Western Short Story
He came out of the evening dusk, like a phantom in a hurry, after hearing screams, gunshots, earth air filled with an overflow of terror, people pain, people disdain, the no-good edge of life on the quick side, though cooking food odors had made a catch of someone else passing by, for its flavor caught him too.
His horse was jet black, ran with grateful ease, seemed pointed as it ran toward the small cabin farmhouse, door ajar, bare light thin as a sliver at the front door swung open, becoming part of the night on the move, the air alert to pain, horror, death in the wrong hands.
He did not need to spur his horse, but the guns in both hands sent a message ahead of him, shattering murder directly in front of him, a body at the door, two men mounted on their horses, throwing bullets at the farmer’s wife looking for her husband on the ground.
He had seen other scenes like this one, had to swallow the terror that flooded the night, could sense more death in the offing, kept firing his guns as if announcing rescue, a boy at a man’s work, a sudden hate rushing through him seeing a body inert in the bare light of the doorway.
Hardwick Harold Baxter, Hardy or Hal to friends, just hitting his 16th year, saw one of the riders leave the saddle, definitely gone forever. The other rider, seeing his partner fall to the dark earth, spun his horse around, seeking the unknown shooter breaking up a search for food, for drink, for anything of value in this poor setting, a farmer’s lot of labor too quickly dead.
He fired again at the remaining rider, knocking him too from his mount, close to the woman kneeling beside the body of her husband, her wails crowding night with her loss. He saw again his own father fallen by bullets of two thieves, hoped it was these two dead in front of him, the scene too much like his own only a few day’s ride away, a few day’s ride behind him, his mother holding him away from certain death, his father flat on the earth, his life, his loves, gone forever.
Hardy comforted the woman, helped her with her husband’s body, in broad daylight dug a grave for him as he had for his own father, hoping he had caught his father’s killers, but quickly saw the newly dead thieves were not the same men.
Offering more comfort, connecting with neighbors, he left her in company of friends, set out again, as he had before on this very trip, this search now a month old, Texas wider than ever, boundless to thought and search, hideouts and escape routes crossing the whole territory from someone’s yielded barn to a cave or defilade in Mother Earth, one scooped-out by wolves, rammed loose by bears, result of a cliff-side movement of an earthquake. Any place out of sight would do for law’s evasion.
This trek of the youngster had covered much familiar ground, but he knew the circle would widen, hideouts didn’t grow on trees, but they blossomed in their midst, used any narrowly seen spot as an escape for the time being. Lawmen had a nose for such sites, and though not a lawman, Hardy had heard enough stories to find them on his own.
Often, those places turned out to be crowded saloons scattered over the land, the ones that didn’t mind any sort of customers as long as liquor flowed, or beer, and the color of money made no difference in the taste of the drink; the bigger the crowd, the more room for lawbreakers, men of flight.
Hardy had not taken a drink, not a one, in his saloon stops, but knew the habits of thirsty, dirty men on the run by standing still in a crowd, waiting to be ear=marked, spotted by John-law or an insistent seeker like Hardy.
Once, in Bandley, Texas’ Southern Register Saloon, busy as a bandbox under lights, he saw a man he thought he recognized as one of his father’s killers, found rage anew, and accosted the man, who truly couldn’t and wouldn’t hurt a rabbit if he himself was starved. He had to stand corrected in front of every man in the place, knew the embarrassment that ensued, had to contain himself ever afterward.
With the lesson taught, he made further forays as simply and quietly and as secretly as possible, yet had no results; those killers had seemingly fled into darkness like it welcomed them with open arms and deep shadows, home or hideout, whatever assumed.
Now, after his latest failure of search, he neared Stanley, Texas’ Loophole Saloon, the Saturday crowd noisy, boisterous, everybody with a week in the saddle behind them and the steam still puffing from their brows. He stood in a corner checking out every face, and was discounting all so far seen, the lot of them joyous, noisy, free of the saddle. Discouragement again began to take over his psyche, when two men entered the saloon from a side door.
By God! There they came walking toward him, his hands itchier than ever, the rage trying to gain the upper hand, when one of them looked at Hardy, straight in the face, and nudged his partner as his right hand fell to his sidearm in the holster. Men nearby, having seen similar actions every once in a while, especially on Saturday nights, slipped out of the way, ducked under tables, turned the place upside down, as Hardy screamed out, as much a warning as an announcement, “You guys killed my father and I’m going to kill you!”
Pandemonium on the floor, on the stairs where ladies came and went, behind the bar where two barkeeps ducked behind the bar, getting out of sight, veterans of such wars by the dozens, having seen right and wrong go at it like 1863 was back in vogue.
A bullet grazed Hardy’s left arm and smashed a mirror at flight’s end. His own guns leaped to the war, bullets smashing through both men, killers of his father, all of it understood by just about every man in the place, much of their sympathy for the youngest person in the saloon, 15 or 16 if a day, but a new killer just come into being.
The celebration followed, the barkeeps popping free drinks up on the counter, men slapping the kid on the back, “Way to go, son. You got the bastards. Good show, kid, and I know your Pa can see you now. You belong to Texas. What’s your name, son?”
“Hardwick Harold Baxter,” came the proud reply.
“My God, son, you earned that one!”
The saloon went into hysterics.