Hidden Past Part Three

Then things happened all at once. It was Sunday afternoon when everybody should be taking things easy. The boy wasn’t. I saw him take off with a look on his face that sure gave me a bad feeling. He was headed for Hank’s place and he didn’t look like he was going acourtin’. The buggy would be too slow so I borrowed a horse at the livery stable and took off after him.

By the time I got there he had a gun on Hank. They stood on the porch. No dogs around so they must be with Mary in the barn or someplace.

“Wait,” I yelled, and jumped off the horse as fast as I could. I kept my hands up away from my gun, but I had on a long coat so there wasn’t any way I could get to it fast anyhow. “What’s going on here?”

“I’ve found the killer of my father.”

“You must have just heard something. What was it.”

“Heard that Hank here used to be a gunfighter.”

“That so.” I was on the porch now. “So what are you going to do?”

“Shoot him. Like he did my pa.”

“You mean, you’re going to outdraw him?”

“He didn’t give my pa that chance, so I’m not going to give him the chance either.”

I realized that was his reasoning all along, not that it mattered now. He was scared, the gun shaking.

“Let’s back up a minute. Hank here didn’t kill your father.”

His eyes glanced over at me. If Hank had wanted to, he could have shot him in that moment. But he didn’t.

“Yeah. Then who did?” He glanced back at Hank.

I stepped between them.

“I did.”

“No. You’re just trying to save his life. He’s no good….” But he couldn’t go on, couldn’t see too well with the tears in his eyes..

“I’m going to tell you the truth, but you’re not going to believe me. Your daddy drew first. He was fast. I dropped to the ground so he missed and I got a shot off. Hit him square in the chest.”

I could hear Hank behind me making noises like he wanted to say something.

“My pappy drew first?”

“Like I said, he was fast. Wasn’t expecting me to drop out of the line of fire like I did.”

The boy looked dazed. “You?” he said. He looked over my shoulder at Hank but his gaze was sightless.

I didn’t say anything. Wasn’t sure how this was going to play out. But I knew I was plumb worn out waiting for this thing the kid had for revenge to come to a head. When a wound is festering, you’ve got to squeeze all the poison out.

“If you’re going to shoot somebody it’s got to be me.” I stood there waiting for him to decide, something he’d been in a tizzy about all along.

“You didn’t do anything before because you didn’t have the proof. Now you have it. You’re either going to shoot me and give up doctoring–because you can’t go on with learning about that if you’re ready to kill somebody. And you’re not going to be wedding Mary because you’re going to be on the run from the Sheriff. He’ll be after you before your gun gets cold. Probably sic some bounty hunters on you.”

The boy’s eyes looked into mine as though he wanted to see right into my brain and know what I was thinking. I stared him right back and hoped he couldn’t read my thoughts.

“See that’s what we were doing that day, looking for a man who’d shot somebody. Gotta tell you the Sheriff from your town was there and he saw what happened. He didn’t lock either of us up, just told us to keep on moving. Which we did. Never did get the guy we were after.”

I was talking slow and soft keeping my hands in sight, standing as still as I could. The boy’s eyes wavered. He wasn’t looking at Hank over my shoulder anymore. He was just sort of looking past him. Like he didn’t know what to do.

I was so close I could have grabbed his gun, but that wouldn’t make any decisions for him. This had to be resolved. He had to decide he was going to avenge his father’s death, or think about his own life and what he was going to do with it.

gaykinmanDr. Gay Toltl Kinman has eight award nominations for her writing, including three Agatha Award nominations; several short stories in American and English magazines and anthologies; eight children’s books; a Y.A. gothic novel; two adult mysteries; several short plays produced; over one hundred and fifty articles in professional journals and newspapers; co-edited two non-fiction books; and writes three book review columns, and articles for two newspapers. Kinman has library and law degrees. http://gaykinman.com

There was a call from the barn. Mary. Johnny turned, distracted. I could’ve grabbed his gun or could’ve pulled mine out. Maybe that’s what he wanted. But I didn’t.

Mary didn’t seem to notice the gun in his hand or the way we were standing with me in front of Hank.

He stood there, watching Mary walk toward us, the dogs dancing around her, running forward to us then back to her, like she was some sort of fairy princess, who had power over all the animals.

If she guessed something was wrong, she didn’t let on, but she did have a puzzled look on her face. “Are you staying to dinner, Doc? Johnny?”

The boy tried to say something to her, but it was only a strangled sound. Then he jumped off the porch, ran to his horse, hopped on and galloped off. Think he still had his gun in his hand.

Mary looked at us for an explanation. I just greeted her like it was any other day. She looked at us both and went into the house.

I stepped away from Hank.

I heard Hank uncock his gun. So he had drawn.

“Why’d you do that?” he said.

“You saved my life, seemed only fair I return the favor.”

“He might have shot you.”

“Wasn’t really sure what he was going to do.”

“Not too many friends like you around,” Hank said.

“I thought the same thing that day,” I nodded in the direction Johnny had taken. “Guess you’ll be coming to town a little more often now that there’s nothing to hide from.”

