Note: This is the short story I wrote as Nicolas Z Porter, one of my personas. The main character of this one tugged at my sleeve to ask whether I’d like to know the rest of the story. I did, and my very first novel, Leaving Amarillo, was born. Later came 16 more novels, all born of this one little short story. Enjoy!
THE AIR IN ADOBE WALLS, ARIZONA TERRITORY, was stifling, and the constant pounding of the stamp mill across the San Pedro River seemed to intensify the heat, drumming it through the walls.
Inside the saloon it was worse. The place reeked of old beer with just a hint of dried flowers. Dust was visible in the hot rays of the sun slanting through the panes of the broad front window.
An upright piano stood mute in the corner across from the bar. At one of the several tables between the piano and the bar, four men were involved in a poker game. A sturdy woman, probably the source of the cheap perfume, was standing close to one of them.
Nearer the back of the saloon, at a table near the base of the stairs, three cowboys were having a quiet conversation. Their dust-covered slickers were draped over the railing behind them.
At the bar, a young tough had just finished his third shot of whiskey. He laughed. “Bartender, more whiskey!” He slammed his glass down and there was a crash as it skittered to the left and slammed into another shot glass, knocking it to the floor.
The men at the poker table glanced up, then continued their game.
The cowboys at the back table went on with their conversation, trusting the inaction of the one facing the bar.
Wes stepped back from the bar and looked down as his drink seeped into the floorboards. He bent to pick up his shot glass, then stepped closer to the bar again and set it down. He put both hands flat on the bar. “Barkeep?”
The bartender looked around, then approached. “Yes sir?”
Quietly Wes said, “Looks like I accidentally spilled one. I believe I’ll have another.” He dropped a coin on the bar and glanced sidelong at the younger man.
The bartender set a fresh glass on the bar and poured a double shot into it. “There you go.”
Wes picked up the glass and sipped about half of it, then set it on the bar.
The younger man glared at the bartender. “Damnit, I said I want another drink! Now!”
As the bartender set a glass on the bar, the younger man glanced at the floor and the shattered remains of his own glass. He looked up at Wes, a sneer playing at the corner of his mouth. “You gonna pick up that one too, old timer?” He looked around to see whether anyone else had caught his bravado. They hadn’t.
Wes glanced at the floor. He snorted lightly, then shook his head. “Ain’t my glass.” He took another sip of his whiskey.
Few things irk a hothead as much as realizing others don’t know how important he is. The kid took a step back, the bullet-proof foolishness of his youth moving his hand to hover near his Colt. He sneered. “What’s your problem, old man? Can’t keep a drink on the bar?”
Wes’ lips tightened into a grim smile. He turned slowly from the bar and fixed the younger man in his gaze. Quietly he said, “Name’s Wes Crowley. Now, that would be Mister Crowley to runoff like you.” Without averting his gaze he spat a stream of tobacco juice in the general direction of a nearby spittoon. The leading edge of the stream caught the rim, and the rest strung across the floor and over the young man’s boot. Wes swiped his forefinger and thumb along the bottom of his moustache to smooth it away from his mouth. “An’ I’ve come to learn problems are like luck. I gen’rally don’t believe in ‘em.”
The saloon fell silent. Behind Wes, the three cowboys quietly rose and backed deeper into the corner near the stairwell, out of the line of fire. A chuckling cowboy and a young redhead, having just exited a room near the top of the stairs, sensed the tension and stopped. She surveyed the scene below, then took his arm and guided him back into the room, looking furtively over her shoulder. The door closed quietly.
His gaze never leaving the younger man’s eyes, Wes’ voice, still quiet, took on a sharp edge. “Now, son, I ain’t so well-mannered that your mama’d want me over for supper. Then again, I ain’t so rude that I go aroun’ spillin’ another man’s whiskey either. Now you need to just go on home, boy. I promise, you don’t want even a little bit a’this.”
