Revenge of the Heart (by Taffey)

Summary:
Category:  The Quick and the Dead
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  9300


It was beginning to rain as a lone horseman rode into Dry Gulch. As his ebony mare slowly proceeded up the muddy street, the man’s tired eyes searched the hitching posts for a certain black and white Appaloosa. Suddenly he saw it and its owner walking in the direction of the stables. The horseman climbed off his horse and, dropping the reins, followed the other man for a few feet. Then he stopped, still watching.

“Hold up there!” he yelled out. The other man turned slowly and saw that the stranger had a badge. Despite the cold wind, Jeb Baxter felt sweat running down his back. When the gang rode out of Dodge City, they expected lawmen would follow them a short distance, get discouraged, and return to town. That’s what usually happened. Baxter and the others heard that the Marshal of Dodge, Cortland Wells, wasn’t the average lawman; but, two days later, he didn’t expect anyone to still be pursuing them. He had been told to ride into Dry Gulch and stay an extra day to make certain they weren’t followed. The others rode on. Jeb had just entered Dry Gulch himself and had no idea Cort was behind him

Jeb Baxter smiled; he lived for this. Killing, robbery, and cruelty were his lifeblood. The gang he rode with had not only robbed the bank in Dodge City but also, on the way out, gunned down a few innocent citizens. It made things interesting. Little did they realize that one of them was Cort’s wife, Loreen. “You shouldn’t have followed me!” he called out.

“You left me no choice.” Cort didn’t need to raise his voice—its deep tone carried through the wind and rain, hitting a chord in Baxter’s heart. It was the voice of a man seeking revenge.

“Then let’s get this over with.” The two men stood perfectly still, fifteen feet separating them. “Any time you’re ready, Lawman!”

Cort knew words were unnecessary. Talking was a sign of nervousness, uncertainty. Baxter was, for the first time, unsure. It made him angry, which he knew would hurt his concentration if he couldn’t control it. They stood, legs spread apart, hands hovering over their guns, each waiting for the other to make a move.

The sky lit up as a streak of lightning flashed overhead. It was windy and cold and the extent of their calmness could be seen in the warm breath that escaped Cort’s nose and Jeb’s mouth. Breathing from one’s mouth was another sign of unsteady nerves, and Cort was glad to see it. He had been in this position more times than he could remember and was pretty good at guessing how a gunfight would end. He always left the first move to his opponent; the longer they waited, the better he felt, as a confident opponent had no reason to prolong the inevitable.

Another flash of lightning was followed by a thunderous roar, which startled Jeb, causing his hand to grab the butt of his gun. He knew he had to follow through, separating his gun completely from the holster. Cort had enough confidence in his ability to allow Jeb the tenth of a second head start. In truth, had he a whole second, Jeb Baxter would have come up too short to save his life.

Cort left the man where he lay and mounted his horse. His work was just beginning.

*****

As Cort rode to the next town, he tried not to think about why he was chasing these men so far. He needed to concentrate on the bank robbery aspect only. Six men had robbed the bank in Dodge City; and it was his job to get the money back. There was also the greater reason–five dead citizens. Cort stopped his train of thought and closed his eyes to the vision of Loreen lying in the street, a pool of blood around her. It would cloud his judgment, ruin his concentration, and permit anger to turn him into a bloodthirsty vigilante. Instead, Cort tried to imagine her at home waiting for his return.

The next town was Franklin. Cort knew the five remaining gang members would eventually head for Mexico. He also knew they were a cocky, arrogant lot who would drink, fight, and whore their way from here to their destination. They’d be easy to follow.

Cort stopped and got a hotel room. As impatient as his heart felt to destroy these men, he knew he wouldn’t do himself any good if he or his horse were tired.

*****

The next morning Cort woke at 5:00, washed, dressed, and partook of a hefty breakfast—eggs, bacon, fruit, bread and coffee. The young girl, who served the food, took to flirting with him. She was most impressed with the mop of chestnut hair, which fell over his ears and down his neck. His blue-green eyes were steely and distant, but his voice had been kind. Cort didn’t give attention to her giggles or batting eyelashes. She informed him that a group of loud, unruly men had been there earlier and headed north. After paying for his meal, he saddled up and rode to the next large town—Dunn’s Crossing.

It was about 6 p.m. when he got there; Cort wasn’t ready to confront anyone. But, before turning in, he slipped into the crowded bar. If any of Baxter’s friends were in town, they’d certainly be here. And it didn’t take Cort long to find them. He recognized two of them tussling over an overly endowed prostitute. They were loud, coarse, and drunk, and it would have been very easy to dispense with them right then and there. The temptation was great—cut them down like they did his Loreen…. Cort had to choke back the emotion rising in his throat. He turned and left the saloon. By the time Cort reached his hotel room, he was calm and ready to sleep. He owed Loreen a clean shot at them.

Once asleep, Cort’s head filled with dreams of meeting the only woman he ever loved. He dreamt about the first time he rode into Dodge City. She was at the outdoor fruit market, picking over the apples. He slowed Monte down and watched her. How could she make a blue cotton dress look like satin and tulle? What made her raven hair shine so brilliantly? What did she smell like? As he rode past her, she looked up and smiled so warmly that it melted through years of hurt, pain, and mistrust. He knew he should keep riding. This woman was far too good for the likes of him. However, try as he might, he couldn’t leave town.

Cort ended up replacing the retiring Marshal and attempted something he had never done before—settling down. He quietly revealed his whole sordid and desperate life to Loreen, part of him wishing she’d send him away, the other part hoping she wouldn’t. As it turned out, Cort needn’t have worried. Loreen Palmer was madly in love with him.

