Chapter 7: Wrath
From the sound of the thunder rolling in the distance and the low cloud cover, it was clear to Will and Mark that if they didnít get the herd home soon, theyíd soon be caught out in the rain. That wasnít a healthy prospect at all, considering Markís tuberculosis. Even though itíd been more than a year since heíd shown symptoms of the disease, if he got a cold or stayed outside too long in wet clothes and damp conditions, it could return with a vengeance. Not to mention, any sudden crack of lightning or unusually loud rumbles of thunder had the potential to send the increasingly nervous cattle into a stampede, which had its own potentially deadly consequences.
So they began moving the animals along at a faster pace than normal, trying to get back to the ranch as quickly as possible. Rain wasnít typical in Arizona Territory, especially this time of year, but when it did rain, the downpour had a tendency to be torrential and flash floods werenít uncommon in this region.
The beeves trotted along at a steady clip, not quite running, but definitely moving faster than their usual shambling pace, and eventually the animals started over the low rise that lead home. The ranch came into view for Will and Mark a few minutes later as they came up behind the herd.
Will pulled up on Nateís reins as he saw a lone horseman riding off to the west, moving away from the ranch. Even from this distance, he could tell it was Glen Hollander. The landownerís dapple grey stallion, Townsend hat and expensive grey coat were unmistakable.
Mark saw him as well and said, "Isnít that Hollander?" even though he already knew it was. "Whatís he doiní here for again?"
"I donít know," Will answered uneasily, watching until the man was out of sight and then looking back at their ranch with a slight frown on his face. Two visits in the same week from the landowner was two visits too many, in his opinion.
The familiar sight and scent of home enticed the cattle enough that they picked up their pace to a slow rolling gallop and flowed down the hill into the large corral that awaited them.
"Whereís Ma?" Mark abruptly asked, just as Will realized something wasnít quite right.
Their mother was nowhere to be seen, and that alone was odd. Alice always watched Will and Mark ride away in the mornings, and she was always waiting on the front porch for their return in the evenings. Their arrival was invariably heralded by the sound of hundreds of hooves, so she had plenty of warning and had never yet missed their return.
"Help me get the rest of these cows penned up and Iíll go see where she is," William ordered authoritatively, even as he slapped his hand against his thigh to encourage the stragglers along a bit faster.
"She ainít never not been standing on the porch waitiní for us," Mark said, worriedly looking at Will. "You think everythingís ok?"
Mustering a smile for his brother, Will stated firmly, "Iím sure everythingís fine," and tried to convince himself the words were true. But he could just feel that something wasnít right, and although Mark nodded without saying anything, he could see the boy was of a similar mind.
When Alice still had not appeared by the time Mark was closing the gate to the corral, Will knew something was definitely wrong. He rode his horse toward the house and jumped off before the gelding had even come to a complete stop. "Ma?" he called nervously as he hurriedly made his way through the doorway.
Silence was his only answer.
Trying to keep panic out of his voice, he shouted this time, "Ma??" and frantically began to search for her. He didnít have to look for long though. She was in the first room off of the living room, strewn across the bed like a broken doll.
Will stared in stark horror for a moment, instantly catapulted back to that moment when his father had died, and the trainís slow chugging engine had throbbed exactly in rhythm with his dying heart until both had stopped. He knew he would not be able to bear his mother dying in his arms in the same way.
Markís worried voice calling his name broke the silence, calling him back to the present, and blinking away tears, Will realized she was still breathing. Her calico dress was hiked grotesquely up and around her hips, exposing her startlingly white flesh and, naÔve as Will was, he instantly realized exactly Hollander had done to her. He rushed over to her side, pulling her dress down to cover her skin before Mark came in.
Someoneópresumably Hollanderóhad clearly hit her in the face more than once judging from her split lip and her swollen cheek. And her neck, God, all the bruises encircling the skin there made it look as though sheíd been hung from the gallows. But she was alive, and didnít have any bullet holes or obvious bloody wounds and that was a relief in and of itself.
"Ma?" Will whispered, drawing her into his arms. She flinched, but didnít awaken.
"Is she ok?" Mark asked breathlessly from the door, his small face drawn and frightened.
Brushing a wisp of hair away from her face as he stared down at her, Will hesitated and then answered honestly, "I donít know."
Mark bit his lip as he came closer to the bed, "Whatíd he do to her?" He reached out to take her limp hand in his, the way she had done so many times to him when heíd been feeling the worst of his tuberculosis. "Ma? Ma, wake up, itís me, Mark."
