Western Short Story
The Reckoning
Darrel Sparkman


Western Short Story

I was just shy of seventeen when I buried Edward Tyler. He was my pa and a hard man, nearly as hard as the ground where I buried him. The promise of June rains lasted about a day, leaving the baked land desert dry and rock hard.

The only headstone he would have was the shovel stuck in the fresh turned dirt. He lay about four feet down. I hit sandstone and that’s as deep as I could go. Ma didn’t have a headstone either, but we knew where she lay. I stood with my hands at the small of my back, stretching to get the kinks out, and then took my hat off as I looked into the distance. The land looked flat, but wasn’t. It was mostly gullies with sandy hills between them, peppered by sagebrush and scrub trees.

There was good grass to be found, cured on the stem by the lack of water and hot sun. A longhorn could find it and water too. It was a good thing. We couldn’t afford to lose any cattle. I wiped my head with a faded bandana that used to be blue, and put the battered and stained hat back on my head. It was low-crowned and the color of the land around me. That was how I felt. Kind of used up and beat down.

Looking at the grave, I wished there was more I could do. Maybe I’d come back and fix a proper headstone, if I could figure out how. From what he’d told me, most of our kin were stretched out in unmarked graves where they’d fallen. Guess I would be too, some day. I didn’t have any words to say for Pa, and no preacher would come this far out, even if I could find one. A shrug and ‘so long’ would have to do.

Most boys my age wouldn’t be thinking about death. But this was a hard land that didn’t forgive the weak and timid. It seemed like there was always something waiting to take a bite out of you.

His last words haunted me. “Johnny, you wait on Tom. He’s the smart one of the bunch. When he gets back he’ll have money to help with the ranch.” He coughed up a hunk of blood. “This ranch will be good someday.”

He was right about part of that. I’d been mule-stubborn since I could remember and most visitors couldn’t talk to me more than a few minutes. After that, conversation would dry up and they would find me leaving to work on something. Hard work gave me peace. While most folks were talking and planning, I’d be doing.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him my older brother wasn’t coming back. He’d had enough of hardscrabble living and heard too many promises he knew wouldn't come true. What few cattle we had were all horns and tail, with not much meat in between.

The Comanche decorated our ramshackle house with arrows this morning. Well, except the one that lodged in pa’s chest. They caught him trying to fill a bucket with water from our hand-dug well out by the corral and he never made it back to the house. His pistol was inside hanging on a peg, and that was the only time I knew of that he broke that rule. We always went armed.

I heard him cry out in warning so I didn’t waste any time finding a weapon. There were four of them and after they peppered the house with arrows, they tried to rush the door just as I came out holding a double-barreled Greener shotgun. I had an old horse pistol strapped to my waist, but didn’t reach for it. At first sight of me, one of those Comanche jumped his horse and decided he was late for something closer to the border. The other three I left stretched out behind the outhouse. I’d have to drag them off later. I sure as hell wasn’t going to bury them.

Pa died before I could make a promise I’d have trouble keeping and as his eyes glazed over I think he knew. Being lung-shot, he didn’t go easy. He taught us to keep our word and that left me with a problem. I didn’t give him the promise, but I knew what he wanted. Trouble is, I wasn’t sure about staying either.

Being neighborly, I used a stub of pencil and printed a note on a piece of paper I tore out of the back of our old bible.

Gone for supplies. Use what you need. Leave it like you found it.

The butt of my pistol worked for a hammer as I tacked the note to the door. If someone rode by and was down on their luck, I hoped they could read it—I barely could, and I wrote it.

We had an old, dry milk cow and a couple of pigs in a pen. Those pigs had more arrow wounds than Pa, but I guess they had thicker skin. Comanche boys sure liked to shoot at those pigs. I opened the gate to the pen and pitched down what feed we’d put up. They’d make do, or else the coyotes would. The chickens were on their own. We had a couple of them Banty roosters that would fight the devil himself.

With one last look around, and feeling guilty at all the work that needed to be done, I gathered my duffle and saddled our last horse that hadn’t been run off. I didn’t blame anybody for not taking that horse. He was a hammer-headed roan gelding that never forgave us for the cutting he got. Once he settled down, I turned and followed my brother’s trail toward Johnson Flats.

***

Johnson Flats was built on rocky ground that wouldn’t grow anything and it took me a week to get there. The one thing it did have was a reliable spring. Someone built a rock wall around it to gather water and they’d put a lot of work in it. It looked like they used red clay between the rocks to make it watertight. A big old oak tree grew nearby giving shade to anyone needing a drink and shading the pool. Knowing those old trees, I wondered who kept the trash out.

