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Published on Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Killing Hand

By Steven Clark

 

Editor's Note: This story is being serialized in two parts. The second part of the story will be published on October 25, 2014.

Part 1

Carson suspected something was wrong as soon as he saw the man from the telegraph office push in through the Palace's batwings. In carrying out his duties as a U.S. marshal, Carson Evers frequently sent telegrams from the office at Haynesville, so he recognized the telegraph agent the instant the portly little man stepped foot in the saloon.

After glancing around the Palace's big barroom for only a moment, the telegraph agent spotted him and started across the plank floor in his direction. "Marshal Evers," he said, stopping in front of the table where Carson was seated. "Message for you, sir."

Carson eyed the sheet of paper in the agent's hand. "Tell me you've got good news for me there, friend."

"Don't sound like it. It's from Sheriff Gable, over in Blackwater. Says they had an incident at the jailhouse. Sheriff wants to know if you'll come back to town, help him look into it."

"Incident?" Carson sat up straighter. "He wouldn't be meaning a jailbreak, would be?"

"No, sir. Not exactly. According to the telegram, the whole jail burnt to the ground."

   

Carson instantly felt his throat tighten. He'd been charged with bringing the fugitive in alive, and that's exactly what he'd done. Just a few hours ago he'd delivered into Sheriff Stan Gable's custody a living, breathing man—a wanted man—because Judge Parker had made it clear he wanted to see this reprobate in a court of law, not on an undertaker's table.

Carson choked back a curse. He'd had a bad feeling about leaving the prisoner with Gable, a man who was nearing seventy and who suffered from failing eyesight and a bum leg. "And I'm guessing Sheriff Gable wants me to ride back to Blackwater right away," he said.

"Don't say here in the message. Want me to read it to you?"

"That won't be necessary. Think I got the gist of it." Carson was about to say something else but instead paused and looked down at his own hand, which currently held a whiskey glass, three quarters full. In spite of the firewater he'd already put back this evening, the tremor had started again. It was his right hand, same as always—his gun hand. Within a couple seconds, his hand began shaking so badly he spilled a couple splashes of whiskey onto the table.

"You alright, marshal?" asked the telegraph agent, gawking at the marshal's trembling paw. "You nervous about something?"

Carson grabbed hold of his right hand with his left, steadying it. He set the whiskey glass down hard; it made a loud clink on the tabletop. "It's a half a day's ride back to Blackwater," he said. "I just rode in from there a little over an hour ago. Wire Gable and tell him I'd like to get two or three hours shuteye before I head out. Tell him I'll be along about sunup."

"What if he sends a reply? Want me to bring it?"

Carson shook his head. "You hang onto it. Don't want my rest disturbed. I'm sure you can appreciate that."

The agent nodded and turned to leave.

The marshal waited for the portly little messenger to push out through the batwings before he picked up the whiskey glass and knocked it back.

 

*         *        *

 

With less than three hours sleep, Marshal Carson Evers rode through the moonlit night and the still hours of morning, arriving at the outskirts of Blackwell shortly after sunrise.

Even as he rode onto the southern edge of the town's Main Street, he could smell the ash and the charred timber . . . and he quickly picked up on another smell that sickened him the instant he realized what it was.

Not a smell, he thought morosely, a stench! He gritted his teeth thinking of what Judge Parker's reaction would likely be when he discovered that Victor Coyle, one of the most wanted men in the territory, had burned to death in a jail fire rather than face justice in a Federal court of law.

Maybe it's God's justice, Carson thought as his horse loped northward along Main. Moments later, he muttered, "A little taste of where he'll be spending eternity. . ."

Several townspeople were already out and about. It seemed that the general flow of traffic was moving in the direction of the jailhouse. By the time Carson reached the burnt-out shell of a building, which sat on the northern end of Main, a small crowd was already gathered around it.

Carson dismounted and tied his horse off on a hitching rail on the opposite side of the street. Tying his scarf around the lower half of his face, he crossed over to join the curious crowd of spectators.

All of them, men and women alike, had covered their faces with scarves or other garments, so he didn't immediately recognize Stan Gable among the crowd. The sheriff, however, spotted him within a few seconds of his arrival.

"Marshal Evers," said Sheriff Gable, sidling up to him. "Appreciate you coming back here."

Carson nodded. He glanced at the sheriff for only a moment, then swept his gaze across the site.

