I find myself in a horseless stagecoach with a notebook in my lap. The cover is blank. I have no memory of who I am. I know nothing beyond the dead brush and prickly pears of this lonely prairie.
Morning sun is fully above the horizon. Wavy heat mirages dance above the autumn wasteland. The stage’s inside, where I currently sit, is already unbearably still, buggy, and hot. I wipe the sweat from my face; the woolen sleeve scrapes the skin. I decide to investigate the notebook while waiting for someone to come.
The desiccated binding makes a cracking sound as I carefully bend it back. The page edges are darkened by ash from an imaginary campfire. I find a few rock-hard biscuits in my pocket and a half-full canteen of water. I chew the edge of a biscuit and listen to the silence between wind gusts. I read the first page.
Billy Bowles paid for space up top as a hanger on. He lay between tied down mailbags keeping him from falling off and landing in dried brush and prickly pear. He was a teenage drifter from Missouri. The product of a well-educated antislavery family, Billy felt ashamed when he witnessed the immoral crimes committed by the fraudulent anti-slavery Red Legs. At the age of fifteen he watched families being murdered by the vile invaders who used the ruse of anti-slavery enforcement to inflict fear and misery on anyone they chose. Cavernous black holes between the eyes of murdered townsfolk filled Billy’s dreams.
The day they came for his father, Billy gathered his critical possessions including the Derringer his grandfather had given him when he was too young to use it. On that same day he kissed his mother goodbye, mounted his chestnut quarter horse, and slowly rode through town. There was nothing else to do, but ride away. His mount whinnied and picked up speed when they passed Billy’s dead father propped up in front of the jailhouse with black bullet hole in his head, both ears taken for trophies, and scalped. A Red Leg held a thirty-inch sword with a score of impaled scalps. Billy watched as the man impaled his father’s scalp, wiping the blood on his face.
He reached the end of town and watched his mother try to resist what was inevitable. She was going to be raped, shot, and scalped. Billy watched the leader throw her to the ground and mount her like a dog. Billy did not need to kick his mount; she had already begun to gallop. The screaming faded with distance, but he feared the memory would never wane.
The following morning Billy woke to granite clouds. He had dreamed of his father’s-imposed philosophy of what it meant to be a good farming man. Billy did not want to be a farmer and he hated rules. None of that mattered now. He turned sixteen two days ago and was on his own. His dead parents would vanish into his uneventful history without imposing guilt. “It’s a dangerous country,” his father once said. “Don’t be cryin’ if me and your mother get killed or other such thing. You take care of yourself. All I ask is you honor the Bowles name wherever you travel.”
Billy’s thoughts were interrupted by voices from below. Inside the coach five fat men discussed their situation, a couple wanting to return to the comfortable East.
“I told you we’d get goddam stuck here,” a voice said loud enough t0 hear over the wheels crunching the withered prairie. “We’re vagabonds in this fuckin hellhole.”
“It’s not so bad,” a second voice said.
“Not so bad? Look around you. This is a goddamn wasteland.”
“A silver wasteland,” the second voice said.
“Well, we better find more—”
One woman also traveled in the coach, alone. She was on her way to visit her estranged mother who lives in Santa Fe.
The passengers had stopped talking. Billy listened and heard the pounding hooves of distant riders approaching from the north. He had overheard some poker players say three riders split from the Dalton gang in Kansas and were headed for New Mexico.
The Reinsman, or Jehu, as they are sometimes called, pushed the team to maintain a steady pace.
Billy searched for his Derringer to ensure himself it was still there in his jacket pocket. It was. The coach lantern provided no light on the trail ahead. The Jehu had to trust his memory and the horses’ senses to navigate the way.
Billy listened. He could no longer hear the approaching hooves.
The three riders hid behind a bluff northwest of the stage with pistols and rifle ready.
