The still night broke with the wild rush of hooves. The rider turned his steed toward a section of trees outside the small town of Eagle's Nest and picked up speed. He had spent a month picking and practicing the proper route through the woods on the pretense of hunting or meandering for mere pleasure. He even practiced the path earlier that day so his horse would be familiar with it. The plan was to sneak out of town quietly, but a guard hailed him and the rider lost his nerve. He barreled past the sentry, knocking him sideways with a hoarse shout. Other yells immediately followed with some harmless shots fired. Soon a posse would be crashing through the thicket and foliage after him.
He traveled light, unarmed, and left his saddle behind. He needed speed for this errand. His body crouched low to the horse, avoiding low hanging branches. A couple gunshots fired behind him, but they were wide of their mark. A loud crash and a slew of curses told the rider his trail was well-picked for hindering his pursuers. The posse seemed to fall farther behind, but the rider still rode his steed as if he outran the apocalypse itself.
Finally, the trees thinned and a clearing loomed ahead. The rider barely perceived the silhouette of another mounted man. The fleeing man released two short, shrill whistles that were answered by three of the same kind. Before the waiting horseman even finished, the first rider pulled up beside him, tossing a satchel into the other's arms.
"Hurry!" the rider warned. "I was spotted. There's a posse coming! Go!"
The shadowed figure seemed to gaze at the rider. "You're a brave man, doing this."
The rider huffed. "It's worth it for justice. Now go or they'll catch you and this will be for nothing!"
"Your message will be delivered," the dark horseman vowed.
Without another word, he kicked his horse into a gallop and raced away into the night.
The rider sat watching for several precious seconds, surprised that the plan had succeeded thus far. It wasn't until he heard the shouts and cries of the posse that he realized he yet had hope of escape. He had wheeled his mount, aiming to reenter the wood by another route, when the flash of a gun appeared before him a few feet away. It was like the flash of a ghost revealing itself to a man about to die.
A bullet tore through the rider's right shoulder. With a groan he fell from his horse stunned. The shooter cantered up and called to the other men. The rider felt his shoulder throbbing and heard the gunman dismount. Soon other voices and beasts were heard until the fallen man was aware of a circle about him. Several kicks added to his pain and withheld him from answering their coarse queries.
Suddenly a voice called them to silence and the rider, curious even in his pain, looked toward the woods and heard the arrival of another horse. The small ember of a cigarette told how tall the newcomer sat on his mount. The tiny light disappeared momentarily as the man dismounted, and shone again as the figure approached the circle opening up to receive him.
"Who's this?" the man asked, his cigarette hanging above the rider like a red star.
"He's a townsman for sure," a voice answered. "Got past Chester and tore through the woods like a demon."
"That so? Why?"
When the rider failed to answer, a boot smashed his face and the examiner repeated his question.
The rider spit out blood and looked up to the cigarette. "I was praying."
The man snickered incredulously. "Yeah? Were your prayers heard?"
Now the rider sniggered. "Yes. And soon . . . I hope . . . the Judge will be here. Your days . . . are numbered . . . Reese."
The cigarette suddenly vanished as it was tossed away.
"Perkins, Sandy, search for that messenger. Don't come back 'til you found him."
Two shadows moved off immediately and galloped away. The rider prayed earnestly now that his contact traveled quickly and eluded capture. His attention soon turned back to the leader of the group, who spun on his heels and walked away.
"What about this rebel, Mr. Loger?" a voice asked.
"Don't ask stupid questions, Clint," the man answered without looking back.
A couple of the men laughed ominously and delivered more abuse upon the prostrate rider. As Reese Loger mounted and lit another cigarette, several gun blasts lit up the circle.
* * *
When Reese Loger first rolled in to Eagle's Nest five years' previous, the town was a small dusty point on the map. It clung to survival through its small farming community and good hunting country. It lay several miles from a main road and many miles more from the next city. But Reese saw potential in it. He saw his own personal kingdom with him wearing the crown.
