And Justice for One
Originally published in Seasons in the Night, Volume 4.
Danny Cooper jerked backwards as the bottle came crashing down onto the table and shattered into a thousand glittering fragments. He grimaced as a slither of glass embedded itself in his cheek.
"You goddamn, stinking cheat!" exclaimed Snakebite McFarlane, the toughest barefist fighter in New Mexico, tossing aside what little of the bottle remained in his massive fist. He stood up abruptly and glared at Danny across the jumble of screwed up bank notes and playing cards on the table between them.
The atmosphere in the hotel saloon was so tense you could have cut it with a knife, the eyes of all present fixed on the cocky newcomer who had made himself the object of Snakebite's aggression. The other gamblers backed away from the table, looking at Danny expectantly.
Danny glanced at his friend and fellow cattle-rustler, Texas Rex, who gave a slight nod to indicate that he would back whatever decision Danny chose to make. Thus reassured, he plucked the fragment of glass from his cheek and rose ominously to his feet. "I don't take kindly to no accusations of cheating, so you'd better apologize or you and me ain't gonna be friends no more." The fact he had been cheating was neither here nor there; if word got around that he had as good as admitted it by letting Snakebite's accusation go unchallenged, then he had about as much chance of infiltrating another game as Texas Rex had of running for president.
"Is that a fact?" Snakebite demanded, clenching his fists so tightly his knuckles cracked.
It was said the man had earned his nickname by ripping the head off a rattlesnake which had had the misfortune to bite him, and standing there, looking into his piercing eyes, Danny could well believe it. Even so, he was not about to back down. "That is most definitely a fact. You gonna apologize?"
"I'd rather die!" Snakebite bellowed.
Danny tapped his Peacemaker meaningfully. "Exactly what I had in mind."
The two men locked eyes across the table, standing like statues, each waiting for the other to make the first move. Danny felt a bead of sweat trickle down the side of his face, but ignored it. In a situation like this allowing yourself to be distracted was a good way to get yourself killed.
In the end, it was Snakebite who broke first, reaching for his gun. Fortunately for Danny, his carefully honed reflexes were second to none. He drew a split second after Snakebite, but it was him who fired the first and only shot, burying a bullet in the other man's forehead.
For a moment everything was quiet, but as Snakebite's lifeless body thudded to the floor, the saloon erupted into pandemonium. Guns began firing all around, most of them aimed at Danny. Who'd have thought a man like Snakebite would have so many friends? He flung himself backwards out of the line of fire and overturned the card-table to give himself some much-needed cover.
An instant later, he was joined by Texas Rex with a gun in each hand and a reproachful look on his leathery face. "This is another fine mess you've got us into, Danny! How many times do I have to tell you to throw a goddamn hand every now and then? Nobody who ain't cheating wins all the time!"
"I know, I know, but losing really goes against the grain," replied Danny, flinching as a bullet splintered the table beside his head. He twisted around, firing off a few rounds, before darting back out of sight. Thank God they'd chosen a card game in the corner of the room. At least now they only had to worry about incoming shots from one direction, though it did mean their only possible route of escape would take them straight into the firing line.
Texas Rex reached his arm up over the top of the table and shot randomly into the center of the melee. A cry of pain from some unseen enemy announced that at least one of his bullets had found a target. "What difference does throwing a few games make? What matters is that you win back more than you put in."
"You're right," Danny conceded. "I'll be more careful next time." A bullet skimmed across his leg, tearing the material of his breeches, but miraculously leaving his flesh untouched. He shuddered. "If there is a next time." He stole a glance around the edge of the table in the hope of spotting a safe way of reaching the door, but it seemed to be a lost cause. What had started as a verbal disagreement between two gamblers had escalated into a full-scale shootout. Dead bodies littered the floor and the majority of the furniture was being used to fend off bullets.
As far as small-town saloons went, The Stagecoach was a fairly stylish establishment. Sadly, these kinds of incidents were hardly the stuff that reputations were built upon. It was likely the guests of the hotel above would all be seeking alternative accommodation at the first available opportunity. Already there were a number of them spread out along the first floor landing, looking anxiously down at the scene below. Danny shook his head in disapproval as he noticed a young boy of about ten or eleven standing amongst the assembled group. What were the kid's parents thinking of letting him wander around at a time like this; he could get hurt! He grimaced and dodged to the side as another hail of bullets tore into the table. Forget about the kid. He should be more concerned about himself getting hurt. He turned to Texas Rex. "How you doing, Tex?"
