Top Ten Western Short Stories For December
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Western Short Story
There was only one thought on Lacy’s mind. Find Sergeant Max Striker and kill him! Kill the man who had murdered his friend and brutalized Lacy in the southern hellhole called Andersonville Prison.
Lacy rubbed the stub of his left arm. The sleeve was empty. Sometimes he felt pain in the arm and hand that weren’t there.
“Phantom pain” the Army doctor had called it after the U.S. Civil War, pain that would probably be there all of Lacy’s life. The arm needlessly hacked off just below the shoulder. It shouldn't have been removed. It had only been broken, above the elbow. It could have been saved except for Striker and the butcher Andersonville called a
doctor. Striker made the old drunk cut it off. Lacy would never forgive him, because the big Confederate sergeant had savored Corporal Lacy’s agony and torment.
“Vant’s vrong blue belly, can’t stand a little pain?” Striker’s laughed a sick laugh that haunted Lacy, and continued to turn his dreams into nightmares.
No anesthetics to ease the pain, not even whiskey, because that went into the doctor’s mouth. Lacy remembered a filthy rag shoved into his own mouth to muffle his screams as soldiers held him to a table. There was excruciating pain as he struggled, as the surgeon’s knife and saw cut into his flesh and bone. He'd begged God to let him die, to escape the agony. But the Almighty eventually compromised—-and let the pain drive Lacy into unconsciousness.
Striker thrived on cruelty, his stock in trade. He enjoyed pistol-whipping starving prisoners who begged for a scrap of food. He loved power, and laughed when watching guards shoot Yankees who stepped across Andersonville's infamous "deadline." He enjoyed watching the hated blue legs fight each other for food and water. He brutalized
prisoners, dumped them into a pit outside the prison, and watched them freeze in Georgia's icy winters, or die, begging for water, in the sweltering summers. He stood on the pit’s iron grill, and stared down at the helpless men fighting the rats and death in the bottom of the filthy hole, those who struggled to survive, hoping to be alive when
the war ended.
Animals only killed for food. Striker simply enjoyed killing.
Striker had dragged Jeremiah Horn, Lacy's sick friend, out of their lean-to of boards and rags they had shared for months. The young soldier had pleaded for his life in the rain and mud, and clutched a small picture of his wife as Striker pushed him outside the prison, away from witnesses. Lacy would never forget Jeremiah's pleas for mercy--then the single rifle shot.
The blond, good-looking private had had a premonition. His last words to Lacy: "I feel I won't be coming back, ol’ buddy."
It was the day before Striker discovered Lacy's escape plan and almost killed him. A week alone in the pit outside the gate, without food or water, almost killed Lacy. But he got lucky. Heavy rains had filled the deep hole for hours with mud and water, eventually collapsed one side late one night, providing an almost impossible slippery ramp for the weak one-armed prisoner to climb. If it hadn't been for the tree
roots, Lacy knew he would have died. He tugged at the slimy tentacles as the water level rose. He managed to stay a float, to pull up slowly, up and under the iron grill that had slipped to one side. The
cold rain intensified by the hour. The guards stayed dry inside. Lacy could see their silhouettes on the guardhouse window. Even the big hunting dogs used to hunt escapes remained curled in their cages, the
pounding rain, lightning and thunder preventing their sensitive ears and noses from detecting a fleeing prisoner. Lacy, unobserved, lifted his weak body onto the edge of the pit as its mud and rising water sucked at his feet and legs, and the sides caved in and filled the hole. He crawled away, unobserved, hoping the guards in the morning would think he was buried under the mud in the bottom of the watery
grave. He doubted they would look for him, there. His muddy tracks and scent quickly disappeared under the downpour as he stumbled north.
The night was long and remained cold. He was exhausted. But running helped keep him warm. He covered several miles before daylight. Raw eggs and cracked corn from a farmer's chicken coop relieved some of his gnawing hunger. By daylight he had managed to bury himself in a hayloft, where he slept among the dry hay, undisturbed. The next night he exchanged his prison rags for some old shoes and clothes from a scarecrow and somehow climbed aboard a northbound train.
He only traveled by night, and spent days hiding in barns, haystacks, and the thick undergrowth of forests and creaks. He stole or begged what little food was available. He often munched on raw corn from a farmer’s field, wild berries, or raided another chicken coop for raw eggs. It was weeks before he reached safety behind northern Union lines.
