Prod Herling believed he had been followed for weeks or months, never once seeing what he thought was there. But his history came with repeated sensations.
In The Frieda Rex Saloon in a town not yet decided on an official name for itself even though it sat by the end of the rich good grass at a rise to the Rockies, Prod Herling, just in from a long ride, and his leg muscles bearing their aches, leaned his gut hard upon the bar rail as though he’d fall if not held up.
Blue in the face, wide at the mouth, dry down to his toes, he stared at his face in the large mirror behind the bar. For long seconds he could not recall seeing that image before, not in any mirror anyplace.
Momentary doubts swept through his mind in minor flashes of thought and imagery met or encountered out on the trail. The thought, “I could be lost, but I’m not,” found itself echoed repeatedly the way canyon echoes hang in place. This whole scene he had seen before so many dozens of times, the relief off the trail or the long drive with a thousand head of cattle pounding the earth down to a final oblivion, eventually made a saloon the best place for wetting the whistle, drowning the most immediate past, finding one’s aim and intent again.
The difficulty was escaping the dark past that looms so often in life.
Prod Herling believed he saw everything seeable in sight; secrets did not astound him either about property or concerns, people or situations that stemmed or steamed with promise or danger, all beginning in their own little place in the world at the moment of discovery or perception, his or others.
Like deep thought, doubt, darkness, shadows.
He did not like, for a fact, what he saw in the mirror… the wearisome lines yet working at disfiguring his entire countenance, as if the quiet pain of endless liquor lurked in its touch, one cheek wearing a clear residue of his last fall, just outside the saloon door, his mind wandering anew. That’s where he’d tripped over the leg of a man idling into his evening.
Dust of the trail clotted in Herling’s beard thicker than memory should allow, odd redness in his burdened eyes filled with the image of his only horse dead on the trail outside this nameless town by a rifle shot from an unseen source. And there, alone, one cunning man of the many men in the room was squeezing himself into a corner nearing invisibility, but with one hand poised too near his pistol to ignore.
It seemed as though it was part of a story not yet unrolled.
Herling, 5’11” of long muscle, loose arms, and a somewhat steady eye coming back to him at this occasion, could smell a gun fight roiling in the saloon air, a good old fight between two men in a crowd of men.
The odor coming rich as spent gunpowder crowding his nose, as if from the business end of a rifle or a pistol casting its just-done business too close to err. Whether it was imagined or came from a recent breath of wind, it seemed real … and loaded with typical warnings, part of his life from earliest days. Back came the loud memory, the voice booming at his ears of a long-ago dawn just cracking apart, Wyoming widening out below their overnight camp on a cliff shelf up on the Big Horn Mountain Range, the night fire a smoky residue of its persistence, his father commanding attention to his words not often elicited by his son, and rarely by a stranger.
“Mark my words, son,” he had said, much as a prophecy, “the way things are going now out here from back there in the Badlands to the rim of this mountain, the first man you see of a day looking cross-eyed at you is the man you ought shoot, less’n he shoots you the same night coming along a bit later.”
The voice hung on, the tone hung on, the reverberation of the words as heavy as logs moving around him in the music and noise of the saloon, words two years in their journey … and his journey, a parade of black hats and blackened souls. The old man owned perception and truth in his words, time and again proven so.
As an adjunct to the message, a premonition at growth, his mother was gut-shot shortly thereafter by someone in their lonely hut and robbed of her few possessions. Too quickly, all traces of her practically disappeared, the trails ahead of father and son forever changed.
The warning faded as he remembered his father, all of two years past in the heart of these mountains, being rifle-shot by a man he never saw, a shooter hidden behind a chunk of rock on an otherwise clear trail. There’d been no warning, no word of a spat or an enemy waiting on him, no story of an old gunfight still alive for two shooters, perhaps it was as simple as an accidental invasion of another man’s territory, self-declared of course. Which sense of a sort, at some bargaining, would say was ridiculous … just as death is ridiculous for all men bound for eternity in new grass, new plains, nothing at all slippery around them, up there, out there, the heavens wide and where you can ride forever, “stars marking where you been or where you’re going,” ending the night each night before the fatal shot took his father from him.
