Cracked

Mama will be dead by the end of the day, and then they'll be coming to take the farm: but they're not taking it without a fight.

This is what Agnes knew as the sun shone down on her neck. Sweat fell into the white collar of her cotton blouse. It was noon, and the sun blazed onto the cracked earth, drying it even further. Agnes breathed deeply through her nose, her lips clenched tight as she gripped the sawed-off resting over her thighs. The posse was coming out by the end of the day, and Agnes, despite her mere eleven years of age, knew what was happening.

Twelve years ago, Daddy and nine other men were petitioned for a project; ten miles of railroads east and west, and in the center would be Laren, a brand new trading town right along the railroad. It would make a fortune, and in return, each man would get a house in the town. It was a steal, and all of the men were quick to take it—except Agnes' father, Davies. Davies only wanted one thing from his employer; Mary, his daughter. With blonde curls and brown eyes, she was all any red-blooded male could ask for. And ask for her he did. The only problem was that while Davies was in love with Mary, she was in love with the land. Fifteen acres of land an hour's ride from the town. She would tell him stories about the future she saw for them there, on a farm together. He could see it too; he just couldn't afford it. So he had asked the boys, and like brothers-in-bond will do, they emptied their pockets and he bought the farm, with the promise of complete reimbursement once it earned a profit. But eleven years later, that land were as infertile as the day he bought it. It had been five months since Daddy went off to California, swearing up and down that he wasn't coming back until he paid off his debt.

Agnes coughed, tasting dirt in her mouth, dry like starch. The wooden chair beneath her was warm, and heat waves simmered up from the ground, distorting the land in front of her. She swept her short blonde hair from her face, away from where it clung to the sweat on her burnt, freckled cheeks. She knew the posse was coming. They were like vultures, circling the dead. Mama had been fighting the consumption for two months now, and even though those men wouldn't take land from a woman while she was still alive, they had no qualms taking it from a dead one. They had waited eleven years; they were done waiting. Daddy had gone and if Mama left...

Agnes rubbed her stocking-clad legs together, the crinoline under her calico skirt scratching her knees. Walking through the front door, Agnes slipped into her parents' room, to the bed where her mother laid barely moving save for the ragged rise and fall of her chest. Grabbing her Daddy's Stetson off his bedside table, she stuck it over her head, tilting it back to make sure she could still see. The brown leather was too loose and hot on her brow, but it smelled like Daddy. She turned to Mama and took her hand.

"Don't you worry now Mama, a'right?" Agnes smoothed her fingers along the flannel bed sheets. Reaching her ruddy fingers beneath the rim of her hat, she scratched her scalp, turning from her mother as a low rumble started outside the window. Agnes rose from Mama's side and moved to the sill, peering out at the edge of their property.

"They're here, Mama." She turned back to the bed. The movement of Mama's chest had stopped, and she lay still on the sheets. Agnes pulled the shotgun to her chest. As she marched out the back door and made her way to the bales of hay across the yard, she didn't look back towards her house.

***

Roach slowed his horse as they approached the heart of the farm. He licked a drop of salty sweat off his upper lip as he sneered, turning to his men.

"Ain't nobody here, boys. Check that the woman's dead; check the rest of the farm. Di'nt she have a brother who worked at the mill? Make sure he ain't stickin' around the land for her. You two—take the back acre, make sure that broad di'nt make no run for it." Two of the men clicked their tongues and headed off on their horses around the house.

Roach nodded towards the house, three men moving towards it immediately. Roach looked over at his second in command and smiled.

"See, Felix? If you want somethin' done right..." He spit a mouthful of tobacco onto the dry earth, watching it sink into the dirt. Felix smirked and remained silent. A shout came from the house.

"She dead, Roach! The old bat is dead!"

"Good. Call the rest of the boys back around." Roach watched the three men from the house move off towards the other side of the farm to fetch the first two scouts. He cupped a grimy hand over his eye, looking out at the sun high in the sky. Without warning, a loud bang sounded behind him and he spun his horse around, reaching for the pistol on his waist. A moment later he heard shouts and saw his three men riding back towards him. As they drew closer, he spotted two bodies lying limp over their horses. They slowed.

"They dead, Roach. Been shot." Roach jumped down from his horse to better see. Each dead man had a hole in his chest, dripping with blood. "It must've been her brother, Roach. Like you said, her good-for-nothin' brother." Roach shook his head.

"No. These shots were fired thirty feet away, from below. Only one person I know round these parts who can fire like this." He stood back, lifting his head. "DAVIES," he shouted. "Davies you get out here and if you're lucky, we'll only kill you!" The farm remained quiet. Roach hissed and turned to his men. "Go, find him and bring him to me—alive."

