Welcome to Texas, the mid-1880s, and a tiny incidental desert hamlet named Crossroads. It's a little known, seldom spoken of frontier town, snugly nestled beneath majestic mountains along the southwestern border between Texas and Mexico, and morally poised between virtue and corruption. It's a mundane community barely on the maps of this vast region, a unique shade of gray in this harsh black and white world. It's a tiny society unto itself where the sublime sometimes means the surreal. It is a place where wandering souls come for a variety of reasons. For some it's to seek a better life away from the increasingly modernized mayhem of progress. For some it's a place to hang their hat before moving on to their destiny. Still for others it's a sanctuary from the past, a last chance of sorts to start anew.
Yes, the town of Crossroads is many things to many people but for its residents, it's merely a place where they try to live their lives according to their wants and beliefs. Each man, woman and child who stops here knows and understands that every day is another precious opportunity to fulfill a dream, to realize happiness or to achieve redemption. For those souls who wander here searching for solace, retribution or a just brief sabbatical from their sobering lives, they'll find their journey's end has led them to a point of decision. A decision everyone must make upon arrival at Crossroads.
So welcome, my friend. Welcome to a town where last chances meet new beginnings. Welcome to a town on the edge of the American spirit, where the unimaginable is cultivated from the seeds of the human condition. Welcome to a town where the past and the present roll the dice with the future hanging in the balance.
Welcome... to Crossroads.
O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ [ Prologue ] ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O
Throughout his life he must face many forms of adversity whether it be his life style, his beliefs and fears or even... his own mortality. It is what a man chooses to do when those moments arrive that determines the character and resolve of a man. Some may choose to ignore the situation while others may turn away in abject terror of the consequences. Still others will act with bravado in the absence of any other believable alternative. Such a man is the subject of our story.
He is a forty-three year old man of good health and sound mind who is trying to find his way thru an unforgiving land with a moral compass that is less than true. He is seeking what most of us want in our short time on this earth; a chance to live a normal life with normal cares and normal circumstances. His journey to this point has been anything but normal however. Indeed it has been a life of self-indulgence laden with a stunted conscience and a vague code of ethics. But this man is rapidly approaching a fork in the road of his destiny and he will have to make a very significant decision. It is a decision which will demand a lifetime commitment. But there's one very important detail that may have a heavy bearing on his selection.
You see this man... has a secret.
Although quiet and unassuming on his veneer, he is not a man to be trifled with. He is what people in this land call a gunfighter, a hired gun, a shootist. He is a man who prefers to settle his confrontations with the absolute finality of his revolver rather than civil discourse. By all accounts, he's a cold-blooded killer whose weapon of choice is the unforgiving bullet from a Colt .45. It's been said that he has no soul and that when he dies even The Devil himself won't let him into Hell.
This is a man driven to present legend by the deadly success of his past. It is a past compiled from bullets and blood, guns and graves. It's a life of self-indulgence through intimidation and fear, of fame and fortune at the barrel of a gun. But that reputation has outgrown its usefulness and its appeal. It's become a burdensome life of running from town to town, keeping three steps ahead of the law and the hangman to avoid paying the final bill on his troubled history. It is that escape which has brought this man to his current quandary.
The tragic truth is, he is a tired man now. He's grown weary of living off his gun. Death is a repulsive notion for him these days. He knows it could come the next time his gun swings from his holster. He'd like to stop running, settle down and live out the rest of his life in peaceful anonymity.
His pursuit of that end has unknowingly led him here to a deadly penance and this time his lethal prowess with a sixgun may not put the odds in his favor. You see this man's dark past is about to catch up with him. He will have to confront that dark past just as we all must on the day of our final judgment at a location yet to be determined. As for this man, his judgment day will most definitely transpire here... at Crossroads.
He felt very weary as he rode his appaloosa along the dusty street, past the people as they along the boulevard. As he sauntered down the street, he could feel a difference about this town. He didn't the weight of their stares. For the first time in a long time he didn't know what they were thinking. He could almost smell a change in the dusty air. They weren't afraid of him. It didn't matter who he was. He felt a grumbling in his stomach as he pushed his dust-covered hat down up off his brow. He was very tired after the month long ride from the tiny border town of San Martin where he had spent the last several months. It had been a tranquil town, much smaller in size compared to this one. He would have liked to stay there but a little disagreement with a local hastened the necessity of his departure.
'Why didn't he walk away?' he thought. 'No, he couldn't just walk away from her. That would look bad for such a macho hombre like him. The damned fool...!' He shuddered as if a cold chill went through his soul.
"The damned stupid fool!" he said aloud, his teeth clenched. He coughed hard, his throat dry from the trail dust. His eyes slowly surveyed the street for the town's saloon.
Every town has a saloon just like every town has a lawman and a doctor, two things that he's seen too much of in his lifetime. Yes sir, every town surely is the same and in every town he thinks 'maybe this time it'll work. Maybe this time I'll be able to put an end to it all '. But in all the previous towns, despite his optimism, he had only lying to himself. He'd been proven wrong so many times. But there seems to be something different here, in this town, something that gave him a glimmer of hope.
He pulls up in the front of the town's primary drinking establishment: Mooney's Last Chance Saloon. He glances up at the huge, weatherworn painted wooden sign and chuckles to himself.
'"Last Chance", huh? Guess that's fittin',' he thinks with a wry grin.
He dismounts and ties the reins to the hitching post. Stepping onto the boardwalk he walks thru the swinging doors into the saloon. Once inside he pauses, scouring the scene for anything that might disrupt his intentions. Usually that disruption came with a badge. Satisfied with the layout's clientele, he makes his way to the bar.
"Yes sir?" says the barkeep.
"Bottle o' whiskey", he says quickly.
"Sure thing" replies the husky bartender as he disappears to the far end of the bar. He returns a few seconds later with a bottle and pulls the cork before sliding it gently to the waiting man. He then sets a shot glass on the bar top. The man fills the glass and downs it. As he pours a second glass, he speaks.
"You Mooney?" he asked the barkeep without taking his eyes off his shot glass.
"Yes sir, Hank Mooney, proprietor", he replied. "And you Mister?
"Benson, Rory Benson", Benson smiles as he downs the glass once again "Any hints as to where can I might get a nice quiet room?"
"Well there's Miss Didi's Boarding House down the street or the Grandview Hotel just beyond that. Both have good rooms for a fair price"
"Much obliged" says Benson slapping a silver dollar onto the bar. It was more than the liquor cost but Rory felt that he might as well set about to creating good will between himself and the town.
"Thank you!" Mooney shouted as Benson disappeared through the front doors. "Come again, yessirree, come again anytime!"
Rory paused on the boardwalk, looking up and down the bustling street. He smiled and began walking up the street. For the first time in a very long time his heart felt light as if a heavy dark weight had been removed. He tipped his hat to a fancily dressed woman. She smiled shyly as she passed him. There was no trembling at his face, no cowering at his presence. There was no cursing his name to the Devil below, all things which had previously been daily occurrences in his life.
"Hey..!" he said with a startle as someone carrying two full bags of groceries came bounding out the door of Spencer's Dry Goods and run straight into him. All the contents of the bags spilled to the ground and scatter along the boardwalk.
"I-I'm so sorry!" came a voice as light and sweet as maple syrup. Rory turned his gaze from the fallen groceries up to a lovely face. His eyes met hers and his heart nearly leapt from his chest. Standing there was a woman dressed in a red-n-white flannel shirt and jeans. She was a beautiful woman, about thirty-ish, with chestnut brown hair which fell down around her face in ringlets. Her face was thin with high cheekbones. She wasn't all gussied up as many of the women about town were. No, she had a natural beauty to her. Her figure was slender but one could tell she wasn't frail by any means. But the thing he noticed most about her was her eyes. It wasn't so much the color he was struck by which was a deep green but more what he saw in her eyes. They were bright and caring but there was more to them than that. It was as if there was an emptiness hidden amidst the sparkle, almost as if they were longing for something or perhaps someone.
"I'm very sorry, sir!" her troubled voice snapped him back to the moment. "I wasn't paying attention I guess and..."
"Oh please, please I should've been more careful. Here let me help." He said never staking his eyes from her face.
They quickly gathered up her things and had them securely back in their bags. They both reached for the last remaining item on the boardwalk, a shiny red apple, one of many she'd bought. Their hands touched for a second. There was an awkward silence of embarrassment and then Rory withdrew his hand. She picked up the apple and placed it gently into one of her bags.
"Well thank you very much Mister...?" she inquired.
Did he dare? Did he dare look her in the eye and risk the chance that his reputation may have already made it to this town? He drew a long breath. He could feel his heart begin to race. Although it wasn't very noticeable, his usually steady hands began to quiver. He swallowed hard, smile and replied.
"Benson. Rory Benson." He smiled a nervous grin as he looked into her eyes. "And please, don't give it a second thought, Mrs. ...?"
"Houlihan. Sadie Houlihan." She answered with a smile.
"Sadie, huh? That's a mighty..." he searched for the words that wouldn't make him appear as a dolt. He should have known that a woman such as her would already be spoken for. He tries to hide his disappointment as he continues, "...wonderful name. I have a niece named Sadie that lives back east."
"Why thank you, Mr. Benson." She said, her eyes twinkling even brighter now. "Are you staying in town long?"
"I'm ... not sure exactly. It's a mighty fine town that's for sure. And if the sights around the rest of the town are as nice as the ones I've seen so far, well... I just may stay around for awhile."
