Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
“There’s gotta be a special place in Hell for people who would do something like this,” said Marshal Caleb Thorne.
The aging lawman gently spread his blanket over the body of a child, crumpled face down in the desert sand. Her yellow dress and blond hair were spattered with crimson. A shoe was missing from her left foot.
Deke Wells, the Marshal’s young Deputy, wiped his eyes. He looked sick.
Smoke came from a smoldering buggy in a rocky gully. A woman’s left arm extended from under the overturned carriage. The hand was gray, except for a thin white circle on the third finger.
Deke stared at the curled hand. “Look. Ain’t no weddin’ ring, Marshal. Somebody musta took it.” His long legs wobbled. He wanted to sit, but there wasn’t anything except sand and the edge of the gully. Endless desert rolled east, and sprawled west a mile before meeting a washboard road and climbing into snow-peaked mountains.
The buggy’s broken and charred wheels and spokes probed the clear
afternoon. Flames had licked toward the front of the buggy where a
bullet-riddled dead horse lay tangled in harness.
“My God, Marshal!” Deke’s words caught in the back of his throat.
“Why would anyone wanna kill a momma and pretty little girl?”
A child’s bonnet, torn rag doll and small shoe littered the bare
The Marshal shook his head, the scene blurry. It wasn’t just tears.
The fuzzy waves had become more frequent. His sight usually cleared
in a minute or two, like the eastern doctor said it would...for a while.
The two men tossed sand on the smoldering buggy.
“Must a been heading to Rock Springs.” Deke’s cheeks were bloodless.
“Chased most likely,” sighed the Marshal. Long-stride hoof marks
paralleled the wheel ruts. “Looks like she tried to outrun ‘em with
The tracks zigzagged from the mountains and twisted into the gully.
A small metal box lay open. The Marshal brushed at the sandy lettering.
“Rock Springs Bank?” he gasped and glanced at the victims. “Oh, m-my
Deke looked puzzled. “What is it, Marshal?”
Caleb stared at the small body under the blanket. “I think that’s
Caleb turned back to the overturned carriage. “I think this is Mrs. M-
Mapes...the banker’s wife. Becky’s their little girl. The Mapes’ r-
ranch is north...in the foothills.”
“Dang,” replied Deke. “I thought the little girl looked familiar.”
The Marshal choked and stepped into the gully. “Gimme a hand.”
Deke stumbled into the gully and almost fell. He brushed a sleeve
across his runny nose and eyes. “Ain’t r-right. Know how I’d feel if
s-someone did this to my kin. You got kids, Marshal?”
Caleb didn’t answer.
His wife had left years before, long before Rock Springs. Took their
little boy, too. She was young and beautiful: willowy, with long red
hair, a ready smile, and a soft voice as welcome as a cool breeze on
a hot day. Caleb didn’t know where they’d gone, just left, without a
word or note.
Alcohol and other women had been the problem, his, not hers. If he
could have turned back the clock, Caleb would have. But that was
“You okay, Marshal?”
Caleb grunted and waved him off.
They lifted what remained of the carriage, and stood looking at the
stilled body of a beautiful young woman.
“Damn!” The Marshal’s words choked in his dry throat, his face ashen.
He hurriedly spread a blanket over the partly burned body.
“It’s...it’s Mrs. Mapes, all right.” His breath came in gasps from
his barrel chest, not helped by a lifetime of smoking.
He’d known Mrs. Mapes, although she hadn’t come to town much. She
stayed in their big hacienda on Moonraker Ranch, isolated there by
She was in her mid-twenties. The balding Chester Mapes was pushing
fifty. Caleb came ten years older.
Caleb saw Carol Mapes as a woman miscast on the Arizona frontier. She
usually had a book in her delicate soft hands, reading to herself or
Becky. To Caleb she was like a sad-eyed bird longing to fly where
heat didn’t turn skin to parchment, or dust clog lungs. She wanted to
return to where people dressed for dinner and talked of books, plays
and music, she said, not cattle, foreclosures, and drought.
She and Caleb talked, nothing more, when he occasionally stopped by
the ranch. He enjoyed playing with Becky. Carol Mapes was like the
wife Caleb had lost: lovely but lonely, her youth rapidly waning,
dried by the desert wind and soured by a May-December marriage. She
had been racing toward old age before her time.
Her sad eyes had held what Caleb had lost.
Caleb last stopped at the hacienda over a year ago with a gift for
Becky’s birthday, and “to see how Mrs. Mapes was doing.”
“Keep away from my wife,” snarled Mapes, home early.
Mrs. Mapes fled inside.
“Stick to locking up drunks, Marshal...if you can catch them...or see
Caleb stayed away, but watched from behind his office shutters when
Mrs. Mapes and Becky occasionally walked Rock Springs’ dusty streets.
Now they were dead.
“You all right, Marshal?” asked Deke. “You look kind of peaked.”
“We both do.”
Chester Mapes, a short, stocky man with a large head, owned the
cattle town’s only bank. He either paraded his pretty wife, or kept
her out of sight.
“Popped a vein if another man smiled at her,” said the lawman. “Broke
the head of a drunk once when he made an indecent remark about Mrs.
Mapes. Parted his skull with a saloon chair. After that, the no-
account crossed the street to avoid either of ‘em.”
Caleb had been steel-bone solid. He was still tall, but carried more
weight behind his belt. He tried to hide his weak eyes and emerging
“You limping?” Mapes asked months back.
“Stiff,” lied Caleb. “Riding all day. Checking on some stolen beef at
Charlie Bake’s Bar 8.”
His limp and hip pains were worse. A friend suggested whiskey for
relief, but Caleb knew one drink would lead to two, and two to
emptying the bottle. Riding the rim of a whiskey glass wasn’t a trail
he intended repeating. Alcohol had done enough damage in his life.
Caleb hid his face behind a trimmed beard and handlebar mustache
flecked with gray. It struggled to cover childhood pockmarks that
left him scarred, his kid brother dead. He cut his hair short so gray
wouldn’t show, and seldom removed his wide-brimmed, high-crowned hat.
