Requiem for a Renegade

by Maddie Holthe



“Prisoner for release,” the guard announced, stepping smartly into chief warden Belden’s office.


Samuel Belden looked up from his never-ending paperwork, and pushed at his spectacles. They were always sliding down his nose, but he’d never taken the time to have them adjusted. The gesture had become part of his personality, and there were those inmates who derisively called him “old four-eyes,” but never to his face, they had too much respect for the way he handled himself. He was a taciturn man, battle-scarred and hardened by his years as a prison warden, but he was fair-minded and did his best to stretch the limited resources at his disposal.


“Ah, yes,” he said wearily. “Harper, wasn’t it?”


“Yessir,” the guard replied. “He’s waitin’ outside, sir.”


“All right, send him in.”


The guard wheeled about, and called into the outer office. “Harper! Front and center!”


Belden got up from his chair as the prisoner entered. He dismissed the guard with a wave, and eyed the man across his desk. He still wore the ill-fitting, grey prison uniform; dark, unruly locks fell over his forehead, his features honed to a finely drawn point. His whole attitude was one of subdued anger and defiance. Even now,’ the warden thought, ‘after all this time,’


The barely banked fire in the blackfringed blue eyes met his without blinking.


“Jess Harper,” Belden said quietly, laying his glasses on his desk.


“Warden,” the prisoner nodded.


“Sit down, son, sit down,” Belden indicated the chair in front of his desk. “Cigarette?”


“Thanks”. Jess accepted the cigarette gratefully, and placed it between his lips. Belden struck a match and leaned forward. Jess inhaled deeply, feeling some of his tension ease.


“Two years, Jess,” the warden said. “It’s a long time.”


Jess looked up sharply, his brow furrowing. “Longer from where I’m sitting,” he said curtly.


“Well, I’ll be honest with you, son, in my opinion you should never have been in here in the first place”


“It’s a little late for that, ain’t it?” Jess said bitterly, and crushed his cigarette in the warden’s ashtray.


“Just be glad Hurd Tyrrell doesn’t have any influence over the way I run this prison,” Belden said quietly, “When you killed his youngest son you took on the most powerful man in the county, Jess.”


“It was self-defense, and you know it,” Jess said savagely.


“Yeah,” the warden nodded. “I read the transcript of the trial. I know what the witnesses said. Fortunately for you there were just too many outsiders in the saloon that night. Even Hurd Tyrrell couldn’t buy ‘em all.”


“Seems to me he did a pretty job of it anyway,” Jess said, his voice bleak.


“Billy Tyrrell was only 17,” Belden said. “He was always a wild one, but…”


“He was old enough to strap on a gun,” Jess cut him off.


“Maybe so,” Belden nodded, “still, he was just a kid. You’re a professional with a gun for hire, Jess. What chance did he have?”


Jess flinched, and looked away for a moment. When he raised his eyes to meet the warden’s somber gaze, they were filled with naked despair and doubt.


“What was I supposed to do?” he said in a barely audible voice. “Stand there and let him gun me down? Don’t you think I’ve thought about it while I’ve been locked up in here, Belden? Maybe I could’ve winged him…I just don’t know…” His voice trailed off, and he shook his head.


Sam Belden looked at him with compassion as he aimlessly shuffled some papers around on his desk. “Perhaps you are just a little bit too fast for your own good, son” he ventured.


Jess pulled himself together with an effort, and the desperate uncertainty faded from his eyes, replaced by an all too familiar coldness. “I figure it’s a hell of a lot better’n being too slow,” he said grimly.


“Hmm, yes, well, perhaps you’re right,” Belden murmured. “I’d like to give you some advice, though.”

”I can’t stop you,” Jess shrugged.


“Billy Tyrrell has two brothers,” the warden reminded him. “Not to mention the old man himself. You can be damned sure they’ll know the minute you’ve been released, and they’re not ones to let this matter lie”.


“They come huntin’ trouble, they’ll find it,” Jess shot back.


“Jess, it’s not worth it,” Belden entreated. “I’ve seen men come and go here, the best and worst of them. I sure as hell don’t want to see you back here, you’ve got better stuff in you, son”.


