The sun sagged sedately in the arid air and it cast a long, lean shadow across the crusty and cracked earth. A lone, dusty cowboy rested on a ridge after the long journey across the pass. His horse had come up lame, and with many miles remaining between the ridge and their destination.
Even in the scorching sun, he could feel the dangerous heat radiating from his mount's right fore.
He surveyed the landscape looking for signs of water. There- in the distance and barely visible on the horizon- was a stream beneath a few ragged trees. Amazing how all life follows the flow of water.
He led his horse there and stripped out of his stiff and sweaty clothes, save his hat and bandana. He waded hip deep into the cool crispness. The mare drank and stood quietly, licking her lips. She snorted a comforted huff of air through her nostrils while the water washed the heat from her aching muscles, tissues and tendons.
The Marshal removed his handkerchief, dunked it in the stream and swiped it over the grit on the back of his neck before running it over his exhausted, scowling expression. He tossed his remaining effects onto the bank. He let out an exasperated sigh and disappeared into the water for just a moment before scurrying up to the side to sit in the shade.
He held on to the end on his lead while his mare grazed on the grass of bank still steeped in the stream. He laid back and listened to her breathing and chewing, smelled her sweat and leather and the plants. He felt the cool grass beneath his bare skin and stared up at the impossibly near, deep purple sky.
It was starting to get dark. He should set up camp. There was no way his horse was making it to town. He kissed at her and led her up the bank to a tree.
He searched his saddle bags for a tiny container of herbal poultice. He smeared the dressing on his mares bulging tendon and skillfully wrapped a strip of fabric around the injured limb, careful to apply even and constant pressure.
When he was satisfied the wrap was on properly, he stood and shuffled over to his bedroll. He rubbed a little leftover poultice on his aching neck muscles before bunking down for the night.
He stared up at the night sky and tried to count the innumerable stars glinting just out of reach beyond the tree tops.
There was a chorus of night noises- peepers and crickets, and long, lonely cry of coyotes calling to the moon. The water rushed endlessly on, beating mercilessly the shore which contained it. The soft, free breeze caressed the foliage like a lost lover making the trees lament their anchoring roots and weep.
The next day found the mare in better form. Although she still pointed her toe and shortened her stride, she'd make it to town today if they took it slow.
He dressed in the clothing he'd rinsed in the stream and dried under the sun that morning. He tacked his mare up and cinched his saddle tight.
He led her a ways until he couldn't walk any further and he felt she was limbered up, then climbed aboard.
They meandered through the deserted hillside until a town loomed in the distance.
His hand ghosted the grip of his Remington 1875, trigger finger tingling.
He hated towns like this. The hair on his neck stood up as he breached the gait and strode down main street under the heavy gaze of unseen eyes.
He took the mare to the livery stable and left her there with instructions to bring her sound again.
He sauntered toward the saloon, brushing the dust from his vest and rubbing the tips of his boots clean on the backs of his calves.
The lanky lawman bellied up to the bar and ordered a bottle of whiskey. He drank his hands steady and walked back out. He wasn't here for booze, he was there for a fugitive.
He'd faced the badman once before in an ambush which left The Marshal gut-shot and horseless just outside of Abilene.
He stretched out on the porch of the post office, long legs unfurled and spurs dangling over the edge. He pulled his hat down low over his eyes and crossed his arms over his star and waited.
Not long after he settled in, he saw the man he was looking for walking from the stable. The man was a bank robber and an expert at stagecoach holdups. He was also a murderer and The Marshal knew all too well how quick he was with a gun.
He was unmistakable. His unruly, atramentaceous hair stuck up in all directions, wavering slightly in the breeze.
The Marshal recognized the iron on his hip and the way his narrowed eyes darted around the town, looking for the first hint of trouble.
His icy cold eyes glanced quickly over the man seated on the post office step, lingering momentarily on the revolver beneath his relaxed finger tips. He eyed the well-worn grip of the six-shooter and inspected the callouses on the tall man's thumb and forefinger which suggested he was familiar with shooting this gun.
