A set of horse tracks next to a steady trail of red in the snow were the only blemishes on an otherwise perfectly white field. Sitting atop his grey stallion, John thought it to be a rather ugly sight, but at the same time they were practically gifts laid out to them. He had only seen snow for the first time a day ago when he arrived in Utah, and the fact that it left tracks seemed like a miracle to him. A man named Holt sat on the horse next to him, but hopped off it to give the blood and the tracks a closer look.
“Yep, looks pretty fresh.” Holt concluded, after giving them both a good looking over. “Lucky for us.”
“Yeah, real lucky.” John murmured, while his heart sank. He had almost wished for Holt to say that the tracks were no good, that they had to go back to town. No such luck.
The two men rode up to a nearby treeline and tied up their horses and set up camp for the night, with John unpacking the sacks and Holt gathering firewood. As he arranged all the equipment and supplies, he unholstered his small black revolver while taking six bullets from the ammunition reserve. With shaking hands, he slid the bullets into the chamber of the gun, one by one. John had the distinct feeling that he was giving a toothless old rattlesnake its fangs back, and was careful to leave the hammer uncocked. He prayed that when they found the Jacobs woman, Holt would be the one to pull the trigger.
After half an hour, Holt returned with an armful of wood and soon they had a raging fire with a kettle pot full of beans and bacon cooking over the heat, just in time to watch the sun stretch its last legs over the horizon. John ate sparingly as he watched the sky turn orange and slowly fade away, giving way to the stark darkness of night. He ate only to keep down the sick ball of guilt that was slowly gathering together within his heart, making him feel sick from his eyes to the tip of his toes. As he set his plate aside and prepared his bedroll, Holt’s coarse voice suddenly broke through the chirping of crickets.
“You ever kill a man ‘fore, boy?”
John turned to stare at his companion, who had lit a wood pipe and was blowing puffs of smoke out of the corner of his mouth. Holt hadn’t spoken much since they had met in the town of Talma, and John had almost forgotten what his voice sounded like. “Hell of a question to ask,” he retorted. “First time in hours you’ve spoken and that’s what you ask me?”
Holt leaned back against a rock as he spoke, hanging his pipe out of the corner of his mouth. “I do believe it’s somethin’ I need more knowing about, considerin’ the nature of this expedition,” He unholstered his revolver and withdrew a white rag from his shirt, and proceeded to clean it with great care. “I need to know that when the time comes, boy, you’ll be able to pull that trigger there, or it could be my ass lying red and dead in the snow.”
“No, I ain’t never killed a man ‘fore.” answered John. “Got several I’d like to see dead ‘n buried, but never had my chances. But we ain’t exactly going to kill a man here, are we?”
“This Mary Jacobs woman ain’t hardly no woman.” Holt snorted with contempt. “Any wife that blows her husband’s head off with a shotgun is a she-bear.” He turned his head and spat away from the campfire, his teeth stained brown from tobacco.
“Deputy and half the townsfolk said she was married to a right devil. Said there weren’t hardly a day that didn’t go by where he didn’t beat her black and bloody. If I was her I might have killed him too.”
“Then you’d have a sizable bounty on your head there, boy, and it’d be me and some other man hunting you down in these snowy hills. Killin’ the sheriff and a husband at the same time tends to rile up tempers.”
John sat in silence for a while, and watched the light from Holt’s pipe light up his face like a firefly in the midst of midnight. After several minutes, John managed to form a question of his own. “ How ‘bout you,” inquired John. “You ever kill a man before?”
Holt gave John a solemn stare as he took another puff off his pipe. “I fought in the war between the states, boy. I’ve killed my fair share of men. More than I could possibly count now.”
“Why you huntin’ a woman, then? Got plenty of murderers and robbers out there who deserve it more than this one woman do. Why not hunt them?” John inquired, as he watched shadows stretch across Holt’s face.
“It’s a bit of a cruel reasonin’ on my part, I suppose,” admitted Holt. “I figure a woman won’t be able to handle a shotgun quite as well as a man would. If she’s more likely to miss, I’m more likely to live. But lemme ask you this, boy. Why YOU huntin’ a woman? You here along with me. You got a gun, just like me. You planning to ask Mrs. Jacobs to afternoon tea? Naw, you gonna kill her, just like me. So why?”
