This story by Mark Casper is the Fiction First Place winner of the 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Mark Casper is a copywriter by day and a blogger of all things interesting by night. He lives in Atlanta, GA, with his lovely wife and their French press. Click here to download his free list of 18 Books You Must Read Before You Die.
His guns glinted bright steel in the light of the day, and he squinted up at the sun sitting high and proud in the sky. Hell of a time for a shootout. Mason flipped out the cylinders of both his six-shooters and counted the bullets in each—three in the left and four in the right. Lucky me. Seven’s always been my number.
Bullets cracked and thudded into the brittle wood of the tree he took cover behind. He scrunched down even further, trying to make himself a smaller target. The shooting stopped for a moment.
“COME ON OUT, YOU VARMIT!” he heard from across the grove.
“COME AND GET ME, YA YELLA-BELLIED BASTARDS!” he shouted back. Leaning out from behind the trunk, he popped off a quick shot towards the closest Stetson he could see.
Down to six now.
“Give it up, Mason! You’re outnumbered and outgunned. Don’t make yer mama carry you outta here in a box!”
He heard the outlaws cackle at the man’s words.
“My mama’s been dead goin’ on eight years, McGraw. And how can I trust you won’t shoot me soon as I come outta here?”
Silence. Mason felt the wind on his face and listened to the rustle of the leaves in the branches above.
“You ain’t got much of a choice, Mason.”
He thought to himself a moment before he replied.
“Guess you’re right, McGraw. Aight I’m comin’ out! Don’t shoot!”
Here’s goes nothin’. Mason raised his hands in the air high above his head, pistols dangling upside down on his index fingers. He emerged from behind the tree slowly.
Five guns and two rifles leered at him like steel snakes from behind a stand of oaks. He recognized all of them—the lawless men he’d been chasing across four states, three years, and too many bodies to count. And now he’d been ambushed by them on his own land.
Good thing my grandpappy ain’t here to see this. He’s likely rollin’ in his grave at the thought of a Mason gettin’ bushwacked on his own property.
He obliged, tossing both his pistols to the ground.
A gangly cowboy in a buckskin coat and long shaggy hair slunk out from behind the nearest tree. He smiled yellow and spit brown in the dirt.
“Yer sheriffin’ days are over, Mason.”
“Not ‘til they take my star or shoot me dead, McGraw.”
“Soon as I put a bullet in yer belly you will be. But not for a long time. Not ‘til all the blood in yer bones leaks outta yer gut.”
More cackles echoed from the nearby trees.
A shot rang out. McGraw looked down in disbelief at the bullet hole in his chest, then in stunned silence at Mason. The sheriff held a smoking derringer, the one he always kept concealed in his sleeve. The outlaw slumped to the ground as shots began to crack from behind the trees.
Mason dove for his guns on the ground, rolled, and found cover behind a nearby tree. Bullets sang overhead, ricocheting off the branches above him. He leaned out and shot two outlaws running westward.
Three bullets left.
He peered out and saw two more bushwackers darting through the underbrush. They were trying to outflank him. He had to move quickly. Mason waited until a barrage ended and then made a dash for a clump of trees to the south. As he ran, he shot twice. Two more cowboys fell to the ground. He slid behind a big poplar and listened intently.
From across the grove he heard the faint sound of a horse whinnying and saw a cowboy galloping away through the trunks. Mason grinned and shouted:
“LOOKS LIKE IT’S JUST YOU AND ME, COWBOY! YOUR PARTNER DONE LEFT YOU HIGH AND DRY!”
He strained to hear an answer or a noise. Nothing but silence. He rested for a moment with his back against the tree, taking stock of the situation and examining his ammo.
One bullet left. Better make it count.
He leaned out and stared at the still grove of trees, scanning for any movement between the spindly arms of the oaks.
When the shots came, he didn’t know who fired it, but he saw the flash from a rifle barrel. Before he knew what he was doing Mason fired back. The bullet ricocheted off a branch, but the rifle kept shooting. It peppered his tree with bullets and he hunkered down again.
He cursed himself for the mistake. How was he supposed to kill an outlaw with no bullets left?
Only one thing for it. But it’s damn near suicide.
Mason waited until the barrage ended and he could hear the sound of the man reloading his rifle. He took a deep breath, jumped out from behind the tree, and dashed towards the outlaw’s cover as quick as a fox and quiet as an Indian.
The cowboy heard him coming and just before Mason got to him he held up his rifle and pulled the trigger. The shot hit him in the shoulder but it didn’t stop him from tackling the man to the ground. They wrestled fiercely in the dirt, clawing and punching each other. A shot fired from the outlaw’s rifle into the branches above. The bandit pulled out a knife and lunged at the sheriff’s chest. He blocked it partially but not enough to stop the blade from slashing across his—
“MASON!” The voice came from the back porch.
The boy immediately dropped his stick-pistols and shoved his hands into his corduroy pockets. His face burned scarlet beneath his wheat-blond bangs.
“WHAT!” he barked back.
“What are you doing out there rolling on the ground like that?”
“Nothing! What do you want?”
“Your lunch is ready! Come get it before it gets cold!”
“I told you, I’m not hungry!”
“Suit yourself. But you better finish raking those leaves before your father gets home!”
“You said you’d do it last week and then you got distracted playing some silly—”
“I said I’d do it, okay!”
Mason heard the screen door slam behind her.
He waited a moment to make sure she wasn’t still watching him. He bent down and picked up his stick pistols and holstered them carefully, one in each pocket. Then he grabbed the rake leaning against the tree and began scraping the gold and rusty-red leaves beneath his feet.