The man woke to the thick smell of earth as the mud in which he found himself immersed had collected and inserted itself into his nostrils and eyelids. He recognized immediately that the noose was still tight about his neck, the tendrils of twine like wire poking into his flesh. He sat up then, quiet as a shadow, and swept the matted hair from his face and wiped the filth from his green eyes with hands no cleaner than what they removed. His beard was caked with mud and he could feel its weight. He blinked, seeing the world anew, and slid his fingers over the twine about his neck. His hands followed the design of the rope to a jagged and frayed end some few inches from the noose. He looked up and there saw the remainder of the rope that was to have been his demise, him swinging pendant as he bucked and twitched and shit himself. How it had severed, whether by his weight or old twine or by a blade he did not know. He knew only that he was currently sitting in mud and his neck was a kind of sore that may never leave. As much alive and a child of the earth as yesterday.
He stood then and found that his legs would hold him. His hat lay crown down at the base of that same tree that was to have been his grave and so he retrieved that. It was an old black beaver fur variety, with a pinch front and a beaded tribal band about it that had been given him after returning a runaway Kiowa boy to his tribe. He looked at it, surprised it had not been taken when the men had removed his rifle and Colt pistol, along with the two large knives sheathed on his thighs, and he hatted himself. This day was full of surprises.
The rifle had been an 1866 Winchester and the pistol an 1860 Colt Army Revolver, neither of which would be easily replaced; On the other hand, he had no intention of replacing them. He had known the outfit who had strung him up, and knew where they could be found. He pulled the front brim of his hat low, and began walking northwest, through the forest populated mostly with oak and birch trees that had surrounded him throughout most of his life.
* * *
He rapped on the cabin door twice and stood back on the front porch. He saw a curtain at the window twitch and finally the door opened. A bespectacled man with a handlebar mustache and striped vest opened the door and wore an expression bordering on concern. The man's name was Ben, and he was both a doctor and family to the man on the porch, though not terribly distinguished at either.
"Damn, Rye," was what he said, and he walked out the door onto the porch and sat in one of the two rockers that held sway there and set to lighting a pipe.
Rye walked over to the other chair and sat, not rocking. Neither man said anything, and eventually the pipe was lit. "Quite a choker you got there," Ben said, by way of conversation starter.
Rye removed his hat and hung it from the arm of the chair and nodded, and immediately regretted it, so sore was his neck.
"They took my mare, both guns, both knives," he croaked, finally. It seemed to both men that there was more to say but neither said it. Ben puffed at his pipe, and looked thoughtfully at the noose about the neck of his kin.
"Well," said Ben. His teeth clicked as he removed the pipe and he spit then, a rainbow shaped lob that both men watched until it met the earth. "This all from the job collectin' that cowboy?" Ben asked.
It seemed a stupid question to both men, and so it hung in the air like a rancid fart that simply needs to be endured.
Ben puffed on his pipe, and Rye looked from the porch to the forest. Finally, he said, "I saw 'em all—Johannsen too. There were five of them. I'll be taking a few things for the trip."
Ben puffed and nodded. "Well. Let's get started by gettin' that noose off, I reckon."
* * *
Ben and Rye had never been close, although they shared some of the same blood and had lived within ten miles of one another throughout the entirety of their lives. Rye came from the supposed mongrel side of the line, him being half Pawnee, the other half shared Irish, and while he didn't fully look like an Indian, he didn't really pass for white, either. He had dark olive skin and shoulder length black hair, with a strong nose and flared nostrils, and below all of that a bushy black beard. His shoulders were nearly an axe-handle wide and his hands had yet to find a pair of gloves that fit. He was, in all, an odd assemblage of parts that made a formidable whole nonetheless. Ben, on the other hand, looked like he was fresh off the boat from the Old Country, all freckles and milky skin, a fact that he had been known on occasion to remind Rye of, particularly when in his cups.
At present, however, the rest of the family who had once surrounded the two of them had either passed on or pulled up stakes and headed farther west, thus Ben Smith and Rye Lonehand were the last of their kind, paired together without their choosing, and so they continued to lean on each other as if they had no creativity or free will, in the grip of some grim determination.
