long as he had the will to fight.
“Can I help you fellas?” he asked in a calm voice.
“You know what we’re here for, Sunderland,” said the man to his far right.
“Bunting,” Con said, calling the man who had spoken by his last name, “you’d best just turn around and ride on back to town and tell Latham that he can’t have my land.”
“Latham says the railroad’ll be a-coming in afore too long,” the man mounted on a big roan-colored stallion next to Bunting said.
Con knew the man on the stallion, just like he knew Ron Bunting. He knew them all.
The man on the roan was Doug Boysee, and the biggest man of them all was Marco Alveraz, Latham’s right-hand and ramrod. Con knew Alveraz was the leader of the posse that had just ridden up, and he knew that the man had fought in the War on the side of North. The fourth man was Dave Crawley. Crawley had ridden into Morrow’s Grove the summer before, and had found a job with Latham’s gang. Con had never seen the man in action, but his last trip into town, he’d heard that someone had drawn against Crawley, and they’d buried the man who had done the drawing on the outskirts of town.
There was some talk that Crawley was even faster on the draw than Alveraz himself, a theory that Con didn’t believe nor want to find out about first hand.
“Look, Con,” Alveraz said, “Latham just wants his pay.”
“Well, I ain’t got it.”
“And that’s why he sent us out here. Now don’t make this anymore difficult than it already is. Just turn around and go back inside before things get messy.”
“Things are already messy, Alveraz. Now you just take your posse, ride on back into town and tell Latham that I said he can’t have my land nor my house. He can’t have my land and I don’t care if the railroad is comin’ through here. It’s my land and he can’t have it.”
“He owns this land, Sunderland,” Bunting called out.
“No, Ron, he owned this land. He sold it to me, and I have the papers sayin’ that this place is in my name. All I was payin’ Latham for was a fresh water supply, and you boys dammed up my creek four months ago.”
“And we’ll just keep a-comin’ back if you don’t pay him,” Boysee commented.
Con’s grip tightened on the Spencer, and he remained firmly grounded there on the top step of his front porch. “I ain’t got the money yet. I’m workin’ for it, but I just ain’t got it yet. You tell Latham that I’ll get him his money, and I’ll get him the fair amount due. But you boys should know that the next time any of you set foot on my land and I find out about it, I’ll just haul myself down to Morrow’s Grove and let Mr. Latham have it face-to-face.”
There was silence between them for a time, during which Crawley rolled himself a cigarette, seemingly uninterested in what was unfolding around him. As he lit his smoke, Alveraz turned his horse and the others followed suit.
“You’re playin’ a hard hand, Sunderland,” he said over his shoulder. “Sooner or later you’re gonna lose.”
He touched his spur to his horse, and they set out as one, back over the dune from which they came, leaving a dust cloud billowing up in their wake.
Con watched them go until they disappeared over the dune, then he turned and made his way back inside, letting the hammer of the Spencer fall slowly so that no discharge ever came.
“They’ll be back,” Alice said, stepping aside from her position in the doorway to let her husband into their home.
“I know,” Con said, crossing the room and placing the Spencer back against the wall.
“What’re you gonna do?”
“I don’t know yet. But they ain’t gettin’ our land, Alice. We worked too hard and came too far for somebody like Latham to just run us off our land just so he can make profit off’n the railroad.”
Alice looked at him for a long moment, then stepped closer and fell into his arms.
And Con held her there for a long time.
It was later on that day, while Con was herding what few cattle he owned, when the smell of the hard fumes that suddenly filled his nostrils caused him to turn and look over at where his homestead was situated in the distance. It was only then that he became aware of the large black cloud creeping its way into the sky from where the homestead was located. Leaving what few cattle he owned to fend for themselves among the jagged cliffs, he turned his horse and dug his spurs into the creature’s sides. The horse nearly took out from under him and he raced back down the cliffs and into the valley of sand dunes before emerging nearly ten minutes later at the top of the dune overlooking his home.
The smoke was thick and was billowing straight up. The fire that had once been raging uncontrollably was now reduced to a few burning embers, and where his home had stood just hours before, now only a charred pile of rubble remained. And then suddenly it hit him, as he sat there on his mount, trying to take it all in, as though he were just awakening from a deep sleep, dazed and confused.
“Alice!” he shouted as he spurred his horse down the side of the dune.
