Western Short Story
‘Skeeter Johnson will kill me’.
‘I think that very likely’.
‘Doesn’t it bother you that he will kill me?’
Ebenezer Beale puffed gently on his pipe and leaned back in his chair to consider this. Ethan Merryfield sat anxiously waiting for his friend to respond. At last Eb raised his head to look Ethan in the eye.
‘It’s not that it doesn’t bother me. It’s just that I do not see what I can do to help.’
‘Kill him. That would help me enormously. You have killed people before. I have not.’
‘That was different. They wore a grey uniform, I wore a blue one. The whole point was that I killed men because they wore a different colour uniform and before they killed me for the same reason.’
‘Skeeter was a reb.’
‘That don’t matter a damn. He isn’t a reb now. If you go on killing people when they aren’t wearing a uniform, it is called murder.’
‘You must be able to do something to help me.’
‘Sure I can. I will loan you my pistol.’
‘What kind of help is that?’
‘Great help I would have thought. One of the things you need most in a gunfight is a gun.’
Ethan threw his hands up in exasperation, ‘there you go you see. I am no good with guns. I am a schoolmaster, do not think that there are not times when I would cheerfully shoot the lot of the little monsters, but I don’t because I am not a cold-blooded killer. Skeeter Johnson on the other hand is a bounty hunter and cold-blooded killer.’
‘Something you should have given some mind to when you called him out.’
‘I did not call him out. I corrected him on a point of grammar.’
Eb smiled sadly. ‘With Skeeter that is pretty much the same thing.’
‘He must learn to take well intentioned criticism.’
‘And you must learn to shoot, by tomorrow morning.’
Ethan picked up the jug from the table, took one long drink from it and set it down. He rose from his chair and turned to the door. He paused for a moment to think.
‘I will not take a gun.’
He turned to his friend, a determined look on his face.
You said it yourself, you need a gun for a gunfight. I will not have a gun.’
‘And you think that Skeeter will pay any mind to that?’
‘He has to.’
‘You are trying to figure this the way a human being might figure it. Skeeter isn’t human. On the upside though’ Eb brightened a little, ‘if he shoots you when you are unarmed, that will be murder and I am entitled as your friend to kill him.’
‘That is scant comfort to me.’
Eb shrugged. ‘best I can do.’
Ethan stood and tried to make some sense of the predicament he was in. At last he came to a conclusion.
‘I will reason with him.’
Eb sighed and shook his head’.
‘Have you been listening to anything I have said? You are talking about a man who shot a complete stranger for letting the saloon doors go and Skeeter was only halfway across the street at the time. You will not reason with Skeeter Johnson.’
‘I will prove you wrong.’
Eb sighed again. ‘I sure hope you are right, amigo’.
Ethan left Eb’s shack and walked back along Main Street. The town currently existed in two halves. This part was what Eb always called the “fun district”.
Ethan passed the “Get Ready for Paradise” saloon and whorehouse, gaudy and bright and loud with music and laughter. He imagined Skeeter holding court at the bar. Full of the ease with which he could despatch a schoolmaster.
Ethan moved on to pass the darkened homes and businesses of the God-fearing part of town. Ethan felt himself relax. He loved the little Montana town that had become his home. It was an ambitious town. It dreamed of the time when law and order would prevail. When the sound of the gospel would drown out the gun. He dreamed of times when a man of violence like Skeeter Johnson would no longer be accepted.
Ethan was evidence of that ambition. Not content to simply find somebody who could read and write, the town council had turned their eyes to the distant east coast and advertised in the Boston Globe for a teacher. “Help to educate the West” the advertisement had screamed. Ethan had kept it for a week before he picked up a pen to reply. A month later he had found himself on a stagecoach heading through the glorious landscape of Montana.
Ethan walked on past the church and let himself in through the back of the schoolhouse. He went into the little storeroom and threw himself down on the cot staring at the ceiling. He knew there would be little sleep tonight. Of that he was sure. As he laid there amongst his books and the letters from his apprehensive parents, he began to formulate his plan.
