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The Ballad of Rafe Wilkins
Although this short story is previously unpublished as a stand-alone short story, it was excerpted from a novel in the Wes Crowley Gap series. Take a look at all the Wes Crowley novels at https://stonethreadpublishing.com/the-wes-crowley-series/.
The Ballad of Rafe Wilkins
A period western short story by Harvey Stanbrough
Two days after he attended Paco Messina’s meeting in Logan Bluffs, Rafe Wilkins found himself in a poker game in the bar of the El Rey Inn southwest of Santa Fe. Having ridden past Santa Fe, he reasoned, the following morning it would be easier to continue west and leave his Texas troubles behind. Besides, he had a good feeling about the game. With a little luck, he’d ride out in the morning much wealthier than he was when he rode in yesterday.
There were four other men at the table. Three of them—two cowhands and a man in a dusty, grey-black, nondescript suit who might have been a lawyer or a banker if he weren’t so young—were in their twenties. And then there was Mr. Gordon Fitch, who appeared to be about Wilkins’ age, somewhere in his early forties.
Fitch wore a black silk top hat, a wide black leather belt, and tall, shiny, black leather riding boots. His coat and slacks were a soft peach color. Tails hung gracefully from the back of the coat, and the white-linen shirt beneath it had a starched collar and cuffs. A frilly lace design bordered either side of the mother-of-pearl buttons that lined the center.
Wilkins was fascinated. He’d never encountered a real gentleman gambler before. From the time he sat down, he wondered what it would be like to wear such clothing and live a life of leisure. What would it be like to have skin that wasn’t routinely covered in dust and sweat? Fingernails that were always clean and not ragged? What would it be like to have hot-water baths complete with soap whenever he wanted them? A soft bed every night? Maybe even a regular female companion? Hell, maybe even a wife! It was unimaginable.
Over the first half-hour or so, Wilkins and the others at the table learned that Mr. Fitch was on his way to San Francisco to participate in a major, high-stakes poker tournament. By his own admission, he used these brief stops along the way to practice his trade and keep his hand in.
More than once in the first couple of hours, Mr. Fitch, a fat cigar protruding from one corner of his mouth, had chuckled as he fanned the cards in his hand one by one. “One can never be prepared enough for a high-stakes tournament, gentlemen.” Then he’d look at his cards and frown. “Of course, I’m a little rusty at present. But then, that’s what these little interim games are for: you win some, you lose some.” He gestured dismissively with one hand. “It’s all practice.”
Whenever Mr. Fitch uttered any version of that, invariably, as if following directions, one of the cowhands or the man in the nondescript suit would challenge him, either by raising the current bet or by calling. Usually Mr. Fitch won the pot, though sometimes one of the other men did.
As he had said, it was all practice.
Hand after hand, Wilkins was busy exercising his imagination, imagining himself in a fine suit in San Francisco. The money Messina had paid him weighed heavy in his pocket, but not heavy enough. If he could parlay it into a real payday, he might live the dream in San Francisco himself. With that thought in mind, mostly he hung back and watched the game. He bet occasionally and folded occasionally, but he never lost more than was required to stay in the game. And he studied Mr. Fitch.
Halfway through the third hour of the game, Wilkins finally started betting in earnest. He took three of the next seven pots in short order. Each of the three wins verified his suspicions regarding another of Mr. Fitch’s tells.
But soon afterward, Fitch glanced at his watch, then smiled. “I suppose all good things must come to an end, gentlemen. I’ve enjoyed your company immensely, but the stage will arrive early tomorrow morning, and I must be on board when it leaves. So this will have to be my last hand.”
The deal had come around to him again. He dealt the cards and, according to his tell, was less than pleased with his own hand. Still, on the final round of betting and after the other three players had folded, he eyed Wilkins steadily and raised by a substantial sum. It seemed almost a challenge.
