By Scott Wilson
Randall blew softly over the smouldering tinder as Emerson looked, shaking his head with an apprehensive scepticism. Emerson knew this was a bad move but his disparity with Randall over the intricacies of fire making was a mute point.
“What are you shaking your head at?” Randall said.
“Nothing, partner,” Emerson replied softly.
“I’ve started more camp fires than you’ve ever thought about. Ain’ no problems with my technique.”
Neither of them had eaten any solid food in almost three days and Randall was not about to eat his freshly killed fox raw. He was willing to take his chances with the fire. But then again the type of ruffian Randall was, he was always willing to take as long as it took to prove a point, even if it meant putting someone else at risk. Emerson was in no position to argue. Randall was the meaner and ruthless of the two and he was not beyond putting some lead in him if for no other reason than to shut him up or better yet, to not have to divvy up the fox with him.
“I might have a look for some branches and whatnot. Keep a supply handy to stoke the fire all night.”
Randall continued to tend the fire and Emerson grudgingly went about gathering what firewood he could find in the starless sky. They had made camp far too late and now they had to fumble in the dark until a decent fire was established.
As he walked outside the campsite, he could see Randall’s silhouette as he added more fuel to the slowly growing campfire. It was obvious that anyone tracking them would have no difficulty in seeing them out in the open with nowhere to shelter them. He hoped that they had a fair enough lead on the posse chasing them so they wouldn’t be sitting ducks. The thought had no sooner entered his mind than something caused him to stop dead in his tracks. He was already nervous about the fire and now he was hearing things. Slightly cocking his head, he stood silent in the dark and listened intently. Emerson thought he saw some shadows move in the distance, but not that far from their location. It appeared that Randall had heard it as well. His iron was already drawn and he sat motionless, keenly listening for the exact location of the movement.
“Get down, you fool,” Emerson mumbled softly to himself.
Randall was an excellent gunfighter and did not need the daylight to get a bead on his target. A single shot pierced the silence and Randall dropped to the ground letting loose three quick shots before rolling away from the fire. Emerson dove for cover behind a small group of cactuses and squinted to make out how Randall was doing and if he caught the bullet or was lucky enough to dodge it.
“Damned it,” Emerson said. “Where are they?”
Randall lay motionless and Emerson was not sure if he was avoiding the attention of the unseen gunman or dead. Emerson stayed low, motionless, and far enough away from the campfire to not give away his location if he was lucky.
“Glad I went to find some kindle,” he murmured to himself.
Emerson began to cramp up in his calf after lying motionless for over an hour. Each time he looked toward the fire he saw the still body of Randall, and after a few good, hard looks, he could tell that not even Randall’s chest was moving anymore. It appeared that the single shot had hit its target and laid Randall out for good.
Emerson slowly stretched his leg back and forth to ease the cramp, careful to not make a sound to avoid giving away his cover. He did not know if the gunman was still out there or long gone after hitting his target.
“Don’t even know how many are out there. Am I surrounded or completely alone now?” He assumed that it would be a posse and they would still be lingering around for sunup.
The night dragged on.
“Time to do or die, partner,” he said softly. “Anyone out here’s who’s going to hear me now will see me in a few hours anyway.”
Emerson decided after a few hours that he had to make a move and get to some cover before the morning came uncovering him as he lay out in the open. From his calculations, the Rocky Mountains were a few hours further to the north. Randall had steered them East, towards the gambling town of Gold rush, to spend their newly found fortune. If the posse guessed that, then Emerson felt pretty sure that his change of direction would not be realised until he had a good head start again.
Emerson slowly crawled along the hard, dusty ground backwards until he was twenty or so meters from the campsite. The fire had dwindled out to all but the soft, red glow of embers, giving off virtually no light at all now. He gradually stood up and walked quickly to the east.
By daybreak, Emerson was far enough from the campsite to feel a little safer. His legs ached from walking for almost three days straight and now his gun hand was stiff from carrying his pistol all night. He holstered his pistol and flexed his hand.
“I hope I don’t have to quick draw anytime soon,” he said.
If the posse hadn’t tracked him from the campsite, when they were so close, then chances were that he was in the clear now.
Emerson knew he had to get to shelter soon; he was exhausted from a sleepless night and too many days on the run. His eyes ached and he almost missed the horse tracks a few yards to the left of the path, he was on.
Cautiously, he walked closer to the tracks and saw splotches of dried blood in-between the hove prints.
“What have we got here?” he said.
Drawing his gun again, Emerson followed the tracks until he saw the owner of both trails. Slouched across the horse’s back was the limp, lifeless body of a bounty hunter. It appeared that Randall had managed a perfect shot just before he died, hitting the stranger directly in the heart.
“Thanks for that, partner,” Emerson said. “Least now I don’t have to keep looking over my shoulders for either of you.”
With the hope that this would buy him some time, Emerson got busy. He backtracked to the campsite and started digging graves for the bounty hunter and Randall. It was mid morning when he finished burying the two men. Not that he felt either one of them deserved it.
