The moon shone down as a solitary figure rode along a narrow trail. His eyes glinted in the faint light as he peered out at the dark pines. The trees surrounded him as they clung to the side of the foothills, reaching toward the heavens in an attempt to rival the height of the looming Rocky Mountains. The shadows of the trees and the pale glow of the moon cast a dappled pattern over his horse’s neck, and threw the trail before him into a churning pattern of light and darkness. On one side of the trail rose a steep cliff, the other side plunging down amid a confused mass of trees and underbrush. Somewhere in the night an owl called, a mountain lion screaming back a reply as the rider rounded a sharp turn in the trail. Ahead of him, lodged between two jagged hillsides, stood a solitary wooden building, the lantern hanging over the door illuminating the clearing before it. The building was large and weathered, its roof sagging and its windows cracked. A faded sign apologetically advertised the place to be the Last-Chance Saloon. If not for the lantern light, the rider would have thought it to be deserted. The man dismounted, tied his horse to the hitching post, and pushed open the rough wooden door that led into the building.
The main room of the inn was nearly deserted. A fire sputtered in a stone fireplace, throwing flickering shadows against the walls. The tables were all empty, the whole room almost surreal in its silence and cleanliness. An upright piano with chipped keys and an air of neglect stood in one corner, silent as a grave. The only sign of life in the place was a burly barkeep who stood behind the counter, wiping tankards with an old rag. He glanced up as the rider walked in.
“Take a wrong turn?” he grunted roughly. His dark face shone in the light of an oil lamp, his short, greying hair betraying his age despite his broad shoulders and tall stature. A tarnished medal was pinned to his shirt with a faded bit of ribbon, announcing to any who would notice that this man once served his country with honor. His solitary customer said nothing, crossing the room to lean on the well-polished bar counter. “Can I get you something?” the bartender inquired. The stranger hesitated.
“I’d take a beer.” He paused. “Maybe some hot grub if you’ve got any.”
“I’ve got both of those things,” the barkeep replied, setting down the rag he’d been using and ducking through a doorway. He returned momentarily bearing a tankard of beer, and found that his customer had removed his hat and taken a seat at the counter, far enough to one side of the door that he could keep an eye on it. “What’s your name, stranger?” the older man inquired, setting the beer in front of his customer.
“Hunter,” the patron replied, glancing up from his drink. “Jeremy Hunter. Jem.”
The older man nodded, his eyes taking in the traveler carefully. The man’s face was young, the first ghost of a beard sprinkling across his clenched jaw. His flaxen hair was plastered to his forehead by the imprint of his hatband, his shirt was splattered with mud, and a six-shot Colt revolver was holstered at his side. However, it was Jem’s eyes that made the barkeep uneasy. The young man’s eyes were a stormy grey, haunted, calculating, holding within them a dark, inscrutable pain that Phineas Burr, proprietor and barkeep of Last-Chance Saloon had seen in his establishment many times before.
Jem drank deeply from the tankard as Phineas busied himself with heating up an old pot of beans and bacon over the fire. The older man glanced back at his customer every so often, but the traveler only stared blankly ahead. He stayed lost in thought until Phineas slid a plate of food in front of him. Blinking, Jem shook his head as if coming awake. “I’m looking for someone,” he said abruptly, glancing up at the looming figure of the barkeep.
“Not many folks up this way, son,” the man replied kindly. “Who are you looking for?”
Jem locked eyes with the older man. “Lloyd Hayes,” he stated. “The Poncho Thief.”
At the name, Phineas flinched and looked away from the young man’s gaze. “You’d best go back to where you came from,” he said quietly, his voice trembling. “Go home and live your life in peace.”
The young man’s face was expressionless as he stared up at the old veteran. “Where is he?”
Phineas looked gravely at the young man, his eyes sad. “You’re not the first man to come looking for Hayes,” he said slowly. Jem didn’t comment, frowning slightly, but continuing to watch the older man. “None of them came back,” Phineas explained desperately. “All dead. Dead as Cain’s poor brother.”
“Do you know where I can find him?” Jem asked evenly.
“What gives you a better chance at this than the lawmen?” Phineas continued. “They came in droves, hoping to bring the Poncho Thief to justice.”
A revolver suddenly materialized in Jem’s right hand. The old barkeep winced slightly, raising his hands placatingly. “I once shot the ear off a squirrel at fifty paces,” Jem breathed. “I’ve driven off cattle rustlers and killed mountain lions. I’ve spent hours practicing for this purpose and this purpose only. I reckon I can outdraw this outlaw. Besides,” he said, his eyes flickering. “Hayes killed my family. All of them.” The young man holstered his weapon, face grim.
