Black Ridge, Wyoming, 1865
Four riders dismounted in the cold freeze of November, gusting with a fresh drift of snow. The air stung crisp with frost and cold. US Marshal Merle Walker tied off his Appaloosa to a hitching post just outside the Sheriff’s office, brushing the snow off his long sheep skin coat, lined with a thick layer of spun wool. His collar pulled high and his hat low, he rubbed his gloved hands together, warming them with a ghostly breath that crept from his mouth – ethereal and smoky. Stepping up onto the porch, he turned to his men. “I’ll speak with the Sheriff in private,” he said, looking up into falling snow backed by a sky of gray. “You boys just sit tight and stay warm.” He chuckled as he turned, their eyes cutting him through. Every one of them wore the look of a killer, and law had little to do with their brand of justice. They were cutthroats here on an errand, one paid in blood.
Marshal Walker stepped into the Sheriff’s office, letting the door slam in his wake, and the Sheriff jumped, looking up with a grim expression, one born of shame. “Evening, Sheriff,” Marshal Walker said, drawing himself a chair from the wall. It creaked as he rocked back and he let out an exaggerated groan of relief as he slipped off his gloves. “Seems you have things all tied up in your little corner of the world. Very nice indeed.” He slid back, folding his hands in his lap and stretching the ache of cold from his jaw. “So, how many of them is up there?”
The Sheriff rubbed the back of his neck, unable to hold the Marshal’s gaze. “This ain’t right,” he said. “You know this ain’t in the covenant of the law. This is blood for blood, plain and simple. You’re no more a peace officer than she is a killer.”
Marshal Walker set his jaw and leaned forward in his chair, letting its legs strike hard on the floorboards. “I’ll ask you again, Sheriff. You were served with an official warrant issued by the Governor of the State of Wyoming, and I aim to see it served. Now, how many has she got up there with her?” His hand slid along the lip of his belt, adorned with bullets before easing low into the worn hilt of a Remington six-shooter.
The Sheriff looked away, peering out the front window at the three riders that milled about in the snow, all of them armed and deputized. “Three,” he said, looking back upon the Marshal. “Amanda, her boy, and a colored woman she looks after. I’ll ride out with you and see to it the boy is looked after.”
“Boy?” Marshal Walker said, “I was lead to believe she lived alone, after her old man met his end.”
“She had the boy in seclusion sometime after the passing of her father,” the Sheriff replied, his brow creasing as he searched for a purpose in the Marshal’s piqued interest.
Walking across the room, Marshal Walker looked out through the rippled glass window, watching as the weather picked up. “How old?”
The Sheriff stood up, his face lined with confusion. “How’s that?” he said, running a calloused hand over his brow.
“The boy,” he pressed. “How old?”
“What’s that to you? Your warrant is for Amanda.”
Marshal Walker spun around, turning on the Sheriff in a quick flash, his face slack and even. “She was left with child wasn’t she?” His hand swept low, easing to the hilt of his gun.
The Sheriff caught the motion and went for his gun, but the Marshal was quicker, skinning his piece with a killing reflex as the room was filled with the deafening blast of a gunshot. The Sheriff jolted back as the bullet tore through his chest, spattering the backdrop with blood and pulp, the Marshal’s Remington oozing smoke from its barrel leveled at his hip. The Sheriff spilled back over his chair, flailing as he hit the floor, and he choked out his last breath as Marshal Walker stepped out into the deadfall of winter, leaving the door swinging open and wide in his wake. “We’ve got a slight change of plan boys,” he said as he looked out over the husk of the shantytown. Mounting his horse, he wheeled it around and heeled it onward, bearing down on a small house set high and back – the home of Amanda Lynch.
* * *
The living room flickered with firelight as a boy played with tin soldiers upon a thick cotton rug. The chill of night was stifled by warmth as the fire cracked and the coal bed bloomed, washing in a surging glow of amber and orange. His mousy hair fell across his brow, spilling over eyes of clear blue – his father’s eyes. Michael Lynch grew up knowing only his mother’s love, and Milla’s boisterous laughter – a smuggled slave living as an equal, yet not altogether free.
Amanda stood near the kitchen, watching him play, lost in his own little world where he was just an ordinary boy. The clattering of cast iron pulled her attention to the kitchen, as Milla pulled the lid off a boiling pot of stew.
