Western Short Story
The sand-blasted earth was baked with blood. It started in a pool, spilled in a dotted trail for a few feet, and pooled once more.
He followed it.
From the second pool, the traces of blood moved off in another random pattern, dotting its way along the sand for a few more feet. Then it trailed around the side of a large rock rooted deeply in the hard earthen clay.
He knew what he would find on the other side of that rock.
And because he knew exactly what he would find, because he was so confident, it might have come as a shock to him when he craned his neck to see around the rock and the slug tore into his skull. It might have come as a shock, had he been given enough time to react.
But there was only a muzzle flash, a split-second’s pain, and then darkness.
To Gram Lowery, the man’s death had been too quick, the pain too brief. But nonetheless, death had come, quickly and decisively. The man’s body lay slumped over the boulder, a sliver of sunlight streaming through the gaping hole in his forehead, just above his right eyebrow.
Gram Lowery was still alive. But for how much longer, he didn’t know. He broke open the cylinder of his Colt and ejected the spent cartridge, replacing the empty slot with a fresh round. He slammed the cylinder shut, wincing as he did so, and brought the hammer back. His teeth clenched, he sat a little straighter against the boulder and looked down at his bleeding side.
Treat Jensen had gotten him dead-to-rights. All it had taken was a well-placed shot and Gram Lowery found himself in a world of blinding pain and white rage. He’d escaped only barely, and now Treat Jensen was just waiting for an opportunity to put a bullet in his back and ride off, leaving him to rot there in that empty, desolate land.
Jensen and his posse were bad men. Maybe that’s why Gram Lowery had outlasted them as long as he had. Because he was a bad man, too.
A hot, sticky substance trickled down his spine, and Lowery heaved himself away from the boulder. A few strokes of red had drizzled down the side of the rock and seeped down through the collar of his shirt.
There was something strangely comforting about seeing the man’s body there, dead.
It was reassuring to him. Seeing the man’s body and blood served as a reminder to him, a reminder that they could bleed. It humanized them.
Reassured him that he was still dealing with humans, and not heartless men whose blood ran cold and lifeless. They were still human.
All men bleed, he thought. Jesus Christ bled. Jesus wept, and He bled. Any man that doesn’t is either dead or isn’t a man at all.
Lowery looked at his wounded side and the blood trail that led right to where he sat, his back propped against the boulder. He was bleeding. That meant he was a man. A bad one, but still, blessedly, a man. He was a living, breathing, and bleeding man.
A buzzard cawed somewhere overhead, and another dark, grim thought struck him. A bleeding man stood a good chance of soon being a dead one.
And then, with thoughts of death and the end swirling through his mind, the flashbacks came. Like scenes coming to life and playing out in the distant mirages, they came.
And he remembered.
He remembered being in Dodge City only a month before, and the dark-haired gal in the saloon. Rita. She’d stolen his heart, but somebody else had already stolen hers at a point in time well before he drew rein in front of that place.
Jeb Jensen had stolen Rita’s heart. At least, that’s how it had looked at first. But the more Lowery had watched her, the more he came to realize that Jeb Jensen had ripped her heart right out. And, in some insane attempt to free her from Jeb Jensen’s wild ways, Lowery had thrown down against him and beat him to the draw.
Only, no one had told him of Treat Jensen, Jeb’s kid brother. Treat was twice as fast and twice as dangerous as Jeb had ever been. And the day they put Jeb Jensen six feet under a pile of loose earth, was the same day Treat Jensen rode into Dodge with a posse of four hard-nosed cowhands.
Now, Lowery had wanted no beef with the law in Dodge. So he lit himself a shuck out of there and garnered himself a two day’s head-start on Treat Jensen and his posse.
He’d left Rita behind without so much as a goodbye, and had ridden out of Dodge with a reputation he’d never wanted in the first place.
Something flickered from behind another rock that was some distance in front of him, pulling Lowery out of his momentary daydream. He squinted through the immense heat, hoping that it was just a mirage. Suddenly there was a loud clap, and a spurt of dirt kicked up less than an inch from his boot. Instinctively, he swung the Colt up and snapped off a round that whined through space. The shot was wild, careless, and caught nothing but air.
