The gunshot echoed like a bullwhip through the narrow canyon. Emma Canfield of Fort Collins, Colorado, ducked her head down behind a rock and swore. She flipped open the trapdoor of her 1873 Springfield, watching the spent casing fly out in dismay.
A quick reach into a pocket revealed four more bullets and the key her father gave her. Gritting her teeth, she chambered another round.
Risking a peek around the rock, she saw the bullet-holed wagon and two bodies lying face down in the dirt where they fell.
Emma ducked back behind cover when a bullet ricocheted off a rock ten feet away.
Cryin's for later, she reminded herself. Can't bury Pa if you're dead.
If only the rest of the ammunition wasn't still in the wagon.
If only Pa hadn't tried to intimidate the bandit who rode up to them.
If only they hadn't ridden through this canyon.
If only Pa hadn't been a courier riding through dangerous territory all the time.
If only. If only. If only.
None of that mattered now.
One bandit was still alive on the other side. His gun was silent and the last of the smoke dissipated into the air.
She heard small rocks falling down behind the wagon. The light jingle-jangle of spurs followed. Their owner obviously trying to sound quiet with little success.
Hoofbeats echoed in the canyon. They weren't in a hurry.
Emma drew in a sharp breath. The odds of her surviving got worse if his friend on the horse showed up.
She rolled out of cover. The bandit prodded his dead comrade with a tentative foot. The Springfield fired and the man spun twice and hit the ground.
Another gunshot echoed in the canyon and Emma's left shoulder exploded in pain and blood.
Bastard had a friend. She groaned and grabbed her wounded shoulder.
“I was aimin' for your head,” he said, stepping out from the other side of the wagon. “But then I saw how pretty it was.”
He tipped his hat in mock politeness, but his leer was full of gold fillings. Emma scowled back at him.
Another shot rang out and the third bandit stiffened. He took two steps and fell to his side.
The horseman had arrived.
Astride a white stallion, he was dressed in black. Black boots, black pants, black shirt, black duster, black bandanna, black gloves and a broad-brimmed Stetson, pinched forward over the eyes. Black, of course. In his right hand was a long barreled Single Action Army revolver.
“Guess you're not a friend of his, are you?” Emma asked. She winced as she sat up. Her left arm hurt too much to move. “I don't suppose you could lend a hand?”
The stranger didn't answer. He stepped over to the man Emma shot, kicked him over and knelt down. His free hand reached into his duster and pulled out a sheet of paper that he held to the dying man's face.
Emma was too far away to hear the whispered conversation, but the stranger in black seemed satisfied and waited until the bandit's ragged breathing shuddered to a stop before standing up.
“A little help here!” Emma shouted.
The stranger regarded her, then glanced at the four dead men in the canyon.
“Yes, they're all dead. I'm not and I'd like to stay that way. Please.”
The man holstered his gun, knelt beside her and examined her shoulder. The bullet went through cleanly. Deftly tearing off part of her right sleeve, he bound the wound with the cloth over her protests.
“Thanks, I think,” Emma said, looking at her torn sleeve. “I don't suppose you could help me up?”
The man extended a hand. She took it and noticed a metal star inside his coat.
“Much obliged, Marshal,” she said, knocking some of the dust off herself. He nodded at her and turned to leave.
“Guess you're not much for talking.”
His boots crunched steadily on the ground in answer.
“Can you at least help me bury my pa? My arm's no good!” Emma tried to hide the tremble in her voice, but looking over at her dead father made that difficult.
The silent Marshal was almost at his horse.
“Big man you are! Did you get that badge because you want to hunt killers or because you want to help people?”
He stopped and took a watch from his pocket. He examined it, wound it, and slipped it back in his pocket.
“Do you even know what its like to lose your father? Right in front of you?”
Emma marveled at how fast the Marshal had picked up a shovel and dug a grave for her father. The ground was dry and rocky, yet he managed it without a single grunt of complaint.
Emma said a few kind words for her father that could never be enough, then they prayed, and then they left the canyon.
