Community Service - the Prequel
Chapter 1

Copyright© 2017 by The Blind Man

Benjamin Hart sat in the Irish Rose and waited. He was waiting for a woman to show up and join him. Her name was Maria Cortez and at best Ben could only call her an acquaintance. She certainly wasn’t a friend, and while they’d had sex together – more than once – they weren’t lovers. In truth, Ben barely knew Maria. They had met roughly a month ago under unusual circumstances. They’d come together for a brief time and then they’d gone their separate ways. Ben hadn’t expected to hear from the woman ever again. When she had called, asking for this meeting, Ben had been taken by surprise. He had agreed to the meeting out of curiosity and he’d suggested his favourite drinking spot as the venue of choice, so he’d be on familiar ground. Now that he was sitting there and waiting, Ben wondered whether the woman would show up. According to his wrist chronometer she was late. While Ben waited he had a drink.

Ben’s drink was a nice, ice-cold pint of synthetic ale. It was called a ‘Roan Hart’ and it was one of the pub’s ‘house’ specials. It was also Ben’s favourite drink. The ale had great colour and it didn’t weigh on you if you had more than one, plus it had a nice clean after taste that left Ben satisfied and refreshed after imbibing one. It also gave him a nice little buzz, which in the year 2345 was something you couldn’t say about most drinks. Getting drunk was against the law.

Thinking about the law forced Ben to reflect upon Maria and his relationship with her. Technically, Maria was an officer of the law. She worked for the Court of Community Service at their New York detention centre. In reality, she was merely a technician whose primary job was to prepare detainees of the Court for their periods of service; but she did wear a badge and she did carry a stun baton with her when she was on duty. To Ben that made her a cop. Of course, thinking about Maria the cop made Ben remember just how they had met, that very first time.

Ben had gotten himself arrested. It wasn’t something that you wanted to do in 2345. The law was not very forgiving, even at the best of times. A minor infraction could see a person spending a large part of their life serving out their time in jail as an indentured slave. It wasn’t something to look forward to at all. In fact, all felony charges carried a minimum two year period of indentured servitude and for those charged with a felony offence, that servitude was usually served working for one of the major off world mining corporations. If a person was found guilty of a felony offence they’d be packed up and shipped out to the asteroid belt to work. Normally such a sentence amounted to little more than a death sentence which meant that in 2345 any sane person did their best not to get arrested. However, Ben hadn’t been most people. He’d gotten himself arrested on purpose.

That had been the scariest thing that Ben had ever done in his life. Normally he avoided trouble if he could help it. In fact Ben was a model citizen. He got up in the morning and went to work. He did his job without griping, and he attended all the expected extracurricular activities that society expected of him. He’d been a good boy for all of his short twenty-five years of life, and he’d have kept being a good boy if it hadn’t been for Aaron.

Aaron Szule was Ben’s best friend. They’d met back when Ben had been eighteen and he was doing his two years of compulsory military service. Aaron had been in Ben’s training troop, and they had gone through basic training and advance training together. Afterwards they had both served together in the same National Guard detachment and when their period of service had been up, they had both enrolled in the same technical trade school. In a manner of speaking, the two young men had become inseparable. They’d even ended up getting hired by the same corporation after trade school. Aaron had become a shipping clerk in the corporation’s distribution centre, while Ben had become a systems monitor in the manufacturing division. That meant that Ben stood around all day watching robotic assembly units manufacturing washing machines for sale overseas. It wasn’t exciting work, but it did keep Ben off the streets.

What changed, and in a manner of speaking, what put Ben on a road that would eventually see him breaking the law and getting himself arrested and charged, was the fact that his friend, Aaron, had disappeared one day, which in 2345 was something that just didn’t happen; not unless that person had either died or they’d been arrested.

Ben had done his best to find out what had happened to Aaron, which in truth had been an unexpected move on Ben’s part. As with people staying clear of the law if they could help it, people also avoided asking unnecessary questions. His inquiries had resulted in people looking at him strangely, and more importantly, people waning him off. Ben had asked questions at Aaron’s apartment building and he’d called a couple of Aaron’s relatives, whom Ben had met once or twice before. He’d even made enquires at work, through Aaron’s supervisor. The message he was given in reply had been blunt. Stop asking questions and forget about your friend.

