a short story
The red orange sun glided down into the horizon over the course of that evening. The lone cluster of life on that flat land kept to themselves in their light tan, fresh wood quarters that dotted the bleak scape. As darkness overtook everything, torches were lit to replace the golden light with an unsteady, chilling ambience. This was the invitation for most of them to emerge and observe what was to be the meting out of justice.
Beads of sweat formed on Josiah Hart's forehead as he was shuffled, one man on each side, from a small brick walled cell to the wide open center of town. They cut through the crowd and the kicked up dust towards the hastily constructed platform with a looped, knotted rope tied firmly to a stout beam.
"For armed robbery and murder."
While the charges were being read, he knew it was only minutes before the condemned name was announced that spelled his end.
Not him. The forty or so year old man was led past Josiah, giving him a careless glance on the way. His mind began to wander, partly as a distraction and maybe partly as that whole 'life flashing before your eyes' thing that he'd heard about.
Twenty three short years ago Josiah came into the world. Him, his big brother, their Ma and Pa and the farm. That was everything. Both boys worked hard on their chores and minded, but Josiah's older brother Alonzo wanted more. In his late teens he took up and left the homestead, not having money or a plan, only wanderlust. A little while later, Ma and Pa passed away and left the place to Josiah. With nothing to keep him there, he sold it to a family from the east and decided to move to a new area, grab a claim and get a fresh start.
After packing some heirlooms, clothing and other necessities into a carpetbag, Josiah headed on down to the train station and bought a ticket farther west. The passenger car was crowded to capacity with folks of every age and income as he squeezed through and found a snug spot on the wooden bench seats to call his own for the next day. The machine gained momentum and was soon barreling down the tracks, out of civilization and through the countryside, lulling Josiah to sleep.
That announcement shook Josiah back to the moment. They were taking down the first still warm body. He must've missed witnessing it amidst his reminiscing, thank God. The next in line, a thirty or so year old, walked by with his head hung down. Josiah again escaped into the peace of sleeping on that train.
He remembered waking up some time later, he wasn't sure how long, but it was darker, to an unexpected sensation. Stillness. Were they there already? Couldn't be. The smells of hot coffee and body odor brought him to, but he could tell all was not right. Leaning across his fellow bench mates and peering out the glass window, he could see that they weren't at any train station. They were in the middle of nowhere. Suddenly a man holding a pistol and with a bandana covering his face flung the door open from the outside.
"Everybody out, but one at a time!" he hollered.
Josiah ended up towards the rear of the line, not knowing if theft or death awaited him. The passengers were slowly herded out the back and stripped of their valuables. Guns were trained on them the entire time by two ruffians, with a third still at the helm of the buggy they used to get there. As Josiah was led out and rounded the corner alongside the train, his gaze caught up ahead what was apparently a makeshift blockage on the tracks, forcing them to stop. A blunt nudge of two barrels in his back encouraged him to keep walking. He was lined up against the wall of the train and commenced to emptying his pockets. He hoped the cash would satisfy them.
"What else you got?" one of the men casually demanded.
Josiah reluctantly went in deeper for his father's watch. His eyes met those of the young buggy driver. They were just like his own eyes, except emptier. That changed in a second, however subtly.
"When we split it up I call that" the driver said.
"You're too new here to be choosy" the oldest of the bunch called back without even looking, continuing to snatch and stuff various items.
The driver dared to speak up again. "I'll take less than my share. I won't take any of my share. Just the watch, that'll be my share."
The oldest looked annoyed at this point, and this time turned to face the driver. "This is hardly the time for this nonsense. You're on by a thread and if you don't shut up there won't be a next . . ."
The faint sound of hooves caused everyone to freeze more than they already had been. It was the law.
"They must've trailed us. This is your fault, you probably . . ."
"What could I . . ."
A bold passenger used the brief distraction to get the upper hand on the leader, and almost instantly the others were emboldened to join in the brawl. The law approached and joined in the melee, but not before some of the passengers were shot or knocked cold. The last thing Josiah could remember was people, people everywhere, and when he looked up, no one was in the driver's seat of the little buggy.
That was it, the name that spelled his fate. Josiah was back in the moment again, led to an end he couldn't have imagined a week ago. As he got closer to that structure, he tried not to think about how his brother went in with a bad crowd, how he took advantage of the chaotic scene to pretend to be a passenger and how he apparently put his bandana on Josiah's unconscious face, which looked very much like his own. What did it matter now anyway? Josiah would soon be with Ma and Pa again, he hoped.
The light that was cast on everyone swayed for just a second, before extinguishing completely. Chaos erupted as guns were fired into the air and the screaming crowd scattered. Josiah was again being escorted, but this time by two new sets of hands as he was dragged into a buggy and taken away in the black night of a new moon. Once safely far away, all except one of the gang went their separate ways.
"I couldn't go through with it. Those boys that helped me now were only hired. I'm done with what I've been doing up to now."
"Then let's go farther west, share a claim, start new."
"No. It's my name that's wanted, especially now. You got your life ahead of you."
Alonzo held out their father's watch.
"Keep it" Josiah answered.
He continued to stand there, contemplating how far west he would go, all the while watching his brother ride into the red orange sun gliding up over the horizon.