A man wearing a duster, rode a quarter mile behind the stage. His belt holster held a Colt Army and his saddle’s rifle holster stowed a Winchester 1873, lever action. He followed the stage like a patient predator. He was a man on one mission and the stage was the bait, although no one including the Jehu nor conductor knew. The man had read about the three gunmen from Kansas. Capturing all three, dead or alive, meant ten thousand dollars. A sizeable sum. And the territory was worth many times more. New Mexico was the hub of lawlessness with every decent gunman looking to cheat at cards, rob banks, holdup stages, and kill if necessary. They were a disease that needed to be cured. He was the territory’s remedy.
A burst of desiccated air blows the notebook closed as if it wanted me to stop reading. The early fall sun is still summer strong. It sits high overhead, building thermal layers for the hawks and buzzards. I hear gunshots in the distance, but no evidence of riders. And who is the duster man?
I sip from the canteen to help push the sand-like crumbs from the biscuit down my throat. Someone should be coming soon.
I read until dusk, slam the notebook shut, and gaze into the diminishing orange. A figure walks through my vision, stops, looks at me, and moves from my sight. I could be dreaming; it is becoming difficult to know. I rest on a mailsack and see the figure again. It is a wolf. My pounding heart wakes me. Crickets chirp.
After sunset, only two eyes shine through the black. And then howls fill the air. Quakes of fear rumble through me until I remember what a Missouri mountain man once said. “Wolves don’t attack us, they protect us.”
The duster man knew there was quite a bit of jewelry and cash on persons in the coach. Also, a trunk with more valuables was in the rear boot. The man’s experience told him this was the perfect stagecoach to ambush. The Jayhawkers were about to become road agents in New Mexico.
The duster man listened.
Wheels and hooves approached the bluff from the southeast. Multiple shots cracked the air. One man armed with a Henry repeater shot out the lantern and began firing at the horses. The other two fired their Colt revolvers in the direction of team. Panicked horses forced the Jehu to pull hard on the lines. The Jayhawkers sprayed the four horses with enough lead to sink a ship. Ears and eyes flew into the night with trails of blood. They were dead on their hooves.
Quickly holstering their weapons, the Kansas men mounted up and galloped toward the stage.
Duster man stopped and dismounted. His horse stood motionless. He sat on a boulder and listened to the hooves and shots. He had never known a Jayhawker, but it did not matter. Outlaws broke laws and bounty hunters caught them, dead or alive.
Billy Bowles remained in hiding among the mailbags, straining to see how many gunmen there were. The horses continued to bleed out. Both the Jehu and conductor jumped from the box and hid behind one of the dead horses. Their eyes fixed north.
“Conductor!” a man inside barked.
“Shut the fuck up! Keep yer heads low, below the windows!” the conductor yelled back.
Billy lifted his head. Three clouds of dust trailed three riders rapidly approaching. When he saw their weapons, he knew they were facing road agents.
“Howdy!” one of the three said.
“You shot our damn horses!” the conductor shouted with twelve-gauge Hartford shotgun loaded and ready.
The Kansas man looked at the rider to his left. “Was that you Jude shootin’ them horses?”
“Not me, Charlie.”
Charlie looked at the rider to his right. “Was that you Henry shootin’ them horses?”
“Not me, Charlie.”
“Seems it weren’t us,” Charlie said, then spit. “We’re jest some poor boys from Kansas lookin’ for some help. Maybe ask you kind New Mexicans for a few dollars so’s we can eat.”
The three men laughed.
The conductor had little choice. He could blow one man off his mount but would surely be shot immediately by the other two. He did not want to die as he had so many times in his nightmares. But he was paid to protect the paying customers and the valuables.
“You bastards killed our team and yer gonna pay for it!” the conductor shouted.
“Calm down now, mister conductor and slide that shotgun over to Jude, nice and easy,” Charley said.
The conductor cocked both barrels.
“Let’s all jest calm down,” the Jehu said with hands raised.
“Okay, Mister Jehu, ain’t you responsible for the passengers’ wellbein’?” Charlie asked with a stained smirk. “Cause if y’are, then you better throw that Colt to me and tell your conductor to slide his shotgun to Jude. Otherwise, can’t say what might happen.”
“We’re expected in Santa Fe by nightfall,” the Jehu said.