Sadie could feel her cheeks flush as she blushed. Rory gave a half-chuckle at the sight.
"Well maybe I'll see you around then, Mr. Benson" she said adjusting the bags of groceries in her arms.
"Please, call me Rory." he said with a smile in his eye.
"Very well...Rory" she replies as she begins to walk away. "And by the way..."
Rory pauses from his admiring the swaying gate of her walk to hear her words.
"It's Miss." She says, never turning back because she just knew he was watching. She smiles as she strides away. The smile broadens on Rory Benson's face.
"Yes sir," he says under his breath, "I just might be here awhile at that."
He nods his head subconsciously and continues down the street with a little bit more of a giddy up in his step.
Midmorning finds Rory Benson seated alone at a table in The Tin Horn Diner located in the southern most part of the town. The pancakes are cold, the coffee's bland and the eggs are tougher than shoe leather but despite all of these distractions he somehow finds the meal one of the best he's had in a long time. In his line of work, he was used to eating beans on a skillet out on some lonesome prairie or holed up by some campfire in a cave praying that his trail had gone cold and that the sheriff and his posse couldn't find it. He shudders as if to shake those memories from his head and shoves another piece of steak into his mouth. He just knew that things were going to be different here. He could feel it in his soul. This was the place where he would turn his life around. He just flat out knew it. But he reminded himself that the change wouldn't come overnight.
'One day at a time, old boy, one day at a time.' he smiled as the thought ran its course.
He absentmindedly glances out the window behind his table. Suddenly a smile appears on his face. He quickly stands up and taps vigorously on the window. He motions for the object of his attention to come inside. He stands awkwardly at his table waiting anxiously, wringing his hands together. Then in thru the doors walks a smiling Sadie Houlihan.
"Why Mr. Benson, nice to see you again" she said in that smooth Texas drawl of hers.
Rory pulls out a second chair and offers it to her.
"Please, call me Rory" he said.
"Alright then", she says, a childish smile appearing on her lips," Rory."
She sits down and Rory tucks her chair in to the table. He motions for a waiter to come.
"I know it may be a bit forward of me, just meeting you today and all, but would you do me the honor of having dinner with me tonight? I don't know anybody in town and…" he asks.
"Well... I appreciate the kind offer, I really do," she says,
"Buuuut..." adds Rory dejectedly.
"But I have a previous dinner engagement, I'm afraid."
The disappointment was very evident on Rory's face. 'Why would this lovely woman want to spend time with a dreg like me' he thought to himself, quickly trying to mask the hurt with a simple smile but he was transparent in the attempt. Sadie had already seen it.
"You see, I'm cooking for the church's bean supper tonight", she says.
"The...church?" says Rory as the smile slowly returned to his face.
"Yes, the First Baptist Parish, down at the end of Front St" she added.
"Really?" says Benson with a chuckle in his voice.
"I'd love to see you there" she replies.
"You just may at that, Sadie"
"Well…good! I look forward to it then" she says, standing up from the table. "By the way, you like the food here?"
Benson stands as well, tipping his hat as she sashays from the table.
"I've had a lot worse" he says with a smile.
"Well you'll have to stop by tomorrow for lunch," she says as she walks behind the counter. "You're looking at the head chef of the Tinhorn Diner." She winks.
Benson watched as she disappeared thru the swinging doors leading into the kitchen, Sadie quickly glancing back at him as well.
"Yup", he said under his breath, "I sure do think I'm gonna like it here."
Rory sat back down to finished his breakfast with a steady grin on his face.
Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months and over that time Rory pursued Sadie as a suitor, many times being rebuffed gently but never discouraged from continuing the pursuit. He would always eat at the Tin Horn everyday just so he could see her and bask in the sunshine of her smile. Eventually Sadie would consent to courting and the two became fast friends. Love blossomed between the two and Rory would wake up at night in disbelief at the good turn his life had taken.
Rory Benson soon became a fixture in the town. He'd come to have many friends and they learned to like and admire Rory Benson for his character and smiling, gentle manner. Over this time Rory Benson went thru a metamorphosis in both conscience and character. He became a man who gained the respect and trust of all whose path he crossed. He was viewed as a firm but fair individual by those he worked for and with. He also gained the reputation of being dependable, affable and hardworking.
It had been a whirlwind of events since he'd decided to stay here. He'd gotten a good paying job as ranch foreman at the Circle D Ranch run by Abner Dix. He'd barely settled into the job when his mettle was put to the test by a gang of cattle rustlers. Chance Hicks, his brothers Laury, Verne and Billy plus local gunhand Brack Logan all plotted to rustle some of Abner Dix' cattle as they grazed about a mile north of town.
It was early evening when Verne, Billy and Logan sat in O' Hannon's Saloon drinking and playing cards. A very drunk Verne began bragging about what they planned on doing the following night. He was overheard by Jim Holton, the saloon's bartender. Holton, being good friends with Rory, went to Benson with the plot.
The next evening Benson and fellow ranch hands Eddie Horne and Jed Greer rode out to the pasture at dusk. They stayed along the tree line so as not to be readily seen and they waited. It was a full moon and it lit up the hillside with a soft silvery glow, enough to see anyone coming or going.
Their wait was rewarded quickly as just after dusk a group of riders slowly and quietly made their way down the crease of the valley where the cattle were grazing by a stream. Sure enough it was the Hicks Brothers and Brack Logan cutting out some cattle as they grazed in a low valley. The trio rode up and confronted the group. Chance wasn't among them when the confrontation occurred. There was a standoff as Benson demanded that the rustlers leave or face the consequences. Just what those consequences were, nobody knew but Rory.
In his previous profession he'd become quite accustomed to reading people. It paid to know just who you were up against and their character. Subtle things such as the way a man wore his holster or the way he may place his hands during a conversation all gave privy to what that man is thinking about doing. Benson sized up each and every man. He knew the men on his side. Eddie Horne was an over-ambitious kid with a chip on his shoulder but a good sense of right and wrong. He would be quick on the draw but more'n likely wild on execution. Jed Greer on the other hand was a salty veteran of range wars and knew how to handle himself and his gun in tight situations such as these. Rory knew they both had sand and would stand by him to the finish.
On the other side of the matter were the rustlers. Laury Hicks was a coward, plain and simple. He was a gasbag and a hard talker but he'd be the last to shoot and the first to run. His brother, Verne was the eldest of the clan. He'd had a hard life and really wasn't itching to die but he was a steady hand with a six-shooter. He might listen to reason before any gunplay. Billy Hicks was a follower. He'd watch Verne or Laury to see their reactions and then jump onboard accordingly. Rory knew if he could talk Verne into just leaving then Billy wouldn't make a play on his own. The last of the bunch was the wildcard.
Brack Logan was a big man, about six foot-three or four, with hair as black as night and eyes filled with bad purpose. Rory knew of Logan and his handiwork with a six-gun. But even if he hadn't, he'd know Brack was a hired gun, no doubt about it. He had the hat pulled down to hide his eyes and intentions. His holster was tied down to his leg, a sure sign of someone who works tightly with a pistol. He was calm and cool as if out for a Sunday ride. Not even a hint of nerves. That's the sign of a man harboring the silent confidence of his ability with a shooting iron. Yeah, Brack Logan was the one to watch for if the situation started going south.
"Verne! Verne there ain't no need for this!" shouts Rory across the herd at Verne Hicks just a mere twenty five feet away.
"We're takin' this herd" he spit back. "Chance told Dix if you crossed our water again we'd take measures. You didn't listen ta Chance and now we're takin' 'em!"
"Not likely, Verne" says Rory. "These are Circle D cattle, Verne and you know we're running them up to the north pasture where they'll get branded. Why are you rustling them?"
"Hey, there ain't no brands on them right now. That's makes them fair game far as I can see" says Verne with a sly grin as looks at each of his compatriots.
Rory looked them over as well. Laury was nervous and had slowly moved to the back of the pack. Billy was wide-eyed, looking at everyone, his left hand slowly making its way to his gun. Verne kept eye contact, he was talking and that was a good thing for the moment. It was Brack Logan however, who had Rory's full attention at the moment. Logan had shifted his weight in his saddle. He was now sitting upright, one hand with the reins resting on the saddle horn. Logan's other hand was rubbing his stomach as if full from a meal, getting closer and closer to his pistol with each rub.
"Look Verne, you go now and this ends here. I give you my word." says Rory.
Verne's eyes wander to his friends then back to Benson.
"Oh we're gonna leave here alright but the cattle's comin' with us. Unless you plan on helpin' us, I'd suggest you go back to the bunkhouse, have a meal, and drink some coffee. Forget we were ever here."
"I don't think he's gonna help us, Verne. I think maybe he's thinkin' of tryin' to stop us. Is that it, Mr. Foreman?" says Logan is a gruff voice. "You itchin' ta play hero?"
Rory looks back at Verne. Verne is eyeing Benson, trying to gauge Rory's reaction.
"C'mon Verne, this don't need to happen. Move on and we'll all live to see another day, huh?"
"They ain't gonna leave unless we make 'em leave, Rory" whispers Eddie.
"Easy Eddie, lemme handle this"
"What do you say, Verne? Is a few rustled head of cattle worth risking everybody getting killed?"
Rory glances over at Logan. His hand is almost on his pistol now.
The tension amongst the group was escalating and Rory knew he had to diffuse the situation quickly or risk an all out gunfight.
