Jane began to hyperventilate as she watched the two men in her life—steadfast, loving Ben, her husband, and Laird, the retired gun-slinger–prepare to ride into Dry Gulch for a face-off with Stone, the cattle baron. The early afternoon sun was warm and bright, highlighting Jane’s blond hair like a halo, framing her lovely face.
She recalled the day Laird had ridden in four months ago to sign on as a hired hand. He said that his great grandfather was a Scottish chieftain, which was why his father named him Laird, but he never volunteered his family name or much about himself except that he’d “used his gun some.” A man’s past was his own business in the Territory. But Laird, the man with one name and a shadowy past, had become their friend and ally against the ruthless cattleman.
“Laird, it’s not your fight,” Ben said earnestly, thumbing 44-40 rounds into his lever action Winchester rifle. A bullet dropped at his feet as he spoke, and he picked it up, wiped off the dust, and continued loading. “It’s my fault that poor old Brownie got himself killed by Stone’s hired gun. I shouldn’t have talked him into staying and fighting. I don’t want your blood on my hands too.”
“You got no chance alone against the Tombstone Kid,” Laird answered laconically. He’s fast–really fast. And he fights dirty—doesn’t take a bath until he’s done killing. And I hear he ain’t seen the inside of tub since he came to town a week ago.”
“We didn’t hire you for your gun Laird,” declared Ben.
“I know, but man’s got to follow his star. I can’t run from my past,” said Laird stoically. He used a rag to wipe off the grease that he’d coated his Colt .45 with when he stored it away on arrival, thinking he was done with fighting. Then he loaded it smoothly with a practiced hand, replaced it in its well-worn holster, and tied that down low on his right thigh, as he had done so many times before.
“Well, I won’t try to talk you out of it anymore. I’m truly grateful for your backup. In fact all the homesteaders are glad you’re on our side,” said Ben with relief in his voice.
“They got a funny way of showing it. Letting me and you face Stone and his guns alone.”
“Well, it can’t be helped now,” said Ben. “Brownie’s murder has them buffaloed.” He untied his horse, kissed Jane lightly on the lips, and climbed solidly onto his saddle. “We’ll be back after we’re finished in town.” He tried to sound confident.
“Oh please be careful,” sobbed Jane, looking from one to the other, her emotions churning within her, her lovely breasts heaving.
Laird said nothing, but gracefully vaulted onto his horse and touched the brim of his hat to her in salute, his lean, chiseled, hawk-like face in shadow, as he prepared to leave. Jane couldn’t help noticing how attractive the touch of gray at his temples looked, peeking out from under his hat.
They rode off side by side, their horses’ hooves kicking up little puffs of dust, and were soon lost to Jane’s sight as the road curved to the right around the grove of cottonwoods beside the creek. Jane didn’t know if she’d see them alive again, didn’t know if the next hoof beats she heard would be Stone’s men coming to burn her out or worse. Time would stand still until she knew one way or the other. It was almost more than she could bear. She wiped the tears away, smearing the dust on her cheeks, then returned to the cabin to wait, the cabin that she and Ben had built before all of the trouble started when the farmers began putting up barbed wire fences to keep Stone’s cattle from their crops. Ben had loaded the shotgun for her before he left, but she didn’t know if she could really pull the trigger and shoot another person. She left it standing beside the door.
Meanwhile the men rode on in silence, each lost in their thoughts. The road to town wound back and forth, following the creek. There was only the clip-clop of their horses, the cawing of crows, and the water gurgling. Today the ride seemed to take longer than usual, as if time itself was as reluctant as they were to face the inevitable. Then just before Dry Gulch came into view, Laird broke the silence.
“Look Ben, we need a plan, and I’ve been thinking. You ride in alone, down Main Street, as a decoy, and I’ll slip in the other way and then come around on foot behind the general store. When Stone sends out the Tombstone Kid, I’ll be in a perfect place to get that buzzard between the shoulder blades as he faces you.”
“But, but …” said Ben, with a puzzled look on his square honest face, “You’re going to bushwhack him? Aren’t you going to face him down? I’ve seen how fast you are.”
“The Kid’s faster. I didn’t get to hang up my gun the first time by being dumb.”
“Well, okay,” said Ben hesitantly, “It doesn’t quite seem fair, but you’ve got a lot more experience at this than me.”
“There’s a lot of dead men who tried being fair,” replied Laird.
The men parted. Ben waited a short while to give Laird a head start and then, feeling very alone, rode into town and stopped, just diagonally across from the saloon. He dismounted, slid the Winchester from its scabbard, and waited. There was no one else on the street, but he felt the weight of the many eyes watching from the buildings. The sky was vast and cloudless.
