Western Short Story
Not quite a half-hour after Miguel Crowley left the cantina, he turned his horse into the lane leading to the hacienda from the road.
His father had come to the cantina and conveyed the story the townspeople wanted to hear. It was a good story, but Miguel found it difficult to believe his father had simply let the men go. Except for the one he’d left locked up in the Tres Caballos jail. After all, weren’t the other men equally as guilty?
He slowed Samson to a walk and studied the lane.
Overlaying the tracks of Samson and his father’s horse, Vuelo, there were surrey tracks. So his sister Mari was home from visiting their aunt in town.
For a moment he wondered why she hadn’t stopped by the cantina. Surely she would have heard from others in town that Papá would go there at noon to tell the story.
But then, Papá had always frowned on a woman going into a cantina unaccompanied by a man. Probably that’s why Mari hadn’t come in. There were no men in Mari’s life as far as he or his father knew.
Well, there were rumors of a young man at school in Mexico City, but no local young men. And the rumors were only something he had surmised from catching quick looks exchanged between Mari and their mother.
His mother. Why had Papá not asked him last night about her grave? Surely he knew she was buried on the nearby hill, on Martinez-Silva hacienda land. But wouldn’t he have wanted to visit as soon as possible?
Maybe he’d found the place himself this morning, before he rode into town. Maybe that’s why he was so late in arriving at the cantina.
Or maybe not. Maybe he’d spent some time in thought. Maybe, even, he wasn’t as sure about letting those men go as he had been when it happened, or as he had sounded while recounting the tale in the cantina.
Either way, the situation was what it was.
But Miguel was a man in his own right now. He could fix it.
He knew where one of the perpetrators was—in the Tres Caballos jail—and he was Wes Crowley trained in tracking and the use of weapons. And who better than him to track those men down and exact revenge on behalf of both his parents? On behalf of his family?
If possible, he would get into and out of the house without encountering Mari.
Realistically, that probably wouldn’t be possible, though. If it wasn’t, he’d make up a story for her. Maybe tell her before he headed back to the university in Mexico City that he wanted some time to himself. He could tell her he was going to take Samson and a few days’ provisions and ride into the foothills a day or so away to think about his future or something. Mari was always talking about thinking about her future. She’d buy that.
His father more than likely wouldn’t be home for at least a few hours, if then. After all, he’d taken a room in town. If he did come home at all today, it would be for one reason: to eat supper with Mari and ask again about the news she had for him.
Whether she told him would depend entirely on her mood. But either way, whether she told him or not, more than likely he would ride back into town to spend the night alone in his room, battling whatever demons he had to battle to get through this rough time.
In fact, more than likely Mari would head back into town too, to spend the night with Aunt Maria-Elena. Mari wouldn’t want to be alone in the house. Not for awhile. Not after what happened to Mamá. And that stirred another thought.
He glanced at the lane again to be sure there weren’t two fresh sets of surrey tracks. If Mari had already come and gone, he wouldn’t have to worry about explaining his upcoming absence at all.
There weren’t two sets of surrey tracks. There was only one.
But in a place where the rocks gave way to sand, a hoofprint overlayed the surrey track.
He stopped Samson and looked more closely.
At first he thought the track of the surrey wheel must be an old one, from when Mari went into town yesterday morning. That would explain the hoofprint overlaying it.
But a chill filled him.
The hoofprint was facing west. It was made after Mari returned to the house today, and until this very moment, neither he nor his father had ridden west along the lane.
Hoping beyond hope the surrey track was actually older and that the hoofprint belonged to Vuelo, he put his heels to Samson’s flanks. Dirt flew up from the horse’s hooves as he bolted ahead.
Sure enough, as he and Samson topped the low rise east of the hacienda, he spotted a horse beyond the low, whitewashed adobe wall that surrounded the house. A roan mare, ground-reined several feet west of the front door.
As Miguel reined-in Samson, the horse shuffled to a halt on the near side of the roan, who skittered a few feet off to the right. Before Samson had come to a complete halt, Miguel was out of the saddle, pulling his Colt and racing toward the door. It was standing half-open. As he passed through, he yelled, “Mari!”
