Hard Diggin’

Hard Diggin’

The Mexicans’ horses were tied to the hitching rail in front of the cantina. Than Fareheart, shading his eyes from the intense sunlight, looked across the dusty road at the row of adobe huts.

The saddle creaked when he stepped down into the thick dust of the road and tied his horse to the hitching rail in front of the Sheriff’s Office. As he stepped up under the awning of the small adobe hut, he glanced back across the road. Nothing moved in the midday heat. He turned and opened the door of the Sheriff’s Office and stepped inside.

The room was dark and Fareheart hesitated before closing the door.

“Sam,” he said. “You here?”

There was no answer. He’d known Sam Rungles for over twenty years but hadn’t seen him in more than three. Fareheart glanced down at the desk as he walked into the back room. He looked down at the unmade bed and nightstand.

The floorboards creaked as he walked back through the office and stepped out into the sunlight. From the shade of the awning, Than Fareheart watched as Sam Rungles crossed the street from the hotel.

“Hello, Than,” Sam said holding out his hand.

Than Fareheart took Sam’s hand and smiled.

“It’s been a while,” Sam said with a wry smile.

Than Fareheart, squinting in the sunlight and dust, looked across at the three horses tied in front of the cantina.

“Yeah, it’s been a while.”

“How you been?” Sam asked.

“Living,” Fareheart said. “Just barely.”

“I guess it’s the same with all of us. Sometimes I wonder what’s the point.”

Sam Rungles opened the door to his office. Than Fareheart followed him inside. The sheriff pulled up a chair for Than in front of his desk, walked around the desk, and sat down. He pulled a bottle and one glass out of the desk drawer, looking around for another glass. Than watched him. Sam stood up and walked into the back room. He returned, wiping a glass on his shirttail, set it in front of Than, and poured it full of whiskey. He filled his glass and sat down.

“I s’pose you’re here on business?” Sam asked.

“Kind of,” he said.

“It wouldn’t have anything to do with those three horses tied up across the way?”


“I seen ‘em come in earlier. I figure they’re up to no good, but I ain’t got nothin’ on ‘em.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Than said.

“You got somethin’?” Sam asked.

“I’ve been trailing them from Santa Ana, Mexico.”

“Mexico, huh?”

“They robbed the Primero Mining Company. Killed five men. Good men who knew what they were doing. The Primero Mining Company wants its payroll back. At least, what’s left of it. And it wants these banditos to disappear.”

“Like I said, I ain’t got nothin’ on ‘em. And I don’t want no trouble here,” Sam said.

“I won’t cause you any trouble, Sam,” Than Fareheart said. “I’ll wait. Most likely, they won’t stay long. I’ll just follow them out of town. Or I’ll set up out of town and wait. No trouble.”

“Appreciate that. You look healthy, Than. You must be doing somethin’ right.”

“I don’t feel none too healthy. But I’ve managed to keep alive. How are you, Sam? And how’s Rebecca?”

“She’s fine. Don’t see how she’s put up with me all these years. Guess she doesn’t have any place else to go. Or she’d have gone a long time ago,” Sam said.

Than Fareheart took a drink. He tried to imagine what Rebecca looked like now. It was sad, how he’d lived. Never had anything permanent in his life. Always on the move. He was tired but didn’t have any place to rest. Sam looked across the desk at Than.

“Why don’t you come home with me? Rebecca would enjoy seein’ ya,” Sam said.

“Nah, I don’t think so,” Than said. “I’d better stay close by in case they decide to clear out.”

“They ain’t goin’ nowhere too soon,” Sam said. “You got time to come to dinner. Rebecca would be real pleased to have company. It’s usually just her and me. And it can’t do you no harm to have a home-cooked meal. Besides, it’s Christmas.”

“Christmas?” Than asked.

“Yep, Christmas,” Sam said.

“What do you know about that?” Than said.

“How bad are these men?” Sam asked.

“About as bad as I’ve ever seen. Like I said, they killed five good men. That takes some doing.”

“And you plan to take them yourself?” Sam asked.

“Ain’t got a choice. That’s the way I’ve done it my whole life. Don’t know any other way.”