***

Agnes watched from behind the bales of hay as Roach raged in front of the house, like a kettle on boil. Suddenly, she heard the stomping of hooves over the bale and she crouched down, flattening herself against the scratchy hay. After a moment of silence she peered over her hiding place and saw one of Roach's men, his back to her. She glanced towards the shed, twenty feet away. She'd have to make a run for it. With a final look to the rider, facing away, Agnes leapt from her crouch and began to barrel towards the shed where they stored the gunpowder. —

"Not so fast, brat." Agnes froze and turned around. The rider was on his horse, pointing a pistol at her, grinning. "Now why don't you tell me where Daddy is, and we can all leave real nice." Agnes pushed the sawed-off further behind her back. She shook her head, but her eyes flickered away from his face to the empty barn behind him. Following her eyes, the man turned, looking at the building. He pointed to it.

"That where your Pa is?" Agnes paused, before nodding slowly. He grinned. "Well, ain't that swell? Now I'm a nice guy, so why don't you just stay here till Roach can get you, and you won't get any trouble from me." Laughing, he turned his horse to the barn. He was almost at the structure when a shot rang out and he fell from his horse. Blood seeped slowly from a hole in the dead center of his back.

Agnes coughed and re-cocked her gun.

***

Six men remained; Roach, his man Felix, Felix's brother, and three grunts. These three grunts were the unlucky ones who spotted Agnes running into the shed, and they were even unluckier to follow her in. On foot they dove into the shed, looking for the girl they had seen there.

Agnes moved swiftly through the shed, past barrels and barrels of gunpowder to the loose planks in the back. Her Mama hated those planks. She thanked the Lord they never had any neighbors to see such a mess. Agnes however could've kissed them right about now, as she pushed her way through the chewed wood, ignoring the sting of splinters along her arms and chest. As her feet once more hit the dirt, she began to run, stopping halfway across the yard and turning back. From inside the shed she could hear the three men shouting, searching for her around them. Taking a breath, Agnes reached up and straightened her Daddy's hat, pulling the rim down. She lifted the shotgun from her side and propped it against her shoulder, tilting her head to the side as she lined it up with the center of the back wall, right where her Daddy kept the saltpeter.

"Eat dirt," she whispered. She yanked her finger in.

***

Roach and his two men looked up as a force rocked the farm. He lifted his chin and a growl rose in his throat. He turned his head to Felix.

"I want you to find me that son of a.. .1 swear to God—"

"Are you the Roach who's lookin' for my Daddy?" Roach spun his horse around, and found himself staring down at a little rat of a girl: dirtied and gripping a shotgun in two stumpy hands. There was a moment's silence, before he threw his head back laughing, his black teeth glinting in the sun's light. As he laughed, Agnes moved from her place next to the house, out into the open. Roach's two men circled her, with Felix behind her, his brother to her left, and Roach dead ahead. Her house stood to her right. She stood waiting as Roach calmed his laughter, wiping a tear from beneath his eye.

"Ah, sweetheart, c'mon now." Smiling, he watched her glare up at him. When she didn't let up, he sighed. "Alright, darlin', now don't be so tense. How 'bout you and I make a deal? You tell me where your Pa is, and I let you go. Hell, I'll even give you a ride back into town, drop you off with the preacher. Just tell me where to find your Pa, who keeps shootin' all my boys. A'right? We got a deal?"

Agnes pulled the gun up in her left arm, pointing it straight away from her body without taking her eyes off of Roach. A shot rang out and Felix's brother dropped from his horse. Thud. Agnes reached up and straightened her hat.

"Daddy isn't home right now."

Roach's eyes widened a bit and he spit. This little brat, this dirt-licker, was the reason all his men were dead. He licked his lips and reached slowly to his holster, but pulled away when Agnes swiftly moved her gun up to aim at him. He put his hands up.

"Now c'mon kid, I ain't the bad guy." He sighed. "Look, the deal still stands. Leave the farm, get a free pass to the town."

Agnes wasn't ignorant. These men were vultures; they didn't stick around for live meat. She could give up now, and try to get away, or...

But what would Daddy do?

Agnes licked her lips, and sucked in a gob of saliva before spitting it harshly onto the cracking earth beneath her feet. She cocked her gun.

"Get the hell off my property, you bug."

Roach sneered and whisked his gun from its holster. Agnes aimed at Roach's head. Felix pulled his pistol; finger over the trigger. Agnes coughed, tasting the dirt in her mouth.

A shot rang out across the barren farm.