The sting of being strange
I watch them come.
Two dozen horses carrying less than two dozen men, riding fast out of town in a cloud of dust and gun smoke, some riders falling to the dust along the way.
The sound of their rifles woke me and told me of the fight inside the town, a fight these two dozen didn’t win
But they slow after a time as weariness of the steeds and wounded men make the climb up to where I sit much more difficult.
They need not hurry. The town’s people won’t follow. They didn’t follow me.
And I killed a man.
Why the riders come this way puzzles me.
They must know I am here and wish to seek refuge in my high abode, this place from which I keep watch against the possible retribution of the town – I believe and hope will not come, but need to watch for anyway.
This high up with a rifle, I can kill many before they can reach me, and the town’s people know it. I can kill these riders if I wish, but something holds me back, some urge, some deep pang for human company.
I wait and watch instead, keeping my rifle pointed at the nearest of the riders for the moment when I might have to pull the trigger.
Still something about their ride warns me to be extra careful. But I have time, and slip back off the ridge to make my way to my small cabin.
My rib still aches from my fall down a slope three days ago. I think something is broken from the way it swells. I have it wrapped and fear it will grow worse before it gets better.
Above me the mountains glisten with the fresh snow, hinting of darker, colder days to come, ready to seal me into a new prison from which no derringer will allow me escape.
I do not feel like a killer; and yet I have killed.
I still see the face of the other man in my dreams, his angry eyes rolling up into his head as my gun fired first, his tall shape thumping on the floor of the tavern with the sound of closing casket.
I have killed others, too, but not so close up, part of an eastern war I have since abandoned – north and south turning sour in my veins from too much death and too many loose limbs.
I still wear the uniform I wore although the blue had faded to near gray so no one, not even I, can tell which side I fought on, or why.
I remember how the sheriff told me in no uncertain terms that I would hang.
I am new to these parts, and even in a fair fight, a stranger does not kill a local without retribution. My body would be buried near the body of the man I killed in that pathetic cemetery outside the town.
My justice was the derringer and the look on the sheriff’s face when I thrust its still warm barrel under his chin and ordered him to open the cell so I could leave.
He promised to hunt me down, but I know he won’t.
He seemed even a little relieved at my leaving, even if I took his pistols, two rifles and a shotgun with me – as if he knew I should not hang for what I did.
Now, I gather up another rifle and one of the boxes of bullets I took, and carry them back to the ridge, where I set up again, loading both rifles, both six guns and my derringer for the moment I might have to make a fight of it with those who come.
They are closer now, yet not close enough for me to shoot.
I wait, watch, and doze when the watching becomes too tedious, jerking awake at each new sound.
I do not want to shoot. I am sick of all the dying, here and back east, yet know that if I am to survive, I must kill if threatened.
When they get close enough, I call out, and the small troop stops.
I squint as the dust around them settles and see the gray uniforms they wear and know they have come west from the war, their faces showing the scars of their conflict, here and there, red streaming from several of those slumped, death hovering over them like flies.
I ask them what they want. One – the nearest – asks for shelter.
I tell them I have no room.
But they say they will sleep outside if need be, needing only to keep out of harms’ way since the towns people are roused and would kill them.
The town, I know, has sympathy with the north, so that this band – even coming in peace – would find no peace there.
I feel a strange kinship with them, even though I spent several years at the wrong end of a rifle against them. We are all strangers here, all part of some greater injustice that life has imposed on us, shading our beliefs and our hearts with shadows none of us fully understand.
We are no longer north or south; we are no longer east or west. We are just strangers stranded in the same remote place, suffering in our hearts and bodies, looking for refuge.
I tell them come ahead.
How can I refuse them when I too have felt the sting of being strange?