The bartender, who had backed against the wall behind the bar, looked at the younger man, his eyebrows arched. “He—he’s right, Homer. Go on home. You just had a little too much to drink is all.” He glanced at Wes. “He just had a little more than he needs, Mister.”
Wes nodded almost imperceptibly, his gaze still on the younger man. “I’d bet that’s so. Do what he says, Homer. I’ll shake your hand an’ buy you a drink next time I see you.”
For a moment, it seemed Homer would do the smart thing. Then a maniacal grin tugged at the corner of Homer’s mouth and a fire leapt into his eyes.
The bartender’s mouth gaped.
Homer dropped his right shoulder and his gun hand twitched, but just as his Colt cleared his holster, thunder slapped the wall and a dime-sized red dot appeared on Homer’s forehead, directly above his right eye. His hat jerked hard on the thin leather strap hanging beneath his chin and slammed him to his back.
The bartender pressed his ample belly against the bar and craned his neck to stare at the prostrate form. He looked at Wes for a moment, his jaw still agape, then turned to stare at Homer again.
Wes looked about the room for a moment, then holstered his Colt and turned back to the bar. He drained his whiskey and reached for the bottle. He poured another and downed it, then adjusted his hat. He glanced to his right where the gamblers were still at their table, their attention riveted on Wes. He nodded, then turned back to drop a few coins on the bar alongside the glass. “Sorry for the mess, Bartender. You know his folks?”
Somewhere behind Wes, deeper in the bar, a chair scraped the wooden floor as the cowboys returned to their table.
“Sure,” the bartender mumbled, still staring at Homer.
After a few seconds, a grim smile flattened Wes’ lips. He chuckled but without humor. “Well, what’s your name, friend? Y’know that, don’tya?”
The man continued to stare at the body. As if he were alone in a dream, he said, “I… I never seen nobody that fast….” Then, as if he’d suddenly realized Wes was still there and had to be accounted for, he jerked his head around. “Jesus Chr— What? Oh… oh, uh, James. I’m James Renton. Jim Renton. I’m… I’m the bartender.” He extended his hand after quickly wiping it on a soiled bar towel. “I… pleased to make your acquaintance. Well, I mean… well, you know.”
Wes looked closely at the man and shook his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Renton. Sorry for the circumstances. Now, do you know the boy’s folks? I’d like to make my apologies.” He gestured toward Homer’s remains. “Mebbe explain to ‘em how all this come about.”
The bartender paled. “Oh… oh no sir… I mean, that won’t be necessary, not at all.”
The door near the top of the stairs squealed quietly and the cowboy poked his head out. He listened, then crossed to the railing. Wes caught him in his left periphery and studied him as the bartender picked up the empty glass between a thumb and forefinger, then cupped the same hand and scooped the coins from the bar into his other hand. “I mean… well, they ain’t the most accommodatin’ folks.”
“Well I just killed their boy. How accommodatin’ you reckon they ought’a be?”
The bartender seemed not to hear him. He glanced again at the dead man on the floor, then nodded. “Homer there, he was the youngest, but he wasn’t necessarily the meanest of the bunch, if you know what I mean. Mr. McFadden’s just a bit—”
“McFadden? Would that be Otis McFadden?”
The bartender nodded and leaned forward, his palms on the bar. “Yessir.” He nodded again toward the body on the floor. “Young Homer there was his boy.”
Wes shook his head and clucked his tongue, then nodded. “Well, all right then. He lives around here… I’ll be damn.” He looked at the floor. “All right, now supposin’ you tell me how I’d go about gettin’ to his place?”
The bartender looked at some of the other customers, then leaned forward on the bar. “You really should consider your options here. I mean, Mr. McFadden’s really not a very—”
Wes frowned and wagged one finger side to side. “I don’t need no advice. I promise. Now where does the man live?”
