Jacque clutched her rifle close to her as she peered out over the vast, unending dessert from beneath her horses bridle. The horizon flickered as the sun scorched the earth and the air rose in columns. The air was quiet and still except for the occasional empty flap of steamy breeze that kicked up the dust and tickled the few sparse shrubs around her. The land was dead, an uneven plain of steep cliffs, low-lying plant life and dehydrated cactus… with one glaring exception. A figure, dark and foreboding had appeared across the dessert. It was hard to tell anything at this distance but it appeared as through it was a single human without a horse walking across the landscape. And it appeared to be headed directly for her home.
With swift abandon Jacque scurried behind her cabin and began locking down the windows. There was no good reason for walking across the dessert and she wanted no part of a visitor around her place. Her first reaction was to close up her shack and hide inside until they passed by, but after locking up the windows she realized that doing so offered no protection and that the visitor would only steal her horse or burn down her house or kick in the door anyway. She sat down in the corner and thought nervously. What was he doing out there? Was he an abandoned soldier from the war; a deserter gone missing and left to wander away from his company across the harsh Nevada terrain? If so he would need rations. He would need rest and water and a horse to get where he was going. Jacque could offer none of that. She had none to spare. But if he were a militant he was armed and after wandering the dessert would be willing take what he wanted. He could shoot her and steal her goods and it would be months if not years before her family or some other wandering miscreant came by to find her carcass lying on the ground, picked apart by vultures and bleached in the sun. He had seen her shack, he was headed this way and he was likely already planning on the owner putting up a fight.
Jacque jumped to her feet and opened the cupboard next to her table. There she had a handful of rimfire cartridges. She grabbed them and loaded them into her rifle. Her father’s old Spencer Repeater had served her well over the years and she had made him proud as a sharpshooter. In an effort to conserve her shells she had not fired it in some time. Today she was thankful she had. After stuffing the shells into the gun she stepped outside and looked back to the horizon. The figure was closer now, and obviously a man walking alone through the dessert. Jacque braced the rifle against one of the patio pillars and lined it up against the approaching figure. It was a two hundred yard shot and farther than any shot she had taken before. But the figure was bigger than anything she had shot at before and even a miss would likely result in the wandering turning in another direction and leaving her camp alone.
As she sited in and relaxed her breathing she imagined the figure relentlessly walking through the sun, stumbling across the stones that paved the dessert floor. She imagined he was tired and alone and weary. He had seen her cottage and was approaching in the hopes that he could get a drink, maybe a good nights sleep before heading out early in the morning. Maybe he had rations and could even offer some money. Maybe he was attractive. He could come and drink her water, sleep for a night or two and then help her to replace the logs that had rotted out from the upper corner of her sitting room. She was not strong enough to lift and replace them herself, and had suffered through the cold and through the large summer storms for several years now. He could help her to sow the land and raise her pigs. Maybe they could get a few head of cattle and her land would begin working for her. He could work the land and she could wash his clothes and prepare for him the best dinners and serve him coffee in the morning. She could make wild love to him at night.
Jacque lowered the rifle as she peered out across the dessert. He was less than one hundred yards from her now and a clear shot. It had been a long time since she had known the embrace of a man. And she knew that there was a fine line to be drawn between being embraced and being forced. Why would he wait for her and try to win her over out here in these torrid conditions when he could just take what he wanted from her. There was nobody around to hear her cries, if he even allowed her to cry. At this very moment he may be starving for far more than a loaf of bread and some water. He was fifty yards away. She would no longer need to brace herself against the pillar to make her shot true. He was close enough that she would need to drag his body away for burial.
“What an end this would be,” she thought to herself “if he had been robbed and left to die only to make his way to the lone outpost in the area and be shot dead in his tracks.” It was a miserable scene that now played itself out in her mind. Maybe he was rich and his horse had been stolen. He could reward her handsomely for providing him with only the most meager of provisions. He was not a man of the land and therefore posed no threat and had only happened upon her cottage by happenstance. This could be her lucky break. Or maybe he was rich and had been robbed… and he was handsome. Her mind returned for a moment to the thought of making wild love to a man in her home and how much more of a release it would be for her if he were rich.