At some time he must have fallen asleep for he woke as thin light began to shine through the small window high in the wall of the storeroom.
He took a jug of water and filled the bowl on the table. He stripped and caught sight of his short thin body in the small mirror on the washstand. He washed in the cold water which left him shivering but with the fog in his head beginning to clear.
He dressed in his working suit. He took one final look around his little bit of the frontier and stepped out into the street. He shivered a bit, both from a very tangible fear and the slight chill on the morning air. Summer was dying and he could already see the snow on the hills in the far distance.
He prayed that Skeeter had lost interest, decided to forget the whole thing and had turned over in his bed and gone back to sleep. But there Skeeter was just outside the livery stables, leaning nonchalantly against the fencing around the small corral. He watched Ethan approach. Skeeter lounged with the easy arrogance of a man who knows that this will be short business and he will soon be tucking into ham and eggs at the hotel.
Skeeter Johnson was not in any way an impressive man. He was small and thin with a face that Ethan had always thought made him appear like a petulant rat, Only the twin pistols in expensive leather holsters, a smaller pistol tucked into one boot and the knife tucked into the other, made it clear you were in the presence of a very efficient killer.
He stood up straight. ‘Well you made it, that’s something, I figured you would be high tailing it over yonder hills.’
Ethan applied what he hoped was both a warm and a confident smile, although he felt neither.
‘Don’t think I did not consider it Skeeter, but it felt to me like an unworthy action for a gentleman, and as a gentleman yourself you would aspire to the same high standard.’
Skeeter spat in the dust. ‘let’s get this done.’
Ethan cleared his throat. ‘There is one thing, Skeeter, that you should be aware of, I am not carrying a gun.’
Skeeter took a moment to absorb this information, ‘the hell you say’.
‘Quite so. So you see that I cannot give you satisfaction at this particular time.’
Skeeter moved forward until he had his head tilted back slightly to look into Ethan’s face.
‘Now you see here you fancy talking yeller son of a bitch. You either get yourself a gun and get it now or I am going to pistol whip you to death right here in the street, you understand me’.
‘Perfectly, but from where I stand there are two options. First is, of course, to kill me. And that you might think would be that. However, I have already penned a letter to my father. Now my father, if not actually rich, is what might be considered comfortably off. He is also, and this is the important part, a very close friend of one of the directors of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. You have heard of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Skeeter?’
A tongue moistening the lips was the only sign that Skeeter had indeed heard of the Pinkertons.
‘Now the Pinketon detectives are not gentlemen in the way that you and I are Skeeter. They can be hard men, cruel men and they may not take the view that this was a matter of honour. With the encouragement of my understandably vengeful parents, they will hunt you down like a dog.’
Skeeter muttered something defiant under his breath but there was no doubt that Ethan had his attention.
‘However, there is another option. Skeeter, you are a Bounty Hunter. A noble calling. So, here is my proposal. Instead of you killing me as, of course, you have every right to do, wronging you as I did by pointing out misuse of the semi colon. Instead, why don’t you put your feet up, take a vacation and let me hunt some bounty for you by way of an apology. What do you think?’
Skeeter’s face was as expressive as Ethan had ever seen it. It went from bewilderment, through incredulity to finish in what could only be described as a smile that grew into loud and prolonged guffaws.
‘You.’ He was struggling for breath, ‘you go after an outlaw?’
Skeeter’s legs failed him, and he was forced to sit on the bottom rail of the fence. ‘Well I’ll be damned… you…damn, I have heard it all, You…’
He lost the power of speech for a moment and clung to the rail above him to avoid toppling backwards into the corral. He took out a filthy neckerchief and dabbed at his eyes.
‘Boy you have got sand, yes sir, I have to say it, you have sand’.
Ethan beamed at him.
‘Well, Skeeter. Now that you are sufficiently recovered. What do you think of my proposal?’.
Skeeter eased himself up from the fence rail and leaned into Ethan’s face. ‘I think you should get yourself a gun’.