“Our hero’s here,” said Stone, his voice, made raspier by whiskey, as he looked out through the dusty saloon window. “Looks like he came alone without any of his sod-buster friends or Laird. He’s the only one with enough grit to stand up to me. Get rid of him, and the rest are finished.” He smoothed down his bushy mustache.
“I knew Laird was yellow,” said the Kid, contemptuously, his voice surprisingly high-pitched for a killer. “Too yellow to draw against me. This will be so easy I should return part of the money to you. But I won’t.” He laughed a short nasty giggle, as he drew on white gloves. “Nice touch, eh Stone? Just like an undertaker.”
Stone felt a chill and almost felt sorry for Ben. Glad the Kid’s working for me, he thought.
“I don’t think I’ll need backup, but take the shotgun, Stone, just in case. Not that you like get your own hands dirty.” The Kid loaded two buckshot rounds into the double-barreled shotgun and threw it to Stone with a sneer.
He finished his drink deliberately, unfolded himself from his chair almost lazily, stretched to his full height, and yawned for Stone’s benefit. Then he pushed through the swinging doors, hands resting lightly on his pearl-handled Colts, and swaggered into the street.
“I’ll give you one last chance, farm boy,” he called out. “Turn tail like a whipped dog and get your wife and that yellow-belly Laird on a wagon and clear out of the valley, and I’ll let you live. Or maybe I should just kill you anyway and spend some time with your wife. She’s wasted on a sod-buster like you.”
Ben resolutely stood his ground. He gripped the walnut stock of the Winchester too tightly, with sweaty palms. Was Laird in position? What was he waiting for? His throat was too dry to say anything in reply.
“No? Well, we’ll do this right,” said the Kid, toying with Ben. “On the count of three,” “One, two…”
Ben desperately swung the rifle stock to his shoulder. Where’s Laird he thought.
Ben fired wildly. God he’s fast, was his last thought as he felt crushing pain in the middle of his chest. And then nothing. Ben’s body lay sprawled on its back, eyes open, gun and hat beside him, quietly bleeding into the dirt of Main Street.
The Tombstone Kid surveyed his work with satisfaction. I need more practice, he thought. Only hit him with three out of four shots. Tomorrow. Tonight I’ll have them draw me a tub at Polly’s. He slid his guns into their holsters, turned back towards the saloon, and started to remove his gloves. He caught movement out of the corners of his eyes, heard Laird call out ‘Kid’, and wheeled about. Laird’s bullets knocked him sideways before the Kid’s gun barrels cleared their holsters.
“You couldn’t face me…,” said the Kid’s as he crumpled to the street, fierce eyes growing dull, as his body joined Ben’s in the dust.
Laird let his right arm fall to his side, but did not holster the gun. He focused his attention on the saloon door. Stone burst through, his eyes bulging in disbelief, holding the almost forgotten shotgun in front of him. “The K-K-Kid–you bushwhacked the Kid,” he stuttered almost accusingly.
“That’s right, Stone,” said Laird evenly. “You going to use that gun now?”
“Wha–What?” said Stone, stopping and looking down at the shotgun as if he had just remembered that he held it.
Laird raised his Colt and deliberately shot Stone once, in the middle of his forehead. “Stone to dust,” he said, as he watched Stone’s body thump off the saloon walkway and fall heavily into the street. Stone’s feet twitched a few times before he lay still.
“Anyone else?” asked Laird, gun held at the ready, eyes alert, all senses sifting through the silent people who had materialized on the boardwalks fronting the store and saloon. No one spoke, but their heads signaled “no.”
“You saw Stone start to raise his gun on me, didn’t you?”
Several heads nodded yes.
“Shot him in self-defense,” declared Laird, daring anyone to dispute him. “There’s three down. That’s enough killing for one day. I’ll be taking Ben home now.” He smoothly reloaded while still surveying the crowd. No one moved.
There were already a few flies circling Ben’s body when Laird gently lifted it. He tied it to the saddle of Ben’s horse, which he led as he rode out of Dry Gulch and headed back towards the homestead.
All afternoon long, Jane had waited anxiously. At last she heard the distant sound of horses. Who? Then she saw them, a lone rider leading a second horse, riding up from the creek. Unable to contain herself any longer, she picked up her skirt and ran down the path towards the rider. Laird waved, then swung down lightly from the saddle and swept her fine, eager body into his arms.
“Went off just like we planned,” he said, and kissed her long and passionately.