It was midmorning. The Texas sun was beating down on the homestead. The only sounds were the creaking of the windmill, pumping water to the thirsty field, and the harsh crack of splitting wood. A single rider approached the homestead at an easy lope.
Rasmus Albrecksson heard the approaching hooves as they drew closer. The ax stopped mid-stroke above the firewood, coming to rest in his tanned, calloused hands. He glanced over at the musket leaning against the porch wall. His eyes turned from the gun to the chicken coop on the other side of the yard, where his ten-year-old son was feeding the chickens from a burlap sack.
The rider came around the house and into view a moment later. A brown mare, with a pack of provisions, and a Springfield rifle in a Comanche blanket. The rider pulled back gently on the reins, easing to a stop a few feet from where Rasmus was splitting wood. He looked down at the homesteader from beneath a dusty, broad-brimmed hat. His hand rested on his belt, within easy reach of the Colt horse revolver.
"Morning, Rasmus," he said, his friendly smile contrasting with the weapons he carried.
Rasmus let the ax-head rest on the ground as he acknowledged the man's greeting. "Morning, Bill. Indian trouble?"
Bill Destry shook his head. "No, the Indians are quiet for now. No rustlers, either. I'm going to war, Rasmus. Just wanted to let you know. Say goodbye and ask you to check on my place once in a while till I get back."
Rasmus looked over at his son, who had stopped his work to listen breathlessly to the conversation. "You think that's wise, Bill? You've got a pretty nice place. Nothing's certain in war."
"Yeah, I know," Bill answered. "Still, if nobody fights back, them Yankees will lick us sure as shootin'. I got to help out." He glanced over at the boy leaning against the fence, eyes glued to the gun in his belt. "I think somebody here wants to go to war too."
Rasmus turned to his son. "Take care of those chickens!" As the boy reluctantly turned away, Rasmus looked back up at his friend. "He doesn't know any better. I caught him yesterday practicing with my old Colt Navy behind the barn."
Bill chuckled. "He any good?"
A sigh escaped the father. "Too good. Faster and more accurate than a boy his age has any business being. I want to keep him out of trouble." He looked up at his friend. "You stay out of trouble, too. You hear?"
Bill nodded, a faint smile pulling the corner of his mouth up. "Don't worry about me. This war shouldn't last long. Tell you the truth, I wouldn't be surprised one bit if it was over before I even got there."
"One can only hope," replied Rasmus.
Bill nodded again. "Well," he said slowly, turning his horse, "guess I'll see you soon, friend."
He extended his hand. Rasmus shook it, then watched in silence as Bill Destry turned and rode away. He rode east, toward the battlefields. Rasmus shook his head, looking once more over at his son. The boy had stopped his work again, watching the rider head out. This time, Rasmus didn't bother correcting him. And when the horse and rider finally disappeared into the horizon, he lifted his ax and went back to splitting wood.
He was far from a coward, but he had no desire to fight Yankees on some faraway battlefield. His own battlefield was right here, fighting the land, the Indians, the outlaws, and the elements. As he swung the ax he looked over at his son once more. He didn't need to go get himself killed in a war between North and South. He needed to be here, taking care of his family.
* * *
Five years passed over the Texas homestead. Rasmus fought the land to keep his family fed. He fought right up to the end, when a sudden illness claimed him. His friends and neighbors gathered to bury him on the hill overlooking the homestead, beneath the shade of a Texas ash. His wife and son stood under the hot sun dressed in black until the last person had paid their respects and ridden off by horse or buckboard.
Then, with the sun just starting to set, the widow turned and walked down the hill toward the house. The son remained, staring at the wooden slab that marked his father's final resting place. It had been a bad year. Drought had decimated the crops and thinned the livestock. Meanwhile, reports had been coming in from the surrounding counties of outlaws roaming in large bands. Soldiers who had lost their war and lost their country had been sent home to poverty in an occupied state.
Now, with his father gone, the farm didn't feel like home anymore. And he had no idea how he would keep it from going under.
