Wednesday, October 5, 2011
BookRiff, which launches tomorrow, lets readers to mix and match licensed content (book chapters, recipes, photos, etc) into a personalized package —
The veteran of five startups, Grayson joined BookRiff, the digital media company that is a partner of Vancouver-based Douglas & McIntyre publishing company, at the behest of founder Mark Scott, whom she knew from a philosophy book club.
“I like to go into chaos and organize it,” says Grayson. “I’ve always straddled the worlds of new and traditional media, so my strength is in seeing how to move back and forth between the two.” What she means about negotiating the worlds of new and traditional media when it comes to BookRiff is that their business model combines traditional media — vetted, edited, and formatted content — from book publishers, with new media capabilities of “slicing and dicing” that content into discrete chunks (BookRiff calls them “Notes,” in keeping with their musical theme) that consumers can purchase and recombine into any kind of form they can imagine. That means professors can put together coursebooks, avid gourmets can assemble custom cookbooks, and travelers can choose which pieces of content will go into their individual guidebooks.
BookRiff CEO Rochelle Grayson
“With BookRiff, we have what we believe is a future for highly curated, highly customized content for very large niche audiences,” says Grayson. “It’s one solution of many on the digital publishing front, but it meets a need that isn’t being served anywhere else to this extent.” BookRiff, which is already working with over half a dozen traditional publishers and plans on agreements with dozens more, takes care of all licensing and copyright arrangements so that when a consumer comes to their site to assemble a “Riff,” all they have to do is purchase content and watch its tally on their screen.
Grayson believes that book publishers have neglected the experiential aspect of reading. “I’ll be honest, where publishers have floundered and sold themselves short is by emphasizing content over experience. For example, telling a reader that ‘This book has been well reviewed.’ The reader doesn’t care! The reader wants to know what she will get from that book. We’ve gotten too far away from that experience, which is what we’re actually selling. In publishing, we’ve been terrific about streamlining the production process — but too often, we leave the marketing message to retailers.”
As Grayson provides of tour of BookRiff.com, she notes that the company is in “soft launch with a lot of hand-holding. I make money when I sell content, but the back-end system right now is by invitation only, because we want to make sure we have good publishers, good content, and good curators (or “Riffers”), even if it means we don’t have as much content as we’d like at first.” The company has targeted several verticals and already has deals in place with O’Reilly Media, Harvard Common Press, Sterling Publishers, and, of course, Douglas & McIntyre.
Visitors to the site who go in “cold” will be able to browse and see which already crafted “Riffs” are for sale, as well as start crafting their own — but until a purchase is made, they won’t get the full text of any “Note.” However, you will always be able to see any Riff or book’s table of contents. For content creator and publisher comfort, everyone should know that content on the BookRiff site is carefully coded so that it cannot be copied, altered, or otherwise changed. “Separating the presentation layer from actual content is sometimes tough for mainstream publishers,” says Grayson, “but while BookRiff is tech, I see it mostly as an enabler of people. It still takes the creativity of the human mind to make it worthwhile. Think about it — Twitter in terms of tech sucks; what makes it interesting is the people who use it.”
Grayson believes that the time is ripe for BookRiff. “Many people now have grown up in a remix world and have more fluid ideas about how content is used. The low-hanging fruit, at first, is going to be the informational content, including market research, travel, and cooking—but who know what will happen after that?”
Monday, October 3, 2011
April 24, 1868. Kansas
Pete Baker and Joe Flaherty stalked down Main Street, Baxter Springs. Pete was on edge and Joe had finally given up trying to calm him. “He’s going to get rid of us,” Pete muttered. “I’m sure of it. He has his own man lined up, that sack of shit.”
“He can’t do that,” Joe replied. “You’ve done a great job as marshal.”
“Thanks.” Pete glanced at his friend. “And you’ve been a great deputy. But I don’t think that counts for much with Mayor Dell.”
Joe didn’t challenge Pete this time; he knew that there was no point. What Pete said could be true. He’d been marshal for two years now and he was doing as good a job as anyone could in a town as wild as Baxter Springs. But, he realized, if the mayor wanted to bring in his own man, there wasn’t much he could do about it.