“One more time, Mister Jehu, and Mister Conductor, throw me yer weapons or get shot. It’s as simple as that. We’ll be long gone before anyone in Santa Fe gets word of our little robbery here.”
The wolf was gone the next morning, but I had a feeling he would be back. I read through the day with the cry of hunting raptors as music. The steady wind keeps them aloft indefinitely while their eyes focus on the prey below.
The sun begins to turn orange. I realize this horseless stage will be my home another night with nothing but the last of the biscuits, water, and oil lantern.
I break off small biscuit pieces and eat them without wasting water. Crumbs, like microscopic sponges, steal what moisture is left in my throat. I gag and throw up the saturated bits.
The pages beg me to begin reading again. Turning to the next page is what keeps me sane in this wasteland.
I light the wick.
I see the eyes.
I am safe another night.
Billy remained undetected. His sweaty hand gripped the Derringer. He doubted these gunmen wanted mail. They wanted money and jewelry. He thought about being a hero, but with only two shots and probably missing with both, his death would be assured. He kept his head down and listened.
The Jehu surrendered his Colt.
“In Kansas, we riders generally take what we want with the Law nippin’ at our butts,” Charie said. “I don’t see much law here in these parts to stop us. So folks, this is what I want ya t’do. Empty all yer pockets n bags and place them by Jude here.”
“Perhaps, Madam, you will come out first?” Charlie said and nodded to Jude, who opened the door and pulled the woman out with such force she lost her hat and tripped to the ground, skinning her knees through brand-new silk stockings.
Charlie dismounted yanked the sobbing woman up by the collar. “No need to cry, I’m not plannin’ to hurt ya. Jest hand over all yer jewelry n what cash you’re carryin’.” She fell back to ground and surrendered to Jude.
“We’ll git yer jewelry after,” Jude said and began to unbuckle his trousers.
Billy heard a faint sound from behind. Steady crunching of corn-kernel dirt grew louder until it stopped. A new voice sounded in the dead air. “I don’t think so.”
Billy took the gamble and raised his head.
Everyone stared at the new man with the baritone voice.
“Who the hell’re you?” Charley asked.
The man looked at each gunman with friendly eyes and chiseled jaw. His long coat was his calling card.
“Name’s John Stanton. You’d know me if you were outlaws in this territory.”
“We heard about you and yer duster roamin’ these parts, but you ain’t got business here,” Charlie said and spit some chew.
“But I do. I’m plannin’ on takin’ you boys back to Kansas and collectin’ my ten grand.”
No one said a word. The Jayhawkers appeared uneasy.
“Dead or alive, your choice,” Stanton said.
“Jest how’re ya gonna pull that off Mister—?”
John Stanton did not answer. Billy watched an explosion of bullets as the bloodbath unfolded.
Charlie fired at Stanton, missed.
The wayward bullet tore into the woman’s gut. Blood shot from the black hole.
The Jehu shot his pistol at Charlie who had re-cocked and returned fire.
The Jehu fell to the ground, rapidly staining the brown dirt scarlet.
Stanton fired his .44 caliber Army at Charley. His knee shattered into a spray of bloody bones. Stanton’s next shot exploded Charlie’s shooting hand, propelling his pistol into the darkness.
Standon obliged Jude and Henry with their own shot-up knees.
The three Jayhawkers fell from their saddles. Cries of pain filled the camp.
It had all happened in an instant. Billy’s heart pounded so loudly he could barely hear the shots.
“Reinsman’s been hit!” the conductor yelled.
The men stood over him and heard the gurgle of death. He stared straight up. Billy imagined how the stars might look to a dying man. Maybe a person can take one final memory to the next life.
Billy shook his head. Can’t be thinking of that now. With a burst of bravery, he jumped down and walked toward the crying woman.
“Where’d you come from?” Stanton asked.
“Hanger on…sir. The woman needs help, I think.”
“What’s your name?”
“Casper William Bowles, known in these parts as Billy Bowles.”
“Never heard of ya. Go see on her,” Stanton said.
Billy looked at a terrified conductor and five trembling male passengers. Their situation offered only one option, wait for the next stage, and hope these passengers could hang on until then.
