Western Fiction posted October 6, 2017

This work has reached the exceptional level
A borrowed rifle and one fatal shot

My Brother's Keeper

by forestport12

Jake borrowed his brother's rifle and shimmied out the back window. He feared Ma would stir from her rocker and make a fuss. The rest of his kinfolk had gone into town to fetch feed for their hogs and horses.

Despite the pale blue eyes and peach-fuzz on his face, Jake marched through the meadow in his floppy hat and bare feet, pretending to be a soldier. Near the creek, he found a knot in a tree shaped like a bullseye. But as he steadied the rifle, he spotted a lone rider passing across the setting sun. With one eye closed, he put the man in his crosshairs. As he greased the trigger with the sweat of his finger, the gun fired. A cloud of black powder stung his nose and blinded his eyes.

When the smoke cleared, Jake threw the rifle in the sheen. With his heart drowning in fear, he asked himself, "What have I done," as he watched the rider-less horse melt into the sun. He figured the man for dead and said to himself, "I wish I was dead. I wish I was dead."

Jake charged the hill, legs churning through the tufts of grass where he found the man with blood in his mouth gasping for breath. With one last flicker of life left in his eyes, the felled man found his voice. "Please tell my wife I...I love her and give her this here money I won. Tell my young'uns, I'm sorry, I won't get to watch them grow." He coughed some more blood from the wound in his side until his eyes rolled into the back of his head. It left no doubt-he was dead.

Jake raced along the ridge back to his Mother who would know just what to do for a boy who would turn into a man too soon. Heaving inside, lungs scorched like a prairie fire, he called for his Ma. Stepping out on to the porch, her lips quivered, and the furrow of her brow grew deeper by the second. But before she could utter a word, he parted the silence with his own voice. "I was only practicing my aim. It was just an accident, but I shot a man dead."

His mother fell to her knees and cried, "My son, my son, what have you done? Your life's all done."

Jake hugged his mother, though his heart sank like a stone to a well. "Sorry Ma, I wish I were dead."

She clung to him, as if the ground would swallow them whole, and they could disappear forever. "I can't have them take you away to hang." She pinched his face. "You're Pa and brother will know just what to do."

Next day the sheriff and his deputies circled the Holbrook house while one of the men held Jeb's spent rifle in his hand. The sheriff leaned forward from his horse. "Come now Jeb, we know you shot the poor soul over a card game. We aim to take you in to pay for the deed you've done."

The Holbrook family rallied on the porch where the young boy Jake was tucked beneath the shadow of his parent's dead pan stare. They watched in silence, as Jeb was led away. The older brother never made a fuss. He left with his head high, a true poker face.

A few days later with the smell of sawdust in the air, a carnival crowd closed in, as the executioner placed the rope around Jeb's neck. Eyes blinded with tears, hands tied behind his back, he blinked hard until he found his family not far from the widowed woman and her orphaned children all dressed in black.

The hangman asked, "Got some last words?"

Jeb lowered his eyes on his little brother, Jake. "My only regret be...I... got but one life to give."

The executioner placed a sack over his head and said, "Time to pay your debt."

Jake parted the crowd and found the widow. He whispered in her ear and handed over her late husband's winnings. But it wasn't enough to pay the debt of blood he owed. She lifted the veil, eyes searching the boy, a revelation forming on her face when the platform caved beneath Jeb's feet.

Jeb kicked and squirmed until the rope to his neck held sway. There was a hush in the crowd and no one stirred, as the platform creaked. Then Jake spoke to his shadow. "I wished I were dead."

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