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 a short distance down the road from upon a hill. 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 had 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 had had enough money together, he and his gang of friends, whom some would refer to as “outlaws,” would end up wasting it all on whiskey, women, and moonshine. Now, there was no gang, no whiskey, certainly no women, and no food in his grumbling belly.
Cal had been on his own for almost half a year. His thinly worn boots and the tattered clothing on his malnourished body were all he had. He had had a bundle with extra supplies which was now dwindled down to nothing but the sack that once 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 in the sleeping town was one swaying 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 shone down from above. The light reflecting from the moon was cascading over the western landscape, simultaneously turning the remaining clouds shades of dark blue and purple.
He would 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 people grew crops, some raised livestock, but Cal and Sean thieved from both. Cal sucked the last of the small cigarette down and stomped it into the dust, a couple of glowing orange embers floated away with the wind before fading out.
Cal floated from shadow to shadow trying not to kick up too many rocks or make enough noise so as to alert any 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 the town 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 bustling with people and property.
While overlooking the town from the mountain, he had jumped down off his horse, lit a cigarette, and relaxed as he tried to learn as much about the town as he could from afar. He saw it had livestock, cattle and sheep mainly, on the north side of town. A few ranch hands were putting up new fence posts to allow the cattle more room to graze. Cattle liked to spread out, Cal learned, whereas sheep liked to stay together. Cattle wanted space; sheep wanted security. Cal supposed people were much the same. Some liked to travel, move about freely, and be left to their own devices while others, city-folk Cal reckoned, wanted the security of having plenty of other people around, even if moving with the herd meant going the wrong direction.
Cal liked his freedom. He liked making choices for himself. This was something he had come to know after being in the gang. At one time in his life, he would’ve followed the gang anywhere, even to the gallows. Loyalty and the Van Der Linde gang were all he knew or wanted to know. He’d given his youth, his heart, and oftentimes his freedom to the gang. Cal had spent countless nights following the gang wherever it led him. Running from the law became an everyday occurrence. Every few days they’d find themselves someplace new only to be on the run a few short moonlights later. Cal had also spent quite a few nights in a steel cage staring at crusted old ceilings on benches that felt more like caskets than beds. It wasn’t until he saw the gang’s true colors that he decided he no longer wanted to give up his freedom for it.
While doing a robbery, one of the gang members was grabbed by the sheriffs. In the past, they’d never leave without a man unless he was no longer breathing but this time, in their greed, ran and looked only to their spoils. While their fellow gang member rotted in a jail cell, everyone else spent the night drunk and celebrating at camp. Everyone except Cal. Overcome with the guilt that made his stomach churn, he returned to the town and broke Sean out of jail. They never returned to the gang after that.
After Sean was killed a few months later, Cal was on his own. Struggling to survive, the small town was another opportunity. 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 knew beating hearts were harder to capture. He also knew livestock towns were naturally suspicious of newcomers, particularly those who rode in with only the clothes on their backs and nothing to their name. People with nothing to lose will 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. Usually as a prop but sometimes as a tool of the trade.
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 and pushed upward. 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 landed on 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 had enough to last him at least a week, maybe longer if he could ration it out. Making his way back towards the window, he paused. The cash register. A few dollars would help him make it to the next town or farther.
Feeling his way to the counter, he slid his hands across the top until his fingertips met the cold metal register. In the darkness, he felt the lever that opened the register and in an expecting wince, he pulled. The register popped open with an ear-splitting “Ch-ching.” Cal froze and listened in the deafening silence that followed, terrified of hearing a stir from those nearby who could have been wakened by the sound of burglary. Cal heard no such stir and after letting out his breath, 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 a cushion.
Cal heard a creak in the floorboard and he froze, his heart jumped. A flash and 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 speeding lead 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 face first. 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 beautiful little cattle town.