Stony eyes searched from beneath thick eyebrows. A Marshal’s badge
shined above his left breast pocket.
“Shot-gunning a little girl is devil’s work,” muttered Deke, eyed
soaked. “Ain’t right, Marshal.”
Blood remained drained from the Deputy’s face. He leaned against his
horse and gripped his saddle.
The Marshal had taken Deke in three years back after his preacher
father, a widower, died, and orphaned the sixteen year old. He’d
initially survived by cleaning stables, and making beer runs for the
The kid reminded Caleb of his own disjointed youth. He was big and
tall, but gangly, not yet a man. And he was like the son Caleb had lost.
“Honest. Hard working. Only needs seasoning,” said Caleb. He’d made
Deke his Deputy over the objections of Chester Mapes, also Rock
Springs’ council president.
“He’s too young,” argued Mapes.
No one else wanted the job.
Nothing much ever happened in Rock Springs. The gunslingers and
gamblers were long gone. Now, there was a double murder.
Deke shook his head in disbelief. He readjusted his hat against the
sun, and swiped at his wet forehead.
The Marshal licked at the bitter taste in his mouth. “We’ll find the
men that did this.”
“How old are the tracks, Marshal?” Deke’s voice was barely audible.
The lawman squatted by the overlapping hoof marks. They vanished
east. “About two hours,” he said.
The Marshal surveyed the boot tracks. “Three, I’d say. One looks
likes he’s got a club foot.”
“Good thing we saw the smoke.” Deke tried to keep his eyes off the
Using their blankets they tied and wrapped the two bodies on charred
boards from the buggy.
“Go easy takin’ ‘em to town,” ordered the Marshal.
“Let people see what’s happened.”
It was several miles to Rock Springs.
“Why would anyone do this?” Deke choked back more tears. “And do it
with a scatter gun?”
“Stealing money’s one thing, killing’s another. Don’t know.” The
bitter taste in the Marshal’s mouth was still there after he tried to
wash it down with water from his half-empty canteen.
He tapped Deke’s canteen. “I’ll need yours. No water where I’m going.”
Deke took a swallow and handed it over. Some color had returned to
his thin lips.
“It’ll probably be dark when you get to town,” said the Marshal. “Get
a posse out at first light.”
The Marshal turned his horse. “And, Deke...”
“...you’re gonna have to tell Chester Mapes.”
“H-How do I do th-that?”
“Like talking to your Daddy. You can do it, son.”
“Y-Yes, s-sir,” sighed Deke.
“There’s still plenty of daylight. So let’s use it.”
Caleb knew if he didn’t bring the killers back, he’d be without a job.
Deke turned west, his hat angled against the sun. His horse slowly
dragged the cumbersome load toward the foothills. His dust trail
mingled with the last faint smoke from the gully.
Caleb checked his rifle. It was a Sharps’ single-shot, 50-caliber
breechloader, bought from an old buffalo hunter. The big rifle had
range and “one hell of a kick.” Caution had kept him alive longer
than most lawmen. And he’d been a lawman a long time.
If I get them in my sights I may just kill and be done with it, he
thought. The bastards don’t deserve to live.
He’d never scalped anyone, but thought about nailing their hair to a
tree, or stretching their necks from one.
Endless blue sky and bleak desert stretched ahead. Montana Territory
was called “Big Sky Country.” Caleb considered the southwest close
He squinted and spoke. “Ain’t no trees or water out here.” Then he
remembered the old stagecoach stop, an oasis called Twelve Mile. A
big tree had survived near the station’s deep well. Maybe the killers
When the well’s buckets came up with more sand than water, the stage
company abandoned the site and moved twenty miles south.
The main adobe building was surrounded by corrals and a few sheds,
nothing more. Caleb had been there once.
He wondered why men would kill, then ride into a desert full of
snakes, coyotes and buzzards. “Either desperate or stupid,” he
muttered. It wasn’t summer, but late spring and getting hot.
“Maybe the well at Twelve Mile ain’t dry now?” Caleb imagined buckets
of cool water.
The Marshal and Deke had been returning to town when they saw smoke
from the buggy. They’d been tracking an escapee from Rock Spring’s
small jail, who had only days left on his sentence.
“Dumb drunk,” Caleb called him.
Fleeing, he broke into a store and stole two bottles of whiskey.
Then, on foot, got lost in the desert. They found him two days later,
dead. One bottle was empty, the other untouched.
“Crazy old coot.” Caleb sniffed the bottle. “Cheap booze at that.”
And Caleb knew cheap booze.
The escapee had carried only alcohol.
“Maybe he wanted to die,” said Deke.
The Marshal stuffed the full bottle into his saddlebag. Then
regretted not giving it to Deke.
In past years Caleb would have easily downed the bottle. The whiskey
craving always gnawed at his gut. Less now. It had cost him health,
jobs, friends, a wife and kid: everything. Determination now kept his
inner demons at bay. There was no more drinking.
Without shovels, the ground had been too hard to bury the old man.
They dragged him into a sandy wash.
“The coyotes’ll go hungry tonight,” said Caleb.
Using their rifle butts and boots they pounded the high bank until
sand and rocks buried the thin body.
Now Caleb was tracking three killers.
He squinted again. Couldn’t see a living thing, only the baking desert.
The last rays of the day burned his back. He removed his leather vest
and draped it over the saddle horn, and opened and untucked his sweat-
stained shirt. The hot air moved around his body. He felt cooler. His
bandana and upturned collar shielded the back of his neck.
Caleb rode slowly, not pressuring his mare. She had been without
water since early morning. He refilled his old corncob, enjoying a
tobacco blend he’d smoked since taking up the habit. It would be his
last pipe of the day. A flame could be seen for miles after dark.
An hour later it was dark, the cold pipe still in his mouth.
With the South defeated, he could again get his favorite tobacco,
even on the frontier. He’d fought as a “Blue Belly,” something some
Rock Springs’ copperheads wouldn’t forgive.