He planned his coup with patience, spending his first year working at the lone saloon that sat at the center of town. Through his employment there, he befriended the men of ill-repute and won them over to his vision. After careful planning and thinking, Reese made his moves.
His first hurdle was the doting old sheriff who stood for morality, honor, and virtue, none of which resided in Reese and so he shot the man in the back. His young deputy would be the potentially bigger issue. But Reese liked to think himself a reasonable person and confronted the young man by divulging his plan and confessing to the murder of the sheriff. The deputy was understandably surprised and flustered for a moment. When he finally composed himself, he began a protest and went on about how he would stand against Reese in the name of the law. He would have undoubtedly gone on with a passionate speech if a hidden assassin in the shadows of the room hadn't put a bullet through his brain.
With the arm of the law broken in one dark hour, Loger and his men moved quick and rounded up the town leadership in the middle of the night, separating the men from their families. The families were kept at the stables and the men crowded into the jail. Reese drew the line in the sand for them and stated matters clearly: they either comply with his rule or their families would be killed. A clerk with fire and heart babbled at his captor and swore to see Reese hanged, to which Loger had the man's wife and child marched in and shot before his eyes. After that, any threat of rebellion was vanquished.
The following morning, which happened to be Sunday, Reese and his men stormed into the small church as the meeting began. The poor pastor was shot from the pulpit before he could understand the disturbance and Reese soon stood in his place. He gave the townspeople the same ultimatum and threat, but they were incredulous. Loger realized he couldn't kill everyone, so he had his men bring in the bodies of the clerk's family in a grotesque display. Silence reigned after that, more from mourning than from acquiescence, but Reese knew he won.
He ruled with an iron fist and kept a constant watch about town and even on the surrounding farms. No one was allowed to attempt a challenge of his authority. Some became martyrs in the first couple years but eventually there was peace; a cold, harsh peace with an abundance of wrath building up underneath like steaming water in a geyser.
The saloon where he once worked became the throne room of Reese Loger and here he sat the morning after the messenger's night run. He poked at a plate of bacon and eggs, which he had no appetite for, and thought the matter over. This was the first rebellious act for a while. Perhaps the citizens had mobilized underneath his nose. He was putting together his plan to root out this secret committee when Sandy and Perkins entered.
A quick glance told Reese they hadn't been successful. They looked dusty and forlorn, tired from a night of riding and searching.
"Well?" Reese opened.
The two exchanged glances and Sandy stepped forward.
"We looked all night, Mr. Loger, honest! That horseman plum vanished. We couldn't find a trace of 'im."
"It was dark last night," Perkins ventured. "By the time the sun rose, it was impossible to find his tracks."
Reese fought several angry urges at that moment. He wanted to swipe his plate off the table and then overturn the table. He wanted to grab his chair and smash Perkins over the head with it for failing and then shoot Sandy for adding superstition to his report. But he choked all this down and it caused more terror in the men's hearts than an outburst would have done.
In the heavy silence while Reese wrestled with anger, Sandy opened his mouth again.
"You're going to kill us, aren't you? Because we didn't find the man."
Now Loger lifted his eyes in a glare and thought for a moment more.
"No . . . no, I'm not going to kill you . . . yet. Go search the farms. Maybe he hid at one of them."
Reese knew this to be unlikely, as undoubtedly his two men figured, but it was a harsh punishment nonetheless. They had ridden and searched all night. They were saddle-sore and haggard. Visiting all the farms would take all morning and force them to ride many miles more. But they considered it a rare show of mercy and gladly left for their wild chase.
Part of the reason Reese spared them was for their value. Sandy was the best tracker among the gang and Perkins the best shot. If the Judge was real and if he would in fact come, Reese knew he'd need every tool he could use.
The rest of the morning Reese moped and skulked about the dim saloon until he was joined by his girl, Lucy Thorn, and his lieutenant, Ed Acacia. They pulled in Sam, the barkeep, for a game of poker, which told them Reese's mind was elsewhere due to his sloppy play. When Reese and Ed inevitably lost, the ruthless leader barely cared. For him, stakes were much higher if the Judge existed.
