CROSSROADS #3 The Tall Man

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Westerns  |  House: Booksie Classic

Stanley Braxton is a desperate man on the run, the only problem is... he can't remember who or what he's running from. He'll find his answer in Crossroads and it won't an answer he can live with.

Welcome to Texas, the mid-1880s, and a tiny incidental desert hamlet named Crossroads. It's a little known, seldom spoken of frontier town, snugly nestled beneath majestic mountains along the southwestern border between Texas and Mexico, and morally poised between virtue and corruption. It's a mundane community barely on the maps of this vast region, a unique shade of gray in this harsh black and white world. It's a tiny society unto itself where the sublime sometimes means the surreal. It is a place where wandering souls come for a variety of reasons. For some it's to seek a better life away from the increasingly modernized mayhem of progress. For some it's a place to hang their hat before moving on to their destiny. Still for others it's a sanctuary from the past, a last chance of sorts to start anew.

So welcome, my friend.  Welcome to a town where last chances meet new beginnings.  Welcome to a town on the edge of the American spirit, where the unimaginable is cultivated from the seeds of the human condition. Welcome to a town where the past and the present roll the dice with the future hanging in the balance.

Crossroads.

II=====II=====II=====II====== II=====II=====II=====II=======II======II

CROSSROADS

The Tall Man

by LW Thunder

II=====II=====II * PROLOGUE * II=====II=====II

Portrait of a desperate man: meet Stanley Braxton, a man on the run. He is running from something hidden just beyond the dark veil of his failing memory. As a result, he now finds himself driven to flee keeping one eye on the road ahead and one eye looking over his shoulder. Desperation, fear and paranoia are his travel companions now as he makes his journey through the shadows of his mind, for you  see, Stanley Braxton is  about to  enter that place where light and darkness intersect and where his frantic sojourn will make its last stop... at Crossroads.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER ONE * II=====II=====II

‘Keep running, Stanley!’

The thought keeps running through the mind of Stanley Braxton as he staggers over the burning sands of the San Toranado Desert. He can’t remember why; all he knows is that he has to keep going or else he  will find him. He couldn’t remember how long he’d been on the run.The hot, dry days seemed to blur together in an unending eternity.His skin was burned and red courtesy of the scorching mid-afternoon sun above. His wrists ached and his feet are burning. He licks his cracked, blistered lips and tries to ignore his throat’s incessant begging for water.

‘I’ve got to keep moving’ he thought. ‘Why? Why am I running? What did I do?’

He stumbles again and falls face first into the searing sand.

“Hah!” he pushes himself up from the ground and spits the sand from his mouth in anger.  “C’mon  Stanley,  get yer hide a-movin’ boy!”

He staggers to his feet, dusting off the sand from his clothes. He squints hard and looks in the distance. There is a ridge about five hundred feet from him. He attempts a smile and says under his breath “Water’s gonna be there, I just know it!”

From somewhere in his soul, he mustered up the strength to run towards that ridge.  As he approaches the lip of the ridge he again stumbles to the desert’s floor. He continued on crawling forearm over forearm the remaining twenty feet to the ridge itself. In his mind’s eye he could taste cool water on his tongue as he approached the precipice. He peers over the edge of the ridge and his widen with excitement.

“I knew it!” he said in a squeaky shout. “I knew it! I knew it! Stan Braxton you did it, you old son of a gun!”

Beyond the ridge, about a mile and a half off down in a valley, was the town he’d been looking for. He slid his legs around under himself and began running disjointedly down the ridge toward the town.

“I made it!” he says as he kicks his way thru the sand. “He can’t get me here!”

Again in his mind Stan asks himself the question of just who is it that he’s running from. He tries to shake the thought from his head as he makes his way towards the town ahead in the distance with no success.

“Why can’t I remember?” he thought to himself as he slowly dragged himself along the dunes towards the town. “The last thing I remember was walking in thiscursed desert! How did I get here? I was going somewhere... where was I going?”