There had been a girl waiting in Ohio, but not one strong enough to love a one-armed man. It was another reason Lacy hated Striker. He could forgive the girl, but not Striker.
The Civil War--some called it the "War Between the States," or the “War of Northern Aggression”--was long since over. But it would never be over for Lacy until Striker paid. Lacy rubbed the stub of his arm
again, his empty shirtsleeve tucked behind his gun belt.
Now he rode across Texas. “By God, I'll find that Johnny Reb." Lacy spoke to his unconcerned horse and the sage lining the trail. Lacy had wandered from one western trail town to another seeking the big man.
He’d heard Striker was someplace in Texas. “He’s got to be hiding in one of these dusty towns,” Lacy said.
* * *
Striker had enjoyed the game; enjoyed "playing" with the lives of prisoners: taunting them, teasing them with scraps of food. He delighted in watching starving men fight over chicken bones he would toss them.
Lacy was convinced the man lacked a soul.
Striker carried his two-hundred-fifty pounds like an alley fighter as each of his large boots pounded into the mud of Andersonville, his thick guttural voice shouting orders. The prisoners feared, and hated the muscular man with the shaved head.
He also treated his own Reb guards with contempt. He reminded them daily that he was a professional soldier--they weren't. He claimed to have been a Prussian officer; always clicking his heels and bragging about his military exploits. As a powerful sergeant, he arrogantly wore the chevrons of his adopted South, constantly belittling those of lower rank.
He liked fondling the long sword that always dangled at his side—-the deadly blade had cut many a cowering Union prisoner--and proudly displayed an old dueling scar that dominated his left cheek.
The burly man’s kindnesses were rare. Now and then a hungry Yankee drummer boy would be smiled on by Striker, become his personal servant, live and eat in Striker’s private quarters outside the prison. Striker’s actions saved several boys from starvation, boys later released to work on one of the nearby civilian farms. He displayed an unusual "fondness" for boys and young men. There was talk among the prisoners and guards, but no one really knew the man—-or wanted to.
* * *
All cow towns looked the same to Lacy: saloons, dust and flies, with weathered wranglers looking for women, whiskey and trouble. He tried to avoid them all. Yankees weren't welcome. Texans hated them; war memories remained fresh. Lacy dropped his Yankee voice into a series of southern accented grunts that passed for conversation. He generally went unchallenged. But strangers don’t go unnoticed for long.
"Who’d you say yer lookin’ for?" asked a half-drunk man elbowing a bar in a saloon.
"A big man with a German accent." Lacy lifted his beer and mimicked a Georgia accent. "We soldiered together in Georgia in sixty-three. Has a scar on his left cheek." Lacy index finger brushed his own face.
"Lots of drifters around here," the man’s bushy-faced companion said.
"Too many," replied the first. His narrow eyes glared at Lacy.
The two men shrugged and returned to drinking.
Lacy drifted from one cow town to another. He slept on the ground most nights, and worked now and then, getting enough money to refill his saddlebags and ride on. Times were hard in post-war Texas, especially for drifters.
"Don't need no hands," Lacy heard often. "Maybe next year."
Weeks later Lacy rode into a remote cattle ranch tucked between rolling hills and scrubby pines, his money almost gone.
"All filled up," said the owner. However, food and a warm corner in the bunkhouse were offered for the night. "Maybe I could use you at roundup, but that ain’t for months." A spit of tobacco juice emphasized the cattleman’s point.
Lacy asked if the cattleman had seen a big German riding through? The rancher wiped away some spittle and scratched his whiskered chin, his mind searching.
"Last cattle drive we hired a couple of drifters,” he said. “I think one was German—-or maybe Dutch. What did you say his name was?"
"Striker," replied Lacy. "Had a thick accent; ugly scar on his cheek."
"A real mean son of a bitch?"
"He do that?"
Lacy’s empty sleeve was tucked in his belt.
"He lasted 'bout a week." The Texan tilted his gray head, remembering. "That bastard almost killed my son. Stuck him in the arm with a sword, of all things. Liked to wear it. If I’d been there, and wearing iron I’d of killed the bastard. He's crazy. The boys ran him off. He got out of here faster than a scalded dog.
