The hissing was maddening. And loud, as loud as the rattling. Rattlesnakes! Leroy Dust was surrounded by them, as he lay on his aching side in the endless dark. Then came the bites. Venomous fangs sank into his arms, his face, his fleshy neck. It was excruciatingly painful, and then some. Enough poison was pumping through his veins to kill a horse a thousand times over, yet they kept striking. And, somehow, the rattling got even louder.
Dust jolted awake on the couch where he'd leaned over in sleep. Heart pounding, adrenaline rushing, he jerked upright. Stay awake! Instinctively he felt his face and his neck, his fingers finding the scratches left by Mrs. Dudley. She had fought desperately, yet futilely, to escape his grasp and certain death.
The loud rattling continued. Tom Dudley was outside clattering at the gate where he kept his horses. Then came footfalls on the porch, cautious yet purposeful. The front door opened, Dudley barely looking surprised by the broken lock and unwelcome visitor. His face hardened as his gaze fell upon Leroy Dust, sitting on his couch just a few steps away.
"Well, howdy!" Dust said in mock joviality, beady eyes blinking in the low-lit room. He repositioned his Winchester rifle across his lap to point slightly to the left of the shadow Dudley's head cast on the wall. It wouldn't take anything close to a sharp shot to kill the man from this distance. The unwelcome intruder certainly wasn't a marksman, but his aim had been enough to kill once tonight, and he knew he wouldn't miss his target this time either.
Leroy Dust had been traveling westward for some time now, arriving in town as a nuisance, and leaving as a cheat, thief, killer, and coward. He passed himself off as a daring gunfighter in these small Texas towns where shootouts were the best way to settle disputes. Truth be told, he preferred to avoid gunplay. Partly because he was such a lousy shot, and mostly because fair play just wasn't in his nature. He left town suddenly and gutlessly when he could, and shot men down from the back when he couldn't.
His running had brought him to the tiny town of Stopover, Texas, where his soiled reputation had not preceded him. Dust had initially planned to settle there, maybe even look for something resembling honest work. Inevitably, though, his true nature came out, and he fell back on taking what wasn't his, whatever and whenever he wanted. Now Stopover knew his name, and it was time to move on. His welcome was as worn out as his ill-fitted boots.
Tom Dudley knew that death was here in his home. It had come for his wife, and now for him. He'd been aware of this possibility, or perhaps eventuality. Resigned to the reality in front of him, he closed the door, then lit the lamp. Dust shifted slightly on the couch, blinking and steadying his rifle. Dudley's chin dropped. Seeing the villain in front of him confirmed beyond doubt what the smell of death and gunpowder had alluded to. Any light left in his eyes was extinguished; all that remained was acknowledgement and resignation. He glanced to the left to the bedroom, where his Rebecca's body lay. Suddenly agitated, he blurted, "We were supposed—"
Dust cut him off. "We were supposed to settle all this tomorrow, that what you were gonna say? Yeah, it was. And I, I was SUPPOSED to leave your wife alone. Well, things don't always go the way they're supposed to. We're going to settle all this tonight."
Clearly with the upper hand, Dust took time to make it unpleasant, as he had Mrs. Dudley's departure. "I kissed the little woman goodbye for you." Spitting out of the corner of his mouth, he ordered, "Now you just stay where you are." He gestured with the rifle, a scant few yards from Dudley's head.
No way out, but still, Tom Dudley drew himself up tall, and raised his chin.
Easy target, Dust thought. But not just yet.
"So, you been putting in long hours at the graveyard, Dudley?" Leroy Dust mocked. Standing up to jab the rifle barrel at Dudley's filthy shirt, he added, "Just look at you, bringing your work home with you." He smirked. "How's it feel, bein' a gravedigger with hisself for a client? I hope you dug a nice big one today."
Tom met his eyes. He was not a proud man, but he was more man than Dust ever would be. Sadly, his demise had been in the offing, from the moment they'd crossed paths. It had been two nights prior, when the inebriated Leroy Dust had laid hands on Mrs. Dudley. Then, Mr. Dudley laid a large calloused hand on him. He'd knocked Dust squarely onto his rear, looked him squarely in the eye, and issued a challenge. It was the way things got handled here in Stopover.
Dust had been embarrassed, spat out venom and vulgarities and a couple front teeth. He accepted Tom Dudley's challenge, but it was all for show. There'd be no showdown, no duel, and certainly no bullet with Leroy Dust's name on it. He'd be well out of town on Friday when the clock struck high noon.
Leroy felt playful, like a cat before it kills. "How old are you, Dudley? Fifty-five? Sixty?" Tom said nothing, but the wrinkles around his eyes and mouth gave an approximate answer. "Yeah, I'll say sixty, old man! Well, you know what's good about being old? It means you ain't gonna die young." He watched the man's eyes track desperately across the room to the drawer where his pistol was. It may as well have been across the Rio Grande Valley.
Tom Dudley had no options. He'd lived as a man; he'd die as one too. He lunged at his violent intruder in a desperate, fatal decision. The gun that won the West bucked once. "Right between the eyebrows," Dust observed drily, over the rifle's echoing crack.
Both Dudleys lay dead in their home. Time to get the hell out of wherever the hell I am, Dust thought.
He left the grisly scene without looking back. No conscience condemned him. The only thought he had was that
he might oughta go back in and fix something to eat; killing always made him hungry. But no. Best to get on
the road, and stop at the next town.
He left what had once been the Dudleys' happy home, Winchester slung over his shoulder. "In for a penny," he
cackled, adding horse thief to his resume as he saddled Dudley's horse up and rode away. He guided the mount
roughly through the gate; he figured to be in Sand Spurs by sunrise. Perhaps by then someone would be missing
the Dudleys, but it would not be Leroy Dust.
* * *
Dudley's horse, Leroy's now, seemed to know the way out of town. It picked up speed on the darkened trail as Dust cruelly spurred it on. The moon hid behind the clouds, ashamed of Dust and his doings. No shame for the thieving murderer, though, who murmured, "Now leaving Stopover: Population 1543, no, make that 1541."
Then, he was flying through the darkness, as if in a dream. The nightmare began as he violently reached the bottom of a chasm; one he hadn't seen in the darkened road ahead. The horse had seen it, though. It appeared to look down at Dust before disappearing. Leroy Dust cursed the horse, his twisted leg, and his misfortune. It dawned on him that this was no accident. Tom Dudley had dug a big grave. A familiar sound interrupted his thought. Hissing. Rattling. A lot of each. And, just as in his nightmare, the rattlesnakes collected by the late Tom Dudley began to strike. They lashed out in a frenzy, infuriated by the intrusion of their lair. Dust had scarcely a moment to contemplate his fate. He might have prayed, if he thought there was any chance of being heard. There was no hope, no prayer, only screams of agony. The third death one night in Stopover was the least mourned. And most deserved.