“You could let someone else do it for a change,” Sam said sipping his whiskey.

Sam had a point. He could let someone else take care of it. Men like those across the road would end up dead one way or another. What had it to do with him? Other than the mining company paid him to take care of it. Or would pay him when he did.

“At least, come to dinner,” Sam said. “You never know when you’ll be back this way. Like I said, Rebecca would enjoy seeing you. She’s gotta be tired of lookin’ at my ugly face.”

Than Fareheart looked down at the glass in his hand, thinking about Rebecca. Setting the glass on the desk, he stood up. Sam watched him.

“Well, I’ve been enough of a bother to you, Sam,” Than said. “Give my regards to Rebecca.”

“If these men are as bad as you say they are, then you’re gonna need some help,” Sam said looking up at Than. “You know, we ain’t gettin’ any younger. There’re some pretty good men out at the TX Ranch. I think you could getta couple of ‘em to help you out. Dooley, the owner, won’t mind, it bein’ Christmas and all.”

Than looked down at Sam. He’d never asked for help before, didn’t know how to go about it. Had his own way of doing things. Had always done it that way. Alone. It wasn’t that he was proud, he’d just always done it alone.

“Thanks for the whiskey, Sam,” Than said. “I’ll be all right. Besides, they don’t know about me, have no idea that I’m following them. Surprise, that’s half the fight, right?”

Than knew that Sam had noticed his hand, how it trembled when he’d set his glass down on the desk, and now he just wanted to get out of there. Sam stood up.

“You sure you won’t come for dinner?” he asked.

“No, I’d better stay close,” Than said. “My gut tells me that they’ll be on the move soon. Appreciate it though.”

“Merry Christmas, Than. It was good to see ya.” Sam held out his hand.

“Yeah, same here,” Than said and took hold of Sam’s hand. Than moved quickly to the door and stepped out under the shade of the awning, glancing across the road at the three horses tied in front of the adobe hut. He looked down the dusty road. Nothing moved. He stepped out into the piercing sunlight, untied his horse, tightened the cinch, stepped up into the saddle, and rode out of town heading north. They won’t go back toward Mexico so they’ll have to go north, he thought. I’ll be waiting for them.

The sun was intense. As he rode up the dusty road, he kept his eye out for a spot out of the sun where he could still watch the road. After riding for about an hour, the road passed through a narrow slot in the red rock. Up on his right, there was a small copse of pinon. He stepped down from his horse and led him up a narrow path to the copse. From here, he had a good view of the road below. After tying his horse to a pinon tree out of sight, he took the rifle from the scabbard and leaned it against the tree, undid the cinch, slid the saddle off, and flung it to the ground. He picked up the rifle and walked back to the outcrop overlooking the road.

Sam had watched Than leave and now stood under the awning, watching the adobe cantina across the road. The light was intense as the sun moved lower in the sky. The bandits weren’t going anywhere. They would wait out the heat inside the tiny adobe hut. By the time they were ready to leave, they would have drunk themselves into a frenzy. Than said they were dangerous and with their bellies full of tequila they would be fiercer than desert scorpions. Sam didn’t want any part of them. Yet he owed Than his loyalty. They’d known each other a long time and had been through many scraps together. Than had saved his life once and a man never forgot that.

Sam pulled his pocket watch out of his vest. Four-thirty. Rebecca expected him home before dark. But she would wait. She’d spent her entire life waiting one way or another. It didn’t make it right, however. When he looked up, the three Mexicans had come out of the small adobe hut and stood squinting into the sun. Sam ducked back into the shadows. The Mexicans laughed without worry, their dark beards bristling in the fading sunlight.

The Mexicans talked among themselves, but he couldn’t make out what they said. His horse was at the livery down the road. If the Mexicans left now, he would be a half-hour behind them.

Sam slipped back inside, took a rifle from the gun rack and a box of cartridges from the drawer, and hurried out the back door and down the alley toward Smith’s livery stable. Taking a halter off the wall, Sam caught his horse and led him back inside the small barn. He quickly brushed him, threw on the saddle blanket and saddle, slipped his headset over his ears, and eased the bit into his mouth.

