Though his belly touched the sand, his face was turned slightly up, facing west–the direction of home. Yellow pus streamed from the corner of his left eye onto the bridge of his narrow nose, leaving a noxious stench. Flies buzzed in circles over his open mouth. And then there was the maroon-stained hole punched clean between his shoulder blades, the fabric of his dirty shirt shredded. These signs all added up to one thing.
Jenny Tighe’s papa was dead.
It was normal for him to be gone for a few days at a time when checking up on the ranging cattle, and usually, Jenny was with him, learning how to rope and drive. But she had enough to do with keeping the house in order since they lost Mama to consumption earlier in the summer. Scrubbing the splintered floors of their tiny cabin was the last thing Jenny was intent on doing, but she did it because someone had to and she knew it would be one less worry for Papa.
Now, circling buzzards had led her to his body on the dry Mojave Desert floor. Those same vultures were perched, six of them, all waiting patiently on a large pile of tan and gray boulders which sat a half-mile south of the Granite Mountains. Her eyes scanned the nooks and crannies of the surrounding hills while her Winchester 1873 rifle rested in her hands like a familiar tool. Jenny never had to use it on a human before, but Papa had made sure she was ready for anything. She’d been a crack-shot with deer in the nearby San Bernardino mountains and was ready to put those skills to use, now that everything had changed.
Nothing seemed to be out there among the thin creosote bushes and tumbleweeds except a few skittering lizards and jackrabbits. Given the state of Papa’s body, she figured the culprits were long gone.
She didn’t want to get close to him, to rest a hand on his upturned cheek or to shed the tears that were welling up behind her eyes. But she had to lean in to get a closer look at the thing that caught her attention. She rolled his body over to face the sky and his face along with it. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the five-pointed star branded on his forehead.
The McLarens weren’t just unconcerned if it was discovered that they did this. Seems they wanted whoever found Papa to know it was them.
There was no time for pleasantries. As badly as she wanted to dig him a grave, Papa would have been satisfied giving the buzzards the meal of their lives.
Bolt dipped her long head as Jenny approached. Jenny scratched the mare’s neck a couple of times, then rummaged through the saddlebag, digging past slabs of beef jerky and a half-empty canteen until she came up with five .44 caliber rounds. Her Winchester was the half-magazine model, capable of holding six potential shots at a time. It was already fully loaded, ready for business at a drop of the lever, She didn’t have much extra ammunition, but she hoped not to need it.
She mounted Bolt and galloped east.
It was nice enough in the greater Mojave. Night temperatures were mild and the sun’s power was dampened by unusual autumn clouds. Jenny knew every waterhole between her ranch and the McLaren hideout in Hidden Valley, so she and Bolt were well nourished on the two days it took to travel the seventy miles from home. Deeper into the desert. Deeper into danger.
That had to be where they went. Papa had mentioned that it was the worst kept secret in all of Southern California. She could only imagine now that he brought it up with her just in case something happened.
The long trip had given the fire and fury inside of Jenny time to become a slow burn. She could be more calculating. Make fewer mistakes. The McLarens knew her. Probably knew what had happened to Mama. Jenny met them once, when Papa and her had a run-in a year ago when she was only fourteen. They were heading out to dehorn a group of grazing cattle when Bill McLaren and his brother, Jim, were caught hanging back on a ridge with packs full of rope. They said they’d been searching for their own lost cattle. Papa intimated that he knew what they were up to, but he let them save face.
Stupid. He should have taken care of them then and there.
Bill put on good appearances–he was congenial, handsome even, but she could sense his calculating mind and devious heart. His brother, Jim, on the other hand, was repulsive to the core and seemed not to give a damn about anything. With mussed hair and a reek of whiskey that carried in the wind, he seemed to get a kick out of whistling out of tune and wouldn’t stop leering at Jenny until Papa said he’d cut his eyes out right then and there and feed them to the family’s bloodhound.
They must have branded Jenny Tighe a girly girl. That she would be too scared to do what she was about to do. Now she was trotting through an arroyo a few miles north of Hidden Valley, chilly without a fire as the sun began to set, ready to put this thing to rest.
