As the sun rose on another godforsaken day, Judd Granger rode his horse through the Texas wilderness, staring straight ahead, knowing that at the age of twenty-seven he was a dead man.
He closed his eyes and remembered the last evening of his life, six months earlier, when he saddled his horse near the barn on his ranch, then glanced across the barnyard at the front door of his house.
The door opened, and Mathias, the most precious little boy in the whole wide world, ran through the doorway and stopped on the porch.
"Papa, Papa, Papa!" Mathias called.
Ellie, the most beautiful young woman in the whole wide world, moved through the doorway, stopped near Mathias, and smiled at him.
"Mathias," Judd said, "come love on your papa!"
Mathias took a step toward Judd, stumbled, and fell to his knees.
"Oh, lemme help you!" Ellie said, reaching for him.
"No!" Mathias said.
He struggled to his feet and ran to Judd, who picked him up and hugged him.
"Mama loves you," Judd said, "but she don't know you can stand up on your own two feet."
"I most certainly do, Judd Granger," Ellie said, putting her hands on her hips. "I know both of my men can . . . with a little help now and again."
"I gotta go, Mathias," he said. "But if you's good to your mama—"
"He always is," Ellie said, strolling across the barnyard.
"Well, then," Judd said, "if you keep on being good to your mama and feed the horses in the barn—"
"With a little help?" Ellie suggested, stopping beside Judd and Mathias.
"With a little help," Judd said, nodding, "I'll bring you back a surprise."
Mathias giggled, and Judd put him down.
Ellie embraced Judd.
"Just be sure to bring yourself back," she said.
"And the flour and sugar?"
"Don't you ever worry over flour or sugar or coffee or fatback or nothing else," she said. "We can get by without 'em." She kissed him. "We can't get by without you."
"And I can't get by without you, Ellie," Judd said, "you and Mathias . . . " He looked at the little boy. " . . . who's maybe gonna get a surprise tonight."
Mathias giggled again.
Riding his horse on that godforsaken day, Judd opened his eyes and stared straight ahead. From a pocket of his coat, he removed a wooden top and a piece of twine. He looked at them and remembered the first time he'd seen Ellie.
He was in Peterson's General Store. He picked up a salt block, turned, and saw her standing near the counter, looking down at a bolt of calico. She looked up, saw him, and smiled. He gazed at her.
An older man stomped over to him.
"Ain't you got nothing better to do than gawk at my little girl?" he growled.
For a moment longer, Judd gazed at Ellie. Then he looked at her father.
"I ain't gawking, sir," he said. "I'm admiring, and I'm trying to figure out how best to say howdy to her."
Her father scowled.
"Sayin' howdy leads to callin' on," he said. "Callin' on leads to courtin'. And courtin' leads to marryin'."
"And marryin'," her father continued, "means takin' care of."
Judd nodded again.
"Can you take care of my little girl?" her father growled again.
"I built me a house, a barn, and some decent corrals," Judd said. "I bought me some good heifers and a good bull. And now I got me a herd of good cattle, and they's bringing me some good money." He nodded. "And now I know who her pa is, I'm gonna ask him if I can say howdy to his daughter."
Ellie's father slowly smiled.
"You got gumption, young feller," he said. "Go on over and say howdy."
Judd smiled and took a step.
"Wait up," her father said.
"Yes, sir?" he asked.
Her father smiled.
"Why don't you put down the salt block first?" he said.
Saying howdy led to calling on, and everything else followed just the way Ellie's father had said it would. And everything was better than Judd could ever have imagined. Then Matthias came along, and everything was better still.
Riding his horse on that godforsaken day, Judd looked at the wooden top and the piece of twine and remembered riding his horse toward his house at night, six months earlier, when he was still alive, holding the top and the twine, smiling at them.
He remembered hearing a shot, remembered looking at the house, seeing a pinto near the front door, hearing another shot, seeing a young man wearing a white hat, a white shirt, and a black vest stagger to the pinto, mount it, and gallop away. He remembered galloping his own horse to the house, jumping off, running through the doorway.
Riding his horse on that godforsaken day, Judd looked at the top and the twine, and thought about the ways you could kill a man. An iron was the fastest. A knife was the bloodiest. Hands . . . maybe hands were the most satisfying because you could squeeze the life out of a man real slow and enjoy ever gasp and twitch and moan.
He put the top and twine into his pocket, stopped his horse, dismounted, and looked at the ground. He mounted his horse and continued riding.
The day passed, and the night fell.
Judd rode through a grove of yucca trees, stopped again, and saw a pinto grazing near a stream.
He dismounted and hesitated, then nodded and drew his pistol.
"Fastest," he whispered.
He breathed deeply.
"Help me, Ellie," he whispered again.
He crept forward.
He passed the pinto and saw a light shining through the window of a cabin.
He moved to the window.
Through it, he saw Samuel Taylor, a young man gazing at the wall, wearing a white hat, a white shirt, and a black vest.
Judd looked beyond the window and saw a door. He cocked his pistol, stepped to the door, and kicked it open.
He rushed into the cabin and pointed his pistol at Samuel, who didn't move.
"You killed my wife and son," Judd shouted, "and you's gonna pay!"
Slowly, Samuel turned to Judd and smiled radiantly.
"Thank God you come!" he said.
Judd narrowed his eyes.
"I been in unspeakable pain," Samuel said.
He stood and faced Judd.
"What you saying?" Judd asked.
"When I killed the woman and the baby, I killed all the good in me." Samuel raised his arms. "Kill what's left."
"I was on a drunk," Samuel said. "I run outa money. I busted into your house, looking for whiskey or money or both, ready to do anything to get 'em."
"I was knocking dishes off of shelves, breaking 'em, causing all kind of commotion. I heared someone come in. I pulled my iron, turned, and shot . . . the woman. Then the baby come in. I didn't think. I just . . . shot. I seen the two of 'em laying on the floor. I seen her reach out her hand for him, and I seen him reach out his little hand for her, and then . . . they just laid there. And I . . . I run out, jumped on Paint, and rode as fast and as far as I could."
He retched, lowered his arms, and leaned forward. He breathed deeply, then straightened.
"Thought if I kept drinking, I'd forget. Thought if I stopped drinking, I'd forget."
He shook his head.
"Then just afore you got here, I figured it out." He smiled. "The only way I can forget is to die. I was about to saddle up Paint and ride back to your place and beg you to deliver me. But you come here. You come here!"
He raised his arms again.
"Now kill me!"
"Why don't you take your own iron and blow your brains out?" Judd asked.
"You's the one I sinned against," Samuel said. "You's the only one can deliver me."
For a moment, Judd looked at him, then nodded.
"I believe you," he said. He uncocked his pistol and jammed it into his holster. "And I ain't gonna kill you."
Samuel stared at him.
"Like I say," Judd said, "you's gonna pay."
"I already paid!"
Frantically, Samuel grabbed his pistol, pointed it at Judd.
"If you don't kill me—"
"You gonna kill me?" Judd laughed. "I'm already dead." He paused. "But I can still stand up on my own two feet . . . with a little help."
He reached into the pocket of his coat and removed the top and the twine.
"This here's a surprise I got for my son. Can't give it to him so . . . "
He wound the twine around the top.
" . . . I'm giving it to you."
He tossed the top, which spun on the floor.
"If you ever start feeling good about yourself, spin the top, and remember that my son never got the chance to."
He dropped the twine on the floor.
"Remember that my wife never got the chance to see him spin it. And I didn't, neither."
He turned and walked out of the cabin.
Samuel lowered his pistol, then—with horror—watched the top spin on the floor.