Phillip McCollum

Though his belly touched the sand, his face was turned slightly up, facing west–the direction of home. Yellow pus streamed from the corner of his left eye onto the bridge of his narrow nose, leaving a noxious stench. Flies buzzed in circles over his open mouth. And then there was the maroon-stained hole punched clean between his shoulder blades, the fabric of his dirty shirt shredded. These signs all added up to one thing.

Jenny Tighe’s papa was dead.

It was normal for him to be gone for a few days at a time when checking up on the ranging cattle, and usually, Jenny was with him, learning how to rope and drive. But she had enough to do with keeping the house in order since they lost Mama to consumption earlier in the summer. Scrubbing the splintered floors of their tiny cabin was the last thing Jenny was intent on doing, but she did it because someone had to and she knew it would be one less worry for Papa.

Now, circling buzzards had led her to his body on the dry Mojave Desert floor. Those same vultures were perched, six of them, all waiting patiently on a large pile of tan and gray boulders which sat a half-mile south of the Granite Mountains. Her eyes scanned the nooks and crannies of the surrounding hills while her Winchester 1873 rifle rested in her hands like a familiar tool. Jenny never had to use it on a human before, but Papa had made sure she was ready for anything. She’d been a crack-shot with deer in the nearby San Bernardino mountains and was ready to put those skills to use, now that everything had changed.

Nothing seemed to be out there among the thin creosote bushes and tumbleweeds except a few skittering lizards and jackrabbits. Given the state of Papa’s body, she figured the culprits were long gone.

She didn’t want to get close to him, to rest a hand on his upturned cheek or to shed the tears that were welling up behind her eyes. But she had to lean in to get a closer look at the thing that caught her attention. She rolled his body over to face the sky and his face along with it. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw the five-pointed star branded on his forehead.

If you’d like to finish reading this story, along with many others, I’d be ecstatic if you’d consider purchasing one of my books.

2 thoughts on “Branded

  1. Great work as always, Phillip! Put me in mind of “Jane Got a Gun”, one of my favorite Western movies. I’m currently working on a Western-revenge story of my own, so I’ve been checking out the genre a lot lately. Loved your take on it.

    1. Thank you for the insanely awesome compliment, Berthold! I don’t know why my brain went Old West for this story… Maybe due to some research I’d been doing on the area I grew up in. I’ll have to catch Jane Got a Gun as I love a good western, but missed that one. Can’t wait to read what you’re concocting!

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