A Righteous Man
They’d left him here to die. Not from malice, but because they had a score to settle, and they couldn’t be slowed down.
He allowed himself a small chuckle at the thought of Doc Holliday slowing anyone down, even though the laugh caused those aching tides in his chest to flow once again, catching his breath, drowning what little air he had left in his lungs. A cough, and flecks of dark red stained one of the few clean spots left on the handkerchief he held.
Should have bought that red silk one Kate wanted. At least the blood wouldn’t have shown quite so much on it.
No one had stayed behind to watch him, and Hooker couldn’t spare any of his hands to play nursemaid. Doc welcomed the casual neglect. He’d be damned if he’d have strangers hovering over him, listening to every cough to see if it would be his last. That end would come soon enough, but he had an end of his own to make first.
If Wyatt had been thinking, he would have taken Doc’s boots, and his horse as well. Good man, Wyatt, but his mind flowed in straight channels, and even after all these years he still thought too well of people. That kind of thinking could get a man killed.
But not this time.
One leg over the side of the bed, then the other. Doc muffled the resulting coughs with his handkerchief once again. It wouldn’t do for Hooker or his men to hear what he was about – no, he wanted to be long gone before anyone knew what he had planned.
A few shots of brandy from the flask hidden in his coat pocket aided him as he drew on his clothes, sent a spurious heat through his limbs that gave him the strength to pull on his boots and his rig. Finally he shrugged into his coat and placed his hat on his head, just far enough back that he’d be able to clearly see Johnny Ringo’s dead eyes.
One hand to touch the brass star pinned on his jacket, the other on the ivory handle of his gun. That was all he needed to settle this reckoning. The star would serve as a beacon of Wyatt’s justice, even if that justice was delivered through the barrel of another man’s gun.
His horse nickered at him when he approached, but softly, as if she knew she had an important duty to fulfill. He patted her neck, just once, and set her saddle on her back, then lifted the bridle over her head. She stood quietly; he’d done this hundreds of times before. Neither did she stir when he lit a cheroot and fixed it in the corner of his mouth. Some horses were nervous around tobacco, but not her. And he needed it, needed the thrill of the smoke even as it sent its poison through his lungs. Deadly but sweet, just like his lost Kate.
He shrugged off the thought of her, although he knew she was his last. No more pearls to be added to that string. Somehow he found he didn’t mind as much as he once might have. Was this what having a purpose did to a fellow?
Possibly, but he could think of only one man who could answer that question with anything resembling the truth, and Wyatt was too far away for him to ask. Good thing, too, or he would surely have tried to stop his old friend from committing suicide.
Suicide by Ringo, Doc thought, and grinned as he put one foot in a stirrup and hauled himself up into the saddle. The motion was still fluid enough, but the jolt as he landed brought forth another series of coughs. Face buried in his handkerchief, he guided his mount out of the stables and down the dusty road that led to the appointed place.
It had to end, he knew, and he had to be the one who ended it. Ringo might as well have been a rabid dog, running wild until someone put a bullet between his eyes. And all would consider it a mercy…maybe even Ringo himself.
Doc had told Wyatt that Ringo was a man with a hole inside him. Well, that hole was about to be filled with lead.
The afternoon sun painted the fields with gold, and maybe there once was a time when Doc would have slowed his horse to admire the way the dry grasses danced in the wind, or the air ached so pure and clear a man could think the sky had been carved from a diamond. Not now, though; he rode toward the designated spot, not hurrying, back straight even though sweat trickled down his brow and slid its way along his spine. His legs trembled the slightest bit.
Not his hands, though. Never his hands.
Wyatt was a good man, but he wasn’t the fastest – no, what he was, was consistent. His aim never faltered, and he could stare down an enemy without blinking, but sometimes that wasn’t enough. And once again Doc would prove he was the quicker, by meeting Johnny Ringo as the day died, and sending the man to die along with it.
Maybe it was God who had sent him here, allowed him to be the lightning hand that Wyatt lacked. Doc didn’t have much truck with God these days, but somehow it amused him to think of God using such a flawed vessel to carry out his divine vengeance. The Lord did work in mysterious ways, or so he’d been told; well, Doc supposed he’d see soon enough.
He didn’t pause, didn’t stop to wonder if he was doing the right thing. The way he saw it, he was doing the only thing. And if there was any grace left in this miserable world, he’d have just enough strength and speed to do what Wyatt couldn’t. Not much more he could ask for than that.
The Cowboys had chosen the canyon because they could watch the narrow entrance to the oak grove. Problem was, Sulphur Springs Canyon had another entrance, off to the northeast, just wide enough for one man to ride through. No one thought to set a guard there – they counted on Wyatt arriving with the rest of his posse. Cowboys weren’t known for their smarts, especially when they traveled in packs and thought they had the upper hand.
Fifty yards away from the grove, Doc pulled his horse to a stop, then slid out of the saddle. He waited there, just for a minute, just to catch what miserable breath he had left. Again his hand dropped to feel the smooth, polished bone of his Colt’s handle, its promise of elegant death. It was more than Ringo deserved – by all rights, he should shed his blood in gallons the way Morgan had, spilling out his life in great gouts of shining crimson. But this wasn’t revenge. This was a reckoning, and it was time the accounts were called in.
He arranged his coat on his shoulders so his elbow wouldn’t catch in its folds. The setting sun touched his face with one last kiss of warmth. He smiled, and went forth to settle his due.