I ached to kill him right where he stood, but the sheer hatred
and intense loathing burning in the eyes of the stick thin man in
the long black frock coat made me pause. Crazed horses bolted
around the wrinkled scarecrow sermonizing to an unseen
congregation in middle of the dusty street, his sallow pasty skin as gaunt
as crumpled paper, thunderous indignation ringing in his voice.
"Hallelujah to his holy name oh ye prodigal son," he bellowed, sounding like Pastor Bartock, an itinerant hell fire
and damnation preacher who stumped Rimrock from time to time.
"Pay heed to your Glorious Master oh ye iniquitous lamb, for the day
of reckoning is nigh when the Almighty shall speak with the roar of
lions and the tinkling of cymbals His holy word to proclaim."
"I beseech ye now, oh ye contentious mongrel," He blustered, shaking his fists at me, then thumping the sky. "Put away brother Satan's tool of destruction from thine lowly hand. I say unto ye, ye who are not as worthy as the dust under the feet of the Redeemer
of man, ye cur pup, ye usurper of the holy Word, yea verily, guns
in the hands of ungodly sinners lead to unholy degradation. They
lead the impenitent transgressor to the very pits of Hell...yea,
even unto eternal damnation."
"I must be dreaming," I mumbled, shaking my head. The bitter smell of gunpowder and dust clogged my nostrils, but the
screeching, grating voice, sounding like a rusty wagon wheel, brought me back to my senses. Pa and my brothers lay strapped dead across their horses like deer after a hunt -- and ma lay dead inside our burning cabin.
"Vipers and harlots abound in the land," ranted the man in the black tunic. "Sinful carrion rend God's great loving heart with blasphemies. His eyes grow weary. He cries great tears for
this profanely evil generation casting their lots with Satan this ignoble day. He sees the unjust drawing the very blood of the lamb from unholy vessels, empty and infertile as the desert, barren of the word and the glory, and He is sorely anguished."
"The Father of us all hath decreed sacred condemnation for the unrighteous wine bibbers that do blaspheme and perform all
manner of sin, corruption and evil before Him...this very
millennium. Yea verily, this very hour, executers of the
Omnipotent Master's Holy Word usher in Christ's peaceful thousand
year reign in power and glory. By the hand of His anointed
servants, in His divine wisdom, God purges those children who
stray from His holy purpose, for they are sinners that pervert
His doctrines. With the sword of righteousness He purges them,
enlisting His consecrated servant, His shepherd, the watchmen of
His vineyards, to adjudge the depraved acts of the wicked.
Behold, yea verily...I am His armor of righteousness...I am His sword. Praise be the Lord! I shall gather His lost sheep, this lost generation. With the word and the sword shall I gather them in
His name. Hallelujah, God is great...amen! The judgement day is
nigh at hand when the wicked sinner shall reap what they sow in
wickedness. Yea verily, the Lord's pruning hooks shall pluck the
evildoers from His sight, smiting them with power and glory through mine strong right arm."
"I just got to be dreaming," I muttered, standing with my guns drawn. "He's crazy! How can this be? Any minute ma'll
wake me up. This isn't real...can't be real."
The day had started with me practicing my quick draw like always,
My shooter empty and smoking, I pondered on the plumb
ventilated target dummy's worn out pants and shirt I'd stuffed
with tumbleweeds and propped up against a tree. In most places
the shooting would have caused alarm, but in Rimrock ithe sound of funfire was only a signal to awake from the night's slumber. Rivers of sweat ran
into my eyes as I blew the smoke from my shooter, rubbing a
sleeve heavy with chalky red dust across my forehead. Lifting my
hat to wipe away the sticky sweat, I pushed the sandy hair out of
my eyes. "It's already gettin' hot," I yelled to the tired old
mountains around me. "It ain't even hardly day yet," I said,
listening as my voice bounced and echoed from the red hills.
A dust devil kicked up the powdery earth in the dusty street below, as the hot sun of another day chased away the morning
chill. Like a small twister, I watched the funnel of whirling
dust mosey back and forth in front of the saloon like a drunken
cowboy sauntering through town -- like it had no better place to
go, and wasn't in no all-fired hurry to get there.
That's when I first saw the strangers. The four of them rode into Rimrock only a few feet from where I watched. They
might've seemed relaxed as they rode, to him that didn't know how
to see. But I knew. Took mighty hard work to look so easygoing.
It was the mean, hard look in the eyes gave them away. It
belied the calm. Their gunhands hung a split hair away from
their shooting irons, poised and ready, guns slung low on their
hips in holsters tied to their legs. Stalking eyes watched their
backtrail, cruel, suspicious stones, probing every shadowy
doorway as they passed. Nothing moved they didn't know about.
More than looking for trouble, they were trouble itself. I knowed when I seen gunfighters good at their trade, for many such had come and gone in my young life. Rimrock was no ordinary
town. Cuddled up in the heart of the Oklahoma badlands between
the rich Texas cattle-lands to the south and the Kansas railhead
to the north, Rimrock was an outlaw town. Rimrock was a robbers
roost where outlaws would bide their time in the red hills
With steep, red sandstone cliffs falling away on three sides, Rimrock held reputation as a stronghold from posses.