Jim was still snoring. An empty glass bottle laid tipped over on the tent floor beside his cot. Jenny shoved the tip of the rifle barrel into his right nostril and cocked the lever.
Even in the dark, his crusted eyes blinked as he tried to adjust his vision.
“Well, I’ll be. What good deed did I do to deserve a visit from an angel?” He started to laugh, but it turned into a phlegm-filled coughing fit. Jenny kept the rifle pointed at his face. She had thought about just pulling the trigger when he was sleeping, but she wanted him to know who was collecting on the debt he owed.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Let me sit up and get a closer look.”
She flipped the rifle around like a baton and jammed the butt into his forehead. The crack sent his hands flying to his head.
“Gottdamn! That hurt, you little bitch!”
She swung the barrel of the gun back toward him. “You’ve only started hurting. Now, get up. Slow.”
There had been only one tent in the camp, one cot inside. Remnants of a fire glowed in a ring of stones outside.
“Where’s your brother?”
She thought that maybe Bill was out rustling up more cattle. She’d come across a mass of them corralled inside the camp–even recognized a few of them before she even needed to see Papa’s brand burnt into their haunches. The plan was to settle up with Jim and then wait until Bill returned. The fire and fury seemed to resurge at the alcohol odor of the younger brother and she knew she was acting more recklessly than she should have been.
She heard a pistol hammer cock behind her.
“You lookin’ for me, little lady?”
Jenny’s eyes remained on Jim, his black-and-yellow grin bringing her closer to pulling the trigger.
“You may want to think about what it is you intend to do here,” Bill said. “My advice? Slowly lay the rifle to the ground.”
She wanted to cry. To come so far and make such a foolhardy mistake.
“You killed my papa. I can’t let that go unanswered,” she said, staring down at Jim the whole time while he slowly climbed out of his canvas sleeping sack, testing her with each move.
The silence in the air was thick. Jenny ran through her options which had narrowed rapidly.
It wasn’t as if she could dash out, hop on her horse and make a break for it. She’d left Bolt tied to a yucca tree a half-mile out between the hideout and the arroyo. Besides, if she did get away, contacted the Sheriff, chances are Papa’s brand would be converted by the time someone came out here. And that was assuming the McLaren’s were even in Hidden Valley at that point.
Jim appeared to be having trouble standing on his own two feet, swaying side-to-side a little. Jenny’s gun was still pointed at him, but now at his chest.
“We both know you ain’t gonna shoot,” he said, placing one hand on the barrel of the gun and the other on her cheek. Jenny felt him pushing the rifle gently to the side. He began to stroke her face. “So just do what my bro–”
In one swift motion, her finger crushed the trigger and she quickly kicked her left boot back, connecting with what she hoped was Bill’s private parts. Her ears went ringing while the scent of gunpowder shot up her nose. Jim flew backward, ripping a gash in the tent wall before coming to rest on the ground. Something wet had splashed against her face which left a ferrous taste in her open mouth. As if she didn’t care if she died now, Jenny turned without haste to look at Bill. She saw what looked to be the outline of a pistol in the dark ground. next to her feet, and a man crumpled up like a curlicue, his hands tucked into his crotch. She grabbed the pistol and listened to Bill’s muffled whimpered for a few seconds.
“You’re gonna pay for what you done,” she said.
“You can’t prove anything,” Bill spat out between heavy breaths. “You’re gonna hang, girl.”
Jenny pocketed the pistol and pointed her rifle at Bill’s head.
The coals were still warm. She picked up the five-point-star brand she’d left resting in the fire pit. Bill lay on the ground now, hogtied tied just as Papa had shown her when they were busting steer.
“Seems to me there ain’t much left for me here,” Jenny said. “So, I don’t need to prove nothin’ to nobody. This will be the last time you see me. This will make sure you don’t forget your deeds.”
She pressed the glowing pattern into his forehead and his scream echoed across the desert valley.