Editor’s note — Following is the final chapter of “Long Ride from Split Rock,” a dime store cowboy yarn in the style of traditional newspaper fiction. In the exciting conclusion, a cowboy and an outlaw go head to head over a matter of honor; meanwhile, a disgraced Pony Express rider makes a special delivery in San Francisco.
Dust swirled across the ground at Jim Reed’s boots as he stood in the middle of the street, a hot south wind whipping sand down the way.
The clunky Smith & Wesson revolver on loan from the mercantile felt heavy at his side but the gun belt felt good on his waist, comfortable and familiar. His head pounded and his heart beat slow.
As the man in black swung into view down the street, legs spread and hand at the holster, Reed wondered if he’d make it out of the fight alive. This Randall character looked like he had a quick hand, and Reed wasn’t used to the sixgun on his hip. Randall would shoot to kill, and so would Reed. As for which bullets would find their targets, none could know.
Reed caught sight of Jenny Bishop on the boardwalk in front of the bank, a small crowd from the wagon train around her. Her curly hair blew in the wind, and through the locks that brushed her face, Reed could see her left eye was blackened. Reed’s blood ran cold when he realized the shiner was more of Bill Randall’s handiwork. Bill Randall had touched her wrong one too many times, Jim Reed decided. Bill Randall would pay.
Reed moved for the gun.
As Ashley Quincannon swung through the double doors of the old saloon at the docks, he saw Nancy Taylor behind the bar. She was beautiful, just like Jim Reed had said, with hard, cold eyes that looked right through him.
Quincannon only had to ask a few strangers to find her. She was memorable – especially to the group of dock workers Quincannon found lumbering down the street near the bay. Quincannon had asked them about a young woman by the name of Nancy with pretty blue eyes who worked at a bar in the neighborhood. They recalled her immediately, and after they quit giggling like schoolboys, they gave him the address and wished him luck.
“Jus’ so’s you know, drifter, Nancy Taylor won’t take no man,” one of the longshoremen had said.
“Ain’t here to be took,” Quincannon replied. “Just passin’ through.”
The bar smelled of old cigarettes and wine, and Quincannon had half a mind to rent a room for a while. But Nancy Taylor’s stare from behind the bar was awful cold; a little too cold for an extended stay. He held her eyes as he approached the bar and produced the letter from his jacket.
“Nancy Taylor?” he asked. She nodded. “Special delivery for you.”
It was all over in a few moments. The sharp crack of gunfire cut the air between the ramshackle buildings, no more than three shots. During the volley, a hard gust kicked up a cloud of sand that obscured the gunfighters, and the howling wind muffled the sharp cry of a man in pain. A body hit the ground hard. Those on the boardwalk craned their necks to see. When the dust settled, Jim Reed remained standing, and Bill Randall was dead on the ground.
A dead silence fell on the street. Reed looked down at his iron and his eyes widened… the rusty thing hadn’t fired a shot!
An urgent murmur grew in the crowd. Reed looked up to see Jenny Bishop standing still on the boardwalk, the long Colt revolver in her hand still smoking, stretched out like the finger of God toward the dead man down the street.
She was weeping.
Through the adrenaline pounding through Reed’s body, the cowboy felt a deep, burning pain in his side. He felt hot blood soak his shirt just above the hip, and he collapsed. Bill Randall hadn’t left the world without leaving one last mark.
She was at Reed’s side in an instant, cradling his head in her lap, her tears mingling with the blood on his shirt.
Nancy Taylor took the letter, and she looked at Quincannon, and he held her gaze with his good eye – a feat most men could not manage with two. She paused when she caught the scent of lemon verbena on the envelope.
“Friend of mine asked me to deliver this to ye,” the drifter said. “Told me it come all the way from Split Rock, Wyomin’ Terri-tory.”
She offered no expression, and the drifter got the idea. He smiled, tipped his hat, and walked out the door.
She couldn’t help but notice that he walked a little taller on his way out.
The note was written in messy script, though it appeared the writer had taken time to carve out the letters on the page. Only one word was written in flowy cursive, as though it had been written a thousand times: Nancy.
Ben thinkin bout few them hard things I sed to you when you left Split Rock. I writ out this heer note to pay apolgees to you an pay respects an tell you how I rilly feel bout you, seein how you sed I never spoke my mind. I am sory I sed you was a durned fool woman, becos you aint. Yore a good woman, Nancy. You deeserve to have what you want. I was the durned fool for wantin other wise. I hope this heer note finds you well, wether I am come with it or not. Nancy, I loved you the minnit I laid eyes on you. I know we may meet others in this heer life, maybe even larn to love em some how, it bein such a long ride from heer to ther, but I want you to no that you will always be with me in some kind of way. Aint nothin can change that. If you ever find yorself in some kind of trouble, you find a way to tell me and I will be ther to get you out. Always will.
All my love,
J. L. Reed
As Jim Reed lay in Jenny Bishop’s arms in the middle of the dusty street, the blood from his wound staining her calico dress, they exchanged a few quiet words.
“Don’t leave, Jim Reed,” she said.
Their eyes held again, and there was the steadiness.
“Won’t,” he said.
“Stay with me.”
“I will,” he said, “long as you’re here to patch me up.”
He laughed, and it hurt, but he still laughed. She smiled and a tear streamed down her face. He wiped it away with his big brown hand, leaving a dark smudge of pay dirt on her cheek. She traced the mottled scar on his neck with her finger.
“It might take a while,” she said. “Lots of patching to do.”
“Plenty of time,” Reed replied. “Long ride from here to there.”