Published on Friday, November 23, 2013
By Fred Mottern
Tom Lattery had never been to the town of Prosper, New Mexico, but it was plain to see he had not missed anything. Riding in slowly, with the dying sun behind him ceding territory to the evening, he saw the street and most of the buildings dark and deserted.
Prosper was not prospering. It was a last dying gasp away from becoming a ghost town.
The room was dim and dirty with only four tables, broken chairs and reeking of the smell of cheap whiskey, stale tobacco and unwashed men. The sole patrons were two ragged old men playing cards, grumbling at each other while slowly getting drunk, and a chubby man half-asleep behind the bar. Beating a day's worth of trail dust from his shirt Lattery moved to the bar.
"Hello stranger," the barkeeper said, his yellow teeth flashing a smile through a splotchy beard. "Welcome to Prosper. Looks like you had a long ride. What'll it be?"
"The best of whatever you have left," he replied placing a coin on the bar. "It appears there is not much life left around here."
"Be even less next week," the man replied, pouring two shots. "I'm packing up and opening a place up Lordsburg way. There ain't no future here since the mines played out."
Lattery nodded and drank. The liquid was akin to sulfur and turpentine laced with gunpowder, burning a fiery trail all the way down. Stifling a cough, he was thankful he had asked for the best.
"That will leave a mark." Lattery choked, unable to hold the cough at bay. Inspecting his own glass, the owner downed it as if it were water.
"Yessir it could. It is smoother than my last batch, though."
Lattery was too tired for further small talk. Leaning forward on the bar, he decided to get down to business. "Is there any law around here?"
Baine looked as if he had been expecting the question. Wiping the bar while pondering the question, he allowed a few seconds silently escape. Finally shrugging his shoulders, he refilled their glasses. "You don't look like a man on the run. What are ya, a tin star of some sort?"
Lattery nodded, introducing himself as a deputy marshal out of Colorado and exposing the badge under his vest. His eyes shifting as he spoke, to the men at the table, watching for any reaction. Neither old-timer acknowledged anything but his own pasteboards.
"No law, but I reckon I'm a kind of authority. Garwood Baine at your service, sir. I am mayor of Prosper, its undertaker, doctor, barber, and owner of this fine establishment. Pleased to meet you."
Lattery took the dirty extended hand and shook it. Taking one more careful look all around, he returned to Baine. "I've been trailing a man and woman that might have rode through here. The man is skinny, long faced with sandy hair. He wears a fancy silver studded holster. The woman is a pint-sized, green-eyed blonde. Both of them are about 30 or so."
"Wanted are they?"
"Yes. They hit a bank in Durango and killed the teller. The fellow is Dan Wenders."
"The Dan Wenders? Out of Texas," Baine asked, eyes widening in surprise.
"That's the one."
"Damn," he snorted. "Then that gal must be Laramie Lee," he replied while pouring himself another glass of his own poison.
Lattery nodded. "That is what she calls herself."
"I've heard of 'em. Never figured they come near this place." Fingers rubbing the greasy nape of his neck in thought, Baine glanced up to the stairway.
Lattery followed his eyes.
"They came in about an about an hour ago," Baine said. "A downright unsociable pair, that is for sure. It appeared like they was mad at each other. They spoke no more than a dozen words and those were more like growls. The woman took one of the whore's rooms -- back when we had whores -- upstairs. She is up there now. The man, Wenders I reckon, took their horses down the street to the livery. Ain't seen either one since."
The news put Lattery back on his heels. Stopping for the night in this group of hovels did not make any sense. Mexico was at the most, was only four hours due south. Planning quickly, knowing that the man could return any second, he determined to capture the woman first, and then get the drop on the man as he returned. "Which room?"
"Top of the stairs, first door."
"Thank you." The marshal moved three steps from the bar when an angry voice called him from behind.
Drawing as he spun into the thunder of a revolver, the bullet pierced Lattery's right arm just below the elbow, his pistol spinning from his hand. Lattery held his bleeding wound, staring through the wafting gun smoke at the man in doorway. Baine dropped behind the bar as the two startled customers knocked over their chairs, stampeding to join him.
Hat cocked back on his head, Dan Wenders' equine-like face held the murderous grin of a brat pulling the wings off of a butterfly. Lattery stared at the smoking muzzle of the .45, striving to subdue the panic welling in his gut.
"You got careless, Marshal. I saw you ride in."
With his pistol was only a few large paces away, Lattery estimated his chances of diving for it before Wenders blasted him to eternity. There were no chances. The attempt would be suicidal, but he did not intend to die without trying something.
The outlaw appeared to read his mind.
"Go ahead," he nodded, returning his gun to the holster. "I'll give you a chance. Go on, you son of a bitch. You have troubled me for two months now and I'm tired of it. I intend to end here and now."