The job didn’t mean as much to Joe, Pete knew. Joe was a Texan and could always ride back down the trail to the family ranch if necessary whereas he, on the other hand, had made his life in Baxter Springs. He had Dorothy, a beautiful and loving wife, and three-month-old Tom. Being marshal helped support his family, it was an important source of income.
The soles of their boots made a solid sound as they strode along the wooden boardwalk. They reached the entrance to the town hall and walked straight in the front door. Even though it was called the Town Hall, in reality it was a three room wooden building, not very different from most of the others in the town.
The door to the mayor’s office was open and they were beckoned in. The mayor offered them seats, smiling his nauseatingly obsequious smile at them as they settled into their chairs. The mayor sat behind an imposing oak desk which, Pete knew from his few dealings with him, Dell thought gave him an air of separation from the stream of commoners he dealt with on a daily basis. Joe looked like he wanted to run around that desk and plant a fist in Dell’s face. Pete hoped his friend would contain his temper.
“Welcome, men.” Dell’s large bushy mustache moved up and down as he spoke. He’d been appointed mayor six months before, much to Pete’s annoyance and frustration. The two men didn’t have a good working relationship and Pete felt that Dell was just waiting for an excuse to get rid of him in order to bring in some old friend or crony as marshal, which he was aware was a not uncommon practice. Pete’s position as marshal was relatively well paid and coveted by many.
Pete was very much his own man and it was this trait that he knew caused Dell most frustration. He didn’t feel the need to fill the mayor in on every little detail of his work. He simply believed that it was none of his business, just as he hadn’t burdened the previous mayor with the minutiae of the job either. Pete would never make a politician, he knew that for sure, but he now realized that he may have to temper his stubbornness or it might cost him his job.
“You’re probably wondering why I called you here,” Dell said.
“Let’s not drag this out any longer than necessary,” Pete replied. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Joe cast a worried glance in his direction.
“What do you mean, Marshal?” Dell’s voice was as sweet as molasses.
“Stop fooling around and get to the point, Mayor.” Pete was unable to play the game that he was sure Dell wanted him to play. The very injustice of the situation: the imminent removal of his job, his livelihood, his means of survival on the whim of a man like Dell was almost too much to bear. He wanted to get this over with quick.
Dell arched an eyebrow and beckoned with his hand for Pete to continue with what he had to say.
“You’re firing us, aren’t you?”
His words hung over the room like a pall. Everything was now out in the open. He’d said what was on his mind. He heard Joe shift in his chair and shuffle his feet nervously, his hard-soled boots scraping the floorboards. He looked toward Dell who wore a smirk on his face. A tense silence filled the air until he spoke again.
“Come on, Joe,” Pete said, “I don’t want to stay where I’m not wanted.”
He scraped back his chair and got to his feet. Joe, too, stood but Dell halted them before they could make for the door. “Not so fast, boys. I didn’t give you permission to leave.”
Pete felt his temper flare. He was about to tell Dell where he could shove his permission when he felt Joe’s hand on his shoulder. He eyed his deputy’s face and saw his look of concern. Concern that he might say or do something that might have serious consequences. He would hold his tongue, for now at least. Whatever happened about losing his job, spending a night in jail was not part of his plan.
“I didn’t call you here to fire you,” Dell said, unable to hide the smugness in his voice, “although after that little performance I might change my mind.”
Pete fought to keep a neutral expression on his face, to hide the surprise he now felt. He stared dead into the eyes of the mayor until Dell looked away.
“I know this is a tough town to control,” Dell said. “The cattle bring money but also trouble. But the bottom line is that we need the cattle business. We’d be broke without it.”
Dell spoke the truth. Pete was the one who had to deal with the violent, drunk and randy cowboys and the chaos they brought with them each time a herd was driven to the town railheads. The saloons, hotels, brothels, whores, stores; all were dependent on the cowboys and their money.
“I don’t know why you thought I was going to fire you,” Dell added. “I think you’re doing a good job.”
Something in Dell’s voice prevented Pete from believing him completely. “But... ” he uttered. He left the rest of the sentenced unfinished.
“Exactly,” Dell replied. “But...” He let the word hang there for a moment before continuing. “We need to get more money in taxes,” Dell said, speaking quickly to hide the quaver in his voice. “I was thinking of bringing someone in to help you. Someone the businesses couldn’t say no to.”