‘My very intention. I will clearly need a gun if I am going to hunt down desperados and my good friend Ebenezer has agreed to furnish me with one. Now a man as talented and prolific as yourself must have a number of cases on which you are working?’
‘Oh I have cases alright. Hard cases. These are men who will chew you up and spit you in the dust like a wad of good Virginia tobacco. It would be better to let me shoot you now and get it over with.’
‘Don’t think I do not appreciate how kindly meant that is’. Ethan tentatively laid his hand on Skeeter’s shoulder, but a threatening scowl forced him to quickly remove it. Skeeter stood up and leaned on the top rail staring off down Mainstreet. It looked as close to thought as Skeeter was ever likely to get. Ethan stood watching Skeeter with an encouraging smile as though watching his favourite child coming last in the sack race.
Skeeter turned back to face Ethan ‘So you want to be a bounty hunter?’
‘Well I had not thought of taking it up as a new career.’
Skeeter chuckled humourlessly at this. ‘I wouldn’t fret on that score son, you ain’t going to live to try it a second time. But I do have one for you. Frankie Wilson, wanted for murder in Abilene. Slit a cowboy’s throat. Known to be holed up in yonder hills. You’ll need to work fast. Once the snows come you won’t be able to get at the piece of horse shit ‘till spring.’
Ethan brightened, ‘then I must ride up there without delay. You will not regret this, Skeeter.’
‘Ain’t no chance of my regretting son, as far as I am concerned you are a dead man without the brain to lay down and stop breathing.’
Ethen offered his hand which Skeeter spat on. He turned and made his way back through the town to update his friend Eb on his extraordinary good fortune in striking a deal with Skeeter.
So it was that Ethan rode out at first light the next day on a horse rented from the blacksmith, food and supplies and a jacket and gun borrowed from Eb with his friend’s good wishes ringing in his ear.
‘I have met some damn fools in my life, I mean jackasses who were behind the barn door when sense was given out, but I do not think I have ever in my life met a damn fool quite as much of a damn fool as you. Boy, you do not have the brain God gave a moth. Well I shan’t be around to see you go. I’ll tell you that for nothing. I watched enough damned fools in the army getting themselves killed trying to be heroes. You’re on your own boy, that is for sure.’
As Ethan rode to the end of Mainstreet there was Eb sitting on his porch puffing gently on his pipe as Ethan knew that he would be. He reined the horse in.
‘Not too late to join me Eb.’
‘Yeah, and get two fools killed instead of one. I’m sitting this one out boy.’
He stood up and came to Ethen to shake his hand. ‘Listen here Ethan. When you get up in the hills why don’t you just hole up somewhere for a couple of weeks. By that time hopefully your Pa will have sent those Pinkerton men and Skeeter ain’t going to be killing anyone.’
Ethan nodded relieved. ‘That Eb, is the best suggestion I heard in a while. I will do that. See you in a couple of weeks.’
He spurred the horse on and Eb stood on the porch and watched his friend disappear from view.
As Ethan rode north and began to climb the air became colder and the snowline closer. He was glad that, early in their relationship, Eb had taken the time to teach Ethan to ride. Eb had been a cavalry man and he taught well. Ethan looked apprehensively at the snowline and knew that there would be some difficult climbing to be done.
That night he laid shivering under his blanket thinking of his warm cot back at the schoolhouse, thinking too of his comfortable room back in Boston. He wondered why he had come. What had drawn him across a continent to a place where men like Skeeter Johnson could rule by fear. Maybe there was a better time coming, but probably not for him.
As a cold grey dawn broke, he manged to heat up some coffee, then saddled his horse and continued upwards towards the mountains following the directions Skeeter had given him. After he had ridden for a couple of hours he passed over the snowline and slowed his pace to allow the horse to feel its way along
It was late afternoon when he saw the thin column of smoke rising above the trees just where Skeeter had said it would be. He knew he was close to the killer, Frankie Wilson. The knowledge caused his already complaining stomach to rebel and he was forced to dismount and squat down to relieve himself. He already wished he had taken Eb’s advice and found somewhere to shelter for a couple of weeks. However, there was something in him that wanted this job done, to draw a line under it one way or another.
