The sun was coming up as I sat looking down the valley to the east. It was called Peaceful Valley by the rancher I had acquired the land from. It wasn't peaceful for him and it didn't seem that way to me. After a restless night of uneasy sleep, I often came out here in the early morning wondering if I had chosen the right path. This was a self-imposed exile I had set for myself.
I lived now in a small rock-walled house I had constructed when I first came here to this ranch. I earned the property by caring for a man until he passed on. I built the house while he watched me and told stories of his life here. I had made the walls solid for there was a clay bank near that I used to chink the walls tight. The only timbers were the hewn rafters and the joists for floor and the loft. I did buy some boards for the roof and I had rived the shakes my own self.
There was a lean-to that sheltered my two animals who were now my only companions. I had my big gray gelding and an older mare that I used for a pack animal. Feed for them was plentiful as there was a spring just below where I had located my building. There was green feed from the runoff that was there for ten of the twelve months in the year. I cut hay for the horses by hand each fall to see them through the deepest winter.
This morning I was particularly restless. Maybe it was the loneliness. It had been almost three months since I had seen another human. I had come here twenty-three months ago after I had killed someone. I had killed before, for that was what my business was. Up until that last time I had killed three bad men, but this time I was troubled. All three men I had killed before had been legal, for I carried a badge. The last one was legal too, I suppose. A stage had been held up at one certain point twice and it had been guessed it would happen again as the first two times had been so successful and without problems for the bad man.
I was sitting thinking back to how things happened a couple of years ago. At that time I was riding the stage waiting for it to be robbed again. The bandit had never been seen or identified. There was always a warning shot fired from concealment high up in the rocks and the command to throw the mail sacks down. As soon as the sacks hit the ground the coach was directed to continue on. The mail sacks were opened and the letters rifled and left where they were with all money taken from them. Whoever was doing this couldn't have been getting very rich, but it was a crime.
The shot came in the same location and from the same place! I squirreled out the opposite door of the stage, and waiting my chance, I eased around back. The minute the mail sacks were thrown down as directed, I ran for the shelter of the rocks. I knew I couldn't be seen. I doubted the bandit would even know he was in trouble.
When the stage left I could hear the thief coming down off the ledge. He never suspected I was there, me up against the rocks as I was. The bandit still had a kerchief over his chin and a big hat on. A small man, his gun was still in his right hand and just as he bent to grab a sack with his left I spoke, "Drop your gun. You're covered."
There was no hesitation. He fired across his body in my direction, the slug hitting the rock to my right and spattering me with rock chips. I automatically fired in defense. He dropped right there. I stood shaking my head in disbelief. Christ, I didn't want to kill the damned fool. He wouldn't have got more than two years in Yuma. I knew he was dead from the way he thrashed around and then lay still. I eased up to him knowing he was dead, but I was still wary. The hat had come off and the bandanna had come loose as well.
I was immediately sick, for it was a kid that I looked at, maybe fifteen or sixteen. I looked for the bandit's horse, but didn't find how he had got here. The buckboard I always arranged to follow the stage came up a few minutes later. Pete and I loaded the body onto the wagon along with the two mail sacks and headed for town. The sheriff was waiting for us when we came down the street to our office. The townspeople gathered behind us as we moved along, making quite a crowd before we got there.
The sheriff was the first to say something. "Got him did you Dan? Good job."
"Stupid kid didn't listen and fired at me the minute I told him to drop his gun. I fired and killed him to protect myself. Does anyone know him? He must be from around here."
"He looks like the nester's kid from across the valley. The nester died from snakebite a couple of months ago. He's got an older sister. They're having it rough. Pity. Pity for the girl. I wonder what will happen to her?" This came from one of the men standing by the buckboard.
"Give me directions. I'll have to go tell her what happened." It was a chore that held no joy for me. "Take the body over to Doc Kimbal's and I'll find out what his family wants to do about a funeral."