He turned and looked up as a horse and rider approached from the east. As they came closer, the boy recognized the old brown mare, but the rider almost seemed a stranger.
It was the face of Bill Destry, now creased with wrinkles and a scar just in front of his ear. The eyes were vigilant, but they also appeared sunken in, like coals glaring out of a skull. A filthy Confederate coat sat on his shoulders, stripes and insignia all ripped off. As he came closer, the boy saw that Destry still carried his massive Colt revolver after five years, but the handle was worn by use and the elements. The Springfield was gone, replaced by a repeating rifle the boy didn't recognize.
Destry made no move to pull back on the reins, but the horse still came to a stop next to the grave. The fifteen-year-old held back his tears, and looked up in the steely eyes of the veteran.
The kid merely nodded, not trusting his voice to remain steady.
Bill Destry stepped down from the saddle and pulled the reins over the horse's head. He let out a sigh, lifting his hat with his other hand. "Sorry about your pa. He was a good man."
Again, the kid nodded.
"How's your ma?"
Finally, the kid spoke. "She'll be alright, I reckon. Just give it time."
"And how about you?"
"This country's a hellhole now that the war is over. Sod-busting's dead, and we got carpet-baggers and renegades taking everything that ain't tied down. There's still opportunities for good hands, though."
Destry pulled a cigarette from within his coat and lit up. The smoke drifted up lazily on the still evening air. The kid never moved, still staring at his father's grave.
"Ogden's got a herd. About five thousand head. Some feller named McCoy is spreading word around that there's a rail in Abilene. They'll take every steer they can get." Destry drew in another breath of his cigarette, watching the kid closely. "Two months. Thirty-five dollars a month for good hands. You know how to ride, don't you?"
The kid didn't answer, instead looking toward the house. "What about my mother?"
"She can stay with the Weavers. They said they need another set of hands around the homestead. They got better land, better water. Better chances."
The kid nodded, but still no answer. Destry turned and climbed back into the saddle. Sitting for a moment, he watched the kid. Just as he set his hat back on his head and turned to leave, the kid spoke.
"I'll see if she's willing to leave. If she is, I'll take the job."
Destry nodded. Tipping his cap in a final farewell to his deceased friend, he turned his horse and rose silently away.
* * *
A month in the wild. The cattle trail led through some of the worst country in Texas. Nothing but scrub brush, wild horses, and wilder men. The Kid felt as if his horse was an extension of his legs, the rope an extension of his hand. He didn't even think about his bullwhip anymore, as if it was merely another finger. The Navy Colt on his hip was a weight he felt naked without, the leather chaps a second skin. He'd spent long days without food, dark nights without sleep.
When the herd stopped to graze, Bill Destry had taken the Kid aside. As the son of his good friend, he seemed to feel it was his responsibility to teach the Kid everything he could. How to swing a lariat, how to find food and water on the trail, how to predict a steer's movements before the steer itself knew what it was going to do. And how to handle the bullwhip and Bowie knife.
One day as the herd moved over the open range, the Kid rode ahead to search for water. He was smiling as he rode along, in spite of the sun beating down and the roughness of the terrain. After a month, he'd learned to love the life of a cowhand. Sure, it was hard work, but there was a sort of freedom on the open range. The hardships and dangers only made it more appealing. Life on the trail had a sense of excitement that his days on the homestead couldn't match. In the never-ending openness that surrounded the sprawling herd, anything could happen.
He heard the lapping of water as he came over the ridge. At the same time, he heard the snorting of horses.
As he pulled up, four riders faced him, their hands resting on their guns. Unshaven and covered with the dust of the trail, they grinned maliciously as he came into view. One of the men—clearly the leader—pushed his hat back as he nudged his horse forward a step.
"You with that herd we saw, boy?" he asked roughly.
The Kid noticed the way the man's hand rested on the cut-off stock of a double-barreled shotgun, which he wore cross-draw on his hip as if it were a pistol. His finger twitched near the trigger as he waited impatiently for the Kid's answer.
"I asked you a question, boy. Polite thing to do is answer."
