Marshal Kyle Warner risked lifting his head up, just enough to try to locate Chance Monroe. A bullet zinged off the rock in front of him, far too close for comfort. He ducked back down, as the echo rang around the Arikaree Breaks.
"Want to try that again, Marshal?" Monroe called from the rocks above him. "I didn't have my aim in, that time." His voice was just short of laughing at him.
"Go to Hell, Monroe," Kyle called. He took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his brow. It was noon, on the hottest day in July he could ever remember. The red dirt under him was baked dry, and cracked. Every move he made seemed to kick up a fine red dust.
"After you," Monroe replied. Another shot ricocheted off the rock.
Kyle turned to Deputy Billy Fletcher, who was crouched beside him, his Colt gripped tightly in his right hand. "We need help, Billy," he said. "Can you get to your horse, if I cover you?"
"And leave you here alone, Marshal?"
"I'll keep him busy, until you get back with more men. When you do, circle around behind him and close in. Ready? On the count of three. One, two, go!"
Kyle sprang up from behind the rock, and opened up with his pistol, peppering the rocks above him. He didn't know exactly where Monroe was hiding, but that didn't matter so long as he managed to throw him off balance a little. Just long enough for Billy to get to his horse and get away. When his gun was empty, he dropped down again. He turned to see Billy galloping in the direction of Colby. It would take him an hour to get there, another hour back.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time, when they'd left Colby in pursuit of their quarry. A rider had galloped in and reported that Chance Monroe had robbed the stage on the trail from Abilene. Two men were dead, another wounded. Monroe had headed northwest, the man had said, into the rugged territory of the Arikaree Breaks.
Monroe had been a thorn in Kyle's side for months, and had shot down five men in cold blood. It was high time to either put him in the ground, or bring him before a Judge. And so, Kyle had abandoned his customary caution. He had ridden out with Billy, as hard as they could go, but the Arikaree Breaks was hard territory, and it could swallow a man whole, so that no one would ever find the body to give it a decent Christian burial.
"You're all alone now, Kyle," Monroe called to him.
Kyle settled himself into a comfortable position, and pulled the brim of his hat over his eyes. "But I've got you for company," he shouted back, as he reloaded his gun.
Monroe laughed. "Ain't that just sweet? But I don't think you've thought this through. Sooner or later, you're going to get thirsty, and I don't reckon you had the presence of mind to bring your canteen with you, when you took cover. Do you think you can make it to your horse without me killing you?"
Damn it, Kyle thought, looking down at the bone-dry dirt at his feet. He's right. But I'll hold out as long as I can.
* * *
Fifteen minutes passed, then half an hour, and Kyle got to thinking that if Monroe hadn't mentioned the canteen, he wouldn't be feeling so damned hot and thirsty. The more he tried to put it out of his mind, the more it played on it like a tune he couldn't stop humming. He looked towards his horse, but there was no way he could get to it without being cut down.
But maybe Monroe wasn't up in the rocks anymore. Maybe he'd found another way down and moved on. Or maybe he was even now creeping towards him, his gun cocked, ready to kill. Kyle risked lifting his eyes above the rock. A bullet struck it, close enough to throw dust into his eyes. That at least answered the question.
"You going to sit there all day, Kyle?" Monroe called to him.
"Long as I have to."
"Your deputy's gone for help. I can't afford to let them get here. Let's say we finish this here and now, man to man."
It was tempting, but Monroe was fast, faster than anyone Kyle had ever seen. There was no way he could beat him in a fair fight. "Let's not," he said. "Why don't you tell me how much you got from that stage."
Monroe's laugh echoed around the rocks. "About a thousand dollars, and change."
"Not bad for a day's work."
"How much does a Marshal make these days? A hundred bucks a month?"
"It can't be easy, getting by on that, not as a family man. How about I pay you double that, to get back on your horse and ride home to Colby? Buy your wife something nice."
"How about you come down, and ride back in with me? I promise you'll get a fair trial."
Another shot hit the rock. "No, I think I'll pass on your kind offer. Anyway, a trial ain't much use to me, I'm guilty as Hell. Ain't no one going to see it otherwise."
Keeping him talking, that was the thing. The more he talked, the more relaxed he'd get. Maybe he'd make a mistake, give his position away. As long as he was talking, there was a chance, and at least it stopped Kyle thinking about how thirsty he was.
"Why don't you tell me about it?" he called. "You've got a captive audience. Tell me why they shouldn't hang you. How did you end up being such a bad man?"
"Am I a bad man, Marshal? I don't think of myself as one."
"You've done a lot of bad things."
"A man has to survive. This is the only way I know how."
"How did it start?"
