No Name on the Bullet


by Maddie Holthe





Death came to Calder the day I turned thirteen. Tall and skinny I was, all hands and feet, fast outgrowing my britches. Pa was long of limb too so I reckon I took after him; that was fine by me, for no better man lived than my Pa. For fifteen years he’d kept the peace in Calder. Although folks in town knew him as a gentle man, to drifters and troublemakers he was a man not to be called less’n they could back their play with a gun.

 

I sat on the front stoop of Sam Cooperman’s general store. The large sign swinging over my head proudly proclaimed: Cooperman’s General Merchandise, Hardware and Notionals. Coop, as he was known to the locals, had a talent for woodcarving, and had spent the better part of a month working on his sign; only last month he’d added the words “10 years of satisfied customers in Calder.”

 

Pa had given me an 1864 Henry for my birthday. That morning I sat cleaning and polishing it, admiring the shine of the brass butt plate. I worked the lever down and back a few times; it was smooth as butter. The empty magazine could hold fifteen .44 caliber rimfire cartridges, but Pa was particular about loaded firearms; said it did no good to carry a loaded weapon less’n you aimed to use it.

 

Sitting there in the sun, I had not a care in the world. I’d spent two pennies on hard rock candy, and one cheek bulged happily as I chomped away, trying unsuccessfully to whistle and chew at the same time. As I looked up, a stranger rode warily down our quiet main street, his eyes hooded and cold under his black Stetson, searching every doubtful shadow and alleyway. His horse was hard-pressed, covered with sweat and grime. I considered myself some judge of horseflesh, having helped out in the livery stable, and that sorrel gelding was a handsome animal, easily seventeen hands high. Winded though he was, his step had lightness to it, silently asserting he could still outrun anything on four legs that cared to try.

 

The rider sat lean and straight in the saddle, dressed in faded blues, his shooter slung low on his hip and tied down. My eyes widened as he changed direction and steered towards me. Unconsciously, I tightened the grip on my Henry. Calder didn’t see many gunfighters, but my gut told me this was one of them. I got up, eyeing him uncertainly. Suddenly, the whole town seemed deserted, leaving only the two of us. Across the street, the searing late afternoon sun glanced off the windows of the saloon tickling my nose and making me want to sneeze. A door slammed behind me, and I realized Coop had closed up shop.

 

The man drew rein, and one hand pushed back his dusty hat. He rested his hands on the pommel, regarding me steadily. He was more lean, sinewy strength than meat and muscle, his tanned face almost gaunt, the features honed to a finely drawn point. His eyes were a startling blue under black brows, and young though I was, I sensed shadows in them. I shivered in the heat, wanting to wipe my sweaty palms, but afraid to make a move with the rifle still in my hands. What if he went for his gun? No way for him to tell the old Henry wasn’t loaded.

 

He nodded at my rifle. “Expectin’ trouble, cowboy?” His voice was low and even, edged in steel.

 

“No sir!” I gulped. “I … Pa give it to me. Today’s my birthday and we’re… we’re goin’ huntin’ to …” I realized I was rambling and clamped my mouth shut, flushed with embarrassment.

 

The stranger’s cold eyes crinkled at the corners, and warmed for a fleeting second. He squinted up at the sun.

 

“Goin’ to be a bad one, son. Any place in this town a man can get a cold beer and a decent meal?”

 

“Saloon’s as good as any,” I said, indicating the Golden Nugget.

 

“Tell you what,” the rider drawled as he fished around in his vest pocket. “You look like a man I can trust. I need someone to look after my horse. Give him a good rubdown and some feed and water. The livery far from here?”

 

“No sir, just down the street by the blacksmith’s. I’d be proud to take him for you, mister.”

 

“What’s your name, son?”

 

“Luke, Luke Trent.”

 

Shimmering in the sun, a coin sailed through the air. I caught it with my left hand. A whole dollar! Just to water his horse!

 

“Thanks, mister! But you don’t have to pay me. For this horse, I’d be glad to do it for nothin’.”