The Mexicans had left in a flurry of dust, moving fast out of town. Sam led his horse out into the road, slid the rifle into the scabbard, tightened the cinch, and threw his leg over the saddle. The dust was still thick from the rush of hooves from the Mexicans’ horses when Sam rode past the small adobe hut, moving north away from Bisbee.

Sam dug his spurs into the flanks of his horse, trying to catch up to the hard-riding Mexicans.

Up ahead, Than watched the narrow cut through the red rocks, leaning back against the smooth rock, trying to rest, glancing often at his hands that held the rifle across his lap. The sun spread yellow, then orange streaked with purple as it settled below the low mountains to the west. Than Fareheart guessed the Mexicans would want to set up camp at a safe distance from Bisbee before sunset and to do this they would have to come through this cut in the red rocks. Unless they’d headed back to Mexico, which he knew they wouldn’t do.

How many times had he found himself in a similar situation? Waiting. Alone. Cold and scared. Scared of what? Death? He was dying, no matter how he looked at it. Death came for all of us. If it came for him today, all the better. Then he could stop thinking about it.

The thunder of hooves on the hard road below shook him out of his rumination and he got to his knees, his rifle braced on the rock in front of him. In the glow of sunset, he could see the riders coming fast, too fast for him to get off a shot. He crawled back to where his horse was tied, throwing on the blanket and saddle, sliding the headset over his ears, and easing the bit into its mouth. He slid the rifle back into the scabbard and led his horse away from the copse of pinon trees. He listened. The Mexicans had cleared the narrow cut and were moving fast down the road. Taking up the reins, he led his horse down the narrow path to the road, pulled the cinch tight, threw his leg over the saddle, and spurred his horse to catch up to the Mexicans. They showed an uncanny skill, riding recklessly in the soft light of dusk. Than rode hard to overtake them.

Through the spreading darkness, Than Fareheart relied on the dust raised by the thundering hooves of the Mexicans ahead of him, trying desperately to catch the slightest sound coming from up ahead. Only dust and silence. And it wasn’t long before the dust had dissipated. Pulling on the reins, he slowed his horse to a high trot, trying to catch some sign of the Mexicans. Nothing. As if they’d vanished. Or had never existed.

The bullet tore through his right arm before he heard the crack of the rifle. Wheeling his horse around, he headed back down the road. The second bullet hit him in the right shoulder and sent him reeling to the ground. Crawling as fast as he could to get to the edge of the road, he knew the Mexicans would be coming back for him. His horse gone, he had no choice but to make a stand from here.

Sam was still riding hard to catch up to the Mexicans when he caught sight of Than’s horse coming hard down the road toward him. Pulling his horse sideways in the road, Sam was able to slow Than’s horse enough to catch hold of the reins. He noticed right away that Than’s rifle was still in the scabbard.

Sam jumped down and led the horses to the side of the road, tying them to a lone pinon tree. He slid his rifle out of the scabbard and listened. It was dark now and the eerie silence kept him frozen to the spot. His mind in a whirl, Sam couldn’t fix on anything that made sense. Only one thing was certain, Than was in trouble. Or dead. Another thing occurred to him, he couldn’t just stand here and do nothing.

Moving slowly along the road, Sam listened carefully for any sound. A whisper. A snapped twig. A saddle creak. A boot scraping the hard road. The cock of a rifle. Sam wasn’t cut out for this. There had been a time when he might have known what to do, but that time was long past. What he needed was to find Than. Than was the best man he’d ever known for this kind of thing. Fearless. And cunning. He had a real gift for knowing what to do whenever he found himself in a tight spot. This isn’t learned, this is something you’re born with. And Sam hadn’t been born with it.

Up ahead, holding his pistol unsteadily in his left hand, Than knew he was in trouble. If the Mexicans came, he had to kill the first one. This was his only hope. If they split up, he didn’t stand a chance. In the dark, braced against the rock, Than listened. Maybe he was getting too old. It’s a hard thing to admit to yourself that you’ve gotten old.

