He rested the roan at a creek bed that curved near the trail, allowing the horses to drink freely and nibble at the grass. Sheriff Clay Holland dug into the saddlebag retrieving some hardtack picked up from his stopover in San Antonio. Overhead, in the willows that lined the creek, a goldfinch twittered as it flew from one stand of trees to another further upstream. Since the passing of wife Sarah, he had carried two canteens, one with water and the other with whiskey. His fingers had found the whiskey and it flowed nicely washing down the hardtack.
The trail had led to a Creekside campfire. He dismounted and tethered the roan. Then he circled around, light-footed along the creek bed where tree growth and underbrush provided a protected approach to the campfire. Three men were sitting around a small fire, one was outlaw Josiah Judd, and Judd had a bandage and sling on his left arm and shoulder. So, my shot at our earlier meeting had scored a hit thought the Sheriff. Now he had to come up with a way to separate the injured man from the other two.
Right now, he had a shot, a bushwhack dead-eye shot that would put down the outlaw Judd. but it wasn't Clay Holland's style, sheriff or not. No, he'd face him, man to man, let the best gun win, even though the killer deserved to die for taking the life of the lovely Sarah and for taking the life of stage driver Harry Porter. He checked his loads, unstrapped the colt as a ready backup, and waited, watching. Then, one of the men stood and reached for the coffee pot on the fire.
The Sheriff stepped out from behind a juniper, running forward with the Winchester at his hip. "Relax boys, I only want Judd. You other fellers sit tight."
The crooks froze in surprise. Josiah Judd's reflexes were fast, his colt clearing leather and returning a shot at this badge-wearing stranger. The bullet found its mark hitting the forestock, knocking the Winchester from the Sheriff's hand. Clay Holland's instinctive reactions caused him to spin and dive following the motion of the falling rifle. Clay Holland tumbled and came up with his colt firing first at the fleeing Josiah Judd and then at the other armed outlaw shooting the gun from his hands.
"Dang-it!" Sheriff Holland cursed. "Gotta secure these two or I still got three on one." He got their guns and boots, tied the outlaws to a nearby tree, and led their two horses away. Hooves pounded in the background as outlaw Judd made a quick getaway.
The tracks were fresh, recent, and easy to follow, Judd seemed to be moving at a steady canter. The Sheriff nudged the roan to a canter to match the pace. The trail tended to follow the river, sometimes close to the shore, other times skirting marshland and or by-passing exposed limestone gullies where the river collected watershed feeder creeks. Tree and underbrush growth was greater along the river than on the prairies. The Sheriff's eyes darted from the trail to the cover along the trail, recognizing the possibility of ambush. So long as the tracks were visible, he felt confident he could maintain the pace and gain on Judd.
Sheriff Holland came around a tight bend in the trail, with rock formation on one side, and underbrush on the riverside, following the tracks of the bay. The roan's ears twitched, and he saw ahead a couple of ducks flushed to the air from the underbrush. He started to pull back on the reins, and suddenly he felt a slam on his shoulder knocking him back, then heard a shot. He tried to hold on, but the impact to his shoulder knocked him off the saddle, as the roan jumped from surprise. He tumbled and rolled from the fall, coming down behind a boulder.
He lay there frozen, behind the rock, waiting for another shot. The roan had strayed away from the gunfire. He checked his wound. It appeared to be a flesh wound with the bullet going through the soft tissue in the left upper arm, and not breaking a bone. It hurt like hell, but his arm could lift and move. And best of all, he could still shoot with his right hand. He pulled a bandana from his pocket and awkwardly using one hand and his teeth, was able to tie the red patch of cloth around his arm to slow the bleeding.
The Sheriff listened. There had been no sounds, no rustling of underbrush, no horse hooves thumping the ground. Somewhere in the trees nearby, a cardinal proclaimed its territory. In the distance, another redbird replied in a copycat echo from a different angle. He knew Judd must still be here, waiting, watching, probably in the middle, between the two birds.