"Didn't realize I was in polite company," the Kid answered calmly. "But yes, I'm with that herd."
The man snorted. "Name's Jeremiah Carter, and this is my land. Y'all are feeding your herd on my grass, and this is my water here." He jabbed a thumb at the stream that ran behind them.
"Really?" the Kid asked. While the men all kept their hands hovering near their guns, the Kid sat with both hands folded on his saddle horn. "I understood this to be open range."
"You understood wrong," Carter snarled. "But for a toll, I'll let y'all pass through."
A hint of a smile appeared on the Kid's face. "A toll? What might that be?"
"It's a big herd you folks got," the man replied. "I'll take 100 head as payment."
Now the Kid chuckled. "And if we refuse to pay?"
At this point, Carter openly placed a hand on the shotgun. "Then we'll kill you and stampede the herd. Five minutes work for us, and you'll spend days trying to round 'em up. Well," and here he chuckled, "you won't. But your pals will. What do you say to that?"
The Kid gently twisted the reins around his saddle horn and let his hands fall to his thighs. "I say this is open range. You get nothing."
Carter stared at the Kid for a moment, then a smirk appeared on his face. "Well," he growled, "in that case . . . "
A gunshot rang out, the ball whizzing right past Carter's face. A second shot took the next man's hat right off his head. His shotgun still only half-drawn, Carter stared down the barrel of the Kid's smoking gun.
"You get nothing," the Kid repeated. "If there's a toll to be paid, I'll pay it in lead. And you can reimburse me in blood."
Carter stared in shock into the unflinching eyes of the fifteen-year-old. They weren't a killer's eyes, that was plain enough to see. Not the eyes of someone who had killed before. But, as he looked closer, Carter realized they were the eyes of a man who could kill if he needed to. And that gun hand was fast. Fast and accurate.
Still staring, Carter slowly backed up on his horse. Then, turning abruptly, he galloped away from the Kid, the other men following.
The Kid returned his revolver to his gunbelt. As the men disappeared from view, he turned to ride back to the herd. He could tell them he'd found water.
* * *
Abilene. Little more than a cluster of log cabins sitting in the middle of nowhere. But there was a railhead there, next to those log cabins. South of the city proper were the shacks and tents of the cowboys. With the sudden arrival of the railroad and the great migration of the Texas longhorns, the town's population had grown faster than its infrastructure. It was a wild, raucous town, where beef turned into money, and money turned into whiskey. And the cowboys and businessmen alike loved it.
Two months on the trail. Another week cutting the herd and running the steers into the pens. Then finding buyers and collecting their pay. A single, lump sum of two months of starving for a good time and friendly company. Abilene may have been new to the cattle business, but she was already more than willing to take the cowboys' cattle and their cash too.
The Kid sat in the corner, half-tipsy on cheap liquor. Through the fog of his own thoughts, a voice told him he should probably stop before things got out of hand. But that voice was drowned out by the whooping and hollering of the other cow hands, and the wild laughter of the saloon girls.
"Another round!" a voice shouted, and without a second thought, the Kid threw back the contents of his glass. Fire stung his throat, and a haze enveloped the room. He let out a contented sigh. Driving cows was thirsty work.
On the other side of the log cabin, next to the bar, a banjo was playing a rough resemblance of some Eastern tune. The Kid found his foot tapping along to the offbeat melody. Abilene was a beautiful town. Perfect in every way.
He turned as someone sat down next to him. It was Bill Destry, his dad's old friend, his mentor on the Chisolm Trail. Fancy seeing him here.
Destry looked at the Kid's flushed features, then at the bottle sitting on the table. "Drinking alone?"
"Sure. And why not?" the Kid suppressed a hiccup, refilling his glass if only to give his hands something to do. "Better than being sober alone."
"Sound logic," Destry remarked drily. His eyes narrowed as he watched the Kid gulp the whiskey down. "How much have you had?"
The Kid set the glass on the table. That voice was there again, telling him he was doing something wrong, that this was a bad idea. The only problem was, he couldn't figure out what the voice meant. But maybe the whiskey would help him hear things better.
