Published on Wednesday, March 15, 2010
By Ryan Kauffman
June 21, 1881
Dan sat watching the light filter through the dark room, the flames crackling as they made their escape from the fireplace. A dancing triangular spectrum glowed from the top of his glass of whiskey and illuminated the gun sitting on top of a note on the table. The gun had been a gift when he was a boy, a family heirloom used to signify his journey into manhood, to celebrate the path that his forefathers had cleared before him. His fingers followed the fluttering spectrum up and down its barrel, the metal still shiny and welcoming.
"Use me," he heard it say. I can't, he thought, I promised her I was done. "Use me," the gun repeated. Dan's gaze was fixed on the smooth barrel and flawless wooden handle. He shook his head and stood, his back arching to allow his eyes to stay fixed on the weapon. Warmth consumed his stomach, a feeling he hadn't felt in too long a time. He took the gun in his grasp and felt its perfect weight for a second as he straightened, his thumb strumming over the hammer.
No. I promised. He shook his head, walked across the dimly lit room and placed the gun in its leather holster on the mantle next to a rusty star and a worn Winchester rifle.
February 27, 1876
The breeze carried the chill of winter. Shiloh, the small Kansas town Dan had settled in, was glazed with slick ice and thousands of little white flecks. He stood outside the jail with an unlit cigarette pressed between his lips and looked up to the clouds.
He wondered if heaven was real, if he'd ever be forgiven for what he'd done. Sheriff Brown warned him of the snow they usually got in the winter months. Dan had never seen snow and couldn't help but be curious.
"It won't come if you're lookin' for it." The voice came from behind him with a chuckle. Dan turned to see Sheriff Brown smiling.
"What won't?" Dan asked. Staring at the clouds wasn't a thing that showed a man's toughness. He grabbed a match from his pocket, struck it against the scruff on his cheek, and lit the cigarette.
"The snow," the sheriff said, pointing to the sky and chuckling through a cough. "Nope, it only comes when you're not lookin'." Dan nodded at this, more of an attempt to end the conversation than of agreement. The sheriff let out a huff of warm air, making him appear as though he was also smoking. "When you get done come inside."
"Yes, sir," Dan said. He turned back toward the street and sucked on the cigarette. It was then that he saw her. The woman was carrying a bag of corn seed out of the general store across the street, her body appearing to be on the verge of buckling under its weight. Her long black hair was strewn across her face. He had already taken a couple steps in her direction before he spoke.
"Let me help you with that, ma'am." He quickened his steps toward her.
"Well, thank you, sir," she said. Her voice was quiet, almost like a whisper floating on the winter air. Dan couldn't explain why, but something about her tone made him feel anxious. He took the bag from her and tossed it over his shoulder.
"I'm Dan Welts," he said. He didn't recognize his own voice. It sounded shaky to him. She didn't say anything. They were at the wagon before he added, "May I ask what your name is, ma'am?" He tossed the bag into the back of the wagon and turned to her. Summer sky blue eyes stared back at him. He wondered if she'd said her name and he missed it. He hoped not.
"Sarah," she said. She smiled and curtsied. Dan, under normal circumstances, would have noticed her politeness, but he couldn't force his gaze away from her eyes. They stood in an awkward silence for a few seconds, smiling at each other. It was her giggle that snapped Dan out of the trance.
"Well," he started, clearing his throat with a small cough before continuing, "That's a mighty pretty name." He opened his mouth to say more, but she cut him off with a turn toward the front of the wagon.
"Thank you, again, sir," she said, stepping up to take her seat at the reigns.
"I'll see you again?" Dan didn't mean for this to come out as a question.
"Perhaps," she said, smiling again and snapping the reigns. Dan stood watching the wagon go down the street until it vanished beyond the saloon at the end of town. He would see her again.
June 21, 1881
The covered wooden porch gave decent shade from the sun and made the dirty breeze more tolerable to his weathered skin. He rocked forward and backward, staring out at the shovel that still stood straight up in the pasture like a beacon to remind him. He had thought to go out and bring it inside, but his heart allowed him to do little more than think. Why, he asked. I should have been able to protect her. He felt tears and closed his eyes to fight them back.
For a moment he saw her in his vision, snapshots of what could have been, what should have been, what he knew now he could never have. His heart jumped, forcing him to open his eyes and come back to the present. His fingers twitched and his boot started tapping at the wooden boards under him as the rocking stopped.
His head nodded as if someone had made a good point in conversation, but only the breeze whispered to him. It said, "You can't change who you are." In a singular, smooth motion, he stood; turning on the chiming spurred heels of his boots, and walked into the house.
The gun looked new, welcoming the idea of being held again. Its barrel gleamed intently, waiting, making the star all the more undesirable. "Use me," it repeated. He shook his head, fighting the warmth that overtook his being. She wouldn't have wanted me to. "She's gone," it responded. He turned away from the gun and made his way back to the table, the note still sitting in its place. He sat down, the wooden chair creaking with his weight, poured a glass of whiskey, and looked down at the familiar writing.