Wilkins looked at him, and in that moment he realized he was about to become wealthy. Practicing his most gentlemanly tone, he said, “Mr. Fitch, I believe you’re bluffing.”
A narrow smile spread across the man’s face. “Oh, I assure you, Mr. Wilkins, if you focus on my gaze you will see that I am not.”
But something about “focus on my gaze” sounded like an intentional attempt at misdirection. Wilkins did focus on the man’s gaze, but at the last second he glanced down. Just in time to see an ace peeking from Fitch’s left coat sleeve.
And everything changed.
With the flick of an eyelid, Fitch conveyed that he realized Wilkins had spotted his treachery. His eyes grew wide and he shoved his left palm hard against the edge of the table. As the ace dropped from his sleeve to the floor and his chair turned slightly, he flung his right hand straight toward the floor as if angrily casting dice.
Wilkins’ had seen that motion before. His chair clattered over on its back as he stood and slapped at his holster.
The two young cowboys, both to Wilkins’ left, scraped their bootheels and the legs of their chairs against the floor in their haste to escape the scene. One cowboy toppled over backward. The other rolled out of his chair and raced toward the front door.
The young gentleman in the grey-black suit to Wilkins’ right gripped both arms of his chair tightly, leaned straight back and seemed to freeze, his eyebrows arched and his eyes wide.
Wilkins’ Remington cleared leather and was cocked and leveled across the table.
Mr. Fitch, seeing that he was beaten, let his right arm go slack. He smiled broadly. “Wait. It’s—”
Two deafening sounds drove two white streaks of smoke across the table, and two heavy lead bullets punched two dark holes into Fitch’s chest, one just below either wide lapel of the fancy peach-colored coat.
As Wilkins holstered his Remington, Mr. Fitch’s chair slapped onto its back and his head struck the floor with a sickening thwack. His right arm extended above his head, his hand open, a two-shot derringer resting against his palm.
His eyes wide with surprise and confusion, Mr. Fitch gaped at the ceiling. He struggled to draw a breath, then another. Finally, he frowned, shuddered all over and said, “But.” A trickle of frothy blood seeped from the right corner of his mouth and down past his ear, and he blinked his eyes once. Then he shuddered again and lay still, his mouth and eyes still open, still gaping at the ceiling.
The cowboy who was still in his chair on the floor grunted, then scrambled up without a word and ran stumbling toward the front door.
Wilkins looked at the man in the grey-black suit. “Are you all right, Mister …?”
The man was staring at the body of Mr. Fitch. He didn’t respond at first. Finally, without looking around, he said, “Constable.”
At first, his ears still ringing from the explosions of his own revolver, Wilkins didn’t really hear what the man to his right had said. In response, he nodded absently. “Ah.”
The twin streams of white smoke that had stretched across the table a moment ago were beginning to falter and fade. He glanced around the room.
The bartender was still behind the bar and toward the back of the room. He seemed not to have noticed the shooting, probably a habit he’d developed over the years to enhance his self-preservation. Earlier, several other men had been seated at two or three other tables, but all the tables were empty now.
Then what the man had said finally registered on Wilkins’ brain and he frowned. Wait. Could that be right?
Still standing after the shooting, he looked down and to his right. “Excuse me. When I asked whether you were all right, what did you say?”
The man was still gaping at the lifeless form of Mr. Fitch, but at the question, he pried his gaze away and looked up at Wilkins. “Oh. I said ‘constable’.” Not ‘mister,’ but ‘constable’.” His brow furrowed. “What I mean is, I am a constable. Mostly I deal with silly, unimportant things, but still….” He paused as if he was going to say something more, but he only gestured toward the body and kept his silence.
Wilkins nodded. “I see.” He paused, then took a breath. He leaned forward, pressed his fingertips against the top of the table, and looked at the young constable. “And are you armed, Constable?”
Absently, the constable looked at the dead man again and shook his head. “No. No, I’m not armed.”