He rubbed his eyes, remembering a musket flash at Antietam, and long
days under thick eye-bandages in a military hospital.
“Thank God my sight returned,” said Caleb.
He’d been in Rock Springs five years when he returned east to see the
man who had been his military doctor.
“Sorry Caleb, but you’re getting cataracts, too.”
“Anything be done, Doc?”
“Not much, thick glasses, maybe. But I’d say your marshaling days are
Caleb told no one, especially in Rock Springs.
Now the periods of blurred vision and cobwebs were longer and more
frequent. He could barely see the hoof prints under the wedge of moon
that joined the night. His horse gently plodded through the dark.
Later Caleb dismounted and wiped salt from his forehead. He took a
swallow from Deke’s half-full canteen. Only an inch remained in his
own canteen. His water would have to last until the posse showed.
Stars sprinkled the clear sky as he worked his stiff legs, while
leading his mare. The animal stumbled.
“Easy girl,” he whispered. She was hungry and tired. Thirst was a
bigger problem. Caleb let the horse eagerly nuzzle water from his hand.
An hour later Caleb saw a distant flicker of light, maybe a fire at
the old stage stop. If water was there his horse would smell it if
the wind was right. Or maybe the killers’ horses would sense his mount.
He hid his mare in a gully, then wet his bandana and tied it around
the horse’s muzzle to help cool the animal and maybe prevent it from
He left his buffalo rifle behind. He’d be doing some crawling, and
sand could clog the weapon.
The small light seemed miles away. But Caleb knew distances were
deceptive in the desert, especially at night. He crouched, and moved
closer. His boots softly crunched the sand.
A half mile later he heard men arguing and laughing.
Caleb gripped his revolver. A long knife was belted at his waist, an
over-and-under derringer in his right boot. He’d never had to use
them, but they were there, if needed.
It was still hot, but there was a slight breeze. Caleb, downwind,
crawled the last hundred feet, the fuzziness gone from his eyes, his
sight clear...for now.
Three shadowy figures were by a fire. One was standing. Three horses,
heads lowered, stood nearby under a big tree.
Two squatting men passed a bottle. A bearded third man circled the
fire, a saddlebag draped over his shoulder. He tried to grab the
bottle as he danced by, cursing and laughing. He waved a wad of
greenbacks, teasing his companions.
“When we gonna divide the money, Jesse?” The questioner held the
bottle. He was small. His thin, shirtless body glistened in the
“Don’t rush me, Elmo,” said Jesse, the dancing man.
Elmo had a long face, and deep, shadowy eyes. Tangled yellow hair
hung under his dirty hat.
Jesse thrust the wad under Elmo’s nose. “Like the way it smells, boy?”
“Don’t call me boy!” Elmo growled and threw sand. “Name’s Elmo.”
Jesse dodged the gritty cloud. “Well, Elmo, look on the bright side.
Your money’s safe with me.” He tormented some more, then grabbed the
whiskey bottle, spun away, and took a gulp.
Elmo limped after the bottle-grabber.
“You couldn’t ketch that little girl,” laughed Jesse. He circled on
the far side of the fire. “And you can’t ketch me now, Limpy,”
“Don’t be calling me Limpy, neither. Can’t help it if’n I born with a
“That don’t give you no special privileges,” yelled Jesse. “Gotta
learn to keep up...Limpy.”
The man tried, but couldn’t. Then his tormentor, steps ahead, turned
and yelled: “Ketch.”
Elmo caught the bottle.
Using the distraction, Caleb elbowed forward on his belly, ending
behind a pile of rocks near the old well.
A third man sat cross-legged, child-like on the quilt. He was taller,
hatless, and fuzzy cheeked. Red hair swayed from his round head.
Elmo limped back with the bottle. He rubbed his hip, and flopped on
the quilt. “Want a drink, Red?”
Red, also shirtless, revealed a big chest. He inhaled smoke from a
fresh cigarette, followed with a swig and cough from Elmo’s bottle.
“Need more light,” complained Jesse. He held the wad of money near
the tiny fire, and then hurried toward the stagecoach building.
“Watch out for snakes!” Elmo snickered and imitated the sound of a
rattler. “I seen ‘em! That ‘dobe is full.”
Jesse made a wide circle of the crumbling building, then ripped a
slat from an adjacent collapsed shed. Sparks and curses flew when he
tossed the wood on the fire.
Laughing, he flopped alongside his angry companions, and began
separating a saddlebag of money into two stacks.
“About time,” complained Elmo.
“Half’s mine,” growled Jesse. “I’m the brains of this outfit. Keeping
her wedding ring, too.”
The gold band sparkled in the firelight.
“Something sticking in your craw, boy?” growled Jesse.
The smaller man shrugged.
Jesse glared. “You two split what’s left. Robbing that woman was my
idea. Knew she’d be toting bank money.”
Red fidgeted, and quietly grumbled: “You didn’t have to kill her.”
“Shut up, kid! Was her own dang fault running her buggy into the
gully like that.”
Red shook his head. “Shootin’ that little girl...”
“Hate screamin’ kids.” Jesse finished dividing the loot and tossed
Red their half.
“You could’ve stopped the buggy.” Red divided the bills with Elmo.
“Told you to shut up!” snarled Jesse. He pulled a tattered pack of
cards from his shirt pocket. “Let’s play some poker.”
Two hands later he threw down his pasteboards and thrust a long knife
at Elmo’s skinny neck. “I cut cheaters,” he yelled. “That’s two big
pots you’ve won.”
Elmo’s long face got longer.
“Careful with that toad-stabber, Jesse.” Elmo fell on his back, and
pulled his holstered gun.
Jesse slashed with the blade, narrowly missing Elmo’s Adam’s apple.
Elmo cursed. He dropped his sidearm and crab-walked backwards,
hampered by his clubfoot.
Jesse laughed. His knife also glinted in the firelight.
“Ain’t f-funny, Jesse,” sputtered Elmo. He struggled to his feet and
backed off. “I ain’t cheatin’. Wouldn’t do that to you.”