Pete left Dell’s words settle like stones dropped to the bottom of the riverbed. He knew well that this matter wasn’t as straightforward as it seemed. Collecting fines and taxes was his least favourite part of the job, so any help in that regard would be welcome. If that was what Dell truly had in mind.
“Who were you thinking of?” Pete asked.
“Evan Taylor? You sure?” Pete’s reasoned tone of voice hid his incredulity at Dell’s suggestion. Taylor was a thug and a gunsmith. During the previous cattle season, Taylor raised some hell in the town, beat up a couple of whores and shot up Carley’s General Store. In the end Pete and Joe gave him the option of either leaving Baxter Springs for good or spending some time in the town jail. Wisely, Taylor, chose the first option. But now he was back, and with the mayor’s blessing, it seemed.
“I’m not sure I could bear the sight of that thug wearing a shield,” Pete said.
“Well, I think he could do a good job for us and…” Dell raised his hand to stop Pete from interrupting, “…ultimately, the money collected from businesses goes to pay your salary. Just think about that, Pete.”
Dell didn’t need to elaborate any further; it was clear to Pete what he was getting at.
“This has already been decided, hasn’t it?’
Dell was silent.
“If I don’t agree to this, Taylor will take over as marshal anyway.”
Dell didn’t respond.
“Well?” Pete asked forcefully. He leaned forward in his chair, narrowing the distance between them.
“Now, Pete,” Dell said in a faltering voice, “the reason I brought you here was so we could talk about this.”
“And if I say no?”
The mayor took his time, trying desperately to regain his composure. Finally, he said, “You have a wife, Pete. And a baby…”
“I see,” Pete replied. “So that’s the way it’s going to be.” He sat back in his chair. He burned inside with frustration and anger. He loved being marshal of Baxter Springs and drew great satisfaction from trying to manage the town as best he could. He’d become part of the community and that had given him a sense of worth. And, most importantly, he earned a good living for himself and his family. And that had to be the foremost concern in his mind. Ultimately, he couldn’t afford to put that living in undue jeopardy.
“Joe stays as my deputy, all right?” was all he said, trying to hide the defeat in his voice.
“I’m glad we’ve come to an agreement.” Dell rose and reached his hand across the table. It remained hanging in the air, untouched, as Pete and Joe walked out the door.
* * * *
Five men rode toward the outskirts of town. Charlie Weston drew his overcoat tighter around him and pulled his hat down lower over his eyes. The four men with him did the same. It wasn’t cold, or wet; they weren’t dressed in these heavy coats with high collars for any other reason than to conceal their identities and the weapons they carried.
Weston chewed on an unlit thick cigar, tense but not nervous. He’d been through this many times before over the last few years, although not with this band. He found it more and more difficult to find reliable and loyal gunmen. If all went well, this would be the last time he’d have to draw his Colt in anger. He was eager for it all to end. He found it harder to keep going. The lifespan of an outlaw was only so long, and he felt that his luck might be coming to an end. That was one reason why this job was so important. He had plans, and this payout should allow him to make them real.
It was early in the morning and the town was quiet as they rode along the street. The five men passed unnoticed; if anybody saw them, they’d be mistaken for cowmen or drovers.
Weston reined in outside a clapboard building, the bank. The men dismounted and tied their horses to the hitching rail. Not a word passed between them; they knew their roles. Two men fanned out and covered the approaches to the premises. The other two followed Weston.
He fought to control his breathing as he approached the front door. His nerve endings tingled with excitement. He felt no fear. What had he left to fear, anyway? He had nothing to lose, nobody waiting for him. He just had to look after himself, and this was his way of doing just that.
Weston pushed open the front door and entered the bank, closely followed by one of his men, a grizzled old outlaw named Stewart. The other stayed outside to make sure that nobody else followed them in. There were just two staff, a clerk and a cashier, sitting behind a wooden counter. Weston didn’t approach the desk but stopped and warmed his hands at the stove placed just inside the door. Instead, he watched Stewart approach the clerk. The cashier watched, too, as Stewart stood facing his companion.
“Can you change this for me, friend?” Stewart growled as he slid a ten dollar bill across the polished counter. The clerk reached for the bill but stopped midway as the steel barrel of Stewart’s revolver pressed against his temple. The cashier leaped to his feet to help his colleague, instinct trumping restraint.
