Daniel Cornshire could tell the moment Jo-Jo walked through the door that he didn’t settle things with the sheriff.
He knew because his brother’s thick lips wouldn’t stop trembling, and his shirt was soaked with sweat. He even had a soiled spot on his trousers, right by the pistol he had holstered on his hip. This was not the kind of task for one as feeble-minded as Jo-Jo, but what choice did Daniel have?
“Well, what happened?” Daniel asked.
“He didn’t ta-ta-take the money, Danny. He knew.”
“What do you mean he knew?” Daniel asked, but he understood exactly what his brother meant. It was the reason why he didn’t deliver the money to Sheriff Heavensby himself. It was dirty money, stolen from one of the banks under Heavenby’s protection.
Sheriff Heavensby, who had taken control of Daniel’s late father’s ranch, would of course have caught wind that one of his tenants was a wanted man; especially when that same man was already an enemy of the Heavensby family.
“You ain’t mad, are you Danny?” Jo-Jo asked.
“Naw, I ain’t mad.”
But Daniel Cornshire was mad. He had been hiding out in an abandoned shack just south of town since the robbery, and he felt closed in. Things would have been so much easier if the Heavensby’s were simply wiped off the face of the planet.
It would also be easier if the brothers didn’t have to worry about the land. Their recently deceased father, Samuel Cornshire, made the brothers promise that Sheriff Heavensby would never take the ranch. It was a family feud that spanned back to their great-great grandfather, Artemis Cornshire and his rival, Reginald Heavensby. The two men, the story goes, were once friends who settled the territory, bringing in hundreds of western bound souls. An expanse of land divided almost equally amongst the founding families began to change as more money started to pour in. Acre by acre, Cornshire land was lost to the Heavensby’s.
It started with simple quarrels over a moved fence post, but the feud drew more sinister with forged documents and backroom deals, forcing the Cornshires to yield more and more property. Over the years, the Heavensby’s swallowed up the land, becoming part of the local elite, while the Cornshire’s lost almost everything they owned. It got to the point that the town itself was now called Heavensby.
But the Cornshire’s, while not as educated and sliver-tongued as the Heavensby’s, were a proud and resilient bunch. Unable to even the odds in court, the Cornshires resorted to brawling, burning crops, and poisoning livestock. The bitter back and forth among the families escalated over the generations into mutual bloodshed. Years of hostilities left both sides depleted, specifically with the sheriff being the last in the line of Heavensby men. Being the smart one, he made sure that if he was going to be the last to bare the Heavensby name (his attempts at having children with his wife had been fruitless), then he was going to make the last of the Cornshire’s as miserable as possible for killing off his kin.
The last thing the Cornshire’s owned after Sheriff Heavensby seized everything else from them was a modest ranch at the outskirts of town, and before he died, Samuel Cornshire would be damned if Sheriff Heavensby got that, too. In years past, the Heavensby’s wanted the property to connect towns. However, Samuel, who never indulged in any of the killing, refused to sell his ranch and what remained of his family’s land.
The sheriff’s influence over the town and managing to secure the water rights to the land forced the Cornshire’s to pay him for use of the water or allow the land and livestock to die. Samuel fought feverishly to prevent the sheriff from taking the land until the mayor, who had ancestral ties to the Cornshire’s, said that the area was off limits as long as the Cornshire’s could afford it.
But once pa died, Daniel wanted to leave. After both his mother and wife died from stray gunshot wounds down at the market, he wanted to head out east. There was nothing left for the Cornshire’s in the town of Heavensby.
Daniel’s brother, Jo-Jo, wouldn’t have it.
In fact, Jo-Jo lived his whole life by their father’s last words: “They can never have this land. The Heavensby’s can rot in hell.” Daniel couldn’t leave his brother behind. He worried if he was capable of taking care of himself, much less take care of the ranch, and besides, he was the last bit of family he had left.