Rye washed himself from a water bucket and rested after. The next morning, he grabbed a rifle, this one a Sharps model—known mostly for shooting Buffalo, which, partially because of that and otherwise because of its inaccuracy, Rye was not especially inclined towards. It was, however, available. He added a pouch of buffalo jerky and a water skin to the collection on the table. A knife was next, and so he sat on the porch for nearly an hour sharpening the instrument that resembled a bludgeon as much as a blade when he began, so dull was it. He chewed on a knot of tobacco as he worked, missing the spittoon entirely more often than not. Ben, for his part, had conjured up a thick, clear ointment and lathered that on Rye's neck, and it stung anew every time he moved it.
* * *
Rye Lonehand had been hired to bring in a wanted man from one of the local ranches in the territory, owned by a Johanssen. He had a first name, but Rye didn't know it. The cow puncher's name was Reaves.
Rye, of course, did not have a license or badge of any sort, nor did he want one. The law was seldom seen around these parts, however, and since he was half Pawnee, various lawmen, all of them white, would lean on him to go places they could or would not. He got jobs in essence as a bounty hunter, was given a writ warrant, often with a picture, then sought toward finding and delivering those sorry individuals through Kiowa or Pawnee land, or west through the Navajo or Apache territories, to a waiting US Marshal on the other side. It was a strange business, but one he found he did not mind doing. He did something he was good at, was left alone, and got paid for doing it. A man can do worse.
In this particular case, however, he had learned something which had been unknown previously, and he had learned it as that outfit was literally fitting the noose around his neck. Reaves was Johanssen's nephew.
* * *
He rode the forest north on a black mare Ben had spared. It was springtime, and the air was newborn and flush with pollen and hummingbirds darted thusly as he rode. He was in no hurry, as a death a week from now suited him the same as a death tomorrow. And being that he himself was a dead man, at least as far as these cowboys were concerned, it did him no good whatever to be seen or in fact announce his presence any sooner than was necessary.
He slept the first night at the base of a tree with the horse tethered nearby. He had seen nary man or beast and was set well within himself and his thoughts. He set no fire as the night was balmy and the quilt he had brought held more heat than was necessary for the job. In the morning he watered his horse and took some for himself at a nearby stream. The sun rose angry in the east, and the humidity felt thick enough to cut with a knife. His knife, even, if it were sharp enough. His neck felt on fire.
He rode north in no particular hurry, for heat and humidity such as this would wipe out his horse if he was not careful, and, truth be told, he was still fashioning a plan. It was silliness to simply ride to the ranch and there serve a warrant for which he had already been hanged and where he was outnumbered five-to-one. There was Johannsen to be dealt with, for Rye was not a man to be strung up, failed or otherwise, without some form of retribution; he would see to that. But the cowpoke Reaves, that was a second part of this to be dealt with. And so he rode north with his thoughts and looked for tracks and signs of wear, finding little of note.
It was past noon on the third day as the sun bore down malevolently and he and his mare were soaked with sweat that he rode into a clearing in the forest where the weeds and grass feathered the haunches of his horse and there saw the two Kiowa, some thirty yards across the meadow. They were man and boy, both upon horses. The man's horse had a deer that lay across horizontal in front of him. Even from here, Rye could see the two gashes on its side where it had been shot with arrows, though they had been removed. Both man and boy were shirtless and wore leather leggings and moccasins, as was custom for a Kiowa. He saw no gun, but each armed with a bow. He had seen the man before but was not an acquaintance. There passed a moment where all three participants halted their mounts and looked upon one another, each silent as a thought, and with it some ancient and terrible instinct within man to make a graveyard of the entire world. Then it passed, and all Rye felt was hot. He dipped his hat once in greeting and slowly rode his horse at a walk across the meadow. When he reached the end of the clearing, he looked back and saw nothing at all.
