The bat-wing doors opened, a shaft of bright light penetrating the gloomy interior. The bartender peered through the hazy smoke, seeing enough to recognize the bully of the town; Bad Benson. He swaggered up to the bar, barely distinguishable in the dirty black shirt and jeans. His black hair matched his clothes; dirty, uncombed and unruly.
"Whiskey" His rough voice did little for him, and he cultivated it, with the misguided assumption that all bad men spoke that way. The bartender prepared his drink and slapped it down in front of him, watching it disappear down Benson's gullet in one gulp. He put the glass down and noticed a man quietly sipping his drink next to him. "Gale Hudson! The coward of the county! What d' you know?" His sneer was an insult aimed at the quiet man. "I didn't think you'd dare show your face in town again after you backed down last time. We don't want cowards here, get out!" The big oaf leaned down to whisper, "You're wife sure is pretty though." He chuckled and walked out the door, leaving the grey-eyed man glaring after him.
Hudson threw back his drink and followed Benson out the door. The bartender watched what he was sure was a dead man walking and shook his head, "Another foolish man, not very brave, but foolish." He turned back to polishing glasses; it was no affair of his.
Gale looked around but didn't see the black-haired bastard and strode over to the general store. "Give me a shotgun."
The grocer looked up, recognizing Gale's voice. "You sure, Gale? Too many varmints might take it to mean war."
"Good, you can spread the word as just that, but make sure Benson finds out first. Now give, the best you've got."
The sun was slipping down when Gale finished loading his monthly supplies into the wagon; it had taken him longer than usual as he had been sure to keep a watchful eye out for anyone riding out of town. In the past he had always made sure to leave town by a different route every time he came, but that wouldn't keep his family unknown forever and apparently Benson had followed him. Why?
"Hey! You skippin' town again Hudson? Yellow-belly. One word from Benson and you run with your tail between your legs. Don't come back to town, Hudson. We don't want no cowards here." The shouted words came from a dusty rancher loafing outside the restaurant and were echoed by the agreeing nods from the crowd surrounding him.
"Is that it then? You would join on his side simply because I didn't show up when he challenged me? Is that it? Do you wanna know why I didn't come? My leg was broken. Durned horse rolled on me. Coward! Ha! If you condemn a man so quickly then I won't come back." He turned his back to them and tied the last rope then picked up his brand-new shotgun and loaded it. The crowd behind him took a step back as he turned to them, the anger in his eyes all too apparent. "In the meantime, I got some huntin' to do." Not many heard the whispered words, but his intent was clear as he stepped up to the alley and disappeared in its dark depths.
The shadows were deep, but the fear was thicker; he had never gone hunting a man before and was unsure where to start. Think like Benson. The bully would most likely come hunting him once it was known Gale wanted a fight, but that was the very thing Gale didn't want; if Benson got to him first he would undoubtedly have a crowd with him, which would give Gale no chance. He would have to catch Benson by surprise.
Where would Benson be? The answer was obvious given the way he had looked just that morning; hung-over. The bartender had known what to give him and had not looked too surprised to see him in the saloon that early in the day, which said that Benson was a regular, and was likely at the Red Brick, the only saloon in town.
Heading toward the house of sin he leveled the shotgun, but then stopped, thinking. If Benson was inside it was probable that his mob would be as well. It might be better to just wait until Benson came out; he might be alone or with just one person. Gale settled down in an alley with a good view of the saloon doors.
The night shadows grew long as he waited, but at last the doors opened and a drunk stumbled into the dirt. "Get up." A prod from the shotgun got him motivated, in the form of a head-long lunge into the alley. A drunken Benson was not a good sight to see and he lived up to the name the town had given him by turning and fighting, regardless of the loaded shotgun pointed at him. That was the one thing few men would do; most knew or had seen what a shotgun could do. Gale punched back, the hit only succeeding because Benson was drunk. It flung him back and he seemed to come to his senses. Apparently he saw the gun because he turned tail and ran.
Gale smiled a grim smile; who was the hunter now? The chase was on. Gale deliberately herded Benson into the middle of the 'bad' part of the small town; they would be less likely to be interrupted there.
Cornered in a dead-and street Benson had nowhere to run, no one to hide behind. This was the test; it showed if you were yellow to the bone or red with courage; would he fight or run? The black-haired man found the answer to the question he sought, he tried to fight, but never lived to learn from his mistake; the earth soaked up his blood as he lay there.
"I'm sorry, but you would have killed her if I hadn't gotten you first." The grey-eyed man murmured without too much regret, standing over the snake.
The dead man watched with sightless eyes as his killer walked away.
"He laid for him with a shotgun. Murder, I tell you! Murder!" It was the same rancher who had warned Gale Hudson out of town the day before. "And now the chicken ran to who knows where. He probably won't come back so yer just lost yer chance fer a hangin'."
The morning light illuminated the corpse, now cold and bloodless. It lit up its surroundings, making a man noticeable, a dark-haired, lean-muscled man. Sam Benson nudged the body with a boot, turning it over on its back and revealing an ugly wound. Dried blood was smeared on the body and the dirt beneath. "How long ago do you figger? When about did he die?" Sam didn't bother to look up, but crouched instead, inspecting the body at a closer angle.
"We heard some shots at about two, but figgered it for some cowhand with too much to drink. Now that I think about it, it sounded a lot like a shotgun."
