A Will Starr response to the Billybuc Photo Challenge:
The Old Place
For a long time, he sat his horse and regarded the dilapidated house. The sad upper-story windows stared blankly back at him over the sagging porch roof and the once carefully tended front yard was rank with weeds and brush. The front door was ajar, and he could see where a packrat had built his nest in the abandoned parlor.
Finally, he dismounted and led his horse to the pump and trough in front of the small barn. He worked the pump handle and was rewarded with loud complaints from long unoiled bearings. A little rusty priming water he’d found in an old pan had wetted the unused pump leathers and finally, water began to flow earnestly from the spout. His horse smelled it, gently nudged him aside, and began to drink eagerly. It had been a long ride and a long day.
He busied himself repairing the corral and cleaning out the stall so he could stable his horse. He also made himself a bed for the night up in the loft after sweeping it out. At last, he walked slowly out to the knoll where his beloved wife Martha and six-year-old daughter Carrie slept in their graves.
It was over thirty years ago when he came home from the fields and discovered their bodies. Martha had obviously been raped and Carrie beaten to death with a club. Maddened with grief and rage, he set off tracking their killers and almost immediately found one dead-drunk under a cottonwood.
In less than an hour, the screaming murderer had given Barnard Wilson, known to his friends as ‘Bandy’, the names of the six other renegades, their descriptions and where they lived. Then he shot the partially skinned killer between the eyes and went back to bury his wife and child on the knoll.
Two years later, all six remaining killers were brutally dead and Bandy Wilson was both a legend and a wanted man. The last one had turned himself in to a local sheriff in terror, only to be found the next morning, bloody and dead in his still-locked cell. His head was never found. Public sentiment was on Bandy’s side, but the law couldn’t allow men to kill other men, no matter how much it was deserved.
After seeing that justice had been done for his family, Bandy Wilson disappeared and became known only as Prospector. He revealed his true identity only once and that was to a man who had killed a small girl and dumped her body in a ravine.
Bandy had found the girl’s tiny skeleton and returned it to her grieving mother. Then he found and lured her killer, a man who had been elected sheriff, to his camp, where he told the terrified man that he was the infamous Bandy Wilson, made him drink coffee laced with knock-out powders, and then tossed him still unconscious into the same ravine he had used to dump the girl’s body.
He waited until the badly injured Sheriff regained consciousness so he would know how justice had been served and that Bandy Wilson had seen to it. Then he rode away contentedly, as the terrified, tormented, and hopelessly trapped sheriff began to wail.
All that was years ago, and the small, but once prosperous nearby town was now abandoned, along with the town marshal who had issued a warrant for his arrest, so Bandy Wilson decided to at last come home.
He found the overgrown rock-covered mounds on the knoll, but the hastily created wooden crosses were long gone. He made a mental note to order proper tombstones along with a wrought iron fence and gate. His days known only as Prospector had been fruitful because he was now a semi-wealthy man from more than one lucrative find of nuggets and flakes. He had done well, but Martha and Carrie would never be able to enjoy his success so this was the least he could do for them.
He went back down the hill to the homestead and got bacon, biscuits, and a frying pan from his pack, making himself an evening meal over a small fire built in the summer kitchen stove on the porch. Tomorrow, he would start cleaning out the house. Tonight, he would sleep in the loft.
“Good morning, Bandy. It has been awhile.”
Bandy Wilson yawned and stretched in his blankets, his hand reaching for his hidden revolver.
“It ain’t there, Bandy. I took the liberty while you were snoring away. Never thought I’d ever catch you out so easy. Reckon we’re both getting up in years. Just as well, though. I didn’t want to have to shoot you.”
Jimmy Dunn was seated on an old crate, quietly eyeing his old friend.
“I had to study on it some before it come to me who you are. Thirty years changes a man.”
“Thirty-three years. I reckon it does, Jimmy, what with you wearing a badge and all, but I knew that voice right off. It still sounds like a cow bawling for its calf.”
Jimmy Dunn was one of those big men with a high-pitched voice and it had always embarrassed him, so Bandy had always made the most of it which led to their first fight and subsequent friendship.