A year later, they married. Now, on practically their third anniversary, he’d be returning to Dodge to bury her. Cort woke with a start, sweat and tears running down his face. He thought his heart would break in two. He buried his face in his hands and sobbed like a child. The only happiness he had ever known had been wrenched away from him. Oh, they’d pay for what they had done. Cort would see that they paid with their lives.

*****

The next morning, Cort cleaned up and went to a local restaurant for breakfast. Loreen had instilled in him the habit of eating a good meal in the morning. As he was eating, his mind was busy thinking of how he’d approach the two murdering thieves. He realized that he was an instrument of the law, and as such, needed to be careful how he accomplished this task. Cort absent-mindedly fingered the silver star over his heavy heart; it was the only thing keeping him from ruthlessly gunning them down. All he had now was his honor, and he couldn’t bring reproach on what that badge stood for. His horse was tied out front so he could leave once the deed was done.

Soon Cort heard a ruckus in the street. He put money on the table and went to the front window to see what was going on. The two robbers were hassling a woman and her young child.

“Come on, honey, give us a big kiss.” A man stepped forward to assist the woman and received a bullet for his trouble.

Cort stormed out of the restaurant and stopped a few yards from the two men. “Get away from her,” he hissed.

The two men turned to face Cort.

“Well, lookee here, Tom.”

Tom laughed. “If I’m not mistaken, it’s the law.” The woman took her child’s hand and quickly ran in the other direction. “Clem and me, we want to know how much this town pays you.”

The wind picked up causing Cort’s long coat to billow around him. He resembled a dark angel.

“Whatsa matter?” Clem asked mockingly. “Tom, here, asked you a question.”

Cort remained motionless, staring coldly at the two. As with their late partner, Cort unnerved them, and they weren’t used to the sensation.

“This town isn’t paying him,” a voice said. The two men looked at the speaker—another lawman. “I’m Sheriff John Turner.” The two men turned back to face Cort.

“I’m the law in Dodge City,” Cort said quietly. A dark cloud fell over their faces. They didn’t expect anyone would follow them that far.

“Dodge? That’s a long way from here, son,” the Sheriff noted.

“These two are part of a gang that robbed the bank and murdered innocent people.”

Sheriff Turner straightened up, pulling out his gun. “Is that so? Well then, gentlemen, you’ll need to hand over your guns and come this way.”

Tom and Clem began laughing derisively. “We ain’t going anywhere with you and we ain’t givin’ up our guns to nobody!”

“I’m sorry Sheriff, but if they go anywhere, it’ll be with me,” Cort declared. “And the only place I’m taking them is six-feet under.”

“They really should stand trial; a judge will pass through here next week.”

“They’ve already stood before a judge and jury and have been found guilty.”

“What judge?” Tom laughed. “What jury?”

“The jury consists of the five people you gunned down in Dodge.” Clem stiffened and narrowed his eyes. “And I’m the judge.”

“Are you hanging them here?” Sheriff Turner asked nervously.

Cort shook his head. “Hanging would be a waste of good rope. I’m going to take care of the problem right now.” Cort backed up a few feet.

“You gonna take on both of us?” Tom snorted.

“That’s the idea.”

They laughed.

“Sheriff, you’d best get off the street,” Cort warned.

John Turner didn’t have to be advised twice. Somehow he knew this stern, dark man with the badge was more than a match for them. These two varmints were dangerous and he hoped the Marshal was as good as he appeared. He certainly didn’t want to deal with them should Cort fail.

“Why, I do believe this lawman is serious!” Clem tossed his head back and pulled on his beard.

Cort stood silently, waiting for the one movement that would signal the start of another five-second gunfight. They both had wide grins on their faces as they exchanged looks with secret meanings. Cort ignored the show; all he was interested in was their hands.

“What side of this lawman do you want to shoot up, Clem?”

“I’ll take whatever side of him is left once you kill him! Har-har-har!”

Nobody saw Clem and Tom simultaneously draw their weapons. But, even as they cleared their holsters, Cort had put a bullet through their hearts. They fell clumsily, face first, into a large mud puddle. Cort holstered his Schofields, mounted his horse and prepared to ride out of town.

“Marshal?”

Cort recognized one of the prostitutes from the saloon. Her lip was cut and swollen, and she had a black eye. Cort felt the anger that always swelled up inside him when he saw the prostitutes being manhandled. “Those two pigs came here with three others. They left for Pottsville yesterday. I heard them boasting about getting other men together to do more robbing before they headed to Mexico.”

Cort tipped his hat. “Much obliged, ma’am,” he said in a sad, soft voice.

“Marshal, do me a favor and make the big, greasy one suffer.”

Cort nodded and rode off.

*****

Pottsville was far enough away to warrant camping out that night. Cort sat on an old stump sipping some lukewarm coffee. He looked up at the sky, marveling over the thousands of little lights twinkling there. He and Loreen used to lie on the grass and trace pictures in the sky using the stars. Cort dropped his head quickly; he couldn’t afford to think about her now.

Yet, even as he emptied his cup, he was reminded of how good her coffee had been. There was no question that Cort had found himself a gem of a wife.

When he lay down to get some sleep, he dreamt that Loreen was there beside him. It was a comforting dream and he woke refreshed.

Cort mounted and headed towards his next encounter, the prostitute’s words ringing in his head.

*****

Pottsville was one of those towns that began as a mud hole, and hadn’t progressed any farther than becoming a larger mud hole. Cort and Monte ambled down the sloppy streets; it had been raining there also. He knew what one of the three remaining robbers looked like. He wondered if they had already picked up reinforcements. They wouldn’t yet know their three fellow robbers were dead, or that they were being pursued. It gave Cort somewhat of an edge, but there was a limit as to what he could do alone. He’d have to be very careful and very alert.

