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Western Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Overbearing sun; excessive heat and blinding light reflecting off the yellow and red baked earth. A plateau in the distance, weary lizards laying on rusty boulders in the foreground, cactuses reaching for the sky. The essence of burnt dirt fills the air that does not move. The snake rattles it’s warning as a black horse, foaming at the mouth, stumbles along the rocky terrain. A stranger in black and a Navajo covering hangs limp in the saddle. He doesn’t remember the last time his face saw a razor, or his belly a meal, but his most desperate need now is water.


He took a man’s life, you see, in a quarrel he didn’t start, over a woman of course. She was the mayor’s daughter, betrothed to the sheriff, and how was he supposed to know, there was no ring on her finger. She was a Jezebel of sorts, wily in her ways, and beautiful to boot, a real temptress. Her hair was fire and her eyes sapphires. There was nothing modest in her appearance. When the piano man played, she displayed it playfully with song and dance and seemingly innocent touches. He was bewitched and took her as one of the innkeeper’s girls. She took him upstairs without protest.


You see, word gets around in a small town, especially when the sheriff’s bride to be intends to bed another man. The sheriff knocked the door off its hinges in the middle of their affair and pulled that man up by his hair. They beat him down the stairs and across the street to a jail cell where he spent the night. There was not going to be any judge or jury for this man; no law was broken. No, things were going to be settled the western way, you see. He was to be given a six-shooter with one bullet and meet his fate with the sheriff in the street at noon.


Around five ‘til, the deputy pulled him out of his cell into the bright light. He squinted at the riled-up crowd that came to heckle him and throw their rotten produce. The sheriff stood ready with the church behind him. Our man was shoved into the street with the bank and its clocktower behind him. They both stood there staring at each other, waiting for that minute hand to strike noon.


As soon as the clock struck noon, they both fired. The sheriff fired wide, and our man’s gun only clicked. It was an empty chamber. The sheriff kept moving closer and closer, firing as he did. Our man kept dunking and weaving, pulling the trigger to the sound of empty clicks. The sheriff was on top of him and stopped walking. He aimed straight for our man’s head. Our man gave his trigger one last desperate squeeze and shot the sheriff straight in the heart. As the sheriff fell to his knees, our man wiped his brow and sighed with relief. But the townsfolk were fit-to-be-tied. He grabbed the nearest horse and rode it hard into the desert.


Now, as he swims in and out of consciousness, he wonders to himself if a bullet would have been a more merciful fate. No sooner does he wonder this; he falls off his horse. His horse walks a few more feet, screams in a way no man has ever heard a horse scream before, and collapses dead in front of him.


In the distance, just beyond the mirage of water that heat creates just to torment the hot and thirsty, he sees buildings. They’re faint, but there is no mistaking the church with its steeple and cross. Out of the mirage he sees a rider on a wagon appear, heading towards him and he laughs joyfully. He raises a hand for the carriage to stop and the driver, a priest, does.


“My word son, what sins did you commit to find yourself in such horrible circumstances?”


“Water,” is all he could say.


“I’m on my way to a wedding and it is a long journey. I’m sorry to say I need my water. You’re in God’s hands now. May he forgive you your sins,” the priest says as he climbs back onto his wagon and rides off.


Our man lays there, his hat off to the side, the sweltering heat shriveling him up like a prune, the sun burning his face. The cries of vultures circling overhead reminding him his time is near.


He’s awakened by the snorting of a horse, one pulling a fine-looking carriage. The driver spits a brown stream of tobacco on the ground next to him as a finely dressed man exits the carriage. With a disgusted look and pompous tone, he asks, “What crimes did you commit that you would run yourself through the desert so hard you killed your horse?”


“Water,” is the only word he can force from his parched throat as he clenches at the dirt and gravel, hoping to pull himself up. His arms and legs fail him.


“Water? You should have thought about that before doing whatever it is you’ve done. I’m not sparing a drop.”


Our man uses all his strength to reach out to the other man, a desperate plea for help. The other man slaps his arm away. He kicks gravel in his face to the amusement of his driver and returns to his carriage. They ride away in a cloud of dust.


Along comes an old man on a horse who stops when he sees our man. The old man rushes off his horse to see if the man is still alive. Our man cracks his dry, bloodshot eyes open so the man knows he is still alive, but he cannot say a word. The old man hurries to his horse and comes back with skin full of water. “Easy now. Little sips,” he tells him as he pours the water over his chapped, crusty lips.


Our man wakes up on a little bed inside a little shack with a cup of water sitting on the table next to the bed. He gulps it down hurriedly and wipes his chin. His head hurts and his muscles are cramping. He has no idea where he is or how he got there. He steps outside onto the porch. The night air is cool and there is a slight breeze. The old man is sitting in a rocking chair with a bottle of whisky, listening to the clamor in the town down below.


“Good, you’re awake. I was beginning to wonder if you ever would. Name’s Jed. Jed Lincoln.”


“John. John Mathews. How did I get here?”


“Him,” Jed says pointing at the painted gelding freely grazing in the front yard. “It took some doing, but I got you on him, then he did the rest of the work. You’re lucky. I was on my way to my granddaughter’s wedding when I found you. Had they not decided to get married on Miller’s Ridge, nobody would have found you.”


“I’m sorry you missed your granddaughter’s wedding.”


“Nah, she’ll understand. If she doesn’t, I’ll teach her.”


“Well, I can’t thank you enough, Jed. This won’t be forgotten, and it will be repaid.”


“There’s no need for repaying. I’d like to think someone would do the same for me if I was stuck out there like that.”


“At least two people passed me by that I know of. I was in and out a lot. Do you even want to know how I ended up there.”


