A Quiet Little Cattle Town by Drew Schroeder

Cal laid out the rolling paper on his lap and dropped the dried brown tobacco in it, its rich aroma filling his nostrils. He licked the paper to keep its contents tidy before he struck a match off his boot. Putting the flame to the end of the cigarette, he inhaled deeply and sucked on the fine plant, tasting the smoke as it swirled on his tongue.

He overlooked the small general store down the road from a hill in the distance. He’d tied up his horse far enough where it wouldn’t be seen but close enough that he’d be able to make his getaway. He’d always loved perusing around in stores, looking at all the fine items and groceries available, although he knew he couldn’t afford much. Whenever he’d had enough money together, he and his gang would end up blowing it all on whiskey and ‘shine and women. Now, there was no gang, no whisky, certainly no women, and no food in his belly.

Cal had been on his own for almost half a year and the thinly worn boots and the tattered clothing on his malnourished body were all he had. He had had a bundle with extra supplies which had now dwindled down to nothing but the sack that carried them. With his last bit of tobacco between his lips and his rumbling aching stomach nagging at him, Cal needed to make his move.

Looking at the pitch dark general store, the only light around was one lamppost in the middle of the town that hardly did the job, Cal saw the moon would be his only real obstacle. He could pick a lock, break a window, even climb through the roof, but he couldn’t hide from the light that looked down from above. He’d have to be quick, quiet, and smooth just like his pal Sean had taught him. Sean’s specialty was burglary, as the Sheriff put it. Cal and Sean called it living off the people who lived off the land. Some grew crops, some raised cattle, but Cal and Sean thieved from both. Cal sucked the small cigarette down and stomped it into the dust.

Cal floated from shadow to shadow trying not to kick up too many rocks or make enough noise to alert the townspeople. The small town couldn’t have been more than a square half-mile but that meant that all available ears were on-hand and close by. Cal had spotted it earlier in the evening only because he’d heard a shot ring out on the other side of the mountain catching his attention. Cal made his way around the mountain and was delighted to find a small livestock town.

Cal would like to be able to stroll in and make pleasant conversation before purchasing some clothing and provisions and be on his way but knew that wouldn’t be the case. His face was plastered all over the county on wanted posters offering $500 for his head, dead or alive, and most bounty hunters saw dead as the easier option. He also knew livestock towns were naturally suspicious of newcomers, particularly those who ride in with only the clothes on their backs and nothing to their name. Those are the type to rob, steal, and kill only to be driven out of town and sent elsewhere. He was also out of money which was why he was scouting his next score.

Cal squatted next to a bush, tilted his hat down, and pulled his handkerchief over his nose leaving only his eyes to be seen, his eyes unfortunately being the most identifiable attribute, one being hazel and the other a light brown. His multi-colored eyes looked upon the store and he saw it had two stories, the top floor surely being the residence of the shop’s owner. The store, just like the rest of the town, was dark, showed no signs of life at night, and displayed the wear of time and erosion on its faded wooden exterior, the once tan wood now a faded gray.

Peering around the bush, Cal swiftly moved alongside the store’s neighboring building, being sure to keep to the shadows. The store was in the middle of the street with a bakery on one side of it and the other being an old saloon he was using as cover. Cal had to be quiet because the local lawman’s office was at the corner of the road, not far from the store. If a window shattered, the sheriff would likely come to the scene without being summoned. Cal tapped his holster, the home of his Dragoon Colt, on his hip. He didn’t like using it unless he had to and as a thief, he sometimes did.

He snuck around to the rear of the store, knowing the front would be locked. Under the awning, hidden from the blazing moon, he felt for the first window. Locked. He tried the rear door, being in the middle, also locked. Hoping for a stroke of luck, he tried the last window and it creaked. Cal stopped, frightened the sound might wake up folks nearby. He slowly pushed up the old wooden window with his palms, just enough where he knew his slender body could slip through. He pulled himself up and through the small window, feet first, his boots emitting a tiny thud as they touched the wooden floor.

The store was even darker inside. Barely able to see his hands in front of him, he slowly made his way towards the canned goods. Canned food lasted longer and he needed what could last. He didn’t have space or time for luxuries. He felt a shelf and removed some cans, holding them up to the tiny sliver of moonlight that came through the window. Reading their labels, he took scores of canned salmon, apricots, peaches, some crackers, and a tin of chewing tobacco. Sliding them all into his satchel, he almost had his score. Next was the cash register.

Feeling his way to the counter, he felt the cold metal register with his fingertips. In the darkness, he felt the lever that opened the register and wincing, he pulled. The register popped open with an ear-splitting “Ch-ching.” Cal listened in the silence that followed, terrified of hearing the stir from those nearby who may have been wakened by the sound of burglary. Cal heard no such stir and began lifting whatever paper bills were in the drawer. He didn’t need much, just enough to get him to the next town and with the food in his satchel, he had most of what he needed, the money would just be cushion.

Cal heard a creak in the floorboard and he froze. A deafening thunder rang out from close behind him and he dove through the window, shattering the frame in his wake. He sprinted through the street as bedroom lights from residences flickered on and he heard shouting behind him. With flight being the only thing on his mind, he ran through the street rather than moving through cover. He heard shots behind him and heard the whizzes and snaps of the bullets on his tail.

His leg buckled and burned as he dropped to a knee, a screaming bullet having torn through this flesh. Adrenaline and the need for survival propelled him forward. The wound only slowed him, unable to comprehend pain. He felt another round rip through his chest and he skidded in the dust. He rolled to his back and the shots ceased. There was still shouting and the voices grew louder, undoubtedly one being that of the sheriff.

Cal looked to his right and saw the contents of his satchel splayed out in the sand. The cans of salmon and jars of apricots remained intact while the peaches lay among shards of broken glass. The money laid next to the salmon and Cal saw the bills in the moonlight. He’d stolen eleven dollars.

Looking up at the night’s sky, Cal saw the stars twinkling and the moon blazing overhead. He’d never seen a dark night as bright as this one. He picked up his head and while he didn’t see the townspeople yet, he saw the skyline of the beautiful little cattle town that would be the last he’d ever know. His chest shrinking and his breaths growing slower and shallower, Cal kept his fading eyes on the stars. Coming to terms with his death, Cal found solace in his last night on Earth being the most beautiful one he’d ever seen. The gang was always focused on the next score and the next drink but Cal knew there would be none. He had only a few remaining breaths and he took them under the fiery stones in the night’s sky on the outskirts of a quiet little cattle town.

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