Sun Over Iola - a Western Short Story
They walked out of the post office and moved over to their horses hitched in front of the dry goods store. The air tasted hot and dusty and they could smell the heat in the parched wood of the sidewalk.
A young boy squatted down on the boards in the sunlight; he watched them as they walked across the street. The boy followed them with his eyes but did not speak.
‘Has anybody just left town, son?’ said the taller of the two men, nodding down the trail. The boy looked him up and down squinting against the glare from the sun. The man wore a short-brimmed hat and a blue jacket with a cartridge belt looped across his chest. He held a cigarette in his fingers and the smoke curled up his arm. The boy stared at the cigarette, the man saw him looking and handed it over, the boy took a long slow pull taking the smoke deep into his chest, he spoke through the smoke
‘Who are you looking for Mister?’ The men waited in silence, the boy shrugged and said
‘A buckboard left not too long ago and not five minutes since a feller on a speckled roan, both heading north.’ The men mounted up, their dry hot saddles creaked with their weight, one of the horses snorted as they wheeled away and their hooves thudded on the compacted dirt of the street. The noise faded and left the boy smoking in the bright quiet sunshine.
‘We don’t know if it’s him Harry.’
Harry turned in the saddle and looked at his partner
‘No we don’t Emet but we’re running out of time and we ain’t got a lot of choices. It’s him or us.’ They were brothers, Emet was two years older than Harry, smaller and more compact than his brother. They had the same round good natured face. Emet was the worrier, his finger nails bitten down low he tended to wrestle with his own thoughts. Harry reckoned he fretted enough for the both of them so he didn’t care much about anything.
The two riders cantered their horses out of Iola, Allen County and followed the Neosho River northwards. It was August 1869, the sky shone hard blue and clear and the sun blowtorched the land.
Back then when you came north out of Iola the trail pulled along the valley floor, a long sloping basin of ground that broadened out into a bluff above the river before it veered left and started a slow climb. The trail sloped upwards into thick layers of pine, beyond that over a hundred miles away a range of jagged blue mountains loomed in the hazy west.
They galloped their horses uphill letting them find their own natural rhythm and followed the trail across country.
They cut over to a ridge and looked down a sweep of land; the landscape took on a peculiar, beautiful sparseness as the timber thinned before it played out altogether.
They saw the rider below them heading a trail of dust that wormed its way across empty prairie, the track wound into a bank of hills and a rocky canyon entrance with craggy walls streaked with purple shadow. Harry spoke, his voice harsh with impatience
‘I reckon he’s heading for the Neosho Falls maybe 15 miles away. Once he gets through that gap yonder the Greaser Creek joins the river and there’s a lot of cover from then on. We could lose him, especially if he figures we’re on his trail.’ His eyes burned with anguish ‘Look over there,’ he said pointing left ‘if we follow this ridge and move along the shoulder of that far hill I reckon I can get a shot at him before he gets to the gap in the rocks and moves down into the canyon.’
Emet could hear the repressed anger in Harry’s shallow breathing and saw that his eyes glistened with excitement; he was spoiling for a fight
‘Harry, it might not be him,’ Emet said, his skin painted with dust and sweat, he looked at Harry for a moment, his gaze slipped away then he looked back at him.
‘I’m not going through all that again Emet.’ The rage still clung to Harry like a cobweb he could not brush off; he massaged the back of his neck with the palm of his hand fighting the dark thoughts that drove a nail into his skull.
He swung away and rode off leaving Emet looking down the gradient, his face lost in thought, pools of colour high on his cheeks. Emet sighed and moved down the slope following the lone rider, he left his brother to work his way along the rim of land, knowing that Harry would do whatever he wanted to do anyway.
A couple of minutes later Harry reckoned he had the lone rider in range; he stayed on his horse and drew his Palmer carbine from the saddle holster. He enjoyed the weight of the rifle for a moment in his hand, cocked the hammer and pulled the bolt back with a reassuring click. He thumbed a cartridge in and pushed the bolt home, set the rear sight for 500 yards and looked down the barrel. He waited until his eyes adjusted and he felt the tautness of the trigger against his finger before he pulled, the recoil punched into his shoulder as he watched the rider topple off his horse.
He saw Emet glance up at him and he raised the rifle in his right fist. Emet kicked his horse into a gallop and Harry heard the horse thrum across the firm ground towards the rocks and the man he had just shot.