Mother and father gunned down, and only greed being the apparent reason.
Herling’d gone to look for the shooter, three or four measureless and uneventful months in the mountains, killing meals on the run, sleeping half-eyed, edgy, owning in his memory one blurry image of the rifleman leaping onto his horse and heading up-range and not down-range, the long barrel of the rifle balancing him on the getaway ride like a lance in the hand of a gallant Blackfoot warrior, celebrating rather than fleeing.
In his mind Herling locked the aspects of that picture, something unsaid to him in it, a missing note, a gesture incomplete, for the time being that little piece of the puzzle lost … and he couldn’t bring it back even now, as hard as he tried for two or more years, as though it had run off with Death itself and yet waiting the inevitable return, for all souls riding all trails, routes, grass, hill, mountain, the enormity of the entire skyline.
Death, at disappearance, shut off like one of the smaller and countless stars in the crowded night sky, was gone on in its search elsewhere.
Since then Prod Herling carried a warmer pistol; its spouted flames were inevitably tossed from his side, those possibly or casually caused by a girl of the town and her “abused good name” in spite of her well-rounded activity, a spilled drink at a most inopportune time, or it could just be a misdirected name wrapped loosely around a curse. Each enough of a cause. It took less than at other times. But the hunt he had continued, endurance one of his attributes, a gift from birth by way of his father’s traits and character mold.
That man had been aware of a constantly reminding sense of mere aroma, a light bird-like sound from the preponderance of bush and brush, a singular flash of light no larger than an iota of that flash was also enough to bring him taut, his ears trained not only for protection but for the extra edge one must attain at a moment’s notice. Death had chased his father, though, had caught him, and most certainly was after him, the pursuit unseen but insidious as an itch you can’t scratch, an ache you can’t mellow down by any exertion.
Being “up and ‘at ’em” was a good way to go … or get done, and reputation was a killer before a dare was cast, an affront engineered, or a curse dropped at one’s boots.
Herling realized the aroma of Death came first before motion or commotion, before a sound as loud as a simple click of a handgun’s slight whisper out on the flat air of attention, Death’s call to reveille, issued from darkness and depth, oftentimes beat the last issue of breath from a target’s lungs, even beating a man at his own game.
The gunfighters, or those who lived, and died, lived off reputation, of course. Often it was a good trade. Herling knew it was flat-out true, had seen it a hundred times, could mark it from the first look, word, click of trigger mechanism at the outset.
But others knew the aroma and the signs Death carried broad as posters in an artless hand, but as big as life or death itself. Barkeeps at saloons, with a gift of timing and keen observation of personal traits, signs, changes in a voice’s depth, and having experience galore, knew when to duck; morticians lived on Death so they looked for the signs of finality and empty spaces, like empty saddles; lawmen expected it at either end of a gun flash; bankers had seen it leveled at them across the thinnest counter; prisoners spoke of it late at night, the bars containing more secrets and confessions than dreamed; those near Death often posed for the final blow, were proof of its coming, its arrival.
If Herling stepped away from the bar, to see more of himself in the mirror, he’d see his darkened and sweat-stained gray shirt, the edges of the sombrero burned by a fire, a remnant of a black vest bearing cactus tears, gunshot burns in his clothing short of claiming his life, and a gun-belt carrying a pair of Smith & Wesson Schofields bearing the sole shine on his person, just as the horse he lost carried the same shine and care at the start of every trip; allegiances and treatment were constant for a man’s horse and his choice of weapons.
Herling’ s deepest concern, with his horse gone, his wagon burned up while he slept off a bad night of liquor, his wife Althea earlier buried on the trail with unremembered words said over her grave, was a victim looming in front of him, a drunk being burned by memory, a sot still afoot in pain and lost wishes … and not the stranger, also visible in the bar mirror, squeezing into a corner, right hand still close to his holster, his face not recognized from any past encounter.