Texas Rex glanced towards him as he fired a volley of shots around the side of the table. "Okay, I guess, for a man about to die. Are we gonna get outta here anytime soon?"
"Fine by me," he replied. "Let's make a break for it." He rose to one knee and fired rapidly at a pair of gunmen, who were just visible over the top of the bar. He smiled in satisfaction as the two men fell to the floor.
Then he saw a flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye. Assuming it to be a sign of some pending attack, he whirled around and unleashed a volley of bullets. Only then did he realise that what he had seen was actually the boy from the balcony rushing down the stairs towards the bar, crying out for his daddy, who was presumably one of the men Danny had just killed. The boy collapsed to the floor, his body riddled with wounds.
The firing in the saloon suddenly ceased and those involved began to file quickly out into the street. Nobody wanted to be around when the sheriff arrived. It was all very well for gamblers and outlaws to shoot each other over some petty dispute, but when it led to the death of a small child, the town would demand the instigators were brought to account.
Danny stared at the boy's lifeless body, his arm dropping to his side.
What did you do that for?" demanded Texas Rex.
For a moment, Danny was dumbstruck. When he finally found his voice, it was taut with emotion. "I didn't mean to. I didn't see him until it was too late."
"Well, we gotta skin out!" exclaimed Texas Rex. "They'll hang us for sure if they catch us here."
Danny nodded and allowed his friend to haul him to his feet. Texas Rex was the kind of person who never let anything faze him and wasted no time darting across the saloon towards the exit. With his mind still reeling at the accidental killing, Danny stumbled after him, careless of the blood-soaked corpses and wounded men littering his path.
When the two of them made it outside, a crowd of curious town-dwellers were already gathering. At the far end of the street, the sheriff could be seen hurrying forward with two rugged looking deputies following close behind. They had guns in their hands and looked as if they would be shooting first and asking questions later. Even so, Danny was of half a mind to turn himself in right then and there. He deserved to be punished for what he'd done. He stood on the covered boardwalk outside the saloon, pondering what to do.
Texas Rex was by now in the process of unhitching the horses. As soon as they were loose, he fastened an arm around Danny’s shoulders and dragged him towards them. Reluctantly, Danny let himself be bundled into his saddle. Seconds later, the two men were galloping swiftly away through the night and did not stop until they had left the quaint little town of Puerto del Sol far behind.
Texas Rex turned to Danny. "I reckon this is far enough. They won't follow us all the way out here tonight. We might as well bed down."
Danny nodded absently, not really hearing what his friend had said.
Texas Rex dismounted from his horse and began making a fire. This did not take long, as there was a plentiful supply of loose sticks and withered shrubs in the vicinity. "Thanks for your help, Danny boy," he said sarcastically when he had finished.
Ordinarily, Danny would have come up with a clever retort, but at the present moment in time, he had neither the energy nor the inclination. He sank down on the ground and watched the flames burst into life.
There was a long silence, which was eventually broken by Texas Rex. "You hungry?"
"No," said Danny distantly, "I've kinda lost my appetite."
Texas Rex looked at him across the fire and shrugged. "Okay." He turned to the horses and was about to open one of the saddlebags, when something seemed to occur to him. He laid a hand on Danny's shoulder consolingly. "It wasn't your fault, you know. The kid was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Danny nodded. "I know. I just need a bit of time to get things sorted out in my head. It's weird! I've killed a bunch of people in the past - more than I care to remember - but this time it's different. This time it's a kid who never did nothing to no one."
"Sure thing," replied Texas Rex, turning back to the horses, "but it's in the past and there ain't nothing you can do to change it." He flipped open one of his saddlebags and began rummaging around for something to eat.
Danny gazed into the flickering fire and went over what had taken place in the saloon bit by bit. No matter how he looked at it, he couldn't see anything he would have done differently, and yet, this did nothing to ease his conscience. He couldn't get the image of that defenceless child collapsing to the floor in a pool of blood out of his mind.
Suddenly, something caught his eye beyond the ring of firelight. Unless he was very much mistaken, there was an indistinct figure watching him from the shadows. His hand instinctively flew to his gun and he rose to his feet. "Who's out there?" He moved cautiously forward, preparing to fire. The figure retreated before him, keeping just enough distance between them to prevent him from getting a clear view of it. The only thing he could say for sure was that it was too small to be an adult male and must either be a woman or a child... or the ghost of a child. Yes, that it - it was the boy from the saloon come back to haunt him. He stared into the darkness, trying to pick out anything that would confirm or disprove this theory, but the figure seemed to be perpetually swathed in shadow.