The town started when there were enough ranches and homesteads close by that needed supplies. A few years back some enterprising soul started hauling in wagonloads of goods to sell. Now, there was a dusty street with a few buildings along the side.

The second thing built, right after the general store, must have been the saloon and bawdy house. It was the biggest building in town. Pa never would let me go in there. I hadn’t been to town for a couple of seasons and I was older now. Besides, he was gone.

I was curious and figured if anyone knew about my brother, they’d be in there. Pa told me most saloons were places where people met and exchanged information. Many deals and agreements happened in meeting places like that.

Looking around the street, it looked like a cattle outfit was in town by the number of horses tied to the rails in front of the building. Looking closer I noticed some different brands. Maybe they were having a get-together of some kind.

After I filled both my canteens and drank my fill from the spring, I watered my horse in the runoff trough. That water was sure sweet. Pa told me the town hung a man once for letting his stock foul that drinking water.

My horse nudged me and I knew he was hungry. I saw a passable campsite on the way into town. There was grass aplenty for the horse. I’d stake him out later when I pitched my bedroll. There was a stable on down the street, but I didn’t want him to get uppity. That horse was ornery enough, especially in the mornings. I didn’t have money for that sort of thing anyway.

The last thing I did was wash my face and neck in the horse trough with my neckerchief. I used my hat to dust off my clothes and then pushed open the door to the saloon. I don’t know what I expected since I’d never been in a place like that, but it wasn’t what I got.

Planks were set on whiskey barrels that ran along the back wall. I guess they called it a bar. That’s what pa called it when he described the place. Men were lined up and drinking whiskey, but mostly talking and smoking. Most of the tables scattered around were full of bottles and shot-glasses, and elbows. Lots of elbows. I never seen so many people in one place. There were several women around, most of them occupied with one or several men, and they had more paint on than a Comanche war party.

The room kind of quieted down when I stepped in. I don’t know why. They weren’t seeing much. I was taller than most, but skinny. My clothes looked like they’d been slept in for a week—which they had. Pa’s old Dragoon Colt was strapped around my waist in what he’d called a belly holster. It was easier to get at when riding or sitting. The Greener hung down my right side by a piece of rawhide, right next to my skinning knife. I didn’t know if it was polite to bring them in, but didn’t want some thief taking them off my saddle. My homemade buckskin pants, held up by rawhide galluses, rode over scuffed boots, and the worn out and patched shirt I wore used to be blue. Now it looked like the feed sack it was made from.

My neck colored up some from all the scrutiny and I found an empty place at the end of the bar. When the man tending drinks asked what I wanted, I asked if he had anything cold.

“This look like Delmonico’s to you?” The man had a fat face to go along with his round body. The mutton chop beard made him look like a badger. He stood smiling at me. He was friendly enough, as a few chuckles came from down the line. I never heard of a Delmonico, but figured in some other lingo it meant he didn’t have any.

I shrugged, ignoring the chuckles. “Well, maybe some information. I’m looking for my brother.” The man didn’t look near as friendly once he saw I wasn’t buying anything.

He finally looked at me. “This brother have a name?”

“Tyler. Tom Tyler. He is kind of a tall galoot, about my size. Got a scar runs down his cheek.” My finger traced a line from my right eye down to my chin. “He’s usually clean shaven, so you’d see it.”

Soon as I spoke his name and described him, the place got quiet. I thought everyone was just trying to remember, but mostly they looked anywhere but at me. I had a bad feeling about that.

A puncher a ways down from me leaned over the bar so he could see me. “How’d he get the scar?”

I chuckled and relaxed a moment, thinking of that. “We were busting a couple of longhorns, one of which was meaner than a box of snakes, when his cinch broke. He was on a good cutting horse that turned on a dime and left him for change. Of course, he was flying into the brush.”

The man nodded like he’d seen it before, which he probably had. “Only problem, that was the same pile of brush that old mossy-horn was trying to hide in.” Several men laughed at that. “I guess he was some upset already, what with the heel flies after him. Anyway, they had themselves a little set-to before I finally got him out of there.”

The man looked down at his drink. “So, he wasn’t a troublemaker?”

“Him, or that bull?”

The man smiled. “Your brother. We got that same bull over at our place so I know all about him. We call ours Satan. When we get a fresh rider, we send him into the brush after that bull. If he comes back alive we figure he’ll make us a good hand.”