"Billy, talk some sense to him will ya?" he says with a harsh tone.
"What's the play, Verne?" asked Billy.
"He'll go straight to the law, Verne an' you know it. Let's finish this." Logan grumbled.
"Verne, don't do this…" says Rory, his right hand slowly descending to his side.
"Just shut up!" Verne snaps. " I just want to…"
"You know what Chance said to do if we ran up against them. If you ain't got the sand to do this then let me" says Logan, slowly moving his pony to the left, putting space between himself and the rest of the group.
Rory knows the play all too well. He also knows that now there'll be no room for error. His right index finger was now absentmindedly tapping the handle of the pistol on his right hip.
"He speak for you and your brothers now, Verne? All he's gonna do is get someone killed."
"Who's gonna do the killin', tenderfoot? You? I highly doubt it" Logan spits the words out as he draws his pistol. Rory was ready and skins his leather in one fluid motion.
Two shots ring out. Logan's shot goes wide of Rory while Logan is hit in the shoulder and knocked from his horse by Rory's bullet. Seeing the firing commence, Eddie Horne draws his pistol and fires at Billy and Verne, both shots missing them, as they attempted to scatter but got pinned in place by the scampering herd. As they spin on their horses, Jed Greer raises his rifle and fires a shot at Laury who is trying to ride away. Rory looks at Logan slumped on the ground and motionless. He quickly dismounts his horse seeking surer footing.
A bullet whistles past Rory's ear. Instinctively he quickly turns and fires again.
Verne Hicks is hit in the belly. He raises his pistol and fires off a round that hits Jed Greer in the left leg. Rory sees the injury and grits his teeth in anger. Then suddenly all emotion drains from his face. His angered expression is now replaced by a stoic stare. He calmly levels his pistol again.
The shot hits Verne Hicks in the chest instantly knocking him from his saddle to the ground. Billy Hicks fires off a shot that knocks Eddie Horne's hat from his head as he's reloading his gun. Rory calmly but quickly turns towards the fray and squeezes the trigger once more.
Billy Hicks gun falls from his hand as he tumbles backwards off his horse and hits the ground with a thud.
Jed Greer fires another shot at the fleeing Laury Hicks. Rory Benson spins around to the direction of the rifle's report, his sixgun still gripped tightly in his hand. He squeezes the trigger with the gentleness of handling an egg.
Laury Hicks arches forward in the saddle, a result of Rory's bullet's impact to his back Laury Hicks then slumps to his right and falls from his sand to the ground.
Then there is silence.
White gunsmoke fills the air as Rory sits in his saddle at the ready for further gunplay. He quickly eyes the tragic scene.
"Who's hit?" shouts Rory as he walks over to the side of the fallen Verne Hicks. Verne lay dead on the ground, his pistol still gripped in his left hand. Rory shook his head in disgust.
"Didn't need to go down like this, you damned fool" he said under his breath.
"I-I'm okay" stammers Eddie as he pokes a finger thru the hole in his hat.
Rory spins his horse around trying to find Greer.
"Jed? Jed?" he shouted.
"Over… here…" a familiar grizzled voice hollered.
The cattle had scampered away and Rory could see Greer now. He had pulled himself up against a rock, his left leg bloodied just below the knee. Rory guided his horse to Greer's position and dismounted.
"S'it bad, Jed?" asks Rory, quickly wrapping his neckerchief around the wound.
"Nah, I think it went clean thru" says Jed.
"Rory!" screams Eddie Horne.
Rory turns toward Eddie's voice and sees the winged Logan standing there, pistol in his hand. The gunman levels his pistol at Rory.
"Yer done, Benson!", shouts Logan.
"Rory!"" screams Eddie as he turns his horse and races to his foreman's side. As he reaches the area he stops his pony dead in his tracks as Rory spins around and trains his gun on him.
"Whoa, Rory, it's me!" says Eddie, his eyes wide at the gruesome sight before him. Brack Logan lay dead on the ground, a second bullet wound to the forehead. A smoking gun is held tightly in the right hand of Rory Benson and is now pointed at Eddie himself. He just stands there and stares down at Rory who is in a slightly crouching position beside the body of Logan.
"Easy Rory, it's all over. Rory?" says Eddie.
Rory is motionless, staring wild-eyed at Eddie as if still in the heat of the fight.
"Rory?" he says again as if trying to wake Benson from his frenzied gaze. "Rory!"
Benson blinks a few times as he appears to come down from the adrenaline rush. His eyes slowly lower to the smoking Colt .45 in his hand. Many thoughts now raced thru Rory's head. It had all happened so fast. His natural survival instincts took over. His gun had once again become a mere extension of his body and mind. Everything he'd try to leave behind, it all came rushing back at once in one split second. The familiar rush of adrenaline, the feel of the trigger, the smell of gunfire, it was like an old friend come to visit. The result of his relapse was three men dead by his hand. This is what Rory Benson sought to escape from, death and guilt by his gun. In the moments that followed Rory Benson felt a different strange sensation wash over him. He begins drawing in short but deep breaths. His eyes began to water up. He was experiencing a new feeling, one that he hadn't felt in some time. He tried to remember what it was called. Then it came to him.
It was remorse.
It'd been so long since he'd felt any emotion when it came to killing another man. The realization hit him like a rushing bull and took his wind from his gut. He stood up, took in a deep breath and wiped at his eye, staring at the wetness on the tip of his finger. He looked past his hand to the bloody prone body of Brack Logan.
"Why?" he thought to himself. "Everything I've tried to accomplish here…all of it's gone now because of a gun!"
Benson throws away his pistol in disgust. He wipes his chin with the back of his hand as he stares down at Logan.
"Damn, Rory", said Eddie Horne in a hushed shocked tone as he joined Benson over Logan's corpse. "I ain't never seen nuthin' like that in all my born days."
Rory couldn't take his eyes off Logan's bloodstained body.
"Four men...you took out all four men. Damndest shootin' I ever seen! You're a regular Wild Bill Hic-."
Horne's astonishment was abruptly halted as Benson grabbed him by his collar and yanks him off his horse to the ground. Eddie stumbles for his footing abit but soon had his legs back under him, all the while in Rory's firm grasp.
"You think this is something to be proud of?" Rory shouts. Eddie is frozen with shock at the tone and anger in Benson's voice.
"Four men are dead! Dead, Eddie! They're never gonna see another sunrise. They're never gonna get to kiss their wives or girlfriends again. All they get now is a plot of land and some words spoken over 'em. We're gonna go back to town and go on with our lives but these men? They're going to their graves, Eddie, do you understand that? The damnation of the whole thing is that this didn't need to happen! But it did and I killed them! That's a helluva burden ta live with, kid, a helluva burden!"
Rory turns loose his grip on Eddie's shirt and sinks down on one knee. Eddie backs away, straightens out his shirt and speaks in a hushed voice.
"It... it needed to be done, Rory. It weren't murder. It was self-defense. Logan drew first, I seen 'im."
Rory stood up and looked at the bodies of the four dead men laying strewn about the prairie grounds.
"Guess it doesn't matter who drew first now, does it?"
In the weeks to come Rory would be vindicated of murder by the court. Sitting right in the front row as the verdict was handed down was none other than Chance Hicks. Not guilty was the judgment by the jury. Chance Hicks just glared at Benson as the words rang out in the courtroom. The townsfolk cheered and applauded at the decision. Chance Hicks just sat there and stared at Rory who returned the stare back. Both men knew there would be another encounter and because of that encounter one of them would die. Chance Hicks rose from his seat and placed his hat upon his head, never once taking his gaze from Rory's. He backed all the way down the courtroom's center aisle and out the courthouse doors into the hot afternoon sun.
Following the trial, the townspeople quickly labeled Benson a real hero based on the ever-growing story of what happened out there on the plains that day. While Rory shunned the notoriety of being a local legend, he did however enjoy the opportunities which were borne from the event. Just months after the shoot out with Verne Hicks, at the insistence of many of the townspeople, Rory ran for Town Marshal.
The town's former lawman, Marshal Joshua Picus, had ridden off in pursuit of two bank robbers, Harley Coombs and "Chicken-neck" Charro Nixx but had never returned. Rumor had it that all three were killed in a shootout near El Paso. That was over four months ago. Picus' deputy, a young headstrong kid, Johnny Gallon, handled the office in Picus' absence until the elections. At the election, the voting was a landslide in Rory's favor. Johnny Gallon accepted Rory's offer to remain on as his deputy. Sadie was never more proud of him.
One would always find Rory at barn-raisings, weddings, church suppers and helping out anyone who needed a roof fixed, a fence mended or field plowed. As the time passed Rory found that he was slowly fitting into the town's community and he was thoroughly embracing this new life. For the first time in a very long time he felt a part of something meaningful. He thought about others before thinking of himself. He had finally let go of his past life and the sins contained therein. He was finally becoming the man he'd always wanted to be.
One month later Rory was taking a prisoner up to El Paso for trial there. About five miles out of town, Rory came upon a lone horseman standing steadfast in the middle of the road. As he and his prisoner slowly rode up on him, Rory stiffened in his saddle as he recognized the man immediately.
It was Chance Hicks.
As Rory got closer he noticed something else. Chance had a rifle trained on him.
That's far enough, Benson!" hollers Hicks.
"Chance, don't do anything stupid" says Rory as he stops his horse about a hundred feet away from the armed Hicks.
