Clara ran faster than she thought her legs could take her, leaving behind the dead horse that lay on the side of the road. The hot summer sun burned the dry Texan ground. She ran past the splinted sun bleached sign that read Armadillo, and sprinted straight towards the tall light brown house with the only completely intact shutter board windows in the whole town. Dirt and sand gathered speed in the wind, and blasted the sides of the house. Tiles attached to the roof struggled to stay there.
Inside the house, Cooper shaved away the last remaining splinters of wood that hung off the end of his ten thousandth barrel. His hands were worn and calloused Splinters in the barrel couldn’t penetrate the tough skin of the edge of his fingertips. As the heat intensified, steam rose from his scalp. It occurred to him that he’d never experienced such a warm heatwave in all the years he’d been on God’s earth. His tired eyes zoned out, as he looked deep into nothing. His cracked hands wiped away his dirty blonde hair that hung down in front of his dark blue eyes. With the swipe of his brow, sweat fell from his hands that squeezed out some of the moisture that now drenched his forehead.
Clara burst through the door, with tears in the corners of her eyes. As she ran from door to center room she looked her husband up and down. Cooper stood up and spun around, raising his sweat drench arms up to grab her by the waist.
“Clara, what’s wrong?” He asked, trying to meet her eyes. She did everything to avert his gaze, as he shouted once more, “Clara?” His voice was hoarse. Like shards of glass lined his throat.
The children in the backyard were too loud amongst themselves to hear the shouting in the house behind them, to them it was just another sunny day.
“Clara, my darling, what’s wrong?”
“They’re, they’re coming!” She intended to whisper, but it came out as a whimpered shriek.
“Everett… and his men… they’re coming!”
Cooper let go of his wife, and stepped backwards, “Why?”
“They’ve heard something… someone sold us out…”
“I don’t know!” She fell back into Cooper’s arms, and wrapped herself around him, pressing her ear against his wet shirt. He caught her as his eyes focused beyond the wall. He took a deep breath, trying to slow down his heartbeat for her ears.
“What do they know?”
“They just know…” she still struggled to catch her breath, “That someone helped them… and someone said it might be us…”
“Do you think the marshall told them?”
“No… he’s a good man. He wouldn’t have paid us otherwise…”
Cooper was not so sure. But that was unimportant now.
“Cooper, what do we do?”
He did not know. Or rather perhaps he did, but he could not say it for hope’s of a miracle. After a few eternal seconds, he spoke, “Okay… How long do we have?”
“A couple minutes… I had to leave Ralph dead by the side of the road to get here in time… they were right there!”
“Okay… grab the kids, as quickly as you can…”
“Get them, quickly!”
She looked up at him for a moment, before rushing out towards the back porch. From inside she began yelling for the kids to come to the house, but it was unlikely they would hear. She opened the back door and ran to grab them by the wrists.
Cooper stood for a moment looking out onto the short wooden table that took up most of the space in their living area. On one of the seats beside it, a recently washed pile of clothes were stacked neatly from yesterday’s Sunday wash. Without looking away from the spot on the table his eyes had fixed upon, he quickly grabbed a fresh tan shirt from the pile, and replaced it with the identical shirt he had worn. As the smelly version of his shirt passed by his nose, he was all the more thankful for his wife and all that she did to keep fresh clothes at the ready. She even left her own scent pressed on the shirts as she folded them.
All of this had in reality only taken him a few seconds, but time had seemed to slow for him in that moment. Suddenly he realised he did not have a set of moments to spare, and immediately ran upstairs to the bedroom with the double bed. Without hesitation he opened the drawer next to his side of the bed, digging around amongst the accumulation of lint that had been gathered over the years. He brushed aside the delicately made wooden horse he’d sculpted over last Winter with Ike, and grabbed the thick silver key to the safe. As he turned back towards the door, he caught a glimpse of Clara’s pajamas, still draped across the bed sheets.
