A short story
Copyright© July 2014 by Sandra Hall
This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this story are fictitious or used fictitiously. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this story, or portions thereof in any form.
Jessica Falls. Funny name for a town so dry and hot, he observed and wanted to laugh. But his mouth was too parched and busted, and were so stiff from his own dried, crusty blood that even a grin or a smile felt like his lips would tear right off his face. And the heat on his bareback was downright painful. Like his ma, when the sun was high, he burned in a matter of a few minutes.
As he was pushed forward, a skinny woman wearing a stained apron screamed from atop the last building in town.
"Rotten murderin' piece of garbage! You'll pay for what you done!" she declared and tossed a handful of dirt at his face. "Just like that little whore! This is what happens to trash that murder good decent folk!"
"Thievin' old coyote!"
A hard fist to his back caused him to stumble into the dusty road.
"Get up, damn you!" A strong-armed man in a sleeveless shirt who smelled of smoke, helped him to his feet and punched him powerfully in the belly.
He doubled over groaning through his clenched teeth. "Son of a bitch."
"That's for the marshal," the bare arms informed him.
Then another set of strong arms helped drag him forward in the last few yards to a waiting sway backed mule. The tree it stood under was old, yet strong looking, like it had held the weight of a thousand men before him. "Where are the others?" he growled, and didn't struggle when they painfully bound his arms behind his back. He watched a well dressed man in a suit, fashion another rope into a noose. Probably a banker or a lawyer, he guessed, a legitimate crook with all the proper credentials. "The girl-" he asked as he was shoved into the mule.
"Dead!" a woman cried out. "Eatin' dirt just like the marshal!"
"But she-" A rock to his head knocked him from the mule.
"You low down dirty dog." An elderly woman shook a meaty fist in his face. "Men like you deserve to die! You ain't fit to live!"
Another shouted from the gathering crowd. "Takin' innocent lives- children- just to get rich! Well, you sorry old bandit, you done robbed your last train and you come to the wrong town to celebrate!"
A rock sailed past just missing his nose. "The girl was innocent," he growled again. His knees ached, as did his chest and throat. "She was innocent," he repeated in a loud voice, and struggled to his feet. "She weren't-"
"Shut his trap! Get him back on that animal!" The banker instructed not making a move himself. He locked eyes with their victim. "You got any last words, you horrible maniac?"
After being shoved back on the mule's back, he looked down at the crowd, surveying every single face he could, then quietly he asked, "Y'all willin' to listen? I got me plenty to say."
"You can't explain what you done to them poor souls on that train, or them two fine lawmen."
He spat a wad of spit mixed with blood on the ground. "Y'all must thought a lot of your fine lawmen." Then he added with a scoff, "And them poor souls."
"Somebody shut that mouth for him!"
"No! Let him talk," the banker said, and came forward again. "I always wondered what some old harrowing outlaw like that had to say about his life. A whole lifetime of thieving and murder, havoc and heartbreak!"
"I doubt any of you kind folk'll let an old crook like me bore you with a recount of my life," he said, and spat blood from his mouth again. "So I'll just say what's pertinent at the moment." He examined the crowd for signs of outrage and further violence. For the moment, they were quiet enough taking their cues from the banker. "That marshal had it comin'. Damn deputy too. You think they was after me and the fellas, do you? It was the gold. Killed each other in the end to get it."
"Don't let him desecrate the marshal's memory!"
"Quiet!" the banker roared over the furious townsfolk. "I want to hear this story."
"I ain't telling no stories! Ain't no reason to now. Consider this a dying man's confession." A low hum went through the crowd then they fell silent, and regarded him warily as though he were some big jungle cat. "Your marshal and his deputy made me and the gang look like schoolboys. But that ain't what y'all asked, is it? You wanna know how I feel about the havoc and heartbreak we done. Well, let me see now," he said, looking up to the sky. "Can't say I'm exactly happy. Am I sorry? Not really, because I'd do it all again. If y'all really wanna understand what happened, what causes men like me to do what we do to end like this, look in your damned mirrors. You'll find a lot of answers there. That is if you're honest, not to me of course, but to yourselves."
