The Cowards of Coyote Crossing
By David P. Barker
Sheriff McShea hated bare-knuckle boxing. He hated seeing grown men that should otherwise be with their families spend money watching other grown men, who should be spending time with their own families, punch each other in the face as hard as they can. It also meant a night he had to spend away from his wife to help make sure it didn’t go too far.
Neither O’Conner or Samson were particularly talented boxers, McShea noted to himself. They were just large men with big fists who could take a beating. There was no sport to them. No practiced movements or grace that one might find in other parts of the world. Goldcreek didn’t get those kinds of boxers, though.
McShea leaned against the bar, his green eyes glued to the roped off portion where two men the size of oxen slugged each other back ‘n forth. He shook his head and took a long drink of the whiskey he held. There was a tug on his arm and he looked down to see the diminutive Mrs. Madden standing there with a panicked look on her face.
“Mrs. Madden, what’s wrong?” Sheriff McShea asked her.
She looked up at the Sheriff. “They shot ‘em, Sheriff. They shot my husband.”
He chewed on the inside of his cheek while he digested what she said. “We best get the doc then.”
“We were just sitting down for dinner when they came in.” Mrs. Madden said after taking a deep sip of her coffee. “They came knockin’ on the door. Bob went to get it and all of a sudden they were in here. They were all beer and skittles, talkin’ about some Acquisitive that Bob stole from ‘em.” She took another drink of coffee. “Sheriff, you’ve known Bob for twenty years. He ain’t ever stolen from anyone. He asks no adds of anyone, he’s a good man. Why would they do this?”
McShea set his hat down on the table in front of her, his eyes glanced from her to Doc Hudkins. The balding doctor was trying to clot Bob Madden’s abdominal bleeding. McShea looked back to the wife. “M’am, is there any information you can tell me about these men? Any at all? What’d they look like? Did they say anything about where they might be headed?”
She took another drink from her chipped coffee cup. Her brow furrows and wisps of newly-gray hair kiss at her eyebrows. “They weren’t particularly remarkable fellows. There was just the two of them. One of ‘em spoke like he’s from back East. Didn’t sound from around here. Both were rather short. The one of ‘em kept callin’ the other Bucky. They kept mentionin’ that they couldn’t wait to hit Coyote Crossing.”
McShea’ eyes perked up. “Coyote Crossing?”
She nodded her head. “Yeah. I don’t know why anyone would want to go there. There’s no railroad or mine or anythin’ like that. Nothing good civilized folks would want. But, I guess civilized men don’t shoot other men over supper.”
McShea leaned back in his chair. “It’s not in this county. Means they’re tryin’ to run. Tryin’ to be among the willows.”
She cocked her head. “I’m at sea, here Sheriff.”
McShea nodded, his thumb and forefinger running across the brim of his hat. “Laws make it to where honest lawmen can’t go into Coyote Crossing for a fugitive. It’s a free zone. Only law there is the law that says men are immune. Means, if I don’t catch ‘em before they get there, they’ll never be caught.”
Outside, McShea tightened the saddle over his horse and Pickett looked at him incredulously. “You’re going to ride after these guys by yourself?”
Sheriff McShea nodded. “Yep. It’s quicker that way.”
Pickett growled and shifted his frame. “And a sure fire way to get yourself killed. You tryin’ to meet your maker?”
McShea pulled his hat off his head and wipes his brow. “These men shot and damn near killed Bob Madden. I don’t have a damn clue as to why, but I know that if they make it to Coyote Crossing, we’re never going to find out why. We’re never going to get justice. That’s not okay with me. So I’m going to ride after ‘em and do my damndest to bring ‘em back.”
Pickett nodded his head as McShea pulled himself up onto the horse. “How do you even know how to find them? They could be anywhere.”
McShea snorted. “If they’re trying to get from where the Madden’s live to Coyote Crossing, there is only one way that makes sense to go – and that’s the Rustbelt Pass. So, that’s the way I’m going to go. If I’m wrong, then damn it all to hell.”
McShea dug his heels into his horse spurring him on faster. The powerful steed worked his thick legs propelling the two of them down the narrow pathway. The frontier was not a place to ride horses in the dark. There was a reason that when the sun went down, most riders made camp. It was hard to see. The rider had to trust his horse to know where to put his feet. The rider had to believe that each step the horse made was going to be true — because if it wasn’t it could spell a whole world of trouble. Sheriff James McShea trusted his horse, Buckshot. He trusted him to be sure footed. He also trusted his instincts, and he trusted himself. He trusted his eyesight in the moonlight. He trusted his knowledge of the path. He had rode this path before. He was bent over, his face next to the thick mane of hair. His hands clutched the reins tightly, his body bounced with each rise and fall of the horse’s gait. “C’mon Buckshot. We gotta catch up to ‘em. We have to.”
As if he understood, Buckshot pushed faster along the narrow trail. His hooves kicked up a cloud of dust behind them as they burst out of the narrow tree lined path into an open clearing. Ahead of McShea, a small fire burned. McShea slowed his horse to a walk.
As he approached the fire, a voice called out from the darkness, “I’d stop right where you’re at, partner.”
The voice strained to say partner correctly, or well, to say it colloquially. McShea almost smiled to himself. “I’m sorry to disturb you stranger. I’m just ridin’ through. I don’t want any trouble.”