As Cort passed the saloon, he noticed an inordinate number of horses tied to the hitching post. He rode off to the stables and settled Monte in. He was debating whether, in order to blend in with the town, he should remove his badge. But he immediately dismissed that idea; the unwritten rule was that you wore your star at all times in public. Instead, he removed it from his coat and pinned it to his shirt—under the vest. He decided that in this case self-preservation would override sticking to the letter of the law.

As he casually walked up the street to the saloon, Cort noticed that most of the people were avoiding that side of town. Women walked nervously, darting uneasy glances at the line of horses. Cort surmised that, either the town was used to being plagued by ruffians, or this particular bunch had already caused trouble. This didn’t make him feel too good about the law enforcers here. He might end up alone should it come to a showdown.

Cort stepped into the bar confidently, taking in as much as he dared without looking suspicious. He ordered a beer from a tall, thin barkeep and settled in a corner table. He had a clear view of just about the whole bar, including the stairs. His hat was pulled low and he pretended to be reading a copy of the town newspaper that was left on the table.

About ten men were sitting at, or surrounding, two tables that had been pulled together. At one table a poker game was being played out among five of the men. They were loud, dirty, and on their way to being drunk. Cort frowned; he’d never be able to dispose of that many of them. Somehow he’d have to isolate the three he wanted dead.

As the game went on the men got rowdier and more contentious. Cort realized one of the saloon girls had made her way to his table and sat down. She had long black hair and troubled brown eyes.

“I don’t suppose you need company tonight.”

“No, but if you want to stay in my hotel room, you can.”

She smiled ruefully. “Thank you, sir, but I need to be making money for the boss.”

Cort thought about it for a minute. “I’ll pay you,” he said finally. “What’s your name?”

“Lettie. You’re very kind, but I can’t let you pay for a service you ain’t receiving.” Her voice said one thing, but her eyes said something different.

“How much does he want you to earn a night?”

Lettie was hesitant to say. No man had ever shown her such consideration. But Cort was waiting for an answer and she could see his concentration was elsewhere. “Uh, one dollar?”

Cort, one eye on the noisy tables, reached inside his jacket pocket and removed the required amount. “Here; give this to your boss.” He then gave her the key to his room. “I’m in Room 15. Go there and stay. Lock the door. I’ll join you later.”

Lettie got up, and clutching the money, headed for the stairs. On her way out one of the men saw her and tried to grab her wrist. “No,” she said, looking at the floor. “I’m paid for.” Lettie motioned to Cort. The man looked over at Cort, who fixed him with a glare he hoped would discourage interference. Cort certainly didn’t want to get in any gunfight in a crowed bar. As it turned out, the poker game was more important and the man averted his attention from Lettie to one of the other men, whom he suspected of cheating. Lettie scurried out and Cort returned to his paper.

It was 6:00 by now and the saloon girls were milling about distracting as many half-drunk men as still had money on them.

Cort had studied the men carefully from his practically concealed table. There were actually six men who were associated with the robber he recognized. The others were various ‘guests’ who sat in on the poker games. They had played about ten games thus far.

After a few hours of watching them, Cort eventually learned their names. The robber he recognized from Dodge was Bart Taylor; and he appeared to be the leader. Then there were two brothers Adam and Lee Macomb, Paul Timmons, Bob Dingus, Frank Pratt, and Fred Barnes, who was hairy and greasy enough to fit the prostitute’s description. Next to Bart, Fred and Bob appeared to be the most volatile. As they seemed to be closest to Bart, Cort assumed they were the other two who had robbed the bank in Dodge City.

Even if he could separate those three from the others, they’d be a handful. Unlike their fellow thieves, who got sloppier and more disoriented with booze, these three seemed to get meaner and more focused.

Cort was still pondering over how to handle the situation when there was a loud noise at the poker tables. He saw several men who had been standing and watching back away fearfully.

“Are you calling me a cheater?” demanded Harold, one of the town’s citizens.

“Yeah, I am,” retorted Fred Barnes, jumping to his feet. “I saw you tuck a card up your sleeve!”

“Take off your jacket, Harold,” Bart said in a quiet, but firm voice.

“I won’t! Fred’s got no call to lie about me.”

“If there’s no card up your sleeve, I’ll shoot Fred,” Bart said nonchalantly.

Cort didn’t know if Harold had been cheating. He knew it really didn’t matter. Within seconds, the argument got very ugly. Fred stood and began pulling on Harold’s jacket. “Bart said to get it off!” he yelled.

“I don’t have to,” Harold bellowed, knocking over his chair as he struggled with Fred. “He’s not my boss!”

“All right, you’re all going a little far with this,” Harold’s friend, Jack, protested, getting up.

But Bart was not in any mood and pulled his gun. Immediately, everyone reached for his gun. Instinctively, Cort ducked under the table; the rest of the bar patrons either followed Cort’s example or ran out into the street.

Suddenly there were overturned tables, gunshots, and blood. Cort wondered when the law was going to show up. Within minutes, the rumble was over. He peered out from under the table.

Harold, Jack, and two more of Pottsville’s illustrious citizens were lying on the floor, dead. Bart and the brothers had their guns out. Lee Macomb was winged, and Bob Dingus was missing part of his right ear.

Cort decided to stay under the table. It appeared that when angry, they shot wildly; he knew he heard at least 10 shots and two had whizzed by him.

“Bart, you hit me,” Lee whined.

“Aw, shut up!” Fred snapped, kicking the dead body of Harold. He leaned over and pulled Harold’s jacket off. Up the right sleeve were two aces.

Bob was holding a bar rag to his ear, grinning like a fool. “That was some good fight, Bart,” he said with relish. “What do we do now?” he asked.