Lattery took a deep breath and leaned forward slightly, preparing to take the one-in-a-million chance.
Five pairs of male eyes shifted to the stairs, locking on the tanned woman interrupting the deadly proceedings. Dripping wet, barefoot, wearing denims and a shirt she had not bothered to button, Laramie Lee stood glaring at Wenders. Around her waist was a gun belt holding a nickel-plated Colt, her right hand resting on the butt.
Lattery watched her as she made her way down the steps. She was still thin, but no longer had the soft shape of a city woman. Now her tanned frame was one of tight, toned muscles and with a weathered face gained from living on the run. Her eyes glanced at Lattery, for an instant with a spark of light, then melting to cold disinterest.
"Relax Dan," she commanded, her face wearing the scowl of a schoolmarm. "I told you there would be no more killing."
"Careful, woman," Wenders snarled, his eyes not leaving Lattery. "This bastard is going to die. Now do not interfere with me or you might be next!"
"Do not do any thinking, Dan. You know that you do not do well when you try. And do not threaten me! Now I said put. . . your. . .gun down!"
"You know, Laramie," he said, a sneer curving on his face, "You've done got too full of yourself lately. You have become just plain too much of a damned bother."
Swiveling at the hip, Wenders made his move.
Tom Lattery had seen men fast with a gun. In his younger days he had seen a master shootist like Hickok at work. However, not even Wild Bill drew a pistol as fast as this woman did.
Dan Wenders gun barrel was still in leather as the blur that was Laramie's pistol rose and fired. The slug snapped the hat off his head, closely singeing a few brown hairs as it sped through. The pistol steady at her hip, she pulled the hammer back, descending the stairs.
"The next one goes right between your eyes."
Wenders went slack-jawed as he appeared to be processing, with some difficulty, what had just happened. Slowly bringing his hands up, palms out, he stared murder-eyed at the woman.
"Unbuckle it and let it drop," she pointed the muzzle of her Colt at his gun belt. After a moment's hesitation, which allowed his brain to make a life-saving decision, he obeyed.
"Dan," she said in a stern, low voice. "You have two choices. I will give them to you slowly, so that you understand. Ride out of here or end up dead."
"But. . .I. . .you--," he stammered, his face twisted in a combination of anger, disbelief and frustration.
"Go on. Take my share of the money and ride."
"This ain't over you greasy little trollop," Wenders said, backing away.
"It is if you want to keep on living."
Following him to the door, she watched while he stormed toward the stable, cursing with each step. Satisfied that he was no longer a threat she leathered her gun and gathered Wenders' belt. Moving toward Lattery, her face softened, losing some of the harshness.
Picking up the marshal's pistol along the way, she stopped at the bar. Depositing the belt on the counter, she returned Lattery's gun into his holster.
"Hello, Tommy," she said, a trace of warmth in her eyes. "It has been a long time."
Lattery stood silently for a moment, taking a long awaited easy breath. When he finally made to reply, he discovered that the words were hard to conjure.
"Yes. At least ten years. I see you have gotten fast," he said trying to subdue his amazement.
"You're damn right I'm fast," she said. "Natural talent and practice."
"Hadn't you'd better. . .um," Lattery gave a directing glance at her torso. Laramie followed his gaze.
"Oh," she said without the slightest embarrassment and started buttoning her shirt. "Right. First real bath I get in weeks and it would figure you would come along and ruin it."
The bartender and his two customers emerged from hiding.
"Lord o'mercy," Baine proclaimed. "Ain't never seen anything like it. 'Specially from a woman! Faster'n greased lightning."
Ignoring the others, she guided Lattery a table. Examining the arm as they sat, she tore his bloody sleeve away from the wound. Tearing a strip from the bottom of her gingham shirt, she wrapped it tightly around his arm.
"You'll recover," she said, neatly tying the improvised bandage. "Bullet just grazed you, but took out a healthy piece of flesh out of you. It will take stitches to fix it proper. It will be hard to use that arm for a little while. I suggest you retire from your current profession until it heals." Finally, she smiled.
"Never mind that," Lattery pulled his arm back. "You are under arrest. I have to take you back to Durango with me."
She leaned back, slowly shook her head, her hand moving to her face in sarcastic frustration. Rocking forward, she then poured their drinks. "Under arrest? You are going to accomplish this how, exactly?"
"I figured you would surrender."
She laughed again then took her whiskey down in one pull. Still smiling she refilled the glass. "And go to the gallows? Not a chance," the smile evaporated with a sigh. "But if it is any comfort to you, I did not kill that teller. A bounty hunter in Tucson, yes. Everybody saw that he drew first."