The sheriff said, "Glad you mentioned you were stopping for the night in Haynesville on your way back to Silverton. Made it easy for me to find you. Only two hotels in Haynesville."

Paying little attention to the sheriff's remarks, the marshal stepped over one of the burnt-out walls into part of what used to be the sheriff's office. A portion of the desk remained, but it had been burned into two separate pieces, which had both toppled to the ground. A section of the wall behind the desk still stood; on the wall a few damaged rifles sat on display in a charred-black gun rack. On the other side of the room the bars of the jail cell stood upright, slightly blackened but otherwise whole. The wall that had once stood at the back the cell had perished in the blaze, leaving a three-side jail cell.

Carson crossed over to the cell, pressing a hand over his nose as he drew near it. Pausing just outside the bars, he looked down at the floor of the jail cell and saw the remains of two charred bodies. The sight of the blackened carcasses, with portions of the skeletons exposed, suddenly made the stench worse. Once again the marshal resisted the urge to retch.

"We haven't moved anything yet," said Sheriff Gable, stepping up beside him. "Wanted you to see it the way we found it."

"Who's the second one?" asked Carson.

"Well, to be honest, we're not exactly sure of the identity of either one of them."

Carson gave the sheriff a sidelong look. "You mean you don't know for sure that one of them is Coyle?"

"Maybe, maybe not. There were two prisoners—Coyle and Nate Edwards. Nate's the big one . . . he often gets liquored up and has to come get locked up to cool his heels. But the smaller one . . ." The sheriff's words dropped off suddenly as he seemed to get choked up. After a few seconds, he gathered himself and finished his explanation. "The smaller one might be Coyle or, God forbid, it could be Henry. Henry Ulett. My deputy. He and Coyle are about the same size. And . . . well, no one in town's been able to find Henry since the fire."

Carson glanced at the smaller corpse again. The clothing had all been burned off, along with much of the skin. And the face . . . there was little to distinguish the face from any other part of the charred corpse. All in all, no feature remained that could serve to identify the body. No outer feature, at least, thought Carson.

He asked the sheriff, "You got a dentist in town?"

"Sure do. Doc Phipps."

"Where would he be this time of day?"

"Why, he's standing right over there." Sheriff Gable pointed toward a heavyset middle-aged man who was standing at the edge of the crowd. The man perked up at having heard mention of his name. Carson looked over at him. "Ever do any work on the deputy's teeth?" he asked.

The dentist, Doc Phipps, gazed at him for a moment, solemn-faced, then nodded. Without being told what to do, Phipps stepped around into the cell and knelt beside the corpse. Looking over his shoulder after a moment, he said, "Anyone here got a pair of gloves?"

A man from the crowd produced a pair of gloves, which Phipps quickly donned. A couple minutes later, the examination complete, the dentist rose to his feet. Looking back and forth between the marshal and the sheriff through the cell bars, he said in a heavy voice, "Sorry to have to say it. I recognize my work. That's Henry Ulett."

Carson watched as Sheriff Gable fought back a rising flood of grief. He'll have his time to mourn, the marshal thought, feeling some sympathy for the sheriff, having lost lawmen friends of his own over the years. And then, glancing off toward the town limit of Blackwell, he thought, Victor Coyle is my concern now . . .

All over again.

After offering the sheriff a word of condolence, Carson exited the jailhouse through what remained of the front doorway and started across the street toward his mount. Before he made it a quarter of the way across, he spotted a man running along the boardwalk in the direction of the jailhouse. Carson halted and watched as the man ran up to Sheriff Gable and cried out in an excited voice, "Somebody stole some of our horses!"

Carson quickly backtracked to the jailhouse. The man, who looked no older than twenty, was gasping for breath, his chest heaving. The marshal approached the young man. "You said somebody took some horses?" he asked.

The young man glanced at the star on Carson's chest. "A U.S. marshal, eh?" he said, still breathing hard.

"That I am. And you are?"

"This here's Dan Middleton," the sheriff answered for him. "His family owns the livery here in Blackwater."

Nodding, Carson asked the young man, "How many horses are missing?"

"Two. Two of our best."

"Any idea when they were taken?"

The young man shook his head. "We don't usually sleep at the barn, unless one of the horses needs extra attention. All I know is it was sometime between last night and this morning."