“Yessir. Well, ride out the west end of town. Trail angles to a broader road. Follow that four, five miles. You’ll see Creased Hat Hill off to your left. His place is just the other side of that, right down along the river. You’ll find a place to turn off.”
“All right… all right. Thank you.” Wes looked at the waning daylight over the batwings for a moment. “Guess it won’t do to ride out there tonight. Is there a hotel?”
The bartender straightened up. “Oh, well, yessir, there is, but you don’t wanna stay in town. I mean, you really should—”
Wes fixed him with a glare. “Mr. Renton, you seem like a nice enough sort, but if you wanna go on breathin’ you really need to stop shouldin’ all over other people.” He gestured toward the door. “Now is there a hotel around here or not?”
The bartender swallowed hard and nodded. “Yessir. Just… just across and down the street a ways. East, I mean. It ain’t far.” As Wes turned to leave, the bartender said, “Did you say your name’s Crowley?”
Wes stopped and turned around. He nodded. “Wes Crowley. I’ll be speakin’ with Mr. McFadden in the mornin’.” He glanced down at Homer McFadden for a moment, then looked at James Renton again. “There a town marshal here? Maybe I ought’a let him know what happened here.”
“Oh, no sir. We ain’t had a marshal for almost a year now. He… well, he took it upon himself to serve some papers on Mr. McFadden an’ he met with an accident.”
Wes looked at him for a moment, nodded, then turned and walked out.
The batwings hadn’t stopped swinging when one of the gamblers crossed the room. He laid a coin on the bar. “Think we’re gonna need another bottle, Jim. Did he say Wes Crowley?”
The bartender looked up and nodded. “That’s what he said.”
“Same one that was a Ranger awhile back near Amarillo?”
The cowboy from upstairs joined them at the bar. He slapped down a coin. “Gimme a shot, Jim. There was another Crowley, too… U.S. marshal out of Santa Fe.”
The bartender cupped his hand and swept the gambler’s coins off the bar, then slid the other one toward the gambler as change. “Ain’t two of ‘em. Same guy.” He reached under the bar for a fresh glass and poured three fingers for the cowboy, then corked the bottle and slid it toward the gambler. He glanced toward the door. “Goin’ by the stories, I figured he was bigger’n that.”
The gambler didn’t seem to notice his bottle was light. “Was he wearin’ a badge?”
Renton shook his head. “Not that I saw… not that it makes a lot of difference.” He looked at both men for a moment. “Gonna be an interesting couple’a days.”
* * *
Wes crested a low rise and slowed his horse to a walk about an hour after sunup. The ranch lay in the distance less than a half-mile away. He reined-in alongside a scrub oak and dismounted. He squatted in the shade of the oak and looked toward the main house. His horse grazed on sparse grass nearby.
The ranch was less than a half-mile away. In front of the house and off to the right a thick cloud of dust hovered over a corral where a couple of cowboys were working to rough-break several horses. One was bucking a horse at the moment, one was standing with one boot on the bottom rail of the corral, and two others, apparently waiting their turn, were sitting on the top rail of the fence, talking. A larger corral beyond the first one held at least twenty more.
A woman with a wooden bucket exited a side door on the house and walked to a well, her long black hair swinging at her waist. She drew a bucket, seemed to look directly at Wes for a moment, then walked back to the house.
There were two roads leading away from the ranch at angles to each other. Nothing was moving along either road. After a half-hour of watching and seeing no unusual activity, Wes stood. He glanced at his horse. “Seems like business as usual down there. Word travels slow, I guess.” He stretched, gathered his horse’s reins and mounted. Once he was in the saddle, the horse started down the low hill toward the lane at the bottom and the house. At the bottom of the hill, at Wes’ urging he broke into an easy lope and soon they were nearing the house.
The cowboy who had been standing outside the corral approached. “Howdy. Can I help you?”
“I’m doin’ fine but I’m sure my horse here would appreciate a drink.” Wes pointed toward a caliche-rock stock tank with a water trough built into the side of it. “If you don’t mind.”