Phineas sighed, sympathy seething beneath the surface of his visage. “The Poncho Thief is camped out in an abandoned mining village southeast of here. There’s a trail you can follow.”
Jem relaxed slightly. “Thanks,” he said, looking away from the older man.
“I hope you get him,” Phineas added gently. The young man didn’t reply, only frowned down at his food and began to eat.
Jem stayed at Last-Chance Saloon that night, and in the morning, he started up the narrow trail toward the abandoned mining camp the barkeep had told him about. The day was grey and dreary, mist blanketing the mountainsides, the trees standing out black and stark against the pale vagueness of the fog. The way was steep and winding, shiny boulders protruding into the trail and slick rocks sliding underfoot as Jem’s horse picked its way along the trail. A few wet leaves clung to some hearty bushes, a cold autumn breeze trying its hardest to tear them away into oblivion. Jem’s breath smoked in the mist, condensation dripping from the brim of his hat as he peered along the path ahead, trying to pierce the haze. His clothes were damp and stiff, water collecting in beads on his vest, only to trickle down and seep into his trousers. The fog gradually lifted as the young man continued along the rough path. The sky remained overcast, an iron sheet of clouds.
Mounting a rise, Jem looked out at the handful of buildings that made up the derelict village. The ground leveled out before the young man, heaps of slag scattered like ancient graves, tufts of coarse grass crowning the piles of rubble. The skeletal buildings were silent and lifeless.
The young man dismounted quietly, tying his horse to a scrubby tree before walking cautiously toward the deserted mining camp. He drew his revolver, carefully stepping around boulders and the rotting remnants of crates and equipment. Walking down the main road, Jem noticed the bullet holes that peppered the weathered wooden walls of the surrounding buildings. The barkeep was right: he clearly wasn’t the first one to try to put an end to the Poncho Thief’s villainy.
Jem stopped in the middle of the path, eyes narrowed. Something wasn’t right. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled nervously, the silence ringing in his ears. A shotgun blast suddenly shattered the stillness of the abandoned village. Jem launched into action, leaping for the nearest building. Mud spat against his boots as buckshot hit the ground nearby. Heart pounding, he readied his own firearm, replaying the scene in his mind, trying to discern where the shot had come from.
“Come out with your hands up,” a leathery voice demanded. Jem glanced out in the direction of the sound, only to pull his head back behind the wall as a second shot splintered the old siding at the corner of the building. “Come out now kid, last warning,” the voice threatened. Jamming his revolver in its holster, Jem cautiously emerged from his cover, hands raised nervously. As he did so, an old man with a bushy white beard edged out from behind a stack of rotting timbers. His left eye was obscured by a black patch, his ample gut wobbling slightly as he walked out onto the main street.
“Potter,” Jem spat. “Gideon ‘Pork-Belly’ Potter. I thought you had more sense than to throw your lot in with the likes of the Poncho Thief.”
“I don’t throw my lot in with nobody,” the bearded man replied, scratching his jowl casually. “Your pappy knew that, same as anyone.”
“He trusted you,” the young man shot back. Potter lowered his shotgun and took a long pull from a flask at his belt.
“He trusted most people,” the older man said cynically. “Look where that got him. A family, plenty of cash, and a couple rounds through his chest.” Jem clenched his jaw, but Potter continued. “I never claimed to be a good man, kid. ‘Work for us, Gideon. Help out with the cattle, Gideon,’” the man said mockingly. “Your pappy was too soft-hearted to see past his perfect little world.”
“He was the most generous man in Colorado, and you know it,” Jem replied, face impassive. “You just hated him because he actually cared about people.”
Gideon Potter raised both his shotgun and his voice. “I hated him because he was a fool. A fool I tell you! He knew the sort of man I was. Everyone did.”
“Where is the Poncho Thief?” Jem demanded.
“That’s not your concern,” Potter retorted. “Now…any last words?”
“Not for you,” the young man replied. Faster than the eye could follow, Jem drew his revolver and sent a bullet through the old man’s skull. Gideon Potter crumpled, lifeless, to the ground. He gave one violent shudder, and was still.
Jem continued along the road, glancing around for any sign of the Poncho Thief’s hideout. After spending a few minutes poking around the village, he eventually found a well-worn path leading up the side of the mountain to the gaping maw of an old mineshaft. Revolver at the ready, the young man creeped along the trail, the scent of gun smoke still in his nostrils.
The track was steep, but not particularly long. As Jem approached the entrance to the tunnel, he could make out a new kind of smoke. Someone was smoking a cigarette. Silently, he entered the cave, and as his eyes adjusted, he found himself standing before a man reading a newspaper.