Carson gazed off into the mid-distance. "Two horses," he said, speaking to no one in particular. "Now we know Coyle plans on getting someplace quick. He don't intend to waste time stopping to rest a horse."

As Carson turned back toward his mount, Sheriff Gable set a hand on his shoulder. "Where you planning to ride off to, marshal?"

"I was actually planning to fetch myself a cup of joe in one of your local eateries," Carson told him. "Coffee helps clear my head for thinking, and right now more than anything I need to think things through. No sense in me riding off without knowing which direction Coyle might've gone."

"You much of a tracker?"

"Fair," Carson replied. The truth was he'd caught more men just by examining the facts. When he got into the right frame of mind he was able to put himself in the shoes of the man he was hunting. Most men exhibited patterns or tendencies that gave away their intentions. He doubted Coyle was much different from most men.

Sheriff Gable, scratching his chin, said, "What do you know about Victor Coyle, marshal?"

"Some. Not as much as I'd like, I s'pose."

"How 'bout I join you for that cup of joe, then? I know a few things 'bout Victor Coyle that I think you ought to know before you set out after him."

 

*         *        *

 

Sheriff Gable leaned forward, planting his elbows on the tabletop. "So, you knew Coyle used to do detective work?"

Seated across the table from him, Carson nodded. "I'd heard he was a railroad detective. Somewhere in Colorado."

"Before that I mean," said the sheriff. "Before he came west, he worked for a big detective outfit back east. A good detective he was. Cracked dozens of cases, a master at setting up stakeouts, and especially good at tracking down fugitives. Brought in some men the law had all but written off."

Carson shrugged. "Sounds like someone we could use in the Marshal Service."

The waitress suddenly appeared beside their table holding a tray with their coffee service. Carson smiled up at her, a pretty brunette of about forty. She set their coffee cups on the table along with a bowl of sugar and two spoons.

"You boys havin' breakfast?" she asked, glancing back and forth between them.

"No thank you, Arlene," Sheriff Gable answered for both of them. "No appetite this morning."

"I heard about what happened to the jailhouse," she said to the sheriff. "Hope nobody got hurt."

Carson saw a look pass across the sheriff's face. On the inside the man was suffering, he could tell. From his own days as a deputy sheriff, Carson knew firsthand of the bond that could develop between a sheriff and his deputies. There was a good chance the sheriff had counted Henry Ulett among his best friends.

"Everything will be fine, Arlene," Sheriff Gable said, his voice cracking slightly. "Appreciate your concern."

Arlene nodded and smiled at each of them before making her way back toward the kitchen.

Carson sipped from the steaming mug in front of him, then looked across at the sheriff. "I know it may be hard for you to discuss, but what do you figure happened in that jailhouse last night? How did . . . your deputy get locked up in the cell? And how the hell did Coyle get out?"

The sheriff shook his head slowly from side to side. "I been turning that over in my mind all night. Even before you thought about asking Doc Phipps to check his teeth I'd been thinking that was Henry laying in there. Something in my gut just told me."

Carson briefly considered offering the sheriff his condolences a second time, but, wanting to keep the talk centered on business, he instead said, "You come up with any possibilities?"

Sheriff Gable stared at him a moment, then slumped his shoulders forward. "It was my fault, marshal. I never shoulda left Henry alone with Coyle. Henry's a good man and a decent deputy—a fine shot with a Winchester—but he's too trusting of people. He's the sort who believes every man is good at heart. I've tried telling him a thousand times that some men are just born bad, their hearts black as pitch. Henry'd never believe it."

Sheriff Gable paused to drink some coffee—and, apparently, to gather himself some. Drinking his from his own cup, Carson wondered if the sheriff realized he was speaking of his deputy in the present tense, as if the man were still alive.

Setting his cup down finally, the sheriff sighed. "Henry, being so trusting and all, can be damn gullible at times. I'm sure Coyle had no problem getting Henry to open that cell door. Who knows what kind of scheme he dreamed up? Coyle is quite the raconteur—something I reckon he developed in his previous line of work. For all I know he started that fire just to get my deputy to open the door."