All of a sudden, his attention was drawn by the sound of a twig breaking behind him. He swung around, his heart skipping a beat. To his relief, he found himself face-to-face with Texas Rex. "What's up, Danny?"
"What do you make of that?" asked Danny, gesturing behind him in the direction of the figure.
Texas Rex peered past him. "What do I make of what?"
"That figure," replied Danny, turning back around. "Who do you..." He broke off mid-sentence as he realized that whoever or whatever it was had vanished.
He looked frantically around, trying to work out where it had gone. The few gnarled trees in the area were almost completely devoid of leaves and would provide scant cover for anyone wishing to hide, so there seemed to be no way to account for the mysterious disappearance. "I swear there was someone out there."
You know what I think?" Texas Rex asked."
"No," Danny replied, not really caring at the present moment in time.
"I think you're in desperate need of a little shuteye," Texas Rex went on. "This thing with the kid is messing with your head."
Danny nodded and allowed his friend to steer him back to the fire. There was no denying he was worn out, though he was so deeply affected by what he had experienced it was a long time before he managed to get to sleep.
Danny felt a lot better the following morning. The shootout seemed little more than a distant memory and surely it was not such a stretch of the imagination to suppose that the so-called ghost had been a vivid hallucination. He said as much to Texas Rex, who agreed with him, pointing out that there was no telling what kind of tricks guilt could play on a man's mind.
So it was that when the two friends mounted their horses and started out for the next town, they were chatting away to each other in their normal easy manner. Danny was still harboring a great deal of remorse about what had happened, but he was finding it increasingly easy to push things to the back of his mind.
Unfortunately, they did not stay at the back of his mind for long. He was looking into the distance, admiring the stark beauty of the New Mexico desert under a cloudless sky, when he noticed a slender figure keeping pace with their horses a short distance to the right. In spite of the dazzling sunlight, the figure was cloaked in a veil of darkness, so it was impossible to discern any details about its face or clothes.
At first, Danny was sure he must be seeing some kind of mirage, but as no amount of shaking his head or rubbing his eyes eradicated the image, he was forced to think again. It was the figure from the campfire, wasn't it? He hadn't imagined it after all. He stared at it intently, trying to pick out any distinguishing features, but it was useless. He'd never been the kind of person to believe in the paranormal, but he was once again seized by the conviction that the thing before him was the vengeful spirit of the boy from the saloon.
He forced himself to turn away, so he could gather his thoughts. He could feel the fear welling up inside him and it was a feeling he didn't like one bit. He briefly considered a consultation with Texas Rex, but decided against it, as it seemed to have been his attempt to draw his friend's attention to the phenomenon that had caused it to vanish before. Instead, he reached down to his gunbelt and eased his Peacemaker out of its holster. He whirled around to face the strange figure and fired off a shot, but in the split second it had taken him to do this, the figure had vanished.
"What's up now?" asked Texas Rex, staring in the direction that Danny had fired.
Danny shrugged his shoulders, trying to look causal. "Nothing. Just blowing off a little steam."
"Good idea," laughed Texas Rex, firing his gun randomly around him. "Nothing like the boom, boom, boom of a blazing gun to work off all that inner tension.
Danny saw the figure on a number of other occasions in the days that followed, and the more he saw it, the more he convinced himself it was the ghost of the child from the Puerto del Sol saloon. There didn't seem to be any other logical explanation. Except, of course, that he was going insane, which was an idea he simply couldn't accept.
He tried a number of different approaches to rid himself of it, but although shouting or firing his gun offered temporary respite, the accursed thing always came back again sooner or later. Nor was it any use to try and draw people's attention to it, because as soon as he did so, it instantly disappeared. The ghost had never done anything to harm him, but he found its presence deeply unsettling. It was too painful a reminder of the guilt inside him.
As time went on, Danny became increasingly nervous. Even when the figure wasn’t there, he had the distinct feeling it was watching him, and the slightest unexpected noise had him reaching for his gun.
A week later, after a few hours of debauchery at a brothel in Santa Fe, he awoke to find the whore he had been curled up next to had left the room. He sat up in bed and rubbed his eyes. The curtains were drawn, so the room was in relative darkness, though a lone beam of moonlight shone weakly through the narrow gap in the center.
Suddenly, his eyes were drawn to a movement in the doorway. A shiver ran down his spine as he saw a shadowy figure standing in the passageway beyond. He had wondered how long it would be before the apparition made another appearance and now here it was! As always, the figure simply stood there, watching him, but he could feel the accusation burning in its unseen eyes. He hugged his shoulders, trying to top himself from shaking. "What do you want?"