He was so engrossed in his thoughts his eyes gazed blankly at the table, as if he expected the scattered cards to start shuffling themselves together. Sam excused himself on the pretense of fixing lunch while Lucy shot Ed a concerned glance. The latter frowned and thought desperately for a moment. Finally he forced a smile and said,
"Say, Reese, you play like that again with me and I'm switching partners."
Drawn from the depths of his mind, Loger looked up in a glare.
Lucy couldn't handle it. "Reese, honey, what's the matter?"
"It's that vanishing messenger, ain't it?" Ed pushed, dropping any pretense of a smile.
"Yep," Reese finally answered.
"Look, Reese, we know the Judge ain't real," Ed argued. "They might as well send a message to the guardians of the fountain of youth asking for water. There's no help comin' for 'em!"
"And what if there is?"
"There ain't! There is no proof of the Judge's existence. There is only rumors and old wives' tales. He's like the headless horseman, a story to scare ya with. If you want to make preparations against a myth, go ahead! It'll probably scare any rebels out there. But for the love of the world, drop any notion of this guy being real and coming for you."
Reese sighed and looked out the window. It was true that all they knew of this mysterious Judge was hearsay. He had heard of this man while traveling, a man who some said was Law itself. A Judge without jurisdiction, he brought the full force of the law wherever he went. He scoffed at the existence of such a man at first. But with the power he accumulated, Loger developed an unhealthy paranoia with losing his prestige and even a rumor seemed as real as a threat of an approaching army.
"I guess you're right," Reese admitted at last. "But I am going to double our guards and put a watch on the road."
Ed nodded in approval and leaned back in his chair. "Whatever you say, Reese."
For three long, excruciating weeks, nothing notable happened in the town. Toward the end of the third week, however, a lone traveler straggled down the street. He looked like a tramp and was armed only with a gnarled walking stick. His wild beard added to his unique appearance. Everyone in town stopped and stared at this man, who took in the odd attention with considerable humor. He walked right up to the saloon where Reese stood at the top of the steps.
The traveler stopped before him and eyed the threatening men on either side of their leader. Finally, he looked Reese over like he was considering the man's worth.
"You Reese Loger?" he queried.
"Good. Now, Mr. Loger, my name is unimportant as I figure you'll kill me in a second, but you might call me a prophet."
The hard men, in spite of themselves, shot looks at Reese, who stiffened but remained silent.
"No comment, I see," continued the prophet. "Well, Mr. Loger, about three weeks ago some of the people of this little hamlet sent a message petitioning the Judge to come and take care of things here, specifically, you."
The men shifted uneasily. Reese bit his lip.
"It is my duty, Mr. Loger, to inform you that the Judge, who has been keeping an eye on this town for some time, has heard their request and is en route as I speak. You can either prepare to meet him in surrender or try to out-gun him. Should you choose the latter—"
A sudden shot from Reese's gun, which flashed forth like wind, silenced the prophet forever. Without another word, Reese turned on his heels and retired to the saloon.
Among Reese's followers, there was barely a moment to sleep. Feverishly Reese and Ed concocted plans to kill the Judge. They were as ready as they could possibly have been. The usually raucous saloon was silent like the grave. No merriment at all could be found in Eagle's Nest during those tense days. It was another four weeks before any sign of the Judge's arrival came. And it came suddenly.
In the twilight hours of a Sunday morning, Clint burst into the saloon panting for breath.
"Reese, he is coming!"
Loger, Ed, and Lucy all stood up white and silent.
"You saw him coming up the road?" Ed asked. "How far away is he?"
Clint's eyes grew wider and he stammered for words, as if appealing for mercy. "Well . . . I . . . didn't exactly see him coming up the road."
"Then what do you mean—"
"I swear I wasn't sleeping, Ed, I swear! I had just switched off with Chester, you can ask him. And I'm not drunk either! Heaven knows we're all dryer than the pilgrims lately.
"What happened, Clint?" Reese questioned in a cold voice that made the others' hair stand on end.
The watchman tried to compose himself, though he shivered as with cold.