After several minutes had passed, Than started to think that maybe the Mexicans had cleared out. They knew less about him than he knew about them. Did they know that he was alone? Of course, they’d only seen him. But they couldn’t be sure that there weren’t more men coming up from behind. But it wouldn’t matter to these men.

Than had no choice but to wait. It wasn’t his strong suit, but he didn’t see any other way. His heart was beating so hard that he thought it was going to give him away. He inhaled deeply, trying to calm his pounding heart. He thought about the first time. It was an accident how he’d gotten into it. He’d never meant it to be his way of life. At the time, he’d told himself that it would be the only time. Once and no more. It wasn’t the sort of life he’d envisioned for himself.

He was young and careless, drifting from one place to another, not giving his future much thought. What did he see for himself? What did his future hold? Hell, he hadn’t any future, thinking only of the moment. And now? He thought only of the past. It’s a trick life plays on us. Stretching out our lives long enough that we lose sight of the moment, reaching that point in our lives when we begin to worry only about what lies ahead while dwelling on the past.

So many years ago, he’d found himself in Leadville, Colorado, a cold and desolate mining town high in the Rocky Mountains. He was cold and hungry without a penny to his name, but up here, there were only the mines, and even the mines had played out.

A crowd had gathered in front of the sheriff’s office. Than had crossed the street to find out what was causing the commotion. The sheriff had tacked up a wanted poster. Than had pushed his way through the crowd. Reward, $1000.00, for the capture, dead or alive, of one William “Billy” Eager, wanted for robbery, murder, and miscellany, contact the nearest U.S. Marshal’s office. Than stared at the photo of William Eager. He’d stared at that photo for a long time before deciding to go inside.

“Howdy,” Than remembers the sheriff saying looking up from behind his desk.

“Good afternoon, sheriff,” he’d said. “I was noticing the poster you tacked up outside.”

“The thousand-dollar reward? Figured that might get a lot of notice,” the sheriff had said.

“I don’t know much about this sort of thing,” Than had begun, “and my questions might seem a bit peculiar to you.”

“Nothing peculiar about askin’. Do my damndest to give you some answers.”

“Much appreciated,” Than had said. “My first question, whereabouts can a fellow find this William Eager?”

“Now that’s a right good question. If I knew the answer, I’d collect that reward myself.”

“Yeah, I guess you would. Let me put it another way, have any idea where he was seen last?”

The sheriff had just stared up at Than.

Than had quickly changed direction. “The poster says he’s wanted for robbery and murder. Who got killed? And where?”

“Killed a preacher. In Fort Stockton. After robbin’ the Fort Stockton Bank. From what I heard, the preacher was just standin’ in the street, mindin’ his bus’ness. Or kind of mindin’ his bus’ness. Most likely got caught up in all the commotion and was fool enough to just stand there, instead of headin’ for cover like ever’one else. Just my thoughts,” the sheriff had said.

“Fort Stockton, Texas?” Than had asked. The sheriff nodded. “That’s quite a distance from here. Why’re you hanging up his poster here?”

“He’s got a brother somewhere ‘round here,” Than remembers the sheriff saying. Used to work in the mines ‘til the bust. But he’s still thought to be in the area.”

“What’s his name?” Than had asked.

“The brother? Monty Eager,” the sheriff had said.

Monty Eager, Than had thought. The name had rolled around in his head for several minutes before he’d made the fateful decision. Now, so many years later, he thinks, why hadn’t he just let it go, turned his mind to something else? If he had, he wouldn’t be sitting here now with a bullet through his shoulder waiting for three Mexicans to finish him.

The trouble was Than had been good at finding men who didn’t want to be found. It had gotten into his blood, not the finding so much as the tracking. He remembers that first time so long ago, how he’d found Monty Eager, which was easy. Than remembers waiting for Monty in the lobby of the Delaware Hotel. He had recognized him right away. Monty wasn’t about to give his brother up, but Than had looked so hard at Monty that he’d burnt a hole right through him. Monty paced up and down like a caged animal, denying any knowledge of William’s whereabouts. It was then that Than knew that all he needed to do was wait. Monty would go to his brother, and Than would follow.