"Came from nowhere, like you," continued the cattleman. Striker had headed north. "Another man ridin' with him. Strange like. Kinda...kinda frilly, like a woman, if'n you get my meanin'. Said they'd soldiered together in Georgia. A strange pair."
Lacy didn't care about the second man. Now he knew Striker was in Texas. Might still be here. He accepted the rancher's offer and rode toward the bunkhouse.
"Streeter," yelled the owner, "That's it!"
Lacy turned in the saddle, shading his eyes from the late afternoon sun. "What?"
"Streeter, the man with the sword. I think his name was Streeter. Must be your man."
Lacy left early the next morning, a rested horse under his saddle, and a belly full of eggs, bacon, biscuits, and coffee. The trail twisted through several low mountain canyons before trying to become a road,
opening into low rolling hills and flat country. Near noon he stopped at a small ranch. A man fitting Striker's description had stopped there weeks ago, the cattleman's wife said. A younger man was with him. She'd sent them northwest toward Colonel Beckworth’s Bar K near the river. Might be work there, she said.
“They said they’d fought for General Lee and our South,” said the woman. “Sorry my husband couldn’t take ‘em on, but there’s too many like you. We’re on hard times, too. They rode north.” She looked at Lacy’s empty sleeve. “Wish we could hire all of you, but can’t.” She rubbed her teary eyes with the edge of her apron, turned, and walked away.
Lacy kept moving until noon, when he stopped and downed one of his two leftover morning biscuits, and some bacon he’d stuffed in his saddlebag. Well water from his canteen finished lunch.
He rode into the afternoon, occasionally napping in the saddle. Hours later he stopped at the river to graze and water his horse, and settle in for the night. It would be dark soon. No moon again tonight; looked like rain clouds in the east. A driftwood fire added some comfort as Lacy stretched his small tarp between some saplings. He ate his last biscuit, refilled his canteen, slid into his blankets, wiggled into the riverbank sand, and slept. Light rain did a gentle dance, splattered the canvas above Lacy’s head, and lulled him into a deep sleep.
Scattered rain continued the next morning as Lacy headed toward the northwest. He'd give it a few more days, then stop looking for Striker for a while, and find work. Lacy could usually turn a dollar or two, even in poor Texas. He had grown up under his father and uncle who ran a small newspaper in Ohio.
"Started settin' type while standin' on a stool,” boasted his father.
Almost every town had some kind of small newspaper, and printing press. Lacy often found work for a day or two, hired by someone surprised a one-armed man could set type as fast as someone with two
He'd also worked an occasional ranch, often giving him a chance to improve his shooting. He'd been an Army sharpshooter. But now the pistol was his temporary tool of trade. The weapon he'd most likely use against Striker, and maybe the man he's riding with. Lacy wondered about him.
A week later in a crossroad’s saloon, a sickly-looking bartender answered Lacy’s question about Striker, with: “A big German man like that was in here 'bout two weeks ago. Headed over them hills.” He pointed over his shoulder.
Lacy was getting closer.
Then, two days later...
"I wonder if’n he's one of the two hombres that robbed the stage north of here the other day?” Lacy had stopped to talk with a toothless prospector burning morning bacon in a skillet alongside the trail.
"The driver said one man talked funny. Thought he was maybe German.” The miner lifted his big knife from the skillet and pointed toward Lacy's vacant sleeve. "He do that?"
The miner shoved a dripping bacon slice between his toothless gums.
"They wore masks. Bet one of ‘em is your man." He flipped over several of the thick slices sizzling in the grease, savoring the aroma.
Lacy wished the old man would offer him some, but he didn't. Morning coffee was boiling, too.
Lacy decided he'd use his last few coins for breakfast in the next town. It was another cow town run by a tired sheriff, sucking out what little money it offered, living out his future on past deeds. Lacy first stopped in the sheriff’s office, where the lawman bragged as his once-steady hand sloshed some thick coffee into a cup and handed it to Lacy. Listening was the price Lacy happily paid for free coffee. The old braggart was glad to have a fresh audience, to again dramatize the recent stage holdup, and how he'd almost caught those two desperados. Any listener was worth a free cup.
"Them two got about a thousand dollars—-mostly in gold," said the self- important, yarn-spinner. “The stagecoach driver thought the bigger of the two holdup men was German,” added the sheriff. “Our posse chased ‘em into a canyon on the other side of town.
