Dayton could hear the coyotes circling; growling and yipping under the setting sun. They must have caught his scent just after Maggie died. The horse thieves had opened fire on him and his mare when he came upon their den on the western edge of the prairie. Maggie had taken the lion’s share of the burning lead. But the mare had been a fast one, and he’d managed to elude the thieves by pushing her through the tall grass and thorn bushes down into Devil’s Gulch. He could still hear the pounding of hooves thundering past him up on top of the hill, and deep down, he knew they would eventually double back and find him. They would find him, sure as his daddy was gunned down by them very same sonsabitches when he went after them to get their horses back.
Maggie died quick. The roan mare had least half a dozen bullet holes up and down her flank, and judging by the amount of blood pouring out of her, one of the bullets must have nicked an artery. It had been a miracle that the beast could even stand after the first round or two hit her, and an even greater miracle that she hadn’t thrown him clear off and left him to fend for himself. The dust from the prairie had coated her hide, mixing with her blood into muddy cakes around the bullet holes. The color of these cakes blended in with her velvet red fur. Maggie had made it down to the bottom of the gulch on all fours, but had stumbled and fell at the bottom of the ravine. She drew in a few frantic breaths, and then her spirit galloped away.
Billy Dayton had been struck in the belly. It burned terrible, but he was fairly certain the hit hadn’t been lethal. No, he’d survive the hit, but the coyotes were getting nearer. And with the sun setting in the western sky, the hot prairie would cool off fast. He’d have to build a fire to stay warm, but that would most definitely give away his position. The Travis brothers would see the smoke rising, and would close in quicker than the coyotes. And they would want blood.
He still had his pistol in his hand. He’d fired four or five shots, and one of them had taken the life of Glenn Travis, the youngest of them horse-thieving bastards. The lead ball had caught him right in his lower jaw, and there was the briefest moment where Glenn had spun around in surprise after the hit, and Dayton could see the kid with the lower half of his face completely gone. His eyes went wide with surprise and then he hit the ground hard, his body rocking and convulsing in the throes of death. Dayton had time to squeeze off a few more rounds before the Travis boys were going for their rifles and mounting their own horses. Dayton looked down at his pistol, opened the wheel, and glanced woefully at the one last bullet tucked in the chamber.
He could hear the voice of his daddy.
That one bullet is your final blessing. Don’t you ever, ever fire off all six shots. You always leave that one last bullet, just in case.
The sun was now beyond the hillside, and the tall shadows crept toward him. He could feel their coolness caress his face and the hole in his belly. Just like with Maggie, the prairie dust had caked and coated the hole but it had least managed to stop the bleeding. If he could make it back to Tipton, Doc Mulligan would be able to get him right again. He could almost see the face of the Irishman, and smell the cheap whiskey on his breath as his instruments extracted the bullet and sewed him up again. Tipton was at least twelve miles away, and it may as well have been twelve hundred.
There was no leaving Devil’s Gulch alive.
The cold. The coyotes. The Travis brothers. And that one last bullet. One of those things would set his spirit free. Then the coldness would consume his body. And then the coyotes would eat for the night. The Travis brothers would take his iron and the billfold in his britches pocket, and anything else they wanted, and the dust would eventually bury his bones.
That one last bullet is a blessing.
Dayton closed the bullet wheel and turned the chamber to that one last bullet. If he was going to leave this world, he would at least cheat the Travis brothers in claiming his death. One of them had gunned his daddy down in cold blood, and left him for dead here in Devil’s Gulch. He’d heard rumor that the Travis boys were notorious for using a long bone-handled knife to dig out their slugs, just to melt them down and make new bullets. The eldest, Martin Travis, had gone so far as to boast that the rounds that had killed his daddy had also taken down Marshall Goudsward, and “Dirty Dog” McLeod before him. All talk, of course, as Robert Dayton’s body had never actually been recovered. For all he knew, he could have been sitting on daddy’s bones right now.
Something spooked the coyotes. They’d been cautiously crawling and sniffing their way down into the gulch, but then suddenly stopped in their tracks. By the fading light, he could see the pack of dogs suddenly cock their head up to listen, and then they all turned tail and fled back up the hill again. Dayton lowered the gun and listened, and then he, too, could hear it; the sound of horses galloping hard back toward the gulch. The Travis brothers had gotten wise to him and were returning to finish the job. Dayton lowered his head and the tears began to fall, leaving cool trails down his burning cheeks.
“I’m sorry, daddy,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I failed you.”
He lifted the gun and squared the barrel between his eyes. One bullet. Truly a blessing.