“Maybe I will, and maybe I won’t.” He opened the door for me. “Come on in for dinner, unless your cooking suddenly got as good as your bravery.”


Hidden Past Part Two

A few days later, I’d checked on Clem and was walking from his house through the back of the hardware store. I overheard a strange voice talking to the boy.

“Ya gotta stake me. I ain’t got money at all. Don’t forget I can tell everybody who you are and why you’re here.”

The boy shushed him up real good so I couldn’t hear anything else. He must have given him some money because the young hellion went out of the hardware store with a big grin on his face and smart-stepped across the street to the saloon without looking left or right. I slipped out the back door and I was almost in his tracks before he even got his boots out of them.

I stayed off, watching him. He drank continuously, got into a poker game and lost steadily.

Pretty soon he was out of money, out of the game and out of whiskey. He just sat there awhile playing with a copper coin, twirling it around and around on the empty table.

I could tell what was going through his mind. Maybe he could get some more from the boy, that’s what he was thinking  I went to the bar, got us both whiskeys and carried them over to him. I sat down and began some idle conversation, then inched towards my real questions.

“I see you know Johnny.”

“Johnny who?”

“Johnny Bell at the hardware store.”

“That ain’t…nah, don’t know nobody in this town.”

“What made you think it was this town I was talking about?”

“What…hey, what are you trying to pull, mister?”

“Look, don’t get riled. I heard you talking to Johnny. I don’t know what his real name is, but I guess you do.”

He was now drunk, and not a good liar anyhow. Got out of him that they knew each other from a small town in Texas. Knew the boy had left a few months ago to go north to find the man who killed his pa and he was going to kill him in return.

“Who is this man your friend is going to kill?”

“Damned if I know, or care. I never knew where he got hisself off to. I jist  drifted through town and ran into him. That’s all I know, mister.”

“Another drink?”

“Sure.”

I could tell he was eyeing me to see if he could wheedle anything else out of me. Talked to him a little longer, but I believe that’s all he really knew. I gave him some money, suggesting that he keep drifting and painted a little picture as to what would happen if he didn’t. One town is just as good as another to a drifter.

At my place that night, over apple pie and coffee with the whisky bottle half full in between us,  I told Johnny what his “friend” had revealed. Needless to say he was hopping mad. He tried to leave but I told him I’d just hang on his shirttail until he told me the truth about why he was in Los Olivos.

It took a while before he started his talking.

Johnny’s mother had just died and in going through her things he found a letter she had stashed away. “The man who wrote that letter says he saw the gunfighter right here in Los Olivos. The one who killed my pa. The letter was five years old, but that’s the only lead I have. That’s why I’m here.”

“And what are you going to do when you find him?”

“I’m going to shoot him down just like the dog he is. Just like he shot my pa.”

“Tell me about it.” I poured us another healthy shot of whiskey.

“I was four years old. Ma and me were on the boardwalk just coming out of the emporium when I saw my pa across the road. I was going to run to him when I saw him pull his gun then all this blood is spurting out of him and he’s falling down. I ran to him but he was already on the ground, dead.”

“So you saw who shot him?”

“I don’t remember. I was too busy watching my pa. Then my mother carried me off. Don’t really remember much else. Ma never much talked about him even on a good day.”

I took another sip of whiskey knowing that drinking the whole bottle in one gulp wasn’t going to take the dread away. Wish I had a tonic for those things. The bigger problem at the moment was what to say to someone who has been planning an act of revenge for almost all his life and was closing in on his target?

“You have someone in mind?” I said.

He sat there, quiet. all through me fixing my pipe, staring off and seeing pictures in his mind. I kept glancing at him while I was tamping the tobacco down.

Finally I got it out of him. A whispered name I could barely hear. “Hank.”

“Why him?” I said, trying not to get too riled up. “Why not Clem Enderly or Seth Barstow at the General Store for starters? A lot of other men in Los Olivos and a lot of others on farms around here.”

“Not somebody who never comes to town like he doesn’t want to be seen. Like he’s hiding out. And if that’s not enough, heard him talking to Mary when they thought I was sleeping. Something he said.”

“You mean while you were delirious? Even if you’re right, and I think you’re plumb out of your head just like you were then, if you kill Hank or anyone, you’re going to end up doing just what you think he’s doing. Hiding out. Hiding the past.

Hiding out and regretting your life.”

“I gotta do this. After I read that letter, I swore on my mother’s grave that I’d have revenge for pa’s death.”

“Did she ask you to do this?”

“No. But she never married again and I always thought she was still longing for him.”

“You don’t know that. I’m not saying anything against your pa, but you don’t know what went on between them. Maybe she had a bad experience and didn’t want to repeat it. So don’t say that you’re doing this revenge for her. You’re doing it for yourself. You just want an excuse to justify killing somebody. You’re not even sure who it is. You better get some more proof, boy, since you’re talking about my friend.” I knew I was getting hepped up, but I just couldn’t help it. I was harboring a viper in my bosom, namely this kid, and I was none too happy about it.

He made a move to get up, but I said, “Wait up a bit. I’m not finished yet.

