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Western Short Story
He didn’t look like a western man, yet at the same time, he did.
Ange Letterman was standing on her front porch the first time she saw him. He was coming down the way from the dead hills on the other side of nowhere, and Ange just wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. He didn’t have the heavy swagger that Ange was accustomed to seeing with western men, but he had instead the deliberate foot-fall and posture of a man from back east.
It was odd, she thought, that he should not come from the direction of town, or follow any known roadway along the beaten path. Yet there he was, coming down through the long grass toward her home. He was without a horse, yet he seemed to be in no particular rush.
It was a surreal occurrence.
He drew nearer, and by then Ange was sure he had spotted her. He stopped just short of the front porch, and Ange looked him over.
He was a tall man, broad in the shoulders and slim in the waist. His face was triangular, his blue eyes deeply set, and his thick, curly dark hair stuck out from underneath the short brim of the formal hat that sat upon his head. The hat wasn’t wide-brimmed, very different from the kind of had Ange was accustomed to seeing with the cowhands and local ranchers. His coat was of a fine material, too well-made to have come from the tailor in town.
But it was when her eyes fell upon the mahogany grip of a gun protruding from his waistband that Ange stood a little straighter.
“Good morning, ma’am,” he said after a moment, his words strong yet strangely polite.
“How do you do?” Ange said softly, holding his gaze while careful to keep aware of the gun in his waistband.
“I’m fine, thank you. I’m sorry, but I was just passing through and I believe I’ve lost my way.”
“You passin’ through here without a horse? Most men don’t make it through these parts without a horse.”
“Perhaps not, however I do find that being adept in preaching the gospel of Judge Colt,” his hand fell to tap mahogany, and Ange cringed, “can go a long way in this territory.”
She was sure he had seen her flinch when he’d touched the butt of his gun. She hoped that he had not, but she stood straight and firm on the top step of her porch, her hands on her hips, determined not to let him frighten her. But all the while, there was a strange reassurance in the man’s posture and his general features. He stood posed in a non-threatening manner, and his politeness went on to ensure Ange of his sincerity.
But she didn’t like guns.
She never had.
“I do so hate to intrude, ma’am, but is your husband at home? Or perhaps you could direct me to my destination.”
“And where might you be headin’, Mr.?”
“I’m looking for the residence of one Thomas Letterman. Perhaps you know his wife, Angelina?”
Ange felt herself pale at the mention of her husband’s name. She quickly cleared her throat. “That’d be me.”
“Me. I’m Tom Letterman’s wife.”
“You’re Mrs. Letterman?”
A grave look came upon the man’s face. “Please, Mrs. Letterman, may I come inside?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” Ange said, stepping aside. “Please, this way.”
The man stepped up onto her front porch and proceeded inside.
Ange helped him remove his coat and hat and placed it on a peg next to the door. She felt hot and her skin was pale. She was anxious to hear what the man had to say regarding her husband. He turned to her once she had placed his coat and hat on the peg in the wall, and she motioned toward the table in the center of the room. As he sat down, he adjusted the silvery vest he wore and removed a small slip of paper from the pocket of his pants.
She brought some bread and a pitcher of water to the table and sat down across from him. He ate a piece of the bread and looked thoughtful for a time. Ange sat in silence, watching him.
Finally, he wiped the corners of his mouth with the napkin she had given him along with the bread, and then he picked up the slip of paper from the table.
“Mrs. Letterman,” he said after a moment, “I do so hate to inform you that...”
“Your husband is dead, ma’am.”
Just when she thought she couldn’t get a shade paler, Ange felt what little color was left in her cheeks flush from her face.
“I take it you were not aware of this?”
“No,” Ange managed to say. “How?”
“I found him along the trail. He’d been shot twice. He was still alive, and he gave me this piece of paper. It’s addressed to you. He asked me to get it to you, and then he passed on. I took it upon myself to bury him, and then set out to find you.”
He passed the slip of paper across the table and she took it. She unfolded it and began to read. He watched her as she read the words scrawled upon the page, watched as her hands began to tremble. Finally the note fell from her hands and she looked back up at him.
“I am sorry,” he said. “I shall leave you at peace now.”
He stood and turned, retrieved his coat and hat, and walked back out the door. As the door closed, Ange looked after him. She could hear him making his way down the steps and off the front porch. She hesitated a moment, then suddenly rose from the chair and rushed to the door. She yanked it open and hurried out onto the porch. “Wait!”
