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Published on Friday, August 1, 2014

Destiny's Cross

By Bob Cacioppo

 

Cord has been riding nonstop since the night before. He is on the run again, having shot a man in Kansas after a string of good poker hands. The town bully wasn't letting this stranger walk away with so much of his money. And the locals in the saloon that night shared the bully's prejudice against this drifter from nowhere. Someone so down and out couldn't have this much good fortune with cards.

The gun battle was swift and conclusive. "Jesus", Cord thought. "Even when my luck is good, it's bad." He knew from experience that whatever law was around had probably given up the chase already. Most of the small towns had no law enforcement and if they did, he was just a farmer working part-time as sheriff to supplement his income. He had no appetite to confront a violent man, especially one that had already fled town. Cord figures to ride through the night, though, just to be sure. His fatigued horse, a beautiful black stallion, faithfully responds to his spurs, carrying him further south down the trail.

   

The weather is as dark as his mood. Low, rolling, angry clouds block out the moonlight, throwing down rapid brilliant flashes. The cracks of thunder are close enough that Cord and his horse can feel them, making it difficult to keep the nervous animal under control. But he's grateful for the light the strikes provide, which are all he has to guide him down the trail. His plan is to head south to the New Mexico Territory and for now that puts him riding directly into the pounding rain.

He stops his horse to don a poncho for shelter from the foul weather. "Blasted rain" he thought as he rides on, looking down at his saddle horn to avoid the wind-driven drops that feel like a wet towel snapping across his face. He doesn't see the four men on horseback approaching. The first he knows of their presence is a voice, loud enough to be heard above the din of violent weather.

"Get off my horse." It is determined with no room for compromise. Startled, Cord pulls back on the reins and looks up in one abrupt motion. A streak of lightning outlines the four figures for an instant. The thunder that follows seems to confirm his suspicion that these are dangerous men. The one at point repeats his demand. Perhaps, Cord thinks, this is just a case of mistaken identity.

"What for?" Cord asks.

The man at point, who seems to be the leader, moves his horse a few steps closer to Cord. There is a long pause before he slowly replies, "Because you are on my horse."

Cord knows this can't be true. He purchased his horse from a Kansas farmer a few years earlier and it was as close to family as anything he had. "Mister, I broke this horse as a colt. He ain't yours." Cord's instincts tell him that these men are professionals--like him.

The lead man says bluntly, "You don't seem to hear right. Get off my horse." Cord figures this man had backed up his threats before--with deadly force. And he has three men behind him. But the outlaws have picked a fight with the wrong man this night. Unwittingly, they have stepped off into the free fall of fate.

Cord concludes they'll kill him regardless. Sensing the tension, his horse begins to prance in place, in sympathy with the light tapping of his anticipating fingertips on his gun. With no recourse, Cord replies, "You can rot in Hell." In the dark of the night, Cord can't see the small grin forming on his opponent's face. The outlaw, hoping Cord would say as much, goes for his gun with a quickness that had killed many men. He is going to enjoy shooting this stranger as much as stealing his horse.

Cord's reaction to the outlaw's move is fast--so fast it appears the two reach for their guns at the same time. As Cord fires, knowing there are three more men to contend with, he rears his horse onto its hind legs as a shield against the barrage of gunfire that surely will come his way. The smallest interval of time separates the blasts of the two guns but it is enough for Cord's bullet to find its mark in the lead outlaw's chest, violently knocking him back just as he fires, causing his round to pass over Cord's left shoulder. Cord's strategy works as the ensuing fusillade is absorbed by his horse. Cord's faithful mount, standing almost upright in a beautiful display of animal athleticism, crumples to the ground with a sickening thud. The weight of the horse comes down hard on Cord's leg and in the shock of the impact, he loses grip of his gun. Trapped beneath the floundering animal, he tries in vain to reach for it. The fact that he can't reach it saves his life for the moment. The three surviving outlaws train their sights on him. They can now take their time to finish the kill.

