Western Short Story
The Hat
Scott Harris


Western Short Story

The calendar says it’s early spring, but the weather hasn’t quite let go of winter. The sun is falling quickly—along with the temperature—and it’s starting to feel like this might be the coldest night of an already cold trip. Supper, a fire and especially a hot cup of coffee sound even better than they usually do as I button up my jacket against the first few flakes of snow.

We’ve been on the trail for a week, which is the longest I’ve been gone since making Dry Springs my home. I must be getting a little soft, since before last fall I’d spent more than two years on the trail and usually felt pretty good, and now, after only a week—and not a hard week at that—I’m a little sore, and tired. Even Horse seems to be feeling the effects of living the easy life, and I realize that when we get home, I’m going to need to ride her a bit more often to keep both of us in trail shape. I miss Sophie, of course, and I’m excited to get home and see her, but it’s clear that after a few months of town living, I’ve also grown quite used to a front porch rocking chair, a comfortable bed and all of the other trappings of indoor living. And while it feels good to be back out on the trail, I have to admit it feels even better to know we’ll be home tomorrow.

Laughing, Frank and Cisco suddenly take off at a full gallop, each determined to end their week-long, good-natured debate by proving they have the fastest horse. Huck looks quickly and eagerly at me, and when I nod yes, he and Spirit are off like a shot, equally determined to prove both Frank and Cisco wrong. Horse and I have run enough races against Indian ponies, with far more at stake than bragging rights, that we decide to stay back and continue riding along at our leisurely pace. I don’t know for certain that Horse could beat all three of them, or even any of them, though I suspect she could. I do know that if I was being chased by a handful of Apaches, with guns blazing, arrows flying, and a couple of long miles to run before reaching the relative safety of the foothills and a protective rock outcropping, there’s no horse in the world I would take over Horse.

I’ve enjoyed the trip and everyone’s company, but I’m also happy to have a few minutes alone. Even Wolf has left me, coming out of the brush and racing down the trail, keeping up with Huck and Spirit step for step. The last thing I see before they’re all out of sight is Frank lose his hat, which, before it can even hit the ground, is caught up by the chilling wind and soon blown out of sight. I fasten the last couple of buttons on my coat and tug my own hat down just a little tighter, hoping to block at least some of the wind. It’s a big hat, the biggest in Dry Springs, with a huge crown and a very wide brim. It stands out quite a bit more than any hat I would have chosen for myself, but since it was a Christmas present from Huck, it’s the hat I’ve been wearing for the last few months. Every time I ask Ray why he allowed Huck to get me this particular hat—which I now suspect Ray paid for—when he has so many great hats for sale in his general store, he just looks at me and smiles. I’m told by many in town, usually with a poorly hidden grin, that it makes it easy to pick me out of a crowd or to see me coming from a long way off—not great traits in a hat whether you’re out on the trail, or the town sheriff.

This is Huck’s first long hunting trip, and knowing how much Sophie would miss him, it wasn’t easy convincing her to let him go. But Ray said he could get by at the store for a bit without Huck, especially with Maria working there now, and Shawn and Tom agreed to pick up the extra work at the livery. And while Sophie and I both value school and his book education, she came around to agreeing that education comes in many forms and time spent on the trail, hunting and visiting our friends from the Weeminuche tribe, would also be a great learning experience. And it has been. Huck has made new friends and seen what an actual Indian camp looks like, and the hunting has been good. The pack horses are carrying three deer, five antelope, a huge elk and a few turkeys—and that doesn’t count what we left behind as a gift for the Weeminuche, including a well-fed and overly aggressive black bear.

This is the first time I’ve visited with the Weeminuche since last fall when we rode—and fought Apaches—together at Coyote Creek. And while this is not a trip I had planned on, especially with my wedding only two weeks away, I’m glad we’re doing it. It was a very pleasant surprise when Severo and Chipeta rode into Dry Springs just over a week ago. They were stopping by on the way from their home with Chipeta’s Ute Muache tribe to visit Severo’s Ute Weeminuche family. After only a couple of days, and not surprisingly—as much alike as they are—Chipeta and Sophie became fast friends. And when Chipeta added her voice to Severo's in asking that Huck be allowed to come on the trip, the day was won. As a matter of fact, if Sophie hadn’t felt obligated to stay home and teach the other kids at Willy’s Elementary School, I think she would have joined us.