Will shut his eyes tightly at Markís question and swallowed back the lump in his throat. There was no way heíd ever tell his brother the full extent of what their mother had been through. He took a deep breath, trying to keep his emotions firmly in check and gently began moving her up the bed, so that her head rested on the pillow. "Mark, can you go draw some fresh water and bring me a towel?"
He nodded immediately, looking relieved to be given something helpful to do and hurried out of the room. "Iíll be right back," Mark called as he grabbed a bucket off of the porch and ran toward the well.
As soon as he was gone, Will tried again to wake Alice up. "Ma? MaÖ" He was reluctant to shake her because he feared she might think she was being attacked again, and leaned down to speak softly in her ear, "MaÖ itís ok to wake up nowÖ heís gone. Itís just your sons here now, Will and Mark."
Her eyelids fluttered and suddenly, she went from unconsciousness to fully awake and fighting in an instant, thrashing and kicking at Will. He narrowly avoided getting hit in the face and held up his hands to dodge her blows as he quickly backed out of her range of attack. She rolled off the bed on the opposite side, using it as a shield between them, and the dazed and frightened look in her eyes as she looked around, trying to get her bearings, near about broke his heart. Finally she focused on him and croaked hoarsely, "Will?"
He smiled, shakily at best, and could not stop the tear from rolling down his cheek. "Yeah. Yeah, itís me, William. Markís here too, he went to go get you some water."
Her gaze shifted from his face down to the bed between them, the now rumpled quilt that Hollander had used her on, and she crumpled to the floor, sobbing brokenly.
Will hurried around the bed and knelt down beside her, gathering her in his arms to hug her tightly. "Itís all right, everything will be all right," he whispered against her hair, not knowing what else to say as she clung to him as though she were drowning.
He was aghast at how small and frail she seemed, because sheíd always been such a source of strength and support in their lives. Even when he and Butterfield had returned from Contention with his fatherís body, she had maintained her composure, though of course she had wept for the loss of her husband. But that had been as nothing compared to the wracking sobs that shook her body now.
The thump of a bucket hitting the floor announced Markís return, and a moment later he was there hugging her too, crying as well.
The small family huddled together on the floor by the bed until Aliceís weeping had subsided, though her breathing was still ragged and uneven.
"I wish Pa had killed him, back after he had our barn set on fire," Mark mumbled against his motherís shoulder. "I wish he was dead."
Aliceís eyes were still shut tightly and her voice was rough, not just from the crying but from the damage to her throat, as she admitted, "I wish he was too."
At their words, a smoldering rage began to build in his chest as Will thought over all the ways that Hollander had hurt his family over the years, from the derision and disrespect heíd always shown them to burning their barnÖ if Glen Hollander had been dead, his father would still be alive, and his mother would not have been forced to endure an attack so terrible that he couldnít even begin to fathom what she was going through emotionally right now. He gave his brother and Ma a final tight hug before rolling to his feet, his face set with grim determination.
Surprised by the abruptness of his brotherís departure, Mark asked, "Where are you going?"
"Iím gonna do what Pa shoulda done two years ago," he announced firmly and turned to walk out the door.
"Will." Aliceís face was conflicted as she lifted her battered face and regarded her sonís resolute expression and instinctively knew there was nothing she could say that would stop him. In truth, she wasnít even sure she wanted to. "Be careful," she finally whispered, closing her eyes to the fact that she had just potentially resigned her son to his fatherís fate.
The scent of impending rain was heavy in the air as Joshua rode hard for the Evans ranch. The distance there from the Bar-H ranch was not much as the crow flies, but the uneven, mountainous terrain that served as a barrier between the two was dangerous enough that he was forced to slow down and let Dawson pick his way among the rocks or risk the gelding breaking a leg.
Once they were clear of the ridgeline and had headed down into the valley below, he clicked his tongue at Dawson, giving the horse his head so the animal could run freely. They were only about a mile beyond the ridge when Joshua caught sight a horseman riding in his direction. He drew his Colt pistol as the distance quickly closed between them, drew a bead down the gunsight and aimed carefully in time with the rhythm of Dawsonís gallops before firing.
The bullet hit the rocks just in front of Hollanderís horse, exploding upward and startling the grey stallion. It reared up immediately and the landowner struggled to keep his seat in the saddle. He lost the battle when Joshua fired a second time at the horseís feet, falling off backwards and landing heavily on the ground. He lay there for a moment, groaning in pain from the impact on the hard rocky surface, but as he saw Joshua riding up, he fumbled for the gun that was still buckled in his holster.
Joshua fired again, and this time he didnít miss. The bullet caught Hollander in the fleshy part of his right forearm, causing him to wail in pain as he clutched his arm to his chest.