"How many shots?"
"It must have been about three. Why?" The rancher crouched down beside Sam, trying to see what had him asking questions.
"His gun's not in his holster and he was only shot once." Sam straightened and sighed. "He got a fair chance if he got his gun out."
"But being again' a shotgun is hardly fair. Why, that pilgrim hardly had to know how to squeeze the trigger to kill Benson, and besides, he's yer brother. You ain't a gonna let him die without avenging him, are yer?"
"I don't know if he was worth it. He was the bully of the town and not worth his salt, but I suppose he was my brother….." Sam turned and walked away. "Make arraignments to fer burial. He should have a marker, but on boot hill. He died with his boots on."
That night was a restless one for Sam; is brother's killer had disappeared from of the face of the earth and that wasn't helping his bad temper. He was starting to think that his brother had been murdered after all. Why else would Hudson run? Why else would he have bought a shotgun to do the job? He drowned his heavy thoughts in his beer, glaring at the empty glass as if it had done him wrong.
"They say you're looking for Hudson." The bartender's voice was low and aimed at Sam.
"You know where he is?" His bleary, red-rimmed eyes lifted from the glass to stare at the man. "Why didn't you tell me before?"
"Figgered you had him, but I suppose you don't. You wanna know where he is?"
"Course I do! No. Don't tell me now; I can't get on a horse in this condition. Tell me in the morning." He pushed off from the table and made his way to the door with a weaving gait.
The next morning found Sam with a pounding headache and on a fast horse north. It would take him until tomorrow to find him if the bartender's information was correct; 30 miles due north.
The night was alive with the music of the west, the singing of crickets, the howling of wolves and an occasional owl hooting as Sam Benson sped through the night on his piebald* pinto.
He stopped at the edge of a forest, the dark masses looming over him, like black giants, their shadows reaching to the sky with long black fingers. The horse snorted, restless, and he placed a reassuring hand on its neck before stooping to drive in the stake. The horse would be able to graze for a hundred feet in any direction and wouldn't starve if he didn't return right away. He turned and slipped into the forest after putting on some moccasins, blending in perfectly with the darkness in his black clothes.
The night was dark with shadows as he slipped into the trees. He carried a rifle on his back and a six-shooter bumped against his thigh. He didn't run, he didn't walk, but glided through the leafy shadows, never disturbing too much, not making a sound. Death rode on this shoulder, never far from him, just waiting….. He was gone! The night had swallowed him as if he had never been.
The same shadow made his way north, always north, pausing only to listen to the night sounds. A twig snapped and he swung against a tree, eyes darting, searching for imaginary foes. He cursed under his breath, why was he scared, the man was a coward to go after a man with a shotgun and then run. He was most likely hiding in a rabbit hole somewhere, cowering at every rustle. Kill his brother, would he? The murderer deserved to die.
His resolve renewed, he moved on. He moved with purpose, as one who knew where he was going, and he knew, he knew.
The solitary cabin in the clearing was awash with moonlight. A more peaceful scene he couldn't imagine. "Hudson." He shouted, his deep voice shattering the stillness. "Come out you coward, you murderer."
"No. You'll not give me a chance." The muffled voice came from the hut.
"How much chance did my brother have? Think on that you dog." He spat into the grass, showing his contempt for any watching. "Come out now or I'll burn your house around your ears. It should make a pretty fire." He mocked.
"I'm coming, don't burn it down!" The door opened and closed again, leaving Hudson standing in front of the door.
Sam Benson swung his rifle into his hands and shot the coward at a hundred paces before he could step out of the way. He walked over, noting with satisfaction that he had been shot through the thigh, exactly where he had aimed. Sam nudged Hudson with the rifle then swung it unto his back and palmed his six-shooter. The murderer didn't deserve the chance he would give any other man.
"Kill me if you will, but not where my children can see."
Sam cursed, he thought back to his baby sister, and knew he couldn't just kill this man or it would haunt him every time he looked at the little girl. Unless he was lying… no, Gale Hudson might be a coward, but he was no liar. "Why did you kill my brother, why? Answer me that, coward!"
"He wanted my wife." The words were spoken quietly, with no plea for mercy and no fear, just a fact.
He cursed again; he had ridden all this way, shot an innocent man and threatened his family all because his no-good brother wanted a woman who was spoken for? Curse him in his grave.
"Come on, get up." He holstered his gun and held out his hand, helping Hudson up. "You should get that wound looked at, it could fester." Sam helped him into the cabin, not bothering to knock as he walked past the frightened children and a wife. He dumped Gale on the bed and turned to look into the most intense green eyes he had ever seen. They were covered over with clouds of concern and looking over his shoulder.
"What did you do to him?"
Anger and fear colored her voice and he felt a pang of shame. "He killed my brother. An eye for an eye, but since my brother was no good I'll let him off with that."
She looked up, disbelieving.
"All right; I couldn't kill someone with a family, not if he wasn't coming after me."
"Thank you." She reached up and kissed his cheek. "Thank you."
His eyes widened, "No, ma'am, thank you." He smiled and ducked out the door but returned a moment later, "Oh, tell your husband he can still come into town; as far as I'm concerned there's no bad feeling between us, but if he wants to make something of it he shouldn't come."
"He's my father; mother's outside, covering you with a rifle."
It took a few moments for the frosty night air to cool his blush.