Before the horse had even the opportunity to stop, he had already dismounted and was running toward what had been his home, screaming the name of his wife in a wave of terror so unnerving to him that his very movements seem to make him feel sick inside, that the very sight of it all made him want to vomit.
All he could see was the dying embers and nothing more. He stumbled about and over the rubble, turning over boards and sections of the clay walls that had somehow managed to withstand the blistering heat of the inferno.
Lifting up a section of clay, he tossed it aside, and that was when he saw her.
She was lying beneath the rubble, the hems of her plain pink garment singed and burned by the flames that had engulfed the home. One of her arms had been badly burned and blackened, but her face had remained untouched by the flames. Her golden-red hair gently caressed her fair face, and she looked as though she were just in a deep sleep.
Oh, Con thought, if only she were in a deep sleep.
He crumbled to his knees beside her and lifted her into his arms, burying his face into her bosom as he wept uncontrollably.
She was dead.
But as he caressed her body, he found that it had not been the fire that had killed her, nor the weight of the wall coming down on her. The knife wound penetrating the front of her garment was clearly visible, and Con ran his finger over it and touched her face. He then kissed her once more before standing and carrying her out of the rubble. He laid her in the sun-caked sand some fifty feet from the debris left behind by the inferno.
Had he not been so angry, he would have stayed and given her a proper burial right then.
But she had been murdered.
And Con knew who was responsible.
As he stood from his position beside of her body, he pulled from her neck the silver locket necklace she wore, as it had been the only valuable thing he had ever gotten her since they had been married. Pocketing the necklace, he returned to his horse which stood patiently nearby.
A single tear fell from his cheek as he swung into the saddle and turned his horse toward the town of Morrow’s Grove.
The Spencer rifle was the one thing Con never left home without.
When he would go out to herd the cattle, he would take it with him in a homemade scabbard attached to the side of his saddle.
And as he dismounted from his horse in the town of Morrow’s Grove, he removed that same Spencer from that same scabbard before turning and starting down the street. The four horses that had been ridden by the men who had paid him a visit at his homestead that morning were all picketed outside of the saloon, and that was the first place Con headed.
He checked the rifle as he started up the steps and onto the boardwalk, then plowed through the batwing doors of the saloon.
The low babble immediately ceased and his cold eyes swept the room. He received blank stares from the men sitting and playing cards at the table off to his right. Five men stood at the bar at the rear of the saloon, their backs to him.
After a moment, they all turned slowly and as one body.
Con glared at the men with the cards. “Get out.”
They dropped their cards and hurried out. A moment later the bartender rushed past him as well. Con heard the batwing doors slapping shut, and took two steps closer to the men at the bar.
“It wouldn’t right to do what you did,” he said coldly, keeping the muzzle of the Spencer trained in the square of Todd Latham’s chest.
Latham was a tall man, with blue eyes teeming with greed and a square jaw that sported a neat and full salt-and-pepper beard.
“You owed me money, Sunderland,” Latham said, his voice calm and steady.
But his eyes were glued to the muzzle of Con’s rifle, and Con could see that the man was scared.
“That ain’t worth a life,” Con said.
“A life?” Alveraz cut in suddenly, looking over at Latham and inclining in head. “What’s he talkin’ about, Todd?”
Holding the Spencer in one hand, Con retrieved the silver locket from his pocket with the other. He tossed the locket at Alveraz, who caught it and held it up. He looked at it thoughtfully, and then a sheet of white passed over his face. He looked over at Crawley, who stood on the other side Latham. “You told me that house was empty!” he said angrily.
Crawley nodded. “They wouldn’t nobody alive in it.”
“Because Latham had you kill her!” Con said angrily, his voice rising.
Crawley looked over at him and said nothing.
Alveraz reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of dollar bills. He tossed them into the square of Latham’s chest, shook his head, and said, “I ain’t in this for killin’, Todd. Especially womenfolk.”
Alveraz walked over to where Con stood, handed the locket back to him, and turned back to face the other four. Doug Boysee took one look at Alveraz and then followed suit, tossing his money at Latham’s feet. He walked over to stand on the other side of Con, who pocketed the locket once again.
Latham didn’t move. He kept his eyes fixed on the muzzle of the Spencer. Without turning his head, he said in a calm voice, “What about you, Bunting?”
“I didn’t see nothin’. I’m still in,” Ron Bunting replied, though while he stood there looking at the three men standing before them, he did not sound very sure of his own words.