Another bright flash reveals that Cord is trapped in thick mud under the weight of his horse whose blood is pooling around him, and the thunderclap drowns out angry words.

"The son-of-a-buck killed Jake."

Another begins, "I'll finish him..." but is stopped short by a calmer voice.

"Wait. We got no cause to kill him now, his horse is dead. It was Jake's idea anyways."

Voices still protest, "But he killed Jake.", but they carry little force. Although they rode with Jake, they never trusted or even liked him.

The voice of reason continues, "Yeah, I noticed that. Mister, you seem darn good with a gun. Jake was real fast. We could use you. But it's your choice. Join us or we'll kill you right now."

Cord finally works his way from beneath his horse. Limping on his badly bruised leg, he leans over to pick up his gun. Alarmed by the suicidal act, the outlaws' trigger fingers tense up. But Cord just calmly holsters his gun and brushes the mud off himself as he replies, "I'll join you." The men on horseback holster their guns, keeping a wary hand on their weapon. Suddenly Cord squares up to the men with the body language of a frontal assault. The astonished outlaws abruptly draw their horses up square with him and spread out horizontally as much as the trail permits. They really don't want to fight this stranger. Seeing what he did to Jake, they know one of them, maybe even two, could die taking him down.

Cord, sensing their fear, says "On one condition." The outlaws seem frozen atop their mounts. Cord continues, "I'm the leader." He figures he just killed their leader and they would need one now. "And I'll kill anyone who don't agree to it."

A distant flash from the storm allows Cole to make out the hard looks forming on the their faces. These outlaws know trouble when they see it. That is their business. And what did they know about this stranger? He's faster than anyone they had ever seen. He has no fear. And he is willing to lead them.

One of the outlaws begins to chuckle, triggering nervous laughter from the other two. "What's your name?" the one asks.

"Cord", the stranger answers

"Well, Cord, I'm Waylon, this is Tucker, and that there is Tillman."

 

*         *        *

 

Clint enjoyed the solitude of the deserts and mountains of the New Mexico Territory, where life or death bets are routine and primal motivations are not masked by a civil code. He wasn't looking for trouble. Not anymore. He had been a gunslinger. Since he was eighteen, he had made his living killing, collecting the bounty on wanted faces. But his occupation had begun to trouble him.

It wasn't from fear. He was accustomed to the breath of death on his neck. And he didn't doubt his ability. He knew he was good. The best testament to that was that he was still alive after more than a decade of hunting outlaws. Over the years, he had only gotten better. Faster, more accurate, and smarter, he was in his prime. It seemed a job he was meant to do.

But he never took pleasure in it. He was not a killer. Even hunting game, he respected his prey. Not that Clint thought about it that much. He didn't study himself the way he studied the men he hunted. He put them into two groups; the predators and the forsaken.

Clint figured predators were born with something wrong in their heads. They have a penchant for cheap shots, so you never turn your back on them. They enjoy killing but it's worse than that. They enjoy hurting--men, women, children, animals, as if they hate all life except their own. Clint had seen them take this pleasure and it made him feel sick. He knew a man won't give up doing what gives him pleasure. Killing this type didn't bother Clint. He was removing a rabid animal, saving everyone from the pointless grief it so gleefully spread. But it was never a clean fight. Devoid of compassion or any sense of fair play, a predator will do anything to anyone without warning.

More often the outlaw was an ordinary man who had drifted slowly into desperation from a long string of tragic events that pushed him further down a slippery slope to a hopelessness from which there seemed no escape. The world had turned on him, leaving him with nothing, not even the smidgeon of respect that might sustain him. And he strikes back by being ruthless.

