Robert Harpson and I had been partners in the law twenty years when the word came down. The era was changin', they said. People had become civilized, and the age of gunsmoke and blood was over.
We were promptly thanked for our service and asked to hand over our badges and guns. I'd say Robert took the news harder than I did. He ripped the badge off, leaving a gaping hole in his brown shirt and told them to go to Hell. Far as I know, he kept his gun.
I say he took it harder because that's how it looked to everyone in the courthouse that day. I calmly handed in my badge and gun, but the truth was, it took every ounce of strength I'd earned riding endless days and hauling dead bodies across the desert to keep my hands steady.
Robert didn't wait for me. He stormed out of the courtroom, climbed on his horse, and rode off, bitterness tainted the air around him.
Civilization was coming west, they said. No need for blood drawers like ourselves anymore. The governor set up a pension for men like me, about $50 a month. I didn't really want it, but I took the checks to be polite. That's the way I'd always been raised. You may not eat what's put on your plate at supper, but you said thank you for it all the same.
I suppose Captain Levi Rogers was right. Things did change. More folks got them automobiles, fuel stations started poppin' up, and companies went to take as much oil from the ground as they could. Wasn't long before the air got to smellin' right foul. So I packed up and left.
The captain would show up now and again, asking if I knew where Robert ended up. He had pension checks to deliver. I had a hunch where Robert settled, if such a word could be used to describe the situation, but I would just shake my head all the same.
Five years went by, and I met a lovely lady who could make me feel like I was laying in the grass on a sunny day, not that I spent much time doing that sort of thing. Sally Miscunn, daughter of Reverend Clint Miscunn of the largest Baptist church in Dallas.
Never had no trouble telling men to put their hands in the air before I drew my gun, but I had trouble forming the words that afternoon at our picnic with a little bit of warm dust in the air.
"Will ya. If it's okay, will ya. What I'm trying to ask is-" and she stopped me right there. She reached into my shirt pocket, pulled out the red felt box with a little diamond ring inside and said, "Yes I will, Ralph Lanston."
I'd never experienced much joy in my career, all those years killing the dangerous people the governor said needed killed. But I reckon what I felt next was joy.
It took me until the age of 45, but I'd finally found something- rather someone that made me happy.
Sally and I settled in Texarkana, on the Arkansas side much to her daddy's dismay, and I took a job doing security work for a large bank in the area. I carried a different kind of gun at my side now, and I spent more time telling folk where the can was than holding my gun.
Nobody ever attempted to rob the Red River National Bank with me there. I guess my reputation as a killer for the law proceeded me. It made no difference to me, and Sally sure was happy I wasn't in any real danger with my job.
For the next five years, I watched my gut expand, courtesy of Sally's cookin', and my gun skills rust. I'd go out back and shoot bottles from time to time, found I couldn't hit many of them without Robert at my side, covering me. Never know if another bottle was going to come out the back door and start shooting. When I was back there in my own world, I spent more time looking around the bottles than shattering them.
My day would start with the paper and coffee, then off to the bank where I'd finish the political headlines and columns from folk who reckoned they knew how to put words down like silk.
I'd make the rounds three or four times in the morning, look at the safe, say hi to the tellers, and then it was time for lunch at 11:30.
By 12:30, I was back at my post. Few more rounds, ask President Donnovan if he needed anything moved, and then I went to do it.
At 5 p.m., I locked up the bank, escorted a few tellers to their cars, and went home to Sally.
I didn't hear much from Robert. He'd send a package from time to time. Seems he'd taken to writing about our cases, or "adventures" as his publishers called them. He was working his way from our meetup at the Fire Tortious Gulch roundup and had gotten as far as the shootout at Eagle's Perch, where we killed Slick Bobby and his gang.
This was his way of coping with the loss of his old life, by reliving it page after page. And I read everything he sent, would jot down a few notes, and then send it back, again to be polite.
As for how I coped with it all, the gunsmoke and blood my bones had soaked up through the years. . . well, I guess I just sat out on the porch at night rocking in my chair, enjoying quiet.
I never had much of that when Robert and I worked together. He was always singing about what he could see, cacti or buzzards. Jackass never knew when to shut up and let me have some solitude.