There came a second flowering from behind the other rock, and a section of the boulder next to Lowery’s face exploded. Chunks of sand and gravel peppered the side of his head, and his ear screamed in protest as he raised the Colt and fired again at the other man. The figure bobbed up from behind the rock to fire off another shot, as Lowery’s second round clipped the dirt. The man swung his own gun around, and Lowery fired a third round that lifted the man onto his tip toes.
Training the sights on the square of the man’s chest, Lowery took a sharp, painful breath, held it, steadied his aim and fired again. The man collapsed into the dirt, where he lay motionless.
Two down, Lowery thought. Two down, two to go, and then Treat Jensen himself.
He ignored the freshly open cuts along his face and looked around at the man still slumped over the boulder. He reached and took hold of the Remington that was tucked into the fellow’s waistband, tugged it free. He checked the cartridges. Five shots. Then, through a steadily increasing fatigue, he reloaded the spent cartridges in his Colt.
He couldn’t stay behind that boulder forever. He knew that. Sooner or later, they’d out-shoot him or simply overwhelm him. They could wait until he succumbs to his wound, and then move in for the kill. Ultimately, they could just outlast him. Three against one in that baking hellhole weren’t good odds at all. But they remained the odds, and he’d beaten the odds before.
He’d picketed his horse just over the rise of the next dune on the other side of the boulder, next to an oasis. But that’s where he’d heard the first shot come from. They’d eliminated his ride out of there, isolating him. But he knew that they hadn’t made it that far out of Dodge without horses of their own. If only he could make it to one of them, he might stand a small chance of making it out of there with his life.
And even as the thought of horses crossed his mind, Lowery felt a slight vibration beneath him. Then came the sound of hooves thudding across the clay.
They were rushing him.
There was no waiting for whoever was coming to appear from around the boulder. They knew exactly where he was, and if he sat there they would kill him.
The drumbeat of the horse hooves grew constantly louder. They were drawing closer. Only one horse, of that much he was sure, probably one rider.
Lowery brought back the hammers of both Colt and Remington, his weak, dizzy mind racing. There was only one thing he could do.
He waited for the thundering hooves to sound as though they were right on top of him.
Then he rolled out from behind the boulder and into the path of the oncoming roan. Angling the two guns upward, he fired both at once, their two roars blending together as one. The horse reared above him, the rider shouting as the roan’s full weight came crashing down upon him, crushing his ribs and smashing his groin into his stomach.
Lowery cocked the smoking pistols again and scrambled over to the horse’s corpse as quickly as his weakening body would allow him. He lay behind the horse for a few seconds, using it as cover.
Waiting to see if another would come for him.
When there came no more sounds of horse hooves or any other sign they hadn’t momentarily relinquished their attack, he craned his head over the saddle of the stinking beast to see who the rider had been.
He bore no resemblance to Jeb Jensen, so he wasn’t Treat. The man’s eyes were only slits. Blood streamed from the corners of his mouth, soaking up in his scruffy beard. He muttered something inaudible, and Lowery sank back into cover behind the horse. The rider wasn’t going to make it.
There came a sharp crack, and Lowery stiffened as a bullet whizzed by overhead. A long, dry silence followed.
Then, “I know where you are!” a voice rang out. “You think you can holdout?”
“We’ll find out, won’t we?” Lowery called back, and found it surprisingly difficult to catch his breath afterward.
“You must have a death wish, mister!” Treat Jensen shouted.
“Must do it!”
Lowery strained his ears, listening to try and pinpoint exactly where Jensen was located. Reaching the Remington over the horse’s body, he fired a single shot, hoping to illicit a few responding shots. Almost immediately after he’d fired, there came four reports that kicked up the dirt around the horse. Lowery slumped back into cover, waiting for the ringing of gunshots to fade into the distance.
Judging by the reports, they were close.
“How many more of ‘em you got, Jensen?” Lowery called when the gunshots dissipated.
“The only one you need to be concerned about is me, you murdering—”
“C’mon, son,” Lowery wheezed only loudly enough to be heard. He winced. “Gotta do more’n just throw ‘round a few insults!”