Clint could size up an outlaw pretty quickly. It was partly in how they carried themselves but mostly it was in their eyes. A predator's eyes have a twinkle that betrays their black joy. The desperado's eyes are mean but filled with sadness where once there was a dream. That was it. He'd seen how death can be nature's kind release from a life that had become cornered by pain, but it violated every fiber in him to kill an animal that was injured and trapped. Still, there are some battles you can't avoid without becoming a stranger to yourself.

For the last two years he moved alone through the mountains and desert country except for a few months each year to help drive cattle up the Western Trail.

 

*         *        *

 

Frank Speers wasn't from southern Texas. He was already middle-aged when he moved to Hondo. A farmer by trade, out of Tennessee, he'd done very well back east. At least for Wayne County. On a hundred and fifty acres, he grew tobacco and raised sheep, swine, and about a dozen cattle. He also had a couple of horses. He planned to leave the farm to his only child, his son. They grew very close after his wife died of pneumonia when the boy was ten. Though life was hard without his wife, they had what they needed--food, clothing, shelter, and each other.

So it was until the Civil War brought its misery. The year was 1861 and Tennessee was the last state to secede from the Union. The decision ripped the state apart, the west being solidly for the Confederacy and the east, where slavery was less common, was for the Union. Despite his protests, Frank's son immediately joined the Confederate army. In the late afternoon of January 2, 1863, the young man was under the command of General Breckinridge in the Battle of Stones River in Middle Tennessee. The Confederate troops were trapped in a terrible cross-fire. Head-on they faced withering bombardment from a ridge capped by a continuous stretch of forty-five artillery cannons. From their southern flank they were being hit by fire from twelve more cannons. Over the next hour, Frank's son was but one of two thousand confederate soldiers to die.

Devastated by the news, Frank lost all interest in the farm. There was no reason to continue the daily toil. To forget his pain, he sold everything and made his way west, eventually stopping in Texas. He had just enough money to buy a ranch near Hondo and start raising cattle. Prices here were cheap compared to Tennessee. Though an old man by most accounts, he buried his anguish in work that would have drained a young man, and over the next fifteen years he expanded his herd to three hundred and fifty head of Texas Longhorns.

Longhorns, a cross-breed of Mexican and Eastern cattle, were extremely hardy and self-sufficient, able to survive the harshest conditions of drought and famine. Even their calves were tough. Their Mexican ancestors, brought over by the Spanish centuries earlier, were lean and long-horned, some seven feet tip-to-tip. The Eastern cattle were of British origin and had more tallow. The early ranches, started by the Mexican government, were taken over by Texans when they claimed their independence in 1836. Nine years later, they joined the Union. And fifteen years after that, they were ready to leave it.

With the advent of the Civil War, Texans left their ranches to join the Confederate army but the tough Longhorn herds still multiplied in the open ranges of southern Texas. When the men returned, they found wild herds everywhere. But there were many more head than could be sold in Texas. A Chicago commodities trader by the name of McCoy, knowing the demand for beef out East, began offering to buy up the Texas cattle if they could get them north to a stockyard he had built a hundred and twenty miles west of Kansas City. From there he could use the railroad to ship the cattle east. Thus began the era of cattle drives that lasted for several decades before brought to an end by extended rail lines, barbed wire, overgrazing, drought, and higher profit in a fatter but frailer breed of cattle. McCoy's little settlement grew into Abilene Kansas. By 1879, another railhead at Dodge City was used as well.

For the cattle ranchers in Hondo it was as a two month journey to Dodge City taking the Western Trail. Driving cattle across west Texas and Oklahoma was dangerous work filled with hardships that tested the limits of men. The drivers had families to return to, ranches to tend. The drive north to Kansas was a necessary evil, something that must be done to sell the herd for shipment back east. Meanwhile they dreamt of home and family.