That was Carson's guess, too. Coyle had probably hidden a match someplace on his body and when the deputy wasn't looking, he'd set fire to one of the cots in the cell. When the deputy came in to extinguish the flames, Coyle cold-cocked him and locked him up in the cell. It was an old trick, and if it was the means Coyle had used to escape then it was truly the deputy's fault, or else the sheriff's. Carson had searched the prisoner thoroughly last night before releasing him into Stan Gable's custody. At the time he was locked up, Victor Coyle didn't have so much as a toothpick on him.

A rueful grin crept over the sheriff's face. "Of course, any man who can break out of Yuma wouldn't have much trouble busting outta our little poke here."

Carson had known about the Yuma prison break; every lawman in the territory had been apprised of it. It had occurred nearly three months ago to the day. Coyle had busted out with two other prisoners, a couple of brothers who were serving time for armed robbery. A week after the escape, the brothers' corpses were found in an arroyo twenty miles from the prison. One had been strangled, the other bludgeoned to death.

From there, Coyle went on to kill others. His targets included the prosecuting attorney and three of the jurors responsible for his guilty verdict. What was most interesting to Carson was the fact that Coyle only seemed to target able-bodied men who had fighting experience. He'd hunted down the prosecutor—a man of forty-five who'd been a captain in the Union Army—but he hadn't gone near Judge Ramey, the aged, wheelchair-bound judge who'd overseen Coyle's trial. The jurors he murdered were all men in their thirties or forties, all ex-soldiers, one also a former law dog.

Since his escape, there'd been a number of lawmen and bounty hunters on Coyle's trail. Carson had only joined the hunt two weeks ago, as he'd been occupied with other work. He figured he'd just drawn the lucky straw, for he happened upon Victor Coyle almost on accident. Sitting in a saloon here in Blackwell, playing faro, smoking a cigar and sipping bourbon with a buxom young saloon girl on his arm. Carson had hauled the killer in without difficulty; Coyle had offered only token resistance. In fact, the marshal remembered thinking, there was little about the man that struck him as dangerous.

The waitress, Arlene, returned to their table to top off their coffee. As she walked away, Carson said to the sheriff, "What I'd like to know is what Coyle was doing here in Blackwell to begin with. I didn't study his file as closely as some, but it seems to me that he got the men he was after—and within the first thirty days of his escape."

"I've pondered on that some myself. I did study his file fairly carefully. Er, I probably don't have quite the workload you do, marshal. What I've surmised is . . . now, remember this is only conjecture on my part . . . Coyle has gotten a little bored."

"Bored?"

"That's right. Coyle lived a pretty exciting life back when he worked as a detective. Follow his records back and you'll see that the man was constantly facing danger, always on the trail of some hard-case criminal. I don't think he had anything personal against his recent victims. I think he went after them for the sheer thrill of it. And I believe that's what he's up to now. Coyle's looking for a new thrill. A new hunt."

Carson sat staring silently into his coffee cup. At first blush, the sheriff's theory sounded farfetched—verging on ridiculous—but after thinking it over a few seconds he realized it had the ring of truth to it.

He looked up at the sheriff. "Who would he be hunting now?"

The sheriff shrugged. "He only targets men who are worthy of his time. Doubt he's after me. And Henry . . . well, I think killing Henry was only a means to end. No, he's after someone else. Maybe another one of the jurors who put him away."

Carson had lifted his cup from the saucer. Now, as he raised it toward his face, his right hand started to shake.

As if his body knew even before his mind acknowledged it.

"I'll be damned." Carson set down the cup, his hand still trembling.

"What? Marshal, are you . . . Holy Jesus!" The sheriff's eyes widened as the realization hit him as well.

Carson scrambled to his feet. "He's headed to Silverton!" he blurted, a frantic tone entering his voice. Looking at the sheriff, he said, "I need to you send a wire to my wife. Tell her to take the girls and leave the house immediately. Also, send a wire to Sheriff Teague in Silverton, and another to Constable Warner in Haynesville."

Sheriff Gable stood as well. "He's riding with a spare mount. You'll need a spare as well if you're gonna have any hope of catching him. I'll get a loaner for you from the Middletons."

"Right. Get him saddled, too," Carson said. "Bring him to the telegraph office. I'll go ahead and send those wires."