 

He smiled then, and there was a shaft of sunlight in that smile, banishing the shadows in his eyes. I found myself basking his presence, no longer apprehensive.

 

“Well, young Luke, I appreciate that, but take it anyway. Call it a birthday present.”

 

He dismounted, coming down light and easy on his feet. I took the reins and the sorrel nosed at me, inquisitive, friendly as a pup.

 

“I’ll be in the saloon,” the stranger said as he walked across the street.

 

I watched him go, and it dawned on me that he had never told me his name.

 

*****

 

He had come from the south, through the badlands, where water and game were scarce, and his throat was parched and sore. He knuckled sweat and sand out of his stinging eyes. It had been a long, hard ride but the man who hired him in Sweetwater was paying top wages. He had been down to his last few dollars… not in a position to be choosy.

 

Jess Harper had come to Calder to kill a man.

 

*****

 

He slapped at his vest, raising dust and pushed through the batwing doors of the saloon. He stepped quickly to one side, away from the door, waiting while his eyes adjusted to the semi-gloom inside. The place was no different from any other saloon in the cow towns along the trail he rode. A battle-scarred narrow bar ran the length on the room with a huge, vulnerable-looking mirror behind it. Glassware and bottles were stacked on either side of the battered cash register and a dozen or so tables were scattered about the room, only a third of them occupied. He saw no potential trouble at any of them, except perhaps the table in the far corner where three young men argued over a poker game. The rigs they packed seemed too fancy for ordinary cowhands. Out of the corner of his eye he caught the bartender staring at him, a look of shocked recognition on his rotund face. Jess bared his teeth in a feral smile and moved slowly to the bar.

 

*****

 

I tended the sorrel as though my life depended on it, currying his coat and mane to a burnished sheen. He deserved the best, his lines long and smooth, muscles rippling under the skin. I even cajoled old Pop Wheeler into letting me feed him some oats. I was scratching his forehead when the shooting began.

 

“What in thunder?” Wheeler muttered and we barreled out of the livery stable together. I cast a backward glance at the sorrel and my heart caught in my throat. The same magnificent animal which had nibbled playfully at my hand suddenly thrashed frantically in his stall, snorting and wild-eyed with fear. I ran back to him and tried to grab the bridle, but he tossed his head and snapped at me.

 

“Easy, boy, easy,” I whispered. “Ain’t nothin’ to be afraid of, just some cowpokes lettin’ off steam, I reck …”

 

I broke off, and unable to explain why, I knew what the horse had sensed immediately. The shooting up the street involved his owner, the stranger with the gleaming, blue-steeled shooting iron. I whirled and ran, colliding with Wheeler who had stopped just outside the livery. Up the street I could see people gathering outside the saloon. I heard someone shouting, but could not make out the words. Then I saw my Pa’s tall, broad-shouldered figure cross the street at a run, pushing his way through the crowd. I picked up my feet and made tracks. If it involved the sheriff, it had to be serious. Fearing a little for my Pa, and, oddly, also for the owner of the sorrel, I covered the distance between the stable and the saloon in record time. I jumped on the sidewalk and was on my way into the saloon when someone grabbed me. I yelped in fright, lashing out with my feet.

 

“Ow, fer crissake, Luke! You hold still now. You can’t go in there.”

 

I turned to see Hank Lawson, owner of the town’s only bath and barbershop. He still held a lather-covered razor in one hand, and from the bloodstains on his apron, I reckoned his hand had slipped when the shooting started.

 

“You let go of me, Hank!” I hollered. “I got a right! My Pa’s in there!”

 

Furious, I kicked out at him again and twisted loose. I sidestepped another pair of arms and dove under the doors, loaded for bear. The Nugget was in an uproar, tables were overturned with cards and broken glass strewn everywhere. The mirror over the bar was shattered, along with several bottles; the smell of raw whiskey and beer mingled with sweat and cordite. My eyes found Pa, his back to me, facing the man who only an hour ago had paid me a dollar to take care of his horse. The stranger held a gun, and it was pointed straight at my Pa.