In the end Ben had done that. There hadn’t been anything else for him to do. He’d even started not thinking about Aaron as often as he had in the beginning, as the weeks had turned into months, and as Ben had continued with his life. Then it had happened. Aaron had returned and after that Ben’s life was never the same again.

“Would you like another drink, sir,” the robot waiter asked courteously of Ben, rousing him from his thoughts and memories, “or perhaps you would like to order something to eat.”

Ben looked up at the robot for a moment, startled for a second or two, and then looked down at the glass that he was holding in his cupped hands. The glass was empty which disturbed Ben. Frowning Ben glanced at his chronometer and noted the time. Maria was definitely late. Silently he wondered where she was, and reflexively he glanced towards the entrance to the pub, staring at it for another second or two before he turned his gaze back towards the waiting robot.

“Yes,” Ben muttered in acknowledgement, “I’ll have another of the same.”

Ben sat there while the robot waiter rolled off to fetch his order. He watched the machine go and then he turned his mind back to Aaron and his reappearance. It had happened here in this very same pub, a couple of months ago.

Ben had been at the Irish Rose having a drink and eating some finger foods. He’d just gotten out of work and was getting ready to head out for the evening to spend it at the local ‘virtual reality’ complex. Ben had been planning to play his favourite game, Gunslinger, and he’d simply stopped in to fuel up before heading out. He’d never gotten there that night.

That night, over several drinks, Aaron had spun Ben a tale that marvelled him, and that had left Ben with questions that just couldn’t be answered. At first Aaron had just told Ben that he’d been out of town, on an impromptu vacation, but Ben knew that was a lie and he’d told Aaron so, straight to his face. He’d ended up telling Aaron that he’d asked about him, and what Aaron’s supervisor had said to him. Ben had demanded the truth, and eventually Aaron had told Ben, warning him before proceeding that Ben would never believe a word of it. Aaron had been wrong about that.

Aaron admitted to Ben that he’d been arrested. Aaron had known a guy upstate who produced moonshine. He’d visited him from time to time over the years to sample his goods. It was a weakness and Aaron knew it, but he couldn’t help himself. On the last occasion that he’d visited his buddy, the man’s place had been raided by the law. Once the dust had settled, Aaron had found himself arrested and charged with felony possession of an illegal substance, felony intoxication, and disturbing the peace while under the influence of an illegal substance. According to his court appointed lawyer at the time, Aaron was facing a minimum of two years of hard labour as an indentured slave to some mining corporation based on Ceres. It hadn’t been good news and for a moment Aaron had actually contemplated killing himself. Fortunately for Aaron, his court appointed lawyer hadn’t been a dickhead. Instead of saying ‘next’ and moving on to the next client on his list of people he had to help process through the system, the lawyer had offered Aaron a deal.

The deal was to plead guilty to all charges and for Aaron to then place himself at the mercy of the court, offering to do service with the Court of Community Service in lieu of serving hard time. Aaron had willingly accepted the deal. He’d never heard of the Court of Community Service before and at that moment, it hadn’t mattered to him. After all, as far as Aaron was concerned, spending two years scrubbing toilets and handing out food at soup kitchens was better than spending two years in space mining ore from an asteroid, and a hell of a lot safer.

What Aaron hadn’t known at the time was that the Court of Community Service didn’t handle the poor slobs who ended up cleaning toilets for months at a time, or the people who stood handing out food at soup kitchens about the nation. The Court of Community Service was actually an obscure branch of the federal Department of Justice, and they were responsible for sending felons back in time, to help people out in the past.

