The horse topped the steep rise, but the mountains that hemmed in Wind River Valley rose even higher. A faint breeze lightened the intense heat. The rider halted the horse, wiped the sweat from his face with a stiff handkerchief, and scanned the surroundings.
He found the shack above him, settled on a small patch of flat land. A fence of wire and sun-rotted wood protected it. A few chickens noisily went about their business.
Urging the horse forward, the rider ascended the final slope, which was long and gradual, looking for some sign of habitation. At the fence he dismounted, touching his breast unconsciously where a travel-worn letter waited inside his shirt. A goat peered disinterestedly at him then returned to the sparse brush.
A sort of angry growl, like the rumble of a stomach, seemed to answer. The rider stepped past the missing gate, toward the shack. The roof had fallen in at a corner. A clatter and a string of curses erupted from the dark and empty window.
“My name is Luke Hannigan,” said the rider. “I—”
Luke stopped. The voice held murder in its tone. He knew because he had encountered such men before. It was not enough to deter him. “I have a letter from your brother.”
“Fool! Idiot! Devil take him! I—” A hacking cough exploded into the air, throttling the voice and managing to startle the goat. Luke hurried forward. The man could not find his breath between the convulsions of his lungs. Luke dared not enter, lest the man held a gun, but he stuck his head through the empty casement of the window.
The man sprawled upon a cot, shuddering beneath the force of his hacking, his beard matted, his clothes filthy. A pistol lay discarded on the ground nearby, perhaps flung aside as the coughing fit began. Luke kept an eye on the gun, but presented the letter silently and waited for the man to recover.
So this is Ezra Jupe, he thought.
“This is a fine joke,” Ezra managed, a few aftershocks wracking his frame. “He knows I am dying and wants to have the last laugh. Shoulda put a bullet between his eyes when I had a chance.”
“Your brother is dead.”“The last laugh for certain, then. What does the letter say?”
“I have not read it. It is meant for you.”
“And who are you?” He spat.
“A comrade in arms.”
“So he got caught up in the war, huh? Knew he’d get a bullet in the head one way or ‘nother. Even he wasn’t thick-skulled enough to stop a bit of metal from blasting his brains out.”
“He was a good man. He saved my life.”
Ezra’s laughter started another coughing fit.
“Should I bring a doctor?” Luke asked.
“What for? I’m dying.”
“Perhaps the Lord will see fit to heal you.”
“Perhaps the Lord will see fit to release a mighty fart from on high.”
Luke entered the house. It smelled of urine and sweat. He held out the letter again. “I have come from Virginia bearing this letter.”
“Throw it in the fire. It’ll keep me warm tonight.”
“I will not leave until you have read it. I gave my word to your brother.”
Ezra eyed him for a long moment, and then struggled to sit up, refusing Luke’s assistance. He snatched the letter, opened it, and began to read slowly, mouthing the words. Luke turned away to give Ezra a modicum of privacy. The interior of the shack was bare except for heaps of debris. Winged ants swarmed over the walls.
Luke turned back toward Ezra, who quickly passed his hand across his eyes. “Who wrote this?”
“You saw him write it?”
“Yes, the night before he died. He asked me to wait with him. He seemed agitated. He…he had a premonition of what was about to happen.”
“Why are you still here? I’ve read it. Go away.”
After a moment, Luke nodded. “Yes, you are right. I have done my duty.” He hesitated. His curiosity was unslaked. “I have carried that letter a long ways. Perhaps I could read—”
Luke stiffened. He felt cheated. Perversely, he tried to do still more for this man who refused all help. “I will summon a doctor.”
“No!” Ezra growled. He still gripped the letter in both hands.
Luke saw again the strange, wet gleam in Ezra’s eyes. “He had hoped to see you one last time.”
“He’ll see me soon enough. Now, git! Your horse is eating my grass.”
Luke turned to leave.
“If you must do something, send the preacher,” Ezra grumbled, “if he’ll come after what I did to him last time.”
Luke nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll do that.”