It was after the sixth pig had come down with the fever that my father made his decision. He was a hard, weathered man whose creased face clearly showed the road his life had taken him. His skin was dark and leathery, his hair sandy and thinning, and his beard grey, curly, and unkempt. A scar from his wrist to his elbow was a reminder of a horse that refused to be broken. He was a man of few words. When he did speak my sister and I listened as if the town preacher was lecturing directly at us.
It was cold that night. Though the days were still long, they were slowly winding down a bit earlier with each passing day. At nights the early autumn air began to creep through the gaps in the doors and windows, reminding us of the long winter nights that were still to come.
Betty lit the fireplace and prepared the stew while outside in the waning light my father and I secured the animals in their pens and stables for the night. We had spent most of the day repairing the wire fencing that protected the goats. Coyotes were smart animals and lately had begun to make attempts at breaching the pens.
During the day, father had spoken to me less than usual. I could sense something was weighing on him, but it wasn’t until we were seated at the kitchen table that he decided to talk about it.
“I’m taking Henry McMasters up his an offer for work. Going to run some cattle up north near them Tetons. If the weather holds, I should be back in two months time.” He turned to me. “I want you to take good care of your sister and keep them hogs that might have the fever separated from the rest.”
I nodded, saying nothing. Two months made me concerned, but I knew better than to question his decisions.
“The money I’m gonna get from McMasters will help offset what we’re going to lose from those sick animals.” He folded his hands and placed them on the table. “You’re the head of the house until I come back, Owen. You gonna make me proud?”
It really wasn’t a question. He was expecting a nod from me and nothing else.
And a nod was what he got.
Two days later, at first light, he was gone. I watched as he rode off. The rising sun illuminated him with its morning rays until he disappeared over the horizon and was gone.
He had taken one of the Winchesters off the wall rack. The other he left for me in case a coyote had outsmarted the wire and tried to mix it up in the hen house or if any of the pigs that had gotten the fever took a turn for the worse and needed to be put down. Over a meal, a neighbor had once commented to my father about how dumb swine were, but I thought they were the smartest animals we had on the farm. They were quick learners, especially the young ones. But some of them grew mean. And a mean pig that was touched with the fever was an unpredictable animal. The Winchester could kill a man, but a poorly placed shot against a hog would only serve to make it angry. Both rifles were prone to jamming, and for that reason, he left me his Colt as well.
Three days after he left, Betty came down with the fever.
At first, I thought she had caught a cold. With the changing seasons, it wasn’t unexpected. But by the second day, her fever spiked in a way that made me realize she had something much worse.
Laramie, the closest town with a doctor, was thirty miles away. We owned horses that were young and hardy and could make the trip even if hitched to a wagon. I considered riding out to my closest neighbor, Wally Thurston for help, but I didn’t see how that was going to help Betty. She needed a doctor, not kind words.
I spent the afternoon getting the horses and wagon ready. By the time evening came around, Betty was in real bad shape, shivering so much that I had to place most of the quilts and blankets we owned over her. The roads between here and Laramie were full of holes, coyotes, and worse, so I decided to keep Betty as comfortable as possible until dawn.
The sun had just set when a heavy knock sounded on the front door. For a moment, I thought my father had returned but quickly realized otherwise. There would be no reason to announce himself at his own house.
I picked up the Colt and walked over to the door. It had been a long time since someone had visited in the evening. To do so meant that they would be staying the night.
I cracked open the door, keeping the pistol out of sight.
A short, stocky man stood on the porch. Even in the twilight, I could make out his toothy grin. His bushy eyebrows met above the bridge of his nose.
“Good evening, good evening, young man,” he said. “My name is Nestor Tilleray. Can I speak to your father?”
“He’s out,” I replied and immediately regretted my answer.
“So late? So late?” he replied. “I’m surprised he’s able to get any work done.”
I was wondering why he was talking funny when the darkness behind him took shape. A second, incredibly large man was standing there. My father was a big man, but this person made him look like a child.
“He’s at my neighbor’s home. They’re fixing a broken wagon wheel.”
“I see. I see.” Said Nester. “And your mother?”
“She’s with him.”
The man nodded. “Very good. Very good. Can you relay a message for your father?”
I nodded and Nester handed me a business card along with some papers. “I am in the business of buying land. These documents are a proposal of what I am willing to offer for yours.”
“I can save you a return trip, mister. My pa is in no mood to sell.”
“Understood, understood. But I want him to hear me out regardless. Many find my offer too good to refuse.” The man smiled, stepped off the porch, and was swallowed up by the darkness. “I’ll stop back tomorrow.”
Sleep came slow that night as I considered what to do. Betty needed to see a doctor. Once I overheard my father tell a story about men like Nester. They were thieves who tried to trick people into selling their land. Sometimes they even forced people off their property with threats of violence, making them sign over their deed for only a piece of what it was actually worth.