The house was silent.
He looked to his right into the living room, his Colt at the ready. “Mari!”
He looked into the den.
She wasn’t there either.
He started down the hallway.
The doors to the guest bedrooms were closed, as were his father’s and his own. But Mari’s door, between them, was slightly ajar. When he reached it, he shoved the door open.
He stepped back into the hallway and yelled her name again, then started for the parlor at the back of the house.
As he headed up the hallway, no sounds came from the kitchen or dining room, nor from the parlor itself.
It didn’t make sense. Where was the owner of the horse outside? For that matter, where was the surrey?
Of course, Mari would have expected Papá to be home, or if she’d heard about him going into the cantina to tell the story, to return home afterward. So probably she would have put the surrey away in the back of the barn.
Just before he got to the parlor, a scream echoed along the hallway.
He turned and raced back the way he’d come.
Samson and the roan were still out front.
As he ran past them, he realized there were boot tracks leading toward the barn. How had he not seen those before?
But the strange horse was ground-reined at the house. Surely it was only right that he expected the perpetrator to be there too. In his hurry, he simply hadn’t noticed the boot tracks. Or paid attention to the silence in the house in response to his calling Mari’s name.
That was a serious mistake. He had wasted all that time checking for—
Another scream. It came from the barn.
He yelled, “Mari!” and immediately recognized his second mistake. If Mari wasn’t alone, he’d just announced his presence to whoever else was out there. And of course, the owner of the roan horse was out there. Well, he’d make the son of a bitch—
A man stepped out of the front of the barn, some thirty yards away, a Winchester carbine in his hands. He looked almost as old as Miguel’s father, with a black beard streaked with grey, a shabby tan wide-crown hat over ragged black hair that hung to his shoulders, a leather vest over a dirty white shirt, the sleeves rolled halfway up the forearms.
The man looked right at him and scowled. He worked the lever on the carbine, brought it to his shoulder. His right hand and forearm was tensing to squeeze the trigger as Miguel flung himself forward.
As the explosion sounded from the carbine, Miguel hit hard on his right shoulder.
Behind him dirt spat up in a geyser as the world spun around, ground, sky, ground.
He came up onto his left knee eight feet away from where he started, his right boot heel digging onto the sand, shoving it into a pile. He brought his Colt up, cocked it, leveled it and fired, then cocked it and fired again.
The first bullet took the man just above the belt in the center. The carbine dropped from his hands as he staggered back a half-step. Then the second bullet took him a little higher and to the left in the right side of his chest. He dropped on his back and lay still, his hat rolling away toward the corner of the barn.
By the time the man fell, Miguel was already up and running toward him, his Colt cocked again and extended in front of him.
Mari ran out of the barn, her long black hair hanging far past her shoulders. She was barefoot and in a dark-brown dress with an intricate design of green vines and leaves and small red and yellow flowers crocheted into it. She saw her brother and stopped cold. Her eyes grew wide. “Miguel!”
She took a step, then saw the inert form. She stopped and put both hands over her mouth as she screamed again.
As he raced past the man on the ground, Miguel lowered the hammer on his Colt and holstered it. He grabbed both Mari’s shoulders, pulled her close and quickly turned so she was facing toward the interior of the barn.
As he held her, Mari pressed her face against his chest. She was trembling, and the slight tremors moved through him.
Over her head, he watched the man for any signs of movement.
The man moaned quietly, but only his boots moved. The toes flexed, as if he was trying to walk away.
Miguel watched him as he continued to hold Mari, rocking her slightly.
After a long moment, her face still buried against his chest, her voice barely above a whisper, Mari said, “He wanted— He tried to—” But she couldn’t finish.
Miguel held her closer, kissed the top of her head, and continued to rock her gently. Her hair smelled of straw and dust and the scent of his mother. He did his best to keep his voice calm. “It’s okay, Mari. It’s over. It’s okay now. It’s okay.”
A minute or two later, her trembling began to subside.
Again Miguel lightly kissed the top of her head. He said quietly, “You want to go back into the barn or do you want to go to the house?”