Sagging roofs and hastily constructed lean-to's in the red rock
shadows had the look of temporary shelter. It was a passing
through place -- a stepping stone to other places, a town built
around the idea of moving on to something better sometime. To me
this refuge of tumble-down shanties and pigsties was home. I
knew no other.
The gunfighters saw me too, but gave me no never-mind. They
saw only a slip of a kid not worth giving any thought too. A lot
of people misjudged me like that.
They dismounted and passed into the dim-lit saloon -- all
but one. In the thick half-light, a man lean as twisted rawhide
slumped against the porch in the long shadows. His blood-dark
vest was the same color as the whiskers on his unshaven face.
I quickly forgot about the strangers when I caught sight of
my father Ben, and brothers Jed, Johnny and Ringo, on the other
side of the ridge below. Ben and Ringo passed out of sight into
Dry Canyon, while Jed and Johnny stood guard. I knew after
making a deposit in the family bank, a cache in Dry Canyon,
they'd piece their way up to Rimrock. I'd been watching for
them, waiting, knowing they'd be along shortly.
Dropping from the grassy earth to the hardpan dirt of town
where my cabin nested, I raised the bandanna tied around my neck
over my mouth, cause the air was still full of choking dust beat
up when the gunfighters rode through.
I saw the mysterious stranger back into the shadows as I
passed, but thought nothing on it, anxious to give mother news of
the homecoming. Cackling laughter came from the saloon as I
passed, evil and cold. I tightened my coat against the suddenly
The Day men had left ten days before without word of where
they were heading, or what they were going to do...leastwise to
me. But I knew! I'd listened to the talking one night when they
thought me asleep -- talked of a bank raid over the border into
Texas -- family business. The talk stirred out of the pot and
into an argument when pa suggested I should be included in the
raid. "After all," he said, "he's grown tall as most of his
brothers at 17, Laura. He's fast a draw as any of'm."
"Ben!" my mother'd said, a cold, stern sound to her voice.
But father didn't back down. "I've eyed our pup drawing and
shooting since he sized up smaller'n one of them tumblyweeds
blowin' out back. He's fast to slap leather'n faster on the
trigger. It's like he was born a toothin' on a bullet and totin'
a shooter, Laura. I never seen the like in all my born days, I
swear I haven't."
"Oh no, Benjamin Day," mother had said firmly, and I heard
something make a loud crash. "Oh no you don't. There's to be no
more discussion on that subject here."
You could feel the daggers leaping from mother's eyes like
burning pokers. "Benjamin Day, the decision's been made, an you
be know'n it. I've set by calm's an autumn cucumber as you made
gunfighters out of my first three sons, with nary a word of
complaint...tell me if it tain't so."
"Well, sure Laura, and I'm beholden, but..."
"And didn't I nurse Ringo when'e took a bullet in the
gullet'n we thought him done'fer. Then when a posse mad'nuff to
chaw on horseshoe nails captured Jed, I like to have died...hear
me good, Ben, I like to have died. You and the boys saved
him...they'dve lynched him sure if you hadn't, but the bloodshed
and the killing it took... Listen well Benjamin Day, it just
ain't gonna happen to Billy, thass all. It ain't gonna happen."
Pa knowed he was whipped good and proper when ma used his
full name, and had surrendered himself to sitting out the blow.
Ma didn't stand up often against her man, but when she did, you
might as well go on to something else, because there was no
talking her down. When she made up her mind, it was made up.
"No," she continued, "you've made killers and thieves out of
my first three children, Benjamin Day." I could just see her
tongue breathing withering fire. "There ain't a whole lot I can
do 'bout it now, but as God is my witness, Benjamin Day, Billy's
goin' to grow up honest...if'n I have any say in't." To stress
her meaning, she held a cast iron frying pan aloft, waving it
like the sword of righteousness.
I could just see father smiling gentle-like, trying to
settle down his woman, not wanting to get his head flattened.
Ben knew facing down a wounded she-bear with a switch was an
easier chore, so the argument ended there. "Don't know why I
brought it up, Laura," he'd said. "I knowed this thinkin' was
in'ya from the start. But the boys'n me...we sure'nuff could use
another gun beside us...we surely could."
"Laura..." pa bellyached, and prob'ly thought the argyment
done, but ma hadn't finished. Land a goshen no, she hadn't
finished, not by a long shot.
"Shesh up now, Benjamin Day. When your raiders took me
kicking and screaming...I hated you. When you told me I's to
cook and clean for you'n bear your young...I wanted to kill you.
And when those Starr brothers you outlawed with got hung, but you
escaped...I was there for you. I bore you six children...and
somewhere long the way started to love you. I sorrowed with you
during that cold winter when our two girls died from the fever."