"Stupid though." The sheriff waited patiently for Lacy to ask why.
"Because they rode right into Bleecher Canyon, a box canyon with steep granite walls,” continued the sheriff. “There’s only one way in and the same way out." The lawman was beginning to strut. "Too many big rocks and hiding places in there. So we got people waitin' with guns when they decide to come out. It'll be soon. Ain't no water in there. I’m going back after getting some extra ammo and having some more coffee. Ain’t no hurry."
Lacy decided breakfast could wait.
He was soon chatting with the armed posse at Bleecher Canyon. It was their money that had been stolen, money being transferred from their town’s bank. Survival and lives were in those bags of gold coins. They
had to get it back—-all of it.
"They’ve been in there about three days,” said a young heavy-set deputy, who squatted by a small fire. His fat belly flopped over his gun belt.
"Gotta come out soon," grunted a tired cattleman, gnawing a big cigar.
"You with the law, or bounty hunting?"
"Neither,” said Lacy, who remained noncommittal.
"They rob you, too?" The third man was the only one wearing a suit and tie. The worried look on his face seemed more desperate than the others. He was probably the banker.
"Yeah—-of this." Lacy moved his empty shirtsleeve.
A steady flow of armed men entered and left the posse. They wanted these two bank robbers, but had ranches and businesses to run, too. Men would leave, replaced by others whose rifles were always ready.
They returned with full canteens and baskets of food, and then crouched behind a temporary fortress of field wagons and a big boulder fronting the canyon's narrow entrance. When offered, Lacy ate two of
their generous sandwiches.
The fat deputy said the two robbers had tried to shoot their way out several times, but were driven back by the posse.
"I think we wounded one—-the big man--maybe," said the deputy, who was in charge. One robber’s horse had fled the canyon, he said.
The posse kept a larger second fire burning all night at the canyon's mouth to keep the two men from fleeing in the dark. They used their horses to drag up logs to keep the fire going.
Lacy thought he might have an edge over Striker if he could reach one of the high ridges above the canyon. Shortly before daylight, he quietly slipped a canteen and long rope off his horse and disappeared
up a side canyon. Using his belt for a sling, he slipped his rifle over his shoulder, and carefully inched up a rugged deer trail that climbed the canyon’s rocky cliffs. The outcroppings provided little room for his boots as he moved higher and higher, using his only arm to carefully grip roots and trees before slowly pulling himself up. A one-armed man couldn't make any mistakes. Within a half hour Lacy and daylight reached the rim rock overlooking Bleecher Canyon.
"Wouldn’t want to spend the night up here." Lacy stayed low and moved along the windy crest, searching below. He tested each hand- and foot- hold before moving. Ledges were deceptive; they could look solid, but could be loose. One mistake and he’d be dead. Slow and cautious was Lacy’s motto, especially when the only direction was straight down; the next stop—-death. He continued moving and searching the canyon’s rocky floor. Then he saw something directly below. He rubbed his eyes and looked again. Two men were seated among some scattered boulders and twisted trees. One was a big man—-who looked like Striker—-who waved his right fist in the face of a second man, a gesture Lacy had seen Striker do a thousand times. The big man wore the pants of a Confederate soldier. There was something familiar about the second man, but Lacy couldn't see his face under the robber’s broad hat.
A dead horse lay sprawled near a circle of ash, its hindquarters cut open, exposed, a discarded blanket and saddle nearby.
"My, God, they're eating their horse!" Lacy spoke softly, shaking his head.
The short canyon twisted in from its mouth. Boulders and trees littered its dry riverbed. Sheer stonewalls knifed toward a clear morning sky.
The bigger man cursed and disappeared into what seemed to be a small side cave hidden behind some trees and bushes. The second man followed, pleading about something. Lacy heard cursing from both men, but couldn’t understand their words. He thought he heard a German accent. Then the shouting man returned, shoved the smaller man backward onto the creek bed, and thrust his pistol into his victim’s face. The fallen man squirmed backward in the sand, but failed to escape, his face still shielded to Lacy. The big man kicked sand in his companion’s face, laughed, and returned to the cave.
Lacy knew only one man who laughed that way: Sergeant Max Striker! Something about the second man began to gnaw at Lacy’s memory, but he couldn’t place him.