Her face still buried in his chest, she said, “The house. But—but I don’t want to see him again.”
“You won’t. Come on.” He turned them both again, keeping her under his right shoulder, gripping her upper arm tightly with his right hand, and walked her in a wide arc past the man. When they were several feet beyond the stranger, he squeezed her shoulder and said, “Go on now. I’ll be up in a little while. Okay?”
Behind them, the man groaned again.
Mari stopped. “I—okay.” She trembled again, hard. Then, without looking around, she started toward the house.
Miguel watched her go.
As she neared the front door, Miguel turned and walked toward the man on the ground, watching him. He hoped the man was dead and he hoped he wasn’t. The carbine still lay several feet away.
The toes of the man’s boots were still flexing. In his waking dream, he was still walking away.
As Mari passed through the front door, Miguel stopped next to the man. As he began to lower himself to the ground, a sound like thunder came from the road.
Miguel straightened and turned around.
His father was riding hard up the lane toward him.
Wes reined Vuelo to a halt near Miguel. As a cloud of dust swept over them, he dismounted, his eyes wide. “I heard gunfire. What the hell happened? Are you okay? Is Mari here? Is she okay?”
Miguel put up both hands. “She’s fine, Papá. She’s in the house. And I’m okay.” He gestured toward the man on the ground. “This man— I don’t know. I was just going to check him to see if—”
But Wes noticed the carbine. “Is that my damn Winchester?” He looked at the man, then back to the carbine, then at Miguel. “The son of a bitch tried to kill my son with own damn gun?” And suddenly his Colt was in his hand and cocked. “I ought to—”
Miguel yelled, “No, Papá!” He stepped between the man and his father, grabbed his father’s shoulders. “It’s all right. He’s shot.”
Wes stopped, looked up at Miguel. They boy’s eyes were wide.
Miguel said, “He’s shot.” He paused. “And I did it!” His eyes welled with tears. “I killed him, Papá! I killed him!”
Wes lowered the hammer on his Colt and holstered it as Miguel moved into his arms.
Wes held him for a long moment. “It’s all right, son. It’s all right. Looks to me like there wasn’t nothin’ else you could do, understand?”
Miguel nodded, his left jaw along the top of his father’s head. “I know, Papá, but— But it isn’t like I thought. It isn’t how I thought it would be.”
Wes glanced past Miguel at the man, then stepped back and looked at Miguel, still holding his upper arms. “Well, he ain’t dead yet. You hear me?”
Miguel nodded again.
Wes pulled him close and patted him on both shoulder blades, then released him. “Come on. Let’s tend to him.”
He stepped past Miguel and knelt at the man’s left side.
Miguel moved past the man’s boots, taking care not to bump them, and knelt on the other side.
Wes looked down at the stranger. His vest had fallen open when he fell. Two ragged, black-red holes had been punched through his shirt, one at the center of his lower abdomen. The blood from that one was dark and had soaked his shirt from side to side and from the bottom of his ribcage to his belt.
The other hole was in the right side of his chest. That one had bled a little, but the blood around that one contained small bubbles. Lung shot.
Wes said, “What’s your name, partner?”
The man rolled his head slightly to the left and looked at Wes. He tried to laugh, but only coughed. Frothy blood came to his lips. A thin trail seeped from the left corner of his mouth into his beard and toward his ear.
Wes pulled a handkerchief from his hip pocket and dabbed at the blood.
The man licked his lips and grunted, “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. Now I’ll have your name.”
The man rolled his head slightly again, looked skyward, then moaned and looked at Wes again. “What—what difference—does that make now?”
“Well, I see your point. I guess it doesn’t make a difference right at the moment. But you’re gut shot. And lung shot too, from the looks of it. Even if there was a doctor right here, right now,” and he gestured with a finger toward the ground, “and there ain’t—he couldn’t do anything to pull you back. I think you know that.”
Wes glanced at Miguel. The boy seemed to be all right.
The man tried again to laugh. He coughed again, spraying a few blood flecks onto Wes’ shirt.
Wes dabbed at the corner of the man’s mouth with the handkerchief again.
The man tried to grin. He said, “So—so it looks like—you lose.”