Jesse grabbed the whiskey. He took a mouthful, and again tossed the
bottle to Elmo. “Have one on me,” he laughed.
Elmo retrieved his gun and wiped it on his pant leg.
Jesse continued laughing, and dealt the cards.
Caleb knew he could walk in and arrest them, or shoot them from the
shadows. It would be easy. Drop the one called Jesse first, then the
other two. No one would blame him for executing the killers of a
mother and child. That’s what he wanted to do. Or he could wait for
the posse, and hang them from Twelve Mile’s old tree. The
cottonwood’s bare limbs probed the night like a giant creature’s
bleached bones. Watching the three outlaws hang had more appeal.
Caleb wanted to see them beg and sweat.
The fugitives continued drinking and gambling. It was near midnight.
Caleb couldn’t keep his eyes open. He carefully placed the old adobe
between him and the killers. He moved off behind a rise in the desert
several hundred feet where he could still see the trio. He tried to
stay awake, but couldn’t.
Frustrating dreams interrupted his sleep. He relived his drunken
stupors, and loss of his family.
Faint light edged the east when Caleb felt something poke his back.
Eyes closed, he pushed it away, his head on his arm. He’d slept on
hard ground. The poking continued. Caleb turned over.
“What the...?” A steamy mist covered his eyes. The black silhouette
of a man, his back to the rising sun, hovered above him.
“Well, well, what have we here?”
It was Jesse.
“Get up old man.” Jesse jabbed Caleb’s midsection with the muzzle of
Caleb felt for his pistol.
“It’s here Mister Law-and-Order man.” Jesse slapped his own gun belt.
Caleb’s pistol and long knife were wedged behind it.
Caleb squinted. It didn’t help him see.
“Did you sleep good, Marshal?” chuckled Jesse. “Nice mare you hid
back yonder. Neighborly bringing us whiskey...’cuz we was plumb out.”
Jesse cupped a hand to his mouth and shouted: “Red. Elmo. Come see
who’s dropped in for breakfast.”
Caleb sat up. He was stiff and sore. He rubbed his eyes. His thick
eye-curtain parted as things slowly focused.
“Well, I’ll be danged.” Elmo limped toward the pair. “Who’s this,
“Caught us a real gen-u-wine Marshal.” The outlaw ripped off Caleb’s
badge and tossed it to Elmo.
Caleb slowly got to his feet, and brushed sand and dirt from his
“Where’d he come from?” asked Elmo, examining the badge.
“Rode in on that horse whinny you thought I didn’t hear last night.”
Elmo grinned and pinned the badge on his shirt. “Always wanted one of
“Found his mare a mile back,” said Jesse. “Sneaked up on us last
night didn’t ya, old timer?”
“If’n he’s a Marshal, there’s gotta be a posse comin’.” Elmo looked
west. “We best git, Jesse.”
Red pulled up his pants from behind the adobe and trotted over. “A
Marshal?” he asked.
“Out of Rock Creek,” said Jesse, strutting. “Saw him there once.”
“Howdy do.” Red tipped his hat.
“Jeez, Red, you don’t ‘Howdy do’ a Marshal,” cursed Jesse. “He’s out
to hang us! Could of shot us last night in the dark.”
“Wish I had,” said Caleb.
“How do I look, Red?” Elmo pointed to his badge.
“Wow! Give you ten dollars cash money for it.”
“No sir.” Elmo shined it with his sleeve.
Jesse shoved his captive toward their fire. Coffee was brewing. “Tie
him up good, Red.” His twisted grin revealed several missing teeth.
Elmo knew that look. “Don’t do nothin’ crazy, Jesse.”
“Shut up!” exclaimed Jesse.
Red tied the Marshal’s hands behind his back.
Suddenly Jesse laughed, and, from behind, kicked Caleb’s legs,
dropping him face down in the fire.
The Marshal cursed and rolled away from the flames. He overturned the
coffee pot and scattered coals. He frantically rubbed his singed
beard and face in the sand. His torn shirt was covered with
“Bastard!” He glared at Jesse and spit sand and sucked air. He sat up
and cleaned his eyes and face with his knees.
“No call to do that,” protested Red. “Weren’t hurtin’ nobody.”
Jesse continued laughing.
The steaming coffee vanished in the sand. “Dammit, Jesse,” whined
Elmo. “That was breakfast.”
“Shut up!” Jesse waved his big hunting knife. “One more sass out of
you two, and I’ll geld the both of you.”
Elmo backed away. “You’re crazy!”
“Look on the bright side, Limpy,” chuckled Jesse. “You won’t have to
drink Red’s coffee.”
“Dammit! You know I don’t like being called Limpy.”
Jesse twisted the Marshal’s scorched face toward the four horses
under the tree. “See your horse, Marshal?” He revealed more missing
teeth. “She’s mine now. Dead Marshals don’t need horses no more.”
Caleb held his tongue. He needed time to think.
“See that old tree, Mister Law-and-Order man?” spat Jesse. “We’re
gonna hang you there, like you was gonna hang us.”
The sun’s first rays edged the horizon and cut the gray dawn.
“Get a rope, Kid,” ordered Jesse. His grin broadened.
“I’ll get it.” Elmo limped past Red toward the unsaddled horses.
“Kill me and you’ll never find the gold,” shouted the Marshal. His
voice carried to Elmo and Red.
“What you talkin’ about, old man?” Jesse’s dirty fingers tried to
grip the Marshal’s gray hair. But it was too short. Frustrated, he
kicked Caleb’s ribs.
“The...g-gold,” gasped the Marshal. “Y-You...You missed the g-gold.”
“Weren’t no gold!” bellowed Jesse.
“Did you l-look...under the f-floorboards...under the b-buggy’s
seat?” groaned Caleb.
“You’re lying.” Jesse slammed his fist into the lawman’s face.
The Marshal grimaced. Blood trickled from cut lips.
“What’s he sayin’?” shouted Elmo. He pulled his rope from his saddle
by the tree and hurried back.
