This critique is from Rosey Mucklestone who blogs over at Write Fury. She wrote this for Kingdom Pen’s picture contest and would love to have a critique that includes any ideas for improvement (no spelling or grammar critique for this one, please!)
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I pull my horse to a stop next to the creek and slide off the saddle. Hoof prints dot the soft dirt for the stretch of a few yards, then disappear as the ground changes to hard rock and dust. I bend down on one knee to examine the imprints.
The first and second look normal and, though rather small, the horseshoe print is there. So it isn’t a wild horse. But the third hoof is missing its horseshoe.
“Find anything, Holt?” Sheriff Paley reins his horse in next to mine.
“Looks like the prints of Daniel Morgan’s pony. The third shoe’s missing.” I stand and point to what I’ve found. The sheriff frowns and brushes his mustache down with his thumb and forefinger.
“I wonder how he managed that? We shot ‘im up only a few days ago; I wouldn’t think he’d have patched up and be back to robbin’ folks already. He only ever used the pony to carry loot, not to ride, anyway. And I’d think he’d bring more men. Are those the only prints?”
“Far as I can make out. This is the only spot they could’ve stayed in since last night.”
“Hmm.” Paley frowns, then tips his head towards my horse, “Get back on. We’ll follow the way he was going. On towards the mountain.”
I swing back into the saddle and we’re off towards the tree line at the bottom of the mountain. The ground beneath us zips past so fast it’s like our horses are flying. The first row of pines comes closer on the horizon for a while, then the sheriff makes a motion to stop. Our horses toss their heads at the sudden pull at their mouths, but they stop, kicking up billows of dust.
“What is it?” I ask. The sheriff pulls on his horse’s right rein, making a slow turn.
“It goes almost straight up from here,” he says. “Our horses couldn’t make the climb. And probably neither could Morgan’s pony. Foxtail Pass is just over a short ways east. We’ll go through there.”
We finish turning our horses and are off again for a few minutes, until a reddish stone walled pass is seen on our left. The sheriff turns into it without hesitation, but I’m a little leery.
I used to have a friend who wouldn’t go anywhere near that pass, and for good reason. He called it “the funnel” and had nearly been shot up by bandits there twice. I guess the crooks know a shooting range when they see one.
I take a deep breath, cluck to my horse and follow Sheriff Paley down the pass. Hooves clatter over the stones loudly as we trot down the rock-lined passageway. The wind rushes at our backs, cooling us from the heat of the sun on our ride.
A rustling sound comes from the brush on the other side of the gorge. I turn in my saddle toward the direction it came from. I barely have time to spot the shiny barrel of a gun when there is a loud crack. A bullet whizzes past my head and into the wall behind me, flicking pebbles of shattered rock all over my face. My horse shivers under me and neighs in fright.
“What the heck?” The sheriff looks back at me. “What was that?”
“A gunshot. Let’s get out of here.”
We both flick our reins on our horses’ necks and dig our heels in. The horses need no further encouragement and bolt towards the other end of the gorge.
Paley and I both sit, staring into our campfire and watching the flames jump and dance over the pieces of wood we’ve collected and the two potatoes we’re cooking for lunch. I glance up at his face and raise my eyebrows, but he doesn’t seem to notice and keeps watching the fire.
“I played a pretty good poker game last night . . .” I begin, my voice sounding strange after all the silence. “Won a couple hundred bucks off the livery owner.”
Paley chuckles a little, “Well, that’s the first time in a while you’ll have your pockets full.” The joke clears the air for a bit, but then the heavy quiet falls again.
“Holt,” Sheriff Paley starts finally, “I think I’m going to go back and get a small posse to help us make this arrest. You know Morgan. He’s quite a fighter when it gets down to it. We’ll need more men than just us two, to bring ‘im in. Would you mind keeping a stakeout here while I’m gone? Just keep an eye on him. Find his camp if you can, and show us when we come back.”
“That sounds fine,” I nod, ignoring my earlier hesitations, then grin over at him, “as long as you leave me some of your coffee.”
The sun sinks lower, going behind the rock edges of Foxtail Pass. By my guess, it’s about four o’clock in the evening. The shade makes it easier to find what I’m looking for without staring into the sun.
I see a few familiar looking rocks I’d noticed earlier and walk over there, then start walking along the side of the gorge. I run my hand over the rocks above my head, my fingers examining every crevice and dip.