He climbed back in the saddle and rode on until at last he could see the cabin through the trees. As he approached he turned off the trail and spurred the horse up through the trees until he was looking down on the small rough timber cabin. Apart from the smoke from the chimney and a horse tethered around the back there was no other sign of life
As he had ridden up into the hills he had used the time to plan his course of action. He had almost immediately concluded that he was interested only in taking this man alive. Secondly, he knew how he was going to go about it. Eb had given him a fool proof method of getting Wilson out of the cabin. To, quite simply, smoke him out. ‘Just put your coat over the chimney and after a few minutes your man will be out. He will be coughing and his eyes streaming. He will be all yours’.
Fortune had gone so far as to furnish Ethan with a suitable tree branch that hung out over the roof of the cabin.
Ethan tied his horse to the tree and then with his jacket in one hand and Eb’s pistol in the other he began easing his away along the branch. He had already identified the point at which he would drop onto the roof and cover the chimney.
At that point the branch snapped.
Ethan landed heavily on the roof. He desperately grabbed at the air around him and prayed that the roof would not collapse under him.
The roof collapsed under him.
He continued his journey downwards onto a large wooden table. Again he paused for only a moment before there was a loud snapping sound beneath him and the world tilted to deposit him on the floor.
Ethan groaned and rolled onto his back to find himself staring up into the barrels of a shotgun which seemed to fill all the space in front of his eyes. He twisted slightly and painfully to peer round the twin barrels into the face of a woman.
She was probably in her 20’s but the face suggested someone who had seen more trouble than most. The face was large and round softened by long auburn hair that came down almost to her waist. Her arms were thick and her shoulders broad. She wore a floral skirt belted at the waist and her blouse stretched across full round breasts.
Ethan thought her one of the most attractive women he had ever seen. He beamed at her around the shotgun. ‘Good evening, madam, is your husband at home?’
‘Ain’t got no husband.’
The voice had the grate of whiskey and tobacco.
‘I am looking for Frankie Wilson.’
‘You have found her’.
Ethan took a few moments to digest this information and decided to try and recover some ground.
‘Ah, would that be Francine?’
‘A truly beautiful name, if I may say so.’
‘You’ve said it, no point in asking if you may.’
‘Quite so’ He tried to move into a sitting position, but it brought him closer to the shotgun, so he settled for just raising himself on his elbows.
‘I mean you no harm’.
‘Then why were you climbing around on my roof?’
‘A good question and a fair one. I say, is there any chance of my being allowed up? It would be so much easier for me to explain.’
‘You could sit at the table, but you done broke my table.’
‘I deeply regret that.’
Sit in yonder chair, and you make one wrong move and bits of your body are going to part company.’
Ethan eased himself up onto a plain wooden chair. He was feeling the effects of his fall.
‘There,’ he said without conviction, ‘that is so much better.’
‘Well, it’s quite embarrassing really, but to be truthful, I am actually here to arrest you.’
For a moment Ethan thought Frankie was going to do a Skeeter and collapse in tears of mirth, but only the faintest smile crossed her face.
‘So how’s that going?’
‘Not, I must admit, entirely to plan.’
‘Mister, you either hit your head bad in that fall, you are a damn fool, or a liar. Or maybe’ she said on reflection, ‘all three.’
Ethan felt his shoulders slump. He had truly believed he could pull this off. That he could return to town with a wrongdoer under arrest. Skeeter would have been forced to honour his agreement and the matter would be closed. Instead, he was the prisoner and he had no idea what was going to happen from here.
What happened next was that Frankie moved herself into the opposite corner. She propped the shotgun against the wall beside her. She took a clay pipe from a pocket of her skirt, filled it and lit it from a lump of wood from the fire. She leaned and puffed contentedly.
‘OK mister, I think you have a story to tell. So why don’t you go right ahead and tell it.’