 

*         *        *

 

Carson knew Ace, his chestnut gelding, extremely well. Having been partners for three years now, they'd reached a point where they could communicate without relying on words or even gestures. Carson knew Ace wasn't happy about the presence of their extra traveling companion, a nameless Andalusian bay. Ace didn't appear altogether pleased about riding in tow when Carson changed mounts, even though the whole purpose was to allow Ace a breather. But the gelding seemed to grasp the gravity of the situation—and he seemed to sense his master's fear—so he went along willingly with the arrangement.

A new thrill, Carson thought as he spurred the bay onward. The more he turned the facts over, the more mystified he became. What kind of lunatic hunts people just for thrills? Man's just killing time, Gable had asserted. Just bored and looking for something to do. But how can evil like that exist in the world? the marshal asked himself.

How in the hell?

As he rode on through the noonday heat, Carson couldn't help but allow thoughts of the past to take root in his mind. Thoughts of Victor Coyle's past, as well as his own. Of all of the lawmen in the territory, he—Carson Joachim Evers—had earned the reputation of being the best. Best at laying an ambush. Best at bringing in his man. Best rider. Best shot.

Best shot, thought Carson as a heavy feeling of shame swept over him. It had been six months since he'd even fired his pistol. He'd been fortunate that none of his recent cases required much in the way of gun work. It seemed as if, for half a year now, he'd been getting by on his reputation alone. But his reputation couldn't carry him forever. The marshal had known that someday someone would come along to challenge his reputation.

Someone like Coyle.

"Damn," he spat through the grit in his teeth.

Victor Coyle. The man was perhaps the cleverest criminal Cason had ever faced. Not only had Coyle cut the cable at the Blackwell telegraph office, he'd also severed the line out of the Haynesville office. That left the marshal with no means of sending a warning to his wife, or to the sheriff's office at Silverton. He'd asked Constable Warner at Haynesville for a couple of riders to accompany him, but Warner'd told him it would take a few hours to raise a single man.

Carson noticed, as he raised his hand to bat away a fly, that it was trembling again. Or still. . .

The tremor came and went, but lately it seemed to come with increasing regularity and intensity. The origins of the tremor were no mystery to the marshal. His hand had started shaking as the sun began to set on that day . . .

That wretched day six months ago.

The day he shot the young woman dead.

My mistake, he thought, for at least the thousandth time.

My mistake, her life.

Spurring the bay again, Carson quickened his pace as the sun reached its zenith and started its westward descent across a cloudless southern sky.

 

The Killing Hand, Part 2

It was still two hours before sunset when Marshal Carson Evers rode past the bleached bull skull that marked the perimeter of his property. The mud-brick home he shared with his wife and two daughters wasn't yet in sight. They owned ten acres, only about half of which was good grazing land. Mostly, when he wasn't off chasing fugitives, Carson just liked to walk the land—his own land. In the evenings he liked to sit with his wife on the bench he'd built for them—sit with her, holding hands and sipping strong coffee, while they watched the sun settle over the distant ridges.

His wife, Melissa, had been the biggest blessing of his life. She'd inspired him—not nagged or coerced, but inspired him—to change many of his misguided ways. Only a couple of the bad habits of his younger years remained with him. No more bawdyhouses or saloon girls; no other woman had even crossed his mind since Melissa had entered his life. No more brawling for sport—any fighting he did these days was strictly tied to his marshaling work. The whiskey. . . He'd managed to give that up completely till the incident six months ago. He would let go of the demon drink again one day, he knew for certain, but just not yet.

He swallowed hard. Just thinking about whiskey made him wish like hell he still carried a flask in his saddlebag.

Within minutes of passing the bull skull, he caught sight of the house. He felt the rush of warmth in his chest he always felt when he first glimpsed the homestead, but this time it was immediately dampened by an icy feeling of dread.

"Lord, let them be safe," he whispered, slowing Ace to a trot and narrowing his gaze on the scene before him.

There was no one outside the house, nothing moving at all except for some tumbleweeds skittering past the front door. If Coyle was here, he'd hidden those pilfered horses someplace out of sight. Or maybe Coyle wasn't here at all, thought Carson. Maybe his imagination had gotten away from him. . . It wouldn't be the first time the marshal had seen schemes and plots where there were none. His years in law enforcement had hardened him, turned him into such a cynic that nowadays he expected the worst from nearly everyone.

But the bad feeling in his gut wouldn't ease up. The picture of his homestead wasn't quite right. Given that it was the coolest part of the day, save for early morning, he was surprised that his daughters weren't outside playing. And Melissa . . . under normal circumstances, she'd be out doing chores, trying to get the most out of the day before the sunlight faded.