The man looked up at him, eyes squinting against the sun. “Ain’t my water but I reckon Mr. McFadden wouldn’t have a horse go thirsty.”
“I ‘preciate that.” Wes swung down from the saddle.
The man stuck his hand out. “I’m Boyd Johnson. Down from Colorado a year now.”
Wes handed him the reins. “Glad for you. Now I have important business with Mr. McFadden. He in?”
Mac looked down at the reins then up at Wes’ eyes. “Well, now I think— I mean, yessir, he’s up at the house. Who should I say—”
Wes started toward the house. “Bring my horse up after he drinks, if y’would. I ‘preciate it. Just leave him at the rail out front.”
As Wes stepped onto the front porch, the woman he’d seen earlier opened the door. She was younger than he’d first thought. “Yes?”
Wes stopped and removed his hat. Holding it over his chest, he smiled. “Miss.” He nodded slightly from the waist. “I’m lookin’ for Ot— I mean, Mr. McFadden. Fella out at the corral said he was here in the house. Is he about?”
She glanced past him. “You mean Boyd. I see he’s tending your horse for you.”
“Uh… yes’m, he offered and I took him up on it.”
A smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. “What business do you have with my husband?”
“Mr. McFadden is my husband. We married a year ago after his first wife died.” She shifted, put one hand on her hip. “Your business?”
“Well, beggin’ your pardon, Ma’am, I’d just as soon—”
She stepped back and closed the door.
Wes looked around for a moment, then took a step toward the door and knocked lightly.
The woman opened the door again. “Yes?”
Wes cocked his head slightly. “Ma’am, I really need to speak with—”
“I know what you want, Mr. ….”
“Crowley, Ma’am… Wes Crowley.”
Her voice assumed a tone of patience. “Mr. Crowley, I saw you up on the hill. If you were trying to be stealthy, you didn’t do a very good job of it. The nearest town in that direction is at least twenty miles from here, but the nearest one in any other direction is three times that. You don’t look overly tired, so that tells me you rode only a few hours to get here. You aren’t filthy, so I know you didn’t spend the night sleeping on the ground. But you also left well before dawn to get here early enough to catch my husband at home. That tells me you’re here about something important.
“Now Mr. Crowley, what is important to my husband can harm my husband. Unless you state your business, you may gather your horse and ride back the way you came.” Again, she glanced past him and smirked. “Take the stable boy with you if you want.”
“Oh. Well Ma’am, it’s highly personal, but—”
She stepped back and started to close the door.
Wes put one hand out to stop the door from closing. “But I can tell you it has to do with one of his boys.”
She opened the door. “What is it? What has Homer gotten himself into now?”
Wes worked his hat in his hand. “Ma’am, I didn’t say any names. Bartender said Homer’s the youngest so I assume there’s others. Why would you think it has to do with Homer?”
She shook her head. “He has only one son. The oldest was killed in the war and the middle brother….” She clutched one hand at her stomach. “He was killed during a train robbery. It was a great shame on my husband.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Ma’am, I truly am. May I come in?”
A voice boomed from deeper in the house. “Marisol, where are you?”
She turned slightly. “I’m here. There’s,” and she glanced at Wes, “there’s a man here to see you.” She turned to Wes as she opened the door fully. “Please come in. May I get you some coffee?” McFadden was coming up the hallway.
“No, thank you, Ma’am, I’m fine.”
“Who the hell is—” McFadden stopped, put both hands on his waist. “Crowley? What the hell are you doing here?”
“How are you, Mac? Long time no see.”
Mac nodded. “Last time was when that Comanche was stringin’ me up over that fire. Remember? Upside down!” He pointed at Wes. “You left me for dead, Crowley.”