All Lacy had to do was use his rifle from his high ledge and shoot Striker. It wouldn’t be easy, but he could rest the rifle on a boulder, take careful aim, and shoot to kill. But Lacy didn’t want Striker dead—-yet. He wanted to see the same fear and pleading in Striker’s eyes that had filled Lacy’s, and so many other prisoners’ eyes in Andersonville. He wanted Striker to know why he was about to die, to know who was going to kill him. He wanted Striker to sweat first, to know there was retribution for torture and murder.
If Striker only did prison time for robbing a stagecoach it wouldn’t be enough to fill the hate churning inside Lacy’s gut. Striker was his to kill, an action not to be shared with anyone—-not the law, or its posse.
Lacy carefully retraced his steps along the ridge, tied one end of his long rope around his waist, looped the remainder around a tree and dropped its long end into the canyon. The canyon wall—-out of the line of sight of the two men below—-dropped to a ledge halfway down its red stone face. Once there, Lacy could grab one end of the rope, pull it from the above tree, re-loop it and drop to the canyon floor, staying out of Striker's sight.
His one hand gripped both ends of the looped rope as he carefully slid over the ledge, his boots seeking toeholds. His gloved hand carefully slid down the rough hemp, inch by inch.
Lacy took his time. It wasn't easy for a one-armed man. No false moves. It had to be right the first time. And there was no pulling himself back up.
Suddenly a tiny outcropping supporting his right boot broke away. The rope burned through his glove as he dropped ten feet before he regained his grip, and found a place to rest his left boot. The fall made him lose his old stained hat. It landed on the canyon floor.
He clung to the face of the cliff for several minutes before regaining his breath and strength. He looked down, twenty feet to the next ledge, over fifty feet to the canyon floor.
He continued his descent. Halfway to the next ledge the muscles kinked in Lacy’s arm. He rubbed his sweaty head against the muscle-spasm, precariously balancing himself on a toehold outcropping. Minutes later the knotted pain in Lacy’s arm, eased.
Exhausted, Lacy reached the ledge and pulled the rope down. His right arm was stiff and sore, the muscles weak and tingling, unresponsive. He rested, drinking from the half-empty canteen that dangled from his neck. He exercised his hand and arm, and rubbed it against his chest to work out the kinks. Suddenly he was hungry, famished. He broke off a big piece of dried beef from his sweaty shirt pocket, and stuck it in his mouth. Several pieces followed. He rested, chewed slowly, and soon felt better. Minutes later he looped the rope around the ledge, lowered himself to the dry riverbed, and retrieved his hat.
Now to find Striker.
Lacy un-slung his rifle, double-checked its load and slipped it back over his shoulder. He checked his pistol, quietly turning the cylinder. For him, a pistol was easier to use than a rifle.
His boots gently crunched the creek gravel, as he quietly stepped over logs, and around boulders, cautiously advancing into the canyon toward Striker, who could be waiting around the next bend with a cocked pistol. Lacy crouched and listened. The only sound he heard was his own loud heartbeat--a drumming Lacy thought must be echoing throughout the deep canyon. Placing one boot in front of the other, each step seemed louder than the one before. Although he was on the shady side of the creek, it was hot in the canyon. His salty sweat covered his face, stung his eyes, and edged his mouth.
He frequently stopped, and listened. A few more steps and Lacy neared a sharp left turn where a protective shaft of vertical rock jutted into the dry creek. He held his pistol at arm’s length, and crept
forward. The voices were now closer. His shirt was soaked as his moist palm gripped the weapon. He dropped to one knee, removed his hat, and peered around the jutting rock. The voices were more distinguishable.
One was German!
But no one was there. The two men must be back under the trees, or in the cave. The nearby dead horse baked in the sun as a million hungry flies enjoyed their newfound booty. An old flour sack now covered the animal's butchered hindquarters.
Wait—-that’s what Lacy would do. He squatted against the stone and warm sand, and raised his canteen and took several swallows. The water renewed his energy. He wanted to drink it dry or pour its cooling
contents over his head, but didn’t know how long he’d be in the bone- dry canyon. Better save some. When this was over he’d ride back to the river and enjoy a long, cool swim.
Beyond the bend, a large man suddenly emerged from behind some trees, a rifle in his right hand. A sword dangled from his waist. He turned, and argued with someone back under the trees. The man’s big head snapped forward, and spat in the dust. No mistaking that face. It was Sergeant Max Striker!
