by Sean Bracken
The battle had raged all night. The floor was littered with spent cartridges The walls shredded by hundreds, if not thousands of bullet holes. Mary-Ellen Fogarty sits with her back propped up against the remains of a once gleaming polished oak serving counter.
Mary-Ellen is no more than a child. Barely sixteen years old, she has seen more tragedy in the past few months than anyone should ever see in a lifetime. The child is in deep shock and mumbling incoherently to someone that exists only in her mind. Her pretty young face streaked with tears, her once bright eyes now dead and sunken. I have no words of comfort to offer her.
My name is Hank Morgan. This is where I’ve lived ever since I was a baby and my folks staked their claim to a thousand acre spread just outside town. Through hard work and perseverance our family thrived and prospered. Ma and Pa are buried side by side out back of the local church now. Yes sirree, this town is my home. I love the town and I love the people.
The story began around six months ago, on a balmy summer afternoon. It was on a Friday, about two o’clock, when Jake Coyle and his gang rode into town. There was up to twenty of them. Twenty of the meanest, ugliest, toughest, low down, sons-a-bitches you’ve ever seen. The US Marshal's office had a five hundred dollar, dead or alive bounty on Jake’s head. He had nothing to lose and even less to fear, except maybe Hell and the Devil Himself.
Old Sheriff Brody showed what a brave man he was that day. Standing alone, the old sheriff faced up to Jake and his bandidos. He ordered them to leave town or face jail. Not a trace of fear showed in the old man’s gravelly voice as he said, “Jake Coyle, you hear me? Take yourself and that vermin scum you call friends and hightail your ass outta this town. Else you and your boys is goin to jail.”
These were the last words Old Sheriff Brody ever spoke. The terrified townsfolk, hiding behind their curtains looked on in horror as Jake, quick as lightning, pulled his pistol and gunned the sheriff down in cold blood. As the sheriff lay bleeding his life away, Jake strutted over to him and cool as you like, ripped the badge from his chest. With a cold heartless sneer on his lips, he pinned the badge onto his own vest. Standing in the middle of the street he roared out to the terrorised people of the town. “I’m the new law in this here town. Your Sheriff is retired. Me and my deputies are in charge now. Anyone got summat to say about that, step out now and face me, or keep your peace.”
That was the beginning of the end for Heavenly Landing. The God fearing folk of the town were too timid to stand up to Jake and his men. The gang ravished the women and beat the menfolks. They looted and pillaged at will. Many of the younger families abandoned the town for pastures new. As word spread, Jake’s ranks were swelled by every ne'r-do-well piece of filth in the county. Soon they numbered close to fifty hardened men.
Jake, not content with the loot and trappings stolen from the town, cast his greedy eyes on the surrounding rich ranchlands. Soon he and his men were pulling down fences and rustling cattle from the neighbouring farms. Day by day, the ranch hands deserted the area for safer work further afield. Eventually most of the owners joined them in their flight to safety.
It was about this time that Jake took notice of Mary-Ellen. Drunk as a skunk, he forced his way into Ma and Pa Fogarty’s hardware shop, which doubled as a funeral parlour. Mary-Ellen’s parents tried in vain to defend her from the drunken pig as he raped the young girl in front of them.They paid with their lives as they clawed and tore at Jake, trying in vain to pull him away from Mary-Ellen.
After that day, bodies were left to rot in the street. There was no undertaker to give them a Christian burial. Jake, with contempt for God and every decent law abiding citizen, renamed the town to Devil’s Curse.
While Jake continued his conquest of the local ranches, my own men began to vanish into the night. Eventually I was left with only three loyal hands, Tom Harding, a wise old fox over fifty years old, his calloused hands evidence of a lifetime working with livestock. His young son Billy Boy barely away from his Mama’s tit and Travis McGee, who’d been my right hand man for twenty years or more.
The final straw came the night they shot down Billy Boy. Me along with Tom and Travis were kicking back around the fire, drinking a few beers and enjoying the peace of a bright, moonlit night. Young Billy Boy was up in the top meadow putting repairs to a stretch of fence that had been torn down the day before.
As Tom stretched out to poke some life into the dimming fire, shots rang out. We ran like the wind up to the meadow, guns drawn and ready for action. Billy Boy was on the ground with his hands clutched to his belly, trying to stop the flow of blood seeping out and staining the earth.
Jake and a bunch of his men sat on horses on the far side of the fence. All armed with rifles resting across their arms. Jake smiled down at me. “Sure gettin mighty dangerous round these parts, Hank,” he said. “That there boy trespassed onto my land. I reckon you and your boys should move on. Fore any more accidents happen. Tell ye what, Hank. You and your boys drop them pistols, move along, peaceful like and we’ll say no more bout this." After a long penetrating stare, he added " Night all. Be seein ye.” He tipped his hat and with a smirk on his face, turned his horse and galloped off in the direction of town, his men following close behind.
Billy Boy gasped his last breath in the arms of old Tom. Weeping, the boy’s father picked him up and carried him back to the house, where he laid him out in the parlour.
The three of us stayed up all night to wake young Billy Boy, who never hurt nobody. We talked through the night of nothing but revenge.
That’s what led us into town this morning. We had no fear of death. Our sole purpose was to rid the world of Jake Coyle and to send as many of his men as we could to join him in Hell. We all three swore a solemn oath to keep shooting until either they were all dead or we were.
The showdown was over before it started. Tom and Travis dropped dead beside me as we walked down Main Street. Jake somehow knew we was comin and had shooters hiding on the roofs. Somehow I managed to find refuge in Mary-Ellen’s hardware shop. I ran and dodged my way through a hail of bullets and threw myself onto the floor of the shop.
Mary-Ellen was huddled up against the counter, shivering with fear. The poor kid hasn’t moved or spoken since. After a brief respite, all hell broke loose. Shots rained through the walls. The windows shattered into a shower of glass and splintered wood, under the barrage. On hands and knees, I secured my position with some sacks of grain that I found at the back of the shop. I yelled at Mary-Ellen to crawl down beside me, but either from fear or shock or perhaps both, she remained where she was.
The battle continued to rage for the rest of the day and right through last night. I was lucky that I’d found safety in the hardware shop. There were ample supplies of guns and ammo. I stock-piled boxes of shells, several pistols and a couple of Winchester repeating rifles around me. I also found a box of ladies vanity mirrors, which I tied to broom handles so that I could look outside without risking my hide.
The rear of the shop was safe. There was no back entrance, only a solid block wall backing the store room behind the serving counter. A group of about twenty or thirty men tried to rush the front of the building. It was like shooting fish in a barrel. More than half of them lay dead or wounded in the street before the rest of them got sense and retreated back into the shadows.
Things got worse after sundown. I couldn’t see any movement in the dark, but bullets continued to spray my refuge. I soon got the knack of watching for muzzle flares and used them to pick Jake’s men off one at a time.
The ruins of the shop are now illuminated by the golden rays of the rising sun. There have been no shots for at least an hour or more. By some miracle, Mary-Ellen has survived without a scratch. Her Ma and Pa must surely be looking after her from heaven.
I’ve checked over and over again since dawn and there’s not a sign of life outside. Perhaps I’ve won, maybe they’re all dead, or perhaps they’ve lost their courage with so many of their friends lying in the dirt. I just hope and pray that Jake Coyle lies amongst them.
I sidle over to where the poor child sits and wrap both my arms around her. “Hush Child,” I say,”It’s all over now. We’re both safe.”
“No,we’re not,” she says, terror written all over her face. “It hasn’t even started yet.”