He slams a fist to the side of his head in an effort to further jog his memory.

”Think, Stanley, think! I was going somewhere. I was going to... going to... U... U... something. Utah? Was I going to Utah? But I don’t know anyone in Utah.”

By the time he’d reached the outskirts of the town the sun had dipped behind the distant Reynosa Mountains.

As usual with the onset of dusk the streets became bare as the towns folk retiredto either their homes or their favorite watering hole. There wasn’t a sole on the street except the town lamplighter when he staggered into the livery stable. He looked around the dingy barn and spied a water pump. He pumped the handle a couple times and clear water poured out into a ceramic basin. He quickly immersed his face in the water. He’d never been so happy to feel water in his life. He gulps down several swallows and then wipes his mouth with the sleeve of his faded red and black plaid shirt.

“I’m so damned thirsty I could probably drink that dang well dry! Ha-ha!” he says.

CLICK!

The sound alerts Stanley Braxton to the approach of someone opening the stable door. He quickly ducks into a nearby stall. As he backs deeper into the stall he realizes  he’s  not  alone.  There  beside  him  is  a fine palomino horse enjoying some oats.

“Ssssssh boy, now don’t you start up, y’hear?” he says to the animal as he slouches down into a corner of the stall.  The animal seemed to ignore its new stablemate and continued eating. He peers through the stall’s boards with a good view of the door in his sights. As he huddled down low in the stall he rubbed his aching wrists and watched as two men walked into the stable.

“I’m tellin’ ya, it was the damndest thing you ever saw!” the first man said.

He was a big burly man, about five foot ten, wearing a leather apron and gloves. He was balding on top but had big porkchop sideburns which met up with his bushy moustache. He was clearly a blacksmith but the other man was dressed in the clothes of a US Cavalry scout. He was of a rugged stature standing about six foot tall with a thick black moustache curled at the ends. His eyes followed the men as they walked over to a small workshop area.

“Anyways, last I heard they both were on the way to Yuma”, said the blacksmith.

‘Yuma! That’s it! That’s where I was going!’ thought Braxton excitedly.

“ Well good riddance, if ya ask me.” the blacksmith said as he grabbed a pair of saddle straps from the wall where they hung.

“Yes well, if I could just have those straps... how much do I owe you?” the scout said.

“Two bucks, sir”, says the smithy.

The scout dug into a small leather pouch at his side and retrieved two silver dollar pieces and handed them to the blacksmith.

“Thank  yakindly  sir”  saidthe smithas  he slapped a meaty hand  onthe scout’s broad back. The pair walked on out of the stable leaving Stanly Braxton alone with his four-legged friend once again.

“ I’ve got to get to Yuma” he said to himself “I’ve gotta get there before he finds me.” Braxton pauses at the statement. ”But who is he? Who is it that’s after me?Why can’t I remember anything?!”

Braxton slumps back down to asitting position in the stall, his hands to his face. He searches his mind for memories of anything that might lead him to his current situation.  He remembers the desert but not how he got there. He tries to force himself back thru the last several days in an effort to answer the mystery.

“I was on my way to Yuma... I was... walking... no! I had a horse! My horse... it was a... a pinto!” he said under his breath so as to not be found out. “I was riding... riding to Yuma! But why? And why can’t I remember who’s after me?”

Again he strains his mind’s limits for an answer to his questions. He envisions a tall man with piercing blue eyes. ‘Who was he? Why is he following me?’ he asks himself. The questions keep pounding thru his brain. He gets to his feet and walks to the open stable door. He slowly sticks his head out and looks around. Satisfied that the amount of street activity was low enough to provide him with safe passage, he walked out into the street and made his way towards the boardwalk on the right side of the road. As he walks down the boardwalk at a fairly brisk pace, he pulls his hat down further on his brow, trying to make himself invisible. It seemed to work as the few passersby never even look at him. With each step he takes he shifts his eyes around, watching for someone who may be watching him.He rubs his still aching wrists as he passes by Hank Mooney’s Last Chance Saloon. He can hear the music and laughter of the crowd inside and pauses to look thru the joint’s large front window.