The only horse left was the Marshal's, and the wagon wasn't going to move. Ammunition, water, and what little money the Canfields had was all they could take.
The sun hung low as they rode out of the canyon. With her bad arm, Emma couldn't hold the rifle anymore, so the Marshal carried it. In its place, she held his revolver in her good hand.
“I'm sorry I snapped at you,” she said, sitting behind him.
The silence carried for a few minutes.
“Don't you talk?”
He shook his head.
“Can't you talk?”
He shook his head again.
“I'm sorry. You were very good in the canyon. Thanks for saving my life.”
“Could you ever talk?”
“That's terrible. How'd you ever become a Marshal?”
Emma frowned. Yes or No questions were all she could get a response to.
“You been a Marshal long?”
“Are you a Deputy Marshal?”
“I don't really want to keep calling you 'Marshal.' Is there some other name I can use?”
“How about Quiet, then?”
The Marshal seemed to consider this, then slowly nodded.
Emma shifted the revolver into her left hand. “Can I see what you look like under that hat, Quiet?”
Two head shakes. His right hand intercepted hers near his hat.
“I just wanted to see what you looked like, is all.”
His grip was firm. Very firm. She let her fingers slacken so he'd let go.
When he did, she didn't want him to.
She shivered at the thought and told herself it was the cool of the evening that did it.
The seven men on horseback that waited for them outside the canyon made her shiver again. Every one of them had a gun drawn. Only one rider wasn't aiming at Emma and the Marshal.
He had a big tan hat and a smile almost as broad. An old Colt Navy revolver sat in his right hand. His other was raised in greeting.
“The boys would appreciate it if you didn't shoot any more of them,” he grinned. “I reckon you're not fast enough to get all of us, and it'd be a shame if the lady got hurt in the crossfire.”
“Didn't stop your boys in the canyon from shooting up my pa,” Emma spat.
“Miss, I sympathize with your loss,” he said, putting his left hand over his heart. “It was a regrettable incident that escalated. I'd like to avoid a repeat of that. Now, down from the horse. Both of you. Hands where I can see them.”
The Marshal stared back cooly.
“That wasn't a request, tinstar.”
Slowly, deliberately, Quiet climbed down, holding the Springfield in one hand and offering the other to help Emma down.
“Thank you kindly. Now, guns on the ground and stand over there,” he pointed to an open patch of dirt. “Away from the horse and those rocks.”
The two hesitated.
“Well go on,” he said, irritation creeping up behind his smile. “No harm'll come to you Miss, unless you shoot first.”
Emma knelt and let the Single Action drop to the ground. She stepped away from the rocks and rubbed her aching arm.
The Marshal stared at the grinning man. Slowly, deliberately, he lowered the Springfield to the ground, never breaking eye contact. He took four steps away from it and reached into his pocket.
“Watch out!” one of the riders shouted.
Three shots rang out, and the Marshal collapsed to the ground as Emma screamed.
Two riders jumped down and carried Emma to one of their horses. Another rode up and grabbed the reins of the Marshal's horse.
“Is he dead?” The head rider motioned for another to examine the body.
One rider dismounted and examined the body, prodding it with a boot. “He ain't breathin'.” He knelt down and felt around in his pockets, then laughed.
“What is it?”
“He didn't have no gun, Jim. Just a beat up old pocket watch.” He flipped it open and wound it a few times. “Still works.”
Jim shook his head. “Damn stupid thing to do in a standoff. Does it look valuable?”
“Leave it, we don't have time anyway.”
“Murderer!” Emma shrieked.
“Back to the Poudre,” Jim shouted, and spurred his horse into a gallop.
The riders emptied out of the canyon entrance and silence descended with the sunset. The buzzing of insects filled the night as the moon rose, full and high. The Colt Single Action gleamed in the moonlight as a black-gloved hand snatched it from the ground.
Holstering it, a dark figure ran North, moonlight shining off the steel of the Springfield rifle in its hands and the Marshal's star on its chest.