So Ethan did just that. When he had finished he felt that she was disappointed that it had not taken longer. She puffed thoughtfully on her pipe before saying. ‘Ethan, you are one damn fool,’
That would seem to be the general view, yes.’
‘So Skeeter Johnson is after me.’
‘Not anymore. I am after you.’
‘So how did you plan to kill me?’
‘I had no such intention – I was going to arrest you.’
‘Well son you will truly standout in any gathering of Bounty Hunters.’
‘I understand you murdered a cowboy?’
‘I killed a cowboy. There is a difference.’
‘I am not sure I see the distinction.’
‘The SOB was trying to rape me. I got his own knife out of his belt and slashed his throat.’
Ethan brightened. ‘then it was self defence’.
‘Then our way is clear. We must return to town and await the visit of the circuit judge.’
‘Son, you are one naïve School Master. They are not going to listen to me anymore than the court in Abilene listened to me. Why do you think I hightailed it out of there in the first place? Hell, most men around here think the reason God put women on the planet was to be raped. What sort of trial will I get? A bunch of men who would do exactly what that cowboy did.’
‘I will speak as a character witness.’
‘Well that is truly generous of you Ethan, but considering our acquaintance consists of you falling through my roof and breaking my table, I don’t think that is going to carry much weight. No, I have to pack up and go at first light before Skeeter gets here.’
‘I have explained……...’
‘Ethan, you are an unusual man because you really are as dumb as you look. Skeeter is behind you probably half a day, maybe be a day but no more. He expects me to kill you, which will save him the trouble, then he kills me. No sir, I am heading out in the morning.’
Ethan peered nervously across to her. ‘and what are your plans for me?’.
‘I have no plans for you. At first light we will go our separate ways. If I was you I would put a lot of daylight between yourself and Skeeter Johnson.’
‘No, I will stay and reason with Skeeter. I arrived at the cabin to find it empty and I have no way of knowing in which direction you went.’
‘Ethan have you not get the idea yet. You cannot reason with animals like Skeeter Johnson, but,’ she rose to her feet, ‘that’s your funeral.’
She picked up the shotgun and Ethan’s pistol. She pointed to the corner. ‘I am in yonder bunk. I suggest you get a blanket and hunker down in front of the fire. If you make any attempt to get these weapons away from me, I will surely shoot you dead. Do you understand?’
Ethan nodded miserably. He was trying to deal with a conflict of emotions that he did not understand.
He sat staring at her for a while, then for no reason at all that he could understand he said ’You are very attractive’.
Frankie stopped what she was doing and stared at him. ‘Are you horsing with me Ethan?’
‘No, I assure you. I wouldn’t. I really do think you are attractive.’
She shook her head in disbelief. ‘Shoot Ethan, you are one of the strangest men I have ever met and trust me I have met some crazy sons of bitches.’
She threw a blanket at Ethan and then turned down the oil lamp. By the light of the fire he saw her climb into her bunk and then pull the blanket up around her. Ethan pulled his own blanket around him and drew a little closer to the fire.
When he woke again it was in the early hours of the morning and he was unsure of what had awoken him. then he was aware of Frankie sliding in under the blanket with him. He was aware of her undoing her undershirt and then lifting his hand to a soft round breast.
‘Do you really find me attractive?’
Her own question was answered when she delved down inside his pants. She moved onto her back and pulled him on top of her, and for a while they forgot there was even such a person as Skeeter Johnson.
Ethan awoke to the certainty that he was in love and the equal certainty that he was alone. Some more logs had recently been put on the fire and he laid for a moment enjoying the warmth. He sat up just as Frankie stepped back into the cabin. She had changed into pants and a thick fur jacket. He smiled warmly at her but she seemed to be looking past him as if struggling with a mighty problem.
He rose and stepped out onto the porch. The early morning air was sharply cold and he drew the jacket tighter around him. It was cold but very beautiful. The snow glistened on the hills and he could see it was still snowing on the higher mountains.
I love this country he thought as he stood gazing out over the wilderness.
It was at that moment the bullet ploughed into the beam just beside his head.