Striker’s barrel chest dominated his big muscular body. A cigar stub occupied the left corner of his mouth. Tiny piercing eyes hidden in deep sockets gave him a hard, sinister look. Thick black eyebrows framed his pockmarked face. Keen and ugly. He wore a homespun blue shirt. Its rolled sleeves exposed frayed underwear covering his hairy arms. Broad suspenders supported patched Confederate-gray pants that were stuffed into his old Army boots. Lacy would know those pants, boots and suspenders anyplace. A gun belt circled his ample waist, a holster and pistol on his right hip. A tattered broad-brimmed hat topped his shaved head.
Lacy rose to his feet behind the ledge. He raised his pistol. He could kill the man quick and easy, but not yet. Striker glanced at the sun, and hurried toward the jutting rock hiding Lacy.
"My, God, he’s coming this way." Lacy’s quiet voice broke. "Jesus!" He shoved back, trying to disappear into the cliff. He clicked the hammer back on his pistol, its deadly barrel at arm’s length, pointing to where Striker might soon be standing. Lacy waited, not breathing.
Striker’s heavy black boots crunched the creek’s gravel, grew louder, and then suddenly stopped on the other side of the jutting rock.
Lacy didn’t move.
From the other side of the rock: silence, followed by a moan and grunt.
Lacy’s arm was unsteady, the gun heavier, his palm clammy, his heart pounded louder.
Silence continued from the other side of the rock.
Was Striker about to jump from behind the outcropping and gut-shoot him? Lacy waited, shaking, his pistol doubling in weight every second.
Sweat dribbled off his chin and nose.
Then Striker gave a deep sigh that was followed by the sound of water, and the smell of urine. What? Good, God, Striker’s relieving himself. Then the long, heavy water flow stopped, Striker grunted, turned
around, and retraced his footsteps.
Lacy closed his eyes and slumped against the smooth stone, his pistol dangling loosely in his hand. He wiped his sleeve across his face and eyes. He slowly regained his strength as his breathing returned to
near normal. He slid the rifle off his shoulder and slipped it into a crack in the stone facing. The revolver would be all he'd need.
Lacy forced himself to peer around the corner. He was tempted to shoot the former guard in the back. But Lacy still wanted to see Striker’s face, to see him beg as Private Jeremiah Horn, had.
There was no sign of the second man, just Striker standing, his back toward Lacy. The German pressed a fresh match to his cigar stub.
Lacy adjusted his hat and stepped around the boulder, his pistol raised toward Striker's back. As Lacy’s boots touched the gravel, Striker suddenly turned, the burning match wedded to his fingers, the sun in his eyes.
"Don't try it Striker or you're a dead man." Lacy was surprised at his own steady voice. "Get your hands up!"
The match burned Striker's fingers. He dropped it, raised his hairy arms, and squinted through the sun's glare.
"Walk toward me...slowly," commanded Lacy.
"That’s far enough." Lacy ordered Striker to halt in a small pool of shade. He wanted Striker to recognize his former captive.
They stared at each other.
"I ain't with the posse," Lacy spoke slowly and deliberately, "and you ain’t goin’ to jail."
"I have no money," Striker’s guttural voice lied. Two stuffed moneybags leaned against a nearby log.
"I don’t want your damned money, Striker." Lacy’s voice remained unemotional. “That goes back to the town's people."
"I don’t understand..." Striker shrugged, his voice trailed off. A questioning look covered his rough face. "Then vhy you here? You vant to shoot me?"
"This." Lacy lifted his empty left sleeve.
"Andersonville" interrupted Lacy. "Does that help?"
"I don’t know you..." The same puzzled look was there. Striker stared at Lacy’s face, and searched his own memory. "Ahndersonveel? Vaht’s Ahndersonveel?" He swallowed hard, trying to hold back panic. "Don’t know no Ahndersonveel."
"I suppose you just found those Johnny Reb clothes you’re wearing?"
"I vasn’t at Ahndersonveel. Yes, I vas in the Confederate Army, but not there. I fought in--"
"Striker, you're a damned liar!" snarled Lacy. “I was one of the Bluebellie's you starved, and threw in the hole to die.” He flapped his empty sleeve. “This arm could have been saved, but you made your drunken doctor hack it off. I ain’t forgettin’ that. You almost killed this Yankee. I’m alive, but you're about to take up permanent residence in hell!"