Wilkins released a silent breath and patted the table. “Well, armed or not, you were right here for the whole event. You saw for yourself what happened. The man cheated, and when he saw that we noticed, he shook a derringer out of his sleeve and brought it up. That’s the same as drawing on me.” He paused again, eyeing the constable. “So it was self-defense. Don’t you agree?”
The man said nothing. He was still looking at the body.
Wilkins canted his head. Probably it was the constable’s first dead body. As he leaned forward and started raking the pot toward him, he glanced at the constable again. “Well, I’ll just gather up my winnings. Then I’ll be on my way.”
Still looking at the body of Mr. Fitch, the constable said, “But isn’t there something I should do? I mean, as a constable, shouldn’t I do something?” He finally looked up at Wilkins. “I thought I heard Mr. Fitch say ‘wait.’ Did you hear that? I think he saw that you had the advantage, and I think he said ‘wait’.”
Wilkins only looked at him for a moment. “What’s your name, son?”
“M-Miller, sir. I-I’m Sid Miller.”
“Well, Constable Miller, I didn’t hear anything. But even if I had, saying ‘wait’ is not an effective tactic in a gunfight. If I hadn’t shot Mr. Fitch, he certainly would have shot me. As I said, you were right here. You saw what happened. I won the pot, and the shooting was clearly self-defense.” Wilkins pointed. “His gun is still in his hand. Now in a court of law, you would be my primary witness, so—”
Miller finally came to life. He slid his chair back slightly to decrease the angle as he looked up at Wilkins. “Yes sir, but isn’t that the point? Shouldn’t this matter come before a court of law? Back in St. Louis we—”
“Ah, St. Louis. Okay. Now I understand.” Wilkins picked up a few bills, counted them, then put them on the table and moved them toward the constable’s side of the table. He nodded toward the money. “I believe that’s your stake, plus a little. Maybe you should use it to return to St. Louis. Things are—well, different out here.”
He untied the bandanna from around his throat, then started raking the other bills into a pile. He stacked the few coins, picked them up, and dropped them into his pants pocket. Then he picked up the stack of bills, wrapped them in the bandanna, and stuck them inside his shirt. To the constable, he said, “Of course, whether you leave is up to you. You can hang around for a trial if you want to, but I won’t be here. I have an appointment elsewhere.”
He turned away, then hesitated. Finally he stopped and turned back. “Mr. Miller, you look like a nice young man. If I may give you a piece advice, you might want to find another line of work. Either that or start going heeled.”
The man frowned up at him. “Going heeled?”
“Carrying a gun. But if you do that, be very careful. If you had drawn on me, I’d have killed you.” Wilkins touched the brim of his hat. “Good day, Constable. Long life to you.” And he turned and walked out.
For a long moment, Constable Miller watched him go. Even as the heavy oak door closed behind the gunfighter, Miller wondered whether what he’d witnessed was the way things ought to work.
Clearly, Mr. Fitch had said “wait” and “it’s.”
It’s what? It’s all a terrible mistake? It’s all my fault? He couldn’t be sure what the man was getting at. If he’d said, “Wait. This is” all a mistake or my fault, his duty would be clear.
But that isn’t what the man had said. He’d said, “Wait. It’s.”
Maybe he was trying to say “It’s all right. I’m not going to cheat you. I’ve seen the error of my ways.”
Miller squeezed his temples between his thumb and forefinger. This was a conundrum. Maybe things were different out here than they were in St. Louis, but they needn’t be, and that was the point.
Then again, all the choices at the moment were his.
The gunman obviously had made his decision. He’d left with the money, which he felt he rightfully owned. Or at least felt secure in taking even if he didn’t feel he rightfully owned it.
But he did. He’d won it fair and square. The only matter here was whether his shooting of Mr. Fitch was justified. And it wasn’t. So that was settled. But it wasn’t really the only matter.
The only other matter was what Miller would decide to do. He had choices.