Destry took the bottle before the Kid could reach it, filling his own glass. "Good to have those cattle sold, isn't it?"
The Kid nodded, not quite sure what cattle Destry was talking about—or why he was talking about cows at all. He watched the bottle that the trail boss held annoyingly out of his reach.
"You got $70, right?"
The Kid nodded, grinning broadly. "Yep, and not Confederate money either. Fresh new green . . . " his voice trailed off abruptly as he caught sight of a familiar face at the bar.
As if sensing his gaze, the man looked up, only to have his jaw drop as he saw the Kid sitting at the table in the corner. It was none other than Jeremiah Carter, the bushwhacker he'd met on the trail.
"Kid?" Destry turned to see what the Kid was looking at.
The Kid stood up quickly, then caught at the table as the blood rushed to his head. "That son of a . . . Whoa." He steadied himself for a moment before glaring at Carter. "What in tarnation are you doing here?"
The noise in the room grew more subdued as he shouted.
Carter gulped down his drink and stood up to face the Kid. "Getting drunk. What are you doing here?"
The Kid glanced back at the bottle Destry was still holding as he watched the strange reunion in surprise. "Same as you, I reckon."
The two men stood for another moment, glaring at each other across the room but unsure what to do next.
Destry poured himself another drink and chugged it down. "Uh, Kid . . . "
The Kid looked down at him. "Did I tell you about the worthless bushwhackers I ran into on the, on the trail?"
"Maybe another time, Kid—"
"I shot one bullet past his head, and then I shot his friend's hat off. Hey, Jeremiah Carter, where's your friend?"
"None of your business," Carter growled.
The Kid laughed, even though he wasn't sure what was funny. "Is he still running, hm? Maybe he's still looking for his hat."
Destry was standing, and he put a hand on the Kid's shoulder. "We should call it a night, Kid."
The Kid nodded, noticing every eye in the saloon staring at him. He suddenly felt silly for causing such a commotion. With Destry's hand still on his shoulder, he made his way toward the door. Behind him, though, he heard Carter start to snicker.
"The little boy can't handle his liquor. Better go home with your pa, Kid."
The whiskey boiled in the Kid's veins. Go home with his pa? What did Carter know about his pa?
He shrugged off Destry's hand and whirled back toward the bar. His revolver was leveled at Carter's chest before he even realized he'd drawn. Anyone in front of the wildly waving barrel dove out of the way. Carter froze.
The Kid glared at him with a rage he had never known before radiating from his eyes. "Can't handle my liquor?!" he shouted. "Too bad you can't handle a gun, you spineless bushwhacker!"
Carter bit his lip, glaring back at the Kid with murder in his eyes. He set his glass on the bar; his hand drifted closer to his own pistol.
"Just try it," the Kid taunted. "I can empty this gun before you can clear leather, and I never miss."
Destry decided to move in before things got any further out of hand. He stepped in front of the Kid's revolver, between the two men. "Fellas," he said slowly, "there's no reason this has to escalate. You can both walk away."
The Kid continued glaring, but he knew Destry was right. "Okay." Still holding the gun on Carter, he took a step backward.
Destry fell in step beside him. Carter never moved. Not until they had both left the saloon, and the jingling of their spurs had faded. Then he picked up his glass and finished his drink. Whether his hands shook from fear or rage, no one there could say.
* * *
The Kid awoke with a throbbing headache, and only a vague memory of what had happened before. He rolled over to see Destry sitting in the entrance of the tent, glaring at him.
He let out a sigh. "I drank too much, didn't I?"
"I made a fool of myself?"
Again, the nod.
"You met Carter?"
The Kid winced at the disapproval in Destry's voice. He thought back to the drunken drama of the night before. "I wanted to kill him," he admitted in a low whisper, more to himself than to Destry.
The veteran heard him regardless. He sighed as he lit a cigarette. "You may get a chance yet."
At the tone in his voice, the Kid sat up. He noticed for the first time Destry's Henry rifle laying across his knees. He looked out through the open tent flap. Up the street, leaning against the porch of the saloon was Carter's friend, the one whose hat the Kid had shot off.