With fast feet he reached the living room. He could hear the commotion outside of Clara carrying the kids as they laughed and jostled in confusion. Unwavering from his task, he stuck the key into the safe, and turned it, quickly pulling the heavy metal door aside. This safe was built into the foundation of the house, and had been covered discreetly by a table, with a set of drawers built into either side of it, and one on top. Inside, lay one set of precious treasure. He began lifting out the bars of gold one by one. Each of them freshly smithed in recent months. They were heavier than he remembered.
Clara came into the living room, with both Ike and Morgan, both wearing tops with little sailing ships sewn into a pattern on the chest by their mother, “Honey… what are you doing?”
“I have to move the gold.”
“Why? Keep it safe, keep it there!” she pointed to where the bars had been, “That’s the first thing they’ll look for!”
“Yes.” He continued to load out another block placing them on the table, “And the safe would be the first place they’d look…”
“But the key-”
“They wouldn’t believe a man doesn’t know where the key to his own safe is.”
“You’re not going to talk to him are you?” Her eyes widened.
“I have to Clara, it’s the only chance I’ve got to get you and the kids out of here…”
The two kids looked uneased for the first time, as the eldest held some comprehension of what his father was saying, while the younger could simply hear the panic in her mother’s voice.
Ike spoke up, “Pa?”
“Listen here Ike -” He turned away from the gold bars for a moment, and crouched down, placing his hand upon his Son’s shoulders, “I need you to be a really good boy for me, okay, can you do that?”
“Pa?” He repeated, unsure.
“I need you to go with your mother, and your sister, and be as quiet as you can be, okay? Find the best hiding spot you can in the barn out back. This is important.”
Ike nodded slowly, still unsure. His father’s eyes found his.
“And when your mother calls, I need you to climb on Tucker, and get ready to ride out with your mother if you have to okay? I’ll be right behind you – but until then you have to be in charge of your sister okay?”
“I get to be in charge of Morgan?”
“You sure do buddy, but you need to be as quiet as you can for Ma first, okay?”
“I love you very much” Cooper squeezed his boy as tightly as he could, running his fingers up his skinny back and breathing in scented air from the top of his head. He turned to his little girl, who had yet to fully grasp the situation, “Bye sweetie, I love you.” he pulled her in, tucking her nose against his shoulder. She reached out to grab him thinking she was to be carried, but he pushed her away.
He looked at them both together, “Now run along! Stay in the barn until your mother says so, okay?”
Ike nodded and grabbed his sister by the hand, as they both ran as fast as they could, out onto the backyard, through where the grass used to be, passing the broken down wagon, and into the barn. They nestled themselves deep into a hay bale at the back of the shed. A ladder led to the upstairs, but Morgan could not climb yet, and even Ike knew he did not have the strength needed to carry her.
“Quickly, darling, help me move these gold bars into the drawer above the safe.” Immediately they both did so.
“Cooper, honey, what’re we doing?”
“We’re going to put the gold above the safe, because there’s no time, and hope that they don’t ransack the whole house… I’m going to have a talk with Mr Everett.”
“Wha- Why can’t we just put the gold on the horses and get out of here?”
“We only have one horse left, remember? The weight of this gold, there’s no way it can carry you, Ike and Morgan, the supplies you’ll need AND the gold… it’ll collapse before you reach Blackwater.”
“We’re heading to Blackwater?”
“Safest place you’ll be for now.” They finished storing the last gold bar in the top drawer, she slapped her hand around his wrist, spinning him towards her, “We’re not leaving without you.” She looked deep into his eyes, less afraid than she had been before. For a moment they were quiet, and the distant sounds of horses could be heard for the first time.
“My love… I surely hope that you do not have to… but… we may not have a choice…”
She bit the top of her lip as glass eyes returned, “I don’t want to leave you.”
“Nor do I want to leave you… but if you run, chances are these men will catch you, they are well known for chasing their victims relentlessly… so there is one last thing I must ask of you. And I need you to be brave.”
“Anything for you…”
“That old wagon in the back… I need you to wait in it. I need you to ready it, incase anything goes wrong.”
“The marshalls big gun?”