A week into their drive, Frank and the other drivers still didn't know much about the cowboy who rode in from the desert that spring looking for work, other than he was a free spirit and the hard life of a driver suited him just fine. He had no commitments—no children, no wife, no family. Everyone around him understood this. He didn't even have a last name. They knew nothing of his past. They certainly had no idea of his expertise in hunting men. And that's the way he wanted it. Still, after a few weeks of sharing the dangers of a drive, these men grew to trust Clint more than most of their lifelong friends back home. They saw a mental toughness, a man they could ride with to hell and back.

Clint volunteered to be the drag rider, a job nobody wanted since you're at the tail of the herd eating dust all day. But there he could ride alone. Whatever camaraderie Clint needed, it was of the silent kind. Frank noted, "He never talks much but he'd give you the saddle off his horse if you needed it." Frank had seen his share of people who would sell their own mother to gain an advantage, and he respected this man whose instinct was to look after the underdog. At age 65, Frank was by far the oldest man on the drive. His foreman would usually go but he took ill just before the trip, so it fell to Frank. It was saddle work pretty much all day with time to rest when the cattle needed to graze. The youngest driver was really just a boy. Jack Marley had brought his son, Dustin, along so that he could learn enough to make the drive for the family next year. Only sixteen, he had been schooled through eighth grade which was more education than most had received. At night, squinting under the firelight, he'd read stories out loud for a whole hour without missing a word. That was a real treat for the guys so they took good care of him, fixing his grub and tending his horse. Jack didn't like them doing that. He thought they were babying him. But the others didn't care for the way Jack treated Dustin anyhow, giving him no respect. Dustin, small and not very strong for his age, tried real hard but often could not handle the tough, physical work. And Jack felt that reflected poorly on him.

 

*         *        *

 

Working a drive teaches patience. You can't hurry the animals or they can become agitated and uncontrollable. You take your pleasure in seeing them move forward step by step. If a beast is startled and attempts to bolt, you have only an instant to act before its fear ripples through the herd causing a stampede. When a couple thousand head run amok, it was best to be far away. But the driver had to put himself in harm's way and attempt to force them to move in a circular path. This involved a lot of shooting, the only thing that could be heard above the din of hooves beating the earth. If you misjudged your distance or your horse tripped then you would be trampled.

Jack rarely rode with his son so it was Harlan that was riding point with Dustin. The afternoon had been hot and muggy when the clouds begin to swell. Dark, low hanging clouds reached toward the earth like the hand of God. The wind stirred up a dense dust storm and when the gusts turned cold, they knew a downpour was soon to follow. Then the rain dropped like buckets of ice-water, cutting through their thin cotton shirts. There was no time to worry about that. Everyone sensed trouble. They were angling the herd through a narrow pass and the cattle were being jammed together and they could see the fear building in their eyes. Feeling pushed, jammed, and cold, a nearby lightning strike and its immediate clap ignited the herd's building panic. Harlan knew Dustin was nearby but he couldn't seem him in the swirl of dirt and rain. While Harlan kicked the flanks of his terrified horse to escape the rising crescendo of hoof beats, he yelled to Dustin to ride straight out of the canyon to get him out of harm's way. Breaking into the clear, Harlan circles left, hooking up with the others to begin diverting the panicked cattle into a circular path. Within thirty minutes, the herd had calmed down but talk is kept at a minimum so not to spook the nervous animals.

It was Clint who found Dustin's body. Bringing up the rear, he could do nothing but watch as the herd stampeded through the narrow pass. Apparently Dustin had been caught off guard when his horse jerked forward to escape the crushing surge of cattle, falling from his saddle.

The boy's death bothered Clint more than it bothered his father, Jack, who seemed embarrassed by the accident. The rain continues through the evening making it impossible to round up strays till morning.

"Life ain't fair," Clint mutters over dinner.

"Maybe not, but God is" Frank replies, trying to give Clint some comfort.

"I suppose so," Clint says, taking a slow drag from his hand-rolled smoke, "He kills everybody sooner or later.'

