The shallow riverbed spread twelve feet wide on her left side and the jagged cliffs of the ravine rose sharply to her right. The bottom of her boots slipped across wet river stones as she waded through the water. It was hot out. The sides of the gorge were coated in a red dust that looked like copper, baked deep by the sun’s summer rays. She moved slowly. Her sheriff’s badge dug into her hip and she wished for her hat to keep the sun out of her face but she’d left it on her horse about a half a mile back.
The pistol was warm in her hands. She smelled salt, the freshness of the pines at the top of the ravine blowing down across the water. The sky was free of clouds. It was the last of the summer days and soon the ravine would flood.
Handel would run before that happened.
This was her last chance to apprehend him before fall descended on the valley.
There was a tree ahead of her that had been torn up by its roots and tilted at a 45 degree angle over the drying riverbed. Its branches hung lifelessly down, swaying with the breeze. She darted behind it. The ravine cave was just ahead of her. She’d seen him out foraging around it earlier but had lost track of him as she scaled the crumbling precipice of the ravine.
She was going to get him this time. There was no doubt in her mind.
The inside of the cave was cool and moist, a welcome respite from the heat of the day. She wiped her forehead on the back of her hand, rolled her sleeves up as she slunk against the mossy walls of the cave interior. It was slippery. She could smell the remnants of smoked tobacco. Leftover meat that had been cured with salt. Maybe a touch of moonshine.
It was the same moonshine they used to make together. She could tell by the smell, the way the dispersed air particles tasted on her lips.
He had to be nearby. Maybe sleeping off a hangover deeper down in the cave. She brought the pistol up and aimed it forward, towards the belly of the cave, when she heard a rustle of movement behind her. The skin at the back of her neck pinched. She sighed.
“Don’t worry.” Handel’s voice rasped against the dampened walls. “I won’t shoot yet.”
She turned carefully, held the pistol out in front of her like a peace offering. “You saw me comin’?”
“Last day of summer, Gretch.”
A breeze from the outside kicked up a piece of her hair but it did little to cool the heat that raged throughout her body. Her mind raced. They could draw but she was at a disadvantage. Her pistol dangled between her index finger and thumb and his was rooted firmly in his palms. She was the more accurate shot, but he was faster.
Would he even shoot at her?
The last time he couldn’t. But that was before he’d killed her deputy and she’d banned him from the town for good. “I can’t let you go this time, Handel.”
He cocked his head. A five o’clock shadow obscured the bottom part of his face and she saw the wrinkles forming around his blue eyes. “Why not? You’re the sheriff, aren’t you? You make the rules.”
“You’ve taken too many lives.”
“So have you.”
“Mine were in the name of the law.”
“Does that make it any better?”
She stopped. Her breaths came unevenly in her chest, rasping with years of raw tobacco and moonshine. Somehow whenever she was around him she found herself itching for a bottle. Like now.
Her eyes skimmed over the man in front of her—his hunched stance, rifle gripped tightly in his hands. His skin was an even tan color. There was a fresh scar over his left eyebrow, most likely from the altercation that had killed her deputy.
“Put the gun down,” she finally said.
He eyed her.
The rifle was an old one. He’d had it since they were teens and it tended to jam. Sometimes the trigger would lock in place and he couldn’t even fire at all. Unless he’d oiled it recently which he probably had, especially if he’d been expecting her.
Gretchen waited. Her hand shook slightly and she watched his finger tighten over the trigger before loosening. He licked his lips. The stubble on his face was still a dark brown but she wagered there would be some grays in it before the year was out.
He set the rifle on the cavern floor. “Now you.”
“You don’t fight lopsided like this, Gretch. It’s not who you are.”
A bird flapped its wings somewhere deep within the cavern and she felt the vibration of it stirring inside her ears. “It still wouldn’t be fair. You always beat me in hand to hand.”
“But I’m wounded this time.” He nodded down at his left knee. “Your deputy did a number on it.”
“Good. I’m glad.”
His face pinched. He shifted from one foot to another, forcing a chuckle before rolling up his sleeves. His eyes grew dark. “Then what are you waiting for?”
She stiffened. There was something about his voice in that moment that struck her—something tired, something run down. Handel would be 45 in the coming spring.
He couldn’t run forever.
Gretchen sprinted forward and the knuckles of her right hand cracked as they collided with Handel’s jaw. Her pistol fell to the floor; droplets of blood burst from his lips. He was surprised but not unprepared. Before she could hit him again, he wrenched his leg up and kneed her in the stomach. She wheezed, gasping. As she bent over his elbow came down hard between her shoulder blades.
She used all her strength to hit him horizontally, tackling him, her hands locking around the backs of his kneecaps and pulling until he tumbled backwards. He hit the cave floor hard. His head seemed to ricochet off the cool stone. Gretchen felt the air escaping his lungs and then suddenly she was punching him. Hard punches, to the face. Harder than she’d ever dared to hit him before.
His left cheek split open, then his bottom lip. She felt the mist of his blood on her face, her knuckles torn and screaming in pain but she kept hitting him.
She struck a serious blow to his temple and suddenly the glimmer in his eyes went out. Like a candle being extinguished—there in one moment and gone the next. He growled and the darkness that washed over his face melted into her. She shivered, caught a glimpse of his left hand balling into a fist at her side. Handel had a sucker punch that could push a man’s nose into his brain. Gretchen exhaled slowly. Her mind flashed back to their childhood. Hadn’t they once stolen bread from a street market and burned an abandoned wagon for firewood? He taught her how to fight, how to build, and how to skin animals for cooking.
Time had torn them in opposite directions.
Handel grunted. His fist struck her temple and she succumbed to darkness almost immediately.
C. Wait is a short fiction writer living just outside of New York City whose works can be read in the Horrorzine, Left Hand of the Father, Microhorror, and Smashed Cat.
When she woke up again, her head was pounding. She felt dried blood caked to the side of her face and coughed as she sat up. The smell of burning wood lingered even though the heat of the day had faded with the sun. Her chest throbbed.
Handel was gone.
She shuddered to her feet. Her pistol lay on the ground a few feet away and she ran her hand over the smooth finishing before tucking it into her waistband.
There was a trail of blood out to the riverbed, then dusty footprints that disappeared into the water. Gretchen sighed. By now he could be anywhere—as far north as the mountains, as far south as the desert of Mexico.
She shook her head. Rage blossomed in her chest as she stumbled over the slippery river pebbles and over to the section of rock face that she’d scaled earlier. The dust had settled and it smelled like pine. Like salt and fresh grass. Her fingers scraped across the jagged outcropping as she climbed.
He would come back next summer. He always did.