"Hey, Judd. This here's Sheriff Holland, from over Bent Creek way. I know you're hit, you're losing blood, an easy trail to follow," called the Sheriff as he watched the brush.
Josiah Judd answered with a shot that hit the rock and spit dust into the Sheriff's face. But the Sheriff had seen the movement, a barrel poking through the leaves.
"That gun must be getting pretty heavy. Throw it out here in the road between us. We'll get you to see a doctor." There was no answer. Clay Holland decided it was time to put all the cards on the table.
"Judd, it ends here, now. We caught and tried your cohort, Childers. But, it's on you for shooting the stage driver, Harry Porter. He died then and there. The judge issued a warrant for arrest for murder. Give it up now, you'll face the judge."
There was silence from the brush. The cottonwood leaves twisted in the breeze. A sparrow twittered from somewhere downstream.
"It ends today, one way or the other. You're wanted for murder."
Judd replied with another shot. The Sheriff ducked.
"Judd, You're wanted for another murder. Ya see, three years ago I came upon one of your stage robberies, over near San Antonio. Remember? I do. That day you shot and killed a young lady named Sarah Holland. That's right. Holland, my wife. So, it ends today."
Judd answered again with a shot that pinged off the boulder where the Sheriff lay. The sheriff had seen where the leaves had parted, and he placed his shot at that spot. There was a shout and a curse from the trees.
The Sheriff glanced around, seeing a mature cottonwood tree, thick enough to provide cover. It was some ten feet away, and other brush nearby offered some cover to approach Judd from a different direction. He picked up a rock and threw it into the woods behind Judd for a distraction, and scrambled to the trunk of the tree. Another shot slammed into the boulder where the Sheriff had taken cover when falling from the horse.
Crouching, the Sheriff cat-footed from one tree to the next, moving back and around, approaching the trail in a flanking maneuver from what now would be the right side of outlaw Judd. The outlaw was crouched behind a deadfall with a clear view of the trail from the small town, but now his flank was exposed, and it was obvious that he was weakening.
An image of the lovely Sarah flashed in his mind, followed by a sense of shouldering his rifle and shooting this murderer who deserved to die. But the rifle was in the boot of the saddle and inoperable, and the 80-100 feet between them would be a test of handgun marksmanship. He raised the colt, thumbing the hammer back and checking for a full chamber, and stepped forward following the aim of the pistol.
This was the moment he had waited for, the moment that had given him the strength and determination to pursue and catch a killer. This was a vicious predator, a man who killed a stage driver, robbed innocent people of all their valuables, a man who had killed before, snuffing out the brightness in the world that was Sarah.
All of a sudden, the badge didn't mean anything, that he was a sheriff sworn to uphold the law, these were just symbols of some meaningless history lesson in a one-room schoolhouse many years ago. In his mind, Clay Holland saw the smiling freckled face of Sarah, a face that became pale gray and lifeless in death, a face that was his last memory of this beautiful girl, extinguished like a blown-out candle, because of the wickedness of the man now in his sights, a face that called out for a wrong to be righted, an eye for an eye, a life for a life.
Josiah Judd had turned and looked his way in response to the approaching movement. Their eyes met, yet Judd's expression seemed calm, unemotional, relieved even, calmly waiting.
BAM. BAM. BAM. BAM. BAM
Then Judd's body seemed to jerk and twitch, arms flailing, like a puppet on a string, reminiscent of some traveling minstrel show that had come through town last year. Then the motion stopped, the eyes still looking at Clay Holland, but now appearing glassy and lifeless; the body of Josiah Judd slumped forward as if napping on the log.
Clay Holland looked down at the bloody body now at his feet, not fully realizing the events of the last six seconds. The gun in his hand was hot, still smoking. He had remembered seeing Judd from eighty feet away, and now he was standing over a dead man. His knees felt weak, and he sat on the log, numbly inserting cartridges into the chamber of the Colt.
"It's done, Sarah."
But an emptiness remained.