My name is Jacob Woodwright. I doubt we'll ever meet.
The liquor I drank in that last Missouri town had more than alcohol in it. Turpentine probably.
And although I'm still able to ride, it takes two days of hot sun and four canteens of cold water to
purge the stuff from my system. At some point, amid my blinding headaches and dry retching, my horse
Nate decides to wander off onto a secondary trail, so we no longer ride on a heavily traveled road.
I know that we're heading generally northwest, towards Kansas City, but have no idea how long it will
take to get there.
I can't fault Nate for this. I've found that most decisions made by horses are at least as good as
those made by people. And I wasn't exactly taking charge.
The secondary road is generally deserted, crawling through mixed lands of woods and fields. Now and then
I pass a ruddy log cabin or farm shanty with frayed burlap sacks fluttering in the empty window frames.
Doors are barred shut, though, and the occupants stay hidden, save for an occasional hollow-eyed child
whose face bobs lightly in the window for a second or two before being smacked away by an adult hand.
We are riding through a fairly open stretch when Nate gives a high snort and jerks his head around to look
back. Thousands of miles on Nate have taught me what this means. Riders are on the trail behind us. Nate
throats a high whinny but there is no reply. We ride on for an hour or so.
Jerking sideways, Nate snorts and looks back again. I rein him tight and stop for a minute, waiting for
someone to appear on our back trail. No one does. Blood rushes through my head with the sounds of a busted
pipe and my chest gets real tight. Four years of surviving on horseback trigger my alarms.
Riders on your back trail are common. But when they mean you no harm, then one of two things will happen. If
they're traveling faster than you, then they'll eventually ride into plain sight at your rear. If traveling
slower, then they'll fall farther and farther behind, to be seen and smelled no more.
But, and I mean but, if they travel at the same speed as you, and never get closer or farther, then they aren't
traveling at all, they're stalking.
I have to make decisions now, and fast. Unless you know for certain that you can outrun your pursuers, then
trying to escape by speed is a bad choice. In short order, they will ride you down at a time and place of their
own choosing and finish you.
On the other hand, you can make use of what little time you have and make a stand at a place of your choosing,
so long as you have enough food, water and ammunition.
I have plenty.
Nate is prancing, and wants to get moving, wants to make a run for it. Yet he is worn from long travel, and
despite his overnight rest and grain in the last town, I know he can't last.
I turn him up trail, and let him go, but only to an easy cantor, not a gallop. We are moving yes, but just enough
to create some extra time and distance.
And while we go, I sit high and look for something, anything, to work with. My hands shake and I get that sick
feeling again, but I am very focused and colors seem brighter somehow.
Up ahead I see a smaller trail branching off to the left, pushing into heavier woods. We take it and continue to
move. I'm looking for a crease or an opening in the trail that I can use to advantage, and after a half mile or
so, I spot it. A small clearing on the right side of the trail, from an old lightning strike or brush fire.
I ride into the clearing, tie off Nate, and find two tree trunks that sit about eight feet apart. I stretch a
rope between the trees, pull it tight, throw my canvas groundsheet across it, and hope it looks like a tent. I
pull the four corners out and weigh them down with rocks. It looks pretty good to me.
Scraping a shallow hole in the ground with my boot heel, I put a few pieces of crumpled paper into it. I fling on
lots of small pine branches snapped from the bottom of trunks, light the pile with a match, and step back. It
starts up quickly, giving off lots of smoke- and wood-scent. Exactly what I want.
Nate watches me over his shoulder. He knows that something is coming, but is relaxed. I pull the Sharps, the shotgun,
and an old gray blanket from my rig and set them aside. I am breathing really heavy now and sweat pours down my face.
They are coming and will be here soon. I pull the saddle and bags from Nate, walk them into the woods about twenty-five
yards, and cover them with dead leaves. If I lose Nate, I don't want to lose everything else as well.
Back at the clearing I snatch up my guns and blanket, cross over the trail, and plunge into the woods on the other
side. I need to move fast, but can't afford a mistake.
I make my way through the trees in a large arc, swinging back towards the section of the trail that I just rode in on.
When I get to the trail, I stop about fifteen feet short, staying in the thicket. I find a huge white oak, and squat
behind it. It stands between me and the trail. Nate and the clearing are about 100 yards down the road. I can just see
Nate's rump and a swatch of the tent. I smell the smoke. I cover myself with the blanket to stay hidden.
I am waiting. I am shaking. I am sweating.
The birds are singing.
I am still waiting.
I hear them now. They slow to a trot.
I hide. My face is down and covered. I will not try to look at them until they have ridden past.
I hear the creak of leather. The trotting stops. Their horses smell me and balk and whinny softly. They pause in the
trail, almost even with the oak.
"There," a man whispers. (I can imagine him pointing to my camp.) They see Nate. They see the smoke. They think their
horses balk at the scent of Nate instead of me, and that will cost them.
Another whisper. "Careful."
Slowly, they nudge their horses onward, focusing on the clearing.
I wait. One beat. Two beats. Three.
I gently pull the blanket from over my head and let the cloth fall softly behind me.
There are two of them. A very big man and a skinny one. They ride good horses, weighed down by fine rigs and iron. Their
backs are towards me as they ease forward to the camp. Too well-heeled to be lawmen or outlaws, my guess is that they're
bounty hunters, professionals at that.