“Says there was gold in the wagon,” barked Jesse.
“We goin’ back?”
“Don’t be stupid, Elmo.”
“If you kill m-me,” said Caleb, “and you’ll n-never find it.”
“Lying bastard!” Jesse growled and kicked the Marshal’s left hip.
Caleb sucked air and rolled with pain: “Me and...m-my Deputy b-buried
“He’s trying to trick us,” snarled Jesse.
“Okay, I-I’m lying.” Caleb shrugged, squirmed onto the quilt, stared
ahead, and remained silent.
“I’ll make him talk.” Elmo gripped his pistol by the barrel and
hurried toward the lawman.
“Hold it!” Jesse grabbed Elmo’s arm. He led his companions back under
the tree. The three spoke quietly, frequently glancing toward their
“We got enough money,” whispered Red. “Let’s git.”
“There’s a senorita in Santa Fe I wanna see,” added Elmo. “I think
she’s sweet on me.”
“Shut up!” replied Jesse. “I’m thinkin’.”
The Marshal twisted his right leg back under his body. Pain jabbed
his hip and ribs. He turned his contorted face from the outlaws. His
two-shot derringer was inside his right boot. If he could reach it,
he’d try for Jesse. Gladly exchange his life for that of the killer’s.
His fingers felt numb. He twisted his wrists and hands, trying to
loosen the ropes. His right arm felt a little freer.
“Dammit, Jesse, maybe Red’s right. Forget the gold. Let’s go.”
Jesse shoved a fresh cigar in his mouth and struck a match.
“Elmo, look on the bright side.” Jesse lighted his stogie. “We got
“You and your damned ‘look on the bright side’ crap,” exclaimed Elmo.
“The sun’s up means the posse’s up, too. Shoot that old man, or let’s
git before we’re hanging from this tree.”
“You ain’t going nowhere,” ordered Jesse.
“I’m leavin’.” Elmo began saddling his horse. “Comin’, Kid?”
Red looked from one to the other.
“You running out on me, Limpy?”
Elmo adjusted his cinch. “Dammit, Jesse! I ain’t runnin’...just
“Maybe we sh-should g-go,” stuttered Red.
“Shut up, Kid.” Jesse flashed his knife. “I’m still running things.”
“We don’t wanna fight ya.” Elmo pointed toward the Marshal. “Kill
him, and let’s git.”
“That ain’t right,” pleaded the Kid. “No need to do that.”
“Shut up I said!” growled Jesse. “Or you’ll be next.”
Caleb forced his unfeeling fingers deeper into his boot. He touched
Elmo mounted his horse. Red looked helpless, then began saddling his
Jesse glared at both men. Then shook his head. “All right, Elmo.” He
kicked the sand. “Maybe you’re right.”
He tested his knife’s sharp edge with his thumb. “This won’t take
long.” He turned toward the Marshal.
Caleb’s index finger circled the small pistol. Ignoring burning pain
in his hips and leg muscles, he bent double, gripped the handle, and
pulled the tiny weapon into the palm of his right hand.
Jesse was halfway across the clearing.
Caleb straightened his cramped legs, his hand on the weapon, his
finger--with some tingling life--on the trigger.
Jesse was twenty feet away. Then fifteen. Ten. He drew back his
knife. A wild look filled his eyes, a strange grin on chapped lips.
He lunged, and yelled, “I’m gonna enjoy this.”
The Marshal spun onto his knees, turned his back to the outlaw, bent
forward, and raised the pistol behind his back.
Jesse was only feet away when the Marshal’s half-dead finger squeezed
the trigger. The tiny bullet caught Jesse above his belt. His grin
turned to bewilderment. The cigar dropped from his mouth. He clutched
his stomach with both hands, stopped, and leaned forward like a man
facing into the wind.
Caleb struggled onto wobbly legs and staggered backward.
Jesse looked down at his red hands, and gasped, “I-I’ll be d-damned!”
He lunged forward again. His lethal knife slashed only inches from
Caleb’s broad chest. He groaned and buckled, and dropped to his knees
on the quilt.
Red and Elmo hadn’t moved. Suddenly, Elmo yelled and cursed, and
spurred his horse toward Caleb.
Smoke curled from Marshal’s weapon. A second round remained in the
twin-barrels, but with his hands still tied behind his back, Caleb
couldn’t fight two men with one bullet. There was no place to hide.
The big tree was to his left; the snake-filled adobe on his right;
open desert in every direction.
As Elmo’s charging horse neared, Caleb lurched toward the old adobe.
He fell near the entrance. A pistol cracked twice as something kicked
hard near his right boot. Caleb rolled through the door as sharp
hooves slashed the hard-pack inches from his retreating boots. Elmo
fired two more rounds. The flashes briefly lighting the adobe’s black
The room reeked of snake droppings. Caleb gasped, and spun to his
feet. He heard a rattle on his left, and quickly moved to his right.
A second snake hissed nearby.
“Damn!” He choked and bit his bleeding lip. Sweat stung his eyes and
burned his face.
Needle-thin shafts of dusty light cut through holes in the roof. A
big diamondback coiled in the center of the room. Its tail vibrated.
“Better come outta there, Marshal,” shouted Elmo.
“Like hell I will!”
Elmo laughed. “There’s rattlesnakes in there. I seen ‘em.”
“If you want me, come get me.”
Elmo swung from his saddle and stood back from the doorway, the sun
at his back. He couldn’t see Caleb, or the snakes.
The big rattler uncoiled, leaving a dusty zigzag trail as it
slithered away. Suddenly, Caleb stepped forward and kicked the deadly
reptile, sending it flying toward Elmo, silhouetted in the doorway.
“Jeez!” Elmo screamed as the rattler hit his chest. He cursed, arms
flaying. Wildly firing his pistol, he fell backward, hitting at the
venomous creature on his chest. He scrambled to his feet. The snake
coiled, hissed and prepared to strike.
“Damn!” cried Elmo, staggering backward. He emptied his pistol,
blowing the reptile into several squirming pieces.