So now, at night, I'd sit out under the stars and smoke. Sally had tried to interrupt a couple times, pull me inside to listen to the radio, but she figured out pretty quick I just needed time to. . . what would be the right word? Stew? Ponder? Meditate? Ha. Good one.
Some nights I enjoyed the porch a few times. I didn't sleep much on account of those faces that would come back. The faces I'd snuffed out. Young Larry Junston or John Gray Vulture. It didn't matter that the law said I could kill them. My conscience still felt their deaths all the same.
What I did- what we did was necessary for peaceful times. And I sure watched a great number of my colleagues die in shootouts. Ned, Wilson, Buck, Ol Lewis, I could remember them all.
I guess no matter how many years I spent in peace with Sally, my brain never got over the fact they went into pine boxes, and somehow Robert and I didn't. Nagged at me somethin' awful.
It was at the captain's funeral I met his son, Corporal Levi Rogers, II. He was the spittin' image of his daddy, and he too had gone into law enforcement, one of those lawmen the state legislature deemed as still necessary in this new civilization. They were different men, not bad men, just. . . different.
"I'm sorry about your father," I told the young Levi as I shook his hand.
"Thanks for your words," he said. "Father always spoke highly of you. Said you were a rare breed he'd never encountered the likes of again."
"Your father was the rare breed. I just shot men for him, like plenty of others. Anyway, my condolences," I said, and turned to go with a quick nod.
Before I got out of earshot, he asked, "Hey, you think Mr. Harpson will show up today?"
I didn't turn back, just shook my head quietly, and left with Sally on my right arm.
Two more years went by, and I'd stopped shooting bottles entirely. But I still sat out at night. If I stayed out too long, Sally would come out and ask, "Are you doing okay tonight, honey?"
"Fine," I'd respond, toss my cigarette out into the grass, and come in for bed like she wanted.
Not a week after my fifty-third birthday, I flipped open the paper and saw a story on the third page that made me sigh so loud, Sally looked up.
The headline read "Four Escaped from Oklahoma Penitentary, Three Guards Dead."
It wasn't the spelling error that bothered me, so much as the names of those that'd escaped. Jack Houston, Red Ventison, Roy Reeves, and a big ole boy everyone just took to calling "Hound."
I was intimately familiar with them, having put them away with Robert 15 years ago. They'd been making the rounds through southern Oklahoma and north Texas, finding widows, having their way with them, then burning them in their own homes.
Ain't a word in the dictionary or the Bible to describe the kind of evil Jack Houston and his gang embody. Because of them, eleven women were dead.
I wanted to blast them to death myself, but we had some more "civilized" feds with us, when Robert and I found them. After a shootout that saw three federal men dead, the gang came out with their hands up and surrendered.
The civilized men said we'd take them alive, and I almost vomited on the spot.
"Different times," they said.
And after the gang was taken back east to a federal court where they pled how they were led astray by the Devil himself and begged mercy, some stupid judge sentenced them to life in prison instead of the chair. That was the beginning of the end for me. I wasn't sure I could work with such civilized men.
I did my best to hide the paper from Sally, but she was no fool. Through the years she'd figured out all my hiding places through the house. Seems when I didn't want her to find something, she'd work three times as hard and sniff it out. The woman had a way about her of learning things. Big ole brain under all that red hair.
I didn't have to tell her about the Jack Houston gang shootout down at the North Brand Ranch south of Elmer. She'd read Robert's book.
Something stirred in me after I read that article I hadn't felt in years, and I felt all the peace in my body drain out like a tub that sprung a leak.
Sally saw it and came out on the porch with me one night.
She usually knew not to invade my solitude, especially when there was a strong message on her mind. So she was brief, and that much I'll give her credit for.
"Don't you give no mind to it, Ralph. It ain't your business no more," she said. "Not no more."
With that, she want back into the house and left me to finish smoking. She didn't bother coming to get me for bed that night. No point trying to close my eyes. All I'd see was that shootout where I should have killed them jackals.
Days went by without news of the prison break. Jack Houston and his boys managed to give everyone the slip.
Then it happened. They'd despoiled and burned a widow in Kenton, over in the pan handle. This story made the second page of the paper and was played on the radio that night.