“I wouldn’t do that,” snarled Weston round his cigar. The cashier was halted by the sound of the hammer of Weston’s gun being drawn back. “I said stop, feller. Or I will blast your head off.”
The tone of his voice left the cashier in no doubt that he meant what he said.
“Let’s not waste any time,” Weston said forcefully. His heart was racing, now. Even though the town was quiet at this early hour, he knew that they couldn’t afford to waste any time in here. His men outside would keep watch but there was always the danger that a curious lawman would show up and note the unfamiliar faces outside the town’s only bank and grow suspicious. He had to expedite matters and, from experience, he knew that brutality was often the best way of shocking people into action.
The two bank staff stared at him, either unwilling or unable to move. Weston nodded almost imperceptibly to Stewart. The thug’s right arm flashed across the desk, striking the clerk’s face with the butt of his Colt.
“Andy!” the cashier shouted.
Weston then grabbed the cashier by the shoulder. “Quiet!” He shoved him toward the open bank vault, the man half stumbling on his way, clearly shocked by what he’d seen happen to his associate, Andy. The clerk now lay on the floor, blood seeping from the wound on his face, his low moans rolling around the building. Weston shoved the cashier into the vault and flung him a grain sack he’d concealed in his coat. “Be quick!” he barked.
* * * *
Ralph, the cashier was glad to have a job, a purpose. Something he could focus his ordered mind on. Everything would be all right as long as he did as he was told. He began to fill the sack with gold and silver coins, the sounds from the currency temporarily drowning out the lowing from his injured friend, Andy. He worked methodically, the only way he knew how, doing his job, anxious to please. Outside the vault, the grizzled old outlaw hauled Andy to his feet and tried to shake the grogginess from him.
“Where’s the paper money?” the old outlaw demanded. Andy slumped back to his knees, a glazed expression on his face. The outlaw raised his gun again, ready to strike Andy once more.
“In the box,” Ralph shouted from inside the vault, his voice shrill with panic and fright. He wasn’t sure that he could bear the sight or sound of any more violence. Wasn’t sure if he could endure the sickening, sharp crack of gun striking bone. Wasn’t sure he could listen to any more primal, animal sounds of aggression and pain. His hand shook as he pointed to a large tin container inside the vault.
The old outlaw came into the vault and stuffed the contents of the box: currency, bonds, bank notes and sheets of revenue stamps, into another sack. The cigar chewing outlaw stepped out of the vault, his grain sack bulging, and then the old outlaw grabbed Andy and dragged him roughly across the floor toward the vault. He flung him inside.
“Stay in there,” grated the man with the cigar, “if you know what’s good for you.”
Ralph glanced at his fob watch. He reckoned the two outlaws had been in the bank for a total of eight minutes.
Darkness enveloped them as the vault door slammed shut. Relief flooded through him. Relief that the raiders had gone, that he wouldn’t be hurt, and that it was his colleague who suffered from their violence and not him. They could be in here for hours, he realized in an abstract sort of way, as if it was of no great concern to him. All he need do was just wait until someone let them out and he’d then go about his day as normal.
But Andy’s pain couldn’t be ignored. He lay at his feet, the sounds of his hurt filling the small room. Ralph knelt beside him. He couldn’t see Andy’s wound in the darkness, for which he was grateful. He didn’t know what to say to his friend, how to reassure him. As he dredged his mind for suitable words, he noticed a thin sliver of light entered the vault from around the door frame. Jammed in it was a loose coin, preventing it from closing fully.
“Back in a minute,” Ralph muttered to his stricken colleague as he shoved at the vault door. It gave, and he was out! The bank was empty; his attackers had left the premises but through the large glass window he saw them disappearing down the street.
He burst out the front door and shouted at the top of his voice: “Robbed! We’ve been robbed!” He pointed down the street at the group of riders heading out of town and frantically looked around for help.
* * * *
Pete was silent as he walked away from the mayor’s office with Joe.
“What’re you thinking, Marshal?” Joe asked.
“You know you don’t have to call me that. Pete will do just fine.”
“Well, whatever I call you, the question’s the same. What d’you think of what just happened inside there?”