"Shut up, Benson" he says with a bit of confidence. "I been waiting for the opportunity to settle our score, and today's the day Marshal"
The sarcastic tone used on the word 'marshal' gave Rory all he needed to know about how much respect Chance Hicks had for the law.
"That's right, it's Marshal now" says Rory sitting up straighter in the saddle. "This star means you better – "
Benson is cut off by the angry words of Hicks.
"That tin badge don't mean squat ta me, Benson. We ain't in town and you ain't the law out here, I am. You killed my brothers and I'm fixin' ta make it right. Get off yer horse now."
"I'm afraid I can't do that, Chance" says Rory, now leaning casually on his saddlehorn with both forearms. "Y'see I got me a prisoner here who's gotta face trial up in El Paso for murder."
Chance looks beyond Benson to the burly man on the horse. The man has a hardened look about him and just sits there chewing on a long piece of prairie grass with a slight grin on his face.
"That true?" he asks the prisoner. "You kill someone?"
The man takes his sweet time in responding.
"That's what they say" he says in a slow drawl.
"S'what they say... but what do you say?" says Hicks resting the rifle across his left forearm still sighted on Benson.
The prisoner gives a short chuckle.
"Well mister, I say... I ain't never killed nothing or nobody that didn't have it comin' to 'em."
The prisoner's head snaps back violently. He then slumps to the left and slides off the horse hitting the ground with a sickening thud.
Benson flinches at the rifle's report. He quickly regains his composure, shaking his head but keeping a steady stare on Hicks. He knew he couldn't show Hicks any fear.
"Now why'd you go and do a fool thing like that, Chance?"
"He was guilty. I just saved the town of El Paso the cost of a trial, that's all."
"You know it doesn't have to go down this way" cautions Benson.
"Oh this ain't gonna go the way it did last time, lawman. This time you're gonna be the one receivin' a funeral. First you get it and then that no good Abner Dix."
Rory knew the longer he could keep him engaged in banter the better off his chances were for a favorable outcome.
"C'mon Chance, killin' a marshal? That'll bring all kinds of law down on ya. Kill a lawman in these parts and you might as well put the noose around your neck yourself, you know that."
Chance looks from side to side very deliberately and then returns his gaze back to Benson with a sly grin.
"The only witness to this here swaree is lying there dead in the sand. No Benson, you are gonna die but it'll be legal-like. Now get off yer horse."
Rory dismounts, wary to keep a watchful eye on his assailant. Once down he takes a few steps away from his horse then stops.
"You sure this is the play you wanna make, Chance?"
"Shut up! I swear, Benson... I don't see what Sadie sees in you."
This statement caught Rory like a mule kick to the head.
"Yeah, didn't think I knew about you and her, did ya?" he said with a cocky smile. "Maybe after I'm done I'll just ride back to town and let her know what she's been missing. Y'know I almost asked her to marry me, did she tell ya that? No, I don't suppose she did. Well turns out she fancies herself some topshelf lady or somethin', too good fer the likes o' Chance Hicks. Wonder how she'd feel when I tell her that her man begged fer his life like a dog? Heh, heh, heh."
Rory's faced drained of all emotion. He now stared at Hicks with dead eyes.
"Y'see Benson, I make it a habit to know about the men who kill my kin. You? Yer a hardcase, a real piece of work, I'll give ya that."
Rory let his eyes wander to the gun trained on him.
"But you've played out yer stake Mister Rory Benson, an' now yer done. It's all over. Y'see I know about yer lil secret."
Benson's eyes rose slowly to again meet Hicks' as Chance continued his rant. Rory's index finger was tapping against the handle of his revolver now.
"I know you're not what you claim to be. I know you're –"
Rory Benson now watches stoically as Chance Hicks staggers backwards, raising his left hand to his chest. He looks at Rory, his jaw agape and his eyes wide with angry disbelief. Slowly he drops to his knees, his right index finger squeezing the trigger of his rifle, firing off a round harmlessly into the dirt. Rory continued watching as Hicks' eyes rolled upwards. Chance convulses then falls face first into the road. A cloud of dust springs up around him as he breathes his last.
Benson stands there silently, his gun at his hip pointed towards Hicks, smoke wafting from its barrel. As much as he'd hoped differently, he knew this was how it was meant to end. He'd prayed that in the previous month Hicks had reasoned that his brother's deaths were a direct result of their own foolishness and would put the whole affair behind him. Hicks' own petulance had cost the life a man whose personal safe travel was entrusted to Benson by the law. Now Chance Hicks is dead as well and Rory Benson has two more corpses to deal with.
He loaded and tied both bodies to their respective horses and headed back to town. Once again he was greeted with praise and adulation by the townspeople but it didn't change the incredible heaviness of his heart at the day's events. This was something entirely different for Rory Benson. He'd always been on the other side of the star. He'd always been the outlaw on the run, always looking over his shoulder for a man with a badge or someone looking to claim the bounty on his head. Now he was the one standing behind the badge. He was the one chasing the outlaws. He was the one... with the law on his side.
It was a new and unsettling feeling yet one that filled his heart with pride and purpose. Finally he'd found a way to atone for all that he'd done wrong in his life. This irony of being on the side of good after so long on the side of bad was not lost on Rory Benson in the least. But he liked it and he embraced it despite its sometimes distasteful side. He knew in the end he did only what he had to do and in the months to come, peace would finally settle on the troubled soul of Rory Benson.
While he was enjoying his new lease on life, he couldn't help but feel like a piece was missing. Sadie Houlihan was the only woman he'd ever spent any meaningful amount of time with. All the women in his previous life were nothing more than fleeting fancies, bordello flies flitting about his life, only to be eventually swatted away.
She had become the sun and moon in Rory Benson's world. She was the reason he woke in the morning. She was his last thought before falling asleep at night. She was his hope, his wish, his very breath that kept his heart beating. And soon, perhaps very soon, he would ask her to be at his side forever.
The midday sun glinted off the five-pointed marshal's star pinned to Rory Benson's weathered and dusty black leather vest as he stepped from his office onto the creaky wooden boardwalk outside. Although it's been many months since he took to the badge, still the job of a law officer hadn't been what he thought he'd be doing upon coming to the town. Chance and circumstance sure do make for funny bedfellows. He chuckled under his breath as he stepped down into the dusty street.
The old church bell rang out loudly signaling the 1 o'clock hour. In the southern sky, darkening clouds begin drifting in as if threatening to swallow up the sun. Within a half hour the clouds had increased and the sky began giving the appearance of a gray dusk on the town. It was as if something bad were making its way into town.
It had been almost a week since they buried Chance Hicks and life had returned to its mundane normalcy but today the winds of change seem to blow into town with something almost tangibly malicious on their current.
Rory Benson sits in the Tin Horn Saloon eating his lunch. He has kept a watchful eye on the gathering clouds outside. He casually glanced around the saloon. There were just five people in the joint on what would normally be a very busy day. There was Sadie Houlihan working the kitchen, Bill Fortin the owner, Abner Dix, the rancher Rory had worked for months before, Grady Ferns, another rancher and Jerry Norcross, sitting in the back corner playing solitaire. Rory chuckles to himself and returns his attention to his meal.
By one-forty-five he'd finished most of his meal and was just picking over the last bits of steak and potatoes. He glanced back out the large glass window. His brow creased abit with confusion. The wind was whipping wildly now. The sky was fully overcast with ominous gray clouds. The dust and sand was flying about so thick it nearly blotted out the sun.
Rory looked down the street and could barely see a block because of the sandstorm. He had seen terrible dust storms in his travels thru Utah, New Mexico and Arizona but this one seemed different. It didn't just feel different. It was different. The streets were empty now as the townsfolk hurried to shelter. Old Man Holton stumbled in, coughing and hacking, his lungs trying to expunge the dust.
"Gawdamn!" he spit out. "It's like Ol' Scratch himself stirrin' up the damned out there! Can't see a foot in front o' yer face, by jeezis! Gimme a beer fer crissakes!"
Old Man Holton was the town's oldest living resident. He'd been around so long that there's no one left that doesn't remember him always living in town. He was an affable old fellow with a keen eye and sharper wit. He spends most of his time these days helping out at the livery stable or delivering mail about the town.
Rory stared at Holton as he shook off the dust from his clothes and wiped the sand from his eyes. Rory watched the old man as he takes a seat at the bar. Although he knew Holton posed no threat, there was uneasiness in Rory that he couldn't shake as he turned his gaze back out the window.
"It's awfully dark out there. Is it a twister, you think?" Bill asked Holton.
"Damned if I know," he said slapping his hat against his leg to rid the dust off it. "It ain't like it's swirlin' around twister-like. It's more like... like it's comin' right down the street. Ptoo!" he spit out the sand from his mouth into the brass spittoon on the floor at his feet, accentuating his disdain for the event.
Rory smiled slightly at the notion. Even so, he couldn't help but feel somehow connected to the storm as if it somehow followed him or was searching for him. He laughed under his breath and shook the thought from his mind, shoveling another spoonful of beans into his mouth.
"What in tarnation...?" said Abner Dix as he glanced out the window. "What in the hell is that idiot think he's doing?"
Rory finished his meal and dropped his napkin onto his plate. He took a healthy swig of his coffee and peered out into the gathering darkness. A movement in the distance caught his eye. He stared intently trying to discern just what it was as a shape made its way slowly down the street. When it got about a block and a half away, he could make out a figure on horseback coming in from the south and heading straight up the avenue amidst the pounding sandstorm. Rory squinted hard trying to make out any details of the figure but couldn't.