There was a rustling in the distance, and Dayton lowered the gun a second time. The last of the evening light was dying, making it hard to focus, but he could still tell that something was approaching. He could see the tall grass and brush bending as the approaching thing came forward. It plodded and skulked toward him, floating along the bottom of the gulch like a phantom in the dust. Dayton raised the pistol ready to shoot, ready to give up that last bullet, when he recognized his daddy. Robert Dayton loomed above him, enormous holes in his forehead and eye socket where his left eye used to be. There were telltale signs of knife gashes where one of the Travis brothers had indeed carved their lead pellets out of his skull. A third wound sat in the middle of his chest, along with a third set of knife wounds. The ghost moved slowly, balefully, but there was no mistaking the rage in his father’s face. His one good eye was narrowed into a slit, gazing his crazy dead-man’s gaze.
Dayton stared up at his father, unsure what to do.
The ghost thrust his hand out, as if to take his child and help him up. But when Dayton tried to grasp his daddy’s hand, he felt nothing. Instead, he pushed himself up to standing, and then began to follow his father as the senior Dayton began floating back along the bottom of the gulch.
They had barely gone fifty paces when the boy noticed the wooden crate. The ghost had walked right up to it and pointed its dead finger at it, his angry gaze never leaving his face. And in his mind, the boy could hear his daddy speaking…
That one last bullet is a blessing. Did you save it, boy? Did you save that last bullet like I told you?
Dayton still had the pistol clutched tight in his hand. From above the gulch, he could now hear the sound of the Travis boys, hooting and hollering as their horses came to a stop at the top of the hill. It wasn’t long now. Devil’s Gulch was about to claim life once again. Only now, Dayton felt the spark of hope returning to him.
The crate had been left forgotten at the bottom of the gulch. When the railroad line was laid between Tipton and Silverado, the company had blasted through the mountains at the southern edge of the prairie. A case of TNT had been stolen (whether it had been the Travis brothers or some other thieves he didn’t know…didn’t really care at the moment), and hidden down here at the bottom of Devil’s Gulch. Now here it was, a second blessing that the good Lord saw fit to share with him.
Robert Dayton lifted his head and looked upon his boy with his one good eye. In it, Dayton saw the unmistakable badge of fatherly pride. The rage in his face lifted, just for a moment, and then the ghost began to fade away.
“Daddy…Daddy, don’t leave me!”
The Travis brothers were halfway down the hill. Three of them left…out for blood and vengeance for their dead brother, who was undoubtedly being picked apart by vultures back at their lair. They’d left in such a flurry that they’d never bothered to cover him up, more or less give him a proper burial. If they made it back, they’d find nothing but a bloody carcass covered with flies, and goddamn him, he deserved it. As did the rest.
Dayton grabbed the crate by the rope-handles tethered to either side of the top and began dragging it back toward Maggie. He let go of the crate, sending up a cloud of dust around his dead mare. And then he was scrambling off into the brush to wait.
The Travis boys came in fast, each packing a gun in either hand. Six guns waiting to tear him to pieces, and then a long, bone-handled knife to extract the bullets so that the lead could be reused. They whooped and chided, trying to get him to come out, but Dayton waited patiently.
“Look, there’s his horse. I told you I got ‘er!”
“Yeah, if you’re such a great shot, how come you didn’t shoot him instead of the horse? We coulda sold the horse if she was still alive.”
“Hey, whattaya think’s in that box?”
Thank you, God. Thank you for this one last bullet…
Dayton pulled the trigger, and then the crate exploded in a blast that rocked the gulch. The basin of the gulch filled with ferocious light and heat, followed by a boom that echoed all around him, making Dayton scream and cover his ears. And then body parts were raining back down from the sky. Flesh and blood fell on him and all around him, in the form of severed arms and legs and organs and charnel. Maggie’s carcass was also blown to bits, adding bone and fur into the mess. The tall grass and brush quickly caught fire, and then it was day again in Devil’s Gulch.
Dayton opened his eyes. In the burning firelight, he could see three pairs of boots scattered about the ground. That was all that was left of the Travis brothers. By now, their horses had surely been spooked away (as were the coyotes), but that was fine. The fire would continue to spread once the night breeze picked up. If he could climb back up to the top of the gulch, he could remain warm and safe until the dawn. And if God saw fit to bless him one more time, maybe one of the horses would return. Karma was a wheel that never stopped turning.
He scanned the floor of the gulch once more, but his father’s ghost was also long gone. Dayton began to crawl out of the gulch, thinking of the rage in his dead father’s eye, and wondering if he would now spend eternity punishing the Travis brothers through the burned out hell of Devil’s Gulch. The thought made him smile.