Luke Posen rode up on his horse and shot Theodore Rorke in the face. It caught everyone at the Double Bar ranch by surprise. Rorke died instantly. The men stared dumbfounded at their dead boss. Luke snapped them out of their reverie.
"Where's Boss Dotson?"
One of the men fumbled at his holster. Luke cocked back the hammer of his own six shooter.
"You know who I am?" Luke asked.
The man nodded.
"Then you know drawing on me is the wrong thing to do." Luke studied the man. "I don't remember you."
"I wasn't there the night Boss Dotson tagged ya," the man said. He raised his hand to his own cheek silently indicating the scar Luke would forever wear.
"None of us were, Kid," another man said.
Luke looked at the half dozen men standing around the dead rancher.
"That true of all of ya?" Luke asked.
The others nodded.
"Those men all ran off," the first man said. "It's why Mr. Rorke hired us."
"What's your name, mister?"
"Art Londrow. Everyone here at the Double Bar calls me Lonnie."
"All right, Lonnie" Luke said. "I believe ya. Wasn't more than a few that come out to our spread that night anyhow."
The second man, the one with the edge in his words, said, "Heard you been after the ones who run off."
"You heard right. Now I'm looking for Boss Dotson."
"He's on a drive, Kid," the man name Lonnie said. "Goodnight-Loving Trail. One day out."
"That the truth?" Luke asked.
The men nodded.
"Otherwise you'd be dead." The edgy man rolled his open palm over the butt of his revolver. His fingers flipped at the grip.
The first man saw this. "Walk away, Miller," he said.
Miller, the man itching to draw, spat in the dirt at the feet of the Luke's horse. "Another time, Kid," Miller said. "Without all these squaws around. I'll do what Boss Dotson didn't."
"I got no beef with you, mister," Luke said, "but if you want to get to hell before me, I can send ya on your way."
Miller stared Luke down but looked away first. He walked off talking low.
"Been enough killing here for the day," Lonnie said.
Luke turned his horse and rode off the ranch. He'd ride through the night to Cheyenne and catch Boss Dotson at the start of the Goodnight-Loving trail. It was history what drove the Double Bar Kid. History, and vengeance.
Two years before Luke would gun him down, Theodore Rorke had accused Luke and his brother Oliver of rustling his cattle. Luke insisted it wasn't true. All the same, Rorke sent his men out to their spread, a spread Rorke had always said was on the outskirts of his land, a spread that had access to the Hobak River, an access he needed. It wasn't long after Luke's dad was found dead with a bullet in his back outside The Three Planks Saloon that Rorke sent his hands to bring the Posen boys to the Double Bar.
It didn't go well. Ollie Posen was gunned down when he stormed out of the house, sawed-off, double barrel in his hands. Forgot that it was loaded with birdshot. He'd only wanted to scare the men off their land. Boss Dotson took it as an act of aggression. When he fired, so did the men he'd brought with him. Ollie staggered back to the house.
"They shot me, Luke," Ollie said. He died on the porch.
Luke fired from the window. He took out two before his world went to shit.
Bullets continued to fly. A stray one shattered an oil lamp burning on a table. The fire spread quickly. Flames and smoke choked Luke. He could barely see.
"Ollie? Where are you?"
The smoke billowing out the open door parted. Something heavy and dark pushed through it and fell with a thump to the smoldering floor. Luke crawled over to his brother's body before the smoke overtook him. His lungs burned.
They dragged Luke from the house ready to string him up. Luke fought back. They held him down. Boss Dotson, Rorke's chief hand, pulled the iron out of his saddle bag and held it in the flames of the burning Posen house. He waited until it glowed like it was pulled from a rising sun.
"Hold him steady," Dotson said.
Two of the men did as they were told. A third held Luke's head. Dotson slowly lowered the hot brand. The parallel bars with a rope R between the two would serve as a permanent reminder of his crime.
"We didn't steal your cattle," Luke yelled.
"I say ya did," Boss Dotson said. Verdict delivered, he'd put the brand to Luke's face. Dotson rode off leaving his men to finish the job. They did a piss poor one at that. Instead of lynching him for rustling, they beat at him with their pistol grips and kicked at him with their boots all while passing around two bottles of whiskey one of them found in the Posen's shed. They left him beat, broken, and burned to die in the night.
Resilience can be a strong tonic.
People started talking about the Double Bar Kid. It was said the Kid looking for Boss Dotson and then men who'd helped him murder his family and burn down his home.
One of the men was shot dead in a whore's room. A single bullet from the roof across the street pierced his heart.
The next man died in Medicine Bow. Nine in the morning and the man was drunk. He saw Luke's face in the mirror behind the bar. So drunk was the man that he thought the man with the brand on his face was standing in front of him. The man cursed the image and put a bullet in the reflection. When he turned around, gun still in his hand, the Kid put a bullet in his chest.
By then word had gotten out that the Double Bar Kid was gunning for the men who had killed his brother, more than likely his father, and put the brand on Luke. No one knew if it was actually the Double Bar Kid who killed the third murderous ranch hand or not but the man who had held his head as Boss Dotson put the brand to Luke's flesh was found hanging from the hay loft pulley of a livery in Jackson Hole.