“The gatling gun in the wagon can be operated by simply turning the crank, and pointing it towards the house. There is a belt of ammunition sitting beside it. I need you to load it up, prop the gun so that it faces the living room. If the situation looks dire… if it’s a worse case scenario, or if they are persistent, I will invite them into our home. I will feed them, offer them our ales. Buy you time. However, should that not work…” he took a deep breath, “I need you to fire that gun, into the living room, for no less than ten seconds, before running to the barn and speeding off with Tucker and the kids, okay?”
She looked down to her muddied boots, stifling her tears, “How will I know to fire? I cannot risk it.”
“If you hear gunfire… even a single shot… you must fire.”
“My love.” He looked at her, “I will already be dead…” He let that sink in for a moment, as they watched the movement of each other’s eyes, and noticed the small details in one another’s face that they had fallen in love with, “What you will do is give you and the kids a fighting chance… even if you hit some of his men, Everett will cower until long after you are gone, and you can head to Blackwater. If you hit Everett, the marshall will pardon you and offer you safety here in Armadillo. It’s your best chance… Please do this for me sweetheart.”
By the end of his sentence, the sounds of horses had suddenly begun to roar, as they both darted their eyes towards the fortunately closed windows. The winnie of many horses came to a descendo.
“I love you, Cooper.”
“I love you too, Clara. I always have. And I always will.” They clutched at each other once more, pressing their bodies as close as they could manage. They fit in the jigsaw pieces they had found during their marriage.
“Go!” Cooper exclaimed with a hushed whisper.
She immediately turned on her heels, picking up some extra supplies in her backpack she had left by the door. She grabbed Cooper’s also, turning to see him one last time. He had already turned to face the door, and she left with the view of his back.
“Cooper Holt!” A rugged worn voice from outside called towards the house. For a moment, Cooper did not reply, and instead took a breath of the warm air inside his home. The voice repeated again, more impatient than before, “Cooper Holt, come on out here!”
Cooper walked towards the door, sure to slow his eager footsteps. As he reached the door, he slowly pushed it open to allow his eyes to acclimate to the glaring light. No amount of opening the door slowly could help him from the sheer brightness of this day. His retinas seared with pain. He grimaced, wishing he had remembered a hat from inside.
When his eyes found themselves again, he scanned each of the men he found in front of his home. There were four men, each on horseback, and a single carriage behind the four, with an extra man there holding the reigns of the horses. He looked more well dressed than the rest. The others clearly did not prioritise hygiene. They each had rugged beards, roughly styled in different fashions, and clothes to suit daily work with horses or farmland. They each carried a repeater rifle in their hands, which they gripped tightly to their chests.
As Cooper made his way around the men, he did not recognise them, until he reached the man on his left who was closest to the carriage. This man had two extra revolvers in holsters on the side of his pants, and a spattering of different sized bullets wrapped in a belt about his waist. His eyes were narrow, and his face scarred and weathered. His beard was the most well kept, and his clothes clearly the most expensive and well maintained. He wore a long duster coat that rested down either side of horse. Cooper had only seen him in passing, on posters in the marshall’s wall. This man, was affectionately known, as The Dag.
“Cooper Holt?” The Dag inquired once more, tilting his hat towards the man on the porch.
“Yes. How can I help you gentlemen?”
The Dag did not answer, and instead continued chewing on tobacco he had stored in his mouth. After looking for a moment, he turned to the carriage, “Alright! Come on out!” He shouted.
Almost in an instant, the carriage door flew open. Stairs fell out between the carriage and the ground. A pair of black shoes, emblazoned with gold insignia’s in a dancing pattern emerged from the carriage. Atop them, a sharp pressed grey suit, immaculately kept. Clearly by the bulging waist, there were guns hidden underneath, but careful effort had been taken to minimise the look. From above his shirt collar, a chiseled man stood firm in the hot sun. His jawline and cheekbones were clearly defined, as a man who would eat only the finest of foods for pleasure rather than necessity might look. He had nothing more than the beginning of a five o’clock shadow on his face, and as he removed his hat from his head, a full head of brown hair emerged, neatly kept and recently trimmed. As he stood for a moment, allowing his eyes to get used to the new light, he embraced the heat on his face. When the seconds passed, he turned his head towards Cooper, catching his eyes and smiling wide without baring his teeth. Without expecting a returned smile, he hopped off the carriage and began walking down the path towards the tall brown house. He looked all around, measuring the size of the house, how well the land had been maintained, and watching the windows that had been kept shut. Finally, when we reached the porch, he stopped in the dirt. The soil kicked up at his heels, ruining his otherwise perfect suit. He enquired once more, with a calm yet deep voice, “Mr Holt?”