“Let’s grab us some whores and go to bed.”

The seven gang members helped themselves to several bottles of whiskey and went upstairs whooping and hollering.

Cort sat down and considered what had just happened. There were seven men to worry about. That was still too many. But he knew what angered Bart and the others, what made them careless. He would find a way to use it to his benefit.

When he returned to his room, he knocked on the door. “Lettie, it’s me.”

She opened it and he slipped in.

“What was all that noise?” she asked shivering.

“There was a little trouble,” he said. “You can take the bed.”

“Oh, no, you have the bed. The couch is fine.”

But Cort ignored her and, removing his boots, lay down and covered up with a spare blanket.

“Do you mind if I leave the lamp on for a bit?”

Cort sat up and looked at her for a moment. She had the same coloring and physical appearance that Loreen had. He instinctively wanted to protect her. “No, it’s not bothering me.” He lay back down and was asleep two minutes later.

*****

The next morning Cort woke early, went downstairs, and sat down to breakfast. He paid it little attention. What started out as a night filled with beautiful images of Loreen—laughing, cooking, sleeping—ended up in nightmares, which Cort couldn’t seem to awaken from.

Lettie heard Cort get up and leave the room. She got the impression he wasn’t a man who indulged in the wares of a prostitute. But, despite his discomfort in the presence of one, his heart moved him to show her kindness. She saw no reason to further embarrass him and pretended to be asleep until he left the room.

There was something else that had happened last night. Lettie awoke to a sound she couldn’t identify. She sat up in the dark and realized it was coming from the couch. It was Cort; he was crying in his sleep. Finally he stopped, sniffling softly. It touched Lettie; she wished she could help him. But, she reasoned, in the morning, she’d have to return to her humiliating job and Cort would ride back to whatever town he came from. If he survived his mission, that is. She knew he had a mission; it was in his blue-green eyes.

*****

Bart woke up in a foul mood. His head felt like a herd of cattle was stampeding inside. There was plenty to entertain him in town, but he was restless, anxious. And it had nothing to do with the gunfight. Bloodshed and violence were an integral part of his life. Some time before the fight, he had felt a presence. It wasn’t a feeling he could explain; and, instead of paying so much attention to the doomed poker game, he wished he had looked around the room. Now it annoyed him. Someone had been watching them. And then there was the fact that Jeb, Tom, and Clem hadn’t shown up yet. Where were they? It was a bad omen as far as Bart was concerned.

He wasn’t waiting around for them. If nobody showed up by afternoon, he would take the men he had and head out. There were plenty of banks, trains, and innocent people waiting to be relieved of their money.

Fred, Paul, Frank, and Bob went to the bar and began the day with a whiskey and a card game.

When Cort finished eating, he contemplated going to the saloon again, but decided against it. He got away with it last night; no sense tempting fate. Maybe he would walk around town for a bit. So far he hadn’t come up with a decent plan. He needed to make some sort of move before they left town. There was no point in risking travel to another town to follow them. Do the job here and now. What was really frustrating was that indecision had never been a part of Cort’s makeup.

Cort snapped to attention at the sound of a cry.

“Leave me alone!”

It was Lettie. Why hadn’t she stayed put, he grumbled, heading in the direction of her voice. Cort saw the two brothers standing next to her.

“Are you free tonight?” Adam sneered. He had her arm in a tight grip.

“Where’s your friend now?” Lee asked. His arm in a sling, he took Lettie’s other wrist and twisted it. “Think you’re too good for us, slut?” Lettie cried out in pain.

Black rage welled up inside Cort. “Get away from her!” he demanded loudly. The timber of his voice startled them. Lettie pulled her wrist free from Lee’s grip. He responded by slapping her. It took all of Cort’s will power not to gun them down.

“Look, it’s her friend,” chided Lee. “We saw her first this time.”

“Yeah,” Adam agreed. “Get your own whore.”

“I-said-to-get-away-from-her-now,” Cort said through clenched teeth. Instinctively, Cort began sizing them up. Could he take them both? Lee had only his left arm; Cort noticed yesterday that he used his right one. He wouldn’t be an immediate threat. But, once he eliminated them, how long would he have before the other five spilled out of the saloon? He’d have to think fast—faster than he’d like to.

“Unless you want to fight for her,” Adam laughed.

“You think she’s worth drawing your gun over?” Lee asked. “That is, if you have one!”

Cort looked at Lettie; she was petrified. Time was ticking and Cort knew he had to make a decision. Cort opened his duster revealing two Schofields, relishing the looks he got as he carefully tucked the sides of his long coat behind the holster.

The thieves realized they weren’t dealing with some poor slob of an ordinary citizen. Still, their cocky egos believed in the old “superiority in numbers” theory and they began to confidently back up, spreading away from each other.

“Get off the street,” Cort barked to Lettie. He glanced at the saloon doors. Fortunately, nobody inside knew what was going on—yet. His strategy was to aim for Adam first, then finish off Lee.

“Come on, cowboy!” mocked Adam. “Do you know how to use those guns?” Cort wasn’t affected by their mocking voices.

Lettie now understood what she could do to help. She made her way to the saloon and reluctantly pushed through the swinging doors. Bart and the others were playing a game of poker. She took a deep breath and slowly moseyed to their table. “Good morning, gentlemen,” she said brightly.

Bart looked up, a cigar gripped tightly in his teeth. He eyed her suspiciously.

“Hey, ain’t you the whore Bart wanted last night?” Frank asked. Bart squinted against the cigar smoke.

“Yes, I am,” she replied sweetly. “Only tonight, I’m yours.”