 

“I didn’t want any of this, Sheriff,” he said in his low, quiet voice. He gestured toward the back of the room, and I saw a young man sprawled on the floor, his head propped against the wall at an odd angle. His eyes stared wide open, a bewildered look frozen on his face. I could see two holes in his left breast pocket, no further apart’n a silver dollar. There wasn’t much blood, which surprised me, until I saw a widening stain soaking into the floorboards beneath him. The bullets must’ve slammed right through him. My stomach turned queasy for a second.

 

“Jess Harper,” Pa said slowly. “Last I heard you were hirin’ out as a town tamer down south. What the hell are you doin’ in Calder?”

 

I watched, bug-eyed, as the gunfighter eased the hammer down and the slid the gun back into its holster. His face was drawn, the eyes dark and haunted.

 

Jess Harper! In our town! And he had trusted me to take care of his horse! My head swelled with unreasonable pride as I recalled some of the stories I’d heard about him, the drifter with a draw so fast no one was sure they’d seen it happen. His gun was for hire, they said, but not just to the highest bidder. I had heard he was something of a maverick, fighting for lost causes for no more pay than a square meal and a roof over his head. Jess Harper, larger than life, here in Calder!

 

“Got a job to do, Sheriff,” he drawled and hitched his elbows on the bar. “Soon’s it’s done I’ll be on my way.”

 

“You’re a professional gun for hire, Harper,” my Pa said sharply. “There can’t possibly be anyone in Calder to warrant your attention. I know every man-jack here, have for many years.”

 

Harper shrugged, a peculiar look on his face as he stared at my Pa. Then his eyes shifted as he saw me standing by the door. Pa swung around and I knew there’d be hell to pay.

 

“What’re you doin’ here, young Luke?” Jess Harper said quickly, brushing past Pa. “This ain’t no place for a young’un.”

 

“I… I came to tell you I got your horse all fed and watered,” I said lamely, looking askance at Pa, seeing the tight set of his lips.

 

“You two know each other?” Pa said. “Son, you wanna tell me what this is all about?”

 

“We met when I rode in,” Harper said. “I asked him to stable my horse for me, that’s all.”

 

“Gave me a whole silver dollar for it, too,” I said proudly, and dug it out of my pocket. “See.”

 

“Give it back to him, Luke,” Pa said quietly.

 

“But, Pa … “

 

“Now!”

 

I knew that tone of voice, and it brooked no argument. Reluctantly, I shuffled over to Harper and handed back his dollar. He hesitated, and then took it, giving my hand a quick squeeze in the bargain.

 

“So, you’re the sheriff’s son, eh?”

 

“Yessir,” I muttered, hangdog and angry. Angry at Pa for dressing me down in front of Jess Harper, and angry at myself for being only thirteen, too young to ride the trail with the likes of Jess.

 

“Go on outside, Luke,” Pa said. He turned to Harper, and as I sidled toward the door, I heard him say “Stay away from him, Harper. He’s young and impressionable, and given to hero worship. You’re a hired gun, even when you put on a badge to clean up a town. Look at you! You haven’t been in Calder more’n a couple of hours, and already there’s a man dead and his two friends shot up.”

 

I stopped short, and took another look around. Sure enough, there was old Doc Hawkins over in the corner, tending two young cowpokes, one of whom looked to be more dead’n alive, his right hand shattered and bloody. His friend was holding his left side, cursing and moaning that he was bleeding to death.

 

“You’ll keep,” Doc Hawkins grunted, cutting up bandages. “Jest hold still, and thank the good Lord that Harper didn’t kill you. You had it coming, from what I hear.”

 

“They picked the fight, Sheriff,” Jess said. “If your fat bartender here hadn’t announced my name to the whole bar, these fellows might still be in one piece.”

 

I watched him fish out the makings and roll a cigarette with long, slim fingers, admiring the quick, spare movements. A thumbnail scraped a match, and he regarded my Pa through half-closed eyes. The bat-wing doors creaked in the breeze, dust motes dancing in the light that filtered in. I held my breath against the tension in the room.