Early the next morning, just as Than had suspected, Monty left Leadville heading south, following the Arkansas River to Cotopaxi, then further south to Trinidad, and then into New Mexico Territory. After four hard days of riding, just before sunset, Monty Eager rode into Puerto de Luna on the Pecos River where William Eager was holed up in the Nuestra Senora del Refugio Church. Than Fareheart rode into Puerto de Luna just after dark, rode past the Nuestra Senora del Refugio Church, and set up camp along the Pecos River.

Worn out from four days of riding, Than Fareheart didn’t bother making a campfire, but instead, unsaddled and picketed his horse, drew his rifle from the scabbard, threw out his bedroll, crawled in, and fell asleep. The discord of wild bird song from the brush along the river woke him before dawn. Ignoring the hunger that growled deep in his stomach, Than moved quickly, catching and saddling his horse, tying the bedroll onto the back of the saddle, and sliding his rifle into the scabbard. Throwing his leg over the saddle, he spurred his horse back to Puerto de Luna.

In front of the Nuestra Senora del Refugio Church, he stepped down from the saddle and tied his horse to a scrubby pinon tree. In the deathly silence before daybreak, Than watched the church. At first light, he circled the church. The Eager’s horses were in a small corral behind the church. Than opened the gate and shooed the horses out of the corral. Finding a side door, he stepped inside. A narrow hallway led to the nave. To one side of the main entrance, a staircase led upstairs. He remembered it all so clearly. The echo inside the empty church, the smell of candle wax, the deathly quiet.

Than had wanted no part of it. Impelled by curiosity more than anything else he moved cautiously down the aisle toward the entrance. All these years later, he asked himself why had he traveled so far to catch up to a man he didn’t even know.

Standing in the entrance, staring up the wide staircase, frozen by indecision, he’d waited. For what? He hadn’t been sure. For life to tip its hand? But he remembers now how foolish that was. Life didn’t even have a hand in the game. No, he was waiting for something else.

The explosion from Monty Eager’s pistol had stunned Than Fareheart. He’d whirled around. The blast reverberated through the nave, confusing Than. All he knew at the time was that the gunshot hadn’t come from upstairs. Another explosion. Chips of plaster from a pillar stung his face, and he dove behind a pew. Slithering to the aisle, he remembered now how he’d tried to locate the direction from where the shots had been fired. At the time, it had seemed to him that the shots had come from every direction.

Startled by a noise behind him, he rolled over onto his back. William Eager was standing at the foot of the stairs, his pistol pointed at Than Fareheart. Than remembered how, after hearing the blast from William Eager’s pistol, he had looked down at where the bullet had cut a groove in the hardwood floor next to his head. He’d flung himself across the aisle. Another blast came from the direction of the altar.

Thoughts had raced through Than’s head, none of them of any help. This was the point where things had become blurred. Even now, Than can’t remember clearly what he’d done next. He does remember thinking that he was out of options. Crouched behind the pew, he’d realized that he was trapped, caught in the crossfire from William and Monty Eager’s guns. If he was going to die, he would at least put up a fight. But against which one of them?

Than Fareheart’s shoulder was aching and by shifting his weight to his left side he hoped to relieve the pain. He listened. Maybe the Mexicans weren’t coming after all. He meant nothing to them. But that is exactly why they would come.

Than remembered that when he’d stood up to face the Eager brothers, he was fully prepared to die. Why is it that when we have so much life ahead of us we are so careless with our lives? And when we become short-termers, we hang onto life so fiercely? Life seems to be governed by diminishing returns. Each year we live, we are instilled with more wisdom yet become less productive and efficient. So why hang onto it with such fire and zeal? When each day of our life is worth less, we value it more.

Gunshots had rung out from in front of him and from behind him. What shocked him then was that he hadn’t been hit. It was almost as if he’d been saved by divine intervention. Standing there in full view of both Monty and William Eager, Than Fareheart had made a decision that seemed to come from outside himself. Turning toward the altar, he fired his pistol, hitting Monty Eager in the chest. He’d gone down. Than turned slowly. Frozen, William Eager had stood at the bottom of the stairs, his pistol aimed at Than Fareheart. All these years later, Than Fareheart still asks himself why William Eager hadn’t fired his pistol. Or hadn’t run out of the church? All he’d needed to do was turn around and walk away. Than Fareheart wouldn’t have followed him. On the contrary, he’d have been happy to see him walk away. But he’d just stood there.