It was near dark on that same day when he found the remnant of a campsite, and evidence of a fire from the previous night. He was still some miles from the ranch at this point, and read here three horses in the dirt, and thusly assumed three riders in turn. The hoof tracks bore east, and he knew then that whomever rode those horses were headed to the small town of Consequence, for there was little of note in that direction otherwise in the territory. He kicked his booted heels softly into the midsection of his mare who picked up the pace into that same direction, a destination finally glimpsed where none had been before.
* * *
The town of Consequence was little more than a collection of seven buildings, with a smattering of houses just outside the main street. The saloon acted as coffee shop and supper house as well, since the only town restaurant had long ago gone belly up, and the upstairs of the saloon was versatile enough to be considered hotel and whorehouse and public bath all the while. A very large Mr. Sheldon Mims owned that versatile establishment, and he was known to be as quick with a joke as with the sawed-off shotgun always within reach under the bar. The mercantile was next door and had a room off to the side for a barber, and the man who ran them both doubled as sheriff. His name was Jim Marshall, but folks in the territory found some pleasure referring to him as Marshal Marshall, despite that not being the correct title, finding their wit more to their liking than accuracy. There was a church, of course, but that had taken on a bit of a rural legend in recent years, as the last regular preacher ran off with a 14-year old boy from the town. His replacement was killed on the trip west, rather unluckily, by a random war party, and his replacement again showed up sick and never did get well. He was dead within weeks. So the town had been well shod of preachers for some years now, although a few of the town women kept the church up as best they could.
The fourth building belonged to a blacksmith with a livery yard in back, so horses could be stabled. There was a schoolhouse, of course, and Consequence being practical in matters of town hospitality, the teacher there doubled as the whorehouse madam, one Ms. Josie Laughlin, when school was not in session. The second-to-last place of business was the old restaurant, and it took up a large corner space and sat empty as a lighthouse. It was connected around the corner to the sheriff's office, though truth be told that office was empty more often than naught, what with the sheriff spending most of his time running the mercantile.
When Rye Lonehand rode into Consequence that evening, it was one of those purple summer nights where though the sun had set, the light had never really gone from the sky. He passed through town once simply for a gander. The saloon and its many businesses seemed on the up and up, what with more horses tethered outside than seemed town occupants, and there were two couples walking hand in arm along the streets. He passed the mercantile and while the shop itself seemed closed, he saw its proprietor, Sherriff Marshall, or Marshal Marshall, as the joke went, inside tending to business by himself behind the desk. Rye sat his mare and tethered her and knocked on the window. The Sherriff looked up from his papers and, bespectacled, raised his glasses to look through the glass. Recognizing the man he found there, we walked to the front door and unlocked it.
"Lonehand," he said in greeting. There was no warmth in it, but no malevolence either. He walked back to his papers.
"Sheriff," Rye answered. He realized that this was the first time he had spoken since seeing Ben, and the three days with no speech had done his voice no favors. It was raspy and painful, and sounded like something from a nightmare.
"What can I do for you," the man said, more declaration than question in tone. "Better yet, is this business or pleasure? I'm assuming business, or you would have just gone next door. And what the heck is with your voice?"
Rye reached into his coat pocket and there removed a warrant sheet. He walked forward and put it on the counter in front of the sheriff. "I'm looking for a man name of Reaves. Ranch hand," he rasped.
The sheriff looked at the warrant, the illustration there, and the words writ thereabouts for some time. Far longer than was necessary, both men knew.
Then he looked towards the ceiling, and exhaled loudly. "Lonehand, we have a deal here. You know that. You head into the territories and track down your bounties, but that business stays out of town."
Rye looked at the man and nodded, swallowing a mouthful of spittle in the hopes of giving his voice some life. "Of course, Sheriff. But—well, this time it's personal. I got the warrant. So I'm in the right, but even if I wasn't—"
"What are you yammering on about, and what's that got to do—"
Rye reached to the candle lamp on the counter and picked it up, and with his other hand lifted his head and raised his beard so the sheriff could get a good look. His neck still wore the outline of the noose, the skin bruised purple and dark blue in a combination of raw skin and clotted blood, a semblance of the scar tissue to come. The ointment Ben had put on glistened in the lamplight.