Finally, my fingers rest in the bullet hole made earlier, next to my head. I close my eyes for a second, remembering everything that happened earlier, then glance over behind me at the clump of grass that earlier had a gun poking out of it. Making a quick note of how far into the forest it is, I run back to where my horse is tied.
I flip open the saddlebag and yank out my six-shooter, preparing, if need be, to kill the man I’ve already killed once. Taking a deep breath, I stick the gun in my belt and begin my trek up the forested mountainside.
By rough estimation, I manage to reach the spot from where we’d been shot at earlier. Grass and underbrush were smashed down in a little trail going to and from the perch on the edge of the rock. I walk over to the perch and squat down to look through the grass at where Sheriff Paley and I would have been from this point.
We would have been a little farther ahead of him than I’d have guessed. Morgan probably spotted us as we went by, and took a bit to load his gun before he got around to taking a shot.
I stand and follow the small trail deeper into the woods, guided by the spotty light of the sun through the trees. It’s the end of summer and the grass is dryer than it would normally be, so no fresh green grass is beneath me to cushion my steps. Every time I put my foot down, it seems to crack louder than a splitting log.
I think better of continuing on the trail and decide to follow alongside, stepping on tree roots and moss, but still keeping an eye on the trail’s winding path. The path continues for a lot longer than I thought it would, for Morgan to have easy access to his shooting point.
As soon as I reach a clearer part of the forest, the trail becomes hard to follow. Not from lack of tracks, either. There are actually too many for me to follow all of them and still be efficient and unnoticed.
I walk out to the middle of the clearing, trying to make sense of the swirled mess of trails. There are about five of them shooting off to different directions in the forest.
He probably did this on purpose to throw guys like me off his trail, I think, pushing my hat back on my head and wiping my forehead with my sleeve. I stand there thinking. It’s so quiet my own breath sounds deafening. A bird tweets in the trees and the wind rushes through, making a gentle roaring noise.
Something else catches my ear: a small whistling noise. At first, I think it must be a bird, but it keeps stopping and starting over, like it’s trying to get a tune right.
I pull out my gun, step back onto the tree roots and make my way forward, following the whistle. I’m trying to keep focused on where the noise is coming from, but I can’t help wondering what tune he’s trying to make out. And why?
The whistling gets a little louder as I get closer to a small, tightly packed clump of trees overlooking the plain. I didn’t notice before how breathy it sounds. It’s almost as if he were just learning how.
Then it stops. I stop too, wondering if the whistler has seen me. There’s a small rustling sound and I hear a sigh.
Everything is quiet again, and I continue towards the small camp. A fire burns in the middle of the tree circle, surrounded by a ring of rocks. I’m now close enough to see a charred potato sitting among the embers. A stick comes out from the tree nearest to me and pokes it, rolling over another side of the potato to cook.
Dan Morgan must be behind that tree. I edge around the camp, dashing silently from tree to tree on a blanket of pine needles. Finally, I’m at the right angle to see the crook’s face.
I peek out, barely, from behind the tree I’m by and ready my gun in case he sees me. A little boy of around five years old sits by the fire, nearly lost in a too big, stripy flannel shirt and with a red hat, flopping down a little on one side. Tied nearby, I see the pony, weighed down with saddlebags full of silverware and candlesticks stolen from the townspeople just last night.
I nearly drop my gun in surprise.
The boy scuffs his boot toe in the dirt, obviously not noticing me, then puckers up his lips and tries again at his tuneless whistling. After a few breaths he gives up, sighs again and slumps against the tree, staring into the fire.
I continue my approach, but stop as the little boy takes a breath and starts to sing.
“You are my s’nshine, my only s’nshine. You make me hapeeeeee when skies are grey. . .”
So that’s what he was trying to whistle.
He continues until the end of the verse, then his voice breaks and he bites his lip. His chin trembles a little and he buries his face in his arms.
“I miss you, Pa – come back.” I hear his short sentence cough out before the little boy starts sobbing.
Fighting the urge to holster my gun, I step into the small camp, my foot crunching on dry grass. The boy’s head snaps up and the last of his tears disappear behind his bandana.
His chin still trembling, he makes a desperate snatch at the gun next to him and levels it at me. I raise the hand not holding my gun,
“Whoa there, son. I was just coming to see what was going on ‘round here.”
He doesn’t reply and doesn’t move his gun. His deep brown eyes scan me up and down. I glance over at the pony that stands munching grass a few yards away,
“And would you mind telling me what you plan on doing with all that silver?”
The little boy pushes up his hat, revealing a fringe of blond hair.
