Published on Saturday, April 27, 2013
By Ken Staley
"Why are we here? Why have we stopped?" He hears her voice hiss in his ear, close by but without warmth, like the fading winter sun in front of him. He hides their horses below the ridge, away from the trail that snakes down the draw.
"Reese has to die," he whispers. "You know that."
"What'll you do then?"
"Nothin. It'll all be over then," he sighs.
"You could run." Sadness fills her voice. He has heard her cry before.
"Got nothin' to run to. Got no place to go."
"You could go west," she suggests.
"I am West," he reminds her.
"You'll go into town after?" She aks him. "What'll happen there?"
"I'll hang, I suppose," he faces the finality and the reality of his actions for the first time. They couldn't let him go, not after killing Reese. Reese is too well known, too rich, too handsome. It wouldn't do to let Reese's killer go free.
In the cold January afternoon, dust hangs frozen in the air. His blue eyes do not blink as he sights down the barrel of his rifle. Below him and off to the south, the dusty trail slides through the deep purple shadows and sage covered hills. His cheeks smart, stung by a slight breeze, as silent tears parade down his face.
"Are you crying?" Her voice whispers again, nearer, closer.
"No," he replies aloud, trying to push her away with his own harsh whisper. "It's just the cold."
"Are you sad?"
"It's always kinda sad when someone has to die." He wishes she would leave him alone. He must kill Reese. He must. And Reese always takes the same trail every night.
"What'll you do if he don't come?"
"He'll show. He always does."
He remembers Maggie's face, so peaceful and calm when he left. His wife of only two years, Reese's friend and lover before him. He thinks of soft, loving caresses and glowing memories and smiles and laughter and her ecstatic sighs.
"When you comin' to me?"
"In a day or two, I suppose," he replies. "This'll all be over by then. They won't take too long."
He cocks the hammer of his rifle and releases the tension by pulling the trigger. There is a satisfying click as the spring releases the hammer. He knows this is a nervous habit, but one he can't seem to break. He is too far away from the trail for the soft click to be heard for more than twenty feet. By the time Reese is within twenty feet, he'll be dead.
A winter sun does not allow enough light to show a glint from the cold steel in his hands. Early evening begins to swallow the small, hard sun and dusk settles as the breeze dies. If Reese don't show soon, there won't be enough light left to kill him. But Reese will show. Reese thinks I'm still off hunting. Guess I am, in a way.
"Besides, I ain't the runnin' type," he whispers to himself as the first faint echo of a horse's slow gait reach him.
"It's Reese," she hisses, her voice moving away from him now.
"I know. That's why we're here. Be still now."
Her voice fades and he prepares himself. His hands and feet itch from the cold, from being cramped in one position for too long. For the last time, he pulls back the hammer of his rifle. He pushes the butt firmly against his shoulder and feels the bite of cold steel against his cheek, reassuring and final. He can almost tell how far away they are as the echo of the horse nears.
"You're nervous," she scolds. She has not gone so far away after all. "If you miss, he'll get away. It'll be too dark for a second shot."
He tightens his grip on the rifle, knuckles white from the pressure. He blinks his eyes once, twice, driving away the tears brought on by the cold.
"You are crying," she whispers sadly.
His tears leave trails in the dust on his cheeks and he shakes his head violently to clear away her voice, her memory. She could never lie to him. One look at her face and he knew. Two months without her man had driven her to the edge, or at least, driven her to Reese. He returned from his trap lines and knew she'd cheated on him. Without thinking, he drew his pistol and shot her above the heart.
"I never loved him," her voice echoes through the hollow, drowning out Reese's approach. "I was just cold and lonely in all that dark. I still am."
"I know," he replies as the horse and rider appear on the ridge and start down the side of the old wash. He does not hear the shot or feel the recoil of the rifle, he knows only that Reese has fallen from his horse. Even in the dark, he knows that half of Reese's head has disappeared. He slowly rises from his hiding place and crosses to his friend, lying in the cold January dust. Even in death, Reese seems to be humming and smiling.
"Hurry," she whispers. "I'm so cold."
In sadness, he strapped her dead body across his pack animal. Now he wrapped Reese using the dead man's duster for a shroud and strapped him next to Maggie. Tonight they would be together again after all. He mounted his horse and started for town. He would join them in a few days and sort out the mess on the other side.
"I'll be waiting, darling," she whispers from her shroud next to Reese.
"I know," he says quietly as he hangs his head and hums a tuneless song, "but for who?"
Ken Staley lives and writes in the lower end of the Yakima Valley in Eastern Washington. When not writing, Ken enjoys working with stained glass and touring the various wineries in the area and sampling their product.