Cooper nodded his head up and down, “Yes, sir.”
“Ah… fantastic. I have been looking for you.”
Cooper did not reply, glancing only at the men with guns quickly, and then back to the conversation.
“Are you aware of who I am?” The man asked.
“Yes, sir. I believe I do.”
The grey man gestured with his hand a motion to move the conversation along, “Could you tell me, please, so I can ascertain whether you are correct?”
Cooper studied the man before him once more, “I believe you are James Everett, leader of the Everett gang, and Sheriff of the town of Hacksaw, and Allerdale for a number of years now.”
James Everett smiled at the explanation, “I do believe I could not have put it better myself.” he turned to face his counterparts, “I am indeed lawmaker of both the town of Hacksaw, and Allerdale, and have been for a number of years – and if I am able to permit myself to be so candid…” he stopped for a moment to shrug his shoulders, “I do believe I am very good at what I do.”
“So I have heard.” Cooper replied.
Everett smiled once more, allowing it only to fade as he spoke, “Regardless, while I believe this to be true, it is commonly known that the good men and women of the United States government do not agree with me.” The Dag let out a sigh of air in the form of a laugh behind him, “Apparently it is considerably frowned upon to be self-proclaimed lawman, and as such, occasionally we come into a bit of disagreement.”
Two of the men on the horses smiled brightly enough for it to be seen under their hats.
“Again, that being said – recently we have come to a mutual agreement, that should I make myself relatively scarce on a daily basis, focus on my productions elsewhere, slip some funds in places they need to be, and not cause too much of a disruption to their ever expanding trade routes and railway lines, they would agree to look the other way. Which I believe to be a fair, and respectable offering by the powers that be.”
Cooper nodded his head in agreement.
“However, recently it has come to my attention, that some marshalls in the nearby county disagree with some of their other fellow lawmen, and have taken a particular dislike to me, to my men, and to my activities. And in an attempt to thwart my rackets, they have recently killed two of my highest ranking men… One, Butch Findlay, of Findlay farms, and one, Louis Cassidy, of Peppermill. Have you heard of these men?”
Cooper pictured their warped and bloodied faces in his head, “I have not.”
Everett looked a little surprised, “They are quite well known men around these parts… You’re sure you haven’t heard of them?”
Cooper shook his head once more, “I have not heard of them.”
“Hm” He pursed his lips, “Nevertheless, it appears that someone in this area is in collaboration with the marshalls that wish to cause harm to myself and to my men… and while I would never suggest that this could be you, we have had some accusations of collusion with another party. As I said, while I do not believe it to be you as I’ve heard you are a well respected man amongst these parts, I would very much appreciate your help in the matter of this investigation.”
“What can I do to help, Mr Everett?”
“Well if you would permit us, Mr Holt, I would like to come into your house, conduct a small search of your premises, purely to clear your name of said accusations from my mind.” While he smiled, it seemed to fade the more that he talked until he reminded himself internally to smile again, “And as it is very hot out here, I would appreciate a cold glass of water, and to ask a few questions, purely as a formality.”
They looked at each other for a moment “Would that be okay with you?” As he spoke, the men behind him played with the guns in their hands, pointing their rifles up into the air. Cooper looked at each of the men in turn, before smiling at James Everett.
“Of course, Mr Everett. Excuse my manners, I have simply had a long day, and as my wife is away on business is had left me to more chores than usual. Please forgive my lack of hospitality. Would you come in for a cold glass of beer instead?”
“Ah, I had heard that you store deliciously famous beers on your premises, and I must admit that I had hoped that you had some left. Would you care to spare a glass a weary traveller?”
“Of course, Mr Everett, for you and your men. Please…” He surrendered, beckoning them into his house.