Trading Five Bullets

Like wolves howling, the chorused voices of oo-way oh-way oo-way oh-way floated into the sky. The notes were partners with the dancers as they stomped left and right, left, left and right. The drumbeats matched the dancers and rumbled the dust with a bada-bada-bum bada- bum bada-bum. Both feet and drumsticks kicked up the dry dust with every vibration, adding to their call for rain.

               “Come dance, Black Cloud,” coaxed the elders. “Call to Mother Nature. Add your feet to the rhythm.” She would not. Black Cloud was mourning their loss to the white man. Their tribe had moved earlier than ever before, before the seasons showed colors. They had moved North ahead of the buffalo and the land was barren and unfriendly. “To avoid a fight of arrows,” said the elders. “It is wise to not make new enemies.” It was dry but it was not their crops that they were dancing for. Black Cloud would not dance for rain.

***

               “A storm’s a coming,” Sheriff Hardy said as he pulled his pants on.

               “There hasn’t been a drop of water in these parts since those Indians left,” Ms. Bella sniffed. She wasn’t wearing a corset and the front of her dress was open, exposing her breasts. The sweat, both his and hers, was still beaded on her skin.

               “Well somethin’ gotta to change ‘round here,” he said.

“Ya’ll just be tradin’ one vice for another,” she said.

“Where’s my shirt, darlin’?” They both riffled through the sheets that weren’t on the bed any longer. It took a moment to remember that he had used it in their playmaking, finding it stuffed between the bed post and the wall. Bella untied the knotted arms from each other, and his eyes didn’t leave her as she helped him dress. Her braided hair was tousled, and she took her time buttoning up the front of the white shirt the same as she had unbuttoned it earlier. She checked his pockets, checking for bullets, and then tapped his badge. His sheriff badge was still new, and it reflected in her blue eyes as she looked up at him. She loved this cowboy. Her cowboy.

“How late you gotta stay tonight?” she asked.

“If there’s no new trouble in town, then I’ll let that old deputy watch the tumbleweeds ‘stead ‘a me,” he said, bending to kiss her before he left.

               He paused a moment outside of the saloon, letting the doors swing both directions after him. He counted as they bumped against each other. One, two, and three close. The road was dusty without the rain, and the wooden buildings had seen better days. The paint was fading on the sign for the post office and the buffalo skull above the general store’s looked like it had died twice more.

Cody Hardy walked down to collect his horse at the edge of town where the sheriff’s office was. He kept one hand on his pistol and the other in his pocket, counting the bullets with his finger and thumb, a habit now. He liked being sheriff. The little town of Bluff Creek was better with him as sheriff. He protected his town and what was his. He wasn’t the best shot, but he’d keep shooting until he kill anyone that crossed him, as long as he counted right.

He poked his head into the office.

“Afternoon, Sheriff.”

“Afternoon, Deputy,” he replied.

“Quiet ‘round here,” his deputy said, his boots on the desk and his hat hiding that he had been snoozing on the job.

“That’s good. I’m goin’ for some shootin’ practice then,” he said. The hat of his deputy nodded.

Cody rode Whiskey out East about a mile before stopping. There were some old bean cans here from his target practice yesterday. He set them up on the Cottonwood stump, the clean side facing the road. He counted his paces. One, two, three, four, five. Then with twist of his hips and a flick of his wrist, the gun was in his hand pointed towards the metal forms and BANG! One. BANG! Two. His eyes narrowed; he had missed. He focused on his aim instead of his grandeur and squeezed the trigger. BANG! Again a miss, four. BANG! Five. One can spun off from a glancing hit.

Unsatisfied, Cody emptied the used casings onto the pile of more than a hundred at his feet. He loaded the pistol again with the five bullets from his pocket. Then he aimed carefully. Bang bang bang bang bang, click. One two three four five six, he counted one too many. The second can was gone, but there was still one left. How could he this bad of a shot! He was the sheriff! He fingered the five bullets from his pocket again then reloaded and riffled off another volley of five. Fifteen shots for three bad guys? Not good enough. He walked back to the stump, searching for the cans to set them up again. More practice, he thought. Five at a time, he practiced.

***

They were at a crossroads. The road to the South went to Bluff Creek, but that wasn’t where they were going. They didn’t have any money and would get chased out like the last one. She was hungry and figured Wyatt was too. Unless he was keeping something from her. But he wasn’t. He would have shared a carrot if he had one. They were in this together. And they were looking for gold, and gold was not found in a town.

Wyatt turned them North, which is what she gathered would happen. They trotted along, weary together. Maybe now is when she should take a chance?

She steered them off the road, towards the trees where she knew there was water. She could smell the pollen and moist dirt.

“Hey now, where ya goin’ girl?” He tried to correct her back onto the road.

She shook her head, her mane flying left and right at his face. “Listen!” she said.

“Ya, alright. If you want a break, we’ll take a break,” the unlucky prospector said to her.

They went to the stream, and she waited for him to dismount. He did, and sat on the ground against one of the trees. She snorted at him. “No! Listen! Here!”

“Go ahead and drink, little lady. It’s hot and there’s more to go before the day is done,” he said, as he prepared for a cowboy nap against the tree. She wanted to yell at him again. Instead, she pawed the dirt next to the water. She looked at him. She stepped closer and scooped at the water, splashing it into hole her shoe had started. She looked at him again.

He opened an eye to her splashing, looking at her and then the water. “You tryin’ ta’ tell me somethin’?” He got up to stand beside her and put a hand on her coat.

She looked at him and then at the water. She still didn’t drink.

“What’re you tryin’ to say? Something wrong with the water?”

She just stared at the water, waiting patiently. Finally, he followed her gaze. Spellbound, he stooped to sift through the mud for the glint that was not in his imagination but was real and true. Gold!