I just looked at him. “Well sir, Tom wasn’t likely to make trouble. Not ever. He was a smart man, more apt to talk than fight. We’re peaceful folk.”

We stared at each other a moment before he spoke. “Are you peaceful?”

I didn’t like where this was going. “I’m peaceful when I can be. Besides, I ain’t been off the place in a long time. I got no experience at starting trouble.”

“So, where are you from?”

Now that wasn’t a normal question. Anyone that came riding up to the ranch, we never asked where they were from and especially where they were going unless they offered. It just wasn’t polite, so I played it cagey. “We got a hardscrabble place between here and the border. Comanche hit us the other day and pa cashed in his chips. I figure to find my brother and let him know.”

“You take my advice and go home.” The cowpoke tossed a coin on the counter. “Fred, give the man a beer. He’s just another rider down on his luck.” He looked at me. “You can pay me back sometime when my luck is gone.” Then he turned his back on me and I knew the conversation was over.

I thanked him anyway along with the barkeep, and then tasted my first beer. I didn’t like it, but drank part of it anyway to be polite.

Pa always said I was stubborn and I never disappointed. “So, anyone seen my brother?”

The sounds in the room never changed, but I could feel it. If I were out in brush country, I’d be looking for an ambush. Something was wrong. “Nobody?”

Then, I got a surprise. A woman sitting at a table in the corner nearest me spoke up. First I thought she was just in a dark corner, and then realized her skin was dark as anyone I ever saw. She had on a plain blue dress, not like the other girls. If she wore any paint, I couldn’t see it. Next to her feet, a large valise sat half under the table. There was no way to tell if she was coming in or going out.

“Maybe I can help you.” The voice was soft and throaty. Her eyes were kind of cat-eyed and for the short time I looked at her, she never blinked. She just sat there, idly playing with her bonnet strings as she watched me.

I grabbed my beer and walked over. I’d seen some black cow punchers from time to time riding through looking for strays, but this was the first black woman I’d seen. Hell, it was the first any kind of woman I’d seen in a while. I guess I stared at her too long.

She leaned forward with her arms on the table, shaking her head. The move filled out the front of her dress and gave me an instant sweat. “Boy, you must have rode in from way, way out in the country. And you’re just a youngster. You do know what the women in here do, don’t you? What kind of place this is?” When I didn’t answer she continued. “Don’t like me? I guess I’m too dark for you? They got all shades here. You’d rather have a China girl? They come pretty high. Mex, maybe? Or, a squaw? That’s it. I bet you like Indian girls.”

I dropped into a chair next to her, letting the barrel of the Greener rest on my foot. She didn’t seem inclined to stop talking and I was too curious to stop listening.

“Those other girls will cost you, though. The Chiney girl will get up to five dollars. Price goes down from there. The regulars get a dollar for a roll, poke, or whatever you want to call it.” She looked down at herself. “I’m sorry. I talk too damned much.”

Fred came over and interrupted any witty reply I had. Not that I had any. “Mister, you can have this girl for twenty-five cents. That’s the going rate. But, I gotta warn you she’s got the clap. We got a doc down the street that can help with that, but I ain’t sure it’s worth it. Matter of fact, I’ve heard it’s a plumb painful cure.”

I stared at his back as he walked away. With my mouth hanging open I probably looked like a stepped on toad. I was learning more things than I could keep up with. He stopped, and then he turned back. “Mattie, don’t you be talking out of turn. You don’t want that kind of trouble.”

“This boy has a right to know. Besides, I’m leaving out of here when that freight outfit comes by. You kicked me out. Remember?”

Well, now. Maybe she did know something. I turned back to her but she was looking down again. She said something to soft to catch.

I leaned toward her. “What?”

“I ain’t got the clap, or anything else. I just told him that so he’d get rid of me. I’m clean.”

“Lady, I don’t even know what this clap is. Never heard of it.”

She looked at me with tears running down her cheeks, like she never heard me. “You know how hard it is to make a living at twenty-five cents?”

I shook my head, not knowing what to say because I surely didn’t. I’d just stumbled into another world and was about ready to high tail it back to brush country. Pa was always going to take me to a bawdy house so they could teach me how to do things, but it never happened. Looking around, I figured you’d have to be pretty stupid not to get the hang of it real quick.

“How’d you wind up here?”

She shrugged, looking at the table again. “We’d been trying to make it to a place south of the border. My folks were house servants and free—”

“You were slaves?”