I sat down next to Betty. She was still covered in every quilt and blanket that our mother had ever sewn, but she was still shivering. In the crimson glow of the fireplace, she looked pale. She opened her eyes slightly. “Was that pa that you were speaking to? Is he back?”
“No. I was just talking to myself.”
Betty closed her eyes as she smiled. “That’s okay. I do that sometimes.” She began to cough, and I leaned her up to take a sip of water. She drank a little. It didn’t seem to help any.
The morning brought overcast skies. Thunderheads loomed in the distance, threatening to make the journey to Laramie even more difficult.
I went outside to saddle the horses for the trip.
“I’ve been watching your house since the sun first cracked over the horizon.” Said a voice from the side of the barn. Nester stepped into view. “And your skinny little ass is the only one I’ve seen milling about. No sign of your papa or mama.”
“They stayed the night with the neighbors.”
“And which one is that?”
“Is that right? Is that right? Older couple. Man’s got the worst cough I’ve ever heard. Woman’s hair is so grey that it could light up the night sky.” Nester began walking towards me. “They sold to me two weeks ago.” His eyes narrowed. “Now, you ain’t trying to make me out to be a fool, are you?”
I dropped the horse satchel and ran back to the house. Nester called out to me as I hurried through the front door. “You’re just delaying the inevitable, son.”
The heavy front door shut reassuringly. All of the windows had been bolted in advance of me leaving. I felt confident that Nester wasn’t going to get inside. At least not without difficulty. He was locked out.
And I was locked in.
Morning turned to afternoon, and Betty continued to grow worse. Time was running out before should she would be too weak to make the journey.
Voices sounded from outside. Through a crack in the window, I saw Nester approach the house. The big man was with him, and in the daylight he looked even larger than he did at night. An ax was slung over his shoulder.
“You’re giving me no choice, son. No choice. Don’t make me have Wallace chop your door into firewood. He might not stop with just that.
“What do you want?” I yelled back.
“I’ll give you two minutes to collect your belongings and git off the premises.”
“That doesn’t give me much time to take anything.”
“You’ll be taking your lives with you. Consider yourselves blessed.”
I didn’t reply as he nodded to Wallace. “I guess we’ll have to do this the hard way. I passed by some pretty pastures on my way here. Plenty of places to bury a body down deep.”
“Coyotes around here will dig up anything no matter how deep it’s buried.”
“That’s good to know. Good to know. I appreciate you saving me all of that work,” said Nestor as Wallace walked up onto the porch and readied the ax.
“All right, mister,” I said. “I’m coming out. But I need you to back up from the house a little so that can leave without having to worry about that ax.”
“Of course. Of course. Like I said, kid, you got two minutes.”
I unbolted the door and opened it slightly. Wallace was about ten feet away from me. Close, but far enough.
I brought the Winchester into view and fired. It struck the man in the chest but it didn’t send him to the ground. He might have been dead but didn’t realize it. I decided not to take any chances and angled the weapon up and discharged the second round. An instant later, the man’s head exploded into a red cloud of bone and blood. I then aimed it at Nestor and fired.
The rifle jammed.
A scowl covered Nester’s face that became darker than the clouds that were forming overhead. From the scabbard on his belt, he removed a long hunting knife. “You shouldn’t have wasted that second shot on Wallace. He took a step forward, but that was as far as he got. I grabbed the Colt from a nearby window ledge and aimed at the man.
Nester’s eyes grew wide with fear. “Now hold on, kid…”
Like I had done with Wallace, I emptied the gun into the man. All the bullets found a mark. The man was dead before the last bullet struck.
I closed and bolted the door shut. I reloaded the Colt and looked through the slats for anyone else. But after a few minutes had passed, I didn’t see anyone.
I went to check on Betty. She looked pale. I felt her forehead. It was red hot. The carriage ride to Laramie was going to be difficult for her, but it was the only choice.
She looked at me weakly as I approached. “I heard some noises. Is everything all right?”
I nodded. “Yes.”
“Are we leaving?”
“Very soon. I just need to do a few final things. But it shouldn’t take long.”
The men’s clothing went into the fire pit. It all burned quickly. Anything that didn’t I buried. I considered placing the bodies into the pit as well, but with the approaching storm, I wasn’t sure if the flames would stay lit long enough.
I used the horses to move the bodies. It took longer than I had hoped, but I was finally able to get both men into the pigpen that had the animals with the fever One of the pigs tried to make a run at me, but I managed to close the gate just in time.
Depending on how quickly Betty healed, I guessed that the trip to Laramie and back would take about two weeks time.
The pigs would be done well before then.
Fiction of his can be found in over 100 magazines and anthologies from 7 different countries such as Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (USA), Here and Now (England), Tenebres (France) Crime Factory (Australia), Reaktor (Estonia), Speculative Mystery (South Africa), and Visionarium (Austria). He has been published by IDW and Ahoy Comics.