Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Work in Progress: The Last Gunfighters



“Dagnabit, Jacob, you and yo rushin’ into things ‘fore checkin’ done got us kilt this time for sure,” the dark brown skinned man said as he ducked behind a large boulder.

“Aw, shoot, Esau, you’re allus complainin’,” the skinny white man with a floppy mustache said as he settled down beside him. “Them galoots done missed us by ‘least a foot.”

“That’s ‘cause we wuz movin’. Iffen we’d been standin’ still, they’d of plumb drilled us full of holes.”

Jacob Hardin tugged at his droopy mustache as he looked at his friend. His lips turned up in a smile. He was always smiling, and that alone tended to drive Esau Brown crazy. Here they were pinned down behind a rock barely big enough for the two of them, with five angry gunmen up the trail a ways trying to give them lead enemas, and he’s smiling.

“Come on, Esau,” Jacob said. “We been in worse spots than this.”

“Oh yeah, name the time when we wuz this close to bein’ kilt?”

“Well, there wuz that time down in El Paso when that Mexican gunslinger got mad at me for dancin’ with his girlfriend –“

 “I said we, not you. You allus aggravatin’ people and makin’ ‘em want to shoot you. That ain’t the same as them tryin’ to shoot me too.”

 Jacob tugged more at his mustache.

“But, I thought you ‘n me wuz in everything together, Esau. You know, all for one and one for all.”

There was a loud bang and the zing sound of a piece of hot lead ricocheting off the rock behind which they hid. It caused a shower of tiny rock fragments. Both men flinched.

“A situation like this don’t count,” Esau said. “Iffen you’d been listenin’ to me when I said slow down, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.”

“Would it help if I said I was sorry?”

While Esau frowned at his companion, it did help when he said he was sorry. Even though he was saying ‘sorry’ more and more often as they got older, Esau could never stay angry at Jacob for long. They’d been friends far too long for that.

“Okay, jest try ‘n not do it agin for a while.”

“You got it podnah,” Jacob said. “Now, you got any ideas how we gone git ourselves out of this here pickle?”

The pickle to which Jacob referred was the two of them pinned down behind a large rock with nothing but open space behind them, high walls of a canyon with not enough cover to shield them from bullets to both sides, and five angry and desperate Quinton brothers in front of them intent upon filling them full of lead. They’d been tracking the five Quinton siblings from just outside the West Texas town of Waco where they’d terrorized local ranches and farms with their depredations for the better part of a month until the local citizenry, tired of being put upon, had placed a thousand dollar dead or alive bounty upon each of their ugly heads. Said bounty, of course had attracted Esau and Jacob, who had reputations as the most efficient, ruthless bounty hunters west of the Red River, were enough to send the Quintons scurrying west to their hideout in New Mexico, which had just become the 47th state in the expanding United States two years earlier in 1912. For all that, it was still a relatively lawless expanse of frontier outside the main towns of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where the gun ruled, and a bullet in the gut or dancing at the end of a rope were the main ways of meting out justice.

Esau knew of the hideout the brothers had in the twisting valleys of the Sangre Cristo Mountains. His intent had been to allow them to get there, get settled, and hopefully feeling they’d eluded capture, careless. Then, he and Jacob could sneak upon them under the cover of darkness and take them before they were even aware they were under attack. That had been Esau’s plan. Jacob, on the other hand, ever the one to want to get right down to business, had charged ahead hoping to catch up on the Quintons from behind in one of the valleys. He hadn’t reckoned on, or even considered, the fact that in the valleys with their high rock walls, sounds carried some considerable distance, and the fleeing outlaws just might hear the clop of their horses’ hooves on the rocky ground. It had occurred to him at the same time that five .44 caliber slugs from the brothers who were laying in ambush crashed into the rock wall a few feet past him and Esau. The only thing that kept their bodies from being the recipients of said slugs was that Jacob was riding flat out, and Esau was chasing him trying to get him to slow down.

They’d immediately jumped from their saddles and grabbing the spooked horses’ reins, ducked behind a large boulder that fortuitously happened to be near them.

Every now and then, one of the Quintons would fling another slug their way. Esau knew, though, that this was just a feint. They were sitting up there behind them rocks trying to figure out how to work around behind him and Jacob and plug them in the back. He could feel it in his bones and in the back of his neck, but most of all, he could feel it between his shoulder blades where he knew they’d be aiming. It wasn’t a good feeling.

“I been thinkin’ on how we ought to handle this situation,” Esau said. “And, ‘pears to me we need to be thinkin’ ‘bout how to keep them from sneakin’ up behind us.”

“Yeah, but we in a valley,” Jacob said. “How they gone git behind us; fly?”

“You forgettin’ that gulley we passed a ways back. Remember I told you I thought it was another way to the top of this here hill?”

Jacob tugged at his mustache and scratched his chin.

“Oh, yeah, I remember. You think they might try to use that to sneak up behind us?”

Esau sighed. His friend was sometimes a bit slow coming to the obvious conclusion.

“Yeah,” he said. “And, I think we maybe ought to be doin’ something to keep ‘em from bein’ able to do that.”

Jacob’s face brightened. This was better; he was always more comfortable when Esau had come up with a plan, then he didn’t have to think. Thinking gave him headaches.

“What we gone do, Esau?”

“Well, I’m thinkin’ that iffen you ride back down the trail, you can set an ambush on any of them galoots what are tryin’ to sneak up on us, while I take care of the ones up ahead.”