“—I said we were free, you got to learn to listen better. Anyway, after the war we had to leave our home. Seems everybody was free but we couldn’t keep working where we were, nobody wanted us. We heard of a hacienda that needed someone to care for children and tutor them. We paid fare on a freight outfit to take us there. On the way, the Apache hit us. They killed my folks and the pack train was busted up some so they turned back.”

“I guess it was Apache killed them, not that I can tell a Comanche from an Apache. I was hungry and folks said they heard of a man that had jobs for young women. I thought maybe they needed teachers.” Her laugh was bitter as she looked around the room.

“You can see what kind of job it is. Most men here don’t want me. Anyway, I only been here about a week. Guess I gotta look somewhere else for a job.”

Swapping directions, she asked. “You got a name?”

I was only paying half attention, because I was watching the men at the bar. Once in a while I’d catch one of them cutting a glance at me. You’d think they’d have better things to do. I took the thong off my pistol. My mind caught up with her question and I gave her my attention.

“Johnny Tyler.”

“Well, Johnny Tyler. Here’s the long and short of it. Your brother was here. Got here about the same time I did. He ran into trouble and got himself killed. Sorry to have to tell you that.”

I just stared at her. Tom? Dead? He was almost as mean as pa and practiced with his pistol, too. Me? Pa worked me on the ranch from can see to cain’t, so I hadn’t much time for anything. It just didn’t make sense.

“How did it happen?”

She looked off toward the bartender who was staring hard at her, and then at the front door. “Well, we got us a sheriff and he’s kind of short tempered.”

I couldn’t get my head around it. “I guess I don’t understand. Tom wouldn’t break the law, at least not intentional. How’d he get in trouble with the law?”

“He didn’t have to break no laws. It was a matter of being in the wrong place. He was going out the door, and Mack Foster was coming in—he always goes busting through a door like he’s trying to break it down. Anyway, they bumped into each other and had words. Mack pulled his gun and shot him, and then went over to the table like he didn’t have a care in the world. Man’s crazy as a bat. He just ain’t right.” She pointed into the other corner of the room.

“That’s his table over there. Nobody sits there but him. Anyway, he just sat there and had a drink calm as you please. Finally, some of the boys drug the body out and they buried him.”

I glanced over at the bar but they all had other things to do. “When did all this happen?”

“About a week ago, first day I was here.”

Even being a simple country boy, I could see the irony of it. I’d seen that word once in a book and had Pa explain it to me. Tom got killed about the same time as pa. I didn’t know whether to throw a good mad, or just up and cry. If that girl hadn’t been sitting there, I might have done the latter.

I put my hat on the table with a sigh, and ran my hand over my face. Now what? Pa always said gone is gone and there ain’t no use crying over something you can’t help. But I can surely remember him sitting on a rock out by where we’d buried ma, and he’d be there awhile.

All I had to my name was a twenty-dollar gold piece hid in my hatband, and a ramshackle ranch in Comanche country—a ranch I’d never seen a title to. I guess Pa didn’t expect to die anytime soon. I’m betting Tom didn’t either.

I was startled when the door to the saloon flung open and a short, husky man marched in and sat at that corner table. He didn’t look fat, just muscular like he spent his time lifting whiskey barrels. He was dressed in black, head to foot, with shiny boots and when I say marched, that’s what I meant. I guess he felt important. A badge was pinned to his vest and it looked like he’d spent a week shining it up.

I felt her hand on my arm as I looked at the sheriff. “Don’t do anything stupid. I’ve heard he’s pretty fast with that gun.”

Well, I gave her a good hard look. “What do they consider stupid around here?”

She held his gaze, a small smile forming on her lips. “I’m afraid what you’re thinking will just about cover it.”

I stared at the man until, like any wild animal, he looked up at me. The kind of anger I felt right now wasn’t something I’d experienced before, not even when Pa was killed. And it was hard to hide. I felt cold and every sense I knew of was working overtime. Only thing is, I didn’t know who was the hunter, and who the prey. This was Mack Foster and he looked mad just sitting there. He dressed like one of them gunfighters you read about in a dime novel.

Mattie’s hand on my arm was warm, but she seemed wise enough not to grip tight in case I had to move in a hurry. Noise in the room seemed to trickle down to nothing and the bartender turned over a glass on the counter top. The noise was loud in the quiet room. I could hear someone walking past on the rough planks that passed for a boardwalk outside the door.

He tried to stare me down but I didn’t buy it. Foster stood abruptly and marched toward me. Now, we were dirt poor but pa didn’t slight us on education. Ma passed years ago, just kind of wore out I guess. She was never healthy after I was born.