While Aaron’s story was astonishing and in many ways unbelievable, Ben had to acknowledge that some of it could easily be true. In 2345 everyone knew that the government had access to time travel technology, so the thought of a government bureau or agency making use of it wasn’t that incredible. The technology had actually been around for at least a hundred years if not more. What was incredible was the suggestion that a government agency had sent people back in time. It just wasn’t done. What was done, or so everyone had been told over the years, was that drones and robots were sent back in time to observe and record and definitely not to interact. Humans just didn’t go back in time. It was too dangerous to allow; yet Aaron swore it had happened to him.

For whatever reason, Ben had believed his friend. In fact, Ben had plied Aaron with synthetic ale over the course of the evening in the hopes of learning everything Aaron had to say about what had happened to him. While the synthetic ale didn’t get Aaron drunk, it did loosen his lips.

Aaron told Ben that once processed through the judicial system and sentenced to community service, that he’d been transferred to the Court of Community Services detention centre in New York. There he’d been prepared for his trip. It had taken him a week to get ready. He’d been put into an educator system that had implanted skills into his mind that he’d need to survive in the past, and then he’d been tested by the technical support staff of the facility, within a ‘virtual reality’ complex, to see if he could recall what he had been taught. Aaron had stated that the week had been tough, but enjoyable. On the last day he’d been kitted out in the attire of the era he was going to visit, and he’d been issued with a horse. After that he’d been sent back in time.

Aaron had told his tale of how he’d spent most of his period of service helping out a family in what he’d learned was pre-Civil War Kansas. He’d come upon the family by accident. The family had been ambushed by bushwhackers, who at the time Aaron had shown up, had been in the process of raping the women folk. Aaron had killed the men, and he’d saved not only the women folk but the rest of the family. After that brief piece of excitement, Aaron had travelled with them to their homestead where he ended up staying for three weeks, helping with the farm work, while the father of the family recovered from the injuries that he’d sustained in the attack.

Ben had ended up asking why at the end of the tale. It was something that Aaron hadn’t been able to answer. However, Aaron had been able to tell Ben why he’d been picked to go. Ben had found that part of the story very interesting.

Aaron admitted that he’d learned the ‘why him’ from his lawyer. According to the man, the Court of Community Service was always on the lookout for what they called volunteers. As such they had criteria that they used to pick and choose from the thousands of people detained by the authorities every day, throughout the nation. Those criteria consisted of four points. They were physical health, mental health, reason for detention, and personal history. This meant that the Court of Community Service didn’t take just anyone who wanted to get out of spending the rest of their lives in indentured servitude. They were picky. They wanted people who were physically and mentally fit.

The last thing they wanted was to send someone back in time who collapsed because of a heart attack, or who were mentally unstable. History was full of crazy people and the court certainly didn’t want to add to that number. The Court of Community Service wanted people who’d been arrested for disturbing the peace and not someone who’d murdered somebody. There were enough arsonists, rapists, and murderers in the past already. Ben could easily understand their reasoning.

The fourth criterion was the most interesting point from Ben’s perspective. Aaron had told Ben that the court looked at what a person did, outside working hours. They wanted a person who was active and not just some ‘couch potato’. By practice, most corporations in 2345 offered a range of extracurricular activities for their employees, knowing philosophically that a happy body was a productive employee. Most corporations provided their employees with access to a corporate gym and/or dojo. Some even sent their employees off on retreats to the nation’s few surviving national parks so they could commune with nature. Ben’s company did all three things, and both Aaron and Ben had availed themselves of those services routinely. On top of that, both Aaron and Ben had frequented the local ‘virtual reality’ complex where they’d competed in a number of adventures. Aaron had stated that the court had looked at those activities as well.

To put it mildly, Aaron’s story had left Ben with something to think about. It took a few days for the tale to sink in, and for Ben to start tearing it apart, trying to understand what Aaron had told him. With Aaron back to work and life moving on, Ben had ample opportunity to discuss the topic with his friend. The one thing that Ben got out of it was the impression that Aaron wanted to go back and do it all over again. When Ben asked Aaron about that, Aaron had admitted that he was interested. In fact, he’d queried Ben on whether or not he’d do it if he had the chance. Ben had been forced eventually to admit that he would. It was at that point that Ben had made his decision.