He could confront the gunman, attempt to arrest him and bring him to trial, but he had a feeling that wouldn’t turn out well.
He could also take the money on the table and return to St. Louis. That might be the safest option.
And then there was one other option. And really, there was something alluring about not always taking the safest route.
He stood, stuffed the bills from the table into his trouser pocket, then reached inside his coat and pulled the .32 caliber revolver from behind his belt. He’d lied to the gunman, of course. Going unarmed out here would just be insane.
The air was crisp and clear as Wilkins made his way to the stable in the barn out back. No moon, but no clouds either. The starlight was bright enough that a man could see his way around if he gave his eyes time to adjust to the ambient light. And if he was careful.
So much for Santa Fe. He would retrieve his horse, then ride due west as planned, maybe all the way to California. He hadn’t meant to ride out until tomorrow morning, but things don’t always work out the way you expect.
Then again, there was no rush. He remembered there was a feedbag just inside the bay door on the left, and below that a barrel of oats. No telling how far along the trail it might be before his horse could get more oats. He cupped his free hand a few times and filled the feedbag about half full, then carried it over to the second stall and hooked the straps over his horse’s ears. The horse could eat while he was getting things together.
His saddle and saddlebags were on the top rail of the stall. He stepped past the horse, opened one side of his saddlebags, took the folded bandanna from his shirt and put it inside. Then he secured the saddlebag again.
He started to reach for his saddle, but decided he had time for a smoke. He didn’t like to smoke while he was riding. You could see the glow of the ember for miles, and the smoke interfered with his own sense of smell on the trail. Either of those could be deadly.
He stepped out of the stall and took a small bag of hand-twisted cheroots from his shirt pocket. It felt like he had four left. He smiled at the memory of how he’d come by the cheroots. That had been a happy coincidence.
Wilkins had passed through a village named Glorieta two days ago on his way to Santa Fe. As coincidence would have it, a Mexican fellow from up north in Abiquiu was visiting his brother there. He was also selling cheroots. He sold them ten at a time in a used cotton tobacco pouch for a half-dollar. He twisted them himself, he said, from tobacco he grew himself. “I have the magic to grow the tobacco even where I live. The secret is to grow no more than a dozen plants at a time, and to grow them at the hottest time of the year.”
When Wilkins asked why he grew only a dozen at a time, the little man shrugged. “That’s what I can manage. For others, the secret might be more plants, or fewer.”
Wilkins had laughed at the time, but it all made sense. Know your own abilities, do what you can do, and don’t overextend yourself.
Mr. Fitch was an excellent example. If the man had stuck to his strengths, he’d still be alive. He’d be in bed asleep, and tomorrow morning he’d be on his way to that big poker game in San Francisco. But when Wilkins caught him cheating, Fitch overextended himself. He shook a derringer out of his coat sleeve. Not a smart thing to do when facing a hardscrabble survivor like Rafe Wilkins. Basically, Mr. Fitch died of stupidity. The two .45 caliber slugs only drove the point home.
Wilkins pulled the top of the little tobacco bag open, fished out a cheroot and clamped it between his lips. He struck a match and cupped it between his hands.
But as he moved the flame up to the end of the cheroot, something reflected the dim light. He raised his cupped hands slightly, casting more light on the object.
It was the curved metal butt-plate of his Winchester carbine.
Huh. He never forgot to take his carbine out of the boot. But at least nobody had stolen it. Maybe that was a good omen. Well, an omen, anyway. Hard to know whether an omen’s good or bad until after the fact.
Nervous, he changed his mind about the cheroot. He could smoke it later, somewhere down the trail. He looked at the match, shook it out, and tossed it aside. Then he stuck the cheroot back into his shirt pocket alongside the little bag. Probably he should just be the hell on his way.
He quickly stepped into the stall and reached in the dark for his saddle. He lifted it off the top rail, turned and set it on the horse. After he adjusted it so it felt settled, he led the horse out of the narrow stall and started cinching down the saddle. Finally, he took off the feedbag and hooked it over a peg in the post next to the bay door, then led the horse out.