You say this man who shot your pa was a gunfighter. How do you know he can’t beat you at the draw still? And, if you beat him, there’ll be someone coming after you. Well, boy, let me tell you, there’ll always be someone faster than you.

“Better to start mending fences. See if Mary will have you, settle down, do some good in the community.”

 

I could only hope he’d start forgetting about revenge, about taking someone else’ life, so I taught him all I could about saving lives. Took him along with me calling on sick folk and letting him help me in my office when he could. He seemed ready enough to tag along and help, yet I had to believe he was still thinking about getting even for his father’s murder. But he never let on that there was even a ghost of that thought in his mind.

I didn’t press him on whether he was going to ask Mary the big question.

If he had his revenge, he wouldn’t be getting Mary. Surely he knew that.

When I tore July off the calendar, I decided to bait him a little that evening, see which way he jumped on the issue. I wanted it resolved and the idea of revenge gone. “How can you be looking to kill a man,” I said to him, “when you’re helping me patch them up?”

“That man is different. He doesn’t deserve to live.” He hadn’t paused a beat, knew exactly what I was talking about.

“Thought only God was supposed to be making decisions like that.”

And speaking of God, I took him to church with me a couple of times, but he was too restless to be sitting still listening to the preacher talk about forgiveness.

He’d seem to forget his purpose for days on end. He had a real head for making people feel better, good bedside manner. I was right proud of him. Then

I’d catch him with that look in his eyes. Seemed like he was going back and forth. Not wanting to give up on his mission of revenge, but liking what he was doing with sick and ailing folks, seeing them get better because of what he was doing for them.

I told him people make mistakes, bad ones, but they have to go on, and getting revenge was not the way to do that.

“Hank’s a good man,” I said. “Been working that farm for a lotta years. Got married along the way, had Mary, but her mother died in childbirth. Me and Hank raised Mary between us. So it’s not every young fellow I’d be suggesting to ask for Mary’s hand. She’s almost as much my daughter, too.”

A father is a father, right or wrong. And the kid had seen his father shot down. Had to take that into account as to how Johnny felt.

Johnny couldn’t forget that day when he was four years old.

And neither could I.

That day was the turning point in our lives for Hank and me. I took to remembering–

 

“Hey, you.”

Hank and I were in a small town in Texas, crossing the dusty road that ran through its center. Had a boardwalk that was covered over on the other side. It being mighty hot in Texas in the summer, we were headed for the shade.

We turned around at the voice. In the middle of the road was a man about twenty, if that. His eyes were on me. Seen that look before, lots of times. Knew what he wanted, but I wasn’t going to give it to him. Hank looked at me. We turned around and kept walking toward the shade.

A bullet hit the dust near me, sending up a little cloud. Hank threw himself down. I turned, after all it was me he had his sights on. I made no move for my gun. Knew he wasn’t going to shoot me outright. That’s not what he wanted.

“What can I do for you, mister?” I said, slow and easy-like trying not to rile him further.

“Want to see just how fast you are.”

“Guess I’m just fast enough to still be alive. We’re just passing through, not looking for any trouble.”

“No trouble. Thought we could draw and see who wins.”

“Why?”

“Because I think I’m faster than you.”

“I agree with you. You’re faster than me.”

“We gotta prove it, lest folks don’t believe me.”

I bet a lotta of folks didn’t believe anything he said. He had to prove it. I didn’t doubt he was fast. Typical small town kid who’d outgunned anybody who’d challenged him and now he wanted to go up against the big guys. I sighed. There are no old, bold gunfighters.

“We’re in town on business, maybe you can help us. There’s some gold in it for you.” Hoped the thought of money might change his mind. “Any strangers in town?” We were bounty hunting, a good job for fast guns.

The mention of gold didn’t change his look by even a flicker of his eyes. He wasn’t interested, at least not at this minute. Maybe later, when he shot somebody and wanted to buy drinks on the house. Probably at the same saloon he’d just come out of.

“Draw first and we’ll talk later.” He was still holding his gun on me. “I’m putting up my gun. Get ready to go at it.” He slid the gun into his holster, his hand hovering over it.

“Let’s talk first and if you’re still of a mind for drawing then we’ll settle the matter about that. There’s a nice reward for this fellow.”

gaykinmanDr. Gay Toltl Kinman has eight award nominations for her writing, including three Agatha Award nominations; several short stories in American and English magazines and anthologies; eight children’s books; a Y.A. gothic novel; two adult mysteries; several short plays produced; over one hundred and fifty articles in professional journals and newspapers; co-edited two non-fiction books; and writes three book review columns, and articles for two newspapers. Kinman has library and law degrees. http://gaykinman.com

By this time the whole town knew our business, not that they didn’t size us up the minute we rode in. Problem with them all knowing was that the man we were hunting knew also and was probably saddling up at the livery stable that very moment.

“Draw!” he shouted.

“I’m not drawing.” I turned my back and started walking toward the shade. I heard the sound of the gun slide the leather. I dove for the dust as a bullet whizzed past my head. Another shot sounded at the same time so they could have been as one.

Which meant they weren’t from the same gun.

As I rolled over, the man was starting to crumple, his chest red. Hank was still in the prone position only now with his gun out.