The seated man glanced up from under his hat to meet the hard eyes studying his fingers. The brim of his hat tilted slightly as he did so, allowing the sun to illuminate the star pinned to his lapel and still partially concealed by the rugged bear paw draped over his chest.
Noticing that the other man had seen the tin, The Marshal stood, tall and imposing, and fitted his fingers into the grooves worn in the walnut wood. It felt natural and comforting in his hand.
The bank robber squared off, too, undeterred. He rested his palms on his matching set of Colt SAAs. The Marshal flashed back to his last encounter with this man and his blood ran cold. The fugitive issued a warning in an oddly mellifluous tone, his cadence slow and easy and his face untroubled.
"Well, now, Marshal, I think I've seen a ghost. So good to see you again," he feigned hospitality.
He opened his arms offering an embrace and bared his teeth in a feral smile. The Marshal didn't move.
"I'd wager you and me have differing opinions on how I will leave this town. I ain't going to jail to wait to be hanged. I'm going to ride out of here a free man and work my way through the west, taking what I need to get by. If you've got other ideas, we're gonna have another go-round. Didn't work out so well for you last time, did it? It's you or me, Marshal. I've lived a hard life and if I got to die, I'm going to die a hell of a lot harder."
"Mr. Crowder, it don't have to go down like this. No one has to die today. I don't want to kill ya, but if you make me draw, I will put you down." The lawman was as calm and cool as still waters, unflappable.
His eyes were as distant and dead and stygian as any hardened criminal Boyd had ever met. He was dark, for a law man.
Boyd might have respected that hard, imposing, dangerous quietness in another man; how it speaks of the carnage he's witnessed and inflicted on his fellow compatriots. This man knew depths of suffering. He could mete out punishment in broad strokes and take some in kind. He was practiced in how to patiently stand a shitstorm as it stripped his world down to it's components around him. He knew how to survive to clean up the mess in the aftermath.
The whole town was deafeningly silent, save for a school bell dinging faintly in a distant breeze.
Boyd drummed his fingers on his guns and unbuttoned his holsters with easy, unconscious movements of his thumbs. The Marshal's grip tightened on his own weapon.
He stared through Boyd, aiming for his soul, perhaps. His unflinching eyes, void of emotion, taking in the just facts and betraying nothing of the man behind them. Boyd's gaze mirrored that of the lawman, matter-of-fact and aloof. He stiffened slightly and exhaled. He melted into his guns and in a fluid motion drew down on the hardened Marshal.
Time slowed down. The Marshal could see the badman was weighing his options. He could feel the impending explosion of violence vibrating in the air between them.
His long healed gut wound fluttered and sang. His stomach did flips. His trigger finger itched and his neck hair raised a warning.
He saw Crowder tense and go for his weapons.
In a flash the lawman cleared his holster and fired a single .45 center mass. It tore through the outlaw's chest with a sickening rip and the shot echoed off the buildings in slow reverberation.
The fugitive fell to the ground, life mingling with the dirt with each beat of his heart. He lay there, twitching and gasping as The Marshal oozed over to inspect him. It was a clean shot, though the lung. It would eventually prove to be fatal, the lawman thought.
Pity the shot wasn't more accurate, though The Marshal did experience a fleeting glimpse of glib satisfaction knowing that the suffering he'd done alone in the Texas desert now laid heavily on the man who'd subjected him to it.
"That's quite a draw you got there, Marshal," Boyd forced out, lips curling into a foamy red smirk.
He tried to whistle low and long, but only managed to cough. "Ice cold water flowing through your veins! I was tired of running, anyhow. Make sure my brother gets my horse...and my boots... and guns," he said in stilted verse. His breath gurgled through the hole in his chest. He raised his head to scrutinize the damage.
He placed a sallow and cadaverous hand over his wheezing wound to laugh ruefully. "See ya in hell, lawman. I'll save you a seat. We'll reminisce and share a whiskey." He squeezed his words out between shallow, rattling breaths, his lips pale and lathered with froth.
Boyd Crowder died there in the little dusty town, squirming in an umber pool of his own blood. He died unceremoniously, alone and was mourned by no one save for the lawman who'd killed him.
Marshal Givens brought his body home for burial, strapped to a horse to give to his kin.