Day of Reckoning - revise
Today, ‘twas the hottest day of the month. So far, the summer of 1896 had been a scorcher and, the afternoon sun was showing no mercy toward the Hunter as he rode toward the godforsaken town on the backside of the Oklahoma Territory.. Stopping at its outskirts, he heard the turning-windmill’s broken vane rhythmically click-clacking in the steady west wind. The dry-scraping sound of its pump echoed the plight of the town: too little rain, not enough water. With many storefronts boarded up, few people walked its dusty streets. Surviving these harsh conditions, a livery stable, a general store, and a saloon managed to stay open for business.
The Hunter stopped at the livery stable and watched sparks fly from the white-hot horseshoe with each strike of the blacksmith’s hammer. His horse reared its head and snorted.
Looking up, the blacksmith said, “Howdy, Mister. What can I do for ya?”
He dismounted. “How much you charge to feed, water, and bed my horse?”
When the blacksmith reinserted the horseshoe deep into the forge, sparks and flames whirled above the hot coals. “For how many days?”
The Hunter loosened the cinch and slid the saddle off the horse’s back. “Maybe, just for a few hours.”
A wad of tobacco in his mouth, the blacksmith puckered and spit into the hot bed of coals. A burst of steam marked where tobacco spittle met searing heat. Wiping his chin with the back of his hand, he said, “Minimum of six bits for the whole day and night. Pay when ya ride out.”
The Hunter nodded approval. “This town got a Sheriff?”
Shifting his weight from one foot to the other, the blacksmith said, “Not anymore.”
“What do you mean?” The Hunter slung the saddle over the side of a stall and turned to face the blacksmith.
Using tongs, the blacksmith repositioned the horseshoe in the hot coals, releasing flames that frolicked above the forge. Hand-pumping the bellows, he said, “Four men rode into town yesterday afternoon, and went straight over to the Town Hall and Sheriff’s office. They called him out and shot him dead in the doorway. He never got his gun out of his holster.”
Without emotion in his eyes or any expression on his face, the Hunter asked, “Where are these men, now?”
The blacksmith set the tongs aside but kept hand-pumping. “After they kilt him, they went over to the saloon, laughin’ and shootin’ at anythin’ that moved. They been holed up in the saloon, drinkin’ and bustin’ up the place ever since.” The blacksmith shook his head. “Ain’t never seen nothin’ like it before, Mister. Ain’t never in all my born days.”
The Hunter took a wanted-poster from his breast pocket and showed it to the blacksmith. “Are these the men who gunned down the Sheriff?”
Rubbing his chin, the blacksmith said, “Can’t say for sure. Never seen ‘em up close. What they do?”
The Hunter folded the poster and put it back in his pocket. “Killed a family up north a ways. Husband, wife, and three kids. We been looking for them ever since they gunned down those kids in cold blood.”
Another burst of steam materialized above the fire where the blacksmith spit on the hot coals. “Hope you get ‘em, Mister. Sure hope you do.” Pointing toward the saloon, he continued. “Them horses been tied up at the saloon with no food and no water since those men rode into town, never did come here for me to look after ‘em, neither. Who does that to a horse?”
The Hunter took a long, slender cigar from a breast pocket, bit the tip off, and leaned down to light it in the blacksmith’s fire. After taking a few drags on the cigar, he looked toward the Town Hall’s clock tower – nine minutes till four. Without uttering a word, he removed his gun from its holster, checked the rounds, and slide it back into its cradle. The Hunter nodded to the blacksmith and began the walk down the dusty street toward the saloon.
A short distance from the saloon, the Hunter heard music from the player piano and drunken laughter of the men inside. As he stepped on the wooden sidewalk, he took one last look around the deserted streets and took one last puff on the cigar before discarding it.
When the bell in the clock tower rang four times, the Hunter pushed the saloon’s swinging doors open and stepped inside.
“Looky here, we got us a visitor,” said the man standing at the bar.
The laughter stopped, and the other three men pivoted toward the open doors.
“Get ‘em, Ben,” yelled the man at the bar.
The man on the Hunter’s left pulled his revolver to fire, but the Hunter dropped him before he got off a shot. The Hunter whirled to face the others and got off another round, killing the man standing at the bar. He rolled to the floor and shot at the other two, missing one but nicking the other, took aim to fire again, but it was too late. The two men had returned fire, and one well-placed bullet pierced the Hunter’s chest, the other man’s bullet missed and struck the wall.
The Hunter lay motionless on the floor.
“I’m hit,” yelled Jake.
“Just winged me. I’ll be all right.”
“We got him good, didn’t we?” said Earl. “You sure he’s dead?”
Jake knelt next to the Hunter, an ear to his chest, listening for a heartbeat. “I ain’t hearin’ nuthin’. Must be dead fer sure. We got ‘em square where it counts,” he said, “plumb through his heart.” Standing up, he continued. “What’ll we do with Ben and John?”
“Put ‘em in the back room, I guess,” said Earl. “What ‘bout this one here?”
“Drag ‘em to the street. I don’t wanna be lookin’ at ‘em while we wait,” said Jake.
“Who’s got the Pahos?”
“I don’t. If you don’t, must be Ben or John who’s got it.”
“Well, find it. If we lose it, none of us is comin’ back from the dead, now ain’t we.”
