Zelmer Pulp is a handful of writers from around the globe who by fate or consequence have gravitated together to produce a series of genre collections. Their first two collections C’mon and Do the Apocalypse, a send off of the zombie horror genre, and Hey, That Robot Ate My Baby, a dastardly take on sci-fi, were some of my favorite reading earlier this year. And if I have to be honest I have known the Zelmer Pulp crew individually as writers and artists for some time now. I’ve had the pleasure to publish Brian Panowich, Chris Leek, Ryan Sayles, Isaac Kirkman, and Chuck Regan through the Shotgun Honey flashzine. I knew they were talented and crazy, and so I guess like minds attract.
When I heard they were going to tackle the Western next, with their special point of view, I dropped some not so subtle hints I’d like to participate. They were kind enough to oblige, though I imagine they might be kicking themselves for that choice from time to time. The long and the long of it, I managed to contribute my short story called “The Last Shot.”
The collection is labeled weird west, but “The Last Shot” is traditional and a counterbalance to the talent you will find in Five Broken Winchesters. The following is the first part of my story.
The Last Shot
“Marshal? Do you think I’ll hang?”
Hank Markum said nothing at first, taking a sip from his coffee before considering the grave question of his prisoner. He looked across the fire, the flickering light played against the boy’s youthful appearance making him seem younger than his nineteen years. The tremble in Caleb Monroe’s voice only impressed upon the marshal that this was no grown man he was taking to the gallows.
“Son, they already strung up that boy, Oren Canter, and it doesn’t look likely that that judge up in Cheyenne is going to side any different with you,” he replied before taking another sip of his harsh brew. “You and the other killed that man, and took his horses, or perhaps the other ways around. Not that it matters much.”
“I know that man died. I know, but…” the boy began to bluster before falling into silence.
Markum saw the sheen of tears well up along the boy’s eyelids, cresting, capturing the dance of the firelight.
This was the first bit of concern the marshal had seen from the boy since taking him into custody down in Greely two day ago. Any attempt to speak of his crimes or what was to come in Cheyenne was met with silence, sometimes distraction. The boy wasn’t obliged to talk, but Markum was grateful for any conversation on the trail. Most of which leaned toward the boy’s pa, who Markum figured would have been about his own age had he not died when Caleb was eleven, leaving him orphaned, and eventually in the company of Oren Canter.
“Silence isn’t a defense, Caleb,” Markum pressed feeling the boy was ready. “It is not likely to be any help in Cheyenne, but maybe talking will ease your conscience, ease the load, before…before we get there.”
The boy swiped his hand across his eyes, “I didn’t know about Oren.”
The two boys, Caleb had told Markum, had been inseparable since he had found his way to Cheyenne after bouncing from one well-meaning home to another. Canter’s father drove the stage coach, giving the boys more freedom than ought to be had by two so rambunctious. The stories he told of the two reminded the marshal of the carelessness of friendship, and now the hollowness of the boy’s face reminded him of the loss.
“Oren didn’t deserve that, not for that old rancher. They was stubborn, the both of them—the old man for putting up the fight, and Oren for insisting we steal his useless swayback nag from the stable.” The boy balled up his fists and shook his head in frustration.
“Them tugging back and forth spooked an old gray in the next stall. It gave a kick and both got knocked sideways into the mud. Only the rancher didn’t jump back up like Oren. He just moaned, clutching his chest till he didn’t moan no more.”
“Why didn’t you get help,” Markum questioned.
“I wanted to,” Caleb demanded. “Least I might have thought about it if I weren’t scared and Oren weren’t insistent on that horse, and the other two.”
“It were just an accident. An accident,” he pleaded.
“Accident or not, whatever defense you boys had for the rancher’s death was void when you stole those horses.”
Caleb stared across the fire at the marshal, “I didn’t want to steal them.”
“But you did, and they still hang horse thieves.”
The boy’s expression crumpled, and without a word turned away from Markum to lie on the cold unforgiving earth, knowing that was all the comfort he’d enjoy in this life.