Huck loved spending time on the trail and especially the two days in the Weeminuche camp, where he got to go hunting with Frank, Cisco, Arapeen and Atchee. Atchee and Cisco immediately renewed the friendship they started on the Coyote Creek trip, and it was great to see that Arapeen had completely recovered from the wounds he sustained in the Coyote Creek battle with the Apaches.

I enjoyed my conversations with Chief Ignacio, who still faces difficult challenges and painful decisions regarding the future of his people. It must be extremely hard knowing that if you don’t move to the reservation, as the United States has demanded you do, your people will in all likelihood be wiped out in the seemingly never-ending battles with the Army, the Apaches and the Navajo, but also knowing if you do move to the reservation, you’ll be leaving your culture, and the only life you’ve ever known or wanted, irretrievably behind. The Weeminuche are running out of time to decide, and it is easy to see that the situation is weighing heavily on the chief, who, while in good spirits, appears to have aged far more since I last saw him than the calendar would indicate.

I do know Sophie will be excited that the chief, along with Severo and Chipeta, will be returning to Dry Springs for our wedding, making an already special day even more meaningful and, hopefully, giving Chief Ignacio a short, well-deserved and pleasant break from his troubles.

As I ride into camp, I can hear Frank and Cisco still arguing—and still laughing—both claiming to have won the race. Cisco is declaring that Regalo cannot be beat, and Huck, not to be outdone, is reminding everyone that he nearly caught them and that, without their head start, he and Spirit would have won. The good-natured ribbing continues as I rub Horse down with some dry grass and turn her loose for the night to find some good grazing, fresh water and Spirit, who, like Horse, rarely gets picketed. Frank and Cisco have also rubbed their horses down and have them picketed just outside of camp for the night. What was just some scattered flakes a few minutes ago has turned into a pretty steady snowfall, with a chilling wind that warns of a cold night ahead. Frank is getting our dinner going but, without his hat, is constantly having to brush snow from his head. I toss him my hat and reach into my saddlebags, grabbing a warm jacket and my extra hat. I smile at how good it feels, then glance back at Huck, feeling a little guilty.

I leave the three of them to their conversation and dinner preparation, grab all four canteens, and head down to the creek. It’s too cold to take a bath, but I wash the trail off my face and get us all fresh water for tomorrow’s ride home. As I walk back into camp, I can hear Huck—for at least the tenth time—telling the story of what it was like to shoot that black bear. How, on one of our many walks, he and Wolf had gone on ahead of the rest of us, alone on the trail. How Wolf had suddenly jumped in front of him, stopped walking and started growling, and before he could figure out what was happening, that old black bear came roaring out of the woods and charging, unfriendly like, toward him and Wolf. And how he expertly pulled his ’49 Colt Pocket out of its holster and put three shots into that bear without even thinking, dropping him less than twenty feet from where he and Wolf were standing. The thing Huck was most proud of was how, later, back at camp, Chief Ignacio gave him his Indian name, Miwak, which means Growl of a Bear.

As Huck wraps up his bear story—which is now just about perfected for telling Tom and the other kids tomorrow, no doubt as soon as we get home—I’m focused on how great this trip has been and the smell of Frank’s antelope steaks and hot coffee. But the luxury of worrying about a little snow and dreaming about a hot meal and a hot cup of coffee is suddenly shattered by multiple rifle shots ringing out and Frank falling backwards, away from the fire, dead.

