By Logan Zepp
Newton twirled the dandelion between his fingers, feeling the texture and weight of the small, dead plant. Letting it fall to the ground, he averted his gaze to the landscape around him. His green, piercing eyes searched the desolate desert for any sign of the posse. He was high on a hill, and commanded a view of the dusty, dirt road as it winded its way to the flat ground. Seeing no sign of the posse, he looked closer. He knew they would be there.
He rubbed the black beard that covered his face, and contemplated his fate. Sweat dripped from his hat brim to his eyes as the late afternoon sun glared down upon him. Wiping the annoying liquid away, he finally found what he was looking for—although it did him no pleasure to see it.
About a mile below him and only five-hundred feet up the hill, he could see the posse emerge from behind a small formation of rocks. These red rocks dotted the whole hillside, and dominated the very top. The last fact, the fact that the entire top of the bluff was coated in the deep red, sandstone rocks was the whole reason why he was riding up this cursed hill. He had decided when he first left town that he wouldn’t try to elude the posse; they were too fast, and too many, for that to be a reasonable option. Instead, he would try to hold them off at the top.
“It’s five o’clock,” he said to himself. “I can still make the top before dark.” Slapping his chestnut horse’s flank, he continued his flight. While he still had daylight, he checked the condition of his Colt revolver and Winchester rifle; he wanted them to be in tip-top shape for the fight that was sure to come. He made sure that they were well stocked with ammunition, and that there was no possibility they could misfire. In case of a last-ditch attempt, he also had a stick of dynamite. No one was going to kill him without a fight.
It was only seven or eight hundred feet to the top of this hill, but that wasn’t his final destination. He knew where he wanted to go, and he had a hunch that the posse knew, too. Adjacent to this hill, but only accessible by this road, was a large formation of rocks at the top of the neighboring hill. This formation capped the top of the hill, and was taller than the tops of any of the other hills around: in short, it was the ultimate high ground.
Lost in thought, Newton shook his head to rid himself of his reverie. He couldn’t afford to lose his concentration, not now. He would surely die from one cause or another if he allowed himself to daydream.
* * *
Night had descended. Newton drew in the reigns of his horse and slowly slid off from the saddle. He had pushed himself all day to reach the outcropping of rock before nightfall, and even then he had made it just after darkness had fallen.
The small outcropping of rock served as a perfect fortress. On the south side, a large formation of rocks rose, protecting the rear flank. A natural alcove was carved into the side of this formation, about five feet in length and four feet in width, with plenty of room to stand. A circle of large boulders started and ended at the entrance to the cave, providing a battlement to fight from. The hillside was steep, and there was no level space between the circle of boulders and the hillside. The only place a person could lead a horse into the battlement was where the road ended right in front of the boulders; the road leveled off there, giving room to jump a horse over the rocks and into his camp However, that was its only weakness, and Newton knew could not have picked a better spot for a shootout; the place was a castle.
Newton walked by barely moving his legs; he had never ridden that hard in his entire life, and his muscles were letting him know about it. He loosened the girth of his saddle and pulled it off his horse. Snatching some of the tough grass that barely scratched an existence on the dry hillside, he rubbed his horse down. When that was finished, he made a fire. He kept on working until there was absolutely nothing else that needed to be done; he even re-checked his rifle, groping in the darkness for anything that might have plugged the barrel.
“Stop making excuses, Newton,” he told himself. “Brace yourself.” Drawing a deep breath, he approached the steep hillside. He shuddered as a gust of cold wind blew past him, chilling him to the core. The desert days were hot and desolate, but the desert nights were cold and lonely. Newton took a deep breath; steeling his resolve, he looked down the hillside—and swore.
Only three hundred feet down the hillside, he could see the light of the posse’s camp. He had hoped that they would have traveled slower, and maybe given five hundred or six hundred feet of breathing room. Now he had to make a difficult decision: try to sleep and risk being ambushed in the dark, or stay up and be tired for the fight. Already, he was sleepy where he stood; his eyes were trying desperately to close, only to be forced open by some inner force within Newton, an inner force that said, “to sleep is to die!”. It was an internal struggle, one that Newton finally decided the outcome would be: he would sleep for a few hours, then fight.
Many years of hunting and trail riding had given Newton the ability to have an ‘internal alarm clock’. If he wanted to sleep only a few hours, he would. If he wanted to sleep half the night, then he would sleep half the night. It took many years to acquire the skill, and very few ever fully accomplish it. In times like this, the skill was invaluable. Newton just hoped that his sleep wasn’t so heavy that he didn’t wake up. To sleep all night would be certain death.