“I’m gonna get an undertaker t’ bury my pa next t’ my ma.” His voice breaks a little as he says it. “That was the only thing Pa wanted, and I gotta do it cuz I was his pardner.” The boy swallows a little, “Who’re you, anyway?”
“Michael Holt. Yours?”
His face hardens and he tightens his grip on the gun, “Owen Morgan. And you killed my pa.”
I tighten the grip on my own gun. “Your pa was an outlaw. I shot only because I had to.”
“And he stole only cuz he had to!” Owen’s face draws into a sharp scowl. “We didn’t have the money to get Ma back from that dirty Grant gang!”
I can’t cover the surprise on my face, “Get your Ma back?”
“Yeah. Pa owed the leader money, and Pa could never get enough together to pay ‘im. Then they up and took Ma and said they needed the money before they’d give ‘er back.”
My mind spins in circles, trying to make sense of the whole thing. “But you said your Ma was dead now.”
Owen nods and blinks the tears away from his brown eyes, “They killed Ma before Pa was able to get enough.” A few drops trickle down his cheeks. He scowls and brushes them away, but the broken heart still shows in his eyes.
I hear a quiet pounding sound and look down across the sunset-lit valley. Paley and four other men are galloping towards the pass. At the pace they’re going, I wouldn’t expect them to take five minutes to reach us.
I holster my gun. Owen looks at my gun, then back up at me, confusion written all over his face.
“So . . .” I fold my arms and look over at the loot-laden pony. “How much would you expect be taking for all that silver?”
Owen’s face looks so blank, it’s obvious he never had a specific price in mind.
“Well,” he glances back at the pony with me, “How much’d it take to get Pa a decent burial? He ‘spected to die a lot sooner and made ‘imself a coffin he hid here, so I won’t be havin’ to pay for that.” He looks back up at me, his gun at rest in his lap. “What d’you think would be a good price?”
I look out into the valley again. The posse is getting closer.
I get down on one knee so I’m level with Owen.
“Well, Owen, there are a lot of good people back in town who would really like to have their silver back.”
“But I need t’ bury Pa!” Owen’s voice rises and the scowl returns to his face. I hold up a hand.
“I know that. That’s why I’ve got a deal for you.”
The posse is almost to the pass.
“Owen, I’ll give you two hundred dollars for all that silver.”
Owen’s eyes go wide, “Two hundred dollars?” Dan Morgan, though hard to catch, was never very good at making off with large sums of anything. And he never stole actual money. His boy has probably never seen that much money in one place.
I hold out my wad of bills and a few coins. “It’s all I have. That should give your Pa a good burial. Go on to the next town north of here. The undertaker there is a friend of mine. Say you’re my friend when you get there. He’ll take care of it.”
Owen reverently took the wad from my hands and put it in his own pocket. “Thank you, Mister Holt.” His voice is quiet with respect. He looks up at me with a big grin splitting his face.
I smile back, then run over to the pony and start throwing off the saddlebags, making an enormous noise.
Over the edge, I can see the posse rounding the corner into the pass.
The saddlebags are all off. I adjust the saddle slightly, unhitch the pony and motion Owen over.
“A posse’s on its way and you need to get out of here, fast.”
Owen clambers his small body up in the saddle and looks to me, “Which way should I go?”
“Down that way,” I point him farther down the trail I came in on. “There’s a trail down there. It’s kinda steep, but I’m pretty sure the pony’ll be fine. Go.”
Owen digs in his heels and guides the pony down the path at a trot. He looks back over his shoulder at me one last time,
I give him a nod and another motion to hurry up. The pony makes it down the path safely and I see Owen, a small shadow in the half-light, galloping like anything towards the north. Not quite riding off into the sunset, but close enough. The sun gives one last brilliant flash and sinks below the horizon.
“Holt? Where are you?”
I turn at Paley’s voice and give a salute in their direction.
“Don’t worry, Sheriff. I got the silver back.”
The men run up next to me and look over the area, their eyes resting on the still smoldering fire pit.
“What about Morgan?”
I glance over my shoulder. “He got away.”
I bite my lip to hide a smile. And good luck to him.
“Hey, Holt!” my friend comes bursting out the general store’s door. “They’ve got a new shipment of ten-gallon hats in. You want to go get one?”
I finger the brim of my worn old hat, “No, I’m all right. Besides, my pockets are empty at the moment.”
He shoves my arm and laughs, “You know, sometimes I think I’ve befriended the worst gambler in town.”
“Well,” I shrug, “I guess I just came across a bet I couldn’t pass up.”