He hadn’t shared it with Aaron. He hadn’t wanted to get his friend in trouble, just in case it didn’t work, but one week after that fateful revelation, Benjamin Hart had got himself arrested for disturbing the peace. After that, as they used to say a long time ago, the rest was history.

Benjamin Hart was in heaven. He was mounted upon a big bay mare riding across the open plains of the old west, underneath a clear blue sky, and absolutely alone. It was fantastic and all Ben could do was smile happily about it and enjoy himself, because he knew it wouldn’t last.

For the most part Ben’s adventure so far had been uneventful. He’d popped out of nowhere a few miles back, appearing in the centre of a small wooded lot. He’d followed a game trail out of it; once he’d gotten his bearings, and quickly found himself out on the open plains. Since then he’d been heading towards the northwest, simply riding along and enjoying himself.

What marvelled Ben the most was the openness of the terrain. While Ben had visited a couple of national parks in the course of his life, he really had no experience with the great outdoors, and those parks had been heavily forested. Here and now, out on the plain, where the landscape stretched for miles and all that Ben could see was prairie grass and the occasional clump of scrub brush or trees, it was a different story. In many ways it was overwhelming, especially for someone who had grown up in a city where people lived in tightly packed boroughs, housed one on top of the other.

It was nearing noon when Ben was pulled from his reverie. The sun had been beating down on him for some time now and he’d pulled up to take a swig of water from his canteen, and to glance about him in hopes of spotting a stream where he could water his horse. It was while he sat there taking a second drink that the gunshot reached his ear. What made him start with surprise was the fact that the first shot was followed in quick succession by others.

Ben looked about himself anxiously in response to hearing the shots. He knew that they’d come from somewhere nearby; and he knew, if only instinctively, that several shots going off one after the other boded ill tidings. It was one thing for a man to hear a single shot out here on the frontier and it was another to hear more than one, especially one right after another.

Ben glanced to the north of him and then to the west. He was pretty certain that the shots had come from that direction. The only thing he could see was more open prairie. That didn’t mean too much though. He’d already found out that the land rolled occasionally, and it was easy for a rider not to see that just ahead of him, hidden by the tall prairie grass was a dip in the land or a hidden valley. With this in mind Ben prodded his mount towards the west and in the direction he thought the gunshots had come from.

Ben kept his mount at a walk. While the gunshots boded ill and suggested trouble, the last thing Ben wanted to do was to blunder into that trouble. If anything he wanted to be able to sneak up on it undetected. Even so, his big horse covered the distance west in no time and he suddenly found himself looking down into a long depression of land that could easily be called a valley. It had come up unexpectedly. What was even more unexpected was what Ben spotted at the bottom of it. There was definitely trouble waiting for him there.

To Ben’s wonder and disbelief there was a large farm wagon stopped below him. The wagon had been following a trail and it had been approaching a ford, where a stream cut across the land and across the trail. For the most part, on either side of the trail, the land was no different than the land about Ben. It was open prairie covered in tall grass. The area around the ford however was different. It consisted of clumps of brush and thickets of cottonwoods and other local trees. It had obviously served as an ambush point.

Ben knew this because he could see what had happened. The farm wagon had been pulled by a pair of mules and those mules now lay dead in their traces, just a few yards from the ford. Whoever had been lying in ambush, and Ben could see them as well, had obviously shot the animals to make certain that the occupants of the wagon couldn’t get away. Now, with the animals dead, the ambushers had strolled out of hiding and they had confronted the occupants of the wagon, to Ben’s disbelief matters had already progressed from bad to worse.

The occupants of the wagon were all blacks, or what in Ben’s time were called African-Americans. There was a man, a woman, and two young boys. The men confronting them were all white men. There were four of them and they were all armed. One man was barking orders to the occupants of the wagon, obviously telling them to dismount, while the other three men covered the people with their weapons. The occupants of the wagon did as they were told.