Before I could move, a four-year old boy ran over yelling “Pa, Pa,” and threw himself over the red chest.

Something gripped my heart with a spiked fist. I couldn’t move, only watch the scene play out.

The boy was followed by a woman who was barely out of girlhood. She stood looking down at the man, her eyes a lot older than the rest of her, then pulled the boy, now bloodied, off his father.

The way I remembered the woman looking down on her husband, she wasn’t feeling too sorry, like maybe she expected him to come to this end, like maybe she was even hoping for it. Maybe I read a lot into that look that might’n have been there. But that’s what I saw.

From that day, we gave up bounty hunting. I swore I’d help people live and use all I’d learned in the Army to be the best doctor I could. Hank took to farming.

Hank saved my life and I never forgot that.

He never forgot the boy who saw his father killed.

There were some things I couldn’t heal.


Hidden Past Part One

Los Olivos, California, 1882

The road was muddy as usual in the late Spring with a hint of more rain in the evening’s darkness. The trees still held drops from the last downpour and shook them off when the wind blew. My open buggy was no protection as my sodden trousers and jacket proved.

Betsy, my old horse, plodded along as tired as I, her head drooping like mine. She turned off the main road onto an almost-hidden one. Hidden if you didn’t know where it was. That’s the way Hank wanted it.

Along the right side was a breakfront of trees, all tall and sturdy. On my left, fields of grass and bushes, untilled and unowned. The road wasn’t much more than a cow path with two deep ruts. But it had a promise of comfort at the end of it, closer than going home, that’s what old Betsy was thinking and I didn’t signal her otherwise.

Hank and his daughter, Mary, lived alone. He stopped going into town five years ago. Mary was the one who fetched what they needed. His sudden seclusion was talked about in town with various explanations–a man of mystery, someone with a hidden past. As many reasons given as there were people to speak them. Not that folk had a lot of time for gossiping, nor was Hank a person they gossiped most about.

I was the only one who saw him on a regular basis. Like this evening, coming back from a patient.

Before the house came into sight, Betsy stopped. I must’ve been dozing. It took me a minute to take in the situation. We weren’t at the house yet, so why did she stop?  I reached to pick up the reins and that’s when I saw a figure lying on the road. I immediately grabbed my bag and hopped down.

Young man, early twenties, I guessed. Bullet wound in his back, on the left side just above the belt line. Feeling the front of him, it looked like the bullet had passed through. He was sopping wet, ice cold, and was about as white as anybody can get. White, about to turn blue. How long had he lain there?

He was no lightweight but I finally got him into the buggy. I tucked a blanket around him, climbed on the seat, and urged Betsy forward. I hoped the wounds wouldn’t open with the jostling on the rutted road.

The road ended at the house. One of the hunting dogs barked, but the other four just ran around the buggy and Betsy, their tails wagging.

Hank came out first, lantern held high, knowing it was me beforehand. When he saw another figure in the buggy, he half turned to his daughter and said, “Git back in the house, girl!”

“Help me with him, Hank, he’s lost a lot of blood.”

“I ain’t havin’ no stranger in my house.”

“If you don’t help me this minute, we’re both going to be accused of murder.”

“What!”

Even in the poor light I could see that hit him like a blow. I hadn’t meant to say it quite that way. He hurriedly set the lantern on the porch and stumbled down the two steps in his haste. I thought together we’d get him into the house, but before I could move, Hank picked him up and carried him in. The strength of the man!

He called to Mary, told her what to do, but she was already ahead of him. A spare bedroom off the main room was where we went. I had slept there often.

First, he laid the boy on an old blanket on the floor, for he was muddy and bloody. The snowy white of the linens and colorful patchwork quilt kept their pristineness.

“Get something for bandages, Mary.”  I pulled up his shirt. The wounds weren’t bleeding. Good. “Do you have something warm, ! can put on him?”

Mary set down the ewer she’d filled with hot water next to the basin on the marble-topped stand. I used a cloth to wipe around the wounds, taking care not to disturb nature’s sealing.

She came back with some good soft cotton material and scissors. I set to bandaging him up. Hank came in, shooed her out and shut the door. He pulled off the boy’s clothes, washing him as best he could, and rubbing his arms and legs with a coarse towel. I checked him thoroughly but the gunshot wound was the main part of it. He also had bruises, probably from falling off his horse.

We dressed him in a nightshirt, pulled stockings on his feet then lifted him onto the bed. I covered him with the sheet and quilt.

We worked in silence. Hank was a taciturn man, no nonsense, and knew what to do in these circumstances.

The boy’s clothing consisted of cambric shirt, brown corduroy trousers and good boots. Nothing in his pockets. I shrugged. Highway robbery came to mind. This stranger was luckier than the other two. They’d been shot in the back. Found dead.

Hank came back with a copper warming pan filled with embers, wrapped another towel around it and stuck it next to the boy’s feet.

At the moment, that was all we could do for him. We left the door open.

“Come on, doc, have a little stew,” Mary said. “It’s nice and hot.”  The table was set with steaming bowls and bread fresh out of the oven. She put down coffee for both of us as we went to the table. The smells set my mouth to watering.

