Or, The Ties That Bind
"Stop right there or I'll blow you outta your damn saddles," the fellow with the shotgun croaked, and he and two pals rode slowly out of the nighttime shadows shrouding the woods by the side of the road.
My brother and I reined up our horses. It was obvious from the dull gray glint of moonlight off the barrels that was no broomstick the man was pointing at us, and his compadres sure weren't brandishing bananas -- forty-fives was more like it.
Funny thing, though: all that artillery didn't scare me half as much as what the men were wearing.
Their heads were, at first, mere white splotches in the darkness. But as their mounts ambled closer, I could see that those shapeless blobs were, in fact, gunnysack masks.
This wasn't a random "Who goes there?" where a country road winds too close to some jumpy rancher's spread. My brother and I had spent the last two days thereabouts digging up dirt -- and now someone meant to do us some.
"Gun belts. Off. Slow," the shotgun man rumbled. He had a low, unnaturally rough voice, like a fellow trying to talk while gargling pebbles.
Old Red unclasped his holster and let it drop to the ground.
I reluctantly did likewise.
The six-gun men put away their irons and unsaddled themselves, dropping to the ground with soft, muffled thuds. One took hold of our mounts by the bridles. The other pulled out a couple short lengths of thin rope.
"Hands behind your backs," said the gravel-mouthed man. He was still on horseback, holding the reins in his right hand and the shotgun in his left.
"Careful with that cannon, mister," I told him. "You squeeze off a shot accidental-like, your friends'll get as much buckshot as us."
"Shuddup," the man growled.
I aimed a peep over at my brother, looking for some signal that we should make a break for it -- throw ourselves from our saddles and hope the shotgun man wouldn't fire for fear of blowing his chums to kingdom come.
Old Red shook his head. Then he put his hands behind his back.
I again followed suit -- even more reluctantly, this time -- and the fellow with the rope got to cinching us up.
"Well, Brother, here's another taste of that famous Hill Country hospitality you told me so much about," I said. "It positively warms the heart to see folks welcome you back the way they have."
"Sorry," Old Red said.
It worried me, that "Sorry." It's not a word I'd heard often from my elder brother, no matter how many times his detectiving dragged me within spitting distance of death's door.
"Alright," Froggy said, and he pointed his shotgun at a large, low-hanging branch jutting from an elm tree nearby. "Over there."
The fellow holding our horses led them -- and, by extension, us -- beneath the branch.
This did not bode well. In fact, it boded the worst.
Behind us, I could hear the creak of saddle leather, hoof beats coming slowly closer, a shushing sort of sound as something rough and heavy was slid out of a saddlebag.
Someone reached out and whipped my hat off my head.
No wonder Old Red was sorry. He had good reason.
We both did.
In a calm moment, you could've told me it'd all end like this, and I've had just laughed and said, "How right! How proper! All these years tied to my brother's apron-strings and then I'm hung from the same rope! Oh, that's me, alright -- adangle from the last branch of my family tree!"
Only this wasn't a calm moment, and I sure as hell wasn't laughing.
Especially not when the noose went around my neck.
Look for The Crack in the Lens in bookstores everywhere July 21.