by Graham B.
A law man travels a long way to collect a fugitive.
| The mourning tree at Cactus Hill cemetery beckoned wearily in the prairie wind to Martin as he slowly rode up the hill. Martin squinted, and the tree came fully into focus, glowing slightly red in the sunrise. Below the tree's branches, gravestones jutted like teeth.
What a cruel joke, thought Martin, to have chase Henry from Kentucky, through hostile Comanche territory, only to end up here at the man's grave.
Martin dismounted, and threaded his way through the dusty gravestones until he found the one that the newspaperman at Cactus Hill had told him about:
HERE LIES HENRY BRENNAN, OUTLAW,
RANCH HAND, HARD DRINKING BASTARD,
GONE TO MEET HIS MAKER
AND HIS JUST REWARD.
1856 - 1889
Martin removed his hat and beat the dust off it. He looked back and the distant town, trying to see who might be out and about, and cursed his failing vision. But the gravestones still stood out clearly to him, silent witnesses to the internment of his quarry. End of the line.
Something moved in the distance. Martin squinted again, and finally made out a short, stocky man in working clothes, dragging a wooden cart behind him. The man slowed a bit as he pulled his cart up the hill, and Martin saw flowers in pots, and some gardening tools. The man hauled his cart into the cemetery and stopped, wiping his sweaty brow with his sleeve.
"Morning to you, mister," he said.
"Morning to you. Are you the caretaker?"
"That I am," said the man. "Caretaker, undertaker, oathtaker, you name it. Today's the day I put flowers on Missus Meechum's grave, just like her estate says. It's her birthday, you see."
He pulled a pot of petunias and a pot of marygolds from the cart and scuttled over to an ornately carved gravestone which was topped with an angel.
"Happy birthday, Missus Meechum," said the man, placing his flowers at the foot of the plot and executing an elaborate bow. "Your daughter will be along 'bout noon, just like before."
He wiped his forehead again and turned to Martin.
"Name's Curly Mike," he said, gesturing toward his nearly bald pate. "Some call me the Holy Concierge, this being my hotel and all."
Curly Mike guffawed and waved expansively at the graveyard.
"And from that star on your chest, I reckon you're the law," he said. "Though not the law 'round here. That'd be Sheriff Harlan Laffey. And you're not the law in Blountville either. That'd be Sheriff Van Littlewood. Where would you be from, lawman?"
"Green Vale, Kentucky."
"Kentucky! You're a long way from home, mister!"
"Been tracking an outlaw. Henry Brennan."
"Brennan? Looks like you found him, mister. Kentucky! Must be quite a story. Got time to tell it? I love stories!"
"'Fraid not, Mike. Listen, who paid you to plant Henry in this graveyard?"
Curly Mike's shiny forehead crinkled as he frowned, thinking hard. Then he eyes lit up.
"I remember! Man by the name of Joe Brooks."
"Joe Brooks, eh?"
"Yessir. Paid in cash, for the plot and the stone. Even had Preacher Goines out here to say a few words about how the Lord forgave even outlaws who repented. Beautiful sermon."
"Who was at the burial?"
"Just me, the preacher, and Joe. Uh, and Henry of course."
"Open casket? You saw Henry in there? How did he look?"
Curly Mike scratched his head.
"Strangest thing," he said. "Joe Brooks had the casket in a wagon, already nailed shut. Neither me or the preacher saw the man inside. Usually I can put together a pretty good casket, all nice and tidy. But this was already done. Henry must not 've looked too good at the end, what with his consumption."
"Henry died in Cactus Hill?"
"I don't think so. Never heard of him before Joe brought him into town on that wagon and had me plant him. Then he put the obituary in the town paper."
"Yeah, I've read it," said Martin.
"Well, it looks like you're not getting your man," said Curly Mike. "The Good Lord took him first."
He returned to his cart, removed a pair of shears, and began pruning the scraggly shrubs that bordered the cemetery.
"Mike, tell me about Joe Brooks," said Martin.
"Ain't much to tell," said Curly Mike, panting as he worked. "He ain't from around here. Just breezed in, buried Henry, and was gone before the sun set that day. Chatted him up a little bit during the service. He has a ranch outside of Redemption, just to the west about a day's ride. Must've been a mighty good friend of Henry's to go to all that trouble. If you want to know about Henry, go talk to Joe."
"One more thing, Mike. What does Joe look like?"
Curly Mike told him, and Martin thanked him and left the cemetery.
The quickest way to Redemption was down a dry riverbed past a canyon. Martin carefully noted the weather before setting out. It wouldn't do to have a flash flood come through the canyon and wash him and his horse away down the riverbed, but the skies were clear, with only a few high wispy cirrus clouds.
Martin made quick time. His thoughts strayed to the warrant on Henry Brennan. One count, the murder of one Blaine Kilgore, a local businessman of Green Vale. One count, horse rustling - the horse he stole to escape justice. It had been eight years before word had gotten back to Kentucky about Henry showing up in New Mexico Territory. The lead had been tenuous, vague, and maddeningly convoluted. But it had eventually led Martin to Cactus Hill.