“Found him down your road a bit,” I said between mouthfuls and in answer to Hank’s question.

Everything was so good. Much better than my bachelor’s dinner any night. To survive, I knew just what homes to stop to eat at, where I could bed down for the night. Or where I just went in, did the patching up and got out as fast as possible.

Here was like the home I never had, as a boy or an adult, and as close as I’d get to having a family.

“Ever seen him before?” I asked them.

Hank’s features were tight as though he was thinking of something sour.     “You think he was coming here?”

“Doubt it. He probably just stumbled on the road and was following it.” I knew it was what Hank wanted to hear. More’n likely it was true.

“How’d he get shot?” Hank’s voice was gruff, not liking any of this. If he hadn’t been eating such good food, he’d be growling.

“You know as much as I do,” I said.

The rest of the meal we ate in silence. I checked my patient then joined Hank by the fire and lit my pipe. “His color is coming back.”

“I’ve got some broth simmering. Is he awake yet?” said Mary.

I shook my head.

Didn’t matter if it was a hurt sparrow or a hurt man, she was ready to take care of it. Knew she’d already been to the barn to see to Betsy. Probably the reason my old horse headed down the lane.

Since the boy had my usual place of repose, Hank gave me his bed and he put a bedroll for himself before the fire.

I got up a couple of times during the night to check on my patient. He hadn’t moved but he was warming up and breathing normally. Ah, the recuperative powers of the young!

Hank was awake both times, sitting in his chair, pipe in his mouth, blue tin coffee cup in hand. He just nodded to me and went back to staring into the flames.   I knew how he felt about strangers and he wasn’t taking too kindly to having one under his roof.

I slept much later than I expected to. Chalk it up to the thick curtains over the window that kept out the morning light. I hurriedly washed my face and combed my hair, looking at the old man who stared back at me from the oval, wood-framed mirror. The sun and wind had made their impressions on my face. Thinking of old made me think of my young patient.

Good smells of pancakes and maple syrup greeted me. Hank was where I’d seen him last. I guess he wasn’t leaving the stranger alone in his house–with his daughter. That’s the look that was on his face.

“He’s been babbling a bit,” said Mary. “He’s taken a little broth.” Her cheeks had a mite more color than usual. Another patient of hers on the mend.

Passing through the kitchen, I went in to see him. He was still lying flat. I took a look at his bandages. No blood. His eyes followed me as though I was the one who had shot him.

“I’m a Doc,” I said. “Found you up the road a bit.” I asked him a few questions about how he felt and was pleased with his answers.

“Why don’t you tell me who you are and what happened,” I said.

“My name’s Johnny Bell,” he answered. He looked at me, like that might mean something. “I was just riding through, looking for work. I heard the crack of the

rifle, but that’s all I remember. When I came to everything I had was gone–horse, gun, money. I started looking for a farm house. That’s all I remember.” He looked past me and I turned.

Hank stood in the doorway leaning in with his hands on either side of the door frame.

“Seems there’s been a lot of highway robberies here of late,” I said, speaking the truth. “Sounds like you were their pickins for the day.”

“Maybe.” He didn’t sound too sure that I was right.

I asked him a few more questions about how he came to be in this area, but got no better answers than the ones he’d first given me. I knew Hank wanted those questions asked, and how he wasn’t satisfied with the answers, but there it was.

 

When he was about recovered, almost a month later, he started helping Hank and Mary around the place a little. Hank still wanted him gone. Nothing to do with the manners of the boy for I could see he’d been brought up right and proper.

I got him out of there as soon as was reasonable. Fixed him up with a job in the hardware store. Clem Enderley who owned the store was laid up with a messy break of his left leg. He could still do a lot of things but he needed someone with two good legs.

gaykinmanDr. Gay Toltl Kinman has eight award nominations for her writing, including three Agatha Award nominations; several short stories in American and English magazines and anthologies; eight children’s books; a Y.A. gothic novel; two adult mysteries; several short plays produced; over one hundred and fifty articles in professional journals and newspapers; co-edited two non-fiction books; and writes three book review columns, and articles for two newspapers. Kinman has library and law degrees. http://gaykinman.com

Johnny worked out well. Clem took a shine to the boy. Seems most folks did. Hank would’ve too, under other circumstances.

Right from that first week in town, Johnny came with me out to Hank’s place, always asking first if he could. Maybe not to see Hank especially, but he didn’t show that it was for any other reason than to help them out a bit. Trying to repay them for their hospitality. He’d even bring out stuff from the store that he’d bought. Hank still wasn’t too fond of having the boy around, number one, nor of him doing things on the farm, number two. Hank was still wary of him.

The boy had something on his mind, and I didn’t have the foggiest idea as to what it was. There wasn’t anything crooked about him and he wasn’t a thief, but he was hiding something. He didn’t just come to Los Olivos by chance.

I didn’t want any of my friends getting hurt. Since I was the one who brought them all together, I wanted to follow up on my instincts. Since he came over to my cabin frequently in the evening, I had the opportunity to find out what he was up to, what his hidden past was.

