He left the man bleeding in the mud. It had been a long chase but in the end, the fight had gone out of him. Thornton couldn't blame him; his horse had died and he'd run outta bullets. Not many would that would fight on after running two days through the desert and then still have it in them to grapple their pursuer. Thornton stood up and wiped the mud from his boots on the man's pants. The knife came smoothly out of its sheath and Thornton bent down to cut off the man's head.
No head, no proof, Thornton said. Ain't nothin' personal.
He always found it funny how easily a knife could cut through a man's flesh. Fragile creatures. Like to think we're invincible but a fella with a well-placed punch and kill you. The head made a sickening crack and squish as Thornton pulled it away from the sinew and bone. Thornton put the head into a hessian sack. He looked down and admired the corpse. The man had been fitter than hell. Big arms, broad shoulders, legs as strong as a horse's. At the end of them shone some nice, shiny boots, almost looking new.
Bad luck to take a dead man's boots, Thornton said. Shame to waste them. The buzzards'll have a hell of a time with ye, though.
Thornton climbed up on his horse and rode off. A heavy, hot wind was setting in and he knew that soon a sandstorm would make this ride impossible. Up a ways he remembered there were some caves set into a small outcropping of rocks. If he could just make it there, it would be fine. Then he could wait the storm out, hand over this man's stinking head and get his gold.
Just as the wind was picking up, driving the sand hard into his face and making his horse rear up in discomfort, he found the cave. He rushed inside, dragging the horse in through reluctant whinnies. He set the horse to eating its grain and made himself a small fire, cooking a small pot of road stew.
I wonder what ye did, Thornton said to the hessian sack. It sat opposite him across the fire.
Not many men, he said, could piss of a county as much as ye gone and done. A hefty fee fer bringing you in, y'know. Hefty even for a murderer.
Sorry fer killin' ye, he said as an aside, quietly as if not to rouse the man's ghost. They said they really wanted ye alive, but that was so they could hang ye in the streets. And to be honest bringing ye back alive was just too damn hard. If yer head's anything to go by, you'd have been a heavy bastard to carry back. That and all the flailin' yer sure to have put me and my horse through. And what would I have done with ye tonight? Putting ye over in the corner, hopin' ye don't escape, not gettin' any shut-eye. No, it was easier to kill ye. Better than hangin' in front a' all them people, all the anticipation and such.
Thornton took a spoonful of the stew and slurped it up.
Good, he said. Good stew.
The storm would die down by morning but for now it rung heavy and musical across the mouth of the cave and soon it lulled Thornton to sleep.