 

“It was a fair fight, Sheriff,” the bartender ventured. “I seen it all. That cowboy was lookin’ to put a notch in his gun. Harper gave him a chance to back out of it, but he was feelin’ ten feet tall with his friends in back of him.”

 

Pa scratched at his sweaty blond hair, a gesture he used when he was frustrated.

 

“Yeah,” he sighed wearily. “Yeah, I’ll bet it was a fair fight. Three against one! You’ve got quite a story to sell your customers now, Hal. Should be good for business.”

 

His eyes bored into me again.

 

“I’m goin’, I’m goin’, Pa,” I yelled and turned tail.

 

I stopped by the livery stable to look in on Jess’ horse. I stroked his silken nose, and whispered into his ear that his master was all right. I sniffed the familiar smell of warm horseflesh, saddle leather and fresh hay, taking comfort in it. It was turning out to be quite a birthday.

 

“You forgot this, Luke,” Pop Wheeler said, handing me my rifle. Then he held out a box of cartridges. “Oh, and Happy Birthday!”

 

“Gosh, thanks, Pop!”

 

Pop Wheeler was a short, stocky man, his head sat square on his shoulders, with no neck to speak of. One ear was plastered against his head, like a crumpled postage stamp that had been stuck on crooked. His fists were rough and scarred, and he took dirt from no man. When school was out and my chores done, I like to hang out with the old man, listening to his stories of the days when he was a bare-knuckle fighter of some repute. The stories got better each time I heard them.

 

“You take care now, son,” Wheeler admonished as I loaded the Henry. “You know how your Pa feels about youngsters and firearms.”

 

I grinned at him and leaned against the sorrel, rifle at the ready. If I had felt any taller I would’ve gone plumb through the roof.

 

“That’s quite a horse,” the old man said. “Harper must set store by you, Luke, lettin’ you take care of his mount that way.”

 

I stared at Pop Wheeler in open-mouthed astonishment. He sat on an overturned barrel by the door, his blacksmith’s apron on the floor, his legs stretched out in front of him. He crinkled a smile at me, looking for all the world like an aggressively friendly porcupine, with his stubbly gray beard and snub nose.

 

“You know him? Pop Wheeler, you never told me knew any gunfighters!”

 

Wheeler fished out his chewed-up old pipe and tamped it down. He flicked a match, and took his time lighting up. I waited impatiently, knowing it did no good to push the man; he would just turn ornery and clam up on me.

 

“Ah,” Wheeler smacked on the pipe stem. “First pipe of the day. Sure does taste fine.” He spat to one side, and squinted at me through the smoke. “Cain’t rightly say’s I know him, young Luke, but I seen him in action. Been a long time now, but judging from what happened today, I reckon he ain’t changed none. Saw him clean up a town once, down Texas way, godforsaken place called Paradise.”

 

He guffawed, choked on the smoke and coughed violently. I thumped him on the back, and he crowed like a rooster in a hen house, tears streaming down his cheeks.

 

“Arrrghh,” he wheezed, finally catching his breath. “Ahem, thankee, boy, thankee. Well, now, them townsfolks hired Jess Harper to clean out the outlaw element that had taken over. Fight fire with fire, ya know. Things were so bad decent folk were afraid to venture outside. Harper posted a sign: ‘No Firearms within City Limits.’ And sure enough, them boys took it unkindly. Jess took out the leader right there on Main Street, along with three of his gang. The rest of them packed up and skedaddled. You ain’t ever seen the likes of Jess Harper with a six-shooter. Hell, I’m still not sure I saw it.” He shook his head.

 

I pulled up a crate and sat down next to him. I eyed his pipe and remembered Jess’ cigarette, wishing I was old enough to smoke. Sighing, I stuck a straw in the corner of my mouth and nibbled on it, brows drawn together.

 

“Yep, sounds like Jess all right,” I said sagely.

