Published on Wednesday, October 5, 2016
By Elisabeth Grace Foley
They reached the bluff at sunset. Below they could see the ford of the river rippling wide and shallow and muddy, and on the other side of the river the clean brown slash of the dusty road cutting away through the sagebrush. There was an orange cast of light over everything: on the few spires of rock standing up alongside the road, on the necks of their horses, on their own faces and hands.
Randall McClenahan walked to the edge of the bluff after he dismounted, and looked down at the setting of the scene they had chosen to play. It looked a little strange to him— perhaps because he was seeing it with the eyes of tomorrow night. Tomorrow night it would all look the same, but by tomorrow night's sunset he would be an outlaw. By that hour a marshal and posse would be hunting him; there would be no place safe to stop or show his face—
Randall squatted on his heels by the bluff's edge, and listened to the jingle of the others unsaddling behind him, and thought about it more. Tom Burns had brains. He had been clerk in a feed and grain store until twenty dollars had gone missing from the till and never been heard of again. Tom had seen his friends' manner toward him change ever so slightly; had seen the looks people began to give him; had seen his job go at a flimsy excuse that meant the old man believed he had taken the money but didn't have the nerve to say so to his face. He had stood two months of that, two months of not being able to find anyone else who would hire him, and then he had taken his fortunes into his own hands and plotted— this.
And for himself, Randall thought— ? Why was he in it? He was in it because he had had enough; enough of crops that failed and cows that died; of every dollar he helped earn going back into fixing broken tools and buying the kids' winter clothes; of nothing for himself except the dubious prospect of partnership with his father in a ranch that would never turn a profit. He could never turn his back on it so long as they needed him...but the money in his pocket by this time tomorrow night was going to be something toward a start of his own, one day soon.
He heard a step at his side, a boot grinding on the sandy surface of the bluff, and Wade Snyder was standing there beside him. Randall got up, and for a moment they both stood there and looked at the river without looking at each other. It was funny, they hadn't been able to look at each other once that day. He knew Wade's side of it— the quiet little wife with corn-colored hair who didn't look over sixteen, the bare, struggling homestead claim, the baby that had died and the one that was coming; and the gnawing guilt over all of it that he could practically read in Wade's pale, troubled face. That was why he was here. And yet not once this afternoon, since they had set out together for this cliff from whose edge there was no turning back, had they been able to look each other in the eye.
Wade went back to the horses after a minute, and presently Randall turned away from his view of the river and came back from the edge. Tom Burns was sitting by the small unlit fire cleaning his gun. Randall watched him for a minute, then nodded toward the Colt and made an indifferent attempt at humor. "You been going on about how we won't even need to use those."
Tom Burns looked up at him— a look almost of disapproval at his levity, Randall thought. "We won't, unless it's to fire a warning shot," he said. "But it'd kind of spoil the effect if we went to fire a warning shot and the gun didn't go off."
Randall laughed. "Guess it would at that."
He was able to laugh, but he felt snubbed. He had only grinned when he made the remark about the gun because he didn't want Tom or Wade to think he was losing his nerve— hedging about the idea of using guns. Because he wasn't. He hadn't felt the least bit of nerves ever since this thing began. Was that right? It seemed like a man ought to feel something the night before he was about to put himself on the wrong side of the law once and completely. The idea that he felt nothing disturbed Randall more than the hold-up itself.
The orange light died out on the river; the darkness settled down. The three of them sat around their low-flickering fire, not making any conversation, but not seeming to want to sleep. From time to time one of them would half-smoke a cigarette, then drop it in the fire without finishing it.
Only once, after a long period of silence, Randall McClenahan moved slightly against the boulder he sat by and spoke to Wade Snyder. "What'd you tell your wife?"
"Said I was...going to see a fellow about selling a horse," said Wade. "Might be away all night."
"It all turns on our getting back to town before the stage does, and each coming in by ourselves," said Tom Burns, sitting forward a little with his elbows on his knees. "So long as nobody links the three of us together, nobody'll even bother about where we were tonight."
"Your own folks always ask where you been, though. It's the way of things," said Randall. "You don't have an answer, then they might start to get curious."
There was silence again after that. Tom was the only one of them who had no family living nearby, Randall remembered...he wondered if Tom was thinking of that. He half regretted that he had said that— but it was foolish always trying to guess what somebody else was thinking before you spoke, especially someone like Tom who was sensitive about every other word just now.
At last somebody or other made a move to turn in. They rolled into their blankets and lay silently in the dark, the fire gone out. Randall McClenahan lay awake studying the black sky faintly sprinkled with stars. He ought to feel different now. Midnight had passed by now, the midnight that divided their yesterday as honest men from their today as outlaws...they were here, on the brink, and there was no going back. But no, that wasn't quite true. The stage wasn't due in town till noon; it would reach the ford around eleven o'clock. Not until the moment when the hooves of the leaders struck into the waters of the river would there be no going back.