His horse dashed into the desert.
“Ain’t g-goin’ b-back in there,” choked Elmo, his face buttermilk
white. Trembling, he kicked at the dismembered reptile. “To hell with
you, Marshal!” he hollered.
Red rode after the runaway horse. Elmo beat the returned animal. Then
pulled a box of cartridges from his saddlebags.
Red moved to the whimpering Jesse, now on his side in the fetal
position. “Jesse’s hurt real bad, Elmo.”
The thief clutched his stomach with both hands, his slippery knife in
his right hand. A red circle expanded on the quilt.
Hands shaking, Elmo cursed and tried reloading his pistol, but kept
dropping the cartridges.
“The b-bastard sh-shot me,” moaned Jesse. He looked at Red. “Where’d
he get a gun?”
Red shook his head.
Jesse looked at Elmo. “Go in th-there and...and k-kill that bastard!”
Elmo shrugged. “You can if you want, Jesse. I ain’t. I hate snakes.”
He snapped his gun closed.
“Let’s go,” pleaded Red. “This shootin’s gonna bring that posse for
“Where’d h-he g-get a gun?” repeated Jesse.
“Must a had one of them little peashooters in his boot,” said Elmo.
“Should of looked, Jesse, since you’re always saying you’re ‘the
brains of the outfit.’”
Elmo circled the adobe’s doorway, found the snake’s remains and shot
“Could a been a one-shot derringer,” offered Red.
“Could be a double-shot, too,” laughed Elmo. “Why don’t ya go in
there and ask.”
“Let the snakes have him,” replied the Kid.
Jesse began crying. “I’m d-dying. Can’t s-stop the b-bleeding.” His
leathery face was pale. He held his dirty bandana against his wound.
“Jesse, you gotta ‘look on the bright side,’” smiled Elmo, “like
you’re always telling us.”
“I c-can’t ride l-like th-this,” pleaded Jesse.
Elmo squatted by the renegade and mocked softly: “If you can’t ride,
Jesse...you ain’t goin’.” He took Jesse’s pistol and roll of money.
“W-what you d-doin’? Th-That’s mine.”
“You won’t need it. You’re dyin’. Heard you say so, didn’t we, Red?”
Red was looking west.
“Don’t l-leave m-me,” begged Jesse.
“Posse’s comin’!” Red yelled and pointed to dust on the horizon. He
hurried back to his horse.
Elmo squinted. “Dammit, Red. Ain’t nothin’ but one of them whirly-gig
“Let’s go.” Red mounted.
“Did you fill the canteens?”
Red cursed, dismounted, and hurried to the well, crouching below its
waist-high circle of stones as protection from Caleb in the adobe. He
dropped the small wooden bucket into the black hole, and quickly
retrieved it by its frayed rope.
“Ain’t nothin’ but dry spit in this thing, Elmo.” Less than an inch
of water covered the bottom of the bucket. “Mostly sand. Smells funny.”
“Take it,” yelled Elmo. “Ain’t no water where we’re goin’.”
Desert heat waves shimmered as the sun began another day.
Red carefully poured the sandy water into his near-empty canteen.
“Jesse,” smiled Elmo, “ain’t no way you’re ridin’ bleedin’ like a
stuck hog. We’re only doin’ what you’d do.” He counted Jesse’s money
and gave half to Red. He stuffed the rest in his pants’ pockets.
Jesse struggled into a sitting position. “Don’t l-leave m-me,” he
begged. Tears and pain covered his sunken face. “I c-can ride.”
“Then do it! I ain’t helpin’, and neither is Red.”
“Jesse, like you’re always tellin’ us,” mocked Elmo, “’don’t worry.’
Since you’re bleedin’ out fast, you’ll probably be dead in ten
minutes.” He gestured toward the cottonwood. “Beats hangin’.”
“Damn y-you!” Jesse tried to slash at Elmo with his knife.
Elmo laughed and jumped away.
“Take good care of yourself, Jesse.” He climed onto his horse. “And
say ‘Hello’ to the posse for us when they gits here.”
Red held the reins of Jesse and Caleb’s horses.
“Leave ‘em!” Elmo spurred his horse. “Ain’t water for the ones we’re
Jesse ground his teeth as Elmo and Red fled east.
Inside the adobe, Caleb tried to stay calm and adjust his eyes to the
dark. He stood against the back wall, not moving or breathing. He
heard rattles and hisses as a snake slid across his boots. He quietly
twisted his bound arms and hands, trying not to drop his gun. The
ropes seemed looser. More feeling had returned to his hands and fingers.
He heard the two horsemen ride away. The only sound left was Jesse
The big man wanted to run from the snake-filled room. But Elmo and
Red could be waiting outside. Maybe it was a trap. Their departure a
way to lure him out and kill him.
Caleb prayed, standing in the dark. The doorway provided little light
for the interior of the large room.
A second snake crawled across Caleb’s boot. His knees shook. He felt
like he’d been standing for hours. The muscles in his right leg
tightened and knotted, the pain knifing through the calf into the
bone. He gnashed his teeth, stifling a scream.
Another snake shook its tail and hissed a deadly warning from
somewhere. Sweat from Caleb’s forehead weaved a fiery path into his
eyes and singed face. He thought his pounding heart would split his
“Gotta get out of here,” he choked. “Can’t take it.”
Suddenly he stumbled toward the doorway. Something hissed and struck
at his left boot as his knees buckled and he tumbled into daylight,
rolling and twisting away from the entrance. He scurried on his knees
to the side of the adobe. Using its crumbling wall for back support,
he squirmed onto his feet. He stretched and kicked his aching legs,
working out the kinked muscles. He leaned against the earthen wall.
No one else was there. Only Jesse, eyes closed, curled on a crimson
circle by the smoldering fire.
Caleb quietly approached the moaning figure. He wanted the outlaw’s
knife, to cut the ropes from his wrists.
Jesse held it against his belly. Caleb couldn’t reach it with his
hands behind his back. Jesse might slash with the deadly steel.