Bart grinned with his decaying teeth as Lettie shuddered. “Well, honey, that’s real nice. Only tonight, I don’t want you!” he growled shoving her to the side.

*****

“The whore-lover isn’t saying anything,” Adam laughed.

“Scared, whore-lover?” Lee asked. Cort stood there, legs spread apart slightly, thumbs hooked in his gun belt….waiting.

“Any time,” Adam chided. They were feeling a little nervous, as Cort seemed unconcerned with them or anything they said. They wished he’d make a move.

Cort was in no hurry. He knew one of them would have to reach for their gun eventually. And he was correct. Adam’s hand twitched, at the same time Lee clutched his gun. They were disposed of before their brains could complete the action

“What’s going on out there?” Bart yelled.

Fred grabbed him as he hurried towards the swinging doors. “Don’t! You might get shot.”

Bart stopped, listening. It was as quiet as a cemetery out there. Fred crawled to one of the windows, stood, and tried to peek outside. He saw nothing but the bodies of two dead men. “Bart! Adam and Lee are dead!”

“What!” Bart roared, running to where Fred was standing. There was nobody in the street. Every alarm went off in his head. The presence he felt last night was behind this. Who had followed them? Suddenly another thought occurred to him. He scanned the room for Lettie, but she wasn’t there. “Find that no-good slut!” he yelled to Paul Timmons. “I’m gonna cut her tongue out!” Paul went to the bar counter. “No, go upstairs! I’ll look down here!”

“Taylor!”

Bart turned from the bar and walked to the middle of the room.

“Bart Taylor! This is the Marshal of Dodge City.”

For some unexplained reason, a cold chill went down Bart’s back and clutched at his insides.

“I killed Baxter and the other two you rode into Dodge with. Now I’m going to kill the rest of you!”

Bart roared loudly. How dare this lawman murder his men! And now he was threatening him?

“You want me, you come and get me!” was Bart’s reply. “Fred, you and Bob go upstairs with Paul! Frank, get behind the counter.” Bart found a corner table. He sat down, waiting for the swinging doors to open. Five minutes passed and Bart felt a gnawing sensation. It was anxiety creeping in and, knowing it was the lawman’s ploy, he pushed it away.

Bart heard the walk boards squeak and saw one of the saloon doors slowly open. Cort, his right hand still holding his gun, stepped in and surveyed the room. He saw Bart in front of him, tucked in a corner, one hand on the table, the other not showing. Cort assumed it was under the table with a gun at the end of it.

Bart smiled wickedly. “So, Marshal, you followed us. Didn’t think anyone was that conscientious—or that foolish.”

Cort, slowly walked into the bar keeping an eye on Bart. He knew there were at least four more men in there, and the counter was an obvious place of concealment. He moved towards the left, his back almost touching the wall. Cort was pretty sure Bart was prideful enough to want a face-to-face confrontation. What would be the good in boasting about killing a Marshal when his back was turned? His other men, however, had no such qualms.

“Taylor, I’m arresting you for robbery and murder. Put your gun down.”

Bart guffawed loudly. “You musta knocked your head somewhere hard.”

“This badge requires that I be official about your arrest. Naturally, I know you won’t give up your gun. Having said that, I’m unofficially letting you know that I have no intention of bringing you in; I’m killing you right here.”

Bart’s grin was as wide as he could manage. This lawman would be a pleasure to kill. “Why you so intent on finding us? What do you care about money that’s not yours and a few dead people?”

“Because one of them was my wife.”

Bart nodded, smiling. “So, it’s personal. Well, good then. I’ll kill you too; keep it in the family.”

Cort studied him while keeping his ears open for any noises behind the bar. His gun was still drawn, as was Bart’s, he was certain. Bart was waiting for one of his men to make a move; then he’d make his, believing Cort couldn’t handle both of them. Cort looked up the stairs and to the right, along the railing where the hallway leading to the rooms was; nobody was in sight. Cort sighed; gunplay was such a rude game to play with people’s lives. Yet, when he was young and feeling immortal, that’s the life he chose. Only years later did he realize how mortal he really was. Time after time he had cheated death. Would he today?

Cort almost sensed the creaking floorboard before he heard it, but in that tenth of a second, he knew someone was taking the initiative to eliminate him. Within the next tenth of that second, Bart pushed the table over and stood. Cort’s first bullet caught him in the gut, sending him crashing backwards onto another table. Cort fell to the ground and, rolling over to face the bar, shot Frank between the eyes. Half a second later, he heard a gun behind him, and felt the bullet enter his left arm. Someone wasn’t concerned with shooting him in the back, he thought as he rolled again, aiming for the stairs. He caught Bob Dingus in the leg.

Bob yelped, hit the wall and fell, grabbing his leg. “You-you wait! Stinkin’ lawman!” he screamed. “I’ll get you!” He stood on one leg, leaning against the wall, gun still drawn. He stepped closer to the railing so he could get a clear shot at Cort below. But the instant Cort saw his head he took aim. Bob fell through the railing and landed on the piano.

Cort immediately ran behind the counter, knowing there were two more of Bart’s men waiting for him somewhere. Besides, he had to do something about his arm. He crouched behind the counter and examined the wound; the bullet traveled clean through. He untied his bandanna and tried wrapping it around his arm.

“Want some help?”

Cort almost jumped out of his skin as Lettie emerged from one of the liquor cabinets on the floor. “What are you doing here?” he asked loudly, his heart beating wildly.

“I tried to occupy these scrubs while you were shooting out there. But they didn’t want me this time,” she said.

Cort shook the cobwebs from his head; he had to think clearly if he was to get out of this alive. “Tie this up,” he told her.

Lettie took the ends of his bandanna and pulled them together. Cort’s face pinched with pain. “Sorry,” she said. “Should I–.”