 

*         *        *

 

The next day there are lots of strays to recover. They just can't figure why this one cow took to the rocky hills where there isn't any grass. But there he is, climbing aimlessly like some mountain goat. Clint and Lance go up after it, their steeds uncertain on the steep loose rock. Eventually they just dismount and go on foot. Clint's carrying a rope in his left hand as they inch their way up toward the cow. Lance, in front, comes upon a rattler hiding under some rocks for shade. Hearing the rattle, Lance freezes mid-stride, not realizing the snake is coiled directly under him. Lance looks toward Clint, his puzzled face twisted with the question, "Where in blazes is it?"

Before Clint can answer, the rattler strikes straight upwards and with less than two feet to travel to Lance's crotch, death was a millisecond away. With inhuman speed, Clint's right hand snatches the gun out of its holster and fires straight away at Lance, blowing the head off the rattler just as it strikes his pants.

Lance shouts "What in blazes you doing Clint?'. His eyes, following the line of Clint's intense stare, look down where he sees the fangs stuck in his pants and the rattler's remains beneath him.

Back at camp, the evening is full of excitement. Lance keeps telling everyone just how Clint shot the rattler. "Never seen anything so fast. Quicker than a rattler strike. And shot the head clean off." The talk bothers Clint. It reminds him of how he could do nothing to help Dustin. There are moments when you can make a difference. Then they pass, never to return.

The group drove on while Clint stayed behind to gather the remaining strays. He would catch up with them later.

 

*         *        *

 

"Destiny Welcomes You." The words were carved into a wooden sign placed at the edge of town. Small, even by plains standards, it is populated by those too tired to go any further, surviving on farming and catering to drivers that happen by. They considered themselves God-fearing folk and without a lawman, they were vulnerable to bullies like Seth and Logan. As good Christians, they appeased the two ruffians which only emboldened them. So when Cord and his gang happened through, seeing how Seth and Logan pushed everyone around, Cord sensed a business opportunity. Speaking with the town leaders, he offers to "take care of them" for a price. They thought Cord would run them out of town. But instead, Cord kills Logan, the leader of the two, after which Seth begs for his life. Cord figures he could use an expendable gun hand, and allows him to join the gang. Then he informs the town leaders that he intends to stay on as the law, with his gang as his deputies, charging a fat fee for their protection. But unlike Logan, Cord is business-like and doesn't allow his men to abuse the town folk.

So it was when Frank and the others drove their cattle by Destiny, letting them graze while the drivers enjoyed the afternoon in the town's saloon. When one of the farmers complained to Cord that some of the herd had knocked down his fences and ruined his garden, Cord arrested the drivers on the spot. They didn't put up a fight, figuring they would pay for whatever damages had been done with a couple head of cattle. But Cord had other ideas. The herd was a gold mine. So he orders a quick trial with the kowtowed town leaders as a rigged jury, trying and convicting the drivers for rustling their own cattle! What the outlaws could never have done on the trail, they easily did behind the pretense of civilization. The hangings were held the next day.

 

*         *        *

 

A couple of days after the hangings, Clint makes his way to the saloon in Destiny where the talk is still about the executed drivers. Far from hiding the fact that he was riding with them, he demands to know who the law was that hung them. Word of this unexpected driver gets around fast and the five outlaws congregate outside, lying in wait as the town folk seek cover inside. Cord, sitting lazily on a swing bench, gives Seth his rifle and sends him up the street to shoot this stranger. In the eerie quiet, the only sounds come from the ever-present wind and the creaking of the swing bench. Knowing they have Clint out-gunned, the outlaws are relaxed and confident. Yet they each feel a cold shiver of premonition when Clint walks out of the saloon.

Excited, Seth hastily fires, missing his mark. Clint never breaks his stride, slowly walking forward another five steps as an overconfident Seth takes more careful aim for his next shot. He never gets the chance as Clint spins his rifle up and with a shot from his hip, drops Seth with a single shot to the head. Now armed only with pistols, the other outlaws retreat for cover. But when Clint reaches the dead man, he discards Seth's rifle and his own. Emboldened by this act of lunacy, Cord and the others step back into the street. Now empty, the lazily rocking swing bench gestures to the ease of the emerging slaughter.