“Bang! Bang! You’re dead!” a voice shouts behind him.

Without hesitation Stanley Braxton spins on his heels and in one fluid movement brings his hand down to his hip to pistol and grabs... nothing.

‘No!’ he thinks as his eyes now focus on the source of the voice.

Two young boys are playing gunfighter in the street right behind him. They don’t even see Braxton as they continue their childish gunplay down the street.

“Damn kids” he mutters under his breath. He looks down at his empty hand. He feels an eerie familiarity like a distant memory trying to break through. He rubs his  thumb  along the  tips  of  his fingers then quickly looks around  the  immediate scene for anyone who may have now noticed him. He sees a young couple passing by about fifteen feet away. The amorous pair is obviously more interested in each other than anything else going on at the moment as they meander on by him without incident.

He quickly ducks down a back alley beside the Grand National Hotel, stopping under the light from a side window. He grinds his teeth in frustration, the stress of this whole ordeal taking a measure of toll on his psyche.

“I’m losing my mind!” he says in a hushed cry. “I don’t know where I am, I don’t know how I got here. I’m running from someone and I don’t even know who it is or why!”

He hangs his head in his hands.

A few moments pass and he regains his composure. He makes his way down the alley and finds a carriage  house  at the rear attached to the adjoining building. He also notices that its doors still open.

“ Well at least something’s going my way” he says with a twinge of sarcasm. He ducks inside and finds a nice cozy hayloft where he decides to settle in for the night.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER TWO * II=====II=====II

While Stanley Braxton slumbers, his mind wanders, allowing his subconscious to spill out visions of himself riding a black and white pinto horse through the night. They gallop full tilt through a heavily wooded area. His heart is pounding with the thundering of his steed’s hoof beats across the wooded plain. The wind rushes against his face as his eyes are tearing up from its force. It’s amad dash for freedom; the freedom of his very soul. The pair continue their race through the woods and eventually into a clearing.

In the distance he sees an object standing alone in the darkened grassland. He knows he must reach it for his very freedom depends upon it. He spurs his pony on as never before. With their energy at such a heightened state, it’s almost as if they might just take to the air at any moment. As he approaches the item, he begins to slow his horse’s flight. Now he sees the compelling object for what it truly is:

A tombstone.

He halts his stallion in front of the grim monument. He dismounts his horse and walks over to the grave-stone. His eyes are wide with horror as he drops to his knees. There’s one name upon the engraved epitaph:

Stanley A. Braxton.

With tears streaming down his terror-stricken face, he angrily jerks his six-gun from its leather and aims it at the stone marker. His teeth gnash and his hand trembles as he sites the gun in on the gravestone. But before he can squeeze off, a shot, a heavy hand slams down upon his right shoulder from behind. Startled, Braxton turns his head and looks up into the face of his assailant. He is a tall man, perhaps six foot or better, his face partially shadowed by a wide-brimmed hat, his eyes thin and squinting but with a steely stare. Something is gleaming from the man’s chest, the radiance blinding Stanley momentarily as he blocks the light by raising a hand to his eyes. He could barely see the man’s face but did notice one thing about his attacker. In the figure’s mouth is a single wooden match which shifts as the tall man lips pull back into a grim smile.

“No!”

Stanley sits bolt upright, startled from his siesta. He is soaked with sweat and short of breath as if he’d just been running a footrace. He shudders with three deep breaths as if trying to exorcise the demons of his sleep. He rubs his face, scrubbing away the perspiration as well as the sleep from his eyes with both of his burned and calloused hands. He takes one more deep breath and then cocks his head back and forth to loosen up the kinks of sleeping on an uncomfortable bed of straw and wooden planks.