“Pull it tighter,” he said through clenched teeth.

Lettie hesitated momentarily; then did as she was told. She saw the sweat forming on his face and her stomach turned.

“Tighter.”

When she was done, he reached for one of the whiskey bottles and unscrewed it. Lettie reached for a clean glass and held it out to him. Cort filled it then put the bottle to his lips and took several large gulps. Lettie sipped from the glass and watched Cort.

“There’s two more of them, you know,” she said.

Cort looked up sharply. “Do you know that for a fact?” he asked quickly.

“Yes; I was here. There was Bart, Paul and Frank, the weasel with half an ear, and the big, greasy one—Fred is his name, I think.”

“Thanks,” Cort said absent-mindedly.

“I’m sorry they did—what they did—your wife, I mean. Cort nodded.

“You’ve got to leave now. I have to finish this,” he said softly.

Lettie was scared. “You’ve killed their boss; can’t you just go back home?”

Cort looked at her, a deep sadness haunting his eyes. “Without her, there is no ‘home’.” He got up slowly and headed for the stairs, gun drawn. There was nobody in view either along the railing or in the hallway. He reckoned they were hiding out in one of the whores’ rooms.

Cort stood at the top of the staircase and glanced to the right, down the hall. All the rooms were shut tight. No one could sneak up on him from the left, so he kept his back there and slowly inched down the hall. When he reached the first door, he put his ear to it and listened. Then, reaching for the doorknob, he pushed it open. Cautiously he went inside. There was no closet, so after Cort checked under the bed, he was satisfied. He picked up the straight-backed chair from the room and placed it in the hall by the stairway. He sat down; he could see downstairs and still watch all the doors. There was no point in playing Russian roulette with the doors; let them come to him.

Cort didn’t have to wait long. After about 20 minutes, the doorknob on the fifth door down jiggled. Cort jumped to his feet and moved the chair back into the first room. He then closed the door all but a hair so he could see outside. If the two would position themselves in front of him by the stairs, he’d have the edge. Cort realized he had to take into account that he had only one arm—one gun.

Sure enough, two sets of footsteps proceeded up the hallway slowly, hitting every squeaky floorboard. Soon, he heard one robber whisper to the other.

“Ya think that lawman’s dead?” They walked to the head of the stairs and stopped.

“Look, Ben, it’s Bart. He ain’t moving.”

Cort’s arm was beginning to burn and the distraction was wearing on him. He tried to block it from his mind. He stepped out from the room he had been in. “Hold it,” he said, gun trained on them. The two men jumped, Paul almost fell down the first step. “Slide your guns over here,” Cort growled. “Slowly.”

They removed their guns and turned to lay them on the floor. But, just as they leaned over, Cort saw something in Paul’s eyes—it was relief. His aching head realized that Paul had called his companion “Ben”. Who was Ben? And where was Fred? Experience and instinct took over and Cort dived for the room to his right. As he was falling, he heard a bullet come from behind him and hit Paul in his chest. To Cort, everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. As his body hit the door, Ben, who still had his gun, pointed it in Cort’s direction. Cort had already squeezed the trigger of his Schofield and Ben fell over, dead.

Cort yelped as his arm hit the floor first. He flipped over to face Fred, aiming his gun at him. The pain and shock affected his aim and his bullet fell short by a hair. Cort just kept pulling the trigger, knowing Fred had the advantage. His third bullet hit Fred in the knee causing his 280 lb body to buckle and fall. The pain was so great that Fred dropped his gun. Amid curses and oaths, Fred tried to maneuver his body to retrieve his gun.

Cort, who hit the floor hard, rolled over onto his back, fighting the blackness threatening to overtake him. He reached for his second gun. Sweating profusely, he tried to pull it out of the holster. He pointed the weapon at Fred.

“Get away from that gun,” Cort said hoarsely. But Fred was in agony and getting madder by the second. “I’ll shoot you,” Cort warned. The words were no sooner out of his mouth when Fred grabbed his gun and prepared to eliminate Cort, who was still on the floor. As dizzy as he was, Cort took aim and fired, the bullet lodging in Fred’s hand. Screaming like a banshee, Fred once more tried to aim at the Marshal. Cort knew he was losing consciousness and had to dispose of Fred. One bullet hit Fred in the shoulder and the other in his neck. When Cort passed out, Fred was still writhing in pain on the floor, totally disabled.

*****

Cort didn’t know how long he lay there, but when he opened his eyes, the concerned face of Lettie was looming over him.

“Are you okay?” she asked. Cort grunted and sat up. “Here.” She handed him a glass of whiskey, which he downed quickly.

Cort noticed that his arm was bandaged. “You do this?” Lettie nodded. “Thanks.” Then he remembered Fred and glanced over where his body was. “Is he dead?”

“Yes. He was in some awful pain.”

“I couldn’t see clear enough to get a good shot at him.”

Lettie snorted. “Trust me, he didn’t deserve a quick death. If he did half the things he boasted about, he got off easy.”

“Where is everyone in this town?” Cort asked. “Isn’t there any kind of lawman here?”

“He usually waits until all the gunfire is over before he appears.”

Cort frowned. “So I haven’t been out that long?”

“No; about ten minutes. How do you feel?”

“I’m fine.” He tried to stand and, if not for the wall to lean on, would have fallen with dizziness. “Now I’ve got to get home and bury my wife.”

“I could come with you. You shouldn’t ride alone.”

“No, you stay here.” But that didn’t sound appealing, even to him. “Isn’t there somewhere you can travel to? Don’t you have family?”

Lettie shook her head. “No, there is no one. Where did you come from?”

“Dodge City.”

“I could come back with you. They must have a brothel there.”