He used his free hand to draw Dawson to a stop and slid to the ground while keeping his gun trained on the landowner. "I hear you got something you want to say to me," he said, smiling grimly down at the man. "Take your gun out and drop it on the ground. Slowly." He cocked his pistol in warning.
Grimacing with pain, Glen nodded, still holding his bloodied arm to his chest. Joshua stared in disbelief as he reached with his left hand and carefully pulled an unmistakably familiar black-handled pistol out of the holster and dropped it to the ground between them.
"Where did you get that?" he demanded, unable to believe that Hollander had his custom made Colt this entire time, and heíd never once noticed.
"I bought it in an auction yesterday in Tombstone," Hollander grunted, looking up at his captor. "It belonged to Ben Wade," he stated and spat at the ground in disgust. "That murderiní son of a bitch killed one of my men a couple years back. Only right I should get his gun, now that heís dead and gone."
Joshua almost laughed out loud at the irony of it all. "Didnít anyone tell you that gunís cursed? The only person that ainít touched by the curse of that gun is Ben Wade himself."
Glen snorted derisively. "Cursed. Bullshit. I donít believe in curses." The thunder rolled ominously from overhead as though God Himself opposed that statement of disbelief.
The amusement faded from Joshuaís face. "You should." He swapped his gun to the opposite hand as he walked toward Hollander and squatted down in front of the other man to pick up the Hand of God, hefting its familiar weight in his hand. His blue-green eyes were flinty as he continued almost casually, "You know, your man Tucker was just about the most unpleasant man Iíve ever had the misfortune to run into, and given the usual type of roustabouts and desperados I had in my gang, that ought to tell you something about his character."
It took a few moments for the words to sink in, and Glen Hollander stared back at him in fear as understanding dawned.
"I canít believe you didnít recognize me, even after all this time," he said and rose back to his feet. "I mean, hell, you were right there in the saloon when the Marshall and his men captured me. I figure that makes you near about as much of a dumb shit as Tucker was. And I gotta say, killing him felt pretty damn good," Joshua admitted with a sly grin as he studied Hollander. His gaze sharpened as he suddenly noticed that bright red blood from the landownerís arm was mingling with a darker stain of dried blood on his white shirt. "That Alice Evansí blood?"
Hollander shivered visibly at the cold fury in the other manís eyes and sensing his answer might be the difference between life and death, chose to tell a poor half-truth. "Itís mine, I swear to God, itís my blood. I bit my lip earlierÖ. Ah, my horse tripped and I just caught my lip between my teeth and the blood got on my shirtÖ On my honor, itís my blood, may God strike me down if Iím lying."
It seemed as though God was debating following through with that, as lightning cracked across the sky, followed a few seconds later by long rumble of thunder.
Joshua cocked the Hand of God and pointed it at Hollanderís face when a flicker of movement beyond the landowner caught his attention and he held his fire as he realized it was Will Evans, riding at them as fast and as hard as his horse could carry him.
The teenager reached them a few moments and after drawing his horse up to stop, almost leaped off his horse, his face contorted with rage as he ran toward the landowner.
"Will!" Joshuaís voice cracked out when he realized the boyís intent.
He was in no mood to listen and he launched himself at Hollander, bowling the older man over, and no sooner had he done so than the thunderstorm finally broke. It was as though the bottom had dropped out of the heavens from the torrential rain that began falling and lightning cracked across the dark sky above.
The man and boy rolled together, kicking and scuffling, Will throwing punches at Glenís face that missed more than they hit given his youth and inexperience. Luckily though, the landowner was nearly as inept in fist fighting, given that he was wont to hire men to do his fighting for him and being additionally hampered by his injured forearm.
The wall of rain made it impossible for Joshua to take a shot at Hollander, because it was impossible to pick out where Hollander ended and Will began, especially with them tussling together on the ground. He kept his gun trained on the two as they fought, looking for a clear shot.
"Why couldnít you just leave us alone?!" the boy shouted and inadvertently got in a lick on Hollander that hit right on his injured forearm, inducing a howl of pain. Will immediately recognized the weak spot on the older man and began targeting that arm with his fists, ranting, "All we wanted was to be left alone! Hadnít you done enough to us? But you couldnít do that, could you? You just couldnít leave us alone!"
Hollander was fighting a losing battle at this point, despite his advantage in size and reach. The blood loss from his arm and excruciating pain from it being hit were so much that heíd given up on hitting the boy back and was just trying to fend off the worst of the blows.