The dust dances in the slender sunbeams as the morning sun is just beginning to peek between the clapboards ofthe carriage house. Despite the nightmares of his slumber Stanley Braxton still doesn’t know why he’s on the run and why someone is after him. However, he does realize one thing; it’s time for him to go.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER THREE * II=====II=====II

He looks around the street scene once again.  There’s a lazy feel to the morning on this day. Folks seem in no hurry to get to their destinations. He too feels a bit more at ease today. The sense of urgency seems to have dissipated and he actually sees the town for what it truly is; a quaint little berg full of the type of people you’d be right proud to call friends. He slowly surveys the scene, noting the peacefulness of their being.

A  man escorts an elderly woman across the mud-soaked lane.  A  barber sweeps off the boardwalk in front of his shop. There’s that same amorous couple from last night, now making their way in their buckboard to a fun filled picnic. In the middle of the road some children are playing outlaws again. All these people could be friends.

his friends someday.

StanleyBraxton steps out into thestreet andbeginswalkingtowardthe south end of town. He spies a snake oil peddler selling his wares in front of the Last Chance Saloon. A little further down the avenue he sees a group of women espousing their views on the Suffrage Movement to anyone who’d listen. There’s the mayor, glad-handing the voting public for a favorable outcome at the polls. He allows himself a slight smile as he ambles down the bustling boulevard.

As he passes by Tilly’s Hard Wares, his wandering eye catches a tall man, his head and face hidden in the shadow of his wide brimmed hat as he leans against a railing of the US Land Office building. The man was approximately at the 11 o’clock position to Stanley as he walked. Stanley quickly changed his path and made a right-hand turn, heading into Grogan’sBilliard Hall

The interior of the establishment was dimly lit and very dingy. Therewereseveralbilliards  tablesdivided  intotwo  long rows and beyond them was the bar. There were only five men in the place. Two men were playing at a far table, one was playing alone about halfway down the second row and the fourth was sitting on a stool against the far-right wall. The fifth man was the? proprietor and he was busy cleaning the glasses behind the bar with his back to the proceedings.

Stanley stood in the doorway at an angle where he was just out of sight of  the stranger but could still see him. He looked out the door at the tall man. Stanley’s heart begins to pound faster. His throat becomes very dry. The man stood about six-foot-three or four and was of a slim but rugged build, likely in his late thirties. Nothing distinctive stood out about the man but Stanley’s gut told him there was something about him, something compelling.

He leaned back into the hall and, while trying to look inconspicuous, glanced around the hall. Satisfied that he’d not drawn any attention he again looked out the door and craned his neck in an effort to see the tall man once more. He rubbed his aching wrists and blinked hard. He squints trying to see the man’s face but the man’s head is tilted down and hidden by the wide brim of his black hat.

“C’mon let’s see yer face, pal” he says with an anticipation so palpable you could almost feel it. “C’mon, c’mon!”

As if his plea was heard, the tall man slowly raises his head. Stanley gasps in shock and snaps himself back inside the hall. He shut his eyes tightly and noticed he was trembling now. He tried to calm himself.

“It can’t be!” he says nervously.

It was terrifyingly ironic that the first thing he’s recognized in days turns out to be the one thing he never imagined he’d ever see... the face of the man in his dream.

“It’s – it’s him!” he says under his breath with terrified incredulity. “But how’s that possible? It was a just a dream... just a damned dream! He can’t be real!”

His mind raced as fast as his heart trying to find a plausible explanation for how his slumber’s specter could materialize into flesh and blood.

“That’s just rubbish!” he snorts as reason returns to calm him down.

Stanley once more sticks his head around the doorframe and looks at the man. The stranger is now looking side to side, up and down the street as if searching for someone.  Stanley again swallows  hard as  his  breathing becomes more rapid. He returns his gaze back inside the pool hall. He shakes his head in disbelief.