Their reward was abuse. When the man dismounted, one of the guarding men stepped forward and dropped the black man with a sweeping crosscheck with the stock of his weapon. The black man went down instantly, like a dropped sack of potatoes. When the woman turned to look and see what had happened to the man, the man who’d been shouting at the people in the wagon, grabbed at the woman, grasping her by the front of her dress. The woman cried out in surprise and fright as the man tore the front of her dress away, exposing her naked bosom for all to see. At the same time, another of the men who’d been guarding the occupants of the wagon, started shouting at the boys to get down.

By that point Ben had decided he’d seen enough. He dismounted from his horse and quickly pulled his big muzzle loading rifle out of its saddle scabbard. Once he had that in hand, he reached for his powder horn and pouch of ammunition that was hanging off his saddle horn. At the same time he reached for and took his canteen as well. Then turned his horse loose, hoping that it wouldn’t wander too far. Once this was done, he made his presence known.

“This is US Marshal Benjamin Hart speaking, out of Independence,” Ben declared loudly. “I want you men to lay down your weapons and to put your hands in the air. If you don’t, I’ll be forced to kill you.”

Ben’s cry took the men below by surprise. They all spun in the direction that his voice had come from, and they all searched the hilltop that Ben had been on, looking to see where he was. By then Ben had already ducked below the tall prairie grass and had moved off from where he’d dismounted. Even his horse had meandered off, moving slowly along the track that Ben and the animal had travelled to get to the valley, the animal blissfully grazing as it went.

“Hey there, Marshal,” one of the men shouted up at Ben when no one could spot where he was. “Why don’t you show yourself and we can talk. There is no need for bad blood between us. We’re only dealing with a few runaway slaves.”

“That might be so,” Ben hollered back, not popping his head up, “but until you lay down your weapons, I’m not showing myself, and every moment you hesitate in doing what I’ve told you to do is another second towards your death. Now do as I say or prepare to die.”

Ben’s words were answered with a hail of gunfire. Amazingly the men below him had fired at the sound of his voice, disregarding the fact that Ben couldn’t be seen and that he was probably pressed against the ground. The fusillade whizzed through the tall grass about Ben, but it didn’t even come close to hitting him. In response, Ben rose up from where he’d been lying, and proved to the men below that he wasn’t kidding.

Even though it was a snapshot, it proved to be a deadly one. Ben had come up to the right of the position where he’d originally dismounted. He’d fully cocked his big rifle before standing up. The Mississippi rifle was a heavy bitch of a weapon, but Ben had practiced firing from the standing position, and knew he could manage the shot. Once up he’d taken aim and fired.

The heavy slug of the weapon had sped across the open terrain and it had hit the man closest to Ben; the man who’d been tearing the clothing off of the woman. The man had been too busy reloading his own rifle and hadn’t been paying much attention to what was going on about him. The heavy slug hit him in the chest and to the right of centre. The impact spun him around, sending his rifle flying in one direction and his powder horn flying the other. By the time his friends realized what had happened, the man had crumpled to the ground.

“The fucking bastard killed Zeke,” one of the remaining men shrieked aloud, his voice filled with both anger and grief. “I want that man dead!”

Ben was already moving when the next hail of rounds slashed through the tall grass that dominated the area. He’d dropped seconds after taking his shot and rolled back away from the lip of the valley. This put Ben out of range of the other men’s weapons, as well as out of sight. Once he was back a good dozen feet, Ben had gotten to his feet. The first thing he then did was to reload his weapon.

Screams came from the valley while he loaded the big rifle. The woman down below was wailing up a storm and Ben knew that the men who’d fired at him were now taking their frustration out on the occupants of the wagon. He didn’t know what they were doing, but he did know that it had set the woman off. Cursing Ben quickly did what he needed to reload his rifle and to make it ready to fire again, and then moved forward to have a look at what was going on. The second his head appeared over the tall grass, shots rang out.

Ben dropped immediately and then rolled away from his position. He’d been able to see what had been going on down below on the trail and by the wagon, just before he’d been forced to duck. One man had grabbed hold of the woman, and he’d pulled the remains of her clothing off her body. He was now holding the woman like a shield in front of him, clutching her tightly against his body while holding a knife to her throat. His companions had been standing on either side of him, both watching and waiting for Ben to pop his head up. It had been them that had fired at him.