“I think he’s trying to get rid of us, no matter what he says. Well, get rid of me at least. But he doesn’t have the courage to do it like a man.”
“I think it’s because he knows that he doesn’t have the support. If he got rid of you all the businessmen would be furious. He’d get run out of town.”
“I’m not so sure. He wants Evan Taylor in as marshal, that’s for sure. I don’t know why, but that’s the road he’s heading down and I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it. He is the mayor after all.”
He was silent for a moment and then added, “Let’s get some breakfast. Things might seem a little straighter after a cup of coffee and some food.”
Joe was about to speak but the words died in his mouth as a cry pierced the air, cutting through their worries about the mayor and wiping out their plans to fill their bellies. “What was that?” he asked.
Pete had already broken into a run and half-turned to shout, “Somebody’s just robbed the bank!”
They both rushed to their horses and mounted up and rode in the direction the distraught cashier pointed, their horses’ hoofs kicking up dust from the dry ground as they went.
Pete led the way as they rode the cattle trail that led into Baxter Springs, that broad worn sweep of ground gouged into the soil by the hoofs of the beasts that gave the town life. The outlaws couldn’t be that far ahead, Pete knew, but he could see no sign of the fleeing gang. He felt a fire burning within, fuelling a drive to catch the men who dared rob the bank in his town. This was the first bank robbery since he’d become marshal and he felt a personal hurt at the crime. And, though he wouldn’t admit it, or maybe even realize it, his meeting with the mayor spurred him on also. This pursuit gave him something to focus on, and prove that he was a good lawman.
* * * *
Joe gradually fell behind, his mount unable to match the speed of Pete’s.
Pete disappeared around a sweeping curve in the trail and Joe lost him from sight, the dust kicked up by his horse blocking his view. He fought to get more from his mount to try and gain some ground but with no success. But then he heard a sound that sent a chill down his spine; the sound of gunshots.
Joe drew his Colt and drew back the hammer. He rounded the curve in the trail, nerves jangling, wary of what might lie ahead. He heard a gunfire once more and felt a bullet whistle
past his ear. He pulled back on the reins, anxious not to ride into the ambush. He ducked his head low behind his horse’s neck for cover. As he did so, he heard a shout from his left.
“Joe,” Pete called, “get over here!” Pete had dismounted and lay crouched in a depression behind a small hillock off the side of the trail.
A shot cracked the air again and once more Joe heard the distinctive whistling sound of a bullet as it passed close by, the sound of death seeking him out. He was an easy target sitting in the middle of the trail like this; he had to get under cover.
Pete poked his head over the top of the ridge and fired off two quick shots at some target in the distance.
Joe took his chance, quickly dismounted and dashed over to where Pete lay. His horse turned tail and fled back toward Baxter Springs.
“They were waiting for me,” Pete panted. “Dry-gulched me.”
“You hit?” Joe asked.
Pete shook his head.
“Where they firing from?” Joe shouted above the sound of the gunfire.
“Behind a ditch just up the way a little. Five of them. Just saw the barrel of a Winchester
poking out as I came round the bend. Took cover just in time.”
“Bless your sight, Pete, I didn’t see a thing. I’d have ridden straight into them.”
“That was their plan.”
The shooting stopped momentarily and Pete took the opportunity to take a quick look
over the top of their cover. He dropped back down just as quickly. “They’re going to try and roust us out,” he said. “They’ve got us outnumbered but I’ve never known an outlaw to have more stomach for a fight than you or me.”
Joe nodded in agreement.
“They’ll probably send two fellers around our side, try to outflank us, under covering fire from the other three. That’s what I’d do anyway. They’ll try to keep our heads down until the other jiggers are close enough to blow our heads off. But we’ll be ready for them,” he said with grim determination.
“Just like the war again,” Joe said quietly.
Pete nodded. He quickly described his plan of action to Joe. “It’s risky but right now it didn’t seem as if we’ve got any other choice.”
* * * *
Weston finished giving his instructions to his men. He was furious that they hadn’t killed the marshal outright but Travers had fired too early. To make matters worse, they’d also failed to hit the deputy. Now, instead of being home free they were stuck in a shootout in the middle of the plain. This couldn’t continue, Weston knew. There might be a posse on the way from the town, hungry for blood. His blood. Even in a place like Baxter Springs, a full scale
gun-party couldn’t continue indefinitely without attracting some measure of attention. It was time to resolve this impasse, and quickly.