A greasy, bunched up old shirt served as his pillow. He slept in the little cave, so that if anyone entered the shelter, he might have the chance to wake up before he was taken. He had a six shooter in his right hand, with the cylinder turned onto an empty chamber, so the gun couldn’t shoot him in the leg. He’d done everything he possibly could. Now all he could de was wait.
* * *
True to his skill, Newton woke in two hours. His eyes snapped open, and he just lied there, listening for any noise that could indicate an ambush: he heard none. Sitting up, he walked into the circle of stones that would serve as his fortress for the next few days. The posse must be arrogant to not have tried some sort of ambush over the night. They think that I will simply be an easy kill in the morning, or that I will surrender. I guessed them right. Newman sat down on a large rock next to the entrance of the cave. I’ll prove them wrong! Many of the posse will meet their maker before I am taken— if I am taken at all. I can run, I can elude them. He sighed. No, this does not have to be the end. This is only the beginning. Newton stood up, and brushed dirt from his pants with his hat. Kicking the dirt as he went, he casually strode to the edge of his encampment. Leaning in the large, sandstone boulders, he stared into space.
Bing! Bang! Newton swore as he quickly fell to the dirt, shielding his eyes. Fool that I am! he thought, crawling through the dirt to the entrance of the cave. The light from the fire created a perfect silhouette for them to fire at; it would be like target practice at the range! Cursing himself for not having made a cold camp, Newton threw dirt over the fire. When that failed to put it out, he stomped on it with his foot, successfully extinguishing it. Now it’s time for some payback. Newton grinned, pulling the hammer on his six-shooter and turning the cylinder to a loaded chamber. Crawling to the side of the boulders, he shouted, “Eat my lead, posse scum!” Newton fired a dew shots into the darkness, hoping that they at least scared them.
Falling back to the ground, helet the posse fire back at him, as he knew they would. I better get over to the cave, he thought. If they try to storm this place at night, then that cave is the only spot where I stand a chance. Newton scrambled into the cave, bringing the butt of his Winchester rifle to his shoulder. His eyes desperately scanned the darkness, looking for any signs of an attack: he saw none. He continued looking for several more minutes before setting down his gun. With a heavy sigh, he leaned against the rocks, resigning himself to wait until morning. The fight would come when it comes.
* * *
Dawn broke over the horizon, dappling the sky with morning hues. Reds, oranges, and pinks worked together with the clouds to create a marvelous mural in the sky, a landscape all in its own. The soft morning light began to reveal the stirrings of a new day; mice scuttled to their homes, owls finished their nighttime prowl. Birds sang their morning tunes.
The beauty of the coming day was lost on one individual, however. Newton regarded the sunrise only as a means to find the posse’s position. The birds’ music only served to mask the posse’s movements, making his job of listening for them even harder.
Newton swayed where he sat; it took all of his focus and attention just to stay awake and aware of his surroundings. Shaking his head, he opened his canteen of water and used it to wash some of the sleep from his eyes. This, along with the cool, refreshing morning air helped clear his head. I wonder where they are, Newton thought, scanning the landscape. He hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the posse for the entire morning. Time passed on…
By noon, he still hadn’t seen any sign of the posse. Newton began to let his thoughts wander. I’ll show them, he thought. I’ll die in battle! They all told me, “It’s a family curse, kid, it’s bound to happen one of these days.” Well, Dad may have died on the gallows, and so did Grandpa and Great-Grandpa, but this is one member of the family that won’t. Nor will my son. The tradition stops here! Newton slammed his fist on the rock, his eyes scanning the hill, looking for any sign of the posse. We’ve always been known as riffraff, troublemakers—the lowest of the low! That’s all about to change now; I’ll take out this posse single-handedly, or die in the attempt! Newton forced himself to ceased his angry thoughts, and kept his mind focused on the task at hand. Keep searching, he told himself.
By one o’clock, the posse still showed no sign of revealing themselves. The desert sun began to cook Newton where he sat; already, his canteen was empty, and he hadn’t brought any more water. They’re wearing me down, Newman thought. They want me tired for the fight. He turned around and slumped against the back of the rock. Will I die a death of thirst and starvation? He pondered his fate, questioned his future. He sighed, and turned back around to continue his search. As soon as he turned around, a bullet whistled over his head and hit the rock above, catching Newton entirely by surprise. A rapid train of fire broke out, and Newton knew that every member of the posse must be shooting at him.
Newton kept his head down and his thoughts collected. He cocked his gun and waited for an opportunity to fire—none presented itself. The posse kept firing right into his position, and to raise his head to see would be certain suicide. He began to grow mad and frustrated; he couldn’t even fire back at his enemies! He was trapped like a fish and a barrel!—and they’d just keep shooting until they got him.