He never drank too much so there was no way to get him drunk and talking. I figured I knew him as well as anyone so I asked him a few questions.

“Are you married?”

“No, sir,” he said.

“Promised?”

“No, sir.”

“Taken a shine to Mary, have you?”

“Well, sir, she’s a very nice young lady.”

“Yes, yes, but are you thinking about courting her maybe setting up housekeeping?”

“Well, no,” he said, and fidgeted about a bit, then he left early that night.


A Hundred for the Crows pt. 3

Inside the quarry building, Lester found an office housing only two desks and a row of filing cabinets. A pad of blotter paper sat on each desk, along with a pen set and blank name plates. A thick layer of dust covered everything, as if all the workers had simultaneously quit or just disappeared. He heard scuffling toward the back and fought the urge to run. Jacob was a tough bastard when he was younger, and the years in this hellhole could only serve to fortify that, but where Lester’s family was concerned, no amount of caution would be unwarranted. If Hank got the drop on Jacob, if there were more men, Lester didn’t know any of it, so he slinked along the walls, trying to stay to any available shadow.

The first room had its shades drawn, but Lester could see enough through the thin slices that the room was empty. He stood quiet, tried to quell the blood rushing through his ears. The scuffling was further down, at the end of the hallway. He willed his breath away, then crept across the carpet, standing before the door with the bowie knife cocked back.

For years he kept the knife on his person, waiting for his daddy to feel treacherous again and meet the same end as his mother with the same knife. He’d had a hard time reconciling himself with murdering his own kin, but figured once his daddy inflicted himself upon Lester, he’d have no problem swinging the knife. Once he met Marnie, though, once Nathaniel came along, that anger just drifted away like smoke, and the knife became more of a reminder of his mother than a promise of death.

Lester wrapped his fingers around the handle, took a long breath to steel himself, then set his hand on the door and charged in.

Reams of chewed paper sat on the built-in shelves. Two thick rats scurried up the sides, disappearing through a hole in the ceiling. Black pellets and bits of pulp decorated the floor. Lester pressed his fist against his hip, breathing in and out through his nose to let the anger settle. Not like charging through a door hadn’t created enough racket to tip his hand, but he didn’t need to tear shelves from the walls and bring more attention. He spit on the floor and started to turn when he heard the click.

‘You better pull that trigger now, Hank, less I get a chance to turn,’ he said. ‘If I turn, you die.’

He heard a quick exhalation through the nose, a snuffed laugh.

‘I don’t give a fuck about that land, but I will crawl through Hell to protect my family. I’ll keep walking with all your bullets in me until I find them safety. Then I’ll track you down and gut you top-to-toe.’ He cleared his throat. ‘This is your chance.’

‘That land was my birthright.’

‘Your old man lost it. I didn’t even want the damn place.’

‘Well, you got it.’ He dislodged the knife from Lester’s hand then shoved him down the hall. ‘Come see what it got you.’

Lester opened the door with his face and tripped over the molding but managed to stay on his feet until his eyes adjusted to the darkness and he saw Marnie, her face so bruised it melded with the shadows, her shirt ripped and splattered with blood. Nathaniel stood behind her, visibly unharmed but with eyes shining with some animal combination of terror and fury. Maybe it was the same thing. Jacob perched himself on a stool behind them, smoking a cigarette and clicking his bootheels against the wooden legs while spinning the chamber of the revolver in his right hand. Lester started to run to them but held himself steady when Jacob snapped the chamber shut.

‘And so the prodigal brother returns,’ Jacob said.

‘Think you got your Bible stories mixed up.’

He hopped off his stool and flicked the cigarette into the void behind them. It left a red arc in the darkness before disappearing, leading Lester to believe that was the old quarry. ‘You killed them crops and let me take the beatings. You let him gut her like a hog and he gave it all to you anyway.’

‘He didn’t give it to me. You shanghaied me, stuck there with him. Fourteen years, it was just me and him.’

‘That land was my future. That should’ve been my family there.’

‘Wasn’t really our land to begin with, Jacob. Red man was there before Hank’s daddy lost it to ours.’

‘That was my birthright.’

Lester spit on the ground before him. ‘You and Hank watching the same pictures? You seem to have similar gripes with me.’

Hank shoved him with the barrel. ‘Shut your hole, you damn fool.’

Marnie gave out something between a grunt and yelp. Lester told her everything was going to be okay.

‘So what’s your plan, boys? I’m supposed to sign something, give a handshake and you take the place? What?’

Jacob had a little swagger to his step, letting the gun hang loose at his waist. ‘Plan is, I shoot your boy, let Hank here give your wife some maritals then shoot her, then take care of you. That what you’re looking for?’

Lester saw Nathaniel watching the revolver, his fingers flexing. Lester put his hands up and shrugged at Jacob, said, ‘I’d say it sounds like you got it all planned out,’ as Nathaniel lunged at Jacob, snatching the revolver from his hand.

He felt Hank’s            arm wrap around his neck, felt the barrel against his temple. He smelled the whiskey sweating from Hank’s pores.

‘Put it down, boy,’ Jacob said, hands held up to calm the boy. ‘Trust me, you don’t want to watch a parent die.’