“Riding through to where?” A second voice called out. This voice was calmer and less strained.
McShea replied slowly, his eyes trying to find the shadows of bodies in the darkness. Men who were worried where people were going were men who had something to hide. Normal men just out on a trail? They could care less. Normal men wanted to get to their destination safely. They wanted to be home with their wives and kids with supper in their bellies. These were not normal men. “I’m headed to Coyote Crossing. “
“And what bidness takes you there?” The first voice said. His accent was forced and floated through the air unnatural. McShea’ eyes settled on him in the darkness.
“What business is my business in Coyote Crossing of yours?” McShea replied. “I don’t even know who I’m talking to.”
“We’re the ones askin’ questions.” The first voice said, followed up by the faint, but distinct sound of the cocking of a rifle.
The second voice quickly chimed in, as if to settle the tension in the air, “I’m Duke. My friend here with the bad attitude is Sam.” McShea, with his eyes now mostly adjusted and tuned, could see that one man, presumably Duke, was trying to get Sam to lower the rifle. “Don’t let his sourness rub you the wrong way. It’s just been a hell of a night.”
Sheriff McShea sat up taller in his saddle. His eyes danced from shadow to shadow; he was trying to figure out which voice belonged to which man. A situation like this could be tricky. Two men at a distance. Him on horseback, an easier target. “I know that feelin’. Hell, it’s been a damn crazy night for me too. Been ridin’ for far too long.”
“Where you ridin’ from, partner?” The voice that Sheriff McShea determined belonged to Duke asked. McShea let his right hand move, using the cover of darkness to conceal it, to his hip where he slowly pulled his pistol out and rested it on his lap. These were jumpy men. Men too curious to be anything other than men who were up to no good.
“Goldcreek.” Sheriff said, his eyes focused on the man on the left. McShea, with eyes that had spent years riding in darkness after fugitives or escaped cattle could see the rifle that was raised in his direction. He used his thumb to pull the hammer on the revolver back as silently as was humanly possible.
“Why you leaving there tonight?” Sam asked.
“Had some things I needed to take care of. Why are you so worried about my business?” Sheriff McShea replied inquisitively to Sam. His right hand flexed around the handle of his revolver, prepared to raise it at a moments notice.
“’Cause we was just in Goldcreek. We had some… business… there. And we just find it funny that after we took care of the business we needed to take care of that someone from Goldcreek is on the same trail as we are.” Came the reply.
“Well,” Sheriff McShea said as he prepared himself for what he was sure was the inevitable showdown here in the middle of a field in the black of night. Criminals were all the same. Most weren’t very smart. Most thought that small amounts of metal and powder would be their salvation but found only damnation at the end of a barrel or the loop of a rope, “See, these two guys came into my town today and they shot a man in the stomach at his own dinner table. Shot him in front of his wife. The thing is… I don’t really know why they shot him. I don’t know if this man owed them some debt that they were there to collect. I don’t know if there was some sort of wrong that they felt needed to be righted; I don’t know why this man was shot in his own kitchen, but he was. Then, these two sons of bitches took off down the road to Coyote Crossing without standing to tell me why they came into my town and shot a man. See, in Goldcreek, we frown on that.”
Sam fell silent; this wasn’t what he expected – strangers in the nighttime were rarely so confident. Sam was expecting McShea to cower in fear, or to at least not be so blunt about why he was out on the trail. Duke perked up. “So are you saying that we’re the people who shot a man at his dinner table? Say we are, say we’re the men who would go to the house of a man and shoot him in front of his wife. Say we’re the type who would leave a man to die on his own floor. You think that means we wouldn’t be the type of men to shoot a man in an open field?”
“I’m sure you are the type of men to do that. But let me ask you something: if I’m the type of man to ride alone in the middle of the night after two men I know to be armed and dangerous, do you think I’m not the type who can put two men down in the dark from horseback?”
Sam and Duke looked at each other in the darkness. Even with just the moon and stars and flickering firelight to illuminate them in the darkness, McShea could see them exchange looks. Muttered words drifted through the otherwise still night air teasing McShea’s ears. Sam vehemently shook his head no but Duke just nodded up and down.
“What’s it going to be? You want to give it up and ride back to Goldcreek, or do want to die here in a field like an animal?”
The rifle shot landed somewhere in the dirt behind Sheriff McShea, who sat unflinched in the saddle. His hand moves quick and practiced. He rotated the revolver in his hand like it was a part of his body. He fired three shots before the rifle could be reloaded and three holes were blown in Sam’s chest in a straight line. The rifle fell from his hands and clattered to the dirt. Sam’s eyes went wide from shock — both at the fact that he was shot and at the effects of being shot. He followed the path of his rifle.
Sheriff McShea’s hand moved ever so slightly, trained on Duke. Duke’s hands found the sky. “Sorry about your friend there.”
“I didn’t much care for him.”
McShea slid off the back of Buckshot and crossed the distance between the two men. “I’ll send somebody out for his body in the mornin’. Can I trust you to ride beside me or do I gotta string you up and put you on the back of my horse.”
“That’s the right choice. You better hope Bob lives.”
“Or I don’t.”
“The judge’ll make that call.”
© David Barker 2018
David P. Barker is a writer currently living in Los Angeles, California but originally from Indiana. He has also lived in Arkansas and Texas. When he’s not writing, he can be found teaching, or attempting to teach, history to eager young minds.