John stared into the fire for a long while without speaking, trying to uncurl his tongue enough to form a sentence in reply. The guilt had risen up to his throat, having been inflamed and enlarged by Holt’s words. “I got my reasons.” he finally managed to choke out. But John knew that he needed the money and he was scared to die, and had also reasoned that killing a woman would be far easier and less dangerous than killing a man.
Wanting to desperately change the subject, John jumped on something Holt had mentioned earlier. “You fought in the war?” He inquired, trying to sound interested.
“Yessir. I was with General Sherman when he took Atlanta, and marched with him when he made Georgia howl.”
Georgia. Thrice-damned Georgia. A rush of memories John had been blocking off suddenly filled his head at the mention of that dreaded state. He was no longer in the cold hills of Utah, but thousands of miles away back in the cotton fields of Savannah. The sun beat down hot and heavy on him as he filled his bag, every muscle in his exerted body screaming at once for some kind of relief. He felt the overseer’s watchful eye on him, knowing that the whip would come down with ferocity if he even halted for a second for a breath. But even as he worked diligently, he heard its deadly snap and braced himself. A thin blade of agony slashed his back open and he screamed, a cry that was full of both pain and despair. Again and again the whip came down, and soon John lay motionless on the field, his back slashed apart and with blood covering the entirety of his body. Then the waking nightmare was over as quickly as it began, and John was back in front of a crackling fire with Holt staring straight at him
John looked down at himself and realized his entire body was shaking. He was grinding his teeth together so ferociously he thought they might break under the pressure, and the scars on his back stung as if they had suddenly reopened. Letting a sigh, John unfolded his arms and relaxed his jaw. There was nothing he could do about the scars, though. John knew they would sting until the day he died.
“My apologies if I said something that upset you,” Holt mumbled, putting his pipe into his pocket. “Something happen to you in Georgia?”
“History.” replied John. Holt gave a slow nod to show he understood clearly.
“When Sherman burned her, may Georgia have screamed long and hard.” John growled, his voice chock-full of rage and the hate of seventeen years of bondage.
“Oh, we made sure of that.” chuckled Holt. “I hear that they still can’t hardly grow a pine tree in that state no more, let alone any crops. Knowing those bastards did that to you gives my heart a little less guilt.”
John looked up at Holt. “Guilt about what?” He inquired, desperately trying to rid his mind of those vicious memories of the past, and to change the subject.
Holt suddenly looked very uncomfortable after saying that. “Hell, why’d I even bring it up. I need to learn to shut my trap sometimes.” After giving John a long hard stare, Holt let out a long sigh and turned towards John. “Well, I suppose I should tell someone, seeing how I may die within the next couple days or so. It ain’t good to go to Heaven with sins unconfessed.”
“Me and and my regiment, we were in the rear of Sherman’s March. Tasked to clear out reb partisans and whatnot. We were going from door to door in one town, making military arrests of any reb soldier we found. In one of the houses, one of the womenfolk decided she was gonna be stupid, took her daddy’s rifle, and shot our sargeant, right through his heart. Now, me and the boys were pretty tired already, we’d spent the last year fighting Johnny Reb nonstop and now we had to deal with some wench killing our brother-in-arms.” Holt’s eyes glazed over, and now John could see nothing within his eyes except the reflection of the raging fire. “And keep in mind we hadn’t seen our wives and girls for months...we were frustrated, to say the least. So when we saw our officer lying on the floor of some Reb’s house, dying in a pool of his own blood- that was the last straw. Me and the boys got the red mist, we lost control for ourselves for several minutes. We held the woman down...and took our turns. I’ll spare you the more graphic details, John. Afterwards, we knew we couldn’t have her blabbin’ her mouth to others, so we had to keep her quiet. We made it nice and quick, and it weren’t barely messy at all.” John sat in silence, listening to Holt’s horrific tale. He took another closer look at Holt’s eyes, and realized with a start that his eyes were no longer glazed over, but gleaming. The fire in his eyes was not the one burning before them, but one of fields and houses far away, burning like kindling. John thought that like him minutes ago, Holt must be back in Georgia.
“Why in God’s name you telling me this?” uttered John, horrified by both Holt’s eyes and his story. “Why would you do such a thing?”
Holt squired with discomfort under John’s stare, now that the story had ended and his eyes had returned to their normal intensity. “It was war. Things happen during war. Why you so upset anyways? She was a reb, she wanted your people in chains.”
“How did doing what you did to her help me?” snapped John, filled with hot rage once again. “Don’t try and justify what you did, you damned bastard!”