“Son, we all have a past, you see. It doesn’t matter how you got there. You were there. Now, I think its best you stay on for a while so you can get your strength back. There’s half a chicken in there for you with some bread and a pitcher of water. You can start there. I’m just sitting out here listening to the townsfolk celebrate if you want to join me.”


John stays with Jed for three days, resting up. Then he goes into town where he gets a job washing dishes at the tavern. It doesn’t take long before he has enough money to buy himself a horse and he is gone. A month goes by, and old Jed forgets all about John until he comes riding up the trail in a wagon. John carries a big chest into Jed’s little shack of a home and sits it down on the table, the wood creaking under its weight. He pops it open. Inside is a hundred pounds of unrefined gold he had dug up himself, back before all the trouble started.


“I told you I wouldn’t forget and that I would repay you. Now if you don’t mind me unhitching my wagon, I have some more repaying to do.”


John rides his horse into town and ties him up outside the tavern. He goes inside and haves himself a nice steak dinner and a few drinks before throwing a few extra cents on the bar and asks where he might find the richest man in town, a portly fellow with a thin mustache that rides around in a carriage.


“That would be our mayor. He lives down on the corner. It’s a big three-story home, stands out like a sore thumb. You can’t miss it, but he doesn’t take kindly to strangers.”


“We’ve met. I owe him a calling.”


“Getting awfully late for a calling, don’t you reckon?”


John doesn’t say a word. He just tips his hat and leaves. He mounts his horse and makes his way slowly down the dirt road as folks light the lamps outside their buildings.


The barkeep was right, the place does stand out. A big yellow Victorian style house trimmed in white with a white picket fence and sod the mayor had imported from somewhere takes up about half an acre at the end of the street. John ties his horse to the fence and makes his way up the concrete steps. He knocks on the fancy white door and a servant lady answers. He shoves his way past her, the mayor shouting, “How dare you barge in here…”


John storms around the mayor’s family at the dinner table and grabs the man by his fat throat, staring him straight in the eyes. “Do you remember me? Do you?”


The mayor's face is red. He shakes his head no.


John shoves him back into his chair and pulls his gun out. “One month ago, you were on your way to a wedding, and you refused a dying man water. Now do you remember?”


“Of course, you were that miserable vagabond who killed his horse. Look at you. You’re fine. Why don’t you stay that way and leave,” the mayor says, rubbing his neck.


“The devil always collects his due,” says John, and he puts a bullet in his head, blood splattering on the elegant floral printed wallpaper on the wall behind the mayor.


John leaves the house and saddles back up. Slowly he heads in the other direction. Darkness falls over the town. Neither moon nor star shines, just cracks of lightning in the distance splintering off in every which direction like tree branches from hell.


The town's sheriff meets him outside his office in the middle of town with the mayor’s wife on his arm.


“That’s the man,” she says.


“Mister, I’m going to have to ask you to come down off that horse.”


Without losing stride, John shoots the sheriff in the head and makes his way to the church.


The church is a white one-room chapel with stained glass windows, a steeple, and a cross. There’s a graveyard with a wrought iron fence around the side that can be seen during flashes of lightning. John ties up his horse out front and enters through the heavy, red double doors.


“May I help you my child,” the priest asks from behind the pulpit where he is practicing his sermon for the next day.


The room is lowly lit, just a few candles in sconces light the sanctuary. “Do you recognize me, father?”


“Not at this distance,” the priest says, rounding the pulpit. “Come closer.”


The priest and John meet halfway through the sanctuary. The priest’s expression turns to one of recognition and fear. “I see God was with you that day my son.”


“But not with you father. The devil always collects his due.”


“Please,” the priest says, dropping to his knees, “whatever happened that day happened because it was the lord’s will.”


John pulls out his gun, aims it at the priest's head, and cocks the hammer.


The priest begins to pray. “As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I…”

February 22, 2024 09:18

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10 comments

Graham Kinross
13:34 Mar 13, 2024

This is a great moral story. Really well painted, vivid setting. Punchy ending.

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Kristi Gott
00:50 Feb 23, 2024

Amazing creative imagery and sensory details drew me into the story and I felt I was there too. It was like a vivid movie in my mind. Great imagination! I enjoyed reading this. Looking forward to reading more of your stories.

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Ty Warmbrodt
00:54 Feb 23, 2024

Thank you,Kristi. Your feed back always means a lot:-)

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Trudy Jas
20:08 Feb 22, 2024

Moral of the story! Maybe the lord helps those who helps themselves, but the Devil helps those who help him and takes his pay from the ones who don't. Wonderful images, geat pacing. Since you have time, look at the scene in the major's house. It felt like you might have missed a word or two.

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Ty Warmbrodt
20:58 Feb 22, 2024

I might have failed with this story. I was aiming for the lord rewards those who helps others regardless of how they got in the predicament they are in, but the devil comes calling for those who turn a blind eye on a person in need. I think I improved the scene in the mayor's house. Thanks for pointing that out. Time is something I have too much of. Thanks for reading and the feedback.

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Trudy Jas
21:14 Feb 22, 2024

I think the story can be taken either way. Of course, Jeb is the Samaritan and got rewarded. And yes, the others will pay for turning a blind eye, but should the man do the devil's job? Greater minds than mine have debated this point for centuries. And finer religious points do not take away from the flow of the story.

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Mary Bendickson
19:53 Feb 22, 2024

Just what those three needed---another hole in the head.

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Ty Warmbrodt
20:58 Feb 22, 2024

LOL

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Stella Aurelius
12:00 Feb 22, 2024

Another brilliant and engaging one, Ty. I love the sensory detail you put in this. Great pacing too. Great job!

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Ty Warmbrodt
12:18 Feb 22, 2024

Thanks, Stella. I always appreciate your feedback :-)

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