Big IronA.L. Brown / Western / Thrillers & Crime
By A.L. Brown
Copyright 2008, 2011 by A.L. Brown
The dust is blowing in the dark. The wind and grit are ever present companions. My horse, Red, is at least as tired as I am. We started our journey far away, and our hunt has finally led us to this place, Paja Rita, New Mexico, though there are no rivers of any kind to be found unless you count the rivers of migrating sand.
We top a low hill as the sun peeks over the horizon off to the right. The pleasant coolness of night is being replaced by the heat that sunrise inevitably brings with it. We pause. I look all around, surveying our destination. The town is small, apparently consisting of a cantina, a store, a hotel, and a few unmarked artifices that are probably private dwellings. I signal Red, and we ride on down the hill, towards the town. The sanctuary of the night is giving way to the exposure of day as the vague trail we ride transforms into a dusty street.
Robby Martins was going about his morning chores when he first laid eyes on the stranger. He had no doubt that the tall man was indeed a stranger. The residents of Paja Rita were a close knit group. Humans were scarce in these parts and folks were familiar with their neighbors for many miles around. To see a stranger ride into town was rare. Paja Rita was not on any well traveled routes, had no mining prospects, and was out of the way of any railroads. Strangers were more often than not on the wrong side of the law.
Robby ran into his family’s store and nearly ran over his mother who was neatening the shelves. “Robby, how many times do I have to tell you, don’t run in the store,” she scolded him.
“Sorry Ma, but there’s a strange man just now riding in from the south side.”
“Well, go get your father then, I think he’s over at Ike’s.”
Ike’s Cantina was just across the street from Martins’ General Store. Robby started out the door and as he crossed the threshold his mother reminded him “and don’t run either.” He resisted the impulse to hightail it and instead walked as normally as he could out onto the street. He was so intent on his destination, he almost got trampled by the large black horse being ridden by the strange man wearing a long black duster. He quickly moved out of the way and looked up to see cold eyes staring back at him. The stranger apparently had nothing to say, he continued on down the street heading for the hotel. As he passed, the wind suddenly gusted. The breeze caught the long coat and in that moment Robby saw the big iron on his hip. Momentarily forgetting his mother’s admonitions, he sprinted out of the street and into the cantina.
He shouted to his father, “Pa, there’s a stranger just rode in, a gunfighter I think. He nearly ran over me in the street. Do you think he’s an outlaw? Pa?”
“Quiet, Robby. Slow down. A gunman you say, wonder why he’s here?” said Mr. Martins.
“Maybe he’s here to do some business with that big iron on his hip,” whispered Robby.
“An outlaw, loose and running from something I bet. Go back to the store Robby. You and your ma stay out of sight.”
The town is just beginning to stir. The wind catches a tumbleweed and blows it under Red’s hooves. We ride down the street, heading for the hotel. The journey has been long and I haven’t slept under a roof in days. The business at hand can wait until after I get a good meal and some rest. I am so tired I don’t even notice the young boy in the street. He narrowly avoids Red’s hooves, looks up at me, and then scurries into a building.
At the end of the street is the hotel. It is small, befitting the town. It looks like most of the buildings on the street, a low slung adobe, differentiated only by the cracked sign that declares, “Rooms for rent, 50 cents.”
I climb down from the saddle, wrap the reins around the rail and walk inside. I go up to the counter and ask, “Room?” Something must have intimidated the man, for he obsequiously hands me a room key and says, “Room n-n-number one sir.”
“My horse?" and I gesture towards the street.
“Y-yes sir. It will be taken care of sir.”
I then inquire, “Food?”
“Of c-course sir, what would you like?”
“Steak. Coffee,” I tell him.
He nods and I tell him to bring it to my room when it’s ready.
I proceed to the room where I try to wash off some of the dust that has accumulated on my face and hands. I sit back to wait. I think about the man that has brought me here. Paja Rita had only one important feature to me. In this town there lives an outlaw known as Illinois Bart.
Over the past few years he has left a trail of destruction from Texas to Arizona. He is young, twenty-four years old, but nevertheless Bart is a killer, as vicious as they come. Before he went to ground he was known to have nineteen notches on his pistol. Many men have tried to take him and those men are now dead.
A year ago, his exploits unexpectedly ceased, many assuming that he had finally met his fate. For a time, I thought so too. Then I heard about a lawman from Texas who claimed that he had found Illinois Bart. He went to find him and never returned. I began asking around and found that the Texas man was not the first or the last to claim that Illinois Bart was not dead, but merely holed up somewhere. New Mexico was the logical place to look. Many men, wanted in Texas or Arizona or both have taken refuge here. Illinois Bart is here, one and nineteen notches on his pistol.
I smell the steak even before he opens the door. My mouth waters. It tastes even better than it smells. Juicy, red inside, just the way I like it. I eat it and wash it down with good strong coffee. Hunger satisfied, I have one last thing to do before I can catch up on my rest.
Due to the early hour, the cantina is less than busy. A drunk left over from last night, a couple of vaqueros at a table, a cowboy leaning against the bar, and an Indian boy trying to be unobtrusive over in the corner.
I stroll up to the bar and order a drink.
“Never seen you around these parts before, planning to stay long?” says the bartender.
“Won’t be too long in town,” I say.
“You got business in town?” he asks.
The moment has come, the point of no return. I can walk away now, ride out and avoid a potentially lethal confrontation. But no, it is not in me to run away from a fight. So I tell him, “I’m here to take an outlaw.” His eyes widen, I pull back my coat and my badge glints in the dim light.
As I knew it would, curiosity takes over and he asks, “An Arizona ranger, eh. Who are you after? You gonna take him dead or alive?”