“Travers and Collier,” he called.
The pair reluctantly looked at him, aware from his tone of voice that they wouldn’t like what he had in mind.
“You two fan out and come around the sides of that hillock. We’ll cover you. And,” he said pointedly at Travers, “make sure you don’t miss this time.”
“Why us?” Travers protested. “Why don’t you go if you’re so worried we won’t do it right?” Anger welled within Weston once more. He hated Travers, now, his emotion was that strong. Hated them all, in fact. If he’d thought that he could’ve pulled off the robbery by himself, he would have; it would have been worth the risk instead of having to now stare at the sullen face of this idiot. The face of a man who just wanted to collect easy money, who didn’t want to work or take orders.
“Because I said so,” Weston replied, slowly, as if he were speaking to a child. He had to use all his strength to keep his frustration in check.
“So what?” Travers rasped. “Who said you could boss us around anyways?”
A single shot rang out and Travers clutched at his chest. The others ducked for cover, all except Weston and Stewart. Smoke drifted from the barrel of Stewart’s Colt and dissipated slowly into the late-morning air.
“Any more questions?” Weston asked.
There were none.
“Donnachie, you take Travers’ place.”
This time there were no arguments. Donnachie and Collier stepped over the dying form of Travers as they left the cover of the ditch. Seconds later, Stewart and Weston lay down covering fire.
* * * *
Joe was about to jump into action when the shot that killed Travers echoed. Pete grabbed him by his shirtfront to steady him and gestured for him to wait a moment.
“What’s happening?” Joe mouthed.
Pete wasn’t sure, but he knew he couldn’t afford to betray his plan too early. If it didn’t come off, they’d be going home as corpses slung on their mounts, of that he had no doubt. He had no illusions about the savagery of gunfights. He’d seen too much of their aftermaths and witnessed the barbarity and brutishness they brought out in people. Gunfights unleashed base instincts, the instinct for survival, to live, even if it was at the expense of another person. He’d never previously had any fear of slaughter. But things were different, now.
Must stay alive. For them.
He thought of Dorothy and little Tom back in the Ranchers’ Saloon. Dorothy’s father, Cal, owned the business and Dorothy helped him run it. Did they even know that he was out here, his life hanging by a thread? They’d be wondering why he hadn’t come home for breakfast, why he hadn’t checked in. Maybe they wouldn’t be wondering, after all. Word of the bank robbery would spread. They’d know, all right. He couldn’t be farther from them now, he thought. But there was only one way to get back there. Kill or be killed. It was the law of this land.
He took a deep breath. There was still no firing from the ditch. Maybe he’d been wrong? Maybe the outlaws were crawling toward them even now, Bowie knives drawn, ready to slit their throats? This thought sent a chill through him, despite the growing heat.
He tensed his body, ready to crawl around the side of the hillock to see the lie of the land. He knew that he might be offering himself as an easy target. But he also knew that he couldn’t just lie there doing nothing, waiting for death’s cold embrace. He dropped onto his belly and removed his hat, left it. He turned to Joe and indicated that he must not follow him.
He crawled along, using his elbows to propel himself forward. It was only a few feet to a spot where he could peer round a small undulation and get a view of the plain. They wouldn’t be expecting him to appear there, he reckoned, away from the main cover of the hillock. And, if the worst came to the worst and he was seen and fired upon, maybe even killed, at least he would have given Joe warning without putting him in immediate jeopardy.
He lay flat against the dry, dusty ground, his nose pressed against the dirt. Without his hat, the sun’s rays felt intense on his scalp and sweat drooled down his face. Any upward movement and he’d break cover. The ridge was just high enough to hide him but it tapered away until it became one with the plain. He brought his revolver up from his hip and pulled back the hammer, ready to fire. He knew he’d be a sitting duck if spotted. One gun against five, as far as he knew, with very little cover. One of those bullets was bound to find its target. But the other option, to wait for death to come around the hill and take them, was no option for Pete Baker. He wasn’t going to allow that to happen.