The four outlaws spread out across the width of the narrow street, two men in the middle and one at each side taking cover with guns drawn, some thirty yards from Clint. Cord, standing in the middle of the road, fires first, followed in quick succession by the other three outlaws. Clint fires three times in response to Cord's shot, the first round dropping Tucker, who's standing next to Cord, dead before his gun even fires, and the second one killing Waylon whose shot narrowly misses Clint. Cord's shot is more accurate, grazing Clint's head, taking off half his right ear and stunning him. Tillman fires last, his round passing clear through Clint's right thigh muscle. But Tillman makes a fatal error by stepping from behind his cover for the shot, and Clint's third round finds its mark in Tillman's heart before Clint collapses, dazed from his head wound. Assuming his adversary is dead, Cord advances, holstering his gun. While Cord looks around at the bloody toll, Clint has time to regain some of his senses. His vision still blurred, he feels for his gun, stands up and unconsciously holsters it with a snapping motion akin to a snake bite. Cord slowly turns back towards the body of the man he thought he had just slain, only to see him standing, waiting for him.

"I killed you once, I'll do it again," Cord yells.

Without responding, Clint moves toward Cord, dragging his right leg. Time seems to stop as Clint moves forward, eighty feet separating them, then fifty. Cord becomes increasingly unsettled while Clint slowly approaches as if drawn by some unnatural force. Now twenty feet separate the men. Cord can't bring himself to draw his weapon. Perhaps he's losing his confidence or maybe it's just morbid curiosity of what this strange cowboy will do next. Clint finally stops. He is less than ten feet from Cord. Each wants to know something about the other. Clint wants to know what kind of man kills innocents for profit. Cord wants to know what kind of man dies for no reason. Clint squints, trying to read Cord's eyes. Each is aware of the other man's slow, relaxed breathing, an odd calm that descends on a person when close to death. At this distance, neither was likely to survive the impending shootout. This is personal. Both men stand silent, the agonized creaking from the slow sway of the swing bench matching the cadence of dripping blood from Clint's severed ear, the sounds merging into a metronome for this death waltz.

Clint's words break the silence like ice cracking. "You killed some good men."

Cord's intense stare is unrepentant. He finally responds, "Life ain't fair mister." There is another long pause as both men's slow breathing adopt the rhythm of the metronome.

Finally Clint mutters under his breath, "But God is."

A drop of blood hits Clint's gun hand as if to indicate the metronome had reached its last beat. Cord's cat-like reflexes don't fail him as he draws first. But Clint's gun is quicker yet. It sends a round into Cord's lower chest just as Cord's weapon clears its holster, aimlessly firing into the ground. Cord's gun falls from his hand as he staggers forward, looking into Clint's eyes and placing his hand on Clint's shoulder for support. From a distance they appear to be old friends nostalgically recounting times past but for the blood from Clint's head wound covering Cord's outstretched hand. Clint walks Cord over to the swing bench and gently sets him down, the hardness in Cord's eyes fading. Ripping the shirt off of Seth's body, Clint tears it in half, using one piece for a pressure bandage on his leg and wraps the other half around his head to stem the bleeding from his ear.

 

*         *        *

 

Clint mounts his horse and rides west, passing several of the herd as they graze. Like him, they are free to wander again having slipped death's call for now. As he rides toward the New Mexico Territory, he feels the peace of solitude.

THE END

 

Bob Cacioppo is a professional mathematician having taught at a university for over thirty years. His favorite western movie is "Once Upon a Time in the West" with Charles Bronson. What appeals to him about this genre is the intensity of the individual. This is the characteristic that he hopes his story will communicate to the reader.

 

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