Wes looked at the floor and nodded, the looked up. “Well, I can see how you might choose to think that, but I knew the posse’d be along in an hour or so an’ I didn’t want your ol’ buddy Lame Horse to get away again. I got him too. Dropped his worthless hide in a jail cell with the army up in Fort Worth.”
“You know what it’s like knowin’ your brain’s about to be cooked right in your head?”
“No, Mac, I don’t. An’ I come along early enough that you don’t either, not really. If you remember, I did cut you down, but he was makin’ tracks.”
“Yeah… well, I guess we’ll just have to remember it different.”
Marisol came in with a platter with a coffee pot and cups.
McFadden looked at her. “What’s all that for? Crowley won’t be stayin’. Whatever he’s out here for, it’s no good. I already know that.” He looked at Wes. “That right, Crowley?”
Wes nodded. “That about puts a knot in it I guess.” He looked at Marisol. “‘Preciate it, Ma’am, but I won’t be stayin’.”
As she was leaving the room, McFadden said, “Well? What are you here for? Last I heard you were some big-deal US marshal up in Santa Fe.”
Wes put his hat on. “Well, I wish I was still up there today, Mac, and yesterday for that matter. Thing is, I met up with your boy yesterday.”
McFadden frowned. “My boy? Homer?” He crossed to a liquor cabinet, turned a glass right side up, uncorked a bottle of scotch and poured. He picked up the glass and took a sip. “All right, what’s he done now? And what business is it of yours anyway? You takin’ on the job as the town marshal in Adobe Walls?” He sneered. “I heard they’ve got an opening.”
“I ain’t tryin’ for a job.” His voice quieted a bit. “Then again, I’m not as accident prone as the town marshal was… if you remember.”
McFadden downed his drink and set the glass down hard. “Whaddyou want, Crowley?”
“Your boy had too much to drink, Mac. He was makin’ a nuisance of himself and—”
“Ah so what? All boys that age act up. He probably just—”
“I killed him, Mac. He drew on me an’ I killed him.”
Rage fired across McFadden’s face and he sprang at Wes, reaching for his throat. “You sonofabitch! You rotten sonofa—”
Wes sidestepped him and laid the barrel of his pistol alongside McFadden’s head just above his ear. The big man dropped like a pole-axed steer.
The kitchen door flung wide and Marisol came running in. “Mac! No!”
Wes took off his hat. “He’s all right, Ma’am. Just gonna have a headache for awhile when he wakes up. He’ll be all right.”
She looked down at her husband, lying face-down on the floor, then up at Wes. She frowned. “You did this?”
Wes nodded. “Yes Ma’am. He was upset at the news, and rightfully so. I believe he intended to squeeze my throat shut. He run at me so I smacked him on the head.” He glanced at the man on the floor. “Ol’ Mac never was much good in a close-up fight. Never learned to keep himself under control.” He took a step back, put on his hat. “When he wakes up, let him know I’ll be right outside, just the other side of the corral.”
“But… why? Why don’t you just go?”
He looked down for a moment. “Ma’am, I hope he’ll think things through, but thinkin’ never was Mac’s strong suit. He’s smart enough for sure, but when he gets stubborn he’d as soon charge straight into a thunderstorm as get in a cave and wait it out. Now maybe—”
“Mr. Crowley, forgive me, but why can’t you just leave? You came here, you said what you needed to say. I appreciate your honesty, but now you should leave. My husband will not follow you, not beyond Adobe Walls. This I know.”
“Well, yes’m, I suspect that’s true. Thing is, I gave Mac some terrible news about his boy and all, an’ I caused the news in the first place. Stubborn or not, sensible or not, Mac deserves the chance to decide the outcome.”
“But you must know he will not forgive you!”
Wes nodded. “Yes’m, I do know that, an’ it ain’t about bein’ forgiven. It’s about bein’ fair to Mac. A wrong’s been done. Only Mac can decide how he’s gonna handle it. I have to give him that opportunity.” He looked at the floor for a moment, then shook his head lightly. “Now maybe you can make a difference, an’ I hope you can, but this has to be Mac’s call.” He looked at her for a long moment. “Anway… well, I’ll be right outside.”