“Doesn’t matter. I’m after Illinois Bart,” I reply.
Before the doors had stopped swinging from the stranger’s exit, the buzz of conversation increased and soon everyone in town knew about the ranger with the big iron and his business in Paja Rita.
Off to the north a receding cloud of dust could be seen. What could not be seen was the lone rider kicking up the dust, heading somewhere in a hurry.
Pel Nance reached his destination by noon and slowed his horse as he approached the ranch Illinois Bart had commandeered. He pulled up as he saw Bart finishing his daily target practice. A plank was set up near the corrals and on top were various targets. The targets ranged in size from a whiskey bottle down to a nickel. Nance knew that if he rode in now, he might be used for target practice himself. You didn’t bother Illinois Bart when he was practicing. The man was obsessive. But, it was the reason he was still alive. He had killed every lawman or bounty hunter or gunslinger that had tried to beat him. He was the fastest gun Nance had ever seen. The news that Nance was about to relay to him wouldn’t worry the outlaw. All the men that had come after Illinois Bart before were now dead. Twenty men had tried to take him. Twenty-one would be the ranger with the big iron on his hip.
I leave the cantina, knowing that it won’t be long before word of me and my business here will be relayed to Illinois Bart. My information tells me that he is most likely at a ranch outside of town. I should have a few hours before he gets back.
I decide to use the intervening time to catch a bit of rest. Back in my room, I lay back on the bed. Unconsciously, my hand strays to the worn ebony grip at my side. I let the comforting darkness of sleep overtake me.
The day has passed quickly. I wake at dusk, and go to find some supper.
The hotel man accommodates me and soon my stomach is full.
Now I wait.
Pel Nance is nervous. Illinois Bart was frightening enough, but Pel was also scared of anyone loco enough to come gunning for him.
Bart had sent him to find the ranger and deliver a message to this quiet stranger. He goes to the hotel and knocks on the first door. It opens. A tall man stands silhouetted in the doorway with a .44 revolver in his hand.
“Illinois Bart sent me to tell you that he will meet you at sun up.” Pell said and then scurried away into the night without waiting for a reply.
I won’t wait till sun up. The time is now. Not morning, but night. Not light, but dark. My time. I walk down the street towards the cantina. A few unsteady lights from nearby windows cause the shadows to dance about. I can hear the sounds of revelry from within, but they do not move me. I am calm, relaxed, ready. I step through the swinging doors. The sounds die down. I see him standing at the bar and he sees me in the doorway. I don’t have to say anything. He knows. It is twenty past eleven when we walk out into the street.
Robby Martins is at the window watching the two men in the street. He knows that only one will walk away. He has heard tell how no one can beat Illinois Bart.
Pel Nance is watching through another window. He has seen the ranger somewhere before, but he can’t remember. Something about that man made him uneasy.
Many other folks watch from the windows. Everyone holds their breath. They know that this handsome ranger is about to meet his death.
Overhead, a full moon shines down. Up and down the street, windows darken until only the silver moonlight remains.
I stop and face the outlaw standing forty feet away. He is wound tight, his eyes are angry. But I cannot allow myself to submit to anger. It would cloud my senses and slow my reaction. Instead I must find the cool, dark place in my mind where I am unmoved by emotion, where survival is the only motivation. I breathe in and out slowly, clearing my mind when…
It is now. I see him reach for the pistol.
He is fast. The pistol comes up, I see into the black abyss of the barrel. I see my death approaching.
I notice the red stain spreading across his shirt. The gun falls from limp fingers as he slumps to the ground.
I look down at the .44 in my hand, smoke drifting from the muzzle. I realize that it is over.
Robby Martins could not believe his own eyes. The body of Illinois Bart lies on the ground where it has fallen. The swiftness of the ranger was unbelievable. Illinois Bart had not cleared leather before the ranger’s bullet had ripped through his heart.
The ranger’s aim was deadly with the big iron on his hip.
Across the street, Pel Nance takes careful aim and begins to slowly squeeze the trigger. He will succeed where Bart failed. He must, for his own sake.
The glint of reflected moonlight alerts me. Instinct takes over. Again, I hold a smoking .44 as I see a man, the messenger from the hotel, fall through a window and into the street. It seems the little man had it in his head to shoot me from ambush.
He was a fool.
Robby runs down the street towards the place where Illinois Bart fell. Folks are gathered around the body of the outlaw as it lays there on the ground. He can’t see. He bumps into Ike and slides between Mr. and Mrs. Martins to get a better view.
“I didn’t think it could be done,” said Mr. Martins.
“Me either,” said Ike.
“Well, he finally made a fatal slip,” said Mrs. Martins.
“Yeah, when he tried to match the ranger with the big iron on his hip,” said Robby.
I ride away into the night. My business here is finished.
Folks are distracted. They don’t see me as I go.
Later, they may wonder where I have gone, but soon they will forget about me and resume their normal lives.
As the street narrows to an indistinct trail, I can relax for a time. I am at home as the blackness of night closes around me and I ride the lonesome roads between outposts of civilization.
About the Author
A rancher, farmer, musician, world-champion martial artist and an avid reader, I'm usually way too busy for my own good. Nonetheless, I somehow find the time to write as well. I was homeschooled until I started taking college classes at sixteen. I recently graduated Summa Cum Laude with degrees in Math and Computer Science with minors in English and Ancient Greek. I've been nicknamed, “The Green Ninja,” “Brick Wall,” and “Killer,” among other things. If I revealed any more about myself, I might have to kick you---or worse… Be content knowing that I live, work, write, and do my thing somewhere on the Texas-Arizona Border.
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Other stories available by this author:
Six Ways of Dyin’
Fiery Red Mage