Jensen responded with a curse, but Lowery paid it no mind. Instead, he glimpsed a dust cloud some distance off, but there was no mistaking that it was heading their way. At the front of the cloud, he could only just make out the outline of a single rider.
They were moving to box him in. There was no escaping.
“Jensen, this ain’t even your fight!”
“Wrong, mister! It was my fight the second you put lead in my brother! That’s when it was my fight!”
“The way I hear-tale, you got your own pickin’s with that marshal back there. Earp, ain’t it? I’d hate to have to ride all the way back to Dodge and tell him you ain’t gonna make your meetin’ and all ‘cause you got all sore out here and I had to read you from the Book.”
“There won’t be any readin’ from any book! You’ll burn in Hell for what you did to my brother!”
“Keep tellin’ yourself that, boy,” Lowery whispered to himself.
He checked the rider’s distance. The dust cloud was growing thicker, and the rider understandably closer. No doubt that Jensen was moving up now, knowing what was to come.
They thought they had him.
His death would come swiftly enough, at least. A rush, a dust cloud, a few bursts of gunfire, maybe a few short minutes of waiting through blinding pain for death to ultimately come and claim him.
That’s only if he stayed put, though. And Lowery had no intention of doing that.
He waited until the rider dropped down the slope of a dune several hundred yards off and disappeared from sight.
Then he muttered, “How’d you ever get yourself into this shape, boy?”
He checked the loads in the Colt and Remington. They were ready. He drew a long, painful breath. Exhaled slowly. Sweat clung to his forehead and the back of his neck. His faded blue shirt stuck to his body. Holding the pistols at the ready, he swallowed what little saliva was in his mouth.
Then he bellowed, “Jensen! Throw down!”
He rolled onto his knees, launched himself out from behind the horse. Two men were crouched behind a string of rocks along the rim of the dune. Bringing up the pistols, he tore loose with the Remington first. The first shot clipped the top of one rock, and one of the men sprang from behind cover, firing a shot that cut close to Lowery’s elbow. Lowery fired next with the Colt, alternating his firing of the two pistols every time his right foot dominated in stride.
His next shot with the Remington plugged the man out of cover in the shoulder, spinning him a half-circle. One man still resided behind the rocks, and he fired blindly from behind his cover. Lowery fired two shots at the same time, one at either of the two men he saw. The man standing away from the rocks took a second slug to the chest and went down hard.
The Remington clicked empty, and Lowery let it fall from his weak fingers. He started to bring the Colt around just as the final man stood from behind the rocks and fired a single shot.
Lowery felt something wicked burrow its way into his stomach. He doubled over, knowing he’d just been gut-shot. As he attempted to bring the Colt up again, another bullet caught him just above the kneecap. His legs buckled. He toppled over sideways as the man stepped around from behind the rocks. Lowery cast a glance back to where he’d seen the rider disappear over the dune. They hadn’t reemerged.
He couldn’t figure it out.
A shadow fell across him, and he looked up and into the grim and badly scarred face of a man who closely resembled Jeb Jensen.
Jensen lowered his own gun so that the barrel pointed squarely into Lowery’s face. “Hell,” Jensen spat, and brought back the hammer.
The gunshot that ensued startled Lowery. He’d been expecting a flash of pain, but nothing came. Instead, Jensen staggered backward, a look of shock and awe crossing his face. He looked up at a figure standing out of Lowery’s line of sight as a red blotch stained his shirtfront.
Lowery lifted his Colt and brought back the hammer. Through gritted teeth, he said, “Is a cold place.”
The Colt bucked in his grip, and the slug tore off half of Jensen’s face. He stood, wavering, for a few short seconds. Then he collapsed into the dust.
Lowery allowed the Colt to slip from his fingers, and he stared up into the endless expanse of blue sky. His mind drifted back to a time when he was a small boy. His mother was calling him in from a nonexistent field where long grass danced with the wind.
And then the face of his guardian angel, the face of the mysterious rider, appeared over him. She smiled down at him, extending her hand. She was reaching for him.
The word barely escaped his lips in a voice lower than a whisper. “Rita…”
And then the darkness came to collect him.