He was just shrugging his coat over his shoulders when he heard her cry out behind him. He turned and looked back at where she stood on the porch of her home. “Is something wrong?”
Ange fought back tears and tried to find her voice. “They…they’re gonna kill me if I stay,” she finally managed to say.
“The people who murdered my husband.”
“You know who is responsible?”
“Yes, I think so. But they’ll be comin’ afore too long. It was gold my husband was after, and it was gold he found. But the men he was huntin’ it with turned on him. He hid it and was comin’ to tell me when they musta caught up with him.”
“Do you know where he put the gold?”
Ange looked hard at him for a long moment. “Yes,” she said finally. “But I need help. They’ll be comin’ here to get me if they think I know where it is, and I can’t hold up against three men like them, not without Tom around.”
The man opened his mouth to respond, but hesitated and turned to look out over the long grass in the direction from where he first came. He saw two men on horseback, and they were riding toward the house.
Ange saw them coming, and she returned inside of her home, only to emerge a moment later with a short, double-barreled shotgun. The two riders drew rein just a few yards from where the man stood, and Ange stood firm on the top step of her porch, the shotgun leveled at the two men on horseback.
“Ange,” the younger-looking of the two said, “we got bad news.”
“Don’t you say another word,” Ange broke in, a steadiness in her voice that even she did not know she had. “I know what you did to my husband, now I want you boys to drop them guns of yours before I start shootin’.”
“What’s she talkin’ ‘bout, Pete?” the younger man said, looking to his scraggly partner.
“I dunno, Amos, but she ain’t right in the head no more. Now look here, Ange*”
“Excuse me, sir,” interrupted the man who had delivered Ange the letter from Tom, “but that is no way to speak to a lady.”
Pete and Amos glared at the man, seemingly only now growing interested in his presence there.
“Who’re you?” Pete said.
“Lawrence T. Durant, sir. And you are?”
Pete and Amos exchanged confused glances, and even Ange glanced oddly at the man.
“Look, Mr. Durn’t,” Pete went on, “this ain’t none of your bus’ness, so if I was you, I’d just walk on outta here while you still got the chance to.”
“I’m a guest at the Letterman house, and from what I gather, you are not. So it seems to me, that you are the one who should be leaving.”
Pete looked at Amos and nodded. The younger man swung down from his saddle and started forward. Before he had taken two steps, Durant palmed the mahogany grip of his Colt and shot through him. Amos stood wide-eyed for a moment, and then fell backward, his shirtfront red with blood.
Pete’s horse wheeled and the sound of the gunshot, and the sudden motion caught the man off guard and sent him tumbling from the saddle. He struggled to regain this posture and draw, but as he came to his knees, Durant already had the Colt trained on him. Pete looked at Durant, then over at Amos, who’s eyes were glazed over and were staring blankly up into the cloudless blue skies.
“You killed him,” Pete said, looking back over at Durant.
“He was making me nervous,” Durant replied, his blue eyes no longer polite, but deadly. “The lady asked for you to drop your gun. Now do it. Slowly.”
As slowly as he could, Pete unbuckled his gunbelt and let it fall to the ground.
“Now,” Durant said, “I believe Mrs. Letterman mentioned a third man. Where is he?”
Pete looked up at Ange, then back at Durant. “He’s waitin’ for me and Amos to get back after we got Ange here.”
Durant took two steps closer to the man, picked up the gunbelt, and walked back over to Ange. “Here,” he said, giving her the gunbelt. “Take this and retrieve the gun from the other man as well. Give me the shotgun.”
Ange looked at the man hesitantly. “Before I do, I must know something.”
“Tom Letterman was my friend. We served in the same regiment during our time with the Union. I was back this way trying to find him for the sake of friendship and just happened to be passing through at the right time. I found him on the trail and he had been shot twice, as I told you. He gave me this letter and the location of your residence. That’s why I came here, and that’s why I’m here now. I don’t think any man should get away with murder, and Tom Letterman was a good man.”
Ange studied the lines of the man’s face for a long moment. Then she handed the shotgun over to him and took the gunbelt.
Durant turned and started down the steps, keeping the shotgun trained on Pete. “Mount your horse,” he said as he swung into the saddle of the horse Amos had ridden in on.
Then he turned to look at Ange. “I’ll be back before dawn.”
It was just after dark when Durant and Pete rode upon the encampment of the third man in the party.