“Mmm, mmm,” Milla said, hovering over the waft of gravy and stewing meat. “Now that shore do smell good. You clean up them soldiers now, child.” Michael looked to Milla and smiled, pitting his full cheeks with dimples before thoughtfully stowing his toy soldiers in a tinderbox lined with padded blue silk. Amanda smiled as she looked down upon him, his smile and his way about things so inviting and honest. Then the moment was stricken cold with the echo of a gunshot.
Amanda spun around, throwing a look of confusion upon Milla, who in turn dropped the lid and ran for Michael, herding him away from the window. “Get him upstairs,” Amanda said, drawing the curtains over all the windows, and as Milla scooped up Michael, running him upstairs, Amanda reached above the front door, pulling down a double barrel shotgun that hung across the wall.
Amanda ran over and turned down an oil lamp that burned on the kitchen table, casting the room low in firelight. Crouching beside the window sill, she peered out beneath the curtain, and waited.
Milla returned, pulling her house dress to her knees as she descended the stairs, taking two at a time. Rounding the base of the staircase she took up the opposite window, crouching low. “What’s happened, child?” she said, gasping for breath.
Amanda met her gaze, unable to speak and they heard them, hooves pounding the frozen ground, the clamor and clank of bits and bridles in motion, shifting with the weight of mounted riders. Torchlight shone through the falling snow, throwing back the veil of night. Four riders bore down on the house, all of them looking every bit official, if not lethal. Amanda sunk back, pressed to the wall, the double barrel clutched in her trembling hands. “You remember when I told you about my father, about how he was killed in cold blood?”
“Yeah,” Milla nodded, her face blank and confused. “What’s that got to do with this, ‘manda?”
Amanda closed her eyes, reliving the vivid blackness of that night just over four years ago. “I told you those who wrought their wickedness with me were met with justice,” she paused, hearing them slow their approach, calling out as they dismounted. The arming clicks of their guns rang out like a field of crickets. “I just never told you how they were brought to justice.”
“Amanda Lynch,” a coarse voice called out from the cold. “This is US Marshal Merle Walker. I think you know good and well why we’re here.” The voices of his men followed as they scouted out the perimeter of the house, speaking hushed and low.
“What did you do, child,” Milla pressed, her eyes wide with alarm. “Did you kill ‘em?”
Amanda’s eyes confessed the truth of that night as the tears began to pool and spill, streaking her cheeks with years of buried darkness. Milla put a trembling hand to her mouth as the full scope of their trouble took hold, and she nodded.
“The man I killed,” Amanda began, her voice trailing off as she turned over the Marshal’s words. Walker.
“We know you’re not alone in there,” Marshal Walker said, gesturing his men to the flanks of the house, their torches crackling against the cold gusts. “You’ve got two minutes to decide how this plays out, Amanda. We’ve come to see you served justice in the deaths of three men, killed in cold blood by all accounts. We’ll hang the nigger, but the boy will be spared.”
Milla’s eyes flashed wild, and her brow folded low over her black rimmed eyes.
Amanda looked at Milla, cracking the double barrel open, ensuring it was loaded. Two brass caps shone back, one stuffed in each barrel. “He’s his brother, the one I killed. The leader. They’re not here by the order of no court – not one worth recognizing anyhow. Those are godless men out there, and they’ll not be laying a hand on my son.” Looking toward the stairs, her face tightened with deep set lines of hate; hate at knowing her son was surely curled up in a dark corner, scared and helpless. She knew all too well what that felt like, and she’d not see him haunted by such darkness as she’d been herself. She turned back to Milla, running a hand over her reddening eyes – shining cold and deadly in the firelight. “I’ll not have him grow up with that, the wickedness those men sow, them and those like ‘em. And with God as my witness, I’ll see them all dead before any one of them lays claim to Michael, and if that damns me to Hell, well, so be it.” Amanda looked to Milla, seeing the woman’s face wrung with concern, and she reached out, placing a hand on her shoulder, squeezing it in tenderness. “I’ll not see you suffer for something I did.”
Milla’s face hardened and she leaned in, shifting up to one knee. “Child, I’d rather die for something than live for nothing, so don’t be telling me again that this ain’t got nothing to do with me. They ain’t taking that boy, no sir.” Reaching out, Milla gestured for the gun and Amanda tossed it over. Slamming the breach of the double barrel shut, Milla stole a peak outside before taking up the right side of the door. Amanda shuffled into the back bedroom, crouching down beside the loose floorboard, and reaching in she was stung with the cold familiarity of the gun, the revolver she’d put to Kris Walker.