“Oh, stop this foolishness, Braxton!” he said, his voice harsh. “You’re imaginin’ things! There’s a perfectly good reason about all this. I’ve got things all twisted up. I didn’t see him in my dream first and then  he came to life, no, no, no. I’d seen him somewhere before, perhaps he’s the one chasing me, yeah, that’s it. I’d  seen  him  before,  that’s  what happened,  yessirree. I dreamed  about  him cuz he’s the one that’s been after me all this time! But why? I still don’t know why.”

He wipes his brow with the back of his hand and glances once again at the tall man.

“He’s... gone? Where’d he go?” he says in hushed doubt.

He blinks hard twice just to make sure of what he sees. He quickly shifts his gaze up and down the street in rapid succession trying to find the tall man to no avail. Stanley steps out onto the boardwalk walks at a brisk pace down the street. Gone now are his pointed acknowledgements, his cute annotations of the various citizens replaced by a stark realization of his current predicament.

“I need to leave here,” he says as he makes his way to the southern edge of town, “I don’t know why but I’ve got to get to Yuma. Whatever this is that’s going on here will end if I can get there. Sure as rain, I know it!”

He turns the corner and stops in his tracks. He swiftly ducks into the open door leading to the lobby of Hannaford’s Lounge & Hotel. He shifts his eyes quickly to  the  desk clerk who apparently  is so  engrossed  in today’s newspaper that he can’t even spare the time to notice. Stanley then rapidly slides down the front wall to the far window along the street side. He pulls back the velvet curtains slightly and peers thru the dusty glass. Across the street is the tall man again. This time Stanley takes the time to examine the man more closely.

He’s dressed in denim shirt and jeans and a black overcoat with silver buttons. There’s an empty holster on his right hip which is tied down to his thigh giving Stanley the notion that it’s already been pulled and at the ready under his coat. He’s leaning against a hitching post with his left hand on his chin and his right hand concealed inside the overcoat. Stanley’s pulse is now pounding so hard that he can feel it throbbing at his temples. He leans back out from the window as his breathing quickens.

‘It’s him,’ he thinks as he looks back out the glass. ‘What does you want, tall man?’

 The tall man leaves his post and begins calmly walking up the street. Stanley watches him walk out of his sight and breathes a long sigh of relief as he does so. He decides that his interests would best be served by staying out of sight as much as possible.

The lobby of the hotel adjoins a gaming joint called “Dobber’s Lucky Strike” via a large opening off to the left. Stanley walks thru the lobby and into the Lucky Strike warily eyeing the patrons for the tall man. He makes his way thru the activities of the room and exits thru the door on the opposite side. It exits to an intersecting street of the main avenue.

Once thru the door the strong aroma of coffee and eggs and bacon hit him flush. His mouth watered at the prospect of filling his long empty stomach. Stanley noticed the smells seemed to be emanating from a small building across the street.

Sally Ann’s was the name painted onto the hanging wooden sign above the door. Stanley reached into his pockets with both hands. They returned empty. He walked around to the back of the building where a window was open. On the sill was a freshly baked pie, an apple pie he judged by its scent on the air. He slowly walked towards the desert and reached out with his hands. Suddenly another pair of hands removed the pie from its resting place just before he reached it.

“No!” he says under his breath.

Disappointment and worry cloud his face.

“Can I help you?” says a calm female voice.

Stanley wheels around and sees a young woman, about thirty, standing in the  back  alley.She’saboutfivefoot  two  withblondehair  andblueeyes.  She’s wearing a red and white petticoat and dress. On her face is a look of concern, not anger. Perhaps she hadn’t seen him try to pilfer the pie. She caught him by such surprise that he thought he’d best escape than explain and dashes out the alley.

“That’s strange” the woman mutters to herself.