I immediately pull my 1858 from its holster and hit the dirt, pulling Huck down with me and rolling behind a small rock. It’s too small to protect both of us, but it’s the closest cover available. Turning, I can see that Cisco has made it to relative safety behind a large pine, with pistol drawn and eyes watching for our attackers. Telling Huck not to move, I crawl over to my gear and pull my Winchester from the scabbard. I keep crawling, out of the light of the fire and toward whatever protection a small group of rocks just outside of the shadows can offer.

I look over at Huck, only a few feet away. He looks scared but has his gun drawn and is looking in the direction the shots came from. I whistle to get his attention.

“Huck, stay down and don’t make a sound.” He nods his agreement, and I turn toward Cisco.

I can see Cisco’s rifle, stacked up against his saddlebags, too close to the fire—and the light—for him to be able to risk trying to grab it. But Huck’s gear is neatly laid out next to mine, away from the fire, under a huge pine tree, safe from the snow and, more importantly, safe from the light. I snap off a couple of shots to remind whoever is out there that we’re still here, then quickly crawl to where Huck has set up for the night and pull his prize Christmas present, a Winchester 1866 that matches mine exactly, out of the scabbard. I roll back to the small rock where Huck is, which gets me close enough to Cisco to toss him the rifle and a box of ammo. He immediately gets off a couple of shots, and I’m grateful for the practice that he, Huck and I have been doing together every week.

A couple of shots ricochet off the small rock Huck and I are hiding behind, so either they’re lucky, or they know where we are. Tired of crawling, I grab Huck and we race the few feet back to the larger rocks. We quickly hit the dirt, relatively safe, at least for the moment. Horse and Spirit are close by, alert, but not panicked. I can hear the other two horses across camp, fortunately picketed out of the line of fire.

Huck turns to me, shivering just a little—probably as much from fear as the snow—but still focused and asks, “Who’s out there?”

“I don’t know. Could be Apaches, but they usually don’t like to fight at night and likely would have already tried to steal the horses. After that, I really have no idea.”

A plan starts to come into focus, but since we can’t fight rifles with pistols, we’re going to need Cisco’s rifle. I hand Huck mine, get Cisco’s attention and let them both know to lay down some fire so I can risk grabbing Cisco’s Henry. As soon as they start shooting, I race to Cisco’s gear, staying as low as possible and moving faster than I knew I could. I grab his Henry and practically fly back to the rocks and Huck.

Since Huck and I have the same rifle and it’s better for him to have a gun he’s familiar with, I let him keep my Winchester and I keep Cisco’s Henry. I didn’t have time to look for extra ammo, so all I’ve got is what’s in the gun, and I’ll need to make every shot count. I quickly check and am pleased to find the gun fully loaded, just like we’ve been talking about in our weekly practice sessions.

I’d rather Huck not draw any fire from our attackers unless it’s absolutely necessary, so I tell him, “Huck, you don’t shoot unless you are certain you can hit who you are shooting at”—I force a smile—“and that it’s not me. But if they come close enough to camp that you can hit them, don’t hesitate. Just like we’ve been practicing, take steady aim, don’t rush and shoot for the chest. Once you start, keep shooting until you know they can’t get up.”

It’s a terrible thing to have to say to a thirteen-year-old, but Huck has shown his toughness under fire before and we simply have no choice. He doesn’t say a word, but I’ve come to know the look he just gave me, having first seen it last year when he wanted to go after three outlaws all by himself. It’s a look of resolve, and I know Huck will do his best to do what needs to be done, as he always seems to. While I don’t know who our attackers are or why they’re attacking, they’ve made it clear they intend to kill all of us, and Huck’s age isn’t going to stop them.

There’s a brief lull in the shooting, and I take the opportunity to slip back to my saddlebags, stick my second 1858 in my belt, grab my moccasins and quickly change out of my boots. Huck, glancing back, asks what I’m doing.

“I’m going to circle around and find out who’s out there and how many there are.”

I leave unsaid what I also plan to do when I find them, but Huck knows.

As I finish putting on my moccasins, Huck starts to turn toward me. “Huck, don’t turn around. Keep your eyes and your attention forward until this is over.” Probing shots are once again coming into camp, and while most are aimed at where Cisco is hidden, Huck needs to be focused on what’s happening in front of him.

