Right foot braced atop the empty whiskey bottle, Johnny studied the town simmering in the heat of the midday sun.
He had only the vaguest recollection of the place. He must have been all of four or five when his mother suddenly decided they should move on after only a few months. Could be there were a few more wooden buildings framing the dusty stretch of road but gaps were plainly visible between the warped boards, the paint blistered and peeling.
One border town looked pretty much like another. Didn’t matter which side you happened to be on at the time. Only difference here was the hanging tree.
Johnny shoved the bottle away. It gained speed, bouncing and skipping down the slope to shatter against one of the misshapen rocks piled near the base of the tree.
A dead tree for dead men, it stood on the outskirts of town. Most of its lower branches were missing. Some had been deliberately removed; others most likely breaking under the weight of all those hanged men.
His eyes drifted from the town to the body slowly twisting at the end of the rope.
There had been a man hanging that day too.
It had been his first.
He remembered holding tight to his mama’s hand, his face pressed into the folds of her skirt so he couldn’t see the bloated face, the protruding tongue, afraid to have so much as the man’s shadow touch him. Remembered the sound the rope made as it was stretched, pulled taut under the weight of the lifeless body, rubbing, worrying at the wood. There had been a horse too, prickly and mean tempered, and a handful of drunken men, one even leaning a shoulder against the trunk of the tree. His mama had squeezed his fingers reassuringly as she hurried them on their way, the men’s crude jests peppering the air in their wake.
Johnny ducked his head, fiddling with his horse’s reins; his own all too recent brush with the rurales fresh in his mind.
Given the choice at least a firing squad was quicker.
Not that he had felt particularly lucky that morning.
‘Day of reckoning’, that’s what that preacher had called it. Figured the man must have been plumb loco, marching into that saloon the way he did, all fire and brimstone. Had stood front and center, his reflection in the big fancy mirror behind the bar mimicking his every move as he went on and on about the need to repent, how each and every one of them would be called one day to answer for his sins.
Johnny’s mouth crooked into a rueful grin and he snorted softly. The horse took exception to this, tossing its head at the sound. He soothed it with a light touch, his fingers threading into the coarse mane.
Funny how life works sometimes but…
Owing his life to a Pinkerton man?
Who’d a thought!
Movement snagged his attention. A small dog darted across the street, shimmied under the sagging boardwalk seeking relief from the heat. Other than that there was nothing and no one; a veritable ghost of a town.
Gathering the reins, Johnny swung aboard the horse, settled into the saddle with a barely audible grunt. Given time, the stiffness that still plagued him would work itself out.
His gaze went once more to the hanging tree. He took a moment, repositioned his hat to better shade his eyes from the sun’s white-hot glare. Turning the horse, he eased it into a trot, intent on giving the town a wide berth.
He’d been luckier than most, given a second chance. What he didn’t like was it came with strings attached.
Another kind of reckoning awaited him, this time in California.