Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Robbery

            Earl Buchannan slammed the butt of his pistol into the face of the screaming woman. Her jaw cracked, she tumbled backwards and smacked her head against the wooden floor. Her overweight husband charged Buchannan.

            "You sonofabitch!" the husband said.

            Buchannan saw him coming and pivoted on his right heel. The husband lunged past him and Buchannan slammed the butt of his revolver into the back of the husband's head. He dropped face first onto the floor. Buchannan stood, aimed his Colt at the husband, and shot him twice. The husband died with the first shot to his head.

            Buchannan scanned the room. The bank customers were huddled on the floor or cowed in corners. There were eleven customers, farmers and a couple of well-dressed men. He heard a young girl whimper and pointed his gun at her.

            "Girl, you better shut your mouth. Right now."

            The pigtailed teenager nodded and bit her lower lip. Buchannan turned and looked for his partner Wesley Taylor. Taylor was behind a teller window filling a sack with money.

            "Are we ready yet, Wesley?" Buchannan shouted.

            Taylor's face glowed with sweat. He looked back and forth from Buchannan to the sack in his hand. "Got one more stack, Earl."

            "Make it quick, boy. We've gotta get out of here."

            It took a minute for Taylor to get the last of the money. He tied a knot into the sack and grabbed his gun. "I got it all, let's go."

            Buchannan nodded and waved his hand at Taylor. Taylor tossed the bag to Buchannan and they ran out the door. Buchannan stuffed the sack into a leather satchel and looked around. A couple of men standing outside a post office next door stared at him.

            "Let's head for Overlook Pass. If we get over into Indian land, no posse will follow us there." Buchannan said.

            They rode fast out of town. The mountains were ten miles away, but no one followed them. Buchannan drove his boots into the side of his horse and leaned forward. The cool Colorado air caused his skin to tingle and his heartbeat thumped against his sternum. Taylor rode close behind him.

            They had met for the first time only the night before. They started talking in a whorehouse parlor after both men had finished with their women. Taylor was a young guy with a ruddy, swollen face. He had a stocky build and patchy facial hair. He was drunk and shouting about how he just got out of jail in Denver and was going to make him some money. Buchannan knew that Taylor was the kind of man he needed.

            Buchannan was on the run. He was a Confederate soldier and rode with General Joe Shelby's Iron Brigade following the end of the Civil War. Shelby's men never surrendered and escaped to Mexico. When the General lowered their flag and dissolved the unit, Buchannan headed home to Missouri.

            The war had scarred him. The deep crevice on his cheek that looked like a comma came from an Union cavalry sword. His hands looked like they were stuffed with marbles and his eyes were sunken and yellow. He guzzled a quart of whiskey one day and shot a sheriff in Kansas. Hunger and hallucinations drove him to shoot a family of four near the Colorado border. He stripped their wagon of anything he could use.

            Buchannan knew he couldn't go back home. Too much had happened. The cause was lost, his family was gone, and a cold fist clutched his heart. He knew his only hope was to get back to Mexico. He wouldn't let anyone stuff him in jail. He would kill anyone who stood in his way. He would rob anyone who had what he needed. He knew that robbing people could make some money for his ride, but robbing a bank could make more. Robbing a bank meant he needed help.

            Buchannan knew right away that Taylor was the man. He was tall, bulged with muscles and could handle a gun. He had robbed people at gunpoint before. The dry stench of vodka clung to Taylor's breath and his teeth were brown and rotten. He lurched into a room rather than walking, got up in the faces of every man he talked to, screamed at every woman, drank away every dollar he laid his hand on and made it back any way he could.

            They drank whiskey and talked about the robbery until nine that morning. They walked into the bank and seized control the second they came in. Both men pointed guns at the customers and bank employees and barked out their demands. Things went well except for the dead husband, but Buchannan and Taylor escaped despite the killing.

            Buchannan knew he would kill Taylor from the moment they left the bank. He would wait until they made it to the Ute tribal lands. One night, when the kid was asleep, Buchannan would shoot him in the head. It didn't matter how much or how little they had made in the robbery. Buchannan would leave his body to rot in Indian land and give him nothing.

            It was twilight when they reached Overlook Pass. They slowed their horses and scaled a wide trail snaking between two tall hillsides. The mountains were jagged and vast, snow-topped pillars that propped up the sky.

            "The pass runs ten miles. It twists and winds around, but we follow it, we'll end up in Ute country. Then we split the money and go our own ways." Buchannan said.