"Forget Tucson. As far as I am concerned, it never happened. Listen to me, please. I will see you get a good lawyer," Lattery said. "I know some real good ones. Adding to that, Colorado is not going to hang a woman. They never have. You'll do time for the robbery only. If I testify that you saved my life, a judge and jury will go easy on you."
"Can you guarantee that?"
Lattery's first reaction was to lie, but smothered the thought. He could not do it. Besides, she would know it from the first word from his lips. "No."
"What a great offer, Tommy," she mocked. "A chance to spend the rest of my life in a cell. I have a better idea. You forget that you ever saw me and I will ride out of here."
"Then I will have to stop you," Lattery said, both knowing that the threat was hollow.
"No. You won't."
"You would shoot me?"
A trio of heartbeats passed before she answered. Then, as in the blinking of an eye, her gun came up inches from his face. "I would not kill you anyway. However, I would fix it so that you could not follow me for a while. No matter what we are, or were, to each other, I will not let you take me in." Laramie twirled the pistol twice, then deftly holstered it.
Anger overwhelming him, he slammed his good fist onto the table.
"Damn it Laurie! What has made you this way? Why? What in the hell happen to you!?"
The name jolted her jolt visibly, but she quickly recovered, slowly shaking her head. "Laurie," she said in a low voice. "I have not heard that name in years. Sorry, Tommy, Laurie is not around anymore. Laurie had a habit of making bad decisions after we parted ways, so Laramie took over. I guess I just had to cut loose after so many years of being the prim, proper, good girl. I especially grew tired of being around a constant do-gooder prig and hard-assed, holier-than-thou officer of the law."
The revelation stabbed Lattery with the violence of a Bowie knife. Sharp, violent and painful. Stunned, he found it was impossible to reply with anything other than an apology. "I never realized. I did not know you felt that way. I--"
"Sorry. I did not really mean that," she looked away with a sigh. "Forget it, Tommy. You could never help being you and I know you could not have accepted me wanting to be me."
Gently she placing her hand on his, she leaned forward, locking her eyes to his.
"Too many wild times," she explained. "Too many worthless men. Well, way too many worthless men. That is what happened."
Laramie downed another drink while they sat quietly, each one studying the other. Lattery knew that no words he could summon would make her give in. Giving in had not been for way for some time. Upturning an empty shot glass on the table, she stood, breaking the silence.
"Well, I have no wish to start talking about old times. Now I am going to go upstairs, get my things and move on. Do not try to stop me Tommy. I do not want to hurt you."
Lattery rose, starting to speak, but she cut him off with a raised hand.
"It was good to see you again."
Laramie made for the stairs when the marshal arrived at a solution. Brute force. She might be fast with a gun, but he doubted that she was any account with her fist. A quick right cross to her jaw would put her down long enough to disarm and shackle her. Catching her as she took the first stair, he grabbed her shoulder.
"Bitch!" Charging through the doors, Wenders' cry was a split second ahead of the explosion of his saddle carbine. The bullet struck Laramie between the shoulder blades, toppling her forward.
Tom Lattery's instincts staved off the shock, allowing him to face the threat. Ignoring the pain of his wound, he drew and fired, but too quickly. The first shot struck Wenders in the leg, sending him to the floor. Snarling like a rabid animal, he rose up on his knees, levering another round. Lattery's second shot, this one to the heart, ended the fight and Wenders' life.
Lattery knelt, silently praying for a miracle, but saw that her wound was lethal. Lifting her and softly cradling her in his arms, he called to her as tears stated to blur his vision. "Oh God, please. No. Laurie. . .Laurie."
She coughed, red foam trickling from the corner of her mouth, she looked up at him glaze-eyed, with a weak, resigned smile. "As I said," she rasped. "Too many. . .worthless. . .men." Laramie closed her eyes and in her last seconds on earth, nestled her head into his chest.
"I did the best I could," Garwood Baine said. "Does it read like you wanted?"
Tom Lattery stood with hat in hand, in Prosper's cemetery looking at the grave. The words shoved him out of his trance. "Yes. Thank you."
"You are welcome, sir." Giving him a supportive pat on the shoulder, Baine turned to go. "May the good Lord grant you a safe trip back to Colorado."
Lattery remained for a few more, silent minutes. The hollow, numb feeling that filled his insides made moving or even thinking of moving, a challenge.
His mind forcing his body to action, he mounted, taking a last glimpse at the headstone, whispering goodbye.
NOVEMBER 25, 1860 - OCTOBER 3, 1890
Wheeling northward, he rode away without looking back.
Fred Mottern is a retired U.S. Army master sergeant currently living in small town eastern Tennessee. Writing as a hobby for many years, this is his first submission to The Western Online.