“That sounds like a – whoa, hold on just a cotton pickin’ minute, Esau. Iffen I ride back down the trail, that means I got to git out in the open, and iffen I gits out in the open, they can shoot at me.”

“True, but iffen you rides real fast, they bound to miss like last time. ‘Sides, while they shootin’ at you, it’ll give me time to draw a bead on ‘em with my Springfield.”

Jacob rubbed his chin some more.

“I reckon what you say makes sense,” he said. “But, why is it allus me what’s got to get shot at.”

Esau wanted to say, because you’re the one that’s allus gettin’ us in these messes. Instead, he said, “It’s ‘cause you’re the fastest, and you’re the skinniest, so you make a harder target to hit.”

“Well, you do have a point. I am the fastest. Okay, I’ll do it; but, iffen I git shot, I’m gone be pretty put out at you.”

“You ain’t gone git shot,” Esau said. He chuckled. “See, when you start out, them yahoos gone be watchin’ you. They gone have to raise up to git a good shot, and that’s when I plug ‘em with my Springfield.”

“But, if they’s more than one,” Jacob countered. “They might git a shot off ‘fore you can reload that old single shot monster. You really should be gittin’ a new Winchester like I got.”

“Hell fire, Jacob; you know I can reload and fire this thing most as fast as you can lever that contraption of yourn, And, I don’t miss.”

“That is true,” Jacob agreed. “Okay, git set. I’m ‘bout to head out.”

Esau eased the barrel of his Springfield over the rock, keeping it back a bit so there’d be no telltale flash of sunlight off its black metal surface to warn those up ahead. He sighted down along the barrel, at a large boulder behind which he suspected the shooters were concealed.

“I’m ready,” he rasped hoarsely. “Jest don’t you miss, you hear?”

“You ever knowed me to miss?”

“Well, there was that time in Abilene –“

“Oh, hush up and git on out of here. That don’t hardly count.”

Jacob crabbed walked to the point where the rock wall curved to the right and then stood. They’d jumped from their horses at this point, quickly securing the reins with small rocks before seeking the shelter of the boulder from which they could see their assailants.

He removed the rock from the rein and mounted, wheeling his horse around and moving at a walk back down the trail. When it curved back toward the left, he knew he’d be visible to the men who’d ambushed him, and they would start shooting.

As the trail began the turn, he kicked the horse in the flanks. The startled animal bolted forward.

As Esau had expected, as soon as the shooters heard the sound of hooves, they began to look for targets. Over the top of the rock, he saw two heads ease slowly up. Moreover, he saw the long barrels of their Winchester rifles began to angle down and behind where he crouched. Taking his time, he sighted down the barrel at the head on the right. When it stopped moving, he took a slow deep breath and then started exhaling. At the end of his exhalation, he squeezed the trigger. The Springfield carbine barked loudly once and slammed against his shoulder. He never took his eyes off his target as he felt for a cartridge and reloaded by feel, swinging the barrel toward the target on the left. By the time the first slug found its target, burrowing through the top of Ezra Quinton’s skull and causing his body to slump backwards, Esau was already exhaling and squeezing the trigger for the second shot. Tully Quinton barely had time to register that his younger brother had just had the top of his head shot off before a pellet of white hot lead tore through his nose and exited out the back of his head.

It was suddenly quiet except for the distant sound of hoof beats against the hard earth. Then, Esau heard two sharp cracks that could only have come from a Winchester. He couldn’t tell if it was Jacob’s rifle or an ambushing Quinton brother. He’d figured they’d send two to flank him and Jacob, which left one more up front. But, whoever it was, he wasn’t showing himself. He heard more shooting back down the trail, and then that fell silent as well.

Esau didn’t like the situation. Unless Jacob was able to handle the ones who’d tried sneaking around behind him, they were in a standoff; pretty much even, except that the surviving Quinton brother was on familiar territory.

“Look here,” he shouted. “You ain’t got nowhere to go. Done kilt the two up there with you, and my partner’ll git the other two. You might’s well give yourself up.”

“Why don’t you jest go to hell,” a shaky voice responded from up the hill.

“Well now, there’s a good possibility of that happenin’, friend,” Esau said. “But, I reckon you gone be goin’ ‘fore me.”

That was the part of bounty hunting that Esau definitely did not like, people who refused to surrender when they had to know there was no way out. He’d really just as soon capture them alive; it was only the bounty that mattered; but, most of the outlaws he and Jacob cornered insisted on fighting, so they wound up being transported to the nearest town slung over their saddles like a sack of grain.

“We see who be goin’ first, you rotten snake,” the voice said. “You done kilt my two little brothers, and I’m gonna make you pay for it.”

Just then, Esau heard the sound of hooves, not from the rear, but beyond the voice. There was a scrabbling sound, and a single shot.

Shortly, Jacob walked around the rock and waved at Esau.

“You was right, Esau,” he said. “That little gully run plumb up here. It come out right behind this fella. You want to come up and help me git the carcasses slung across their saddles.”

Esau shook his head. Jacob was rash and headstrong, often rushing in without thinking, but he was there when it counted. He grabbed his horse and rode up the trail. Jacob already had two of the dead outlaws draped across their uncomplaining horses. Esau helped him with the final three. Not bad for a day’s work, he thought. Five dead outlaws, each with a thousand dollar bounty. He and Jacob would be flush for a good long while.

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