And over the next few months, as the stories increased, the governors of Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas figured out what I already knew. The Jack Houston gang was back to its old ways, and they weren't going to stop. This was a different time, but it was the same crime.
There was no riding south of the border or hopping on a ship and making for Tahiti. They would just keep ravishing women until someone put a few bullets in their skulls.
Over the next year, that didn't happen. They were slick. And the civilized men finally realized they simply could not capture or kill these devils of a different age.
In a civilized age, men spent more time trying to figure out why men became deranged killers instead of figuring out how to stop them. Maybe it's because there wasn't any new science to be learned in that regard. I knew what stopped them. . . me.
And on August 5, Governors Henry Johnston and Dan Moody figured it out too. It was raining that night when Corporal Levi Rogers, II pulled up into my front yard driving a red Ford Model A.
The sun had gone down an hour ago, and I was on the porch eating a piece of pie. Sally heard the engine and watched him walk up onto my front porch.
"Good evening, sir."
"If you say so," I muttered, chewing.
I didn't get out of my chair but sat there waiting for the request I knew was coming. The one I couldn't avoid.
"I've just came from the governor's mansion."
"Congratulations," I said, taking another bite of pie.
"You're wanted in the capital tomorrow morning, sir," the corporal said.
"That a fact?"
I didn't intend to dance around the bush, so I got right to it.
"What was it. . . ten years ago? When I was told men like me weren't needed anymore. These civilized times didn't require the smoke and bullets that seemed to follow wherever I went."
The corporal looked down at the ground and said nothing.
I suppose some of Robert's bitterness finally broke through my inner shell, and to his credit, the corporal just stood there on my porch and took it.
After about 20 minutes I finally stood up and put my plate on the porch railing, the blue dish sat on some chipping white paint.
I took a deep sigh and asked, "How bad is it?"
The corporal thought for a moment and said, "Bad enough I saw my father in a dream three nights ago. He told me to find you. So I pitched the idea to a superior who took it to the governors of two different states. This morning I got a phone call telling me to come find you and have you in Oklahoma City tomorrow morning at 8 a.m. sharp."
I looked up at the night sky, hidden by clouds revealed by lightning now and again. As a soft rumble of thunder echoed over the yard, I swatted a bug on my neck.
"I'll see you tomorrow morning," I said quietly and turned to go inside.
"I can drive you-"
"I'll see you tomorrow morning," I repeated and went inside, forgetting my plate outside.
When I went into the kitchen, Sally was putting some chicken into a brown sack. She wiped her hands on her apron and turned to look at me.
I suddenly found myself unable to speak, like the day I proposed to her.
"The. . . governors. They um-"
"You already know how I feel, Ralph. But I won't waste either of our time trying to change your mind. I packed you a suitcase in the living room with your hat and gun. And here's you some food for tomorrow," she said, handing me the bag.
"I'm sorry," I said.
And she smiled in a sad kind of way, looking down at the kitchen floor.
"You didn't know who I was when we met at the state fair. But I knew you, Ralph Lanston. A gunman that never met his match. I knew when I agreed to marry you this side might turn up again," Sally said.
Now it was my turn to look at the floor.
"I don't want to go," I said.
"But you have to. Them monsters are out there, killing women like me all over the place. You need to stop them," she said.
"Just say the words I need to hear before you go," she said.
I walked over and kissed her. Then I buried my face in her hair and said, "I'll be back."
"Damn right," she said and walked into the parlor, turning on the radio, probably so I wouldn't hear her cry.
I grabbed my stuff and went out to the car. It was a slow walk, felt like some old weights from the past began to pile onto my bones.
The rain had stopped when I went out.
Five hours later I was pulling into the driveway of an old shack with a tin roof outside of Poteau.
I got out and walked up to the front door. Pulling it slowly, I walked into a living room where a couple of dogs began to growl at me.
"Hush up. He's an older dog than either of you," a familiar voice said, sitting next to the wood stove.
There sat a man with a thick head of gray hair. He was wearing glasses and put on a little more weight than I had, but it was Robert, no doubt.
"You just come in unannounced, Ralph? That's how men get shot, you know?"
"Partners don't knock," I said.
His dogs came over, and one sniffed my hand.
"What are you doing here, Ralph?"
"I came to fetch my partner. Seems we're needed one last time," I said.
