New Mexico, 1938
Three men sat around a fire, warming their hands. Light cast by the small burning bundle of sticks produced more light than warmth.
“Ren, git s’more sticks,” growled a scruffy bearded man in jacket two sizes too small.
“Git it yerself Earl,” Ren shot back, using a long, dirty fingernail to dig at food stuck in his teeth.
“Shut up you two,” muttered Joe, his cigarette wagging as he talked. “Bad enough we had to make fire, but you two bickering gonna get us all caught.”
“Hello?” A voice echoed out of the darkness.
All three men jumped to their feet. The scuffling of their boots on the sandy, rocky soil almost drowned out the harsh clicks of the their revolvers being cocked.
“Who dat?” Earl whispered in a rough voice, scanning the darkness from where the voice came from. In a plain, a young man in worn black overcoat, buttoned to the top, and short-brimmed hat stepped into the firelight. A smile graced his features. Seeing the weapons pointed at him, his smile drained away. He raised his hands, swallowed and interjected, “I … I … mean no harm, gentlemen, I just wished to share your fire.”
Earl started to aim his weapon, but Joe pushed it down. “Hold up there, Earl.” Joe looked at the stranger for a moment and changed his attitude. “What’s your name, boy?”
“John,” the stranger stated, swallowing hard again, as sweat beaded on his brow.
John nodded. “My horse went lame several miles north of here, and I’ve been walking since sundown.”
Ren glared at Joe. “I don’t like this,” he groused. “We don’t need no stranger’s around.”
Joe rubbed his chin, his thoughts spinning. “You got any food?”
John started to reach into his coat, and all three men once again raised their weapons. “Wait, give me a chance fellas!” he said rummaging around. A small loaf of unleavened bread appeared in his hand. “Here we can all — “
Earl darted forward and ripped the bread out of John’s hands, and the other two men clawed at it as well. With a mixture of disgust and aggravation painted on his face, the young man said, “Please, gentlemen. No need to act like ani . . .” After a short tussle, bits of bread and crust had fallen to the ground, as Joe, Earl and Ren stuffed bits and pieces of the manna into their mouths.
Joe smiled, just as a loud snapping sound echoed in the distance. With a thud, his revolver hit the ground, and he grabbed his midsection with both hands. Eyes wide, he fell to his knees. Bits of a half-chewed bread dribbled out of his mouth as blood snaked through his fingers, spreading down his torso. Ren pointed his revolver at John, who looked up in shock. “You tricked us!”
Earl looked past John into the dark.
Shaking his head, John stumbled backwards, as another shot rang out. Ren spun around, his gun barked, kicking up dust at his feet. “I been hit,” he wheezed, his left hand clawing at the red stain growing on his chest.
A flash of light erupted in the darkness followed by another echoing crack. Ren slammed back onto the ground and remained motionless. Joe had seen the weapon flash and now fired several shots in that general direction. He grabbed John by the collar of his coat and pushed him down next to where Ren’s gun lay on the ground. “Pick it up!” With a wavering hand, John palmed the weapon and held it in front of him, fear etched across his youthful features. Joe leaned close, “Shoot anything that moves.” He pushed away from John and crouched, casting furtive glances into the darkness.
John looked at Joe, his eyes imploring, but as he did so, another shot rang out, this time from behind him. Joe’s eyes rolled up in his head, and his brains leaked out of the hole the bullet made between his eyes.
Terrified, John whipped around and jerked the trigger of Ren’s revolver; it jumped like a wild fish in his hands. Finally, all he could hear was the clicking of the firing pin on the empty chambers. A figure appeared on the far side of the fire. Through the flames, he spied an apparition in a broad brimmed hat and bearing a long rifle. John jumped to his feet – threw down the revolver and reached into his coat. Another shot rang out sending him backwards onto the ground. Gasping for air, he pulled his hand out of the coat and saw it covered with a bright red layer of blood. Looking up, he saw a man with a rifle standing over him. “God help …,” John gurgled the rest, then slumped over as darkness closed in around him.
* * *
Stephen “Steve” Thomas stepped around the fire, looking at the four bodies. He reached down and from the dirt, picked up Joe’s still lit cigarette, taking a few puffs. Not bad for two week’s effort. Flipping one of the bodies over with the toe of his boot, he stared down into the pale face. Warren “Ren” McDunn, murderer and escaped convict, $100. Another few steps and he reached a figure splayed out, staring wide-eyed at the heavens. A bloody halo surrounded Joe McDunn, Warren’s brother and co-conspirator, $30. He looked across at the ratty clothes belonging to Earl Krump, rapist, murderer, and bank robber, $150.
Picking his way around the bloody puddles, he moved over to the last form and stared down at it. The body lay on its side, face upwards, eyes half open, palm of the right hand painted with blood. Thomas grimaced. The face was unfamiliar, simple threadbare clothes looked worn but neat and clean. He hadn’t wanted to kill this one, but the fool had reached into his coat. With the end of his rifle, he flipped the man’s jacket open. A leather bound copy of the King James Bible slid out onto the ground and flopped open. Thomas’ eyes drifted to the man’s clerical collar. Damn.
He shook his head and knelt next to the body. Most of the man’s pockets contained nothing of importance, extra buttons and a string of beads. Flipping open the cover of the Bible he found identification — Reverend John Finkle of Prescott, Arizona.
He looked down at Finkle’s blue-lipped face. “Padre, you picked the wrong men to be around.”
With a sigh, he stood up and looked around. The bodies had to be collected so he could claim the bounties. But what about Finkle? That would raise unwanted questions. His mind churned for a moment, but then he turned on his heel and walked back to his horse to grab a shovel.
A short time later, he stood over the grave. He paused a moment trying to think of something appropriate to say. Life is capricious and cruel, fleeting and without hope.
No, that wouldn’t do. Picking up Finkle’s Bible, he flipped it open, and read the first passage he could find.
“And that he would shew thee the secrets of wisdom, that they are double to that which is! Know therefore that God exacteth of thee less than thine iniquity deserveth.”
He looked up, shrugged and shouldered the shovel. He started to toss the Bible on top of the mound of dirt, but hesitated, and slipped it into his own coat.
He mounted up and pulled on the reins of his horse. It struggled under the weight of three bodies. There had to be a better way to make a living, he mused.
Looking over his shoulder, he glanced back at the dirt mound disappearing in the distance. Sorry John, some secrets need to stay buried.