            Taylor nodded and coughed. "Yeah, yeah, you're right. What do you think about stoppin' for a drink? The ride left my throat dry as a bone."

            Buchannan needed a drink. The hot needle that stabbed his stomach radiated pain across his chest and legs. His head throbbed and his hands shook. He nodded at Taylor and waved his hand at a nearby boulder.

            "Yeah, let's drink a little. Over there is good. Then we need to get going."

            Each man had a bottle of whiskey they snatched from the whorehouse. Taylor coughed often and used both hands to take his first drinks. He sat the bottle down at his feet and draped his body over the boulder. Buchannan drank, took the satchel off his horse, sat on the ground, and began counting money.

            "How much do you think we got?"

            Buchannan shrugged and kept counting. "Bet we've got a thousand or so here."

            Taylor pushed himself up from the boulder and whooped with joy. "Thousand dollars? You mean I could make five hundred dollars? Hell yeah, that's good fucking money." He grabbed the bottle and took another drink. He wiped away the excess alcohol from his mouth with a jerk and sighed. "Even if that man had to die."

            "He had to die. If his bitch wife had kept her mouth shut, none of it would've happened, but trying to play hero got him killed."

            Taylor kicked at the dirt and nodded. "Yeah, I don't know what he was thinking, charging you like that."

            Buchannan laid the money out in piles, sorted by denomination. He counted twelve hundred dollars. "We've got twelve hundred dollars. We went in there on a good day."

            Taylor whooped again. "That's a hell of a lot of money, Buchannan! Hell, I could go to Texas on that, start things over for myself."

            Buchannan smiled for a second at Taylor before he looked away. He closed the satchel and scrambled to his feet. "That's right, kid. Texas is the place for a young guy like you."

            "I cleaned that bank out good!"

            Buchannan walked up to him and leaned in close to his face. "Yeah, you did fine. We made out good. I'm gonna have another drink and then we should head out."

            Taylor coughed and wiped spit from his mouth. He turned to his horse and jammed the bottle into his bedroll. "Yeah, Buchannan. Whatever you say."

            The pass was wide and the sides were a hundred feet tall. The wide trail was natural and a shallow stream ran with it. The pulse of running water sounded like the patter of mice behind a kitchen wall. Patches of light green shrubbery and dusty, off-white rocks dotted the trail. The outcroppings of rock above them were jagged and chipped.

            "How you want to do this, Buchannan? We riding straight through till we get to Indian land or you think we're goin' set up camp somewhere for the night?" Taylor sighed and whipped his head around like a man trying to shake away a fly.

            Buchannan was hungry and weak. He wanted to keep riding until they got to the other side of the pass and he could shoot the kid there. However, the more Buchannan thought about it, it seemed better to shoot him sooner. There was no reason to wait. He should get rid of Taylor before he tried it first, but he could wait for now. He would feel better in the morning. Have a good meal, drink some more, smoke, sleep well, and then put a bullet in his head at sunrise.

            "Let's ride a little further, then we'll stop for the night."

            They rode for another thirty minutes before they stopped at the base of a steep hill. They tied their horses to a small, gnarled spruce tree and unloaded their belongings. Taylor teetered with every third and fourth step. Buchannan watched him as Taylor staggered through unrolling a bedroll, dropped pans and a coffee pot, and coughed with dry, breathless gasps. His contempt boiled up as a hot flush that tingled across his cheeks and like a rope that tightened around his stomach.

            "Boy, you ought to sit down before you fall down."

            Taylor stopped and bent over. He braced his hands against his knees and sighed. "You're right, friend. We got away and made out good. I'm sure they've got a posse out lookin' for us by now though."

            Buchannan waved his hand at Taylor. "There ain't no posse on our ass. Even if they have one, we got such a jump on them that we don't have to worry." Buchannan brushed away a block of dirt that marred his leather vest. "That and, if you haven't noticed, this pass isn't exactly a busy street."

            Taylor pulled his bottle of whiskey from his bedroll, sat down, and crossed his legs. He nodded, looked at Buchannan, and cocked his head. "You ever do that before?"

            "What? Rob a bank?"


            Buchannan shrugged. "No, but I've robbed plenty."

            "Like what?"

            "People, wagons on the road, card games. Lots of stuff."

            "People? You mean like regular folk?"

            Buchannan lowered his head and glared at Taylor. "Yeah, so what?"