They drew rein several hundred yards from the clearing in the fray of dead trees where Pete indicated was the point of rendezvous. Durant’s time in the west had offered him the chance at some insightful information about the do’s and don’t’s of approaching a man’s campfire, and he knew that one way to get a man killed, was to walk upon another man’s campfire unannounced.
So when he dismounted as quietly as he could, and ordered Pete out of the saddle in a low voice, he put the shotgun to the man’s back and forced him to start in the direction of the fire.
“If you so much as attempt to warn him,” Durant warned him, “I’ll use both barrels on you.”
They started forward, and Durant slipped into the shadows still several yards outside of the campfire. Pete glanced back at him, and Durant motioned for him to continue forward. Turning back, Pete started forward again. The moment his foot cleared the shadows and he stepped into the area illuminated by the firelight, a gunshot rang out from across the small clearing and Pete’s head snapped backward.
He stood there for a moment, swaying, then he collapsed into the dirt, his eyes glazed and a trickle of blood stemming from a gaping bullet hole in the center of his forehead.
Durant remained motionless. He dared not move nor breathe. He just existed in the shadows of the dead trees.
For several long minutes he kept silent and motionless in the shadows. He did not know the killer’s position, and like a ghost the man had seemingly emerged and returned into nothingness in a single instant.
Peering through the dead branches and out across the clearing, Durant strained his eyes to see through the darkness and pick up on even the slightest movement. Suddenly he felt cold iron press against the back of his skull, and Durant froze.
“Drop it,” came the quiet voice from the darkness behind him.
A chill rushed down Durant’s spine, and he let the shotgun fall from his sweaty palms. The man forced him out into the clearing and the firelight. Durant turned slowly to face the man, and he saw that the man was a short fellow, clad in deerskin moccasins and chaps. He wore thin shirtsleeves, but his redskin heritage was evident, and his face was that of a hardened warrior. His dark hair fell from underneath his hat that was lined with feathers of numerous creatures, and a large Bowie knife hung from a sheath slung over his shoulder. In his hand he held an old but nonetheless intimidating Remington six-shot revolver.
The man was probably an Apache, or Comanche. It was hard to tell, but Durant knew that it was pointless to have tried to approach him from the shadows. He probably knew that they were there long before they dismounted.
The man lifted the Remington and pointed it at the square of Durant’s chest. It was at that moment that Durant knew he was going to die. Before the hammer could fall, there came the sound of a twig snapping somewhere behind them. The man wheeled around, and Durant’s hand dropped to his waistband. As the man fired into the darkness, Durant fired a shot into the ground at his feet, not one to shoot a man in the back.
But the man wheeled around and brought back the hammer of the Remington. He fired at the same time that Durant fired off his second round, the two shots blending together as one. Dirt was kicked up as high as Durant’s knees from the other man’s bullet, but his own bullet hit home in the square of the other man’s chest, knocking him a full step backward.
His dark eyes were wild and malicious, but Durant fired into him again. The man went down to one knee and fired a bullet that whined past Durant’s cheekbone. Without hesitation, Durant fired two more rounds into him. The man finally went down hard, the Remington slipping from his fingers. Before he had even thudded to the ground, Durant had already lifted his Colt to cover the darkness where the sound of the snapping twig had first emitted.
“All right,” he called, “come out of there.”
For a moment, silence hung in the air. Then the dead trees began to stir, and Ange Letterman stepped deliberately out of the darkness.
“Mrs. Letterman?” Durant said suddenly. “What are you doing all the way out here?”
“This is my territory, Mr. Durant,” she said. “I grew up here and lived here my whole life. This is all I know, Mr. Durant.”
“I do not doubt that, Mrs. Letterman, but this is no place for a lady.”
“Excuse me if I don’t share your opinion, Mr. Durant. But was it not me who just kept your hide from being skinned?”
“Now, Mr. Durant, seeing as how you have done so much for me, it is only fair that I repay you.”
“I told you, Tom Letterman was my friend. He saved my life more times than I can count during the War Between the States. I owed him as much.”
“But I know where the gold is, Mr. Durant. Please, let me see that you have at least a part of it.”
“No, ma’am I cannot. As the wife of my friend, I leave it all to you.”
Turning, Durant started back through the woods. She followed after him, and as he mounted upon a horse he turned the reins and spurred the creature down the trail.
With a curious expression, Ange watched him disappear into the darkness of the thickening night.
And this, his last appearance to Ange Letterman, was as surreal as his first.