“Hey, Marshal,” the man shouted up at Ben from below. “If you don’t show yourself real soon, I’m going to cut up this nigger bitch. You got to the count of three. One...”

That is all the man got to say. Ben popped up, cocking his heavy rifle as he did. He’d rolled a good number of yards to the right of his last position and he now had a different firing angle on the man. He was actually to the side of the man and had a clear shot at the man’s head. Ben took it.

There was curses and swearing a plenty a few seconds later as the man who’d been holding the woman literally lost his head. Blood, bone, and grey matter splattered everywhere as the heavy round tore through one side of the man’s head and out the other. The woman shrieked and then she threw herself onto the ground as the young boys wailed with fear.

Ben dropped back out of sight once again, moving back towards his left as he did. Once out of sight he stood up and started loading his weapon once more.

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” Ben called out as he quickly charged his weapon. “If you put your weapons down, I’ll let you live.”

The men responded by firing their weapons once more in the direction of Ben’s voice. Ben just shook his head in disgust and then changed his position again, this time heading off towards the stream that ran through the valley and the thicket of trees that lined it. He kept on going even when another burst of lead filled the air. He even kept his head down when one of the men finally called out to him.

“Hey, Marshal?” the man drawled in a questioning manner. “Are you still out there or what? I want to make a deal.”

Ben paused and waited a moment or two. By then he was close to where the stream cut the land and the tall grass gave way to shrubs and thickets. When the man didn’t say another word, Ben moved on, slipping out of the tall grass, past a couple of cottonwoods, and into the water of the stream.

“I’m serious, Marshal,” the man called out a few seconds later. “You done killed Zeke and Slim. The way I see it, there’s really no need for any more shooting. They were the leaders of our group, and they’re the ones who wanted to grab this here group of niggers. If you let us go we’ll not cause you any more trouble.”

Ben didn’t answer the man. Instead he kept moving on down the stream towards the ford, ignoring the cold of the water on his feet. As he moved along, keeping low and as well hidden as he could, Ben did his best to see what the men were up to over by the wagon. It wasn’t easy, but he did manage it.

The two men were now on the far side of the wagon and they were keeping their heads low. For the most part they were ignoring the woman and children. As for the man that had been struck down at the start of the whole incident, Ben hadn’t had a good look at him since, so he didn’t know if he was alive, dead, or otherwise. All he could do was hope for the best.

“Hey, Hank,” one of the two remaining men said to the other, his muttered voice carrying to where Ben was now hiding. “Do you think we got him?”

“I don’t know, Charlie, I don’t think so,” the other man replied. “In fact, I’ve got the sneaky suspicion that that goddamn Marshal is trying to sneak up on us, so keep your mouth shut and your eyes peeled. The bastard could be anywhere.”

“Well, maybe we should hightail it out of here, Hank,” the other man murmured back after a moment or two. “I don’t want to die for no bunch of runaway slaves.”

“I told you to shut the hell up, Charlie,” the man called Hank shouted back at his partner. “So do it and stop you’re bellyaching. You know how much these niggers are worth. I’m sure not going to let no lawman rob me of my reward.”

Ben had reached the ford by that time. He was still in the water of the stream and wishing he was somewhere else. He was also hidden behind a clump of brush and a couple of saplings that were growing where the trail sloped downward towards the water. He was hold up there listening to the two men squabble, marking his time and trying to figure out his next move. He knew he needed to move. While he was easily within twenty yards of where the two men were hunkered down and hiding, he was also at a bad angle to them. To get at the two men and to finish them off he needed to cross the gap of the ford to the far side. That would put Ben behind the two men and he could then easily pick them off one at a time, but to do that Ben had to expose himself to their view and that could prove to be very dangerous. The gap from one side to the other was easily twenty feet wide, and if either man looked in his direction, they’d spot him without a problem. They could even possibly drop him in his tracks before he got back under cover.