“Can I please have your attention?” Stanton shouted. “We need to discuss a plan.”
“Plan?! He ain’t got no plan!” Charley screamed. “Yer all gonna die with us!”
The Jayhawkers’ cries echoed down the gulch.
“You know what they say in this territory, Charley? Shoot a man in the head or heart if you wanna killim. Shoot’em in the knees if you wanna hearim cry,” Stanton turned to the panicked passengers. “Pay him no mind. I’m takin’ him and the other two back to Kansas. They’ll be facin’ the hangin’ tree soon enough. I’m plannin’ to leave within the hour.”
“What about us?” one of the male passengers asked.
“Next stage should have room up top,” the conductor said.
Billy sat with the injured woman. He felt embarrassed. His hair was too long, and he needed a bath. It did not matter; she paid him no mind.
The dim lantern light tires my eyes. Early morning, before first light, chilled desert breezes snake through the coach. I mark my place and close the notebook. It comes to mind that I have not yet searched the surroundings. I pull all the mailbags from under both coach benches. The gold lever of a new Winchester 1873 reflects the lantern light. A woman’s handbag was hidden behind the gun. I open it and find a few pounds of gold jewelry, one-hundred twenty-dollar Double Eagle gold coins, and an unknown amount of paper currency.
Are all these valuables under my charge? Is someone coming with a team to move this stage?
I lie back and listen to the distant howl of a wolf, possibly the same one I’ve seen. The one who is watching over me.
The sun is high when I wake. The air is still and fouled by rotting horses. In the distance I hear hooves.
The sound tells me there are two horses coming toward the stage. I load the shiny Winchester with fifteen rounds and wait. Then I listen again, only wind. I rest my head on a mail sack and close my eyes. The wind stops, revealing the crunch of boots on the gravely prairie. My mind is fatigued and cannot be trusted. I lie again on the sack. More gusts blow through the coach.
Then the wind stops.
“What’s this, Frank? A brandy-new stage with a dead team.”
“Never seen nothin’ like it, Tommy.”
“I’ll check it,” Frank says.
I hear a man cock his revolver and dismount. I stay inside the stage.
“Well, howdy. Waitin’ for someone?” Frank asks.
It is my move. Pounding heart, sweaty hands, and no experience firing a Winchester, I must hide everything I am feeling. What I say next could mean my life.
“Maybe I was waitin’ for you two,” I say with the strongest voice I can muster.
“How’d you know we was comin’?”
As I suspect, they are not the brightest thinkers. “Word’s out you two were hangin’ around the territory. I’m here to protect what’s in this stage.” I suspect one man protecting a loot hidden in a grounded stage is irresistible to them. But I’m a wild card they weren’t expecting.
“Who the hell’re you?” Frank questions me. I see anger through the dripping sweat stinging his eyes.
Memories of the past two days do not include my name. I pick the first one that comes to mind under the stress of the situation.
“Name’s Billy Bowles.”
“Bowles? The same Bowles who knows that bounty man, John Stanton?”
“The same,” I lie, playing along. I’ve never met a John Stanton, bounty hunter.
“Listen, Mister Bowles, we don’t want no trouble. You can keep that there Winchester where it’s at, and we’ll be off. Tell Mister Stanton we was jest visitin’.” Frank says. He nods to Tommy.
I watch both men kick their mounts and head north.
The scene plays over and over in my mind. My alleged association with a bounty hunter is all that saved me.
Once calm, I find the pages.
The ensuing stage was scheduled for noon the next day. John Stanton had already left for Kansas with the three broken outlaws. He spoke to Billy before leaving.
“We need to talk.”
Billy knew bounty hunters could be just as dangerous as road agents and gunmen. He was not sure if he should feel fear.
“The conductor is a coward,” Stanton whispered. “Watch him.”
“Mister Stanton, I’m not sure if—”
“—no time for that now. Listen to me. The gold and other valuables will have to stay with the stage until another carriage with room can take them.”
“When will that be?” Billy asked.