Remembering the decaying shed alongside the adobe, the Marshal
reached backward and ripped a long slat from its skeletal remains. He
slipped one end of the splintered wood under Jesse’s hands, and tried
to pry the knife from his grasp.
Jesse’s grip was too tight.
Caleb tried again and again. But Jesse held the knife closer.
“W-who’s th-there?” groaned the lawbreaker, eyes half open. He
extended his arm and made a weak swipe with the blade.
Caleb kicked Jesse’s hand. The knife flew. The lawman knelt, dropped
his derringer, and groped behind his back. He rolled until his
fingers gripped the sticky knife. He twisted onto his knees and feet.
Backing to the tree he tried to shove the blade into its dry bark.
The bloody handle slipped from his hand twice before he forced the
tip deep into the gnarled tree. Slipping his bound hands under the
blade, he carefully slid his wrists back and forth, the knife slicing
through one rope...then the other. His freed hands were blue and
carried the rope’s imprint. He rubbed his wrists and arms, renewing
circulation and feeling.
Caleb’s two canteens dangled from his horse’s pommel; his loaded
Sharp’s rifle still in his saddle scabbard. He checked it. Ten rounds
of ammunition rattled in his saddlebags.
“Dumb bastards.” He stared after Elmo and Red’s tracks. They were
long out of sight.
He retrieved his derringer and continued massaging his wrists, hands,
and legs. His arthritis didn’t help, but more feeling returned.
He found his pistol and knife in Jesse’s saddlebag, struggled onto
his own horse, sucked one of the canteens dry, and rode toward Jesse.
“H-Help m-me,” begged Jesse.
The lawman glared down at the outlaw, who remained in the fetal
position, knees under his chin.
“Yeah, like you helped Mrs. Mapes and Becky,” spat Caleb. “Don’t go
dyin’ on me, Jesse, ‘cuz I wanna come back and hang you!”
He turned his horse and slammed his spurs into her sides. The animal
kicked sand into the bandit’s face. Caleb turned in the saddle:
The wounded outlaw lifted his head.
“...I lied about finding gold.”
Caleb hurried east, but looked over his shoulder. “What’s keeping
Two hours later he saw two riders far ahead. He shaded his eyes with
his hat and calloused hand.
He lifted his Sharp’s rifle to his shoulder, and tried to focus his
eyes. He rubbed them. His hands shook.
“Couldn’t hit the side of a barn like this. Gotta get closer.”
His eyes usually cleared by mid-morning. The cobwebs remained and
were thicker today. But maybe...just maybe he could see well enough
to shoot those two killers out of the saddle.
They continued, unaware.
Caleb shortened the gap between hunter and quarry. He dismounted, and
leaned his long rifle across his saddle. Suddenly his mare reared and
trip to break free.
“Easy girl.” He held the reins, steadied the rifle again, blinked
several times and aimed at the two blurred figures five hundred yards
ahead. He squeezed the trigger...firing a warning shot.
His horse tried to bolt, but Caleb held her. He quickly shoved
another cartridge into the rifle’s breach.
The two riders stopped and turned after a puff of brown dust exploded
on their right. Yelling, they booted their horses into a gallop.
The distance between lawman and outlaws widened.
Caleb cursed at his eyes again, steadied the rifle across his saddle,
aimed at a diminishing target...and fired.
Within a heartbeat the rider on the left slumped and toppled from his
The Marshal didn’t know or care if it was Elmo or Red.
He prepared to fire again--then halted. The second man suddenly
reined in his horse, and raised his hands.
Whoever was on the ground didn’t move.
The Marshal rode ahead, his rifle ready.
“Y-you’ve k-killed, Elmo,” cried Red.
The outlaw was sprawled face down in the gritty earth, a large hole
in his back.
Caleb stuck Red’s pistol in his saddlebag.
“Get down,” he ordered, waving his rifle. “But keep your hands up.”
Caleb turned Elmo over. He pulled the stolen money from the man’s
pocket, and waved the bills in Red’s face.
“Damned waste,” he said. He shoved the cash into his own saddlebag.
“You bastards killed two people for a few hundred dollars. Not worth
hanging for, is it, son?”
Caleb ripped his badge from the dead man and pinned it back on his
“Marshal, I-I didn’t know Jesse was gonna k-kill those two.”
“Took your cut, didn’t you?”
The Kid hung his head. “Y-Yes, s-sir.”
“Then you ain’t no better.”
Tears ran down the Kid’s cheeks.
Just a freckled-faced Kid, thought Caleb. Couldn’t be more than
eighteen, maybe nineteen, about Deke’s age. Something about him
reminded Caleb of someone, but he didn’t know who.
He nudged Elmo’s remains with his boot.
“Get this garbage on his horse. Don’t wanna gag the buzzards.”
Red struggled with the body, sliding it across Elmo’s horse.
“Tie him down good,” ordered the Marshal. “Wouldn’t want him to fall
off and get hurt.”
Caleb tied Red’s hands behind his back. They rode toward Twelve Mile.
Red whimpered, his chin on his chest.
An hour later: “I’m thirsty, Marshal.”
“Ain’t wasting water on you.”
“Got m-my o-own.” His canteen swayed from his saddle. “I’m s-sorry
for what w-we did.” He cried, slumped in his saddle like melting snow.
“Stop your bawling,” ordered the Marshal. “Running with outlaws makes
you an outlaw. Didn’t your folks teach you nothin’?”
“Yes, s-sir. My Maw raised m-me b-better than th-this.”
The Marshal held the canteen.
The Kid coughed between gulped of the sandy water. “Thanks,” he said.
They reached Twelve Mile as a posse of forty men arrived.
“Got here as soon as we could,” said Deke, riding a lathered horse.
“Most everybody was on a huntin’ trip.”
Judge Simon Bacon rode a white mule. He nodded from under a big straw
hat, and pulled a Bible and a fat law book from his saddlebags.