 

“The town treated him badly, though,” Wheeler muttered. “Soon’s the trouble was over, they wanted the badge back and him out of town. Said they couldn’t have a marshal with his kind of reputation. Would draw other gunfighters like flies to molasses. I heard stories of him helpin’ out folks that couldn’t afford to give him more’n a roof over his head. If he’s really out to kill someone here in Calder I think … “

 

He got up with an oath and yanked the pipe out of his mouth. Startled, I jumped to my feet and followed his gaze. Main Street was quiet again. The crowds had dispersed, seeking shelter from the heat and dust. A door slammed somewhere, and I heard a woman’s voice raised in anger. Tumbleweeds raised a mutt dozing in the shade of the water trough, and he slunk away, yapping furiously.

 

Two men stood on the sidewalk in front of the saloon, and as I strained my eyes, they stepped into the middle of the street facing each other. There were no more’n twenty paces between them. It was Jess Harper and my Pa.

 

“What are they doin’?” I said aloud, a cold trickle of fear raising the hackles on my neck.

 

Even as I spoke, I saw Pa reach down and slip the thong on his gun. I loved my Pa more than anyone else in the world. Ma had died when I was but a shave tail, and he had raised me ever since. He was the greatest man I knew, and faster than most with a gun and a rifle, but I knew with dread certainty that he was no match for Jess Harper. I tried to shout, but found my throat so dry I could barely muster a raspy croak. Heedless of Wheeler’s warning cry, I stormed towards them, rifle in hand, tears in my eyes. My heart was bursting in my chest; they were so far away, and I knew I would be too late!

 

*****

 

“I got no quarrel with you, Trent,” Jess said quietly. “You can walk away from this.”

 

The sun was dipping towards the horizon. Sweat trickled into the sheriff’s eyes, the late hour bringing no relief from the heat. His chest felt leaden; he could barely catch his breath. Perhaps it was the badge. At times it seemed too much for any one man to carry. He licked his lips. They tasted of salt and dust, and he swallowed tightly.

 

“Can’t do that, Jess.” His voice was hoarse. “This is my town, and it’s my job to protect it. I can’t stand by and watch you go gunnin’ for one of its citizens. You wont’ leave town until your … your business is done, so …” He shrugged as his voice trailed off.

 

“Luke’s a fine boy, Trent. Something to be proud of. He needs his father.”

 

Trent managed a wry smile. “You that sure you can take me?”

 

“I don’t want to have to find out,” Jess said. His throat was dry, and there was an ache behind his eyes. He didn’t want this, any of it. Trent was a good man and this seemed a good town, but he had an embittered, vengeful old man’s bounty money in his pocket. He squared his shoulders wearily, pushing his hat off his forehead. As he did, he caught a fleeting glimpse of movement on the roof the general store. His eyes narrowed to slits. There it was again.

 

“Harper! Don’t do it!” Trent yelled as he saw the other man take a lightening step to one side, his right hand flashing down and up. The sheriff drew, faster than he had ever palmed a gun before, but even as the gun came up he knew he would never make it. As Harper’s gun cleared the holster, Trent heard a wild yell followed by a rifle shot. Jess Harper slewed around, his gun spewing death over the sheriff’s head. Trent jerked the trigger, too quick, too anxious.

 

The gunfighter’s shots came fast, sounding like a continuous round. As the gunfire subsided, the lawman heard a crash and whirled in time to see Sam Cooperman come tumbling off the roof of his store, a rifle still clutched in his hand. He struck the store sign on his way down, bringing it crashing into the street with him. Trent heard a half-choked cry, and saw his son rush stumbling towards him, white-faced and stricken. Jess was swaying on his feet, his right side bloody. He had been shot in the back and the only one behind him was young Luke Trent.

 

*****

 

“Pa! Pa!” I yelled and dropped the rifle. “Pa, you all right?”

 

Thunderstruck, Pa stared at me. His eyes went from my face to the dead man in the street, and then to the gunfighter struggling to stand. Suddenly the dreadful truth dawned on me. Perhaps there had been a joker in the game Jess Harper had dealt when he rode into Calder. Sam Cooperman? Coop? But how was it possible? Jess had not been shooting at my Pa. He was gunning for Coop, which meant I had shot him in the back while he saved my Pa’s life! My head reeled, and the Henry dropped from my nerveless fingers.

 

“I thought he was going to kill you,” I said tonelessly.

 

Pa holstered his gun, and walked over the body. Slowly, he bent down, turning the storekeeper over on his back. There was not much left of Samuel Cooperman’s face. Harper’s shot had taken him in the throat, and he struck the ground head first. What remained was pockmarked with slivers of wood from the store sign he had been so proud of.

 

“Coop?” Pa whispered. “It was Sam Cooperman you were after?”

 

Jess took a few unsteady steps towards him. I wanted to say something, to explain. But how could I? He clamped a hand on my shoulder, and I stood up straight, trying to give him some of my strength. He took a deep breath, and I could see the pain it caused him. Harper smiled at me, the hot dusty wind stinging his face, bringing tears to his eyes. Perhaps it was not just the wind. We both turned to Pa.

 

“My son damn near killed you,” Pa said accusingly. “And you weren’t even shootin’ at me. What the hell’s goin’ on, Jess?”

 

“It’s a long story.” Jess stopped. His voice was raw, as if he’d been yelling at the top of his lungs for a very long time. He tried again.

 

“He was just makin’ sure, Trent, coverin’ his tracks.”

 

Pa shook his head. “I’ve known the man for over ten years, Jess. We … we played chess together on Sundays. I’ve even deputized him on occasion.

Why him? It don’t make sense.”

 

I picked up Jess’ gun and handed it to him. His hands shook as he thumbed fresh cartridges into the chambers, dropping a couple into the street.

Wordlessly, I retrieved them, an ache in my heart. The Henry lay where I’d thrown it, and I left it there. What had I done?

 

Jess must have caught the anguish on my face, for he grabbed me by the neck and dragged me over to Cooperman’s body.

 

“Take a good look, young Luke. You must’ve known this man pretty well. Recognize him now? Not a pretty sight, is he?”

 

I trembled in his grasp as I stared down at the bloody, broken corpse, swallowing the gorge that rose in my throat. I tried to turn away, but he had an iron lock on my neck.

 

“Well?” Jess’ voice was hard, mocking. “Still want to be a gunfighter? To walk down the streets of a town and never know where the next bullet’s comin’ from? Never sit at a table without makin’ sure your back’s against the wall?”

 

“Don’t go makin’ a hero out of me, son,” he said harshly. “There’s nothin’ heroic about killin’ a man. You want a hero, look to your Pa.”

 

“Let him go, Jess,” Pa said quietly. “I think he understands.”

 

Jess swore softly and with a violent shove sent me reeling towards my father. Pa caught me and put an arm around my shoulders. I blinked, furious at the tears in my eyes, confused and hurt by Jess’ words. I gazed at Pa, looking for reassurance, but he moved me gently aside and advanced towards Jess.

 

“You didn’t answer my question. Why Cooperman?”

 

Jess slid the gun back in its holster and drew himself up with an effort. His vision blurred for a moment and he rubbed a weary hand across his eyes. A dozen unanswered questions raced through his mind, a puzzle with too many pieces missing. He had to tell Trent something, but what? Would part of the truth be enough?

 

“About fifteen years ago, Sam Cooperman ran off with another man’s wife,” he said finally. “There was some shooting, and the husband caught a bullet that left him partly paralyzed. He swore he would track the man down and kill him. He was a wealthy rancher and hired the Pinkerton Agency to do the tracking for him. It took him all these years, but one agent finally got lucky.”

 

He stopped and drew a painful, shaky breath. Trent’s face was grey with shock.

 

“Trouble was, by the time they found the man the rancher was too old and sick to do his own killing. But he could afford the best, so he hired me to even the score.” Jess smiled bitterly.

 

“Pa! That’s not true! Coop couldn’t … “

 

“Shush up, son.” Pa made a cutting motion with his hand.

 

“But he’s lying to you,” I cried. “You know Sam Cooperman and he never …” I turned on Jess Harper, the hero worship I felt replaced with angry disappointment.

 

“Jess!”

 

“Leave it lie, Luke,” Jess snarled. “This ain’t a kid’s game, son.” He nodded at Cooperman’s body.

 

“My business here is finished, Trent.”