But Wes only shook his head. “You ever see a man die of bein’ gutshot? Takes hours sometimes. Maybe even a whole day.” He paused and looked around. The sun was three-quarters of the way through its daily journey.
He looked at the man again. “Be dark in another two hours. We have coyotes hereabouts. And sometimes a cougar, and a wolf every now and then. That’s not to mention the bugs crawling in and out, stingin’ and eatin’ as they go.”
The man scowled at him, barely stifled another cough. “What—what’s your point?”
Wes grinned. “You know my point. I have something to trade.” He glanced up at Miguel again, then back at the man. “Now I can do the right thing by you if you want me to. It’s all up to you. The price is me knowin’ your name.” He paused. “Or, me and my son here—”
“Sorry bastard,” rasped out of the man’s throat.
Quick as a cat, Wes’ Colt was in his hand. He swung it hard, laid the barrel hard across the man’s cheek and holstered it.
Blood shot across the dirt toward Miguel.
When he turned his head back to Wes, the man was glaring. “He—he shot me!”
Wes nodded. “And you were deservin’ of it. Now if you’d rather, me and my son can go on in the house and leave you be. We can go out back to the patio where we don’t have to hear none of what goes on out here. We can sit down and drink lots of cool water and talk about things as they should be, not as they are.”
He paused again. “Thing is, once we stand up and walk away, there ain’t no comin’ back. I won’t allow it. The sun’ll go down in a little while, and we’ll all go to bed and sleep just fine. Then in the mornin’, we’ll come out and bury whatever’s left of you.”
He paused a final time, then spat off to one side. “It’s all up to you, but I’d rather have your name so I can do right by you.”
The man looked at him for a long moment. “You mean it? I tell you my name, you’ll help me out?”
Wes nodded. “I’ll do what’s right. You have my word on it.”
Finally, the man said, “M-Morgan. Ch-Chance Morgan.”
Wes nodded. With his fingertips, he tucked the bloody handkerchief between two buttons in the man’s shirt, then straightened and took a step back. He looked at Miguel. “Stand back, son. You can turn away if you need to.”
Miguel said nothing. He stood, shuffled backward a few paces and stopped. Still his gaze was riveted to the dying man.
Wes eyed Morgan again and smoothed his moustache with a thumb and forefinger. “Well now, Mr. Morgan, you got any next of kin? Anyone you want me to notify?”
In a weak approximation of shaking his head, Morgan turned his head slightly from side to side. “N-no.”
“All right. Any last words you’d like me to deliver for you?”
Again Morgan turned his head weakly from one side to the other. “N-no sir.” He paused. “Just—” He coughed again. “Just get it over w—”
The explosion was loud and immediate. Before Morgan could get the last word out, Wes drew, cocked and fired the Colt that had been in his right holster.
The bullet hit directly between the man’s eyes.
His body arched once, then settled into the dust and lay still.
Miguel stared, his eyes wide.
Wes holstered his Colt, then looked at Miguel. “I haven’t been around a lot, but I’d hazard a guess this is your first.”
Still staring at Morgan’s body, Miguel only nodded. Finally, quietly, he said, “Yes. Yes sir. First man I ever killed.”
“Well, now actually you didn’t kill him. You just stopped him from trying to kill you. There’s a difference, and there ain’t nothin’ wrong with that.”
The boy was still staring at Morgan’s body.
“Miguel, look at me.”
Miguel looked up, as if having to tear his gaze from the dead man.
Wes eyed him. “Did you hear what I said?”
“Y-yes sir. I only stopped him from shooting at me.”
“That’s right. And there’s nothin’ wrong with defendin’ your own life. Understand? Or that of your sister.”
“Yes sir.” He shifted his gaze back to the body. “I understand.”
Wes stepped over Morgan’s waist, put his hand on Miguel’s left shoulder and turned him toward the house. As they walked, he said, “Good. Now let’s go see your sister, make sure she’s all right. Then we’ll get the wagon and get this man into town.”
Miguel frowned. “Town? But shouldn’t we bury him?”
“Undertaker’ll take care of that. I won’t have him buried on my land.”