Robert cackled and then coughed.
"Who the Hell needs us?" he asked, wiping his nose with a rag.
"A couple of desperate governors and thousands of terrified women across the prairie, I suppose," I said.
The dogs became bored with me and went back to lay down next to the stove.
Robert put a book on the shelf next to him and stood up.
"You telling me those bastards in Oklahoma City or Austin or wherever asked for our help? Really and truly?"
"Well, they asked for my help. Now I'm here asking for yours," I said.
He laughed again and looked at a shotgun hanging over on the wall.
"What's the matter? Haven't you been itching to get back in the saddle again for the last decade? Now when I show up with that opportunity you're not interested?"
Robert looked at his books now.
"I'm not the same man I used to be, Ralph. Writing all our stories has changed me. I'm plagued with nightmares, and my left hand shakes sometimes now," he said.
"I don't sleep much, either. And your right hand was your shooting hand. Quit making excuses, grab your gun, and get in the damn car," Ralph said.
The man, who was five years older than Ralph, shook his head and sighed, kneeling to pet one of his dogs. The other quickly moved to intercept the attention and put a paw on his knee.
"You really think you need an old gun like me out there again? What use am I to you? I haven't shot a gun in years."
Silence filled the room for a moment as I thought. Then I asked Robert if he had any empty bottles. He pointed to the kitchen.
I walked into his small kitchen and grabbed four empty glass bottles, all different sizes.
"You watch me from your kitchen window."
"Just do it," I said.
Robert did as he was told, and I went out back, placing the bottles about 15 feet apart on the fence.
Then I sighed and pulled out my gun, shooting at each bottle. I only knicked one, and it fell onto the grass.
The echoes of my shots carried across the plains, and some far off dog started barking in the night. Clouds briefly parted to reveal a full moon, and I yelled for Robert to come outside.
"Seems you haven't had to use your gun much lately, either. And they expect you to take down the Jack Houston gang like this?" Robert asked.
"Go get your shotgun and come back out here," I said, reloading.
"What on earth for?"
"Just trust me," I said.
He sighed and walked back inside. His dogs remained indoors.
"You stand a little closer to me and point your gun at the house," I said.
Robert did as he was told.
I raised my gun again, and this time I shot all three of the remaining bottles.
"Can't shoot for crap alone. But if you're backing me up, like old times, I can still hit my mark." I said.
Robert nodded slowly and sighed again.
"People are dying, Robert. Some old devils have climbed out of the hole we threw them into, and we're the only ones that can fix this problem. So pack a bag and grab what you need. Hell, make a sandwich or two. I don't care. But one way or another, I need you in that car with me," I said.
As we headed back toward the house, it started to rain again.
"I'll leave a note for Roslyn to watch the dogs. How long do you think we'll be gone?"
"Until Jack Houston, Red Ventison, Roy Reeves, and Hound are dead. No being civilized this time. They die by our hands," I said.
Half an hour later, we were walking out to my car with a suitcase and a few more guns. As we climbed inside, Robert said, "Thirteen years ago, I wished every day some kind of evil or another would pop up so the men that put us out to pasture would come begging for our help. It never happened."
"And?" I asked.
"Now that it has happened, and they need a couple of old guns to kill these men, I regret my earlier wish. I'd just as soon go back inside, sit down at my typewriter, and burn some more ribbon, Ralph, than be strapping my old gun to my hip and riding off into the night on another manhunt."
I pulled out a cigarette and lit it.
"Very few men want to kill for the law, Robert. Fewer men have the stomach and talent for it. But you know well as I do men like us were put here for this reason. You don't have to like pulling that trigger, and I know you don't. But it has to be done all the same."
"I guess there's a certain truth to that," Robert said.
I inhaled and blew smoke out the cracked window.
"Villains like the Jack Houston gang are becoming fewer every year. And much as we hated them for it at the time, the men that put us out to pasture were right about civilization. World's changin'. But Jack and his men are here killing now. And we're here now. We've got a duty to stop them, and that's exactly what we're going to do."
Robert sighed and said, "Amen. You've been spending too much time with Sally's dad."
I started the car and said, "I didn't bring you along for the commentary, old man. Get out the map. Tell me how to get to Oklahoma City from here."