There wasn't much else to say. Henry's gravestone had had the last word, unless this Joe Brooks had anything to add. Memories twitched deep in the darkest places of Martin's memories as he urged his horse along.
The sun had crossed over to the west and was contemplating the horizon when the ranch hove into view, exactly as Curly Mike had described it. A house, a barn, two wells, and a corral with several horses grazing peacefully within sat in lonely splendor on the plain. Miles further, a glint on the horizon hinted at the town of Redemption.
Martin nudged his horse forward and approached the house. As he neared, he saw a shadow moving. It was small, too short to be a man.
Martin rode nearer and the boy's face came into focus, framed by a shock of blond hair. The eyes were what stood out - familiar eyes, but Martin felt no surprise.
"Is your daddy home, kid?" he said.
"Who's asking?" asked the boy. Then the familiar eyes alighted on Martin's badge.
"You just get him out here. Tell him I've got business with him."
The boy took off running for the house.
The wind was rising, making strands of Martin's hair whip about beneath his hat. He slowly rode to the front of the house and dismounted. He heard voices inside the house - the boy's, then a man's. The man said something. Then the boy replied. The man said something else.
Henry Brennan emerged from the house. He was tall, with well-muscled arms and a hard-working farmer's massive shoulders. A pistol hung from his left hip.
"I never would've believed it," said Henry. "Of all the lawmen in Kentucky, it's you who comes?"
"I came all the way from Green Vale for you, Henry," said Martin. "You gonna come quietly?"
"So I can swing from a gallows? You should know me better than that. I thought that grave would keep the law away, but I should've known it wasn't gonna fool my own brother. What gave me away?"
"Taking the name of our stepfather, Joe Brooks?" said Martin. "Not the smartest thing you ever did. Then again, it ain't the dumbest either."
Henry looked at the ground.
"I know I've done some sins, Martin. I've tried to do right since then."
"You killed a man, Henry. You killed Blaine Kilgore. And you stole his horse. You have to answer for that."
Henry's eyes snapped up, blazing.
"He violated Marjorie! That filthy animal violated my fianc And that rich sonofabitch was gonna get away with it! I couldn't let it go, Martin. I..."
"Is Marjorie here? She hasn't been seen since you left town."
"She's buried out on the back hundred. Died giving birth to my boy."
Martin said nothing for a moment. A slight movement caught his eye, and he thought he glimpsed movement in the window next to the door.
"I'm really sorry to hear about that, Henry. You know how much I liked her."
"Yeah, everybody loved her. Some, a little too much."
"Henry, the boy has the look of Kilgore. Is he..."
"He is, and I'm raising him. Way I see it, his daddy's dead, and he didn't do nothin' wrong. He's my son now."
"I'll take him back with us, Henry. Raise him as my own."
Henry barked laughter.
"You know that ain't gonna happen! Blaine's family will take one look at him and they'll know! They'll take him from you! Even before I swing, they'll take him. Martin, you're my brother. I know we ain't been close, but we're kin. I came out here to start fresh. You gotta give me that chance!"
"The law is the law, Henry."
The sun was settling behind Henry, a near halo around his shaggy head. Martin almost didn't see Henry's left hand jerk into motion.
The wind sang beneath the whisper of iron against leather, then two roars, so close together they sounded like one.
Henry staggered backward, blood spurting from his shoulder, the gun falling from nerveless fingers. The dust had risen from the ground at the shots, like frightened prairie spirits. When it blew away, Henry was sitting on the ground. Martin still stood, solid as a mountain, his gun pointing down at Henry in judgment.
"Enough!" said Martin. "You're coming with me-"
The boy's voice piped from inside the house.
"Don't you hurt my daddy!"
Another roar, this time from the window.
"No!" cried Henry.
He struggled to his feet and lunged into Martin's line of sight.
"Martin! Put that rifle down! Come out here! Now!"
The prairie wind seemed to blow for untold years, then the door opened and the boy stepped out. He was holding a repeating rifle nearly as large as he was and had it aimed in Martin's direction. The boy looked confused. Henry turned and glared at him.
"Martin, if you don't put that down, I will tan your hide until it turns red. Now!"
The rifle fell from the boys hands and clattered to the porch. Henry tottered over to him and pulled him to his chest with his good arm. He turned and stared at his brother.
"He's a brave boy," said Martin. "Needs to work on his marksmanship."
"He's just a kid. What now, brother?"
Martin glanced toward the setting sun. He thought about the miles he had travelled to get here, searching for his own brother, the murderer, the husband, the father, and the widower. What had he found? Was it what he was looking for?
"Curly Mike told me that I have you to thank for giving my brother a proper burial," he said. "I think my work is done."
Before Henry could say anything else, Martin walked back to his horse. As he mounted up, he almost gasped in pain. A stain was spreading on his shirt, right above his ribs, where the boy carrying his name had grazed him with the rifle.
Martin rode off the ranch without looking back, chasing his own shadow toward the east.
Word count: 1951