"Like I said, I wasn't sleeping. I was sittin' my horse in the shadow of the rocks about a mile or so outside o' town. I looked down to check my watch and when I looked up again . . . well, there he was! The Judge, I mean. Sittin' on a horse so white it shone like the moon at midnight. And he sat there dressed in black but with a white hat on that you could see for miles."
"That you somehow missed," Ed put in.
Clint stammered again. "I have a thought about that, actually . . . "
"What happened, Clint?" Reese pressed again with a growing annoyance.
"Right, right, sorry, Mr. Loger. Well, the Judge—and I know it's the Judge, don't ask how, I just know—well he looks at me like he's staring at my soul and says, 'They're expecting me in the town, aren't they?' And my blood runs cold! I never been so scared. I thought he was killing me for sure. Well, when I didn't answer he sighed and sat upright and looked away in this direction. 'What you do, do quickly,' he said. Well, he didn't hafta tell me twice! I wheeled around and came here right away!"
Ed and Lucy looked anxiously at Reese, who stared down at the table.
"Get everyone into position," he said quietly but firmly. "Today that Judge will fade into nothing more than a legend of the times."
Ed obeyed immediately, grabbing Clint by the arm and leading him outside. Lucy, with a parting kiss, retreated with Sam to a back room. Slowly Reese walked out and stopped atop the steps.
The sun was rising now, and as it rose it unveiled a tall, dark figure upon a clean, white horse. He cantered as far as the stables, drew forth a rifle, and dismounted, leaving his steed tied there. With a steady, meditative gait he came down the street and seemed to eye all the places Reese's men lay in hiding. Reese noted this with some alarm. How did the Judge know so much about his plans? Whoever was the informant would be punished severely after this was over, Reese thought. But a nagging doubt followed—would he be there to administer the punishment?
The Judge stopped before the steps, like the prophet traveler before him. His face was clean cut and rugged and his eyes shone like fire, giving Reese the peculiar feeling that they saw more than the outward man. Two Colts were strapped to his legs on either side and a third pistol was tucked into his belt.
"Reese Loger," he began, his voice booming down the empty street like a cannon shot, "it's time."
Reese remained silent, unmovable.
"Come now, Reese, silence won't save you. 'The Judge standeth before the door.' For four years you've ruthlessly held this town and murdered its citizens. Now, it's time for retribution."
"If you knew all this was happening," Reese said suddenly, interrupting the Judge's speech, "why didn't you come sooner?"
"To give you a chance to repent. Even now you could repent and mercy will—"
But he never finished. As he talked, Reese lowered his crossed arms to his side, by his guns. This was the signal Ed waited for.
Now the explosion of gunfire filled the street. Reese instinctively stepped back to avoid crossfire. He also stepped back in surprise.
As soon as the first bullet whizzed past, the Judge, like lightning from heaven, spun and accurately picked off Sandy who had hidden atop the roof of the hotel opposite the saloon. Now, almost methodically, the Judge took out the rest of Reese's outfit. In horror, Loger saw Clint go down as he hid in the window of the mercantile shop. Perkins fell prostrate just beyond the corner. Even Ed, hiding on Reese's side behind a wagon, fell lifeless in the street.
What astounded the cold-hearted despot more than this was how every bullet from his men seemed to pass through the Judge without any harm. All the while the solitary figure wheeled about firing with deadly accuracy.
Before Reese comprehended it, the street was silent again and three smoking firearms lay at the Judge's feet. He drew his final gun from his belt and leveled it at Loger.
"There's still time," he warned.
But his voice recalled to Reese's mind his intense hatred at this Judge and foolishly he drew and fired. As his bullet left the chamber, the Judge shot too, and with truer aim. Reese Loger, tyrant of Eagle's Nest, now lay dead at the Judge's feet.
For a few moments, the Man of Law stood alone in the dusty avenue. But slowly, fearfully, the people who had hoped and prayed for his coming for so long crept from their hiding and into the glorious morning light. The Judge looked upon them and smiled, encouraging the little ones to rush forward and greet their savior. As he accepted their embrace, the word on his lips was, "Peace!"