He felt Frankie’s hand on the collar of his shirt pulling him back in and slamming the door closed. He stumbled back wards and fell just as more bullets ploughed into the walls of the cabin, one smashing the window at the front showering them in glass.
Frankie was still on her feet. She used the butt of the shotgun to clear away the remaining glass in the window. She waited for more shots but instead they got Skeeters voice.
‘Frankie, how are things with you?’
‘They would be better if I didn’t have to listen to an outhouse rat like you.’
Skeeter chortled, ‘Love you too Frankie. I see you haven’t killed the schoolteacher. You going soft Frankie?’
‘Just show yourself Skeeter, and you’ll find out how soft I’ve got.’
‘No thanks, Frankie. I think I will sit right here and pick you two off as I chose.’
‘Or maybe Skeeter, I may just come over there and push this shotgun up your skinny butt.’
Skeeter guffawed again. ‘Or you could send the junior bounty hunter out to get me. I can snap his cowardly neck like a twig and leave him out front for the wolves to feed on.’
‘You always was a big talker Skeeter. If you had the grit to match that big mouth you would be coming in to get me.’
She turned to Ethan who was still sitting where he had fallen. ‘Damn fool thing. I went and put that pistol of yours back in your saddlebag. You need to cover me while I go fetch it.’
Ethan hauled himself to his feet. He gazed at Frankie as should stood with the shotgun packed tight into her shoulder and love swept over him in a wave.
She turned to stare at him. ‘Don’t be a damn fool.’
Before she could argue further Ethan dragged open the door of the cabin and sprinted out onto the porch. Immediately a rifle shot chewed another piece of wood behind him. He ran around the side of the cabin trying to keep it between him and Skeeter. Both horses stood a few yards away. He could see that they were shifting, nervous of the gunshots. He tried to dash bent double to the fidgeting horses but he slipped on the ice and skidded under the animals so that they bucked turned above him. He threw his arms up over head as the hooves danced around him.
As the animals settled he crawled out and reached up into his saddle bag and pulled out the pistol which Frankie had carefully wrapped back in the greased paper that Eb had provided. He checked the chamber as Eb had shown him. Six bullets. He ran out from behind the horses but not back to the cabin. Instead he ran away from it up into to the trees. He heard a cry of ‘Ethan, what the hell?’. He was nearly into the trees when Skeeter spotted him.
There was a spiteful cheer from Skeeter and a bullet tore into the trunk of a tree just behind him. He started working his way through the trees trying to get above Skeeter. Skeeter knew what he was at but when he tried to get a bead on Ethan there was another roar of the shotgun from the cabin forcing Skeeter to dive for cover.
Ethan was now directly above Skeeter and with any degree of marksmanship he might have been able to put an end to it all in those moments. However, he had no marksmanship and little idea of how to take advantage of the elevated position he had managed to secure. In the event he did the only thing he could think of which was to charge down firing wildly at Skeeter as he went.
Skeeter was momentarily taken by surprise by this reckless behaviour but then with a whoop of derision he put the gun to his shoulder and opened fire on Ethan. Ethan, at that moment, discovered that he was no longer in control of his reckless descent and the top half of his body was already ahead of his legs. Eventually gravity took control and Ethan pitched forward into the snow. He was aware of a furious scream from the cabin and two shotgun blasts in quick succession as an angry Frankie had discharged both barrels at Skeeter.
Skeeter, assuming he had shot Ethan and well aware that Frankie needed to reload broke cover and went full tilt at the cabin. Frankie had just snapped the gun shut as Skeeter burst in through the door and threw himself into her, She went backwards, the gun discharging into the roof, and then her and Skeeter were struggling on the floor.
Skeeter had known Frankie only by reputation and had expected her to be tough but not this tough. She was trying to beat Skeeters head against the floor and Skeeter was pushing to one side to try and roll her over. Suddenly she seemed to relax and allow him to push. He discovered why as the roll continued and he went over again and found his head in contact with the smouldering logs in the fireplace.
He screamed with pain and fear and released her. He was beating his hands on his smoking hair.