Still a fair distance from the house, Carson halted Ace. He stepped down out of his saddle, tied off Ace and the bay on a couple of juniper branches, then, after draining the last sip of water from his canteen and stowing it in his saddlebag, set out on foot toward the house.

Fifty yards out from the house he drew his pistol, crouching low to make a smaller target of himself. He'd intentionally built the house on a section of land where there were few visual obstacles. He wanted to be able to see, from a fair distance, any hostiles who might try to accost him and his family. It had never occurred to him that he might be the one trying to storm the hostile.

Approaching the house, Carson weaved back and forth in a loose zigzag pattern. Thirty yards out, he focused his senses on the house—listening intently for any sounds, staring hard at the front windows. He saw no movement through the windows; heard nothing except for the gentle keening of the wind.

He glanced at his right hand, noting with great relief how steady it remained as it gripped his pistol. For a few brief moments, as he stared at it, the hand looked like a foreign object to him, somehow detached and separate from the rest of his body. It felt strange to him, but the hand almost seemed like an appendage of the gun rather than a part of him.

The killing hand . . . That's what he'd called it with pride in his younger days. In all his years as a lawman Carson had never met man who could match him in a fair draw. Many had tried. Dozens. Maybe more. And all of them—every last one—had met his killing hand.

He blinked and the illusion was gone. Almost instantly, the tremor returned. "Not now," he whispered, trying to steady it again. Please, Lord . . .

Pressing his hand against his chest, he pushed the front door open with his foot and took a big step back. He heard nothing from within the house and spotted no movement.

Inhaling, he held his shaky gun hand out straight and barreled in through the open doorway. He met no one on the inside.

Quickly, frantically, Carson searched every room—every cupboard and hideaway place—in the house. Not only was the house completely empty, there no were obvious signs of struggle. None of the furniture or household items appeared damaged or disturbed.

Carson returned to the front room, where he stood for several minutes trying to puzzle through it in his head. Had the telegram gone through after all? he wondered. It didn't seem plausible that they'd managed to repair the damaged lines so quickly, but he supposed it was possible. Maybe Melissa had taken the girls into town. The cupboards had appeared well-stocked when he'd searched through them, but they may have gone for reason other than restocking supplies.

After pondering on it for a moment, he shook his head. He'd sold off the draft stock a year ago to pay for an additional parcel of land. With no horses to pull the wagon, Melissa and the girls would've had to catch a ride with someone. That didn't seem likely, given how overprotective of the girls his wife tended to be.

Crossing over to the open doorway, he stood with his hand and pistol once again pressed against his shirt. He heard a faint knocking, which he at first attributed to his heart pounding inside his chest. A few seconds later, he realized the sound was coming from somewhere outside—somewhere behind the house.

Carson ran around to the backside of the house and paused, listening. The knocking, he quickly realized, was coming from inside the privy, a hundred feet from the house's back wall.

Rushing over to the privy, he yanked open the door and pointed his pistol inside. He was met by muffled screams . . . and a scene from bad dream.

"Girls!" Carson dropped to his knees. "Elizabeth! Janie!"

The girls, both bound and gagged on the privy floor, were clearly relieved to see him, but at the same time he could sense their fear. He wrapped his arms around both of them, squeezing them against one another. He held the embrace for several seconds before pulling back. "Girls, tell me . . . where's your ma?"

One of them tried to speak, and after a moment Carson pulled her gag loose. "A mean man!" she shrieked, her voice frantic. She pointed with her nose, saying, "He took her that way. Toward the cave!"

Carson touched a finger to his lips. "Not so loud, Janie."

"Get us out of here!" Janie squealed. Tears filled her eyes and her whole body trembled.

"You girls have to stay put."

"No, Pa!" Janie shook her head sharply. "Don't leave us! Take us with you!"

"Janie—"

"Don't leave us!"

Carson pressed his hand over her mouth. "You girls'll have to forgive me." He pulled the gag back over Janie's mouth, then stood up. "I can't risk anything happening to you two."

He closed the privy door and lingered for a moment, listening to his daughters' muffled cries. "Sorry," he whispered as he turned and started off in the direction his daughter had indicated.