Now you know how it feels to lose something. You can find me where you killed my brother.
April 2-4, 1874
Dust was still stirring in the air when Dan arrived at the bank of Big Whiskey, Wyoming. A few brave but obviously scared citizens stood in little groups surrounding the scene of the robbery. His gut told him that he'd gotten there too late. He pulled the gun out of its holster and kicked back the hammer. Two bodies lay lifeless by the door. It wasn't until he got closer that he recognized them.
Deputy Rooney, Dan's first in command for the past fifteen years, was face down with his gun still in its holster. It appeared that he'd been shot in the back. The sight made Dan want to squeeze the trigger, as if the coward who'd shot Rooney was standing in front of him. He felt his face flush with the anger. If only he'd gotten to the bank a few minutes earlier.
The second body was the one that pushed Dan over the edge. It was the body of Deputy Jacobs, a young kid who'd started under Dan only a week before. He was laying face up with his arms sprawled to the sides. Jacobs' eyes were open, staring straight as if he was about to say something. Dan had seen the lifeless stare of a shot man before, but never on the face of a young deputy. Jacobs was only 21. Rooney had been fully aware of the risks of being a lawman. Jacobs was still a green kid, too young to have understood what being a lawman could lead to.
Dan let the hammer down with his thumb and re-holstered the gun. He walked over to Jacobs' body and knelt down. His hand was shaking as he reached out to close the dead deputy's eyes with his forefinger and thumb. Dan's breathing was fast and heavy as he stood and looked around the entrance to the bank, though he couldn't seem to focus on anything particular. He felt his eyes starting to water, but rage helped to keep them at bay.
"Who did this?" As his voice roared and echoed throughout the town he already knew the answer. This had John Haggard written all over it. The anger wouldn't let him calm down. He clenched his fists and yelled again. "Who did this?" He fell down to his knees and pounded his fists on the gritty dirt. Haggard would pay for this in blood.
He stood outside the Haggard's barn, thinking that the gang was surely in there relishing their victory. His hands tightened around the Winchester rifle, his finger itching to pull the trigger, circling the barn to decide on the best point of entry. On the backside of the barn was a small door next to a window. There it is, he thought.
Crouching as he made his way along the wall of the barn, he peaked through the window to see three men sitting in the center of the dark room counting their loot. From this view-point he couldn't tell which one was John Haggard, but he wasn't planning on arresting anyone. The rest of the barn appeared to be empty. He took in a deep breath as he pulled back the hammer on the rifle and kicked the door open.
He squeezed off a shot in their direction, hitting the small table where the three men sat. His second shot hit the one that faced him in the chest. The other two scurried into the horse stalls as Dan fired a third time and missed. Dan could hear the heavy breathing echo through the barn, but his breath remained calm and steady.
"If you give yourselves up then there won't be any more killing," he said. He pulled the revolver out of its holster and cocked back the hammer. His finger was itching to shoot.
"You killed James, you bastard!" This voice had a youth to it.
"I suppose you should have done some more thinking before you killed my deputies then," Dan responded. He was sure John Haggard had ducked behind the same stall. Dan wouldn't wait for more talk.
He walked toward the hiding outlaw, his steps slow and silent. He could feel his heart pounding, but his hand held the gun out without shaking. Dan could hear the two criminals breathing heavy. Had he taken the time to think, he would have thought it odd that a hardened outlaw like John Haggard would be breathing heavy in a gun-fight.
Dan bent down and picked up a stray horseshoe. The outlaws would be easier targets if he could distract them. He took in a breath and tossed the horseshoe with his left hand, his right hand tightening around the hand of the revolver.
When the horseshoe hit the ground, Dan stepped around the corner of the stall and unloaded his six-shooter into the two men. His distraction had worked. Neither one of the outlaws managed to get a shot off before his bullets hit them. He opened the revolver, tipped it to let the empty shells fall out and reloaded it before putting the gun back into its holster.
When he bent down to see which one was John, he felt sick at what he saw. Neither one of the men he'd killed was John Haggard. They were kids, even younger than Deputy Jacobs had been, no older than fifteen judging by the fairness of their skin. He felt his eyes water again, but this time it wasn't anger that caused them. This time, he didn't fight them back.
He'd killed three kids without thinking. How could he go back to being a sheriff after this? Who would trust him with the powers of a sheriff? More importantly, how could he ever trust himself with that responsibility? He knew he wouldn't be able to face the citizens of Big Whiskey again. He would need to start new somewhere else, somewhere that already had a sheriff, somewhere he could be the first deputy killed. Dan left Wyoming for Kansas that night.
June 19, 1881
"Dan?" The voice seemed to float on the breeze like a falling leaf in autumn, like a gentle whisper in his ear. He tossed the dirt from the shovel, stuck it into the ground with a hard thrust, and turned to see her.
She ran toward him, her bright smile contrasting the long black hair that swung side to side with each step. There was an innocence about her, something he knew he could never fully understand, but desperately wanted to. Her hips swung underneath the dress, a gift he'd given to her after they married. His mouth tightened into a smile of his own, but the expression didn't feel right.