“You were right, Mister.”
Wilkins stopped, bent slightly forward, peered into the darkness. He still hadn’t regained his night vision after extinguishing the match. “Constable? That you?”
“I was right about what?”
“I did see the whole thing.”
“Good. See, that’s good, ‘cause—”
“Mr. Fitch never brought his weapon to bear. He said, ‘wait,’ indicating he’d changed his mind. You killed him in cold blood.”
“Naw, now you know that isn’t what happened.”
“Well, yes, it is. But I’ll make you a deal. You split the take with me and we’ll go our separate ways.”
Wilkins turned slightly to look at his horse. In reality, he was easing his Remington out of the holster. He still couldn’t see the constable, though he had an idea where he was.
“But you’re unarmed, so….” Wilkins let the sentence die and listened.
“Well, no.” A distinctive click sounded in the night.
A hammer being cocked.
Wilkins’ every nerve stood on end as he crouched and fired at the sound, then fired again.
Two white streaks of smoke stretched across the night, and something fell.
Wilkins remained crouched, listening. There was only the sound of gurgling, then a deep moan. Then a gasp and a drawn-out sigh.
After a moment, Wilkins said, “Constable?”
Something, probably a boot or shoe heel, pushed against the ground. Trying belatedly to walk its owner out of the way. Then there was nothing.
Wilkins straightened, looking into the darkness. He still couldn’t see anything.
Odd how things worked out. He watched the Inn as he put a boot in the stirrup, and swung himself into the saddle. Nobody came through the door. Maybe they were all asleep and hadn’t heard the twin shots. Or maybe they just didn’t want to risk becoming targets.
He nudged the horse in the flanks and it started forward. He watched the ground as he went, and his night vision slowly returned. The body should be on the left.
Everyone he’d met at the El Rey Inn and for the past few days knew he was heading to California. He’d convinced all of them, but he’d never quite convinced himself. He’d fooled himself into thinking maybe he could leave his old life behind, but somehow—
Oh, there he is. He reined-in the horse and looked at the darker lump lying next to his horse’s left front hoof. No motion, no sound, nothing. A former thing. The young constable should have taken his advice.
He shook his head and tapped his horse’s flanks lightly with his heels again. Somehow. Somehow he always found himself reaching for his saddle in the middle of the night. Somehow he always found himself reassessing his options yet again. And those options always came back to the same thing. You can’t be something you’re not, and you can’t escape being who you are.
Okay, so California was out. But no major loss there. The whole nation was moving west, and California was as far as they could go. So they’d stop right there, and the greed and stupidity would begin to pile up. And who needed to get involved with that?
So here he was, on his way to—what? Well, probably Texas. But then, Texas was a big place. He needn’t see Paco Messina or Four Crows or anyone else from his old life.
He glanced back, but he could no longer see the dark lump. Only several paces away, it was like it had never been there. Like it had never been a young constable out of his depth. He took note that neither door to the Inn had opened. He touched his horse’s flanks a little harder and they started east at a leisurely canter.
He didn’t notice the one open window on the east side of the Inn as he rode past. The window the occupant of that darkened room had opened earlier to admit the cool night air. The window through which the occupant had recently overheard Wilkins’ and Miller’s brief conversation. And the window through which the timid occupant, his face veiled by the curtain, watched Wilkins ride off to the east.
For some reason, Rafe Wilkins had headed east from Santa Fe. Not that he wanted to go west—he’d decided against California, and with well-reasoned prejudice—but there were two other cardinal directions as well as all the slant directions. Slanting off to the southeast or northeast or northwest, like that.
But for whatever reason, he’d headed due east. Probably because he was thinking of Texas. In the end, it didn’t matter though. The Sangre de Cristo mountains bent him to the southeast. But that was good. It was probably a sign.