“I don’t think there’s too many of them out there, and I don’t think they’ve done this much before, or we’d already be surrounded. Keep watching and remember not to look directly into the fire, or it will ruin your night vision. Keep listening to the shots. If they switch from rifles to pistols, that means they’re getting closer to camp, so you do the same thing. Check now, before I go, and make sure your ’49 is fully loaded. And every once in a while, slip your hand into your pocket to keep your fingers warm and ready. Unless you see someone, stay quiet and let Cisco do the shooting. I’ll do what I can.”

There is so much I want to say to Huck, so many things I want to tell him. He went through some very tough times last year, far more painful than a young boy should have to deal with. And now, still only thirteen years old, he finds himself in yet another gun battle. But there’s no time to tell him how I’m feeling, though I hope he knows. The only thing I can do is to try and keep him safe, to try and end this.

As shots continue to ring out, I do my best to suppress, or at least channel, my growing rage, knowing I need to focus completely. I look across at Cisco firing away, Frank dead by the fire and my newly adopted son under attack. I have no idea who’s attacking us, or why, but I no longer care. If any of them are left alive when I’m done, I’ll ask then. But for now, my responsibility is to end this threat, and the best way to do that is to end their lives, which I intend to do.

I get Cisco’s attention and motion for him to stay put and keep firing. He nods yes and watches me leave camp. Huck whispers good luck as I reach the trees. Choking back tears and anger, I can’t respond, so I turn my attention forward and start moving toward where I believe our attackers are located.

I quickly cover about a hundred yards, trusting the moccasins, the deepening snow and the sound of gunfire to mask any noise, and I settle in behind a fallen tree. No shots are fired in my direction, so they don’t know I’m here. The moon has come up enough in the past few minutes that when I peek over the tree, I can at least see shadows and outlines. The best I can tell, there appears to be four of them—and they’re working their way forward toward our camp, toward Cisco and Huck.

From behind me, I can hear Cisco firing, and then I realize that some of the shots coming from our camp are too close together for them to all be from Cisco, so Huck must be firing as well. Huck’s choice to ignore my orders fills me with a combination of frustration, fear and pride. But what it mostly does, now that they have to know where Huck is, is remove any hesitation about my next move. Now all I want to do is end this threat to me, to my friend and to my son. To do that, I need to kill these men.

I stay hidden on their left side as they continue to work their way forward. They’re close enough that I can hear them talking, another sign of inexperience and overconfidence. Unfortunately, they’re speaking Spanish, so I understand very little and not enough to be of any help. They’re spaced out about ten yards apart. I focus on the one closest to me, not more than twenty-five yards away, as he unknowingly works his way toward me, firing blindly into our camp with no idea that I’m here. Not wanting to make any noise, I set the Henry down beside the tree, reach down to my right calf, pull out my Bowie knife and wait as he continues to draw closer. The Bowie is ten inches long and sharp enough to shave with. When I won it in a St. Louis poker game, it came with a wood handle, but I’ve since wrapped it tightly with leather, just for times like this so it won’t slip.

The four men are still talking to each other, not bothering to stay quiet as they get closer to our camp. The light dusting of snow I was expecting is quickly turning into a full storm. As cold as it is, the snow and wind will make my job easier. The closest man passes less than ten feet away from me, and as soon as he’s past, I slide around the tree and sneak up behind him. I grab his face, and covering his mouth with my left hand, I reach up and, without hesitation, slit his throat with my right. As warm blood washes down my left arm, I hold him long enough to make sure he’s dead—and he quickly is. I help him to the ground, out of concern for sound, not him, and watch his blood stain the gathering snow. I clean and resheath my Bowie, take a couple steps back to the same tree and pick up the Henry.