‘Then tell him to let him go,’ Nathaniel said.

‘It does things to you,’ Jacob said. ‘Things you can’t undo, things that won’t be dulled by any number of bottles. Things you’ll see when you sleep for the rest of your life.’

‘Then let him go,’ Nathaniel said.

Jacob shook his head. ‘Nothing doing, son. Put it down before he ruins you like your daddy ruined me.’

Marnie tried to speak but the broken teeth shredded her words to unintelligible bits.

Hank let the hammer click back.

‘Toque la tierra,’ Nathaniel said. ‘En tres.’

‘Mijo,’ Lester said.

‘Hazlo!’

Lester took a deep breath, said, ‘Te amo, mijo,’ then let his knees collapse as a shot rang out. Hank grunted and his arm tightened as two more gunshots fired, Lester’s side exploding in bright white this time. He fell to the ground, Hank’s twitching body landing on top of him. The knife clattered on the ground beside him. He stretched out an arm, trying to pull himself free but felt the wound in his side rip open as he moved. Grunts in the darkness just above him. Jacob had his hands wrapped around Nathaniel’s trying to wrestle the gun free. Marnie had her arms wound through Jacob’s and was trying to push him aside. Jacob shoved his leg in front of Nathaniel then pushed him, flipping him over on his back. Jacob dragged a hand across his mouth, wiping away the blood, then stood over Nathaniel with the gun at the end of his arm.

Lester dug his toes into the ground and pushed himself from under the dead man, grabbing the knife and swinging it at Jacob’s thigh. His howl rang out like a coyote’s. Lester stabbed again and stuck the blade in the front of Jacob’s knee before falling back to the ground. Jacob hobbled back, screaming twice more before tottering backwards over the edge of the quarry. His voice echoed for long minutes.

Marnie’s face appeared over Lester’s.

‘I’m sorry it took so long to get back home,’ Lester said. ‘This is my fault.’

‘You damn fool,’ Marnie said, cupping her hands around Lester’s chin. If he hadn’t hung on every word she’d said for the last eight years, he wouldn’t have been able to understand her, teeth broken as they were. ‘Why didn’t you drop like Nathaniel told you to?’

‘Tried. Didn’t do it fast enough.’

‘Help me stand you up.’

NikKorponNik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.

‘Can’t,’ Lester said. ‘Get the boy and drive back to town. Get some help.’

‘Dad,’ Nathaniel yelled to him. ‘Dad, he has the keys.’

Lester squinted away a wave of nausea. ‘How deep is it?’

The boy’s silence set Lester’s head spinning.

He touched Marnie’s hand. ‘You two need to run. Now. Fast as you can.’

‘I can’t leave you.’

‘You can’t stay. And I can’t go.’

Marnie opened her mouth to argue but snapped it shut then kissed him hard on the mouth. She called out to her son and they ran.

Lester tipped his head back to watch their silhouettes disappear into the night then trained his eyes on the moon. The stars poked holes in the black sky, the moon casting a silvery highlight on the surrounding rocks. A coyote bayed somewhere in the desert. He closed his eyes to focus his hearing, trying to determine how far away it was. In the silence, he could faintly make out the soft echo of his brother’s voice at the bottom of the quarry. Another coyote answered, this one significantly closer than the first.

‘You wanted to fill daddy’s shoes so bad, didn’t you?’ he called out. ‘Well, you hear that sound, Jacob?’

Jacob said something that was lost to the rocks.

‘Reckon they’ll oblige you.’

The coyote bayed again, closer now.


A Hundred for the Crows pt.1

When Lester returned to his land after the twelve-hour ride back from re-burying his daddy, he found his house vibrating with emptiness. His voice echoed off the wood floors, off the tin dishes sitting in soapy water in the ceramic sinks, off the bare wood walls adorned with only two photographs. He stood in the kitchen, looking around as if his wife and son might be hiding beneath the folded Navajo blankets on the deacon bench. Faintly, he could smell burnt coffee and cornbread.

The funeral man had sent word two days earlier. Seemed the gravediggers hadn’t buried his daddy’s body deep enough and the coyotes caught scent. Lester was only supposed to be gone until sundown—the next morning at the latest—but coyotes have a tendency to scatter their food. He wasn’t happy about having to ride from the Navajo Nation down to Mexico but it was his father’s wish to be buried there. Even though his daddy was a mean bastard, Lester was still a son, and it took him damn near a whole day to collect and account for the bones to make sure everything would be interred within blessed ground.

Outside, he heard feet scuffling. He walked outside and was surprised to find one of the local Navajo boys, standing in the dirt at the edge of the porch with his back toward Lester. The boy kicked his toe at the ground and wouldn’t meet Lester’s eye. He glanced over the boy’s shoulder to the machine barn and the heavy rusted chains hanging through their eyelets, all the motorcycles and cars still safe inside. His Indian sat untouched beside the porch, the engine clicking as it cooled from the ride.

‘You need help, son?’

The boy backed up a hair but still refused to face him. Lester heard the boy mumbling but couldn’t understand. Whether it was volume of voice or origins of words, he couldn’t tell.