Harry slid the carbine away and looked for the best way down. He glanced across at Emet and as he watched he heard a rifle shot and saw Emet’s horse stumble and roll. He noticed the smoke from the gunshot drift out of the boulders and realised the man was still alive. Anxious now he looked for Emet and to his relief he saw him running in a crouch for cover behind a low hill crusted in earth and rock.
Harry had the carbine out, the bolt back and the cartridge slammed home in seconds. He pulled the gun into his shoulder and snatched a shot at the rocks by the drifting gun smoke, buying time for his brother to find shelter.
Harry looked down off the hills over the baked land and decided he would go straight in to save Emet. He came hard down the grade riding full tilt, grit sliding under his horse’s hooves and dust rising into his face. Fury gushed through him like blood from an open wound, he knew that if anything happened to Emet it would be his fault, his Ma would never forgive him for taking the feud so far. It seemed that no matter how many people Harry killed nothing could ease her pain.
He closed in on the hillock that hid Emet and saw him run out to meet him. Harry slowed his horse and held out an arm so that Emet could grip it and vault on to his horse’s back. He grabbed Emet’s arm but through the noise and dust he heard the crack of another shot and felt Emet go limp, his hand slipped away and Emet fell as if the dry earth sucked him down. Harry dug his heels into the horse’s sides and galloped at the canyon wall. He panted, loud ragged breathes that seared his throat, his blood singing in his ears. He heard a hoarse bellow across the plain that echoed off the rocks and realized he was shouting in a frenzy of rage and guilt.
As he reached the canyon entrance he looked down a dry gulch with towering walls streaked with red, forged by faults and giant uplifts, a monolith of rock clawing at the sky. A rifle shot whanged off the rock by his shoulder and he realised that the man had moved into a cluster of trees in the lee of the canyon wall. Henry jumped off his horse and sprinted to a dusty narrow trail. He ran up a path speckled with sunlight, a stream of dust tracked him and the dirt drifted into the boulders coating them in a fine layer of sand.
Harry closed and opened his eyes to blink away the sweat. All of the careless anger seeped out of him and he crept forward, his powdery steps cushioned on a bed of dust, the silence hung in a curtain of shadow and heat. He saw the man below him pressed against a boulder, leaning back and holding his rifle two-handed pointed up over his stomach and chest. Harry could not see if it was Taggart but he did not have the time now for thoughts of the past and the grief that Taggart had brought on his family – it was simply another man waiting to kill him, one among so many. Henry raised the carbine and shot him without a moment’s hesitation or doubt. No mistakes this time. He slid down the incline and saw that he was dead. He did not recognize him and realized that he had killed the wrong man.
He ran back to his brother Emet. Emet lay like a pile of old sacking, his bright red blood soaked across the front of his jacket, his face as stiff as cardboard.
Harry knelt beside him and as Harry’s shadow fell across his face Emet opened his eyes. He felt like a giant hand pushed down on his chest pressing him into the earth as he struggled for breathe. He tried to sit up but pain raced through his body and burst in unbearable agony. He licked his dry lips
‘Was it Taggart?’ he said. Harry hesitated for a moment
‘Yes,’ he said but Emet saw the lie in his eyes and heard the distress in his voice. Emet slowly blinked his eyes and smiled
‘It doesn’t matter,’ he said.
‘Sorry,’ said Harry but Emet was already dead.
Back in Iola a man came out of the saloon. He saw the boy sat on the boardwalk in the sunlight look up at him and stare at his face, at the hideous scar that ran from his right eye to the corner of his mouth and lifted his lip into a sneer.
‘What happened to your face Mister?’ the kid said.
‘I asked the wrong feller a damn fool question,’ said the man ‘get the hell away from me unless you want a knot in your head.’ He gave the boy a venomous look and fear went through the youngster like a sliver of ice. The scar-faced man held a cigarette in his mouth and it wobbled as he spoke. The boy gazed at the cigarette, the man saw him looking and he took the cigarette out, dropped it in the street and ground it to dust with his boot. The boy watched him walk down the street towards a horse snuffling and blowing by the water trough.
He wore a rumpled charcoal corduroy shirt that hung out of his faded pants. His hand tightened on the gun butt at his hip as he moved.
As he set off he took his badge out of his shirt pocket and pinned it on his shirt above his heart. County Sheriff Harlan Taggart rode off north towards the Neosho Falls looking once again for the killer Harry Shutt
Harry Shutt rode back to Iola with his brother Emet’s body across the dead man’s horse.
The gap closed between them as the afternoon wore on under the impassive stare of the hot sun.