The "cave", as they referred to it in his household, consisted of a large outcropping of rock that jutted out over two boulders, forming a three-sided cavern that was about the size of an average kitchen. The cave was several hundred yards from the house, hidden from general view by an embankment and several large boulders.

Carson ran the first two hundred yards, then paused to remove his boots. It was a trick he'd learned from a half-breed friend of his. Barefooted was the way, his friend had taught him, if you wanted to leave no tracks, and if you wanted to sneak up on your enemy.

Tucking his boots behind a rock, Carson picked up his pistol and took off in a dead sprint, hardly noticing the jagged stones nipping at his calloused soles as his feet pounded the earth.

What did Coyle really want anyway? he asked himself. Could it be her?

Carson knew from Coyle's file that his original crimes, the ones that had landed him in Yuma, were rape, armed assault and murder. His very first victim had been an ex-lover, a woman who'd jilted him. Coyle had been an upstanding citizen until then, a crusader for justice. Something in him had snapped—something more than just his heart. He raped his former lover, then strangled her. A few days later, in a saloon in Flagstaff, Coyle stabbed his old lover's new boyfriend in the face thirteen times with a stiletto knife. He didn't kill the man, but instead left him permanently disfigured, which had surely been Coyle's intent. Or so Carson figured.

But this man—this maniac—was almost impossible to figure out.

Surely it's me he's after, thought Carson, as he sprinted onward, covering the ground quickly. He's only using Melissa as bait. He knew I would figure out that he'd come to my home, that he had come after my family. It's just like Sheriff Gable said, Carson reflected. Coyle is bored. He's looking for some thrills. What could be more thrilling to a master criminal than going toe-to-toe with a top lawman?

The marshal descended the embankment and when he came up on the other side, the cave was in his direct line of sight.

There, right out in front of the opening, stood his wife.

His heart swelled at the sight of her, and he pumped his legs harder. He felt so relieved to see Melissa alive and unharmed that he'd nearly forgotten there was such a person as Victor Coyle.

And then, when the marshal was only fifty yards from his wife, Coyle made his appearance, stepping out from the cave entrance.

At the sight of the killer, Carson faltered for a moment. Even from this distance he could see the smirk on Coyle's face as the killer stepped up behind Melissa and wrapped one of his arms around her waist. His other arm was hidden behind his back.

Carson felt anger buzzing through his body like a million hot needles. More than anger—it was white hot fury. Gritting his teeth, he ran to within twenty-five yards of where Coyle stood with Melissa. There he paused and, raising his right arm, thumbed back his pistol's hammer.

Coyle, still smirking, said, "Good seeing you again, marshal. Nice spread you've got here, I must say."

"Damn you, Coyle!" Carson spat the words. "I should've put a bullet in you back in Blackwell."

Coyle's grin broadened. "Well, if you had we wouldn't be having this fun we're having now, would we?"

"You harm a hair on her head and I'll . . ." The marshal's words trailed off as the tremor started up again.

Coyle laughed, a haughty, high-pitched laugh. "What will you do, marshal, if I harm a hair on your wife's head?" Quickly pulling his hand away from Melissa's waist, Coyle reach up and gave her hair a hard yank.

Melissa shrieked, and she tried to run but Coyle quickly tightened his grip on her again.

Carson saw everything in his field of vision turn red, as if a see-through crimson curtain had been dropped in front of his face. He raised the pistol again, this time staring down the sights. He'd made this shot before . . . on three occasions he'd made it perfectly. Similar circumstances. A wanted man, fugitive on the lam. And a hostage—always a woman or a child. He'd made this exact shot three times before.

Only once did he ever miss.

That day, six months ago. . .

"You sure that's your gun hand, marshal?" Coyle laughed again. "Why, you take a shot with that thing you might blow the top of your wife's head right off!"

Carson stepped forward, trying hard to draw a bead on Coyle's head. That's where he would aim. Coyle was a good six inches taller than Melissa. If he could keep the shot high he would surely miss her.

He drew in a breath, then, releasing it slowly, squeezed the trigger. The pistol barked and spat fire. As the report echoed off the distant ridges, Carson saw the bullet impact against the rocky outcropping, at least three feet higher than Coyle's head and nearly that far wide of the mark.

Amid the dying echo of the pistol shot, Carson heard the killer snickering softly. Glancing over at his gun hand, he saw that it was now shaking worse than before.