There was a long pause. After it, when Monroe spoke again, his voice was so low that it was barely audible. "Once you're branded an outlaw, you don't got a whole lot of choices. Ever hear of a place called Vernon County, in Missouri?"
"Can't say that I have."
"It ain't much, just a whole lot of nothing and nobodies. I was born on a farm there. When I was sixteen, some militia came riding by, some of Bloody Bill's men. They demanded what wasn't theirs to take. My Pa wasn't giving it up, so they killed him. They shot my Mama, too, then took what they wanted. I was out in the fields when the murders happened. When I came back, I found their bodies. I buried them alone, in the rain."
"That's bad, but I don't see how—"
"After the war, I tracked those men down, one by one, and killed them. The last two were on that stagecoach today."
Kyle imagined the young boy finding his dead folks, and having to bury them alone. "So, you never wanted the money?" he asked.
"It helps, I'll admit it. But it ain't satisfying the way revenge is."
"A judge will understand. I'll even speak for you, son."
Monroe didn't answer, and Kyle couldn't get another word out of him, not for a long time.
* * *
Kyle watched the sun edge across the sky at the pace of a grazing buffalo. He guessed maybe an hour had passed since he'd last heard a peep out of Monroe. It was too much time to think of a heartbroken farm boy, bereft of kin and alone against a cold and dangerous world. I'd have probably done the same thing, he thought, if I were in his place.
That was the thing: no one could truly judge another man for his actions, not even if he were a Marshal. There was always a reason, a story behind the man. There were no truly bad men, he'd always figured, just men who were hurting inside so bad, they had to let it out in the only way that a man sometimes can.
"You still there, Monroe?" he called.
In answer, a shot blasted off the rock.
Kyle lowered his head, until his chin was touching his chest. Billy would be back soon with a posse, if he weren't already closing in on Monroe from behind. Pretty soon, they'd make their move. Monroe wouldn't let himself get taken alive, and more men would probably die.
"Monroe? Look, I've been thinking over what you said. It doesn't have to end badly today. Most people would say you had just cause to kill those men. I don't want you to die out here today. It's too damned hot, and I'm too dammed thirsty."
"Killing is thirsty work, in my experience."
"Come down, and let me take you in. I'll help you, get you a good lawyer. I'll even speak on your behalf. You don't deserve to hang."
"I won't hang, Marshal," he said. "I can promise you that."
"Look . . . " But could he tell him about the posse coming? If he warned him, good men would definitely die, but if he didn't . . .
A volley of shots rang out, but this time they came from a distance, higher up in the rocks. It wasn't Monroe's rifle. Sounded like a pistol, maybe a Colt. Then Monroe's rifle called out in reply. Kyle was familiar with its song by now, so much so that he doubted he'd ever forget it. Monroe wasn't shooting in his direction anymore. Billy had arrived.
Kyle broke cover and stood up, then cupped his hands around his mouth. "Billy?" he shouted, as hard as he could.
The shooting stopped. "Marshal? Are you hit?"
"Billy, I want you and the men to stop shooting."
"You want us to what?"
"Stop shooting. That's an order. You're to pull back to five hundred yards, and wait for me to find you." As he was saying it, he made his way to his horse and grabbed his canteen. His fingers fumbled with the top, then managed to get it open. He glugged the contents down in huge, satisfying gulps.
He turned to find Monroe behind him, his rifle in the crook of his arm. His right hand hovered over his pistol in its holster.
"Monroe. Damn it, but you walk softly, son. Come in with me."
"It's too late for that. I'd prefer to end this clean."
Kyle turned around slowly. "You're faster than me. No way can I beat you."
"You never know for sure, not until you try."
They stood motionless for what seemed like a long time, as if they were fixed there, as if the rocks themselves had claimed them as their own. Monroe's hand twitched slightly, and edged towards his weapon. A carnation of blood blossomed in the center of his blue shirt, at the same time as the sound of the shot reached them. Kyle looked up. Billy was on top of the rocks, his rifle against his shoulder. As he watched, smoke issued from the barrel, and the second shot sent Monroe tumbling to the dirt.
Kyle rushed forward and fell to his knees beside Monroe. "It's okay, son," he said. "We'll get you back to town, the doctor will fix you up." He knew it wasn't true; his words were more for himself than his former enemy.
Monroe lifted his head a little. "Told you . . . I wouldn't hang," he breathed. Then he was gone.
Kyle closed his eyes and breathed softly. "Time to go home to your folks, son," he said. "They'll be proud of you, knowing what you've done for them."
He stood and brushed the dirt from his trousers, then went back to his horse and sipped at the water from his canteen. As far as anyone else was concerned, a vicious outlaw had just died, but he knew the truth. A good son had gone home.