I realize I was so focused on what I needed to do that I had blocked out all sound. But the voices are clear again, and one of the men, with increased urgency, is calling out for Javier, who will never answer again. This makes two things clear. One, I now know the name of the man I just killed, and two, they now know there is a problem, though I’m hoping they think Javier was hit by a shot from our camp. That hope is dashed when at least two of the men turn and start firing blindly toward where Javier was last seen—and where I am now. As hard as it is, I stay hidden and don’t return fire, because this close, it wouldn’t take a great shot—or even much luck—for three men with rifles to hit me, and I don’t want them to know for sure that anyone is here.

Cisco and Huck must have figured out I’m under fire because they start pouring shots toward the remaining three men. I stay hidden behind the tree, not wanting to get hit by a stray shot, and soon the three men give up on me, turn their attention back toward camp and start moving forward. They draw closer together, another mistake of men inexperienced at this kind of work, and start to move more slowly, staying behind trees and rocks so as not to outline themselves against the growing moonlight. At this point, it is probably starting to sink in that they may no longer be the hunters, or at least not the only ones. Staying low, hoping not to draw attention from any of the remaining men, mine or theirs, I’m able to move from tree to tree until I am less than fifty feet away from the closest of the three remaining attackers.

I trade my rifle for my 1858 and, with no hesitation and two quick shots, drop a second attacker. The last two, seemingly more afraid of the unknown behind them than of whoever is in camp, both drop their rifles, grab their pistols and start moving quickly toward camp—and away from me. The one who is now closest to me heads toward where I know Huck is, but he’s protected by rocks and trees and I can’t get a decent shot off. The fourth one, the farthest away, is not as fortunate, and both Cisco and I have clear shots. We take them at almost the same time, and he drops, clearly dead.

As I race back toward camp, thinking only of Huck, all efforts at hiding forgotten, I hear shots, including the distinct sound of Huck’s ’49. Caution gone, I barrel into camp in time to see Cisco starting to come out from behind the tree and a man, clearly mortally wounded, but not yet dead, lying just outside of camp, slumped against a tree. I kick the gun out of his hand as I see Huck stand up from behind his rock. I can tell he’s OK, or at least not wounded.

As I’m trying to figure out who this man is, and what—if anything—we should do for him, Cisco walks up, looks down and says, “Miguel.”

Miguel looks at Cisco, then at me, and with surprise on his face says, “You’re not wearing your hat.” We all turn as Huck walks up, and Miguel, again with surprise on his face, and maybe a hint of irony in his voice, says, “I was killed by a boy.” I look around and see that with all the trees in between where Cisco was hidden and where Miguel was shot, it couldn’t have been Cisco who did it. But, from Huck’s hiding place, it was a clear shot.

As this begins to sink in, Miguel fades away, and as he looks directly at me, fear in his eyes, his last word is, “Diego.”

I look around and can’t find any evidence that there is anyone out there beyond the four we’ve killed. I can hear their horses whinnying off in the distance. It’s a strangely lonely sound, almost as if they know something has happened and aren’t sure what the future holds. But maybe that’s just me. Huck is looking down and slowly reloading his ’49 Colt. I wonder how hard this is going to be on him. I wish there were time to deal with that right now, but there isn’t. Cisco is staring at Miguel, crossing himself and mouthing words that I’m guessing are a prayer. I’m not too sure about heaven and hell, even though I’ve been listening to Reverend Matt every Sunday, but if they do exist, I wouldn’t want to be in Miguel’s boots right now.

Talking as much to himself as he is to Huck and me, Cisco whispers, “I knew him. He worked for Chavez. He was a foreman. He came in when Chavez brought in the cattle a couple of years ago. I didn’t think he was a gunman.”

I’m not feeling too generous toward the men who killed Frank and tried to kill the rest of us, and looking down at Miguel—who is now partially covered in snow, eyes wide open, maybe dealing with the eternal consequences of his actions—I say, as much as to him as to Cisco and Huck, “Looks like he should have stuck to cattle.”

