Sunday, October 21, 2012
It had been a long time since he had first come to this house and fallen in love with its occupant, a lovely young widow with flaxen hair and freckled cheeks. Somehow he had married her and stayed, and it had been a long time since then, a long time since he took off his guns and hung them in the closet, trading them for a hoe.
She died and his unborn child died with her. He buried them not far from the house. What few neighbors they had came to lay their hands on his shoulder in silence, one at a time before drifting back out into the golden abyss.
He might have left then, he had still been young enough. He could have taken up his guns and forgotten this almost life in a glorious blaze of gunfire. Instead he stayed. He hitched his horse to a plow and tore through the unforgiving earth as if in a trance.
He could no longer live, and yet he did not die. His days played out in an uninterrupted flow of monotony under a cloudless blue sky. Like the hands of a clock, he moved as if propelled by hidden gears, a prisoner of time frozen in a story that had ended prematurely. The days bled one into the other, each indistinguishable from the last. Only the occasional visit from a neighbor, once or twice a year, punctuated the seemingly endless single day that sucked his youth away.
A tanned old man with pale blue eyes, he stood on the porch staring out at the prairie grass, watching a figure approach from the distance. It seemed to be a child, coming in at a good clip. He stood and watched as the details emerged.
Yes a child, a girl, with soot on her hands, face and apron. Red hair, streaks in the sooty cheeks to mark the passage of tears. Maybe it was nothing that he could see, maybe it was something that he felt radiating from her, or the simple fact that she was a break in the endless predictability, but when she was near enough for the details to become apparent, he felt swept up by a wave of emotion and ran out to meet her in the field. He dropped to his knees and took her by the shoulders.
“Child, what happened?”
She gasped, and sobbed,
“Bad men. Bad men came. Bad men with guns.”
He looked over her head at the hills and could see the wisps of smoke dissolving in the sky beyond the hills. Then he looked back into her face, into her eyes, into all that must have happened written in the burning eyes of a child. He looked into the fire in her eyes and felt something quicken inside of him.
Standing, he scooped her up and carried her swiftly to the house and up the porch steps. It was the way he had carried his wife up those same steps after their wedding, but now it was a child and the feeling in his chest was different. He set her down on her feet inside the door and went to the closet.
His whole body was steadily flooding with heat, he could feel it in his limbs, his chest, his face. Opening the closet door he reached inside and took up his guns. He strapped them on without hesitation. It had been many years, but his fingers moved deftly as he opened the barrels, checking that they were loaded. He gave them a spin.
He stood in front of her then.
“What’s your name?”
A flash of recognition. Benson. They raised horses over the hill. Or they had until today.
“Can you count?“
“How many men were there? Take a minute, think about it.”
“What about your kin…anybody hurt?”
Again she nodded but this time her freckled face crumpled to expel the fresh tears that welled up in her eyes.
He laid his hand on her shoulder,
“You get yourself over to Doc Hoverstad’s place. You know where that is?”
She sniffed, “No.”
He motioned toward the back of the house.
“That way, north, across the creek. ”
They locked eyes again. He lifted his hand from her shoulder. Then he passed through the doorway and down the steps, eyes trained on the faint bluish curl of smoke in the distance.
He found the girl's parents together, Mr. Benson with three wounds in his chest, Mrs. Benson draped over his legs, half her skull missing. A young cow hand lay dead further from the house.
By the smoldering barn he found a man still breathing, a bullet lodged in his belly. Gasping like a fish out of water, the dying man didn’t seem to see the other at first. He was older with a grizzled chin, beads of perspiration all over his forehead.
The man with the gun knelt beside him and the dying man whispered:
“Don’t worry about me none. They took the oldest girl, Lizzie. Left an hour ago I think. You’ll catch them… you’ll catch them, I can tell, I know it, you have the look. Go on. Go…on…go…”
Another familiar feeling had come over him, replacing all the heat. Now he was cold, as if his heart could pump a blizzard through his veins. Everything was crystal clear, every slow steady thought, each strong quick motion.
It took him no time to recognize their tracks and follow them through the pass and out of the valley. They’d taken 20 or so horses with them, making them easy to follow. 20 horses and one girl.
How many years had it been since he put down his guns? It could have been no time at all. It could have been yesterday, except that he felt old in his bones, a bit stiff, slower than he had once been.
As the terrain leveled out and the grass gave way to dusty earth and brittle bramble the answer registered with clarity; 15 years. 15 years, six men, 20 horses, 1 girl. The world could be distilled into these figures.