* * *
Wes pulled the door shut behind him and noticed his horse was not tied to the rail in front. Boyd had resumed his position, leaning on the top rail of the corral, watching as the younger men took turns riding out the rough stock.
Wes descended the steps and started across the yard.
One of the younger men on the opposite side of the corral gestured with his chin and Boyd glanced over his left shoulder. When he saw Wes, he grinned, turned around and spat a stream of tobacco juice in the dirt at his feet. He wiped his chin with the back of his left hand, his right hovering near his Colt. “I see that you’re still walkin’.”
Still thirty feet away, Wes continued toward him. His voice was flat. “Where’s my horse?”
The man’s grin faltered. “Well, you goin’ in to see Mr. McFadden like you did, I figgered—”
“You figured wrong.”
Boyd touched the butt of his revolver.
Steel whispered over leather and Wes’ Colt was in his hand, shoulder level, his arm stretched in Boyd’s direction. He stopped when he was four feet away. The barrel of his Colt hovered a few inches from Boyd’s forehead. Wes’ voice was calm, quiet. “Go ahead… skin it.”
Boyd looked at the end of the barrel. He raised both hands above his waist, then stepped back.
“All right,” Wes said, his voice still quiet. “Now I don’t want to embarrass you in front of these boys. I’d consider it a personal favor if you’d go get my horse. He should be saddled and ready to go. Understand, he better be no worse for wear.”
Boyd nodded, whispered, “Yes… yessir.”
Wes waited for a moment, then holstered his Colt. His gaze never left Boyd’s eyes. “Go on.”
The two boys on the corral fence had fallen silent. Wes looked at them, then pointed at the larger one. “Come here, son.”
The boy dropped off the fence and ran around the near side of the corral. He stopped in front of Wes.
Wes put one hand on his shoulder. “Boyd your boss?”
The boy nodded. “Sí… yessir, and he is my papá.”
“Okay. All right. You keep on listening to what he tells you, understand?”
The boy nodded again. “Yessir.”
“Only thing that happened here is he was bein’ loyal to his boss. Now that’s a good trait to have most of the time. Understand?”
“All right. Only other thing that happened is he was smart enough to know if he’d drawn on me I’d have killed him. He’s breathin’ right now because he was that smart. Understand that?”
Wes clapped him on the shoulder. “All right… all right. You’re gonna be a fine young man. Now you run on over to the big house. Knock quietly, then go on in and ask Mrs. McFadden if she needs some help. Tell her I sent you. All right?”
The boy nodded.
“All right. Go.”
The boy took off for the porch at a run.
Wes gestured for the other boy.
Like the first one, the second one dropped off the fence and ran around the near side. He stopped in front of Wes.
Wes pointed. “You go on over there and see if your boss needs some help, all right? I’ll watch this boy bucking out this mare.” Wes patted him on the back. “That’s good. Go on now.”
The boy nodded and raced off toward the larger corral.
* * *
Wes had led his horse around to the other side of the holding corral. He’d removed the saddle again and set it at the base of a large mesquite tree, then sat down, taking advantage of the sparse shade. The horse was nearby.
Boyd came around the far end of the corral. He gestured with a thick flake of hay. “Thought your horse might like a snack. No easy trot back to Adobe Walls from here, an’ there’s little enough grass ‘til you get back to the river.”
Wes remained seated, but nodded. “‘Preciate that. I’m sure ol’ Charlie’ll appreciate it too.”
Boyd dropped the flake near the horse, then came a few steps closer to Wes. “I, uh… well, I just wanted to say I appreciate you tellin’ the boys… well, you know.”