“They’re in every town,” Cort said wearily. Lettie looked down, embarrassed. Cort sighed. “I’m not judging the women who work there. I wish all towns would do away with bordellos and find suitable employment for the women.” Cort tried walking down the stairs. “There must be something else you do well…”

“Not exactly,” Lettie said. “That’s why most prostitutes stay in the business. They need jobs but don’t have any knowledge or education.”

“Well, then they should be given the opportunity to learn something else.” Cort stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Lettie walked over to the bar and stood there, waiting for Cort to leave. But as he reached the saloon doors, he turned. She had a small waist like Loreen…. In spite of his leaden heart, he couldn’t leave her behind. There had to be something better for her in Dodge.

“Are you coming?” he asked.

Lettie’s face lit up and broke into a smile. “Oh, yes! I need to get something! I’ll meet you at the stable!” She ran behind the bar and grabbed a bottle of whiskey. Then, tossing it to Cort, hurried to her room upstairs.

“Take your time,” Cort called after her retreating back. He didn’t feel like rushing. As he stepped outside, he saw people coming on to the street. It was as though the gunfight had never happened. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a badge flash in the sunlight. He casually looked to see a rather obese lawman slowly exit his office, nervously looking from side to side. Cort wanted to walk over there and beat him senseless. How dare he wear a badge. Cort sighed; it wasn’t his problem. As he walked to the stables, he noticed that the whiskey was calming his throbbing arm.

Five minutes later, Lettie appeared with a satchel and a bright red parasol. The sight of it pained Cort’s heart. It was something Loreen would have bought.

“Don’t laugh at me,” she said, grinning. “I went to Boston once and saw it in a shop window.”

“And you had to have it,” Cort finished. Lettie nodded.

Cort mounted and helped Lettie up behind him. She put her slender arms around Cort’s waist as they left for Dodge City.

*****

It took them the better part of three days to make their way back to Dodge. When they camped, Lettie took care of Cort’s wound. There was little conversation between them; Cort’s mood was dark and depressed, and Lettie’s heart ached for him. She imagined that there was an unbearable load on his mind.

On the third evening, they reached the edge of town. Cort stopped Monte and dismounted by the cemetery. “You go on; I have to stay here for awhile.”

Lettie opened her mouth to protest; it was dark and cold and he wasn’t in any condition to be outside. If that weren’t bad enough, it was beginning to rain.

But Cort handed her the reins and turned away. He walked through the stone gateway of the cemetery and stopped. Dodge City may not have had the most modern streets, or its own train station, but it did have a large, well-kept cemetery encircled by a six-foot tall stone wall. Cort assumed that after all this time they would have buried his wife. He had to find her and explain to her where he had been. But he knew how Loreen felt about violence. She would never have approved of this mission he had been on—no matter what his reasons were. The rain was coming harder now and Cort couldn’t see to read the tombstones. Suddenly Cort felt the need to remove her from this dark dismal place. Loreen would have liked the view much better from the mountain range about 20 miles away. There was a small field with a running brook they always picnicked at. He would see to her burial there later.

Cort’s back was against the cold stone wall. He felt weak and tired and terribly alone. His mission was over; there was nothing more to occupy his mind except the realization that his beloved wife was dead. Their house would no more ring with her sweet singing, her absent-minded humming, or her teasing banter. It would never smell like her apple pie or rose water perfume. It would be dead, empty, devoid of any sound except his echoing footsteps and silent tears. He knew he could never set foot in that house again.

Cort hung his head as he slowly slid to the ground. He covered his face with his large hands and wept. His life was over; he knew it.

“I-I can’t go back,” he cried to himself. “Why did she have to die for my sins?” His face was soaked with rain and tears. “Please,” he begged, looking skyward, “if I could trade my life for hers…” Cort knew it wasn’t possible; but his broken heart had a voice, and it needed to be heard. His body shook with wrenching sobs and that’s how Doc Foley found him—sitting against the wall, head buried in his hand, rocking from side to side.

“Cort!” the doctor called out, getting off his buggy. But Cort didn’t hear him. “Cort!” he yelled louder. Cort looked up—a devastating fear on his face. “Cort, you need to get out of this rain!”

But Cort wasn’t anxious to leave the cemetery. It was where Loreen was and he needed to stay with her. “It’s n-not fair! She shouldn’t have to pay for my mistakes.”

Doc Foley crouched down to the younger man’s level. “What are you talking about?”

“My sins. I thought I had been forgiven.”

“Cort, you know you were forgiven. Are you wounded? The young lady said you were shot.”

But Cort pulled away from the anxious hands trying to check his arm. “Leave me! I killed them all; and I’m not a bit sorry.”

“Of course you aren’t. Any man would have done the same thing. Surely you aren’t feeling guilty over their lives?”

Cort shook his head, but wasn’t very focused. He was feverish and found concentrating a strain. “She’ll be mad at me. She hated violence.”

“Heavens, Cort! Do you think she’ll care about any of that! She’s waiting to see you.”

Cort looked up quizzically. “It’s only an arm wound; I doubt I’ll die from it.”

Doc Foley laughed as the rain let up a bit. “Die? Of course you won’t die. That is, if I can get you out of this rain. Now stand up and let me get you in the buggy.”

“No, I can’t go home.”

Doc was really puzzled. “She’ll be mad, but it’s only momentary,” he gently reasoned with Cort. “She’s gonna be a heck of a lot madder if you stay out here and get sick.”

Cort wasn’t sure what was going on. He hadn’t been shot in the head, why was Doc talking to him as though he were dumb. Cort just stared at him, half glaring. “What are you talking about?” he finally demanded. “If I’m not dying, how am I going to know about how mad she is?!”