‘Speak up, son. You can turn around. I’m not one to raise a hand.’

He swore he felt the sun dimming, the boy moved so slow. Down in the town, all the Navajo boys ran after each other too fast and they were covered in similar amounts of dust so that faces blended together, and Lester couldn’t say he recognized this one. But he was pretty damn sure that boy didn’t normally sport a weeping gash on his cheek nor a rock-sized welt on his forehead. He spit in the dirt and stepped off the porch, then pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to the boy, nodding toward his cheek.

‘What’s your name?’

‘Benny.’ He squinted when he pressed the cloth against his face.

‘You got a good sense of direction, don’t you?’

Benny nodded.

‘Then why are you on my land?’

Benny looked to the side, then up, finally, at Lester. His eyes reminded Lester of the color this dirt used to be when he was a boy, back when his father raised actual horses, before Lester converted the family business into horsepower.

Benny mumbled something. Lester knelt before him. ‘Tell me, please, before I lose my temper.’

The boy looked over Lester’s shoulder then met his eyes. ‘Mister Hank said your daddy took his land, so he take your family. He gets land, you get family. He doesn’t, you don’t.’

Lester pressed a hard clump of dirt between his thumb and forefinger, watched the dust blow away in the wind. ‘He the one to give you those scrapes?’

Benny nodded. ‘Said he kill me, I don’t tell you.’

Standing up straight, Lester looked out over the fields. The mesas and boulders cut stark black shapes in the setting sun, throwing shadows across the scrabbled fields where cattle used to graze. Dots of light shone through the holes in the old water tower, a speck for each errant bullet Lester had put through it when he was learning to shoot doves and crows. Lester’s daddy had turned the leather strop on Jacob, Lester’s brother, and blamed him for spilling the water and causing the land to dry up, the steer and cattle slowly withering to dust. When Jacob stood tall against him, he went at Jacob with the bowie knife itself, and would have bled him dry if his mother hadn’t put herself in the middle. Jacob ran out of the house and kept running. While his father killed another bottle on the front porch, Lester buried his mother on the edge of the fields, and he had always held tight to the notion that it was her blood that poisoned the crops. Truth was, though, that if his daddy hadn’t been so intent on keeping his throat wet with whiskey, he might’ve noticed the grasses drying up long before. Turning to engine repair was the only thing Lester could do to keep the land, but sometimes he wondered if he should’ve just let the government take his half-acre of hell and moved to California like Marnie had asked him to.

Lester looked down at the boy drawing shapes in the dirt with a stick.

‘I don’t have a helmet for you,’ he said, ‘so you’re just going to have to hold on tight.’

Lester kicked over the Indian’s engine and hoisted Benny up behind him then set off toward Ningunita.

 

Benny hopped off and scampered around the back of the drug store as soon as Lester parked. The streets were covered in sand and dust on account of the wind, making it look almost like there never was any asphalt to begin with. A thread of smoke twisted over the top of the butcher’s shop. Smelled like someone was burning tires in the back, and Lester wondered if that was how he got his smoked pork so rich. He hung his helmet on the handlebars then pushed open the doors of Belle’s.

Mabel stood behind the gnarled wood bar, cigarette perched between two stained fingers, her thumb erratically flicking the end. She wore a men’s white oxford with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, dirt clinging to the sweat stains. Two lumps in grease-stained coveralls kept the corner from floating off into space, and a dried rose sat in a mason jar on top of the piano in the corner. Mabel’s grandfather had been caught in the Gold Rush current and swept from New York to the west coast. When his destiny manifested itself as lead and rocks, he turned back and got as far as Arizona. He opened a saloon and named it after his dead wife, Belle. Mabel’s mother, Isabelle, gave the building to Mabel when she passed. The place wasn’t designed to look like an old west saloon so much as it hadn’t managed to give up the ghost, but Lester thought decay suited the place well.

‘You come to pay your tab?’

NikKorponNik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.

Lester gave her his James Dean smile. ‘Next time?’

She snorted a laugh through her nose then pulled out a chipped tumbler and sloshed some  bourbon into it.

He swung a leg over the stool and tipped back half the drink. The two at the end just sat there staring into their drinks.

‘Mabel,’ he said. ‘Where’s your nephew?’

She squinted one eye and took a long drag, considering him through the smoke. If she’d tried a little harder, she could’ve killed a whole cigarette at once.

After a long minute, she said, ‘I don’t get into feuds where blood is involved, but I heard he was headed down to El Pozo.’

‘He been in contact with my brother?’

She pulled out a tumbler for herself, this one with a complete rim. ‘I told you I don’t like it when blood is involved. Either kind.’

‘I heard you the first time.’

He threw back the rest of his drink and stood.

‘You going to kill him?’ She swirled the liquor around in her glass, like she was afraid her drinking it would seal his fate.

Lester glanced around the bar, at the tarnished mirror behind Mabel. He pointed at the rose on the piano. ‘Things don’t stay alive on their own. You got to work to do that.’

He walked out of the bar and kicked over the engine. El Pozo was well over a hundred miles for the crows, more than two for cars. Lester didn’t have that long.

He set out across the desert.