The sheriff took me over to the saloon and bought me a drink. "People ain't going to like you killing someone as young as that even for cause. I may have to ask you for your deputy's badge."
"Here, take it Jim."
"No, not yet. You better have it on when you tell his people. That'll show them it was the law killed him, not you personally."
"Same difference ain't it, he's just as dead."
"I guess, but it might help just a little."
I went across the flat and rolling valley to where some small ranches and homesteads were settled up against the range of hills. There were two large ranches that held the open land that I had to cross. Here and there I could see men working cattle, but I didn't stop to talk. This was something I wanted to get over with as soon as possible and liking none of it.
I rode into the yard and shouted, "Anyone home?"
"What do you want, Mister?" A voice came from the shack's doorway. The only thing I could see was what appeared to be the barrel of a shotgun.
"I'm Deputy Dan Collins. I want to talk to you." I was still on my mount.
"Speak up then."
"What's your name and do you have a brother?"
"Penelope Breckenridge and yes, I have a brother. His name is Abe. What about him?"
"There was a kid killed trying to rob the stage. Somebody said it might be your brother." There was silence while I waited.
Two minutes, "Who killed him?"
"The law killed him."
"You're wearing a badge. Was it you?"
"It was me. He didn't give me a chance. He was shooting at me. Anyway the body is in town. Will you be in to claim it? You can ask the sheriff for the details."
"No, I won't claim him. Put him in the town graveyard. You killed him, you bury him."
"Don't you want to make sure he is your brother? You should at least identify him. In fact, I insist on it."
"What are you going to do if I don't? Are you going to shoot me too?"
I ignored that. "Will you at least come out where I can see you?"
"You won't be seeing much." The woman stepped out.
She had on bib overalls and a faded chambray shirt. Her shoes must have been her father's, for they were way too big for her. The only thing neat about her was her hair. That was chestnut brown and looked like it had been brushed. It curled around her face so I couldn't tell clearly what her features were. "Where's his horse? I can't go into town without a horse."
"I didn't find a horse at the robbery. Did you know he was robbing stages? This would have been the third time it was held up."
"I suppose I knew. He came home a couple of times with a few dollars. He wasn't too bright, but we had to eat since Pa died. You going to take me to jail?"
"No, but you will have to go in with me. I'll borrow a horse from one of the ranches for you to ride. I'll be back for you in an hour." I headed out for the nearest ranch. I borrowed a buckboard and a driving horse. The rancher agreed to send one of his cowboys to look for the thief's horse. The boy must have hidden it and walked a distance to the robbery site.
The woman saw me coming with the buckboard. She disappeared into the shack and by the time I arrived she was coming down the steps. She had on a faded dress. This was a girl, not a woman yet. "How old are you?"
"Eighteen." I read defiance and hate on her face. It bothered me, but when I remembered I had killed her brother just a few hours ago, I wasn't that surprised at her attitude. I tied my horse to the tailgate. It was a silent journey into town. I didn't even know how to say I was sorry and I was sure that she didn't want to discuss what happened. Not with me anyhow.
Arriving in front of the doctor's office, I tied the horse to the hitching post and turned to help her down. She was down and looking at me, waiting to see what was next. "We'll go into the office and speak to Doc Kimbal who has charge of the body. While you are talking to him, I'll tell the sheriff you are in town."
Penny was trembling and near tears. I continued, "I'll ask Mom Kimbal to be with you." I knew I had to say something. "Miss Breckenridge, I know it won't help, but I am truly sorry this has happened."
Anger and hate replaced the tears in her eyes. "I'll just bet you are. When are you going to be filing my brother's notch on your gun?" I just shook my head, knowing I would never change this girl's mind about me. I went in and found the doctor and went around back to his quarters. I asked Mom Kimbal to go in and be with the girl for support in this troubled time. I found the sheriff and told him I had brought Penelope Breckenridge into town. I then went into the saloon and ordered a drink, carrying it to a table. Everyone left me alone as they could see I didn't want company. As darkness fell, it matched my mood.
.... There is more of this story ...