“Can’t say. Let the others go. You gotta stay with the valuables until they can be retrieved.”
“Why me? I can’t shoot. And all I have is my Derringer,” Billy said.
“Look around. Who else besides you?”
Billy watched the bounty hunter gather the reins of the three horses carrying three whimpering Jayhawkers. They disappeared into the lawless night “Search the coach!” Stanton shouted to Billy.
The conductor and the five male passengers argued in loud whispers. Billy continued to sit with the woman. Blood slowly spilled from her stomach.
“You, there! Hanger on—”
“Name’s Billy Bowles.”
“Yeah, Bowles, we have a plan,” the conductor said.
“Did the plan come from Mister Stanton?” Billy asked.
“I’m the conductor and without our Jehu, I’m now in charge.”
“I don’t care what you all do. Mister Stanton told me to guard the valuables until a proper carriage could be dispatched from Santa Fe. And that’s what I plan to do.”
“Well, we plan to hop onto the top of the next stage,” the conductor said.
“What about the woman?” Billy asked.
“The plan doesn’t include her. Anyway, she’s just a rich whore who bought herself a seat inside the coach. She don’t deserve a space. Besides, she’s been hit. She ain’t long for this world.”
Billy looked at the woman. Her head had fallen into her lap. Black blood dried on her stockings. She was also bleeding from her gut; crimson stained her dress.
The men went their separate ways to sleep the remainder of the night.
Billy turned toward the woman. “How bad is it?”
She shook her head.
“May I ask your name…please?”
The woman looked at Billy with swollen eyes. “Margaret.”
“Show me where you were hit.”
Margaret opened her shawl. Billy saw a black hole in her stomach oozing too much blood.
“Is there anything I can do to make you feel better, Miss Margaret?”
“I’m terrified and dying and in too much pain to cry. But my mother is expecting me. Are you going with the others?”
“I’m staying with the stage. Stanton’s orders. You can stay with me.”
He told her the bleeding seemed to have stopped. He assured her she would be fine until they made it to Santa Fe. He lied, but what did it matter? Billy doubted the woman would live to see the next stage.
“Tomorrow a stage will come?” Margaret asked.
She handed him an addressed envelope for a house in Santa Fe. Inside was a letter. “I wrote this to my mother just in case—”
“—something like this happened.”
“Yes, you understand. If you are saved and travel to Santa Fe, would you mind giving her this short missive?”
Billy saw the pain in her eyes. He stowed the letter in his breast pocket and waited for death to arrive.
The wolf howled. Billy hoped it would take Miss Margaret to a better life.
When the sun began to heat the air and the flies became a morning nuisance, the five men, and conductor pissed in unison a few yards from the stage.
Margaret stared into the morning light; the wolf had not taken her.
No one spoke.
When the sun reached zenith, wheels and hooves sounded from the east.
“I see dust!” one of the men shouted.
Wheels and hooves grew louder. Gusty wind blew dust into everyone’s eyes. The Reinsman’s voice could be heard slowing the team until the stage came to a stop.
“You the folks we need to carry?” he asked.
“We’ll ride up top,” the conductor said.
“That’s the only room we got,” the Reinsman said.
“What about the woman?” Billy asked.
“No room,” the conductor said. “She ain’t gonna make it anyway.”
The stage left.
Margaret lay on her side, blood still seeping from the bullet wound in her stomach.
“Let me move you closer to the stage,” Billy said. He dragged her limp body over the brush while she moaned. He positioned her out of the sun and wet her lips with his canteen water.
Tireless buzzards circled the dead horses.
“Do you have a gun?” she asked.
Billy could not answer her. He knew she was in too much pain to continue the slow death she was facing. And he suspected she wanted him to take her out of her misery as if she were a mount.
“Do you have a gun!”
After a long pause, “I do, Miss.”
“How many bullets?”
“Only two in my Derringer.”
“Would you be so brave as to use one on me?” Her swollen eyes begged him.
“I’ll get you to a doc—”
“—too late. No one survives a bullet in the stomach.”
Billy never had a reason to kill another person. And even if he did have a reason, his trigger finger might still resist.