A muscle twitched in Striker's face. His big arms started to move lower. A holstered pistol was strapped to his hip.
"Keep ‘em up!" Lacy waved his own pistol. "Striker, I'm gonna give you a better chance than you gave me or Jeremiah Horn."
"Who...?" Striker laughed.
"You find this funny? You'll be laughing through a hole in your gut before I'm through with you." Lacy lowered his pistol and slipped it back into his holster.
"I'm even gonna let you go for your gun first,” continued Lacy, “then I'm gonna kill you, somethin' I've been waitin' a long time to do."
It felt good to Lacy. He knew Striker was fast, but Lacy was faster, and wanted to see Striker sweat.
The two men stood facing each other, Striker's arms still raised. Lacy saw the muscles twitch in Striker’s right arm. Saw his fingers move as his arms moved a little lower.
"But I don't remember you," said Striker. "There were so many..."
"You did this, you bastard!" Lacy again moved his empty sleeve.
"I give you money--you leave." Striker gestured toward the moneybags. "Take some. Plenty for us both." He tried to smile. "Yah, you forget the past. Var is over. Take some money, and go." He tried to laugh
Lacy didn't answer. He concentrated on Striker's raised right hand. The big man’s fingers gently flexed, contemplating racing, grabbing big black-powder Colt from his holster, his index finger desperately squeezing the trigger. When Striker moved his right arm, Lacy would move his. Speed was important, but not as important as the accuracy of the first shot.
"I'll make it easier for you, Striker." Lacy raised his right arm above his head. “I'd raise my left one too, except some son of a bitch cut it off!"
Each man fixed his eyes on the other and waited. Lacy felt more sweat trickle down his back. His arm was heavy, but he knew Striker wouldn't be able to keep his arms up much longer.
Then it happened. Striker's right arm dropped to his side as he fell to his knees, his left hand scooped sand, and tossed a handful toward Lacy's face. His right hand snapped the pistol from his holster, and half lifted its barrel through the gritty cloud. Another split second and the Colt would have been deadly. But Striker panicked, fired too soon from the hip through the sandy haze. The bullet pierced Lacy's empty sleeve as he jumped to his right. If Striker hadn't removed Lacy's arm, his first shot would probably have stopped Lacy from shooting through Striker's left hip. Striker’s next shot went wild, diverted by the searing pain in his side.
Lacy's second shot caught the kneeling man's right knee. It pitched him forward as his pistol stabbed into the sand. In a reflex action, Striker triggered a third round. His half-buried gun, back-flamed, exploding its unfired chambers, sending a blinding cloud of sand into Striker’s face and eyes. He grabbed his bloody right hand, searching for his missing thumb and index finger. He rolled backward as his left hand gripped his wounded knee and hand as he twisted onto his left side, and pulled both legs into the fetal position.
Lacy stepped through the dust and smoke, and stood above the once powerful man. He kicked the useless pistol aside, and pointed his gun at the wounded man’s head. His finger tightened on the trigger. Striker’s eyes were closed, his mouth and body contorted in pain. One more shot would do it. Lacy had imagined the moment countless times since Andersonville. He could now send Striker to hell. One neat bullet into Striker’s twisted brain and it would all be over. Life was draining from his old enemy.
"Shoot me! Kill me!" begged Striker through clenched teeth and teary eyes. "Don’t leave me like d~dis.” He rolled on the ground, and clutched at his bloody hand and knee.
If Striker lives he won’t be hurting anyone ever again, thought Lacy. A gunman without a thumb and trigger finger won’t trouble anyone. Hip and knee wounds would make him walk funny--if he walks at all. The law will stretch his neck, or he’ll spend the rest of his life limping around in prison. Texans don’t like people robbing their stages—-even ex-Confederates.
Lacy slid his pistol back into its holster, as Striker groaned and escaped into unconsciousness.
A twig snapped off to his right. Lacy dropped behind Striker’s bulk. He didn’t care about the second holdup man. Let the posse have him.
"You lookin’ for me?" A disembodied voice came from back in the trees.
The voice sounded familiar, but Lacy couldn't see anyone.
"Ain't got no quarrel with you, whoever you are.” Lacy rolled behind a nearby log. "My fight was with Sergeant Striker. Your fight is with the posse. I just wanna walk out of here. I don't care about your
"Too late for that now--Corporal Lacy!"