The sheriff looked from the neck to Rye and then back to the neck. "Well, shit. I'll be damned," he said, and rubbed the back of his own neck. Then he nodded, and continued: "They did that?"
Rye nodded. "All of 'em. Johannsen too."
The sheriff continued nodding, then stopped. "Well okay then," he said. He turned around and reached for his hat which hung on the wall and hatted himself. It was a silverbelly job with a ranch crease. He removed his glasses, and pulled the badge from his vest pocket and pinned that on.
"Reaves is next door," he said. "Two other hands, too. Wilson, I think, and one other. I saw 'em all earlier when they went in. Probably pretty well soused by now, I reckon."
Rye waited in the mercantile shop while Sheriff Marshall walked into the saloon. The sheriff returned shortly and confirmed that the men were next door. Reaves, it turned out, was upstairs immersed in some business. The two cowboys were playing cards but near stone drunk at one of the tables. Rye and Sheriff Marshall discussed their options.
* * *
Rye Lonehand pushed one of the swinging doors open and tipped his hat to Mims, the large barman, who nodded in return and reached for the sawed-off shotgun below the bar. Rye looked about the saloon and the inhabitants there. Sheriff Marshall stood behind him in the doorway and took it in. Many of the tables were more than half full, where people were either eating or playing cards. It was one table toward the rear wall, however, that took Rye's attention and it was there that he saw the two ranch hands. He knew them immediately, and remembered that it had been Wilson, the black cowboy in the group, that had fitted the noose about his neck. He felt it again now. The other hand he did not know the name of, and it was at that instant that the cowboy recognized Rye and went white as the moon. He stared at Rye and tapped Wilson, and then they were both staring. A quiet settled over the room, and people at the near tables began to think about escape routes, and whether they were right with the Lord, if guns were pulled.
It was clear to anyone with two eyes that the two cowboys were deep in their cups, and so what followed was both fortuitous and expected. Rye pointed at them for affect and the white cowboy stood, his thighs bumping the table, and exclaimed, "We hung you!" and it came out both exclamatory and questioning, and Wilson then tried to stand and pull his gun from its holster but the whiskey had blunted whatever skills existed there and so his hand fumbled with pistol and leather holster alike and the shot that followed instead went into his own foot. He screamed once and went down immediately. Rye turned to the Sheriff and asked, "You heard that, yeah?"
Sheriff Marshall nodded and walked towards the two men, one writhing in pain on the floor and the other still staring, unbelieving, at Rye Lonehand. The man who would not die. Rye, for his part, started up the stairs. He soon found Reaves in one of the rooms towards the back of the building, hard at work in copulation with one of the girls of domestic repute. When Rye opened the door, he saw that Reaves had left his gunbelt on a chair near the window, and as soon as the cowboy saw Rye he tossed the girl aside on the bed and stood, naked as the day he was born, with an erection to boot.
* * *
Reaves was collected and delivered through the territory on the warrant, although he now had another charge to be dealt with when that one was completed. An attempted murder by hanging. The irony of being delivered on one charge by the man whom he attempted to hang on the other was not lost on either man, and Marshal Dagget laughed himself hoarse when Rye delivered the man to him.
In the true spirit of recompense, Rye relieved Reaves of his gunbelt, revolver, and knife, as well as the rifle which had been on his horse, and whatever tobacco was found in the saddlebags, and so headed towards home more fully equipped than he had started out. It was with these weapons that he took a detour on the way back, and stayed for much of the night on a bluff overlooking the Johannsen property. He made no fire, and spent the time collecting whatever evidence he could. He caught sight of his horse, at one point, and mapped out the buildings-stables, outhouse, main house, bunkhouse, which was now mostly empty. He knew Johanssen's bedroom by the candle that was last extinguished in the main house. And so it was shortly before dawn when Rye Lonehand made his way down the bluff, rifle in hand, for a visit with Mr. Johanssen and the retrieval of his horse. The sun had yet to begin its ascent in the east, but had inked the horizon red for its arrival above the blueblack sky and the stars that hung pendant there, bearing witness each to each.