“Well, all be damned…”

***

               Sheriff Cody Hardy took a long loop back to the town, keeping an eye out for trouble. As he neared Lover’s Dip, he saw some hoofprints leading off. The trees were green from the stream that winded through here on its way to Bluff Creek. It was a common place for lovers and travelers to stop and cool off in the water. It looked like there was someone here and he needed to find out if it were friend or foe.

               He found a lone man panning for gold in the stream with his horse. There was no gold here! And if there was, it was the property of Bluff Creek!

               “Howdy partner,” he said startling the man on purpose.

               “H-howdy,” the prospector said.

               “What’re ya doin’ in the stream of Bluff Creek?” The man looked surprised, but it wasn’t from Cody startling him. He had that crazy I-don’t-believe-my-eyes look about him that went with the gold rush crazies about to strike it rich.

               “Look!” he said. “Gold!”

               “Show me,” he said, making sure his sheriff’s badge was visible so this feller didn’t question his authority.

The prospector happily showed off his treasure. “Look at that!” he said again. It was a sight to behold. It wasn’t just flecks mixed into the mud either, but what might be considered a gold nugget.

“You found that here? Here in this stream?”

“I did. Well, the horse did. Jewel here.” He padded her and the horse seemed to smile at him.

“The horse. Found the gold?” Cody asked. Now this piqued his interest.

“Well she led me here when I didn’t want to follow. I shoulda been followin’ her nose the whole time!” Cody knew magic when he saw it. Maybe this dumb prospector didn’t.

“Did she find just the one piece?”

“Well that’s what I thought at first. But then I got out my pan here,” the man turned around to pick up the pan half in the water and stuck in the mud. “and decided to see fer myself and—”

BANG! Both the horses reared by the sound and the death that sprang to the air. One. One shot. Cody hadn’t missed, and the prospector was now face down in the stream, the water muddled with dark blood as it pooled from the lifeless man and into the cold water.

***

               “Sheriff! There’s an angry-lookin’ man out here!” People were collecting behind water barrels and porch posts to watch the newcomer unmount from his horse on the edge of Bluff Creek.

               “Sheriff Cody Hardy. I’m lookin’ fer you!” The man yelled.

The deputy was already there, his hands on his belt buckle, his hat low so his eyes were hidden. The shopkeeper from the general store and the barber were on the other side. Even Bella was there, watching. Cody came out and stood along side his deputy, a step or two in front. He tried to look tough, resting one hand on his gun and one hand on his pocket and the impression of five bullets in it.

“Ya look mighty young so I’ll break it down fer ya,” the man looked like he robbed trains for a living. He was gruff, the dust coloring his hair to a brown instead of the blonde it was supposed to be. He was clean shaven so you could see the scar on his cheek that ran to his jawbone. The red neckerchief around his neck was ragged and experienced like the finger that tugged at it as the stranger walked towards the sherriff’s office where Cody and his deputy stood.

“You shot a man in cold blood, Sheriff Cody Hardy. And that’s against the law ya see?” His spurs clanged with each step as Cody counted. Three, four, five, six, seven. “A poor ole’ prospector was just passing through and ya shot him in the back of the head.”

The town folk and Bella gasped. She looked at her young, naïve cowboy. Did she love a murderer? “Ya’ don’t getta take the law into your own hands when it’s convenient for ya. Even as a sheriff, you are not above the law. The truth catches up with ya and God will make sure ya pay.”

“You wouldn’t do that, woulda Cody? Tell him Cody!” Bella shouted desperately. His eyes couldn’t hide the truth for the deed was done, and so the soon-to-be-late Sheriff Cody Hardy did what he could. He took a step towards this stranger.

“I protect my town from anyone that means it harm,” Cody answered. He had magic bullets, the magic of Bella to protect him and he wasn’t afraid of no one. “Just doing my duty watchin’ out for the people and properties of Bluff Creek.”

“You protecting your own pockets is what I’m thinkin’,” the man said, a steel eye forming. He was looking for a fight.

“You better turn ‘round and go back the way you came,” Sheriff Cody said. He felt for reassurance at his pocket. One, two, three, four, four? Only four? What was happening?

The stranger walked back to his horse and began reaching for the saddle, but he was not meaning to mount. He flipped the leather flap covering one of the saddle bags, and Cody did all he could not to jump into a flurry of bullets. The man, unflinching, watching Cody the whole time, pulled a hat from the bag and threw it like a boomerang to the town’s watching eyes.

“This here enough proof?” He called to the townspeople. “The prospector Wyatt Kennedy is now a dead man thanks to your Sherriff here.”

“Now we don’t want any trouble,” Cody said, his nerves getting the best of him. He looked around him and his deputy was not behind him any longer. The people from the saloon were shifting their stances. Even Bella had tears in her eyes as her love faded and doubt filled its place. One, two, three? Only three? Something was happening! She was taking back her magical bullets! She didn’t love him anymore? Just because of the words of some stranger?

Bang! One. Bang! Two. Click click click. The magic bullets were gone. Bang! And then so was Sheriff Cody Hardy. He fell to his knees, blood soaking his shirt. He looked at the heavens, his hat falling from his head and the sun blinded him in a prayer. What had he done to deserve this?

“Mighty trustworthy of you for relieving us of this corruption,” his deputy said over his head as the sun started fading to black. Cody fell on his side, his blood thickening the dust.

In his last moments, he saw Bella rush over, but not towards him. The last light he saw before the blackness engulfed him was the twinkle of a bullet pinched between her fingers, her hand hidden behind her back ready to play a game of secrets with a new lover. One bullet, where he knew there would be four more to follow.

“What’s your name, han’some?”

Written for January 2020 Prompt at Reedsy.com

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