Overcome with curiosity, Sam needed to find out what happened to Than. Hoping that the dark of night would shield him, he moved slowly along the narrow road. Up ahead he could barely make out the cleft in the rocks. Breathing heavily, he was considering his options, none of which gave him comfort, when a bullet ripped through his left thigh. Writhing in pain, he struggled to crawl to a thicket of juniper alongside the road.

Just before he’d fired, Than had caught a glimmer of something, he wasn’t sure of what. A slight tremor. A shadow. He watched, his gun held unsteadily in his left hand. Even if he managed to hit one of the Mexicans, they would wait him out.

Maybe he’d already lived longer than he was supposed to. By rights, he should have died long ago in the Nuestra Senora del Refugio Church in Puerto de Luna, New Mexico Territory. If William Eager had done what he was supposed to do. There are a few times in our lives when something happens for which we have no explanation. To this day, Than Fareheart can’t explain why William Eager hadn’t fired his pistol for a third time. He had him dead to rights. All he had to do was pull the trigger. And it would have finished it. Than Fareheart wouldn’t be here now trying to figure a way out of this mess.

Sam cursed, thinking what a damn fool he was. He should be home with Rebecca eating Christmas dinner. What did a man owe another man? Than didn’t expect this from Sam. He’d been clear on that. He was better alone, Than had said. Had been doing it alone all his life. Didn’t need anyone’s help. But it was precisely that attitude that made Sam turn into such a fool. No one should have to face death alone. But now, this was exactly what Sam was doing. Than was probably already dead. And Sam lay bleeding in a thicket of juniper in a desert ten miles from his wife.

Nothing stirred. It had been over an hour since Than had fired at the specter in the dark. It had most likely been his overactive imagination. Nothing was there. Besides, what did he have to lose? His shoulder ached and the cold pressed in on him. Bracing against the rock, Than slowly got to his feet and moved unsteadily back down the road, pausing every few feet to listen. Feeling lightheaded, Than looked up into the moonless night, trying to fix his bearings. Than couldn’t remember ever experiencing this depth of darkness before. Or silence. There wasn’t a sound. Even the birds were gone. Is this what death feels like?

Sam held his breath. He sensed something moving toward him. He drew his pistol from his holster. Even though it was only a few feet away, Sam couldn’t see the rifle where he’d dropped it when he’d been hit. Afraid to move, Sam exhaled quietly. Christmas, he thought. What was Christmas anyway? A time of miracles? He needed a miracle now.

Than stopped. The moon broke over the escarpment, casting a shallow light across the road. Up ahead he could see something in the road. He quickly dropped to a knee. It was hard to make out, but it looked like a rifle.

Breathing heavily, crouched inside the thicket of juniper, Sam peered through the faint moonlight.

Tormented by the pain from the bullet hole in his shoulder, no longer caring what happened to him, Than stood and took a step forward. When he did, Sam fired at the shadow in the road. Without thinking, Than fired toward the blaze from the thicket. He fired again. Then waited. Silence.

After what seemed like an eternity, Than inched forward, his gun held in his left hand. The moon had cleared the escarpment and flooded the road with moonlight. He felt naked in the moonlight.

Coming closer to the thicket, he eased to the ground. From where Than crouched at the edge of the road, he could make out the figure of a man laying motionless inside the thicket. As he moved closer he recognized the man. It was Sam. What was Sam doing here? In shock, Than couldn’t think. His only thoughts turned to Rebecca. What would he tell her?

In disbelief, Than turned his attention back to the Mexicans. What had become of them? But it was no use, the fact that Sam was laying dead inside a dense thicket of juniper pierced his brain. And the reality rushed back to him. Than had shot him. And now he had to take him home.

Unable to bear the thought of what lay ahead of him, Than thought of William Eager. Was it because he’d just stood there that Than had shot him? Or was Than a killer? Was it in his blood? He hadn’t wanted to kill William Eager. But what was he supposed to do? At any minute, William Eager could have killed him. He was only doing what any man would have done. But there was another way. Why hadn’t Than walked away? Was he afraid of being shot if he’d turned his back and just walked away?