Unfortunately there was nothing for it. From the discussion Ben had overheard it was clear that at least one of the men wanted to get out of there, while the other wanted to stand and fight it out, interested only in retaining possession of the former occupants of the wagons, whom Ben had come to realize were runaway slaves. That was another problem that he’d have to take into consideration later, but for now he needed to do something, before one of the men did something that might endanger one of the former occupants of the wagon.

Ben moved. Even as he began what he knew was a risky endeavour, it became dangerous. The man closest to him glanced in his direction for some reason, and before Ben knew it the man was shouting out a warning to his companion, even as he spun about and brought his rifle to bear on Ben. A second later the rifle fired and a huge cloud of smoke filled the air.

Instinctively, Ben threw himself to one side, dropping towards the embankment of the stream just opposite the far side of the ford. The first shot flew over his head as he did so, and the second shot slammed into the sapling that stood near where Ben had ended up. The heavy round literally smashed the slender tree in two, sending splinters into the air and dropping the tree to the ground. Fortunately, the falling trunk dropped away from Ben and towards the wagon.

Ben rolled twice and then came up onto his right knee, bringing his rifle up as he did. It took a moment for him to see what was going on before him. The cloud of smoke from the other men’s rifles had started to dissipate. Through what was left Ben saw that the man closest to him had drawn his pistol and was in the process of bringing it to bear. Without hesitation, Ben swung his rifle onto the man, resting the barrel against a sapling while he took aim and fired. As he did, the man he was shooting at fired as well.

Ben’s shot took the man in the chest. The impact of the heavy slug slammed the man backwards, knocking him into the path of his companion who was busy loading his rifle. The man’s own shot went wild.

Ben didn’t hesitate. He dropped his rifle onto the ground and drew himself up to his feet. As he did, he grabbed for his pistol, pulling it from his cross-draw holster that rode at his belt. He then started to fire away at the remaining man.

The last man, who’d been in the process of loading his rifle when his companion had been thrown back into him, dropped his rifle when he saw that Ben was up on his feet and started pulling his own sidearm. Unfortunately for the man, he was already too late. While Ben’s first round missed him completely, by the time the man’s pistol had cleared his holster, Ben’s second and third round struck him. The second round slammed into his right shoulder and the third round hit him dead centre. The man was able to squeeze off a single round, but that had happened purely because the man’s trigger finger had tensed as the third bullet hit him in the chest. That round had ended up hitting nothing but some dirt. A moment later the man’s knees gave out under him and he crumpled to the earth.

Ben stood there and waited, watching to see what would happen next. When nothing did, Ben turned his attention to his weapons. Quickly he reloaded the spent chambers of his pistol. When he was finished, he slipped the weapon back into his cross-draw holster, and then, still keeping an eye on the scene that lay before him, stepped back a pace towards the bank of the stream to locate and recover his rifle. Once he had it in hand, Ben reloaded it as well. In a way it was odd standing there, looking about while he recharged his rifle and made it ready to be used again, if the need arose.

Ben could see the bodies of the men he’d killed just moments ago, lying sprawled out beside the large wagon, and he could hear the weeping of the woman who was still lying on the ground on the other side of the wagon, her sobs filled with fear. That sound pulled at Ben’s heart and it reminded him why he was there. Even so, Ben found that he was still standing where he’d stopped once the last man had fallen, hesitant to move an inch. As he stood there reflecting on this, Ben realised that in the aftermath of the death and chaos, he could hear the buzz of insects flying about him, and he could still feel the warmth of the sun beating down upon him. It felt so surreal to him and for a second it reminded him of the joy he’d felt but half an hour before.

Remembering made Ben sigh. He hadn’t wanted to kill these men, but they’d fired first, and they hadn’t given him a choice in the matter. Ben needed to accept that fact and move on. There was work to be done. The woman’s cries reminded him of that. With one last tired sigh, Ben pressed on.

Edited By TeNderLoin Reviewed and Edited By Gordon Johnson Ultimate checking by Tyketriker

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