As Stanley races back into street he looks around hurriedly. His gaze abruptly settles on the tall man as he walks down the street towards him. He is glancing side-to-side searching the scene for something or rather someone.

Stanley turns up his shirt collar and begins walking briskly down the boardwalk drifting in and out among the patrons on the walkway. He ducks into Wilson’s Granary Store and looks thru the front window back up the street.

“ What? No!” he says in a hushed panic.?“

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER FOUR * II=====II=====II

The man then looks directly at Stanley.

“No!” he says under his breath as he ducks further back into the alley. “No, no, no, no no!”

He sticks his head  out to look at the man again. The man is still looking at him from across the street. The man fixes  his  hat  further  down on his  brow and begins walking into the street heading towards Braxton’s position. Stanley presses himself back up against the building and looks down the alley. He runs toward the far back of the alley and ducks around a corner. Braxton finds himself In a back lot with a large tool shed to the rear of the lot.

He quickly makes his way to the far side of that shed and hides. He’s got a good view of the alleyway and a good retreat plan because behind him is the rear of several buildings which face the next street over. He knows he can make it down one of several alleys and possibly give his pursuer the slip in the process. He turns back to watch for the tall man.

He doesn’t have to wait long as the tall man appears at the entrance to the alley. He pauses there, putting a cigarette to his lips. He calmly looks the scene over as if taking in the morning’s sunshine. He steps out from the alleyway and walks slowly towards the shed where Stanley lies in hiding. Seeing the man’s path, Stanley quickly scampers to the back alley behind the shed and blocked from the tall man’s line of sight.

II=====II=====II * CHAPTER FIVE * II=====II=====II

DING!

The bell in the church steeple rings to signal the hour. Stanley is in the church talking to the woman yet again. Outside, standing stoically in the middle of the street is the tall man. The woman tells Stanley that he must go with the tall man. Stanley refuses angrily and wants to know why.

She simply says, “You know why.”

He stares at her for a brief moment as if she had just imparted to him the wisdom of the universe. A sad understanding washes over him.

He remembers now.

A tear trickles down Stanley’s cheek and past his quivering lip. He stares at the woman with a remorseful look about him. Then a strange calmness seemed to wash over his face. He closes his eyes as more tears flowed down.

“Sarah” he said in a quiet tone.

The woman smiles.

“Oh my sweet Sarah, what have I done?” he whispers.

As the emotions flood over him he finally breaks down, falling to his knees before her as the memories begin flooding back. He kneels there and sobs heavily into his hands.

“Oh god, Sarah, I didn’t mean to do it...” he cries. I didn’t mean to hit you, I only meant to kill him, can’t you see that? I only wanted him gone so we could be together again, that’s all I ever wanted.”

“Who... who is that man out there?”

“He is an Arizona Ranger, Stanley. He wants to take you back to Yuma Prison.”

The huge double oak doors open by unseen hands. Stanley peers out into the bright sunshine. As his eyes adjust to the sunlit landscape, he sees the tall man still waiting patiently in the middle of the street. He doesn’t smile, scowl or emit any other discernable emotion, just a stoic visage of patience.

Stanley walks out onto the first step. He turns back to Sarah, who remains inside the darkened hall. She smiles sadly and tilts her head to the side.

“I pray that God has mercy on your soul, Stanley” she says, standing solemnly there in the entrance to the church.

The doors slowly shut behind him. He then walks down the steps to the waiting tall man. Inside the church there is a slow breeze which sounds like that of a woman weeping. A door opens from the back of the room.

“Hello?” the reverend says as he emerges from a vestibule door. He enters the room and looks around. Seeing no one he turns around to go leave, scratching his head. “I could’ve sworn I’d heard voices out here. Humph.”

Stanley looks into the tall man’s eyes. He sees no emotion in them. They are just cold and uncaring.

“I’m ready to go now”, says Stanley noticing that the pain in his wrists has increased. He rubs them forcefully before speaking again.

“Which way?” he asks.