They appeared to him as a cloud of trail dust. He stayed just near enough to follow them, far enough away that they wouldn’t notice him in pursuit. As dusk approached they made camp around an outcropping of large boulders. Thankfully, the terrain was littered with such groupings of stones.
The man with the gun left his own horse behind and approached in the descending darkness, just as they were lighting their fires, arguing about who would cook and who would stand guard while the others used the girl. He waited to see how the quarrel would go, if one or two might die before he descended on them.
One was already wounded from the raid on the Bensons and sat slumped against the rocks ignoring the others. The girl was laying where they had dropped her, on her side with her hands tied behind her back, a gag in her mouth, 15 feet from the wounded man, seven feet from the rest of the gang.
One bandit did pull his gun and point it at another, two more moved to restrain him. In that moment the girl wriggled up to her feet and started running. Someone gave a shout and all their attention turned to her.
The man with the gun took the opportunity, first firing on the bandit who had already drawn his weapon in the argument. Five. That one fell dead and another whirled, reaching for his guns. The horses had begun to scream and tug against their ropes. He dropped the bandit who was closest to catching the girl before turning his gun on the bandit who was drawing. 4.
Here he missed and had to duck behind a boulder as the bullets came screaming after him. Then he took a second shot and landed it in his opponents throat. 3.
The two bandits left standing gave up chasing the girl as their companion fell gurgling, grasping at the geyser of blood. They peered searchingly into the darkness, but the man with the gun ducked behind the boulder and waited, listening to their exclamations.
“Shit. Shit. They got us.“
“How many are out there?”
“Hey, shut up, how many of them?”
And then a third voice, a lot fainter, the wounded man,
“Just one I think.”
“I ain’t waiting to find out. I’m tearing out of here.”
“No you ain’t!”
The man with the gun seized the new opportunity, rose swiftly and fired on the bandit who had put a restraining hand on his cowardly companion. 2.
The coward spun wildly around drawing his gun and firing before the man with the gun could react. He caught a bullet in his shoulder and stumbled backward. The bandit fired again but missed giving the man a chance to recover. He rushed forward gun blazing until the coward hit the dirt with a thud. 1.
There was a momentary quiet. Then a single shot. The man felt the hot blood spilling out of his gut. Much too slowly he turned to the man who had killed him, the wounded bandit slumped against the boulder. They looked at each other silently, firelight dancing over their faces. Then the man with the gun took aim and shot the man who killed him in the head. 0.
He fell to his knees then, still holding his gun. 15 years and six men gone. 20 horses and one girl.
“Lizzie!” he shouted, “Lizzie Benson!”
It took a while, but the girl returned from the darkness and crept carefully over the bodies, kicking one that was still breathing. She came and stood in front of the man on his knees who was struggling to breathe.
“Lizzie.” he said.
She stared at him, the dirty gag still in her mouth. He motioned her closer and she got down on her knees in front of him. Letting go of his gun, he reached around her head and untied the gag.
He pulled a knife out of his boot and cut the rope that bound her hands.
Wincing in pain he dropped the knife and placed a hand on his blood-soaked belly.
“Who are you?” she asked.
“I met you when you were a baby.” he managed to say. “You must be 12 now.”
“13.” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t remember you.”
“Doesn’t matter.” he said. It was getting hard to see her, shadows were bleeding over her face, green eyes, red hair, freckled cheeks. “Your sister Margarette came and got me. She’s at Doc Hoverstad’s now. You know the place?”
“Yes, I do.” she answered.
“She’ll be needing you now. You better take those horses. Those are your horses.”
He couldn’t see her at all now, just the front steps of the farm house, the door slightly ajar. He must have fallen over because he could feel the hard earth against his shoulder. Her hand was resting delicately on the other shoulder.
“You know the way home?”
“I think so.” She was crying, he could hear it in her voice, but he was looking at that door, slightly ajar.
“North east. You can wait till the sun comes up, follow your own tracks back. You can take my belt, take my guns.”
“Mister, won't you come with me?” she sniffled.
“Not this time.”
He turned away from the door, heard it shut behind him, and looked out at the wide blue sky. His guns were hanging at his side, his horse was saddled and waiting. He smiled at the sun from under the brim of his hat and mounted in a swift fluid motion. Feeling young and feather light, swifter than lightning, he gave a little kick and was off, riding into an unfamiliar landscape, strangely beautiful, eternally uncertain, overflowing with terror and delight.