"Dan," she repeated as she got closer, her voice still like a whisper.
"Sarah," he said. His legs took steps unconsciously as he spread his arms. She leapt into his embrace with a childish giggle, her feet off the ground.
"I miss you," she said, giving him a small kiss on the lips and letting out another giggle as his knees became slightly unsteady.
"I miss you," he responded, the tension in his face loosening as he ducked in for another kiss. Her breath was sweet and cool, a wonderful contrast to the humid air that twirled in the mid-day sun. He gently lowered her back to the ground.
"Are you okay?" Her eyes widened with the question. He shook his head as an answer, still a little light-headed from the new emotions that had overwhelmed him.
"I'm lost, Sarah." Her sky blue eyes still reflected all of his dreams, the dreams that could no longer be fulfilled.
"You'll find yourself again," she said, smiling and leaning in for another kiss. "You can still start over." Her words trailed off a little, as if to prod him into taking over the conversation in agreement.
"I don't know that I can," he answered, telling himself that this new life would be better than the last, his blood pulsing harder with each thought of the gun, his fingers itching for its feel. "There's no beauty to this world without you." He saw her sway a little, the response he intended. She nodded, touched his lips once more, then turned and started toward the house, vanishing in the humid breeze.
He stood there for a moment watching the path she would have walked back to the house, the sun and gust of humidity bringing him back down from his cloud, his face still tensed in a squinting smile. I tried to make the right choice.
September 13, 1878
Dan had been in love with Sarah since the day they met in the cold of 1876. He'd made it a point to talk to her any chance he got, but he still got the feeling that she wasn't interested. Finally, it was time to confront her about that topic.
"Sarah," he said, jogging over to her wagon when she came into town. Her black hair was shining in the autumn sun and her blue eyes once again threatened to entrance him.
"Yes, Dan?" She smiled as she greeted him. He'd worked so hard to get her to call him Dan instead of Mr. Welts. He loved the way she said his name.
"Well," he started, taking a moment to compose himself. "I was wondering if you wouldn't mind marrying me." That's not the way he wanted to say it. The whole statement sounded harsh coming out of his mouth. She blushed and shook her head. Dan wasn't sure what that action meant. "Is that a yes?"
"I," she began. She let out a breath before looking him back in the eye. "I can't marry a man who wears a gun for a living," she said. Dan had expected that his occupation might be a reason for her disinterest, but hearing her say it hurt more than he'd thought. He said the only thing he could think of.
"Sarah, I'm not going to be a deputy for the rest of my life." He hoped this statement alone would be enough to convince her. She smiled shyly and nodded.
"If you're serious about marrying me, then you'll have to give up being a deputy and move out to my family's farm," she said. Dan could see that future in her eyes. He liked that future, but he'd always been a lawman.
"Why?" He felt stupid as soon as he asked the question. It was a question, however, that some part of him needed the answer to. She took a step back, her eyes glazed over and her lower lip trembling as if she was afraid to answer. Finally, she spoke.
"Because I love you, Dan," she started, the entire statement coming out in a quick burst. "And I don't want to lay awake every night wondering if you're not coming home. I can't handle that." She started crying after the word "home". Dan reached out and took her into his arms.
"I love you, Sarah," he said, kissing her on the top of her head and rubbing her shoulders with his hands. "If I have to quit the only thing I've ever known to be with you, then I guess that's just what I have to do." She pulled away from him just enough to meet his gaze with hers.
"Really?" she said. "You would do that for me?" Dan nodded and then smiled.
"Well, I have no idea how to be a farmer," he said. She giggled a little at the statement. "But I'd love to give it a try." He smiled and ducked in for a kiss.
June 22, 1881
The note was wet, soaked with whiskey from a haphazard pour. He had fought so hard to change for her, tried to remain logical and different from the men he had always hunted. There's something about the past that won't let you forget it. It always finds a way to remember you.
"Use me," the gun said. He stood and rubbed his eyes, then drank the rest of his whiskey in one smooth lift of the bottle. "Use me," it repeated. He walked over to the mantle and looked over the gun. He picked it up. Its weight felt perfect. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, exhaling to a count of five, a practice that she'd taught him to fight back the urges, but it had no calming effect.
His eyes opened. He picked up the belt and slid it around his hips, fitting it slightly lower on the side that held the holster and gun. It felt good, the feeling that he had fought for so long to stay away from, and the feeling of justice.
The star sat at attention, begging for its inclusion. There's no use for you in this, he thought, running his fingers over the old emblem. He picked up the rifle and leaned it over his shoulder. I'm sorry, Sarah, he thought, and then he walked out to his horse, climbed into the saddle, and started riding north toward Wyoming.
Ryan Kauffman is currently a student in the English Graduate Program at Northern Kentucky University. Growing up the son of a western enthusiast, the first novels he read were the Sackett novels by Louis L'Amour. Ryan lives in Crestview Hills, Kentucky with his dog, Wally.