And now? He had put himself in this position. Yet he asked himself, What had prompted him to go after the Mexicans in the first place? Pride? Money? Stubbornness? Habit? All of these things? Or none of them? He had no answer. But none of it relieved him of what he had to do now. He wouldn’t find any answers in the past. And the future? Did it hold an answer?

Than walked slowly down the road knowing that he’d find Sam’s horse. Surprised to find both horses tied to a pinon tree, he untied them, and lead them back to where Sam lay dead in the juniper thicket. He moved slowly, dreading what he had to do, dreading having to take Sam home to Rebecca. Kneeling by Sam’s dead body, he touched the bottom of Sam’s boot. Sam, why did you follow me?

The moon was bright overhead when Than rode into the small outfit that Sam and Rebecca had worked so hard for. The cabin was dark.

During the long ride back, Than thought about how he would say it, how he would knock on Rebecca’s door, wake her up, and tell her that he had Sam tied across his saddle. How do you tell someone that? How do you tell someone that you shot their husband? He had killed his friend and that was the bare truth.

Than stepped down from his saddle and lead the horses to the barn. He slid Sam down and laid him on the ground. He untied his slicker and laid it on the ground, and slid Sam onto the slicker. He stared at the dark cabin. He would wait until sunup.

He tied the horses to the rail outside the small lean-to and unsaddled them and took the saddles inside the lean-to. From the planked wall, he grabbed a couple of feedbags and filled them from the grain barrel. He led the horses to the small corral next to the lean-to, took off their headsets, and slipped the feedbags over the horses’ muzzles, glancing over at the cabin. He went back inside the lean-to for the brush.

While brushing the horses, he tried to come up with something to say but nothing came to him. Dead tired, Than found a canvas inside the lean-to and crawled underneath it. He knew he wouldn’t be able to sleep because of the pain in his shoulder and the uneasiness in his heart, but he wanted to stay quiet until morning.

Startled from an uneasy sleep, Than looked up. Rebecca stood over him. He quickly threw off the canvas and staggered to his feet.


Rebecca looked over her shoulder at her husband sprawled out on Than’s slicker.

“Rebecca, I’m sorry,” Than stammered. “You shouldn’t have found out this way. I fell asleep.”

“Why don’t you come inside? I have some coffee on the stove,” Rebecca said. She turned and walked back to the cabin. Than Fareheart followed her, looking back over his shoulder at his friend on the ground.

Rebecca pulled out a chair and Than sat down. Than watched her, holding the coffee pot with her apron, fill a cup she’d taken from the cupboard and set it in front of him. It had been a long time since he’d sat at anyone’s table. Rebecca sat down across from him, wrapping her hands around the cup in front of her. She waited.

Than took a sip from his cup, looking over at her.

“I’m sorry, Rebecca,” he began. “I didn’t know he’d follow me. I swear. I would have done it differently if I’d known.”

“I’m sure you would have, Than,” Rebecca said. “I didn’t even know you’d come back. He didn’t tell me. And by God, if I’d known, I would have stopped him. But you know how stubborn he was. Damn him.”

“He was stubborn,” Than said looking down at his cupped hands. “But he was a good man, Rebecca, a good man.”

“Yes, he was a good man,” Rebecca said. In the glow from the candle, Than saw her tears.

“There’s something I need to tell you. About Sam’s death.”

“It doesn’t matter, does it?”

“It matters to me,” Than said looking down at his hands cupped around the steaming coffee cup.

“Than, you’re hurt,” Rebecca said noticing the dark stain on his coat.

“It’s nothing,” he said.

Rebecca stood up and walked over to Than and helped him out of his coat. She unbuttoned his shirt. The shirt was stuck to the wound. “I’m going to have to cut this loose,” she said.

Than looked down at her hands. She turned and walked into the bedroom and came out with a pair of scissors. She set the scissors on the table in front of him and walked back to the stand next to the stove. She took a pot from underneath the stand and ladled water from the water bucket into the pot and put the pot on the wood-burning cookstove. From a shelf in the corner above the stand, she took down two towels and tore them into strips. Than watched her.

