Chapter One—The Bad

     “All right, Oldham, time for you to go.” With a scowl of disgust, the jailor unlocked the cell door, opened it, and stood back to let its lone occupant exit.
     Sert Oldham smiled. This is the day for which he had been waiting 15 years. 15 years ago some high-brow judge put him away for armed robbery. He had been in this hot, stinking, miserable prison for…15 years. And now…the day of his release. The day he had been waiting for… for 15 years.
     Great Plains Prison was in the middle of the northwestern prairie. 130 degrees in the summer and 30 below zero in winter. At least that’s the way it felt to Sert. The food was a mixture of horse dung and calf slobber, the water was brown with slugs in it, and he hadn’t had a bath in five years. All I did was rob a bank. Well, I shot the teller, too, but he didn’t die. That was what Judge Martin Wayne had put him in prison for, but then again, it wasn’t. Oldham had killed at least a dozen people, though none of them could ever be proven against him. But they caught him robbing the bank. And Wayne tossed him in the hoosegow for 15 years. “I’ll get you for this, Wayne,” Oldham had shouted on his way out of the courtroom. “Just wait. I’ll be out and get you for this.” Oldham smiled again. Yeah, Wayne, I’ll get you now. Nobody puts Sert Oldham in jail and lives to tell about it.
     Fifteen years…But I’m only 38. I’ve got plenty of good life left…Another smile.
     Oldham got up and walked out the door. On his way, he “tripped” and his head butted the guard in the face. “Oh, sorry, Chaney. I slipped.”
     The guard now had a busted lip and he was about to swing at Oldham. But he decided against it. Sert was over 6 feet tall and, in spite of the prison chow, still weighed over 200 pounds. Chaney was several inches and quite a few pounds short of Oldham. So he let it pass. “Yeah, sure, Oldham. Just get out of here, will you?”
     “Be glad to, kind sir,” Sert said, with fake honey dripping from his voice. He was as happy as he had been in…15 years.
     He walked down the long hall. Other prisoners hollered at him and he waved, smiled, and joked. Out the door of the cells; all the paperwork had been done. At the gate of the prison, he was given a canteen of water and a suit of old, worn clothes, that might fit him and might not. “Follow the trail for 25 miles and you’ll come to Carver City,” the guard told him.
     “I know—“ but the door slammed shut in his face and that was that. Oldham scowled and spit on the door. Then he grinned. Free! I’m free! He breathed in deeply. The first decent breath I’ve had in 15 years. He looked around him. It was 9 AM in the morning and the sun was shining brightly on this early-September day. He saw low, rolling hills, covered in brown grass, but with high mountains visible in the distance. Oldham hitched the canteen to his shoulder and started walking. He knew what he was going to do. He had had 15 years to think about it.
     First thing is, I got to get a horse and some food. And a gun. Then I’ll “borrow” some money. Got to be careful not to get caught, though. Then, Martin Wayne. He’s the first I’ll bury. After him, that swine Marshal who arrested me, Dan Foster. I sure hope they are both still alive so that they won’t be for too much longer. Oldham grinned at that bit of confusion. But, there’s time. I’m free…got all the time in the world…
     And with that he took another deep breath.

     Sert Oldham walked for about five miles and came to a stream. He took off his old prison clothes, tossed them away, and washed up in the water as best he could, getting years of dirt, sweat, and grime off. He’d been allowed to keep himself fairly well groomed in Grand Buttes Prison. His black hair was shoulder length, a little longer than he liked, and his black beard could use a trim, too, but it could have been worse. He was strong—breaking rocks will build muscles—and had always had a lot of stamina, so the 25 mile walk to Carver City wouldn’t tax him much. Horse…gun…money…that was the order. I can always get some food…In fact, there were some wild blackberries growing along the bank of the stream and he ate several of those. Mmm, good…first fruit I’ve had in…15 years…He boiled in anger at the thought of those 15 years…15 years of my life gone…boy, I’m gonna make Wayne and Foster pay…maybe I’ll roast their brains…gut shoot ‘em…pull their innards out through their mouths…Oldham chuckled at the thought. Revenge would be sweet.
     He finished washing up and put on the clothes given to him as he left the prison. They were a little small, but they’d do…till I can steal s’more…he smiled. He continued walking towards Carver City…
     But he never made it because he didn’t have to. In a few more miles, he saw some buildings. Hmm, a ranch…I can get a horse there…probably a gun…maybe some food…money… then he smiled….lots o’ money…
     But as he drew nearer, he saw it wasn’t a ranch. There was a barn and couple of other outbuildings, but there was a sign outside that said “Earl and Barb’s Trading Post.” It was actually at a crossroads, and the stage probably stopped, as well as anyone traveling one way or the other. Oh, this is even better, Oldham thought. I’m sure they’ll have everything I’ll need…
     He walked up to the trading post and saw a man coming out the front door. “Howdy, stranger,” the man said affably enough. But his eyes held a little suspicion. “Long way to nowhere without a horse.”
     Sert shook his head in disgust. “Yeah. Lost mine up the trail a ways when he stepped in a gopher hole. Used my last bullet to put him out of his misery. Gun was old so I tossed it, too. I knew the tradin’ post was here, thought I could get what I need.”
