In That Deep
A very short epilogue to General Delivery, after the death of Ed Caulder
(A big thank you to Hired Hand for her always excellent beta.)
10-18-11; 1400 words
The howling winds of the vicious dust storm had ebbed away to just an occasional heavy gust by the time Slim and Jess rode out of Laramie, on their way back to the ranch. After loping miles along toward home, they finally eased their horses down to a walk to give the winded mounts a breather.
“So,” Slim asked, pulling up to ride side by side with his ranch hand, “Why did you think Calder came to Laramie after you, Jess? Someone would have to be carryin’ an awful deep hatred to hire a man like that to kill you.”
“The way those outlaws hated you?” Jess asked.
Jess thought for a moment. He wasn’t sure how, or if, he ought to answer, but finally he confessed. “Slim, there’s things about me you don’t know.”
“Figured that,” the tall rancher answered amiably.
“Some are things you don’t want to know.”
Slim looked over to see that the cowboy had that look on his face, the dark, moody, troubled one that tended to show up whenever the man talked about the uglier side of his past. “Jess, I wouldn’t have asked if I thought that.”
Jess’ look was an equal mixture of surprise, gratitude, and relief. He nodded and was quiet a moment before answering softly. “There’s more’n one possibility.”
Slim waited patiently.
“When I was over in Rock Springs, that Evie, she never liked me from the get-go. Blamed me for Curly Troy gettin’ killed. And then when Hatch got shot, well, it was even worse. She didn’t get that money Hatch took, so she was likely close to broke when she left town. But a connivin’ woman like that, she just might have latched onto a new man by now, maybe a rich one, to give her all she wants.”
“Including your dead body?”
“Likely. A woman a’ that sort can carry a lot of hate.”
Slim nodded in agreement. “And if it wasn’t her?”
“There was a rancher I worked for a while back, a rich old man with a beautiful young wife, and he didn’t trust her. Or me.”
Slim sat up straighter in the saddle. “Did he have reason?”
Jess squirmed and looked away, off into the distance at the snow-capped peaks of the Laramie Mountains that soared skyward to the north of the Sherman ranch. “She was beautiful and lonely, and I was young, real young.”
Slim heard something in the man’s voice, something raw, tinged with a touch of want and longing along with a bit of what sounded like resentment. “What did you do?”
“I rode out.”
“Smart thing to do, but I can see where it might give a jealous man ideas.”
“Might,” Jess agreed. “And he sure had plenty enough money to hire the likes of Ed Calder.” The cowboy sighed, adjusting his reins while he thought about what else he should say.
“And?” Slim prompted, knowing there was more.
Jess looked away, out across the rolling, pine-clad hills. “A man who hires out his gun, even when he tries t’be careful choosing who and what he’ll fight for, he makes enemies.”
“There’s been men I killed, the kind of men who might have had fathers or brothers or friends bent on revenge, men who might decide to be judge and jury, but don’t like doin’ their own dirty work. Even the likes of Pete Morgan had friends of a sort, though I don’t reckon any of them had the kind of money Calder got paid.” Jess sighed. “There was a card sharp in Denver who threatened to kill me. And a cattleman down in Texas. And, well, I reckon there’s more than plenty of folks who’d be happy to see me get my head blowed off.”
Slim let the silence hang for a moment, then asked, “If it had been you Calder was after, Jess, what would have happened?” The rancher would never forget what it had been like, facing Calder. The gunman had been the fastest draw Slim had ever seen; then again, he’d never seen Jess in a straight-up gunfight. And sincerely hoped he never would.
“If you’re askin’ me who would’a won,” Jess looked over at Slim, his expression hidden by the shadow of his hat, his eyes unwilling to meet Slim’s gaze, “Calder was fast, as fast as I’ve ever seen.”
“You’re fast, too.”
“And out of practice.” Jess shrugged, and admitted, “Maybe, on my best day, it would’a been close. Maybe not, I don’t know.”
“And you don’t want to think about it.”
“I’m glad you didn’t have to find out.”
“Me, too,” the dark-haired cowboy admitted, remembering how he’d felt that day he’d gone in search of Calder; how he’d walked into that saloon, a man on the way to meet his fate, all of his senses heightened, his throat dry, every nerve in his body jangling with tension. He sighed, and his voice held an empty and lonesome note as he added, “Even if I’d have won, I’d have lost.”
The tall man raised a questioning eyebrow.
“You know how it is, Slim. The man who kills a gunfighter with a reputation as big as Ed Calder’s, he becomes a marked man himself. Men lookin’ to make a name for themselves, they’d be comin’ for me, just so they could brag they outdrew the man who killed him.”
“But it happens, plenty, you know that. The young and dumb ones, there are always lots of ‘em thinkin’ they want that recognition. They keep comin’ around, tryin’ to prove how much man they are. They think it’s a game.” Jess sighed. “A lot of blood gets shed, even when a man don’t want no part of it. But they hound him, goad him, keep diggin’ away at him until he’s cornered, and it’s pull that iron or die. Even if he don’t want it, even if he tries to quit, there’s no end to it. He can run and run again; try to hide, but they’ll find him, they always do. And they’ll force him to keep usin’ that gun over and over until he’s so dead inside that what happens to the rest of him don’t matter.”
Slim couldn’t miss the deep despair in his hired hand’s voice. “Sounds like you know somethin’ about it, Jess.”
“I knew a man once, we worked for a spread fightin’ to keep its water rights.” Jess paused thoughtfully. “He wasn’t a bad man, but he had earned a reputation for bein’ fast with his gun. When that fight was over, he was gonna quit, he told me, give up that life, take his wages and what he’d been savin’ and settle down on a little place of his own. He was tired a’ all the killin’ an’ he tried to walk away….” Jess stopped, and left it there.
“What happened to him?”
The cowboy’s answering words were very soft. “A few months later, one a’those kids outdrew him. Or so they say.” Jess paused a long moment, then finally went on. “When a man’s done with the killin’, when his head and his hand ain’t workin’ together anymore, he’s finished. And when you’re in that deep, when you live by that gun, there’s only one way to be quit of it, and that’s to be dead.”
“You ain’t in that deep, Jess.”
The despair was back. “Maybe. Not yet.”
Slim reached over and laid a reassuring hand on Jess’ shoulder. “And you won’t ever be, if you leave that gun where it is .” The rancher had watched his friend put the weapon back in its hiding place, alongside the chimney of the fireplace.
“I tried that once,” Jess’ right hand reached down and touched the plain walnut-handled Colt that now rested in the holster on his hip, “an’ it didn’t stick. I took it out again, Slim.”
“But it’s gone back now. For good.” The tall rancher’s voice was full of confidence.
Jess nodded. He wanted that to be true, but there had been a lot of bad times and bad men in his years on the drift. If any of them came calling, his resolve would be tried again.
He could only hope that Slim was right, that a man could leave the past behind.
And not end up like Ed Calder.
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