What the hell? thought Lacy. Who would know my name? He searched the shadowy trees. A tall thin man walked into the sunlight, and stopped about twenty feet away. Lacy stared, shook his head and rubbed his eyes. His mouth fell open.
"H-H-Horn? Jeremiah Horn?" Disbelieving, Lacy got to his feet.
"Surprise. Surprise, ol’ buddy."
"I...I don't believe this.” Lacy rubbed his eyes again, thinking his mind was playing tricks. “I thought you were dead."
"And we thought you died in the bottom of that pit," said Horn. “So I guess we were both wrong."
"But I...I saw Striker drag you out the gate at Andersonville. Heard you scream! Heard the shot! Saw your grave!"
"You heard and saw what we wanted you to hear and see."
"Ain't figured it out, yet? I thought you were smarter than that, Lacy."
Lacy was utterly mystified.
"It went just like we planned,” said Horn. “Slick as hot grease.”
"I don't understand..."
"Lacy, you were gettin’ too powerful in Andersonville, organizing blue coats, getting’ ready for a break. We had to do somethin’ about you, ol’ buddy."
"It was because of you that I took on Striker and lost my arm."
"You weren't ever supposed to find that out." It was simple, Horn said, admitting he had been a spy in the Confederate prison.
"But dammit! I took care of you when you were sick. Stole blankets and food to keep you alive. You were one of us—-a Union soldier."
"I was in the Confederate army, ol’ buddy--a Johnny Reb. It was war time. I was just doin’ my job, like you."
"I lost this because of you." Lacy shook his empty sleeve, as his voice got angrier. "You lousy, lying son of a bitch! No wonder you looked familiar from the cliffs. You robbed the stage with Striker!"
"Now you got it." There was no remorse from Horn.
Lacy knew he had a second killing to do, to relieve the anger and sickness that now churned in his stomach.
The two former friends faced each other. Lacy had loved and trusted this man—-now he had to kill him. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and two lives for one arm. Not what Lacy had set out to do.
"Should have left well enough alone, Lacy." Horn planted his feet firmly on the sandy creek bottom. "War's over. What’s done is done. Let it be. There's a posse out there waitin' with two ropes. I got troubles enough without you.”
"My war ain't over till you're six feet under, or walkin' like Striker. It's pay back time, ol’ buddy."
Lacy's arm flashed upward. Two successive explosions reverberated through the high cliffs. Then two more--one, two--smoke covered the scene, two men stood, facing each other, and holding their ground,
neither wavered. Both fired again, almost simultaneously. Lacy didn't know if he hit Horn, he only knew it was his last cartridge. In desperation, he hurled his empty pistol at Horn, turned and raced across the dry riverbed to the big jutting rock on the other side where he'd waited for Striker. Two shots landed at his retreating heels. Only one shot was left in Horn’s pistol.
Lacy ducked behind the boulder and yanked his rifle from its hiding place, Horn only footsteps behind. He turned and fired point blank into Horn's chest as the man rounded the corner. The ex-Confederate’s surprised face instantly changed from victory to disbelief. He gasped and fell backward. Lacy had seen dead men before. Horn was dead.
* * *
"That man over there's buzzard dead,"quot; said the sheriff, pointing to Horn. "That other one...that big unconscious feller...may just live if we get 'em to Doc Highful ‘fore he bleeds out. Like to get him well
enough to hang for robbing our stage and stealin’ our bank money. You sure you didn't use a scatter gun on him, mister?"
Lacy patted his holstered pistol.
"That big man sure ain't gonna be shakin' hands or walkin’ again,” added the sheriff. "Bein’ one-armed, maybe you should of waited till the posse got here to help."
"I’m in a hurry," said Lacy. "Got things to do. And, besides, I don't like thieves."
"You sure don't like stage robbers, that's for sure,” agreed the sheriff. "You got a big reward comin', too.”
"I'll take it,” smiled Lacy. “But getting these two is reward enough for what they did at Ander--" Lacy corrected himself, "--robbing the stage."
"You shoot like you was in the war,” asked the sheriff.
"I was. But that’s over...now," said Lacy. “But it’s been a long time coming."
Note: This story is pure fiction. However, Georgia’s infamous Andersonville Prison did exist during the Civil War.