But none of them wanted to go back. They had made their decision; they were here; and so be it.
Morning dawned with what seemed an unnatural glare. It was the ordinary brightness of any fine morning. The three of them drank coffee, and made a pretense at chewing on hardtack that none of them were really interested in. They had their hats on and their guns buckled on early, their horses saddled, and stood around waiting. The rain slickers lay over their saddles, but Tom Burns had folded his bandana and tied it loosely around his neck, ready to pull up over his face when the time came. Randall could not bring himself to do that yet— there was something irrevocable about it— like tying on a noose...
But there wasn't going to be any noose involved here. Not even a jail cell. They would separate and drift back into town as planned, and no suspicion would attach to them. Wade would go back to his wife, and Randall would be home in time for supper, and for a while at least their lives would go on as before— and yet even if no marshal or posse ever came after them, they would be outlaws still; they would have committed an act that branded them forever in their own consciousness.
"Getting close," said Tom. "Half-hour, maybe. Let's go down and find our places."
One of the horses switched its tail and stamped a hoof, but neither of the other two men moved, not even to turn their heads. Then Wade Snyder lifted his head slowly and looked into Randall McClenahan's face. They were both asking each other the same question; both waiting for the other to do something to push them into taking the last step.
"Come on, let's get going!" said Tom Burns with a flash of impatience at their immobility.
The sharpness in his voice broke something that had been linking them together— freed Randall suddenly from the necessity of being considerate in how he spoke to him. Tom did not need that. Randall took one more look down at the bare dusty road, along which destiny was hurtling toward them even as they stood there, and then he turned around and faced Tom Burns.
"Tell me just one thing," he said. "Did you take that twenty dollars from the cash-box, or didn't you?"
"What does that have to do with anything?" demanded Tom, a dark red flush streaking across his cheekbones and seeming to darken his eyes.
"I don't know," said Randall. "I guess I just want to know why you're here."
"What difference does it make?" almost shouted Tom. "It's more than half-past ten. That stage'll be along here and we won't be ready for it! Does it matter why any of us are here?"
Once more, Randall McClenahan and Wade Snyder looked at one another. The expression on their faces was bleak. Wade's lips parted slowly, but he said nothing. Once again they were asking each other a question— this time repeating one that had been asked aloud.
"No," said Randall. "It doesn't."
Tom Burns looked from one to the other. "I don't believe it," he said. "Because that's what you think— ? You think it matters why I'm here? You think a man's got to have a good reason for going bad?"
"No...I don't," said Wade Snyder. He spoke painfully, around a knot in his throat, and looked at the ground.
Tom Burns' face, from being flushed darkly, had gone a set white. "Whether I took the money or not," he said, "what else is left for me besides this? What else have I got?"
"You've got plenty!" said Randall McClenahan, taking a step toward him with his voice rising loud and sharp for the first time. "You've got anything you want, if you have the guts to work for it like anybody else. You've got that." He pointed at the road stretching to the horizon.
There was a fine wisp of dust at the extremity of it, white against the blue sky. Closer and closer the stage bore on through the morning, straight across the sea of sagebrush, the hooves of four horses pounding, heavy harness jingling, trailing its dust-cloud behind. It reached the river ford at five minutes past eleven, and the leaders plunged in, sending sheets of murky water shooting skyward. Hooves splashing, wheels flinging water, the stage slowed slightly as it crossed, then rocked on its springs as it rolled up the shallow bank on the other side. As the team picked up speed again past the foot of the bluff, they thundered past two horsemen reined up by the side of the road, as if sitting there in conversation.
Randall McClenahan and Wade Snyder looked after the retreating stage for a moment. Then Wade looked back at Randall.
"Well," he said, "I'll be seeing you."
His horse took a few steps forward, and then he drew rein and glanced back. "Do you think he really did take it?" he said.
"I don't know," said Randall. "Either way, it acted on him like he had. He didn't care what kind of thing he did anymore."
Wade said, "I suppose— if we'd— "
"What?" said Randall.
"Nothing," said Wade. "I was just thinking."
He turned in the saddle and nudged his horse forward again. Randall McClenahan, before he turned into the road to follow, looked back across the river. Somewhere in the distance on the road through the sagebrush he thought there was another wisp of dust, growing smaller. He turned his horse's head towards town. The sun was overhead and the stage had passed the ford, leaving a bright haze of dust from traversing its banks hanging over the water, and he was still an honest man.
Elisabeth Grace Foley is a lifelong history buff and insatiable reader who continues to explore new eras of history to set stories in. Her Western novella Left-Hand Kelly was named a 2015 finalist for the Peacemaker Award for Best Independently-Published Western novel. Her work has appeared online at Rope and Wire and The Western Online. Her other books include a series of short historical mysteries, the Mrs. Meade Mysteries; and a variety of short fiction. Visit her online at www.thesecondsentence.blogspot.com.