Holt sighed. “Try and think of it as just a story then, if it makes you feel better. People have told me I tell good stories.” Holt quickly shifted topics by checking his silver pocket watch. “It’s gettin’ late. Best we retire for the night.” With that, he flipped over onto his side and covered his head with his wide-brimmed hat and said not a word after. John was left with only the crackling of the fire and the hooting of a nearby owl for company. He knew he would not sleep that night. Until the sun rose, John tried thinking about everything he could other than the grim deed that lay ahead of him and the man he had to complete it with.
The two got up quickly the next day, ate a quick breakfast and were soon back on the hunt. Thomas did not say a word to Holt and avoided looking over as they rode. Holt likewise seemed to have no desire to speak. It took only a couple more hours for them to reach the end of the bloodtrail. It ended at a quiet clearing in a forest. Boulders and small bushes littered the ground, somewhere over their heads a raven cried out, but no sign of the woman they were after.
“Goddammit.” cursed Holt, as he dismounted his house. After drawing his revolver in a single fluid motion and cocking the hammer, he turned to John. “Watch my back while I check these here trees and boulders. You see any trace of her, give a holler.” John watched as Holt, quickly as a cat, snuck up to one of the boulders and checked for anything behind. “Her horse’s here.” Holt yelled back. “Dead but no rider.”
Holt had his back turned towards the nearby treeline, and John watched as the smooth barrels of a shotgun slowly slid out from behind a nearby tree. John began to yell a warning, but something stopped him. Let the murdering bastard die. The thought flickered briefly across his mind, and that split second made all the difference.
The shot from the barrel took Holt in the stomach. The metal shell punched into his belly, and even from a distance John could see the look of shock that spread across Holt’s face. He collapsed to the ground, with his hands aimlessly scrabbling at the bloody ruin that was once his torso. “God. I’ve been shot.” Holt said, blankly at first. Then he screamed, as horror and agony replaced shock. He writhed around on the ground, as blood pooled beneath him, staining the snow a crimson red.
A woman stepped out from behind the tree from which Holt was shot. John numbly noted that she was short, with dark hair and fierce eyes. She hadn’t seemed to notice John, as she was focused only on Holt at the moment, her expression contorted into one of fear and anger. “You ain’t taking me back, you bastard.” she uttered. John could barely hear her words with Holt’s screams. With shaking hands, John unholstered his revolver and slowly lifted it towards Mary Jacobs. His arm weighed a thousand stone as he struggled to aim, and it felt as if the entire world were suddenly weighing down on him. When John saw her take aim once again at Holt, he pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He had forgotten to cock the gun.
The shot from the second barrel smashed into Holt’s head, blowing a good chunk of it off. A spray of red mist sprayed into the air, and settled down onto the snow. His legs kicked up once into the air from the impact of the shot, and then they lay still. John saw that only one eye of Holt’s was still intact, and in that eye where just the night before a ferocious flame had raged, was nothing but stillness and the dark.
John quickly cocked the revolver and this time successfully fired, but his aim was off and the shot rang out but missed wide. Mary Jacobs turned to see John pointing his gun directly at her. She raised her hands in surrender and put down her shotgun at her feet. “My only two shells,” she called over to John. “I guess I can’t fight a man without a gun.”
John was about to call over to her to come over so he could tie her up, when he remembered that neither he nor Holt had brought any rope, as Holt had the intention of killing her all along. And hauling this woman along without anything to bind her was a fool’s errand. Looking at Holt’s corpse slowly bleeding red onto the snow, John slowly felt the ball of guilt be consumed by the flame that had just crackled to life. John fired again, and this time he did not miss.
Loading the horse with the corpse, John took one last look back at the clearing, with Holt lying in the middle. He thought about saying a few words, but thought better of it. With that, John kicked his horse into movement and set off back to town, his eyes blazing with fire.
Thank you for your kind words mizal. But no I will not be repeating this in the future
This was pretty good Coins. Seems a bit weird that John would hate Holt for being a murderer, and then try to shoot Jacobs (her last name?) before she could finish him off. But I suppose people don't always make sense, and this was wonderfully written.
It would make us all very happy if you wrote more things in the future.
I really liked it and think you should feel more confident in your writing ability. It was a moral tale inside of a western, but your vivid and synthetic style managed not to make it feel heavy with rhetorics. I also liked how the fire of ruthlessness passes from one man's eyes to the other's at the end.