Published on Sunday, September 4, 2011
A Man Willing To Kill
By J.R. Lindermuth
Gabe Engels stirred the fire with a stick. "You gonna hang back there in the dark forever," he said in a voice just loud enough for the other to hear him, "or do you fancy a cup of coffee?"
Pebbles rolled under a heavy foot and a twig snapped. "You keep a hand clear of that six-shooter on your hip and I might accept a coffee."
Gabe raised both hands to shoulder height. "Come on out then. Haint my intent to shoot nobody."
Brush rattled and the man stepped into view just beyond the light of the fire. He hesitated, staring at Gabe. "You haint afraid I might be plannin' on shooting you?" A dry little chuckle followed the remark.
Gabe eased his hands down on his thighs and shook his head. "Seen you earlier when you was down the hill. Noted you haint got no weapon."
The man chuckled again, came forward and squatted next to Gabe. He jerked his head back toward the trees. "It occur to you it might not o' been me back there in the dark? Might o' been some skulkin' Injun?"
"Knew it was you. You smell worse than any Injun." He drew another cup from his kit, poured coffee and handed it to the man.
"Saunders is my name," the man told him, taking the cup in one hand and extending his other for a shake. He sipped the coffee, swallowed and let out a satisfied sigh. "That sure tastes good."
"They's beans and hardtack in that skillet by the fire. You're welcome to it. I've had my fill."
"That's mighty generous of you, mister. I haint had nothin' to eat for two-three days."
Gabe studied him in the light of the fire. Saunders was a short, stocky man with wispy red hair and a pallid complexion. A battered and soiled Never-Flop hat was pushed back on his head. A flannel shirt, worsted trousers with one knee ripped out and boots so worn the man might as well have gone barefoot completed his outfit. He wasted no time filling a tin plate Gabe handed him and proceeded to wolf down the food.
"What's your story, pardner?" Gabe asked.
Saunders paused between bites, gawked at him and took a deep breath before answering. "Had a run of bad luck."
Gabe nodded. "I'd say so. You haint got a gun, you're afoot, you haint even got a coat or a blanket to keep you warm these cold nights. That rightly fits what I'd call a run of bad luck. Why it's a wonder you've survived at all out here in these mountains if that particular run has lasted very long. You're a lucky cuss to have stumbled onto my camp."
Saunders eyed him suspiciously, then mopped up the last of his beans with a wad of bread. "I thank you kindly for your hospitality," he mumbled after swallowing the last morsel of food.
"Hell, I don't begrudge no man what I have to share. But you could show your gratitude by satisfying my curiosity. What happened to put you in this state?"
"I was robbed."
"That's a cause--though it haint no full-blamed explanation."
"You wanna hear more?" Saunders glared at him, eyes blazing in the firelight.
"Don't have no other source of entertainment to hand. Your story might suffice as such."
"It haint nothin' amusin', I'll tell you that."
"Story don't have to be amusin' so long as it's interesting."
Saunders drew a corncob pipe from a pocket and gestured with it. "You got any tobacco I might consider sharin' my tale."
Gabe produced his pouch. The two men filled and lit their pipes. After a few contented puffs, Saunders said, "I was prospecting with a fellow I considered a friend. We knew one another since we was boys and came out here together to make our fortunes. I never suspected Charley would be the one to cheat me."
"But he did?"
"He did." Saunders puffed on his pipe, staring into the fire. A coyote yipped and was answered by another back in the hills.
"You gonna tell me more?" Gabe asked when his patience ran out.
Saunders nodded. "We had us some luck right from the start. Not get-rich luck. But we were finding enough nuggets and dust to guarantee us a good start if we took what we had, went home and invested it in some business. That's what I wanted to do. But Charley, he had gold fever. He didn't want no talk of goin' back home. I persisted and when our diggin's started to run dry he got greedy.
"I tried to convince him we should just be happy with what we had and go home." Saunders sighed and cast a sad look at his benefactor. "Some men can just never be content. Charley was one of those. He decided he wanted all of what we'd found to stake him until he found a better site."
What did he do?"
Saunders sighed again. "My good friend, he got the drop on me. He took everything and run off. He left me tied to a tree. I guess I should count myself lucky my boyhood friend was willing to steal but not to kill."
"But you got loose?"
Saunders barked a gravelly laugh. "I'm here, haint I? I won't go into detail on how long it took or how difficult it was. I got free of that tree and I vowed my vengeance on the man. I been on his trail ever since. Last I seen of him, he was headin' up into these hills. Since he's on horse and I'm afoot it took me awhile to get up here."
Gabe smiled. "Well, I reckon I should tell you there's no need to pursue your enemy any farther. He's buried on that last ridge we crossed."
Saunders nodded. "Reckon I know that. Saw his horse amongst your string. You killed him?"
"I did. I saved you the trouble of seeking vengeance."
"Wasn't your right to do that."
"Mebbe," Gabe said with a shrug. "Still you might say I saved you from bein' a killer."
"You killed him you must have the gold he was carryin.'
"Then I'll thank you kindly and go on my way if you'll turn it over to me."
"Can't do that."
"It's rightly mine."
Gabe shook his head. "I took it from him, not you. So that makes it mine. I mean you no harm, friend. Bed down for the night and we'll go our separate ways in the morning. No hard feelings."
A coyote's howl interceded on the silence between the two men. Then, "You've deprived me of my vengeance. I'll not be deprived of what's mine."
Gabe rose. He looked down on the other man. "Your partner was a man willing to steal but not to kill. I'm a man whose done both. Don't make me have to prove it." He turned and started to move away.
A metallic click and he swiveled back.
"Where'd that come from?" he asked, pointing at the derringer Saunders pointed at him.
"Out of my boot. You gonna do the right thing?"
Gabe went for his pistol. The derringer barked and a slug slammed into his chest.
As the light faded from Gabe's eyes, Saunders stood over him. "Unlike my partner, I am willin' to kill for what's mine."
J. R. Lindermuth lives in a house built by a man who rode with Buffalo Bill. A retired newspaper editor, he's the author of nine novels, including four in his Sticks Hetrick mystery series. His short stories and articles have appeared in a variety of magazines, both print and on line.