 

For a moment lawman and gunfighter regarded each other in silence. Then Jess Harper turned his back on us, and walked away slowly, carefully, favoring his side. Down the street Pop Wheeler came running, leading the sorrel.

 

“Thought you might need him,” he said as Jess nodded his thanks.

 

Pa came up behind him, and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Ease off, friend. Case you hadn’t noticed, you’re bleedin’ all over Main Street.”

 

The gunfighter’s face was drawn and exhausted, his mouth bracketed by pain. He looked at me, a tall, skinny kid whose britches were too short, and whose birthday had turned into a bloody lesson in life and death. He smiled, but there was no sunlight in this smile. It was dark and sad, and I saw the aloneness of the man and the hell he carried at his hip.

 

“It’s not the first time, Trent,” Jess said quietly. “Don’t worry about it, bullet just nicked me.”

 

“At least let Doc Hawkins take a look at it,” Pa said. “Damn it, Jess! It’s a good two day’s ride to the next town!”

 

I watched as Jess clutched the stirrup for support, and pulled himself into the saddle. The sorrel sidestepped nervously at the smell of blood. Calming the animal with his gentle, sure touch he gathered up the reins and backed away from us.

 

“Does it end there then, Jess?” Pa asked softly and reached a hand up to him.

 

Jess Harper grasped it firmly, and nodded towards me.

 

“You take care, young Luke. Remember to reload your rifle. Gun’s no good to a man empty. Just be very sure you want the bullet to go where you’re aimin’. Once it’s left the barrel it’s too late to take it back.”

 

Jess, I didn’t mean to … I thought you …”

 

Oblivious to the tears streaming down my face, I put a hand on the reins, wanting it to be all right, wanting to be a kid again sitting on the front stoop of the general store.

 

“Pa! You can’t just let him go like this,” I cried. “He’s hurt. He could die out there!”

 

“He knows what he’s doin’, Luke,” Pa said, his voice low and kind. He put his arm around my shoulder. “Now let’s go home. There some things you and I need to be talkin’ about, son.”

 

Old Pop Wheeler stood for a while, looking down Main Street after Jess Harper, wondering about him and the trail he rode. The swirling dust soon covered the blood that had soaked into the ground.

 

*****

 

A few miles outside of Calder, Jess Harper drew rein. The blood was seeping through the makeshift bandage he had fashioned; still, he counted himself lucky the kid was not a better shot. The bullet had plowed a deep furrow in his right side; it was painful but not life threatening. He rolled a shaky cigarette; it was bent and misshapen, but he drew the smoke hungrily into his lungs. Jess leaned back in the saddle, and the sorrel pricked up his ears inquisitively. For the first time since the shoot-out Jess allowed himself to wonder about what had happened.

 

What terrible secret had Samuel Cooperman carried with him that would make him try to bushwhack a man? It was obvious that Jess Harper’s reputation and presence in Calder had brought back the past and a guilty conscience to the man. But what was behind it? For the first time in his life, Jess Harper had shot back at a man without having the slightest idea why, nor was he likely to ever know.

 

“Don’t it beat all,” he spoke around the cigarette dangling from his lips.

 

He reached into his shirt pocket and drew out a piece of paper. He unfolded it slowly, a sardonic smile curling his lips. It was a much-folded, yellowed paper but the legend was still clear:

 

‘Wanted for kidnapping. $1000 reward. Contact Fenton Harding, Twin Rivers Ranch, Sweetwater, Colorado.’

 

The face was much younger. Fifteen years was a long time, but there was no mistaking the quiet, clean-cut features of Calder’s sheriff.

 

Jess sucked on the cigarette, holding the glowing tip to the paper. It caught quickly, and he held it until the flames engulfed the drawing. Then he dropped it in the dust and picked up the reins. He would have some explaining to do to the old man. The man who had died today would be buried as the man who had helped a desperate woman escape a cold and cruel husband all those years ago. Jess figured he could make the story stick.

 

He turned his back to hot, dry wind and pointed his horse south, towards Bowdrie.

 

 

The End

 

 

e swaHeH






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