'That damned fool's gonna suffocate out there' he thought to himself. The figure was set about in shadow with no discernable features or details apparent. It was as if the figure itself was made up of shadows instead of a corporeal body. The horse was of the same indiscernible detail, no recognizable features visible to the naked eye. The outlines of the entities seemed to be even more obscured thru the pelting sandstorm. Rory felt the uneasiness return to the pit of his stomach. He picked up his newspaper, folded back a page and began reading it.
"Now who do you suppose that is?" Dix queried.
"Probably some idiot too stupid ta know enough ta get outta that storm" offered Norcross from the back of the room.
"He's a dad-blamed fool if he's out in that ruckus", spits old man Holton.
The figure continued its odd procession down Main Street.
"Probably just a saddlebum looking for a grub stake, if ya ask me" Rory said in a matter-of-fact tone as he watched the figure pass in front of the window. "He certainly ain't a bright fella if he's taken to Sunday-ridin' in the middle of sandstorms."
Abruptly the stranger stopped his horse in its tracks, almost as if he'd overheard the words spoken about him by Rory. Through the large picture window Rory curiously eyeballed the figure that was now right outside the front doors. He presses the newspaper flat on the table, trying to appear disinterested by the figure's eerie presence.
Sadie Houlihan appears from the kitchen bring a plate of food for Holton who is now seated at the bar. She slides the dish in front of him while noticing that everyone's attention is centered on the front window.
"What's everyone looking at?" she says with her usual vivacious smile.
"Some fella just marching on his horse down Main Street in the middle of a dust devil like it was some foolish parade" says Grady with a crooked grin.
'Dust... devil" Rory thought. The term seemed to bother him for some reason.
"What's he doing now?" Sadie said curiously as she walked over and stood beside Rory who was still seated at his table by the window.
"He just stopped right there in the middle of the street" Abner said staring out the window on the other side of the front doors. "What in the hell...?"
"He's just sitting there in the middle of that windstorm?" Sadie said with concern in her voice.
Rory couldn't resist the urge to get a better look this figure. He stood up and peered thru the window at the figure. He was joined by Bill Fortin, both now gawking at the stranger thru the window.
"Land sakes, someone's better get that fella in outta that storm" Sadie said in obvious contempt for the rest of the group watching. She drew up her apron to cover her mouth and nose and opened the door.
"Sadie! You don't know who that is! He could be trouble!" cautioned Bill Fortin.
Sadie looked back at the gathered group peering out the windows with a look of disappointment.
"Sadie!" yelled Rory his voice in a commanding tone. He suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of dread.
"He's probably just some poor soul who's lost his way in that frightful storm. He may even be hurt for all we know", she said as she disappeared thru the door.
Rory now took a stance of concern as he intently watched Sadie walk to the edge of the boardwalk and then out into the street towards the mysterious figure.
"Can't make him out too well from here," Dix said as he made his way to the front doors.
Against the pelting sandstorm, Sadie struggled to look up at the mounted figure against the storm's stinging rage. She paused, as if listening to the stranger. The figure never even seemed to move while Sadie talked. He just sat there, still as death itself. Sadie seemed to shake her head and then quickly turned back running towards the saloon.
"Well let's see what he had to say," he said as he opened the door for Sadie. She came rushing thru the door, coughing and shaking the sand out of her light red hair.
"Well Sadie... what'd he say?" asked Grady impatiently.
Rory returned his gaze back out the window into the darkness of the storm, still trying to make out any distinguishable characteristics. He tried not to let his imagination run wild with thoughts of some former enemy coming here to track him down and kill him for past wrongs.
'No!' he thought snapping his stare from the dark figure to Sadie. 'Nobody knows who I am. Nobody even saw me head outta San Martin that night. I'm sure of it.'
The group gathered around Sadie, anxious and more than a bit nervous.
"Well? What'd he say?" asked Holton.
"What does he want? Why's he here?" interjected Norcross.
"Sadie? Sadie, you okay woman?" Bill asked.
Sadie kept her head down, trying to catch her breath.
"Well Sadie?" asked Benson. He stared intently at her as she raised her head slowly. She lifted her eyes directly to Benson's stare. She had a pained expression on her face as she answered.
"I asked him what he wanted. He answered just… just a name." she stammered nervously.
"A name... what name? Who's name?" Benson demanded.
Sadie swallowed hard, her eyes watering up now.
"Your name Rory" She said with worry in her voice.
Rory felt as if he'd been kicked in the gut by a mule. He'd always dreaded this day since taking up roots here. He'd come to fear that day when someone from his past would finally catch up to him. He'd tried hard over the last few months to live the life he'd dreamed of and leave his past out in the unforgiving sands of the Texas deserts.
"Rory? Rory!" Sadie yells.
Her shout snaps Benson back to reality. He looks at Sadie with a stern stare.
"You sure he said my name?" Benson inquired intently, searching her eyes for any signs of uncertainty.
She nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes.
"Did you get a good look at him… his face… anything?" he asked already knowing the answer.
"I couldn't see his face, just…" Sadie brought a trembling hand to her mouth.
Rory stared at her with clear impatience.
"Just what?" he demanded.
"Just his…eyes. His awful eyes..."
"His eyes?" asked Rory tilting his head in confusion.
"It was like he could stare a hole right thru me. There's something not right about him! There's something very wrong, very…evil."
Rory Benson looked back out the saloon's large window. He squinted as his gaze fixed on the stranger in the driving dust storm. Through the darkened squall he could faintly see the figure's head. The stranger slowly turned his head as if looking directly at Benson. He drew in a sudden breath as his blood ran cold. Suddenly his heart quickened its beating and he felt weak behind the knees.
"Who is he, Rory?" asks Sadie, a look of horrified worry on her face.
Benson gradually returned to his table and slowly dumped himself into his chair. His face was gaunt and pale.
"You alright, Rory?" says Abner Dix. "You look like you've see a ghost!"
Rory sat silent. He stared down at the table. Sadie's voice broke his concentration.
"Rory!" shouted Sadie abruptly bringing Rory's attention back to the room.
"Wha..?" Rory says in a groggily manner.
"Who is he?" demands Sadie.
"I-I don't know?" he replies nervously.
"Bullpucky!" bellows Holton in an angry tone. "This here fella rides thru a gawdamn sandstorm, stops outside the very building you're in, says he's lookin' for you and you say you don't know the man? I ain't buyin' it, Benson!"
"Stop it!" Sadie shouts at Holton. Holton retreats back to his meal shaking his head as he
"Aw c'mon, Sadie," Bill Fortin says turning to Sadie. "You've gotta admit it sure seems
mighty funny that this fella comes all the way out here huntin' Rory and Rory claims he doesn't know him? Somethin's fishy right there an' everyone here knows it."
All eyes now fall on Benson. He rubs his stubbled chin in contemplation, ignorant of the group now slowly gathering around him.
"Maybe he's an old friend?" adds Jerry with a nervous smile. "Maybe he's an old family member come lookin' up his kin, eh?"
The group hems and haws over these ideas. Benson himself breaks up the buzzing conversations.
"He ain't a friend or kin to me", Rory says with conviction. All eyes return to Rory as he stands up from his chair.
"Hey look, you're all getting uppity over nothing." says Jerry Norcross now getting up from his table. "I'm gonna go see what this fella's about. You're all makin' a fuss about nothing. You'll see."
"Jerry, don't…!" shouts Sadie. "Rory don't let him..!"
Rory watches warily as Norcross looks him straight in the eye and then disappears thru the doors and into the storm. Through the window Jerry can be seen approaching the man. The seconds seem like hours as they all watch Jerry trying to converse with the mysterious figure.
'Who could it be? What does he want with me?' Rory ponders in his mind. His thoughts are interrupted as Jerry stumbles thru the door back into the saloon.
"Pfah!" he says spitting out the dust from his mouth. "Well that wasn't any fun."
"Well? Who is he? Did you see his face? What'd he say?" asked Dix.
"I couldn't see his face; he's got it covered with a black kerchief 'cept for his eyes. All I could see was the whites of his eyes. Weird…" Jerry says shaking his head slightly in disbelief.
Rory remained standing, staring out the window at the darkened figure sitting calmly upon his horse amidst the raging sands.
"Did he say anything?" asked Holton.
"Hey Rory… you ever been to a town called San Martin?" asks Jerry.
The name sends an electric jolt down Benson's spine. He reacts with the quickness honed from his former profession.
"What did you say?" Benson said in a calm but demanding fashion.
"Well all he said was that I should ask you if you remembered San Martin. That's all he said. Got a bad feelin' 'bout this fella, somethin' ain't right with him." says Jerry with a concerned look.
The name hits Benson like a lightning bolt streaking thru his mind. Sudden flashes of memories explode in his mind with images of a long forgotten night.
FLASH! – A young woman in his arms. They are making love. Her lips are warm. Her
embrace is intoxicating.
FLASH! – The bedroom door is kicked open. A silhouetted man stands in the doorway, the light of the hallway behind him. There's a glint of metal in his right hand as he raises it from his hip.
FLASH! – The woman screams. Rory rolls out of the bed to the floor.
FLASH! – A gunshot. Rory finds his own gun and draws it.
FLASH! – Another gunshot. The man falls to his knees, then face first to the floor.
FLASH! – Rory stands over the dead man. He turns to the woman still in the bed.