Doc sat back on his heels, blinking. “What are YOU talking about?” Then, as if a light went on in his head, his countenance changed. “Oh, my! Cort, did you think Loreen was—was.”

“Dead?! Of course, she’d dead. I know she’s dead; I saw her!”

“No. A bullet grazed her head.”

Cort began crying again, his shoulders shaking with the effort. Why was he saying these things? “I-I saw her! Lying in the street.”

“Not dead, though. Merely unconscious.”

Cort staggered to his feet, refusing help from the doctor. Anger and hurt were painted on his face. “Why are you doing this? Isn’t it hard enough?” he choked. “I saw her….lying… in a pool of blood. Th-that didn’t come from any bullet graze!”

“No, no. That wasn’t her blood, Cort. Listen to me. Didn’t you see John Thompson lying next to her?” Cort was leaning against the wall shaking. Doc Foley took him by the elbow and slowly led him to the buggy. Cort shook his head wearily. “Why would I lie to you?”

Cort looked into the face of his friend. But if he wasn’t lying… If he wasn’t lying….Cort felt his knees go weak. If she wasn’t dead…..Cort knew he was slipping away. But he had to hang on. “Are you saying—are you telling me that—?” But his heart couldn’t say the words.

“Yes; she’s alive. Here, get in the buggy.”

The rain had all but stopped and the sun tried to peek through the clouds. Cort’s brain was as numb as the rest of his body. He looked up and saw the biggest rainbow he had ever seen. “Look,” he barely whispered.

Doc didn’t believe he had ever seen such a vivid rainbow. “Let’s go home,” he said to Cort, who was shaking despite the blanket around him.

“Loreen is alive,” Cort said in amazement.

“Yes. A bullet grazed her forehead. You took off in such a blind rage—now I know why. But she was up and around—and pacing—by the second day. She’s been mighty worried about you.”

“Does she know I’m back?”

“No.”

As Cort sat there, half leaning against the side of the buggy, he felt the tension flow from his muscles. He had been running on adrenaline for so long; he couldn’t do it anymore. Cort recognized that Doc Foley was taking him the back way around town. He sighed gratefully; he didn’t want to talk to anyone now.

The buggy jogged along and it got harder and harder for Cort to keep awake. But he fought his body’s willingness to sleep. If Loreen was alive, he was convinced it was only a dream. He had experienced enough of them recently. Sweet dreams snatched away by the light of reality. Eventually, however, his weary brain could no longer keep his eyes open and his body drooped against the side of the buggy. Doc hoped Loreen’s brothers were with her; he wouldn’t be able to get Cort inside alone.

About two minutes before they got to Cort’s house, his eyes flew open. Part of his brain remembered where he was. He also knew he had fallen asleep. Had he broken the spell? He raised his head and turned to see Doc. “Is she still alive?” he asked hopefully.

Doc smiled. “Yes, Cort, she’s still alive.”

Cort breathed a sigh of relief and promptly laid his head against the buggy’s side, returning to a peaceful slumber.

*****

The next time Cort opened his eyes, he was in a dark room. His head was throbbing and his arm had a vague sort of ache in it. At first, he didn’t know where he was. Then it occurred to him that this was his bedroom. Gradually he remembered how he got there. But where was Loreen? He was convinced that it had been another cruel dream and, before he knew it, tears began to creep down his cheeks.

“Cort, honey? What is it?”

A face hovered into view—Loreen’s face! The dream wasn’t over! He stared at her, unbelieving. How could a dream last this long? “L-loreen?” She leaned over and kissed his lips tenderly. “Is it really you?”

“Yes. Doc told me that you thought I was dead. I’m so sorry.” Her voice was a precious sound to his ears; a sound that had always brought him much comfort.

“Are-are you all right?”

“Oh, yes. Just a scratch.”

Cort squeezed his eyes tight, unable to trust his eyes and ears. A tear dropped from his eye to her hand. She brought it to her lips and kissed it. Tears began forming in her eyes; Cort hadn’t been the only one mourning the loss of a spouse. Loreen had been just as certain that Cort wasn’t coming back. He tried to raise himself up but found his efforts were met by a general dizziness. Loreen sat next to him on the bed.

“Lay still. You’ll be fine, but you won’t be getting out of this bed for a few days.”

Normally, he would have protested being “babied”; but the bed felt good and he wanted nothing better than to have the next few days filled with Loreen’s close presence. Cort closed his eyes, unbelievably grateful for this ‘second chance’. “I-I thought I was being punished for my sins,” he said softly.

“What?”

“I thought you were dead because of my sinful life.”

Loreen pulled his head to her shoulder and stroked his forehead. “Cort, you have long since made up for the wrong course of your younger years. Please believe that.”

“I guess getting you is proof of that, huh?” he asked, smiling weakly.

“Yes! Exactly,” she grinned, equally thankful Cort had returned to her alive. Loreen knew he took his job seriously, but she also knew Cort would destroy anyone who brought harm to her. “I’m sorry…I didn’t know you thought I was dead.” How he must have suffered. “My poor darling,” she whispered. Even though Cort was asleep, Loreen sang him a lullaby. Eventually, she fell asleep holding her husband and best friend. When the doctor stopped by to check on Cort, he found them both on the bed sound asleep, smiling.

A week later, Cort was back on duty as Marshal of Dodge City. He found immeasurable happiness in Loreen’s ‘resurrection’, and treasured every moment with her. He never mentioned what happened those days he was gone—even to Loreen; and she never asked. All she knew was that the experience strengthened their relationship. Cort had always been worried about his reputation as a gunslinger; yet, years after he passed on, the people that knew him only remembered the undying love he had for Loreen and the day he left Dodge with revenge in his heart.

***The End***

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