“Figured I’d save a trial in town,” he said. “This shade tree’s fine
Jesse remained unmoved, curled on the quilt.
“That’s Jesse.” Dismounting, Caleb tried to hide the pain in his legs.
“Looks dead,” said the Judge.
Two men confirmed it.
“He did the killing,” added the Marshal. “These two let him. That’s
Elmo hanging over his horse. The Kid’s named Red.”
A short bald man pushed through horses and riders. He carried a rope
and waved a pistol. “That the man killed my Carol and Becky?” he
Caleb blocked him. “Put your gun away, Chester.”
“Mapes, we’re gonna do this right,” assured the Judge. “Hold court
“I got more rights than any man here.” The banker’s eyes were
bloodshot, his face puffy and haggard.
Caleb gently gripped Mapes’ gun barrel, and spoke with compassion and
firmness: “You’ll be getting revenge soon enough.”
Mapes snarled: “Wouldn’t have happened if we’d had a younger town
“Ain’t the time, Mapes,” scolded the Judge. “Talk it out at the next
The Marshal was too tired to argue.
“Too bad the man on the ground is dead,” spat Mapes. “I was hoping we
could hang him, too.”
Mapes cursed Red, who slumped in his saddle, crying.
The Judge named one-eyed Clement McGee, Rock Springs’ Baptist
minister, as defense attorney, and mercantile owner Sylus Dewey,
prosecutor. Names for a six-member jury were drawn from a hat.
Judge Bacon leaned against the tree. The jury squatted on blankets.
Mapes eagerly watched a man fashion a noose.
They pulled the Kid from his horse. He stood on wobbly legs, his back
against his horse.
Every able man from Rock Springs was there. Boomer Pool, the town
drunk, interrupted twice, asking when they’d “be going back to town.”
“Shut up!” ordered Judge Bacon.
Deke and the Marshal testified for the prosecution.
The Minister’s defense didn’t exceed two minutes.
Red hung his head when he spoke. “I’m s-sorry for what w-we d-did,”
he blubbered. “Jesse said w-we w-was just gonna t-take the m-money.”
“Bastard!” shouted Mapes.
The jury returned its verdict, after nodding and whispering less than
“Guilty!” announced the foreman.
“Hang and bury him here,” sighed the Judge. “No need sullying Rock
Springs’ good cemetery.”
The Marshal threw the noose over a limb.
Red almost collapsed as Caleb and Deke lifted him back onto his horse.
The Marshal remounted alongside. He slipped the noose over the Kid’s
neck, and adjusted the knot under the left ear.
Deke held the horse’s head. He looked as sick as Red.
Mapes grabbed the end of the rope and moved toward the tree trunk.
“I’m gonna enjoy this.” He yanked the rope, almost lifting Red out of
“Easy!” warned the Marshal.
Mapes grumbled. He tied the rope around the tree, and hurried
behind Red’s horse, his belt raised as a whip.
“It w-weren’t easy g-growing up,” whimpered Red, heard only by the
lawman. “Me and Maw w-was alone. Never...kn-knew my Daddy. Maw s-said
he w-was a d-drunk. It was h-hard times.”
“Everybody’s had hard times,” whispered the Marshal. He patted the
boy’s shoulder. “You just took the wrong road, son.”
“Any last words?” asked Judge Bacon.
“I’m r-real s-sorry,” sobbed Red. The tight rope and hangman’s knot
held him stiff in the saddle. He stared ahead.
“Let’s do it!” snapped Mapes.
“W-Wait,” pleaded Red. “Got a right to a l-last request, d-don’t I,
“We can give him that, can’t we Judge?”
The jurist frowned, but agreed.
“That’s more than he gave my family,” yelled Mapes.
Caleb couldn’t focus his eyes. Suddenly all the men’s faces were a
blur. “Hell can wait a little longer...if you can, Mapes?”
“Just do it!” The banker reluctantly lowered his makeshift whip.
“I’m still the law, here,” responded Caleb.
“Not for long,” growled Mapes.
“Go ahead, son.” The Marshal rubbed his eyes. “Have your say.”
“Something in my...my shirt pocket, Marshal,” choked Red. “Send it to
m-my Maw. But d-don’t tell her w-what I done, or how I d-died. Just
tell her...tell her I...I love her.”
The Marshal nodded.
Deke reached up and pulled something from Red’s shirt. “It’s an old
picture of a little boy and woman,” he said.
“That’s m-me...and m-my Maw when I was l-little.” The words snagged
in Red’s throat.
“She’s pretty.” Deke handed the cracked and faded picture to the
“They s-say I l-look like her.” Tears streaked Red’s face, pride
behind his faint smile.
The Marshal looked at the faded picture. But his eyes wouldn’t focus.
Everything was dim and foggy. He stepped into the bright sunlight.
Caleb held the photo closer, and squinted. Things slowly came into
focus. He studied the two figures: a small boy in a sailor’s suit,
and a tall, attractive young woman wearing a smile and frilly white
dress. The Marshal strained his eyes. Something looked familiar. His
face paled. He flipped the photo. Two names were scrawled in faded
ink on the back.
He gasped, his hand to his mouth, his face ashen. “Oh, my God!” He
looked at the Kid. “Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”
“What’s wrong, Marshal?” asked the Judge. “Looks like you’ve seen a
Caleb swayed and leaned against the tree. Tears washed his eyes.
“Can’t be,” he uttered. “Can’t be.” His hand cupped his mouth. He shook.
“What’s wrong?” demanded the Judge.
“No! No! No!” shouted the Marshal.
Red stared from horseback, his own troubles forgotten for the moment.
He stopped crying.
The Judge put his hand on the Marshal’s shoulder: “You okay, Caleb?”
“Can’t be. C-Can’t be.”
“What ‘can’t be’?”
The lawman nodded toward Red.
“The K-Kid...” Each word scraped his throat like sandstone. “T-
Caleb rubbed his eyes and stared at the young man about to be hanged.
“This w-woman in the picture...is my w-wife,” cried the Marshal. “The
boy on the horse...he’s my son!