"You're really something, marshal," Coyle said. "I'd heard that you were something, and now I can see that's true. Only, to be honest, I expected more of a challenge from you."

"Go to Hell, Coyle." Carson tucked his right hand against his chest and covered it with his left. Beneath his left hand he could still feel the tremor. Trying hard to put it out of his mind, he took another step forward. "Let her go now and I might let you live."

"You are a brave one," Coyle said. "I'll give you that. Only thing is you're still just a little out of my range. If you would move just a few steps closer I'd gladly engage you in a duel."

Carson swallowed hard. "It's me you want, Coyle. Let my wife go. When she's away from here, you and I will duel."

"Interesting that you think you know my motives so well," replied Coyle, still grinning. "It's true that I'd love nothing more than to duel you over open ground. But you're dead wrong when you say I'm not after your wife. As a matter of fact, I am after her. Your wife is a beautiful woman, marshal. Fetching. Reminds me of a woman I used to know."

Listening to the killer's taunts, Carson felt a fresh wave of anger surge through him. The red curtain descended again, only this time it appeared as a curtain of blood. Suddenly it seemed to the lawman that his mind—the rational, analytical part—had shut itself off, like a telegraph machine no longer able to send signals. Instead the instinctive part of him—the animal part—the wild part—took control of his thoughts and actions. He ran forward as a deep, fierce growl emerged from his throat.

When he was ten feet from them, he saw the killer move the arm that had been tucked behind his back. In that hand Coyle held a sawed-off shotgun, which he swung up and aimed directly at Carson.

Still acting on pure instinct, the marshal dove to the ground as the killer let loose one of the barrels. Hitting the ground hard, Carson clenched his jaw as he felt hot metal ripping into his shoulder. In the very next moment, he raised himself off the ground just in time to catch a snout-full of the drifting smoke from the shotgun blast. Settling onto one knee, without even looking through his sights, he took aim. Part of his thinking mind came into focus, just long enough for him to notice his hand.

With the gun aimed at his target and his hand as steady as a steel rail, the marshal pulled the trigger. Victor Coyle, the rapist and murderer, went flying backwards, pieces of his skull scattering to the earth like bomb shrapnel amid a fine mist of crimson.

Melissa screamed and ran forward. Carson tried to stand up to embrace her, but his legs gave out underneath him and he tumbled forward onto his face.

A second later, he felt her touch on the back of his head. He knew her touch like he knew the feeling of sunlight on his skin.

"Don't move," she said.

Carson moved anyway. Though it pained him greatly, he rolled over onto his back. He yearned to see her face.

"Look at you," said Melissa. "You're bleeding like a . . ." Her words trailed off as emotion overcame her.

"Like a what?" Carson smiled up at her through the pain. "Like a dead man?" he said.

"No, don't say that!" She laid a hand on his cheek. "You're not dying. It's a flesh wound. A very nasty flesh wound, but you'll live."

"That's good, Lover. Don't think I'm ready to die."

"I'm not ready for you to die." She cradled his face in her hands. "And I know a couple of others who also need you alive."

Carson smiled, thinking of his girls. All three of his lovely girls.

"Maybe it's time for you to think about another job besides marshaling," his wife said.

"But it's the only thing I know how to do," he said, his voice becoming garbled. "It's a special gift I have. This hand of mine." He opened his gun hand and closed it. Opened it. And closed it.

"And just look at what your special gift almost got us."

Carson felt himself becoming drowsy—very, very drowsy. He would take a long nap, he told himself. And when he awoke he would kiss his wife and daughters and he would think long and hard about retiring from the Marshal Service. And maybe, depending on what he decided, they would start making plans for an expansion of the Evers family.

But first some sleep, he thought, still smiling faintly as he slipped off into a comforting dream.

THE END

 

Steven Clark writes in the Western, sci-fi and horror genres. He has published numerous short stories and articles in various anthologies and periodicals. His first novel, The Guerrilla Man, was nominated as Best First Novel in 2012 by the Western Fictioneers. Clark, who formerly worked as a radio disc jockey, teaches economics and performs as a professional storyteller and children's musician. Songs from his Parents' Choice Award-winning children's CD have aired on dozens of radio stations across the U.S. and overseas, including appearances on two nationally syndicated programs. He lives with his wife in St. Charles, Missouri.

 

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