This story is by Judy Blackburn and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The sun shone in Finley’s eyes blocking his view of the gun pointed in his direction. But he knew it was there. He looked the other way and it wasn’t much better. He could see that gun. The sun glinted off the barrel. He wondered how many more lurked in the trees or behind boulders on the hill.
How had his life gotten to this point?
The Baxter ranch nestled in a small valley with big dry hills surrounding with bigger mountains rising above, covered in icy snow looking like decorated Christmas trees. Finley had grown up here. His dad and he were alone since Mother had died years earlier. It was always known Finley would inherit the ranch. At first, Finley thought that’s what he wanted. At twenty-two, and his father only in his late fifties, it was a long way away. He did like riding a horse and roping the cows and was pretty good at it. But there was more to ranching than throwing a rope.
The Baxter’s found themselves in a war for their property.
The day his dad was shot, Finley dragged him to the house, but was unable to do much for him. In his last moments, Dad squeezed Finley’s hand, making him promise, “Finley, don’t let them take the ranch.”
Of course, he nodded and made the useless promise. What else could he do? Dad was dying, would never know he wouldn’t be able to fulfill the promise. Finley didn’t consider himself a coward per se, but he did prefer the softer side of life, the easier way. His mother had given him books for a birthday even though he couldn’t read yet. When he learned to read, the books were his friends. He dreamed of being like those heroes.
Finley couldn’t say who fired the fatal shot, but he knew it was intentional. He talked to the sheriff, but there was no help there. The sheriff said unless he could finger the guy who pulled the trigger, there was little he could do. Finley felt the sheriff was afraid of the big rancher and may even be paid off to keep silent.
To begin the quest to save the ranch, Finley thought he’d try reasoning with the big rancher man, Mr. Streams. Some of the heroes had done that in the stories. Then he’d be like them, brave and clever. The man would listen, walk away, leave him alone, and let him work his ranch.
Well, that hadn’t panned out. To start with all his father’s ranch hands ran out on him. With his dad gone they had no confidence in a soft, bookish son who had only done what his father told him to. After his dad was murdered, the hired hands hit the trail. Finley didn’t blame them.
He was truly alone but Finley decided to confront the rancher. Act like his heroes.
The sun rose bright on the day he rode to his neighbor’s ranch. The huge brown hills beckoned and he wished he could ride their trails, lose himself in the pine trees. He wore his cleanest jeans and cleanest shirt with a vest. He’d even brushed his boots though it didn’t make a difference. They were scuffed and worn from many hours in the saddle riding through the brush after cows. He mounted his lanky frame on his horse Chance and rode bravely. He decided to leave his pistol at home. They surely wouldn’t shoot an unarmed man. Would they?
The big rancher’s place was a mess with overgrown brush and weeds. A couple of dogs barked, then flopped in the shade. Splintered barrels and shattered bottles used for target practice gave warning of getting in the way may lead to the same fate. Seedy-looking men stood around smoking, waiting for their boss to tell them what to do. Dirt and dust covered everything.
Finley thought, just because you have money doesn’t hide the fact you’re a slob, Mr. Streams. Of course, he wouldn’t say this to his face.
Mr. Streams came out on the porch looking huge and menacing. His bushy beard hid most of his facial features. Finley couldn’t tell if there was any friendliness there or not. He figured, not. Finley wanted to turn Chance around and gallop home. Instead, he dismounted and came towards the blocky man who stood with arms crossed like a king ruling his domain.
“Sir, my name’s Finley Baxter your neighbor.” His stomach felt like grass being cut down with a scythe, getting chopped then tangled with his innards.
“I know who you are. You moving out?”
Finley took a step back. “No sir. I promised my Dad.” Finley swallowed trying to untangle the mass in his stomach. His thoughts told him to be a man, but his heart sank to the heel of his boots.
Mr. Streams waved his arm in dismissal. “That’s not going to happen, kid.”
Mr. Streams nodded to a couple of the men who stood nearby. They grabbed Finley. “Hey, I just came to talk…” His protests were muffled by the men’s laughter.
More men came to help. He felt their grimy hands on him. He pushed at them, even tried a swing at the nearest cowboy’s face, but there were too many. They tossed him on Chance and slapped the rear of the horse sending it galloping out of the yard. Finley barely hung on to the saddle horn to keep from falling.
What a fiasco that day turned out to be. He took a sip of whiskey he’d brought to bed with him. He wasn’t a drinker. Dad had kept it around for special occasions only. He faced his fear and guilt and took another sip. He started to doze.
A crackling sound brought him wide awake. The night outside should have been dark and black, but there was a yellow and orange glow. He scrambled for his clothes and boots. He was putting a shirt on as he ran out the front door. Then he stopped. The barn was entirely in flames. Finley dropped to the porch steps, arms on his knees, and watched the wood, hay, and feed burn, glad there were no animals inside.
Light shone on the horizon. The flames sputtered out. The smoke swirled to the sky. Finley still sat on the porch, staring at nothing. He heard the galloping horses and right after, the shattering window glass.
He didn’t see riders. More glass broke as rocks were hurled. Finley ran inside but rocks continued to fly through broken windows. All he could do was hunch in a corner with arms over his head and hope it would stop. He was near tears and knew he wasn’t being at all like his story heroes.
The rain of rocks finally stopped, but not Finley’s fear, not the sick in his head and soul. What was next? He couldn’t handle this.
Around noon with everything quiet, Finley ventured to check on the stock. The corral was empty. He looked out to the field where cattle should have been but it was empty as well. All that was left was his horse and the milk cow. Later that evening when he went to milk the cow she was gone too.
Now, it was him and a gang of guns and he with only one gun and not a good shot. He was sure there were more than these two guns. They were going to kill him and there was no one to help, least of all himself.
He wondered if he could get away? Just leave, leave everything.
When full dark came and all was quiet Finley slipped out, grabbed Chance, and rode. No one tried to shoot him. Finley figured they saw him leave and knew he wouldn’t be back.
He rode all night. He came to a small town and stopped at a saloon called the Silver Creek. No one bothered him at the smokey bar as he bought two bottles of whiskey. Then he led his horse to the stable. He would at least make sure Chance was brushed and fed. The old guy who took care of the livery allowed him to stay the night, even offered him a job. Finley nodded and said he’d take it.
Hours later Finley looked through bleary eyes at the slats in the stall he laid in. Remembering his book heroes only made his mind hurt worse. I tried Dad, I really tried, he blubbered. He took a swallow of the amber drink. He wished he’d never learned to read, find out how heroes really lived, and took care of things. None of those heroes ended up a drunk in a stable. He was a coward. Finley slumped to his side holding the bottles like a lover and landed in the pile of horse manure he was supposed to fork out the back door.