After the first few miles—and he’d only had his horse lope along at a canter even then—he realized nobody was coming after him. And really, that figured. He’d left around midnight, so probably they were all asleep. And even if they were awake, they were anonymous in their own little rooms. So they could all act as if they were asleep and none of them had to feel ashamed in front of anyone else. People seldom felt ashamed when nobody else was watching. And nobody—nobody—wants to die in the dark. The dark is too close to Hell.
So when he realized nobody was coming, he slowed his horse to a walk. No reason to rush. He took it easy and made camp before it got dark. He set his saddle at the base of a worn-out old juniper tree, ground-reined his horse to let it graze, and settled back. Then he took the thin cotton pouch from his shirt pocket and pulled out the cheroot he’d started to light several hours ago in Santa Fe.
It was a little crumpled, so he straightened it first. Then he clamped it between his lip, cupped his palms around it against the light breeze rolling down off the Sangre de Cristos, lit up and settled in to think.
He chuckled quietly. He didn’t have a lot to think about, or at least nothing that he had to decide anytime soon. He could go literally anywhere he wanted. He had all the money he would need for a good while. He had no woman and no family to speak of. Only one sibling, a brother, and he was a straight arrow. And good for him. That straight-arrow stuff just suits some men. And finally, he owed nobody anything.
That crazy Comanche Four Crows might disagree, but he’d done more for that Indian than he’d done for any of the others he’d encountered. For that matter, the same thing went for Messina and the rest of that bunch. Comancheros. Cowards, every one. Not one of them would make a pimple on a Comanche woman’s ass, much less on any part of a Comanche brave. Gutter skunks is what they were, every damn last one of them.
Anyway, he should probably angle off to south Texas anyway. It was a big place, and not so many Indians in most of it. Some along the border east of here over Tucumcari way and some way over in the east of Texas, the Caddos, but he didn’t need to go that far.
There was always Austin. He hadn’t been to Austin for many years. But then, he didn’t miss it either. Too much government, too many of those so-called beer gardens, or “biergartens” as the foreigners called them, like that Scholz guy. Who could trust ‘em? And who spells his name like that anyway? No, Austin wouldn’t be good.
Maybe he’d flatten out the route and go farther east to Fort Worth. Cattle country. He could get lost on one of the big ranches they had down there. Or speaking of ranches, he could maybe go farther south to San Antonio and the brush country down there. Or maybe he’d even push on farther south and east to the Gulf of Mexico.
He laughed at the realization of his own freedom, and his horse perked up her ears.
He patted her on the neck. “Whaddaya think, old girl? Maybe I’ll even hire out on a ship and go someplace completely different, eh? Wouldn’t you like to see someplace completely different?”
He looked around. “Or even just right over here somewhere. No Comanches over here in the Territory. They aren’t even around Tucumcari like they used to be. Won’t be any comancheros either if the Texas Rangers get their way and the settlers keep pouring in from the east and the south.”
Tomorrow, he’d ride on into Santa Rosa. It couldn’t be more than half a day’s ride from where he was camped. He might stay there a day or two. He’d visited with a sweet señorita there a week or so ago on his way to Santa Fe. He’d told her he was a cattleman from Fort Worth and he was on his way to California to make his fortune. When she asked whether he’d come back for her, he assured her he would. But first, he said, he wanted to get the money to treat her the way she deserved to be treated.
Probably it wasn’t too soon. Probably he could convince her he’d gone to California, hit it rich, and was already back. He could afford a few days off with a beautiful woman in his bed—or her bed. After all, he had all the time in the world. And when he did leave, she would have a few new dresses and maybe some jewelry to go with it. Women were money-based life forms. She wouldn’t miss him too badly.
The thought made him smile.
As the top of the sun finally slipped below the horizon, he closed his eyes, but not to sleep. Not just yet. The dream was too new, too fresh. For the first time in his life he had all the time in the world, and the money to match. He enjoyed just thinking about all the things he could do. He’d laughed earlier about going on a ship, but he really could if he wanted to. He could go all the way to South America.