Will had started crying now as more than two years of pent up frustration and anger and hatred against this man who had been ultimately responsible for so many things that had gone wrong in his life could no longer be contained. His inability to stop his tears fueled his anger even more as he continued raving, accentuating each wrong-doing with a fist to Hollanderís body, "You dammed up our creek, you burned our barn, you killed my father, you raped my mother and nearly killed her," his voice cracked in a ragged sob, "You deserve to die!"
Ignoring the rain that continued to fall down around them, Joshua exhaled slowly and barely managed to control his own rage at hearing what the landowner had done to Alice. He had suspected it just from what Atkins said and Hollanderís poor attempt at lying regarding the blood on his shirt, but hearing the words spoken, almost torn from the throat of WilliamÖ The boy was right. Glen Hollander deserved to die, and would get exactly what he deserved.
The landownerís moans of pain were audible even over the rain and almost constant rolls of thunder, and Willís rage had finally started to burn itself out. He still had enough energy to grab Hollanderís jacket coat and lift him upwards. "I wish I could kill you over and over again, so you could hurt as bad as you hurt us," he rasped hoarsely and punched him in the face one last time. Then he kicked the manís body away from him before he broke down completely in racking, shuddering sobs.
Hollander had curled into a fetal position, whimpering in pain like a wounded beast.
Joshua walked over and put his hand on the boyís shoulder, wordlessly offering the only support he knew how to give.
Apparently it was enough, because Will seemed to draw strength from the consoling touch. He drew in a deep breath and wiped his face on his sopping wet sleeve, even though the tears had long since mingled with the falling rain. "Thanks," he said, looking up at the man as he struggled to his feet.
Nodding in acknowledgement, Joshua gave the boyís shoulder a final squeeze before turning his attention to Hollander. He raised the Hand of God and his finger tightened on the trigger.
"No!" Will said, stopping him right before he fired by putting his hand on the former outlawís forearm. "I want to do it," he declared and pulled out his own gun to point at the landowner, glaring at the man, who was still curled in a ball on the muddy ground.
Joshua hesitated and slowly lowered his gun. "Are you sure?" he asked, looking at Willís strained face.
"Ainít I earned the right?" Will demanded, his jaw set grimly as he aimed at the landowner. "After all heís done to us, havenít I earned the right to do this?"
His blue-green eyes were troubled as Joshua regarded Will, but he couldnít deny the boyís words. It had been his family thatíd been wronged by Hollander, not Joshuaís, and as thus, certainly Will deserved to be the one that killed the landowner. "No, youíve more than earned the right, butÖ your Pa was right. Killiní a man, even a man like Hollander, ainít like killiní a jackrabbit, or any animal. If youíre williní to take a manís life, you gotta be williní to live with yourself, with what youíve done, afterwards. Regardless of the reason you killed him for. You reckon you can do that?"
Willís gun barrel quivered at the manís words and he swallowed painfully, gritting his teeth. "Heís gotta die. I canít let him live so he can hurt us again." Hollander was motionless now, a mottled brown lump in the mud.
"I ainít denyiní that," Joshua replied, turning his body so that he and Will were face to face as he looked the boy in the eye. "Your Pa was right, youíve grown into a fine young man and youíve got all the best parts of him in you. Youíve started on the path of decency, he told me once. And youíre many things, but you ainít a killer. You ainít no murderer, not like I am. And I can tell you, son, thatís not a path you want to go down, because once you do, once you kill someone, you canít take it back. Not now, not ever."
His hand shook, but after a long moment of indecision, Will finally lowered the gun and took a deep breath.
The instant the barrel lowered, Hollander moved in a burst of motion and shot off the tiny Derringer pistol he must have had stashed in his boot.
Whipping around, Joshua fired the Hand of God, hitting the landowner right between the eyes and killing him instantly. Willís pistol fired a wink later, despite the fact that heíd been facing Glen Hollander when the first shot had been fired. His bullet hit the dead man in the chest.
The rain had finally started to slack off as the worst of the storm passed, nearly as quickly as it had arrived. Joshua turned to look at Will, who was staring down at the dark red blood from the bullet wound in his left shoulder. "No!" he cried out and lunged forward to catch the boy just as he dropped like a felled tree, his blood mingling with the rain water on the ground.
"Will? William?" He cradled the boy to his chest, shaking him gently as he tried to fight back his fear. "Oh God, come on, William. Wake up, look at me. Will?"
Raindrops sprinkled across the boyís face as his eyelids flickered open, his green eyes dilated with shock and pain as he stared up at the man holding him. "Did we get him?" he whispered. "Is he dead?"
Joshua hesitated and then nodded. "Yeah. We got him," he answered, forcing himself to smile as his tears mingled with the rain falling on his face.
The barest of smiles touched Willís lips before he slumped in Joshuaís arms.
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