The man dragged his weary bones down the path to her front gate. He did not answer when she yelled for his name, nor did he return even the slightest of response when she questioned his motive for being here. He slowly walked up the path to her house. Jacque lifted the rifle and pointed it directly at him. He stopped and stood for a moment, his hat covered his eyes from her view. She could see that he had the stubble of a man who had not shaved in over a week and his duster was dirty, aged and bleached from the sun.
“State your business and don’t take one step closer” She demanded. “And while you’re at it you better have a good reason for walking around out here in the heat of the day.” The wanderer looked back at his path silently. He struggled to stand straight and tall and his hands were red from the sun.
“I hadn’t expected a woman” he returned simply. His voice was sparse and cracked and it was obvious that he was parched to the point he was unable to form even minor sentences.
“But you expected a gun” she returned, without hesitation.
“You a deserter? An outlaw?” She asked.
“I am not.” He returned with poignancy. “I’m a sheriff and I’m tracking a murderer… at least I was until he shot up my horse and left me to die out here. He came by this way three days ago, maybe you saw him.”
Jacque had been spent the last few days working on her horses’ stable and doing odd jobs around her camp. She had not seen anyone or anything since trading with a few Paiute Indians nearly a week before. Had somebody passed this way, she would have seen them.
“You’re lying,” she insisted. “Nobody passes through here without my knowledge. I haven’t seen anyone.”
“Then he must have turned a different direction.” The sheriff lifted his hat and wiped his brow in frustration. “Do you mind if I get some water from your well? It’s somewhat warm out today and I’m a bit thirsty.”
Jacque held back a smile and motioned him to the well. He nodded and thanked her and began pumping the well until the bucket beneath was full. When it was he kneeled down beside it and took a long drink, then poured it over his head and neck.
“Where’s your husband?” The sheriff questioned as he let the water drip from his hair to the ground and wiped his neck again. “Having left you with such a fine rifle he is obviously not out hunting. He gone to town for the day?”
“You don’t worry about that, he ain’t far” Jacque returned quickly. The sheriff smiled and nodded at her comment.
“I understand” he said. “I did not mean to intrude. Do you mind if I ask to sit on your porch for a bit before I continue on my way?”
“I prefer if you did not.”
“That too I understand” he said with acceptance, “a stranger come wandering onto your land in the middle of the day and here you are all alone…”
“I am not alone” she interrupted.
“I know, he’ll be back soon. A woman has to protect herself, is all I’m saying.” The sheriff stood back up, unafraid of the rifle still pointed at him. “I am not asking to borrow your horse nor am I going to commandeer him. I would never leave a woman without her means of transportation our here. But I ask that you let me cool my feet under the shade of your porch for a bit before I go.”
Jacque thought for a moment whether his offer had been truly reasonable, or whether it was an attempt to fool her. If it had been a ploy to get her it was one that would do him no good. She could shoot him on her porch just as easy as she could shoot him at her well. She let the point of her rifle drop.
“You got a gun on you?” She asked.
“I do, Ma’am” he returned.
“I’ll let you cool yourself on my porch but I would prefer to hold your sidearm while you do.”
“I understand.” The sheriff produced from beneath his duster the distinctive long barrel of his Colt Paterson revolver. Carefully and making sure not to make any sudden movements the Sheriff lifted it up, and then tossed it her way.
Jacque caught the pistol in the air and admired it. She had never fired a pistol before, it was a weapon specialized for killing people and was a luxury few farmers and ranchers could afford. Jacque realized that one of the chambers was empty, but still housed a shell.
“You’re missing a round” she told the Sheriff suspiciously.
“I only had five” he admitted “and my adversary was at a pretty good distance. I took a shot, but saved the rest.”
“How many shots did he take?”
“Enough to leave my horse planted about seven miles north of here.” The Sheriff cautiously made his way onto the porch. He brushed by Jacque as he did but was respectful and wary of her. He took a seat against one of the pillars and laid his head back as he continued to tell Jacque about the criminal he was chasing. He spoke with reverence and respect for the criminals abilities and for the way he had gotten away with what he had done. The man had become very good at robbing banks and stagecoaches without harming anybody, until a recent misstep had resulted in him killing a Nye County Sheriff not far from here. And now he was also wandering the dessert.