Miguel’s comment about my hat is nagging at me, but this isn’t the time to try and figure it out. I do remember Diego as Chavez’s gun hand, and while the last time I saw him we didn’t part on the best of terms, there wasn’t enough there to cause him to send four men after me. Plus, Diego had struck me as a man who wouldn’t hire others to do his killing. He had enough confidence in his ability and enough mean in his personality that if he wanted you dead he’d want to do it himself and watch you die. So, while I don't know yet why this is happening, or even what is happening, the odds are it’s not over yet.

“Huck, you go bring in their horses.” I reach down and pick Miguel’s gun out of the blood-soaked snow, toss it to Cisco and tell him, “Start digging a grave for Frank. Make it close to the fire—the ground should be thawed a bit there. I’m going back for your Henry and the rest of their weapons.”

“What about burying the others?” asks Cisco.

I think about it for a moment, knowing Huck’s going to hear—and learn from—what I have to say, but deciding that that’s OK. “Cisco, unless one of these men was a friend of yours and you feel we should, I’m not inclined to spend the next few hours digging graves out of the frozen ground for the men who killed Frank—and tried to kill us. I know burying them is the decent thing to do, but these weren’t decent men.”

Without knowing who the other three men were, Cisco looks at Huck, then me, and says, “No, these men could not have been my friends.” With one last look at Miguel, he turns and walks back to the fire, which is still going strong enough to remind me that all of this took place in a few short minutes. Cisco turns away from the burning antelope steaks and the boiling coffee, grabs his small camp shovel and starts one of the worst jobs any man can do—digging a grave for a friend.

As Huck leaves to find their horses and bring them back to camp, I walk over to my gear, stow my second 1858 and trade my moccasins for my boots, the need to be silent gone, though it is eerily quiet as the three of us are lost in our own thoughts and the now heavy snow muffles all sounds.

It only takes a couple of minutes to pick up the weapons from Javier and the other two, as well as grab the Henry. I bring them all back to camp, giving my rifle a quick clean, loading it back into its scabbard and setting the others in a pile on the blanket where Cisco set Miguel’s pistol. I turn around to go help Huck, but he’s already walking back to camp, leading three horses in. He looks at me with tears flowing down his face.

“One of them musta got hit by a stray bullet. She was dead when I found ’em.”

I remember back to last year and the first day I rode into Dry Springs, when the first person I met was Huck. He was working at his dad’s livery, and it was clear even then how much he loved horses. I think his favorite part of most days is still when he’s down at the livery, working with Tom and the horses, especially Spirit. Or maybe it’s when he’s out riding Spirit, but either way, it almost certainly involves horses. And now, on top of knowing he killed Miguel, he realizes he may very well have shot a horse, and even if it was done accidently, it’s eating away at him.

Just as I did last year, following all of the trouble with his dad and Kurt’s gang, I find myself asking how much one young boy can take. I walk toward him.

“Huck…”

He looks at me. “Let me take care of these horses while you and Cisco take care of Frank.” He keeps walking toward Horse and Spirit, the three horses following obediently behind. As he walks by, my heart filled with awe and sadness, I notice none of the horses have brands, which is surprising. As valuable and important as horses are in the West, you don’t see many unbranded horses, which has me thinking that these boys wanted their identity to remain a secret. And it would have, if we’d all been killed or, since we weren’t, if Cisco hadn’t been here to recognize Miguel.

As Cisco keeps digging Frank’s grave, I start to go through his stuff. I don’t find anything in his pockets, except his pipe and some tobacco. I set that, along with his pistol, on the blanket with the Chavez men’s weapons and start to go through the rest of Frank’s gear. The only thing I find that you wouldn’t find in almost any man’s trail gear is a letter.

The envelope is addressed to Frank Sierra, and the return address is from Guatemala. All I know about Guatemala is that it’s somewhere below Mexico. I don’t remember Frank ever mentioning it. I realize as I’m looking at the letter how little I know about Frank. I didn’t even know his last name was Sierra. He fought with us in the battle against Kurt and his men and lived outside of town, though I’ve never been to his place. And he made his money working for farmers and ranchers in the area. He’d hire himself out during planting season, or when it was time to round up someone’s cattle, and he was known as a good hand, always friendly and always willing to work. Kept to himself mostly, though we’d shared a few beers at the Dusty Rose. He was as happy buying a round as he was having one bought for him. He’d spent some time working on the new church, always declining Thurm’s offers to pay him, just happy to pitch in.