His chair was tilted back, his worn boots resting easily on a weathered tabletop. A woolen poncho was draped over him, a tattered hat perched casually on his head. His face was clean-shaven, angular and lean. The cigarette between his lips moved up and down as the man mouthed the words of the newspaper as he read. Jem found himself marveling at this man’s arrogance and self-assurance. He was so certain of his safety that despite the gunshots that he heard, he had continued reading a newspaper instead of investigating the conflict.
A long string dangled above the table from a support beam, swaying slightly, a motley collection of tarnished metal stars attached to it as a gruesome remembrance of the lawmen that the Poncho Thief had slain. Jem cocked the hammer back on his revolver.
The man looked up, his blank expression morphing to one of mild annoyance. He glanced down at the Colt that lay before him on the table before looking back to the revolver that was pointed at him. “May I help you?” he inquired politely. His air was distinctly genteel, and if not for the poncho he wore, the pistol on the table, the string of metal stars, and the dead man lying in the street outside the mine, Jem might have been convinced that he had accidentally interrupted some Easterner’s leisurely morning.
“You’re Lloyd Hayes,” the young man stated. “The Poncho Thief.”
The other man smiled apologetically, but there was something sinister in his eyes. “Guilty as charged, I’m afraid.”
“You killed my family,” Jem said bluntly.
The Poncho Thief shrugged. “Possibly. I’ve killed lots of people. Some were probably families. It comes with the trade I suppose.”
The nonchalant way the man said this chilled Jem to the core, and his face flushed. “Do you remember Conrad Hunter?”
Lloyd Hayes folded his newspaper neatly and set it aside. “Hunter…Hunter…The name does sound familiar.”
“You killed him,” Jem breathed. “Along with his wife and…” Here he faltered. “My sister.”
Hayes snapped his fingers. “Come to think of it, I do remember your family. Your sister was a little singer, wasn’t she? I could hear her singing as we rode up.”
Jem’s grip tightened on his weapon, his knuckles whitening. “That didn’t stop you from putting a bullet through her head.”
The Poncho Thief only shrugged, removing his cigarette and studying it. “She had a gun trained on Gideon. I did what I had to do.”
“What’s your excuse for my ma, then?” the young man spat back. “She wouldn’t touch a gun if it were her last shot at life.”
Hayes gave a short chuckle. “No loose ends, that’s my motto. I hate a sloppy job.” He abruptly removed his legs from the table, leaning down to rest an elbow on the scuffed wood. “This was what, five years ago? Where were you when I visited your house?”
“Four,” Jem corrected coldly. “And I was staying with some friends. I came home to find my family dead, our home ransacked, and the barn on fire.” He leveled his gun directly at the Poncho Thief’s chest. “Do you remember how many bullets you put into my pa?”
“You think killing me will cure whatever ache is in your heart?” Lloyd Hayes asked, his expression alert for the first time throughout the duration of the conversation. “Ease your pain?” He smirked. “Vengeance is a cruel master, kid.”
Jem’s hand shook. In his mind’s eye he saw his father, winter beard full of ice, eyes twinkling in the firelight. He saw his mother, dark hair pulled into a bun, gingham skirts swishing as she churned butter. He saw his sister. Her golden curls bounced as her lips moved. She was singing, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t hear her song.
The Poncho Thief grinned wider. “Don’t kill a man in cold blood. It’ll suck the life right out of you. You’re smarter than that, kid.” But even as his words rang true, Lloyd Hayes caught up his revolver from the table, aiming at the young man. Jem fired once, and the outlaw toppled back into the chair, his body convulsing. Four more shots rang out, echoing around the tunnel, the young man’s face set like flint as the Poncho Thief’s head lolled to one side.
Jem stared at the dead man lounging in the chair. “Five,” he whispered to the corpse, his eyes stormy. “You shot five bullets into his chest.” The young man turned from the bloody scene, holstering his gun as he stepped outside the cave. He walked forward a few paces, staring out over the forest below him. An eagle screamed far overhead, a light breeze brushed Jem’s face, and he suddenly found himself on his knees, sobbing like a babe, emotion washing over him like an ocean of sorrow. Pain that he hadn’t felt in years came roaring to life in a maelstrom of agony. He hadn’t wept since his family died.
Gradually, Jem became aware of himself again. His insides were raw, his face resting against the rough texture of a boulder as his breathing steadied. Broken and empty, the young man stared up at the heavens, awash with grief, and longing for something unknown. The wind blew, and the sun softly pierced the clouds, casting the mountains with golden radiance.
A hollow shell of a man, Jeremy Hunter seemed to feel himself pulled to his feet. His heart was heavy with the men he had killed, but a ray of hope, an invitation wholly separate and opposed to his sin, had begun to gleam. In his mind’s eye, he could see his sister once again. As he made his way down the hillside, a faint flicker of peace flitted through his heart. In the distance, he could hear her singing.
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