Wes looked at the ground for a moment, then up at Boyd. “Didn’t tell ‘em anything that wasn’t true. You were just bein’ loyal to your boss. Anything more’n that… well, a man’s naturally gonna feel like showin’ off a little when there’s young’uns around.” He got to his feet, then locked Boyd in his gaze. “Looked like some pretty good boys. Oldest one’s yours?”
Boyd nodded. “Him and the one on the horse earlier. Other one’s a friend of Luis.” He hesitated. “Me an’ this woman in Adobe Walls… pretty Mexican girl… well, you know… I hope to bring her out here to live before too long.”
“Older boy resembles you. Looks right stout. I sent him over to the house to maybe help Mrs. McFadden.”
A question passed over Boyd’s face.
“No big thing. It’ll be all right. I imagine he’ll be out directly.” He glanced at the house, then back at Boyd. “Anyway, I’m glad for you. Looks like you got a real fine family started there. I’m just glad you an’ me didn’t get sideways. I’ve had more’a that than I’ve wanted of late.
Boyd nodded. He looked around for a moment, then said, “So you talked with Mr. McFadden?”
Wes nodded, his gaze never leaving the other man’s face. “I did.”
“It was about his boy, I figger.” He put up one hand. “I ain’t askin’, but he’s only got the one boy an’ nobody else from here was in Adobe Walls… ‘an o’course, Homer ain’t back yet an’… well, you bein’ a man don’t put up with much—”
“Now I’m not gonna discuss what transpired with me an’ Mr. McFadden. That’s his business. Ain’t my place.” A shadow passed over and Wes looked up. A crow was flying for all he was worth while ducking and dodging two smaller birds who were alternately swooping down and pecking him on the head. As they disappeared over a low outcropping, Wes looked at Boyd. “Sometimes… you know… that’s just the way it is, I guess. Fella goes off an’ never comes back. Long an’ short of it is, I reckon Mr. McFadden’ll tell you what he wants you to know when the time comes.”
Boyd nodded. “Well, I better get back.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder and grinned. “Got the boys up at the barn. Teachin’ ‘em the finer points of muckin’ stalls.”
Wes laughed. “Well, good luck with that. Anything can dissuade ‘em from a life in a saddle, that ought’a be it.”
Boyd wiped his hand on his jeans, then offered it to Wes. “Pleased to meet you as it all turned out… well, so far anyhow. Luck.”
Wes shook his hand. “‘Preciate that. It’ll be all right.”
“Well….” Boyd nodded, then turned and headed for the barn.
Wes stooped and pulled a long stem of grass, then moved to the corral fence. He raised his left boot to the bottom rail and put both elbows on the top rail. His left arm lay across the rail. He stroked his moustache with his right hand and looked toward the house, wondering how it would all play out. Hard to figure Mac… known him 30 years an’ ain’t known him a full day. He mumbled, “One to ride the river with… almost… almost.” He shook his head. “Guess it’ll be what it’s gonna be.”
Just before Boyd got to the barn, there was a commotion in the house. Someone was yelling, and a smaller voice was yelling back. The boy, Luis, said something, but whatever it was cut off abruptly. Then for a split second Otis McFadden was framed in the door as he ripped it open. It slammed hard against an occasional table, and he yelled, “Get out! Get the hell out!”
Luis shot out of the house and off the porch at a dead run. One side of his face was red.
Slapped him, Wes thought. Didn’t hit him.
McFadden yelled after the boy, “You don’t tell me what’s what, and don’t you forget it!” He turned away, still muttering. “Goddamn wet behind the ears calf!” Then he turned in the doorframe and yelled, “You git!” He slammed the door, but it hit the jamb and rebounded, coming to rest more gently against the same occasional table.
Luis was halfway to the corral before he looked up and saw that Wes was pointing casually toward the barn. The boy changed direction without missing a step.
The conversation at the house got louder.
The woman said, “Please, Otis, do not go out there. Let me ask him to come inside and we will talk.”