FLASH! – She is staring in horror at Rory. Rory's eyes lower from hers.
FLASH! – There is blood on her chest. Rory screams…
"NO!" Rory screams, his lungs seemingly ready to burst.
"You don't?" asks Jerry with a puzzled look on his face,"Okay, okay so you don't. That's fine, Rory"
Rory blinks hard as if trying to wake from a sleep.
"What…what Jerry?" he asks.
"I said its fine if you don't know anything about San Martin?" he asked again.
"I...I'm sorry, Jerry. I didn't mean to snap at you…" Rory stammers.
"Look, Rory, if you say you don't know this fella or this… this San Martin place, fine. I'll believe you. But for whatever reason this guy says he knows you. You need to straighten this out." says Bill Fortin. "I don't need the likes of him scarin' off my customers, you understand?
Rory draws in a deep breath.
"Y'know, I think I better get back to the stables. This storm's probably spookin' them horses somethin' fierce", says Grady Ferns. He grabs his hat from its wallhanger and pulls his collar up tight around his neck. "I'll stop by the jail and send Johnny up here just in case you need a hand with this fella, Rory."
Grady's eyes meet Rory's and the marshal nods slightly. Grady smiles, makes his way to the front door and disappears thru it.
Two gun reports break the eerie silence of the saloon as they all watch the door. Seconds later Grady stumbles thru the door, falling face first to the floor with a resounding thud.
"What the hell…?" roars Holton from the bar. "Grady! Grady you okay?"
Sadie rushes to his side and rolls Grady over onto his back.
"Are you hurt? We heard shots…!" says Abner Dix rushing to Grady's side.
"I'm… I'm…" he stutters in a hoarse tone. "I'm okay, I'm okay. He musta missed me in the storm an' all."
Rory looks at Grady then out the window at the mysterious rider with a burning glare.
"I knew it!" says Holton. "He knew I was fixin' ta get Johnny! That desperado ain't gonna let anyone leave until he gets what he came for an' that's you, Rory, so what're ya gonna do?"
Rory shifts his gaze sharply to meet that of Holton's. He grits his teeth because he knows what is about to happen. It's a play he's acted out many times before. He can sense the shift in the group's sensibilities and loyalties. First they were on his side. Now they just want to feed him to the lions. It's coming. It's the predictable perfidy, the quick and easy betrayal from people who just moments ago called him friend. His heart beats so fast that he fears it might burst out of his chest. His jaw aches and his throat is dry. There's a sickness souring in his belly. Yes, he knows its coming and he doesn't have to wait long.
"Yes, what are you gonna do, Rory?" asks Norcross in a cold tone.
"Yeah, Rory, this fella's got it out for you. Now I don't plan on eatin' lead on account of some disagreement 'tween you an' him. You know I'm your friend. Hell, you saved my bacon back a month ago when Hicks was gunnin' for me with them rustlin' my cattle…but Rory…this... this ain't right. You gotta make it right, whatever it is... you gotta make it right." said Abner Dix.
"What's wrong with you people?", says Sadie in a horrified pitch. "What do you want him to do? Just give himself up to that... that man?" asked Sadie. "That man may want to kill him!"
"We don't know that for sure, Sadie", says Norcross in a condescending manner.
"He tried killed Grady, Jerry and all he wanted to do was to leave the saloon!" she shot back.
Meanwhile Rory sat there staring out into the darkness at the stranger. Sweat began to form on his brow as he tried to come up with an answer to just who this mysterious rider was.
"Rory!" screams Sadie, her panicked voice startling him back to the moment.
"Alright!" he shouts back at her. "Alright, I'll... see what he wants."
Rory grabs his hat and cinches it down snuggly on his head. As he made his way toward the door, his eyes meet Sadie's. No words needed to be said but she did anyway.
"Be careful, Rory" she says.
He pauses at the door before exiting thru it to the boardwalk. The wind whips and swirls around him. He attempts to shield his eyes from the stinging sandstorm as he slowly walks toward the edge of the boardwalk. He sees the black figure sitting calmly upon his steed. He appears to be watching Benson's approach. Benson stops and hollers out to the stranger over the wind's howl.
"I'm Rory Benson! What do you want?"
There was a eerie silence from the stranger. He shifts in his saddle, drawing his sixgun from its holster and laying it across his saddle horn. It seemed to shine in the swirling darkness. Then he spoke.
"Blaaack Creeeek.", he said in a voice harsh and sharp enough to cut thru the whistling wind.
"What?" asked Rory as if he hadn't heard what the man said. But Rory did hear him, plain as day and another series of horrific and tragic memories flashed thru his mind. Rory tried to clear his mind when the stranger spoke again.
The name reverberated through his brain. Rory places his hands either side of his head in pain. The man speaks yet again with a perfect clarity to his menacing voice now.
Each town's name slams into Rory's head with a rush of malevolent memories. The stranger keeps reciting the names like a judge listing off charges against a condemned man.
"No…" Rory says thru gritted teeth.
"No!" Rory shouts in a louder tone still drowned out by the howling wind.
"NOOOOOOOOO!" screams Rory as he staggers backwards towards the saloon doors.
The stranger turns his steed slightly, now facing Benson. The stranger levels his sixgun at Rory. The lawman's eyes are now wide with terror. The stranger speaks only one more name…
Flame shoots from the barrel of the stranger's pistol. Rory clutches his chest and falls backwards thru the saloon doors and onto the floor inside.
"Rory!" shrieks Sadie as she runs to his side.
"I'm hit! I'm hit! I'm..." Rory yells as he grabs at his chest, searching for a wound but finding... "...nothing. I'm fine. I'm okay. I'm fine."
Old Man Holton spoke the words everyone else was thinking.
"What the hell did he want?"
Rory collected himself and wiped the sweat from his forehead. His mind raced as the stranger's words kept hammering thru his thoughts. The names were those of towns, towns which Rory Benson knew all too well. They were towns where he had left his bloody trademark and tragedy in his wake. He's brought back to reality by Bill Fortin's concerned voice.
"Rory, you look white as a ghost. What did he say to you?" he inquired.
Rory draws in a deep breath as he stared at the doorway. He slowly gets to his feet and straightens himself out.
"Benson, what in the blue blazes did he – "
Holton doesn't get to finish his sentence before Rory abruptly cuts him off.
"He didn't!" Rory spit the words out like poison. "He didn't... say anything."
"He musta said something cuz we could hear you talking back to him" Holton shot back. "What the hell did he say, Rory?"
"He didn't say a damned thing, Holton!" Rory shot back, quickly turning to face the old man with a look of forceful conviction. "He just... sat there, staring at me."
"Did you recognize him?" asks Sadie.
He thought hard about the stranger's face but all he could make out was his eyes. Those eyes seemed to stare straight into his troubled soul.
"No... his face was... hidden, a kerchief over it or something." He replied staring out the window again.
"So he didn't say anything, nothing at all?" asks Dix.
"Nothing" answered Rory, remembering just how easy it was to lie to people. "He didn't say a – "
He is interrupted by that same deep baritone voice.
All eyes immediately fixate on the figure outside.
Grady, his eyes wide with dread, cocks his head trying to hear.
"I heard it too." Sadie says.
"Did he just... speak?" added Norcross.
"He sure did!" says Dix excitedly.
"What? You all must be daft" says Rory trying more so to convince himself than the others. "How could anyone hear a thing 'specially with all that wind making such an awful racket out there."
"No sirree, I heard him myself that time, Rory" says Holton licking the foam from his moustache. "He's yappin' alright. But what in Sam Hill is he yappin' about is the question"
The voice spoke again.
"I heard him that time for sure!" says Bill Fortin excitedly.
"He said 'Bob something', I think" adds Abner Dix.
"I swear you're all going loco!" says Rory. "I didn't hear a thing!"
"No, Rory," Sadie says calmly, "I heard him too. He said 'Bob Gilley'"
"Bob Gilley? Who the hell is Bob Gilley?" Rory questions the group, trying hard to hide his alarm.
"Do you know a Bob Gilley, Rory?" she asks looking Rory straight in the eye.
"Wha... no, I don't know any Bob Gilley, Sadie. I just don't see -"
The voice speaks again.
"Hey, I knew a Harley Nash!" Holton chimes in. "He was killed a quite few years back in Jenkinsville, Utah. He got himself beefed by some hired gun over some gold stake or something as I recall."
Rory turns from the group, his pulse now pounding at his temples.
"Why is he calling out those names?" Sadie asks with worry in her tone.
"It doesn't make any sense" says Norcross.
"Stop it...stop it...STOP IT!" shouts Rory at the figure thru the large window.
"Don Hart? I worked with Don here back in '72. We ran the mail 'tween here and Abilene. I heard he was killed in North Fork back in '78. He was gunned down in a shootout with some fast gun named... aw hell, what was the fella's name?" says Holton.
Beads of sweat began to form on Rory's brow. He blinked hard as if not wanting to see what was before him. The stranger's voice continued its mysterious role call.
"Hey wasn't Lonnie Mayne the name of that stagecoach driver that got bushwhacked over near Council Rock. Got shot up something awful, if I remember." says Fortin. "Never did catch the bandit either."
"That fella's name is right on the tip of my tongue, gawdammit" rattles Holton.
"What do these names mean, Rory?" asks Sadie. "Who are they? What do they have to do with us? With you?"
"I don't know, Sadie" Rory said unconvincingly.
Jerry Norcross draws in a breath.
