Graham flipped up his collar and adjusted his hat as the wind blew through the last straggling trees before the timberline. It was October, and winter could come hard and fast in the high country. Did the wind smell like snow? Maybe the chestnut gelding knew, but he wasn’t telling Graham.
Graham had taken the horse when he had taken his wages from his last drive. Tired of driving the cattle he had branded with other men’s brands, Graham took his stake – and the stakes from other ranches and other drives – and thought he might find a place of his own. So far, though, he hadn’t seen the right land, and he knew that before long he’d need to find a line camp, or lose another year on another ranch, or lose his money in a town below, or –
And then the wind brought a dark smell of sweetness and rot, a smell that the smell of aspen trees couldn’t hide, that Graham recognized. The horse stopped, or Graham stopped it; he couldn’t exactly remember, later. He slipped the thong off the Colt at his side. There could be even more to lose.
He slid off the horse and walked slowly toward the scent, toward what might have been a clearing in thicker woods, but here was only a gradual barrenness amidst the hardiest trees. The cabin was at the far end – a hundred yards away. The bodies swung from the four corners of the cabin, as if the hangman hadn’t trusted the trees. Graham edged around the barren, through the trees, closer to the cabin. He had seen death in nearly all its forms, from Shiloh to the bucket of blood saloons in towns that didn’t even last long enough to have names. Some of the deaths had even been peaceful. But not these.
They had been a family – man, woman, two boys. One of them had been white. One had been black. The children had been their children. Now they were bloated bags of meat, not rotten enough yet to tear from the ropes, but swollen and rank. At the man’s feet was a board. Scrawled on it in charcoal was a single word:
Graham spat, but not enough to get the smell out of his throat. He took his knife and cut them down as gently as he could, hoping they wouldn’t burst like overripe fruit as he lowered them to the ground. There had been no gentleness in their death, but he thought they deserved some now. He went back and got the chestnut, leading it to the edge of the barren, but upwind of the dead. After, he looked at the bodies again. A grave would mean more digging than he had time for, but he found the wood the family had lain aside, and it would do, he guessed. Cleaner than they had gotten.
The fire had burned through the afternoon hours, and the sun was beginning to set when Graham heard a voice from the woods.
“Hello, the fire!”
“Come ahead,” said Graham.
There were four of them, and they led their horses into the wide spot. They were hard-looking men, of the sort Graham had seen over the years as he ate dust alongside them, except for one who was older, in a coat of gray patched with butternut.
“Saw your smoke,” the old man said. “What brings you here?”
“Just drifting,” Graham said, “Saw this, thought there were things needed doing.”
“Maybe you should keep drifting,” the old man said.
“Maybe so, and I appreciate the advice. But you mind telling me who you are?”
“I’m Colonel Hiram Pickens. I own this territory.”
“Colonel, huh? Judging from your coat, sir, I’m guessing your commission has been expired for a good fifteen years or so.” Nobody smiled. “Got a better claim to the land?”
“Yep. It’s riding with me. And you’re burning some more of it.”
“Seems to me I’m burning what’s left of some folks were trying to have a home but got interrupted.”
Now it was Pickens’s turn to spit. “If that old boy had wanted a home, he should’ve kept his black ass in Mississippi, stead of coming this way. He wanted to be free, he shouldn’t be trying to take a white man’s land. His kind already got mine after the Unpleasantness.”
“Mm-hmm. And I reckon you told him nicely to move along, like you have me?”
“You may be a drifter, boy, but you’re a step above a darkie, his whore and their whelps. You get a warning. Him? Telling him would’ve been stooping, and like the poet said, I choose never to stoop.”
“Appreciate the consideration, Colonel.” He stood between the men and the fire at his back. “It’s kind of late, though. Mind if I stay the night?”
Pickens laughed emptily. “You might stay longer if you aren’t careful, boy. There’re empty corners on this shack again.” He glanced to his left, Graham’s right. “Beecham, shake out a loop and let’s help this drifter move along. Don’t spare the spurs.”
Beecham had the rope starting to move when Graham shot him through the throat. The other cowboys started to reach for their own guns when Graham said, “I got more,” and they froze. “Y’all in or out?”
One said, “Colonel, I think you can keep my wages. You didn’t pay me gunfighter money.” He turned his back and led his horse away. After a moment, hoofbeats echoed and receded in the distance. Pickens’s curses lasted longer.
After he quieted, Graham stared at them both, their faces bathed in the firelight. “How about you?” he said to the other.
“I took the Colonel’s money. It don’t seem like much of a brand right now,” he said, “but I guess I got to ride for it.”
“All right,” said Graham, and shot him in the chest. He looked back at the colonel. “Me, I don’t mind stooping myself. Not real poetic, though.”
Pickens stood there, his mouth slightly open and his hands in the air. “You’d kill men for hanging niggers?”
“I’ll damn sure kill them for hanging a woman and kids, and wanting to drag me didn’t help either.”
“I’ll give you money,” Pickens said.
“You don’t have enough.” Graham kept him covered as he took the bloody lasso from the hands of the dead man named Beecham. “Put the loop around your neck.”
“I’ll do nothing like that, you son of a bitch!”
Graham fired once more; Pickens fell to his knees, his hands clutching his stomach. “You gut-shot me!”
“Yep. This may take some time.”
Graham called the chestnut over, and looped the lasso around a slender aspen, hitching the other end to his saddle horn, with a length dragging alongside. Walking the horse, he bent the tree, and then tied the slack end of the rope around Pickens’s neck. He took one loop of the rope from the saddle horn.
“I’ll see you in hell,” Pickens said weakly. “I’ll see you boiling in shit!”
“Likely so,” said Graham. “But I’ll be standing on your shoulders.” He released the loop; the tree sprang upright, and Pickens was jerked out of reach. Graham dragged the two dead cowboys to the fire.
The next morning, Graham emerged from the cabin. He glanced at the aspen, with blood at the roots and the Colonel moving in the breeze that made the trees quake. The fire had done what it could do. He took a smoldering brand from the fire and tossed it into the small, empty house. As the light inside grew brighter, Graham mounted the chestnut and rode away, toward another mountain and cleaner air.