“What makes you so sure?” Jess snapped. “What do you know about me, anyway, Belden?”


“Enough,” Belden said evenly. “I know you stepped between young Ben Johnson and some of the guards when things got out of hand during the riots last year. Saved him from a bad beating, and got yourself a couple of busted ribs for your efforts. Don’t go courtin’ disaster when you get out, Jess. Put as much distance between you and the Tyrells as you can.”


Jess got to his feet, and squared his shoulders wearily. “Thanks for the advice, warden”.


Sam Belden stood up. He hesitated, and then continued: “I’ve staked you to a horse, Jess. It’s not much of an animal, but it was the best I could lay my hands on, on short notice. You’ll get it at the gate, along with your gear. This way you don’t have to ride the coach into Bowdrie.”


“Afraid I’ll run into the Tyrells?” Jess drawled. “Why are you doin’ this, warden, you don’t owe me anything.”


“Does there have to be a catch to everything, Jess?” Belden asked, a little sadly. “Can’t you just accept a helping hand?”


“I tried that a few times, “Jess retorted. “All it ever got me was a kick in the head”.


“All right, then, consider it a loan. You can pay me back when you get settled.”


Jess regarded the older man thoughtfully, the cold light in his eyes warming fleetingly.


“All right, warden,” he nodded. “A loan.”


“Good,” Belden smiled. “Any idea where you’ll be heading?”


“Thought I’d trail north,” Jess replied. “Into Wyoming territory, maybe.”


“Mmmh,” Sam Belden mused. He pushed at his spectacles again. “You might swing through Laramie, then. The sheriff there’s an old friend of mine, Mort Corey. He would be…”


“Whoa!” Jess said. “The less I tangle with the law the better.”


“It’s up to you, Jess. If you change your mind, Corey’s a good man to have on your side.”


“All right, I’ll remember that – if I ever cross his path,” Jess said wryly. “I’m grateful for the horse. I’ll pay you back first chance I get.”


“I know you will, Jess,” Belden nodded. “Just don’t let me catch you in here again.”


He opened the door for the prisoner, and the guard came quickly towards them.


“So long, warden.”


“Good luck to you, son.”


An hour later, Samuel Belden stood at his window gazing down into the prison court yard. He watched Jess swing lithely into the saddle. The man sat a horse as though born to it. He wore the same clothes he’d had on when he came, two years ago. Faded Levis, frayed and faded blue shirt, black vest and a battered, black Stetson. Belden frowned as he watched Jess slide his revolver from its holster spinning the cylinder as he loaded it. A shaft of sunlight caught the bone handled peacemaker, casting it in bronze for a split second. Jess smiled thinly as he shoved it back in the holster.


For the first time in two years he felt whole again, and the realization that it took a gun to do it filled him with unaccustomed bitterness. The guard opened the gate and Jess swung the horse around. He looked back briefly at the dismal, grey, stone buildings, and although he couldn’t see the warden, he knew he was watching. He raised a hand in a quick salute, and turned the horse towards the open gates and freedom.


Sam Belden watched him go, and for a split second he could have sworn that a dark shadow trailed the young man as he headed out the gate. Icy fingers of foreboding sent shivers down his spine as he squinted to get a better look. But there was nothing, and he shook his head, probably just a trick of the late afternoon light. ‘I’m getting too old for this job,’ he thought.









Jess swore as he picked himself up off the ground. The fall had knocked the wind out of him, but otherwise he was unhurt. A quick glance at his horse told him that when the mare stepped into the gopher hole she’d snapped her left front leg. Jess drew his gun, and gently stroked her soft neck. She rolled her eyes at him, and whinnied in pain.


“Easy, girl, easy,” he murmured soothingly, and thumbed back the hammer.


The shot was muffled by the keening wind, and the rumble of approaching thunder. Jess holstered his weapon, and stared sadly down at the dead animal. Sam Belden had been right, she wasn’t much more than a nag, but she had been friendly as a colt, and had carried him tirelessly for the past week. Jess had taken the warden’s advice and put as much distance between himself and the Tyrell’s as possible. Without making a conscious decision about it, he found himself heading towards Laramie. He stayed away from towns and people, sleeping out and hunting for food, but game had been scarce the last few days. His lips set in a grim, tight line, Jess pulled his saddle and gear off the dead horse. He hoisted it onto his shoulder, and felt the first raindrops hit.


