The horse snorted and stamped its feet, tail swishing angrily to scatter the flies. Its rider patted absently at its neck, her gaze centered off on the horizon. The only thing moving was a pair of circling buzzards in the distance.
The rider sat silent, waiting. A rattlesnake shook its rattle, warning off some imagined threat. The horse leaned down and tugged at a patch of dry grass, chewing loudly.
Eventually, the rider sat up, raised her hand to shield her eyes from the midday sun, and peered at a speck on the horizon that was slowly growing larger. The sound of pounding hooves gradually reached her ears, and the silhouette of two men blotted a new shadow against the bright sunlit sky. The horse raised its head, perked its ears, sniffed the air. Still, they waited.
When the riders finally arrived, dusty from the trail, and reined in their horses in front of the woman, she still didn’t speak, not until her eyes had scanned each of them carefully, up and down, noting anything out of place.
“Well?” she said, finally, tipping up her hat and squinting at them.
“They’re all gone, Sheriff,” the taller of the pair said, tugging a torn and faded red bandanna from his pocket and wiping his face. He was still beardless, his face spotted, his eyes unlined. He wore a deputy’s badge on his chest. “Deserted. Just like the miners down at Wrensbourgh. Dinner left on tables like it’s waitin’ for ‘em, wash hangin’ on the line, still damp. ”
His companion shook his grey head and spit a long stream of tobacco onto a beetle with pinpoint accuracy. The Sheriff frowned at him.
“And you?” she shot out accusingly. “What do you think about it?”
He shrugged. He tugged a flask from his belt and drank, ignoring the Sheriff’s deepening frown.
“Me?” he said, after wiping at his mouth with his sleeve. “I reckon we’re fucked, madam.”
The Sheriff paused again, frowning at the horizon. “Shit,” she drawled, after a while, and took a deep breath. “Come on, then. I found us a place to bed down. Pray to God it’s a good one.”
“Yes’m,” the young boy said, and nudged his horse into a trot behind her, with the drunk falling in behind him after a bit of cursing.
It wasn’t so much a house as a hole in the ground that they rode to, a dugout in a cliff where the wood holding up the dirt wall was nearly rotted. One outer wall had already collapsed under a window frame, leaving a hole and a small pile of dirt, sprouting grass.
“Get in,” the Sheriff said, looking up at the sky as if it might rain, though not a cloud was in sight.
The boy obeyed immediately, after pulling bedrolls down from both his and the Sheriff’s horses. On his way into the house, he looked up at her face, worried. She just nodded at him and stayed put. She could offer no consolation. The old man tugged a cigar from his pocket and lit it up, yellowed fingers trembling around the flickering match. As the sun sank lower, he alternated between puffs of smoke and sips of whiskey, spitting curse words under his breath and glowering at the Sheriff.
“What you think we gone do, madam?” he asked, when they’d sat and stared at the desert for several hours and he was so drunk he had to lean against the crumbling wall to keep standing. “The town drunk, a boy so green he ain’t never had a woman, and the Sheriff’s widow? We cain’t do nothin’. We’re as gone as the rest of ‘em, we jest don’t know it yet.”
“Hush,” she looked over her shoulder into the dugout, at the boy asleep with his hat over his face. “We wait. We can defend from here, it’s got good cover.”
“You made yerself Sheriff and deputized that boy and now he thinks he can do anythin’,” the old man slid down the wall and sat in the dirt. “Cain’t do nothin’, I say. Meddlin’ woman.”
In a flash, the Sheriff had her six-shooter in hand and had shot an inch from his foot. Inside, the young deputy sat up and looked, but she smiled at him and shook her head. “Just target practice,” she said. Turning to the old man, she whispered angrily, “I can still kill you, you useless old man.”
The drunk shrugged. “We’re all dead anyway,” he repeated.
“We will hold,” she said, loud enough for the kid to hear. “Sun’s setting. Get your gun and get cover. We will hold. We have to hold.”
The old man huffed a laugh and pulled his own pistol from his pocket, pulling himself back to his feet and glaring at the red sun.
“And if we don’t,” he said. “Adios, Madam Sheriff. Adios.”
The last sliver of the sun sank below the horizon, and they waited.
© 2012 – Jennifer L. Davis – All rights reserved.
(Written for the prompt “Word list: Rattlesnake, Six-shooter, Adios, Miner, Madam, Dusty, Sheriff” and Genre: Western at http://www.flashfictionfriday.com/)