“I don’t recognize that law officer badge. What is it, Jimmy?”
“Federal Marshal. Me and Frank Henry are Federal Law for the entire Territory.”
“What do you want me for?”
“Hell, you know why, Bandy. Six men are dead by your hand, and while it may have been justice to your mind, it was unlawful and you know it.”
Bandy Wilson rose and pulled his suspenders over his broad shoulders. Then he rolled his blankets and pulled on his coat, all the while ignoring Jimmy Dunn. Then he turned to face him.
“I’m going to clean up my home, Jimmy. Then I’m going to ride to Prescott and get proper tombstones for Martha and Carrie.” He spat over his shoulder, never taking his eyes off Marshal Dunn. “If you don’t like it, I reckon you’ll have to shoot me to stop me and maybe that’s what ought to happen.”
His voice softened. “I’m tired of it all. I’m bone weary, Jimmy and I can’t fight anymore. I’ll do what I must and you do the same. If that means killing me, so be it. Just lay me up there with my family.”
The old Marshal sighed. “Well then, let’s start by weeding your yard. How many scythes do you have?”
Three months later, the old farm glistened under two coats of paint bought in Prescott along with proper tombstones for Martha and Carrie. The foundation under the house was rebuilt and the porch roof no longer sagged. New shingles kept it dry and the packrat lost his nest in the parlor. Martha would have been pleased at how neat and clean it was, even if it was two men doing the cleaning.
Several breed sows were in the hog pen and a nice-sized flock of chickens were searching the yards for unwary insects. The new barn boasted two coats of bright red paint with white trim and a heavy pole corral with a watering trough stood on the east side.
A team of plow horses along with another saddle horse cropped grass in a nearby field and mown hay was curing under the sun. Two crops were in and it looked like a good year.
Supper was over, so Bandy and Jimmy Dunn sat on their front porch chairs smoking their pipes and enjoying a last cup of coffee.
“I’m beholding to you Jimmy for all you’ve done, and I’m asking you again to give up your marshaling job and go on the halves with me.”
Jimmy Dunn rubbed his chin-whiskers and shook his head.
“It’s a nice enough farm, Bandy, it surely is, but there’s only room for one and I have plans of my own.”
Jimmy nodded and they watched as the sun sank below the horizon and lit up the clouds in a breathtaking display of crimson and gold. Only the Almighty could do that.
The next morning, Bandy took a cup of coffee to the porch and looked around for Jimmy Dunn. The old Marshal was an early riser, often up and around well before dawn, so it wasn’t unusual to find him gone, but this morning seemed different and Bandy felt a vague uneasiness. He finished his coffee and made ready to do his morning chores.
He found Jimmy behind the barn where he had dug an obvious grave in the barnyard. In it was a crude box made from leftover barn siding and the lid was on the ground. Jimmy walked out from inside the barn with his revolver in hand.
“Figured the barnyard was the best spot for a grave if it was never to be found. Once it’s filled in and the critters walk on it for a day or two, it will disappear.”
He glanced over at Bandy.
“I sort of hate to do this to you Bandy, but there’s a big price on your head, dead or alive, so I can’t take any chances.”
He bit his lip and raised his weapon.
“I have a cancer and it hurts me something awful. If I get delirious with pain, I might say something since I’m the only one left who knows who you are, so I hope you’ll understand the why of it and forgive me. That and I just can’t stand the pain anymore.”
With that, he stepped into the grave, gave a final nod to his old friend, put the gun to his temple, and pulled the trigger.
Two days later, the filled-in grave had indeed disappeared, just as Jimmy had planned. The note he left told of a visit to the doctor in Prescott and the hopelessness of the situation. It also spoke to what a good friend was willing to do as a last gesture to make Bandy Wilson forever disappear. Bandy was to mail a letter to the Prescott Journal Miner newspaper from Sheriff Jimmy Dunn, explaining the reason and manner of his death by his own hand and that he wanted his gravesite to be forever anonymous.
Bandy Wilson took two cups of coffee to the porch. He placed one by Jimmy Dunn’s chair, sat in his own chair, and watched the sunset. Somewhere, a covey of quail bickered over the best roosts. Then all was still.