Or over to Europe, or even down to Africa. There were black people in some places down there with hair as straight as his. And over in Europe there were señoritas too, but with blue eyes, some of them, and fair-skinned as any blonde from St. Louis. Spaniards instead of Mexicans. He wondered whether they were as hot blooded.
Thinking about the sea, he also realized he could have saved himself some time and headed due south from Santa Fe to begin with. He could follow that big valley all the way through to El Paso del Norte. And then from there he could either go on south into Mexico or angle off to the southeast into Texas, and a littl farther to the same sea he was thinking about before. Only less chance of running into Comanches or comancheros going due south.
But it wasn’t too late. Not really. He’d spend two or three days in Santa Rosa, then backtrack a little to the west. Or just head southwest. Or hell, just due south. He didn’t necessarily have to go through El Paso del Norte, did he? He didn’t necessarily have to go anywhere, or stay anywhere. That was a comforting thought. It brought a smile to his face again, and the smile remained after he drifted off to sleep.
Rafe Wilkins awoke refreshed and happy the next morning, and he looked very forward to the day. It would be the first completely free day of his life. He could go wherever he wanted, stay as long as he wanted or not at all, and do whatever he wanted, within reason. He wouldn’t do anything illegal.
In fact, he might never do anything illegal again. No reason to mess up a good thing. No, not a good thing. A great thing. He wanted to live, and he wanted to live free. He didn’t want to do anything that could cause his freedom to be taken from him. And no matter what, he would never again have to worry about money.
He thought about making a pot of coffee, but he could get a better cup in Santa Rosa than he could make. He grinned. For one thing, there wouldn’t be any grounds in it. That would be refreshing all by itself. For another, it would come in a real china cup, befitting his new status as a wealthy man. And it would be served on a table, and that would come with an actual chair to sit in. There might even be a red-checkered tablecloth, and possibly, if he was lucky, even a plate of tamales and eggs.
Afterward, if he was very lucky, he would learn that the little Mexican man who had sold him the pack of cheroots would still be in town too. If so, he would buy several packs and find a way to keep them from drying out too badly. Wrap them all together in a damp cloth, maybe, and then wrap the whole thing in a dry cloth and store it in the bottom of one of his saddlebags.
And then there was the pretty young señorita. What was her name? Rosa? Or was he thinking of the name of the town?
He laughed again. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. And he would allow nothing to mar the fact that this was going to be a truly great day.
He’d ridden at a light canter for almost two hours when he finally caught his first glimpse of the beautiful little village of Santa Rosa. It was nestled in the boulder-strewn hills just past the Pecos River. In the early morning light, the village glistened, a diamond in the desert set among the gold hills and their silver boulders. The river could as easily have been the silver chain to complete the jewel, or a ribbon laid by.
But this side of the village and the ribbon of the river—what was that?
He slowed his horse to a walk and focused.
A dust cloud. Formed by a knot of riders on horseback.
He frowned. It might be a posse, and they were headed northwest—right at him—hard enough to raise a dust trail. For a second, panic rose in his throat. But then he laughed. Yes, they were riding straight toward him, but he wasn’t fleeing them. He was riding toward them.
Still, something seemed odd about the group of men. But what?
Then it struck him: There was nobody between him and them. No rider he could see, and no dust cloud from a rider who’d disappeared into a lower part of the terrain.
So they weren’t chasing anyone after all.
So they couldn’t be a posse.
So then why were they running so hard?
But a few minutes later, he realized the truth: It must be a race.
Maybe Santa Rosa had decided to hold a rodeo, or maybe even a fair. An event during which local cowboys and vaqueros could show off their skills. Roping, possibly wild cow milking, and maybe even riding wild stock for fun. And of course, racing.
The race probably was the final event. He was sorry he’d missed it. But maybe they’d repeat the events later in the day, or maybe tomorrow.
