Published on Tuesday, February 24, 2015
By Elisabeth Grace Foley
There were five of us in the baggage car. Merrill lay flat on his back on the floor, his eyes closed and his face gray in the dim light from the window, his shirt soaked with blood. Art was jammed down on his heels in the corner, his back to the wall, his hands gripping the barrel of his rifle, spitting things between his teeth not worth repeating. Gene and Jim were at the two end doors, rifles in hand.
That was ten years ago... I thought of the scolding Ma would be giving us now if she'd been alive to know this fool thing we'd done.
It was supposed to be easy—running some unbranded horses across the state line, selling them quick in a place we'd been told about, and splitting the money with the man who'd given us the tip.
It wasn't really stealing, Merrill had said—more than once, like he was trying to convince himself—since we didn't know who the horses belonged to or even if they belonged to anybody; we'd just been told where to find them and where to take them. Looking up at us with hopeful eyes, like he was looking for somebody to agree with him. But I think all of us knew better than that, even Merrill. And I think we knew—at least Gene and I did—that if it wasn't unbranded horses it'd have been something worse. We hadn't worked in months; our prospects were as dry as the drought-beaten ground we rode over going from one parched county to the next. And Jim had started looking in a calculating way at the bank in each town we passed through. The worst thing about it was, I knew if he had planned something like that, the rest of us would have been in it too. Art was hot-headed and he was too much like Jim to ever go against him—and the hard truth was, neither Gene or me had ever had the nerve to stand up to Jim about anything. And Merrill, being the youngest, always followed wherever the rest of us went.
No. That wasn't true. It wasn't all of us; it was me he followed. We'd always been close to each other, closer than any of the others; I was the one he looked up to. For years I'd been used to having him watching me, seeing him glance at me, looking at what I was doing to see how to answer whatever came our way. It had taken me till now, kneeling in a dark baggage car with rifle shots ringing in my ears and my hands smeared with his blood, to realize it: that it was my fault for leading him along in whatever Jim dragged the rest of us into.
Well, it had been unbranded horses—and it hadn't gone over easy. Someone had found out too soon, and taken out after us, and now we were in an abandoned baggage car on the tracks outside town with ten or more of them outside, and they sure weren't going to let us fight our way out of there.
I turned around toward Jim. My voice scratched my throat with urgency. "Jim, we've got to give ourselves up. He's going to bleed to death."
"Shut up and let me think!" snapped Jim over his shoulder. "We're not through yet. And we're not giving ourselves up. I'll be darned if I go to jail over a bunch of horses I never even saw the money for."
I looked over at Gene. He stared back at me, and I knew he wasn't going to be any help. We were too set in our ways. I knew Jim was raging over being caught and he wasn't thinking straight. And Merrill was going to die there on the floor of the car unless one of us moved and did it fast.
Some kind of reckless panic blazed over me and I scrambled blindly to my feet and flung myself toward the door by Gene. "I don't care what the rest of you do, I'm giving myself up and getting help!"
I must have seen it coming from the corner of my eye and just barely dodged in time—the stock of the rifle grazed the back of my head and slammed against the door, scraping splinters and paint. Before Jim could swing it back again Gene pushed in between us, shoving me against the wall and blocking his way. "Jim, don't! Roddy, you can't go out there; don't try it."
"Don't you try it again," said Jim, and swung back toward the front of the car.
I went down to my knees again, a little shaken by the hit from the gun, and anger, and fear; but I'd done as I was told again. I was too used to it.
A louder shot sprinkled glass from one of the doors across the floor, and a thudding sound made me turn my head in time to see Gene slide down against the wall, a stunned look on his face. I saw rivulets of dark blood crawling down his upper arm and from the awkward way it hung I guessed it was broken. I looked at him—and then I looked down at Merrill again. And then I got to my feet, drew my Colt from its holster, cocked it and leveled it at Jim.
"Put the gun down, Jim," I said.
I knew Art was behind me with a rifle in his hands, but I wasn't worried about that. I'd heard him get up on his feet too and could feel he was watching me, but I knew he wouldn't shoot a brother in the back. I stood and waited.
Jim looked around—he looked at me, and at the gun in my hand, and then he laughed, harshly. "It's no good, Roddy. You can't bully me with that—you could never shoot me in cold blood, even if you wanted to."
He was right, of course, as right as I was about Art not shooting me. I lowered the gun. And Jim turned away, satisfied that I'd knuckled under again.
It was what I'd expected him to do. I lunged at him. He made a wild swing at me with the rifle, but I ducked under it, and brought my fist up against his jaw as hard as I could. He slammed back against the wall, then slid down in a heap, the rifle tumbling down over his feet. Art fired, startled into it, and I felt the bullet whisk past my stomach. I swung toward him and he stared at me, wide-eyed, with the muzzle of his rifle already sagging toward the floor. He wouldn't shoot again.
I pulled a bandana from my hip pocket and tied it on the end of my rifle, and stuck the barrel through the broken window and worked it back and forth. "Hey, you out there!" I shouted into the stillness. "Don't shoot—we want to give ourselves up." There was a pause, without gunshots, and I tried again. "Listen, two of us are hurt, and one needs a doctor bad. We're giving up."
There was a few seconds of silence, as if they were discussing what to do, and then a voice shouted out of the trees across the tracks. "Throw all your guns out. No tricks, or you won't make it to the judge."
I threw my own out first, then collected all the others' guns. Jim was still slumped down against the wall, half-stunned, and Art didn't resist when I pulled the rifle out of his hands and motioned to him to hand over his gun belt. I tossed them all out the window one by one. Last of all I bent and unbuckled Merrill's gun belt and pulled it out from under him, and threw it out after the others. Then I knelt down next to him to wait.
I didn't look at the others. None of them spoke, though I could feel Gene and Art looking at me. I wondered if, one day, they'd thank me for it, or if I'd split us into fragments for good. But I didn't care. My eyes were still fixed on Merrill's face when the baggage-car door creaked open, scraping shards of shattered glass across the floor.
Elisabeth Grace Foley is the author of the Western novella Left-Hand Kelly, short story collection The Ranch Next Door and Other Stories, and has an upcoming second collection, Wanderlust Creek and Other Stories, slated for release in spring 2015. Her first published story, "Disturbing the Peace," was an honorable mention in the first annual Rope and Wire Western short story competition. Visit her online at www.thesecondsentence.blogspot.com.