            Taylor leaned back and coughed. "Well, I ain't ever done that. I've stuck a gun in a few faces, robbing card games and the like. Shot a guy over in east Colorado when he drew on me playing cards. But I rob my own kind, you know?"

            Buchannan stretched his legs out and stared straight ahead. "Kid, have you got something you want to say?"

            "Hey, no, don't get the wrong idea. I'm glad you brought me into this thing. We made good money." Taylor stroked his chin. "It just bothered me seeing you hit that woman and shoot that guy today. Thought we could've kept things under control without it."

            "You look here, I warned that bitch to shut up. Her screaming was going to attract attention for sure. Sometimes people think you ain't serious. They think that if they put up enough of a fuss, you'll get scared and lose your nerve. She needed to know I was serious."

            "I think you broke her jaw."

            "She's lucky I didn't split her fucking skull."

            Taylor nodded and fell silent. He pulled out a waist pouch and loaded tobacco into a pipe. Buchannan drank from his bottle of whiskey and stared at the sky. He shifted with quick jerks of the legs and back. He thought the kid was weak, a farm boy drunk with a loud mouth and no guts. Guys like him were always the first to die during the war. They'd join the unit as green recruits talking about how they couldn't wait to start shooting and the first time they'd see those Union soldiers coming and blood flying all around them, they'd start crying and end up with their throats cut.

            "Boy, it's a hard world. A hard life. I'd think you'd learned that by now. Maybe those regular folks were what you might call innocent, maybe they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. But sometimes that happens. People just die and there ain't no greater reason for it. I ain't got time to be looking for reasons."

            Taylor said nothing. He drank a couple of small mouthfuls of his whiskey and stretched out. "What's done is done. I ain't got no quarrel with you, Buchannan. It was just weighing on my mind and I had to get it off my chest."

            Buchannan shrugged. "Say whatever you need to say, boy. We ain't got no problems. Let's fix some chow."

            "Yeah, let's eat. I'll fry some potatoes."

            Taylor cut up two potatoes and fried them over the flames. Both men drank the rest of the liquor and Buchannan set up his bed for the night. Cool bursts of wind swept through the pass and rustled the spruce tree. Buchannan listened to Taylor hum "Amazing Grace" before he fell asleep.

            He opened his eyes just after twilight. Buchannan heard the crackling embers of the fire and Taylor's heavy snoring. He rolled over onto his stomach and pushed himself up to his feet. He walked over to his sleeping horse and pulled his gun from his belt. He walked around the fire and stood over Taylor. Taylor's body heaved with a long snore and Buchannan shot him in the head. The body buckled once and blood pooled in the dirt at his feet.

            Buchannan brushed himself off and loaded his belongings onto his horse. He left Taylor wrapped up in his bedroll and his horse tied to the spruce tree when he rode away. The money was all his now and he felt good about it. Fifteen hundred dollars was more than enough for him to get back to Mexico.

            He rode until the afternoon. He knew that he was near the end of the pass because the stream was wider here. There were thick patches of grass and spruce trees that cast wide shadows across the pass. Buchannan was tired and needed a drink. A thick shell of sweat covered his face and his hands and head alike shook. He had made good time and would be in Ute country soon. He could afford to rest for a while.

            Buchannan heard them coming one hour later. The sound started like the rapping of distant rain striking the dry earth and the rhythmic thud reverberated across the walls of the pass.  
A cold blast of fear erupted from his stomach and swept over his body. His heartbeat rattled his chest. He listened for a minute. There were twenty horses, at least. Buchannan knew his only chance was to move now.

            Buchannan whipped the reins hard into the side of the horse's head and screamed for the horse to move. He drove his heels deep into the horse's stomach. The echo of the posse grew louder and everything was shaking. Buchannan pulled his gun from its holster and held it tight against his chest.

            The first shot tore a deep crease through his neck and blew him off his horse. The horse gasped and tripped over its long legs. Buchannan slammed against the wall of the pass and landed in a heap by a large boulder covered in moss. Buchannan felt the cool brush of wet grass against his cheek and a hot sleeve of blood wrapped around his neck.

            He could see nothing distinct, only smears of color moving in front of him and a loud rustle. He heard one voice shout out that he was down and had no gun. Buchannan rolled his head from side to side and blinked. He saw a bearded, overweight man looking down at him from his horse. The man shook his head and frowned.

            "He's the guy. No trial. Let's just leave this piece of shit out here to rot like he did to his partner."

            Buchannan watched the man pull out a pistol. The man aimed and shot him once. His head dropped onto the moss and the men on their horses watched him bleed.