The tall man doesn’t speak instead he raises his right hand and points to the north up the avenue. Stanley looks in that direction and sees the street is bustling with activity once again. No attention is paid him or the tall man as they march up the street. Stanley now remembers the events which have lead him to this place.

Sarah was a young woman Stanley had loved for many years. He planned on marrying her when he could afford to but before that day would come she’d met another man.

A lawman.

He looks over at the tall man walking beside him. He closes his eyes in utter realization that the man who is taking him back to Yuma Prison is the man who stole his lovely Sarah. He remembers the night he found the two of them together down by the river. He couldn’t understand how she could spurn his love after all those years. He stepped out from the shadows and confronted the lovers. Stanley swore that he’d see the man dead before he’d let him have her. Stanley pulled his pistol and the lawman grabbed his hand. A fight ensued and during the struggle the gun discharged. The combatants broke off the battle and looked themselves over for a wound. Satisfied that they were not hit they start to clash yet again when a low moan distracts them.

There lay Sarah on the ground, a seeping blood stain upon her blouse.

The lawman was to her side first and cradled her in his arms as she drew her last breath. The grief-stricken lawman heldhis lover and cried.

Stanley stood by in shock at what had just happened.

Suddenly he dashes for his horse and within seconds he’s thundering thru the woods knowing that to remain would mean incarceration at best and swinging at the end of a rope at the worst. His steed races across the wooded plains and into the night never to return to the town where he’d loved Sarah. That was the extent of his remembrances. He still cannot recollect how he came to be running in the desert and now he was about to return to that same desert enroute to his final fate.

“I didn’t mean to kill her” he says to the tall man. “You know that right?”

The tall man continues his pace, steady and purposeful, never even acknowledging Stanley’s outburst.

“You’ve got to believe me! I loved her! I couldn’t live without her!” he says looking to the tall man for a response.

None however would be forthcoming. They continued their march to the northern edge of town. At the entrance to the town Stanley asks the tall man why won’t he answer him. The tall man never even looks at Stanley but instead grabs him by the left elbow and shoves him forward into the desert.

The  hours pass by in  what  seems to  be  an eternity for  Stanley now.

His throat is beginning to get dry again. The sun’s heat once again baking his red skin.

“Can I have some water?” he asks.

There is no reply from the tall man.

“Please, sir, I’m gonna die out here in this godforsaken stretch of sand!”

The tall man stops in his tracks. He glances over at Stanley and his stare sends a chill down Stanley’s spine. The tall man slowly shakes his head indicating ‘no’.  Hethen  shoves Stanley  onwardand  they begin  staggering  thru  thedesert once more.

Mile by mile, hour by hour the pair traverse across the burning sands.

Finally Stanley drops to his knees in utter exhaustion.

“I can’t go another step” he says in a raspy dry voice. “I need water”

The tall man grabs him by his collar and points to something in the distance. Stanley squints but can’t quite make out the thing. He struggles to  his feet and begins awkwardly staggering towards the blotch on the desert’s horizon.

‘Is that a waterhole?’ he thinks to himself. ‘It looks like a water hole!’

When the pair gets to about a hundred yards of the object Stanley begins running, faltering every few steps but quickly righting himself and rushing onward. He finally gets to the place and falls on his knees. He stares down not at a luscious waterhole but the weathered body of a man lying dead in the sand. The man’s face is covered by his hat and partially swallowed up by the shifting desert dunes. Stanley kneels there too exhausted to be shocked now as the tall man walks up behind him.

On the dead man’s chest pinned to his shirt is a silver five point star badge. On the badge are the words  “Arizona Ranger”.

Stanley’s body shudders with  a stifled chuckle of irony. He looks back and up into the face of the tall man.

“It’s you isn’t it?” he says in a demanding tone.

The tall man doesn’t answer. Stanley shakes his head angrily and shouts the query again.