“Dang it, Earl. Ya’re always trying to boss me ‘round, and I’ma sick of it. I’ll find the gawl darn Pahos.” Jake searched through Ben’s saddlebags but couldn’t find it. Turning to John’s saddlebags, he turned over the bags and rummaged through them. “Found it!”
“Gimme here. I’ll keep it.”
“Why you? I can keep it safe just as easy as you, Earl.”
“Crap. It’s not worth fighting over. Keep the damn thing; just don’t lose it, ya hear?”
“I hear. I hear ya, good. Let’s cut the wrangling and take care of Ben and John and git rid of this one. Besides my arm hurts, and I need a drink.”
The two men put Ben and John’s bodies in the back room, dragged the Hunter’s body into the street, and returned to the bar and whiskey. Music from the player piano and laughter could be heard outside, and no one dared move the Hunter’s body from where it lay in the sun.
As the clock in the tower ticked on, the piano played the same tune over and over.
“I beginning to hate that song. I musta heard it a hundred times,” said Jake. He pulled out his revolver and shot three rounds into the piano’s mechanism, silencing it. “There. That’s better.”
“Why ja do that? Now, we got no classy entertainment. You got no class, Jake. No class at all.”
“Shut up, Earl. Lay off me and drink yer whiskey if ya know what’s good fer ya. Yer always on my back ‘bout sumthin’. And I ain’t in no mood, and my arm hurts like hell.”
Leaning back in a chair, Earl stared at the saloon’s swinging doors. “Alright, but it’s just that them hunters keep comin’ fer us. He must be the third one, and he’s got me real spooked. Each one’s better with the gun; he ‘twas the best, yet. And he came alone, not in pairs like before. Wonder what that means.”
Jake rested against the bar with a whiskey bottle raised for a swig. “No worry. We got this one real good. Maybe, he’s the last.” He looked at his distorted image in the mirror. “I can’t take much more dying, robs near ten years off me each time. Look at my face, it’s all haggard and wrinkled like an old man’s, and I’m not yet 30.”
Earl laughed. “You still look beautiful.”
“Earl, ya’re a jackass. Ya look like an old graybeard yourself. How many times ya been kilt?”
“And it’s been too many for me,” said Jake. “When can we bring Ben and John back to life?”
“After five. We gotta wait a full hour or more. You know that!”
The bell in the clock tower rang five times. The saloon doors swung open, and the Hunter stepped inside.
Jake dropped the whiskey bottle and went for his gun, but the Hunter shot before Jake got it out of his holster. He fell to the floor, dead. The Hunter turned to face Earl and fired twice, planting a slug deep in his belly and one in his leg. Earl had fired his weapon, too, sending a bullet to its target. Staggering backward, the Hunter fell into the street. Earl zig-zagged to the window and saw the Hunter lying in the hot sunshine. Holding his belly wound, he stumbled out the door, stood over the body, and put two more rounds into the lifeless clump.
With blood oozing between his fingers, Earl yelled, “You the last one, Mister? Will there be more?” His revolver-hand was shaking, and he tried in vain to put his gun back in the holster. Limping back into the saloon, he knelt over Jake’s saddlebags, searching for the Pahos. When his trembling fingers retrieved it, he stood and staggered into the back room. Kneeling and waving the Pahos over each body, he began the Navaho Shaman’s chant.
Ben was the first to move, and John followed. Earl got to his feet and stumbled to the bar. “Ben, John. Come on boys, we gotta ride otta here.”
They each grabbed a bottle of whiskey and took a swig. “Thought you were never gonna bring us back, Earl. What kept ya?” said Ben.
“Yeah, what kept you?” said John. He turned and saw Jake’s body crumpled on the floor. “Guess you were kinda busy or somethin’.”
Ignoring them, Earl said, “Before, the hunters came in pairs so if one got kilt, the other could bring him back to life. But this one comes back on his own.” Earl slumped in a chair, holding his belly wound. “He was close to gettin’ me, too. If he kills all four of us at once, t’weren’t be no one to bring us back, and we’ll stay dead. I fear our day of reckonin’ is comin’ soon. So let’s git otta town before the clock strikes six.”
“What’ll we do with Jake?” asked Ben.
“Strap him to his horse,” said John. “It’s not yet time to bring him back.”
“He got me pretty good,” said Earl. “Gonna die, soon, fer sure. When I do, wait the set time and bring me back. Here’s the Pahos for safe keepin’. Until then, let’s ride.”
~ ~ ~
When the bell in the clock tower rang six times, the Hunter got to his feet and walked toward the livery stable. Four lead slugs marked the spot where he lay in the street.
Looking up, the blacksmith saw the Hunter standing at the door. “Yer horse’s been watered and fed, Mister.” His voice quivered as he spoke. “He’s saddled and ready to ride. No need to pay; this here’s on me.”
The Hunter was silent but nodded thanks. He reached into his breast pocket, took out a cigar, and bit off the tip. The blacksmith took a couple of steps backward. Leaning down, the Hunter touched the cigar to the hot coals and took a few puffs. He mounted his horse, looked up and down the deserted street, and rode to the outskirts of town.
When he reached the windmill, the Hunter stopped. He heard the trickle, then the gush of water from its pump. His horse bent to the trough for a drink of cool water. Satisfied, they rode on.
The Hunter was the last one, there would be no others, there did not have to be any others. He would hunt them until he found and killed them all. For now, horse and rider followed the trail of the four wanted men, westward toward the setting sun.