But hunting who? Me? I'm not wanted for anything.
Now I realize. Out here, there are no tin photos of outlaws. Just rough sketches on yellow posters, with vague descriptions
and the seductive phrase . . . "Dead or Alive."
When they are fifty yards past,, I slip with my guns from behind the tree and sit in the brush next to the trail. I put the
big Sharps into shooting position and wait.
They move closer to the camp and then halt. They study the tent, wondering if I'm asleep within.
The skinny one dismounts, handing his reins to the big man. The big man sits in his saddle, holding both sets of reins in
his left hand and a Colt Walker in his right.
Skinny has a rifle, and walks quietly towards the clearing, trying to get the correct angle to peer into the tent.
I cock back the hammer on the Sharps. In the quiet dry air, it is harsh and metallic. The men's horses hear it. I see their
ears flick backwards. The men do not.
Lining up the sights on the big man's back, I draw a deep breath, let it halfway out, and squeeze the
trigger . . . gently . . . taking my time.
"BLOOM!" The Sharps rocks rearward, belching a huge plume of smoke.
Big man pitches forward, completely out of his saddle and onto the ground, one foot hanging in the stirrup for a second
and then dropping away. He is dead. His horse prances to one side
Skinny is quick but confused. He hears the shot, sees his partner go down, but has no idea where the shot came from. Up
ahead? From the side? Certainly not from behind.
His horse is well trained and does not flee. Skinny swings into his saddle, scabbards his rifle, pulls a pistol and rides
hard, trying to flee back up the trail the same way he came.
He is riding straight towards me. I am unseen.
I have set down the Sharps and taken up the shotgun. I cock the hammers. I wait.
He will arrive in seconds. He still does not see me.
I can see his face though. It is middle-aged and afraid. And now he makes his biggest mistake. He looks back over his
shoulder, casting one last glance to see if he's pursued.
I stand as his horse draws near, point the bead of the gun at his chest, swing smoothly as though tracking an incoming
grouse, and pull the right trigger. The shotgun roars even louder than the Sharps, slamming him with buckshot and
knocking him out of the saddle. He loses his pistol on the way down and hits the ground hard.
I walk towards him from the woods, my second barrel cocked and ready. He struggles to his knees, his chest pocked here
and there with red holes, and pulls a second revolver from the small of his back.
I shoot him again, and he is finished.
I stand for five minutes I guess. Maybe longer. I am calm again.
I am in the middle of the trail, looking up at a boiling gray sky, or rather a swatch of it, through swaying green
branches. The wind is cool and licks at my neck. Rain is coming.
Skinny's mare returns and yanks green nettles from the roadside, apparently unconcerned with her master. I hear the
"chomp-clack" "chomp-clack" of her bit as she chews and swallows.
Skinny has no badge, and that relieves me somewhat, though a dead man on an open trail, or rather two, is still a
serious state of affairs. A folded paper flaps noisily in the wind from his vest pocket. I yank it out.
WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE
JOHN DOE (TRUE NAME UNKNOWN), FOR NEFARIOUS ROBBERY & MURDER
IN WESTERN ARKANSAS IN THE SUMMER OF 1865.
A charcoal sketch of a killer's face peers back. It is lean and hard, bearing a vague resemblance to mine, but
older . . . much older. The physical description puts him five inches taller as well. From a
distance, I guess, Skinny and Big Man may have thought this was me.
Or maybe, after killing me and stretching me out to ripen for a few days, they would have said it was me. I guess
I'll never know.
I do know that from the time I saw them tracking me, I didn't have to think. Something just . . . took
over. That "something" is what kept me alive through four years of butchery, but now it feels out of place, even out of control.
Since the War is over, I guess I'll have to remember to give strangers a better chance to kill me before I defend myself.
Big Man's body is so heavy that it is tough to roll over. A large exit hole is blown out of his chest, but there is no
badge on him either, at least none I can find.
I'm dragging Big Man about ten yards off of the trail into my camp when his horse returns. He seems to like my tent
and waits for grain.
I drag Skinny back to my tent and prop him up against a tree, facing Big Man. If I'm real lucky, then for five or ten
minutes someone might think that they shot each other. I make sure their guns are out, and fire off a couple shots
from each. I'm surprised at how much money they are carrying. Almost eighty dollars all told.
I'm no robber. You know that. But I take most of the cashy, leaving the rest in their pockets. When someone finds the
bodies, I hope he'll be glad to get the remainder and keep his mouth shut. What hurts the most is leaving their guns
behind. They are well oiled, well cared for, and in great shape. In a few days, they'll be rust, but I can't risk
being caught with them and besides, Nate is weighed down as it is.
Neither of their horses carry a brand, thank God, so I yank the saddles off, throw them near the bodies, and then
whip the horses really hard to drive them further up trail. In a day or so, they will wander into somebody's homestead,
and times being what they are, some starving farmer will hide them in his barn for a few months and then claim they're
his. He sure won't turn them in.
Big cold drops splat hard against my shoulders and hat, and the wind picks up. I re-saddle Nate, but leave the tent in place.
I'm riding down the little trail again, heading back to the main trail from which I turned during the pursuit. The
rain is a good thing. It'll wash out the tracks.
I push hard for Kansas City.