“Answer me mister...that’s you ain’t it?!”

Stanley stumbles to his feet in anger and grab the tall man by his coat with both fists.

“I want an answer you sorry son of a....”

Before he can finish his sentence, the tall slaps Stanley’s hands away and points at  the  deadman’shat.Stanley  furrows  his brow in confusion but  kneels down on one knee beside the body. He looks back up at the tall man who points again emphatically at the hat.

“Alright let’s see what under this hat...!” he says as he reaches down and lifts the hat up from the sand covered body. He puts a hand to his mouth in abject horror. The skin had shriveled and tightened over the head giving an eerie emaciated look to the corpse. Stanley looked at the dead man’s neck. The blood had all dried up but there was a gaping wound in the middle of the throat.

“Is that why...” he asks turning back to look up at the tall man.

The tall man then reaches up to his kerchief around his neck and pulls it down revealing a horrific scarred hole in his throat, the same wound as on the corpse.

“NO!” shouts Stanley as he slams the hat back down over the dead man. He then closes his eyes tightly and whispers to himself.

“This isn’t happening. I’m still dreaming. I gonna wake up any second now! “

Stanley then feels a weighty hand upon his shoulder. The hand tightens a grip on his shirt and yanks him to his feet. Stanley is now face to face with what he believes to a walking dead man.

“ If that’s you and you’re dead, how the hell are you still standing here? That’s not possible!”

Now for the first time the tall man displays a hint of emotion.

He smiles.

He points to another spot approximately two hundred feet further away. Stanley pauses for a moment. He doesn’t know if it’s fear or anticipation that causes him to hesitate. He then slowly makes his way to the object in the distance. Stanley gets to within a few feet of it and his knees buckle driving him down into the burning sand.

“ No!”he screams  to the blistering heavens above. 

There in front of him, lying twisted in the engulfing sands... was the body of Stanley A. Braxton.

“ No! It’s not fair! I was free! I was free! All I had to do was get away! No!”

Stanley howls in agony, the agony of a soul stained by the sin of the guilty. He now knows the whole truth behind his strange odyssey. He can now remember it all; He? remembers  how the tall man,  an  Arizona Ranger,  relentlessly hunted  him  down and was determined to drag him back to Yuma Prison where he had been incarcerated but managed to escape from with the help of a frail guard who now travels this country bound to a wheelchair. He remembers how the tall man found him and was bringing him back across the San Toranado Desert when they got lost in as and storm and wandered in circle for days before their horses died from exhaustion. He remembers how he waited for the tall man to let his guard down and  when he  did  he jumped him,  taking his  gun, shooting him inthe  neck  and leaving him to die under that blazing sun. He remembers how he was sure he was free then but his freedom ended when he succumbed to exhaustion and fell dead where he lies now.

Yes, Stanley A. Braxton remembers it all now...and wishes he didn’t.

The tall man stands  silently  as  he looks  down upon the sobbing spirit  of Stanley Braxton.

And he smiles.

II=====II=====II * EPILOGUE * II=====II=====II

Crime and punishment.

Justice and retribution.

These are concepts that come into play whenever we foolishly cross over that line between good and evil. But here’s a word of caution for those who would recklessly rail against the ideals of law; even in death justice will not be cheated out of delivering its sentence.It would appear that the long arm of the law reached beyond the grave for Stanley Braxton in order to give him his just deserts. Such a fate surely awaits those who choose evil as their preferred road of travel along life’s limited journey.

Stanley Braxton was a man given to violence in life and fear and trepidation in death. He sought to outrun his sins in the afterlife but he forgot one small point of fact. The scales of justice do not adhere to a calendar or any other manmade measure of time. It is eternal and relentless in its mission to govern its sentence as Mr. Stanley Braxton sadly discovered out when the blistering sands of time finally ran out for him here... at Crossroads.

II=====II=====II * THE END * II=====II=====II


Submitted: May 07, 2021

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