The ghost - if that's what it was - didn't answer, but took a slow step towards him. He edged backwards on the bed, his heart sounding like thunder in his ears. "What do you want?" he repeated hysterically. "Get the hell away from here. Leave me alone!"
Still there was no reply. Instead, the figure entered the room, advancing inexorably, the light seeming to retreat before it. On this occasion, it appeared to have grown larger, so it loomed over Danny like the angel of death itself. He continued his panic-stricken shuffling across the bed, until he felt his back press up against the headboard.
Letting out a scream, he reached for his gunbelt, which he had left in a neat coil on the bedside table. Not even considering how unsuccessful his previous attempts to shoot the ghost had been, he began frantically fumbling for his Peacemaker. His fingers closed triumphantly around it and he ripped it out. In the next instant, he had leveled it at the figure and let off a series of shots in rapid succession.
The thing stopped abruptly and fell to the floor with a dull thud. Danny closed his eyes in silent relief and was only dimly aware of the return of the gawky looking prostitute who he'd had so much fun with earlier. Only when she started screeching at the top of her voice did he open his eyes to look at her. Her features were contorted into a mask of terror and she was stumbling backwards towards the door, shouting wildly, "Help, somebody, anybody! Murder!"
She pointed at the floor, shaking her head, so her frizzy blonde hair flailed around in a mad whirl. Danny turned his head in the direction she was indicating and felt his eyes widen in horror. Lying dead on the floor was his friend and companion, Texas Rex. He guessed the truth immediately. It was not the ghost of the dead boy that had come to his room that night, but Texas Rex, and he had been so mortally afraid he had ended up shooting him.
Sheriff Travers stopped abruptly as the prostitute burst out of the brothel, crying and screaming.
"What seems to be the trouble, ma'am?" he asked.
She pointed back the way she'd come. "Oh sheriff, it's terrible! A man's been shot in my room.
"A man's been shot in your room," he repeated, drawing his gun and looking warily around him.
She grabbed his sleeve, pulling him towards the door. "That's right. Come and see for yourself."
He nodded, following her through the door and up to her room. When they arrived, the killer was sitting motionless on the bed, his weapon clutched in a trembling hand. He seemed completely oblivious to anything around him. The sheriff disarmed him quickly. Then he pressed his fingers to the dead man's throat. "He's dead all right."
The victim was unarmed and dressed in only his shirt and breeches, so it was pretty obvious he'd been killed in cold blood. Sheriff Travers turned back to the bed, grabbing the killer's arm and pulling him roughly to his feet. "You're under arrest."
There was no resistance, but he fastened on some restraints, just to be on the safe side. Then he shoved the man out of the door and down the stairs.
Danny Cooper was tried for first degree murder the following week. He was in court for two days, but said not a word. Some said this was because of emotional turmoil; others that he wanted to show his contempt for the judicial process. In any event, the jury returned a unanimous verdict of guilty in the light of what seemed irrefutable evidence and the judge condemned him to death.
A large crowd came to see the murderer hang. They stood around the scaffold expectantly, shouting for his death. Then, as he was led across the square, they jeered and screamed obscenities into his face, but he seemed not to notice.
Sheriff Travers raised his hands to quiet them as Danny ascended the steps. "You came to see a hanging and I ain't about to disappoint you. It's time for this murderous piece of scum to answer to God for what he's done."
Still, Danny said nothing. Even when the noose was placed over his head and pulled tight, he seemed oblivious to what was happening.
The lever was sprung and the platform dropped away. There was a sickening crack as his neck broke from the sudden jar of the rope pulling taut. The crowd let out a roar of triumph and surged forward for a closer look.
Amongst their number was a small, childlike figure that seemed perpetually wrapped in shadow. The people around seemed not to notice it, but Danny had seen it as he was taken up to the scaffold, saw it watching him as he jerked spasmodically on the end of the rope.
As the rustler breathed his last, the figure turned away and walked slowly into the distance. If a fanciful person had been able to see it at that precise moment and look into the darkness that was its face, they might have thought a pair of perfectly formed lips curled up into the vaguest suggestion of a smile, but the impression would have lasted for but an instant, and shortly afterwards they would have seen the figure vanish into thin air, never to be seen again. The world of men can never give justice to all, but sometimes, just sometimes, there is justice for one.
The right of C. J. Carter-Stephenson to be identified as the author of this story has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or otherwise, without the prior permission of the author, or a license permitting restricted copying.