“Please don’t lu-lu-lu-look at me like that, Danny,” Jo-Jo said. “It’s not my fault. I tried to give him the money. Honest, I did.”
“So why didn’t you just shoot him then?” Daniel asked, palming the weathered grips of his uncle’s old revolver. He hadn’t worn a piece before his recent bank robbery, but now that he had one, he refused to take it off.
“But Danny. I couldn’t do that. You know I c-c-c-c-c-c—”
Daniel put up his hand. He knew that when Jo-Jo got this nervous and couldn’t stop stuttering, he wouldn’t be able to finish the sentence.
“Well, what are we gonna do now then, Jo-Jo?”
Jo-Jo nervously raised his eyes from the floor, fumbling with his holster until he retrieved his gun. Trembling and sweating now, it was obvious that Jo-Jo never drew his weapon before, much less shot a man, but it was in his hands now pointed directly at Daniel.
“Hey, what’s the big idea?” Daniel asked.
“Mr. Heavensby said if I t-t-t-t-took you in, he’d let us keep the ranch. He said your bounty would be enough for the property’s deed.”
“What are you talking about?”
Behind Jo-Jo, the door slowly creaked open, and there stood the sheriff, brandishing a loaded shotgun in the doorway.
“Now that’s a good imbecile,” Mr. Heavensby drawled beneath his thick, blond mustache. “You’re a wanted man, Danny. Your brother did the right thing.” He looked around. “Kind of far away from the ranch, aren’t we?”
Daniel didn’t say a word.
“I’m sa-sa-sa-sorry, Danny.”
“You’d betray me, your own flesh and blood, to keep that dump?”
“Now don’t yell at the boy,” Heavensby said with a smile. “He’s doing what’s best for both the ranch, and this county. We can’t have a criminal running around freely. Now if I were you, I’d put my hands up away from that pistol you got hidden underneath the table and come along peaceably.”
Daniel didn’t move.
“Boy, you do know that you’re a wanted man, don’t you? I can shoot you right here where I stand if you don’t come along with me. It would all be legal, not like a Cornshire would understand the concept. Is that what you want?” He took a step forward, “Because I can deliver ya to your pa if you’re itching for it. That ain’t a problem, and I have the protection of the law.”
That step forward was his last. It was too late when he felt the cold steel of a .45 pressed against the base of his skull, courtesy of Joseph “Jo-Jo” Cornshire—the one everyone always called, “The slow boy.”
With a short pull of a trigger, Sheriff Heavensby fell forward and landed on the table, face down.
“Was that good, Danny?” Jo-Jo asked, the smoke still curling from his gun.
“Yeah, Jo-Jo. Damn good! Pa would have been so proud of you. You really followed the plans to the letter.”
“Are we ga-ga-ga-going to lose the ranch now, Danny?”
“Probably. But not to any of the Heavensby men, which is what dad cared about the most, so stop feeling guilty. He was the last in the line and he didn’t have any kin. But we’re still going to have to take a train out of here when wind catches that the Sheriff ‘s missing.”
“Is Sheriff Heavensby at least going to hell, Danny? Was it ra-ra-ra-really worth losing the ranch?”
“Hell yeah, he is, Jo-Jo, and damn right it was worth losing the ranch. At least we’re still alive and the Heavensby’s are all wiped out. Now c’mon, we have to hide the bastard. You’re sure you brought him here alone? He didn’t bring his posse?”
“No,” Jo-Jo said, staring at the body. “He sa-sa-said he’d let me keep the ranch if we came alone. He wanted to surprise you and take you in hisself.”
Daniel Cornshire shook his head.
“You mean take my dead body in.”
A distant howl of a steam whistle echoed through the dust-coated window panes behind Daniel’s head. His eyes briefly glanced behind his left shoulder, acknowledging the familiar sound.
“Well, come on. We gotta get things moving.”
The ranch was important to Jo-Jo, but so were pa’s—and every other Conrshire’s—last, dying words.
The Heavensby’s can rot in hell.