He tensed, ready to stick his head into the open. “Now or never, Pete,” he muttered, sounding braver than he felt. His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden fusillade of shots that filled the air and the impact of bullets into the hillock.
* * * *
Joe wasn’t sure what to do. Pete’s plan hadn’t involved him being yards away with his nose buried in dirt when the lead started flying. To his left, he saw Pete trying to make himself as small as possible to avoid getting hit. He heard bullets singing overhead as well as thudding into the hillock and the ground all around him. But Pete didn’t seem to have been hit. They mustn’t have seen him, he concluded. They weren’t firing at him, either. This must be their covering fire for the men who were going to outflank them.
“Pete!” he roared, straining to be heard above the din. “They’re not firing at you, they haven’t seen you!” Joe saw Pete rise onto his haunches. He looked about for a moment before shouting to Joe: “Do it!”
Joe understood immediately and pressed his back hard against the hillock. Its summit was just above his head. Joe removed his hat and in one smooth move landed it on top of the ridge. Before it landed, he was rolling away to his right.
He heard lead being emptied into his hat, as though the robbers’ fire concentrated on that one point. He regretted the loss of that hat, a gift from his mother. His Colt ready, he looked across at Pete and received a definite nod. It was time.
* * * *
Both Pete and Joe broke cover at the same time, guns blazing. As they rose up they charged almost directly into Collier and Donnachie. The outlaws’ expressions changed from shocked surprise to terror as they realized they were now easy targets. Joe and Pete cut them down. Pete was so close he could smell the stale sweat that permeated the outlaws’ bodies as they fell dead. Now there were just those behind the ditch.
Bullets chased their feet, kicking up dust as they ran. Pete didn’t bother crouching low, he just ran as hard as he could toward the low ditch. He saw the man firing at him, an old grizzled feller with his hat pulled low and the barrel of his Winchester tracking. Yet Pete moved fast and closed the distance between them quickly. He couldn’t see the other gang members, and presumed that they were somewhere close by. Maybe Joe was dealing with them? He fired a couple of shots quickly at the ditch, forcing the outlaw to duck for cover. The barrel of the rifle reappeared, just feet away. He fired his Colt but the bullet missed and struck the ground directly in front of the outlaw. His gun clicked empty: he was a sitting duck.
Time lengthened as Pete clearly saw the features of the man who prepared to kill him. The sun-bronzed face, beaten harshly by the wind, the lines like furrows that creased his forehead. And there was nothing Pete could do about it; he was powerless, destined to run into the ball of lead that would travel toward him at a ferocious speed and rip through his shirt and skin and make a mess of internal organs, tearing them beyond repair and rendering the shiny marshal’s badge on his chest no more useful than a toy little Tom might play with.
In those seconds, all he felt was loneliness crashing over him like a wave, smothering him. What would his family do when they heard of his death? Would it help that he died bravely, or would it have made any difference if he’d died between the legs of a whore? The result would be the same: extinction. Would Dorothy remarry? Would Tom even remember him? He thought of the experiences he would never share with his family and he mourned the life he would never have. His mortality, his perishability was laid bare; the brutal transience of life was brought home to him. This was the end.
* * * *
Sound cleaved the air. It was the sound of an explosion in a weapon, propelling a projectile from a barrel toward its target until it met with skin and bone and gristle and all manner of life-giving matter.
The body collapsed to the ground, existence draining from it. It was little more than a shell, a husk from which the seed had been eaten. Dead.
* * * *
Pete’s mouth had gaped open when he had heard the report and a shout, a primeval roar, had forced itself from his lungs as if competing with the noise of the very thing destined to kill him. He felt nothing, surprised that the impact of something that could take so much from him, take everything from him, didn’t cause more pain. Didn’t strike him like a bolt of lightning, dissolving him on the spot. His legs kept moving, his cry kept calling out, filling him from within, blocking out all external sensations, wrapping him in a cocoon of black noise until he found himself standing over the prone body of the grizzled outlaw, blood seeping from the man’s temple.
He stopped, stunned and confused. Unable to comprehend what had just happened.
“Pete!” Joe called.
Pete stood still, dazed, gazing foolishly at the dead man at his feet. He lifted his head and looked across at Joe.
“I got him, Pete,” Joe said, holding up his smoking revolver. “I got him.”
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