“Talk?” he yelled. “You saw how that sonofabitch talks! He damn near laid my head open!”
Her voice quieted just a bit. “Yes, my husband, but he did not. And he could have killed you, but he did not. He came to talk.”
“Well, he damn sure killed my boy! Look, it don’t matter what you say! I’m gonna put that sonofabitch in the ground!”
“You will not! You will stay in this h—”
There was the unmistakable sound of flesh striking flesh. “Shut up! Damnit, shut up!”
The woman didn’t answer.
McFadden stomped out onto the porch, carrying his Winchester carbine. He worked the action on the carbine, levering a round into the chamber, and glared in the direction of the big corral. “Crowley! Come on out!”
* * *
Wes looked at him. His voice just loud enough to carry to the porch, he said, “I’m right here Mac. I waited for you.” He took his foot from the top rail and started walking around the long side of the corral. “Where’s your wife, Mac? Your wife okay?”
“That’s none’a your goddamn business! Your only business here is with me!”
Wes kept walking. “She told me about your other two boys, Mac. Sorry to hear that. First one, in the war… rough way to go.”
“None’a your business, Crowley.”
“No, I know… I know… I was just thinkin’ at least he died for something.” Wes came around the near corner of the corral and stopped. “Not like his brothers… not like his ol’ man.”
“My boys… their lives were taken from them! I raised my boys to be men! Just like me!”
Wes nodded. “One robbin’ a train, one bein’ a bully… hell of a waste, McFadden. Just like you.”
McFadden went red. “What the hell are you talkin’ about?”
“I followed you, Mac. I followed you for two days. Followed you right into Lame Horse’s camp. I saw you, Mac. You were talkin’ with him, tellin’ him the best time to raid the settlements along the Canadian.”
“Bullshit! He was gonna fry my brain! Hell, you cut me down yourself!”
Wes nodded, a grim smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. “An’ then I went after Lame Horse. You’re lucky I didn’t stoke the fire, Mac. If I’d stayed, I’d have killed you myself.”
“Oh bullshit! If any of that was true, you’d have told the others.”
“I would… I would, Mac, but by the time I got back you were long gone. All these years, I had no idea where you were until Homer… well, until yesterday. Come on down off the porch, Mac.”
Without taking his gaze off Wes, McFadden stepped from the porch to the first step. He set the carbine on the porch, leaned the top of the barrel against the upright. He stepped down to the next step, then to the ground. He moved to his left, away from the porch. “Don’t have to be this way, Crowley. I’m… well, I’m ready to forgive you for Homer.”
Wes nodded lightly. “That’s big of you, Mac. I don’t feel the same about Jake and Ramos and others that fell to Lame Horse’s guns.”
McFadden put up his left hand. “Now I had nothin’ to do with any of that, Wes. You know that.”
“I know exactly what you know, Mac.”
Marisol had been listening just inside the door. She walked out on the porch, a large bruise forming under her right eye. She looked at her husband for a moment, then glanced at Wes, stepped off the far end of the porch and walked toward the barn.
Wes said, “I told her I had to stay, Mac, that you deserved to decide how things should end. I let her think it was about your boy, but it ain’t. How do you want it to end, Mac? Here, facing me on your place or at the end of a rope in Santa Fe?”
Mac’s neck and face flushed. “You sonofa bitch!” He jerked his revolver clear of his holster and fired. The bullet chipped the cedar post two feet to Wes’ right just as a bullet ripped through the neck muscle on the left side of his throat.
His gun dropped and his head slammed right as he staggered, clawing at his neck. Another bullet slammed into his left lung. He jerked left and dropped to one knee, just as another struck his right chest and blew him onto his back, his knees folded under him.
Wes walked up on him, his Colt still trained on the man.
Mac glared at him. “You… you killed me.”
Wes nodded. “Not soon enough.” He stepped past McFadden, then turned and fired a final round into his head.
* * * * * * *