There was a moment’s silence.
Latham’s eyes lifted from the muzzle of the Spencer to meet Con’s.
“You go for that iron you’re wearin’,” Con said softly, “and you’re dead.”
No sooner had he spoken the words did he see a flicker of hesitancy in Latham’s eyes, but Crawley’s hand dropped first. The iron cleared leather in a blur of motion as Con swung the muzzle of the Spencer to his right and shot.
The bullet splintered a section of the wall just above Crawley’s head and Crawley shot back. The bullet from Crawley’s gun tugged at the collar of Con’s coat. Con worked the lever of the Spencer and fired again just as a gun beside of him bellowed and Alveraz fired a shot across him that slammed into Crawley, who fell back against the bar and drew the second gun he wore as he continued to fire with his first.
Latham immediately turned and shoved past Bunting, who was only just managing to get his gun clear of its holster. As Bunting shot into Alveraz, Latham took two strides further and hurled himself out of the nearby window.
One of Crawley’s bullets plugged Doug Boysee in the leg and put him down on one knee. He drew and managed to fire one round into Crawley, who hammered another round into him that put him down on the floor of the saloon. Alveraz worked the hammer of his Colt and shot two quick rounds into Bunting, the first spinning him around before the second knocked him back against the bar. Con kept working the lever of the Spencer, firing as quickly as he could into Crawley, who was now down on one knee, his shirtfront stained with blood.
For every two wild shots Crawley made, Con put one well placed shot into his chest. Con felt a bullet burn his side, but he worked the lever one more time and shot into Crawley again. Crawley stopped firing then, too dead to get off another shot, but Con put another round into him before swinging the muzzle around on Ron Bunting and firing into him once.
Bunting slumped down on the seat of his pants, his back against the bar.
And not ten seconds after the firing had begun, it was over. Con glanced around the saloon that was now hazy from the numerous smoking guns. Doug Boysee lay beside him, two bullet holes not an inch apart in his chest. Ron Bunting lay slumped against the bar, his shirtfront coated thickly with blood. He was dead. Dave Crawley lay with his guns still in his hands, with too many bullets in him to count. He stared blankly up at Con, the very life light gone from his eyes.
Marco Alveraz stood swaying next to Con. Con looked over at him and saw that the man had been shot twice, once in the leg and once in the gut. He was teetering on one leg, but still managed to stand.
“You gonna make it?” Con asked quickly.
Alveraz nodded and winced. “I’ll be fine. Just get Latham before he can get outta town.”
Con turned immediately and started for the door. With the first step he took, a sharp pain ran up his leg. Suddenly he was aware that he’d been hit, but he gritted his teeth and limped through the batwing doors and stumbled off the boardwalk.
At that instant a black horse dashed around the side of the saloon and shot down two buildings, headed for the open sand dunes outside of town. The man riding the horse looked back and spotted Con, and Con saw that it was Todd Latham. He lifted the Spencer and drew the hammer back.
“Hold it, Sunderland!” came a voice from behind him. A moment later the sheriff appeared at his side. “That’s enough for one day.”
“Sheriff,” Con said, looking into the older man’s face, “Latham had my wife killed.”
The sheriff opened his mouth to respond, and then, “He’s tellin’ the truth, sheriff,” came the pained voice of Marco Alveraz from the boardwalk in front of the saloon. “I can back him up on that.”
The sheriff looked at Alveraz, and then to Con. He took one step back and looked the other way down the street.
Con turned back to the outskirts and lifted the Spencer. It would be a difficult shot now, as the horse and rider were well past a hundred yards away and were still going.
But during his time as a sharpshooter for the Confederate Army, Con Sunderland had been the best shot in his regiment.
The Spencer bellowed, and a moment later the figure of the man separated from that of the horse, and Latham toppled off of his mount and lay sprawled in the desert sands. Con stared out at where Latham had fallen, and watched as the man staggered to his feet. Con lifted the Spencer and it bellowed once more. This time Todd Latham went down hard.
And he didn’t get back up.
Con reached into his pocket and drew out the silver locket. He looked down at it for a long moment, then he dropped it at his feet.
A humid wind blew through the dusty streets. The sheriff stepped up beside of him and looked out at where Latham had fallen.
Then Con turned and started off down the street, the Spencer hanging at his side.
He adjusted his wide brimmed hat upon his head and kept on going.
And he didn’t look back.