A silhouette slid over the curtain-drawn window as Amanda drew the revolver from the cut-out in the floor. Backing out slow, she gestured Milla to take up the window, pointing out the crouched gunman. “I’ll need the Marshal close when I shoot him,” Amanda said as they passed. “He’s the skilled gun of the group, and with any luck some of the others may scatter at seeing him slain. Once I’ve taken that shot, well, just be ready.”
Milla nodded, meeting Amanda’s eyes with her own, two deep pearls cored with lethal purpose. Amanda parted her lips to say something, but fell silent as Milla shook her head. The message was clear however, and both women knew what they were up against. Kill or be killed, that was the governing rule of this game, and there was no way around it. Milla’s eyes were set, and stealing one last look into Amanda’s, she turned and crept into the back bedroom, closing the door behind her.
Amanda slid into a jacket that hung beside the front door, drawing the collar high and tight around her neck. The cool breath of night slipped through the floor boards, leeching the heat from the room as she reached back and stuffed the revolver down the line of her neck, tucking it snug beneath the spill of her hair. And unbarring the door, she drew a deep breath, and called out to the Marshal, “I’m coming out.” The front door eased open, and Amanda stepped out onto the porch, and approached the man she aimed to kill.
Marshal Walker stood no more than ten feet off the porch, one man with him, just to his left. Both stood easy, the Marshal with his gun sunk low, holstered at his hip. He watched her step out, his eyes pulling tight. Spitting in the snow, he wiped his mouth and stepped forward. “The nigger?”
Amanda stole a look at the Marshal’s man, searching his eyes. He wore a smirk on his young face and the beginnings of a mustache on his lip, no more than two winters old. He bore a striking resemblance to the Marshal. “You know, Marshal,” she said, “he pissed himself, just before.” Amanda took another step forward, measuring their posture as she closed in.
Marshal Walker’s face pulled back, his brow folding over, confused. “How’s that?”
She took another step forward, showing her hands as she slowly placed them upon her head. “He pissed himself, your brother. Right before I put a bullet in his head. How he begged too, really something to see.” Two more steps. “Honestly, Marshal, your resemblance to him is uncanny, what, with that same cowardly fold in your brow, feigning courage. It’s quite unbecoming really, a man folding like a whipped dog at the moment of truth.”
Rich Osburn set out into the world in desperate need of direction, and the US Navy provided just that. After traveling the world many times over, he transitioned into the Coast Guard, where he enjoyed many years of honorable service. As the joy of fatherhood settled in, he bid farewell to the life of a sailor, embracing a new one – that of a writer. Seeing his first story come to publication on this very page, he has much to be thankful for, and many more stories to tell. So it can be said that at his heart Rich is a father, a sailor, and a writer, and most of all, a damn lucky husband.
The Marshal flashed with rage and his mouth pulled thin as he went for his gun. Amanda was four paces away when her hand slid back to her neck, but he was quicker. His piece flashed out of the worn holster, cracking to life as he fired from the hip. Amanda’s head rocked back as the bullet caught her neck, and the white snow was sprayed in red as pulsing rivulets leapt from her wound. She fell to her knees, gripping her throat, blood streaming through her fingers. The Marshal looked down at her, dying in the cold dark of November, and he slid his piece back in its holster, strolling over to her as he savored the moment, watching her die. “Well now, little gilly,” he said. “Seems your mouth has found–” His words were cut off as the thunder of a shotgun blast rocked the air, followed by a screaming voice, one familiar to him. He looked beyond Amanda, peering through the open door of the house, and she drew.
Amanda thumbed back the hammer as she leveled the gun on his chest and fired. He hadn’t a moment to flinch as the shot threw him back, shattering his spine as the bullet tore through him. He hit the ground, scraping back furls of snow with his booted heels as he arched in a fit of agony, kicking out against the pain of death. And before the second man could draw, Amanda swept her arm across and fired again, catching him in the ear before spattering the wintery backdrop with his brains. His body collapsed in the snow, and so did she. Bleeding out, Amanda looked back through the open doorway, seeing Milla roll out, discharging the second barrel into the back of the fourth rider as he fled for the horses.
The deep cold reached in as she lay there in the snow, filling her with a searing pain that radiated and throbbed. And everything seemed to move in refracted stills, washing over her like some muffled, milky dream. Milla was there, weeping and hollering into the sky, and little Michael was running out onto the porch, screaming for his mother – for her. She peeled her lips apart, feeling as if her jaw would crack, and she reached out. “I love you,” she said as he spilled to his knees in the snow, curling up next to her. “You’re safe now, baby. You’re safe.” And with the snow falling all around her, her son in her arms, Amanda Lynch died. It was the winter of 1865.