“Let me get you inside.”
“Please, shoot me between the eyes and get it over with. The pain—”
Billy removed the Derringer in his pocket. He looked at Margaret and saw a black hole. The Derringer slipped from his nervous hand and fell to the ground. She was asking him to be a murderer.
He knelt to retrieve his gun. “I don’t know if I can do this—”
“—you must!” Margaret screamed. “Please,” she whispered.
What choice did he have? What choice did she have? He aimed his Derringer, unconvinced finger touching the trigger. His dead father’s black bullet hole filled his vision. Then he saw Margaret’s unblemished forehead.
“Please God, if you’re up there, you know I have no choice.”
Sweat dripped into his eyes.
He held his breath.
He closed his eyes—
He opened his eyes and stared at the black hole in her forehead knowing he was a murderer regardless of her sanction.
The chapter ends. My stomach growls for meat. I have been feeling unsteady of late. I know I’m dehydrated, but with only half a canteen left I should conserve. Funny, it seems to never empty, although I know I’ve been drinking from the canteen for almost three days.
The last pages beg me to finish.
Billy dropped the Derringer, fell to his knees crying as a baby. Her face and his mother’s merged somehow. He had saved Margaret from unbearable pain and should have saved his mother from the rape. He wished he had shot his mother between the eyes. He pictured how her face would look with the hole. He placed a blanket over Margaret and retired to the coach, wondering how he would live with this crime he had committed.
He drifted into a daydream with a never-ending dead people’s parade, everyone’s forehead decorated with an oozing, cavernous, black bullet hole.
The wolf’s cry startled him. He could not remember where he was. The sun had almost disappeared, replaced with a full Moon. Tripping from the coach and skinning his knees, a reflection caught his eye. He turned and saw a silver broach pinned to a dead woman. Between her eyes was a bullet hole.
Who was this woman?
Who shot her?
Billy stumbled to the coach, unable to breath, heart pounding in his ears.
I read through the night. The horror Billy had to endure feels personal. When dawn finally arrives, I know I must leave the coach and evaluate my chances of survival. Another stage should have already come but has not. I look up and wonder if the buzzards are waiting for me to die.
I open the coach door. Blustery morning wind greets me. The reflection from a silver broach blinds me. A blanket partially covering something leans against the stage. The pop of a discharged Derringer strikes my ears. The image of a woman about to die flashes in front of me. I pull the blanket off a woman’s body with a black hole in her forehead.
Billy’s water ran out. Ants stole what was left of the biscuits.
He prayed to hear the baritone voice again.
He listened for wheels and hooves.
I listen for wheels and hooves.
My canteen is dry. Ants have taken my biscuits. A dead woman leans against the stage.
I sit next to her, and stare, in horror, at the bullet hole between her eyes, knowing I too will soon be dead.
A shadow blocks the unrelenting sun. A man in a duster kneels at my side. He wets his neckerchief and places it on my forehead. I try to decide if this is death.
I remember the notebook has a man in a duster.
I remember hiding among mailbags as a hanger on.
I remember the duster man saved the stage from Jayhawker road agents.
I remember ending Miss Margaret’s suffering.
I remember his name, John.
I remember my name, Billy, Billy Bowles.
“It’s over. I’ve brought a carriage.”
I remember a carriage was supposed to come.
“I murdered Miss Margaret,” I say. “Murder” is a word I have never said out loud.
“That’s and unfair word, Billy. You did what I’m sure she asked you to do.”
I rest against the broken stage next to Margaret. Maggots blanket the fallen team. John Stanton moves Margaret’s body to the carriage. Then he lifts my dehydrated body over his shoulder and deposits me next to the trunk full of valuables hidden in the rear boot. The two-horse team responds to John’s encouragement with a spirited pace.
“What’s next, John?”
“That’s up to you, Billy.”
And then I remember the last piece; the one I need to close the circle. The whole story is up to me, and I have not yet written the final chapter.
Kenneth is a writer of short stories. His publications include science fiction and period fiction. He lives in Denver, Colorado with his family.