He taught us how to read and cipher—how to work cattle and survive on next to nothing. And he taught us about men. That’s why I couldn’t believe Tom was dead. He was older than me and he’d been out and about some. He knew all the tricks. Well, maybe all but one.

Just as the man stopped in front of our table, I moved the toe of my boot out and towards him a little bit. It still had the Greener resting on it. He saw that and that my hand was on the trigger guard. What made him step back was when I cocked both barrels. Nothing is louder than cocking a gun in a quiet room.

He was a man with a lot of bluster, I could see that right off, and used to pushing people around. His right hand was on the grip of his gun. His holster was cut away on the front and looked like real hard leather. I’d never seen one, but it looked like a fast draw rig and by the way it was polished up, he took pride in how it looked.

I let him stand a minute before speaking. “That fancy gun rig won’t help you none.”

He glanced down at my foot. “You could blow your foot off that way.”

“Possible.” I nodded slightly at him.

“Why are you staring at me? A man could take that the wrong way.”

“I never seen a dead man walk around before so I was kind of curious.” Before he could bluster, I continued. “I hear you killed my brother, for no reason at all.” Mattie’s hand left my arm and I spoke without looking at her. “Girl, you best move away. I don’t want you hurt.”

She leaned forward on the table. “Naw. I want to watch this. Besides, I ain’t worth much more than a two-bit piece anyway. Nobody cares if I die.”

It was hard to keep from being distracted. “Lady, that ain’t rightly so. I don’t know you, but you seem pretty solid to me. I reckon you’re just in a bad situation.”

Mack seemed impatient. “You look here, boy. I don’t like strangers in this town. Especially mouthy ones like you. If that was your brother I killed the other day, he asked for it. Now you get out of here or I’ll just plant you next to him.”

It was an education to see how quick men moved away from behind the man, out of the line of fire.

His voice got loud and I could see he was pumping himself up to do something. Casual like, I kicked my foot up and he was looking down the barrels of that shotgun. He’d just started his own move and his gun was half out of the holster. I could see the sweat pop on his face and he looked a might sick.

“You may have a lot of notches on the butt of your pistol, but my brother’s will be the last.”

He smirked at me, but his courage looked a mite sick. “I’m the sheriff here. You’re under arrest.”

“I don’t think so.”

Fred spoke from behind the bar. “Tyler, I’d just as soon not have any blood to clean off my floor. It gets down in the cracks and I cain’t get it out.”

The gunman stood like his boots were nailed to the floor, undecided about what to do.

I let him sweat and stew a minute. “Why don’t you leave, mister? We’re disturbing this man’s business.”

Mack seemed glad of the chance and backed up a couple of steps. “All right. If that’s the way you want it. I’ll step outside and be waiting for you in the street. Let’s see how brave you are then.” With that little threat, he turned and marched out of the saloon.

I figured it was hot outside so I’d let him cook awhile. The sheriff looked like a back-shooter to me, someone who liked a sure thing. Pa would have called him all hat and no cattle. Trouble is, I didn’t know what he could do, or for that matter, what I could.

The noise picked up again, but most everybody was watching me to see what I’d do. I know I was supposed to go outside and fight the man, but I’m betting these cowhands wouldn’t be so quick to do it either. Besides, pa always said those stories were hogwash where two gunmen would square off in the street to see who was fastest. It just never happened that way and was foolish if it did.

I turned to Mattie. The more I looked at her I figured she was kind of pretty, in an odd sort of way. I could get used to her. But, what the hell did I know? Words came out before I had a chance to think about it.

“Reckon you’d be any good at ranching? It’s a hard life and lonely.”

“Hard life?” She looked at me with those big eyes. “You should try making it as a two-bit whore. I can’t see how ranching would be harder.” Sighing, she spoke softly. “I’d like to quit before I catch something and die. When I got here, the women told me to cut and run cause in this business they don’t last long.” She shook her head. “You don’t want anybody like me.”

“Well, the offer’s open if you want it.” We just looked at each other a moment and a lot of things went between us without a word being said. Her eyes were the darkest brown I’d ever seen.

I turned to Fred, the barkeep. “How’d you ever get a sheriff like that? I can’t believe you hired him.”

“We didn’t. He just showed up one day and decided we needed one. I don’t think he’s right in the head.”

“Why do you pay him?”