"Pete and Deke McTavish ran the Golden Stud Saloon up in Eagle Rock", he says. "They were both murdered by a gunfighter just after I came here a few years back."
"Johnny Lash too, back in San Martin 'little more'n a year ago, if memory serves me right." adds Grady. "He caught some four-flusher with his wife and got shot up by the cheat. Wife got shot and killed too from what I heard."
"What is all this about?" asks Dix to no one in particular. "It doesn't make any sense that stranger out there just spittin' out names!"
"They're all dead, Grady, that's the thing they all have in common" says Norcross,"Rory! Like Sadie said... what do they have to do with us or more specifically with you?"
Rory took the gun from its holster on his left hip and stares down at the cold steel in his hand.
"Oh my god" says Sadie, a look of horrifying realization on her face. "Rory - !"
"The Hicks? Rory... the fellas that you... ", says Abner Dix, his face white with shock.
The stranger speaks one more name.
"Rory, we know about the Hicks and that Logan fella but all those other names... they're all dead. You killed the Hicks and Logan in that shootout but... Chance, you said you killed him in self-defense. That is the truth, isn't it, Rory?" asks Abner Dix, his face contorted in a visage of searching disbelief.
Rory looks up from his gun and straight into the eyes of Sadie.
"Oh Rory" cries Sadie, tears in her eyes now.
"What was his name...? Bob... Bobby... no, Billy... damn my cursed memory", mumbles Old Man Holton, standing in the background, oblivious to the current conversation.
"All those other names... are they all men you've killed as well?"" says Abner with uncertainty in his voice.
Rory returns the gun back to its holster. All the worry and confusion is now totally gone from his face. His face is now a visage of cold, uncaring indifference. This is a different man now standing in front of the group.
"Yes" says Rory, the word leaves his lips in a cold and measured tone. "They're all dead..."
There is a sudden and calming feeling that washes over him. He draws in a deep breath and rights his posture to a more erect stature. He feels all the stress dissipate throughout his body. His heart rate begins to slow and a very faint smile creases his lips. There was a certain familiarity with what he was now experiencing. He slowly draws the pistol from his right hip holster.
"Ah-ha! I remember now" says Holton "The killer's name was – "
"Ben McLane" interjects Rory.
Benson is now calmly standing with his eyes fixed on the revolving chamber of his gun as he slowly loads bullets from his gunbelt into the weapon.
"Yes sir, that's right, Ben McLane!" says Holton happily.
"I've heard of that name before!" says Grady Ferns, searching his memory for details. "'Black Creek' Ben McLane, that's what they called him. He was s'posed to have killed three men, a woman and a kid in a shoot out up in Black Creek, Oklahoma in '62. Somethin' to do with a card game that went south, the way I heard it" says Grady.
"That's the fella alright" fires Holton with a stern look of disapproval.
The group's attention was now focused on Grady Ferns as he continued.
"Way I heard it McLane was on a wicked winning streak when he was caught double dealin'. One of the fellas called him on it and next thing you know they're all jerkin' leather. Well the one who called him out was killed, quick as lightnin' and then McLane finished the other two before makin' his getaway. Story has it he shot his way outta town killin' a mother and her child or somethin' like th-"
"That ain't true", says Rory, standing alone by the large front window, his eyes now lowered to the floor.
"What? What do you mean?" says Sadie fearing the answer. "How do you know that?"
"That ain't the truth, I know" says Rory as Sadie covers her mouth in terror as Benson continued.
"And I know because… I was there."
A collective gasp filled the room. All eyes stared in disbelief at what they'd just heard from Rory Benson.
"But-but Rory how...?" Sadie stammered in horror.
"I know none of it happened that way because..." Rory pauses taking his solemn gaze from the dusty floor of the eatery to the groups standing behind him. He both dreaded this moment yet knew it was inevitable at the same time. He knew everything he'd worked so hard to achieve would be gone. Rory Benson was a man who was a friend, a neighbor and a respected citizen in this town and now all that would change with the next three words from his lips.
"I'm Ben McLane", he said calmly.
The group lets out a collective gasp of astonishment.
"That's right" he says in a harsh manner, "I'm Ben McLane". His eyes fell on the group, one by one as he studied their eyes, finally settling on Sadie.
"The truth is it didn't happen that way at all. I never shot any woman or child. Guess that didn't matter none to that rag of a newspaper in town or that trophy-hunting tin star, Sheriff Longbaugh. It's true enough about the poker game but it weren't me who was winnin' or double-dealin' in that game." Benson turns his gaze back out the window to the stranger who was now quietly sitting on his mount as if listening to the proceedings himself from on high. Rory continued the story.
"Their names were Fred Gaston, Jacob Simmons and Bill Tanner. Gaston owned a gambling hall in Black Creek, Oklahoma. The other two were card cheats of the highest order. All three of them were in cahoots and they'd arranged to split whatever winnings they'd steal from whatever pigeon could be buffaloed. Well I'd been losing pretty badly when I started watching the deal. As soon as I saw what they were doing I knew I had to make a play. I watched them deal underneath for three more losing hands before I called them on it. Gaston denied it and stood up to skin his gun but I was quicker and I cut him down right swift."
Sadie turns her head in disbelief as he continues.
"Simmons sat still at the table but his hands were underneath it moving around. I figured he had a pistol so I shot him in the chest before he could pull the trigger. I was right because when he fell on the table the hidden pistol he had trained on me fell to the floor. That just left Tanner. I told him not to go for his gun. I didn't want any more bloodshed. I turned to leave when Tanner, who was a real nervous twitchy type to begin with, fumbled for his gun and fired at me. There was a scream, I spun around and returned fire and beefed him where he stood."
Rory spun the chamber of his gun around and then tucked it snugly back into its holster.
"That's what really happened." he said with clear conviction in his manner and tone.
"What about the woman and child? How'd you kill them?" asks Norcross with palpable indignance in his tone.
Rory shot an angry look of disdain at him, which made him so uncomfortable as to make him shift his gaze from Benson's stare.
"I told you I ain't ever killed any woman or child! Ever! When that idiot Tanner stood up and tried to shoot me, he got all fidgety with his pistol and it went off. The bullet missed me but went thru the front wall. It hit a young boy who was just walking by the saloon on his way to catch a stage with his mother. She screamed. Instinctively I fired and killed Tanner dead on the spot. Then I rushed outside to see what happened. My heart sank to my stomach at the sight. There she was, cradling her son, soaked in his blood, kneeling there in the filth and dirt of that street."
"If you didn't do it then why'd you run?" asked Dix.
"I wasn't exactly an angel around them parts to start with, Abner. I had no friends to speak of in Black Creek either. Gaston was a well liked fella by most of the townsfolk so those factors didn't add up to a good outcome. That no-account curly wolf sheriff, Clay Longbaugh, was just looking for a reason to put me in the hoosegow on account of me stealin' time with his girl and this would've given him just the opportunity to not only get me jailed but also get me dancin' at the end of a rope. I'd be out of the picture for good. I couldn't chance a trial in such a hostile climate so I lit out for the hills. That was more'n twenty years ago and I been runnin' ever since. Well... I'm getting' older... and I'm damned sick-n-tired of runnin'. In San Martin, about a year and a half ago, I killed the husband of a woman I was ... involved with."
He shot a glance at Sadie. He could see that those words stung her deeply. He quickly returned his attention to the others.
"He would beat her but wouldn't let her leave. I tried to help her out. He caught us together one night and he came heeled for action. He shot at me in the dark and missed, but killed her. I grabbed my gun and killed him. Knowing I was neither welcomed nor safe there, I lit out of town with a posse gathering. They never saw me leave. The worst of it was the fact that..."
He paused, his eyes narrowing at the painful image in his mind.
"I just left her there to die."
He pauses again, clenching his jaw tight before shaking off the emotion and continuing his tale.
"Seems like that was all my life was about; killin' and runnin'. Town after town it was always the same. I'd try to go straight but then some hardcase would wanna make a name for himself and I'd leave the damned fool lyin' in the dust. Or I'd get in with a bad bunch and end up on a poster. Bad decisions, bad timing...it all meant a trail of bodies left behind me. I'd lost count of the faces and the names... until today."
He drew in a deep soulful breath before continuing.
"I left San Martin and while I was on the lamb, I gave considerable thought to my future and decided I'd had enough of being nothing more than a running gun. I truly wanted to start over, a new life free of my past. I knew all I needed to succeed was someplace and somebody to just give me a fair chance. So I rode into this burg to make a new life for myself. Everyone was kind and friendly here. Nobody even knew my face, but my name? Everyone sure as hell knows the name Ben McLane. I knew I couldn't ever use my name again so Rory Benson was born in the soul-searing blistering heat of Hell that is the San Toranado desert. Y'see Rory was my father's name. Benson was my mother's maiden name. Seemed fitting and felt right so I became Rory Benson and left Ben McLane to die out there in that burning, unforgiving sand."
There was a long awkward silence. Rory could feel each of them judging him. All he'd wanted was a fresh start. A chance to make amends for the sins of his past, a pardon of the soul and redemption of the spirit. But Rory Benson knew all too well how this would play out. He now pulled the six-gun from its holster on his right hip. He rolled the chamber over the back of his hand, making sure each chamber was filled with a bullet. He spun the chamber quickly and then slid the gun back into the holster.
He glanced over at Sadie.