     The man, Earl, obviously believed the story and brightened a bit. “Sure. I think we can get you all fixed up. What exactly do you need?….”
     Oldham followed him into the store and looked around. All sorts of goods were in stock—food, clothes, leather goods, and, what mainly caught Oldham’s eyes, a rack full of guns and ammo—rifles and pistols. I’ll take one of each…
     Earl was probably in his mid-40s, tall, stringy fellow…weak and harmless, the outlaw thought. I need to find out who’s here…”You run this place by yourself?”
     “Oh, no, my wife Barbara is here and my daughter Donna. We ain’t gonna get rich doin’ this, but we make out all right.”
     “You got a horse you can sell me?”
     “Yeah, I reckon so. What do you need in here first, then I’ll show you what I’ve got.”
     “Lemme see your guns.”
     “Right over here.” And Oldham followed him to the gun rack.
     While he and Earl were talking about the firearms, two women walked in—well, a woman and a girl. The woman was as fat as an elephant; got a nose like one, too. The girl was just the opposite. She was a string bean, like her dad, certainly no beauty, but better to look at than her mom. She couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14 years old, though.
     Oldham smiled at them. Earl introduced his wife and daughter and explained what had happened to Oldham—at least, the story Oldham had told him. “Nice to meet you ladies,” Sert said, with some charm in his voice.
     Barbara smiled and said, “It’s nice to meet you, too, Mr. Oldham. We are going to have lunch soon. Would you like to join us?”
     “Well, that would be right nice of you, ma’am. I didn’t have nothin’ to eat this mornin’ but some jerky and that shore didn’t go far t’ fill me up.” And he smiled. A charming smile. He could do it when he wanted to and he knew it. Barbara almost blushed, then told her daughter to go into the kitchen and prepare a meal.
     “It won’t take long,” she said, “and Donna is a good cook.”
     “Well, I bet she had a good teacher,” Oldham said, pouring on more elegance. And again, Barbara blushed.
     Then Oldham said to Earl. “Let me see that .45. You got the ammo for it?”
     “Yes, right here.” He leaned over the counter, picked up a box, and handed it to Sert.
     Oldham fiddled with the gun; it had been…15 years…since he had had one in his hands, but he was a natural. He glanced at Barbara—Donna was gone—and saw her cleaning some shelves. He loaded the gun, and without a word, pointed it at Earl and fired. The man had a shocked expression on his face as the bullet knocked him several feet back, but he was dead before he hit the floor. Barbara turned and screamed, but the scream became a gurgle when a bullet slammed into her throat. She backed up a step, Oldham shot her in the face, and the building shook a little when she fell to the floor.
     “What an ugly pig,” Oldham said. “You look better with your face all smashed up and bloody.”
     Donna came running in from the kitchen, which was behind Oldham, and he heard her gasp. She looked at her father and mother with a horrified expression on her face. Then she stared at the murdere. Her mouth moved but no words came out.
     Oldham walked over to her, and for sheer meanness, he hit her. As hard as he could, with his fist, in the jaw. The girl grunted at the blow and was knocked back into a stack of canned goods. Oldham smiled. Mmm, that felt nice…I ain’t hit a woman in a long time…One of the dozen or so people Oldham had killed was his wife, whom he had beaten to death because…well, because he didn’t like her and he wanted to work on his left uppercut. Oldham felt that was reason enough. He had taken her body and dumped it in the desert for the buzzards and coyotes and no one was ever the wiser. “She went back t’ visit her mother,” he told people when asked. And, of course, she never returned.
     He looked down at Donna, who was dazed, but conscious. He might have done something else with her, but he didn’t want to waste the time. Gotta git some stuff and git outta here…She’s too ugly anyway…So he shot her in the head.
     It didn’t take Oldham long to find the horse he wanted. The pickings weren’t too good—there were only four and none of them were studs—but one of them would do until he found something better. Think I’ll take two of ‘em…use one for a pack horse.
     He saddled both horses and led them to the front of the trading post. He intended to stock up on food, as well as take the .45, a rifle, and as much ammo as he could carry. Might as well get some new clothes, too…oh, and raid the till, if they got any money…He went back inside, into the kitchen and found the food that Donna had been preparing and had his fill. A bottle of whiskey was sitting on a table; he drank half of that and sighed. 15 years…Oldham took the bottle with him. He discovered three more bottles on a shelf and confiscated those as well.
     He found some canvas sacks and started filling them with everything he thought he’d need. He located the money till; there wasn’t much. He counted $45.34. Well, I’ll get some more somewhere
     Oldham loaded everything onto the pack horse, and had one more thing to do. He had seen a can of kerosene in the barn, so he went and got it. Then, back inside the trading post, he sloshed most of the kerosene all around the building. He piled Earl, Barb, and Donna close to each other; for the fun of it, he locked Earl and Barbara’s hands together. “Reckon you and that pig can go to eternity holdin’ hands,” he said to Earl’s corpse. Then he poured the rest of the kerosene on the bodies. He lit a match and tossed it onto Earl’s corpse. The kerosene lit immediately. Oldham then stood outside the front door, tossed another match into the trading post, and watched flames erupt again. Satisfied, he mounted his newly stolen horse and rode away from Earl and Barb’s Trading Post without looking back.
     And without a thought or qualm of conscience about anything he had done.