“It won’t end like this!” Newton shouted to himself. “This will not be the way!” In a desperate maneuver, he leaped backwards and landed in the dirt, his gun in hand. This gave him a view of the battlefield, and it wasn’t good. The posse were covering each other; one man would fire, then move, as the other covered his movement. Already they were only fifty yards from his position; soon they would be knocking on his door.
“Time to show these guys what I’m made of,” Newton said, drawing a bead and firing. He missed, but his shot was dangerously close, and stopped the man in his tracks for a while. Newton aimed at another man, but a bullet whizzing right past his ear threw him off. He hit the dirt and slid behind the rock wall for cover. His ears were ringing like crazy, and bullets were whizzing all around him. “It shall not end this way!” he screamed, and leapt over the rock wall and started a desperate run down the hill. “Come and get me you cowards!” he yelled, and started pumping lead at the posse. He knew it was useless, of course. The posse grossly outnumbered him, and by rights they should have killed him by now—but for some reason they hadn’t. What’s going on here? Newton wondered. My guts should be full of lead by now. He pulled the trigger on his gun again, only to find that the cartridge was empty. Out of ammo and out of luck, Newton pulled his rifle off his back. He started to draw an aim, and then out of the corner of his eye he saw a fist fly out of nowhere. The last thing he remembered thinking was that this was not what he wanted; that he would end up in jail and die on the gallows, not in a fight, like he dreamed of. Then he blacked out.
* * *
Newton’s family came to visit him in the jail. His wife stared at him from the other side of the bars, tears in her eyes. Newton hated to see her cry. His son stood behind her, solemn faced, too young to understand what was happening. It was a mournful meeting, and he hated to think about it. Now, as the hour approached, all he could think about was the curse. The curse his family seemed to bear, a curse that meant each and every one of them would one day die by the hangman’s noose. It was a stupid curse, and when he was growing up, he never believed in it. Now he was about to fulfill that curse. Newton seethed with anger.
Sunlight shone through the small window in the wall. It dappled across the floor of his cell, and Newton sat on his bed, staring at it. It was the only comfort he had in this cold, bleak, dismal place. Bored of sitting, he stood up and began pacing back and forth. “I’ll find another way,” he said, walking in circles, his mind desperately working. “I’ll have myself shot rather than die on the gallows.”
“That won’t be happening,” said a voice from behind him. Newton turned and saw the sheriff, the man who had knocked him out, unlocking the cell. “Newton,” he said. “I led your father to the gallows, and now I’m about to lead you there. My predecessor lead your granddad and his dad. It’s a curse, and there’s no sense denying it. I only hope it ends with you, and your young son won’t carry on the tradition.” The sheriff opened the cell door and stood right next to Newton. He looked him straight in the eye. “I’m going to try to adopt him, so maybe he’ll grow up on the right side of the law.”
Newton spat right onto the sheriff. “You stay away from my son,” he said. The man who had captured him and was about to lead him to his death, and the very thought of him raising his son filled him with hatred. “He’ll get along just fine without you, or anybody.”
The sheriff wiped the spit away with his sleeve, handcuffed Newton, and roughly shoved him out of his cell. “Just like you got along just fine without your father? Ha. That is the very cell he was in before I took him to the gallows. Newton, your son needs guidance, he needs a father—not a name on a headstone.”
This made Newton think. The sheriff began walking him out of the jail, and he didn’t resist. He simply resigned himself to his fate. The doors to the jail opened, and he could see the street packed with people, all of them there to see his execution. The noise, the booing, and the occasional mournful face was all lost on Newton. He saw everything in a blur, and it felt like no time before he was climbing the rough wooden steps of the gallows. The view was good; he could see the entire town standing below him. As the hangman wrapped the noose around his neck, his eyes fell on two figures standing in the very back, almost as if they couldn’t bear to watch: his wife and son. His eyes filled with tears, and he could not hold them back. This is how it ends, he thought. The tradition lives on after all. No blaze of glory for me, no dying so my son can live. The curse survives, and my family will have to bear the burden. Newton felt the rope tighten—he could feel and smell the hemp—and suddenly, the floor fell from beneath him, and his legs were dangling in the air. He flung his legs, trying to find something to prevent himself from choking—but he found nothing. Slowly he began to suffocate; his mind was racing inside, panicking, trying to find something to do, something to save himself—but nothing revealed himself. The last thing he saw before he died was the solemn faced crowd, and a young lady standing at the front, a look of utter horror on her face. Then, he died.
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