I open the letter and it’s in Spanish, which means I can’t read a word. “Cisco, how about I dig for a while and you read this letter I found in Frank’s stuff? Maybe we can learn something about him. Huck, you clean our weapons and make sure they’re all fully loaded and ready to go.”

Cisco steps out of the deepening hole, and I trade the letter for the shovel, thinking I have the easier job. Huck, having finished with the Chavez horses, moves closer to the fire, warms his hands and gets to work on the guns. Cisco moves closer to the fire too, for warmth and light. He sits down and gently slips the letter out of the worn envelope, holding it for a moment before opening it, his head dipped in sadness or maybe out of respect for Frank—probably both. Huck looks at me, and we’re both quiet until Frank slowly opens the letter and begins to softly read.

Dearest Paco,

I hope you are well in America. I must tell you the worst news. Papa has died. Just like when we were kids, he was still the first one in the fields every day, and that is where I found him. He died next to the plow, fighting the bad weather and the dying crops. We still do not have any rain. I think Papa’s heart gave out after all these years. We buried him next to the field so that he can still look over and protect us. I think he would have liked that. Everyone from town came for the funeral and many nice things were said about Papa. Mama is OK, but she doesn’t talk much anymore, always looking away at things I can’t see. I think she will join him soon. Maybe that is good.

The money you send is welcome and gives us food, which we need. Thank you. But every day, even though it’s been almost ten years, Mama asks when you are coming home. With Papa dead, you are the oldest, and maybe it is time to come home? Maylin had a baby girl, so now, without you, we are twelve.

Please write soon and tell us more about your town and maybe tell us you are coming home. Mama and everyone love you.

Your brother,

Fredy

Cisco sits for a moment before folding the letter and putting it carefully back in the envelope. I realize I’ve stopped digging. “Huck, when we get home, you sell the Chavez horses and Frank’s horse. I’ll ask your grandpa to sell the guns we took from these men, as well as Frank’s gun.” I turn to Cisco. “Can you write in Spanish?”

“Si.”

“Will you write a letter to his brother and explain what happened? Tell him things about Frank—how he fought in the war, how he fought for the town, how hard he worked and how everyone liked him. We’ll take the money from the horses and the weapons and send it with the letter. When we get back, I’ll ask Thurm if Frank owned the property he lived on, and if he did, we’ll sell that too.”

Without a word, they both signal their agreement, and I turn back to my digging. No one says anything, but we all know we aren’t staying here for the night, and Cisco starts to pack up camp while Huck finishes up with the guns. With each of us lost in our own thoughts, the silence descends again, like a heavy blanket, with even the sounds of our working muted by the deepening snow.

I finish the grave about the same time Cisco and Huck finish packing up, with Huck having done my gear and Cisco having done Frank’s. Cisco and I lift Frank and set him into the grave while Huck grabs the shovel and starts to cover him. I reach for the shovel, but Huck holds on, says he wants to do it. I think Huck might be burying more than Frank, so I let him keep the shovel and find things to do around camp to give him some privacy. Probably sensing the same thing, Cisco says he’ll go do one last check and make sure we didn’t miss anything where the three men who died outside camp still lie.

After a while, Huck’s about done and Cisco and I drift back to the fire and the grave. To protect Frank’s grave from the coyotes, we cover it with heavy rocks, hoping the coyotes will be deterred by the rocks and satisfied with the four men scattered dead around camp. We stand quietly for a moment, and Cisco says, “When I knew him, he seemed like a good man.” He crosses himself and we all walk to our horses. I take the lead and Huck follows, with both pack horses and the four extra horses strung out behind him. Cisco takes up the rear.

Without looking back, we head out toward Dry Springs.

~~~~~ The End ~~~~~



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