As he watched the horses run, still all bunched together, he frowned again. How far would they run in a straight line before they turned back?
He scoured the terrain between them and himself for a landmark, something the horsemen could see that would mark the turnaround point. A rock outcropping, perhaps. But the only thing he saw was a stump of a tree. It was probably a quarter-mile away, and it was barren. It looked as if it had been hit by lightning sometime in the distant past.
At maybe ten or twelve feet high, the former tree had only a few limbs, and none of those were whole. Shouldn’t they have harvested that for firewood? And long before now, surely. This area was considered high plains more than desert, and sometimes the winters were severe.
As he watched, the racers approached the tree. But they didn’t even slow down. They kept coming.
Something wasn’t right. He frowned, and for a second fear washed over him again.
He turned in the saddle and looked behind him. Maybe their target was behind him.
But there was no one. Only yellow grass, the occasional tree, and the blue mountains in the distance to the northwest.
He turned back to face front. None of this made sense. He was the only other rider out here, and he wasn’t fleeing them. They had no reason to come after him. So they would go around him. They would go around him and continue their pursuit of nothing or their world’s longest race or whatever they were doing.
Even as he realized it was far too late to run, the riders and their horses arrived. Their pounding, thundering hooves and the scowling faces of grim-jawed men overwhelmed even his thoughts. Then the man in front raised his right arm hard, and the men and horses slowed and the dust cloud billowed past all of them and Wilkins too. And when the dust was past, the group had enveloped him.
Somehow, he still hoped they were going to keep going.
But they didn’t.
Sweat beads broke out on his forehead and cheeks and he knew.
The men and horses were all around him, the horses snickering or neighing, their hooves shuffling as the muscles cooled and calmed from their frantic charge.
Before him were three men, and all of them wore stars on their chests. The lead rider seemed to study the pommel on his saddle, his face mostly hidden behind the brim of his hat. Quietly but with a gruff voice, he said, “Would you be Rafe Wilkins?” His head still bowed, he touched his horse’s flanks and the horse slowly edged closer.
“I—yes sir, I would. I mean, I am. But how could you possibly—”
The lead rider looked up.
Wilkins’ eyes grew wide. Quietly, he said, “Oh! No possible damn way!”
The man nodded. “Yes, it’s good to meet you too, Mr. Wilkins. Name’s Trey Miller. I’m Sid Miller’s older brother. He was a good kid. Just tryin’ to make his way.” He paused. “I’m also the marshal of Santa Rosa. We have a telegraph office too. Opened two months ago. And that, Mr. Wilkins, is how I could possibly.”
Sheriff Miller glanced past Wilkins and gestured with his chin. “Bill, I find this man guilty. You got the rope?”
Wilkins gazed past the sheriff at the lonesome, lightning-struck tree and understood everything.
He hadn’t wanted ever again to do anything illegal, least of all kill another man. But then, he’d lied to himself before. As it had always been, somehow he always found himself reaching for his saddle in the middle of the night and reassessing his options yet again. That it was broad daylight this particular time and his saddle was already cinched seemed not to matter at all.
He grinned and yelled, “Hell no!” then tugged hard on the reins. His horse reared, the front hooves kicking out slightly to the left as he pulled his Remington. He fired at the sheriff, but missed, then fired again, hitting a deputy near the left shoulder.
Trey Miller’s horse shuffled backward a few paces, and as the front hooves of Wilkins’ horse touched dirt again, the sheriff put three quick bullets into Wilkins’ chest.
The outlaw stared, his eyes wide and his eyebrows arched. His right hand went slack, the revolver first rocking down over his trigger finger, then slipping off and falling to the dirt.
He could have just gone due south. Disbelieving, he said, “But I was free.” He fell forward in the saddle, then fell off the right side.
The sheriff nodded. “Pick him up. The tree’s waiting. He’ll hang a little easier is all.”