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NSFW Warning: None.
Dawn broke above the prairie, its golden light bathing the softly swaying grasses with a sleepy glow. Birds chirped merrily to greet it and a lone hawk soared overhead, its keen graze sweeping the landscape below, eagerly searching for a field mouse or gopher with which to break its fast.
From his vantage point among the pines, Joshua watched as a cluster of six riders made their way towards his position. A dust cloud rose in their wake, speaking to the haste at which they rode.
Ignoring the twisting feeling in his already queasy gut, he turned from the sight. Stalking back to his smothered fire, the image of his sister’s ghost still fresh in his mind, he devised his plan.
‘They killed me,’ that was what she had said. They. Of course, his prime suspect was her husband, the sheriff. He knew Kyle Hess to be an honorable man but how well did he truly know him? He knew no others in town who might hold any ill will towards his sister and how often did a lover’s spat turn ugly?
Conveniently enough, it was none other than the sheriff who now rode towards him, with five deputies in tow. Joshua knew that he couldn’t outshoot them all but if he could get a lucky shot? He would have to be sure, however. No sense in throwing his life away if he didn’t even get the real murderer. Plus, Mary had asked him to bury her as well.
Why had she appeared to him? Him of all people who had just killed a man and gone on the run? Surely Margaret, their sister, would have been a better one to appear to. Someone who might actually be able to bring the killer to justice rather than someone wanted by the law in the first place. He supposed it was pointless to wonder. Who, after all, knew the machinations of the spirit world? Perhaps she had come to him out of anger and nothing more. Angry that he had abandoned her as she had said the night before.
“But what can I do, Mary?” He asked the empty grove. Since her disappearance the night before, the specter had not returned to haunt him.
He could hear the beating of horse’s hooves growing closer. With a sigh, he sought cover, no sense in being gunned down in the open before he could even try and talk his way out.
Hurrying behind a boulder at the grove’s far end, he awaited their arrival.
Within moments, the sounds of hoof-beats mingled with those of snorting beasts and murmured voices. By Joshua’s estimate they lingered just outside of the copse of pines, no doubt discussing how best to approach their hunt. His trail, clear across the breadth of the prairie, would have been hidden among the bed of needles of the copse’s floor. It wouldn’t be long, however, before they spotted his campfire and then they would no doubt spread out to search the area. If he were lucky, he could potentially pick off one or two of their number before the others closed in but even one against four were not favorable odds. He knew these men, mostly youngins who felt prideful having the gold star upon their breast.
Of their number, only two stood out as possessing any experience. There was the sheriff of course. He had once told Joshua over dinner that he had only ever been involved in one gunfight in the city and it had been the scariest afternoon of his life. He had ended the fight, however, by killing two of the ne’er’do’wells who had started it and lived to tell the tale. That meant he had at least a little skill with his sidearm.
The other was Henry Buckings.
Buckings had been the sole deputy of the former sheriff, though many had said he deserved the badge far more given his dedication to the job. A veteran of several gunfights, Henry was a quick draw. Provided of course he wasn’t hung over.
‘Thinking like a true bandit now ain’t you,’ Joshua admonished himself. As it stood then, he had only killed one man, a man who had drawn on him first. Killing a couple deputies, or perhaps the sheriff himself, would certainly warrant the marshals to come for him. Also, these were innocent men, merely doing their job.
Unless, of course, any of them had anything to do with Mary’s murder.
It was the voice of the sheriff that rang out clearly through the grove, echoing off the jumbled boulders and the cliffsides beyond.
“If you are still nearby, come out! This isn’t a posse come to drag you home behind our horses! We have eyewitness testimony says you shot second. I’ve sent letters to Judge Halloway, he will hear your case but as we now stand you are not being charged with murder!”
“How do I know you speak true?” Joshua called back. In response to his shout, he heard a rustling among the riders, as well as a good amount of harsh whispering. By the sound of it two of them dismounted. They had a mind to flank him, his time was short.
“I swear it on my Bible, Joshua, no man here will bring you harm,” Kyle Hess replied. “Now come out! Unarmed if you please and we will take you home. Won’t even lock you up, provided you promise not to run no more!”
Joshua sighed. He supposed he would have to take the sheriff at his word. He was no gunfighter after all. Sure, he had gotten a lucky shot off against the cowpoke but what hope did he have against six armed men who were prepared to shoot back?
“Alright then, Sheriff!” He called. “I’m coming out.”
Wary to keep his hand away from his pistol, he stepped out from behind the boulder. Facing him, across the grove, were three men on horseback. The one in the middle was Kyle Hess, unmistakable with his flaming red hair peeking out from beneath his hat. To either side of him, his deputies had their Winchester rifles leveled upon Joshua. Off to his right two others, one of whom was Henry Buckings he saw, had their rifles aimed as well whilst to his left the sixth and final deputy had a pistol in hand.
“Thought there wasn’t to be any shooting?” He said, eyeing the muzzles of the leveled guns uncomfortably.
“Lower your arms,” Kyle Hess barked. “Henry’s gonna come and take your gun now, Joshua. No sudden movements and we’ll all be riding back to town soon, nice and peaceful like.”
Joshua nodded and gave no resistance as Henry Buckings approached, pulling his pistol from its holster before stepping back to allow the disarmed man to step forward.
Offering the deputy a tight-lipped smile and a nod, Joshua stepped forward towards those lawmen still on their horses.
“You can ride with Samuel,” Kyle said, motioning to the deputy on his left.
Nodding mutely, Joshua stepped forward when, grasped by a sudden inclination, he turned to the sheriff and asked, “how’s Mary?”
A look of discomfort crossed the features of Kyle Hess, but he recovered quickly.
“She’s staying with your sister,” he said shortly, turning his mount and heading back towards town as Samuel helping Joshua climb into the saddle behind him.