She walked back to the table. Picking up the scissors, she cut his shirt from the cuff to the shoulder and then along the edge of the wound and gently pulled the shirt away from the dried blood. Than didn’t move. She looked down at him but quickly returned to her work, removing his shirt.

Holding the shirt, Rebecca sat down across from Than and stared at him until he looked up. He didn’t know how to begin. He had been in love with Rebecca. A long time ago. They had been in love with each other. Before Sam. One day, after they’d been together for over a year, Than went after a bounty and never came back. For a long time, she didn’t know what had happened to him. She thought he was dead. Never heard anything about him until after she’d met Sam. One day, Than showed up in Bisbee. Than had known Sam when Sam had been a lawman in Kansas twenty years before and heard that Sam had moved to Bisbee. But he didn’t know Rebecca was there.

That was three years ago.

“Rebecca, I’m sorry. For a lot of things. I don’t know where to begin.”

Rebecca stared over at the small Christmas tree in the corner decorated with red and green ribbons, trying to understand. This was too sudden. Than Fareheart sat silent. She sipped her coffee but it was cold. She stood, went to the front door and threw it out, went back to the stove and poured herself another cup of coffee, and sat down across from Than. He stared down at his hands, rough and cracked and no good anymore.

Finally, Than looked up at Rebecca and started to say something, but she stopped him. “You don’t have to explain. Not for any of it. I knew who you were before we got together. I chose to be with you knowing that at any minute you might walk out and never come back.”

“I don’t know what got into me,” Than said. “I loved you. And maybe it was that that scared me. I wasn’t what you needed. I never could stay put for very long. I just couldn’t. Movin’ was in my blood. As much as I loved you, I couldn’t stay. And that’s what kills me now.”

“You don’t have to explain. It won’t change anything.”

“But there’s something else that I need to say,” Than began. “About Sam.” Than looked back down at his hands struggling to come up with a way to say what he needed to say. Some things don’t get easier. Some things just get more muddled over time. It’s best to just blurt them out. But the words were stuck inside him. She needed to know. He owed her that much. And after? What then? Would he just walk away as he had done so long ago? He wasn’t any good at it then, and he was no better at it now. He was no good at anything now. He’d gotten older and more broken.

Rebecca stared at Than through her tears, trying to see him. Trying to understand him. He was always a puzzle to figure out. He just wouldn’t talk. He didn’t know how to explain what was inside of him. So he carried it around like a disease. She supposed it was a disease. It ate at him until he had no choice but to go. And she knew he’d go now as soon as he got the chance. She shook her head, and when Than tried to talk, she put up her hand.

“No, no, you don’t need to say it,” she said. She stood and went to the stove, carrying back the pot of hot water. She took one of the strips and dipped it into the hot water and cleaned the wounds.

“You’re going to need to see Doc Pritchett,” she said.

“But you don’t understand,” Than tried to explain.

“No, I don’t, but it doesn’t matter. Some things aren’t meant to be understood. When I get this cleaned up and wrapped, I’d appreciate it if you’d help me bury Sam. And then you can go. But before you do, you must promise me you’ll go see Doc Pritchett.”

Than stared up at Rebecca a long time before he nodded. She was right. Some things aren’t meant to be understood and there was no point in trying to explain them. Than had never felt so empty before. And he’d felt empty plenty of times. He stood and put his hand on her shoulder. A solitary tear fell from her eye when she looked up at him. Than turned away.

She wrapped his shoulder as tightly as she could with the strips of cloth and then turned and walked back into the bedroom, returning with one of Sam’s shirts. Than took the shirt from her and put it on. From the coat rack by the door, she took one of Sam’s coats and handed it to Than.

“I’ll get the shovel,” he said. “Sam would like a place in the shade.”

“Let’s go take a look,” she said. “We should be able to find a nice spot. Of course, the digging’s gonna be a little hard this time of year. I apologize for that. It’s gonna be a little hard.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Than said. “Diggin’s always hard.”

And Than Fareheart took some comfort there.

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