With Theodore Rorke dead, that left Boss Dotson.
And so it would happen outside of Cheyenne that the Double Bar Kid and Boss Dotson would meet. Luke hoped to come upon the man alone. No more than twenty men would be on the drive. It took about half of that to drive a herd of thirteen hundred long horns up from El Paso. Any extra men were only there to protect Boss Dotson. Luke had no fight with any of those other men but if they drew on him, he'd would do the same to them.
Around one in the morning Luke spotted a campfire. He tied off his horse and made his way through the trees to come within a few hundred yards of the camp. Three covered wagons making a C around the fire pit. Four men took watch. A couple squatted on chests. All had Winchesters cradle across their chests. The way they were grouped led him to believe Boss Dotson was in the center wagon.
Cold iron pressed into the back of Luke's neck. He heard the click of the hammer on the gun.
"Play it smart, Kid," the man behind him said. "Lay your guns in the moss."
Luke crouched low to put his rifle to the ground. "I'm going to put my revolver down now, mister."
"That's a good idea, Kid."
Luke slowly pulled his six-shooter from his holster. He set it next to his long barrel.
"What are you waiting for, Kid?" the man asked.
"Waiting for you to tell me what to do next," Luke said. "Didn't want to spook you."
"You're pretty smart, Kid." The man put his hand under Luke's arm to lift him. As he pulled Luke up from his crouch, Luke pulled a knife from his boot. He turned and jabbed the tip into the man's gut. He gave it a twist and a tug. The man doubled over. He brought up his pistol. Luke caught his wrist and swung the gun hand away. The man fired. Luke used the bloody blade to silence the man by dragging it over his throat.
He only had seconds to spare. Luke grabbed his rifle. He shot two of the men by the campfire before anyone returned fire. The other two men fired on the run as they dove for cover. One went behind a strong box. The second man went under a wagon as it broke formation. Even over the volleys of gunfire Luke could hear the man's screams as the wagon wheels broke his legs.
The wagons separated into three different direction. Luke knew Boss Dotson was in one of them. If he wanted to end this tonight, he'd have to decide on one and chase it down.
He made his decision and shot the drivers of the other two wagons.
Luke mounted his horse. It had been a hard ride since leaving the Double Bar. He patted her neck and rubbed her mane. "Let's ride, you and me," he said into her ear. As if she understood, his horse snorted and kicked the dirt.
He rode through gunfire. He felt the sting of hot lead more than once. At some point his horse dropped. Luke hit the ground hard enough to see tiny dots of flashing lights around his eyes. The rapport of guns snapped him out of his daze. He crawled behind his horse. All he had with him was the knife in his boot and his six shooter.
"Didn't that guy back there say I was smart?" Luke said to his horse. He emptied the spent shells and filled the chambers with rounds from his belt. There weren't many left. Didn't matter as long as he had one for Boss Dotson.
Bullets continued to hit his dead horse. Luke rolled onto his belly and fired over the horse's flank.
"I ain't dead yet," Luke yelled.
"You will be soon, Kid."
Luke spun around. Boss Dotson and a half dozen men stood behind him. All of them pointed their guns at him. They'd doubled back, come around through the trees. In the glow of the fire Luke recognized one of the men from the Double Bar Ranch that afternoon.
"Lonnie." Luke said.
"Thought you said there'd been enough killing for one day."
"Well, that was yesterday."
Luke laughed. He raised his gun. Boss Dotson shot him in the gut.
Boss Dotson kneeled next to Luke. "Won't be long now, Kid."
"I still got the blood lust in me, Boss."
"I know you do." Boss Dotson took the gun from Luke's hand. "Now tell me. What did you and your brother do with the cattle you took?"
"We ate some and sold the rest."
"So you two were nothing more than cattle stealing murderers."
"Y'all killed our daddy. Y'all tried to run us off our land."
"Your daddy got shot in the back. That sound like me?"
"No, sir." Luke coughed. Blood rolled from his mouth. He moaned. He put a bloody hand on Boss Dotson's shirt to pull him down. "Who?"
"Ask Saint Peter when you get up to his pearly gate." Boss Dotson gave him a wink.
"I'll see ya there." Luke grabbed for his boot knife one last time. Boss Dotson caught his wrist. He shook the knife free.
"I should've come for you first," Luke said.
"You had your chance, Kid. Now go run in the fields with your brother and your daddy."
Luke wanted to tell him he'd be back for him. He wasn't planning on dying until he'd stared into Boss Dotson's cold, dead eyes. But then the night settled in around him. It was so cold.
All that anger and hate had churned in him so long it clouded his thoughts, derailed his judgment. He'd lost sight of who he sought his vengeance from. How many men had he killed in the name of avenging his family?
Luke closed his eyes.
When he opened them, the sun was up and his horse was there.
It was a new day.
A new chance to right the wrongs.
He touched his hand to his cheek. The brand was gone. The R between the bars never stood for Rorke. It stood for redemption.
Luke got on his horse and rode towards the rising sun.