He'd hoped that of the entire group she would be the one trusting soul who'd forgive him, stand beside him and giving him a second chance for happiness in the rest of his days on this cursed earth. Instead she sat there at the table; her eyes welled up with tears, her face a mask of horror and disbelief. No words were said. None needed to be said he reckoned. He knew how she felt, as well as all the others present. He could see it in the eyes, their faces as he looked at them, one by one. He felt his heart sink and his temper rise. He knew their verdict and damned them for it with his silent glare.
"It's okay. I know how this play ends. You all feel like you don't really know me now. Well that stranger out there? He sure seems to know me. He knows where I've been and what I've done. He's probably been following me for years and now he's followed me here. Make no mistake about it; if he's here to kill me he'll find me an unwilling soul. He probably expects the same thing of me that you all expect and that's for me to turn tail and run away again. Maybe try and outrun the shadows of my past, scurry and hide in another town with another crowd of self-righteous people who'll quote the Good Book but just can't seem to live the words. Well I want you all to know something right here and now."
Benson shifts his eyes from the group to the figure outside.
"I ain't livin' that way anymore. I ain't afraid of you knowing who I am and I ain't denying what I've done. Despite all that I'm still the man who's been to your house for supper... who's helped build your barn... who's been there when you needed a friend."
He looks into Sadie's tear-filled eyes.
"I'm still the man who would give you anything for the kind of life he'd only ever dreamed of."
Sadie shies back, turning her face away. Rory sighs in abject heartbreak. He then clears his throat, sets his jaw in a clench and tightens his gunbelt.
"Well... fine then. The plain truth is... that man out there is probably here for revenge or money or both and he won't settle for anything less. I can face that cuz I've faced death by the gun dozens of times before. But that ain't all of it. Just like every other bounty hunter or rented lawdog that's ever trailed me, if he's of a mind to, he'll kill any one of you and feel justified in doing so just to get to me."
He turns and heads toward the door. He pauses and looks back at the group and finally to Sadie. The brief sadness in Rory's eyes is gone now, replaced by steely look of determination. Now he speaks in a calm and resolute manner. It is the fashion given to a man of deliberate and deadly action.
"I can't allow that to happen," he says "So I've got a choice to make. Either I run and risk that stranger killing all of you in his hunt for revenge, just as he almost killed Grady... or..."
The group all stiffened at the paralyzing thought.
"I can walk thru these doors, face this part of my past and end this once and for all, one way or the other", he says as he cinches down his hat and opens the door. he speaks once more as he opens the door. "Hmph, guess it ain't much of a choice really. But whoever he is, he's got one helluva fight comin' to him cuz I sure as hell ain't runnin' any more."
The door shuts behind him. Sadie dashes to the window and shouts his name. The rest of the group follows her, finding a vantage point to view the grim event.
The windswept sand bit like a nipping coyote at Rory Benson's face and stinging his eyes. He walks to the edge of the boardwalk, shielding his eyes as he makes his way. He stops on the step and hollers to the stranger.
"You wanted Rory Benson, mister?" shouts Rory standing defiantly on the boardwalk. "Well here I am!"
Rory slowly descend the creaky wooden steps and makes his way along side the rider about ten feet wide from him.
"I know you know who I am!" yells Rory over the roar of the sand-swept wind.
Benson thinks he hears a discernable chuckle from the mysterious man.
"I also know you came here to kill me!"
Benson is now at eleven o'clock off the stranger's pony's nose, about twenty feet away from the stranger.
"Well stranger ...there's one other thing I know..."
Benson now stands squarely in front of the rider. He turns slightly to his left as if shielding his right side from the stranger's view.
"And that's the sooner you get down off that nag the sooner we open this ball!"
A shot rings out from the boardwalk in front of the saloon. It's Old Man Holton, his pistol raised at the figure. Behind him stand the others, guns at the ready,
Benson allows himself a brief smile before yelling at the mob.
"Get the hell back inside! This ain't your fight!"
"We're with ya, Benson! Just say the word and we'll cut this eggsuckin' dog down to size right here!" shouts Holton!
"NO! Get back inside now! This is MY fight!" growls Benson motioning the group back inside.
The group reluctantly moves back into the safe haven of the saloon. All eyes now shift to looking out the large picture window in the front. Sadie says a silent pray.
The stranger sharply turns his attention to the window, his blank stare focused on Sadie.
BLAM! A shot is fired into the air by Benson to get the stranger's attention.
"I'm over here, you yellowbellied coward! This is between you and me! Now get off that swayback and let's finish this!"
The stranger snaps his gaze back to Benson. His eyes seem to narrow. He then dismounts slowly and takes a position in front of his ebony steed. His gate and stance were oddly familiar to Benson. He somehow knew the mannerisms of the stranger as if he'd seen them before. Suddenly the rider speaks in his gravelly voice.
"It is time"
The stranger's voice speech pattern and tone is also familiar and seems to cut thru the wind like a saber. Benson stares out at his opponent trying to see his hands. Rory's own hands are at the ready, his right hand index finger again rhythmically tapping the handle of his Colt .45. He sees the stranger's eyes clearly. His stare is now focused on the stranger's right hand as it taps the handle of his own gun. A look of surprise flashes across Benson's face quickly followed by a sly grin.
"Heh, y'know... it's pretty funny. I knew there was something else I recognized about you! I think I just figured this whole deal out and I don't think you're gonna like the outcome of our little dance here!"
The stranger continues his tapping as does Benson.
"Y'see... now I know who you are too. An' I ain't scared of you anymore. You think you can come here and take away everything I've worked for, everything I've ever dreamed of in my life? Well it ain't gonna happen that way, my friend! Every time I've tried to lay down roots and make a good life you'd show up! I thought I could outsmart you. Then I thought I could outrun you. Now I realize that I was just fooling myself. I'd never be rid of you until we faced each other and settled this once and for all. Well here I am! Today is my lucky day! Today is the day Rory Benson begins to live his life for himself. Today is the day that I get rid of the one person who could destroy everything I'd ever wanted. Today is the day you die… Ben McLane!"
The stranger's eyes open wide and flash with anger. Both men draw their guns simultaneously.
A huge streak of lightning fills the sky with a flash of brilliance as the two reports ring out together in the howling wind. Sadie screams and rushes out the door and into the windswept street. She tries to cover her eyes with her hands as the sandstorm continues to swirl about. She sees a body lying in the dirt and rushes towards it.
It is Benson.
"Rory!" she screams.
Sadie drops to her knees in the dirt. She rolls him over, his Colt .45 still smoking in his hand. There is a bloodstain on his left shoulder.
"Rory!" she yells at him as if to wake the dead. "Don't you die on me! Rory!"
Rory's eyelids flutter then slowly open.
"RORY! Are you alright?" she yells.
"I'm... fine now, Sadie," he says with a smile." I'm just ... fine."
She pulls his head close to her and kisses his forehead. She then looks down the road to where the stranger had stood. Now he lay motionless, a dark lump in the dust-swept street, his horse standing there silently and motionless. She looks back at Rory.
"Is... is he dead?" she says, her voice trailing off.
The draft suddenly picks up in ferocity and Sadie covers Rory's head and face with hers. The wind swell builds to a crescendo then slowly dies back down. Sadie lifts her head and once more gazes into Rory's eyes. They both look over to see that the body in the street is now gone. The stranger's horse has vanished into the dark wind as well.
"But… how? Where did he go?" she asks him. Rory stares out at the spot where the stranger had just tried to kill him moments ago. She helps Rory get to his feet. Both stare down the street where the stranger once lay.
"Yes Sadie, he's dead," he says with a calm assurance, "He'll never bother us again. I promise."
Sadie looks up into his eyes, smiles and hugs him tightly. The wind slowly dissipates and the sands settle down. The dark clouds begin to part, leaving the couple illuminated in the warmth of the sun's golden rays. One by one the townspeople make their way outside and soon the street is bustling again with activity, most are oblivious to the peculiar event that had just taken place. She helps Rory to his feet and they shield their eyes from the sun. The couple now stands together as one.
To this day Sadie wonders if what happened on that day was somehow set forth by The Almighty Himself. For Rory Benson there was no such uncertainty. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that his soul had been reborn that day and with that knowledge a comforting peace came over his being. It was the feeling of forgiveness and freedom from a lifetime of sin and suffering.
It was a feeling Rory Benson couldn't wait to get used to.
O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~[ Epilogue ]~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O
When a man holds a mirror up to his soul what should he see? After twenty years of running gunfighter and killer Ben McLane he saw something very dark and evil. But unlike most people with stained souls he didn't try to just cover it up. He decided to walk away from it entirely and leave the dark soul named Ben McLane alone to die out in the burning sands of the El Toranado Desert and Rory Benson was born. However that dark soul wasn't ready to give up its existence without a fight and so it tracked down its would-be killer in order to face him in one final battle for the right to live. A spiritual showdown, as it were, winner takes all.
But the day his sins came calling him out, well that day was very different from those of his past. On that day the stakes were of the highest order as a troubled man would stand alone and face his personal demon with a heart full of courage and conviction. It was indeed the showdown of a lifetime, Rory Benson's lifetime.
For you see one soul rode out of the past, looking for revenge, while another soul desperately sought its salvation from a higher power for a brighter future.
And on that day judgment was delivered thru the unwavering hand and the lightning draw of an extraordinary man. It was a swift verdict which saw both participants receive exactly what they justly deserved… here at Crossroads.
O~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~[ THE END ]~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~O