For a while the Sheriff had drifted off into his tales and then finally had drifted off to sleep. Jacque continued to sit and listen to him even after his eyes had closed and his breathing had become heavy. The Sheriff’s story had trailed off at the end, but it sounded as though the Sheriff that had been killed had been a friend of his. His mission was personal.
Jacque woke up and found herself laying in her bed. She had fallen asleep and the stranger had brought her inside. She jumped to her feet and looked around the room. It was still daylight outside, although it was clear that the sun had moved across the sky and it was now later in the afternoon. Around the house there were no signs of missing possessions or of her house having been ransacked. Her father’s rifle sat upright in the corner of the room, and on the table lay the Sheriff’s revolver. She grabbed it and pulled the hammer back. As she did the trigger pulled out and locked into a ready position. She stepped outside.
The patio was empty and her horse was gone and there was no sign of the Sheriff. She walked around the corner of the patio as she inspected the grounds in search of some sign of where he had gone. She ran out back and to the stable hoping desperately to make it to the top of the hill behind it before they were out of sight, but was stopped dead in her tracks as she did.
After running around behind the stable she came within inches of running directly into her horse, who had been tied to the water trough in the shade of the hill. Quickly she saddled and mounted him and led him up the sheer cliff walls to the top of the gorge. She looked around.
She had climbed to the top of the gorge many times in the past. It was an excellent place to scan the land surrounding her estate. She could see for miles. At first Jacque saw nothing outstanding, nothing that stood out to her as a man walking away or even as anything out of place from the thousands of other times she had surveyed the raw, dusty terrain. After a moment something unusual did catch her eye.
It wasn’t recognizable at first; the figure she saw was not that of a man standing or walking but of something else. Something was laying in the dirt several miles north of her. She wondered if it were a mule deer or bighorn, but it didn’t look like any she had seen before. The figured appeared alone and motionless and without the protective camouflage of such game. This was something big and dark, like a man covered by his duster.
Jacque kicked the sides of her horse and went racing after the Sheriff. Why had he left? Why had he left his gun behind and where was he going? It had either been a gallant move by a gentleman who had not wanted to inconvenience her or a stupid move by a crazed individual. She hoped to make it to him before the heat of the dessert did.
As she continued to race through the dips and over the hills of the valley Jacque took continuous notes on the location of the Sheriff’s body and whether or not it appeared to move. It did not, and the longer it took her to get to the figure the more she worried that she was going to arrive far to late to be able to assist him. She cursed herself for not bringing him water and hoped that the long ride back to her cabin would not be too much for him in a weakened state. All she had to do was get him on horseback to save him. As she got closer the figure became more and more apparent.
There was a hope in the back of her mind that the figure was not the Sheriff at all; that maybe it was the carcass of an overturned Mule Deer or a mirage. The desert enjoyed toying with her. As she got closer it became clear that the figure was not that of a deer nor was it a mirage or some strangely fashioned cactus, it was the body of a man laying motionless in the sand. When she finally reached the body she jumped from her horse and dropped to her knees next to it.
A dirty brown duster covered what was obviously the body of a man. It was windblown and burned in the sun, the duster itself was covered in sand to the point that part of its edges were buried. Jacques heart stopped as she reached for the collar of the duster. She slowly pulled it back, hoping to find a delirious and sick… but still alive… body of her Sheriff.
She did not. Underneath the duster lay a carcass, the dead remains of a man who had been taken by the desert. But it was not her Sheriff. The man was clean shaven with distinguished features. As she pulled the duster from his body she saw that he was wearing nicer, professional clothes. His shirt had been tan in color, originally. Now it was stained dark and stiff and featured a prominent hole on his left chest. The man had been shot in the heart and had bled to death, and by all appearances it had taken place several days earlier. As she lifted the duster to cast it away she saw something else. At first it appeared as though it were simply a decoration on the man’s outfit, but upon closer inspection she realized it was much more important. She picked it up and brushed away the dirt and grime. The resulting metal star read simply Nye County Sheriff.
Shocked and confused Jacque looked around as though she would find the man who had been at her doorstep earlier that day would now be here to explain. He was not. But not far from the scene was something else that she had not seen. The land bowed over to make way for gulley’s of water to travel down to the creekbed when it rained, and there in one of the gulley’s was another motionless figure. A horse, shot several times and planted in the dirt.