The Kid fell back on his bedroll, letting out a sigh. He should have listened to the voice that said the booze was a bad idea. "I got myself into this, Destry. I'll get out of it."
"Will you, Kid?" Destry's voice was pained. "You're not the first boy I've seen that thought he was invincible. You caught them by surprise before. If they come at you today, it will be different. They'll be coming for blood. Even if you win, you lose. Trust me."
The Kid felt the sadness in the veteran's voice. He knew he didn't really want to kill Carter and his friend, but he didn't see a way out of it. If they wanted a fight, he would give it to them.
Destry sighed, recognizing the look in the Kid's eyes. There was nothing more to be said, so he simply poured a cup of black coffee and passed it to the Kid. Things would turn out how they had to be.
Abilene was a town that thrived after dark. In the light of day, the streets were deserted. It seemed everyone in town was hungover in bed, waiting for the next big herd to arrive from the south, and the whole cycle to begin again. As the Kid stepped into the street, the only other movement was the lone tumbleweed that rolled across his path.
He took a deep breath. The dust in the air stung his nostrils; dust and the smell of cattle.
Carter and his unnamed friend were thirty paces up the street, leaning against the rails of the saloon's front porch. Their gunbelts rode easy on their hips, holsters tied off and guns unstrapped. Carter had replaced his sawed-off with a more manageable and more accurate Colt revolver. They stood up straighter as the Kid made his way up the street.
Not looking at either of them, the Kid walked slowly but steadily toward the general store across from the saloon. There were some things he needed to pick up. He wasn't sure what they were yet, but there had to be something.
Carter and the other man watched him coming closer and closer with every step. Just before he stepped onto the porch of the general store, Carter stepped out into the street.
"Hey, Kid. Looks like I found my friend."
The Kid turned to face them, both hands folded over his belt buckle. Like the men he was facing, he had already unstrapped his gun.
"So I see. How's your hat, friend?"
The man growled at him.
Carter took another step forward. "They don't sell brains at this store, Kid. Maybe you should go back to Texas to find yours."
"Maybe I will," the Kid answered. "Or maybe I'll have a look at yours."
Something changed in Carter's eyes. His hand snatched down toward his belt.
The Colt Navy leapt from the Kid's holster. The hammer dropped.
A gunshot shattered the morning stillness. Crimson spread across Carter's plaid shirt.
His friend cleared leather, but the Kid's hammer fell again. Before the echo from the first shot had faded, the man fell facedown in the street, blood pooling from the hole in his forehead.
Carter screamed in pain and rage. He raised his revolver.
A third shot from the Navy Colt silenced him forever.
After a few moments of silence, the people of Abilene began to emerge from the buildings on either side of the street. As yet, there was no sheriff in Abilene, so the undertaker simply pulled up with a wagon to cart away the corpses in preparation for their plots on Boot Hill. No one said a word to the Kid, or even looked his way after his gun was back in its holster.
He stood there in the street a moment longer, though, staring down at what he had done. Two lives were over, with no way to take it back now. Three bullets, and their lives were reduced to blood soaking into the dust of the street.
Without a word, he turned away, unable to look at his handiwork anymore. He couldn't stay here in Abilene. He wanted to go home, but he didn't feel that was an option either. Not now: he wouldn't be coming back the same boy who'd left. He couldn't stay, but he had nowhere to go. Back to the open range, perhaps; to the freedom and adventure he'd felt before.
As he passed by Destry, he reached into his pocket and pulled the $70, placing it in Destry's hand. The veteran looked at him in surprise.
"Give it to my ma," he croaked, his throat tightening.
Without waiting for a response, he gathered his few belongings from inside the tent and walked the rest of the way to the corral. He saddled his horse and rode away, leaving Abilene behind forever.
But as he rode, he felt the familiar weight of the Colt Navy on his hip. And the voice was in his head, telling him that wherever he and his gun went, they would take Abilene with them. He was Abilene. The Abilene Kid.