“Damn!” he muttered.


Before he had a chance to dig out his slicker the sky had opened up, and in an instant he was soaked to the skin. The cold wind plastered the clothes to his body as he pulled the slicker over his head. A quick look around showed no promising shelter, and he decided to stay on the road. He knew he was on the old Laramie road, so with a bit of luck there would be a stage coming that he could hitch a ride with. He reflected ruefully that the way his luck was running lately he might wind up spending the night on the trail. Jess bent his head to the storm, and trudged down the road.




Mose Shell sawed at the reins and cussed the horses, casting doubt on their ancestry as he spat tobacco juice over the side. The storm had come up sudden like, and he was soaked to the skin and reluctant to stop, but the man standing in the middle of the road showed no intention of stepping aside.


“Whoa! Whoa thar, ya flop-eared misfits!” Mose bellowed and reached for the wheel brake. He also moved his shotgun closer to hand; they weren’t carrying any valuables this trip, but some folks’d steal the fillings right out of your teeth, and he was too old to take chances.


Jess stepped aside as the coach rumbled to a stop.


“You picked a fine day for a stroll, mister,” Mose had to shout to make himself heard above the keening wind.


“My horse broke a leg,” Jess yelled. “I need a ride as far as Laramie.”


“Climb up,” Mose said. “You’ll have to ride topside with me, coach’s full.”


“I can’t pay you,” Jess said.


“You hear me askin’?” Mose snorted. “Come on, let’s git afore we all drown.”


“Thanks,” Jess nodded. He threw his saddle and gear onto the top luggage rack, and climbed up on the driver’s seat next to Mose. The old stagehandler gave him a cursory glance, and slapped the reins.


“Hah! Let’s go, boys.” The horses lunged forward eagerly.


Jess leaned back, wiping at the rain in his eyes. He was bone tired, and numb with cold. His last decent meal was several days old, and his belt buckle was gnawing on his backbone.


“We should make the Sherman relay station in about an hour, mister,” Mose hollered. “You look like you’ve been afoot awhile?”


“Too long,” Jess said. “I was beginning to think I’d have to spend the night out here. Appreciate the ride.”


“Ain’t left a man stranded yet,” Mose grinned, and laid into the team. If Jess hadn’t been so tired he would have marveled at the man’s inventive vocabulary.


The weather, and the badly rutted roads, slowed them down, and it was more than two hours before they sighted the welcome lights of the relay station. As they pulled into the yard, the front door of the main house flew open, and a shaggy mutt scampered out followed by a youngster in yellow oilskins. The horses, already skittish because of the storm, shied at the dog yapping and dancing around between their legs. The lead team reared, hooves flailing. Mose shouted, struggling with the reins. Jess saw the youngster run to protect his dog, and launched himself from the driver’s seat. He hit the ground rolling, and threw himself between the kid and the frightened horses. Lightning flared, giving him a nightmarish vision of rearing horseflesh above him, coach and harness creaking with the strain; he heard someone yelling hoarsely, and discovered it was himself.


“Buttons! Buttons, where are you?” the kid cried.


Swearing, Jess reached out and knocked the boy butt over teakettle, out of harms way. Mose shouted a warning, but Jess had caught sight of the dog rolling in the mud and dove for it, catching it in his arms as he rolled desperately to avoid being trampled. Walleyed with fear, the teams pranced around the man on the ground. Jess staggered to his feet, the dog in his arms. Blinded by the driving rain he didn’t see the coach swerving, and while Mose fought the reins the left rear wheel caught Jess square in the back. His immediate surroundings exploded in pain, and he sagged to his knees.


“Mister! Hey, mister, you all right?”


Dizzily, Jess stared through the rain into a white, frightened face, and wondered why the kid looked so scared. Hell, everything was fine, just fine…


He passed out, still clutching the squirming pooch.






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