“More than either of you deserve. I’d rather leave you for the buzzards.”
His main concern was in hiding any evidence that could point someone else in his direction. After taking what few useful provisions the stranger had on him, he rest of the items and covered the tracks. He then took the money he and Randall had gotten from the bank they held up back in Railway Gorge several days ago and stuffed it into the saddlebag of the stranger’s horse. Emerson mounted up and continued east, away from where he and Randall were to meet up with some acquaintances to plan their next job.
Emerson had no plans on becoming an outlaw, and was dragged into the robbery after losing a poker game to Randall. He had no doubt Randall cheated, but he had had too many whiskeys to outdraw Randall in a gunfight. Emerson was led to the bank to withdraw his entire account as payment of his gambling debt. Before Emerson knew what was going on, he was already an accomplice in the robbery.
While Emerson only worked as a station hand on one of the medium-sized ranches just outside Railway Gorge, he had saved enough to buy a share in the Evenstar Bar. Now that plan was shot to pieces and he was a wanted man, an unlikely outlaw. Sherriff Brady was a decent, law abiding, God-fearing man and would most likely believe Emerson, but the bank manager, Bob McKinley, would rather see him hang. Emerson had less money than McKinley, but first dibs on the share in the bar because of a distant relative, both the current owner of the bar and Emerson had in the family tree. That and the fact McKinley was as popular as a rattlesnake at a square dance.
Luckily, Randall’s friends did not know about Emerson, so he would not have them on his tail when Randall didn’t rendezvous with them in a week’s time. Emerson counted the money and smiled. He would be able to make a fresh start in another state, maybe even buy a small bar outright. A good shave and haircut should disguise him from anyone who knew the rough and rugged cowboy he used to be.
“Just have to get far enough away from Railway Gorge and anyone that might recognise me,” Emerson said to the horse.
The horse jittered and stepped backwards. Emerson leant over to pat her on the main when a shot rang out. He felt the bullet fly over his head, narrowly missing him. It would have hit him in the chest a second ago. Quickly, he turned to the direction of the rifle shot and saw two men with Winchesters pointed in his direction.
“Hiyah!” he yelled, kicking the horse onwards with two spurs to the ribs.
Another shot rang out, the bullet flying wild as Emerson made tracks quickly. He did not know the bounty hunters horse and just hoped that it was fast, at least faster than the horses of the other two bounty hunters.
“I hope you can run girl,” he said.
Multiple shots rang out and dirt flew from the bullets hitting the ground around the horse as Emerson pushed it on. A rocky outcrop a hundred yards away would give him enough cover to get off a couple of good shots before losing the advantage.
“Come on girl,” he said. “You can do it.”
A bullet whistled over the horse’s head and it reared it, almost tossing Emerson from the saddle. He regained control and pushed her forward again towards the outcrop and safety. As he got closer to the cover, he pulled the rifle from the saddle holster and cocked the lever. Once behind the rocks he pulled hard on the reigns and turned the horse around. He leapt off and clambered up onto a ledge where he could see the two riders approaching.
“Just one good shot,” he said and squeezed the trigger.
One of the riders slumped forward then fell from his horse and tumbled beneath the hooves of the other. Emerson didn’t mean to hit the rider with a fatal shot, but the fall would have killed him no doubt. Emerson cocked the rifle but his second shot went wild as the bounty hunters bullet hit the rock just above his head. Dirt and fragments landed covered his face, but he fired off another couple of shots.
Emerson rubbed his eyes, cleared the dust out, and cocked the rifle again. The rider was not in view.
“Where did you go?” Emerson said.
A click behind him let him know where the other bounty hunter was.
“Toss your iron down, son. The game’s over.”
Emerson threw the rifle to the side and turned slowly.
“It’s not what you think, Randall set me up.”
“Everyone says that when they’re caught. Never caught a guilty outlaw, only misunderstood.”
“Honestly, I only went to the bank 'cause I owed Randall from a poker game. I had no idea he was going to rob the bank...”
Emerson kicked some loose rocks at the bounty hunter while he was talking. The bounty hunter fired blindly, narrowly missing Emerson as he dropped to the ground and drew his Colt .45.
“Sorry partner,” Emerson said. “But I am innocent.”
Emerson fired at a pile of loose rocks, dislodging them and causing them to tumble onto the bounty hunter. As the man raised his arms to protect his head, Emerson leapt from the ledge and tackled him. He whacked the bounty hunter on the temple and knocked him out cold.
“At least I’m still not a killer,” Emerson said. “Though I’ll probably be blamed for that other guy.”
Emerson took the bounty hunters guns and mounted his horse. He spurred the horse on not knowing exactly where he would go or what he would do. Emerson knew now that he would always be looking over his shoulder, never knowing whom to trust or if he was still a wanted man. Without making a conscious choice, Emerson had become, The Outlaw.
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