"You trying to turn this around on us? Decent folk?"
"What passes for decent around here? Beatin' a man to an inch of his life,
makin' unreasonable demands then haulin' him bare backed through the street, so little children and angry women can spit on his sizzling back? Y'all call that somethin' decent folk'll do? Don't get me wrong, I ain't lookin' for no sympathy, but I was always one to call a spade a spade."
"You are a beast," a young woman spoke. "How can you be proud of killing and destroying people’s lives forever?"
"I ain't, miss. Nor did we do any of that on purpose. Unlike the marshal! But I ain't bellyaching about it neither. Things you can't control happens all the time."
"That's bull!" The man without sleeves declared. "You being a criminal made it happen!"
"Okay, I'll allow that, seein' as I always regretted hurtin' innocents, which don't include lawmen, or any fool willin' to point a gun at me."
"Lawmen are just-"
"Doing their jobs! Don't give me that. Ain't no reason to try to kill a man over a simple robbery. Marshall Wiley Baines and that pock marked Deputy Chris Warrens weren't nothin' but bushwhackin' murderers. Murderers you good upstandin' folks hired. He weren't even a real marshal. Course I ain't tellin' y'all no news."
"All right," the banker said smoothly. "Then where is the gold? The gold you say Baines stole."
The easy question took him by surprise. "The gold?" he repeated, staring at the banker. He recognized something familiar about his face, then howled with laughter, looking up into the burning sky. "Damn!" The effort tore his cracked lips, it felt like tiny knives slicing until drops of blood collected inside his mouth. He sobered, and stared right at the banker. He said, "What say we get this lynching on the road? This damn hot sun is about to kill me."
"I wouldn't be so anxious if I were you. You got any idea what hanging by the neck until you are dead is like?"
"I've seen a few," he replied levelly. "You might be wantin' to send the lady folk and children away."
"You think we're not serious?" the banker asked.
"I think you want that gold. I think you and this greedy town want that gold more than anything. More than you care about the marshal and deputy, and all them people what got in the way of that blast. Only thing is, I regret what happened to them children on that train. Them that weren't supposed to be there. Shoulda been a carload of cabbages next to that load of gold. "Y'all can blame me and the boys, but I blame the damned railroad. Weren't no reason to switch them cars."
"You still ain't nothing but a low down killer," the banker said.
"You tellin' me or these folk you got under your spell? Is that how you get 'em to along with your dirty deeds?"
"Ain't nothing dirty about this. Three crazed killers and their woman rode in here thinking Jessica Falls was a town full of sorry souls, but we showed you something different."
"Couldn't be bothered to wait for a judge?"
"What for? Justice is swift in these parts. But it's up to you to decide if you want to live or die today."
"I wanna live, naturally, but don't you for one minute think I'm about to beg you ghouls. You ain't takin' my life, the lord is." Spit and blood collected in his mouth and he spit out a big glob barely missing the banker's shoes. "Pardon me," he said. "And damn you all, you crooks and hypocrites! I'll be waiting for every one of you in hell!"
"Is that right?" the banker asked with a half smile.
"Yeah, son, that is right," he gritted. "Puttin' on a suit every day and attendin' Easter services don't change what's in a man's heart. Baines was a master gunman, about the best I ever seen in my day. And he was a criminal through and through. Changing his name and coming out here with you was smart, but you ain't fooling nobody. It's on you just like it's on me."
"What the Sam Hill he going on about?" A toothless old man asked scratching his beard.
"Just some fool talk," the banker replied mildly.
"The girl was innocent," he said. "She never took part in nothing. She was just some little thing with nowhere to go. I pray to God, for what it's worth that y'all never sleep another decent night in y'alls lives. Every man, woman and child of you! Jessica Falls, be damned!"
"I've heard enough," the sleeveless man announced. "We hangin' him or not?" A quick cheer went through the crowd, half was for it and half against.
"I see some of y'all need persuadin'," the old outlaw surmised after sweeping the mob again. "I know where the gold is and you can only guess for years and years to come. Course, I don't know where it all is," he admitted. "Just what me and my partner hid together." He paused a quick moment then went on. "I ain't tellin' you folks where it's at though. Kill me or not, hell, it's just the principle of the whole thing! But I will warn you anyway."
"Warn us?" The banker frowned.
"Ain't no way you gettin' away with hangin' me and killin' the gang. And you damn sure won't be enjoyin' that gold."
"The hell you say!" The sleeveless man exclaimed. "It ain't like we never done this before, old timer." Then with a sudden gleam, he said loud enough for every one's benefit. "That shipment of gold was worth two million dollars and gold bars is heavy. Them hombres didn't get that far, might take awhile but we can find it."
"Sure you can, sunshine. But can you find it before Brick Denton journeys down here and start making inquiries about his missing friends? His friends what he trusted with his life to take care of his share of the gold?"
"Brick Denton ain't been heard of in years," the banker said. "Even if he's alive, he must be damn near seventy by now, for crying out loud. Besides all that, there's no reason to believe he'd even stop here, let alone assume anything about our part in anything."
"True, that's one way to look at it. But come on now. Do you really think we just happened upon this dust bowl of a town?"
"He might have a point," the toothless old man shared. "I don't think, that is, we ought to think about this some more."
"He's bluffing," the banker said. "A desperate man will say anything to save his life. Brick Denton is one man. Jessica Falls is a town full of able men. We got this one and the other two, didn't we?"
"You did," the outlaw agreed. "Real sly too. We never knew you folks was on to us. Course killing two men in their sleep-" the banker moved fas,t snatching a handful of the old bandit’s red hair and dragged him to the ground. He backhanded the outlaw across the face and lips, but he continued to have his say. "Jamie Taylor and Josh Briggs rode in here with me two days ago. Everyone saw 'em, but there's only me left to testify. And you personally beat that girl until she died!"
"That was a mistake, an accident."
"Whatever you say," the outlaw acquiesced, pushing off the ground with the aid of the mule's solid body. "And be sure you tell it the way to Brick and the four or five pals he happens to be travelin' with."
"Who is this Brick person?" the young woman asked the banker. The outlaw noticed how they never moved far from the other.
"Just another maniac."
The outlaw chuckled and the banker punched him hard in the stomach. "You bloomin' bastard," he uttered, barely above a whisper. "Why don't you tell her the truth?"
"What truth?" she asked.
Backing off the outlaw, the banker reluctantly replied. "Denton was the leader of the nefarious gang called the Texas Tornadoes. It was years ago, I was a youngster back then still in school. They took over towns for days until they got bored or they destroyed everything. Usually with fire, sometimes dynamite."
"My God," the young woman whispered. "If he should find out about us-"
"Our gooses is cooked!" the old man exclaimed.
"It sure puts a different light on things," the sleeveless man said.
"What do you mean?" A large woman with big bosoms demanded. "We ain't givin' up on that gold. Hang him like we agreed."
"Okay folks, I'll tell you what," the outlaw said, no longer pretending to be even semi amused. It was his life or his death. One way or the other he was getting out of that hot sun. "Hang me and you might find the gold, only I guarantee you, Brick is gonna know what happened here. He'll kill you all or make you wish you was dead because Brick never plays around or takes chances." Gasps and groans spread through the crowd as fear filled many of their hearts. More than half the mob seemed to rethink his or her position and urged the others to do the same before they fled the scene of the hanging tree. The old outlaw chuckled again. "Then there's the alternative," he shared. "Cut me loose. Give me a horse and provisions for a few days ride." He paused to gauge the mobs reaction. "In return, I'll steer Brick clear of this place. Make him think the fellas took off on their own. I see your hesitation folks, but what choice do you really have?"
"You think we are a bunch of fools and cowards," the banker marveled, then asked. "Trust you?"
"You'll leave us be?" a young man spoke up for the first time. "After we- after what we done?"
"At the moment, young fella, my only concern is the children. The only true innocents in this world. There weren't nothin' to be done about them children on that train. Maybe this'll help square things with the Almighty."
“I doubt that," the big woman smirked.
The outlaw regarded her a moment through the slits of his eyes then rolled them away dismissing her from his sight. "Regardless," he said. "You folks got a decision to make."
"Some choice," the sleeveless man said and spat on the ground. "We let him go, we lose the gold with no guarantee him and his buddies won't seek revenge. We'll be sitting ducks."
"You have my word. I don't particularly want to see women and children hurt. This way everyone gets what he wants." He looked at the bitter faced banker then added, "More or less."
"We can't risk the town," the young woman addressed the banker quietly.
"It was all a pipe dream anyway," the scratchy beard said sadly.
"Without that gold," the banker stressed, trying one more time to get their support. "We are done. We'll be stuck here scratching around just to survive. Don't you want another chance?"
"It's too risky," the sleeveless man decided. "Some of us got children to consider." He looked at the big woman to back him up.
"You are right," she said giving in as well. "He might keep his word."
"Damn you all," the banker whispered belying his aggravation. He took a knife from his vest pocket and angrily cut the outlaw's bonds. "All right, you win. Take that mule and get the hell out of my town!"
"I said, I'll be needin' provisions." He walked around the animal frowning, spitting more bloody saliva on the ground. "Won't do," he said. "I need a strong, fast animal. Like that paint I saw in front of the land office."
"But that's mine," a young farmer started to protest. "All right," he mumbled. "I'll go get it."
"And be quick about it." In the meanwhile, somebody took off his shirt and offered it to the outlaw.
"No hard feelings?" the big woman asked, handing him her handkerchief so he could wipe his bloody mouth.
He eyeballed he,r choosing not to speak until the farmer returned with the horse. "We made a deal, you bastards and sons of bitches," he said derisively and climbed on the horse. "My feelings ain't got nothin' to do with it." He rested his eyes on the banker before swinging the animal around masterfully at a gallop into the crowd, then away heading toward the hills.
"You maniac!" the fat woman screamed after him, brushing dust from her blouse.
"I hope we don't live to regret this," the young woman said, speaking to the banker. Furiously, he pulled his arm out of her tight grasp to storm off back into town, leaving her standing under the hanging tree with the other conspirators.
Bursting into the saloon, he let the bat wings snap back off the wall and yelled for the bartender to get off his ass to get him a glass and a bottle. "And don't talk to me," he warned, snatching the glass and bottle from the other man's hands. He went to the nearest table and poured himself a stout one and then another. "Damn this town. Nothing but a bunch of cowards," he grumbled. "Did exactly as he knew they would!" He tossed his empty glass into the mirror hanging behind the bar.
The crash startled the bartender so badly that he grabbed at his chest then whistled in relief that he wasn't in immediate peril. He frowned at his only customer. "Mister-" he started to carp.
"I told you not to talk to me! Now, get me another glass before I do some real damage in here."
"Pa!" The boy ran back to his father's blacksmith shack sure he'd just heard an explosion. After pushing open the door, he carefully peered inside. Everything was dark except for the dying coals his father recently worked on. "Pa?" He stepped inside, moving slowly until his feet brushed something big on the dirt floor. "Pa!" he screamed and dropped beside his father's body. He screamed again when he saw the small circle of blood on his chest. "Oh no! Pa you been shot. I'll get the doc!"
"Too late for that, kid," a low voice said from behind in the dark, halting him in his tracks. "He went quick, if that's a comfort to you."
"Who-" The boy backed away. "You- you're that bad man!"
Judging the boy to be around twelve and seeing he was unarmed and too shaken up to challenge him, he let his pistol remain holstered. He glanced down at the blacksmith's body. Tonight he wore a full shirt. Must've been on his way home to the family. He looked at the boy. "You got a ma?" He nodded and began to cry. "You stay here with your pa and get him covered up. You hear me?"
"You gonna kill some more?"
"More than likely."
"Because they was gonna hang you?"
"It's more than that. When you get older you might can understand it. Your ma? Was she there at the tree?"
"No sir." The boy swallowed hard. "No way! She was at the house fixin' supper!"
"What she look like?"
"She a big woman with a loud mouth? She wear a gingham skirt and a white blouse?"
"No! No, my ma is a little thing and she only wears-"
"Boy, you lyin' to me?""
"No sir," he said and began to cry again. "Please don't hurt anybody else. Not my ma, please. Please, mister. I won't know how to look after my baby sister on my own."
"Your baby sister and your ma will be fine if you stay here with your pa like I done told you. Understand?"
"I understand. Do you really mean it?"
"You got my word, boy. Now, go on and cover up your pa."
"Yes sir," he said and sniffed rising to his feet. He took a blanket from a pile and covered his father's body, then he quietly went to sit on the floor facing the wall.
He eyed each passerby with a stoic indifference. Some ran inside, others froze at the sight of the outlaw walking purposely down the street. He led the
borrowed horse with one hand and held a pistol in the other. He was at the front of the hotel when he noticed the old man with the scratchy beard standing just within the doorway. Without stopping, or even appearing to take aim, he shot the old man in the head. In the corner of his eye, he caught a slow deliberate movement, he spun and fired again hitting a man square in the chest. He fell squeezing off two shots into the ground. The outlaw recognized him from the hanging party as the young farmer who gave up his horse.
"Oh sweet lord!" a woman cried out from across the street. "He came back! The villain came back!" She picked up her skirts to run. "Nate! I gotta warn my Nate!"
"Oh no, you don't." He pointed the pistol at her fleeing figure, and shot her in the back, the bullet pushed her forward a few inches before she landed face down into the dirt. He calmly strolled over to her, and rolled her onto her back with the tip of his boot. Her eyes were open but he couldn't tell if she were alive. He told her anyway, "This is what happens to greedy women that toss dirt in a tortured man's face."
"You son of a bitch!" the banker yelled from the other side of the street. He came out of the saloon in his shirt sleeves, and a colt .45 strapped to his thigh. "Didn't expect you so damn soon but I knew you'd come back." He stepped into the street waiting as the outlaw hitched the paint to a post. "You played it dumb, Brick. Yeah, I know it's you, you old fool. You should've came at me first, and shot me in the back! Not a fleeing unarmed woman that's got young child-"
"I always believed in saving the best for last," the outlaw cut in unaffected at the meant to be biting words. He didn't have the patience for it this evening. "The gold was my best work," he said. "And you should prove to be my best gunfight."
"Mistake, old timer."
"Naw, however it plays out, I'm satisfied."
The banker smiled, then stated. "The name is Reuben Rhodes."
"Rhodes," Brick repeated, recalling the name to wanted posters. "Word was you died in Yuma. Heard that was on hell of a prison. Broke a lot of men." But this banker looked anything but broken. He was ready.
"Outlaw to outlaw, and just for the record, Denton. Killing the girl was an accident. She was barely touched. She got scared from the rough talk, tried to run and fell. Hit her head. It was her own fault being with the likes of you anyway."
"She was my granddaughter, Rhodes. She had nobody else and nowhere else to go. The gold was my last job. I was gonna retire and take care of my grandbaby. After I kill you, I mean to kill your woman and burn this town to ashes. And one more thing. The gold was never with us. It was moved by covered wagon by some nice clean people. Should be in California by now."
"What! You mean all this was just a joke?" Reuben went livid with rage. "You let all this shit happen and there was no damn gold?"
Both men pulled their pistols, and fired in the same instant. Brick staggered back from the force of the bullet tearing into his chest.
Reuben wheeled around and fell to the ground, involuntarily sending another shot outward, splitting the air. Blood trickled down to his nose, dumbly he touched his forehead then stared at his bloody hand. "He shot me," he whispered as if in awe.
"Rhodes," Brick managed to say before he hit the ground. It was rough to breathe with a chunk of lead in his heart.
"Rhodes... behind you," he said, gripping his chest. "Look... behind... you." He rolled flat on his back and stopped laboring to breathe.
"Darling?" A weak voice called from behind the banker.
"Mary Jane?" He turned and took one step towards her- and fell in a clumsy heap to the dusty street. "I shot you?"
"Oh Reuben," she wept.
"Mary Jane!" Blood in his eyes blinded him from the sight of his woman's lifeless body sliding down the front of the general store's glass window. "Oh Mary Jane," he wept too as he took his own dying breaths.