“Well, we don’t. I mean, not really. He takes what he wants and don’t pay for it. Food, whiskey, or the gals upstairs… don’t matter. Folks stay out of his way.”

I nodded at that, my mind made up. “You got a side door?”

He just pointed, kind of surprised. Those cowboys wouldn’t look at me, figuring I was going to sneak out the back. That was the smart thing to do. But, a man’s pride is worth something and they’d not respect me if I pulled foot out of here. I wouldn’t either.

I knew what was waiting outside, but pa always told me not to fight anybody on their own terms, nor play their game—be it poker, roping a cow critter or anything else. There was no such thing as fair in a fight. My job was to stay alive and I wasn’t about to give a gunman a fair shake.

I put my hand on Mattie’s shoulder and she looked up at me, startled. I was surprised at the reaction we both had. She had on some kind of perfume that addled me a moment, but I had to tend to business.

“I’ll just be a minute.”

Slipping out the back way, stepping careful around all the discarded bottles and air-tights, I came around to the front of the building. Mack was sure enough standing in the middle of the street and looked to be sweating a bit. His shirt was soaked and he shifted his weight from one foot to the other. Guess he was high strung.

His gun was drawn and pointing at the front door of the saloon. It was short-barreled and one he could get out in a hurry. I figured my old Colt would take forever just to clear the holster. It looked like he figured to shoot me on sight, soon as I walked out that door. He didn’t figure to give me an even shake.

That was all right. My Greener wasn’t exactly pointed at the ground either, and was already cocked. I spoke softly to him.

“I’m over here.”

The man bleated like a startled calf and started to turn. As he did, something crashed through the front glass window of the saloon and he whirled and shot that way. By then I was within a few feet of him and let go with both barrels. I dropped it on the string and pulled the Colt, but didn’t need to. A shotgun doesn’t leave much to look at and he’d about been lifted out of his boots.

As I stood in the dusty street, watching the man bleed out, I didn’t know how to act. I tried to feel bad, but he’d killed my brother for no more reason than an innocent bump in a doorway. At least, the Comanche had reason to be mad.

Someone shouted they were coming out and the saloon about emptied in a few seconds. I guess they were afraid I’d keep shooting if they didn’t shout out to me. I didn’t put away my pistol, not sure how they’d take to me killing their sheriff. I needn’t have worried. Most of the cowhands were grinning and didn’t look too upset.

The man who’d bought me a beer stuck out his hand. “My name’s John Dwyer. I can always use a good hand if you need a job. We’re just down the road a piece at the Circle D.”

I shook his hand. “This here is about the first road I ever seen. I ain’t sure I like where it took me.”

Mattie came out and picked up the duffle she’d pitched through the window, shaking it to get rid of the glass and dirt, and then walked toward me. I didn’t take my eyes off her as I spoke to Dwyer. “I figure to try ranching. Pa would want it and I ain’t old enough to know better.”

Dwyer looked at Mattie coming up with a grin on her face. “Well. She wouldn’t be my choice, but it’s not mine to make. Best of luck to ya. If I’m over your way sometime, I’ll drop by.” He slapped me on the shoulder. “Looks like you’re going to get educated.”

I reached for her bag and we started toward my horse. “You got a last name, Mattie?”

“None I ever heard.”

“You will, soon enough. We’ll just have to see about that.”

A man came hustling toward them from the stable leading Tom’s horse, already saddled. His rifle was in the scabbard and a pistol belt slung over the pommel. A bedroll and slicker rested back of the saddle. It looked like Mattie had an outfit already.

“The sheriff was going to keep this horse and tack. That wasn’t right.”

“That sheriff wasn’t right about a lot of things.”

The man glanced toward the body on the ground—a body no one seemed to care about. “Well, I guess he learned his lesson.”

I got Mattie situated on Tom’s horse. Actually, she went into the saddle like one of them acrobats without using the stirrups, dress and all. I never had the leg strength to do that.

Looking back over the saddle, I could see men wandering toward the shade, while others watered their horses. Some of the women stood on the boardwalk waving. It looked like the town was going back to sleep and the Circle D was riding out. The wind picked up and blew a gust down the street covering Mack’s body with a layer of dust. I wondered how long he’d lay there.

I mounted and we made our own dust trail back toward the ranch. That campsite I’d seen coming in was just over the ridge, and my horse was still hungry. But, there’d be another camp a little farther along. I didn’t want to be too close to town when my education started. When I looked at her, she just grinned. Kind of like a cat with a mouth full of feathers. I heeled the horse into a fast walk.

Time to go home.