"You're not bad as you let on, Benjamin Day...just got a bum
steer'at set you rid'n on the wrong trail. That's all. I know
you be'a loving me too, Benjamin Day. But Ben," she whispered,
low and lovingly," and I knew right then that pa was lost as a
chipmunk down a well, "you had your way at every turn. Now it's
my turn to have a go...and I say no. Leave my last son be,
y'hear me Benjamin Day? Leave my last son be."
"Pa's home!" I yelled, as I hung my guns beside the door. I
couldn't help noticing ma's disapproving look at the guns as she
shooed me off, putting on extra side pork and eggs for her men.
"Wish you hadn't gone a'shooting this morn'n," she scolded.
"Could'a used some'at to help me with the chores, y'know."
"Ma, I'm most of 18. I'm too old fer stuff like chores'n
such. I be hanker'n to do more'n woman's work all'a time. I'm a
man, ma. It's high time I started being treated like one."
"I'll treat you like one," she said, grabbing my ears
quicker'n a jackrabbit can jump out of a hot skillet. "Ow-w-w,
ma, that hurts! stop it now...please stop? Why you go'n treat me
like a child? Ow-w-w-w, yes'm, yes'm, I'll get to'm right away."
Her lectures spoke in silent and simple words -- but firm,
in a way I couldn't help but understand. More important, I
reckon, I learned'm, and turned to the breakfast dishes.
She gave me a knowing nod, and asked, "You read those two
books I got you by those English writer fellas?"
Before I could answer, I heard pa and brothers outside. I
forgot mother's question as I headed out the door to greet them.
The smile disappeared as I came out the front door and was
greeted by a hail of bullets.
Jed and Johnny had met death instantly, Jed doubled up over
the hitching rack, Johnny face down in the parched Oklahoma dust
that fast became a rusty red as it soaked up pools of blood. Pa
and Ringo lay behind the wood porch. Both had taken several
bullets, but still fired into a churning cloud of dust.
Dazed, as if on the outside looking in on a bad dream, I
shut my eyes. When I opened them again, the bad dream hadn't
gone away. I wanted to run, to hide, to get away, but my feet
Mothers scream brought me out of the hiding place in my head
where I'd retreated. I turned to grab my gun beside the front
door -- at the same time I smelled smoke from the house on fire.
Bitter smoke plumes hovered, already so thick they made my knees
wobble. I didn't know where to go, caught in the middle, outside
with pa, or inside where ma'd screamed.
My hesitation resolved when I saw the man with the blood-red vest from the saloon struggling with the limp form of my mother. Lustful passion burned in his eyes. "Leave'er alone," I
bellowed, and the man with hair the color of red flame dropped my
mother in a lump like a sack of flour, and turned to look down
the barrel of my shooter.
"Now hold on a minute son. Don't go gett'n too hasty," the man pleaded, and his voice brought me back to my senses.
The reality of it all stopped me stone cold. Target dummies and tin cans had been the only things at the end of my gun before -- never a real live man.
Red saw the hesitation; saw the puzzle in my eyes. He looked for a way out, but finding none, turned. His grinning
eyes appeared as empty as a dry well, and as non-caring. He
begged in a whiny voice, "Understand me boy, I didn't mean no..."
Suddenly he jumped me, but I acted without thinking when he
forced my hand, and two lead kicks to the gut pushed him back. I
watched lost, wide-eyed panic come into his eyes. He doubled up,
clutching at his belly, shocked by the sticky blood bubbling out
of his red vest between his fingers. I didn't recall firing the
first shots, but when he came at me again I fired twice more to
put him down -- this time with dead reckoning.
"Mother," I cried, squeezing the frail, limp body tight to
my chest -- but she was dead. I held her to me for the longest
moment, sobbing. I hoped if I held her tight enough she would
feel my warmth, and I could will her back to life. "She cain't
be dead," I wept unashamedly. "She's not dead...mother, wake
up...talk to me. You're my life, my world, you cain't be dead."
I somehow expected that when I pulled back she'd smile, and the
color would once more be in her cheeks.
But pushy quiet jerked me awake when the noise and confusion outside stopped suddenly. I laid my mother aside tenderly, took one final look, turned and stepped to the door. The gunplay had
ended quick as it began. I heard shouts and running on the
boardwalk down the street -- probably aroused townspeople.
Two of the strangers I'd seen riding into town earlier were
hog-tying the limp bodies of Jed and Johnny to a horse like deer
after a hunt. "Cain't be real," I muttered, stepping up to the
two men in the street waving my gun. "Stand back or get a bullet
for your trouble," I growled, as the men turned to face me.
I was staggered by the contempt smiling in the eyes of the
closest one, but the sheer hatred burning in the other made me
hesitate. "Ought to plug you right where you stand," I said,
aching to kill him. But he just stood there without twitching a
muscle, gun holstered, posing no threat other than with his eyes.
I'd just shot my first man, and these two didn't even have
their guns drawn. I couldn't see for the tears. Rage covered my
eyes -- red and orange. Angry yellow streaks flashed violently.
It had to be a dream -- it had to. But why couldn't I wake
up? I blindly began to pistol whip the nearest stranger
unmercifully, again and again. Then everything went black.