Ethan who had come to the bottom unhurt struggled to his feet and ran towards the cabin slipping and skidding on the snow. He was unsure what he was going to find but as he made for the door he was unprepared for Skeeter coming out at him with what appeared to be his head on fire. Not entirely on fire but smoking like a log train on a steep climb.
They embraced each other in a strange dance that took both off the porch and into the snow where Skeeters head fire was extinguished with a hiss. Ethan found himself sitting astride Skeeter and making a poor attempt at trying to knock him unconscious
If Skeeter Johnson retained any doubt that this was not his day it was banished by the snow beneath them crumbling away to reveal sheet ice on a slight incline which set them sliding off down the sloop. Ethan was riding Skeeter like a sled, flapping ineffectively at the bounty hunter’s face. Skeeter, for his part had managed to get a firm grip on Ethan’s throat and began to squeeze as the pair travelled downhill.
They did not travel far. A fallen log blocked their path and Skeeters head connected with it with a loud crack as Ethan was pitched over the trunk and into the soft snow beyond.
Ethan pulled himself up and peered anxiously over the log. It was immediately obvious from the unnatural angle of the head that Skeeter Johnson had a broken neck. He was stone dead.
Ethen sat down on the log and began to shake. A man who had spent his life so far trying to avoid violence had effectively just killed a man.
Frankie appeared from the cabin. She had some cuts and would certainly sport some bruises but otherwise she was unhurt.
She made her way down to where Ethan was sitting and understood straight away what had happened. She sat on the log with Ethan, put her arm around him and pulled him close. He leaned into her and the shaking turned into thin sobs.
They both lost track of how long they sat there. Ethan’s sobs gently ceased and the both sat staring out over the snow-covered mountains as the clouds descended on the peaks and moved slowly and threateningly towards the valleys.
‘I need to go.’ Frankie said gently, ‘I need to get through that valley and head towards the sea. I will get a ship down to San Francisco. I know some folks and I can winter there and figure my next move. I would be pleased if you were to accompany me.’
Without waiting for his reply she stood up, picked up Skeeters body and threw it across her shoulder and made her way back up to the cabin. She called back ‘Get Skeeter’s horse’.
By the time he brought the animal up to the cabin Frankie had dumped Skeeter’s body in front of the fire. She took the lamp and carefully poured the oil around and over the body of Skeeter. She took a piece of smouldering wood from the fire.
‘Take the horses away down the trail, we don’t need them getting panicky.’
She saw his questioning expression.
‘When they come up here in the spring they ain’t going to know if that is me, you or Skeeter on that floor. What the fire don’t take the wolves will. They won’t know who is dead or alive and they will stop caring. That’s the nature of folk.’
He nodded numbly. He pulled his few belongings together and went out to get the horses. By the time he was a few hundred yards away Frankie appeared from the cabin which was already starting to blaze. She came down to join him.
She swung into the saddle and without a word set off down the trail.
Ethan sat for a moment. He looked south. Back there was the town, the few friends he had made, his job which he liked. North through the valley lay uncertainty.
Frankie paused and looked back at him a questioning expression.
With a sigh Ethan pushed the horse forward, south, down to the valley.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Six months later two packages were delivered to two different locations. One to the home of the Merryfield’s was a letter from Ethan. After assurances of his well being, the usual queries about his parents, relatives and domestic animals throughout the Merryfield clan he closed with “ You may have noticed that this letter has been sent from San Francisco. It is a long story but the important thing to mention is that I am engaged to the most wonderful girl whom I know you will love as much as I do. I cannot wait to have you meet her.
Your loving son
A further package was delivered to the home of Ebenezer Beale. Inside was Eb’s pistol and a short note.
I hope all is well with you.
I just wanted to thank you, not just for the loan of the pistol but also for being a good friend to me, a better friend I think than I deserved. I very much hope that we will meet up again in the not too distant future. In the meantime, there is one important piece of information that I need to impart.
Simply that Skeeter Johnson will never kill again.
Your devoted friend