Again, he could smell a gun fight, this time the room loaded with the threat.
Life, his life, jumped at him as if from the depth of the bar mirror, a series of images collected from his 24 years mostly on cattle drives on numerous trails to and from numerous towns, trail bosses and trail hands whose names had gone with history, miles of dust and grass and collecting pens at Abilene and the elsewheres of journeys, once in a while a flash of a friendly face, the 10 years since he’d seen his father sitting cross-legged on the ranch house porch in high Utah.
Then, more than a month ago, a strange letter found its way to him through an Abilene post office. In a strangely weakened hand, difficult to read at the outset, it offered these words:
To my son and only heir, Prod Herling, I leave, give, bequeath, hand over to him in the face of all laws and circumstances the title to my ranch, property, livestock, fields and all and sundry property with my title, name, right to it/them including all the small excavations, mines, diggings on all these foregoing properties to be his, my being of a sound mind and in the presence of those signed below, my good friends from nearby spreads, namely Harold Carmichael, Brood Calbertson, Jug January and Molly Yarbreau..
He tried to cover all the possibilities of an illicit connection taking control of what belonged to his son, wayward or not.
But other considerations pounded at Herling from the mirror. He tried to separate them: The letter, now crammed down into one worn boot, as secret as he could make it, would control the balance of his life: Althea’s death was no accident (for she had become his heir); the property or the mine had assumed more value than previously known; someone within the course of delivery had read the letter, had let someone know who possessed the wherewithal to exert control, change or contend the appointed ownership; exercise transfer or dictate new terms of ownership.
He’d have to make sure such employment didn’t work in this situation; once an estate or even a toy belonged to you, you never let it go unless you give your approval, you gain or give as determined by your hand or mind, everything saddled, holstered, pocketed or poised on a map.
Locked into the concentration of one unknown man in the crowded Frieda Rex Saloon, a piano began alerting dancers about their chances on the dance floor with ladies of the evening, the man now hunkered in a corner place, his hand poised near his holster, ready for action. Herling suddenly caught the sight of the item buried in his memory; it was the shine on one finger of the near-holster hand of the man in the corner. It was the same, absolute shine he had seen on his mother’s finger, had seen it for years on end, had grown up noting its particular brilliance which was often extolled , and bragged to the heavens, by his father as the one decent thing he had done in his life … given to his promised bride the lone family heirloom, saw her don it in absolute happiness, take pride in it, wear it through her wedding, through her son’s birth, through life then on until death took her by an insidious hand … a hand now visible.
To Herling’s mind, there was no doubt about the authenticity of the ring, of the shining, and the complexities of sudden warmth for his mother and hatred for her killer welled up in him. He spun about in his place at the bar and men around him knew Death was near, that the charge would come from him, and they were in its neighborhood. Many of them scattered to other places, to different positions, some even grasping by a hand a lady of the evening either for safety’s sake or protection of their poor selves.
Excited by the actions at the bar and in the room, the potential back-shooter spun one way and then another, and finally fixing his eye again on Herling at the bar, alone at the bar, even the barkeep gone from sight. The ominous hand, the murderous hand, the hand with a shining ring on its small finger, went swiftly for the pistol in his holster, on the upswing bringing with it his pistol, the shining diamond ring of Herling’s mother, the one taken from her finger at her death. But justice and retribution caught the ring square on a nail head not driven tightly into a wall.
His eyes went wide with the abrupt stop, the sudden entrapment of his hand by the simplest piece of construction equipment, the head of a half-driven nail. He could have died of apoplexy but died instead by a bullet square in his heart delivered by the son of the man and woman he had killed, robbing the woman of her one precious possession.
It was not worth trying to cover all his tracks.
Banner Image: Big Horn Mountains By Ttharp23 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons